by Barbara Treat Williams
Coming out as a lesbian is never easy and for single mom Britt Danner it’s been a total fiasco. Falling in love with a beautiful woman should be a heavenly experience. But when she’s your boss and has “forgotten” to mention she’s already married to a wife with psycho-stalker tendencies, things can go to hell really fast.
So when Britt’s aging Aunt Tess asks if she would return to rural Kansas to help take care of her ranch, Britt jumps at the chance. She hopes the hard work caring for the land and horses will help her move on, even though it means revisiting a place full of painful memories. Although it’s easy for Britt to ignore the rumors that the Shamrock Ranch is haunted, it’s harder to ignore the ghosts from her own past. Like her abusive ex-husband. Her eccentric sister Shelby who leads the local Wicca coven. And the ex-con mom who abandoned her.
The move has also exacerbated Britt’s tenuous relationship with her snarky teenaged son. Already conflicted about what he perceives as his mom’s “new” sexual orientation, Jake resents being uprooted from his urban home and friends and begins to act out in rebellious—and dangerous—ways. But are they as dangerous as the secrets buried deep under the dust in the attic and the dirt of the silo floor?
Oh, boy, this is a roller coaster of a book! If you want a book with some fun characters and a breathless pace, you won't go far wrong with this one. There is a little romance here too, and although subtly and gently written, it's very sweet. However, it's far from the main focus of the book"“it's the past coming back to bite so many characters in the butt that comprises the serious action of the story. The pacing is super-fast but the characters are all drawn out in pleasing ways, and I liked Williams's writing style, which was very easy to read.
“Tear up my life because you got your freak on and fell for a girl. You messed everything up but I have to pay! You’re such a crappy parent! I hate you!”
If I had a nickel for every time Jake hated me since he’d become a teenager, I could head for a spree at the shopping mall. But one of my two weaknesses in life is my son, so I try to buck up and squeeze the tears away or bite back the sharp retort I might have for him when he says stuff like that.
I knew that this time, though, I was going to have to be tough and not let him push me around, something he tried far too often. I had pressed my eyelids together and swallowed hard. “You can see for yourself I’m depressed to the core,” I said. “You’ve seen what that nutty stalker has done to our lives. She’ll continue to make us as miserable as she can. We need to move.”
“You’ve made my life miserable with this whole lesbian thing.” He spat the words at me. “And now you want to make me more miserable by taking me back to a do-nothing plot of prairie? I don’t understand why you had to get gay in the first place. I mean…really Mom…really? Aren’t you too old to want to fool around? Why can’t you be a regular mom instead of a stupid fu—”
I raised an eyebrow.
“A stupid lesbian. Aughhh!” He paced the room. “You’re such a screwup!”
Every parent of a teenager knows there is no bigger critic of their behavior than that child. Nor is there a creature alive so resistant to change. Or in Jake’s case, such a drama queen. But I was somewhat stupefied by his outburst. Was he really mine? My child had been relatively lovable before he turned thirteen. He’d been open-minded when it came to accepting diversity. His friends were a potpourri of humanity: black, white, Chinese, probably even a zombie or two in there from the way they looked. But when I’d said the words ‘I’ve fallen in love with a woman’…this, this not-my-child…became a nasty piece of work.
“I can’t change current events, Jake. I can’t change the fact that I lost my job. I don’t have a lot of options.” I tried to sound tough. “Get packing,” I commanded.
Had Jake been right about me being a screwup? Well, yes and no. Yes, I did screw up picking the wrong woman, but it wasn’t entirely my fault or because I was a lesbian that things went wrong. And as I told Jake many times, I didn’t “get gay.” I’ve always been gay, but that knowledge was pushed to the back of my brain for years. Not until a few months ago had I allowed it to move front and center. But I won’t take the blame entirely for this last fiasco. I do have wicked bad luck too.
So. My First Lesbian Romance—the one that had started out all hearts and flowers and ended up heartbreak and migraines—was how it came to be that I was sitting with Aunt Tess under the backyard shade tree at Shamrock Ranch in Kansas drinking coffee—my second weakness in life—on a hot August morning. By now Jake and I had been at the Shamrock two months. Morning ritual before chores was coffee for me and Pepsi for him. Today he’d taken his Pepsi to enjoy in the barn while he let the horses out to pasture, and Tess and I were having our coffee outside in the halfway tolerable morning before the day went to blazing.
“Do you think someone murdered those folks I found in the silo?” I asked. Did I mention that I have wicked bad luck?
“Doubt it,” she said as she tossed her strawberry blond hair back, flashing earrings that looked like they’d come from a tackle box. “Although to hear some folks in town talk, finding skeletons is par for the course at Shamrock Ranch. Superstitious bunch. They say we’ve got a ghost in ol’ Uncle Louis and he makes bad things happen. I knew my uncle. Well, you knew him too. But you were just a child and may not remember him much. He was a sweet man. He might stick around to see what we’re up to but he would never be bothersome.”
I remembered Uncle Louis and Aunt Nellie. They were like the old folks in the Pickles comic strip. Toward the end, he was bald as a billiard ball and shuffled his feet and napped a lot. She was bossy and nagged him and cooked a lot. “So…why the rumors?”
“Well, Uncle Louis had the bad luck to be a death magnet.” Tess leaned back in her chair and gazed at the sky like she was remembering how the old boy looked. “People fell over like fainting goats around Louis. One of his buddies drowned swimming with him; his first girlfriend got stung by a bee and went into fatal anaphylactic shock; another buddy took a header off a cliff while out hiking with Louis. No foul play, you understand—witnesses to these events said Louis wasn’t responsible in any way. Louis died an old man in ’92 and all totaled, I think he’d seen thirty of his acquaintances go in his presence. I thought these old stories had died down, but lately they seem to be up and running again. Anyway, by the time he was old, rumors were so bad about Louis and his bad luck that he almost lost the place before he died, before it came to me. Town folk were actually afraid to come out here to take advantage of this beautiful recreational ranch. I’ve beefed up the boarding business again, but I’m still very aware of what rumors can do. I do my damnedest to stifle stories about Louis, but just the other day I overheard someone say that he shows up at the Shamrock anytime someone is going to die. I don’t know why they just don’t let Louis rest in peace.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” I said. “I guess everyone does love a good ghost story. Maybe there’s just not enough to keep people busy in Goose Creek, so they make up stories to entertain themselves. But you’d think people would be smarter than that.” I’d never seen his ghost in all the time I’d spent here. To me Shamrock Ranch was a wonderful place of sanctuary, smelling of sweet grasses, leather saddles, horses and earth.
“I’ve learned having smarts has nothing to do with emotions,” said Tess. “If I ever saw an actual ghost, I’d leave this place myself. That’s what I tell people and for the most part, I think they believe me. That’s why I’ve gotten the horses to board that I have. Well…that and my boarding rates and membership fees are reasonable. Maybe too reasonable. It gets harder every day to stretch the dollars. And, I do get some boarders from Wichita who’ve never heard the gossip.”
“Bah and humbug,” I said to reassure her. “That’s what I’ll tell people in town anytime I overhear them passing that nonsense around.”
“You’re a good lil’ punkin,” Tess said.
To get my mind off Louis’s ghost, I took another swallow of coffee and savored what my eyes took in. An ivy-covered empty concrete silo the spiders now claimed stood sentinel by rust-brown cattail plants bobbing between fat yellow sunflowers and tall weeds, all grown high enough to hide the lagoon behind. I admired the newly painted bright red barn—thanks to Jake and me—situated on one hundred acres of rolling pasture. Horses dozed in their paddocks. Despite the drought, the Shamrock was a Currier and Ives portrait. I could hardly remember the plastic sheeting, bright lights and body bags the forensic people had brought with them when I discovered two skeletons in the silo.
“When will you find out who they were—those bones in the silo?” I asked.
“Kyla has no idea,” Tess said. Kyla was the chief of police of Goose Creek, a very good-looking brunette. But who cares about that anyway? Certainly not me. I’m off relationships. Forever. “The labs are backed up in Wichita,” continued Tess. “Besides Goose Creek has to pay those labs for any work they do and our coffers are pretty lean these days. No tellin’ when they’ll get to it.”
She reached around me, grabbed the fly swat off the tree stump that served as a table, and smacked the life out of a green bottle fly. “I don’t suppose anybody’s in a big hurry anyway. The skeletons have obviously been there years. I remember…some Native American bones worked their way out of the soil when Uncle Louis owned the place. That’s probably what these are. It took months to identify them. ’Course, that was in the seventies. If it wasn’t for you trying to find the barn cat’s kittens, those ones in the silo would’ve probably stayed there forever. But those Indian bones being found by Uncle Louis back then also played into the whole haunted Shamrock thing, I’m sure. Who hasn’t seen those movies of spirits rising against those living when they’ve built on a burial ground?”
I got shivers as I thought about discovering the skeletal hand sticking up from the dirt. “Well, I’m glad the bones got taken away by the forensic people. Now they can go to whatever tribe they belong to for burial and people in town will stop talking about them. Things can get back to normal,” I said confidently.
“Think, Britt. When have things ever been normal in Goose Creek?” Tess asked with a slight frown. “It’s always been a stew of strange people and events for as long as I can remember. Well, you remember the story about how Joe’s momma kept him a prisoner in that basement for twelve years and no one even knew he was down there. And there’s that dang coven your sister belongs to. I caught ’em dancing naked in the pasture ’tother night. Ridiculous behavior for grown women if you ask me. And Thelma Barker was at the grocery store, turned her head for a minute, and some nogoodnik tried to trot off with her baby. Caught the guy but gave every parent in town the willies. ’Course keeping tabs on what mischief your mother might be into these days keeps me busy. And now, skeletons in my silo! Sometimes it takes two shots of bourbon in my coffee just to get out of bed.”
The Tess I knew was a rock of strength and positivity—I was unused to this Tess who spouted negativity. “There’s always drama in Goose Creek, that’s the truth,” I said. “And all you have to do to find out what, is to plug into the gossip grapevine at Bev’s Café. I imagine since I’ve been back in town a few tongues have been wagging. Shelby’s probably shared with a friend or two that I’m a lesbian. When I left here I was straight. I know how gossip gets out of control in this town, so people here have probably tagged me as transsexual, taking hormone replacement therapy with surgery to come any time now.”
“Maybe,” said Aunt Tess. “That’s small-town living, I guess. Everybody knows the lowdown on everybody else and enhances it a little. But as for you being lesbian, some folks will take to it and some won’t. Seems to me you have to live your life as you see fit. Besides, it’s a big club these days. The veterinarian is gay, chief Kyla is gay, and the pharmacist and his partner own the fanciest house in town and have adopted twins. Far’s I’m concerned, it’s no big deal.”
“It’s a big deal for my son.”
“That’s a whole different matter. He has to switch up everything he thought he knew about you. I think he was hoping you’d get back with Roger someday.”
“I think he was hoping you’d kick her to the curb.”
I laughed. “Jake was such a good little boy until he hit thirteen, then the hormones kicked in and he got in league with Satan who gave him a sassy mouth. Lately he does try my patience.”
The truth was I had little patience left for anyone. I had liked my job at Bailey’s Books in Annapolis where every day held the same predictable events with the same even-tempered customers as it had the day before. But when I fell hard for a beautiful woman—who happened to be the new manager of the store—things fell apart. She was married and forgot to tell me. Her wife discovered us in an embrace in the employee lounge. The wife came at me like a human buzz saw, insisting Susan fire me—which Susan did. Immediately. That didn’t completely satisfy the little wife, no. She continued to do things like heckle me with four-letter names at Jake’s ball games, follow us on a camping trip and scare the wits out of us with her antics, and she sedated my cat and left him in a shoe box on my front porch. I’d thought he was dead. Scared me half to death. How she got him—he’s an indoor cat only—is even scarier still to contemplate. Just a sampling, those. I was tired of always having to watch my back and I didn’t want to spend time in court fussing over restraining orders that I knew she’d break. I didn’t think my ego could face the rejection of job hunting without a good recommendation. So when Aunt Tess called and said she needed help at the Shamrock, it seemed a good time to go.
The Shamrock had put blisters on my hands and aches in my backside, but I was glad I hadn’t said no to Aunt Tess. She had rescued me when I was a pregnant teenager and my own mother had tossed me out. I loved her for letting me live at the Shamrock back then until I could make it on my own, which—if you don’t count my two short-lived marriages salted in there—turned out to be about five years.
Much as I had looked forward to being with Aunt Tess again, I knew that my stay in Goose Creek would not be without tumult. What I dreaded more than small-town nosiness and superstition was that I was bound to run into my mother—the most not-normal, unlovely person you’d never care to meet.
Tess had been talking as I’d been thinking, so I turned my thoughts away from Mother and tuned into her last sentence. “Lately, aches and pains follow me like cats follow a fish cart,” she said. “I’m getting too damn old to work this hard. Each day it gets harder to use these hands. If you and Jake hadn’t come to help, I might’ve lost this place. Benny’s only part-time now. He got another job besides this one because I couldn’t pay him enough. I just couldn’t keep up with the work and couldn’t afford to hire more help.”
I gave her a grin. “You could marry Wendell,” I said as a joke. “He has plenty of money.”
“I won’t say I’m not crass enough to be tempted. After all, people marry for a lot of reasons, money not the worst of ’em. Heaven knows it would solve a whole lot of problems.” She knocked on her head with a knuckle. “I think we’re both too hard-headed. But it’s fun to have a date for the church supper now and then.”
I took one of Tess’s hands in mine. Three of her fingers curled under, claw-like, of their own accord, leaving her thumb and index finger as the ones she used most. It was amazing to me that she could grip reins or a riding crop or had the strength to carry a saddle or bucket full of water with the disfiguring arthritis she suffered. But she managed to do that and more. She was still a pretty woman, as Benny was fond of telling her, despite her hands. But I knew those fingers must hurt her something awful at times. Maybe that’s why I was seeing a crack in her usually tough exterior.
“Jake and I are here now,” I said. “We’ll help you all we can. I don’t want you feeling like you’re backed into a corner to make a decision you really don’t want to make.”
“Oh if I decide to marry Wendell, it’ll be mostly because I love the jerk and am just slightly enamored of his money.”
“Jake and I are not the most experienced ranch hands but we’ll make a difference, I swear.”
“I know that,” said Tess, holding her crooked hand up for high five, which I gave her. “You already have. I love that you kids are here. Even though Jake is only fourteen and may be a rascal, he works as hard as anyone I know, just like you do.”
“We don’t mind the work,” I said. “And rent free is our budget these days. Now if I could just get Jake to perk up a little.”
“He’s not all catawampus just because he’s adjusting to you coming out, Britt. It’s hard on an ocean-loving boy to be plopped in the middle of the prairie,” Tess said. “There aren’t any yachts here, no crab shacks, no Chesapeake Bay. Goose Creek is small-town living. He’s not used to that. Not even a McDonald’s in town.”
“Sure, he misses Annapolis,” I said. “But he can be around Roger who’s the closest thing he ever had to a dad. Wichita is only thirty miles away. And the horses are wonderfully therapeutic for him to be around. He needs to suck it up and stop complaining.”
“I guess he’s not doing too badly,” said Tess. “I saw him hugging Sonja just yesterday. And when school starts he’ll make more friends.”
“Sonja? Glossy black hair and green eyes like a china doll?”
“That’s Sonja, all right. Ain’t no ugly on her anywhere. That little orchid lives just down the road at the Eggars farm.” Tess rubbed her chin. “Sonja and Jake seem mismatched though. She’s sixteen. And she’s smart. With those looks, she could have any boy she wanted. Jake is gangly and as wide-eyed stupid as Adam was the day he took that apple from Eve. I just know Jake’s going to be a good-looking man when all the adolescent kinks get worked out. But now…what can she see in him?”
“I can’t imagine. I mean, he’s my son and I love him. But he’s a weed compared to the little orchid, all right,” I said. Tess nodded and we both laughed.
“Well, I gotta go to work,” Tess said, throwing dregs from her cup onto the ground. She got up, stretched out her body, and headed into the kitchen. I nursed my coffee a minute longer, watching Jake move about by the barn, assessing the man/boy my son had become. He stood six feet four, had a thin body that moved as if walking on stilts and looked older than his years. Never used the sunscreen I bought him so he was covered with freckled skin colored a dusky red from his time at Tess’s riding the horses, doing outdoor chores, and golfing. His face was dimpled and his smile a little dopey, listing down on one side due to a childhood run-in with a cow he tried to ride.
I followed Tess into the kitchen. “Do you think Sonja’s too old for Jake? I asked Tess. “Should I discourage their friendship? Two bad marriages and that last fiasco make me doubt my ability to pick out a wallpaper pattern. You think she’ll break his heart or pull him into something he’s not ready for?”
Tess moved to the sink where she dropped tiny Mason jars into sudsy, hot water. “Even if you wanted to discourage those two, I doubt you could. When kids get their mind set on each other, it’s like stopping a train bare-handed. You know how it was with you and Jerry. You were only eighteen when you married. That’s too young, but you wouldn’t be swayed. Besides, Jake was on the way. Then you married Roger on the rebound and didn’t ride herd tight enough on him. Roger was such a tomcat. You know if he’d been faithful you would’ve stayed with him, no matter gay or what.” Tess dried her hands on a paper towel and turned and gave me a hug. “And don’t spend time beating yourself up about that girl in Annapolis. She was dishonest and you’re better off without her.”
I hoped someday my confidence in the romance department would return. But I doubted it would happen in this century. My heart had taken a spiritual beating, and my actual body had taken a physical one. Susan’s wife had literally taken the breath out of me with a fist to my gut. Susan had come to my house later to “smooth things over,” hoping I wouldn’t press assault charges. After all her professions of love, it came down to this: She wouldn’t divorce because of the kids (they had kids?) but if I’d maybe sublet an apartment a friend of hers owned in a different town—without her wife knowing—we could make it work. It would be just like before. She had held me close, and told me I had a great ass as she slid her hand down my back to cup it. With every word she spoke, she broke my heart. I pushed her away. I told her she could watch my ass as I left town. Adios. Sayonara. Goodbye.
I was feeling much less depressed now that I had hard work to keep me busy and I could be around Tess. Her down-to-earth ways and love for me were restorative. And even though Susan hadn’t been the right person for me, I’d learned enough from her to know that a lesbian was what I was. It seemed as if my life made sense now. Now if I could only get Jake to understand how I could love a woman. He couldn’t seem to wrap his head around it. Every time I tried to talk with him about it he had a fit so mostly we just left it alone.
As I stood in the doorway Tess’s big mutt, Bogart, scooted past me smelling like sour laundry. His long wagging tail knocked against my legs. “Get out, Bogart,” I said, turning him back out the door. “You’re too dirty to be in here.” Bogart slunk away and headed for a rest in the skunk cabbage by the sewer lagoon. Slippers, my eighteen-pound cat, rode by sitting upright on a round disk called a Roomba robot that vacuumed the floors. He’d been in a real snit about the move—until he discovered that he could ride Tess’s Roomba. He gave me a smug look, his Siamese eyes glistening blue, happy as a cat could be.
“What’s your plan for today, Tess?” I asked.
“When I get done making jelly, I’ve got some cleaning,” Tess said.
The Shamrock isn’t a hoity-toity country club with us wearing natty green jackets and looking like professional horse trainers. It’s more like a picnic and ol’ swimmin’ hole kind of recreational ranch for families to have fun, as well as being a boarding stable for horses. The Shamrock has a few campsites set up for tents and RV use, a nine-hole golf course with sand greens, a rough-around-the-edges clubhouse, a nine-acre lake stocked yearly with fish and a few rowboats and paddleboats; a playground for kids and a mini golf course. There’s always plenty work to do.
I looked through the archway from the kitchen to the parlor. Built in the fifties, the floor plan of the old farmhouse was straight, like a train: The parlor at the front, then a large arched entry into the dining room, and another arched entry into the kitchen with a back door to the outside. There was a small apartment downstairs, accessed by stairs in the kitchen, which was currently where I was living. One bedroom, laundry room and one bath were on the main floor and one bath and bedroom upstairs. Knotty pine paneling and wood floors were mellow brown-gold. Multicolored area rugs Tess had weaved before her hands got so bad, from strips of leftover fabric, made the rooms cozy. A basket of sweet-smelling eucalyptus sat by the Franklin stove in the parlor, and a copper pot of sunflowers spruced up the dining room table.
“What’s to clean?” I asked. “The place looks great.”
“Not here. The clubhouse and the shower house. They need a sweep and wipe for tonight’s square dance club. Then, I’ve got to doctor Sully’s foot.”
I got more coffee and carried it to stand by Tess. “I’ll sweep and wipe the shower house and clubhouse. Can you wait for me or Jake to help you with Sully? I’m afraid he’ll hurt you.” Sully’s a big green broke horse, seventeen hands high. He’d nearly squeezed the life out of me pushing me against the stall wall once or twice. I don’t think he intended to hurt but he was clumsy and big and didn’t seem to know where his body ended and the world began. If he wasn’t falling against me he was stepping on my feet.
“I can handle Sully,” Tess said, broaching no argument.
“Sounds like another busy day, all right,” I said.
“And hot as hell,” said Tess. She walked to the refrigerator and brought out blueberries in baskets and set them on the porcelain drainboard. I shooed a horsefly outside and shut the screen door before I headed for the breakfast nook by the window. Muffins and fresh churned butter waited for me there. I sat down and ladled butter onto a muffin and watched Jake through the window. He ambled across the gravel drive and opened the chain-link gate to the yard, walked to the door and gave it a kick to open it and let the horsefly back in. He flung his straw cowboy hat to a peg on the wall, knocking over a broom propped there. It smacked Tess in the fanny as she washed blueberries.
“Oops. Sorry,” he said.
Tess wiped her hands on a dish towel that she’d tucked apron-like into her jeans, picked up the fly swat from off the top of the fridge, and smacked the fly dead. “Be more careful,” she said in a mock serious tone, brandishing the swat at Jake. Jake had spent enough time around Tess, first as a little kid and now that we’d moved back in again, that she bossed him just like I did. “After you get done mucking the stalls,” said Tess, “go out to the golf course and rake the sand greens.”
“I’ll get to that later, Aunt Tess,” said Jake. “Sonja and I are going swimming in the pond.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Chores first, and then you can swim this evening.”
“Jeez, Mom. You and Tess are working my ass off. Work, work, work…that’s all I do.”
“Jake!” I exclaimed. “Who taught you to sass like that? Tess is giving us room and board and a paycheck.”
“Small though it may be,” said Tess.
“We work for her, so we’ll do our work and play later,” I said.
“I didn’t sass. I just stated a fact. Look at my ass.” He pulled at the back of his jeans. “It’s nearly gone from all the workin’ I do.”
“Quit saying that word,” I said.
“It’s a perfectly good word. Ass is in the Bible.”
“Yes but I don’t think you were talking about the animal, were you?” said Tess. “I think you were talking about your rear end.”
“At least I wasn’t talking about my beautiful Johnson,” said Jake with a dimpled smile. “That might’ve shocked you.”
“I will stick you with this fork,” Tess said, picking one up.
“She will,” I said. “She’s poked me a time or two.”
“I was just trying to cheer up Sonja with swimming,” said Jake. “She can’t seem to warm up to the Eggars. She thinks they’re being her foster parents just for the money. I thought a little swim and some fun might be good for her. You guys remember how it was to have fun, before you got old and all?”
“I never said you couldn’t swim. Just do your chores first,” I said.
“The Eggars seem okay,” Tess said, “if a little inbred. You can’t get better eggs, fresher butter or tastier raw milk than they sell. They may not be used to mouthy teenagers like you, Jake. Mrs. Eggars used to babysit little kids. As a first foster kid, Sonja may have been the wrong choice.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “Sonja would never be a wrong choice.”
“I know one thing,” Tess said, biting into a muffin chock-full of blueberries, “they sure don’t know anything about keeping reins on a teenage girl. I don’t mind her visiting you, Jake. She seems a nice enough girl. Maybe she can stay for dinner sometimes. But those tight jeans she wears—”
“I’m with you on that one,” I said. “If I had a daughter that looked like her, I’d make her wear gunny sacks and smudge her face with cinders.”
Jake took a handkerchief from his jeans pocket and swiped at this nose. “I get it. Gang up on her because she’s so fine and you two are a couple of sour old biddies. I’m a respectable guy. I don’t even look at her ass…I mean assets. You should trust me.”
“Far’s I know, Jesus is the only man can be trusted,” said Tess. “Respectable goes out the window when it comes to teenage biology. And, Britt is neither sour nor old. She’s barely into her thirties, and I’m a solid, active mumble-de-mumble which you don’t need to know.”
“Like I said, Mom, you’re practically going through the change.” Jake reached over me and tried for the muffin on my plate. “And, Tess…you’re ancient, even if you do have a boyfriend. I’ve seen you kissing Wendell. Why yell at me for doing what you do? What’s up with that?”
“Do as I say and not as I do,” said Tess. “That’s my motto.”
“Mine too,” I said.
Jake picked up a piece of bacon, waved it at me and stuck out his tongue. “That’s a stupid rule. You bitches be crazy,” he said as he shuffled out.
“What a mouth on that kid,” Tess said. “I should’a spanked his little bottom a lot more when he was a toddler. I know you and Shelby never got spared the occasional swat. Don’t know why I got so softhearted about Jake.”
Tess’s memory had gone sideways. Seemed to me she swatted me and Shelby, my sister, and later Jake, plenty. I, on the other hand, let Jake get away with things. But, even though she swatted us, we loved her without reservation. Neither Shelby nor I seemed able to stay away from her for long. Shelby was so attached to Tess that even at twenty-nine she still lived on the Shamrock, in a small trailer in the wooded area by the fishing pond. She didn’t live in the farmhouse because she liked her privacy, or so she said. And I guess she needed it, what with her naked coven meetings and all. Nevertheless, she seemed to spend as much time in Tess’s farmhouse as I did.
“I’ve spoiled ya’ll,” Tess said.
“Yessim,” I said.
“Well, you two girls turned out good,” Tess said. “You’re both my kind and sweet little girls, more like daughters than nieces. Maybe Jake will be all right too.”
“Only God knows,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Maybe Shelby can put a ‘good boy’ spell on him.”
Tess rolled her eyes too. “Shelby can’t boil water, much less conjure up spells. She just plays at that witch thing. It’s something to do.”
Shelby owned a shop in Goose Creek called “Her Secret Garden” where a customer could get anything from incense to a book on magic, New Age jewelry, and more. She offered a few classes on candle making and herb potions. She did tarot readings. She could probably order a flying carpet for you, too, if you wanted one. Despite the fact that our mother had designated her as her favorite child early on—which should’ve bred animosity—Shelby and I had always been close.
Tess poured blueberries into a pot and placed it on a burner alongside other pots of boiling water. I got another muffin, went back to the table and fingered through the ranch supply catalog. Tess and I went silently about our business; me reading and her making jelly. When the blueberries burbled, Tess added sugar and pectin. I got up, took a saucer from the cupboard, and filled it up with blueberry sauce. I dragged my muffin through the sauce and popped it into my mouth. My taste buds did a happy dance.
I took the saucer back to the table and sat down with my third muffin while watching a horse through the window that I hadn’t noticed before, in the quarantine pen. All horses new to the Shamrock had to be quarantined a week before joining the herd in case of possible disease, and the gelding wasn’t happy about being restrained from the others. He was restless, pawing the earth and kicking up dust.
Tess saw me watching the horse. “I might as well tell you. No use lettin’ it drag on. That’s the new horse Joe brought out this mornin’ for your momma. Chances are you’ll be seeing Arletta around here fairly often now.”
I felt my sphincter twitch. I couldn’t imagine that Tess would allow my mother to rent a paddock at the Shamrock. She saw my look. “Well, Joe’s boarded here for years,” she said. “Then he ups and marries Arletta and gets her a horse so they can ride together. I’m not about to lose his business and friendship because of her. He can marry whoever he wants, poor thing, no matter how much it’ll cost him in the long run. I don’t say nothing.”
“Arletta? What about Arletta?” asked Benny, popping his head up from the stairwell that led to my downstairs apartment. Benny was Tess’s handyman/ranch hand of many years. He’d been fixing the drain in my shower. He was about Tess’s age, with Latino good looks and lots of wavy salt-and-pepper hair. He was married with five kids and so nice and overtly religious that he was absolutely tiresome. He headed for the coffeepot.
“Mind your own business, Benny,” said Tess.
“You know that’s impossible, Tess.” Benny winked at me. He took a saucer from the cabinet, poured some blue sauce in it and took a muffin. “I imagine if you’re talking about Arletta, you’re saying bad stuff. But your mother is a nice woman, Brittany. I saw her on the news last night. Channel Ten put together a clip of her doing that do-gooder stuff she does: Boxing up homemade cookies to put in care packages for soldiers overseas; wiping a little kid’s messy cupcake face at Special Olympics; tutoring convicts at a prison. They were reporting about the Maid Marions giving her an award for her volunteerism.”
“Sheesh,” I said. “Benny…did you fix the shower drain?”
“Nearly done,” he said. “Just came up for a coffee break. Brittany, maybe you ought to give Arletta a break. That embezzling thing…she’s done her time. Believe me, if the Loxley Lodge Maid Marions gave her an award, then that means she’s okay. And she is your mother. The Good Book says to respect your parents. My Angela works with some of the same charities and I know she thinks the world of her.”
“You meddlesome old hen,” I said, pinching him on the leg. “I could maybe forgive mother for blaming the embezzlement on Tess if Tess can, but mother tossed me out of her life when I needed her most. If it hadn’t been for Tess, my son and I would’ve starved. So. No. Don’t ask me to give any Mother of the Year award to Arletta Mackley.”
“But Britt, she’s the only mother you’ll ever have. Where’s the love? The Good Book says—”
I felt my face flush hot. I gave Benny a look that had fire in it. I guess he decided it might be better to move on to a more comfortable topic. He cleared his throat. “That’s hot work for a hot morning,” he said to Tess. “I’m sure it must be hard on your hands. I could call Angela…send over one of the kids to help.”
“No need,” Tess said. She slid an oven mitt on and carefully poured hot blue sauce into mini Mason jars. She pulled the mitt off and carefully placed sterile hot lids onto the little jars with tongs. “Benny, seal those tight for me, will you? And then set them into that other pot of boiling water.”
Benny did as he was told. “Why didn’t you just freeze the jelly, Tess?” he asked.
“Arletta’s on a committee that’s putting together gift baskets to raffle at the Art and Antique auction at the fair next month. Proceeds go to the Maid Marion charities. My jars of homemade jelly will be in them.” Tess pulled the cord out of the old electric perk coffeepot and carried it to the table where she poured herself and Benny another cup and refilled mine. She sat down. “The jelly jars need a ten-minute boil,” she added.
“Women! I thought you two just were talking about how you didn’t like Arletta.”
“I don’t do this for her, Benny,” said Tess. “It’s for the Lodge charities. She just happens to be volunteering. I mean, I have to abide her from time to time to do the things I must. But really, I’d never turn my sister completely out of my life, no matter what. I imagine Britt will find that she’ll have to do the same thing. You can’t live in a small-town like ours and not run into to each other.”
“Hummph,” I said. I got up and stretched, having had both enough muffins and conversation about someone I had convinced myself was dead to me. “See you later,” I said and went outside.
I was immediately cheered by pretty little red and black chickens poking and scratching in the dirt. A barn cat had draped himself over a tree limb like a limp clock in a Dali painting. He slapped at my hair as I went under him by way of saying hello. A horse neighed somewhere in the pasture. I had missed the animals when I’d lived in Annapolis. I was glad they were back in my life again.
Puffy thunderheads loomed in the distance, promising rain. But would they deliver? Probably not. Nonetheless, they were like beautiful fat marshmallows hanging in the sky. Despite Tess’s talk of good ol’ Uncle Louis’s supposed ghost and my mother’s looming presence, it felt good to be with Tess at Shamrock Ranch again.