by Tagan Shepard
After putting in her time playing bars, festivals and opening acts for bigger names, Robin Wren “Birdie” Scott has finally become a bona fide rock star with her latest album. Multiple Grammy nominations, legions of adoring fans and a hit single topping the charts, her career is exactly where she wants it to be. Her personal life, on the other hand, could use some work.
She’s always felt pulled in two. She’s famous, but she craves solitude. She was born a country girl, but she’s drawn to the vitality of city life. She adores her mother, but she can’t forgive her for the hurtful things she said when Birdie came out. She loves her wife, Della, but her marriage is not what it once was. All of her friendships have somehow turned into business relationships. Even the rush of performing has lost its luster.
When her sold-out tour is interrupted by the unexpected death of her mother, dropping everything and driving off into the mountains back to the small hometown she hasn’t visited in nearly two decades almost feels like a relief. Sorting out the conflicting emotions that come with losing her mother would be hard enough on its own. Add to that the reappearance of her childhood best friend and first love, Sara, and this trip home could be life changing in more ways than one.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Bird on a Wire — Finalist, General Fiction.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I see songs like short stories. A flashing glimpse into a fictional world. Like looking down an alley as you drive by and seeing the moment a cat leaps from the pavement toward the lid of a dumpster. The world whips past before you see its paws land. Because I'm a writer, I see a world of possibilities in that glimpse. A story waiting to be written."
Read more about Tagan's thoughts on Bird on a Wire at Blog.Bellabooks.com.
Pin’s Reviews - This is the second novel by Tagan Shepard. I said for her successful debut that it is a sign that many more fine books are yet to come. I am glad that I was right. Bird on a Wire is even better than Visiting Hours. The whole plot happens in just a few days but with a lot of flashbacks. I am not a fan of flashbacks, but I have nothing against them if they are reasonable and well-executed, as here. Robin is a good person, but her behavior can sometimes be quite frustrating and contradictory, and the author uses that very successfully to create some fine-tuned drama and tension all the way to the end. With all main elements done well, this makes for another very good book by this author. Keep them coming!
Lex’s Reviews - This is a book I had no idea how it would end. It looked like one way, then another. Shepard kept me turning the pages since I had no idea. I will say I was very happy with the ending. It was what I was hoping for. This is Shepard’s second book and both have been good. She has become an author that I will automatically read now. If you are looking for a good drama book with a little romance, give this a read.
“Birdie! Wait for me!”
The rustle of plump green leaves and the trickle of water over a rocky creek bed mixed with the pounding of tiny feet on unkempt grass. The two little girls giggled as they crested the hill and started down the other side, their footsteps sure on a steep grade as only those of children can be. They ran toward the sound of the water. If they had been asked, they could say exactly how many steps it would take them to arrive at their destination. They wouldn’t have to think about it. They would just know, the way they knew their names and the way ice-cold lemonade tasted on a warm day.
The girl in front held her faded cowboy hat tightly as the breeze picked up. Her feet slipped inside the boots she had worn every day that summer. Sweat pooled between her toes and underneath her flannel shirt. The stitches on her matted suede vest were wide and they strained to hold at the point where her lean shoulders were beginning to round out and widen.
She turned to track the progress of her pursuer just before the grass gave way to pine needles. “Better hurry up, Princess! I’m gonna beat you to the tree aggggaaaain!”
The breeze that had threatened Birdie’s hat now tugged at the stained lace ringing the hem of Princess’s dress. “You will not! I’m faster’n I look, and you know it, Birdie Scott!”
Birdie laughed, but she picked up her pace. Princess was barefoot, so she had a good chance of winning the race now that the ground was prickly and uneven. Birdie had lost too many times to take her opponent for granted. By the time the winding scar of the creek’s path came into view, she could hear Princess’s breath puffing right behind her. She reached out and gripped at a tree trunk, using it to slingshot her along to the left.
Princess appeared out of nowhere at her shoulder. A grin split her face, but her eyes were set in a determined squint. Birdie’s stomach dropped. She had started her sprint too late, and now she had no chance. Princess’s arms were windmilling wildly, tiny high heels gripped tight in her fist. Sweat stuck strands of her dirty blond hair to her cheeks, and Birdie’s pace dropped even further as she watched the girl streaking between the trees. Birdie was mesmerized, struck by the sight of her friend at her most determined. This was Princess’s most dangerous weapon, the one that always did Birdie in.
“Told ya you’d never beat me!”
Princess spun and planted her fists on her hips. Her smile was so smug that it almost made Birdie mad. Almost.
Birdie crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged. She decided to stop and walk the last few steps, just to show she didn’t care.
“I letcha win.”
“You did not!” The smile slid off her face and her eyebrows jumped up. “You didn’t, didya Birdie?”
The collar of Birdie’s flannel shirt felt suddenly a lot tighter around her neck, and she had to swallow hard before she answered, “Nah, Princess. You know I didn’t.”
Princess smiled as bright as the June sun and threw herself at Birdie. The girl flung out her arms just in time to wrap around her friend and hold her in place. The strength of their bodies colliding forced the breath out of Birdie and some of that sweaty blond hair stuck in her mouth. She held every muscle perfectly still. The only part of her showing life was her wildly beating heart.
“You’re the best ever! I knew you wouldn’t let me win. Not you, Birdie!”
“Yeah…well…” Princess let go of her and scampered off to their tree. She pushed the hat a little higher up her brow with dirty fingers. “A good cowboy’d never be untrue.”
Princess leaned her back against their tree and adjusted her tiara. The silver paint had chipped off in a few places and one of the little paste diamonds was missing. Birdie hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of her jeans and tried the wobbly, bow-legged swagger she’d seen in old Westerns. She looked over at Princess, but the girl’s eyes were on the tree trunk rather than her.
Birdie frowned. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Just checkin’ on our initials. What if we didn’t carve ’em deep enough?”
Birdie picked at a pebble, prying it loose from the dirt. “Aw, they’re fine. Come sit with me?”
Princess spun and grabbed two fistfuls of frilly pink dress with dirty palms. “You sure they’ll stick?”
Birdie looked around her to the tree. Two days ago they had stolen Larry’s pocketknife and run down here. They struggled to carve their mark into the tree they’d claimed as soon as the last of the spring storms swept down from the mountains. Princess made the outline of the heart and neither of them minded that it was a little flat on the left side or a little too round on the right. Birdie took the knife next and stabbed at the papery bark until the spiky and uneven “RS + SC” had appeared.
Princess swung her arms from side to side, waves of pink intermittently exposing her knees. “Good.”
Birdie fell back deliberately on her butt and stuck her feet out in front of her, the heels of her boots inches from the water line. Princess skipped over and plopped down next to her, leaning against Birdie’s shoulder. After a long minute, Birdie decided that a good cowboy would probably wrap her arm around her best friend’s shoulder, but she was afraid to do it. Princess wrapped both hands around the soft flesh and sweaty flannel of Birdie’s arm, just below her armpit. If anyone else had tried that, even her mom, she would have shaken them off. Not Princess. She let Princess do anything she wanted.
Princess beamed at her when she let go. Birdie’s return smile was too big, so she turned away quickly to stare off into the woods. They spent the next few minutes throwing pebbles into the current, watching each one disappear beneath the lazy flow before throwing the next. Cotton ball clouds drifted by over their heads. The forest came to life around them the longer they sat still. Bright patches of color flashed between the leaves accompanied by snatches of birdsong. Rubbery branches swayed under the weight of squirrels hopping through the canopy. The groundcover of old leaves and pine needles rustled and swayed as tiny paws made their way through, ignoring the kids by the creek. Most of the animals who lived here had seen the pair often enough to know they were no threat.
When Princess took off the tiara, the combs caught in her tangled hair. She poked at the empty socket where the fake jewel once lived. Her fingers swept over the spots of pale plastic exposed by heavy use, the silver paint long since worn away.
“Some princess I am.”
Birdie finally wrapped her arm around her friend’s shoulders and pulled her close. In the last few weeks Birdie had noticed her chest was swelling. She liked the way Princess’s arm pressed against it when they held each other tight.
“You’re the best princess there is.”
“Nah. A princess needs a crown and I ain’t got a nice one.”
Birdie frowned down at the tiara. Sudden inspiration made her pluck the hat from her own head and press it down over Princess’s little ears.
“Eww! It’s all sweaty!”
“Cowboys get sweaty.” She looked at the pointed toes of her boots. “You shouldn’t be a princess anyhow. You should…you could be my cowgirl instead.”
The hat was too big for her, and the dark ring around the brim was obvious. Still, Princess grinned wide, showing tiny square teeth with wide gaps between them. She squashed it down further on her head and her eyes disappeared. She and Birdie giggled for a long time, scaring a pair of birds from a nearby branch.
When their laughter subsided, Princess pushed the brim of the hat back up so she could look at her friend. “You sure you want me to be your cowgirl, Birdie Scott?”
“Yeah. I s’pose I do.”
Princess’s bony chin landed on her shoulder and huge blue eyes fixed on hers. “How come?”
“I dunno. I just do.”
“’Cause I’m your best friend?”
“How come I’m your best friend?”
“I dunno. I’m your best friend, ain’t I?”
Princess just shrugged.
“See. You don’t know either.”
“You’re my best friend, Birdie.”
“You’re always gonna be my best friend.”
“Always is a long time.”
“What if you move away or somethin’?”
“You’ll be my best friend no matter where I live.”
“You too, Princess.”
Princess leaned over quickly and used one stabbing finger to draw an X across Birdie’s suede vest. It was on the opposite side from where her heart fluttered like a bird caught in a storm, but neither of them noticed the mistake.
“Cross your heart.”
Birdie swallowed hard and traced the same motion on her chest.
“Cross my heart.”
Princess sat back up and grabbed her knees to her chest. She wiggled her toes and little flecks of dirt and stone fell off. One of her hands went to the hat and fingered the brim. Birdie made herself look away, following the progress of a leaf from the little waterfall at the far end of their clearing through until it disappeared among the pine trees off to her right.
When she looked back, Princess was watching her. There was something in her eyes. It was a look that Birdie didn’t understand. She wanted to understand. Wanted it desperately. A part of her knew that, if she were only a little older, if her shoulders had finished rounding out and the swelling in her chest expanded and she was a bit taller than she was now, she would know what it meant and she would know what to say in response. As it was, she just smiled to cover her ignorance. Princess smiled back.
Birdie suddenly decided she did know what that look meant after all. She knew what it meant and she knew what to say.
“I love you, Princess. I’ll love you forever and ever…Amen.”
The trees whipped by tall and jagged like a line of proud soldiers guarding the perimeter of the road. The emerald carpet of alfalfa and cornfields stretched behind them. Robin watched it all slide by with a detached wonder. Over the years she had forgotten what the world could look like when it wasn’t palm tree-studded concrete. A stretch of rusted train track drifted closer to her side, like another driver merging gradually into the lane beside her. Only there was no other traffic. There wasn’t even another lane except the one for nonexistent oncoming traffic. After a long way, the track finally settled into parallel with the road.
After another handful of miles she came upon the train. Her speed gave it the illusion of movement for a time, but as she started to pass the cars it became clear they were still. Their wheels were the same copper-brown as the tracks below them and sun-faded graffiti covered more than one car. There was no engine at the lead of the frozen vehicle. The train was just another silent sentinel, guarding this quiet section of Route 33, the same as the trees.
She turned a wide curve and the train tracks fell away, swallowed up by the forest. Ahead of her now was nothing but a straight stretch of empty blacktop. There was a house now and then off to her left, but the yards were empty and the cars still tucked away under carports or a thin layer of dew. The mountains loomed hazy and purple in the distance. She could feel them growing closer and closer with every mile that ticked away.
Suddenly, the silence hit her. It was a foreign sound and it pressed hard on her eardrums. She was alone with the whine of tires on asphalt. Her hand shot out to the radio and she fumbled to find the right button on the unfamiliar dash. The music started with a shout and she banged at the volume controls until the words came into focus.
And all those things you do
God if you only knew
I love you
I love you forever and ever
Robin spent several seconds while the guitar faded out considering whether to switch the radio back off. For perhaps the first time in her life, music did not bring her comfort, but the thought of hearing the tires again stopped her. The song ended and the DJ spoke over the last few notes. Robin ground her teeth at the rudeness of it. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand, it was DJs talking over the end of songs. Especially the end of her songs.
That was “Forever and Ever” by Robin Wren Scott. If you had tickets for tonight’s sold-out Robin Wren Scott show at the Richmond Coliseum you are out of luck. We got the announcement this morning that she’s canceling the last two weeks of her tour. Sadly, her mother, Katherine Scott, died last night and Robin is going home to be with family.
Robin didn’t realize how hard she had been gripping the steering wheel until she felt the sharp pain of pinched skin. The DJ explained about refunds and rain checks for the canceled concert, but she didn’t hear him. It had always been easier for Robin to block out noise than silence. She turned another bend and saw a gas station up ahead with a shabby convenience store attached. She slowed quickly and pulled into the parking lot, just the thought of coffee making her mouth water and her eyelids droop.
That coffee, sold to her by a sleepy clerk busy watching the tiny television tucked behind the counter, was so old it could probably vote and buy cigarettes. Robin forced it down only because she hadn’t slept in nearly two days and her life quite clearly depended on staying awake.
When she stopped for coffee the second time Robin took the opportunity to fill the gas tank. She was just outside the town of Madison. It was perhaps one of the most inconsequential towns in Virginia, boasting little more than a Dollar General and a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant to fill the hundred yards or so of road that constituted the city limits. She thought her mother mentioned once that she had a distant cousin who lived in Madison. It occurred to Robin now that she would never find out who that cousin was.
She stepped out of the car and gained a new appreciation for her clothing choice this morning. Robin had never been a fan of shorts. Her hips were too narrow and her legs too long to find a pair that fit both her style and her body. She wore jeans until they were threadbare and torn, then she wore them a few years more. Today’s pair was still new enough for the navy dye to be nearly intact. More importantly, they were warm. Despite the season, the sun had not yet risen high enough to burn the overnight chill from the air. That was for the best really. Even here at the foot of the mountains, summer in Virginia was a far more humid heat than she was used to. By the time she reached her childhood home she would no doubt be regretting the denim.
It took her quite a while to figure out how to access the rental car’s gas tank and, by the time the fuel was flowing, she was hugging herself for warmth. Her shirt was a simple, close-fitting button-up with short sleeves and a high collar. It flattered her long, lean frame and small chest, though her interfering manager had called the design “uninspired.” He wanted her to dress the part of a rock star. In her opinion, she did, but more the old-school rock star of her youth than the supermodels who played now. When she found a piece of clothing she liked she bought it in every available color just to fill out her wardrobe. She owned this same shirt in blue, green, black, and gray in addition to the cherry-red she wore today.
She bought the shirt mainly because she liked the way it accentuated the muscles in her forearms, the only part of her body with any definition. She had always spent a lot of time outside, but she wasn’t athletic. She had never been able to build the muscle or stamina required for it. She had, however, managed to cultivate extraordinary breath control, which helped her enjoy swimming and hiking enough to get her fill of sunshine. Since one of her few assets was an ability to tan to a Mediterranean shade, she took full advantage.
Much like the rest of her body, Robin’s face tended toward the long and lean. She joked that she had a face only a mother could love. It was rectangular, with a pointed chin, high cheekbones and a straight Grecian nose. Her agent once suggested that it would make her look more mysterious if she could have someone break her nose, but she was almost certain he was joking. She had bushy eyebrows that grew back too quickly for her to bother waxing and her hair was dark to the point of appearing black. These days she kept it short with long bangs sweeping across her face to cover one eye before tucking behind her ear. That gave the added benefit of distracting from how deep set and heavily lidded her eyes were, no matter how much sleep she got. And as a lifelong musician, she rarely got enough sleep.
She was to the point of stamping her feet and walking around to keep warm when the pump stopped with a loud pop and she was able to head inside. The moment she pushed the heavy glass doors open, she knew the coffee would be good. Not flavored or frilly, just simple, dark roasted happiness in a cup. The store was out of large cups, so she filled two mediums with black coffee and headed to the register.
The man standing behind the counter was tall and round and wore a T-shirt advertising one of massive sporting goods chains that can turn a profit even in a town with a population under five hundred. His hat was decorated with a fine layer of grime and there was an inch-wide yellow stain around the brim where old sweat had taken up permanent residence. He watched her as she crossed the store, a mildly puzzled look in his eyes, but his smile was warm and genuine when she set the coffees down in front of him and fished her wallet out of her back pocket.
“Pump number two and the coffees.”
He nodded and pecked at the register. “You look awful familiar, but I know you aren’t from ’round here.”
“No sir, I’m not from around here.”
He shrugged as the tape spat from the printer and coiled beside her. “Twenty-seven fifty.”
She pulled a card from her wallet and looked for a place to swipe it, but found nothing. She held it up and he smiled, revealing a central trio of suspiciously white teeth. Most of the good old boys she’d met in her life had at least a partial bridge. They were usually acquired when the owner’s mouth came into contact with another good old boy’s fist. This one looked a lot cheaper than the ones she was used to, but she wasn’t in a rich town.
“Sorry, machine’s busted. I’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”
He pulled an old slide machine from under the counter and a stack of carbon slips.
“Hang on. I think I’ve got cash.”
She fished around in her wallet for bills while he stared at her with a pleasant grin. “You the girl that married Arthur Hennessey’s boy?”
He gave her a knowing look. “Got it. Didn’t wanna assume.”
She shook her head and handed him a pair of bills. “Not a problem.”
The drawer of the register shot out with a loud clang. He took his time counting out her change. “Been on a reality show or somethin’?”
She shook her head.
He dropped some rumpled singles and a pair of quarters into her outstretched hand. Light dawned in his eyes as he looked at her palm. “Now say! Those’re callouses from playin’ guitar as sure as I live and breathe.”
“Yes, sir, they are.”
He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “You’re that singer!”
She shoved the change into her pocket and nodded.
“That’s right you are! My granddaughter’s just nuts over you. Robin somethin’ or other! From up Sperryville way!”
She held out her hand and he shook it with both of his. “Robin Scott. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet me? Shoot, my little Janey is gonna be over the moon her grandad met her favorite singer! Got tickets for your show in Charlottesville and everything. Been braggin’ about it for weeks now.” He put his hands on his hips and grinned with such delight it was impossible to believe he was old enough to have a granddaughter. “She’s got all your records, mind. Not just this last one what made you so popular on the radio. Oh no, she’s been a fan of yours since way back.”
She picked up her coffees, stacking them on top of each other and catching the tantalizing whiff of dark roasted beans. “That’s very sweet. Tell Janey I appreciate it.”
“I don’t suppose I could ask ya to sign somethin’ for her?”
He rummaged behind the desk, grabbing and discarding a few things before finally yanking a sheet of paper from the printer next to the lottery ticket machine and sliding it across the counter to her. Robin grabbed a ballpoint pen from a cup on the counter. Someone, presumably Janey’s grandfather, had taped an empty chewing tobacco can to the end of it to protect it from thieves. He bounced on the balls of his feet as she scratched a few lines to her fan and added her spiky signature at the end.
“Thanks much. Awful kind of ya.”
She headed toward the door, throwing a wave over her shoulder and slipping back out between the pumps. She slid quickly into the car as a rusted pickup truck turned into the lot. The driver gave her a double take, so she gunned the engine and got back onto the road before the newcomer could stop her. The man behind the counter was undoubtedly on the phone already, telling all his friends about his celebrity moment. Within a few minutes, the store would be packed and Robin wanted to be as far away from that as possible.
Robin had turned from Route 29 for her long trip down Route 231 before she realized the man had said his granddaughter had tickets for her now-canceled show tomorrow night. She flipped the radio back on and gunned the gas pedal a little harder.
When Robin was seven years old her father disappeared for the last time, and her mom finally moved the two of them into the house she had inherited from her parents many years earlier. Robin was terrified. Her father had said they were too good for that place and that his family was going to live in a nicer house and have a better life. They didn’t. Even at her age, she could see that what they were living was not a great life. So if that was better, what horrors awaited her here in this house?
Robin would never forget the set of her mother’s jaw as she stood in the driveway and stared at the front door. She had fallen down the stairs again last night. Or tripped and hit her eye against the doorknob. Or ran into a wall. Robin couldn’t remember which story it was this time. In any case, her mother’s eye was a puffy, angry red and by nightfall it would be a deep purple-black. Her one good eye burned in a way Robin had never seen in her mother before. Something about that look took the fear from Robin’s heart. She knew they’d be safe here. She knew her father wasn’t coming back this time. She knew they wouldn’t sleep in the car anymore. Or the break room at the factory where her mother worked. They were home now.
She looked back at the house she had heard so much about but never seen. It was tall and thin, taking on the same shape Robin was even now growing into. There was a wide, deep porch on the front that wrapped around one side and went all the way to the back of the house. In the years to come a swing would be added along with chairs and potted plants, but at the moment it was bare apart from a few dead leaves rustling around on the slats.
What really caught Robin’s attention were the windows. There were dozens of them, hundreds to her dazzled eyes. They had lived in trailers and apartments and basements all her life. She’d never had a room with her own window. They were lucky if there was a single window in the entire apartment or rented room. But this house was simply covered in windows. They were dotted in the pale blue, chipped clapboard face of the structure and it was those windows, along with the new fire in her mother’s eyes that won Robin over.
The house was a mess. No one had lived there in years. The furniture was covered in white sheets and there wasn’t much of it. The electricity was disconnected and the cold was so complete it seemed to live in the walls. There was no running water until the power was turned on, so they made a game of using the hand pump in the backyard for the first week. They cleaned and cleaned, and cleaned some more until the hardwood floors shone golden brown and the windows sparkled like diamonds in the sun. It was hard work, but it was their hard work. They shared the triumph and they ended up with a home. A home that was theirs and no one else’s. Full of their laughter and their memories. Just the two of them.
As Robin pulled in, the crunch of gravel under her tires scared a long line of crows from the electrical wires that flanked the driveway. She could see the house from the road, and she watched it grow larger in her windshield. She had to take it slowly on the half mile that stretched between the road and her mother’s house. The gravel was sparse and potholes dotted the track. Her mom never could remember to gravel the drive regularly. It usually took a flat tire for her to finally get around to putting in an order.
Parked in front of the house, Robin closed the car door harder than she intended. A loud caw drew her attention back to the wires overhead. A single crow remained after the others flew off. Its inky black eye fixed on her for a long moment before moving off to inspect the strip of corn planted between the pair of houses and the road to her left. She kept watching it, wondering if it would fly off now that it had asserted its superiority, but it stayed still and watched.
She turned at the screeching of a rusted screen door, expecting to see her mother walking onto the porch with a big smile and her arms outstretched. But the door was still and silent. Her mother wasn’t home. The door that opened belonged to the neighboring house.
“Welcome home, Birdie.”
Robin met Larry Johnson the day she and her mom had moved in. They had walked through the old place, Robin’s mouth open and staring, her mom crying silent tears. Robin went back to the car for her one little suitcase, and when she turned around, there was Larry. He was tall and broad at the shoulders with a huge smile that lit up his eyes and a jaw of carved Appalachian limestone. When he offered to help her with her suitcase, she refused and started toward the house. He followed with a noticeable limp in his right leg. With childish curiosity, Robin asked him what happened. His answer of “a youthful indiscretion” was completely indecipherable to her, but she was too proud to say so.
When her mother came out onto the porch with her arms crossed and distrust written plainly on her face, Larry came up short. He stood there like a boxer who didn’t yet know that he’d been knocked out.
Larry was their closest neighbor, occupying the nearly identical house right next door. It would have been hard for him to be closer in fact. No more than a five-foot-wide strip of weedy grass separated the two houses. The second house had been bought from a Sears catalogue eighty years earlier by Robin’s great-grandfather for his eldest son, Robin’s great-uncle. He had intended that they would work the family farm together, but Guadalcanal changed his plans. He ended up spending all of his energies trying to get his son’s body home, and the farm slowly but surely failed. By the time Robin’s grandfather took over, he had no choice but to sell it off piece by piece. The house changed hands three times before it came to Larry.
He spent the rest of that afternoon helping them move in to their new home. When the sun set he asked her mother on a date. She said no, but he was back the next day with coffee and doughnuts and he helped all day again. When he asked her on a date again that evening she turned him down again. He asked her thirty-six times more before she finally agreed just to get him to quit asking. He didn’t quit asking. He had asked her out on a date twice a week for the last twenty-eight years. She never said no again.
“It’s good to see you, Larry.” Robin wrapped her arms around his neck and held on. He smelled just like he had since she was a kid, like a mixture of wood smoke and clean cotton. The stubble on his chin rubbed against her neck as he hugged her tight. His eyes were glassy when she let go of him, but there were no tears on his cheeks. “How have you been?”
He smiled and a thousand lines etched his cheeks. He was only in his mid-fifties, but Larry had always been aged beyond his years. He hopped a little on his bad leg as he answered, “If you’da asked me that question yesterd’y I’d had a much different answer. Let’s just say I’m breathin’.”
He looked out across the stalks of corn rustling in the breeze and squinted hard. “I can’t rightly say. She went to work same as normal. Said she’d be home for our date round about five. Got a call from her boss at threeish. Your momma’d said she didn’t feel well. He saw she looked a bit pale, so he told her to head on home. Went to grab her purse from her locker ‘n’ they found her there on the floor ’bout an hour later. She’s gone by the time the ambulance got there.”
Robin looked down at her feet until the urge to throw up left her.
“Had she been sick?”
“Nope. Fit as a fiddle, just same as normal.” She heard a sound like sandpaper on leather and looked up to see him rubbing his cheek with the heel of his hand. “I can’t account for it ’t all. Musta just been her time.”
Robin didn’t have a response, so she hooked her thumbs in her belt loops and searched the scenery for something to look at. She found nothing that could soothe the itch in her feet or the hole in her gut.
“Folks ’round here’ll be tickled pink to see you, no matter the cause. The whole town’s real proud of you, Birdie girl. The radio says you’re the next Mumford and Sons, whoever they are.”
Robin gave him a grin and his shoulders settled a little lower.
“You know this town don’t know much about music. Hell, most ’em ain’t cared ’bout what’s on the radio since ole Reba gave Fancy one chance not to let ’er momma down.”
“I met Reba, you know.”
“I did. She hosted that benefit concert for the hurricane last summer and I met her then.”
“You’ll be eatin’ free down the diner on that un long as you’re in town.” He shook his head and the grin slipped a little. “Your momma woulda liked hearin’ ’bout that.”
This time Robin’s tears did come out, but only a couple. She should have told her mom about Reba. How she was kind and looked you in the eye when she shook your hand like she actually wanted to know whose hand she was shaking. Why hadn’t she told her mom those things while she still could? The nausea that had been her constant companion since Larry called last night was back with a vengeance. She leaned against the car and took a couple of slow breaths.
She put her hands on her knees. “It’s a rental.”
His hand squeezed her shoulder. “Where’s that wife a yours?”
Robin opened her eyes and the dirt at her feet spun a few degrees before righting itself. “Still in Richmond. She’s dealing with the tour company and my manager.”
“They givin’ you a hard time ’bout cancelin’ the shows?”
“Rick’s a dickwad. He would give a hard time to his own moth…” She couldn’t finish the word, so she moved on. “I’m just glad I was so close. So I could be here quickly.”
“Speakin’ of.” The sound of the car door opening next to her made her look up. Larry grabbed her duffel bag from the backseat and slammed it shut. “We gotta go see to things at the funeral home. Appointment’s in an hour. Better getcher self cleaned up.”
He had maneuvered her toward the front porch without her realizing it. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, he handed her the duffel and said, “Key’s under the mat like always if ya ain’t got yours.”
“I’ve got mine.” She looked up to the door. Somehow the three steps up to the porch looked like Mount Everest. “You aren’t coming inside?”
The look he gave the door broke her heart. “No. I’ma head on home. See ya in a bit.”
Without another word he turned and limped off next door.