Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 21

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 21



Jason closed his eyes and immediately opened them again. He stared into the darkness of his bedroom until colors swirled in front of him. Sleep was not coming. It had barely come in four days. Every time he closed his eyes, he heard the cries of Anne Weatherly asking for her husband, saw the flames devour their cozy home with John inside.

He draped his bare arm over his eyes, wished sleep would come.

How could he not have known John was inside? How could he not have understood what Ann was trying to tell him?

“John.”

Her voice had been so weak, and Jason had assumed she was calling for John, wanting him to come back from wherever he was to be with her during her time of fear. Instead, she’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was lying on the kitchen floor, unconscious or injured somehow.

Jason clenched his fist tight, gritted his teeth. He punched the surface of the mattress next to him.

He’d wanted to go back into the building, but it was too late. Flames had shot up through the structure, consuming it within seconds.

“You did all you could, Jason.” Cody’s words echoed in his mind, but he didn’t believe them.

He could have done more. He could have found John before the state police fire marshal did, or what was left of him under the ash and charred remains of the house.

God, why did you let this happen? They were good people. They didn’t deserve this.

After another hour without sleep, he tossed the sheets aside and walked downstairs, pouring himself a glass of milk, and turning on the TV.

What a week.

What a soul-sucking, demoralizing, atrocious week.

If he wasn’t hearing the panicked voice in his mind, he was hearing Ellie ask him in hurt voice how he could have told their pastor about their “personal failings.” She hadn’t used those words, but he knew what she meant. He had betrayed their privacy. Her privacy. He certainly didn’t feel good about that.

He guzzled more of the milk and scoffed.

“Personal failings.” He said the words mockingly.

That’s what he apparently had to refer to his desire for Ellie as. He was a failure for wanting to sleep with Ellie. He pressed his hand against his forehead.

He knew that’s not what he was a failure for. He wasn’t a failure for desiring Ellie or for letting his hands slide where they shouldn’t have more than once. He’d asked God to forgive him for anything he shouldn’t have done with Ellie.

What he was a failure for was not telling Ellie about Lauren, for apologizing but then demanding that she forgive him. He’d never really asked her how she really felt about it all. Mainly because he was selfish. Instead of coming along beside her and walking through the pain with her, he’d wanted to avoid having to hear again and again how he had hurt her, so he hadn’t pushed her to tell him how she really felt. Not until they were sitting in front of their pastor. The shame of that conversation weighed heavy on his heart, adding to the shame and guilt already there.

He set the empty glass on the coffee table, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingertips against his temples, massaging them. If only massaging would take the pain away, the pain in his head and his heart.

He’d told Ellie more than once in the last seven and a half months that he wasn’t going to apologize for his mistake for the rest of his life.

 He’d lied.

He would apologize for the rest of his life if it meant he could spend that life taking care of her like he’d wanted to since they were 18.

He flipped channels for another hour, then got dressed and headed to the farm. He might as well start his day. It wasn’t like he was going to get anymore sleep and he had the goat barn to finish before his dad picked up the livestock the next week.

A light from the barn window glowed a soft orange, casting a square pattern of brightness onto the dark grass outside.

Who else was up at this hour? It was too early to start the milking.

Robert met Jason in the barn doorway, wiping his hands on a rag.

“Something wrong?” Jason asked.

Robert shook his head as he turned to walk into the barn. “Not anymore. Marshmallow was having a hard time calving. Big bull. Breach. I got him turned.”

Jason followed him, yawning. Robert stopped at the sink, turned the water on full blast and soaped his arms up to his elbows, red smearing with white and leaving a pink tinged coating. “I was getting ready to wash up when I heard your truck. Stepped out to see who else was up this early.”

Jason rubbed at his dry eyes. “Just your crazy son.”

Robert laughed, drying off his arms and hands. “Crazy? Nah. A man with a propensity to work too hard. Yes.”

Jason laughed and shook his head, reaching for the tractor key by the door. “You have no room to talk, old man, and you know it. You work from sunup, or in most cases before the sun is up, to sundown or longer. You don’t even know the meaning of slowing down.” He tapped his dad’s arm with the back of his hand. “Not even a tractor landing on you was enough to slow you down.”

Robert rolled his shirtsleeves down, buttoning them at the wrist. “If only that was true. I tell you, kid, I’ve never felt as old as I have these last seven months. I’m only just feeling like my old self again.”

It was too early to feed the cows, but he could begin preparing the calf feed. Molly would be there in a couple of hours to feed them.

“I’m seeing that old spark returning, I can tell you that. Why don’t you head in and catch a couple more hours of rest, though? Alex and Molly will be here soon, and we can handle the morning chores.”

Robert dumped the dirty water bucket outside the barn door. “I might just take you up on that. But actually, I’m glad to catch you alone for once.” He leaned his side against the supporting beam next to the entrance of the milking parlor and folded his arms across his chest. “How are you doing, Jason?”

Jason shrugged a shoulder as he turned to look for the scraper. He could scrap the center aisle clean before the cows were led out of their stalls. “Fine.”

“You know that in women speak fine means not fine and I have a feeling it means the same thing in Jason speak.”

“You calling me a woman, Dad?”

A smile tugged at Robert’s mouth. “Very funny. No. I’m calling you a liar.”

“Ouch. I think I’d rather be called a woman.” Jason made a face. “Actually, this conversation is starting to sound very sexist. Sorry about that.”

He moved to the watering trough, dumped it onto the barn floor, and pressed the button to refill it. “This purchase was a good one.” Refilling the trough automatically was a lot more efficient than doing it manually.

“Don’t change the subject, kid. How are you?”

Jason rested his hands on his waist as he waited for the trough to refill, watching the water swirl from the spout and rise. He chewed on the edge of his lip and tried to decide how to answer.

“I’m struggling,” he said finally. “Between Ellie, the fire, trying to build the goat barn, hiring an architect for the new milking parlor, and keep this place running — it’s been hard.” He shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll get through it, though. Eventually.”

Robert crossed one leg over the other, propping the toe of his boot against the floor. “You don’t have to get through it alone, you know. Your family is here for you. Me and your mom. Molly and Alex. Even your aunts and uncles and cousins. More importantly though, God is for you.”

He thought to himself how he wasn’t so sure about at least one of his cousins being there for him. He thought about Brad’s car parked outside Ellie’s apartment the other day. I think he’d rather be there for my ex.

He pressed the button to turn the water off. “For me and not against me. Yeah. I know that verse, but it’s hard to see it right now.”

“There are seasons like that, certainly, but eventually, we see the places where God was still with us, even when we thought he wasn’t.” He tipped his head, trying to catch Jason’s eye. “You aren’t to blame for John’s death. You know that, right?”

Jason looked away from his dad, turning toward the back of the barn, staring at the stalls in silence. Emotion caught in his throat when he tried to speak.

“You’re not,” Robert said. “His death was an accident. There was no way you could have known he was in there.”

Jason nodded, but didn’t turn around. “Okay,” was all he could manage.

“Ann’s doing well. She’s been staying with her sister over in Brockwood. I ran into Mary at the store the other day and she said she might move into Twin Oaks.”

Jason’s chest tightened at the mention of Ann. How much did she blame him for the loss of her husband? How angry was she that he wouldn’t listen to her when she tried to tell him where John was? Twin Oaks was a retirement community featuring a collection of condominiums.

“That will be a big change for her.”

“It will be, but she’ll be with friends who can comfort her, including your grandparents.”

Jason nodded. His maternal grandparents had moved into Twin Oaks seven years ago, leaving their house to Annie. Jason had moved into the house shortly after they moved. Alex had come to live with him a year later.

“Jason.” His dad’s hand on his shoulder was firm. “Don’t hold all of this inside. If you can’t talk to me, talk to Alex or Pastor Joe. Someone. I’ve been there. A few times. You know that and holding it in did nothing but make me angry and bitter. I don’t know the specifics of what happened with you and Ellie, but I know you have a lot of guilt about whatever it is and ­­—”

“I slept with a girl in college after Ellie and I broke up.”

Robert slid his hands in his front pockets and tipped his face toward the barn floor. “I see.”

Jason faced his dad and pulled his hand against the back of his neck. “It was a dark time for me. I was lonely, questioning a lot of things. . .” He shook his head and slid a hand across his face, wishing he hadn’t even started telling his dad about his past. “There was a girl who came on strong, invited me to a couple of parties, I was drunk one night, and I messed up. I regretted it immediately. I never did anything like it again.”

Robert let out a long breath. “And Ellie overheard you talking to Alex about it.”

“Yeah. She overheard us talking about it one afternoon. A few days after she thought I’d proposed to her.”

“She thought you proposed to her?”

Jason laughed softly, rubbing the side of his index finger under his bottom lip, against the stubble there. “Long story, but I was getting ready to tell her about the other thing, she thought I was going to propose, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t been planning on proposing. Not that night anyhow. I needed to talk to her first.”

“Oh. I see. That’s why we didn’t know about the proposal.”

“We were going to tell everyone around the time of the firemen’s banquet but then she found out, your accident happened, and I didn’t know if we were still engaged or not.” Jason scratched at the back of his head. “And obviously, we weren’t and aren’t.”

Robert’s eyebrows dipped, and Jason braced himself for more questions. He didn’t want to answer more questions. This conversation was awkward enough. “So, this situation in college happened once and not while you two were dating?”

Jason shook his head again. “No, but Ellie worries that since I didn’t tell her about this, maybe there are other things I didn’t tell her.”

“Are there?”

“Other than the fact I like Mom’s apple pie better than hers, no.”

Robert laughed. “Your mom’s pie is hard to beat.” He shifted and looped his thumbs in his belt loops. “Kid, you know your mistake doesn’t define you, right? Or your relationship with Ellie. From what I’ve seen of you, all these years since, it already hasn’t defined you. You’re a good man who took a wrong turn. You made a terrible decision. Good works isn’t how you dig yourself out of the shame, though. Only God can do that.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Jason’s mouth. “I know, Dad. I do. I just have to keep reminding myself of everything you and Mom have taught me about God and everything I’ve learned in church. Sometimes it’s hard to apply to real life. But while I’m reminding myself, you should probably listen to your own lessons. The accident and your injury doesn’t define you either.”

Robert shook his head and whistled, sliding his hands in his front pant pockets. “Ouch. It’s been that obvious, huh?”

“That you blame yourself for riding out there that day when the hill was wet from the rain? That you think you should be healing faster? That you feel like you aren’t helping enough because your leg has slowed you down some? That you work and work and work to try to prove you’re still the man mom married? Yeah. It’s pretty obvious.”

Robert winced, pinching his nose between his index finger and thumb as he closed his eyes. “Wow. I didn’t know I was that transparent.”

He stepped away from the beam and turned his back for a few moments, breathing deep. When he turned, he walked to Jason, reached up and placed his hand behind Jason’s head, his eyes glistening.

“Beyond my wildest dreams. That’s what you are. A son comforting his father with the reminder of God’s truth.” He pulled Jason against him and hugged him tight. “I am blessed.”

Jason hugged his dad for a few seconds, then pulled back and let out a deep breath. “Enough of that, old man. You’ll have us both crying like a bunch of women.”

Robert slapped him on the back. “That might not be a bad thing considering what a gift women are to us. We could learn a thing or two from them.”

Jason turned to walk back toward the feed room. “Yes, we could. We definitely could.”

Like how to listen to them and not only in words.

Every time Ellie told him how his decision in college made her feel, he’d apologized, but then he’d also mentally dismissed what she’d said. He’d wanted nothing more than to avoid feeling the guilt and the shame. He’d excused it away time after time by saying it was a mistake, that he’d made a mistake and he knew it.

It was true.

What happened with Lauren was a mistake, but it was also a decision, albeit a drunken one. There was part of him that had never really accepted his own part in that night. He had blamed Lauren, Ellie, and alcohol instead of accepting that it was wrong thinking that had led him down that path. He’d felt God had abandoned him in college right along with Ellie, but he’d been wrong. God had never abandoned him and never would, even if Ellie never wanted anything to do with him again.

***

Ellie looked at her phone, picked it up, stared at it, and laid it back on the counter, face down.

She should call him. She knew she should. She had called Molly and asked about Jason, but hadn’t worked up the courage to call him yet. Not after what she’d seen in the hallway at the hospital.

It wasn’t like it was a full-on make-out session, so why was she worried? Maybe because if he’d fallen into the arms of another woman, she’d understand why.

What would she even say if she called him?

“Hey, there, Jase, I know we just had a screaming match a few days ago and you’re grieving but — how are you?”

No. She couldn’t call.

Maybe a text.

A text was so impersonal. But they were broken up, so how personal should she be?

Still, they’d known each other most of their lives and he’d been her best friend for the past 12 years.

She huffed a breath out, blowing her hair out of her eyes.

She hadn’t even bothered to brush it tonight. Wearing a pair of Judi’s sweatpants and an old sweatshirt from her college, she didn’t feel like herself, but after she’d left the hospital that day she hadn’t been able to focus on anything and had completely forgot to do her laundry.

Her only bright spot had been Timmy Murray. He’d kept her laughing when she wanted to cry.

“Miss Ellie, my brother says if I pick my nose, I’ll hit my brain. Is that true?”

“No, hon’. You will not hit your brain. However, you might make it sore in there so you might want to back off for a while. Maybe you can try blowing your nose.”

“I did once but Billy said the stuff in the tissue was brain.”

“Oh gosh. Well, no, Billy’s just trying to scare you. It’s mucous, not brain.”

Ellie shook her head at the memory of the conversation. She had a feeling his parents must have a lot of moments when they had to stifle their laughs around him. If she ever could have children, she hoped they were as entertaining as Timmy.

She snatched up the phone and typed out a message, erased it, typed it again.

Hey, I heard about the fire. I just wanted to let you know I’m praying for you.

There. She did it. Now he wouldn’t feel like he had to talk to her or even respond to her.

Painless.

She pulled a pot out from under the stove and filled it with water. Time for a pasta night. Something simple, with little fuss and little muss.

Muss. What did that even mean? Why did people say that when the word was mess?

She shook her head and waited for the water to boil, glancing at her phone. No reply.

Muss. Muss. Now it was bothering her. She picked up the phone and conducted an internet search.

“Muss. A game in which players scramble for small objects thrown at the ground.”

Huh? She scanned further down the page.

“Muss. A state of disorder.”

Ah, yes. That sounded exactly like her life right now. Definitely a muss.

A half an hour later she was sitting on the couch, pasta in a bowl, watching an old movie, trying not to look at her phone. Maybe he didn’t care if she cared. Maybe this other woman was filling the void she’d left.

Speaking of not caring, she was trying not to care where Judi was — again. Out at another friend’s house, most likely. Or maybe a new friend. Maybe someone like that man on her social media account.

Had Judi really done all those things with him he’d listed in the caption?

A sick feeling settled in Ellie’s stomach, and she slid the bowl onto the coffee table. The idea of that man treating Judi like she was simply someone to bed for a night and move on from made her heart ache. It also chased away her appetite.

The ding of the phone startled her. She reached for it but laid her hand on it instead of picking it up, afraid to turn it over. What if he was yelling at her again?

Maybe his response would be something along the lines of, “Why are you even bothering to check on me? I know you don’t care.”

He probably thought she didn’t care about him. She certainly hadn’t acted like she did for half a year.

Slowly, she lifted it and swiped it open.

Jason: Hey, sorry for not answering right way. Contractor messed up the foundation on the goat enclosure. Trying to figure out how to fix it. Had dad on the other line. The feed mixer also broke down again. Had to call Walt because he’s the expert there.

She let out a breath, took a sip of water, and typed a response, mentally chiding herself for feeling nervous. This was the man she’d planned to spend the rest of her life with at one point. Why did it feel like they were in high school again, with her wondering if he’d ever ask her out?

Ellie: The fun never stops for us farmers does it?

Jason: Us farmers? Thought you were a city girl now. J/k I know you’ll always be a farm girl at heart.

Ellie: You take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the love of farming out of the girl.

She paused her movie, stared for a few moments at Ginger Rogers frozen in place, mid-dance step. That’s how she felt, holding this phone, trying to figure out how to communicate with the other half of her heart. The other half who had been so angry at her a few days ago, he’d walked away, leaving her alone and crying.

The man who hadn’t apologized to her, but who had been through something terrible and who she cared about.

Jason: Thanks for checking on me. I’m okay. Cody said you were looking for me.

Ellie: I was. I stopped at the hospital to check on you, but I must have missed you.

Jason: Yeah, it was just a couple of quick stitches. I was out of there pretty fast.

Should she be open with him? Even though there were times he hadn’t been open with her. Yes, she should be. Closing themselves off to each other hadn’t helped in the past and it wouldn’t now.

Ellie: Actually, I need to be honest. I didn’t miss you at the hospital. I saw you there with some woman and I didn’t know if I should interrupt.

She chewed a fingernail and propped her feet on the coffee table, then remembered how she hated scuff marks on the coffee table. She scrubbed at the marks while she waited.

Two minutes passed. Three. Now four.

He wasn’t answering.

She rubbed her hands across her face and took a deep breath, blowing it out as she fell back against the couch, clutching the phone against her chest. She practically dropped the phone when it dinged ten minutes later.

Jason: Sorry dropped my phone in a cow stall. Had to wipe it off. Then had to punch Alex for laughing at me. Anyhow . . . Some woman?

Ellie: Blonde.

Jason: Oh, Brittany.

She read the text out loud. “Oh, Brittany?”

Jason: Hold on. Can I call?

Ellie: Sure.

Oh, Brittany. What did that mean? She stared at his name on the caller ID when the phone rang and took a deep breath. Time to find out who “Oh Brittany” was. She tapped the accept button.

“Hey.” Hearing his voice on the other end made her stomach tighten — in a good way. There was her heart, trying to override her brain again. “I didn’t want any more misunderstandings and we both know how easily that can happen in a text. Brittany works on the ambulance. She’s, well, . . . she’s Brittany. Flirts a lot. She was on a transport when she heard about the fire. She stopped by to check on me and yeah, she’s a little too hands on at times if you know what I mean.

Was he telling the truth? She wanted to believe he was. She laughed before she answered, trying to relieve the tension. “Yeah. I do know what you mean. She’s probably a lot like Judi.”

Jason winced through the phone. “Maybe not that bad. How’s she doing anyhow?”

“Wouldn’t know. I rarely see her.”

“Denny said you don’t even know why she’s here?”

“No. No idea.”

She thought about the photos of Judi and the man. Maybe her extended visit had something to do with him.

A period of silence followed before Jason spoke again.

“El, about Sunday  . . . I’m —”

The banging of the front door against the apartment wall coaxed a muffled scream from Ellie, and she stood, bracing herself for an intruder.

“Eeeeellllllleeeeeee. I’m hooooooooome.”

Ellie pressed her hand to her forehead, fear fading quickly into frustration.

“Ellie, you okay?” Jason’s voice was full of alarm. “Is that Judi?”

“Yeah. Um. I’d better go deal with her. She and I need to talk.” She held her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “And I think she’s drunk.”

“Sounds like I better offer up a few prayers for you too.”

“More than a few at this point.”

Her smile disappeared once she slid the end call button. She stared at her sister’s disheveled hair, untucked shirt, and dirt smudged knee-high boots.

“Oh, Ellie, you look upset.” Judi pushed her lower lip out, slamming the door behind her. “Was your Bible study canceled? Was your favorite worship song pulled out of rotation on Family Life?”

Judi must have thought her joke was super funny because she doubled over, hands on her knees, and let out a manical laugh that sent chills up Ellie’s spine.

“Enough is enough, Judi. What is going on with you? What are you even doing back in Spencer? And what is with all this going out every night and drinking?”

In an instant Judi’s laughter disappeared and she glared, her face squished in disgust. She stumbled toward the kitchen. “You’re not my mother, Ellie.”

“No, I’’m not our mother. Our mother would be heartbroken to see you this way.”

Judi opened the carton of orange juice and took a swing. “Our mother wouldn’t care because all she’s ever cared about is you, Ellie.”

Ellie shook her head, confused. “That’s not true, Judi. When did you start believing these lies you’ve been telling yourself? Mom and Dad love you. They’ve been worried about you up in the city but they wanted you to be where you were happy.” Judi scoffed as Ellie stepped toward the kitchen. “Are you?” Ellie asked. “Happy? Because you’ve seemed pretty miserable since you’ve been here.”

Judi attempted another drink of juice, but it poured from the edges, down her chin.

“I’m having fun,” she snarled. “Something you should try sometime.”

Ellie stepped quickly toward the counter and wrenched the carton from Judi’s hands. “Stop it. You’re drunk and making a mess. Go sleep it off.”

“Go sleep it off. Go sleep it off. Blah. Blah. Blah.” Judi mocked her sister, holding her hands up and making them talk like a puppet. “Don’t you ever stop trying to boss people around? Is that what happened with Jason? You bossed him around too much?”

Ellie grabbed her sister under the arm, propelling her around the island and down the hallway. “That’s enough, Judi. It’s none of your business what happened with Jason. You need to go lay down.”

Judi wrenched away, knocking Ellie backward against the wall. “I don’t need to do anything you tell me! Miss Perfect. That’s what you are.” She pointed an accusatory finger in Ellie’s direction. “Perfect daughter, perfect girlfriend, perfect Bible girl, S-s-Sunday school student, w-wh-whatever you call it. Who cares? You know? Who cares about you and you’re-you’re perfect life, Elizabeth Miss Perfect Pants. That’s been my whole life. Always trying to be like my perfect older sister. I never could be because I wasn’t as smart as her, as pretty as her, and the only thing boys ever wanted me for was to sleep with and leave me. That’s all I was ever good for.”

Ellie’s chest tightened, her rate increased. How long had her sister felt this way? That she wasn’t enough? That she was inferior?

“Judi, I’m not perfect. You never had to try to measure up to me. Mom and Dad —”

“Mom and Dad always talked about how good you were. How sweet you were. How quiet and demure you were. D-d-mmuuure. Yes, even stupid Judi knows big words.”

Emotion clutched at Ellie’s throat. The anger she’d been battling for weeks fell away, replaced by sorrow. How had she not realized how much Judi was hurting?

She’d let her own problems overshadow everything else, distract her from seeing that Judi’s biting sarcasm and attempts to start fights with her were because she was feeling rejected, maybe even abandoned.

“Judi, I’m sorry you felt that way. I never knew. Why didn’t you —”

“What? Say something? Yeah, right. You would have said none of it was true and I was listening to lies from the devil. The Devil. You blame everything on him instead of taking some of the blame yourself.” She shook her head, waving her hand back and forth in the air. “No. No. I don’t want to talk about any of this right now.” She pushed past Ellie, almost tripping. “Don’t try to apologize. I’m not going to bother you anymore. I’m going out with Brad.”

“Judi, you’re drunk. You can’t drive. How did you even get here?”

“Brad drove me here. He’s waiting for me outside. He’s sober. Not that it’s any of your business. I came in to change my outfit.”

Judi staggered into the room she was staying in and slammed the door.

Ellie raked her hand through her hair and noticed it was trembling. What if Judi was lying about Brad? She’d seen him that night at the club and she’d driven them home then, too. There was a very good chance either he or Judi were lying about how much he’d already had to drink.

Judi swung the door open and breezed past her wearing a too-tight black mini-skirt and a low cut red tank top. Knee-high boots completed the outfit.

Ellie followed her into the living room. “I’ll drive you and Brad.”

Judi swung around and stuck her tongue out like a toddler. “No.” She spoke like a toddler too, grating on Ellie’s nerves. “We don’t want you. You’re a total downer and a prude.”

Ellie took another deep breath and tried to calm the anger boiling inside her. Judi was lost and hurting. She needed compassion, not scolding. For now, anyhow.

She did her best to speak calmly and confidently, even though she didn’t feel either of those attributes at the moment. “Judi, I’ll be the designated driver, okay?” She snatched her purse off the chair. “Where are you two going? I’m sure it will be fun. I could use a night out too.”

Judi folded her arms across her chest, cocking one leg to the side, her eyes narrowing, “Oh you could, could you? Well, we’re going The Rusty Nail in Brickwood. They’re having a grand reopening. New owners. There will be alcohol. And dancing. And men. All the things you don’t like.”

Ellie tightened her grip on her purse and brushed past Judi to grab her keys off the keyholder by the door. “Come on. I’ll talk to Brad about taking my car. I’m sure he’ll agree when he knows it means he can drink as much as he wants.”

Judi smirked. “Okay, then. Fine. You can be our chauffeur. I don’t have any problem with sitting in the back with Brad.”

Ellie tightened her jaw and forced the edges of her mouth upward as she opened the front door. She tried not to think about what the pair could get up to in the backseat during the 40-minute drive to The Rusty Nail.

Special Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 19

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.

I will be looking for people to provide advanced reviews of the book on Goodreads, so if you are interested in that, let me know. I could use a couple beta readers in mid Mid-July as well.

Chapter 19

Bile rose in Jason’s throat as he drove out of the church parking lot, his foot pressed all the way down on the accelerator. He tasted bitterness and dragged a hand across his mouth, considering pulling over and vomiting on the side of the road. Had he really just snapped on Ellie in front of their pastor? He’d made her sound like she was the villain, and he was the victim. How could he have done that?

He loved Ellie. More than he could even express. He certainly hadn’t done a good job of showing it by yelling at her, though. Now he wondered if she had any love left for him at all. Not only had it sounded like he had been mocking her, and his firmly held Biblically-based beliefs, but he’d outed her as a hypocrite in front of Pastor Joe. Just as badly, he’d made it sound as if she’d done something worse than what she actually had.

He pounded the steering wheel as he drove toward her apartment. The conversation had careened completely out of control.

No. It hadn’t been the conversation.

He had lost complete control, and he hated it. He hated he had shared their private struggle without her permission; used her pain and embarrassment as a weapon.

He yanked the truck into a parking space in front of her apartment building but didn’t see her car. She’d probably gone to her parents.

Great.

He’d almost got her father killed and now he’d screamed at her in front of their pastor. He needed to find her and apologize.

Now.

He pulled onto the road, headed toward her parents, hoping he could find her before she reached her parents and either she or Tom met him at the door with a shotgun.

The scanner trilled out a series of tones as he drove. He ignored it, focused on the drive to Ellie’s, replaying what he’d said and how he’d said it.

He couldn’t let this conversation fester like the other one, drill holes of bitterness into their hearts. She was too important to him for him to let that happen. Like his grandmother had said, Ellie was worth fighting for.

The voice of the female dispatcher caught his attention. “Department 12, Tri-County EMS. Ellory Road, two miles past Tanner Enterprises. Kitchen fire. Two story family home. Call came from the homeowner.”

He mentally ticked off the houses on Ellory Road. There were only four houses, One was a ranch home, another a one-story modular. Dread set in like a brick, sinking to the bottom of a creek bed. What if it was the Weatherly’s? They had a two-story home. Then again, the Murphys, who were probably home with their six children having Sunday dinner, also had a two-story home.

His worst fears were realized with the next dispatch.

“Department 12, homeowner is still in the home. An elderly woman. Has been advised to leave but refuses. Coughing and choking. Difficult to understand. Possible smoke inhalation.”

He yanked the trunk into gear and took off, knowing immediately it was the Weatherly home. If Ann was the homeowner her lungs would fill up fast if she didn’t get out. She weighed less than a fifth grader at this point in her life and her lungs were probably even smaller.

By the time he ripped the truck into a space in front of their house, Denny was standing outside, pulling his gear on. Jason slammed his truck into park and reached for his suit, keeping his eyes on dark black smoke billowing from the window at the back, where the kitchen was, flames darting through the smoke and licking the siding.

“Where are Ann and John?” he asked.

Denny shook his head. “John’s car is gone. He may not be home. Dispatch says Ann’s still in there and she’s not answering me.”

Jason yanked his glove on and reached for the oxygen mask and tank he’d stashed behind his front seat. “I’m going in.”

Denny reached out and grabbed his arm. “We need to wait for the fire truck so they can fight back the flames.”

Jason jerked away. “If Ann is in there, she could be dead before they get here. I’m heading in. Spot me.”

The scanner squealed, and Cody’s voice informed dispatch the truck was on its way.

Jason smiled through the oxygen mask. “See? They’ll be here any minute.”

Shaking his head, Denny positioned his oxygen mask on his face and followed him. “You better know what you’re doing, Tanner.”

Jason knew it didn’t matter if he knew what he was doing or not. Someone had to go in that house and find Ann. He was nervous, knowing the ceiling could come down on them if the fire spread. He had to take the chance, though. Ann had lived a long, full life. She didn’t deserve to die this way, and he wasn’t about to tell her children she had.

***

Ellie had washed her face, reapplied makeup, and walked into the apartment to pick up the crockpot and Judi. She’d silently prayed Judi wouldn’t ask her where she’d been or why her eyes were red and swollen. Luckily Judi had been as self-focused as ever, dealing with a hangover. She perked up ten minutes into the drive and spent the rest of the short trip talking about new outfits she had purchased and the party she planned to wear them to later that night. She obviously didn’t remember how she’d acted the night before, when Ellie had tried to convince her to leave the club.

Ellie wondered if she was ever going back to the city. She’d said she had a job. Didn’t she have to get back to it? If Ellie hadn’t had so much on her mind already, she might have asked her. At this point, though, she couldn’t handle anymore drama. It was bad enough Judi had taken over her spare room, her mess spilling over into the rest of the apartment. Ellie had no idea why she had a spare room, anyhow.

It’s not like she had visitors, or at least rarely did, which is probably why she’d only placed a used daybed in the room after she moved in. Lucy liked to joke she would crash in it some night when she needed a break from Denny and the kids. Her cousin Randi had used it once to stay in when she’d come for a family reunion.

Ellie did her best to sound chipper during lunch, grateful when it was over, and she could use the headache she’d developed since leaving the church as an excuse to leave early.

“Want to go to a party with me at Lana’s?” Judi asked on the drive home.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I still have a headache from last night.”

“Take an Advil. It’ll be gone in time for the party.”

“I’m not interested, Judi.”

“I’m not interested, Judi.” Judi’s tone was mocking. “You’re not interested in much, are you? What do you even do all the time now that you don’t have a boyfriend?”

Ellie pressed her foot down harder on the accelerator. “Maybe you’d know if you were ever around.”

Judi snorted a laugh. “As if you’d want me around. You never have and you know it.”

Ellie didn’t have the energy for this. Not now. She turned the music up on the radio.

“Isn’t there anything to listen to besides Family Life?”

Judi reached for the radio knob, but Ellie slapped her hand.

“Oooh. Someone’s hormones are raging.”

She wasn’t in the mood for Judi’s snarky retorts. Family Life offered uplifting Christian music and that was what she needed at the moment.

“I like Family Life. Leave it.”

Judi groaned. “But the music is so boring.”

 “It’s my car and we’ll listen to what I want. You can listen to whatever you want while you clean the mess you’ve made in my apartment.”

Judi sighed and propped her feet on the dashboard, sliding her finger across the screen of her phone. “You’re such a cranky old lady, I swear.”

Back at the apartment Ellie walked to her room immediately, not even caring if Judi had followed her inside. She flopped on the bed and pulled her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes, hoping in vain that when she opened them Judi would be gone, and everything that had happened earlier in the day with Jason had never happened at all.

When sleep didn’t come, she rolled over and picked up her phone. She tapped the FaceTime button, hoping Lucy was home and not at her or Denny’s parents.

Lucy’s cute, round, and very perky face greeted her. Maybe this had been a bad idea. Lucy looked so happy and relaxed. Ellie didn’t want to ruin her day.

“Hey, pretty lady. I lost you after church. Where’d you go? You okay?”

Ellie sighed. “Yeah. No. I don’t know. Pastor Joe asked if Jason and I would come talk to him.”

The image on the phone blurred, jerked and straightened again, Lucy’s background now the family photo on the wall behind her couch.

“Oh boy. How did that go?”

“I don’t want to dump on you. It sounds quiet there, like maybe you’re finally getting some alone time?”

Lucy waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Now we can talk without the kids interrupting. They’re at my parents. Denny and I were going to watch a movie, but the tones dropped so he’s out on a call.” She popped a grape in her mouth. “Tell me what happened. Did Pastor Joe getting the boxing gloves out for you?”

Ellie scoffed. “He should have. That’s how bad it got.”

Lucy’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Am I going to need chocolate for this story? Or should I hop in my car and come over?”

Ellie shook her head. “No. Don’t do that. I’ll be fine. Maybe get the chocolate for yourself, though.”

“Fill me in, kid. Come on. I can tell you need to talk about this.”

Ellie filled her in, blow by blow, even telling her the part where he accused her of trying to act like she was a perfect, virtuous woman. Lucy knew about her struggles with trying to be authentic, yet still trying to keep her private life private. She also knew about her struggles with desiring more of a physical relationship with Jason, even as she desired waiting until marriage.

Ellie didn’t think she actually pretended to be virtuous or have only pure thoughts. It’s just that Bible study wasn’t the place she was going to admit she’d imagined Jason naked more than she cared to admit. Maybe it should have been the place, and maybe the ladies would have appreciated her honesty, but it wasn’t something she felt comfortable with. She supposed she’d have to analyze why later. Maybe Jason was right and she wanted people from the church to think she was someone she wasn’t.

“Okay, El.” Lucy clapped her hands together and shifted closer to the camera. “I think it’s time for some tough love, but I’m really not sure if you are in a place you can handle it. Are you in a place where you can handle it?”

Ellie sighed, her chin propped on her hand, her elbow propped up on the bed. “Might as well let it loose. Soft love isn’t getting me anywhere these days.”

Lucy shifted her bottom on the couch, wiggling like she was trying to get more comfortable. Ellie braced herself.

“Okay. So. You said Jason showed you his true colors today. Let me ask you something.” She leaned closer to the camera, narrowing her eyes. “Do you really think that? Do you really think that what you saw from Jason today is who he is? Ellie, you’ve known this man for over a decade. Besides this one secret and him blowing up today, have you ever witnessed him be anything other than good, kind, and loving to you? He’s never going to be perfect, but Jason is always going to strive to be a good man and he’s always going to strive to be the best man for you and in the sight of God. You know that. Deep down I believe you know he’d never intentionally hurt you. I’ve told you before that one day your stubbornness is going to be your downfall. I hate to say it, but that day might be here.”

Ellie’s whistle sounded similar to Judi’s from the other day. “Ouch. That was some tough love.”

“Yeah, well, I think you needed it. No matter what, though, you know I love you, right? You know I’m always here for you no matter what you decide when it comes to Jason.”

Ellie propped the phone against a pillow and moved her other hand under her chin, folding it over the one she’d been leaning on before. “Yes, I do.”

“El, we’ve known each other almost our whole lives. I know you planned your life out long ago.  Who you would marry, when you would marry, when you would have kids and a career. You have these ideas in your head of how it is all supposed to go, but life doesn’t always work out the way we expect it to.”

Ellie knew that.

She did.

There were just times, like now, that she didn’t want to accept it.

Lucy squinted at the phone screen. “Hold on. Denny’s calling. I’d better take this. I’ll switch back over in a minute.”

The screen went blank, and Ellie waited, thinking about what Lucy had said. How Jason had always strived to be a good man. How the angry Jason at the church wasn’t all there was to Jason. She knew that, of course. It was hurt and anger giving her tunnel vision. She needed to pull back and look at the bigger picture.

 Like her, he had many emotions, many feelings and even though this was the first time she’d witnessed anger directed at her with such animosity, it didn’t mean it had taken him over completely.

“Hey, El?” Lucy’s face popped back on the screen, but her smile had faded, replaced by a somber expression. “You still there? The fire was at the Weatherlys.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yeah, total loss but worse than that, they think John didn’t make it out.”

Ellie gasped, tears filling her eyes again. She and Jason had both delivered groceries to Ann and John over the years. She also remembered Ann well from when her mother used to host a sewing circle at their house.

“Denny said he and Jason were first on the scene. Jason went in and carried Ann out. He didn’t see John though and he’s taking it pretty hard that John might have been inside. Cody wants a cut on Jason’s head checked at the ER, but Denny said he won’t go. He just keeps pacing back and forth, waiting for the state police fire marshal to come so they can get confirm if John was inside.”

Ellie sat up on the bed and drew in a shaky breath.

For the last seven months she’d been questioning who Jason really was, asking herself how much of his life and their relationship had been an act. She still had lingering concerns about what else he’d hid from her, but what she did know was that Jason hadn’t been faking it when he showed love for the Weatherly’s. He hadn’t been faking the glint in his eye over the years when he announced he’d “take one for the team” by delivering their groceries, knowing they’d lavish him with praise and, most likely Ann would slide him a desert for his effort.

This would hit him hard.

Very hard.

“You okay?” Lucy asked.

Ellie wiped a finger under her eye. “Actually, in a renewed effort to be authentic, I will tell you that no, I am currently not okay.” She laughed through the tears and rubbed the palm of her thumb along the corner of her eye. “I’m going to go sign off and have a good cry. Can you call me if you hear anything else?”

Lucy nodded. “I will. For now, though, let’s pray before you hang up.”

Lucy prayed for the Weatherlys, the firefighters, and Jason, asking for God’s comfort in all the ways that were needed.

After they hung up, Ellie knew she couldn’t sit in her room crying. She needed to drive to the scene as hard as it would be.

She needed to make sure that Jason was okay, even if he pushed her away.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope (formerly The Farmer’s Sons) Chapter 18

Hold on to your seats, regular readers. Today’s chapter is going to send you on a bumpy ride. In fact, the next several chapters are going to.

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 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 18


Sunday morning Ellie watched a bottleneck effect unfold in the sanctuary doorway and wished she had slipped out of the service early. At this rate, standing all the way at the back of the crowd, she’d never get out of the sanctuary. It was her turn to provide lunch at her parents, and she still had to go back to her apartment and pick up the crock pot with the shredded chicken. And Judi. If Judi was even awake. Ellie had driven a drunk Brad and Judi home the night before, sometime around midnight, dropping Brad off first and then parking his truck at her parents. He could walk to her parents this morning, or whenever he regained consciousness, and pick it up.

She’d done everything she could to keep Judi quiet while she helped her from Brad’s truck and practically shoved her in the passenger side of the sedan, hoping their parents didn’t wake up and find out the truth about Judi at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night. Her absence in church wouldn’t have been a sign to them that anything was amiss, since Judi hadn’t attended a service since she’d arrived. Their mom had mentioned it once, in private, to Ellie, expressing concern about Judi’s spiritual health, but hadn’t pursued it further as far as Ellie knew.

This morning Ellie’s eyes were heavy, and she’d yawned more than once during the sermon, hoping Pastor Joe hadn’t seen her and thought it was a silent review of his message.

She looked to her left and flinched involuntarily at the sight of Jason standing directly next to her. She had no way to get away from him. People were crushed against them on all sides.  Their shoulders touched, and heat rose from her chest to her face. There it was again. The physical attraction she wanted to deny but couldn’t. Without warning, an image of him shirtless by the woodpile the afternoon before popped into her mind.

She let out a slow breath and willed the image away, but only managed to transform the image into one of him swinging the ax, his biceps contracting with each hit. His biceps. The ones she used to run her hands up as they kissed. The ones pressed against her shoulder at this very moment.

 He glanced at her at the same moment she glanced at him, then they both looked away quickly. Like a pair of love struck teenagers, she thought, withholding an eye roll, so he didn’t think she was rolling her eyes at him.

“Good morning,” he said at last.

“Good morning.” Where had her voice gone? It came out as a squeaking rasp.

Finally, the crowd broke through and they were stepping into the more spacious lobby area. Sunlight taunted her through the floor to ceiling windows lining the front walls. A few more steps and she would be free. She started to step away from him, toward the hallway that led to the back door, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Ellie. Jason. Hey.” Pastor Joe stepped between them and placed a hand lightly on each of their elbows like a teacher who’d caught two students misbehaving in the hallway. His voice was gentle, though not in the least bit scolding. “Glad to grab you two together.”

They caught each other’s gaze. They weren’t exactly together. They’d simply walked out at the same time.

“I was hoping I could talk a few minutes with you,” Joe continued. “In my office?”

He gestured down the opposite hallway that Ellie had been trying to escape down.

She looked up and Jason was looking at her, as if he was trying to decide how he should answer the pastor.

“Um. Yeah,” Jason said slowly, his gaze still locked with her’s. “Sure.”

Sure? No. It wasn’t supposed to be sure. Where was his usual excuse of “I’ve got work to do at the farm”? She could have really used that line from him today.

“Hey, Don.” Pastor Joe called to the assistant pastor, who was saying goodbye to parishioners. “Can you make sure we’re not interrupted?”

Don nodded and smiled as if he knew something Ellie and Jason didn’t.

Ellie’s eyebrows dipped down, and she frowned. Is this some kind of intervention?

Inside his office, Pastor Joe sat in a chair in front of his desk and gestured to two chairs across from him. “Sit down, guys.” He gently pushed the door closed. “I don’t like to sit behind my desk when I talk to people, if you’re wondering why I’m sitting here instead. I feel the desk puts up metaphorical walls between us and we don’t need walls up today.”

Ellie’s muscles tensed at his words. Walls? What walls? Had Pastor Joe heard about her conversation with Jason in the parking lot? The service has been in the middle of worship. Could the congregation have heard them between the songs? Maybe the walls weren’t as thick as they looked. If someone other than Molly had heard them, though, then why had Pastor Joe waited so long to talk to them about it?

“So.” The pastor clapped his hands together and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “This is an awkward conversation for me to initiate but, well, I care about you two and I’m just going to go for it.” He cleared his throat and sat back in the chair, propping his elbow on the arm. “Normally I don’t get involved in the private lives of my parishioners, unless they ask, but in this case, I hope you’ll take this as me simply being concerned about your well-being and not me being nosey. Frankly, I’m worried about you two.” He paused for effect and held each of their gazes for a few seconds. “Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m aware you two are not a couple at the moment and, well, I just want to be sure that this is what you both want.”

Ellie and Jason had both pulled their gazes from their pastor. Jason had found something very interesting on the front of his shirt and was picking at it. Ellie was examining the carpet like it was a science experiment that needed to be figured out. Ellie chewed lightly on her bottom lip and Jason rubbed two fingers against his chin, as if suddenly deep in thought.

After about thirty seconds of silence, Pastor Joe cleared his throat. “So, it is what you both want then.”

It was a statement, not a question.

Jason glanced at Ellie, then looked back at the desk. “It’s what she wants.”

She stiffened at his comment, and her jaw tightened. Oh really? She’d wanted him to keep his past from her?

“Okay.” Pastor Joe leaned back in his chair and looked at each of them. One at a time. “Is there a reason for that? I mean, would you two like to talk more about it sometime? Maybe during a type of counseling session?”

Ellie laughed softly. “What, like marriage counseling? We’re not even married.”

And probably never will be at this point.

Pastor Joe smiled. “I know, but you’ve been together so long it’s almost like you are.”

So long. Yes. Twelve long years. Maybe twelve long, waisted years.

“But we aren’t,” she said stiffly.

She felt rather than saw Jason roll his eyes. “Just keep rubbing that in why don’t you?”

She didn’t respond, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in the chair instead, now studying Pastor Joe’s collection of books.

Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Derek Prince, Billy Graham, and several theological texts.

All out of alphabetical order too. She should volunteer to organize it for him sometime. The disorganization was making her head spin.

Pastor Joe nodded. “Okay, so I’m guessing one of you wants me be married and the other doesn’t?”

Her muscles tightened at the question, waiting to hear what Jason would say.

He didn’t say anything for several minutes. Then, finally, he cleared his throat. “You could say that, I guess.” He was looking at the arm of the chair as he spoke. “I wanted to marry her but she —”

“He wasn’t even really going to propose.”

Had she just said that out loud? Apparently she had, and apparently, she wasn’t done. “I thought he proposed, but really he was going to tell me about something he did in college. Something he’d never told me about.”

Pastor Joe nodded, encouraging her to continue.

“Well, I mean —” She swallowed hard. Her mouth was dry. What had she been going to say? To their pastor? She certainly wasn’t going to say what Jason had done and why it bothered her.

“You mean what?”

Jason’s tone was as sharp as the look he was giving her.

Her heart rate had increased, her palms were damp. She clutched the sides of her skirt, hoping to calm her breathing. For a brief time Pastor Joe disappeared from her view, or at least she forgot he was there.

“You gave to her what you were supposed to give to me.” She blurted the accusation out before her brain had fully engaged. “‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.’ That’s what we were supposed to be on our wedding night but you became one flesh with another woman instead.”

She’d expected Jason to apologize again, to recognize she was trying to tell him how she really felt. She expected him to soften, to understand the vulnerability she was showing.

Instead, he snorted.

Literally snorted.

Like Old Bart before he charged.

His green eyes darkened.

“I know the verse, Ellie.” His tone was even and low, but she could hear the slight tremble in it, like a rope straining under a great weight, just about to break. “That’s what I wanted with you but then you dropped me in college.”

“I did not drop you in college. We agreed to take a break.”

“No. You wanted the break. I agreed because I thought it was what you wanted.”

“What I wanted? I thought it was what you wanted. You kept talking about hard long-distance relationships were. I thought you were saying you thought we should break things off while you were in college.”

“You thought? Why didn’t you just ask?”

“What, like you asked me? You didn’t ask either. You assumed. You assumed I didn’t want you and I guess that was the excuse you needed to go get what you’d probably always wanted to do anyhow.”

A muscle in Jason’s jaw jumped, like the pump of a shotgun being pulled back. “Excuse me? What’s that supposed to mean? What I always wanted to do?” There was the snort again. “Is that all you think I ever wanted from you? I mean, it’s how you acted part of the time over the years. Always apologizing when you told me we had to slow down like I was some sex-craved maniac who only wanted to ravage you. Then me, going home, feeling guilty because I wanted to ravage you, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There’s more to a relationship than sex, Ellie and I thought that was obvious by how I’ve respected your wishes all these years.”

Now it was her turn to snort. “My wishes? Weren’t they your wishes, too? You act like it wasn’t hard for me either.”

“Well, was it? I don’t know. You always acted like it wasn’t difficult for you. As far as I know you’ve never even wanted our relationship to progress beyond making out and holding hands.” He gripped the arms of the chair, his knuckles white. “You know what, that’s not true.” He leaned forward. “I know you did. Let’s stop pretending for our pastor’s sake. You never said it, but your body showed it more than once. Don’t sit here and lie. Why don’t you tell Pastor Joe the truth? That you aren’t the innocent little virgin everyone thinks you are. That you have sexual desires just like anyone else. You’re not some virtuous, pure of thought woman, sitting on a bed of lily-white. You wanted me as much as I wanted you or your hands wouldn’t have been —”

She stood quickly. “That’s enough Jason.”

“What’s enough?” Jason leaned forward, and she could feel the anger radiating off him. “Pulling back the curtain you hide behind? Calling you out for your hypocrisy? Who knows, El. Maybe I’m not the only one who has secrets. What happened between you and Brad while I was gone?”

Her mouth opened slightly and stayed there a few seconds before she closed it again.

“Nothing happened between me and Brad.”

“Really? Because he’s been sniffing around you like a bloodhound since he got back. Seems like he wants to rekindle a fire he started at some point. Maybe on those dates you two went on while I was in college.”

“You’re comparing three dates with your cousin to you sleeping with a girl in college while drunk and never telling me?”

Jason was standing now. He took a step closer, his eyes never leaving hers, practically boring holes straight through her.  “I screwed up. I told you that. I forgot who I was. I was drinking and made a huge mistake.” He pointed a finger at her chest, like he had that day in the parking lot. “Real life isn’t like one of your Christian romance novels, Elizabeth Lambert. Those novels where everyone is pure and perfect and never fall. In the real world, people go against everything they stood for and wanted in life to make all the pain stop and then they regret it.” Her gaze fell on a vein popping up on the side of his neck as his voice rose.” I messed up. I know that. I went against God’s word and my morals. I shattered my idea of what my first time would be like, and I get I shattered your perfect dream of that moment, but real life is messy.”

He stepped back, tossing his arms up and then down again. “And I’ve apologized. More than once. To God and to you. I will not spend my whole life apologizing for something I can’t go back and change.”

Pastor Joe stood and took a step forward until he was practically between them. “Okay, guys, listen. I can tell there are some real issues here. I have no problem talking through them with you now, but if you want to take a break, calm things down some, we can agree on a time to meet again and —”

Jason propped his hands at his waist, shook his head. “What’s the point? She’s never going to forgive me.”

Ellie huffed out a sigh. “It’s not just about forgiving, Jason. It’s also about forgetting. I have to forget that you weren’t open with me, that you felt like you couldn’t tell me about your past. I have to forget about you sleeping with this other woman. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. First, she had her own issues she hadn’t been open with him about and second  . . .

“And this is why I didn’t feel like I could tell you about my past. Because I didn’t know how you would react, if you would stop loving me, stop looking at me like I’m someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. My nightmare became a reality the moment you broke down when I told you, the moment you told me you needed a break. Be honest with me, Ellie. You don’t just want a break, you want to end this. You want to turn around and walk away and find the perfect man who fits your perfect idea of what a Christian man should be — pure and righteous and never makes a mistake.”

He took a step back, shaking his head again, jaw tight again, eyes flashing again. “Well, I can’t be that. I’m real. I’m not the figment of some novelist’s imagination. This is real life. Right here. With me loving you despite it all, with me wishing you could see that I’m not perfect, but all I’ve ever wanted is to spend my life loving you and our future children. If you can’t see past my imperfections, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

He turned quickly and ripped the door open, walking through it and maybe, Ellie realized with sickening dread, out of her life.

Pastor Joe placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

She nodded slowly, knowing she was lying, again, to her pastor. Emotions swirled in her like a tornado across the Kansas prairie. Hurt, desolation, and anger dominated, ready to alight on her soul and take it over. Humiliation was fighting for its rightful place, too. Her face flushed warm at the memory of Jason’s words. How he’d almost told Pastor Joe about the many times they’d pushed the envelope, set a foot over the line of temptation and almost been unable to turn back.

“I need to go.”

“Ellie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you two to talk. I had no idea things would get that heavy that fast.”

She waved away his guilt. “It’s not your fault. It’s been building up to that for months. Sadly, you were just here to witness the final explosion.”

He squeezed her shoulder gently. “If you need to talk, you know how to reach me. Call me anytime. Truly. And if you’d feel more comfortable talking to a woman, I know Emily would be more than willing to talk with you as well.”

She thanked him, suddenly numb. Out in the parking lot, she didn’t even feel the sun warm on her face or hear the birds chirping in the oak tree next to the church playground.

The next ten minutes were a blur. The dam she’d built over the last several months broke as she drove out of town. Her vision blurred behind a veil of tears. She barely noticed the buildings and cars rushing by her, the town fading into farmland and forests, green and brown rushing by her car window until she reached a pull off along a wooded area next to the river, five miles out of town.

She slid the car into park, shut it off and pressed her hands against her face, images of Jason’s angry face swirling in her mind as sobs shook her body. Rung out, beat down, drained of any strength, physical or mental. That’s how she felt.

How could he have said all of that in front of Pastor Joe? About the times they’d almost slept with each other? About the times they’d gone further than either of them had planned? About how she was a liar and a hypocrite?

She was glad she saw the dark side of him before she’d made the mistake of marrying him. Now she was sure that the Jason she had thought she had known all those years wasn’t the real Jason.

The real Jason was the shouting man in Pastor Joe’s office.

The real Jason kept secrets from her and humiliated her.

The real Jason wasn’t who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

Special Fiction Saturday: Harvesting Hope (The Father’s Sons) Chapter 15

For anyone who is new here, this is a continuing story. It is a semi-first draft that I edit more later through a few more drafts before it hits as a self-published ebook and paperback sometime in the future. Sometimes the chapters have been edited a couple or few times before they are published here, sometimes not, but they often have typos, continuity issues, and plot holes. Feel free to point them out in a kind manner in the comments.

If you’d like to catch up on the rest of the story, feel free to click HERE.

I posted Chapter 14 yesterday.

***

Chapter 15

It would be Ellie’s first time seeing the Tanner family in one place in six months. When Molly had invited her family, she’d almost declined. She felt incredibly guilty at the idea of ignoring Franny’s 73rd birthday simply because of the situation with Jason, though.

Franny meant too much to her.

She had been surprised when Judi had agreed to come as well. She was less surprised when it was apparent Judi had agreed to come simply to flirt with Brad.

“Whoa. Have you been working out Bradley Tanner?” Judi slid her arm along Brad’s T-shirt clad bicep and Ellie inwardly cringed. As usual, Judi was making an idiot out of herself. The sisters had barely spoken since the incident at their parents. Judi’s friend Melanie had picked her up after breakfast that day and she’d come back to the apartment after Ellie was asleep. Every night since then had been similar, with Judi being gone all day and sneaking into the apartment after Ellie was asleep.

Ellie had curtly informed Judi of Franny’s party before leaving for work and after pounding on the door of Judi’s room.  She should have known Judi had an alternative motive when a sly smile crossed her mouth and she asked who else would be there.

“Any single men?” she’d asked.

Ellie had closed the door without answering and left for work.

Now she was watching Judi laugh at Brad’s jokes and pretend to be deeply interested in every story he told. It made her sick to her stomach. Now she had three people to do her best to stay away from. Judi, Jason, and Brad. She accomplished her goal by volunteering in the kitchen, making the punch, and chatting with Annie, Molly, Hannah, Franny, and Jason’s younger cousins.

Talking to the Tanners should have been comforting, but somehow it made her heart ache in a way she couldn’t explain. There had been a time she couldn’t imagine ever feeling out of place around them. She’d always been like another member of the family, joining them for movie nights or outings, sitting with them at church. In many ways Molly had been like another sister to her, or actually a real sister. More of a sister than Judi had ever been. They’d shared secrets with each other, gave each other advice, and made each other laugh during their shifts at the Tanner’s store. There were a couple of secrets Ellie hadn’t shared with Molly, though. The ones involving Jason or her and Jason’s future.

And Molly hadn’t told Ellie when she became romantically involved with Alex, probably out of fear Ellie would tell Jason, even though he was going to find out eventually anyhow.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped back from the refreshment table where she’d been standing for ten minutes watching her parents, the Tanners and other members of the community laugh around tables set up under a white canopy. She took the opportunity while no one was close by to walk to the front of the house and lower herself into one of the chair’s Ned had made when he’d plan to spend his Golden years growing old with Franny.

It wasn’t cold out. In fact, it was rather warm, but Ellie still rubbed her hands along her bare arms, suddenly feeling a chill. Franny and Ned had only had a couple of years together, rocking on this porch, before Alzheimer’s had clouded his mind. She couldn’t imagine how heartbreaking it had been for Franny, who had looked forward to many years spending evenings together overlooking this view. Ellie’s gaze wandered across the cornfield, stalks pushing up out of the ground, higher than they were at this point last year. Beyond them was a lush open field, perfect for the Tanner’s cows to graze all summer. Beyond the field, several miles in the distance, were rows of hills stretching across the horizon that looked blue from a distance, but which Ellie knew were filled with a variety of native-Pennsylvanian trees, their leaves mainly a deep green.

She couldn’t see them from this distance, but mixed among the green were gray, bare limbs of the Ash trees, killed last year by the ash bore. Seeing hundreds of the Ash tree’s skeleton-like limbs rising up among the green, living trees, was deeply unsettling.

In some far-fetched metaphor the dead trees reminded her of her life, how all she had ever known was dead to her now. Unlike the trees, there was a chance her life could come back again, in a different form, yes, but hopefully full of hope again. The only question was how Jason would fit into her future life. Would they find themselves sitting in chairs like these one day, when they were old and gray, or would what they had once had only be a memory?

Her throat tightened with emotion as she remembered a cool late-September night next to that lone maple tree behind the cornfield; how Jason had kissed her for the first time under it.

“Amazing view, isn’t it?”

She glanced over at Brad, standing on the other side of the porch railing, holding a glass of punch toward her.

“Thought you might need a drink.”

She accepted the pink plastic cup as he stepped around the railing and up the two steps. “Thank you. It really is good punch.”

She smiled at the cup, knowing the color had been chosen because light pink was Franny’s favorite color. She called it “baby-girl” pink.

“Molly says you made it.”

Ellie smiled. “It was my grandmother’s recipe. I suggested it when I saw they already had all the ingredients. There’s nothing difficult about mixing ginger ale, orange sherbert and Hawaiian Punch and stirring.”

Brad laughed and sat in the other rocking chair, slumped down slightly and propped his foot on the railing. “Still it was a good idea.” He draped his arms over the arms of the chair, tipping his head toward her. “You okay?”

She moved her gaze back to the field, shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. Just tired.”

“Heard you’ve been helping your dad while he heals.”

She nodded.

“Working at the preschool afterward too.”

She nodded again, sipping the punch.

Brad leaned forward, propped his elbows on his knees. Sunlight caught golden flecks in his green irises. “You have any downtime at all?”

She shrugged. “Not really. No.”

She tried to ignore the way Brad was smiling, watching her intently. She focused on a bird perched on the mailbox. Was it a sparrow? Maybe a starling. She always had been awful at identifying birds.

Brad followed her gaze. His voice deepened, his tone challenging. “Maybe you should make time.”

A small smile tugged at her mouth as she looked at him. The way he looked at her with a smile of his own made her uncomfortable. She hoped he wasn’t going to suggest she make time with him.

“I invited Judi to come with me and some friends up to a new club in Ithaca tonight. You should come with us.”

“I have church in the morning.”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I do too. It’s not like we’re going to party until dawn. Come on. You could use some down time and if you’re worried about this being a date, you don’t have to. There’s going to be six other people meeting us up there.”

Ellie reached up to twist a strand of long hair around her finger like she’d always done when she was thinking but the long hair was gone. Her fingers found a shorter strand instead and she rubbed her fingers along it, avoiding Brad’s gaze, wishing she had excused herself before the conversation had gotten this far.

“I’ll think about it,” she said finally.

Brad nodded. “Okay then. I’ll take that.”

The front door squeaked open, and Jason stepped onto the porch, glancing at her before he looked at Brad. “Hey, your dad wants to know if we’ll cut up that wood from the weeping willow.”

Brad sighed. “I help cut it down and now he wants me to cut it up too? Yeah, I guess.”

“Alex and I can help,” Jason said. “Shouldn’t take us long.”

Brad stood, looked at Ellie and touched his first two fingers to his forehead like he was tipping an imaginary hat. “Please excuse me, m’dear, my father has summoned me to take part in manual labor.”

Ellie bowed in her chair mockingly and gestured toward the backyard. “Carry on, sir.”

When she turned her head to watch Brad walk away, her gaze met Jason’s. She wasn’t sure how to interpret his tight jaw and narrowed eyes.

“Have a nice conversation?”

She shrugged a shoulder, sipped the punch. “It was fine.”

She wondered how much of her conversation with Brad he had heard before he decided to make his presence known.

Standing, she smoothed her skirt with a flattened hand and forced a tense smile. “I think I’ll head back and chat with the ladies a little before I have to leave.”

He slid his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and took a step back to clear her path to the front steps, tipping his face toward the porch floor.

She stepped past him, her heart pounding, this time not at the attraction she felt for him, but at the tension she felt in the air.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope (formerly The Farmers’ Sons) Chapter 13

I almost didn’t post this chapter this week because it will probably be changed, maybe even gutted, before the final publication later this summer. I knew if I didn’t post today, though, I would lose my consecutive posting streak. Today makes eight days straight of posting. Amazing, right? No, it isn’t. I know. My life is sad. *wink*

Seriously, though, it is possible this chapter will change quite a bit before publication. If you would like to catch up and read the previous chapters I have posted here, you can click HERE.

For those who are new here, I post a chapter from a fiction story I am working on every Friday and somewhere down the road I publish the chapters as a full novel on Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and sometimes other digital services).

You can catch the first book in this series on Amazon.


Chapter 13

“Come on, Ells Bells.” Judi’s tone was mocking “You can’t be angry at me forever.”

Ellie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and her jaw tightened. Why did her sister have to be such an immature jerk all the time?

Judi pulled her hair into a ponytail. “I’m going with you to help Dad milk cows. At 4 a.m. This makes up for me not being at the hospital, right? You can lighten up now.”

And you can be quiet now, Judi.

She chose not to respond out loud, instead pushing her foot down on the accelerator to make the trip go faster. She was too tired to deal with Judi.

Fortunately, Judi popped her earbuds in for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, she sang along to her music loudly and off-key.

There wasn’t any time to talk to Judi once they arrived at the farm and Ellie was grateful for that. Their dad was already in the barn and Jason’s truck was in the driveway. She sent Judi to prepare the feed for the calves. That should keep her busy. And quiet even longer.

Jason had been coming every morning and afternoon since the accident, even though her dad had told him he and Patrick could handle it. As far as she understood from her dad, he was helping with the milking at their farm and then heading back to his farm to help Molly and Alex, putting in a full day on both Tanner’s farms and the farm store, and also going on some calls with the fire department.

Watching him lift a back of feed supplement, his biceps bulging like a body builder’s, she wondered when he found time to sleep. Uttering the words, “we need a break” had been easy on the surface but now, at the sight of his back muscles rippling his T-shirt, she couldn’t deny how hard it was to ignore the physical attraction she’d always had for him. That attraction wasn’t easily severed, no matter the status of their relationship. She turned away quickly, focusing on cleaning the udders of the cows. Her dad followed her, hooking up the milking machines.

She spent the rest of the morning doing her best to avoid Jason. When he brushed past her on his way to the back of the barn to retrieve the scraper for clearing out the stalls, she felt that familiar surge of butterflies in her stomach. Trying her best to ignore it, she kept working and didn’t look up. She couldn’t risk her attraction to him making her forget what he’d done.

A trip to the birthing stalls in the back of the barn should distract her until the milking and stall cleaning was done.

The tiny calf next to its’ mother was still wet in the first stall when she turned the corner.

“Well, hey there Sunflower. Looks like Dad was right. You dropped today, huh?”

She stepped into the stall and the cow rose from her laying position. A quick look at the space between its legs confirmed it was a heifer calf.

“Hey, there, little girl. Guess you’ll be staying with us. Hope you’re a good milker like your mama.”

When Ellie turned, she noticed a tremble in the mother’s legs. She touched the cow’s side, sliding her hand across her stomach and neck. The tremble was spreading. When she touched the cow’s ears and felt how cold they were, she knew the cow was in trouble.

 “Hey, girl. It’s okay. We’ll get you some help.”

She stepped out of the stall and called across to the other section of the barn. “Dad, do you still keep the CMPK in the back room?”

Tom leaned over a stall. “Yeah. Whose got milk fever?”

“Sunflower.”

She heard a quiet sigh. “I’ll be back to help.”

Jason’s voice came from somewhere behind her. “I got it, Tom.” She flinched and turned to see him walking toward her, rubbing dirt off his hands onto his jeans. She’d always wondered how he looked so amazing even covered in dirt and cow manure. Today was no different.

She didn’t really want his help, but this was a two-person job. As she ran the bottle of calcium under warm water, she thought about how hard it would have been for her dad to help her get the IV into the cow with his ribs wrapped up. While she would have preferred Jason wasn’t there, she was glad he was now that Sunflower needed treatment.

Jason was waiting with Sunflower, rubbing her neck, when Ellie came back with the bottle of calcium and mineral mixture.

“You want to hold her head or put the IV in?” he asked.

Bumping her hip against Sunflower’s rump to encourage her to enter the recovery stall, she handed Jason the bottle and tubing at the same time. “I’ve got her head.”

“Sure you can hold her?”

Her scowl was his answer.

He shrugged. “Okay then.”

Ellie climbed over the metal fencing, stroked Sunflower’s head for a few seconds. Then she threaded the rope attached to the cow’s harness through the fence slats, winding the rope around the top bar and pulling tight until Sunflower’s head was pulled up and to the side, exposing her neck.

“Got it?” Jason had already knelt down, the needle in his hand, ready to insert it.

She nodded and he tapped along the cow’s neck with a finger, searching for the main vein.

Sunflower jerked her head when he tried to put it in. The needle grazed her neck. Blood hit the floor and Jason’s shoes.

“She didn’t like that.” He grimaced. “Tighten that rope so she stays still.”

Ellie’s jaw tightened. “It is tight.”

“Not tight enough.” Jason’s voice was about as tight as her jaw. “She’s going to jerk that head back and I’m going to hit the wrong vein. If you can’t handle it then you can put the needle in, and I’ll hold her head.”

“I can handle it, Jason,” she snapped. “I’ve done it plenty times before, you know that.”

Jason held a hand up. “Okay. Sorry.” His words had softened, but his tone hadn’t. “Calm down. Let’s just get this taken care of. She’s looking more unsteady by the moment. I don’t want to risk her dropping down.”

Ellie jerked the rope against the top rail of the fence, pulling the cows head even higher. Reaching around she patted the cow’s head. She didn’t want to take her frustration with Jason out on the cow, who already wasn’t feeling well.

The needle punctured the neck and Jason straightened. “Got it.” He lifted the bottle and tubing up to let the liquid drip down. “She should be feeling better soon. Keep the rope tight.”

“Yes, sir, bossman,” Ellie hissed through clench teeth.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Nothing.”

Jason looked at her over the extended arm as he held the bottle. “I’m just trying to help here, El. I’m here for your dad, not you, so you can check the attitude.”

His words clipped out at her fast and tight. Not even her anger at him could distract her from the flecks of brown in his green irises. She  clenched her jaw again, her lips pressed in a thin line as she held the rope tight and turned her head away, keeping her eyes focused on the sun rising above the horizon.

Five minutes later the bottle was empty, and Jason slid the IV out. “Done.” He glared at Ellie, wrapping the IV hose around the empty bottle. “You’re free to go, my lady.”

She glared back but when he lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow, she saw the skin just above the edge of his jeans and an involuntary rush of delight coursed through her. Goosebumps slid across her skin and her heartrate increased.

When he walked past her, she smelled the musky scent of his aftershave and her stomach flip-flopped. Why couldn’t her brain remind the rest of her body she was angry at him?

 “Tom, if you don’t need anything else from me, I’m going to head out.”

Tom leaned back against the wall by the barn door, one arm wrapped around his middle. Ellie wondered when he’d last taken his painkillers.

“No problem, Jason. You’ve been a great help. The girls can finish up.”

Jason nodded, glancing at Ellie. “I’m sure they can. I can head over this afternoon for the milking if you like.”

Didn’t he have an entire farming enterprise to help run? Why did he keep volunteering to help her dad?

“I’ll be here,” she said. “We should be fine.”

Jason tipped his head and kept walking. “Alright then.” His tone was cold.

Ellie walked to the doorway and watched him pull away, emotions jockeying for position. In the end, sadness won over and clutched at her throat, squeezing tight. It’s not like she could blame Jason for being angry. Even she knew she wasn’t exactly being fair about all this. He’d apologized repeatedly, asked to sit down and talk to her, and when she’d repelled all his efforts, he’d given her space. Was it his fault that now she was interpreting his accommodating her as indifference to what he’d done and how it had affected her?

A high-pitched whistle sounded in the barn behind her. “Daaaang, El. You could have cut the tension in here with a knife.” Judi’s laugh grated on her nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. “The only question is if it was angry tension or,” Judi lowered her eyelids and voice seductively. “Sexual tension.”

Tom cleared his throat. “That’s enough, Judi. Did you finishing feeding the calves?”

Judi folded her arms across her chest and rolled her eyes. “Almost but I have eight more. Come on, El. Help your little sister out. Melanie’s taking me to a restaurant in Kirkwood for lunch and I need to hurry up and get this done so I can get a shower.”

Help her out? Sure, why not? It wasn’t like Ellie hadn’t already done most of the work anyhow while Judi complained about the feed not mixing and the mud oozing around her boots. Anyone who didn’t know Judi would have thought she hadn’t grown up on a farm.

“Fine.” Ellie stomped through the barn door and turned toward the calf enclosures. “Let’s add another thing to my list of chores since you’re morning has been full of such arduous effort.”

Judi made a face as she followed her sister. “There you go with the big words again. Making sure you let us all know you’re the smartest one in the room. Or should I say the barn.”

Ellie ignored her sister’s jab. She didn’t have the mental energy for it after her verbal sparing with Jason. Judi followed her, though, and wouldn’t let up. She was like a dog with a bone now, or like that vindictive swan who had followed Ellie around the pond, screeching and flapping its wings after Ellie accidentally disturbed it while it was nesting.

“Seriously, El. What’s with you and Jason anyhow? If looks could kill he’d be six feet under by now.”

Ellie picked up a feeding bottle and tuned Judi out. As if she was going to tell her sister what had actually happened, how she felt betrayed because Jason had given to someone else what Ellie had always wanted for herself — his first sexual experience. Even saying it to herself sounded ridiculous. What kind of never-ending mocking would she endure from Judi if she admitted it out loud?

 Judi didn’t subscribe to the same values Ellie did. She marched to the beat of her own drummer and though they’d never discussed it, Ellie guessed by comments Judi had made in the past that saving herself for marriage wasn’t on Judi’s list of priorities.

“Okay.” Judi tightened the band holding her ponytail in place. “Don’t tell me. If you want to be a childless spinster for the rest of your life, what do I care?”

Ellie’s stomach tightened, a wave of nausea overtaking her. Why couldn’t Judi leave well enough alone? Why did she have to bring children into it? She had a knack for finding Ellie’s vulnerable spot and thrusting comments at her like daggers, clearly thirsty for the fatal blow.

Ellie looked up from the calf she was feeding, eyes flashing. “What are you doing here, Judi?”

Judi smirked, picking up a bottle. “Whatever do you mean, dear sister? I’m feeding calves. Helping our father. Being responsible. Making you happy.”

Her snarky responses weren’t soothing Ellie’s already bristling attitude.

“No.” Ellie snapped the word out, looking over her shoulder. “Why are you here? Back in Spencer again? Shouldn’t you be in the city eating at fancy restaurants, club hopping, and pretending your life is better than everyone else’s?”

Judi averted her gaze but kept the smirk in place. “What? You don’t like having your baby sister here in person for you to look down on? Would you prefer I leave so you can have all the attention like normal and abhor me from a distance instead?”

The bottle made a loud sucking noise as Ellie yanked the nipple from the calf’s mouth, preparing to face Judi and offer her a retort. Milk dripped down the calf’s chin, though, and she bawled out a pathetic cry until Ellie popped the nipple back in.

“Yeah, like I’m the one always craving for attention.” Ellie kept her back to Judi. “I don’t know why I even bother talking to you. All you ever do is blame me for your inability to function as an actual adult. Grab that other bottle and start feeding the calves on the other side or we’ll never get done.”

Judi snatched up the other bottle and snorted a derisive laugh. “You know all about blaming, don’t you, El-bell? Like how you’re blaming Jason for your breakup when it’s probably something you did — like refusing to put out unless he proposed.”

Ellie dropped the bottle. The sting of the slap startled her as much as it did Judi.  Judi gasped in a sharp breath, her expression emanating shock for a split second before it morphed into amusement.

Ellie looked at her hand as if it was a part of someone else’s body. The mark on Judi’s cheek blazed bright red. The tears that streaked her face didn’t come from pain but laughter.

“Wow.” She looked proud of herself. She could barely speak between the laughter. “Pushed the right button that time, didn’t I? Looks like Elizabeth Alexandria isn’t so perfect after all.”

Ellie clenched her burning hand tight at her side and pivoted quickly, stomping back toward the house, heart pounding. Judi’s mocking laugh haunted her the entire way.

“Are you girls done?” her mom called from the kitchen. “I made you pancakes and bacon and those muffins you —”

Ellie slammed the bathroom door closed, drowning out her mother’s perky greeting. She slid down the door, and dropped her head in her hands, her body shaking with sobs.

Stupid Judi. Why had she let her get to her like that? She’d been trying to pick a fight with Ellie since she’d arrived two weeks ago, and she had just given her what she wanted.

Confrontation and fights thrilled Judi, made her feel alive, sent adrenaline rushing through her veins like a skydiver every time they opened the door of the plane and jumped into open air. Judi was addicted to drama the same way she was addicted to avoiding being an adult. Ellie had just given her the drug. There was no way it was going to satiate her, either. She’d be back for more, at Ellie’s expense, there was no doubt about that.

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmers Sons (Harvesting Hope) Chapter 12

For anyone who is new here, this is a continuing story. It is a semi-first draft that I edit more later through a few more drafts before it hits as a self-published ebook and paperback sometime in the future.

If you’d like to catch up on the rest of the story, feel free to click HERE.

I posted Chapter 11 yesterday for Fiction Friday. Today’s chapter is a little rough around the edges. It will get a serious working over before final publication.

If you like what you’ve read here, let me know in the comments. You can catch the first book in this series, The Farmer’s Daughter, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and get an excerpt here.

****


Chapter 12

“You be good to the land and the land will be good to you.”

Ned’s words echoed in Robert’s mind. Then he remembered with a laugh how Ned had added, “That’s what some farmers say anyhow. Sadly, I’ve learned that’s all a bunch of garbage.”

Ned had laughed and taken a long swig of his coffee. “The land doesn’t care about you one little bit, Robert. Remember that. It’s got a mind of its own and only cares about itself. It would sooner eat you up and spit you out than be good to you. So, remember this instead, when the world isn’t good to you, it doesn’t matter, because God always is, even when we think he isn’t.”

Robert certainly hadn’t felt like God was good when Ned had gotten sick and passed away so quickly. He eased himself down on the bench of the picnic table outside the barn. Reminding himself that God was good, “all the time” had become a daily practice even when he didn’t feel it. There were days he couldn’t see the good of God, but he knew He was working all things to His glory. One day Robert would see it all, the other side of the picture and what it looked like once complete.

He dragged the back of his hand across his forehead to wipe away the sweat. It was the first official week of spring. What was with the high temperatures? It was like they had skipped spring and jumped head long into summer.

Maybe he was simply perceiving the temperatures as high because he was so wiped out from lifting himself up and down while he tried to repair the mower. He missed being able to easily push himself up from the ground, without the pain in his leg and hips. The loss of simple mobility had been harder to accept than the loss of time while he’d been in the hospital. As much as he missed the ease of which he’d been able to move before, though, he missed his father even more.

Dust curled up around the truck barreled up the road and Robert leaned back on his elbow, considering making himself look useful but deciding he was too tired to care if the visitor thought was lazy or not. When the truck came closer, and he recognized it, he no longer cared about appearances. His nephew Brad knew about the accident and Robert’s struggle to recover, even though he’d been away at the time, spreading his wings, trying to decide if farming was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Brad parked his truck next to the barn and himself next to Robert on the bench. “Is it the leg?”

Robert shrugged. “Yeah. Not the best today.”

“Taking the painkillers?”

Robert scowled. “We’re Tanner men. We don’t need no painkillers, boy.”

Brad laughed, leaning back on his elbows on the top of the table. “Very true.” He stretched his legs out in front of him. The brim of his hat cast a shadow across his face, but Robert could still see Walt’s smile and green eyes reflected in the face of his nephew. “I’m headed out to Mansfield to pick up some supplies. Dad wanted me to ask if you need anything.”

Robert looked toward the backyard, his eyebrows furrowing. “Well, yeah, I could use a load of potting soil for Annie’s garden. She’s determined to grow strawberries this year.”

Brad scoffed. “Good luck with that. Either the weather or the deer will get them before she can ever harvest them.”

“Hey, Dad?”

Robert was being summoned. Probably for another menial task Jason was asking him to do so he didn’t feel useless.

When he saw Brad, Jason’s questioning expression faded into a more neutral one, tinged with annoyance. The change in demeanor wasn’t lost on Robert who looked between the two young men, confused by the tension in the air.

Brad flicked his hand up in a quick wave, still leaning back on the picnic table. “Hey, Jase.”

Jason nodded curtly at his cousin. “Brad.”

The two men looked at each other for a few seconds of awkward silence before Robert interrupted the stand off. “Whatchya need, Jason? I was just giving the leg a break.”

Jason pulled his gaze from Brad’s. “Um, yeah. It’s the feeder lever. It’s stuck again and I didn’t know where you put the new box of Shell we ordered.”

Brad twisted so he could see Jason. “Dad and I’ve been using Mystik JT-6 and it’s been working great. If you want to try some, I’ve got a can in the car.”

Jason stiffened, took a step back and turned toward the barn. “No. Shell’s is what we use.”

Brad shrugged a shoulder. “Whatever works.”

Robert cleared his throat pushed himself up from the table. “I think I stacked the box in the workroom. Let me see if I can find it.” After Jason was inside the barn he turned back toward Brad, leaning closer and lowering his voice. “What’s up with you two anyhow?”

Brad pulled his cap lower on his head. “Just a misunderstanding.” He sighed and stood. “I guess we’d better work it out before it gets out of hand.”

****

JASON TOOK THE container of grease from his dad and headed toward the feed room, doing his best to ignore Brad following closely behind.

It was hard to ignore Brad tapping on the inside wall of the feed room, though. “Knock, knock, cousin. We need to talk.”

Spreading the grease on, Jason tried his best to concentrate on his work and not on the man behind him, the man related by blood who had gone out with his ex-fiance while he was away at college.

“Do we?”

Brad leaned back against the wall of the barn, folding his arms across his chest. He was almost as tall as Jason, less muscular, but still built strong and lean like most of the Tanner men. Wearing a pair of faded jeans, brown work boots, and a white t-shirt, he was also wearing what most of the Tanner men wore. As far as Jason was concerned, physical appearances were where the similarities ended. Brad had taken a few years away from the farm to, as he said, “figure out if farming is what I really want to do.”

To Jason he’d shown he didn’t have the passion for the business that the rest of the family did. Jason hadn’t needed two years away from farming to know farming was in his blood and what he wanted to do.

Brad propped the bottom of his foot against the wall behind him. “Yeah, we do. You’re blowing this whole thing with Ellie completely out of proportion. I took her out on two dates, six or seven years ago. That’s it.” Brad shrugged a shoulder. “I wouldn’t even call them dates. We went to a movie once and lunch at Bettie’s Diner another time. We ended up talking more about you than anything else. She probably went out with me to be nice. That’s how she is. You know that.”

The lever still wouldn’t move. Jason scowled at it and walked past Brad to find a wrench.

Brad pushed himself off the wall, hands on his hips, watching Jason walk back into the room with the wrench.

“It’s true, Jason. Besides, why are you angry at me? It’s not like you and I were dating. Your relationship was with Ellie. She’s the one who didn’t tell you. You should be mad at her.”

The wrench wasn’t loosening anything. In fact, it was the wrong size for the bolt. In a burst of frustration Jason tossed the wrench against the wooden planked wall, denting the wood. The wrench flew back and struck the metal of the feeding pipe with an ear piercing clank.

“I know, Brad! I know! I am mad at her, okay?”

He dragged his hand through his hair and let out a low guttural growl. “I know we were in a relationship. I get it. She didn’t feel she could be open with me, I wasn’t open with her. It’s a mess. I know. Just —” He let out a breath, propped his hands at his waist and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be taking this out on you. You didn’t know she hadn’t told me. None of this is your fault. I’m just — It’s just — I screwed stuff up with Ellie and I’m on edge about anything to do with her.”

Brad’s eyebrows raised and he held his hands up, palms out. “Whoa! That’s more than I bargained for.” He laughed softly. “Seriously, Jase. I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened between you two, but I’m sure you and Ellie will work through it. She loves you and you love her, or you wouldn’t be so upset.”

Jason shook his head, retrieved the wrench from the ground behind a bag of feed mixture. “I don’t know if we’re going to work it out. She’s not very interested in that at this point.”

Brad laughed, slapping Jason on the back. “Well, then, there is plenty of fish in the sea, as they say. You’re a good looking guy. I mean, how couldn’t you be? You’re a Tanner. I’m sure you’ll find someone new.”

Jason looked up from the lever, scowling. “Really, Brad?”

Brad shrugged. “You know me. I’ve never been good at comforting people in their times of need.” He patted Jason’s shoulder. “Really, though. You and Ellie are going to make it. You’re the golden couple. Everyone wishes they could be like you two. Chin up, bud. It’s all going to work out.”

Jason kneeled back by the lever, working at the bolt again. He wanted to believe Brad but his faith that he and Ellie would be able to patch things up was fading the longer she wouldn’t talk to him.

***

HE’D LIED to Jason.

Brad knew it was wrong, but there was no way he was going to tell his 6’ 2” tall, overly muscular cousin how much he’d enjoyed going out seven years ago with the girl who was now the man’s ex-fiance.

He turned his truck onto the dirt road, headed toward home.

Sure, it was true that Ellie had spent most of her time talking about Jason on the three dates they’d gone on, but it didn’t stop Brad from noticing how beautiful and sweet she was and wishing she’d been talking about him instead.

Three dates.

Oh, that’s right. He told Jason it had only been two.

What Jason didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Apparently Ellie hadn’t told him the right number either. There must be a reason for that.

Jason didn’t need to know how many dates they’d actually gone out or the fact that his break-up with Ellie had been the icing on Brad’s welcome home cake.

He probably still didn’t have a chance with Ellie, but her view of Jason had changed for the worse. Maybe, if he could find time alone with her again, her view of him would change for the better.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 11

I have been trying to hit my self-imposed deadline of Monday to have the first draft of this book finished, but I don’t believe I am going to hit it so I’ve extended the deadline another two weeks. I may not need that extension, however, after kicking out 2500 words for a very exciting section later in the story yesterday. The section was so exciting and stressful for me, I had to take several breaks, during which my son made fun of me for being upset over the people in my head, because he thinks he’s funny. More on that another day. And know that he was just teasing.

For now the tentative release date for this book August 5, but it could very well be pushed to the end of August.

Let me know in the comments what you think of the story so far.

To read the other chapters from this story, click HERE.

———-

Chapter 10

“Two cracked ribs and a wound that luckily looked worse than it was. The horn scraped less than an inch below the surface and hit a small artery, which is why it bled so much.”

She’d given the update with her eyes focused on Alex instead of Jason and then she’d left to go back to her dad.

When she’d turned away, Jason had felt the familiar heaviness in his chest, the one that had been there since the day she’d told him she needed a break. A break from him. The heaviness stayed there on the drive home and Alex could see it.

“You okay?”

Jason shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. Worried about Tom. That’s all.”

“He’s going to be fine. You heard Ellie.”

Jason nodded, shifted the truck into a lower gear and jammed his foot on the accelerator, pulling into the left lane to pass another car. “Yeah. I heard her tell you he’d be fine.”

Alex cleared his throat. “You noticed that too, huh?”

“She probably blames me.” Jason lifted his foot off the accelerator and glided the truck back into the right lane. “Like she’s blaming me for everything else these days.”

“You don’t know that. She said she didn’t. She’s probably just tired, worried about her dad.” Alex shook his head, looking out the window. “Things are going to work out between you two. They have to. I can’t imagine one of you without the other.”

Jason let out a breath, trying to keep himself from driving too fast, knowing he only wanted to get back to the farm so he could throw himself into work and forget about it all.

“Thanks, Alex. I appreciate you trying to make me feel better.”

He appreciated it, but it wasn’t necessarily helping. All he’d really wanted to do in that hospital waiting room was pull Ellie against him, wrap his arms around her, and make sure she knew he’d be there for her no matter what. At this point, he needed to start accepting he might never be able to do that again.

“WHERE WERE YOU?” Ellie couldn’t hide the anger in her voice, standing across from her sister in her parent’s living room. She hissed the question out between clenched teeth, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

“I was at Melanie’s.” Judi shrugged and flopped across the couch, propping her foot on the arm of it. She waved her hand dismissively. “Chill out. Dad’s fine. They didn’t even keep him overnight.”

“We could have used your help getting him home, but as usual, you were unreachable.”

Judi made a face. “As usual? What’s that supposed to mean? And what’s so hard about getting him home? Put him in the car and drive him here. Big deal.”

“There was medicine to pick up at the pharmacy, there was helping him to his room and getting his pillows, there was —”

Judi sighed, loudly and flung her arms in the air. “Oh my gosh, Ellie. You handled it fine. Stop being so dramatic. You’re better at all that stuff anyhow.”

Ellie slammed her purse into a chair and propped her hands on her hips, glowering at her younger sister. “I’m better at that stuff because I’ve always had to do it since you were always off playing around.”

Judi stood and walked toward the kitchen. “You could have played around too, El, but you were always too busy trying to be the good little church girl and mom and dad’s favorite.”

Following her sister, Ellie tried to lower her voice, not sure how much their voices might carry up the stairs to her parents’ bedroom. “Someone had to help on this farm. Someone had to be responsible.”

Judi poured a glass of milk and reached for the chocolate syrup in the door of the fridge. She stood with her back to her sister, one leg cocked to the side, dirty blond hair swishing as she stirred the chocolate into the milk.

“Someone had to be responsible,” she said in a mocking tone as she stirred. “Someone has to be an adult. Someone has to be so uptight they could poop out diamonds.”

She turned, leaned back against the counter and smirked. “You know, this is probably why Jason and you aren’t together anymore. Who wants an uptight, bossy, closed off shrew as a girlfriend?”

The insult stung but Ellie wasn’t about to let Judi know. She tightened her jaw and clenched her fingers around the back of a kitchen chair. “I’m not the issue here, Judi. You are. You are the one who is never around when your family needs you and if it makes you feel better to insult me then go ahead, but it’s not going to change the fact that all you’ve ever cared about is yourself.”

Judi’s slurp let Ellie know that nothing she said was going to matter. Judi would never feel an ounce of guilt for her behavior.

Ellie turned abruptly, shaking her head as she headed up the stairs to see if her parents needed anything. Once they assured her they were fine, she told them she was going for a drive and would be back to help with dinner.

In the car, though, she didn’t know where to drive. She had nowhere to go. In the past when she was overwhelmed or ready to scream in frustration she went to Jason’s or at least the Tanners. Both of those options were out of the question this time and she didn’t know how to feel about that. She turned her steering wheel to the right, pressed her foot on the brake and pulled her car over to the side of the road, pressing her forehead against the steering wheel. She jerked the car into park and let the tears flow.

Stupid Judi anyhow. Why did she have to say that about Jason?

They weren’t together anymore because Jason hadn’t been open with her. It wasn’t because she was too uptight and closed off.

Right?

Maybe Jason had never told her about what had happened in college because she was all of those things. Was she such a horrible person he didn’t even feel he could be honest with her? Was she really such a perfectionist that he was afraid telling her about his mistakes would shatter her so-called perfect world? Yes, he probably was.

Tears soaked her face and she brushed them away quickly. She didn’t have time for crying. If Jason had felt she was too closed off and would be too uptight about what he’d done in college then it was a good thing they weren’t together anymore. Who knew what else he had decided was wrong with her over the years.

She took a deep breath, held it, and swallowed hard. When she let her breath out, she shook her head a little to try to shake off the negativity pressing around her. The setting sun cast a red-brown glow on the dirt of the road in front of the car. Her gaze drifted toward a small, cozy-looking farmhouse further down, across a newly planted field on the right. The farmhouse, white, with red shutters, was flanked by two maple trees. She couldn’t see it from where she was parked, but she knew there was a small chicken coup and a tire swing hooked to a tree limb behind it.

Franny Tanner’s. Jason’s grandmother and the Tanner family matriarch. The woman Ellie considered her third grandmother, the one living closest to her since one of her grandmothers now lived out of the area and the other had passed away when she was a child. She hadn’t seen Franny since she’d broke it off with Jason almost six months ago and it broke her heart. She hadn’t known how to explain it all to the woman who had had such a wonderful marriage of 55 years before Ned passed away almost two years ago. Their love had been something to strive for, to look up to, not just for Ellie and Jason but anyone who met them.

She still remembered holding Franny’s hand at the funeral. She was on one side of her, Molly on the other. Franny didn’t cry the entire funeral. The only time the tears came was when the casket was carried out. Jason, Robert, Walter, Brad, and Alex had all been pallbearers.

“There goes my heart,” Franny had whispered, standing next to the pew, grasping Ellie and Molly’s hands for support.

Even now the memory brought tears to Ellie’s eyes. Now her tears came not only for the woman who’d lost her soulmate and best friend but because Ellie had once imagined she’d have what Franny and Ned had.

With Jason. Now, she didn’t know if she’d ever  experience a love as true as Franny and Ned’s had been.

She dabbed a tissue to the corner of her eyes, soaked up the moisture, and crumpled the tissue into her hand. She couldn’t stay out here all night. It was getting late, and she’d offered to make her parents dinner. Yes, once again she had chosen to be the responsible one. All she wanted to do was go home and fall asleep reading a book but instead, as usual, she would be the adult while Judi was the childish one having all the fun.

Fiction Friday: The Farmers’ Sons Chapter 4

Welcome to Chapter 4 of The Farmers’ Sons.

As always this is a work in progress so this chapter will probably change in content and definitely with typos before a future publication as an ebook.

To catch up on the story click HERE.

***

Spencer was a small town, quieter than a city, but still nosier than a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Instead of drifting off to the sound of crickets and peepers, the squeal of tires, revving of diesel engines, laughter from people leaving the bar down the street, and the occasional whoop of a teenager pulling a late night wheelie for his friends bombarded Ellie’s ears. She’d purchased a white noise machine after a sleepless first week. The synthetic sound of running water had finally helped her drift off and stay asleep.

Tonight, though, she’d scrolled through all the sounds her machine offered and nothing was working.

Chirping birds, jungle sounds, a train bumping on the tracks, the whir of a fan, the hum of an air conditioner.

None of them could drown out her racing thoughts, her memories of the night Jason had not-actually proposed. She still couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid not to notice he’d never actually said the words. It had taken a conversation with Judi a week later to make her question if he really had intended to propose that night or not.

She’d been organizing her bookshelf in her room at the farm when the buzz of the cellphone startled her. As she remembered the call, she realized organizing her bookshelf was apparently a favorite pastime for her. She had shoved Pride and Prejudice back into the “A” section of the bookcase and checked the caller ID.

Oh, great. This should be fun.

“Hello, Judi.”

“Heya, sister of mine. Tell me you’re somewhere exciting doing something that would make me proud.”

Ellie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, kneeling back in front of the bookcase. “I’m in my room. Organizing books.”

Judi snorted. “Why am I not surprised? You’re so predictable, El.”

A car horn sounded in the background and a mix of car engines and voices filtered through the receiver.

Ellie slid another book onto the shelf. “On your way to work?”

“I’m at a café, actually. They have the best lattes and blueberry scones, and a beautiful veranda overlooking Central Avenue. So, what’s up with you. Anything new?”

Nothing I’m going to tell you about.

“Nope. I’m predictable. Like you said.”

Judi’s laughter grated on Ellie’s nerves. “Predictable, loyal, dedicated, and perfect. That’s my big sister. Still living with mom and dad, I suppose?”

Ellie bristled. “You know I am.”

Judi’s laugh was infuriating. Ellie pictured her wearing a pair of sunglasses, her honey brown hair spilling down her back, bright red lipstick, her head tipped back as she laughed.

“You’re such a trooper, Ellie. Helping mom and dad out and working two jobs. Always showing off. You know, you really should move up here with me. Expand your horizons. Kick the dust off that cruddy little town already.”

Ellie slammed a book into the bookcase. Tension grabbed at the back of her neck, spread down her shoulders. “Judi, you know I can’t.”

“Why?” There was a long slurp, and a muted snorting laugh, following by words dripping with sarcasm. “Oh, right . . . Jason.” Ellie could practically hear the eye-roll. “Your dud of a boyfriend who hasn’t even proposed to you after all these years.”

The tension clutched at Ellie’s jaw, slithered down her chest. “Actually—”

“Wait.” There was a clink on the other end of the line, probably Judi’s glass of peach iced tea on the surface of the table. She always drank peach tea with a twist of lemon. “Did he actually propose?”

Ellie immediately regretted even starting down this path. “Well, sort of —”

“Sort of? What do you mean, sort of? He either has or he hasn’t.”

Ellie closed her eyes against the onslaught of interrogation from her younger sister. She pressed her fingertips against her temple. “He did.”

Judi’s excitement was palpable. Her breath quickened. Ellie could picture her leaning forward, darkly lined eyeliner framing wide green eyes. “What did he say? How did he do it? Tell me everything.”

Ellie felt a pulsating rhythm under her fingertips. “Actually, I asked him if he was eve going to propose. He almost drove off the road and then he said he was going to talk to me about marriage that night, actually.”

Judi’s excitement had waned some. Her tone flattened. “Soooo… wait. You asked him first about it? That’s sort of weird. Like, did he actually say the words?”

“The words?”

“Uh. Yeah. The words.” Judi’s tone indicated she thought Ellie should understand her meaning. “You know, like, ‘will you marry me Elizabeth Alexandria Lambert and make me the happiest man in the world?’”

The thumping rhythm in Ellie’s temple had increased, pushing an ache through the rest of her head. “You’ve been watching way too many romantic movies, Jud.”

A long sigh huffed against her ear. “Well, did he at least say, ‘will you marry me?’ And give you a ring?”

The phone tightened in her hand, and her jaw ached from clenching it. “No. He didn’t say that, and he didn’t have the ring with him.”

Standing at the window across from her bed, Ellie had looked out at her dad driving a tractor into the field. Her mother had been hanging a sheet onto the clothesline between the maple trees in the side yard.

“But you said he said he was going to talk to you about it at dinner, so why wouldn’t he —”

“I don’t know.” Ellie was snapping now. “He just didn’t.”

More slurping and the click of well-manicured nails on a tabletop.

“Well, that’s not very romantic.” Ellie didn’t have to see Judi to know she was making a face.  “But at least you two are finally getting married. This has dragged out long enough. Do mom and dad know?”

Turning from the window, an anxious buzz hummed in her ears, and she marched to the laundry basket to quiet it. She cradled the phone against her shoulder and ear.

Blue top, tan khakis, blue and green striped socks. Red top, light blue denim capris, white socks with red hearts. White ruffled shirt, light blue pencil skirt, tan high heels.

“No. No one knows yet except us and now you. We want to keep it that way, so keep this between us. We’re going to announce it at the firemens banquet in August. After he gets the ring.”

  A series of giggles in the background made it sound like Judi was at a wild party. Her voice faded to muffled mumbling. “Miranda! Heya! Yeah! I’ll be right over, sweets. I’m talking to my sister.” Her voice was louder again. “Calm down, Els-Bells, I won’t tell anyone. I promise. But let me know when I can because I totally want to tell Melanie Fitzgerald – oops, I mean Stanton — I forgot she got married.”

Ellie folded another series of clothes into a coordinating outfit, sliding them in a drawer, scrunching her face in a questioning expression. “Why Melanie?”

“Because we were all friends in high school and she’d be so happy for you. Plus, she bet me $20 Jason would never propose that last time I was home.”

Ellie pulled the phone from her ear and scowled at it. Judi had been friends with Melanie, not her. She thought about reminding her sister is this fact, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Judi was still stuck in high school.

 “Okay, Judi, I’ve got to go.” She slammed the dresser drawer shut. “I’ve got a shift at the farm store in a half an hour.”

Judi’s voice was far away again. “A refill on the peach tea with a twist of lemon, the summer breeze salad with grilled chicken, avocado , cucumber, no tomatoes, and a light balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Right. That’s perfect.” The patronizing click of the tongue made Ellie wince and pull the phone back from her ear again. “Oooh, Ellie,” she cooed. “You’re such a good girl. Helping the Tanners, helping at the farm, teaching those little kiddies. You’re such a saint. So steadfast and dependable.” Judi sighed and if it had been anyone else, Ellie would have interpreted her tone as sentimental. “Anyhoo, have to go. The new guy from the men’s department is here. I’m going to see if he wants to join me and the girls for lunch. Talk later.”

The phone went dead.

Ellie sat on the bed, tossing the phone onto the bedside table. 

Steadfast and dependable.

She knew Judi really meant.

Boring and predictable.

Ellie had quit her part-time job at the Tanner’s store the week after she found about Jason and the girl at college, rented an apartment in town and marched down to Missy’s one Saturday morning and asked for this haircut. It had been a long time coming. The need to change and the changes themselves.

Rolling onto her back and staring at the ceiling in the darkness, she huffed out a sigh.

Changing her appearance and her location wouldn’t change how she’d had to rearrange her life plans again, though. During her senior year of high school, the list had read, valedictorian, graduation, Bachelors in Education, career, marriage, children.

When Jason had suggested the break in college, she’d added question marks to marriage and children. But when they’d started dating again five years ago, she’d been able to add marriage and children back.

Now, though, she’d scratched a thick dark line through the words in her journal. She didn’t know if she’d ever add them back.

***

“Hey, Jason.” Molly called to him from the back room of the store. “We’ve got an order here for Mr. and Mrs. Weatherly. Can you drop it off on your way by?”

He’d just delivered a few hundred pounds of locally produced beef and pork from the meat packing plant two hours away, still had stalls to shovel and a tractor to fix, but dropping a delivery off to two of the nicest people he knew wouldn’t be a problem.

“You bet.”

Molly smiled as he lifted the box. “You don’t mind because Mrs. Weatherly always gives you cookies when you stop.”

He was just glad she wasn’t looking at him the way she’d looked in the parking lot of the church a few weeks ago. He still hadn’t talked to her about it and didn’t know how.

“Cookies, a pie, a piece of cake. Whatever she’s baked that day. What can I say? She loves me.”

His sister rolled her eyes and laughed. “You keep taking those cookies and that stomach of yours is going to grow.”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll just work it all off at the gym the next morning.”

When he reached the Weatherly’s, Ann Weatherly was on the front porch with a smile, wearing a white apron with a border of red cherries running across the bottom.

“Jason Tanner, you’re a sweetheart.” She opened the door for him. “Put it right on the kitchen table there and then I’ll get you a piece of apple pie. I just took it out of the oven.”

He set the box down and held his hand up. “No, no, Mrs. Weatherly. I don’t need any pie. Really.”

She propped her hands on her hips. “I can tell you’ve been working hard already today, and I know you Tanner boys, you’ve got more work to do. I bet the pie would help you get through the rest of your day.”

Jason wasn’t great with ages, but he knew Ann had gone to school with his grandmother. Her husband, John, was probably about her age, maybe a little older. Saying ‘no’ to her would be like saying ‘no’ to one of his grandmother’s.

She gestured toward the table. “Go on and sit down. I’ll cut you a piece.”

Smiling, he shook his head at her persistence. His gaze drifted across the kitchen — the patterned plates displayed in a row on a shelf above the stove, the 1960s-era flowered wallpaper, cast-iron pans hanging on the wall below the cupboards — then wandered down the hallway leading to the dining room, photos hanging on the wall. He walked down the hallway, looking at photos of Ann and John with their children and grandchildren smiling laughing. Here was one of Ann and John on their wedding day. There was one with their daughters, Mary and Ellen and son Alfred. They were older than Jason, probably closer to his parents’ ages, living out of the area now.

Jason felt a twinge of emotion in his chest as his eyes roamed over the photos, an emotion he couldn’t pin down. It was a mix of loss, disappointment, and heartache at the thought he might never have a wall like this, full of photos of his own wife and children.

He ate the pie while listening to Mrs. Weatherly talk about her grandchildren, her plans for her garden, and John’s trip to town to pick up seeds for said garden.

Their conversation reminded him of conversations with his grandmothers. It also reminded him how lucky he was to have a job where he could take time to sit down and chat after delivering food that he and his family had helped grow.

Driving home later in the afternoon, Jason reflected on the conversation with his grandmother Franny a month before Ellie learned about his night with Lauren. Watching his normally outgoing grandmother withdrawal in the last year and a half, become a shell of her former self, had been hard, almost as hard as watching his grandfather fade behind the fog of Alzheimers. She had been avoiding many family gatherings and activities she used to enjoy, including church. Only in the last few months had he seen some of the melancholy fall away.

Franny had ushered him into the kitchen that day, sitting at the table as he unloaded the soup has mom had sent. “That’s very nice, hon’. You tell Annie thank you for me.” She smiled. “What happened? You draw the short straw to bring your cantankerous grandmother dinner?”

Jason laughed, bending down and kissing Franny’s cheek. “Now, grandma, you know I love coming to see you. We all do. Molly had an art class, Dad was working on that broken tractor, and I actually asked to bring it.”

Jason sat on the chair across from his grandmother and leaned back, stretching his legs out.

He decided to jump right into it, not pull any punches. “So, what’s going on with you, Grandma? You know you can talk to me.”

Franny avoided his eyes, stirring her spoon in the soup she’d dipped out. “I’m fine, Jason.”

“You’re anything but fine. Out with it. Is it your eyes?”

She shot him a glare. “You always were too observant for your own good, Jason. How did you know about my eyes?”

“I’ve noticed you bumping into tables when I’ve been here, squinting through your glasses. Plus, there was that whole driving into the back of the dump truck thing.”

She cleared her throat. “Well, yes, I am concerned about them. As for the dump truck — well, yes, I misjudged the distance between it and my car.”

“Misjudge or didn’t see it well?” She didn’t offer a verbal response. Her raised eyebrow and scowl were answer enough. “Do you think it could be macular degeneration?”

“I don’t know.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I’ve heard of that but I’m not really familiar with it.”

Jason hooked his hands behind his head, keeping the conversation casual. “Ellie’s grandma has it. Her eyesight is slowly deteriorating, but maybe yours isn’t that bad. We can go see Dr. Fisher. Maybe you just need a prescription.”

Franny lifted her finger. “Ah, now. Speaking of Ellie —”

“Grandma, we’re talking about you right now.”

“We’ll get back to that. Let’s talk about Ellie and you.” She slapped her hand on the table. “Why haven’t you proposed to that girl yet?”

“Grandma…”

“Jason, honey, she’s the girl for you. You believe that, right?

Jason laughed softly and cleared his throat, unfolding his arms from behind his head and shifting in the chair. “Yes, Grandma. I do.”

“Then what are you waiting for?”

Jason softly groaned and covered his face with his hands, leaning his head back. This conversation had definitely gone off the rails. “Grandma. . .”

“Don’t let her get away from you, Jason. Do you hear me?”

Jason looked at his grandma, his face flushed but a smile tugging at his mouth. “Yes, ma’am. I hear you, but right now we are talking about your eyesight. I can drive you to Dr. Fisher. Let’s find out what’s going on. It may not be as bad as you think, okay?”

Franny sipped from her glass of water, a small smile flicking across her lips. “Okay. I’ll make you a deal, Jason Andrew Tanner. I’ll let you take me to Dr. Fisher if you agree to propose to that lovely Ellie.” She reached her hand out toward her grandson. “Deal?”

Jason tipped his head back again and let out a deep laugh. He shook his head and chewed his lower lip for a moment, rubbing his chin as he looked at his grandmother’s hand. If he did this, it would mean no more avoiding talking to Ellie about his college mistakes.

His large hand enveloped her much smaller one. “Yeah, okay, grandma. Deal.”

A month later Franny had her cataracts removed, and he’d been ready to confess all to Ellie.

If only he hadn’t failed to hold up his side of the bargain.

Franny knew something had happened between him and Ellie, and he knew she wanted to ask, but so far, he’d been able to avoid her. A family lunch was planned at her house next weekend. He had a feeling she’d corner him before the day was out.

Fiction Friday: The Farmers’ Sons Chapter 2

For those who are new here, this is a story in progress. To catch up with previous chapters, click HERE.

Chapter 2

Even now, five months later, he struggled to remember what had happened.

The pain had been blinding, the fear of certain death all consuming. Darkness encroached across  his vision like a hungry specter. When he came to his face was soaked and when he looked up, a barrage of tiny pellets fell at him from the sky, slicing through the clouds.

Forever tethered to Robert’s recollections of that day would be the memories of Alex frantically calling his name; Jason’s eyes full of terror as he kneeled next to him.

Everything within him told him he was going to die. Each breath sent a thousand shards of agonizing pain ripping through his chest, but he had to make Jason understand how much he loved him.

“Jason. . .”

Jason shook his head. “Don’t talk, Dad. Rest.”

He’d gripped Jason’s hand as tight as his weakened state would allow him, urging him to listen.

“Jason. I love you.”

Jason’s eyes glistened. “I love you too, Dad.”

Standing at his bedroom window now, watching the sunrise paint purple and pink across the horizon, he closed his eyes against the memories. Letting out a deep breath he opened his eyes, leaned on the window frame, and looked out over the side yard, toward the barn, Jason’s truck already parked there. It took a team to keep Tanner Enterprises running. The business consisted of four separate farms growing a variety of produce and products to sell to suppliers and in the family’s farm store. Robert and his brother Walt had handled managing the farming side of it for the past four years since their father Ned had retired. After Ned passed away last year, only a couple of years after retirement, Jason had begun stepping into a leadership role even more.

In the months before the accident, after his father died, Robert had considered telling Walt it was time to let it all go, that he didn’t have it in him anymore. That feeling had been the strongest when the bank had called in the loan last spring. He’d known they didn’t, and wouldn’t, have the money to pay it off. Now, though, he was grateful for it all – even the tough days – and not only because Alex’s mom, the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, had helped pay off the loan that could have ended it all.

Even with the loan paid off the farm was struggling, but there were opportunities on the horizon that would help if they could get the permits and the funding.

“You’ve got that crease in your brow again.”

Annie’s arms wove through his, her hands stretching across his bare chest. Her kiss was warm against his skin, between his shoulder blades and the warmth of it slid throughout him, making him wish he didn’t have work to do in the barn.

“What’re you thinking about?” Her voice whispered concern.

“The accident. The future of the farm. Jason.” He lifted her hand, kissed the top of it. “The usual culprits.”

“The accident is in the past, we’re working on the future of the farm, and Jason —” She moved to his side, manuevered herself in front of him, sliding her arms around his waist. “He’s going to be okay. He and Ellie will work things out.”

A tractor started up outside. Jason had always had a strong work ethic, but Robert knew that wasn’t what was driving him now. “He’s trying to bury himself in work.”

Annie laid her cheek against her husband’s shoulder as he wound his fingers in her hair. “I know.”

“It’s not going to work. It didn’t when I tried it after Dad died.”

The growl of a truck engine cut into the quiet of the morning. Molly had pulled in, probably more anxious to see Alex than start milking the cows. Robert laughed softly. “I can’t believe she’s still driving that old truck.”

Annie leaned her head back and looked at him, cocking an eyebrow. “Well, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black, considering you’re still driving your dad’s old clunker.”

“Yeah, but Dad had that truck before he even had mine.” They laughed together.

She kissed him softly on the mouth. “She loves it. It’s the last reminder she has of him.”

“I know.” His lips grazed hers as he spoke and then he slid his hands behind her head, up into her hair. Her mouth under his was exactly what he needed to take his mind off it all. Jason, Molly and Alex could start the milking without him. He hadn’t been much help anyhow since the accident, a fact that irritated him beyond belief.

Laying in the hospital room, staring at his broken and bruised body day after day, he’d known it might be months, maybe even a year before he would be able to work normally on the farm again. What terrified him even more had been the thought that he wouldn’t be able to care for Annie the way he always had. The idea of her consumed with worry over him and the farm, knowing she’d take the burden of filling in the void he would leave on her shoulders, had tightened his chest more than once during his hospital stay.

He’d wanted to protect her from the hard moments of life since he’d first really paid attention to her that day at her father’s farm, watching her stack hay bales as easily as any man. He’d seen her before, of course. Their families had been neighbors their entire lives. They had been in the same class at school. Until that day, though, he’d never really noticed her. Not the way he noticed her that day.

 They’d both been 17 and she didn’t look like she needed protecting, but a deeply ingrained desire to do it anyhow had bubbled up in him, spilling over the day he’d softly kissed her in the hayloft of her father’s barn.

He knew he couldn’t always protect her.

He hadn’t been able to shield her from the pain when they’d lost their infant daughter between Jason and Molly, from the reoccurring fear of losing the farm, from the death of his father, who she’d always been close to, or from the aftermath of his accident.

 When he couldn’t protect her, though, he’d been there to walk beside her, hold her close, show her how much he needed her, as much as he needed the air in his lungs.

Her hands slid up his chest, across his shoulders, the kiss deepening, making him forget they were almost 51 now. A pounding on the door startled them both.

“Dad? You awake yet?”

Their lips parted and Robert groaned, pressing his forehead against hers. “It would be nice if we could experience at least a few days of empty nest syndrome.”

Annie buried her face against his shoulder and laughed.

He called over his shoulder, “Yes, Molly. I’m awake. What’s up?”

“The pump is broken again, and Jason says you’re the only one who knows how to fix it.”

Robert tipped his head back, focused on the crack stretching across the ceiling, reminding him he still hadn’t picked up the supples to tackle that project. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll be right there.”

“I hated to bother you but —”

“I know. We can’t milk the cows without it.”

Robert kissed Annie’s neck. “We’ll pick this up later.”

“I certainly hope so,” she said, reaching behind him for her robe.

He limped to the dresser to search for a shirt and jeans, hating that Annie had to see him this way, like a crippled old man.

“Isn’t Liz due soon?”

Annie tied her robe closed, much to his disappointment. “Two weeks.”

He pulled the shirt over his head, his eyebrow furrowing. “You think Molly is prepared for living in a tiny apartment with a crying newborn and a weepy new mother?”

Molly had left the farm a couple of months earlier and moved into an apartment in town with her friend Liz, who was facing an unplanned pregnancy.

Annie yawned and tossed her clothes over her shoulder, reaching for the doorknob.

“I doubt it, but she promised Liz she’d be there for her and I’m proud of her for standing by her friend.”

Robert laughed, sliding past her through the doorway. “I am too, but I wonder how many times we’ll find her curled up in the truck taking a nap.”

Outside the front door, a chill in the air greeted him and sent goosebumps up his arm. He paused on the top step of the back door, drawing a deep breath, his head tipped back. He smelled the hay in the barn, the perennials along the side of the house beginning to bloom, soil being warmed by the rising sun.

Looking out across the pasture his eyes fell on the sparkle of sunlight off the dew on the grass, then shifted toward the barn where he heard laughter from his children and Alex, the man who had become like another son to him.

If any good had come from the accident, it had been that it had shown him what really mattered in life. Even if they lost the farm, lost everything material, life would be worth living as long as he had his family. He was eternally grateful for it all – even the hardships that came with recovering and running a farm while he felt like half a man.

Soon, he’d be able to work even harder next to Jason to protect what generations of Tanners had built, attempt to shield it from economic downturns, changing markets, and fickle consumers.

He winced at each step down the stairs.

Soon, but not yet.

***

Alcott, Angelou, Austen, Barrie, Bronte, Blume . . .

Ellie’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 back in its place and stood up, stepping back to admire her handiwork.

All three 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 life.

While all other aspects of her life swirled around her in blistering chaos, this one place, her new apartment above Missy Fowler’s hair 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’d always soothed her soul – enacting control over her physical environment 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 like 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 to, in Ellie’s mind, stand apart from others, 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, like 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 a number of advantages, one being she was a five minute walk from Little Lambs Daycare, her main job now that she’d resigned from her second job the Tanner’s small country store.

Walking into the sunlight on Front Street she mentally contrasted the difference between living in town and on her family’s farm, beyond the closer distance to work. Living in town was busier, for one, but not as busy as a big city, which was nice. 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.

New shirt, freshly ironed. Check.

Hair neatly combed. Check.

And a new haircut to boot. 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 hair she’d grown down past her lower back since she’d been a teenager.

She still didn’t know what had come over her that day in Missy’s shop.

“Cut it off.”

Missy looked at her through her reflection in the mirror with raised eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

She needed a change, to step away from the life she’d always known. She was stuck in a rut, spinning her wheels. She’d already decided she needed a break from who she’d always 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 at Ellie with a doubtful expression. “Ellie, are you sure? Your hair has always been long.”

“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. 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, like 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 one.

She sighed again, hooking her hair behind her ears.

She wasn’t being fair 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.

 It was Ellie who was stuck on the fact that Judi had always been more carefree, while Ellie felt like she had been born a little old lady. A little old lady who made lists planning out her life, organized her books in alphabetical order, and who’s clothes were hung by style and color coordination in her closet.

She flipped her hair from behind her ears, deciding it looked better that way, cocked 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 and she’d been able to write, “marriage and children” back onto that list she’d written out in high school. A few weeks later she was scribbling the list out 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 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 held a laugh back. She didn’t want Timmy 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 Ellie marveled at the verbal capability of this particular 4-year-old as she took his hand and led him into the classroom.

“Timmy, there you are.”

Ellie’s 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 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 rolled her eyes. “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 . . .”

The kids.

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 have to worry about that conversation anymore. She hadn’t actually spoke to Molly more than to 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. 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 loved 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 on her way to the center of the room.

“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.”

“Yeah!” All their little voices blended together.

“Okay, well, this story starts — ”

“Miss Ellie?”

A sigh. “Yes, Timmy?”

“How come you aren’t married?”

A catch 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, Timmy, okay?”

Ellie shot Lucy a grateful smile. She really hadn’t been sure what was going to come out of her mouth. She looked at Timmy and winked.

“I’m sure Timmy understands it’s time to use our ears for listening and not our mouth for talking now. Right, Timmy?”

Timmy 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 be able to even 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 the creamy smoothness of her coconut cream Greek yogurt 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.”

Ellie sipped her lemon water and laughed. “Trudy didn’t abandon us. She got married. It wasn’t her fault Brett got transferred to Detroit.”

Lucy rolled her eyes, popping the last bite of her carrot in her mouth. “It was more like 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.”

Ellie poured the crumbs into the waste basket behind her desk. “Jason and I had it out this weekend.”

Lucy winced. “Oh.”

“In the church parking lot.”

Lucy’s eyes widened and her eyebrows darted up. “Oh wow. Like in front of everyone?”

Ellie shook her head. “Church had already started.”

Lemons swirled in her water, bumping against heart shaped ice cubes. She drank lemon water every day. How predictable. Like most of her life, except her love life, of course.

“Wow.”

“You already said ‘wow’, Lucy.”

“But — wow. Outside of church. So, what did he say?”

Wasn’t it time for recess? It must be time for recess. 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 was enraptured, her chin propped on her folded hands as if watching the climax of a horror film. In a way, she was.

“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.”

I definitely did. Just admit it.

“I told him we needed I break. That I needed a break to make some decisions.”

“And have you? Made some decisions?”

She shook her head, sipped from the water bottle.

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 maroon lunch bag, shoving the water bottle inside. “I was pretty certain you had heard more than enough of my drama to last you a life time. Plus, I needed time to think, to figure out how I feel about all of this, 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. “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? Really? She didn’t even know how to answer that. 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, again, not to laugh.