I enjoyed this tale. Del, Widow, Gus, and Jenny were all written well, as were the slime-ball brother Glen and Widow’s daughter, Jess. The hardest parts of the book to read were the interactions between Del and her family. I don’t want to give anything away but she was treated so badly it made my blood boil….Overall it’s a good read about a hard life that has a lot of happiness at the end.
It was nearly dark when Del pulled up to the gate and stopped her F150. She noticed new sore places in her back as she climbed out of her truck and walked around to open the gate. As she unwound the piece of barbed wire she was using as a temporary latch, she caught the back of her hand on one of the barbs and tore a small notch in her skin.
“Dammit,” she exclaimed and made a mental note to move Make a better latch for the gate to the top of her to-do list. She found a tissue in her pocket and dabbed the blood away to keep it from dripping onto her good khakis, then finished opening the gate. After retrieving a first aid kit from behind the seat of her truck and placing a bandage on her cut, she climbed inside and drove through onto the rough gravel track beyond. She took more caution when closing the gate and, within a minute, she was crossing the cattle guard that separated her yard from the pasture.
In the road on the wrong side of the cattle guard loomed a massive black bull. He didn’t even flinch when she honked in an attempt to get him to move. Del revved the engine, but still he didn’t move.
“Shit!” she yelled into the emptiness of the evening. “If one more thing goes wrong today, I think I’ll…” She didn’t finish the thought, stopping herself from even imagining what she might do if she allowed her control to slip.
Instead, she inched the truck slowly forward until she finally nudged the bull gently with her front bumper. With the slight contact, he grudgingly stepped out of the driveway and into the flower bed she had planted the previous weekend.
“Thanks for nothing,” she muttered under her breath as she drove past him and up to the front of the old farmhouse, of which she was the new owner.
Del fished out her cell phone and found her list of contacts. “Gus, where the hell is your number?” she said quietly. Finding the listing she wanted, she pushed the Call button.
The call was answered on the second ring with a simple “Yeah.”
She responded quickly. “Hello, this is Del. I have a bull in my yard again. Can you come over and help me get him back through to the pasture?”
“Uh, yeah. I’ll be over in a few minutes. Let me get my boots back on.”
Del disconnected, then leaned her head back against the seat. What had she been thinking to come back to the country after all these years? Had things really been that bad in the city? She knew the answer to that was a definite yes and closed her eyes, hoping it would all just go away. Life was about to overwhelm her. The old farmhouse needed enough work to tie up every weekend for the next four months just to get it ready for winter. The dilapidated fence around the yard would not keep out Gus’s cattle, and she couldn’t afford to not lease out the pasture to him. The rutted road needed several hundred dollars worth of gravel spread onto it. Her back ached constantly, and between lifting patients at work and working hard around her house, she had no time to allow it to recover. And now her hand hurt much worse than a small cut should, she thought.
“Oh well. Might as well get out and do something,” she reasoned. “I’m not solving any problems sitting here in this truck.”
She grabbed her lunch bag and lab jacket from the passenger seat and climbed the three steps she had rebuilt her first weekend at the house, crossed the rickety porch and unlocked the front door. The table lamp in the corner of the living room came on when she flipped the switch inside the front door. Pale yellow light illuminated a narrow room with bare white walls which was filled to overflowing with furniture. She walked along a winding path to the kitchen on the other side of the living room. She placed her lunch bag on the counter, grabbed a Dr. Pepper from the refrigerator and tossed her lab jacket into a basket on the utility room floor on the far side of the kitchen. She downed one cold swig of sweet caffeine before she heard the diesel engine of Gus Andrews’s truck moving down the hill toward her house. She grabbed a flashlight from the utility room to fight off the encroaching darkness and headed back to the porch.
Gus and his two teenage boys hopped out of the truck. “We’ll get him, Del. I brought some wire to patch the fence too.” Gus’s tone was reassuring as he hustled past her. They headed out across the yard, cattle sticks in hand, and soon had the bull passing back through the fence where he had crossed earlier. The boys began fixing the fence behind her house while Gus came up to the porch and sat down beside Del.
“Long day?” he asked.
“Guess you could say that.” She crossed her arms over her chest, feeling the chill of the May evening settle in.
Twenty-five years earlier, Del and Gus had been fast friends—twelve years old, fishing in the local ponds, playing truck driver in the lawn chairs in Del’s front yard, or playing poker for toothpicks under a shade tree behind her parents’ house. Then as teenagers they’d drifted apart, and when Del left Devil’s Prairie for the city, they nearly lost contact completely. They had been in touch a few times over the past four years, but they had never returned to their easy friendship of childhood. When she’d called him a few months before, she wasn’t certain what she’d expected. To her surprise, he and Jenny had jumped at the chance to help. Now she was their neighbor and they leased her pasture for their cattle. Although she still felt a little awkward around them, in the month since she’d moved, she’d found herself letting her guard down and allowing her friendship with the Andrews to grow.
“When do you think you might want to try to replace that fence?” he asked, pulling her from her reverie. “You know the boys and I will help; just say the word.”
“I’m nearly tapped out until the first of next month, at least. Then I’ll probably have enough to get some posts and wire.”
“Have you thought about calling Widow Jennings?” he asked. “She might have some old posts she’d sell you cheap. She tore out a fence row a couple of months ago. She’ll quote you a fair price, if she still has them.”
“I don’t believe I’ve heard of her. Widow, is it?” Del asked.
“Yeah. That’s what everyone calls her. Her name is Felicia, but I’ve never heard her use that name. She lives over on the old Hammond place,” Gus explained.
“Okay. I’ll give her a call. The quicker we get that fence replaced, the better. It may not be healthy for your bull to keep breaking into my yard. Next time, I might not bump him so gently.”
Gus grinned at Del’s mocking tone. “Don’t add insult to injury, Del. You’ll end up with a busted grille and he’ll probably just walk away.”
“We’re all done, Dad.” Gus’s elder son, Jim, stepped around the corner of the porch into the illumination of the light. He leaned one hand against a corner post but quickly put it down at his side when the post creaked loudly. “Sorry Del,” he said quickly.
“It’s okay, Jim. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky if I get this place repaired before it falls down around my ears.” She smiled to ease his concern.
“I think that fence will hold him out for a little while, but no bets on how long,” Jim continued.
“Yeah, we were just talking about that,” Gus said, rising from his chair. “Del thinks maybe the first of the month we can start on it. Well boys, guess we better head home. Mom will have supper ready for us. You want to come over, Del? Pot roast, potatoes and carrots.”
“Thanks Gus. Maybe another night. It’s been a long week, and I think I’ll turn in early.”
“Okay, but you don’t know what you’re missing,” Gus teased. He turned and headed for his truck.
Del smiled and shrugged, knowing she would not be good company this evening. It had been a trying week at work and nightmares had interrupted her sleep too many times, leaving her exhausted.
She couldn’t help but smile at Jim and his younger brother Gary as they rushed ahead of Gus, each trying to secure the prized front-seat position. “Tell Jenny I said hello,” she told Gus. “Thanks for coming over so quickly.”
“No problem. Hope he didn’t do any damage to your yard.” Gus peered into the yard, dark beyond the small semicircle of light that surrounded them.
“I think he stomped a few flowers, but they can be replaced,” she said, trying to make light of the loss of the hours she had spent building and planting the flower bed. “Good night guys.”
“Good night Del,” all three of them chimed.
After a salad and another Dr. Pepper, Del settled into her recliner and clicked on the TV. She found nothing of interest on her four local network stations and clicked it off again. Instead, she grabbed an open book from the coffee table and settled back into her chair. One chapter later, she was fast asleep.
“Hey, honey, how was your day?” Sarah asked as Del came through the kitchen door. Her cheeks glowed with health, and her eyes sparkled with delight to see Del.
“You look great,” Del said. She came around the counter and hugged her from behind, nuzzling her neck.
“Thanks. You don’t look so shabby yourself. Are you hungry? I’m planning on cube steaks and a veggie.”
“That sounds great. Need some help?”
“No, go sit down and rest a little while I finish with these steaks.”
“Dee! Dee! Hey Dee, are you in there?”
The beating of a meat tenderizer on steaks changed to the banging of a fist on a door, and Del awoke disoriented, looking for Sarah and their familiar apartment in St. Louis. The furniture looked the same, although out of place, but that was all she recognized in the early morning light of her crowded living room.
“Dee! Are you home?”
“Shit!” Del pried herself up out of the recliner where she had spent the night and stumbled toward the door. She flipped the latch, then pulled open the door. The bright morning sun peeking over the trees caught her fully in the face, and she squinted to see who was standing on her porch.
“About time you woke up, lazybones!” The short, spry woman on her front porch stepped inside and hugged her tightly, not waiting for a response. “You look like hell. What’d you do, sleep in your chair again?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess I did. Sorry Cindy. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting out there. How long have you been knocking?”
“Just a few minutes. Don’t worry about it. You can pay me back by fixing me some coffee.”
“Uh, okay, yeah. I do have coffee.” Del walked back to the kitchen, running her hands through her short hair on the way, trying to put it in some semblance of order. “I’ll have it ready in a few minutes. Have a seat and I’ll bring you a cup when it’s done,” she called back over her shoulder.
Del heard the muffled sound of the TV from the other room as she waited for the coffee to brew. She hoped Cindy wouldn’t give her too much trouble about sleeping in the recliner as she’d been doing for weeks now.
“Cindy worries too much…and I talk to myself too much.” Del shook her head in self-reproach.
When Del returned to the living room, she noted her bedding had been piled neatly onto one end of the couch and Cindy was settled comfortably on the other side with the TV remote resting beside her.
“Black coffee,” Del announced. She placed one cup on the coffee table in front of Cindy and headed for her recliner.
After a noisy sip of the hot brew, Cindy lifted her cup toward Del. “Good coffee. So, are you up for a weekend of manual labor, old lady?”
“Who are you calling old lady? Last I knew, you were only six months younger than I am. And yes, I’m ready. We’ll just see if you can keep up.”
Del was glad to see Cindy. Her dream had left her unsettled, and Cindy would help her get her mind on what she needed to get done instead of sitting around and brooding. In St. Louis, she and Cindy had worked together in health care off and on over the past ten years, and they had become close friends. Del and Sarah had helped Cindy get over Brenda when Brenda dumped her for another woman three years earlier. She couldn’t count the number of nights Cindy had slept on their couch because she couldn’t stand to go home to an empty house. Now she supposed Cindy thought it was her turn. But Del really didn’t think anything would help her get over Sarah. The pain she felt now was just as sharp, just as fresh as it was the day she saw the light go out of Sarah’s eyes six months earlier. She supposed it always would be.
“Dee, are you still with me?” Cindy’s worried expression matched the concern in her voice.
“Oh yeah. What did you say? I was just daydreaming or something.” Del rubbed her hand over her face, trying to wipe away ghosts from the past and move back into the present.
“Do you have plans for breakfast? I thought maybe we could run to that little diner up the road and get a good breakfast before we get started. Sound good to you?”
“Sure. Can you give me a few minutes to get cleaned up? I’d like to take a quick shower if it’s okay.”
“Please,” Cindy shot back at her. “I’d appreciate it, especially the shower part if I’m going to be stuck riding in the cab of a pickup with you.”
“Oh shut up.” Del punched her lightly in the shoulder as she passed by Cindy on the way to her bedroom.
She quickly showered and dressed, then grabbed a cup of coffee to go, shut off the coffeemaker and headed out the door a step behind Cindy.
* * *
“Biscuits and gravy, breakfast of champions,” Cindy teased her. “You’re going to clog your arteries before you’re forty, Dee.”
“Oh shut up. I don’t know how I survived all those years eating healthy. Yogurt and bagels and all that crap.” Del shoved in another forkful of food. After she swallowed, she added, “I guess coming home hasn’t been all bad.”
“It’ll get better. Let’s get your house fixed up and you’ll have a whole new outlook on it.”
“Maybe. Just seems like a never-ending list of things to do, that’s all.”
“Hurry up and finish eating and let’s get to it, then.” Cindy had already eaten, and now she turned sideways in the chair, looking at the door impatiently.
“All right, this is my last bite.” Del grabbed the ticket and got up from the table, then headed toward the cash register while she was still chewing. “You leave the tip,” she called back over her shoulder to Cindy.
A few minutes later, they backed out onto the lazy main street of Devil’s Prairie, then drove about a block to a small brick building with unmarked angle parking in front. Del pulled up to the small asphalt curb nearly in front of the single tinted glass door to the local post office. She stepped inside and in five steps was at her post office box. Del shook her head as she compared her experiences in this small town to the city. The conveniences were offset by the main lobby being open only a few hours each day, usually when she was at work. But she seldom needed to do more than check for mail, and this room was always open.
Del was looking down at her mail when she opened the door to step outside. A flicker of movement in her peripheral vision made her stop in her tracks, inches away from a collision. She looked up to see a woman, an inch or two shorter than she was and about her own age, blond hair pulled back into a loose ponytail with several escaped strands framing her tanned face and bright, blue eyes. Judging from her strong arms and the black grease stains on her faded jeans, she was no stranger to manual labor. She stood, patiently waiting for Del to move from the center of the doorway.
“Oh, excuse me,” Del said quickly. “I guess I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Most of the time, that’s not a problem around here. Traffic isn’t really heavy in and out that door, you know.”
Del was struck by the strength in her voice and took a closer look at the woman she had nearly run down. “You wouldn’t be Widow Jennings, would you?” she ventured on a hunch.
“That’s what they call me around here. And you? I think I know nearly everyone in these parts, but I don’t think I’ve seen you before. New to the area?”
“I’m Del, Del Smith. I grew up not far from here, but I’ve lived away for about twenty years. I just moved back a month ago. I bought the old place just west of Gus Andrews’s place.”
“Welcome back then, Del. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get my mail and get back to the farm. Got a busy day planned.”
“Sure, yeah, I’m sorry.” Del stepped out of her way, holding the door open as Widow passed by her into the post office. She was a little surprised at the brusque response she had received and stared at the door as she allowed it to close again. With a sudden determination, Del turned and went to the truck, where she handed Cindy the mail through the open window. This Jennings woman might be busy, but Del needed some posts and was not going to let the opportunity pass.
“Give me a minute,” she explained. “I need to talk to this lady.”
“I’m just the hired help. Whatever you want, boss.” Cindy smiled at Del’s look of annoyance.
Del opened the door again just as Widow reached it.
“Widow, Gus suggested I talk to you about some fence posts,” Del began. “He thought you might have some old posts for sale. I need to replace the fence around my house before I get mad, shoot Gus’s bull and have him for dinner.”
Widow laughed. “Don’t go to that extreme. If it’s the one I’m thinking of, he’d probably be pretty tough, old as he is.”
She’s got a nice laugh, Del thought.
“Come over when you want to take a look at them. I’ll be there all weekend. You know where my place is, right?”
“Yeah. The old Hammond place, Gus said.”
“That’s it. Well, I’ll be seeing you.” Widow climbed into her truck. She turned the key, and the old flatbed sputtered to a start. She backed out onto the road and pulled away, leaving Del looking after her.
When Del stepped up into the truck, Cindy gave her a long, sideways glance then started the engine. Del refused to respond to Cindy’s interest in her sudden decision to speak to Widow and turned to stare out the window. The reason for this uncharacteristic determination, she admitted to herself, was something she wasn’t even comfortable exploring. Cindy backed the truck out onto the road and headed to Del’s new home.
* * *
Six hours later, Cindy and Del had put a new, safer latch on the gate at the end of the lane and sealed the old metal roof of the house with a silver sealant. Del stepped down the ladder with a nearly empty, silver-stained bucket in one hand. Cindy was already sitting on the porch in one of Del’s plastic lawn chairs.
“Ready for a break, I see,” Del said, falling into a chair beside her. “At least it feels like we’re getting somewhere. Want a Dr. Pepper?”
“Don’t guess you’d have a Diet Coke in there, would you?”
“No. If I’d have been thinking, I’d have picked up some. Sorry about that.” Del had risen to go inside for a soda but now decided against it. “Tell you what, let’s run to the station and I’ll buy you a Diet Coke. On the way back, we can run by Widow Jennings’s place and look at those posts.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me. Do I look okay?” Cindy asked, running her fingers through the strands of hair the sticky sealant had matted together.
Del laughed. “Good thing you’re not looking for a date. Quit worrying about how you look and let’s go.” Del grunted and rubbed absently at her cheek when she saw her reflection in the truck window. She had a silver streak down the right side of her face, a few silver sprinkles in her hair and a smudge of black in the middle of her forehead. Her shirt and jeans were dirty from the efforts of their day, and the barbed wire at the gate had ripped a hole just above her left back pocket.
The clerk at the station didn’t give their scruffy appearances a second look, and many of the other patrons coming and going around them looked as though they had been involved in outdoor tasks of their own. Del headed to the back of the store, leaving Cindy looking at the rack of rental DVDs near the entrance. She bought their drinks and found Cindy where she left her.
Del handed her a forty-four ounce fountain soda. “If that’s not enough, I can get a two liter bottle,” she teased.
“I think that’ll do for a while.”
As they headed to Widow’s place, Del was quiet and Cindy chose not to interrupt her thoughts. Instead they rode in silence, looking at the passing landscape. If one looked closely, they might be surprised by how rundown most things appeared. Fences lining the perimeters of the pastures were leaning or missing posts, gates were rusty and bent, houses had siding with mold or missing pieces, and the older, more decrepit houses had mobile homes set up next to them either for extended families or because they were no longer habitable. The signs of people struggling to make ends meet were evident everywhere. Occasionally, they passed a nice house, with a new fence and well-tended yard, but these were the exceptions.
When they pulled down the long drive toward the Hammond house, Del finally spoke. “I haven’t been to the end of this road since I was a kid. I wonder what all they’ve done to the old place?”
They came around a corner in the drive, and from behind the trees, the outline of a two-story house emerged. Its mostly glass front looked out over a valley of green, stretching out several hundred yards to a thin line of trees hiding a small creek Del remembered from her childhood.
“Nice.” She admired the design and placement of the house, aware that a lot of thought had gone into making it fit seamlessly into its environment. “I guess they had to tear the old house down. It was in pretty bad shape even when I was a kid.”
They approached a wide, graveled area in front of a large metal machine shed that was set back farther from the drive than the house. The shed’s large, open door appeared to be the center of activity. Widow and a young man—probably her son, Del supposed—appeared to be doing maintenance on a tractor. Widow had a grease gun in one hand and a rag that had probably once been white in the other but set them both down on some nearby machinery when they stopped in front of the shed. As Del turned off the ignition, Widow approached the open window on the driver’s side.
“Hello again, neighbor. I wasn’t sure if you’d make it out today or not.”
“Well, I decided I’d better give my help a break. I wouldn’t want to wear her out too much. She might not come back to help again.” Del glanced over with a smile for Cindy, who rolled her eyes in response.
“Let’s go look at those posts. Del, right? And what’s your friend’s name?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Guess I’ve lost my manners. This is Cindy Collins, from St. Louis. She’s a good friend of mine who’s crazy enough to give up her weekends to help me out. Cindy, this is Felicia Jennings.” Cindy had stepped out of the truck and walked around to stand by Widow.
“Widow. Just call me Widow. Everyone around here does.” She held out a darkened hand she had recently rubbed free of grease, but which still showed the stains of her labors. Cindy didn’t hesitate to take it, returning her firm handshake.
“Widow. It’s nice to meet you. This is a beautiful place you have here. Maybe you can give Del a few tips.” Cindy grinned at Del and winked. “After all the repairs we’ve done to her place, I’m beginning to think we should have just built another house.”
Del grunted as she climbed out of the truck, feeling a sharp jab in her back after sitting still for a little while. “Might take the same amount of time and effort, but patching up the old place sure takes a lot less cash.”
Widow nodded in agreement. “When we lost the kids’ dad, he had a good life insurance policy. That’s what made a down payment on this place, including building the house. It’s been a battle to meet the mortgage every month, but only four more years to go and it’s all mine. I plan to have a big party to celebrate. You’ll both have to come.”
“That sounds great to me!” Cindy jumped in. “I never pass up an excuse for a party.”
“I’ll keep you posted,” Widow said, smiling at Cindy’s enthusiasm. “Well, let’s go look at those posts. We stacked them over here behind the shed. Take a look at what we’ve got and let me know if you’re interested.”
They followed her around the corner of the building and saw a stack of a few dozen green T-posts next to the shed. “What do you want for them?” Del asked.
“How about seventy-five cents a post? There are forty-six posts. I counted when we unloaded them here. Don’t have a calculator or I’d total that for you.”
“That’s okay. Dee here is a walking calculator,” Cindy teased.
Del blushed. She didn’t like to come across as a know-it-all, especially around people who didn’t know her well. Math was just easy for her. She noticed Widow looking at her curiously, awaiting an answer. “Thirty-four fifty,” she answered simply. “You sure that’s enough?”
“Yep. I wouldn’t have offered if it wasn’t a fair price for both of us.”
“I’ll take them,” Del said, digging her leather wallet out of her back pocket. She counted out thirty-five dollars into Widow’s hand and after a few minutes of haggling, finally convinced her to keep the fifty cents change. Cindy backed the truck up to the pile, and in no time, they had the stack loaded in the truck bed. Del dusted off her hands on her pant leg, then reached out to shake Widow’s hand. She was startled at the warmth that traveled up her arm when she gripped Widow’s hand and noticed a look of surprise cross the other woman’s face as well.
Del dropped Widow’s hand quicker than she had planned, immediately quelling her surprise or any other thoughts that might have reasonably followed. “Thank you.” Her voice was steady and calm, her control fully reestablished. “This will be a big help. Now, as soon as I can get some wire, Gus and the boys will come over and we’ll build a new yard fence.”
“That Gus is a pretty good guy,” Widow said. “He and Jenny have helped me out several times over the years. My daughter babysat for their boys a few times when they were younger, and they watched my place if I had to be out of town.”
“Yeah, he was a good friend growing up too,” Del agreed. “I spent a lot of days sitting on pond banks fishing with him.”
“I have a stocked pond up by the road if you’re ever interested. Give me a call and I’ll unlock the gate for you. You can drive right to it.”
Del’s eyes widened slightly when Widow mentioned locking the gates. Many of the locals still left their gates open to everyone, and some were offended to find any gate locked. Gus didn’t lock his gates, and she had never considered putting a lock on her own.
Widow must have seen her surprise, because she quickly explained, “I put locks on all my gates. Did Gus warn you about the rustling going on in the counties west of here? If they want to steal my cattle, they’ll have to work for it.”
“No, but that’s definitely something I’ll keep my eyes open for, and I’ll think about getting a lock for mine.” Del was concerned about the thought of rustlers running around on her property when she wasn’t around, and she knew someone stealing Gus’s cattle would be a hard blow for him to absorb. “I may take you up on that fishing too. Thanks, Widow. I’ll let you get back to work.”
“Come back when we’re not so busy and I’ll show you around, Del. You too Cindy. You two have a good day.” Widow turned and headed back toward the shed, acknowledging their farewells with a wave of her hand.
Within minutes, Del and Cindy were back at Del’s house. They unloaded the posts inside her yard fence near the cattle guard.
“Cindy, let’s call it a day after this. I’m about to give out.”
“Old lady, you say ‘rest,’ we rest.” Cindy grinned at her but added quickly when Del shifted her gaze to the trampled flower garden she had mentioned repairing, “Rest is good though. Besides, this way we’ll have some energy left to get your porch rail replaced tomorrow. We also need to eat again sometime. I don’t know about you, but I’m practically starved.”
“Good, that means I’ve worked you hard enough. I set out some steaks to thaw this morning. Will meat and potatoes do for you?”
“If you’re cooking, I’m eating.” Cindy laughed. “Do a good enough job on that steak and I may even wash your dishes for you.”
“Sounds like a challenge to me.” Del grinned and slammed the tailgate shut on the truck. “Let’s go to the house.”
When she walked into the bedroom, the light from the window shined across the bed, illuminating Sarah’s profile, relaxed and peaceful in sleep. “Beautiful as the day I met you,” Del murmured quietly. “God, I can’t believe how much I love you. I must be the luckiest woman in the world to be the one you love.”
She stepped quietly into the room and softly sat down on the edge of the bed, careful to not disturb the serenity of the moment. No longer able to resist, she reached out to trace Sarah’s features, to run a fingertip gently over the lines of her face. Before Del could feel the soft skin, Sarah melted away, leaving only a dent in the pillow and wrinkled bedsheets.
“Sarah,” Del called out, confused, unable to comprehend how she had disappeared. She looked wildly around the room, panic now taking hold. “Sarah, where are you? Sarah?”
“Dee, wake up.”
Del was aware of someone grabbing her shoulder, shaking her gently, then rougher. She recognized Cindy’s voice in her ear.
“Dee, you’re dreaming. Wake up.”
The brisk shaking roused her out of her nightmare, but it still took Del several seconds to recognize Cindy standing in front of her. The living room seemed foreign to her, and she looked around frantically for Sarah. “Cindy, where is she?”
Cindy looked ashen at the question, but before she could answer, Del knew. She remembered it all, the months of tests, the doctors, the treatments and the sickness. She remembered watching the life slowly drain from her lover until Sarah could no longer get out of bed without help. She remembered holding Sarah that final day as the last flicker of light left her eyes. She remembered feeling as though her world had crumbled around her, and the pain was just as fresh to her as if it were yesterday instead of six months ago.
Cindy held her as the reality overtook her. Del had thought there were no more tears she could cry, but she had been wrong. They came from the depths of her sorrow, as plentiful in number as her love for Sarah had been deep.
“How am I ever going to make it without her, Cindy? She was my life. I thanked God every day for blessing me with her. Now I don’t know what to do without her. I can’t even sleep in my own bed. I should have sold it, I guess, because I sleep in this damned recliner every night.”
Cindy waited, still holding her quietly as Del let her anguish spill out.
“Maybe I was crazy coming back here. I thought it would be easier here for some reason, but it isn’t. I still miss her every waking moment of every day. Is it ever going to end?” She dissolved into tears again, this time with her hands over her face.
Cindy leaned in to hold her again, pulling Del tightly against her shoulder. “Dee, Sarah was special. I don’t know any two people who loved each other more than you and she. That’s why it hurts so bad that she’s gone.” She paused as if choosing her words carefully. “You haven’t lost her completely. I know you’ll never forget her, so Sarah will always be with you in your heart.” She leaned back and pushed gently on Del’s shoulders, getting her to lift her face away from her hands. Del blinked to clear her blurry vision, her face twisted in pain and confusion.
“Dee, I also know Sarah would be mad as hell if she were here right now.” Cindy waited for this to sink in. “She would be mad as hell that you haven’t been able to move through this grief. What would she say about you sleeping in this recliner? She would chew your ass out, that’s what. I see the way you grab your back every time you get up and down. You know as well as I do that spending the night all crumpled up in that chair isn’t helping any.” She waited a few seconds, then continued. “And that doesn’t mean you can’t miss her, you know. You just can’t let this grief keep you paralyzed forever. I hoped moving here would get you past these nightmares and get you jump-started again. That’s what Sarah would want, for you to live again.”
Del nodded and sniffled, then reached over for a tissue and blew her nose. She forced a chuckle, then agreed. “She probably would bean me for not sleeping in the bed.”
For several moments, Del allowed herself to remember, to let the memories of their love carry her instead of shutting them out in fear of pain. Finally she arose from the recliner and headed into the kitchen, Cindy a step behind her. She reached up and opened the cabinet door above the refrigerator and pulled down a bottle of Seagram’s Dark Honey. Cindy handed her two small glasses from the dish drainer, where Del had stacked their supper dishes only a few hours before. Del dropped a couple of ice cubes in each glass, then poured the golden liquid over them. She returned the bottle to its place over the refrigerator, then grabbed her glass and headed back to her recliner. Again Cindy followed silently.
As Del turned to sit, she saw the look of concern on Cindy’s face. “Don’t worry, Cindy, I’m too scared of becoming my father to hide in a bottle. I just wanted to make a toast, if that’s okay with you. Here’s to fifteen years of loving and being loved by an angel.” Her voice caught, and she cleared her throat before continuing. “I was truly blessed. And here’s to good friends, who help you through the tough times.” She tapped the side of her glass gently against Cindy’s, and they both sipped the sweet, strong liquor.
Cindy set her glass down on the coffee table, but Del continued to hold hers, watching the remaining whiskey wash over the shrinking cubes of ice as she swirled them gently.
“You’re making progress, Dee. I don’t know if you remember how messed up you were at first. I’m not trying to minimize your grief now, but you are slowly getting there. You’ve just got to keep plugging away at it. What is it they say? ‘Get up and set one foot in front of the other,’ or something like that?”
“Yeah, something like that. I guess I can see that too. It is a little easier than it was at first. Sometimes, though, I’ll have a bad dream, or something will trigger a memory and I fall apart again. Like tonight…I just never thought I’d have to learn to make it without her, you know?”
“I’ve got an idea. I’m not trying to make a pass at you, old friend, but let’s go to bed.”
Del raised her eyebrows and looked sharply at Cindy. “Maybe you better explain that a little more before I agree to anything.”
“You haven’t slept in that bed for six months. Let’s go in there and get a few hours decent sleep on a good mattress instead of you in that recliner and me on your lumpy couch.”
“I don’t know if I can, Cindy.”
“I think you can, and I’ll be there if you need me.” She grabbed Del’s hand and tugged her toward the bedroom door.
Del allowed herself to be pulled along. She was tired, and her back was hurting. Besides, Cindy would be there, and she could leave a light on too.
They compromised on allowing the hall light to remain lit, and both lay on top of the covers, pulling a blanket over themselves to keep warm. Del wasn’t sure she could tolerate actually climbing between the sheets.
“Good night Dee.”
“Good night Cindy. Thank you.”
“That’s what friends are for.”
* * *
The sun filtering between the wooden blinds hit Del in the eyes, awaking her slowly. She looked up, but the blue, peeling paint on the slat-board ceiling gave her no clues as to her location. She scanned the walls across from where she lay, but they were devoid of pictures or other decoration and gave her no further indication. She sat straight up in the bed and looked around, but all she saw was a depression in the pillow beside her. Her senses were slowly coming to life, and she realized at last where she was. The events of the previous night came back to her, and she fell back onto the bed with a groan.
Cindy came through the bedroom door with a cup of coffee in each hand and set one on the bedside table beside Del. She sank down onto the cedar chest against the wall and sipped her own coffee patiently.
“’Bout time you woke up, lazybones. It’s going on ten o’clock.”
Del just groaned again, rolled over and put a pillow over her head.
Cindy laughed. “How long has it been since you’ve slept in, Dee? I thought it might do you a little good, so I let you sleep. Besides, you can’t work me if you’re sleeping.”
Del tossed a pillow at her, and Cindy reacted quickly, lifting her cup out of its path. “Easy there, girl. Don’t spill my coffee.”
Del, giving up on avoiding the day, rolled back to face Cindy, swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. She reached over for the coffee and tried a sip, then set it back down. “Forgot how strong you like your coffee,” she commented drily. “Gotta pee.” She padded around the bed and out the door toward the bathroom.
A few minutes later, she joined Cindy, who had taken both cups to the living room. “Had breakfast?” Del asked.
“Yes. I had toast and jelly about an hour ago. I was hungry, so I nosed around in your kitchen until I found something.”
“Good.” Del sat down in her recliner and sipped the strong coffee again.
“You sure are talkative this morning.”
“Dang it, Cindy. I’m only half-awake. What do you expect?”
Cindy grinned widely. “You know I love it when you get mad at me. You haven’t been mad at me in a long time. That’s more like the Dee I love to piss off.”
“Glad I could oblige you,” Del grumped. “How can you drink this swill?” she asked after trying another sip from her cup.
“Swill?” Cindy drew her eyebrows down in mock offense. “That’s good coffee, now, not like that colored water you like to drink.” As if to demonstrate, she tilted up her cup and took a large swallow, then leaned back and sighed deeply, grinning broadly.
“Good thing I didn’t put a spoon in it. Probably would have stood straight up.”
“Shut up and drink it. Then get your butt in gear. We have work to do, and I have to head back to the city in about four hours.”
“Okay, don’t get your panties in a wad. I’m working on it.”
Cindy grinned and waited.
The good-natured bickering continued as they worked together to repair the railing around the porch. Several of the boards were rotten and had to be replaced, but most just needed to be nailed back to the frame of the porch. The finished product was sturdy, although the mixture of old and new wood made for an unusual appearance.
“A layer of paint or stain and it’ll look pretty good, Dee.”
“Yep. And now I won’t be worried about leaning on a rail and falling off on my head. Thought Gus’s boy was going to fall onto the porch Friday night.”
Cindy carried her tools down to her truck and helped Del put them away.
“Think I’ll use the rest of the sealant and hit the roof of that shed this afternoon,” Del said. “Then I can quit throwing tarps over my saws.”
“If it’s all right with you, I think I’ll leave that job for you and head on back,” Cindy said.
“Sure, Cindy. I can get that by myself. You’ve been babysitting me long enough, don’t you think?” Del appreciated the long days Cindy had sacrificed over the past three weekends. She hadn’t felt strong enough to turn away Cindy’s companionship when she’d offered. “I’m going to finish that roof, then clean up and go do some grocery shopping. I think I can handle it.”
“Just buy some Diet Coke for next weekend.”
“Are you sure? I really love the help and the company, but you’ve been here every weekend, and I know you have things you need to do at home.”
“Well, Julie will be at work, and coming here means I won’t be going out to the bar and getting into trouble without her.” Cindy grinned. “Besides, the following two weekends I can’t be here. The first weekend we have that benefit dance, and the following Saturday is Julie’s birthday. You should try to come up for that, Dee. It’d be good for you to socialize a little. You could become a hermit out here in the boondocks.”
Del laughed. “I socialize. I see Gus, Jenny and their boys, Jim and Gary. I also see everyone at work five days a week. My brother even called me last week.”
“Your brother called? What did he want?” Del didn’t miss the sudden seriousness in Cindy’s tone, or the way her smile transformed into a frown.
Del rarely received calls from her brother unless he wanted something. The last time she had seen him was the previous year at the hospital, when their mother had been admitted after a mild stroke. Their mother had lived alone since their father’s death three years before that, and after her hospitalization, she required constant supervision. Glen lived with his drinking buddies or his flavor-of-the-month girlfriend. He wouldn’t consider staying with their mother at her home, and he had no place of his own to offer. Del and Sarah were already embroiled in Sarah’s battle for her life and couldn’t take her in either, so Del had made arrangements to place their mother in a long-term care facility in a town a few miles from the small town of Devil’s Prairie and she still resided there. Glen had only spoken with Del on the phone a couple of times since then and had never been to the nursing home to see their mother, leaving all of her care for Del to manage.
“I haven’t quite figured out what he wanted. He seemed interested in what I was doing. He asked some questions about whether I was farming or leasing the land and if I was living here by myself or not. It was a really odd conversation, considering it was Glen. I know he doesn’t care about how I’m doing, but I can’t figure out what he was up to. Oh well, at least he didn’t ask me for money.”
“Don’t worry. Even if I had money, I wouldn’t have given it to him.” She grinned to try to lessen Cindy’s worries. “I learned that lesson a few years ago, remember?”
“I remember. I was just concerned there for a minute that your memory was failing. I know you have a soft heart, Dee, and would give a stranger the shirt off your back. But he’s no good. I try not to talk bad about people’s family because I know blood ties can be strong, but he would suck you dry if he could, and you know it.”
“Yeah, I know. Well, let’s get you on the road before more of the day gets away from you.”
They both headed into the house to gather Cindy’s things and carried them outside to her truck. Cindy tossed her bags into the passenger seat and lodged her thermos of coffee into the floorboard beside the console. Then she turned to grab Del in a firm hug.
“Old woman, take care of yourself. You’re too skinny. And you better start sleeping some in that bed before you get hip flexion contractures sleeping sitting up all the time. Oh, and pick me up some Diet Coke for next Saturday!”
“Be careful Cindy. Don’t worry, I’m in no danger of wasting away, and I’ll do some stretches to loosen up my hips.” Del grinned at Cindy’s therapy advice. “Really, though, thank you for everything.”
“I’ll collect someday.” Cindy leaped up into the truck and fired it up, then backed down the drive, turned and headed up the hill.
Del stood with a hand on her hip and watched her go, then walked over to the side of the house to get her ladder so she could seal her shed roof.
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