He was early.
From where she stood on the front porch, she could see the dust rising from his truck a mile away. He had reached the line of cypress trees that grew along the creek where she liked to take Pegasus, her painted palomino, for one last drink before heading out for a long ride.
“Son of a bitch,” she cursed under her breath.
She had things to do. The last thing she wanted was to show some goddamn kid around the farm. He wasn’t supposed to be there till after noon, and here it was barely ten o’clock.
She wasn’t particularly fond of people, especially now after the accident. She didn’t understand how she could live thirty miles from the nearest town and still have social obligations. Hadn’t that been why she and her husband had bought this place to begin with? To be left alone?
Her brother, Jon, was the only human being she could stand, but he was also part of the problem.
“Come out with me, Jeanie,” he would beg. “Just for a couple of drinks.”
“No. Why would I pay seven dollars for a beer when I’ve got plenty in the fridge?” she’d argue. “You know that once you find yourself a piece of ass you’ll forget all about me anyway. Until tomorrow morning after you’ve brought her home and you ask me to make you both breakfast.”
“I’ll make my own breakfast if you come out tonight.”
“Bullshit. You’ll be too hung over.”
“You need to get out, Jean.”
“Don’t tell me what I need.”
He had moved in after the incident with the baler, insisting she could use his help. He took the room downstairs, so she still had the second floor to herself. He was older by eighteen months; never married, father to a son in Amarillo, and a good ol’ country boy. He didn’t call himself a cowboy, but that’s exactly what he was. He was great with horses, and he was a hell of a carpenter. And a mechanic. And a plumber. His sister hated to admit it, but mostly it was a relief to have him around.
Now, however, she watched that green truck approaching and thought, I hate you, Jon.
“You know Billy Eaton?” he had asked her last week over dinner.
“Your old friend?” she said. “The expat?”
“He’s not technically an expat, but yes. My old friend.”
“He ranches in Nicaragua. He’s an expat. Nothin’ technical about it, Jon.”
Jon grinned. “You can take the boy out of Texas…”
He didn’t think he needed to finish.
“What about him?” Jean asked, a piece of steak rolling around in her mouth. “Spit it out.”
She was afraid he was going to tell her that Billy was coming into town and was looking for company. She was already preparing a colorful refusal.
“His boy’s comin’ home for the summer,” Jon said. “Just finished his first year at A&M and is lookin’ for a job.”
“Why doesn’t he go work for his daddy?”
“Billy asked if we had anything for him.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said ‘Of course’.”
“Damn it, Jon.” She pushed away from the table.
“I don’t want to pay some hoity-toity rancher’s kid to bring pot and booze and girls onto my farm. We’ll just end up babysitting him.”
“He’s a good kid. He’s studying business and agriculture. Billy says he gets real good grades.”
“I don’t give a shit about his grades. I’ll bet his hands are soft and he probably doesn’t know squat about mendin’ fences or balin’ hay.”
“You know I won’t let him near the baler, Jean.” Jon’s eyes were earnest. “I take care of that myself.”
“Then what the hell do we need him for?”
“You know damn well you and I are falling behind. Even with Daniele and Carlos, it’s a stretch. When’s the last time you gave yourself a day off?”
“I don’t take days off. This is my life.”
“Sundays. That’s all I’m askin’. We’ll have an extra set of hands and you can take yourself a whole day to ride, or go to town, or draw. You haven’t drawn in a long time.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“I ain’t askin’ you to think about it. The kid’ll be here next week. I’ll keep him out of your hair, I promise. But you’ll be thanking me for hiring him. I won’t say I told you so when that time comes, but you’ll know I’m thinkin’ it.”
“I never asked you to take care of me, Jon.”
“I’m doin’ this for a friend. Not you.”
“Well, that makes me feel better.”
He touched his forehead in a gesture that was meant for the tip of a hat, but Jon never wore his hat at the table. It was the only time.
“I promised him, you know,” he murmured, almost inaudibly. He looked up at the wall and nodded to a framed photograph. “At the end of the day, there’s always that.”
“You don’t owe him anything, Jon.”
“He was my best friend. Just ‘cuz he ain’t around-“
“Stop. I’m done for the night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She cleared her place, leaving him to sit in the silence that had plagued that house for nearly a year.
Now she was home alone. Daniele and Carlos were working at the edge of the wheat fields near the silo, and Jon had gone to see a man about some chickens. A coyote had gotten into the coop a few nights ago and the damage had been gruesome in daylight. Feathers and blood everywhere. Jean had gone out to feed them and was the first to see the mess. She hadn’t spoken the rest of the day.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Jon had told her.
Red blood against yellow hay…
She watched the green truck pull up to the house while she sipped a cold Bud Light, and she was grateful Jon wasn’t there to tease her about drinking before noon. She’d been up working since five, anyway. She deserved a break.
The truck came to a stop as dust swirled around it. The kid saw her standing there, watching him, so he glanced at himself quickly in the rearview mirror. He removed his hat, then decided against it when he saw his hair plastered in sweat. The truck wasn’t air conditioned, and it was June in South Texas. Also, he was nervous.
He stepped out of the vehicle and made his way around the front, careful not to trip over himself. He thought she might say something by way of greeting, but she just watched him in silence.
“Ma’am?” he said, as though inquiring if it was she.
“You Billy Eaton’s boy?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am.” As he came closer he felt her falling back, though she did not move. He wiped his hand on his jeans before offering it. “I’m Taylor. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
She took his hand and shook it firmly. No calluses, she noted. She had to keep herself from rolling her eyes.
“Jean,” she said. “My brother Jon’s the one who hired you, but he’s not here. You’re early.”
Her eyes narrowed. She meant this as an accusation.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wanted to beat the heat.”
She looked past him at nothing in particular. “How’d that work out for you?”
He didn’t know what to say. It was hot as hell.
“You can’t keep your truck there,” she said. “Pull it around back. I’ll show you your room and you can just hang around till Jon gets back.”
He did as he was told. He pulled his truck up to the barn, where she was waiting at the foot of a staircase that climbed along the side. He followed her up, and he kept his eyes on the step in front of him so she wouldn’t feel him glancing at her backside. She seemed like the kind of woman who could see everything, even when she wasn’t looking.
The stairs led to a loft, which had been remodeled into a studio apartment. Jon had lived there with his girlfriend Deb several years ago, before she got pregnant and decided she no longer wanted to live in a barn.
Jean stood in the doorway while the boy dropped his bags on the bed and looked around. He was young- nineteen, she guessed. Short dark hair, clean shaven, tall and broad-shouldered. He had deep blue eyes, and when he passed her he smelled faintly of the cologne section at the department store. She didn’t see many men these days- young or old- yet she always studied them, looking for similarities to her husband. He has his build or He has his chin. In the boy she saw no similarities at all, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Looks like I got everything I need here,” he said. He had all the basic amenities. Shower, toilet, mini fridge, sink. No table. No television. He did not mention these things. “You have a password for the wifi?”
She narrowed her eyes again.
“We don’t have wifi,” she replied. “There’s a hard line in the house. For business only.”
He swallowed. He didn’t like the way she looked at him, as though he’d done something wrong.
“Okay,” he mumbled. He had an itch on his side but was afraid to scratch it. She was just standing there, her beer sweating droplets onto the floor. She wore no makeup, no frills, no jewelry except a simple wedding band. Somehow her simplicity made her more impressive. She had on an army green tank top that revealed the lean muscles of her arms, and everything about her- chest, tummy, hips, ass- was flat except for her hair, which was untamed and dark and wavy and fell almost all the way down her back. There was a spark in her gray-green eyes, and the way her lips pouted and her nose turned up made him think there was something wild caged within her.
“Is there anything I can do to help you until your brother gets back?” he asked.
She turned and stepped outside.
And with that, she was gone.
When Jon arrived hours later, she met him outside.
“The Eaton boy is here,” she told him.
He checked his watch.
“Damn overachiever. I told you he was a good kid.”
“You should have him help you with the chickens.”
“Can you fetch him for me?”
She just looked at her brother.
“Seriously, Jean?” Jon was exasperated. “He’s a damn kid. Stop being such an ass and go get ‘im while I start unloading.”
She returned to the loft, but when she knocked at the door there was no answer. She tried the knob- unlocked- and peered inside. The kid was laying on the bed, eyes closed, ear buds in. He had a fan blowing on him, and there was a sheen of sweat on his forehead where his hat had been.
“Damn it,” Jean muttered.
She approached him slowly in case he opened his eyes, but his chest rose and fell with the breath of sleep.
When she got near enough, she kicked the bed.
She balled her fists and put them on her hips while she studied him. He had good genes. She remembered his father was good-looking, but he was also kind of a prick. One of those entitled rich men who knew what he could offer a woman. But the boy didn’t seem to inherit that- or perhaps he just hadn’t come into it yet. He was still soft. Innocent. She thought his mother must have been lovely.
She leaned down and tapped his shoulder, but instead of startling awake he merely opened his eyes while the rest of him remained completely still. He looked directly at her, and for a second she was struck by the depth and kindness of his eyes.
She started to say something but realized he couldn’t hear her. He removed one of the ear buds as she moved away from the bed. Far away.
“Yes, ma’am?” he said. “I’m sorry, I fell asleep.”
“Jon’s here,” she told him. “He needs your help. Come ‘round front.”
The boy became Jon’s shadow, trailing after him or working alongside him at all times. For the first few days, they would come into the house at meal times and Jean would have the food set out for them, but she would not be there. Sometimes she packed a lunch and ate down at the creek beneath the cypress trees, and when Taylor looked out the kitchen window he could just make out her silhouette in the distance. He wondered where her husband was, and how a woman who seemed so strong could seem so alone.
“She don’t like people much,” Jon told him one day when he caught the kid looking. “She has to warm up to the idea of you being around.”
“She just shy?”
“No. She ain’t scared of people. Just don’t like ‘em.”
“She seems sad.”
“What happened to her?”
Jon sighed. “You see that photograph on the wall?”
Jon nodded towards a framed picture of Jean with a man. Jean looked different, as though settled into a quiet sort of happiness. Her hair was pulled back, and though she wasn’t looking at the camera she was smiling faintly. The man had shortly cropped red hair, a thick beard, and light brown eyes. His arms were around her waist, his chin resting on her shoulder.
“Yessir,” Taylor said.
“That’s Tom, her husband. He died ‘bout eleven months ago.”
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
“He got his arm stuck in the baler. Lost the whole thing, right up to his shoulder. After a few weeks it got infected, but before he would let us take him back to the hospital it had already spread to his heart.”
Jon’s mouth was working, and Taylor could see he was trying not to cry.
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Nah, man, it’s all right.” Jon swiped a tear and sniffed, blinking the sadness away. “He was the closest thing to a brother I ever had. It’s a damn shame, what happened to him. And Jean… that’s why I moved in here, you know. To take care of her.”
“Do they have kids?”
“Nah. Not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. But she’s alone now, anyhow. She’s got me but that don’t count for much.”
“I’m sure she’s glad to have you, whatever she says.”
“She don’t think she needs anyone, but I do what I can.” Jon stood up and clapped Taylor on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get back to work.”
She was in the barn one morning before sunrise when Taylor startled her. She bumped the pail of milk she was filling and it spilled all over the ground, soiling the straw. She put her hand up on the heifer’s stomach to calm the animal as it stirred.
“Shhh, shhh, it’s all right. I’m sorry, Luna. Shhh.”
Taylor took a step back, both his hands up in the air.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought-“
“What the hell are you doing?” Jean whispered fiercely.
“Jon asked me to milk Luna this morning. He said you were going to take the day off.”
“What?” Jean wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. The air was warm and muggy.
Then she remembered.
“What day is it?” she asked.
She shook her head and muttered, “Bastard.” She was irritated, but there was also a small part of her that was amused.
“Is something wrong?” Taylor asked.
“No.” She waved him off. “You can go. I can finish this up.”
“Really, Mrs. Moses, I’ve got it.”
She stopped and stared at him with wide eyes.
“What did you just call me?”
She felt as though he had punched her in the gut.
“Don’t call me that,” she breathed. “Ever.”
She looked fragile and wounded and beautiful, and it was then that his heart broke for her for the first time.
“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”
Neither one of them knew what else to say.
It was obvious to Jean that the boy wasn’t going anywhere, and the way he looked at her made her uncomfortable. She stood and patted Luna on the rear.
“Do you even know how to milk a cow?” she asked. “Did Jon show you?”
“No ma’am. I thought I’d just figure it out.”
Damn you, Jon.
“He knew I’d be here to teach you,” Jean said. “He planned this.”
The side of Taylor’s mouth twitched. “Sounds like something Jon would do,” he said.
“Well, come on over here and sit your ass down. It’s time I learned you to be a milk maid.”
She accentuated her southern accent when she said this, and he realized that buried somewhere beneath her armor was a sense of humor.
Once Taylor caught on, she saddled up Pegasus and went for a ride, leaving the boy alone. She was gone for hours, riding out past the wheat fields and over the distant hills. She took a nap in the shade of an oak tree and drank from a creek, and for the first time in a long time she had a fleeting encounter with happiness.
“Did you take a book with you?” Jon asked when she came home. It was nearly dusk and he was grilling steaks on the back porch. Jean grabbed a beer from the fridge and hopped up on the rail beside her brother.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t read anything for a while.”
She just shook her head.
Because I can’t concentrate. Because he’s all I think about. Because he is every character on every page and I miss him and he’s gone.
“Where’s Taylor?” she asked instead.
Jon didn’t say anything about her referring to the boy by his first name. He just nodded towards the barn.
“Washing up. He put in a good day’s work.”
“You ever gonna give him time off?”
“I’ll think about it,” Jon grinned.
They were silent a moment. The steaks sizzled, and a cricket began to chirp nearby.
“So where’d you go?” Jon asked.
“Everywhere,” Jean replied. Then she shimmied off the rail and started inside. “I’m gonna shower. Save me a place at dinner.”
Taylor’s breath caught in his throat when he saw Jean open the glass door onto the porch. Her hair was still wet from her shower, and she wore a light summer dress.
“What?!” Jon gasped, feigning a bewildered expression. “You’re a… a girl?”
Jean punched his arm.
“Don’t start,” she said. “I can still take you. Anytime. Anywhere.”
“There she is. My beloved sister.”
He kissed her cheek, and she playfully slapped his.
They sat down for their first meal together since Taylor Eaton had arrived. They ate and drank, and even though he was young they encouraged the boy to enjoy a couple of beers. “You’ve earned ‘em,” Jon told him. “Besides, you ain’t no kid. You’re a workin’ man.” They clinked bottles as Taylor said, “Thank you, sir.”
“But you gotta stop with that ‘sir’ bullshit,” Jon winced.
They all laughed.
Three beers in, Jean found herself studying Taylor’s face. It really was a nice face.
He caught her and smiled. “What?” he asked.
“You got a girlfriend?” she wondered.
It still didn’t feel right to call her Jean.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Haven’t met one I liked yet, I guess,” he said.
“What’s wrong with all the girls at school?”
“There’s nothing wrong with them. They just seem to be looking for something different. Something that isn’t me.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“I don’t know. I did the whole party thing in high school, and it’s not really what I’m about anymore. I just want to focus on my studies and get out of there as soon as possible.”
“And do what?”
He looked around, his eyes grazing over the wheat fields.
“This would be nice,” he said.
“This is nice,” Jon agreed.
“You want to be a farmer?” Jean asked.
“I’d like to have my own land, yes ma’am,” Taylor replied. “Might get into cattle.”
“Like your father?”
“No,” he grew serious. “Nothing like my father.”
“You have issues with your daddy?” Jon asked.
“I don’t exactly agree with how he does business,” Taylor said. “Or life. He uses people, and I don’t respect him.”
“Is that why you’re here,” Jean asked, “and not there? With him?”
“No more ‘ma’am’ nonsense, either,” Jon insisted. “She’s Jean. Just Jean. We’re your friends now, you hear?”
Taylor caught Jean’s eye.
“Is that all right?” he asked her. Are we friends?
“Yes,” she said, her voice betraying her sense of discomfort. “When you call me ma’am it makes me feel old, anyway.”
She could feel her ears burning, and she looked away.
“Aw, twenty-eight ain’t old, sweetheart,” Jon assured her.
“Jon!” she reproached him.
“The way I see it,” the boy said, “we might as well make the most of every year as it comes. We can’t stop time, but we can find ways to enjoy it.”
“See? Taylor Eaton is a philosopher,” Jon smiled. He looked at his watch. “Speaking of an enjoyable time, I was thinking of going into town tonight. A friend of mine wants to meet up for drinks at Jimmy’s. Either of you wanna ride?”
Jean shook her head.
“You know my answer,” she said.
Jon looked at Taylor. Taylor looked at Jean.
“I’m pretty tired,” the boy said. “I think I’ll just take it easy tonight.”
“Suit yourselves,” Jon told them. He put his hat back on and began clearing the dishes. “I’ll clean up before I head out,” he told Jean. “My last service to you on your day off.”
She touched his arm and smiled.
After her brother had gone, Jean sat on the edge of her bed chewing her lip and pulling at her wedding ring, sliding it on and off. Her thoughts were on her husband, but those thoughts brought with them the familiar ache that seemed to evaporate when she was working and riding and… yes, thinking of the boy. She allowed herself to think of Taylor Eaton now, of the way he’d looked at her when he asked permission to call her by her name, or when he was deciding whether or not he wanted to go out that night. She was staying, so he was staying. Had that been intentional? Was he trying to tell her something? Or was he really just tired?
He had been there a week. Had she really been apart from men long enough to be affected by a college boy? Or was the alcohol to blame? No, he had impressed her before tonight, on the day he arrived. Maybe not at first sight- she’d been too angry to really see him- but later, when she had gone to wake him to help Jon. When she had touched him and he had looked at her, unafraid, unsympathetic, just one human being gazing at another.
She slipped on her boots and put on a denim jacket over her dress. She didn’t know exactly what she was doing, just that it felt good not to think about it.
She moved quietly in the dark towards the barn and up the stairs. When she got to the door of the loft, she knocked twice and listened. She could hear his voice muffled inside.
“Just a minute,” he was saying.
When he opened the door he wore nothing but a pair of pajama pants and he was holding a phone to his ear.
“Oh,” Jean said, and looked away.
“Hold on,” he whispered, then he spoke into the phone. “Hey Mom? Can you hang on a minute?”
“I’m sorry.” Jean was already turning to head back down the stairs.
“What’s up?” Taylor asked her before she could retreat. He held his hand over the receiver. “Everything okay?”
She couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Yes, sorry. I just…” She glanced inside. “I just realized I hadn’t ever checked to see if you have everything you need. Blankets and towels and everything.”
She felt like such an idiot. Please just say yes and let me go.
He looked at her sideways.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a great set up.”
She didn’t say anything. She just looked at him.
“You sure you’re okay?” He nodded towards the house. “Being alone in there and everything?”
No no no.
“Yes. I’m fine.”
“You want me to watch TV downstairs or something until Jon gets home?”
“No. It’s fine.”
She fled down the stairs. The wind had picked up, and it caught her dress and lifted it just enough for him to see the curve of her ass before the light fabric fluttered back down.
He inhaled sharply.
“Oh my god,” he breathed, and closed the door.
She grew distant once again, and over the course of the following weeks, her temper simmered, ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. When the tractor broke down she jumped out of it and threw an empty beer bottle at the front left tire, sending a spray of glass everywhere. “Piece of shit!” she shouted before walking away, leaving it stranded in the middle of the field. Later she accompanied Jon to town for supplies, and she insisted on driving. When they got stuck in traffic, someone cut her off. She gripped the steering wheel, grit her teeth, and screamed while thrusting her middle finger out the window. On another night, Jon finally succeeded in luring her into a game of poker with himself and Taylor, but she later got into such a heated argument with her brother that she knocked her chair over and left. Jon cursed and threw his hat before wandering out into the wheat fields to blow off steam, and Taylor was left wondering what in the world had just happened. He wanted to go to Jean, to calm her, but he had no idea what to say. She was like a wounded animal backed into a corner, baring her teeth at anyone who got too close.
Instead Taylor wandered through the house alone, and he found himself sitting at an antique piano he had admired from the first time he’d seen it. It looked forgotten, all alone in its dark corner, pushed up against the wall in a living area where no one ever went. He opened up the keys and softly began to play a simple Brahms melody that he had learned when he was young.
When he reached the end of the piece, he heard her voice from behind him.
“No one has touched that piano in years,” she said.
“Do you play?” he asked.
“No. It was my mother’s. I inherited it.”
“Is it okay that I’m-?“
“Yes. You don’t have to stop. I just wanted to listen.”
“I’m a little rusty. I haven’t played in a long time.”
“You sounded good to me.”
He placed his fingers back on the keys and began to play Beethoven’s Fur Elise. He could feel her as she moved closer, the heat of her body just barely reaching the back of his arm. A thrill went through him, and it was all he could do to concentrate on the music. He was aware of the space beside him on the piano bench, and he wondered- hoped- she would fill it.
She bent low, her face next to his, to watch his fingers more closely as they moved. He could smell her breath, could almost taste her mouthwash, and his mouth watered.
He rushed the end of the piece, but she couldn’t tell. When he finished he turned just enough to look upon the softness of her cheek which was so close to his. She felt his eyes on her, but instead of meeting them she looked down.
“I’m so scared,” she whispered, her breathing shallow.
“Of what?” he whispered back.
“Tomorrow it’ll be a year,” she said. “I keep wanting to go back to before. Before I lost him. But time keeps moving on, keeps carrying me further away. And every day I lose him a little more.”
He touched her face before giving himself the chance to reconsider.
“You’re so strong,” he told her.
“I’m so alone.”
He gently pulled her onto the bench. He expected her to resist, to pull away, but she didn’t. Instead she dropped her head onto his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around her.
“Right now you’re not,” he said.
He could have held her like that all night, but after a while she sat back and looked him full in the face.
“Have you ever fallen in love, Taylor?” she asked him.
He hesitated, wondering what it was she wanted him to say.
“I don’t think so,” he answered truthfully.
She smiled sadly and stood.
“Don’t start now,” she said, and walked away.
The following morning she was gone before anyone else was awake. She took Pegasus and rode him hard into the hills, pushing him as fast as he would go. The sun rose before her, breaking through a series of thunderheads in flashes of red and pink and orange. The air was thick, and by eight o’clock the clouds had woven together in a dark wet blanket, ready to burst at any moment. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back and waited.
When the rain finally began to fall, she brought Pegasus to a standstill and let the rain wash over her. How long she did this she did not know. She knew only that to go anywhere, to do anything else was impossible.
She remembered the first time she and her husband had gotten stuck in the rain. They had been picnicking down by the creek, and the sky had exploded all around them. Thunder followed by bursts of lightning and sheets of rain. She had tried to run for the house but he had grabbed her and held her still, and when she stopped fighting him she surrendered to loving him.
Now she wrapped her arms around herself and touched her mouth to her shoulder, and she whispered, “I miss you,” and wept.
Sometime after noon, the storm had not let up and she still had not come home. Jon was asleep with a girl named Cindy and a hangover, and Taylor was growing uneasy. He hadn’t seen Jean all day, and Pegasus was gone, and today was the day her husband had died a year ago.
There was an old hunting cabin a few miles from the house. Taylor remembered Jon telling him about it, about how Jon and Tom and Jean used to go out there and hunt deer from time to time. It was possible Jean was there, waiting out the storm.
He jumped in his truck, hoping the dirt road to the cabin wouldn’t be too washed out. He took it slow, nearly getting stuck a handful of times, but eventually he found the place.
When he tried the door it was unlocked, and he found her curled up on a cot, dripping wet.
“Jean?” he spoke, with barely more than a whisper.
She stirred, but she made no attempt to sit up.
“Hey,” he said, once he knew she was aware of his presence. He approached her slowly. “You okay?”
She sniffled, and he saw she’d been crying.
“I just needed to get away,” she told him.
“I get that,” he said. “Is it all right that I’m here?”
She said nothing.
“I’m just checking on you,” he reassured her. “I don’t need to stay unless you want me to.”
“I’d like to be alone.”
He tried not to be disappointed, though he had anticipated that answer.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Can I get you anything before I go? A dry blanket?” He looked around and saw a little cooking area with a stove and canned goods. “Some food?”
She couldn’t help but smile.
“I didn’t come out here to die, Taylor,” she said. “I’ve got what I need. You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll come home when I’m ready.”
“Oh.” He scratched his head, not really knowing what else to do. “Okay.” He looked around once more, searching for something else he could offer, but he was beginning to feel like an idiot. She was a big girl, and he was just a kid. Of course she didn’t need him.
He started moving towards the door when she said his name.
He turned and looked at her. The room was dark and blue and she was beautiful.
The following morning the rain subsided, but the clouds remained thick overhead. She rode home as the rooster was crowing. The boys were already working, so she slipped into the house unnoticed. She showered and put on fresh clothes, and she was hungry after eating nothing the day before. She got to work in the kitchen, cooking up a large breakfast of pancakes and bacon and biscuits and gravy. She brewed a large pot of coffee, then ventured out onto the back porch to see if she could spot Jon and Taylor. She could just make out their silhouettes on the horizon.
Instead of calling to them she rang the dinner bell.
Come and get it.
In ten minutes’ time they were removing their boots and stepping inside.
“Good God Almighty, sis,” Jon said. “What’s all this?”
“I was hungry.”
“This looks like an apology meal.”
“It is an apology meal. I’m sorry for being so awful.”
He kissed her forehead. “So am I.”
The three of them ate in comfortable silence. The boys did not linger as they were eager to return to their project outside, but Jon was the first out the door. Taylor stopped at the threshold and looked at Jean.
“You doing all right today?” he asked.
“Better,” she said.
She surprised him then. She went to him and slipped her arms around his middle, where she held him for a brief moment.
“I just had to get passed it,” she breathed, “that day I’d feared for so long.”
“I can’t even begin to understand, Jean. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she told him. “I don’t even want you to try.”
That night Jon left the house to be with Cindy, and Jean stood upstairs in her bedroom staring at her reflection. She had dug into the far reaches of her closet to produce a dress she hadn’t worn since before losing Tom. It was a thin white satin, almost transparent. It flattered her womanliness while leaving her vulnerable, and tonight that was how she wanted to be seen.
The sun had not come out that day, and now the wind was blowing and the sky was heavy with a coming storm. She let her hair fall down her back and she did not bother putting on any shoes. She applied some mascara and brushed her teeth, and her heart beat wildly within her chest.
She left the house and climbed the stairs to his loft, the dampness of the wood seeping into the soles of her feet.
She knocked and he knew it was her, and he knew why she had come, though he did not know what he had done to deserve this. To deserve her. He did not know what he could possibly say to her, or what she could possibly say to him. Everything about this- about them– was not necessarily wrong. It was just so… extraordinary. She was broken, and he was inexperienced, and she didn’t seem to care that he was falling in love with her. She could only break his heart, and he wanted nothing more than to fix hers.
He opened the door and saw her standing there in white, her hair wild and everywhere, and when she stepped into his arms she was trembling, so he folded her in as though she belonged.
He led her inside, closing the door behind her. He put his hands in her hair and buried his face in her neck, and he felt the softness of her back as he tasted the sweetness of her tongue. Her leathery hands felt like velvet as they brushed against his skin, gliding along his torso and down his arms. He wanted her, all of her, and she was offering herself to him.
The thunder rolled outside and he hesitated.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’ve never-“ he began, but he didn’t know how to say it without sounding like a boy. “I’ve never been with anyone.”
She smiled and wove her fingers through his hair.
“It’s all right,” she whispered, and then she kissed him.
In the days that followed she found herself smiling more. She felt less inclined to hide and more inclined to linger, to play, to laugh. When his eyes were on her she feel strong. She no longer possessed the need to run, to fight. She wanted only to rest, and breathe, and feel. Sometimes he would pass by her, and subtly press his fingertips against the small of her back. Other times he would give her a boost into the tractor, or onto Pegasus, and he would squeeze her foot or let his hand rest upon her calf or her thigh a second too long. In the night she would go to him, and he would love her, and the following days were long and hot and full of sunlight and hunger.
They did not try to hide their growing intimacy from Jon, but neither did they speak of it. He noticed the differences in his sister right away- the easy and quiet way she smiled, her readiness to join them for meals or games or an impromptu dance in the barn, her slowness to anger. She sat on the porch in the mornings and slowly sipped her coffee, staring off into the sky, but Jean had never been one to let her coffee grow cold. He would hear the backdoor as she slipped out into the darkness, and he would wrestle with his love for her and his love for the kid. For Jean, the boy was a diversion from pain, but for the boy… Jean was a dream, and when summer ended she would hurt him and he would awaken.
In August, Jon could sense a growing struggle within the boy, and one day after returning from a ride with Jean, Taylor sought him out alone.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Shoot,” Jon said. He was afraid he knew what was coming.
“What would you think of me staying on through the fall?”
“What about your studies?” he asked.
“I’m tossing around the idea of taking a year off.”
“And why would you do that?”
“I like it here.”
Jon took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry, kid, but we don’t need you.”
“There’s gotta be enough work-“
“You knew this was just seasonal. We can’t keep you on through the fall.”
He almost added Your daddy would kill me, but he didn’t.
Taylor looked off into the wheat fields.
“Then I’ll work for free,” he said.
Jon took a step towards him and looked him square in the eye.
“Look,” he said, “I know you got a thing for my sister, and I ain’t got a problem with it. In fact I think you’ve been good for her. But you can’t fool yourself into thinking it’s gonna last. Part of the reason she likes you so much is because she knows you ain’t stickin’ around.”
Taylor’s jaw clenched.
“With all due respect sir, I think you’re wrong.”
“You can think all you want, boy. But Jean’s still grieving and she can’t give you what you’re lookin’ for.”
“I’m not looking for anything. I’ve got everything I want right here, and I won’t just walk away.”
Jon shook his head.
“I’m sorry son, but soon you’re gonna realize you don’t have any other choice.”
That night as she lay in his arms, he stroked her hair and told her what he’d told Jon.
“I don’t want to leave you,” he said.
She stiffened, and he could feel his resolve begin to falter.
“You have to, Taylor,” she told him.
He didn’t know what to say.
She took a deep breath, not wanting to hurt him but knowing there was no other way.
“You can’t put your life on hold for me,” she said. “There’s nothing for you here.”
“There’s you,” he said. There’s everything.
She began to pull away, but he held her tight.
“Hey,” he said, “don’t do this.”
“You have to finish school. You have to go back to your life.”
“What if that’s not what I want?”
“It’s what I want.”
She didn’t answer.
“I’m in love with you, Jean,” he told her.
She closed her eyes and whispered, “Then I’m sorry.”
He was late.
He had remained in that loft too long, standing over his bed and looking down on the place where he had held her so many nights. Now the sheets were stripped for washing, and his bags were packed by the door, and he was unable to say goodbye.
She was waiting down by his truck, but when he didn’t come down she went up to him, climbing the stairs as she had so many times before. The door was open, and the image of him standing there with his sad blue eyes was burned forever in her memory.
Without a word she went to him, and because he was kind and young and loving he still had a place for her, no matter how badly she had wounded him. He wrapped his arms around her, burying his nose in her hair and drawing her against him. He could hear her breathing, could feel her heart beating, and within his agony he had this one last happiness.
“I wanted to fix you,” he told her.
“You couldn’t,” she said.
“I know. But still.”
She pressed her face against his chest.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“Don’t be.” He dropped his face to hers and kissed her. “I’ll think of you,” he said, “every time I pass a wheat field. You’ll be there in my mind.”
“Don’t do that.”
“Will you be okay?” he asked.
She nodded and said, “I will be.”
Jon stood beside his sister in the drive as they watched the kid pull away, a cloud of dust trailing behind his old green truck. The sun beat down on them, and they squinted against the brightness.
Jean sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered.
Jon glanced sideways at her. She knew what he was thinking, and she knew he wasn’t going to say it.
“He was a good kid,” she agreed. “Thank you.”