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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 . . .”
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 — ”
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.
“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.