Excerpt for Heartland by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Allen Renfro

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Renfro

ARMSlength Publishing Ltd.

Cover Art: LLPix Photography

Editing and Formatting: Beth Lynne, BZHercules.com

Smashwords Edition

Ebook Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please visit your preferred ebook distributor and purchase your own copy.

Thank you for respecting the author's work.

Heartland is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved


Adult Fiction Novels by Allen Renfro

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The Raised


The Falling

Bridge Water



Weeds in the Sidewalk

Young Adult Novels by Allen Renfro


Available Everywhere in All Formats

Chapter One

"Daddy, I gotta pee."

I look through the rearview mirror at my son secure in his car seat, surrounded by our suitcases and his toys. His beautiful blue eyes are staring back at me with all the innocence of the world. He offers me a funny smile and I smile back.

"Okay," I reply. "We'll stop at the next place."

I have to admit that my legs are growing tired. We've already been driving five hours with about a half an hour to go. The winding highway cuts through hills and valleys of endless trees, which become boring despite their beauty. And if I'm being totally honest, I'm not exactly excited about our destination.

"How much farther is it to Grandma's?" he asks, his eyes turning back to stare out the window at the blur of pines and cedars whizzing by.

"About thirty miles," I reply, my eyes focused on the winding road in front of us, the snake-like twists and turns cutting through the dense green forest.

"It's a long way," he says.

I smile. "Yeah, it is."

"The trees are pretty," he says.

"Yeah, they are."

"Everything's green."

"Yeah." I smile because he's right. The lush forest around us gives the air a greenish glow.

The forest surrenders to fields of corn and cattle, and to a rustic wood sign illuminated in bright sunshine that reads "Welcome to Fairview." Finally, we see the first hints of civilization we've seen in a while. I turn the steering wheel of my ancient hatchback to the right at the first red light and pull the car into the shade of an awning in front of Gertrude's Quick Mart and Bait & Tackle Shop… and DVD Rentals.

Trent is wrestling with his car seat before I have my seatbelt unfastened. I open the door to the backseat and maneuver myself around the suitcases and his toys, being particularly careful with Toby the turtle, to help him out of his car seat. I lift him into my arms with a grunt.

"Hurry, Daddy, I gotta go!"

We make a quick dash into the store. An old bell jingles as I push the door open to a store empty of any customers. Glancing around past aisles of snacks and a wall of refrigerated coolers filled with drinks, I finally see the sign on the wall pointing the direction to the restrooms. I pay no attention to the elderly lady behind the counter, who is staring at us as we rush into the men's room. I hurry Trent into the stall so he can pee.

"This place smells funny," he says loudly over the trickling sound of his pee.

Standing outside the stall and leaning against the door, I have to agree. "I think that might be bait that we're smelling."

"Do they keep it in the bathroom?"

"I think so," I reply. Looking around the bathroom, I see it's clean and modern. It shouldn't smell like dead fish.

I hear the flush of the toilet and the loud smack of the seat coming down.

"All done?"

"All done," he replies, pushing open the stall door.

"Let's get your hands washed." I lift him up and walk over to the sink. I hold him so that he can wash his hands with soap and so he can reach over for a paper towel by himself. When I place him down on the floor, he tosses the wadded paper towel into the waste basket and lets me see that his hands are clean.

He takes my hand as we walk back out to the store where the elderly woman behind the counter is staring at us with a goofy grin on her face.

I look down at Trent. "Want something to drink? Maybe some candy?"

"Nah, I'm good," he says.

"Jake Crosse, is that really you?" she asks.

I feel Trent's hand squeeze mine a little tighter as the old woman stares at us both. Her hair is completely gray and pulled back into a ponytail at the back of her head; the red-framed glasses she's wearing have to be from the seventies.

"Uh, yes, I'm Jake," I reply, hating that I don't have a clue who she is.

"Lord, son, I think the last time I saw you was at your father's funeral." She grins with wrinkles around her mouth that tell me she's had a cigarette between her lips probably since the day she was born. "You haven't changed a bit."

"Thank you," I reply, not knowing what in the world to say.

"And who is this?" she asks, leaning over the counter for a closer look.

"Uh, this is my son, Trent." I smile.

"You look just like your dad," she says with a wink and a giggle that makes Trent smile. It makes me smile just hearing her say that. Being as beautiful as my son is something I'm very proud of.

"Thank you," I reply, but I don't know what to say beyond that. I look down to Trent. "You sure you don't want something to drink?"

"Chocolate milk?" he says with an inflection as if he's guessing an answer on a game show.

I nod. "Okay, let's get some."

I guide Trent down a short aisle to the coolers with the drinks and we scour the shelves for a small carton of chocolate milk.

"You don't remember me, do you?" she calls out, still safely behind the counter, near the cash register, peering around the lottery tickets.

Then it hits me who she could be. "You're Gertrude, aren't you?"

"Gertrude?" she scoffs in horror. "She's been dead for years."

I feel the need to shove both my feet into my mouth.

"Sorry," I mumble as I help Trent pull open the glass door and retrieve a small carton of chocolate milk for him. I didn't think it was a bad guess, seeing as the store is named Gertrude's and she looks like she could be a Gertrude.

"I'm Agnes," she says.

I still don't have a clue.

"Agnes Jarvis," she says in a way that tells me I'm stupid for not knowing who she is. "Austin's mother."

"Oh," I reply, expressing more surprise than I should, probably because I should have remembered her.

"My God, I didn't think I'd changed that much in ten years," she says. "It's been ten years since you graduated high school, hasn't it? I don't look that old, do I?"

"Uh yeah," I reply, placing the carton of chocolate milk on the counter.

"I look that old?" she asks in shock at my crudeness.

"No, no, no, ma'am," I stutter, trying to keep from sinking deeper into the pit that I've dug for myself. "I mean, it's been ten years since we graduated high school."

"Oh, thank God; I misunderstood you," she says with relief as she rings up the total on the cash register and the color in her face fades from fire red to pink. "One ninety-seven."

I wrestle a couple of dollars from my wallet and hand them to her, afraid to see how few dollar bills I have left.

"Austin is gonna be so excited that you're back," she says, counting out three pennies and handing them to me. "You all were so close back then."

I stare at her in disbelief. How could she know that I'm back?

Sensing my surprise, she clarifies, "Your mom told me you were moving back home."

That figures.

"You know Grandma?" Trent asks, jarring me from my surprise.

"I sure do, young man," she replies. "I swear you're cute as a button."

I take the carton of chocolate milk, open it carefully, and hand it down to Trent, who quickly takes a big sip of it, giving him a milk mustache.

"Thank you," I say and hustle Trent toward the door.

"You should give Austin a call," she says. "I know he'd love to see you."

"I'll do that," I reply, pushing open the door and hustling Trent toward the car, the sounds of cars rushing by on the road and the heat of the summer day more inviting than conversation with Agnes Jarvis.

"I can give you his number," she calls out, but I'm determined to get out of there.

I offer her a wave as the door closes, and through the filter of the panes of glass, I smile. I take the carton of chocolate milk from Trent and place it on the roof of the car as I lift him back into his car seat and fasten him in, making sure Toby the turtle is within his reach.

"Daddy, are you okay?" he asks.

I hand him the carton of milk from off the roof of the car and close the door.

"Yeah, why?" I ask as I slide behind the steering wheel, close my door, and start the engine.

"You're acting funny."

I look at him again through the rearview mirror and smile in admiration. So young and so smart.

"I'm okay," I reply as I ease the car back onto the highway, which happens to also be Main Street.

Fairview. My hometown, population not very many, is a land that time forgot. A place that's ten miles from nowhere, my dad used to say. People around here say it's country living at its finest unless you're like me and had only one goal after graduating high school and that was to escape the place I deemed the biggest sinkhole in the world.

"Is this where we're gonna live?" Trent asks.

"Yep, this is it," I reply. "Well, we're staying with your grandma on the farm."

We drive through town, past a movie theater that probably is registered as an historical landmark. I glance through Olsen's Barber Shop window and Mr. Olsen is hard at work cutting a man's hair with a half dozen more men waiting for their turn. The weary old courthouse with tall white columns needs painting and the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, fondly nicknamed "The Pig," where, based on the nearly full parking lot, most of the town's population seems to be on a Friday afternoon. We drive under a banner that's written in orange letters and decorated with autumn leaves announcing Fairview's Fall Festival. It stretches high across Main Street almost like a purposeful reminder of just one more thing that I left behind.

"With all kinds of animals?" he says with an excitement that's like being told he's going to the circus. He was only an infant the last time we were here for Dad's funeral. He's just now old enough to understand.

"Yeah," I reply, trying to match Trent's excitement. "With cows, chickens, horses, pigs, and probably a dog."

"A dog?" he says. "We're gonna have a dog?"

"Yeah," I reply, glancing at him through the rearview mirror. "And who knows what else."

We pass through all seven traffic lights, the savory scent of hamburgers and fries wafting from the Country Inn Restaurant making my stomach growl. Teenagers stand outside their hangout known as the Shake Shack just like I did with my friends back in the day, under the shade of a red and white striped awning. Every turn, every curve in the road I remember from the past. People walking along narrow tree-lined sidewalks offer us a friendly wave, the sounds of lawnmowers buzzing. We pass the high school and the elementary school where children are playing in the playground. I feel my heart linger there as we pass by, the days when life was simple, when the only worries were math tests and homecoming dances and having the coolest picture for the yearbook.

A tractor towing a rickety wood wagon stacked with bales of hay lumbers down the road in front of us like a drowsy cow. Trent takes it all in stride as he sips from his carton of chocolate milk. His curiosity is piqued, his eyes twinkling with excitement as he looks from window to window with the wonder that only a child has. His excitement helps to ease the ache in my heart. He calms the fear that I'm taking him away from a better life that we could have had in the city. But life is like that sometimes. Sometimes life makes the choice for you.

I'm finally able to pass the tractor, whose driver, an old man in overalls and John Deere cap, waves to us as we pass. The highway stretches along the northern shore of Watts Lake. The lapping waves smack against rocks at the edge of the road, the sunlight creating diamond reflections in the water. I roll down our windows with a push of a button on my door, allowing the cool breeze flowing across the lake to fill the car. Trent laughs as the wind tosses his dark hair around his head, his eyes squinting with the rush of wind.

"Look, Daddy!" he nearly squeals in excitement, pointing at a sailboat in the distance drifting carelessly along the water, its large white sail billowing in the wind.

I forgot how beautiful my hometown is, but I can't forget that the natural beauty is the perfect disguise to the ugly underneath, to the hypocrisy of so many people that live here. But I can't deny the wonder and joy in my son's eyes as he watches the sailboat drift through the water past men standing in boats, casting their lines from fishing poles, hoping to catch the "one that got away."

It's almost a disappointment when the lake disappears from sight and we're back to being surrounded by fields of corn and cows.

"Is it much farther?" Trent asks with a bit of a yawn.

"Well, son, we're actually here," I say as I turn the steering wheel to the right and the car thumps onto a narrow gravel road through an open gate with a fancy iron banner overhead that reads "Crosse Creek Farm." The driveway of my childhood home.

The long driveway carves a straight line between fields of corn. Rolling plumes follow us, covering the cornstalks with a thin layer of dust. My heart begins to race as the house I grew up in finally appears.

Surrounded by lush maple trees, the two-story house has been in my family for generations. The rocking chairs and swing on the front porch are like old friends waiting for me to visit with them. It's a Victorian-style home with tall windows and green shutters that match the green-shingled roof. I'd always thought it was the prettiest house in Fairview, even though it's old and weary. The white-washed fences that surround the yard are still as beautiful as they were in my childhood. An old but shiny blue pickup truck, parked near the front of the house and just behind Mom's station wagon, has to be my brother Paul's.

Cows are grazing alongside the fence to our left and Trent gasps in awe of the large herd.

"Look, Daddy!"

"Yeah, that's a lot of cows, isn't it?"

When I was a kid, I would pretend the rolling hills around our farm were mountains to be conquered; the endless fields made me feel like a prince surveying his kingdom. Summers were spent swimming in our pond with water so clear it seemed like it was invisible and building dams in a creek that stretches through most of the property. Two red barns in the distance bring a smile to my face; the memories of jumping from the lofts into piles of hay, luckily never breaking a limb.

My eyes feel blurry. The memories rushing back, it's like my brain is trying to make me not feel guilty for being a failure, for coming home with my tail tucked between my legs. I pull the car behind the pickup truck and before I have my door open, Mom, aka Emma Crosse, is hurrying down the three steps of the porch to the cobblestone walkway. She has the rear passenger door open and is excavating Trent from his car seat before I can even say hi.

"Trent!" she says as she pulls him into her arms and spins him around in a bear hug.

Trent is a bit surprised but takes it in stride, struggling to hold on to his empty carton of chocolate milk. "Hi, Grandma."

It's been years since we've seen her face to face and her dark hair already has a touch more gray than it did then. The laugh lines around her eyes are just a little deeper. I'm not used to seeing her in blue jeans and a red flannel shirt, but other than that, she hasn't changed that much, not that I expected her to look completely different. She used to say that she was Kate Jackson's twin. It was years before I had the guts to ask who Kate Jackson was and she had to explain the TV show Charlie's Angels to me. When I finally saw a picture of Kate Jackson, I decided it wasn't worth the argument to tell my mom that she doesn't look that much like her.

Mom has both Trent and me wrapped in her arms with kisses on cheeks and babbling words like I'm so glad you're finally here and I was starting to get worried.

"It's so good to see you," she says, the unmistakable scent of beer on her breath.

My mother's been drinking. That's something new.

"We'll worry about your stuff later," she says, glancing at my elderly hatchback stuffed like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. "Let me show you your rooms."

And just like that, I realize I'm like a visitor, like checking into a hotel, but the thought is fleeting as Mom's conversation gives Trent and me little time to think or say hardly anything. She sets him down on the ground and takes his hand as she leads us into the house.

"Your brother Paul and the crew are sloppin' the hogs," she says as I follow her and Trent up the stairs to the front door, the creaks of the wood in the porch the same as they were when I was a kid.

"What's sloppin' the hogs?" Trent asks, very confused by the language.

"Feeding the pigs," I say, causing him to look up over his shoulder at me, still with a bit of confusion.

"We've got pigs and cows and horses and chickens," she says as she opens the door and we walk into a hallway that has a long flight of stairs leading to the second floor along the right side of the hall.

The hardwood floors, the gentle colors of the walls; everything is just as it always was. To the right through a wide entranceway is the large living room that now includes a big screen TV that doesn't really blend in with the old family photos on the walls and the rustic old furniture that must be at least twenty years old or the fireplace that kept us warm on winter nights. Dad's old recliner with his blanket still rests in the same place it always did, facing the direction of the TV and angled so Dad could look through the front windows.

To the left is the formal dining room, or as Dad would call it, the fancy eatin' room for special occasions. On down the hallway past the staircase is the kitchen with the table for four where we always ate unless we had company or it was a holiday. So many rooms to remember in this old house, so many memories that now in this moment challenge the reasons why I left in the first place. I'll just blame it on the immaturity of a young man.

I remember as a kid running down the stairs and to the back of the hall to the room that was Dad's office, where he spent most of his time that wasn't spent in the fields. I can still see him hunched over his old desk, the tiny lamp resting on the corner giving him just enough light to work. He managed to keep the farm afloat while so many others went under.

At the top of the stairs, we turn left to the far end of the hall. On the left side of the hall, Mom leads us to my brother's room. "I've got Paul's room all ready for you since it's bigger. And, Trent, I've got your daddy's old room all ready for you. It's right next door…"

I interrupt. "Uh, well, Trent will be staying with me."

Mom glances at me, puzzled.

"At least at first." I smile.

"Daddy's not ready to have a room by his self," Trent says with a serious look on his face.

Mom smiles at him and then at me. She doesn't realize that Trent is telling the truth. I'm the one afraid to be alone, not Trent.

"Okay," she says, "but we'll put your toys and clothes in your dad's old room and have it ready for when you do move in."

"Except for Toby," he says.


"Toby." I smile. "Trent's stuffed turtle."

"Oh," Mom replies with a grin. "You should've introduced me. We left him in the car, didn't we?"

"He's all right," Trent says as he leads the way into the bedroom. "Wow!"

He stands in the center of the room between the bed and the bureau that rests against the opposite wall, his mouth open in surprise, his eyes bulging. Being a corner room, there are two windows that, with the curtains pulled back, showing maple trees outside each one, look almost like framed paintings.

"Daddy, this is bigger than our place," Trent says, running over to open the closet door and glance inside.

"Almost," I admit.

"Well, let's get your things out of the car and get you settled and I can show you around the farm!"

It doesn't take long for us to empty the car of suitcases, cardboard boxes, and toys. Hanging the last stack of clothes in the closet, I turn back around with a sigh, sitting on the bed next to Toby the turtle, who is resting against the pillows. It feels like revenge getting my older brother's room, the one closest to the bathroom, the one that has two windows and made it easier for him to sneak out at night.

Trent's giggling voice drifts through the open window. I walk over to the window facing the side yard, pulling back the curtains far enough so I can see out. Through the leaves of the maple tree, I see Mom holding Trent's hand and helping him through the whitewashed fence into a giant field of pumpkins. Trent, wearing a Spiderman t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, pulls Mom by the hand, excitedly rushing toward the large red barn in the distance, zigzagging around the ripe pumpkins, the bright sun casting their shadows across the ground. Trent is happy to be here. I know in my heart his happiness is going to make starting over a lot easier.

Chapter Two

I stare into the face of my cell phone, rocking back and forth in a rocking chair on the porch, relieved that there is Wi-Fi. The late summer sun begins its lazy journey down behind the western hills. The time on my phone reads five twenty. The birds dancing and singing in the trees are loud enough that I don't hear my brother climbing up the steps of the porch until his shadow falls across the floor in front of me.

He looks exhausted; his white t-shirt stained with sweat and dirt, his faded jeans are filthy, his work boots are caked with mud. Strands of his dark wet hair stick to his forehead, a ragged Atlanta Braves baseball cap in his hand. He's leaner than he used to be, more muscular, older, his face accented with dark stubble.

The awkwardness begins immediately.

"Where's Mom and Trent?" I ask, standing up from the rocking chair that decides to take revenge and smack me against the back of my legs.

"Nice to see you too, Jake," he says, offering a fake version of a smile. "They're down at the chicken coop."

"Sorry," I reply with a grin and slide my phone back into my jeans pocket and offer him my hand to shake.

He takes my hand, gripping it firmly.

"How's Karen and the kids?" I ask, trying not to be formal.

"Good," he replies as he leans against the wood railing near one of the square columns, folding his arms across his chest. "Mom's invited the family over tonight for supper. To celebrate."

"Celebrate?" I say with too much surprise.

"You and Trent coming home," he clarifies almost with a glare, the natural tensions between sibling rivals beginning to surface.

We're interrupted by the roar of pickup trucks and a couple of cars whizzing past the house down the driveway, dust plumes chasing behind them. It's the crew that helps Paul run the farm, hands waving from open windows. I wave along with Paul, even though I don't know any of the crew; at least I don't think I do.

"Some celebration," I mumble under my breath, my hands resting on the wood railing, looking up through the maple tree, the play of sunlight coming through the leaves making me squint.

He doesn't acknowledge my whining. "Mom's glad you're back."

It's not the same as saying he's happy I'm back, but at least he's trying, I think he's trying; I hope he's trying.

"Daddy!" Trent bounds up on the porch and jumps into my arms, his eyes twinkling with excitement. "I love the farm!"

"You do?" I reply with a smile, lifting him up in my arms and kissing him on the cheek.

Mom is a few steps behind as she slowly climbs the steps with a smile on her face, patting Paul on his shoulder. A reddish-brown dachshund bounds up the stairs just behind her, wagging his tail wildly. She reaches down and scratches his ears.

"Yeah," Trent says, hugging my neck, his chocolate milk breath still ripe. "Did you know there's a pond and the water is see-through? All the way to the bottom! Grandma says that we can swim in it!"

"Yeah, I know," I say with a chuckle.

Mom comes up beside us, her hand resting on Trent's back. "Your daddy and uncle went swimming all the time when they were kids until that unfortunate tire swing incident."

"Well, I gotta go," Paul interrupts, mercifully preventing the retelling of the tire swing story. "Get a shower and get everybody ready."

"We'll eat about six thirty or so," Mom says as Paul hurries down the porch steps to his truck.

His truck disappears behind the fields of cornstalks, the dust cloud lifting up over the fields.

"Daddy, this is our dog," Trent says, petting him softly on his head. "His name is Rex. He's a wienie dog."

I kneel down and reach my hand out for the dog to sniff. "Hello, Rex."

He sniffs me carefully, deems me acceptable, and jumps up on my knee, and I scratch his head.

"Grandma says we have a cat too," Trent says. "Her name is Loretta."

I look up at Mom. "Loretta? You named your cat after Aunt Loretta?"

"Darlin', the cat's a slut just like your aunt, poppin' out kittens left and right," Mom says to my horror. I try not to show my surprise to Trent. Hopefully, he's distracted enough by the dog that he didn't pick up on the obscenity.

"You know, Trent," Mom says, patting him on the head. "Your great aunt is named after Loretta Lynn, the famous country singer, but she looks just like Willie Nelson."

"Mom!" I scold her for being so cruel. "That's not true."

"Honey, when was the last time you saw her? At your father's funeral? Maybe when you were twelve?" Mom replies, shaking her head. "Trust me, time has not been kind."

"Okay, so if she looks like Willie Nelson, how could she be so…" I hesitate, trying to find the right word to use in place of slut. "Popular?"

"You'd be amazed at the number of cowboys that wanna sleep with Willie Nelson." Mom chuckles.

I try not to laugh as I roll my eyes in fake disgust. I realize something has changed about my mother. She's more carefree, more blunt than she's ever been, and for whatever reason, it's making me happy.

"Well, let's get supper started," she says as she pulls open the screen door and we walk inside, Trent practically dancing from his exciting experience. "Trent, I hope you like fried chicken as much as your dad."

"Yeah," he replies as we walk down the hallway past the staircase into the kitchen to the left. Aside from more modern appliances, the kitchen is the same as it was with the table and four chairs, the window above the sink with the yellow checkerboard curtains.

"So we'll have fried chicken, mashed taters, green beans, and biscuits. Does that sound good?" she says after tying an apron around her. She opens up the fridge and pulls out a large bowl and a tray of raw pieces of chicken covered in saran wrap. I expect to see a shelf filled with bottles of beer, but I don't see any, which leads me to wonder where Mom is hiding it.

"Sounds great," I reply. "What can we do to help?"

"Stay outta the way and keep me company," she says as she withdraws two Mason jars of canned green beans and a bunch of potatoes out of a large plastic bucket from a cupboard next to the refrigerator.

I help Trent up into a chair, sliding him close to the table, and then I do the same, watching Mom work her magic and put a meal together right before our eyes.

In the quiet of the moment, I feel I have to say something that I don't want to have to say. I've not been back in so long, not even Christmas; just an occasional phone call and an explanation that I was too busy with work that didn't exist. My guilt is overwhelming me. "Thanks for letting Trent and me stay here, Mom."

She looks at me funny, almost like she's insulted. "You don't need to say thank you. This is always gonna be your home, whether you live here or not."

I glance over at Trent, hoping he really doesn't understand. "I just never thought that I'd have to…"

I start to say "come back here," but Mom interrupts before I can get the words out and make a fool of myself.

"So what would you normally be doin' on a Friday night?" she asks as she dips chicken legs and breasts into her own special batter that she always prepares hours before actually cooking.

I shrug and smile at Trent. "We usually make popcorn and watch Dora the Explorer, don't we?"

"Yeah." Trent grins with the glass nearly touching his lips. "Dora!"

She turns around and looks at me and smiles with a look of pride. "You really are a dad."

She says the words as if it's this unbelievable surprise; like I've accomplished something that should have been impossible for someone like me. I don't know if I should be insulted or happy.

She turns back to her chicken. "Well, with me around, maybe you can get out more. You still have friends in town."

My eyes fix on the salt and pepper shakers at the center of the table. "I think the first thing I need to do is get a job."

"You are gonna help your brother with the farm for a while, aren't ya?" she asks nonchalantly as she focuses on the chicken that begins to sizzle in a frying pan.

"Yeah," I reply, choosing to look at Trent, who seems to be listening to the conversation but not fully understanding it.

"Don't get me wrong, darlin'," she says, her back still to us as she fries up the chicken, the aroma filling the air and making my stomach growl. "I totally understand not workin' with your brother for a long period of time. He's an asshole, but he really means well. And he's done a great job keepin' the farm goin'."

"What's an asshole?" Trent immediately asks.

"Your uncle, sweetheart," Mom says with a chuckle.

"It's nothing, big guy," I reassure him, reaching over and squeezing his hand. "Just forget you heard that, okay?"

"Paul would never say it, but it's true," she says. "We can really use your help."

The steam rising from the stove, the kitchen getting warmer, she walks over to the fridge and pulls out a can of diet soda, pops it open, and takes a long sip. "Y'all want something to drink? Ice tea? Trent, honey, want some lemonade?"

He nods.

"I can get it for him," I say, sliding my chair away from the table.

"I got it," she says, pulling a glass out of the cabinet and placing it on the table. She fills the short glass halfway from a glass dispenser that looks like a giant coffee mug and slides it over to Trent, who lifts the glass with both hands and takes a sip. "So have you thought about looking up your old high school friends?"

"Well, I'll admit that I've thought about it," I reply with more sarcasm than I should use.

"Why do I get the feelin' there's a 'but' comin'?" Mom says with a smile. "You know it's not like you're livin' in Atlanta. This is Fairview; like six people live here. You're gonna run into them anyway."

She makes me smile and I have to agree. "You're right."

She goes from frying the chicken to mashing the potatoes and checking the green beans that slowly boil in a pan. Her moves are like a choreographed dancer's in a Broadway musical. "I remember you had two really good friends. Austin Jarvis for one and that sweet girl, what was her name? Pyrena?"

"Regina, Mom," I scold her, trying to mask my laughter by clearing my throat and taking a deep breath.

"Oh yeah, Regina," Mom says with a smack to the side of her head as if to jar the memories back in place. She returns to mashing away at the potatoes. "I knew it ended in some kind of 'ina.' Pyrena, Hyena, Regina; it's almost all the same."

I can't help but laugh.

"She had the biggest crush on you," she says. "You know, she's a dental hygienist now. Works for Dr. Berrymore. But lord have mercy, her mouth is bigger than her ass. That girl never shuts up."

"I think I'm gonna go up and take a shower and change clothes," I say, just to get out of a conversation that is about to become a train wreck. "Trent, will you be okay to stay here with Grandma?"

He takes another sip of the lemonade. "Yeah."

"Don't get in her way, okay?"


I leave my mom and my son to their own conversation of chickens, pigs, swimming in the pond, and Regina's ass as the delicious scent of Mom's special recipe fried chicken follows me upstairs.

Austin Jarvis and Regina Gables. Just thinking their names inside my head makes me smile. What would high school have been like if they hadn't been around? Memories flood my mind like the rush of water from a breaking dam. The truth is I'm nervous about seeing them again, actually afraid. They're not going to be the same people they were then. Time changes everything, life changes people, distance makes the heart forget. I'm not the same person either. The number of ass kickings, too many to count, that life has given me has changed me. Having a son has changed me. At least I have Trent to be proud of. He's the only thing that's perfect in my life.

I stare into the bathroom mirror, drops of water trickling from dark strands of hair on my forehead down my face, a towel around my neck, the face looking back at me with more questions than answers. The face in the mirror sneers at me. The face is what a loser looks like. Thinking about the past is a waste of time. Feeling sorry for myself is a waste of time. But it's what I do best, so I'll keep doing it until I win an Academy Award.

I ruffle the towel through my wet hair and hurry across the hallway to my bedroom. I pull on my best pair of jeans and nice blue Polo shirt, admiring the color, and check myself in the mirror. I'm going to have to change my shirt. Forgetting that my hair is still wet, I stain the front of my shirt with water.

The growing sound of tiny footsteps slowly climbing up the stairs and running across the hardwood floors interrupts my pity party. I listen with a smile as the steps slow and then come to a complete stop as Trent tries to remember which room we're in. His steps pick up again and he pushes the door open just as I put on my second favorite blue Polo shirt.

"Daddy," he says, bounding into the room and up against the bed with a wide grin on his face. "Grandma wants you to help with the table."

I don't quite understand at first. "Oh, you mean to set the table for supper?"


I work a comb through my hair, forcing out the last drops of water as I stare in the mirror, the billowing curtains from the window trying to interfere with my view. "Okay, I'll be right down."

"You smell good," Trent says out of the blue as he tries to climb up on the bed to reach Toby the turtle.

"Thank you," I reply, walking over and retrieving his favorite stuffed toy for him.

"A lot better than that bathroom at that store," he says, taking Toby into his grasp and squeezing him.

"I know, right?" I laugh.

"It smelled like the pigs that Grandma showed me," he says.

"Yeah, that's true." I laugh, ruffling his hair. "Well, let's get downstairs and set the table. You gonna take Toby with us and introduce him to everybody?"

"Nah," he says, handing him back to me so I can place him back on the bed. "Not yet."

I move him along, holding his hand as we maneuver the staircase cautiously, one step at a time. In these quiet moments, holding my son's hand as we move slowly down the stairs, the worry of starting over oozes back into my mind.

"You think you're gonna like it here?" I ask as gently as I can without any hint of worry in my voice.

"I love it," he replies, his focus on the stairs as his little feet ease down to the next step.

"You really do?"

"Yeah, it's like the zoo," he says.

"I guess it is."

"Are you gonna like it here, Daddy?"

Unexpected question. My heart wants to say no.

"Yeah, I'm gonna like it here too," I reply as we make it downstairs and Trent runs back to the kitchen.

On instinct, I know where to find the plates and the forks that we use in the "fancy eatin' room." I realize with Paul's family and Trent and me, we're one chair short. The table is not the same one we had when I lived here. It's smaller. Trent stands nearly in the corner, studying my every move with curiosity.

"Well, son," I say after placing the last plate on the table and adjusting the silverware, "we're one chair short. Would you mind sittin' on Daddy's lap when we eat?"

"Okay," he says carelessly, standing on his tiptoes to check out my skills in setting the table. He suddenly says something that I don't expect in a way that only an almost five-year-old can say it. "As long as you're not an asshole like Uncle Paul."

On the inside, my voice is screaming, oh my God, tonight is going to be a disaster! And, thanks to my mother and her loose tongue, it's going to be my son's fault. On the outside, I know I have to appear as nonchalant as possible.

"Let's not use that word in front of your uncle, okay?" I say with a smile. "It might hurt his feelings. You don't wanna hurt his feelings, do you?"

"No," he replies, his sincere eyes staring at me with confusion.

And it might get my ass kicked too. He'd never believe it was Mom that called him an asshole.

The front door bursts open and the eruption of little girls' giggling voices fills the house. The sound unnerves Trent for a moment and I feel him standing right beside me, his hand squeezing the fabric on the leg of my jeans nervously. Let the games begin.

Chapter Three

It feels weird sitting in the chair that my dad would normally be sitting in, looking to the far end of the table at my mom; my brother Paul and his wife Karen sitting to my left and their two daughters Amy and Pam to my right. The table is perfect with a mountain of fried chicken in the center surrounded by bowls of mashed potatoes and green beans and a plate of homemade biscuits and tall glasses of iced tea and lemonade all resting on top of a yellow and white checkerboard tablecloth illuminated by an antique chandelier above the center of the table.

Fortunately, Trent sitting on my lap and helping him eat keeps me occupied and partially unaware of the conversation flowing around us.

Amy, my brother's ten-year-old daughter, is talking about cheerleading and Pam, his youngest, who's eight, is rattling on about a brutal chipmunk attack that occurred on the school playground as Mom listens intently, on the edge of her seat with every word. Trent shoves spoonfuls of green beans and mashed potatoes in his mouth as his head turns from side to side, following the conversation that to him must be the most bizarre random flow of words he's ever heard. I'm amazed at how much Paul's daughters look like Karen, his wife, all blond with green eyes, so beautiful. Too bad Karen is the bitch to end all bitches, at least to me. I try to drown her out so much I don't even notice that she's talking to me.

"Daddy," Trent whispers, looking up at me over his left shoulder.

"Hmmmm?" is all I can muster.

"I was just saying, Jake," Karen says loudly as she smiles at me after taking a sip from her glass of tea. "You should think about placing Trent into preschool. There's a great program at the elementary school. It'll help prepare Trent for kindergarten. And it's free, so it should fit right in with your budget."

Doesn't anyone else hear her condescending tone besides me? Karen, the thirty-year-old wannabe model, too good for country living, always wearing the most expensive brands of clothes, always wearing too much makeup, always acting like she's walking down a runway at a fashion show. Too good to shop at the Piggly Wiggly, she goes out of town to the big cities with populations of at least a thousand, shopping in places that respect her sense of high fashion and credit card debt. She's everything Mom despises. That's probably why Paul married her. Even the way she eats is pissing me off, picking at one small chicken wing, nothing else on her plate.

"Thanks, Karen," I reply, helping Trent with a sip of lemonade. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Isn't that what you did with the girls, Karen?" Mom chimes in. "Back when you thought you were a model and posed for those pictures for Gertrude's Quick Mart?"

"Mom," Paul groans, hoping to interrupt. It's a useless attempt.

"That was before I had children, Emma," Karen replies through a gritting teeth smile.

Mom nods. "Oh, that's right. You slid off the hood of the Corvette and fractured your elbow."

Paul clears his throat and glares at Mom, but it's obvious she doesn't care. She has one goal and that's to keep her daughter-in-law in her place.

"Uh, yes, Emma," Karen says, now grinding her teeth so hard I expect them to crack .

Mom places her glass of tea to her lips, smiling and speaking with a condescending-flavored tone. "Well, the pictures turned out just beautiful and you were only in that arm sling for like eight weeks, weren't you?"

"Yes, I was." Karen grimaces, taking another sip of tea.

"It's a good thing you're not posin' for 'em now, huh?" Mom laughs.

"Who else needs a refill on tea or lemonade?" I interrupt, setting Trent in my chair as I move toward the kitchen, feeling like I need to fight my way through the tension that is as thick as molasses.

"Wait, wait, before you go into the kitchen," Mom interrupts, standing up from her chair with her glass in her hand, "I just wanna say something first. I just wanna offer a toast. To Trent and Jake, welcome home! We're so glad you're back!"

No cheers. No comments at all. Just the sound of loud gulps of tea and lemonade going down everyone's throats. I stand next to Trent and squeeze his shoulder as I drink the last sip of tea from my glass, the melting ice cubes smacking against my lips.

I rush into the kitchen and come back with two pitchers and fill everyone's glasses to the rim.

"Girls, what do you say?" Karen scolds in an aristocratic tone that sounds as condescending as when she's speaking to me.

"Thank you, Uncle Jake," Amy and Pam say at the same time.

"You're welcome," I reply.

"Thank you, Daddy," Trent chimes in with a grin before I refill his glass. I offer him a wink and a smile.

"You're welcome," I say, happy that the kids are making the moment lighter.

"So," Mom interrupts with a clap of her hands, "who wants apple pie with ice cream on top?"

A chorus of me erupts and Mom follows me back into the kitchen. She slides on her mitts and pulls a piping hot apple pie from the oven, placing it on the counter. I slide the pitchers of tea and lemonade back into the refrigerator.

"God, I need a drink," she moans as she opens the freezer and withdraws a container of vanilla ice cream.

I almost say me too.

She cuts the pie into the correct number of slices, placing each piece on a small plate and I follow her, placing a heaping spoonful of ice cream on top.

"Honey, can you put on some coffee?"

"Sure," I say, my eyes following Mom as she carries a couple of plates to the dining room and returns to get another two and again retrieving another two. With the coffee maker running, I take the final plate and carry it into the dining room, where the kids are all wolfing it down like starving hogs, the spoons working almost like shovels.

I lift Trent up and sit down, placing him back on my lap as we both indulge the delicious pie, the cinnamon smell filling the room. For the first time tonight, the room isn't tense, and for a minute, it feels like the good old days.

* * *

The sun has long since faded behind the hills, and in the twilight of the evening, Paul indulges the kids in a game of tag in the front yard. Sitting on the rail of the porch bathed in the porch light, I watch Trent laughing and shouting, having the time of his life with the girls as they run around the yard, hiding behind the tall maple trees, with Rex the dachshund chasing after them, struggling with a ball in his mouth, his tail wagging. Mom and Karen sit quietly in rocking chairs just behind me watching it all, Mom sipping from a mug of coffee, grinning at the children's antics. The late September air is warm. A gentle breeze carrying the voices of singing frogs feels soothing. The world is slowly falling asleep. I can see the first few twinkles of stars as the blue sky fades to black.

Karen's irritating voice suddenly cuts through the air like a rusty knife. "I hear Fairview Utility is hiring. You don't need any experience either. Tapp Industries is too. And you know the Piggly Wiggly is always hiring."

I look back at her and offer a fake smile. "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."

"Trent is almost five," Mom interjects with a smirk. "I'm sure Mr. Jackson would hire him to bag groceries at the Pig."

Even though I don't want to, I decide to halt the conversation. "I think I'll grab a cup of coffee. Anybody else need anything?"

I step over to the screen door, pull it open, and wait for a response.

"No, I'm okay," Mom says.

"I can't hold another drop," Karen replies. "My bladder is about to burst."

I walk through the quiet house to the kitchen with the sound of children's laughter drifting through the open windows. I retrieve a mug from the cabinet closest to the coffee maker, take a gallon jug of milk from the fridge, and pour just a bit into the mug before topping it with hot coffee. I don't have my coffee stirred before Karen is in my face, her eyes glaring with fire.

"Your mother thinks I'm using the bathroom, so I'll make this quick," she huffs.

I lean against the counter and take a sip of the coffee, unfazed by her attitude.

"Paul has kept this farm going ever since your dad died and I'll be damned if I'm gonna let you worm your way back into the business…"

I interrupt her, almost laughing. "I can assure you, Karen, the last thing I wanna do is take anything away from my brother."

"You haven't shown your face around here since your father died," she sneers. "Now you expect to just pick up like nothing's happened?"

"No, I don't expect to do that," I reply, feeling my face turning red.

"You may have pulled the wool over your mother's eyes, but I see exactly what kind of person you are," she threatens, her stinky breath in my face to the point of aggravation. "You're the same leech you've always been."

I struggle to keep my cool. "Will you take a step back and get out of my face? Your breath is like a sewer!"

"This farm is rightfully Paul's," she says angrily, her voice raised, "and I'm not gonna let you take it away from him!"

She's unaware that Mom has come into the kitchen with her empty coffee cup and is standing right behind her.

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that, Karen," Mom says, breezing past her and me, heading for the coffee pot and pouring herself another cup. "You see I'm not dyin' for a long time. In fact, I'm probably gonna outlive you. So you can stop worryin' about who gets the farm. You won't be here when that time comes anyway."

It looks like Karen's eyes are going to burst out of their sockets as she struggles to come up with a response that doesn't make her look like a total jackass.

"Emma," she stutters, "you misunderstood me. I was just telling Jake how much the farm means to Paul and how it would hurt him if anything were to happen to it."

"I understood just fine," Mom says, taking a long, loud sip of the hot coffee. "Don't you think you should get to the bathroom before you wet your panties?"

Karen turns to leave the room.

"Oh, and, Karen," Mom says, placing the coffee cup on the counter behind her.

Karen turns back around, her arms folded, her nostrils flaring, her eyeballs bulging. "What?"

Mom walks over to her, nearly in her face like Karen was with me. "You ever again come in my house actin' like Joan Collins on Dynasty, I'll Linda Evans your ass. Understood?"

Karen doesn't answer. She storms out of the kitchen, her stomping footsteps growing softer as the screen door slams hard.

I heave a deep breath of air, fold my arms across my chest, almost scolding. "Mom…"

She turns and looks at me. "Don't tell me you don't know who Joan Collins and Linda Evans are."

"No." I shake my head with a roll of my eyes. "I remember. You made us watch reruns of Dynasty on the Soap Opera Network for years."

"Well, then what is it?"

"Nothing." I smile. "Thanks for having my back."

I get back out to the porch only to see Karen helping the girls into the backseat of their car and Paul is carrying Trent back to the porch. Mom is suddenly beside me.

"Looks like we're goin' home," Paul says as he hands Trent over to me.

"So soon?" Mom says. "That's a shame."

Paul gives Mom a look that says, yeah right, I know you said something to piss her off. "Yeah, well, Karen's not feelin' so well. A little sick to her stomach."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Mom says. "We didn't even get to say goodbye to the girls."

"Well." Paul hesitates. "Her stomach is churnin' pretty bad. She wants to get home as quick as possible."

"I understand," Mom says.

Paul looks at Trent and me and offers a smile. "Good to have you back."

I nod. "Thanks."

"Thanks for supper, Mom," he says as he turns and walks down the cobblestone walkway to the car.

"You're welcome," she replies.

He turns around. "So, Jake, we'll start work about six in the morning."

"Oh, I'm sorry, honey," Mom says. "I'm gonna need Jake to help with a few things in the morning. He'll have to start on Monday."

I look at my mom with surprise. "You do?"

Paul shrugs and I can tell he's not happy with Mom's response. "Okay, whatever… Monday."

We watch the car start up and the headlights come on, illuminating my ancient hatchback parked just in front of them.

"Wave them bye," I tell Trent, who offers them a hearty wave as the car makes a U-turn and disappears behind the stalks of the cornfields that border the driveway. The dust clouds chasing them are illuminated in the red glow of the rear lights of their car.

I look over to Mom, who's waving too. "You didn't poison her, did you?"

"Of course not." She laughs as if to prove my question is ridiculous. "Do I look like somebody that would poison her daughter-in-law?"

I don't answer. I'm afraid to.

"Daddy, I'm sleepy," Trent says, his head resting on my shoulder.

"You're also sweaty and stinky," I reply. "How about you take a bath and then hit the hay."

"Yeah," he says with a yawn.

"You go ahead," Mom says to me, leaning in to kiss Trent on the cheek. "I'll take care of the dishes."

"I think I'll hit the hay too," I say with a smile. "It's been a long day."

"Get your rest," Mom says with a wicked grin. "We've got a busy day ahead of us tomorrow."

For some reason, that statement feels like an omen.

Chapter Four

Moonlight beams through the open windows, the curtains billow in a soft breeze, moving in a ghostly dance to the choir of frogs and crickets chirping and playing in the fields. A line of light pushes under the door from the hallway. Mom still leaves the hall light on at night. Trent is sound asleep beside me, snuggling Toby the turtle and I lie on my back staring up at the ceiling, my hands folded behind my head. It must be three a.m., I think to myself as I reach over for my phone resting on the nightstand beside the bed. It's only eleven thirty, according to the phone. I want to slam it against the wall for being a liar. Time, like everything else in the country, goes slowly.

It's too hot in the room and we don't have a fan. My t-shirt sticks to my skin as I sit up on the side of the bed, being careful not to shake the bed too much and wake Trent. I work my sweaty shorts out of the crack of my ass and quietly leave the room, cringing with the long groan of the door as it opens, looking back to make sure I didn't wake Trent. I maneuver the hallway carefully, hoping to miss all the boards that creak, hoping I can remember where all the creaking boards are.

It's only then I notice a bluish glow dancing along the walls coming from downstairs and radiating up the staircase. Mom must still be awake and watching TV. I walk less cautiously since I know I can't wake her. But then I stop at the foot of the stairs. Even though the volume is low on the television, the sounds I'm hearing are confusing. They aren't the sounds one normally hears when you walk into a room where your mom is present. It must be my mind playing tricks on me. My ears can't be hearing the strange grunting and groaning they think they're hearing.

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