I hate advertising on my blog. I just like rambling and sharing and connecting with my blogging friends, but I guess I will mention that you can get my books, The Farmer’s Daughter and Harvesting Hope, free through Kindle on Amazon (so ebooks) today and tomorrow.
If you have read the books and enjoyed them (even a little) and would like to leave a review that would be great, as it helps with sales. I do NOT make a fortune off these books but every little bit helps put money toward feeding my kids and paying for things like heating oil. Reviews don’t have to be indepth. A short little “Hey, I liked it” and a rating are just fine. For those who have read the books, reviewed them, and pointed out improvements I can make for later, thank you so much! I appreciate it more than you could ever know. Truly.
I started to post Chapter 21 last night to schedule for this morning and then realized I hadn’t actually finished Chapter 21. Oops. So I finished it this morning. I’d written most of it in my head already anyhow, which is probably why I thought I had finished it.
Anyhow, as regular readers know, my fiction Thursday and Fridays are usually novellas or novels in progress, which means there will be changes before I publish it in the future as an ebook or paperback. One change I have a feeling is going to come when I rework The Farmer’s Daughter is moving Jason and Ellie’s story into a separate novella in between The Farmer’s Daughter, book one of the Spencer Chronicles, and The Librarian, book two of the Spence Chronicles. That novella will most likely be called . . . The Farmer’s Son because I am oh so original. *wink*
With that being said, I don’t want to leave my blog readers hanging so I’ll still try to keep Jason and Ellie’s story in the chapters I share here. My thought is that if I break this off into a novella in the future, I can flush out Jason and Ellie’s characters more without bogging down Alex and Molly and Franny’s story in this book.
Sometimes I think it’s silly I share these books as I write them, but then I think “well, life is short. Just have fun with it.” Plus I like the feedback from my few readers because it helps me decide and craft the remainder of the story (and sometimes it helps me decide to chop off chapters all together).
Thanks for sticking around this long (if you did). I’ll be quiet now and get on with the story.
“How much trouble is the farm in, Robert?”
Franny’s question sent Robert’s eyes up to the ceiling in frustration. He was grateful his back was to his mother the same way it had been when his sister had cornered him a few weeks ago. How did the Tanner women have such a sixth sense about the bad news of life? He poured himself a cup of coffee and carried it with his mother’s tea to her kitchen table.
“Hannah been talking to you?”
Franny sipped the tea, reached across the table and spooned a heaping spoonful into her cup. “She’s been hinting, but not exactly talking. You know how she is.”
Robert definitely knew how she was. He sat on the chair across from his mother and sipped his coffee once, twice, three times before he spoke. He sat the cup down, cupping his hands around it, looking at it instead of his mother.
“We’re in a tough spot, Mom.”
“We’ve been in tough spots before.”
“This may be the toughest. I don’t know how much longer we can hang on, to be honest.”
Franny stirred a spoonful of honey into her tea and sipped it, waiting for her son to continue. She knew he would. He always did. Like Ned, he was thoughtful, contemplating the words before he said them.
“What I don’t get is why I can’t keep this farm running the same way Dad did.” Robert looked up at his Mom. “I took out a loan. Dad would never have done that. He only spent what he had or what he saved up for.”
When Robert fell into silence again, looking out the kitchen window into the field across the road, the same field his father had farmed for years and his father before him, Franny decided she needed to offer her son the encouragement she’d been unable to offer since she’d lost Ned. She had been a wife, yes, but she was still a mother and she needed to start acting like one, even if her children were fully grown.
“This isn’t the same farm your dad had, Robert. You’ve added more property, other farmers and farmland. You and your dad and brother did the right thing trying to diversify the business. How were you to know that milk prices would fall even further than they did in 1985? None of this is your fault. It’s circumstances out of your control.”
“No, your dad never took loans out. But milk prices were better back then. Other expenses were lower. He could manage to save up. You don’t have that luxury anymore.” Franny leaned over and laid her hand on Robert’s. “You’re doing the best you can, son. I know that. Farming runs in your blood. You’ll figure this out.”
Robert’s eyes stung with tears and he looked away quickly.
His voice broke when he spoke. “Thank you, Mom.”
“Don’t be afraid to cry, Robert. There’s nothing wrong with crying.”
Robert nodded but he still couldn’t look at her. If he saw her eyes, the compassionate eyes of the woman who raised him and his sister and brother, who held the family and the farm together for his while life and who had suffered so much over the last few years, he might completely break down and he wasn’t about to do that. Instead he laid his hand over hers, swallowed hard, focused his attention on the field and nodded again.
“You’re a good boy, Robert.”
“Thank you, Mama,” he managed finally through the tears.
Alex’s head was pounding. His mouth was dry. He felt like his eyes had been glued shut.
Squinting against the sunlight pouring in from his bedroom window he recognized the feeling, which he hadn’t had in years.
He definitely had a hangover.
“Alex! You ever getting up?”
Jason’s voice outside his bedroom door was loud.
“I’ve already been to the barn and back.”
“Yeah. Comin’. Just . . .” Alex rubbed his hands across his face and forced himself to sit up. The pain in his head throbbed now, a steady pulse of pain that felt as if his brain would push out through his forehead. “Yeah. Be right down.”
Jason banged cupboard doors and loudly clanked spoons into bowls when he reached the kitchen. Alex winced against the noise, each clank another pain shooting through his head.
Jason leaned back against the counter and watched his friend sleepily pour cereal from the box to the bowl. Alex’s hair was pushed up in several different directions, dark circles creased the skin under his eyes, and he was moving slower than a zombie in a cheap b-movie.
“You go out last night?”
Alex poured milk on his cereal without looking up. “Yeah.”
“Daniel Stanton said you left the bar last night with Jessie Landry hanging all over you.”
“If Daniel Stanton already told you I was at the bar, then why did you ask if I went out?”
Jason shrugged, folding his massive arms across his massive chest. Alex wasn’t always pleased at how massive his friend was, especially when he wasn’t sure where a conversation was going and how his massive friend might choose to end it.
“So, you ended up back up here?”
Alex kept his eyes on the cereal. “Yeah.”
“I didn’t see her this morning when I got up.”
“Yeah. I mean, no. I – sent her home. Or rather, she left. In a bit of a huff really.”
“So, you didn’t sleep with her?”
Alex shook his head, shoving a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.
Jason leaned back, reaching for his coffee cup on the counter and sipping from it. “Really? Well, that’s new. What happened?”
Alex glared, milk dripping down his chin.
“What does that mean, Jase? You act like I’m some man-whore or something. It’s not like I’m bedding girls every night.”
Jason laughed and shook his head. “Not every night, no.”
“Actually, if you’ll remember, I haven’t brought a girl back here in almost two years. Maybe even longer.”
“So, you’re not taking them back to our place, maybe you’re —”
“I’m not,” Alex snapped, shoving the last of the cereal into his mouth and gulping the remaining milk down.
“Okay. Okay.” Jason looked quizzically at Alex, folding his arms across his chest again. One leg was casually crossed of the other one. “What’s up with you anyhow? You’re touchy this morning.”
Alex wiped the milk off his chin with the back of his hand.
“I’m just not the jerk you act like I am,” he grumbled, walking toward the backstairs that led to the upstairs bathroom. “I’m going to get a shower and head up to the farm to help your dad.”
Standing in the shower, the hot water kicking up steam around him and pouring over his bare skin, Alex cursed under his breath, knowing his best friend knew better than anyone what a pig he’d been much of his life; how he’d distracted himself from the hard moments in his life with the company of a cold beer or a warm, sexually aroused woman more times than he cared to admit.
He leaned his hands against the wall of the shower and let the water pour over his head and back, wishing the hot streams making paths across his body could wash away the shame the same way it was washing away the sweat from the night before.
After drying off and pulling on his usual faded blue jeans and a t-shirt he felt more alert and moved quickly downstairs, guzzling a glass of orange juice before reaching for his keys.
Jason was still in the driveway when he walked outside, checking under the hood of his truck.
Alex stood by the truck, sliding his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. He cleared his throat. “Hey, sorry I was so sharp earlier.”
Jason looked up from where he had leaned over the truck with a wrench and shook his head slightly. “Actually, I’m sorry I harassed you about your night out. It’s none of my business.”
The sun was brighter than Alex had realized when he first stepped outside. He winched and reached in his front shirt pocket for his sunglasses, sliding them on. “Everything go okay with Ellie last night?”
Jason sighed, which was a weird sound coming from such a masculine figure. “Yeah. Sort of.” He glanced at Alex while he loosened a bolt on the engine. “She thinks I proposed.”
Alex lifted an eyebrow. “Thinks you proposed? Um, I might need a little more of an explanation on this one. Usually a guy proposes or he doens’t.”
“Well, I was going to propose but I needed to talk to her about something first and then she brought it up and then she just thought . . . you know what? It’s too confusing to explain.”
“So, you’re engaged. That’s great. Why don’t you look happier? Don’t men usually look happier when they get engaged?”
Jason used a rag to wipe grease off his hands as talked. “It is. I guess. It’s just . . .”
“You’re nervous about getting married?”
“A little but it’s not that. It’s just, I’ve never told Ellie about what happened in college.”
Alex spoke through a yawn, his expression clueless. “What happened in college?”
Jason starred at him for a few moments with first furrowed eyebrows then raised ones. Alex continued to look blank for a full minute then his eyes widened in realization. “Wait. You mean what happened with Emily Barker? You never told Ellie about that?”
Jason shook his head and tossed the dirty rag into the front seat of his truck. “I was really embarrassed, man. That experience was a low point for me and it wasn’t even —ugh, just never mind. The point is that I never told Ellie because I was embarrassed and because I didn’t know how she would feel about it.”
“But you guys weren’t even dating then.”
“I know but it still was wrong, Alex. That’s not how I wanted my first time to be. I wanted it to be with someone I loved. Someone I planned to spend my whole life with. And yeah, I know it sounds lame, but I wanted it to be with someone I was married to.”
Alex shrugged one shoulder and smiled. “Yeah, it sounds a little lame, but it also sounds really sweet and romantic.” He made a face and shuddered. “Yuck. Dude, I think you’re rubbing off on me with all your sentimental crud. Next Thing I know we’ll be watching chick flicks together.”
“Sleepless in Seattle isn’t bad.”
Alex held up his hands. “Jase, I am not watching chick flicks with you. Calm down.”
He grinned and then realized even grinning made his head hurt. He let the grin fade, partially because of the headache and partially because Jason was leaning back against the front of the truck now, one arm propped up on the metal frame, looking at the ground, thinking.
“Jason, you know Ellie loves you. She’s going to understand, okay? Just talk to her.”
Jason nodded, but didn’t look up from the dirt. “Yeah, I hope she does.” He lifted his gaze to look at Alex, his eyes glistening. “Because if she doesn’t . . .” He shook his head, swallowed hard and looked out at the fields across from the house. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it without her.”
I have to admit that sometimes my stomach tightens when I write certain scenes I know will be uncomfortable for my characters.
I know. That’s weird.
“They’re fictional characters, Lisa.”
That’s what you’re thinking, but to me they are real. At least in my head so when I have to write —wait. I know what you are thinking again: “When you have to write something? You don’t have to write anything. You’re the writer. You can write whatever you want.” Oh, how I wish that was true. See, I write by the seat of my pants. My characters tell me their stories and I transcribe what they tell me, but sometimes they tell me to transcribe something I don’t like. This week’s chapter won’t be too rough but a couple upcoming chapters are causing me some stress and to yell: “No. No! Don’t do that! You idiot!”
Maybe that’s why I had been putting off writing them until this week. This week it had to be written though because the scenes were playing over and over in my mind. When that happens I have to write them down before my creative brain will stop bugging me. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this week’s chapter and brace yourself for the next few chapters. We might all be going on an emotional roller coaster.
If you want to catch up on the story you can find the link at the top of the page or HERE. And you can find the link to my books on Kindle on Amazon.
Molly’s stomach tightened at the sight of Ben Oliver standing with his parents in one corner of the church lobby before the service.
What was he doing here? She hadn’t realized he even attended any church anymore.
They had attended youth group together as teens but in their senior year Ben had started attending church less and less until he didn’t attend at all. The way he had talked about Angie that day at the store had told her all she needed to know about his Christian walk and where he was in it. She had no idea what his relationship with God was now and there were times she didn’t feel like she cared.
People can change, she reminded herself as she watched him laugh with the pastor, shaking Pastor Joe’s hand. Ben had the same charming smile, the same bright green eyes, the same dark hair swept back off his forehead, and the same chiseled jaw she remembered from high school. He looked older, yes, but no less handsome.
She lowered her gaze as she walked past him, hoping he wouldn’t see her. She followed parents into the sanctuary, joining them next to Jason and Ellie in the pew they had occupied for most of her life. She inwardly cringed when Ben sat with his family four rows in front of theirs, realizing she’d have to stare at the back of his head for the entire service and smell his familiar cologne even from four rows back.
She closed her eyes, willing away the memories of his lips on hers so many times when they were teenagers, his arms around her, his palm pressed gently against the side of her face. All of that tenderness seemed a lifetime ago. She didn’t know Ben now and in many ways, she hadn’t really known him then either, not the real Ben. The real Ben had shown himself in the way he’d broken up with her, in the way he’d spoken about her that day with his friends.
She did her best to focus on the hymns being sung, her friend Mary’s singing at the front of the church, and Pastor Joe’s sermon, relieved when the last hymn was song and she could head toward the back of the church and toward the exit.
“Meet you at home,” she told her Mom. “These shoes are killing my feet.”
It wasn’t a lie; the straps of the black dress shoes she’d picked out that morning were digging into the tops and backs of her feet. She was much more comfortable in a pair of work boots or sneakers. It wasn’t only the shoes she wanted to leave behind, however. She also wanted to travel as far as she could from Ben and the painful memories he brought with him.
A hand touched her elbow as she reached for the door and her heartrate quickened at the sound of the voice close to her ear.
More than anything she wanted to keep walking through those doors, but instead she paused and turned to face him.
“Oh, Ben. Hey there. I didn’t know you were here today.”
His hand was still on her elbow. “I’m hoping to get back into regular church attendance now that I’m back in town.”
Time for me to find a new church then.
“Oh. Okay,” Molly said out loud. “Well, that’s nice. Will you excuse me? These shoes are killing my feet.”
Ben laughed softly, dropping his hand from her elbow – finally. “Yeah, those shoes don’t exactly look like something I remember you wearing when we were younger.”
What is that supposed to mean?
Molly forced a smile. “Well, people change and so do their taste in shoes. These straps just happen to be a bit tight.”
Ben laughed softly. “Of course, people change. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He followed her through the large wood doors into the bright sunlight. “Molly, can we talk for a minute?”
The softened tone of Ben’s voice caught her attention and she looked at him as they walked, noting his serious expression. She really didn’t want to talk to him but the sincerity in his voice had changed her mind.
Ben paused by the bench in the courtyard and gestured toward it. Molly sat next to him with apprehension, remembering a similar moment eight years before, her chest constricting as she looked at Ben and her mind transported her back to that night on her parents’ porch. The memories were less painful than they’d once been, but they were still painful.
“So, this is awkward for me, and I’m sure it is for you,” Ben started, one elbow propped on the back of the bench, his body twisted slightly toward her. He dropped his gaze, looking at the ground as he continued. “I should have had this talk with you years ago, Molly. I know that. I was ashamed, though. Ashamed of how I treated you, how I acted, who I was back then. To be honest, there were years I didn’t even think about how I had treated you or the things I did at the time. I was completely self-focused, completely arrogant.”
He looked back at her and Molly’s breath caught at the genuine soft expression, at his green eyes shimmering slightly in the sunlight. “But when I hit rock bottom and woke up, there you were, at the forefront of my mind. Molly Tanner. The one person who loved me even when I was unlovable and I threw it – and her – away for a cheap fling with a girl who had eyes for every boy in the county. I’m sorry, Molly. I’m sorry for how I treated you and how I broke it off with you. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry it took me so long to say I’m sorry.”
Molly sat for a few moments, unsure how to respond. She didn’t want to say, “Hey, no hard feelings. No problem,” because there were hard feelings. She’d held on to that hurt for years and only recently had started to let it go, if even a little. Still, she saw an earnest effort in Ben to apologize, to make amends to ask for forgiveness for how he’d hurt her.
The cynical side of her wondered if his request for forgiveness was for her benefit or his own, though. Had he really changed?
Ben didn’t want for her to respond, reaching out to lay his hand gently on her arm. “I understand if you can’t forgive me right now but maybe in the future you’ll be able to and know that I am truly sorry for who I was back then.”
Molly let out the breath she realized she’d been holding. She nodded slowly, the words he’d said to his friends all those years ago still in her mind, even as she tried to ignore them.
“We were young, Ben,” she said finally. “Kids make mistakes. People grow and mature. And, yes, people do change.” She laid her hand over his. “Thank you for apologizing to me. I’m sure it was hard to do.”
Ben smiled, that familiar beautiful smile that used to make Molly’s heart race but today only made her smile back and feel a sense of peace.
“It was hard,” Ben said. “But it’s been the one thing on my mind since I got back to town. The one thing I knew I needed to do even if you had moved on because I knew I hadn’t. I was still holding on to the guilt over how I had treated you, the girl who used to be my best friend.”
He rubbed the palm of his thumb against the top of her hand has he held it. “We had some good times, didn’t we? Before I became the worst boyfriend on the planet.”
Molly laughed softly. “Well, not the worst . . .”
Ben grinned. “But pretty darn close.”
Molly bit her lower lip and lowered her gaze, still smiling. “I plead the fifth.”
“Remember that time we were on that haunted hayride?” he asked. “That guy jumped out at us from the dark with a chainsaw and you almost ended up on my lap.”
Molly laughed and shook her head. “I think it was you who almost ended up on my lap.”
“Um, no. That does not sound manly at all. It had to be the other way around.”
Molly was very aware that his hand was still on hers, his thumb still making circular motions on her skin.
“Maybe we both were afraid and jumped at each other then,” she laughed.
She gently pulled her hand away, pushing her hair back from her face.
“I miss those days,” he said softly, moving his hand to his knee and tilting his head slightly as he looked at her. “They were innocent times in so many ways.”
Molly watched her parents and brother and Ellie leave the church, get into their cars, drive away and wave at her and Ben on the way by. She knew lunch would be ready soon.
“One thing I always wondered,” she started as they stood from the bench. “Why did you even bother to take me out that night you broke up with me? You could have just broken it off before the date.”
Ben winced, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck. “Ugh. That night. I hate remembering that night. I almost chickened out. I think deep down I knew what I was doing was wrong. Part of me wanted one more night together and part of me wanted to get it over with. I thought I loved Angie, you know I didn’t even know what love really was. What I had for Angie was lust. That lust caused her and me, and you, a lot of pain.”
Ben nodded his head toward the parking lot. “Let me walk you to your car. I’m sure your mom still cooks those amazing Sunday dinners.”
“Yes, she does.”
Ben cleared his throat as they walked. “Maybe this is oversharing, or maybe I’m confessing too much, but I came back here to try to get my life back on track after I was fired from my last job. I’d started drinking to drown out all my guilt, not just over you, but over a lot of things. Angie got pregnant a couple of years ago. I wanted her to get an abortion, she wanted to keep the baby. I didn’t want to be a father. I was too young. I left her to raise the baby on her own.”
Molly wasn’t sure what to say. Should she congratulate him on being a father or comfort him for his mistake in walking away? Part of her also wanted to punch him for suggesting the abortion.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly as they approached her truck. “That must have been very hard for you.”
He shrugged. “Not at the time. It was a relief. I was glad to be set free from the burden of raising a child. I was finishing my law degree while working at the firm in Boston and now with Angie gone, I was free to date other women, find a new kind of excitement. My whole life was in front of me. Or so I thought. Depression hit me hard after she left. The realization of who I had become hit me like a freight train, but I kept trying to ignore it, tell myself I wasn’t really as bad as I thought I was.”
They paused at the truck and Ben laughed, patting the rusting hood. “I can’t believe you’re still driving this old thing.”
Molly scowled. “I thought men liked classic cars, but you’re the second man to make fun of me for still driving this truck.”
Ben grinned. “Well, classic is one thing, but a piece of junk is another.”
“You know this was my grandfather’s truck, Ben.”
Ben nodded and laid his hand on her shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry for teasing. I was sorry to hear he’d passed away. My mom told me. I wish I had snapped out of my selfish behavior long enough to come back for the funeral.”
He closed the door behind Molly after she slid behind the steering wheel.
“So where is Angie now?” she asked. “Did she keep the baby?”
Red flushed along Ben’s cheekbones. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his dress pants and nodded. “Yeah. She kept the baby. It was a girl. Amelia. Angie wrote me a letter about a year ago, sent me a photo. They, uh,” he kicked at the asphalt with the tip of his dress shoe. “Live about four hours from here, close to where Angie’s parents moved about two years ago.”
“Do you think you’ll go see them?”
“I don’t know, really. I don’t know if Angie would even want me to. I wasn’t even paying child support, but she didn’t ask for it either. I never answered the letter. I’m pretty much a deadbeat dad.” He shook his head, tears rimming his eyes. “I never imagined myself that way, you know? My parents were amazing parents. I always wanted to be a good dad, like my dad has always been. Then — I became who I never thought I would be — selfish, arrogant, and a complete idiot.”
Compassion overwhelmed Molly, pushing back her awkward feelings toward Ben. She reached through the window and held her hand out and Ben took it, looking at her.
“As long as you’re still breathing there is still a chance to change things, Ben,” she said softly.
He nodded and swallowed emotion. “Thanks, Molly. I appreciate that.” He squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go.
“Hey, how about you?” he asked. “I know we were joking a bit at the rummage sale that day, but are you really dating that guy who works for your dad?”
“No, Ben,” Molly sighed. “I’m really not.”
Ben smirked. “But you have feelings for him?”
Molly started the truck and smiled. She was not about to talk about her love life with her old high school boyfriend, especially her old boyfriend who dumped her for someone he had called “hotter” at the time.
“He’s a good friend,” she said. “That’s all. It was good to talk to you, Ben.”
“You too. I hope we can do it again soon, but without the awkward conversation about what a jerk I was.”
Molly smiled as she pulled out of the parking lot and turned toward Main Street to head out of town and back to the farm.
She let out a long breath as she drove, shaking her head as if to shake off the surreal. Had Ben Oliver really just apologized to her, ending years of overthinking and over analyzing the event she had once seen as life-changing and romance ending? It was something she’d never thought would happen and now that it had she laughed to herself realizing she would probably end up analyzing what the apology meant to how she had perceived herself all these years. No analyzing today, though. Today she only wanted to live in the moment, a moment of peace and kindness that had soothed once raw wounds.
“Yeah, I’ll let you know when we get home, but so far she seems fine. Okay, Mom, talk to you later.”
Jason tapped end call on his cellphone and turned to see the nurse wheeling his grandmother toward him through the opstistrics door to the main lobby.
“I told her I could walk on my own,” Franny informed him. “I’m not an invalid yet but she said it’s hospital policy.”
“Just to your car, Mrs. Tanner,” the nurse said with a smile. She looked at Jason. “You can take it from here if you want and just bring the chair back to the valets at the front.”
“I’m sure you’ll be glad to have her off your hands,” Jason said with a wink.
The nurse laughed and shook her head. “Not at all. Your grandmother is a breath of fresh air. I love her spunk.”
Franny snorted. “Spunk. Is that what they’re calling cantankerous these days?”
Jason rolled his eyes. “I think someone needs some lunch. Maybe that will put her in a better mood.”
He leaned down next to Franny’s chair, one knee down, the other up. “Seriously, Grandma. You okay? I don’t want us to go until you’re sure you’re okay.”
“I’m feeling fine,” Franny sighed. She smiled and touched Jason’s arm gently. “My vision is still a little blurry, but I’m already seeing better than before. Thank you for your concern though. We’re not that far away from the hospital that if there is an issue we can’t come back.”
Jason nodded and stood. “Okay. Then we will head on home. Molly is going to hang out with you this afternoon to make sure you’re doing okay.”
“This is Bridget by the way, Jason,” Franny said tilting her head to look up at the nurse. “I already told her about you. My strong, smart, very handsome grandson who is helping his family run the farm. But don’t worry, I also told her that you are taken since you are going to be proposing to that lovely girlfriend of yours soon.”
Jason’s cheeks flushed red and he shook his head. “Grandma. . . .”
Franny smiled at Bridget. “Look at how he embarrassed he is that his old grandma is bragging about him.”
Bridget, with a pretty round face and bright green eyes, and probably about ten years younger than Jason watched him admiringly, smiling. “Good luck with the proposal,” she said with a wink.
Jason’s face and ears flushed even redder as he laughed and then cleared his throat. “Thanks. Okay, Grandma, it really is time to get you out of here.”
Back in his parents’ car, which he borrowed so his grandmother could get in and out of it, Jason started it and braced himself for his grandmother continuing the conversation she’d been having in the lobby with the nurse.
Here it was.
“I went to my appointment, I got my answers and I’ve even had my surgery, so now —”
“I know, Grandma and I’m excited. I’m hoping the surgery was a success.”
“I believe it will be. Now, with that settled, it’s time for you to hold up your end of the bargain.”
Jason laughed softly, shaking his head. “Grandma . . .”
“Jason . . .”
“I know, Grandma. It’s time to propose to Ellie, but listen, I’m working on a plan for how to do it, okay? It needs to be big, right? I mean, it’s been this many years I really need to do something special.”
Franny rolled her eyes. “Oh, Jason, good Lord. Just jump.”
“Just get on the stick. Whatever the saying is these days that means – get your caboose in gear and propose to that girl before you’re both old and gray.”
Jason slid the car back into park and bit his lower lip. He looked at his grandmother, short dark, curly hair with gray streaks, her sweet round race and eyes full of anticipation and sighed.
“Grandma, I . . .listen, it’s just —”
A frown creased Franny’s forehead. “Oh my. Did you and Ellie break up?”
“What? No. No. That’s not it.”
“You don’t love her like you thought you did?”
“No. That’s not it either, Grandma.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
Jason stared at his grandmother, the woman who had helped raise him, taught him what it meant to work hard, push through tough times, and more than any of that, taught him what it meant to be a good Christian. He could not share with her what was keeping him from proposing to Ellie.
“Nothing,” he lied. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Franny wasn’t buying it. “Something is wrong, Jason. Something has happened. What is it?”
Jason shifted the car into gear again. “Nothing, Grandma. Never mind.”
Franny laid her hand over his. “Park this car, Jason and tell me what’s on your mind. You know I won’t love you any less.”
Jason shifted the gear into park again and pressed his forehead against the top of the steering wheel.
“I screwed up in college, Grandma. I wasn’t someone who would have made you proud.”
“Drinking?” Franny asked. “Parties?”
Jason raised his head to look at his grandmother. She was way too much like his mom; some kind of Jedi mind reader.
He nodded, determined not to tell her the rest, though. “Yeah.”
“I had a feeling,” she said with a sigh.
“You were different when you came back from college. Something seemed off. You seemed sadder somehow. I never knew how to talk about it with you. Then your grandpa got sick and, well, I guess I was sadder too. I’m sorry I never asked you if you were okay.”
Jason swallowed hard. “I would have told you I was okay even if you’d asked. You know that. I was embarrassed. And I’ve never told Ellie about what an idiot I was back then.”
Franny squeezed his hand. “Tell her, honey. She loves you. She will understand. I know I do. You were young. You made some mistakes but you’re still my sweet grandson.”
Jason knew his grandmother meant well but she didn’t know everything and he wondered if she would understand or think he was still her sweet grandson if she did. He also wasn’t so sure Ellie would understand. Not about the one-night stand for one, but especially not about why he hadn’t told her about it after all these years.
We are on Chapter 9 already of The Farmer’s Daughter and I will tell you I’m not sure what’s coming after Chapter 11 because I haven’t hit a writer’s block but I have hit a challenge of where I want to put certain chapters or events and how I want to write a couple of them. I also worry about the chapters I share on the blog being too long, but well, if they are too long for you, just don’t read them. *wink*
Let me know in the comments if you’re falling in love with the characters as much as I am and what direction you hope to see the story take.
If you’re interested in other fiction pieces I’ve written you can find them here on the blog (links at the top of the page), or on Amazon and B&N.
If you want to follow the rest of The Farmer’s Daughter, from the beginning, click HERE.
Alex cracked open a soda and leaned back against the porch railing of the old farmhouse, looking out over the recently harvested fields and breathing in deep the smell of freshly cut hay. He missed his normal beer, but alcohol had become too much of a crutch for him these last few years. He was doing his best to drink less beer and more water and soda.
He rubbed his hand across the stubble on his chin and jawline, pondering if he should shave it off before he headed back to the barn after lunch. He’d been clean shaven when he first arrived at the Tanner’s farm, five years ago. He couldn’t even believe that next week would make it five years exactly. So much had changed for him since that day.
“Hey, Dad, this is Alex. He needs a job,” Jason had said a few moments after they had walked in the Tanner’s farmhouse, two years after their college graduation. He was grinning while Alex’s face flushed red with embarrassment. He felt like a loser whose friend had to find a job for him because he was too inept to find one himself.
Robert, sitting at the kitchen table, peered around the newspaper he was reading and looked Alex up and down, a somber look on his face.
“Know anything about farming?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Alex said honestly, shoving his hands down in his jean pockets nervously. “But I’m willing to learn.”
Robert laid the paper down, leaned back in his chair and frowned. He tapped his fingers on the table and then a smile slowly tilted his mouth upward.
“It’s a good thing Jason already mentioned you might be coming home with him. We need a hired hand to help around the farm. My wife’s parents’ home will be able to move into by the end of the week since they’re moving to a condo in town.”
Robert stood and reached his hand out toward Alex. Alex took it, shaking it firmly.
“Glad to have you on board,” Robert said.
In the next year, Alex worked hard, wanting to please the man he saw care for his family, day in and day out, rarely taking a break, on constant call with farm work, first with his father and brother and then when the elder Tanner passed away, his brother and son. He’d watched Robert try hard to help his fellow farmers, buying their land when they could no longer farm, offering them jobs on his farm or at the family’s farm store. He’d been there when Robert’s father had disappeared further into dementia, then passed away, and he’d watched the family’s farm store expand from selling organic meats and dairy, eggs and vegetables to now offering flowers, plants, and even farming and gardening equipment.
Over those years, Robert had become like a father to Alex, teaching him how to work hard, how to run a business, and more importantly, how to care for a family. So far, though, Alex wasn’t anywhere near starting a family, or ready to care for one on his own. There were days he wasn’t even sure this was what he wanted for his future – to work on a small family farm in the middle of nowhere.
But there were other days, when he looked back on a day filled with accomplishments, when he could sit back and smell the freshly harvested field, that he could imagine himself living his whole life growing food in the soil, caring for the cows that gave the nation its’ dairy, and helping a family support themselves through the work of their hands.
Annie had become the mother he’d never had in his own – caring, nurturing, and understanding. After six months of living in the home Annie had grown up in and working for her husband, he’d found himself sick with a cold and alternating between shivering and burning up as he cleaned out the stalls.
“Alex, you need to come inside and let me make you some tea and honey,” Annie said, standing in the barn doorway, dressed in brown overalls and a thick winter coat.
“I’m okay, Mrs. Tanner, but th – “
“Don’t argue, young man,” Annie said. “You’ll be no good to anyone if that junk gets into your lungs. Get on in here. Robert can do without you for a few hours. You’ll have some tea and lay down in the spare room. No use arguing.”
She turned quickly and began walking toward the house.
Robert stood up from where he’d been inspecting the underside of a cow and jerked his head toward his retreating wife.
“You’d better listen to her. When she gets something into her head, she won’t let it go. Besides, Henry is coming in at 10 and I know he can help us while you rest.”
Inside the house, Annie set a cup of steaming hot tea in front of him at the table.
“Try leaning over that and breathing it in. It will help your nose loosen up.”
Alex nodded and did as he was told.
“Did your mom do this to you when you were young? I bet she did. All my bossing around is probably making you feel like a little boy again.”
Alex stared at the steam swirling up toward him and thought about his mom, how she’d almost never been maternal, though he was sure she had loved him and his brother. When he and Sam were sick, she had sent them to their rooms and set toast and juice in front of them and turned on a cartoon. She never felt foreheads or took temperatures, but sometimes took them to the doctor if the illness hit them hard enough.
“My mom wasn’t really – uh- maternal,” he said with a shrug. “She loved me and Sam. She just didn’t know how to be . . . comforting, I guess you would say.”
Annie turned from the stove and looked at him with furrowed eyebrows. “I’m sorry to hear that. That must have been hard for you and your brother.”
Alex shrugged again. “In some ways. But we turned out okay. I always considered us lucky. We were well fed, had whatever we wanted, except the attention of our parents, of course. They didn’t beat us, so there’s that at least.”
Annie sighed and held her hand against Alex’s forehead.
“But a little love shown shouldn’t have been too much to ask. You’re burning up. I’ll get that spare room set up for you. I want you to sip that tea and then I’ll give you a dose of elderberry syrup and pull out the Vapo rub and put it by the bed. I’ll make chicken soup for lunch.”
Alex shook his head as she walked toward the stairs, amazed at her kindness, especially toward someone who wasn’t even a member of her family. It wasn’t long, though, that Alex began to feel like a member of the family. Jason had already been like another brother. Robert became his surrogate father, Annie his surrogate mother. Even Franny and Ned treated him like he was one of their own, or at least Ned did before he forgot who almost everyone was.
And then there was Molly.
Beautiful, sweet Molly.
He let out a deep breath, clutched at his hair and lowered his head into his hands, trying to shake the image of her shapely figure backlit by the setting sun, standing across from him in the barn. He remembered clearly the day he’d first noticed how beautiful she’d become, how grown up she was looking. It had been three years ago and they had been talking about their favorite music, where they saw themselves in ten years, and what the future held for small family farms, a topic Alex never imagined he’d be concerned with.
“I guess I figured I would be writing for a major magazine or newspaper by now,” Molly said, leaning back against a hay bale, sliding her arms behind her head. “Maybe that’s just not what God has planned for me or maybe I messed up his plans by not finishing my degree. I don’t know. Do you think we can mess up God’s plans?”
Alex felt uneasy but tried not to show it.
“Not sure,” he said casually, leaning on the rake handle. “I’ve never thought much about God, let alone if He, She, or They, has ever directed my path in life. If a higher power is up there, it would have been nicer if he’d directed my life in a few different directions over the years.”
The sunlight pouring in from the window high in the top of the barn hit Molly’s hair and highlighted her red-blond curls. Her skin was smooth, her eyes bright, her shirt pulled tightly against her full, shapely figure. His pulse quickened and he quickly looked away from the curve of her throat, knowing his gaze would keep slipping lower if he let it. He mentally scolded himself, feeling like a dirty old man until he remembered they were still both in their 20s at the time, him only four years older. It wasn’t as if he was old enough to be her father.
Molly looked over at him, moving her arms from behind her head and leaning on her elbow against the hay bale.
He saw compassion in her eyes as she spoke. “But, don’t you think that one of the greatest gifts God could have given us is our own free will? We make our own decisions and sometimes we make the wrong ones because we don’t listen to what God is telling us so maybe it isn’t that he didn’t direct our life but we didn’t follow his directions.”
Alex laughed and shook his head. “I’m not the one you want to have a deep theological discussion with.” He tapped his temple with his finger. “There’s nothing deep in here.”
Molly smiled and his stomach quivered in a way he’d never felt before. “I highly doubt that, Alex Stone. I have a feeling there’s a lot more to you than you let on.”
She tossed a handful of straw at him and skipped past him on the way to the house. He’d watched her walk away, his eyes lingering on her retreating figure before he took a deep breath and softly exhaled a curse word.
“Dang, Molly Tanner, how’d you get so beautiful?” he’d asked himself out loud, maybe a bit too loud. He’d looked around quickly to make sure Jason or Robert weren’t somewhere behind him.
For two years now he had tried to ignore the way she was starting to affect him – the pounding heart, the rush of excitement that rumbled through his veins when he heard her voice or saw her walking across the yard toward the barn.
Why couldn’t he just make a move on her already? He’d never felt afraid to tell, even show a girl how he’d felt – until he met Molly. Molly was different, but he couldn’t really explain how. Maybe it was because he’d developed a friendship with Molly before he’d started feeling a strong attraction to her. Before meeting Molly, he’d always acted on instinct, moving into a physical relationship even if he hadn’t spent time getting to know the woman.
He knew it wasn’t only a fear of rejection stopping him from telling Molly how he felt. He worried how Robert, Annie and Jason would react. Would they see him as someone who had taken advantage of their kindness simply to get close to their beautiful daughter and sister? He couldn’t imagine losing their respect and love, yet he also couldn’t imagine his future without telling Molly how he felt.
Rejection and fear of the reactions of others, including Molly’s, wasn’t Alex’s only concern, though. He’d had a fear of attempting longtime commitment for years, always afraid he’d end up like his parents – in a loveless marriage of convenience. What if he told Molly how he felt, only to pull away from her in fear, refusing to open himself up to her fully and hurting her in the process? Could he even open himself to her? He couldn’t deny he was afraid to try. He’d never been able to do open himself up with any other woman. When they’d tried to go deeper than surface level, he’d broken it off and walked away from them, ignoring their calls or visits.
At one point he’d even considered leaving the farm, going back to Maryland, looking for work in computers, so he didn’t have to face his feelings for Molly. His attraction to her had always been stronger than the fear, though, and he’d stayed on, happy simply to be near her.
Now, though, he wanted to be more than near her, more than simply a co-worker. He wanted to be her confidant and her to be his. And he wanted to hold her, to show her he felt a tenderness for her he’d never felt for anyone else. More than simply wanting a relationship with her, he somehow felt he needed it.
Mavis Porter was already busy giving orders in the church basement when Molly arrived with the Tanner’s contributions of chocolate and carrot cakes two days before the sale.
“We’ll need someone to man the purse and the shoe areas,” Mavis said, clipboard in hand, her blue-gray hair piled on her head in a tight bun, her face long and mouth pursed together.
“I’m available,” Dixie West said, though Molly noticed the reluctance in her voice.
Mavis scribbled on the clipboard.
“Dixie in purses and shoes,” she said, focused on the clipboard. “Perfect.” She spoke to Molly without even looking up.
“Molly, are those the cakes from you and your mom?”
Molly opened her mouth to answer.
“Good,” Mavis said before Molly could answer, her eyes still focused on the clipboard. “Put them over in the kitchen with the others. I have you down to watch the table from 8:30 to noon on Saturday. Will that do?”
Molly opened her mouth to answer.
“Good,” Mavis said, again before Molly could answer. “Make sure you’re on time this year, please.”
Mavis swung around and marched across the basement floor, never looking up from her precious clipboard.
Molly sighed and carried the box with the cakes to the kitchen. One day she was going to find a way to stand up to Mavis Porter, but today was apparently not that day.
“On bake sale duty again?” Maddie Simpson asked, unloading her own cakes onto the counter in the kitchen.
“Of course,” Molly said. “At least she only put me on for four hours this time, unlike last year when I had to sit there all day.”
“I’m on kids clothes again this year,” Maddie said with an eye roll. “I have the morning shift.”
Molly winced. “That might be worse than the baked goods table.”
“All those moms ripping apart the table, looking for the cutest clothes in the just the right sizes,” Maddie said, shaking her head. “And then the pushing and the shoving when two moms grab the same outfit. Last year I thought we were going to have to call Reggie to break them apart.”
Molly laughed, thinking of Chief Reggie Stanton pushing his way between two battling moms, his large belly a barrier between them. Reggie led a small police force of five police officers, including himself. The small town of Spencer was lucky not to have a high crime rate, but the Spencer Police Department was there to break up fist fights, respond to car accidents and fires, and answer the call if someone locked themselves out of their car or a cat got stuck up a tree.
The chief was there to oversee it all and sometimes he even managed to do something. It wasn’t unusual to see Reggie standing to one side shouting orders to one of his officers.
“That’s right, Sgt. McGee. Get him down and you can cuff him while I read him his rights.”
“Don’t be afraid to stand up to, ‘im, Billy. He’s not that much bigger than you.”
“If you keep running that mouth of yours, I’ll have Officer Wilson here take you outside and read you your rights, you understand?”
Reggie even managed to yell orders for the driver to stop when Officer John Vanfleet was dragged down Route 220 at 25 mph while trying to open the car door of a suspected drunk driver.
“Stop! If you don’t stop, I’ll have you up on charges of attempted murder!” he yelled, not even bothering to try to chase the car.
It took two other officers to jump into the passenger side window and rip the car into neutral, finally stopping it.
For all his moments of laziness, though, Reggie was still the glue that held the force together, always willing to go to bat for his officers at the borough council meeting, asking for better healthcare or raises or even new uniforms or equipment.
Alice Bouse walked into the kitchen and sat a box of pies on the counter.
“What duty did you get this year?” she asked Molly.
“Manning the bake sale, like every year,” Molly said
“She’s nothing if not predictable,” Alice said with a heavy sigh. “I’m stuck on the register for the first half of the morning. I hate that job. That’s where people try to haggle us down in our prices. Every year I have to remind people ‘this is for charity.’ It really gets old after a while.”
“We’re all old,” Helen Maynard said slinging her box onto the counter and pulling out bags of homemade cookies, already labeled for sale.
“No, I said, the price haggling gets old,” Alice said.
“That too,” Helen said.
Emily Fields, Pastor Joe’s wife entered the kitchen with a box of pies.
“Is this where I should put the baked goods?” she asked softly.
“This is the place,” Molly said with a smile and a lavish gesture toward the counter.
“So glad you are contributing, Mrs. Fields,” Helen said. “Your pies are fantastic. That blueberry one you made for the potluck supper for the graduates at church was outstanding.”
Emily’s straight auburn hair pushed back off her face with a dark blue head band, highlighted her pale skin and bright green eyes.
She laughed and her cheeks flushed red, making her skin even more iridescent. “Oh, thank you. Pies seem to be the only thing I can bake. I have the innate talent of ruining even boxed cakes and burning all cookies. And please call me Emily. Mrs. Fields makes me feel so old.”
“You’re definitely not old,” Maddie laughed. “You’re one of the youngest pastor’s wives we’ve had at this church since I first started attending as a child.”
Alice started stacking Emily’s pies next to hers. “But you know who is old? Millie Baker. Did you all hear about what she did?”
Molly and the others shook their head.
“Well, she thought she was hitting the brake in her car this morning outside the Dollar General but instead she hit the accelerator and drove right into the side of the building.”
“No!” Maddie said. “Is she okay?”
“Yep, but the store isn’t,” Helen said. “Lew Derry was behind the counter and Lanny Wheeler said it was the fastest he’d ever seen him move, considering he’s usually high on that weed he smokes.”
“My goodness,” Alice said, shaking her head. “Someone is going to have to tell Millie she can’t drive anymore. She’s not safe on the road. That Dollar Store could have been the playground and that brick wall could have been a child.”
Helen shook her head. “Well, I’m not telling her. She’ll probably hit me with that cane of hers. Make her daughter do it.”
Molly laughed. “I should have my Aunt Hannah do it. She’s the one who told my grandmother she shouldn’t be driving anymore when she drove into the back of that garbage truck.”
“How did she take it?” Maddie asked.
“Not well,” Molly said. “We caught her behind the wheel last week.”
“So maybe Hannah isn’t the best person to talk to Millie,” Alice laughed.
“It’s not Aunt Hannah’s fault. Grandma is terribly stubborn.”
Helen took a chocolate chip cookie out of one of her bags and bit into it.
“How’s your grandma been doing anyhow?” she asked. “Besides driving into the back of garbage trucks. Since your grandpa passed, I mean.”
Molly took out the last of her cakes and sighed. “She’s struggling, to be honest, but she wouldn’t want me to share that with anyone else so I probably shouldn’t be. . .”
Emily laid her hand against Molly’s arm. “We’ll be praying for her.”
“Thank you,” Molly said. “I’d appreciate that. Losing Grandpa was hard enough but now having to admit she doesn’t see as well as she used to — it’s just been hard on her.”
Joe huffed into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box filled to the top with pies.
“Are those more of Emily’s pies?” Alice asked.
“Sure are,” Joe said. “Best blueberry pie around.”
“Oh wow!” Maddie said. “You must have been baking for days! These look great. I am definitely going to be picking up one.”
Across the room Mavis gestured, showing Jeffrey Staples where to move the tables and chairs for the sale.
Pastor Joe glanced through the open window as he unloaded the pies. “So, I see Mavis’ organization skills come in handy for this rummage sale. What a blessing to have someone with that gift in our church.”
“I didn’t realize that being bossy was a God-given gift,” Maddie said with a snort.
Pastor Joe laughed. “Well, I think maybe it can be. Even if we don’t always see it that way. Those with that gift often keep us on track.”
Molly smiled as she helped the pastor stack the pies. “They also keep us closer to God while we pray for him to give us strength to deal with them.”
The other ladies laughed and nodded their heads in agreement while Pastor Joe just smiled and shook his head, deciding he would keep his comments to himself.
I thought I’d share some extra fiction today, beyond the story I’ve been working on with “A Story to Tell,” even though it isn’t Fiction Friday. This is the beginning of another novel in process, The Farmer’s Daughter. This is the story of Molly Tanner, who thought that by now she’d be living away from her family with a career of her own, but instead is still living on her parent’s dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania. Now 26 she begins to wonder what the future will hold for a girl whose whole life has been working on her family farm and selling produce at her family’s farm store.
Molly Tanner spoke through gritted teeth. “You want a fight? You’ve got one.”
She grabbed the harness of the usually docile Jersey, jerking hard to pull the cow forward. The cow stretched her neck, looking bored while she chewed her cud, ignoring Molly’s efforts to lead her the 100 yards from the pasture to the barn, her feet firmly planted in the mud.
Molly pulled harder and gasped as the rope slipped out of her hands and she fell backward into the mud and manure.
Up at the barn Molly’s brother, Jason, and the hired hand, Alex Stone, were watching her. Her brother was holding a bucket of feed for the pigs and Alex was leaning against the doorframe of the barn door, chewing on a piece of sweet grass.
“What do you think she’s doing down there?” Alex asked, arms folded across his chest.
“Looks like she’s arguing with Lilly-belle again,” Jason said.
“Should we help her?” Alex asked.
“Probably,” Jason said.
Neither man moved to help. Instead, Jason poured the grain mixture into the feeding bin in the pig’s pen and Alex tossed the chewed grass at the ground and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, still watching Molly.
Sitting there on her butt in cow poop, rain falling on her, Molly thought how this moment represented where her life had ended up since she’d graduated high school eight years ago.
She was still living on her parents’ farm in rural Pennsylvania, still sleeping in her old room, her mom still cooking her meals and washing her clothes. Molly thought by now she’d be out on her own, with her own career, her own life. As it was, she didn’t even know what career she’d have outside of farming. Working on a farm was all she’d ever known and all she’d ever wanted – at least until recently when she’d started to wonder what else the world might offer a 26-year old with no degree and little knowledge of the world other than how to milk a cow and sell produce at her parent’s small farm store.
“Listen here, girl, it’s time to get in that barn,” Molly said, pushing herself off the ground, lecturing Lily-belle. “I’m tired. It’s been a long day of milking and cleaning out all that poop you and your friends make. And I’m not done yet. I still have to help Mom bake cakes for the church rummage sale next week. You know how much I hate that bake sale, so come on, give me a break, okay?”
Molly looked into the deep brown eyes of the cow and realized how pathetic she must look standing shin-deep in mud, covered in cow manure, talking to a cow as if the cow could understand her. Her life really was swirling down the proverbial toilet.
“Good grief, she’s a mess,” Jason said from the barn, shaking his head. “You’d better go rescue her.”
“Hey!” Alex shouted. “What’s going on down there? We’re ready to start the milking!”
Alex’s voice booming across the cow pasture brought a curse word to Molly’s lips, which she immediately felt guilty about.
“If you’re so impatient then you get this stubborn cow moving!” she shouted, tugging hard at the harness again.
Molly heard the sound of boots thumping heavy in the mud behind her and watched in disbelief as Alex reached over her shoulder, took the harness from her hands and Lily-belle moved forward with him.
“Are you kidding me?!” Molly shouted. “I’ve been trying to get her to move for 20 minutes! What did you do differently?”
Alex looked over his shoulder and smirked as the cow followed him
“I guess the ladies just like me.”
“You wish,” Molly grumbled loud enough for him to hear.
“Molly, why don’t you just head in and get cleaned off,” Robert Tanner said to his daughter as she stumbled through the barn doorway. “You can start helping your mom with those cakes. Alex, Jason and I can finish up the milking.”
“I’ll take you up on that offer,” Molly said. “Maybe I can even manage a shower before bed for once.”
“That would definitely be a good thing,” Jason said with a look of disgust. “You smell like the pigs.”
Molly shot a glare at her brother and turned to walk back toward the house.
“And you smell like the gas that comes out of their behinds!” she shouted over her shoulder.
“Always have to have the last word, don’t you?” Jason shouted back.
“Whatever back at you!”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Robert said. “I’ll have the last word.”
Molly watched the sun slipping behind the hills that hugged the Tanner’s 250-acre farm as she walked. The sunset, a mix of orange with a streak of pink, made the fields of the farm look almost mystical. She knew she’d never get sick of this view, of these sunsets at the end of a long day. She walked into the chicken coop to look for eggs she knew her mom would need for the cakes.
The last few years had definitely been a challenge for the Tanner family. They had watched their once strong patriarch, Robert’s father, Ned, fade away, trapped in a mind riddled with dementia. Around the same time Ned’s dementia had progressed, the family farm had plunged toward bankruptcy, as two years of heavy rain and flooding killed the corn and hay crops, leaving the family with little feed for their cattle.
Robert and his brother Walt’s decision to increase the farm’s organic produce inventory had helped save the business, but only barely. Now the family joined other farmers in the area in another crisis – a surplus of milk and decline in demand.
“I swear, if one more person tells me they drink almond milk I’ll scream,” Jason said one day, climbing down from the tractor and slamming the door closed. “It’s not milk. You can’t milk an almond. Milk comes from mammals. It’s false advertising. They should call it almond juice. Plus, who knows what’s in that stuff – it isn’t only almonds, that’s for sure.”
Walking back toward the house, trying to wipe dirt from her face, but instead only wiping more onto it, Molly paused again to look out the fields of the farm. The green of the corn was starting to peek up from the soil and soon they’d be harvesting it, if the rain would ever stop. It would be the third year of harvesting without her grandfather, the first since he’d passed away from heart failure at the end of last summer.
“Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to bring those eggs into the house?”
Her mom’s voice and laughter startled her and she turned away from the sunset.
“Sorry,” Molly said. “I was just admiring the sunset.”
“I know it’s beautiful,” Annie Tanner said. “But I need to get those cakes started. A sunset will wait. Mavis Porter won’t.”
Annie looked at her daughter and sniffed. “What were you doing out there? Rolling in the manure? Head upstairs and get a shower before we start on these cakes.”
Molly inwardly cringed at the mention of Mavis, the woman who had overseen the Spencer Valley Methodist Church rummage sale for 20-years straight. Mavis had a knack for making anyone feel less than, her thin face pursed into a permanent look of disapproval. Molly hoped she wouldn’t be roped into manning the baked goods table again this year. Mavis seemed to think it was ironic to have the fat girl guarding the cakes and cookies at the annual rummage sale.
“I can’t believe there are any cakes left,” a middle school-aged boy said one year, looking Molly up and down from across the church basement while his friends laughed.
“There were probably even more before she came in,” another boy said, as they all snickered.
She pretended she didn’t hear them as she counted the change in the money box.
Molly wasn’t proud of the weight she’d gained over the years, but no matter what she did she couldn’t seem to get back down to her high school weight of 118. She missed when she was in junior high school, thin and limber and not the butt of little boy’s jokes.
With long brown hair that curled when wet and plenty of curves, she possessed a clearly feminine shape. She was not what some might call grotesquely obese. Still, she wasn’t happy with the extra cushion to her belly, backside, and thighs she’d developed in high school. She wished she’d never heard the term “saddlebags” beyond what was hooked to the actual saddle of a horse. Drying off in front of the bathroom mirror she kept her eyes downcast, hoping to avoid a full view of what her body had become over the years.
Three cakes were baked and cooling on the dining room table when Molly heard her father’s truck pulling into the driveway of the house.
Her father’s red Ford needed to be replaced. The old truck was Robert Tanner’s pride and joy and a gift from his father when Robert had taken over the farm. Annie kept urging him to invest in a new one, but each time she did he responded with: “It gets me where I need to go and when it won’t no more then I’ll get a new one.”
Molly watched as her dad climbed out of the driver side, more gingerly than he had even a year ago. He’d been up since 4 a.m. to oversee the milking of the cows, the shoveling of the manure, the preparations to mow the field and she knew the last few years had been as physically rough on her dad as it had been emotionally.
Alex slid out of the passenger side easily and walked toward the house. He wore the same style of faded blue jeans and brown work boots he did every day. A white t-shirt was dirt-stained under a blue button-up, shirt sleeve plaid shirt. Molly couldn’t deny Alex’s rugged good looks quickened her pulse at times, but he was six years older than her, obnoxious and preferred the bar when she preferred solitude with her journal.
“Are you coming to dinner tonight, Alex?” Annie asked from the doorway.
“I don’t like to intrude and I smell like – ..”
Annie interrupted before he could finish.
“Jason is visiting Elsie tonight so there is already an extra place at the table for you,” she said. “Wash up and head on in. I’m dipping it up now.”
“Good day in the fields?” Molly asked after the prayers had been said and the food was on the plates.
“The John Deere finally broke down,” Robert said, breaking a piece off a chicken breast.
“Will John come and look at it?” Annie asked.
Alex and I can take care of it in the morning after milking,” Robert said nodding toward Alex. “It will make a late start, but I hate to spend the money if I know we can fix it here.”
Alex grinned. “Robert forgets I’m not good with the tractors, just the trucks,” he said. “But I’ll see what I can do.”
“I have faith in both of you,” Annie said with a smile.
Quiet settled over the dining room. The clanking of forks against plates was soon the only sound. Molly felt the tension in the air like someone wanted to say something but didn’t know how to. Her dad cleared his throat and she felt apprehension curl in her stomach.
“We got a letter from the co-op today,” he said.
“How bad are the numbers?” Annie asked and spooned more potatoes on Alex’s plate.
“Worse I’ve seen in five years,” Robert was somber. “It’s going to hurt a lot of farmers. Even with the organic market, I think it may even hurt us. There were also more farms that went out of business this year.”
Molly felt sick at the thought of even more of their friends being forced to sell their farms. She had attended too many auctions last year, hugged too many farmers wives, watched too many farm families weep as their lives were sold to the highest bidder.
“I don’t understand how the buyers can keep getting away with his,” Annie said, shaking her head. “It’s like the harder we all work, the more we get punished. We make the milk, they raise the prices and barely pass anything on to us.”
Molly pushed her potatoes around her plate as silence settled over the small group.
“We just have to give this over to God,” Robert said softly. “It’s all I know how to do anymore. Keep plugging ahead somehow and pray God shows us which direction to take. We’ve got the store, we are offering organic meats and products, something many people seem interested in now. It’s all we can do.”
The family and Alex nodded but they all felt the dread and the worry, like a sojourner without a compass.
Robert Tanner had been working on his family’s farm for more than 50 years and in the last 10 years, the farm had expanded to include farmland once owned by neighbors who had sold family businesses after the decline in milk prices had devastated them financially. Robert and his father Ned had offered area farmer’s a fair price and in some cases had even given them jobs in Tanner Enterprises. The farmers were able to keep their homes and remain in the area, if they wanted to, with the Tanners taking over their planting, harvesting, and milking.
Robert was proud of how he and his brother Walter had been able to grow the family business his grandfather had started almost 100 years ago, but he was also tired. It hadn’t been easy to keep a small farm, let alone a big one, operating in the black and it was getting harder each year. Diversifying what the farm produced and adding a farm store had increased profits enough to keep food on his, and his employees’, tables, but there were some days Robert wondered when the other shoe was going to drop and his dream of being a farmer would die.