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by Jackie Calhoun
Chelsea Danforth Browning left her marriage, her two grown daughters, and her best friend in Indiana to move to Wisconsin for a woman, June Paulson.
When she discovers June has been having an affair with another woman, Chelsea is devastated. Determined to make it on her own, she picks herself up and starts to rebuild her life. She attempts to reconnect with her daughters, edits books for a lesbian press, and finds a part-time job. Along the way, she makes friends and falls in love.
Will she manage to create a meaningful new life without losing those she loved and left? Does she get a second chance at happiness?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"The story and characters develop as I write. I too lived in Indiana. It's where my kids grew up. I too met my ex-husband at a university in Indiana. It was not a good time to be a woman. There were double rules at school. Women students couldn't wear slacks on campus. They had to be wherever they lived hours earlier than the guys. It was a very different state than Wisconsin where I grew up, where there were 18-year-old bars. But there were double standards for girls and women there too, and I chafed against them.
I wanted to show, in part, what it was like to be a woman in the sixties and even the decades that followed. Once married with children, most women didn't work outside the home. Often the groups women belonged to grew out of their husbands' groups. You cooked, you cleaned, and you raised the children. It was boring, unless you had a best friend."
Nelson Mandela was free, but she was tied to this woman screaming at her, because of a house, this very house they were in. Chelsea studied the pinched, angry face and thought how ugly rage was. She tamped down a touch of panic as June rattled on about her right to go out with Karen if she wanted to. She and Karen had feelings for each other, June said.
Chelsea had thought Karen was their friend, hers and June’s. They certainly had spent a lot of time with her. Once when alone together, Karen had intimated regret that she hadn’t met Chelsea first and implied they might become more than friends. Though flattered, Chelsea had shaken her head and later told June. Had that been mistake number one or two? How quickly Karen had changed her attraction for Chelsea to June. It was almost laughable.
Chelsea had once been crazy in love with this woman who was yelling at her. Or had it been crazy in lust? When Chelsea knew for sure June was a lesbian, she went about seducing her with relentless determination. She remembered how, after the first thrilling touch, she couldn’t get enough—although June was not the best lover, far from it. June had told her she’d had previous lovers, but she apparently hadn’t learned how to please. Her lovemaking had no nuance, no imagination. However, her lips were hot, and Chelsea knew how to make her rise to her touch, to pant with excitement, and to come with a cry and shudder.
Although disillusioned, Chelsea was not quite ready to quit. The ache in her chest told her that. She knew it was foolish to attempt to keep someone who didn’t want to be kept. Brad hadn’t been able to hang on to her. She’d begun to leave him as soon as June had shown an interest in her. By the time Brad had realized what was going on, she’d had one foot out the door—following her desire.
She wondered, as she had many times, how she’d been transported from married woman to lesbian lover. It had surprised her to find out that hearts actually do leap with joy and break into pieces, like the books said. And oh, how they can hurt. She was ashamed that she had done to Brad what was being done to her.
June’s face had turned red from shouting. Chelsea emerged from her funk and studied the angry hazel eyes, the cascading dishwater-blond hair, the Slavic cheekbones, and the sturdy yet womanly body. Was she really in love with this person who was cheating on her?
She laughed softly, bitterly.
“You think this is funny?” June snapped.
“Not at all.” She stood up, heart thudding heavily, and stretched to shake the hurt away. “I’m going out.”
“Where?” June demanded.
“Actually, I don’t know, but I won’t be gone long,” she answered, thinking that it had been nervy to ask. June had lost that right when she took up with Karen. Although she knew she had to get away, she feared even more coming home and finding June and Karen in the house or, worse, in the bed. Maybe that’s why June was asking.
She picked up her keys and headed toward the nearest door. Don’t slam it, she told herself. Don’t let June know how upset you are.
She paused to check out her appearance in the floor-length mirror by the door. Her short auburn hair was shot through with silver, her blue-gray eyes looked back at her tiredly. She checked out her face, the straight nose and high cheekbones, and wondered why she wasn’t cute enough. She’d lost weight since Karen had come on the scene. Skinny wasn’t necessarily attractive.
As she closed the door quietly behind her, she thought maybe June would run out and try to stop her. And tell her what? That she didn’t want to lose her? Like that was going to happen. Even so, she gave June a few minutes to redeem herself before backing out of the driveway and heading for the bridge. Where would she go? She hadn’t made any friends of her own—she had only been here six months. She felt as if she had made a huge error in judgment, one that could not be rectified.
It wasn’t too late to go back to Brad, she knew. He hadn’t wanted her to leave. It had taken all her resolve to pack and move from the house she and he had called home for over twenty-five years. If she returned, though, she knew she’d never be able to leave again. She winced at the thought of living there, knowing it would be a huge mistake, unfair to Brad and untrue to herself. Now that she knew who she was. What she was.
Her kids were angry. Her sister bemused. Her best friend, Gina, had helped with the move. Chelsea hadn’t thought to ask how Gina felt about her leaving. When Gina had asked why she was going, Chelsea had said her girls were grown and she wanted to go home, back where she came from—something Gina already knew.
Thinking about Gina brought a smile. They had spent so much time together over the years—taking care of each other’s children, going on trips with or without their kids, sharing hobbies, even painting each others’ houses. They were more like sisters than sisters. Gina was better than a best friend. And Chelsea had lied to her. Yes, she had wanted to go home, she had never wanted to leave in the first place, but she had been unable to tell Gina why she was going back for good. After all these years, how would she explain that if she couldn’t have Gina, she would have another woman—especially when she had never admitted to how she felt about Gina.
She had loved Brad, but she had been in love with Gina without ever acknowledging it. Not to herself, not to anyone. It stunned her when she finally “saw the light.” Anyway, it would have been impossible even if Gina had felt the same. Their families were tied together. The kids loved their dads, who were good friends. Gina worked with her husband. Although Chelsea hadn’t actually worked with Brad, her life was bound with his in so many ways—children, money, and property. She had managed the family finances and balanced the books at Brad’s dad’s welding company—a job she took when Lizzie, her youngest, went to pre-school and the empty days stretched before her.
She drove to High Cliff State Park and walked to the edge of the cliff that was part of the Niagara Escarpment. A hot, strong wind pushed against her as she looked down at the trees growing out of the limestone wall, resisting the urge to jump. Did anyone else feel this strange impulse? Boats bobbed like toys on the huge lake beyond. Was she beginning again, alone this time? It would be lonely, and she had never been good at making friends—too shy. She was very good at keeping them, though.
Maybe June had been a catalyst, the nudge she’d needed to leave Brad and move back home and live the life she had been meant to live. She had broken free, even though everyone she loved had disapproved. She had tried to convince herself that her behavior would give her children the liberty to ignore convention and find their own ways in the world, that she had actually done them a favor. Of course, they did not see it that way, and despite her protestations, they were sure she’d left their father for another woman—one they disliked. They were right, but even if she was brave enough to tell them the truth, and she wasn’t, she was afraid she’d lose them for good.
She’d met June at the family cottage. She had actually saved her life. June had been hit in the head by her own ski after she’d fallen in front of the cottage. While her mother and daughters were eating lunch, Chelsea had gone down to the beach to pick up the book she’d left there and had witnessed the accident. She had jumped into the water and cradled June until the ski boat looped around and returned to the site of the fall.
She had watched them drive away, realizing only then that it was the boat owned by the dykes, or the women who her cousin, the uncle of her girls’ second cousins, called the dykes. He would say, “Here come the dykes.” And she would ask how he knew that. “Vibes,” he’d say and laugh. He was gay. He was also her favorite cousin.
Later that hot day, June had kayaked over to thank her. She had told Chelsea she was visiting friends at a cottage down the lake. Later Chelsea had called one of those friends and asked for June’s number. She had called her one evening when Brad was out and they had begun a conversation that had continued to the present.
When Chelsea returned to the home she and June shared during the owners’ absence, the house was empty. Not even a note on the fridge to tell her where June had gone. She plopped down on the sofa and stared out the window at the sunny day. Piled on the coffee table with mail on top of it was a package—a manuscript. She leaned forward and opened it. The enclosed letter read—
This mms is the work of Mimi Kincaid, a new writer we decided to publish if she agreed to one condition. We asked that she change it from first person to third person, so be alert for mistakes. After your read-through, let me know what you think.
Joan Gordon was the person Chelsea dealt with at FemBooks, a lesbian publishing company for whom she’d been working as a manuscript reader for about six months.
She had seen an ad by FemBooks, looking for a reader in Lambda Literary Magazine, a periodical June subscribed to. Chelsea thought it was something she could do since she’d majored in English with an emphasis on journalism and communications. She’d also worked on school newspapers and successfully submitted her own short stories to the college magazine, The Raven. And she’d won a short story contest in a teen magazine. She was grateful when she was given the chance. Being a reader was not the same as being an editor. As a reader she gave feedback as to the merit and potential of new manuscripts. She did not make corrections or suggest changes, except, in this case, she would be making notes of the I’s, we’s, our’s and the like that should have been changed to he’s, she’s, they’s and their’s.
The manuscript was titled Fire Works. Chelsea tore open the package, glad to have a distraction, and began to read. The book was aptly named. The protagonist was a thirty-nine-year-old woman, just coming out. The daughter, home from university, was furious with her mother because the woman was splitting with the girl’s father. The mother’s lame lies only made the nineteen-year-old young woman angrier. The protagonist could have been Chelsea trying to explain her leaving Brad to their daughters, Abby and Lizzie.
She became so engrossed in the book she failed to hear the door open and jumped when June entered the room.
“Have you got another book to work on?” June thought what she did was glamorous.
“A new author,” she said.
“Good. I’m going away for the night. I’ll be back late tomorrow,” June said abruptly and gestured toward the bedroom. “I have to pack a few things.”
She knew it was a mistake to ask, but she couldn’t help it. “Where are you going?”
“Not your business.”
She followed June to the bedroom and leaned against the doorframe, her hands in her pockets. “You asked me where I was going.” Her heart had squeezed itself into a painful knot.
June looked at her and sighed. “Look, why don’t you go to Dana’s? She’s been asking about you.”
“Why don’t we both go to Dana’s?” Dana Cooper was June’s friend, not hers. She and June taught at the same high school.
“No, I’m serious. Dana wants you to come over. Her girlfriend will be there and a friend of theirs she wanted us to meet. I have to get away.”
“From me?” The knot that was her heart tied itself tighter. Breathing hurt.
“Yeah, Chelse, from you.”
The intense pain caught her off-guard, although it shouldn’t have. She hated herself for being so needy. She turned abruptly but thought to grab the manuscript and her pencil before she fled. She never went anywhere without something to read, because she might end up stuck somewhere with nothing to do. She heard June’s voice but not what she said as she went out the door.
Normally, she would ride her bike, but she wasn’t sure how far she was going or if she would be coming back before dark so she took the car.
For an hour she drove aimlessly around the neighborhood where she’d grown up, which she remembered as happy times. She couldn’t locate the place where they’d first lived when the family moved to the Fox Cities, the one where the mouse jumped out of the toaster one morning. It must have been torn down when that side of town had been spruced up. The triangular lot where she and her sister, Celine, had played softball with neighborhood friends had been turned into a park. Celie now lived in Colorado with her husband and two sons.
Their dad had long been dead, but she still heard echoes of his voice. Her mother’s death had been more recent. She was very much alive in Chelsea’s mind. In fact, Chelsea often talked to her. A year or two after their mother died, Celie had sent her Kinflicks and Other Women to read, and Chelsea had admitted her sexuality to herself.
She parked at the boat landing in a small space next to vehicles with empty trailers. A hot breeze washed over her sweaty face. She wondered if she showed up at Dana’s what they would have to say to each other. What did they have in common, besides June? She sure didn’t want to talk about June. Nor did she want anyone’s pity. She was certain June had told Dana about Karen.
She went anyway, because she needed to hear another voice besides the one in her head. She’d only been to Dana’s once and June had been driving. After a few wrong turns she found the way to the apartment complex, but once there she realized she didn’t know which building Dana was in or the number of her apartment. Sorting back through her jumbled memories, she came up with the right building. Inside the foyer, she studied the names next to the buzzers, found the right one, and pressed the button next it. Dana let her in the building.
As she raised her fist to knock, Dana opened the door and drew her inside. “I’m so glad you’re here.” She looked into Chelsea’s eyes as if searching for something. Dana was tall and commanding, but right then she was also reassuring. “You remember Mickie, right?” Dana asked, pointing to a young woman who looked more like she was thirteen than eighteen. Dana was breaking school rules by dating a student, but who was Chelsea to judge? “And this is our friend, Barb Dunhill.” Barb looked to be around Dana’s age.
“I do remember Mickie. Hi to you both.” She smiled and wiped the sweat off her forehead. “Hot out there.”
“Come in and sit.” Dana pointed to an empty rocker. “I’ll get you something cold.”
“Just water, please,” she said.
An uncomfortable silence fell, which Dana filled. “Barb teaches music and coaches girls’ sports at a high school south of here.”
Barb made the muscles in her upper arms bulge and burst into song. “Oh, solo mio, I am so strong. Look at my muscles. They’ll take you down…”
Astonished, Chelsea erupted into nervous laughter and couldn’t stop. She howled until she nearly wet her pants. “Sorry,” she panted. “Where is the john?”
She heard the others laughing when she closed the door and ripped down her shorts. “God, don’t do that again without warning,” she said when she came out.
Barb picked up a doily from the end table next to her and put it on her head. “I’m doing penance,” she said.
They all broke into laughter. Chelsea wondered how she could laugh when a minute ago she had been so sad. “Can you come home with me?” she asked. “I need some humor in my life.”
It had been a bad year so far anyway. She had been in shock when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and she’d cried and cried when Bobby Kennedy was killed. Brad hadn’t seemed terribly upset, which made her think he might vote for Richard Nixon. She’d called her mother and they’d commiserated together. On the next Saturday she’d taken the kids to downtown Indianapolis, put them in their buggy and marched with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, protesting the Vietnam War.
Chelsea nursed loneliness like a cold sore, touching it with her mind instead of her tongue. She tried to ignore it, but like a cold sore, she couldn’t leave it alone. She had married Brad Browning—well, actually, she’d become pregnant first—and moved to Indiana, every turn of the wheel taking her away from the state she loved. She’d thought marriage would be more meaningful. But it hadn’t played out that way.
Outside the bay window the grass stretched at least a football field-length to the road. Brad had planted a row of pines to shield the house from public view, but the trees were only a couple of feet tall. He had also placed two ornamental trees near the house, a redbud and a magnolia, and a tulip tree a few feet farther out. It would be years before they offered shade. In the meantime, the small house they lived in with their two little girls baked in the sun, like a pile of stones in a kiln.
“Look, Mama, the grass is running!” Abby exclaimed.
The green blades leaned away from the warm May breeze as if they had somewhere urgent to go. “It does look that way.” She smiled at her daughter’s imaginative observation and placed a hand on the little girl’s ginger-colored hair, still baby soft at the age of four. Abby looked up at her and grinned.
Chelsea sighed deeply. How she wished they lived in town, surrounded by neighbors—not just for her but the kids too. They needed playmates. She’d been here four and a half years and only knew a few people, none well enough to call up and chat.
It was a Saturday. Brad was landscaping and might not be home before dark. Chelsea loved her kids, she did, but she couldn’t have an adult conversation with them. Elizabeth’s cries penetrated her thoughts, and she walked down the hall to the little bedroom where Lizzie hung on to the rail of her crib with one hand and stretched the other toward her mother. The baby’s wails turned to sobs and then hiccups when Chelsea picked her up.
“Shh, Lizzie. You sound like you’ve been abandoned.” She kissed the tears from her baby girl’s fat pink cheeks before placing her on the changing table.
“Was I a crybaby, Mama?” Abby asked.
“All babies cry. Otherwise, how would we know something was wrong with them? Want to go swimming?”
She carried Lizzie to the little pool in the backyard. Lizzie wore diapers. Abby stripped down to her underpants. When Chelsea lowered Lizzie into the water, Abby was already splashing.
“Don’t get water in Lizzie’s eyes, Abby,” Chelsea cautioned as she pulled a lawn chair close enough to put her bare feet into the lukewarm pool.
“That looks like fun,” someone called.
Chelsea craned her neck in the direction of the voice. A woman stood on the old railroad tracks that were no longer in use. With her were two kids—a girl and a little boy.
“Can we go in the water, Mom?” The boy pulled on his mother’s arm, trying to drag her toward the little pool where Chelsea and the girls gawked.
After a few awkward moments, Chelsea found her voice. “Come and join us. It’s not much, but it’s wet.” She felt stupid, thinking how hot it was and here they were sitting outside next to a foot-and-a-half-deep plastic pool with only a twig of a tree to protect them from the blazing sun.
The woman let the boy pull her through the berry bushes and burdock into the yard. The girl followed, holding her arms high against the prickly branches.
“Hi, I’m Gina Lawrence and these are my kids, Suzy and Matt.” Gina’s warm brown eyes and wide smile broke through Chelsea’s natural shyness.
Chelsea stood up. “I’ll get another chair. Watch your sister, Abby.”
“I’m Abigail and my sister is Elizabeth. I’m four and she’s almost one. Do you live on the road over there?” Abby pointed toward the direction from which the kids and their mother had come.
“Yeah. In that white house.” The little boy had taken off all but his underpants. “I’m four too.”
Abby laughed, a high trilling sound. She jumped up and down in excitement, sloshing water over the sides. “Come in the water, Suzy.”
Lizzie, who had been rocking precariously, lost her balance and fell backward.
“Whoa,” Gina said, righting the baby, who sputtered and began to cry.
Chelsea set the chair down and picked up her little girl. “You’re okay, Lizzie.”
Lizzie quit crying and pushed against her mother, her small finger pointing at the pool. Chelsea put her back in the water.
“I’ll watch her,” Suzy said, shedding her shorts and shirt and sitting down next to the baby.
An hour sped by. Chelsea knew they should go inside. She put more lotion on the kids and added water to the pool. The children’s bare skin had turned bright pink. But she and Gina had begun exchanging information about each other. She feared Gina and her kids would leave, and she wouldn’t have this chance again. Reluctantly, she suggested the children dry off and play in the house. It was littered with toys and books.
“The sun is so hot,” she said, and Lizzie needed a nap. She was falling asleep in the water.
Gina stood up and said it was time to go home anyway.
“No!” Chelsea protested loudly, embarrassing herself. “I’ll get some towels. Watch the baby, Abby.” And she hurried into the house before anyone could respond.
When she came out, though, Gina’s kids were pulling their clothes over wet skin. The little boy was crying. “I don’t wanna go home,” he howled.
“I wish you wouldn’t leave,” Chelsea said, feeling defeated. She swept the baby out of the pool, and Lizzie began to wail.
“Why don’t you come to our house tomorrow?” Gina asked with that warm smile. “We don’t have a pool, but we have a pony.”
Abby jumped up and down. “Can I ride the pony?”
“Of course, you can,” Gina assured her.
“It’s my pony, Mom,” Suzy said, glaring at her mother.
“I know, sweetie, but you don’t mind sharing, do you?”
“You have a pony all your own?” Abby asked with awe. “You’re so lucky.”
Suzy smiled, her small chest puffing up. “His name is Rodeo Joe, but we just call him Joe.”
Matt stopped sobbing and smiled, tears shining on his burned face. “Will you come?” he asked Abby.
“Can we go, Mama?” Abby’s crystal-blue eyes squinted at her mother.
“Yes, of course. What time?” she asked Gina, admiring her tan. Her own skin felt crisp and shrunken. She knew it was burned from the sun.
“Any time after nine. We can always put the baby down for a nap.”
The next day they woke to rain. The drops weeping down the windows felt as if they came from Chelsea’s heart. Abby cried when her mom told her she couldn’t ride the pony in the rain. As if in a trance, Chelsea watched the roses in bloom bend their heavy heads under the onslaught. She’d often felt they lived in a place of frightening fecundity. Grasses, plants, bushes, flowers, and weeds grew with alarming speed. In Wisconsin the summers were not so hot and humid.
Brad had left for his regular job at Better Welding, the company his father owned. Brad loved to weld but disliked the paperwork that came with running a business. Chelsea often wondered why he had gone to college. What was the point, except to please his mom? Of course, they would never have met, thus no babies, had they not gone to the same college.
More to the point, she thought, why had she graduated from college only to become a housewife? Because she had lost her first job when she became pregnant. That was when she married Brad. She couldn’t even get a credit card in her name. Just as she was beginning to sizzle, the phone rang.
She figured Brad must have forgotten something. But no, it was a woman on the line. “Looks like we got rained out. How about tomorrow?”
“Gina, is it you?”
The woman laughed with gusto. “Yes, it’s me. Matt is moping around like he lost his best friend, and Suze is disappointed too. She wanted to play pony trainer.”
Chelsea felt her spirits spiraling upward. She laughed, maybe too loud.
Gina said, “Come at nine. We’ll have a picnic lunch. If you have time, that is.” The last sentence said with a trace of doubt.
“What should I bring? For the picnic, that is.” Chelsea knew she sounded eager; she was.
“Nothing. Just yourselves.” More laughter. The boy was shouting in the background. “Do you hear Matt? He’s all excited.”
“I am too,” she said and wondered if she should have admitted it.
“Me too. See you in the morning then. It better not rain.”
She felt like dancing. “We’re going on a picnic tomorrow,” she said to Abby, picking Lizzie up from the floor and swinging her around. Only then did she wonder how Gina knew her phone number.
“Are we gonna ride the pony?” Abby asked, standing on her toes. “Was that Gina?”
“Yes. Watch your little sister for a few minutes, Abby. I’m going to make a path to the tracks for tomorrow.” She put Lizzie in the playpen. Before she went out the back door, Lizzie was bellowing.
The next day, Chelsea walked through the yard to the old tracks over the narrow path she had made the day before in the rain. She carried Lizzie and a bag with a dozen deviled eggs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that she’d cut into fourths, all wrapped separately in cellophane. Abby whined about the berry bushes scratching and grabbing her clothes and the tromped burdock clinging to her, making her itch.
“You like the berries your daddy picks. They come from those scratchy things.” Some days she just wanted to say “Shut-up,” but the “S” word wasn’t allowed. She was more excited than Abby. Nothing could squash her happy mood.
The little white house had dormers. A Rambler station wagon was parked in front of the garage. Chelsea walked up the front steps onto the open porch and rang the doorbell.
Matt flung open the door. “Mom is in the bathroom,” he shouted.
“Oh,” Chelsea said, startled.
Suzy came up behind her brother. “You’re not supposed to tell if anyone is the bathroom,’” she scolded. “Want to come in?”
Chelsea felt they should wait till Gina appeared, but Abby pushed past her mother into the house. Lizzie banged her little legs against her, and Chelsea set her on the floor where she clung to her mother.
“Hey, how are Abby and Lizzie?” Gina knelt on the wood floor and took Lizzie’s hands.
Lizzie screwed up her little face, ready to bellow, and then unscrewed it. “Pony,” she said, and Chelsea involuntarily clapped her hands. It was the first time Lizzie had said anything besides “Mama and Daddy and Abby.”
“I think she should have the first ride, don’t you, Chelse?” Gina said, looking up at Chelsea with a wide smile.
Abby began to sniffle.
“Aww, Abby. You’ll get to hold the reins. Do you know what reins are?”
“They’re how you steer the pony,” Matt said proudly.
“I didn’t ask you, smarty-pants,” his mother said, ruffling his fair hair. Standing up, Gina gave Chelsea a stern look. “What is in the bag? Diapers, right? Not food?” She laughed. “Don’t take me seriously. I love it when other people feed me. Don’t I, Suze? She’s been helping me with the picnic.”
Still savoring being called Chelse, she handed the bag to Gina with a shy smile and then realized she’d forgotten diapers. She hit her forehead with the heel of her hand. Lizzie would be drenched by the time they went home.
Gina peeked in the bag. “I love deviled eggs!” she exclaimed. “And look at the little sandwiches. How clever.” She met Chelsea’s eyes with a teasing grin. “We have diapers. My sister has a little girl about the same age as Lizzie.”
The pony was a little devil—Gina’s words, said in an aside to Chelsea. When Suzy put on the saddle, the pony cow-kicked at her. Suze punched Rodeo Joe in the gut and he grunted. The kicking started again, though, when Suzy tightened the girth.
“MOM,” Suzy complained.
The pony was tied to a post next to a low building. Gina tightened the girth with no problem. “You have to show him who is boss.” She unbuckled the halter and let it fall around the pony’s neck. Rodeo Joe immediately pulled back, thinking he was free, but the halter was fastened to the post by a lead line. A little tussle ensued as Gina got the pony to open his mouth and slid the bridle up over its ears. “Got you, you little B.”
Aghast at the animal’s behavior, Chelsea opened her mouth to say her girls weren’t ready to ride, but she didn’t want to jeopardize this new friendship.
“B means bastard,” Matt explained.
Chelsea burst into nervous laughter.
“What’s a bastard?” Abby asked.
“A bad pony,” Gina said and roared.
Chelsea laughed so hard she squirted in her panties. “Oh,” she said and laughed some more.
Suzy rode the pony first. “To show you how,” she told Abby. Every few steps ended in a buck. “MOM,” Suzy yelled again.
“I’ll straighten the S-O-B up,” Gina said, picking up a crop that was balanced on a fence post.
“That means son of a bitch,” Matt shouted.
Gina gave her son a severe look and walked beside the pony. When the animal lifted his hindquarters, Gina lifted the crop.
The pony’s eye rolled back to keep a watch on her.
“I think Lizzie should wait till she’s bigger,” Chelsea called. “She hasn’t learned to walk yet.”
“He’s kind of feisty today,” Gina agreed.
Abby stood with her finger in her mouth, looking terrified. “You go first, Matt,” she said.
When Gina looked away, Joe bucked especially hard and Suzy went flying. The girl’s high scream stood Chelsea’s hair on end. She watched, open-mouthed, as Suzy arced through the air and hit the ground. The pony ran on past, reins trailing on the ground and stirrups flapping against his fat belly.
“I HATE him. I HATE him,” Suzy said between sobs.
Gina bent over and felt her daughter’s limbs. “You’re okay, honey. Let me help you up.”
“I don’t want him, Mom.” Suzy pounded her heels on the ground. She threw a twig at the pony, but it traveled less than a foot.
“We’ll send him back,” Gina soothed. She met Chelsea’s eyes. “The owner knows my husband. I think he was trying to unload Joe on us. Some friend, huh? We are trying him out. Maybe the kids will change their minds about wanting a pony.”
Rodeo Joe stood at the far end of the small fenced-in area, eating the grass under the bottom board. Gina lured him to her with a little grain in a bucket. She took his tack off and turned him loose with a hard smack on his rump, while Chelsea and the kids waited outside the gate.
Gina hugged Suzy. “You okay, hon?” Suzy sniffed and nodded. “Want to picnic down by the creek?”
“Yeah,” Abby and Matt crowed.
A spot by a bend in the slow-moving water had been mown short. Gina set the food on a small picnic table that was losing its paint and helped Suzy spread a blanket for the kids. She and Chelsea, who was carrying Lizzie, would sit in the lawn chairs. Abby and Matt had run ahead and were wading in the creek.
Chelsea couldn’t remember when she’d been so happy. In her life before Brad, she’d always had close friends and neighbors, but until Gina came down the tracks, she hadn’t made any real friends here. At least, she hoped Gina would want to be a close friend.
She laughed when she sat down and nearly missed the seat, and Lizzie yelped with fright. Joy coursed through her as she put the baby on the blanket.
“So, did you grow up here?” Chelsea asked, keeping an eye on Lizzie, who was stuffing a deviled egg in her mouth with both hands.
Suzy was handing Lizzie food.
“One piece at a time, Suze. Otherwise, she’ll choke,” Gina said.
Suzy steadied the bottle when the baby drank. She fed her bits of sandwiches. Arms waving and legs kicking, Lizzie stared at the older girl with adoration. Abby and Matt sat facing each other, steadily shoving food in their mouths and then opening them for the other to view the contents.
“I moved here in time to go to high school. You know Dan, don’t you? He and Brad and I graduated together.”
Chelsea had just popped an egg in her mouth. She chewed and swallowed. “Not really.”
“The four of us will have to do some things together now that you and I know each other.” She looked at Abby and Matt and wrinkled her nose. “It’s like living with little pigs, isn’t it?” She turned those dark shining eyes on Chelsea. “Piglets are smart, but they grow into hogs—still smart but huge.”
“Let’s hope we get them trained before they do.”
It was late in the day when she and the kids returned home. Lizzie slept heavily on her hip, and Abby dragged her feet and whined. She placed Lizzie in her playpen. Abby fell asleep on the living room floor.
Brad had taught Chelsea how to make his favorite foods, like beef with noodles made from scratch, but there wasn’t enough time for that. She decided on dried beef gravy and mashed potatoes and frozen lima beans for greens and set to work.
When Brad came in the door, Abby was awake and setting the table.
“How is my big girl?” he asked, swinging her in the air.
She squealed. “I’m helping Mama.”
Brad gave her a kiss and set her on her feet. “Good.”
He gave Chelsea a kiss next to her lips, and she smiled absently.
Brad was over six feet tall with broad shoulders. He sniffed under his muscled arms. “I should take a shower.”
“You better hurry. Dinner is almost ready.”