Fiction Friday: Some thoughts about when I know a story is starting to click

The best part of writing a fiction story is when the characters start to come to life in my mind. When that happens, I start to daydream about them— including their interactions, personalities, and conversations they might have with other characters. The magic really happens later on the page as I start to write it all down and the character starts to tell me their story from their point of view.

The daydreaming phase has started with Mercy’s Shore, book four in the Spencer Valley series, when I thought it might never come. This week I started to get to know Ben Oliver, the main character, better Now that we are getting a feel for each other, I’ll be able to tell his story.

It will take me a few more chapters before I really know Ben, obviously, but he’s starting to give me a peek at who he is, which he also did when I started to write a character biography for him a month or so ago.

Only through his actions, conversations, and interactions with those around him will I really find out who he is, though, and that will require me to just write.

As I write scenes begin to piece themselves together, other characters begin to show themselves, and conversations evolve from one piece of dialogue to the next as I imagine what one person would say and what the logical, or more interestingly, the more illogical response will be.

Before I know it, I’ll have Ben’s full story down on the page.

Now I just have to get to know Judi even better than I did in Harvesting Hope and add her story to the mix. Or maybe I’ll just stick with Ben telling the story. I plan to make that decision this weekend, but I have a feeling that Judi is the kind of person who isn’t going to let someone else tell her story. Not again that is. Ellie told it for the most part in Harvesting Hope. Now it’s Judi’s turn to speak out.

Now a little update for my blog readers on future plans for the Spencer Valley Chronicles:

As it stands now, I have (possible) plans for at least one more full-length novel and three novellas.

One novella will focus on the story of Molly’s grandparents Ned and Franny Tanner and will be historical in nature as we go back to when they first met.

Another novella will focus on the origin story of Robert and Annie, Molly’s parents.

A third novella will focus on Ginny and Stan Jefferies’ (you will learn more about them in Beauty From Ashes if you didn’t read the chapters on here) daughter Olivia and . . .well, you’ll have to wait to find out.

The full-length novel will feature Alex from The Farmer’s Daughter as the main character as he works through issues with his father, who, if you remember from The Farmer’s Daughter (spoiler if you have not read that) had been diagnosed with cancer.

I won’t give a time frame for when all these books and novellas will come out since I do have a couple of stand-alone books I am interested in writing in between.

I had considered writing a book about Spencer’s newspaper editor, Liam Finley, and I may still do that but I don’t know if I will include that book as part of the Spencer Valley Chronicles, or make it a separate, stand-alone novel. That story is starting to capture my attention more and more, probably because of my own background in newspapers and my current connection to them as well.

If you’ve been following along with these stories, what storyline most intrigues you? And are there stories of other characters you would like to see expanded on as well?

Fiction Friday: Why I’ve been struggling to write fiction lately

Several times in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started a blog post about why I have been struggling to write fiction recently.

Each time I’ve started the post, I’ve stopped because no matter how write out my feelings, it comes out accusatory and whiny, with me alternating between defense and offense.

I know it’s not wise to try to explain something while a hurt is still raw, but my blog readers have been with me through many ups and downs, in my writing and in my personal life, so I feel like I need to share a little with all of you about what has been weighing me down lately. If it comes out as over dramatic to you readers, I totally understand.

A few weeks ago, I somehow got tossed into a situation where a last minute topic was needed for a writing group I was in. Long story short, my writing was tossed up in front of a bunch of people and critiqued as a “learning moment” for other writers.

This type of critique was something I had been avoiding for a while now, but especially recently because of the health issues and personal issues I’ve been going through. The author who conducts the critiques is very good at what she does but she’s also pretty hard on writers and I wasn’t in a good place emotionally for that.

I had explained that to one of the leaders of the group (a very sweet woman with stresses of her own) that I could not currently handle one of her critiques. I can only guess this leader was not fully listening when I expressed the desire to not be critiqued since, much to my horror, my work appeared on the screen during the weekly meeting/presentation. This weekly presentation is held with somewhere around fifty other women in attendance. Lines and red marks were scratched through most of the chapter being shared, with several comments off to the side listing of all my writing sins.

I didn’t ask for this critique. What I had actually suggested for the session was for the author to answer advice on how to handle what critiques on our writing. I had recently received what I felt was a critique, but it was sent privately so that made it easier to digest.

I wanted to know how to choose what to keep and what to dismiss from a critique, especially when it comes from someone who is not a professional author. I thought that my situation would be used to teach others how to handle a critique, not that my work would be critiqued again in a much more public setting. Even though the critique was anonymous, I knew many of the women watching knew the work was mine because I had mentioned my difficulty in processing part of the original critique.

I ended up turning off the second critique before it really got underway after it was launched by several minutes of mocking comments about my choice of metaphors. I did not feel these comments were constructive. Instead they seemed to be setting up what I gathered would be several more minutes of unhelpful comments. The unhelpful remarks continued until I felt like I was openly being mocked by the two women, one with 20 years of experience and another with a few.  I knew I was in a poor place emotionally to handle any more mocking.

I turned off the session and tried instead to mentally prepare myself for a doctor’s appointment I had the next day that I hoped would help me with some of my longstanding health issues.

It’s one thing to know that your work is cliché and rather silly but it is entirely different to be told that in front of a group of fellow writers on a live feed while two women cackle and laugh at the absurdity of your writing, while not actually calling it absurd. (Clarification here: it felt like cackling and laughing at me but I’m sure they don’t feel that’s what they were doing. They most likely thought they were being lighthearted and trying to make light of a situation because they were preparing to eviscerate my writing for “educational purposes”.) I had watched this happened the month before to another writer and knew I didn’t want it to happen to me. It was extremely disheartening to see her on a video chat a week later looking completely downtrodden about her writing and like the joy of writing had been completely sucked out of her.

 I was told later that I shouldn’t feel bad about my writing flaws because MANY writers do the same thing I did. I felt like I was being told that not only was I an idiot, but I was an idiot among many other idiots.

“You are cliché and silly but so are many authors,” is how I read a “somewhat apology” sent by one of the women in the group after I canceled my subscription. I say somewhat because the apology was more along the lines of “sorry if the critique of your work displeased you.” Yes, the word displeased was actually used. To be honest, it was not the critique that “displeased” me. I never had the chance to hear the critique. It was the fact I was critiqued when I never asked for the critique and that the so-called critique seemed more mocking than instructional.

I received the replay of it all a few days later, hoping to watch it again and see if I had over reacted. I was sure I had because many people have told me over the years that my feelings are wrong, my reactions are wrong, I’m too sensitive, too easily offended, too…whatever I am too much of that day. And sometimes they are right.

Unfortunately, the replay had been edited to remove the critique, as if it had never happened. I would hope that this was out of kindness, knowing I was upset, but I would instead guess it was for self-protection to make sure this author and her writing business didn’t look bad. I really hope my second theory is wrong because I do believe these women truly believe they are writing and serving in the name of Christ.

I would not disparage these women or the writing group based on this situation. Even if they were careless with their words, the program is a good one, offered at an amazing price and it is filled with wonderful Christian women who truly mean well and support each other. This is why I am not naming the group here. I would recommend the group to other writers with one caveat — make sure you communicate better than I did and if you ask for a critique be prepared to be absolutely shredded. That’s okay. The shredding can help you improve after your wounds heal.

In the end, the proof I needed to show myself that I had been overly sensitive was gone. So, there I sat in a weird kind of limbo of wanting to be wrong (because, hey, maybe I really was way too sensitive this time. I can totally own up to that and even now I feel I probably was.) but really not sure since I had no way to confirm what I had actually heard and what else was said after I logged out of the meeting.

Needless to say, all of this has taken a mental toll on me in relation to my fiction writing and why that may not be positive, what has been a positive is that it has brought me back to the path God originally set me on.

Even though the writing group was wonderful in many ways, part of me wonders if by joining it, I overstepped God’s desire for what role writing would fill in my life.

“I never told you to do this,” is the sentence kept popping up in my head when I first joined the group.

I promptly ignored it every time.

After the forth of fifth time this sentence popped into my head, I decided that maybe God was trying to get a message across to me. If he was, what was his message? He never told me to do what? Try to improve my writing? Try to make what I enjoy also something I could make money from – even if it was only a little?

It isn’t that I think God doesn’t want us to improve and get better at what we enjoy doing. What I do think is that for me, God was, and is, saying he never told me to push this writing journey to the point where I hate it as much as I ended up hating photography years ago.

I’ve said before that when it comes to writing I hold on to the words “just have fun.” It’s what drove my writing when I first started sharing it on the blog. I wanted to have fun sharing and connecting with my blog readers, focusing on something other than my medical issues or my loneliness. It served that purpose but then I began to believe that it needed to be something more if it was going to take up so much of my time. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be better at the activity you enjoy but God didn’t ask me to ruin my love of writing while trying to improve.

A lot of Christian authors would say they feel God has called them to write fiction because has called them to change and grow his kingdom with their writing. This may be true — for them.

However, I don’t  feel that way about my writing, or at least my fiction. For me writing fiction is about having fun and entertaining a little. Do I want to share messages of hope, redemption and forgiveness in my fiction? Yes. Do I feel like maybe God wants me to do that? I think so, but I also have never looked at my fiction as some grand ordination from God that makes me something special and my writing a gift to humanity. My writing is fun, silly, probably cliché and childish and that’s fine with me.

I think a lot of Christian fiction authors feel their stories and books are going to change the world and maybe they will. I have never felt that way about my writing, though. Could my writing change a few hearts and minds here and there? Yes, I hope so, but like I told a friend this week, part of me feels like God didn’t give me the passion for writing so I can change the world. He gave it to me to help change me first and foremost.

I need to change in many ways, I am the first to admit that. I need to change my attitude and my tendency to be offended, and the way I feel hurt so easily. I don’t think that’s all that needs to be changed in me, though. The change I believe God has wanted me to make is in how I think about life.

 He doesn’t want me to see life as something where rules are followed and others are appeased at the sacrifice of my own mental well being.  He doesn’t want me to see it as a place where I don’t fit in and I am never good enough. He wants me to see the world as somewhere where we all have our place, even if it isn’t at the front of the crowd or the same place as others. God wants me, and you, to know that he placed us where he placed us for a reason and sometimes that reason may not be as somber or as serious as we think.

Sometimes God places us where he placed us because he simply wants us to have fun, to have joy, to look beyond the challenges and realize that not everything has to be perfect or polished.

Sometimes life and what we do in it simply needs to be fun.

All this being said, I hate that this post sounds like I don’t welcome critiques of my work, especially when I ask for it. I wholeheartedly appreciate the written critique I was given. I was merely trying to process it and how it should lead to changes in my work when the second, more public critique, slammed into me. I will definitely be asking for critiques of my work again in the future and I am open to them, even if they are harsh. Harsh can help me improve. I simply don’t know if I think public harsh criticisms are all that helpful to writers who aren’t career-driven but are instead fun-driven when it comes to their fiction.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 23

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

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

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

Chapter 23

Jason snatched up the scraper and walked toward the stalls, knowing without looking in a mirror his face was showcasing the happiness he felt inside. As soon as this job was finished, he was heading to town to see Ellie. His muscles tensed in anticipation at the thought of seeing her, holding her, kissing her. The fact she’d almost let him kiss her, despite everything, gave him a sense of hope he hadn’t had in months, and certainly hadn’t had at all earlier this week.

“Walt’s got the part we need for the skid steer.” His dad’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. “Can you head up and grab it when you’re done here?”

He smiled, not really thinking about the part at all. “Yeah. No problem.”

“Just be careful. Walt says the fire department is stopping cars at the bottom of the hill down from his place.”

“Okay.”

Robert narrowed his eyes. “You okay, kid? You’re acting a little off. You seem a little — well, distracted.”

Jason propped the scraper against the wall and laughed. “Yeah. I’m okay. Really okay. I’m more than okay.”

Robert raised an eyebrow. “You drunk?”

Jason shook his head, catching the sparkle in his dad’s eye. “Only in love.”

“With Ellie still, I hope.”

“Absolutely.”

Robert smiled as he walked toward the back of the barn. “Then carry on.”

A half an hour later Jason stretched his arms over his head and listened to the bones along his spine crack. He climbed in the truck, thinking about the night before, wishing he hadn’t had to deal with Brad. After he picked up the part for the skid steer, he was flooring it to the preschool and waiting for Ellie in the parking lot. He wasn’t about to let her out of his sight again.

He tapped her name on his phone before pulling out onto the road.

“Hey, this is Ellie. Leave me a message and I’ll be get back in touch with you as soon as I can.”

He smiled. Even her voicemail was sweet.

“Hey, El. It’s Jason. Thought maybe you’d like to grab lunch at Bonnie’s today? I’m heading to Walt’s for a part for the skid steer, have a couple more things to do at the farm, and then I can pick you up outside the school. I’ll try again in a bit and see what you think.”

He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. Everything looked brighter today. The sun on the grass, its light filtering through the trees, leaving misshapen patterns on the road in front of him, the wild summer flowers blooming. The sky wasn’t totally blue, a few dark clouds were threatening rain, but even the clouds didn’t bring him down. His heart still ached over the loss of John but today his grief was buffered by hope. Hope for reconciliation with the woman he’d wanted to marry since he was 18-years old.

Blue and red lights blinked in front of him, and he pressed the brake, stopping when junior firefighter Nate Baker waved a white flag at him. Fire trucks, the vehicles of volunteer fire fighters, and an ambulance were parked in a line along the road.

He leaned his head toward his open window as Nate stepped toward him. “Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

Nate, 16-years old, jerked his head toward broken trees at the edge of the embankment. “Car over the bank. They’re down there checking it out now.”

“Any injuries?”

Nate shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t know yet. They just told me to slow the traffic down.”

Jason studied the broken trees and rubbed his chin, rough from stubble. He’d been too distracted with thoughts of Ellie to shave this morning. “I’ll see if they need any help.” He reached out the window and pounded Nate on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, bud.”

Shifting the truck into park he watched Cody walk through the broken trees toward the road. The fire chief looked up as Jason exited his truck, the expression on his face when he caught sight of Jason indecipherable. Jason narrowed his eyes, trying to read the chief’s expression. Was the accident fatal?

Cody met him at the top of the embankment, immediately placing his hands on Jason’s shoulders. “Jason, hey, what are you doing here?” He was breathless, sweat beading his brow.

“I was on my way to pick up something from my uncles and saw you guys here.” Jason craned his neck, looking over Cody’s shoulder. “Do you need help?”

Cody squeezed his shoulders, shaking his head and pushing gently until Jason was forced to take a couple steps back. “No. We’re good. We’ll call you if you we need you.”

Jason cocked an eyebrow. “What’s going on with you? You’re acting weird. Did I do something to upset you? Did you find out something about the fire?

Cody swung an arm around his shoulder and started walking, pulling Jason with him. “I’d tell  you if I was upset with you. No worries there. And nothing about the fire. It’s just that we’ve just got this covered.”

Jason looked over Cody’s shoulder as they walked, looking through the leaves and tree limbs. He caught sight of the blue bumper of a car at the bottom of the embankment and stopped walking, pulling from Cody’s grip. “Whose car is that?”

“Jason, you need to go home, okay?”

Why had he even asked whose car it was? He knew whose car it was.

“Jason!”

He ran full force toward the wooded area and was met by Denny and Kyle Barton on their way up the hill.

Denny’s eyes met his, his mood somber. “Jason, you need to stay up there.”

Jason shook his head, kept walking. “That’s Ellie’s car.”

The two men put up their hands to block him. “Jason, stay here until we —”

Jason was practically shouting now. “Where’s Ellie?” The men had their hands on him now, trying to hold him back. “Where is she?”

He pushed back against them, panic clutching at his throat until he could barely breathe. He broke past the men, pushing them aside, barreling through the underbrush and trees, briars cutting into his skin as he ran. He stopped running when he hit the clearing, stopped, breathing hard, and looked down at the creek bed.

Ellie’s car was on its roof, upside down in the water. Other volunteer fire fighters were making their way to it, pushing brush aside to get there, but it didn’t look like any of them had reached it yet. Behind him branches and twigs broke under the weight of the men who’d tried to keep him back.

“We haven’t gotten down there yet, Jason.” Cody shouted from behind him. “We were on our way down when Jay radioed that you’d pulled in. Stay here until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Jason shook his head. “No. I have to —”

Denny clutched a hand around his forearm. “Listen, Jason. If she’s in there, you don’t want to remember her this way. Okay?”

Jason yanked his arm free, walking forward. “If she’s in there, I need to get her out. No matter what —” His voice broke and he drew in a ragged breath. He shook his head, leaning forward on his knees, the scene before him blurring. His chest ached, tightened like a vice against his lungs.

Dragging the back of his hand across his face he straightened and started making his way over the boulders along the creek bank. Another firefighter, Will Barton, Kyle’s father, was standing behind the car and put his hand up to stop him, but Cody’s voice echoed among the trees.

“Let him go, Will.”

Will shook his head. “Not alone, I won’t.”

He placed a hand on Jason’s back, following him deeper into the water.

Water Jason’s shoes and jeans, but he didn’t even notice. He was vaguely aware of Cody and Denny and the other men navigating their way down the bank and boulders to join him. Otherwise, he was entirely focused on the smashed driver’s side window submerged part way in the water.

“Oh God,” he whispered. “God, help me bring my Ellie home to her family.”

The only way to see what was inside was to lean over. From where he was now, the water now thigh deep, he could only make out what looked like a sweater moving in the water, hanging through the window. He lowered himself, water rushing up over his lower body, trying to brace himself for whatever awaited, but knowing nothing could prepare him if Ellie was in there dead.

A sob choked out as he looked inside the window, at water ripping over the steering wheel and Ellie’s purse floating in the water below the passenger seat. His gaze moved from the front to the back of the car, and he straightened, shaking his head and pressing the heel of his palms against his closed eyes.

“Jason, I’m coming.” Denny shouted to him as he made his way over the rocks and through the water. “Don’t try to get her out until I get there.”

Jason sobbed again, trying to shake himself awake from the nightmare. This couldn’t be happening.

“She’s not here.”

Denny balanced himself on the side of the car. “What? What do you mean?”

Jason opened his eyes and looked at Denny, breathing hard. “She’s not here. The car’s empty.”

Short Fiction: Better Than Whiskey

The alcohol had dulled his senses, but he still take in how good she looked in that low-cut tank top. Looking down the length of the bar, it was clear a few other men had noticed too.

She held the bottle, tipping it toward the glass. “Another one, Luke?”

He slapped his hand over the mouth of the glass, looking up at her through glassy eyes. “Something different this time.”

 “Like what?”

 “Don’t know.” He shrugged. “Let me think about it.”

The shirt plunged lower when she leaned forward, elbows on the bar, as she waited for his decision.

Her finger under his chin lifted his eyes back to hers. “Up here, buddy.”

He grinned. “Got any whiskey? That stuff from Tennessee I like?”

She snatched up the bottle from the collection behind her, poured, watching the glass, then him, then the glass again.

“That’s enough.”

He winced as it hit his tongue. It burned all the way down, making him cough hard.

By the time he could speak again, she was pouring a drink for the next guy. When she didn’t look his way again after she was done, he brushed a hand against hers.

“You look good tonight, Lily.”

She kept her eye on the drink she was pouring. “You look drunk tonight.”

He grinned. “And good, right?”

She walked away without ever looking at him.

If he hadn’t been so drunk, he would have enjoyed the way she ordered him to get up a few minutes later when he slid off the stool and hit the floor. He always did like a forceful woman.

Orange streetlights streaking by in a haze of rippled patterns constituted his last memory until he woke up face down on an unmade bed, the smell of vomit thick in his nostrils. Sunlight burned his retinas and for a moment he thought he’d gone blind. Blind drunk. That was the saying and maybe it had happened to him. Pain exploded in his temples and through the back of his head. He groaned as he sat up. The world came into focus again and he didn’t like what he saw. And overflowing laundry basket, crumpled sections of a newspaper, a half -eaten banana and an empty carton of cigarettes littered the bedroom floor.

The clanking of dishes brought him to the kitchen reluctantly, his feet shuffling, as if lifting them would make his head hurt worse.

Standing straight wasn’t an option this morning. He leaned a shoulder against the doorframe for support. “You been here all night?”

She flipped a pancake onto a plate. “Didn’t think you should be alone, old man. You’d probably trip over that ugly dog and hit your head on the toilet.”

Pete, the basset hound, let out an indignant huff.

He rubbed the dog’s head in comfort. “Who you callin’ old? They, whoever they is, say you’re only as old as you feel. I don’t feel a day over sixty.”

He winced as he sat in a hardwood chair at the kitchen table, using the table to buffer his weight, knowing sitting too fast would send more pain shooting through creaking joints.

She scoffed. “Well, that’s not good. You’re only fifty-five.”

He rubbed his hand across the stubble along his chin. “Fifty-four.”

She slid a plate of eggs with a side of unbuttered toast and two slices of crispy bacon across the table next to the plate of pancakes.

“You turned fifty-five last week.” She scowled. “You were probably too drunk to remember.”

He grimaced. “Not sure I can stomach that this morning.”

 “The food or the truth?”

“Both.”

She leaned back against the counter, folded her arms across her chest. “You’re going to have to start taking care of yourself. I won’t be around the bar anymore to keep an eye on you.”

He looked up from his pancakes, one eyebrow raised questioningly. “What do you mean?”

She tossed the pan into the sink. It clattered, metal on metal. He groaned at the pain radiating in his skull.

“I quit.” The words clipped out of her sharp, like the pan in the sink. “Tired of seeing people drink themselves into an early grave. Not exactly what the honorable Rev. James Fields wanted for his baby girl.”

He snorted a laugh, a piece of bacon pinched between a thumb and forefinger, hovering a few inches from his mouth. “Funny you’d use that word to describe him.”

She stopped mid-pour, slammed the pot down. Coffee splashed onto the table. “Get yourself cleaned up, Luke. You’re pathetic.”

The slam of the door reverberated in his head.

He thought of her that night when he methodically slid the bullets in the chamber, one by one by one by one, and held the gun in a trembling hand.

He thought of her when he tipped the bullets out fifteen minutes later, placed them in the drawer by the bed, the empty gun in its box on the top shelf in the closet.

He thought of her as liquid swirled down the sink like melted caramel two days later.

He thought of her a week later during the meeting in the stale-smelling basement of the old Baptist church.

For two months, the phone didn’t ring; the knock didn’t come.

When she finally walked up the sidewalk he stood in the doorway, hands in his front jean pockets, one side of his body propped against the doorframe, eyes narrowed in bright sunlight that caught the blond highlights in her hair. Fresh from the shower, he was clean shaven, his hair wet, but combed.

She stopped a few feet away, one hand resting on a slender hip encased in faded blue jeans. His gaze stayed on her eyes, didn’t stray, even though he wanted it to wander down the length of her, across the curves his hands wanted to touch.

“You should have left me when you had the chance.”

She smirked. “I did.”

A smile tilted one side of his mouth up. “You should have stayed left then.”

“I should have done a lot of things.”

He pushed off the doorframe and stood straight, fully blocking the doorway. “I could fall off the wagon, you know.”

She squinted back at him, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “You could. “

Her perfume, like lilacs blooming in spring, was intoxicating, the kind of intoxication that heightened his senses instead of dulled them. She stepped up to him, tilted her face up toward his.

His fingertips grazed her cheek, trailed along her jawline. “You’re better than whiskey, Lily. Always have been. I was just too messed up to see it.”

He traced her bottom lip with the edge of his thumb. She closed her eyes.

Pressing his forehead against hers, his voice faded to a whisper. “You sure you want to take a chance on me again?”

The answer came with her mouth warm and soft on his. Sliding one arm across her lower back, he pulled her gently against him and moved his other hand behind her head, his fingers clutching at her hair. She wound her arms around his neck as the kiss deepened. The taste of her lips sent adrenaline crashing through his veins, chasing away logic and reason.

They stayed pressed together, clutching each other, even when their lips parted. They didn’t speak for a long time; simply looked into each other’s eyes, relearning.

Sunlight glinted off the diamond when she raised her hand. “For better or for worse. Right?”

He shook his head. “All I’ve ever given you is worse.”

She smiled. “Then it’s time for the better.”

Fiction Friday: The Farmers Sons Chapter 6 Part I

As always this story is a fictional serial which I update every Friday. it is also a work in progress and will be turned into a book once I’ve posted the chapters here on the blog and once it has been edited and maybe even rewritten.

I will share part two of this chapter tomorrow on the blog.

Let me know what you think of the story so far in the comments. What do you think should happen next or what has happened so far? And if you would like to read the first book in this series, you can find it on Kindle Unlimited or order a digital copy on Amazon. You can also order print versions on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

To catch up on the other chapters of this story click HERE.

***

Robert set a steaming mug of black coffee on the table in front of Jason and another in front of himself. Sunlight was trying to peek through dark clouds outside and the light in the kitchen cast a warm glow across the wooden table Ned had made 20 years ago.

“I’ve been thinking of some other avenues for revenue for the business.”

Jason laughed softly, reaching across the table for the creamer. “So that’s what happens when we leave you alone too long.”

“It certainly is.” Robert slid a sheet of paper across the table at him. “We’ve got a group of results from the genetic testing on the jerseys. It looks like we have enough with the A2 gene that we can start producing A2 milk once we build a bottling plant to process it.” He pointed to some figures at the bottom of the page. “That’s going to be the cost which part of the money left over from Alex’s mom will cover the majority of.”

Jason read over the paper. This move would definitely be another source of income for the business if it all came together.

His eyes fell on a few words at the bottom of the page that raised his eyebrows. “Goats? You want to add goats?”

Robert stirred creamer and sugar into his coffee, turning it a light brown. He nodded as he sipped. “The way I figure it,

Robert laughed. “But their milk is. It’s just another product we can add to the inventory of the store. Not to mention, we can make soap from the milk.”

Jason grinned and cocked an eyebrow. “Who’s going to make the soap?”

“Your mom and Molly are interested.”

“Molly? Making soap?”

Robert sighed. “Focus, Jason.”

Jason looked back at the paper again. “What’s this over here?” He squinted. “Should have been a doctor with this handwriting of yours, Dad. Corn maze? You want to set up a corn maze in the Fall?”

Robert sipped his coffee. “Yep. Diversify. Landon Bennett from the Lycoming Farm Bureau is going to put me in touch with a maze designer he’s worked with the last three years.”

Jason rubbed his chin under his bottom lip thoughtfully. “And this brought in some revenue for Landon?”

“Double what he makes in six months with milk sales, but he also added rides, crafts, and set up a pumpkin patch, which we have more than enough space for.”

“Have you talked to Walt yet?”

“Briefly. He agreed we need to get some figures together before we make any decisions. Maybe it won’t be plausible, but at this point I say we try everything and see what sticks. The alternative is —”

“Something we don’t need to think about right now,” Jason said quickly.

Robert set his cup of coffee aside and picked up a pen. He drew an arrow to a figure at the top of the page. “The money from Cecily was an amazing, appreciated boost for us and I think we need to capitalize on the breathing room it gave us.”

Jason nodded. “I agree.”

Robert set his pen aside, folded his arms on the surface of the table. “Now that we’ve got the business talk out of the way, maybe you’d like to talk about some more personal issues.”

Jason shook his head as he stood, the paper in his hand.

He leaned back against the kitchen counter, looking at the paper and taking a long gulp of his coffee. “Nope. I’m good. Plus, we’re not done with business talk. We still need to figure out where and how we’re going to build a shed or barn for the goats you want to buy. Not to mention where to buy the goats. Then there’s the need to get some plans together for the bottling plant. I can talk to Greg Stanton at Stanton Designs about that tomorrow when I’m in town if you want.”

Robert nodded. “We can figure that all out in the next few days. Your Uncle Walt is scoping out some of the space near his barn for the goat barn. We’ll see how that works.” He folded his hands in a triangle in front of him and propped his chin on the tips of his fingers, his eyes narrowing. “Jason, I know things have been rough between you and Ellie. If you need to talk —”

“Dad, I appreciate it, but I’m good. Really.”

“Are you? Really? Because you don’t look good most days. You look pretty beat up. It’s honorable of you to offer to help out the fire department besides everything else you’re doing, but do you think that maybe all of this is just a way to avoid dealing with the situation with Ellie?

Jason shrugged, placed his empty mug in the sink. “It’s not a situation. It’s moving on.”

Robert leaned back, draping an arm over the back of the kitchen chair. “So, the relationship is over?”

Jason shrugged again. “Maybe. I don’t know. It seems to be what she wants.”

“Any reason she wants this?”

Jason slid the paper onto the kitchen table, leaning his palms against the edge of the counter, trying to decide how much he wanted his dad to know. “She thinks she can’t trust me.”

“Did something happen to make her feel this way?”

“Not recently, no.”

“Jase, you know I love you, no matter what. You can tell me what’s going on.”

Jason blew out a breath. “I screwed up, Dad. Okay? I screwed up in college and I never told Ellie. Can we just not talk about this right now?”

Robert didn’t appear to be getting the message. “Okay, well, how did you screw up?”

Jason pressed thumb and forefinger against his nose and closed his eyes.

“Dad, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? I just —” He gestured with his hand, clenched his fist closed. How long was he going to hide his shame from his family? “I was down in college. I started drinking. It didn’t last long, but . . .”

“You fell in with some wrong people?”

Jason smirked. “Well, Alex, for one, but yeah…one person in particular. A woman.”

Robert sat back in his chair. “Ah. I see. And you never told Ellie about this woman and whatever happened between you two?”

Jason nodded. “A few months ago, she overheard me and Alex talking about it. I was going to tell her before that but when I tried to, she thought I was proposing so —”

The squeal from the scanner hooked to Jason’s belt startled them both. Jason twisted the volume knob.

“Sorry.”

The voice on the scanner broke through the static. “Department 12, brush fire. Corner of Drew Road and Pine Creek Road. Fully involved and spreading.”

Jason stood and reached for his cap. “That’s just up the road. It would be a good training opportunity for me.”

Robert nodded, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “Okay, but be careful and let’s talk about all of this again later.”

“Yeah. ‘k.”

Out in his truck, starting the engine, Jason was glad for the excuse to leave. He was tired of talking about his past life, his mistakes, Ellie. He was tired of thinking about them, too. Luckily, he now had a brush fire to fight and later he would have a bottling plant and a goat barn to figure out how to build. Plenty to keep his mind off the thoughts burning painful paths through his heart and mind.  

***

Robert envied how quickly Jason rushed out the front door. He couldn’t do anything quickly anymore. He lumbered like a bear shot with a tranquilizer dart most days, staggering across the pastures like a man 20 years older than he was.

It was amazing Annie still had anything to do with him.

It was a silly thought, grounded in self-pity, he knew it, but the thought was still there. Annie was vibrant, active, beautiful. She deserved more than a hobbling old man.

He winced, standing and placing his empty coffee mug in the sink.

There she was now. He watched her walk across the side yard toward the clothesline.

He listened to her often complain about the wrinkles she was finding, the gray hairs that were cropping up here and there, what she saw as extra skin under her chin. He saw none of those things, though.

To him she was still the 17-year-old girl he’d fallen in love with, the 19-year-old who had given birth to his son and then four years later their daughter. There had been a loss in between, a son they’d named Joseph even though he’d been born at 28 weeks, not old enough to breathe on his own, not strong enough even when the machines breathed for him.

A breeze blew stands of her dark brown hair across her face. She pushed them aside, behind her ear, and propped a clothespin in her mouth.

How was it that the sight of her still sent his heart racing in his chest, his muscles tightening with a desire to hold her close? They hadn’t had a lot of time alone together since the accident and before that he’d been working hard to pay off the loan by the deadline. The last several months had been filled with her waiting on him, especially when he’d first come home and slept in a bed downstairs until his pelvis and leg healed more.

He enjoyed waiting on her instead and had hated not being able to do for himself. Now he could get his own breakfast, his own coffee, do some work around the farm, and take showers without her helping him undress and dress again, though he had to admit that part had been fun in some ways. He smiled, thinking of her helping pulling off his jeans each night and how he’d chased her from the bathroom before she tried to remove anything else.

It was ridiculous, he knew, but somehow he had felt less of a man with his leg all mangled and in a cast. The way he winced from the pain in his pelvis each time he’d moved didn’t make him feel very masculine either. Even with the cast off, he still felt like only half of a man.

Annie hooked a sheet over the line, pushing herself up on the tips of her toes to reach. He grinned, his eyes traveling down her legs, exposed thanks to a pair of denim blue shorts.

Robert’s physical pain was better now, but there were still too many things he couldn’t do that he wanted to, including climbing onto the tractor, lifting heavy objects, dancing with his wife under the stars. Not that he’d danced with Annie under the stars regularly. It had only been that one time, three years ago, after they’d helped on of the pigs give birth and he hadn’t wanted to go back to the house yet.

He’d like to try it again, though. Hopefully soon the pain would be all the way gone and his leg wouldn’t be so stiff. He tried to bend the leg, now free of the lighter cast, and grimaced.

Hopefully then he wouldn’t feel as old and helpless as he did now.

He wondered if his dad had felt this way when age, and later dementia and heart failure, had forced him to slow down. Ned had been cognizant enough before the dementia took over to realize he was losing his mental faculties. They’d talked about it one day sitting on Ned and Franny’s front porch, rocking in the chairs his father had built for him and Franny to rock in when Ned retired.

“I’m not of much use these days, Robert,” Ned had said, his cloudy blue eyes looking out over the yard where chickens scratched at corn and a barn cat rolled in the grass. “Not to you boys. Not to your mom. Not to anyone.”

“Don’t say that, Dad.”

“It’s true. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”

Robert had laughed. “I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”

Ned shook his head. He hadn’t laughed. “Who’s going to take care of your mom when I don’t know who I am anymore?”

Robert had reached over and done something the Tanner man rarely did. He’d squeezed his father’s hand and looked at him until he looked back.

“We will dad. Your kids and grandkids. And most importantly God will.”

Ned’s eyes glistened. “Do you think I’ll even know who God is when I forget who everyone else is?”

“Yeah.” Robert clutched his dad’s hand tighter. “Yeah. I do. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter because he knows who you are.”

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmers’ Sons Chapter 3

I totally forgot I was going to post Chapter 3 of The Farmers’ Sons earlier today. So here it is, although late. For those who followed Jason’s story when I originally posted it with Molly’s story some of this will be a bit of a repeat, but it has been reworked some.

To catch up on the rest of story, click HERE or find it under the Fiction Friday header at the top of the page.

You can read Molly’s story on Amazon in ebook form.


Chapter 3

Jason loaded another set of weights on the barbells and laid back on the bench, gripping the bar tightly.

Why did I let her think I was going to propose that night?

He grunted under the weight, pushing up until his arms were straight, then slowly lowering the bar again, counting under his breath. His muscles strained under the weight.

I should have never waited so long to talk to her.

He pushed up again.

And when she assumed I had actually intended to propose, I went along with it like a complete idiot.

Down, breathing hard.

Ellie had every right to be angry at him. Not only for his non-proposal but for the secret he’d held on to for so long.

He straightened his arms, set the bar back in its place and lay there on the bench breathing hard.

He came to the gym a few times a week to work off some stress. Lately, though he’d only been finding more stress as his mind raced not only with thoughts of Ellie, but also of keeping the farm running.

When he focused on Ellie, his mind always walked him back to the night he had planned to tell her what he’d should have told her when they’d first started dating again, the night that they got engaged instead.

***

Seven months earlier

His heart had been racing, his palms damp with sweat. His stomach was tight and nausea spun in his stomach.  What had he been thinking? Was he really going to do this tonight? Was he really going to tell his longtime girlfriend about his past and let the chips fall where they may?

He had taken a deep breath and tightened his hands on the steering wheel until his knuckles faded white. Yes, he was. He was doing this because he needed the burden off his shoulders, and he needed to know how Ellie would feel about him after he told her. He couldn’t keep waiting, torturing himself with worry of what might be.

He and Ellie had gone to school together since junior high, but it wasn’t until his junior year he really noticed her, or she had noticed him, or he guess he would say they noticed each other. It was in history class and Mr. Prawley had placed them in a group together to work on a project. Before that they’d seen each other at 4H meetings or when Robert took Jason with him to pick up equipment he’d borrowed from Ellie’s dad Jerry.

Late one night after working on their project about Pennsylvanian history they found themselves laughing about their shared interest in old movies.

“Cary Grant is the epitome of old fashioned suave and charm,” she’d said, pretending to swoon, her hand against her forehead when they watched North by Northwest together at his parents.

He grinned, a teasing glint in his eye. “I agree, but I’m the epitome of modern suave and charm, right?”

She’d tipped her head back and laughed and he wasn’t sure if she was enjoying his humor or mocking him.

“Ginger Rogers was a very underrated actress,” he’d announced after they watched Vivacious Lady at her parents’ house.

“I agree,” she had said and smiled.

Wow. That smile.

That smile that was for him and only him.

It took his breath away.

That smile and her soft, long black hair against that pale skin, those large dark eyes and her sweet round face — what a knockout combination.

He’d taken her to the movies twice, dinner once, lunch three times and attended youth group with her every Wednesday for four months before he’d finally worked up the courage to kiss her. And now, here he was working up the courage to ask her to marry him, but first he had to tell her about what had happened during the break they’d taken when they’d both been in college – at two different colleges.

Those two years in college when he’d been without her, when she had decided they should take a break from dating and see “how things developed” as she had said, were the loneliest and most confusing two years of his life. He’d felt like a ship out at sea without a compass. Returning home from college, to the farm and to her had anchored him again. He couldn’t even imagine losing that anchor again.

God, please don’t let me lose her.

 He caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see her stepping off the front porch, down the steps, watching him as she walked. Her smile was broad, captivating.  His breath caught in his throat, his eyes followed the length of her body as she walked, and he chewed his lower lip hungerly. Even after all these years her beauty still took his breath away.

His voice fell into a whisper; he barely realized he was talking out loud. “Oh God, I can’t —”

“Hey.” She slid into the truck seat and had her arms around his neck and her mouth on his before he could finish asking God for strength. Once she was in his arms, his mind was clouded by her kiss. She smelled of lilac and vanilla scented shampoo. She curled her fingers in his hair and held his head down to hers.

“We should probably head out to the restaurant,” she said breathlessly a few moments later. She tipped her head to one side, her hand against his chest, and winked. “Before we go too far.”

Jason cleared his throat and nodded. “Right. Of course.”

He grinned as he turned back to the steering wheel and she hooked her seatbelt. “But it wasn’t as if things were going to get too far with us parked outside your parent’s house. Not before your dad shot me.”

Ellie laughed. “Jason, Daddy wouldn’t shoot you.”

He pulled the truck out of the driveway, onto the dirt road. “I beg to differ.”

Ellie shook her head. “He loves you. You know that.”

“But he wouldn’t like me making out with you in my truck.”

“No, probably not.” She shrugged, folded her hands in her lap, and looked out the windshield. “Unless we were married, of course.”

Jason swallowed hard.

Married.

There it was.

The one word hovering in his mind 24/7, waking him up at night, giving him near panic attacks daily. And she’d just said it. Because it was probably on her mind too.

“Right.” He pushed his foot on the accelerator, willing his truck to move them faster toward the restaurant where they could talk about the food, the weather, the farm, anything but marriage.

The drove in silence for a few moments, farmland and trees and open fields blurring into green and yellow out the window.

“Jason?”

Hurry up, truck.

“Yeah?”

“Are you ever going to ask me to marry you?”

Jason’s hand jerked on the steering wheel. The truck swerved over the center line and then back  into the right lane. Ellie gasped and clutched her hand around Jason’s bicep as he regained control of the truck.

Her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh gosh. Sorry. I just — I shouldn’t have blurted it out like that, but I knew if I didn’t say something now, I would lose my courage.”

Jason slowed the truck down and pulled off into an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned convenience store. He slid the gear into park and turned to look at Ellie.

Was she reading his mind? They’d been together so long he wouldn’t be surprised.

His eyebrows knit together. “What would make you ask that right now?”

“I — I don’t know. I just —” Tears rimmed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Jason. Are you angry?”

Jason shook his head. “No. Not at all. I’m sorry.” He reached over and took her hand in his. The frightened expression on her face sent stabbing guilt shuddering through him. He let go of her hand and cupped his palm against her face.

“It’s not that at all. It’s just that I was actually going to talk to you about that tonight and I was surprised that it was on your mind too.”

A tear slipped down Ellie’s cheek and his heart ached even more. He swiped at it with the palm of his thumb.

“Of course, it’s on my mind, Jason. I’ve wanted to marry you since high school. I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to have your children. But sometimes I feel like you don’t want any of that at all.”

“No, El, that’s not true. I do want that. All of it.”

“Then why aren’t you asking me to marry you?”

“I — well, I was going to —”

Ellie’s eyes grew wide, and her eyebrows shot up. “Oh! Were you going to ask me tonight and I totally ruined your plans?”

“Well, I —”

“Oh, Jason! I’m so sorry! I ruined your plan.”

“No, that’s okay. It’s just —”

Her mouth was on his again before he could explain. The expression of sheer delight on her face when she pulled back, her arms still around his neck, sent warmth bursting through his chest.

“You know I don’t need a big fancy proposal. All I want is you. Of course, I’d say ‘yes’ no matter how you asked.”

She was kissing him again and he was forgetting what he’d been going to say. Her body was so warm and solid against his and her lips so soft. Her hands were in his hair again; he couldn’t focus. Slowly his thoughts began to clear and that’s when the panic set in.

Wait a minute. Did she think he had just proposed, and she was saying yes?

She peppered his cheek and neck with kisses. “Oh, Jason! I’m so excited! I’ve been waiting for this moment for years!”

 Yes, she did think he’d just proposed, and she was saying ‘yes’.

“I know. I have been too, but I —”

She cut his sentence short again. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry I ruined the surprise.”

“No, it’s okay, I mean — It’s just that I —”

Her large brown eyes were watching him with hopeful expectation, with joy, with complete and utter adoration. There was no way he could tell her about his past now; ruin her night completely.

“I don’t have a ring,” he blurted.

She tipped her head back and laughed. “I don’t care about a ring, silly! We can worry about that later, or not at all. You know I don’t care about stuff like that.”

“But it’s a symbol and it’s important, El. I should get you a ring.”

Ellie kissed him gently and shook her head. “Later. I just want us to enjoy this moment together for now.”

Jason swallowed hard. He wanted to enjoy the moment too, but he knew he couldn’t keep his secret forever. Ellie needed to know sooner rather than later. He wouldn’t tell her tonight, though. He’d already made his mind up about that. They would go to dinner, celebrate their engagement and then later, another day, he’d tell her what she needed to know and let her make up her own mind about whether she still wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.

Only, that had never happened. She’d overheard him talking to Alex and that’s when the manure, so to speak, had hit the fan.

***

A deep voice startled Jason from his thoughts and he recognized it immediately as belonging to Cody Bracken— Spencer’s fire chief.

“Jason. Bud. You okay?”

Jason sat up, barely missing smacking his forehead on the metal bar. “Yeah. Sorry. Have you been standing there long?”

Cody laughed, tossed his duffle bag on the floor next to the wall. “A few seconds. Saying your name. You were totally gone, though. Got a lot on your mind?”

Jason guzzled the rest of the water from his sports bottle and shoved it in his bag. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Pulling off his sweatshirt, Cody unloaded a couple of the weights off the barbells Jason had been using. “I don’t have the muscle mass you do.” He winked. “Need to talk about anything?”

Jason shook his head. “Nah, but thanks.”

He stood and Cody wiped the bench with a towel. “Don’t want your sweaty germs.” He elbowed Jason playfully in the ribs. “Seriously, you got a minute?”

Jason wasn’t in any hurry to get back to the farm and talking to Cody would take his mind off Ellie for a few minutes at least. “Sure.”

“I don’t want to add anything else to your plate, but we had a meeting of the fire company the other night and we were talking about the need for more volunteers. Your name came up, along with some other men around town.” Cody sat on the bench and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “As you know, we are an all-volunteer company, other than my position. It’s been tough the last couple of years to find volunteers and we’re in need of some younger, strong men to at least be trained in case we need some additional hands in an emergency. I told the board I see you at the gym sometimes, so I’d ask you if you’d be interested.” He grinned. “So, would you?”

Jason leaned back against the wall and pushed his hand back through his hair. “I am interested but things have been pretty busy with the business lately, so I don’t know if I would really be available much.”

Cody nodded. “I understand. This wouldn’t have to be a full-time commitment by any means. We’d just like some guys to be trained in case they’re needed. At the most you’d be committing to, well, 100 hours of training, but it’s broken up into a few week nights and a couple of weekends over the next few months. Once your training is complete you can hold on to the certification and we’d call you only when we are short men. You’d only respond when you’re able to.”

Jason rubbed his hand along the scruff growing along his chin and jawline. Shoving training into his regular chores on the farm and work at the farm store would be tough, but it would also be the perfect way to distract himself from constantly focusing on the situation with Ellie.

“Think about it,” Cody said. “You can let me know later if it —”

“I’ll give it a try.”

Cody raised his eyebrows. “You’re sure? I don’t want to add more to your plate. I know how tough the farms around here have had it.”

Jason shook his head. “No. It will be fine. If I start and it gets to be too much, I’ll let you know, but I’d love to be able to help out my community. My uncle had a fire on his farm a couple years back and you guys were a big help. Consider this my way of paying you back.”

Cody reached out his hand and Jason took it. “Thanks, Jason. We appreciate it. I’ll give you a call when we have the first training session scheduled. Probably about two weeks.”

Climbing into his truck, Jason wasn’t sure he truly wanted to split his time between farming and fire fighter training, but again, the more he could shove into his days, the less time he had to think about Ellie.

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.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Son Prologue

For those of you who read The Farmer’s Daughter installents here, I know you are wondering what happened to Jason Tanner’s part of the story so this week I am starting back in the beginning, a bit, for any new readers. I will follow the story of Jason and Ellie and Robert and Annie (maybe even Molly and Alex a little) for the next few weeks, if I can figure out what I am doing with the story. The thing is, I want to start the book off with some excitement, but if I do that, I want it to be after Jason and Ellie had their issues (if you already know this story, you know what the issue is). At the same time, I don’t want to toss out all that background with their story so I’m trying to figure out if I should start at one point and go back or if that would be confusing. Anyhow, regardless, this is something I wrote up this week in case I decide to go with the whole “here is the story after Jason and Ellie talked about Lauren.” It’s very rough, will be rewritten at some point, but I’m still going to share it for my blog readers.

For anyone new, Fiction Friday is where I share a work in progress. Often this is the start of a future novel for me and it’s usually a first draft so there are often typos, plot holes, and it may not be the most polished piece of fiction ever. I share my work in progress on here for fun and to get feedback from my blog readers. I often change it before I put it up on Amazon or B&N to sell as ebooks. I’m less concerned about selling the books than in having fun with interacting with my blog readers.

Anyhow, enjoy reading Jason’s continuing story.

Prologue or beginning of Chapter 1

Smoke choked at his throat, burned his eyes, but he kept walking.

He had to.

The woman’s voice was full of panic. “Help me! I’m over here!”

“Don’t move, Mrs. Weatherly. I’m coming. Keep talking to me okay?”

A series of coughs to his right.

He changed direction, kept walking, slammed his arm off a door frame, glad the fire suit was padded. Air puffed into his mask from his oxygen tank, but the smoke was still stifling, and he wondered if it would overtake him before he could get to her.

He couldn’t hear her coughing anymore.

“Mrs. Weatherly?”

Nothing but the crackling of the flames licking up the wall, across the ceiling of the kitchen.

“Ann?”

His foot hit something solid, almost sent him sprawling. He regained his balance, crouched, felt the floor since he couldn’t see through the smoke and felt a back, then an arm.

“Ann, it’s me, Jason Tanner. Can you hear me?”

A soft cough from the direction of the body told him she was at least alive, but most likely overcome by the smoke to answer.

“I’m going to lift you and we’re going to get out of here, okay? Try to stay calm. You’ll be on my shoulders. It will be the easiest way for me to carry you.”

“John.”

“No, ma’am. It’s Jason. You’re going to be okay.”

“John . . .”

He found her arms, slid his hands under the trunk of her body and swung her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He couldn’t carry her through the back door. It was already engulfed in flames. He reached out to feel the wall and when he found it, he made his way along it until he felt the open doorway to the dining room.

If he hadn’t visited this home many times over the last year to deliver produce to Ann and John Weatherly from the country store on his way home, he wouldn’t have known that the kitchen led to the dining room, the dining room to the living room, a short hallway and then the front door. He winced when his hip slammed into the dining room table, or at least he thought it might be the table. The smoke was billowing from the kitchen now, filling the rest of the house. Above him he heard crackling, breaking wood, fire ripping across the ceiling, shredding the wooden beams between the floors.

“John . . .”

“We’ll be out soon, Mrs. Weatherly.”

But he wasn’t really sure of that. He had thought the living room was right in front of him, but now he was bumping against walls he didn’t remember being there. Had he turned wrong and ended up in the laundry room instead? Or maybe even a bathroom. He felt out with a gloved hand, touched a wall, then something hard, metal. It was the washer. He was in the laundry room. The laundry room that didn’t have a door or window. He had to turn around, and he worried he might hit Mrs. Weatherly’s head when he did. He slid her down from his shoulder, both worried and glad she was a thin, frail woman in her 70s. He cradled her in his arms like he would a child..

Smoke was coming from below and above him now. He knew the fire must be spreading across the top floor, and he wondered how long it would be before it fell down on him.

“Jason!”

Chief Cody Bracken’s voice boomed from somewhere to his right. He felt for the wall, moved forward a few steps and stopped when his foot kicked the edge of the doorway.

“Jason! Are you in there?!”

“I’m coming!”

His breath fogged up the shield of his helmet. He was even more blind than before, but now he at least had the sound of Cody’s voice to follow.

“Jason! The roof is about to collapse!”

Shuffling he tried to ignore the crackling and snapping above him. With the next step, a firm hand gripped the front of the turnout gear and yanked him forward into bright light and cool air.

“Guys! We got a patient!”

Mrs. Weatherly was lifted from his arms and he stumbled forward, pulling at the mask, falling to the ground in his hands and knees as he gulped fresh air into his lungs. Behind him he heard the snapping of wood and the shattering of glass, and he knew the top floor was caving in. Two hands snatched him under his arms and dragged him forward across the grass, further away from the burning house, as he continued to gag and gasp for air.

“Did Denny get out?!” he yelled as soon as he could breathe again.

He looked up, his vision blurry with sweat and smoke. Denny was guzzling water a few feet away by the fire truck, pouring it over his head and then drinking again. Two other firefighters, James Lantz and Duane Trenton, stood above Jason,breathing hard, wiping sweat and soot from their faces. Jason had a feeling they were the ones who had dragged him across the yard.

Cody hooked an arm under Jason’s, help to his feet. “No one is sure where Mr. Weatherly is. Denny was in looking for him, but the flames in the dining room pushed him back. Did you see him?”

Jason shook his head, taking the fresh water bottle Denny offered him. “I could barely see anything in there. Mrs. Weatherly was in the kitchen. If anyone else was in there I didn’t see them.”

He sucked the water down in one gulp, looked up at the firefighters still battling the flames, trying to save the house even though they all knew it was going to be a total loss.

“Breathe in.”

Brittany Manahan pressed an oxygen mask against his face and hooked the band behind his head. “Sit.”

Brittany, an EMT with the Spencer Valley Ambulance Company, wasn’t afraid to order the first responders around if it was for their own good.

Jason sat on the ground, legs up, propping his arm on his knees as he breathed deep, coughed, and breathed deep again.

He remembered Mrs. Weatherly’s pleading voice inside the house. “John.”

Oh God. No.

“Cody!” He pulled the oxygen mask off his nose. “John is still inside!”

He leapt to his feet but Cody pivoted, press his hands against his chest. “Slow down there, big guy. You aren’t going anywhere. The second floor’s collapsed. There’s nothing we can do.”

“She tried to tell me. Mrs. Weatherly. Ann. She — she couldn’t breathe and was passing out, but she was calling for John. I didn’t understand.

Cody shook his head. “You couldn’t have carried them both out. You had her and needed to get her out first. It wasn’t your fault. We’ll know more when the fire is out. Maybe John is at the store or somewhere else. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”

Jason nodded pressed the oxygen to his face again and breathed in deep, glancing to his right and watching the paramedics attending to Mrs. Weatherly, giving her oxygen as she laid prostrate on her back on the stretcher.

Part of him knew Cody was right. He couldn’t have carried both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherly out of that house, but if he had only stopped to listen, to understand what Mrs. Weatherly had been saying, he could have tried. He could have pushed forward only a few more feet. Maybe Mr. Weatherly had been on the floor near his wife. He pushed his hand through his hair, clutched at it and let out a long breath into the oxygen mask. Or maybe John Weatherly hadn’t even been home when the fire broke out. Maybe he’d pull into that driveway in his old blue 1970 Lincoln Continental and be perfectly healthy and alive.

Jason slumped back against the side of the fire truck, fought the emotion choking at his throat. Something deep in his gut told him John would not pull into the driveway, not today. Never again. He was inside that house, now almost down to the ground, flames shooting up from the rest of the first floor. Ann Weatherly hadn’t mistaken Jason for her husband. She’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was still in the house.

His jaw tightened as he heard the ambulance siren wail, saw the red lights swirling. It took him back nine months before, to that rainy day in the lower field, when it had been his dad being loaded into an ambulance.

He had felt emotion stuck in his throat that day in the lower field and head had swallowed it down hard, shoving the fear of losing his father tight inside the same hollow spot in his chest where he’d shoved his heartache over Ellie.

He hadn’t had time for emotion then, and he didn’t now.

He shoved his guilt over John Weatherly right against his shame from that night with Lauren Phillips, right against the grief he still felt over the loss of his grandfather, right against the hurt he’d caused Ellie.

Maybe one day all that hurt would crack his chest wide open for all the world to see, but right now he had to get back to the fire hall, take off his gear, clean up and get back to his full-time job at his family’s farm.

This job was a volunteer gig.

The one he’d taken to take his mind off his guilt, his shame, his worries about his dad who was still recovering, but most of all off Ellie.

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 30

As promised, here is another chapter, or part of one, for a special fiction Saturday. I know there are many of us who would love a distraction from the news right now.

To catch up with the rest of the story click HERE. I posted Chapter 29, yesterday.




Chapter 30

A sob choked out of Alex, bile rising into his throat.

“Oh, God, no.”

He fell to the ground next to Robert gently touching his shoulder, dragging in a ragged breath.

He leaned closer. “Robert, I’m going to get this tractor off you. You’re going to be okay.”

Robert swallowed hard and blinked his eyes. It was Alex’s first indication he was still alive.

The saturated ground must have given away under Robert, tipping the tractor into the ravine, onto its side, trapping him underneath it.

Robert tried to raise his hand, but it fell again to his side. “Alex. . .”

Alex shook his head. He had to get this tractor off Robert. He had to find out where the blood was coming from. He could tell by Robert’s labored breathing he wouldn’t last much longer if he couldn’t draw a deeper breath. The tractor was crushing his sternum and ribcage.

“Don’t talk. I’ll be right back. I need a lever or something to help me get this off you.”

Robert shook his head weakly. “Too . . .heavy.”

Alex reached for his phone in his back pocket.

It wasn’t there.

He ran to the truck, searching the front seat frantically. He cursed, remembering he’d left it at the house that morning. Running to the barn he ripped the door open and ran inside, looking for something he could wedge under the tractor to lift it.

He found a 2×4 and hooked it under his arm, dragging back to the tractor. Wedging it under the hood of the tractor, which was now embedded into the soil that had been softened by the recent rain, he pushed down on it, let up when he realized it wasn’t in the group deep enough and wedged it further down.

“Alex . . .”

He ignored Robert as he shoved the end of the 2×4 deeper into the ground. The wind had picked up and rain began to pelt his face. When he thought the board was wedged in deep enough, he pushed down, relieved as the tractor began to rise. He realized he wasn’t sure what he was going to do once he got the tractor up off the ground, if he even could, but it was a start.

The crack of the board under the weight of the tractor sounded like a gunshot.

Alex closed his eyes against the pain as the jagged end of the broken board ripped across his ribcage and sliced a gash into his flesh. He was afraid to open his eyes again and see that he had hurt Robert worse in his impatience.

He held his arm across his side and quickly crawled to Robert, leaning over so he could block his face from the rain.

“Are you okay?”                                            

“Alex, stop.” Robert’s voice was barely audible. “Listen . . . please.”

Alex started to stand again. “I’m going to go get help, Robert.”

Robert weakly grabbed Alex’s arm. “Listen to me.”

Alex leaned closer, tears stinging his eyes. “I don’t have time to —”

Robert’s words gasped out in short bursts as he tried to drag air into his lungs. “If I . . . don’t make it  . . .” He grimaced and dragged a breath in sharply. “I need you . . . and Jason to take care of Annie . . . and Molly.”

Alex shook his head. “Robert, you’re going to be fine. Don’t talk like that.”

Robert swallowed hard, gasping in a breath. “But if I don’t …”

 Alex shook his head again. “Not talking about it. You’re going to be fine.”

“Alex,” Robert grabbed his wrist tightly with all the strength he had left. “Please. Promise . . .”

Alex tightened his jaw, fighting back emotion. “I promise, Robert. I promise I’ll take care of Molly and Annie, but you’re going to be there to help me.”

The sound of a truck brought Alex’s head up. His heart rate increased at the sight of Molly pulling her truck in behind his.

“It’s Molly, she’ll —”

“No.”  Robert’s words came out in short gasps. “Don’t  . . . .let her  . . . see me like . . . this. Stop her.”

Alex ran full force up the hill as Molly started walking toward him. Her face fell as soon as she saw him.

“Alex! You’re bleeding! What happened?”

He grabbed her by the shoulders. “I’m fine, but I need you to go to the house. Okay? Call an ambulance on the way and then get Jason.”

“What’s going on?” Molly strained to look around him. “Where’s my dad?”

He cradled her face in his hands. “Molly, look at me.”

Panic flashed across her face as she gripped his upper arms. “Alex, is my dad under that tractor?”

“Molly —”

“Alex! Tell me!”

She tried to pull away. “Daddy!”

Alex tightened his hands on her face. “Molly! Look at me!”

Tears filled her eyes as she focused her gaze on his. Her eyes pleaded for him to tell her that her dad wasn’t under the tractor. He wished he could tell her that.

“Your dad is talking to me. That’s a good sign. I need you to call an ambulance and then I need you to call Jason and tell him to get down here. Then go back to the house and wait with your mom. Got it? Your dad doesn’t want you here, okay?” Her eyes darted away from his briefly, back toward the tractor. He moved closer to her, his hands still on her face. “Do you understand?”

Molly nodded slowly, taking a deep breath, choking back a sob. “Okay.”

“Go.”

As Molly ran toward her truck. Alex ran to the barn, searching for something to protect Robert from the rain. He found a tarp, pulling it across the tires of the tractor until it made a tent over the man who had taught him more about life than anyone else, other than his grandfather. Robert’s breaths were shallow, his eyes closed.

Alex shivered, his clothes soaked from the rain hitting him like ice pellets. Glancing at his ripped shirt he grimaced at the sight of dark red blood oozing from a deep gash across his ribs and upper abdomen. Searing pain pulsated through him as he propped the tarp up, the movement stretching the wound open further.

“You’re bleeding,” Robert said softly.

Alex shrugged a shoulder. “I’m fine.  No more talking. Save your air for breathing, okay?”

Robert’s eyelids closed as he nodded slowly.

It seemed like an eternity before Alex heard Jason’s truck pulled in next to his.

“Alex?! Dad?!”

Alex stepped around the tractor. “Down here!”

Jason stared at his father’s motionless form for a brief second before ripping the tarp back and propping his hands against the tractor’s mud covered back tire.

“Get on the other side!” He shouted at Alex to be heard over the rain. “Push when I tell you to!”

“What if the tractor falls again?” Alex shouted back.

“Just push!”

Metal and rocks sliced at Jason and Alex’s hands as they pushed until the tractor rolled back enough that it wasn’t laying on Robert anymore. Alex dragged a hand across his face to try to see through the rain, a sick ache clutching at his stomach at the way Robert’s legs were grotesquely twisted away from each other.

The blaring squeal of an ambulance siren drowned out Jason’s voice as he fell to the ground to speak to Robert. Alex didn’t need to know what Jason was saying. Whatever it was, it was between a father and son. He turned his face away, choking back emotion as he heard bits and pieces  between the blares of the siren.

“Jason . . .”

“Save your energy, Dad. We’ll talk at the hospital.”

“Jason.” Robert struggled to draw a breath in. “I love you.”

Jason’s voice broke as he spoke. “I love you too, Dad. You’re going to be fine, okay?”

Alex and Jason both stepped back as several local volunteer fire fighters pulled in behind the ambulance, jumping out of their trucks and rushing across the soaked field, two of them almost falling as their feet slipped in the mud. Tarps were expertly erected to protect them and Robert from the rain.

Alex recognized most of the men, many of whom Jason had introduced him to over the years; former classmates of Jason’s, local business owners who also served as volunteer fire fighters, even the mayor of Spencer.

After they examined Robert, assessing the extent of his injuries, several of the fire fighters and the EMTs gathered around him and Robert quickly, yet somehow still gently, from the ground to a backboard. From there they carried him toward the back of the ambulance, doing their best to shield him from the rain,

Molly’s truck pulled in behind Alex’s as the EMT’s reached the back of the ambulance, Annie rushing from the passenger side. Her hair, usually pulled up on top of her head, had fallen loose and was soaked, matted against her face.

One hand reached toward the ambulance, another holding her sweater closed. “Robert!”

Alex turned quickly and met her, his arms grasping her against his chest as she strained to reach the stretcher. She sobbed, clutching Alex’s arms, straining against him, her face streaked with tears and raindrops.

“Annie!” one of the EMTs shouted over the sound of the rain and the growl of the ambulance engine. “Robert’s asking for you. You can ride with us.”

Alex let Annie go and watched through the tears he’d been trying hard to hold back as she stumbled toward the back of the ambulance. He dragged a blood covered hand across his cheek to wipe tears and raindrops from his face and saw Molly as she turned away from the scene, her face pale, hand pressed against her mouth, and eyes wide.

He took a step, reached out for her, and then collapsed as blackness stretched across his vision.

***

Visions of her dad’s pale face against the white sheet of the stretcher in the back of the ambulance merged with visions of Alex lying unconscious at her feet, bleeding from his stomach and side. This morning she’d woke up simply looking forward to lunch with her best friend. The day had spiraled out of control very fast starting with Jessie and now here she was, 8 hours later, sitting next to her brother in his pickup, speeding toward the hospital behind two ambulances, one carrying her father, the other carrying the man she’d fallen in love with.

She’d used up most of her tears and now sat staring through the windshield with bloodshot eyes, feeling numb and emotionally spent.

“You okay?”                                                                                        

She glanced at Jason. “I don’t know. You?”

Her brother laughed softly. “Hardly.”

They drove in silence for a few more moments, the sound of tires on the pavement humming a rhythm.

Jason cleared his throat. “So, what did I walk in on today with you and Alex?”

Molly rolled her eyes and leaned her head against the window. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Did he screw it up already?”

Molly glared. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Jason shrugged. “It’s just Alex. He screws up stuff sometimes.”

“We just had to talk about something I’d heard,” Molly said with a sigh.

“About Jessie Landry?”

She lifted her head and looked at him with raised eyebrows. “How do you know about that?”

He shrugged again. “He told me about it.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he’d brought her back to the house, but told her he couldn’t sleep with her, and she left in a huff.”

“Do you believe him?”

Jason glanced at her, then back to the road. “Yeah, I do. She wasn’t there when I got home from being out with Ellie, and she wasn’t there in the morning. Plus, he was pretty annoyed when I harassed him about it.” A smile flicked across his mouth. “I didn’t know what stopped him then but now I have to wonder . . .” He glanced at her again. “Maybe it was not something, but someone.”

After a couple moments of silence, he glanced at her again. “Do you believe him?”

She sighed, watching houses and farms speed by the window. Alex had already told her it had been someone that had stopped him from sleeping with Jessie and that someone was her.

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I do.”

She tipped her head against the window again, looking out at the ambulance taillights fading in front of them. She closed her eyes briefly and rubbed them, wishing she was in the ambulance with Alex, hoping he was okay. Bradley Lester, one of the ambulance crew who she’d graduated with, had told her he thought it was blood loss that had knocked Alex unconscious, but they’d know more at the hospital.

A thought struck her.

“How did you know about me and Alex?”

The sun had dipped below the horizon and bright red streaked between streaks of yellow.

A slight smile tugged at Jason’s mouth. “I saw you two kissing outside the diner the other day.”

“Oh.”

Jason made a face. “It made me want to throw up.”

Molly laughed at her brother, knowing she shouldn’t, but saying it anyhow. “Not me.”

Jason stuck his tongue out and made a gagging noise. “Yuck.”

 They drove for a few more minutes in silence. They were almost to the hospital.

“Were you mad?”

He grinned. “Heck yeah. I almost punched Alex out. Instead I just shoved him across the diner.”

Molly looked at her brother with wide eyes. “Why did you do that?”

Jason flicked the turn signal for the hospital exit. “Because you’re my sister. Alex is my best friend, but he’s not great with relationships. I didn’t want you to be another casualty to his inability to commit.”

Molly thought about her conversation with Alex that night in the barn. He knew he’d made mistakes in the past. He wanted to change, he’s said, and she couldn’t help but believe him.

“I think he’s trying to change,” she said softly.

“Yeah. He is.” Jason stopped at a stoplight and looked at her. “And you’re the reason why.”

Molly blew out a long breath. “I don’t think I’m —“

“You are, Molly.” The light was still red, and he was still looking at her. “You’re worth any man changing for. Don’t ever doubt that.” He laughed softly as the light flicked to green. “He’s probably going to screw up things from time to time, but he told me he loves you and I believe him, even if it makes me nervous. I promised I’d help him change.”

He grinned as he turned the truck into the hospital driveway. “I also promised I’d beat him to a pulp if he hurts you.”

Molly punched her brother’s shoulder playfully. “Ah, having your brother promise to beat the crap out of someone for you. That’s sibling love right there.”

Jason pulled into the parking lot next to the emergency room entrance and shifted the truck into park. Molly’s mind raced from Alex to her Dad.

“They’re going to be okay, Mol.”

She nodded, blowing out a shaky breath.

“Did you call Ellie?” she asked as they made their way toward the emergency room.

Jason didn’t answer for a few moments. His eyebrows had dipped low, his eyes narrowed. “No. Not yet.”

She looked at him, confused. “Do you want me to call her? I think she’d want to know.”

He shook his head and chewed at the inside of his lip. “No. That’s fine. I’ll call her later. Things are just —” He let out a sigh. “Confusing right now.”

“Confusing how?”

 He shrugged. “Alex isn’t the only one who knows how to screw up a good thing.” He opened the hospital door for her. “Come on. Let’s find Dad and Alex and we can’t talk about my love life another time.”