Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Son Prologue or beginning of chapter 1 or, yeah, I don’t know yet

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.

Fiction Friday: The Secrets We Hold

I don’t have a new series to start for Fiction Friday, but I did write a very short beginning to the book in the series that will be about Liz and her journey dealing with an unexpected life change.

I won’t be sharing it here yet. I probably won’t start a new serial fiction story until the new year.

The working title for Liz’s story is The Secrets We Hold.



Guilt twisted in the center of Liz Cranmer’s chest. She’d lied to her best friend.

Not exactly lied.

Simply left some details unspoken.

Still, Molly had left the hospital thinking she knew everything about why Liz had swallowed half a bottle of painkillers.  

There was so much Molly didn’t know, so much Liz didn’t want her to know.

Part of Liz wished panic hadn’t led her to call for an ambulance.

Liz had let Gabe charm her again, the alcohol letting her believe him when he said he was sorry for how he’d hurt her.

“It was my fault,” she’d told Molly.

And it was. Everything that had happened that night and everything she was facing now was her fault. She’d screwed up. Again. Like she always did.

And now her life would never be the same.

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 37

After beginning the tweaking process for the final draft of The Farmer’s Daughter (still rewriting, etc.), I now know it will not be a full 37 chapters. That seems like too many chapters to me somehow, but I guess it doesn’t matter if those chapters are short. Who knows!

I have ideas rolling around in my head for the next installment in the Tanner family’s saga, mainly about Jason, which I know some of you wanted to know the outcome of.

I posted Chapter 36 of the story yesterday and you can catch up on anything you missed HERE.

For those who have been reading along, how do you think the book should end? I have ideas, have already written an ending, but I’m not sure I’ll keep it or not. I want it to lead into the other books, but I’m not really sure how to do that yet. Let me know of ideas on how to, or of some good book series you’ve read that do so!


“Mom?”

Annie’s eyes were red-rimmed, her face streaked with tears. Alex had never seen Annie in such rough shape, and it rattled him. She was trembling as he helped her to her feet.

“What happened?” He heard the fear in Molly’s voice.

“I — Robert — your dad —”

Annie shook her head. She couldn’t seem to form words. Alex wanted to shake her out of it and hug her at the same time. Thankfully Molly was there so he didn’t have to figure out how to handle the situation his own.

She quickly pulled her mother into an embrace.

“Your dad was having a seizure and they rushed me out. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Alex looked at the closed hospital room door, turning his gaze away from the heart wrenching scene in the hallway. His limbs had gone cold and his chest was constricting with panic. He listened to the sound of Annie crying and silently cursed the direction this was all taking. Robert was supposed to be getting better, not worse.

He leaned back against the hallway wall and slid his hands in his pockets, unsure what he could do to help comfort the women holding each other in front of him. He wasn’t good at comforting. He never had been.

It seemed like hours before the hospital room door opened, but really it had only been fifteen minutes since he and Molly had arrived.

A disheveled looking doctor with graying hair stepped out of the room and dragged a hand across the back of his neck. “Mrs. Tanner?”

Annie had pulled out of Molly’s arms. She nodded weakly.

“Your husband has had a scare, but he’s stable now. We think he had a reaction to one of the medications we were using to keep his blood from clotting. We’ve stopped that medication and will see how he is in a couple of hours. For now, though, he’s not seizing, and his breathing and heart rate are normal. The only not so good news is that although his brain waves are normal, we won’t know for sure how the stroke affected him cognitively until he comes out of the coma.”

Annie pressed her hand to her mouth, tears flowing freely.

“So, this wasn’t another stroke?” Molly asked.

The doctor shook his head. “No. Thankfully, not.” He gestured toward the door. “You’re welcome to go back in. I’ll be back to check on him before I leave for the day.”

Annie nodded, her face streaked with tears. “Thank you.”

The doctor nodded in return, his smile slight, revealing exhaustion.

Alex waited until Molly and Annie walked inside and then followed them, sitting on the other side of the room as they approached the bed. Annie slid her hand under one of Robert’s  and Molly held the other. A half an hour later, after the women talked, cried, and talked some more, Alex decided they needed a break. He stood, laying his hand against Molly’s back.

“You two need some lunch. Go. I’ll stay with Robert.”

“I appreciate that but —”

He interrupted Annie. “Go. You’ll be no good to him if you collapse.”

She nodded, a faint smile crossing her worn expression. Her hand against his face was warm. “Thank you, Alex. I’m so glad you’re here.”

She hugged him briefly before she and Molly walked into the hallway. Her tenderness toward him was something foreign to him in some ways, after growing up in a family that rarely showed affection, but it was also familiar in that it was how Annie had always shown him love.

Alex pulled the chair closer to the bed, sitting and leaning back. He stretched his legs out in front of him, pulling his hat down across his face, and folding his hands across his stomach. He didn’t feel like praying again. He wasn’t sure prayers worked. Instead, he was going to take the time to at least try to calm his racing thoughts and hope that Robert would pull through all of this and be the same, good man he’d been before.

***

The sound of choking, coughing, and gagging woke Alex. He hadn’t expected to fall asleep in the chair, but he also hadn’t expected to wake up to find three nurses around the bed, leaning over Robert, comforting him.

“It’s okay, Mr. Tanner.”

 “You’re in the hospital.”

“You’ve been in a coma.”

“You might feel funny because we’ve had you on some medicine.”

“Your throat might be sore because we had you intubated part of the time.”

“Don’t try to get up, sir.”

Alex stood, looking over one of the nurse’s shoulders so Robert could see him. Robert’s body stilled, his breathing slowing.  The nurse stepped aside so Alex could stand closer to the bed.

He looked down into glazed eyes not sure if they were seeing anything or not.

“Hey.”

Robert swallowed hard, closed his eyes briefly, opened them again.

 “Hey.”

Robert’s voice was raw, barely above a whisper.

Emotion clutched at Alex’s throat and moisture spread across his eyes.

“You would pick a time when Annie isn’t here to wake up, wouldn’t you?”

A faint smile tilted one corner of Robert’s mouth upward.

“You —” He swallowed hard. Tried again. “You  . . .take  . . care of . . .” His voice was halting. “My girls?”

“As much as they would let me, sir. You have some stubborn, independent women in your life.”

The faint smile again, eyes drifting closed again. “Take care of Annie and Molly.”

Alex scoffed. “You’re going to take care of them. You’re awake. That’s a good sign.”

Robert closed his eyes and then opened them again. Alex could tell he was fighting to keep them open.

“I’ll take care of Annie,” he whispered, reaching out and grasping Alex’s forearm. His grasp was stronger than Alex expected. “You take care of Molly.”

As emotion threatened to spill over, Alex knew he had to pull his gaze away, get one of the nurse’s attention, break the moment. “His wife and daughter are in the cafeteria – they need to know he’s awake. Can you stay with him while I —”

“I’ll find them,” the nurse said. “I’m sure he’d rather have his son here with him.”

Alex shook his head. “No, I’m not his son. I’m just —”

“Like a son.” Alex looked back at Robert saw him watching him, felt his hand squeezing his forearm. He managed a slight nod of his head. “Like a son.”

Alex pinched the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb and closed his eyes tight against the tears. He fought the emotion hard, but a tear managed to slip through, down his cheek and dripped on to his coat sleeve.

He glanced at Robert, saw his eyes were still open, still watching him, his smile faint but widening.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 36

We are winding down to the end of The Farmer’s Daughter. I’ve been sharing chapters here since April and I’m in the middle of edits, revisions, rewrites and all that jazz. I finished the book last week, but I am still reworking chapters and scenes and trying to decide what I need to add and remove.

As always, this is a work in progress and there could be typos, plot holes, etc. Please feel free to tell me about them in the comment section or by using the contact form. This is a chapter I will definitely be working on because I didn’t get the chance to read and edit again like I normally try to do before I post it.

You can catch up with the rest of the story HERE or at the link at the top of the page. If you are new here, you can read an excerpt of my novel A New Beginning here or an excerpt of Rekindle here.




Chapter 36

Annie ran her fingertips along the veins on the back of Robert’s hand. Up and down. Back down to his fingertips, sliding her hand under his and intertwining her fingers with his.

Lifting his hand, she pressed the back of it against her cheek, closed her eyes, and remembered their wedding night and so many nights afterwards when his hands had gently caressed her skin. She thought of the many times his hands had cradled her face, stroked her hair when she cried, clasped her hands as she prayed.

“I don’t know how to help her, Robert,” she’d whispered one night two weeks ago as they laid in bed. “She’s restless. I think she wants to see if there is a life for her off the farm, but this is all she’s ever known. Part of me wants to shove her out the door and say ‘go find what’s out there for you’ and part of me wants to hold on to her.”

He’d kissed her forehead and nodded. “I know. I feel the same way. I even hinted to her that it’s okay to leave if she wants to. I can’t imagine waking up and not seeing her at the breakfast table, but maybe she does need to explore a life away from here.”

Annie had sighed and intertwined her fingers with his, the same way she was now. “And then there is Jason and Ellie . . .”

Robert had laughed softly. “Annie, you can’t stay up all night worrying about our adult children. We can’t fix everything for them. They have to do some of it themselves.”

Annie had sighed and closed her eyes against the moonlight spilling in from the bedroom window. “I know,” she whispered. “I know. But what do you think happened between them that they’re not talking?”

Robert rubbed her arm gently and kissed her forehead one more time. “Go to bed, Annie.”

She wondered if these hands, laying here now, so still, would ever do those things again, touch her, comfort her. What would she do without him if he didn’t pull out of this? Never before had she so clearly understood the pain her mother-in-law had faced a year ago as she held her husband’s hand, begging God not to take him home.

“Not yet,” Franny had said, tears in her eyes. “Not yet, Lord.”

And now Annie was saying the same, praying for a man in the prime of his life, who had so many years ahead of him, who meant the world to her.

“Not yet, God, please. Not yet.”

She laid her head against Robert’s hand clutched in hers and closed her eyes, the tears falling freely. Her head jerked up fast seconds later at the garbled sound of choking.

At the sight of Robert’s body convulsing, his muscles tightening like a rope being yanked hard upwards, she cried out and stood from the bed, letting go of his hand. His body stiffened, then convulsed again.

“Oh God. No.”

 Two hands gripped her shoulders, pulled her back away from the bed, let her go. A nurse stepped around her swiftly; the nurse who a few moments ago had been on the other side of the room filling out paperwork. The young woman’s hand moved expertly, pushed a button then grabbed Robert by both arms, holding him down against the bed.

In minutes the room became a blur of blue and green, nurses and doctors, pushing past her, reaching, mashing buttons, leaning over her husband, calling out words and terms she didn’t understand.

She clutched her shirt at her chest, backed against the wall and stared in horror at it all. Wild beeps blistered her ears then a long beep that bore its way into her mind.

“Clear!”

Her heart raced at the word, bile rose in her throat, cold shivered through her.

“Oh God,” she whispered. She slammed her back against the wall, sliding down it, darkness drifting across her vision, her world falling apart around her.

“Oh God. God help him.”

***

They were in Alex’s truck for the drive to the hospital this time and Molly was looking at  a stack of country music CDs and a container of toothpicks in the console.  She flipped through the CDs and pulled out George Straight.

“Mind if I put this one in?”

He leaned back in the seat, draped one arm over the steering wheel, the other over the back of the seat as he settled into the groove of the 65 mph speed limit. “Not at all.”

It had been a month since Robert had fallen into the coma, a little less since Alex’s mom had visited. Molly hadn’t asked about their conversations and Alex hadn’t offered.

They had both spent their time working on the farm, at the country store, and discussing Walt and Hannah’s ideas with Jason when he’d come home from the hospital after spending almost a week staying at a nearby hospital with Annie. Jason had stayed home this time, promising Molly he would find time to work things out with Ellie, straighten out whatever he had broken.

Molly had made a promise of her own to Liz. When Robert came home, Molly would move into an apartment with Liz, to offer support and be there when the baby was born.

“If Dad comes home —” Molly had started.

“Not “if”, Molly,” Liz had said. “When.”

“Yes,” Molly said. “When.”

They were half an hour from the hospital now.

A smile tugged at the corner of Alex’s mouth as George’s smooth tone drifted from the speakers.

“What’s that smile for?”                                

He shook his head. “Just thinking about how this song makes me think of you.”

Warmth rushed through the center of her chest. “Really?”

He kept his eyes on the road, but he was smiling. “Sure. A goodbye kiss is all I need from you.” He glanced at her. “And a hello one for that matter.”

She looked out the front windshield, a shy smile crossing her face, unsure how to take him sharing with her that certain songs made him think of her.

“Did you listen to country before you came here?”

He shook his head, smiling. “No. Never. I used to go in my room and blast Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, or anything else that was loud and could block out my parents and later my thoughts.”

Molly stretched her legs out in front of her and settled back against the seat, enjoying learning more about him, the sound of his voice. “What made you start listening to country?”

“If you remember, I had to listen to it.” He grinned. “It’s all you guys every played in the barn. Eventually, though, it grew on me. The lyrics spoke to me about things I’d always wanted but never had and started wondering if I could have.”

Molly laughed. “Women in Daisy Dukes in the back of a pick-up with a keg of beer?”

Alex tipped his head back and laughed. “No. I’d had some of that before.” Red spread across his cheeks and he cleared his throat. “All that wasn’t what I really wanted or needed. It was the other kind of country songs that caught my attention. The ones about the land, small towns, good people, and,” he reached over and took her hand in his, brought it to his mouth and kissed the back of it. “A good woman.”

Molly’s heartrate increased, watching him as he watched the road, starting to believe that he truly meant what he was saying, which was both thrilling and terrifying.

Silence settled over them for a few moments, the sound of the tires on the highway the only sound. 

He broke the silence first. “You know something else?” He rubbed the top her hand with his thumb. “Your dad has been more of a father to me than my dad ever was.”

He looked in the side mirror, pulled into the other lane. His smile faded and a distant expression crossed his face. “When mom was here, she told me my dad has cancer.”

Molly’s eyebrow furrowed in concern, even though he didn’t exactly seem upset. His tone was neutral, more matter-of-fact than anything else.

“You okay?”

 “Oddly, yeah.” He pulled into the other lane, both hands on the wheel. “I mean I should be sad or worried, right? But I don’t feel anything. I’m not worried about him or sad or angry or . . .” He paused and looked at her again, frowning briefly, shrugging. “Well, anything. It’s normal for there to be some kind of drama with my dad. This is just another time I’m supposed to care, but don’t.”

Molly had never not cared about her dad, but in Alex’s case she could understand why he found it hard to care for the man who had essentially abandoned his wife and children. Still, finding out his father had cancer had to have been a shock.

 “I know.” Alex shook his head. “It’s not normal not to care when you find out your dad has cancer. I probably need some kind of therapy.”

Molly laid her hand against his upper arm. “Therapy may be in order someday, yes, but a brain can only process so much and you’ve had a lot happen in a short time. Cut yourself some slack.”

Looking up at the exit sign for the hospital, Alex blew out a breath. “Yeah. I’ll try. One good thing is that they caught it early from what Sam said. The doctors are optimistic that he’ll beat it.”

Molly moved closer as he pulled into a parking space, kissing his cheek as he pushed the truck into park. “I’ll be here if you need me, okay?”

He smiled and kissed her briefly on the mouth. “I know. Thank you.” He tilted his head toward the door. “Come on. Enough about my dad. Let’s head in and check on yours.”

Molly walked into the hospital, hopeful her mom would tell her good news but when she saw her mom sitting on the floor in the hallway, her legs hugged to her chest, her forehead on her knees, she knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 35


Welcome to a special Fiction Saturday and another chapter of The Farmer’s Daughter. If you want to catch up on the rest of the story click HERE. I posted Chapter 34 yesterday.



Chapter 35
Molly was tired of looking at her phone, waiting for Jason or her mom to call her with an update. She knew Jason was anxious to head home, take his mind off things by getting back to work. They’d agreed he would head home in a couple of days and they would switch places.

Her mom had sounded exhausted, yet still in good spirits, when she’d talked to her the night before. Molly wished she could make it all better, take away the fear she’d heard in her mom’s voice. None of it seemed real. Her dad should be with her right now in the barn, or at least out in one of the fields planting rye not laying in a hospital bed four hours away.

Looking out the barn door as she filled the bottles for the calves, she squinted at the sun bouncing off the hood of Cecily’s Jaguar as it pulled into the driveway and headed toward the barn. She hadn’t spoken to Alex since he’d taken his mother to dinner, but he knew Cecily had planned to head back to Baltimore today.

Molly stepped outside, watching the woman step out of her car, struck again with how out of place she looked on a farm in her expensive clothes and designer boots. She was also struck, again, how different Alex was from his mother

“Good afternoon, Cecily.” She smoothed her hands along her jeans, sucked in her stomach, still thinking of the way Cecily had looked her up and down at the house the day before and her comment about the ‘leggy blonds.’ “Alex isn’t here right now. He is up at one of the other fields.”

Cecily slid her sunglasses on. “That’s fine. I just thought I’d say goodbye before I headed back.”

Molly slid her phone out of her pocket. “Let me call him down for you.”

Cecily shook her head and held her hand up. “You know what? No. That’s okay. I doubt he’d want to see me anyhow. I’m afraid he didn’t find me in very good shape last night.”

She cleared her throat and looked at the ground briefly then back up at Molly again. “Have you heard anything about your father?”

“Just that he’s the same as before.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Cecily looked out at the cows in the pasture. “It’s tough for you all without him, I’d imagine.”

Molly nodded, sliding her phone back in her coat pocket. “Yes. It definitely is. We’ve been trying to pay off a loan and the deadline was coming up this week, so that’s made it a little harder too.”

Cecily’s eyebrows furrowed as she turned her gaze back to Molly. “A loan?”

Molly kicked at the dirt with the tip of her boot, wishing he hadn’t said anything about the loan. “Yeah, well, dad and Uncle Walt were trying to help make ends meet during a tough time and got behind. It will work out though.”

“So, what’s going to happen now?”

“We were able to pay off part of it at the end of summer.” Molly moved her gaze across the field, away from Cecily’s curious gaze, suddenly uncomfortable discussing her family’s personal business and wondering why she had started to in the first place. “And this morning my uncle got a call from the bank. They granted a six month hardship deferment after they heard about what happened to my dad.”

“Wow.” Cecily frowned. “I’ve never heard of a bank doing something like that.”

“It’s a small town,” Molly said. “Everyone knows everyone and for the most part people seem to want to help other people. We didn’t expect that, but we’re grateful.”

Cecily rubbed her hands across her arms as a breeze moved strands of hair across her face.

“What will happen when the deferment is up though? Will you be able to keep the farm?”

Molly shrugged a shoulder. “I’m not sure. We always seem to manage somehow. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

Cecily looked out across the fields again, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Your family has a nice farm here.”

“Thank you.” Molly shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her coat and gestured toward the west. “Further down is the farmland that used to be my grandparents. Both sets of grandparents actually. One lived at the first farm and the other one about a mile past that. Alex lives with Jason at my mom’s parents’ old place. Beyond that is land my family bought years ago to create Tanner Enterprises to try to help other farmers either stay in business or sell and move on.”

Cecily nodded slowly, following Molly’s gesture toward land she couldn’t see.   

 “It really is impressive what your family has done here, Molly. My husband would be amazed at their ingenuity and resolve not to give up.” She looked at Molly. “He sells and buys real estate for a living. He’s made the bulk of his money off multi-million dollar deals. Much different than what all of you are dealing with, of course, but he’d still be impressed.”

She pressed her lips together for a moment, opened her mouth to say something and closed it again.

She cleared her throat.  “What do you think your parents would say if I wrote them a check to help pay off that loan?”

Molly’s eyes widened. “Oh. Well, I don’t know, but Mrs. — I mean, Cecily, it’s a lot of money and —”

Cecily waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Money isn’t an issue.” She was playing with her necklace, sliding the charm up and down the chain. “Would they feel like it was charity if I wrote them a check? They’re hard workers. Maybe they wouldn’t want to feel like someone was pitying them. I don’t want them to feel that way. It’s just —”

Cecily took a step forward, pressed the charm against her bottom lip, and tilted her head, narrowing her eyes. “I wasn’t a very good mother, Molly. I’m sure you’ve heard that from Alex.”

Molly didn’t know how to answer so she didn’t. She simply watched Cecily as she turned her head to watch the sunset.

“It’s okay,” Cecily said without looking at her. “You don’t have to tell me. I know.” She turned her head to look at Molly again. “I can’t give Alex back all those years where I wasn’t who I should have been to him. I think at this point saying ‘I’m sorry’ would sound hollow and cold somehow. The only way I’ve ever known how to show my boys I care about them is to buy them things.” A slight smile tugged at one side of her mouth. “Sad, I know.”

She shook her head slightly and smoothed her hands down her skirt. “I know I can’t buy Alex’s love, but he loves this farm. He loves your parents and brother, and from watching how he looked at you yesterday, I can tell he loves you too. If helping your family will help Alex be happy then it’s what I want to do.”

Molly took a deep breath. She was afraid to say anything that might offend this woman she barely knew but she still felt it needed to be said. “Cecily, as much as that money would help my family, I really believe Alex needs to hear from you that you care about him. That’s what he needs.”

Cecily looked down at her pink high heels, twisted the tip of one in the dirt, and laughed softly. “It sounds so easy when you say it.” She drew in a deep breath and hugged her arms tight around herself. “Maybe I’ll try that, but until then will you talk to your mother? Ask her if she’ll allow me to help.”

Molly smiled, pushing a strand out of her face as a breeze blew at it. “I’ll ask.”

Cecily rubbed her arms against the cold. “Thank you.”

She started to turn toward her car, wind whipping at her hair. Molly had already been bold when she told this woman she barely knew that she needed to talk to her son, so she decided to be bold again.

“Would you like to stay for lunch?”

Cecily turned back toward her.

“I was just going to cook some chicken for me and Alex,” Molly said. “and bring my grandmother down to eat with us. Why don’t you stay?”

Cecily chewed on her lower lip for a moment, then released it. “Thank you, Molly, but I think I’d better get on the road.” She opened the driver side door, then paused, holding on to it and looking over the edge. “Tell Alex I said good-bye and I’ll be in touch.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for him?”

Cecily shook her head. “No. That’s fine. I think he’s happier when I’m not around.”

When the door to the car closed, Molly felt the heaviness of a family’s brokenness in Cecily’s words. Her family life had been so much different than Alex’s. Her relationship with her parents was so much different. She couldn’t help but feel guilt that she had been given two parents who loved her and loved each other.

While she’d heard the stories about Alex’s mother, she now saw a reason for the walls Alex had built around himself, for the destructive behavior he had engaged in to try to forget it all. She’d sensed a sadness in Alex for as long as she’d known him, but now she had seen that same sadness behind the eyes of the woman who had given birth to him, a woman that Molly had a feeling wanted a real relationship with her son, but didn’t know how to make it happen.

***

Walt sipped coffee from the mug and let out a long sigh.

“Now that was definitely needed,” he said with a contented smile. “That’s good coffee, Molly. Not as good as mine, but good nonetheless.”

Molly chuckled. “Your coffee tastes like tar, Uncle Walt. Anything has to be better than that.”

Walt gasped in mock shock. “Molly Tanner. How could you? I’m your favorite uncle.”

Bert rolled his eyes and laughed. “Yeah, right. You know I’m her favorite uncle.”

“Boys. Boys. Settle down.” Hannah sat across from Molly with her own cup of coffee. “We all know she loves both of you.” She stirred cream and sugar into her coffee and sipped it. “But she loves me more.”

Franny, sipping tea instead of coffee, raised a mischievous eyebrow. “And she loves me more than all of you, so that settles that.” She winked at Molly who laughed and took her hand, squeezing it gently.

“I love all of you,” Molly said. “Now, what is this meeting all about?”

Leaning back against the kitchen counter, Alex folded his arms across his chest and watched the exchanges with what looked to Molly like an amused expression. She poured creamer in her coffee and leaned back in the chair, looking at Walt.

“It is about some ideas your aunts and I have had about how to keep our farms, the store, and Tanner Enterprises as a whole making us a profit,” Walt said, rubbing his chin, his elbow propped on the table. “I mentioned some of this to Annie last night when she called, and she said she was on board with it but wanted us to discuss it all together as a group.”

The only one who wasn’t there was Walt’s wife, who was manning the store with Ellie while they were all at Robert and Annie’s farm, and Jason who was returning the next day.

“There’s a young kid in the next county over who mentioned to me at one of the 4H shows that his younger brother has a milk allergy,” Walt continued. “He’s allergic to the protein. While doing some research about milk allergies for a school paper, this kid found out about something called A2 milk, which I had briefly heard about at one point. Some Jersey cows produce this A2 milk, which is apparently easier for some people to digest. The kid said a simple genetic test using the hair of the cow can help determine if a cow produces A2 milk or not. It could be an expensive endeavor to start, but if some of our cows produce this milk, it could be another revenue source for the store.”

Hannah nodded. “There are a lot of people out there who are sensitive to dairy but who would still like the health benefit of milk. We have people who mention their sensitivity to dairy a lot in the store. This could help them and us.”

Molly and Alex listened as her aunt detailed additional ideas for the country store, including items to add to the café she had already suggested they add.

“We thought an indoor patio near the greenhouse would be a nice addition,” she said. “That might not come right away, of course. We have to see if the café takes off first.”

Walt looked between Molly and Alex. “We wanted to discuss all of this with you two because we’d love for Molly to help with the advertising and promotion, maybe by starting one of those things on the internet.” He looked at Hannah. “What did you call it again?”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “Really, Walt. You need to move into the 21st century.” She winked at him and looked at Molly. “A website and a blog. I know you’re good at writing and thought that might be up your alley.”

Walt looked at Alex. “And Alex, we’re hoping that you’ll stay on and help us with the construction of a new milking station for the A2 cows, if we have any, and maybe in the future a bottling plant. We think you could run it. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, a lot of drive, and from what I can see, you really care about this farm.” He paused a moment, rubbed his stubbled chin. “So, what do you think? Will you stay on? Help us out?”

Molly’s eyes moved to Alex and she drew in a slow breath, holding it, waiting for his answer. She didn’t have to wait long.

“Yes, sir. I’d be glad to stay on.”

She let her breath escape slowly.

Walt smirked. “I’m sure my having a pretty niece is a good incentive to stay, eh?”

Alex laughed, looked at the ground and rubbed the back of his neck.

Was he actually blushing? Molly smothered a smile behind her hand.

He looked up, caught her eye, held her gaze. “It certainly is, Walt. It certainly is.”

Hannah smiled at Molly. “So, Molly, what do you think? Is this something you’d be interested in as well?”

“It is,” Molly said. “The only thing we have to do now is sell the idea to Dad.”

Everyone nodded, a somber tone settling over them.

“Don’t worry,” Franny said finally. “I’ll make him see the positives of it. I’m his mother, after all. He has to listen to his mother, right?”

Everyone agreed, but Molly knew they were all hoping they’d have a chance to pitch their idea to Robert, that he’d wake up again so they could.

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 32

I posted Chapter 31 yesterday, if you are interested. To catch up with the other chapters click HERE or the top of the page. Also, if the chapter shows up twice here somehow, I apologize. WordPress was giving me a fit last night when I scheduled it.


Chapter 32

They’d been on the road for 90 minutes.

She was restless.

He could tell by how she kept shifting to try to find a more comfortable position and the way her face kept scrunching up like she was thinking deeply.

He knew what she was thinking about, worrying about.

Her father.

The farm.

Hopefully not him.

He pulled off the exit onto the highway. “What’s keeping you awake?”

“Your driving.”

He laughed. “Thanks a lot. I thought I was doing pretty good.”

A tractor trailer roared by them, followed closely by a red convertible with the top down. A man about 50 and a young girl were in the front seat, the wind whipping their hair back.

Molly shuddered and hugged her arms to her. “It is way too cold to have the top down.”

Alex leaned back and propped his wrists on the steering wheel. “So, are you going to keep changing the subject or are you going to tell me what’s really bothering you? Is it your dad? Have you heard anything?”

Molly wrapped her coat around the front of her like it was a blanket and slid down in the seat. “That’s part of it, yes. She called while you were getting dressed. He’s in surgery and the doctor said it could take a few hours. She’s going to call when she knows more.”

He changed lanes, passing a small sedan. He rubbed his unshaven jawline with his chin, trying to keep his thoughts from jumping to the worst when it came to Robert. He probably shouldn’t bring it up, but he was starting to wonder if their conversation in the barn before the accident was bothering her too.

 “Listen, maybe this isn’t the time, but about Jessie —”

She waved at him dismissively. “Jason and I talked. He said you told him about Jessie.”

He glanced at her. “And?”

“And what?”

“And do you believe me?”

She looked at him, catching his eye as he glanced at her then back at the road.

“Yeah. I do.”

“I meant what I said, Molly. All of it. About how long I loved you, how you were the only person I could think of that night.”

He reached over and took her hand in his and she smiled but then nodded toward the steering wheel. “Two hands on the wheel, Stone. This family has enough going on without us driving into another car.”

She reached for her bag as he grinned and put his hand back on the wheel.

“Hey,” she said, sliding his phone out of her purse. “I almost forgot. Jason grabbed your phone when he went to get your clothes. He said you had a couple of missed calls and might want to check them.” She laid it on the seat, but he kept driving, ignoring the phone.

“You don’t want to check your messages?”

He shook his head. “Nope. Doubt it’s anyone I want to talk to.”

“What if it’s your mom or dad? Maybe you’d —”

“I’ll check it later. I’ve got enough on my mind right now. I just want to check on Robert.”

His tone, while not hard, indicated he didn’t want to discuss it further.

Molly shrugged. “Okay, but maybe you should tell your mom you were in the hospital at least?”

He shook his head. “Mom’s not maternal. You know that.” He smirked at her. “I’ve told you a few of those stories.”

She tipped her head forward to capture her hair into her hands and pull it into a ponytail. “Yeah, you have. If you don’t want to call her right now, I understand.” She sighed and sat back against the seat. “I guess all this means we won’t hit that deadline to pay that loan off. We’re not even going to hit the extended one that Bill was able to get for us.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he told her, shifting lanes again. “That farm has been in your family for how many years again?”

She tipped her head, her eyebrows furrowed as she thought about it. “Wow. Good question. I’m not sure really. I mean, the main farm was founded by my great-great grandfather. His brother ran it for a while with my great-grandfather. Then Grandpa’s dad passed it on to him. Grandpa expanded it in the ‘60s and again about 15 years ago.”

Alex whistled. “So, it’s been in your family like 200 years or something.”

Molly nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”

 “That’s amazing. Do you guys know how amazing that is? I mean, I don’t know anything about my family. We don’t have anything in our family that’s been passed down from generation to generation like that. I don’t even know much about my family beyond my maternal grandfather.”

“Honestly, it’s something I’ve taken for granted all these years,” Molly said softly. “Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’ll ever find a life beyond the farm. I keep wondering if this is all I’m meant to do — milking cows and shoveling their poop. It’s weird, before I learned we could lose it, I wanted to walk away from it all.”

Alex shifted gears as he passed a slower moving car. “Do you still want to?”

She slid her hand along the inside edge of the door. “Sometimes.” She looked out the window at farmland fading into more towns with large buildings and housing developments. “But I can’t leave my family, especially now when they need my help the most.”

She pushed her hand back through her hair and propped her arm against the window.

“What about you? I can’t imagine that you ever thought you’d still be working on a farm. Have you ever thought about leaving?”

Alex winced. “Ouch. That’s a loaded question.”

He looked over at her, at her questioning expression, and cleared his throat. “Honestly, yes, I have thought about it. I thought about it after I was here for two years. I thought about it again after I was here for three. Then one day I realized I was in love with the farm. I realized I loved waking up in the morning and smelling freshly cut hay and watching the sun rise while we milked the cows. I even loved milking the cows, despite the fact they totally freaked me out when I first started. I loved knowing we were growing food for the world to eat and for the first time in my life I loved hard work.”

She watched him with a smile as he pulled the truck off the highway, parking at a rest stop. He shifted the truck into park, laid his arm across the back of the seat, and looked at her for a few moments before he spoke again. He trailed the back of his index finger along her jawline.

 “I also looked over one day and saw how beautiful you’d become. Soon, the love of farming wasn’t the only thing keeping me here.”

He tucked a strand of hair that fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the courage to tell you how I felt, but just being around you was enough.” He slid closer. “For a while anyhow.”

He kissed her mouth briefly, then jerked his head toward the driver’s side. “It’s your turn to drive and my turn to rest. I’m not sure but I think that painkiller messed me up.” He made a face. “I’m rambling way too much about my feelings.”

She tipped her head back and laughed.

“Not as much as last night,” she whispered after he’d climbed out on his way to the passenger side.

***

Alex scrolled through the missed calls on his phone. Three from Sam, two from his mom, a voicemail from his mom, and two voicemails from Sam.

He listened to Sam’s first. “Alex. Where are you? I need to talk to you. Call me when you get a chance.”

His Mom: “So, you’re ignoring your mother now, are you? Well, that’s not very nice Alex. I’ve been trying to reach you all week. It would be nice if you’d return a call.”

Sam again.

“Alex. Seriously. Pick up. Don’t ignore me. I need you to call me. It’s about Dad. Call me when you get this.”

Alex slid his finger over the delete button. How many times in the last five years had he received similar messages? And when he’d called his brother had told Alex his dad had moved another woman in, or was selling company stocks, or wanted Alex to come work for him. It was never an emergency but somehow Sam always seemed to think it was.

As for his Mom, she craved attention she’d never earned.

He tossed the phone on the seat of the truck and yawned. He and Molly had spent the day waiting for Robert to come out of surgery. They’d hoped for good news, but had receive a mix of bad and good news. The good news was that Robert’s pelvis had a handful of screws in it, but doctor’s expected him to be able to walk again, hopefully within the next six months. The bad news was that Robert had had a small stroke during surgery and hadn’t woken up yet.

Alex had left Molly, Jason and Annie to have some private time with Robert. He’d told them he planned to take a nap in the truck and he had, for about two hours. Now he was awake, watching the sun set between two tall buildings in the distance. There was a time when being in the city had invigorated him and sent a chill of anticipation shivering through him. There was always something happening in a city.

Now, though, after living five years in almost completely wide-open spaces, the buildings, parking lots, and loud noises made him feeling like the world was closing in on him. He stretched the full length of his body across the front seat and closed his eyes, wishing sleep would come again. If he slept, he didn’t have to think about Robert hooked up to all those wires and tubes in that hospital room. If he slept, he didn’t have to think about the possibility of losing the only man besides his grandfather who had shown him what a real man should be. He laid his arm across his eyes and let out a long breath.

He remembered that one morning he’d stumbled into the barn after a night of drinking. His eyes had been blood shot and his head felt like a bowling ball. Despite trying his best to hide it, he was – completing tasks slower than molasses. Robert had seen right through him. Unlike most employers who might have lectured him and told him to get his act together, Robert had asked him first if he was okay.

Alex had nodded but then clutched at his head when pain seared through it.

“Looks like you have a hangover,” Robert said, wrapping a rope around his hand to hang up in the barn.

“Yeah.”

“You’re not good to anyone in this shape. You were supposed to be on the tractor today and I can’t have you out there without a clear head.”

Robert had jerked his head back toward Alex’s truck, the rope wrapped up tight around his hand now. “Head back to the house and sleep it off. If you feel better this afternoon come back. If not, I’ll see you in the morning.”

More than anger, Alex heard disappointment in Robert’s voice. He’d left without argument, too embarrassed to even try to defend himself. After a few hours of sleep and some food he’d wandered back to the barn and found Robert underneath one of the farm’s trucks, changing the oil.

He stood next to the struck, shifting his feet, his hands in his front jean pockets.

“Feeling better?” Robert had asked.

“Yeah.”

Sliding out from under the truck and standing, Robert wiped his hands on a rag, looking at Alex, appearing to be thinking about what to say next.

“You’re a good, kid, Alex,” he’d finally said. “Polite. Hard worker. I think you’ve got a really bright future doing pretty much whatever you want to do. I know I’m not your dad and maybe I shouldn’t be saying anything, but I hate to see you throw it all away because of alcohol.”

Alex kicked at the dirt with his shoe, looking at the ground. “Yes, sir.”

“I hope you know that I don’t mean to be lecturing you, or telling you what to do,” Robert had continued. “It’s just that I’ve come to care about you and don’t want to see you get hurt.”

The softness in Robert’s voice had startled Alex. His own dad had never talked to him that way. Michael Stone’s idea of a pep talk was to tell Alex to “grow up” or “be a man.” Rather than being concerned about Alex, he was normally concerned about his own reputation or the reputation of his business.

Robert hadn’t only shown Alex what it meant to be good father by how he treated him but also in how he treated his own children. His example of how to be a good husband also fascinated Alex. How he treated Annie was worlds apart from how Alex’s father had treated his Alex’s mother, or any of the women in his life actually.

Alex had walked into the farmhouse one day to tell Robert he’d figured out an issue with the feeder and wished a few moments later he had knocked. He had interrupted a tender moment between Annie and Robert. Thankfully it wasn’t too racy, but it had been enough to make him try to back out slowly so he wouldn’t be seen.

Robert had been standing behind Annie while she cooked lunch, kissing her neck.

“Marrying you was the best thing I ever did, Annie Tanner,” Robert had said softly.

She had laughed and looked over her shoulder at Robert. “Are you saying this because I’m making you homemade chocolate pudding for dinner tonight?”

“No, ma’am. I think that even when you don’t feed me my favorite dessert.”

Alex had started to back away, trying to escape before they saw him, but he ran into the table by the couch and almost knocked over a lamp. The sound of the lamp rattling back into place as Alex caught it and placed it upright gave Alex away and he smiled sheepishly as the couple turned to look at him. Even though he hadn’t seen anything he shouldn’t have, he felt like he had been spying on an intimate moment.

The pair had laughed at him when he stuttered out an apology, assuring him they’d only been chatting. They might have only been chatting, but the fact they did so like a newly married couple, despite being married almost 30 years, made Alex realize not all marriages were like his parents had been — loveless and full of deceit and bitterness.

Rain splattered the windshield in the truck and Alex watched droplets slide down the glass and pool at the bottom.

In the hospital room, Molly, Jason, and Annie had prayed for Robert while he watched uneasily from the other side of the room. At one point Molly had reached for his hand and he’d let her pull him into the circle as they prayed. He closed his eyes, but he didn’t feel comfortable. He didn’t know how to pray or even if he believed there was someone out there or up there to pray to.

Letting out a long breath, he felt emotion catch in his throat. He hadn’t expected that.

“God,” he whispered. “If you’re there, please don’t let Robert die. Don’t take Molly and Jason’s dad from them. Don’t do this to Franny and Annie. They’ve all lost so much already.”

He dragged the back of his hands across his eyes and shook his head.

Well, he’d prayed. He didn’t feel much different, though. It certainly wasn’t like in the movies.

 In fact, he felt a little stupid talking to himself.

He closed his eyes again and let sleep overtake him, hopeful that when he woke up there’d be good news about Robert.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s daughter chapter 31

I’m definitely in need of distractions these days and writing and reading is helping some of that. What are you all doing to distract yourself from stress? Let me know in the comments.

Want to catch up on The Farmer’s Daughter? Click HERE or find the link at the top of the page. Also, let me know about typos or your ideas for what you think should happen next in the comments.

***

Chapter 31

In the ambulance Robert had been too weak to talk, but Annie had held his hand and the steady beat of his heartbeat against her palm was reassuring for the duration of the drive to the hospital.

“Where is the blood coming from?” she’d asked Randy Dunham, one of the EMTs and a former classmate of Jason’s.

“Puncture wound to his back,” Randy said. “They’ll be able to see how bad it is when we get to the hospital. We stopped the bleeding as best as we can for now.”

Annie had thanked him, then turned her attention back to Robert, smoothing his hair back off his forehead, praying for him to pull through somehow. The idea of spending the rest of her life without him by her side terrified her.

“Mrs. Tanner?”

Annie was pulled from her thoughts by the voice of the doctor. She stood quickly, her knees weak. She thought she might not be able to stay upright at first. The room shifted slightly around her and she closed her eyes briefly.

“Yes?”

The doctor’s expression was compassionate and that terrified her. She braced her heart for the worst. As if sensing her unsteadiness, he sat on a small couch and patted the seat for her to sit next to him.

“Your husband is stable right now.” The doctor’s voice was soft. “He has a broken leg, a cracked pelvis, a puncture wound to his back that struck his lung and collapsed it. He’s going to need surgery and that leg is going to need more than what we can offer here, so we’re going to life-flight him to Mercy Hospital. Mercy has one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country working there right now.”

Annie nodded. The doctor kept his eyes focused on her. She was impressed by the compassionate, measured way he spoke to her. She was also surprised by how young he looked, and she realized the older she got the younger doctors had started to look to her

“Unfortunately, he is also bleeding internally.” Annie drew in a sharp breath. “We need to try to find the source of that before we fly him. He’ll have exploratory surgery here tonight to find the bleeding and stop it, and then, if he’s stabilized, we’ll fly him to Mercy first thing in the morning.”

Jason stepped into the waiting room with two cups of coffee. His gaze moved between the doctor and his mom and he recognized the gravity of it all before either of them spoke a word. The doctor looked at Jason, nodded, and then turned his attention back to Annie

“Mrs. Tanner, I don’t want to ask this, but we need to know if Mr. Tanner has a DNR on file, in case we would need it.”

“A DNR?”

Jason sat the coffee cups on the little table next to his mom’s chair. He cleared his throat. “A DNR is a Do Not Resuscitate Order, Mom.”

Tears filled Annie’s eyes, she nodded, and her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh. I don’t kn— I mean. No. He’s never filled one of those out.”

She clutched the arm of the chair, as if to steady her swirling thoughts.

The doctor nodded and covered her hand with his. “Let’s hope we won’t need it, okay? I don’t expect we will, but I needed to ask.”

Tears spilled down Annie’s cheeks. “Can I see him?”

The doctor squeezed her hand as Jason sat on the chair next to her and laid his hand on her back.

“You can,” the doctor said. “I just want you to be prepared. He’s in rough shape. We’re prepping him for surgery, and he’s already being sedated to help with the pain.”

Annie took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. “I understand.”

And she did understand, but when she stood next to Robert and saw how pale he was, and the tubes and IVs hooked up to him, she thought her legs might give way. She wasn’t about to let herself collapse, though. Not when her husband needed her. Jason’s hand on her elbow strengthened her resolve to stay strong. She swallowed the tears and took Robert’s hand.

“You know, Robert, if you wanted a vacation, all you needed to do was ask.”

His eyes were barely open, but he managed a faint smile.

“Cows,” he whispered. “Milking.”

Annie smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “Walt and Hannah are taking care of the farm. You don’t need to worry about that.”

Robert swallowed hard and coughed. His voice faded to a whisper. “Annie, you’ve been the best part of my life. You and our kids. I need you to know that.”

Annie kissed his forehead. “Just rest. We’ll be here when you get out of surgery.”

“Alex and Jason, they’ll  . . . take care of you . . .”

“Robert Charles, don’t you talk that way. You’re going to be fine.”

“But, if —”

Her voice broke as she slid her hand behind his head and clutched his hair, still damp with blood. “God can’t have you yet. Do you understand me? He can’t.”

A faint smile tugged at Robert’s mouth as his eyelids closed. “That’s up  . . . to God.”

Annie waited until Robert’s bed had been wheeled out of the room, turned, and let Jason hold her against her as the tears fell. She pulled away a few moments later, stared at her hand stained with Robert’s blood and staggered toward the bathroom across the hall. Jason followed close behind, steadying her with a hand under her elbow again as she scrubbed the blood from her skin, sobs shaking her shoulders.

“You can’t have him, yet, God,” she choked out between sobs. “Not yet.”

***

Alex was awake but only barely when Molly found him in the ER exam room. His eyes were glassy, and she wasn’t sure if that was from the blood loss or from whatever fluid was being pumped from the IV bag into his arm. His shirt had already been cut away and the wound was covered with blood-stained bandages loosely stuck in place. The bed was slightly reclined.

The nurse had asked her if she was family when she’d first arrived, and when she’d said he didn’t have any family who lived local, the nurse had nodded in understanding and motioned her back.

“The doctor has examined him, stopped the bleeding, and started an IV with painkillers and an antibiotic,” the nurse told her. “Once that kicks in we’ll start cleaning out the wound and stitching him up.” She leaned toward Molly. “Just a heads up, the meds can make some people a little loopy so don’t take anything he says too seriously.”

He flashed her a weak smile as she reached the side of his bed.

“They gave me the good stuff. Said I would need it when they start cleaning this out.”

A nurse loaded supplies onto a tray on the other side of the bed.

Molly decided their usual barn banter style of talking would keep her from feeling too many emotions. “You look like crap.”

A small smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. “I feel like crap.”

“You won’t be feeling much of anything when that painkiller kicks in,” the doctor said as he walked into the room. He held his hand out to Molly and she shook it. “Doctor Murphy. Feel free to keep talking. I’ve got some stuff to get ready over here so we can start fixing this guy up.”

He started opening drawers and cabinets, pulling out gauze, medical tape, and antibiotic cream.

Alex fought to keep his eyes open. “Robert. . . how is he?”

Molly shook her head. “I don’t know yet. Jason went to find Mom and I came to find you.”

“Go,” he whispered. “Be with your dad.”

Molly sighed. “I can’t leave you here alone with that hole in your side, you big loser. I’m the only family you’ve got around here.”

Alex laughed softly then winced. “Don’t make me laugh.”

She tried not to look too closely at the bandage, red seeping through it. “What happened anyhow?”

“I tried to get the tractor off your dad. He told me not to. Didn’t listen. The board broke.”

“Hmmm, yes. I’ve also learned my lesson the hard way when I don’t listen to my dad.”

Alex winced again, trying to push himself up on the bed.

“Molly —”

Molly pressed her hands against Alex’s shoulders. “Um, no. Lay back.”

He fell back against the bed, and exhaled a frustrated sigh, his eyelids heavy.

“We need to talk.”

“We’ll talk later. After you’re fixed up.”

He grabbed her wrist gently. “I didn’t sleep with her, Molly.”

The nurse paused in her journey out of the room and looked back over her shoulder with wide eyes. Molly wished the nurse would keep walking and Alex would stop talking.

“Rest Alex.”

She glanced at the nurse, shooting her a glare. The nurse nodded apologetically and stepped out of the room.

“I didn’t sleep with her,” he repeated softly, so softly she barely heard him. His eyes were closing again.

She squeezed his hand. “I know. We’ll talk more when you’re a little more with it. Okay?”

He nodded weakly. “I’m really glad I never did drugs. Getting drunk was bad enough. This stuff is seriously messing with my mind.”

She laughed softly and shook her head. His eyes drifted closed and she breathed a sigh of relief, glad the painkiller had finally kicked in. Her hand was still holding his and his fingers had tightened around it. She smiled and rubbed the top of his hand with her other hand.

There was something so different about seeing him this way, peaceful and vulnerable versus his joking and teasing in the barn. Sitting with him now reminded him more of that day at the overlook when he kissed her, how his obnoxious façade had fallen, and she had seen a seriousness and sincerity in him she’d never seen before.

Suddenly he mumbled something, and she jumped slightly. She leaned closer to try to understand him, her cheek grazing his as she tilted her head.

His breath was warm against her ear, his lips grazing it, as he spoke. “Molly, I’m scared.”

“To get stitches?”

He tried to shake his head. “No. Of you.”

She smiled, amused at how out of it he obviously was.

“I’m a very intimidating person, I know. I think the painkiller is sending you for a loop.”

He tried to open his eyes, but he was clearly losing the battle. They fluttered closed again. “I’ve never seen my future as clearly as I do when I’m with you.”

“Okay, bud. You really need to —”

“I see babies.”

She pulled her head back and looked at him, then laughed, wondering where this conversation was going. “Did you mean, ‘I see dead people?’”

If he’d been more alert, she knew he would have laughed at her reference to a movie they’d watched together a couple of years ago with Jason and Ellie. They joked about it often in the barn, making the line a running joke between them. Instead of laughing, he grew quiet and she thought he was asleep.

“I’m going to marry you someday, Molly Tanner,” he whispered a few seconds later, his eyes still closed. She leaned down again. “I know it. I’ve known if for a long time, even before I kissed you that day on the overlook. I didn’t want to admit it because it scares me. I never thought I’d get married.”

He took a deep breath, and she could tell he was fighting to keep his eyes open again. She wanted to make another joke, but the tone of his voice was serious. Too serious. She swallowed hard as he spoke again, his lips grazing her skin just below her ear.

“When I kissed you that night in the barn, I saw a baby on your hip and one hugging your leg and you were standing on the porch of Ned and Franny’s house. There was a dog in the yard and cats in the barn. I don’t like cats, but they were there. Do you like cats?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer. His voice was starting to slur. “My truck was there, and your mom and dad were in the backyard. Your mom was watching your dad push a kid on a tire swing. The fields were full of corn and Jason was riding a tractor in the distance. And Ellie was there too . . . She was . . . standing in the front yard with an apple pie and . . .” his eyes closed. “A big belly.”

When he didn’t speak again, she let out the breath she realized she’d been holding. His skin was warm against her lips as she kissed his forehead.

She looked up and saw the same nurse who had been eavesdropping earlier watching her with wide eyes. She guessed the nurse to be a few years younger than her. Her name tag read Mackenzie.

“Oh my gosh. That was, seriously, so romantic.” Mackenzie gushed like the schoolgirl she probably was. “I would just die to have a man say something like that to me.”

Molly scoffed even though nervous butterflies were buzzing in her stomach. “He was under the influence of drugs. I doubt he’ll remember any of this later.”

Dr. Murphy pulled a rubber glove on and smirked. “Honestly, I find a lot of people speak the truth when they’re under sedation.”

“Oh really?” Molly’s tone was doubtful.

“Sure. Didn’t you ever hear about spies being drugged so the government can find out the truth? Like a truth serum.”

“Yes, but he’s on painkillers, not a truth serum.”

Dr. Murphy shrugged. “If you say so.”

Molly looked at Alex, then back at the doctor. “Does anyone remember what they said when they wake up?”

The doctor smiled. “Sometimes.” He pulled antiseptic from the drawer under the tray next to the bed to clean the wound. “Even if he doesn’t, he seems to be a man who knows what he wants. Or at least his subconscious knows.”

He nodded toward the curtain. “Unless you’ve got a strong stomach, you might want to sit in that chair over there while I do this.”

Molly lifted a shoulder in a quick shrug. “I’m a farm girl. I can handle it.”

But when the bandages came off and she saw the deep gash in Alex’s side, she couldn’t handle it.

She took three steps back and steadied herself against the wall, sliding her hand along it slowly until she found the chair. She tipped her head back, closed her eyes and willed the room to stop spinning. Watching someone she loved being sewn back together was a lot different than watching the vet sew the belly of a mama pig closed after they’d delivered a litter of over-sized piglets.

If she couldn’t handle seeing Alex injured without becoming woozy, she knew she’d be a mess when she saw her dad.

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.”

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Bits and Pieces

Truth be told, this weeks chapter is pieces of two chapters as I’m reworking parts of the story. This week I’ll include a snippet between Molly and Robert but also a snippet that will be in Jason’s novella later. I’m looking forward to fleshing out Jason’s story but also his and Ellie’s characters in a novella I plan to call The Farmer’s Son. That will also allow me to focus more on Robert and Jason’s relationshp.



To catch up on the full story click HERE.


Crickets chirped and fireflies blinked in the field.

There was a chill in the air and Molly knew before long winter would arrive and bring with it cold nights and even colder mornings in the barn. Local farmers, including her dad, were already preparing to cut down the dying corn stalks to eventually grind up for feed.

She buttoned her sweater and pushed the porch swing a little to make it sway as she looked out into the dark, thinking about Alex and remembering their kiss from the day before. He’d been right; working together in the barn after that passionate half hour had been awkward. They did their best not to smile too much in front of Jason or her dad or Cody and the other workers who came in and out of the barn throughout the rest of the day.

She did  her best not to smile when his hand grazed her arm as he handed her the pitchfork and he told her later that night on the phone he’d done his best not to grab her, pull her into a stall and kiss her again.

“We’ll be having our first frost before we know it.”

She looked up to see her dad walking out of the darkness from the direction of the barn.

“Not looking forward to the snow, that’s for sure,” she said, though she couldn’t help think how nice it would be to cuddle Alex close on a cold winter night, if they could find somewhere to cuddle without anyone else seeing. She wondered how long they’d keep their relationship secret, or how long they’d be able to. Watching her dad wince as he walked onto the porch and sit on swing next to her, she also wondered how her parents would feel about her and Alex.

“Knee bothering you again?”

Robert shrugged. “It’s always bothering me. A lot of people have it a lot worse.”

“You could slow down a little.”

Her dad looked at her with a mock look of disgust. “And why would I want to do that? Sounds boring to me.” He smiled and slid his arm around her shoulder and hugged her against him. “Plus, I have too much work to do to make sure we pay off this loan in time.”

Molly sighed. “Oh yeah. That.”

Robert reached his other arm around her and hugged her tighter, propping his chin on the top of her head as she rested her cheek against his chest.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the loan before, kid. I didn’t mean to keep things from anyone. I guess I just got cocky. Walt and I both did. We thought we’d be able to pay it off and . . .” Her dad sighed. “and never have to tell anyone we’d sunk the business so far into a hole in the first place, I guess. Apparently, we forgot about Luke 8:17. What is hidden will be seen. And what is out of sight will be brought into the open and made known.”

Molly hated hearing the guilt in her dad’s voice. “You were trying to help, not deceive, Dad. It’s going to work out somehow. Besides, now that we all know we can help find a way to pay it off.” She sat up and looked at him, smiling. “No man is an island after all.”

Robert laughed softly. “Good reminder kid. I guess I just got too wrapped up in wanting to fix it all myself. I thought I could protect the family from the struggle.”

“We’re a family. We’re supposed to struggle together.”

He slid a strand of her hair behind her ear and cupped her chin in his hand. “How did you get to be so smart?”

“I learned it from watching you and mom, you know that.”

He shook his head. “More like your mom.”

She sat back against the swing as he let her face go and together they tipped their heads back and looked up at the stars scattered against an almost pitch black sky.

“Molly?”

“Yeah?”

“I know you won’t always want to stay here with me and your mom. When you’re ready, it’s okay with us. You know that, right?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“Okay. Just checking.”

***

He hadn’t even noticed her standing in the doorway. Not at first anyway. When he did notice her, he couldn’t stop his eyes from sliding over her slender figure cradled in a low cut, tight black tank top, and a blue denim skirt with a hemline that hovered a few inches above her knees. A pair of black, calf high boots completed the outfit.

“Hey, Jason. You looked good out on the field today.”

She bit her lower lip, watching him pull a gray t-shirt over his head and down across his bare chest and then growled softly in approval. “You look good now too.”

There had been so many nights over the years, especially recently, when Jason closed his eyes and saw her in his mind’s eye, hating himself all over again.

Lauren Phillips.

Tall. Blond. Shapely.

Attractive like Ellie but totally opposite in her personality and tone. Ellie’s sweetness was natural, God-given, and genuine. Lauren’s sweetness was an act, a way to get into the heads of men she’d set her sights on and had decided she wanted to conquer. At least that’s how he saw her looking back.

Still, no matter how many ways Jason tried to villainize Lauren, he knew he couldn’t. He’d made the decision to accept her offer, to let her attention lull him into what he’d hoped would be a pleasure filled distraction from the distorting thoughts ruling his brain that third year at college.

He and Ellie had decided to take a break from their relationship before he left for his sophomore year of college. Actually, Ellie had decided. He’d simply agreed because he’d thought she would change her mind in a couple of months. She didn’t and he didn’t try to change it for her. Maybe he should have. He was completely lost without her – without her friendship because that’s what their relationship was — a friendship as much as it was a romantic relationship.

Jason had been brought up in a Christian family, taught that a person was supposed to live within boundaries that God set for them. But those boundaries felt suffocating and boring while he was at college and he wondered if the boundaries were worth it. The boundaries kept him focused on what he didn’t, and couldn’t have. That’s how he felt then anyhow

When Lauren kissed him that night after a party, pulling him toward an open bedroom door in her apartment, he knew he was crossing a boundary he’d set for himself years ago and he didn’t even care anymore. For that brief time, he forgot who he was and it felt amazing.

At first it felt amazing.

Then the guilt set in like a heavy chain around his neck.

It had all been so rushed. The alcohol had blurred his senses, confused his thoughts, tossed him into a world of chaos. She was dressing before he’d even had time to wrap his mind around it all.

He’d woke up a few hours later in his dorm room, Alex standing over him, his expression mixed with concern and confusion.

“Hey, Jase. You okay?”

He’d moved in with Alex at the beginning of the second semester of his sophomore year to remove himself from the peer pressure of living with a bunch of football players in a frat house downtown. Alex, who he’d met his freshman year during an English Lit class hadn’t offered him the break from temptation he’d been hoping for.

Alex had talked him into visiting bars, meeting women – meeting Lauren. Part of him could have blamed Alex like he tried to blame Lauren, but none of it had been either of their fault. He’d made his own decisions and now he had to live with them.

While he had decided that short time in college that his Christian beliefs cut all the fun out of his life, he had later realized that fun without boundaries could lead to dire consequences.

He’d almost lost his football scholarship that year after showing up late to too many practices and showing up more than once with a hangover. He avoided Lauren after their encounter in her bedroom, ignoring her phone calls and telling her that one night she’d knocked on his dorm room door that he had homework to do.

“I guess you got what you wanted,” she snapped, arms folded across her chest, standing in the doorway as he tried to close the door. She lifted an eyebrow and smirked. “Or maybe I just got what I wanted.”

He refocused himself for the remainder of that year and for the next year after that. All he wanted was his degree so he could learn how to make sure his family’s business survived and then he would go home to the farm. During the second half of his junior year he also realized he wanted to go back to Ellie. Along with God she was an anchor for him and he’d let go of them both and it had sent him spinning out of control.

Alex’s reaction to his mortified feelings after sleeping with Lauren were less than supportive. At least at first.

“You got with Lauren Phillips? That girl is hot. She wouldn’t even give me the time of day. What have you got that I don’t?” Alex slapped the back of his hand against Jason’s right bicep. “Oh yeah…these.”

Jason vomited in an empty container from the Chinese restaurant.

Alex made a face. “You’re throwing up after sleeping with a hot woman? Is it the alcohol or maybe you need to tell me something else? Like maybe you don’t like women? Maybe you like —”

“Alex!” Jason wiped his hand across his mouth, looking for a paper towel to clean himself off. “I like women. I am definitely attracted to women. That’s not it. If it was, I wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”

“What situation? Wait. Didn’t you use —”

“I just mean the whole Lauren situation. Geeze, Alex. Don’t make this worse than it is.”

Jason sat back, pressing his hands to his face. “I’m not the kind of guy who just jumps in bed with a woman I don’t even know. You know that.”

“You mean like me?”

“That’s not what I meant, I just mean that I wanted to have a connection with the woman I – with whoever I first — I mean…”

“Oh.”

Alex wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t want to make fun of his friend for this revelation for a couple of reasons. One, he admired Jason for his integrity, his morals, and his sense of romanticism, even if he didn’t have any of those himself. And two, he liked his front teeth and didn’t want Jason to punch them out of his head.

Alex shrugged scooting himself back onto the top of the dresser, his legs hanging down. “Okay, listen. You made a mistake. That’s all. It’s not the end of the world. Just cut Lauren loose and take some time to think about things. About what you really want. This is college. This where we screw up and learn our lessons, right?”

Jason had definitely learned a lesson from the experience, but he wished he hadn’t had to.

The front door slammed open and Alex stepped inside.

Present day Alex; Alex six years later but in some ways the same ole’ Alex.

He brought with him the noise of the storm outside, which pulled Jason out of his thoughts.

Alex’s clothes were drenched, clinging to him as he pushed the door closed. Sliding his cowboy hat off, he propped it on the hook next to the door, then paused and looked at Jason, sprawled on the couch on his back.

“All the lights are off and you’re listening to sad country music. This can’t be good.”

“It’s not sad music. It’s Chris Ledoux.”

“Who you only listen to when you’re sad.” A crack of thunder rattled the window and lightening lit the sky outside. “Did you talk to Ellie?”

“No, not yet.”

“So, you’re just sitting here stressing about talking to Ellie?”

Jason tipped his head back against the arm of the couch, his long legs stretched across the faded grey cushions, one arm laying across his forehead, the other one hanging off the couch.

“Yeah. That and remembering college.”

Alex winced as he pried his wet button up shirt off and tossed it toward the laundry room. “Ah, man, no. This can’t be good.”

He reached flicked the light switch for the overhead light to ‘on.’  “You can’t sit here sitting in the dark reflecting on past mistakes. It’s not healthy.”

Jason burped and reached for the can of soda on the coffee table. Alex kicked at an empty bag of potato chips. “Um…this isn’t healthy either. Where are your regular veggie sticks and protein shakes?”

Jason sighed and rolled on his side to face the back of the couch, feeling like a pouting teenager.

Alex pulled his wet tank top off and walked behind the couch toward the hallway leading to the bathroom. “Okay, listen. I’m going to go get dried off and changed. When I come back, I need you to sit up and tell me what’s going on.”

“Will you have your shirt on when you come back? Because I don’t need to see that.”

Alex scoffed and slapped his hand against his bare chest. “Of course, you need to see this. Who doesn’t?”

“You really want me to answer that?”

“Shut up.”

When Alex came back a few moments later he smacked the bottom of  Jason’s feet and told him to shove over and sit up. Cracking open a can of soda he’d grabbed out of the fridge on the way back to the living room he sat where Jason’s feet had been and took a long drink before speaking.

“Come on, man. What’s going on? Talk to your old friend Alex while you flush all that junk out of your system with this,” he squinted at the label on the water bottle. “Electrolyte enhanced mineral water.”

Jason groaned and sat up, accepting the bottle as Alex handed it to him. He leaned his elbows on his knees and sipped from the bottle, staring at the turned off television.

The rain had slowed down and the thunder was fading. The sound of raindrops against the metal porch roof filled the silence as Alex waited for Jason to talk.

“I just don’t how Ellie will feel when I tell her about Lauren.”

“I know, man, but you’ve got to tell her. It’s the right thing to do.”

Jason looked over his shoulder at his friend. “Since when did you become so ethical?”

Alex pushed his fist gently against Jason’s arm. “Since I started living with you. Blame yourself.”

Jason shrugged and nodded while he drank from the bottle of water. When he looked back at Alex he didn’t see the grin he expected to see. Instead, Alex’s joking demeanor had faded and  his expression had become serious.

“I can’t help feeling some of this is my fault.”

Jason looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

Alex leaned back against the arm of the couch, propping his leg up on the coffee table and sliding an arm behind his head. “You were a good guy when you came to MU. Squeaky clean.” He shrugged his shoulders as he sipped from the soda. “I think I broke you or something.”

Leaning forward, Alex rubbed his hand against his chin, under his bottom lip. “I talked you into going to bars, into drinking. I’m the reason you met Lauren. Maybe I’m the reason you, how do you Christians say it? Compromised your morals?”

Jason laughed, shaking his head as he stood from the couch. “Alex, you didn’t force me to sleep with Lauren Phillips. I did that all on my own. I’m the one who screwed that up. It wasn’t your fault. I’m also the one who made the decision to go with you to those bars and parties.” He pushed his hands into his hair and shook his head again. “If anyone should feel guilty it’s me for not influencing you in a more positive way, telling you that you didn’t need to go out and drink way your childhood pain or find your worth in the way hot women looked at you. I should have taken you to church with me and showed you that there’s more to you than rugged good looks and a charming personality. For that matter I should be doing that now.”

Alex leaned back again and slid his hands behind his head, grinning. “So, you mean you should be my spiritual guide?”

“Well, maybe, yeah. Someone has to help you. You’re a mess.”

Alex playfully tossed a pillow at Jason’s head. “Thanks, jerk, but we’re talking about you. Not me. So, what are you going to do about Ellie?”

Jason stood with his hands on his hips, tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling. “I’m going to tell her. As soon as I get my nerv —”

And that’s when he saw her.

Ellie.

Standing in the doorway between the living room and kitchen. Her long, dark brown hair damp from the rain outside, stray strands of it clinging to the side of her face.

Jason thought his heart would pound out of his chest as their eyes met. Sweat beaded across his forehead as if he’d just worked out at the gym for an hour and his legs gave their best impression of spaghetti underneath him.

“Ellie. Hey. What are you doing here?” he asked instead of what he wanted to ask, which was: “How long have you been standing there?”

“I – uh . . .” Ellie’s voice trailed off, emotion catching her words and strangling them. She looked at the floor quickly and swallowed hard.

“The back door was open. I was going to sneak in and surprise you two with a pie I baked earlier.”

Alex straightened on the couch and cleared his throat, quickly looking at the floor. “Um. Excuse me. I have to. . . uh . . . I’m just going to go head up to bed early.”

He shot a sympathetic look at Jason, but Jason wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at Ellie, his mouth partly open, but no sounding coming out.

With one foot on the bottom step Alex closed his eyes and grimaced as he heard Ellie’s question: “Who’s Lauren Phillips?”