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Bitter coffee burned at the edges of Jason Tanner’s exhaustion but did nothing to clear the fog in his mind. How many days had it been? Nine? Maybe ten since he’d slept more than five hours a night, waking before dawn, driving to the barn, fingers numb from cold, watching his breath puff misty white around him.
This morning was no different, except this time the weather was warmer, the cold chill gone, and he’d also actually remembered to brew himself a pot of coffee before stumbling to his truck.
He stepped into the doorway of the barn, mug in hand, staring out at the corn field, recently planted. Sun cut across the barren field, slicing it in half, leaving one side to the darkness, the other to the light.
Inside Jason a similar scene played out metaphorically leaving his soul split in the middle — one part bright with hope, the other part dimmed by hopelessness.
“This coffee is awful.”
Jason winced, not from the insult his friend had launched at him, but in agreement as the sludge slid down his own throat. “The worse it is, the more it will wake us up.”
Alex Stone scowled at Jason over the edge of a mug with the words, “I might look like I’m listening, but in my head, I’m driving my tractor” written on the side. “Is that the same as ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?’”
Jason shrugged. “Whatever works.”
If there was any consolation to where Jason found himself at the moment, it was that he wasn’t alone in the weariness that had seeped into his marrow in the last five months.
He saw the same emotions and feelings in the eyes of his best friend and each of his family members, especially his father, who had sat helpless in a chair on the porch for almost six months, his eyes completing tasks his body couldn’t.
Jason took another sip of the coffee and looked back over his shoulder into the barn. “Time to get to work. The cows don’t care how tired we are.”
Alex grunted in agreement and turned into the barn, hopefully to start the milking, but most likely to see Jason’s sister Molly, who Alex had started dating six months earlier.
Jason still wasn’t sure how he felt about his best friend and his younger sister dating.
He snatched his well-worn John Deere cap from the peg by the door, pulling it low on his head. Pausing in the doorway to the milking parlor his shoulders stooped. Another morning. Another day in the barn working hard until his muscles ached and his brain wouldn’t work enough to focus on what was really bothering him. It was both a blessing and a curse.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alex’s arms slid around Molly’s waist, pull her close.
“Save that for later.” His tone denoted a touch of teasing, even though he was serious. “We’re behind schedule.”
Molly and Alex locked gazes, small smiles playing at the corners of their mouth. It was obvious they were ignoring Jason’s attempt at wielding authority. He’d have to start the milking without them.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alex pull Molly closer and lower his mouth to hers. Revulsion tinged with jealousy swirled in his stomach. Revulsion over Alex kissing his little sister right there, outside the barn door where Jason had to see it; jealousy because he wished he was holding Ellie the same way. He didn’t know if she’d ever let him hold her that way again.
Alex playfully bumped him in the arm on his way to gather the feed several moments later, grinning. “There’s always time for a sweet kiss from your sister, buddy.”
Jason choked out a gagging noise. “Dude, seriously. No. Just no. Never talk that way about my sister around me again. Especially not this early in the morning.”
There were moments he regretted convincing Alex to move in with him and work on the farm, for example right now, bogged down with thoughts of Alex kissing Molly. Most days, though, Alex was part of the family, as much as a brother as he was a best friend.
When the milking was done an hour and a half later, it was time to release the cows to the pasture for the first time this spring. It was an event the entire family looked forward to.
A voice boomed through the barn. “We ready for the big release?” Jason turned to watch his dad limp down the middle aisle between the cows, using a cane for support. He hated seeing his dad with that cane and couldn’t wait to see him without it.
Jason’s mom, Annie, walked alongside her husband.
The cows were already standing at the gate, anxiously sniffing the cool spring air.
Robert tipped his head toward his daughter. “Molly, do the honors.”
A mass of cows surged forward within seconds after Jason’s sister pulled back the gate latch and stepped aside.
She affectionally patted a couple cows on their rumps as they passed. “Get on out there, girls.”
Jason propped his arms across the top bar of the fence, watching the young heifers kicking up their legs, bumping into each other, mouths open, stretched into almost human-like smiles. Letting them loose from their five months inside the barn, where they were protected from the elements of winter, was his favorite time of year.
Robert leaned on the cane with both hands. “Now, that’s a sight to behold.”
Jason nodded in agreement. “It was always Grandpa’s favorite time of year, besides harvesting the sweet corn.”
Robert laughed softly. “Yeah, he did love his sweet corn.”
Annie propped a hand on her husband’s shoulder, watching the cows spread out across the hillside. “More like addicted to sweet corn.”
Jason pulled his gaze from the joyful scene in the pasture, leaning back against the fence, gesturing at his dad’s leg. “So, two weeks and that cast will be all the way off, huh, old man?”
Robert cocked an eyebrow. “What’s with you and Alex calling me old man? You both know I could kick your rear ends across this pasture even with a broken leg.”
A broken leg? More accurately a shattered leg when a tractor had tipped on it four months ago. This was his second cast, a less sturdy cast than the first, but only slightly less constricting.
The words from the doctor had been chilling, but accurate. “We rarely have survivors when a tractor falls on a farmer.”
Robert had survived what so many other farmers hadn’t thanks to a tree stump that hadn’t been pulled out of the ground after the tree had been pulled down. The tractor had propped against it, lifting it up enough to keep Robert’s chest from being fully crushed even though his leg had been trapped.
Besides the shattered femur, Robert had also had a cracked pelvis, a puncture wound to his back, a collapsed lung and internal bleeding. It was the bleeding that led to a minor stroke during surgery and a month-long coma. The cracked pelvis was proving the most difficult to heal physically. Robert’s loss of independence was the hardest to heal emotionally.
Jason grinned at his dad. “Looking forward to you pulling your weight around here again.” The smile broadened. “Old man.”
Robert lifted a hand from the cane and playfully punched his son in a muscular bicep. “Go clean those stalls out, boy. Do it right or this old man will show you a thing or two about what it means to be a real man.”
Jason laughed and tapped his dad gently on the shoulder as he walked by.
You’ve already shown me what it means to be a real man, he wanted to say. He didn’t have time for sentimental pauses in his day. There was too much work to do, too many stalls to clean out, feed to be mixed, fences to be mended — too many hours to spend distracting himself from the hole Ellie Lambert had carved in his heart two days earlier outside church.
Alcott, Angelou, Austen, Barrie, Bronte, Blume . . .
Ellie Lambert’s fingers slid over the spines of the books on her bookshelf until she came to the Cs.
“C is for Christie.”
She slid the book in its place and stood up, stepping back to admire her handiwork.
All five shelves of books completely organized, in alphabetical order. Just the way she liked it.
Contentment settled over her like a warm blanket. At least she could control one thing in her world.
While all other aspects of her life swirled around in blistering chaos, this place, her new apartment above Missy Fowler’s beauty salon, offered her a reprieve from it all, a place where she controlled what was out of place and what wasn’t.
It was how she had always soothed her soul – enacting control over what she could change when her emotional environment was off kilter and impervious to her influence. Even as a child, her toys, clothes, and books were organized neatly and perfectly in her room while her younger sister Judi’s were scattered across the floor as if they’d been caught up in a tornado and deposited there.
Judi, now spelled with an “I” of course. Her real name was Judy with a “y” but, in an attempt, in Ellie’s mind, to gain attention, she’d started spelling her name with an “i” in junior high school. It irritated Ellie that everyone, including her parents, catered to Judi, going along with the ridiculous spelling, the same way they went along with every other eccentric, off-the-wall thing Judi did.
She looked at the clock above the television, realized she was running late, and snatched her purse and cellphone from the small table by the door. Moving from her parents’ farmhouse to this apartment had several advantages, one being she was only a five-minute walk from Little Lambs Daycare, her primary job now that she had resigned from her part-time job at the Tanner’s small country store.
Walking into the sunlight on Front Street she mentally contrasted the difference between living in town and living on her family’s farm. Living in town was busier and louder, for one. There was the lack of feeling pressured to get up at 4:30 a.m. with her parents and help with the milking, despite the fact they had two young men who already helped. Then there were the most beneficial differences — living alone, having time to herself, and not having to chance passing Jason on the small dirt road leading from her family’s farm while driving to work.
She paused in front of the mirror when she reached the front lobby of the daycare.
Slacks with no scuff marks and no wrinkles. Check.
Shirt, freshly ironed. Check.
Hair that curved toward her jawline neatly combed. Check.
She lightly touched the edges of the shorter crop, admired again how it fell along her jawline, yet briefly mourned her decision to lop off the straight brown strands which had hung down her back, almost to the top of her waistline, since she was a young child
She still didn’t know what had come over her that day in Missy’s shop.
“Cut it off.”
Missy had looked at her through her reflection in the mirror with raised eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
She’d needed a change, to step away from the life she had known. It was clear she was stuck in a rut, spinning her wheels, for a very long time. She’d already decided she needed a break from who she had been with Jason. Now it was time to change the rest of her life. Starting with her hair.
“Cut if off,” she’d repeated.
Missy cleared her throat, picked up the scissors, then paused and looked with a doubtful expression at Ellie’s eyes staring back at her in the mirror’s reflection. “Ellie, are you sure? Your hair has always been long.” She held the scissors out to the side, chewing her gum. “I mean, like, I remember you with long hair down to your butt in Kindergarten.”
Ellie shook her head, not to say “no” to the cut, but to dismiss her own doubts. “I need something fresh, Missy. Don’t worry. I won’t sue you if I hate it. I’ll just let it grow long again.” She tapped the arms of the stylist chair. “Let’s go. Start cutting.”
Ellie sighed at the memory, but also at herself for checking herself in the mirror. Why did she feel the need to be so well dressed and put together for a group of 4- and 5-year-olds? Maybe it was because she actually was uptight, as Judi always said. Uptight, snooty, too-perfect, or whatever term Judi could describe her to prove that Judi was the fun sister and Ellie was the boring sister.
She hooked her hair behind her ears, knowing she was being unfair to her sister. It wasn’t likely Judi was trying to prove anything about their differences. She probably didn’t even care; the same way she didn’t care about most things other than herself.
It was Ellie who was stuck on the fact that Judi had always been more carefree, while she felt as if she had been born a little old lady. A little old lady who made lists planning out her future, organized her books in alphabetical order, and who hung her clothes by style and color coordination in her closet.
She flipped her hair from behind her ears, deciding it looked better that way, raised an eyebrow as she inspected her shirt again and touched up her lipstick. It was the same color of lipstick she’d worn the night Jason had not-actually proposed to her. She shuddered at the memory. It had been the night she had thought her life had gotten back on track. She’d been able to write, “marriage and children” back onto that list she’d written out in high school. A few weeks later, though, she was marking out the list all over again.
“Hi, Miss Ellie!”
The sweet little voice coupled with bright green eyes under a shock of red hair pulled her from her thoughts.
“Hey, there, Timmy.” She leaned forward on knees slightly bent to bring herself down more to 5-year-old Timmy Murray’s level. “How are you this morning?”
“Mommy says I’m constipated.”
“Oh.” Ellie made a face. “Well, that’s not very good. Is your belly hurting?”
Timmy shrugged. “Nope. Just can’t poop. What are we doing at playtime today?”
Ellie stifled a laugh. She didn’t want him to think it was funny he couldn’t “poop.”
“It’s a surprise. You’ll have to wait and see.”
Timmy rolled his eyes. “Why do big people always make us wait for everythin’?”
Once again she marveled at the verbal capability of this particular preschooler as she took his hand and led him into the classroom.
“Timmy, there you are.”
Ellie’s best friend and co-worker Lucy O’Neil patted the table in front of Timmy’s chair. “Remember, we don’t leave the room unless we’re given permission.”
“I saw Miss Ellie through the window when I went to sharpen my pencil and thought I should say hello.”
Lucy winked at Ellie, flipping a dark brown curl back over her shoulder.
“You still need to ask permission, bud.” She patted Timmy gently on his shoulder and motioned him toward the center of the room. “Okay, let’s all get into our good morning circle to share about our weekend, and then Miss Ellie will read to us from a new book called ‘Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep.’ Can anyone tell me what the book might be about?”
“Teddy bears!” Lily Jenkins shouted out.
Lily thought every story was about teddy bears.
Lucy winked. “Well, we will have to see, won’t we? Everyone find your place on the circle and get ready so we can find out, okay?”
Lucy straightened and huffed out a quiet breath as the children filed from their chairs and gathered on the rug. She wore a weary smile as she leaned back against the edge of the desk.
“Welcome back from the weekend, Miss Ellie. Was it a good one?”
Ellie placed her bag on the desk and took a sip of the tea in her mug. A mix of honey and lemon hit her taste buds. Time to sugar-coat the depression. “It was. Yours?”
Lucy sighed. “Long. My mother-in-law came to visit. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love Margaret, but everything is thrown off when she’s there. The kids don’t want to go to bed, she bakes all these cookies and they’re all on a sugar high . . .”
Ellie’s chest constricted.
She’d gotten used to her friends talking about their children, but today it only seemed to highlight the fact she was the only one of her friends who didn’t have children to talk about. Well, there was Molly, of course, but she didn’t talk to Molly about children much, or her hope for them. Talking to her about wanting to have babies with her brother would have been awkward all around. Of course, she didn’t need to worry about having that conversation anymore. She hadn’t spoke to Molly more than to quickly say hello at church since her breakup with Jason.
That’s what it was, right? A breakup. They were broken up. That yelling session in the church parking lot had sealed that deal and that’s what she’d wanted. Right?
“…but it was a nice weekend overall. Mary Anne went home this morning and I have to admit that it is a little lonely without her. The kids love her bedtime stories. . . Hey. You okay?”
Ellie looked up, reaching across the desk for the book. Time to change the subject before Lucy asked too many questions about how she really was feeling. “I am, but if I don’t start reading soon, those kids are going to get themselves into even more trouble.” She winked and gently nudged Lucy’s arm with her elbow as she walked toward the children.
“Brittany, hands to yourself. No, I don’t care if Matthew sat in your spot. Choose another spot.”
She sat herself in the chair in front of the kids and opened the book. “So, everyone, are we ready for a new book with a new character? A loveable bear I have a feeling is going to become a favorite of you all.”
“Yeah!” All their little voices blended together.
“Okay, well, this story starts — ”
She sighed. “Yes, Timmy?”
“How come you aren’t married?”
Her breath caught in her chest. “Timmy, honey, it’s story time, not question-and-answer time.”
“My mommy says you’re old enough to be married, but you aren’t.”
A tightening jaw. “Well, Timmy, your mommy —“
Lucy cleared her throat and clapped her hands quickly. “Let’s focus on story time, everyone, okay?”
Ellie shot Lucy a grateful smile. She really hadn’t been sure what was going to come out of her mouth. She winked to lighten the mood.
“I’m sure Timmy understands it’s time to use our ears for listening and not our mouth for talking now. Right?”
The precocious preschooler nodded and stuck his thumb in his mouth, eyes wide.
Ellie took a deep breath and plunged forward with the book, hoping to make it through the day without any more close calls of verbal slapping down of children. It wasn’t their fault she was an almost 30-year-old woman who wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and had never told her now ex-fiance that she might not even be able to have children.
Lucy cornered her at lunchtime.
“That question from Timmy seemed to unsettle you a little. You okay?”
She nodded, tucking her shirt in, and brushing crumbs left over from her sandwich off the tabletop and into her hand.
“I am. Or will be.”
“So, it’s final? You and Jason — you’re finished?”
Ellie dug into her yogurt and stared into it. She would love to sink into that creamy coconut goodness right now and pretend her life wasn’t in complete, partially self-induced, chaos.
Lucy leaned close. “Ellie Lambert, I can see it all over your face. Something happened this weekend. You’re not going to leave me in the dark, are you? Your very best friend in the whole wide world besides Trudy, who doesn’t count since she abandoned us.”
“Trudy didn’t abandon us. She got married. It wasn’t her fault Brett got transferred to Detroit.”
Lucy popped the last bite of her carrot in her mouth. “Or more accurately that she was sentenced to Detroit. Anyhow, what happened this weekend? Hurry.” She nodded toward the children giggling at their lunch table a few feet away. “The natives are getting restless.”
“Jason and I had it out this weekend,” Ellie said as she poured the crumbs into the wastebasket behind her desk.
Lucy winced. “Oh.”
“In the church parking lot.”
Lucy’s eyebrows darted up. “Oh wow. In front of everyone?”
Ellie sighed, watching lemons slices swirled in her water, bumping against heart shaped ice cubes.
“No. Luckily, church had already started.”
“You already said ‘wow’, Lucy.”
“But — wow. Outside of church. So, what did he say?”
It must be time for recess. She glanced at the clock. No. There was still ten more minutes until recess. Great.
“A lot. None of it good. Not that it was my proudest moment either.”
Lucy propped her chin on her folded hands, enraptured, as if watching the climax of a horror film. In a way, she was watching one. A horror film entitled “Ellie’s Disastrous Life.”
“Did he say he wanted to break up, or did you?”
Ellie shrugged a shoulder, tracing a line of condensation dripping down the side of her water bottle, avoiding Lucy’s probing gaze. “I guess I did.”
You definitely did. Just admit it.
“I told him we needed a break. That I needed a break to make some decisions.”
“And have you? Made some decisions?”
Ellie sipped her water and didn’t answer for a few minutes. “No,” she said finally. “Not really.”
Lucy let out a breath as if she’d been holding it for the entire conversation. “Whoa, El, this is big stuff. I’m so sorry your weekend was so awful. Why didn’t you call me?”
Ellie leaned over and picked up her lunch bag, shoving the water bottle inside. “I was pretty certain you had heard more than enough of my drama to last you a lifetime. Plus, I needed time to think, to figure out how I feel about all of this, and how I feel about my life without Jason.”
Lucy crumbled the wrapper from her sandwich and tossed it basketball superstar style at the trash can. It bounced off the side of the can and rolled across the floor under the desk. Ellie eyeballed it, waiting for Lucy to pick it up. “Is that what you want? Really? To be without Jason?”
Ellie retrieved the wrapper and tossed it into the trash can. Was it what she wanted? She didn’t even know how to answer that right now. Thankfully she didn’t have to.
“Miss Ellie, Brenda says her booger is bigger than mine. Make her stop.”
Without turning toward the sound of the whining voice, Ellie pressed her hand against her eyes, the other hand on her hip. “Lucy, is Timmy holding a booger on his finger right now?”
The sharp intake of breath alerted Ellie to the answer before Lucy even said the words, “Unfortunately, yes.”
The rest of the conversation about Ellie’s floundering love life would have to wait. She reached for a handful of tissues and turned to address the Great Booger Debate, trying her best not to laugh.