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Since it's only two weeks until Christmas, I am going to give my readers a little gift today- instead of the usual single installment of #FreeReadMonday, today I am posting three chapters. Jennie makes two major, life changing decisions that take her further from her past and move her toward the future and the man she doesn't yet know she wants there.
The sun was bright. Outside heat rose off the ground in shimmery waves. Even inside the house, everything she touched felt moist with the incessant humidity, despite the best efforts of the old air conditioning units. The cotton of her pink tee shirt was damp against her back and her already wild curls were springing out in all directions. Now, as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror she gathered the mass that some called hair and knotted it high on her head.
Of all the days to oversleep. It was half past seven already and she had to get the eggs and milk the cow before she could even think about heading into town to talk to her guidance counselor. Momma wasn’t too happy with her decision but she knew it was the right thing to do. It’s what Daddy would do and she was Daddy’s girl. A loud crash sounded from downstairs. She ran to the top of the steps.
“You OK down there Momma?”
Momma’s voice was faint. “I’m fine, Jennie. Just tripped on a chair in the kitchen. Breakfast is almost ready- you must be half starved since you missed dinner last night.”
“Be down in a minute.” She was pretty hungry.
As if on cue, her stomach jumped into a symphony of groans and growls reminding her how long it had been since her last meal. Working in the barn had drained her physically. Seeing Michael had sucked her dry emotionally. The long night’s sleep was well overdue but so unlike her. She hadn’t really slept through the night since before Daddy died.
Momma was standing in front of the stove when Jennie entered the kitchen. The smell of fresh cooked bacon welcomed her. It had been days since anything had actually been cooked in the kitchen. Mostly they just picked at sandwiches and leftovers brought to them by friends and neighbors. There was something about a death that made people want to cook. They had so many frozen casseroles; it would be weeks before they would have to prepare a dinner if they didn’t want to.
It was amazing, the outpouring of love and support to her and Momma, although no amount of meals or gift cards could make up for what they had lost.
“That smells good, Momma. What has you up so early today?”
Momma sniffed the air in a dramatic show, wafting the fragrance of frying bacon from the big cast iron skillet on the old gas stove to her nose. “That does smell good doesn’t it? I hope you are hungry.”
“I’m absolutely starved. But, what are you doing up so early? I could have poured a bowl of cereal.”
In the days since Daddy passed, Momma hadn’t gotten out of bed before ten or eleven in the morning, only to settle in for a nap barely three hours later.
“I couldn’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes I see your father walking through the door smiling at me. I run to him and he turns around and walks away, disappearing before I can get to him. It’s an endless cycle and no matter how long I stay in bed, it won’t end. It’s like purgatory here on Earth.” She set the tongs she used to flip the bacon down on the counter and turned to face Jennie with red rimmed eyes.
“Oh, Momma, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I just thought you were tired.”
Momma didn’t need to know she actually thought the opposite. Bed was a good place to hide from reality. In a dark room, curtains closed and windows locked to the outside world, it was easy to pretend that bad things didn’t exist.
“It’s OK sweet pea, I don’t want you worrying about me. It’s just gonna take me some time to get through this.”
It pained her to see how sad her momma looked. If only Daddy hadn’t gone to work that morning.
Or if he had just let Momma call Doc Hansen.
What if she hadn’t run into him on the road that morning? Would she have seen her Daddy one more time before he died? If Trisha and Michael hadn’t broken her heart, she might have been with Michael, doing something she’d probably regret later rather than spending last precious moments with her father as he gleefully drove his old, broke down pickup over the ruts and ramps of the road.
For a flicker of a second she thought maybe she owed Michael a big thank you for having sex with her best friend. It kept her from making the huge mistake of losing her virginity to a lying, cheating bastard. But more importantly, it prevented her from missing the last moments of her father’s life. God’s will was mighty powerful when he wanted it to be. His methods could be a bit harsh it seemed but He sure got results.
Momma turned back to the stove and began flipping the long strips of bacon again. Grease spattered and spit out of the skillet, leaving dark spots on the wood floor in front of the wide glass oven door. Jennie remembered when Daddy first brought that antique stove home. An old, abandoned farmhouse on the other side of town was being demolished. Daddy pulled it out of the pile of rubble, loaded it into the old truck and brought it home. He spent weeks refurbishing it out in the barn and presented it to Momma as an anniversary gift.
“Can I help you with breakfast, Momma?”
“No, Jennie girl, I got it. You’ve been working mighty hard around here lately, I figure the least I can do is put a hot plate in front of you this morning. What you got planned for today?”
“The usual chores; milk the cow, gather the eggs, feed the horses and pigs. Heading into town later this morning. Shouldn’t be gone too long, the garden needs weeding and the last of the berries need picking. Gonna be time to do some canning soon, too.”
“What about school, Jennie?”
“Come on, Momma, we talked about this last night. That’s why I’m going to talk to Ms. Burch. I have enough credits to graduate. That means I get my diploma, get a job and keep things running around here.”
“And give up college?”
“Momma! I told you, I will take a class or two at the community college next year. Right now, I gotta take care of things. Daddy would turn in his grave if I let you lose this place and everything he worked for.”
“I told you Jennie. I can hire someone to take care of things. I don’t want you giving up your life for me.” Momma’s voice was as firm as she had ever heard it but that didn’t hide the slightest bit of a quake at the end of each of her words. It just tightened Jennie’s resolve to do what needed doing. She had never thought of Momma as frail before but on this day she seemed as small as a newborn in the oversized flowered nightgown and worn slippers. It didn’t help that the deep black circles under her tired eyes gave her a sickly appearance that Jennie had only ever seen before when her granny was sick with cancer. Momma placed a plate of steaming eggs and bacon on the table in front of her that she attacked with a gusto she didn’t know she had.
“I’m not going to discuss it with you anymore, Momma.” She spoke between bites, resisting the urge to moan too. “This is not the time to be making any decisions about money or anything. Besides, the life insurance won’t last forever and the mortgage needs to be paid.”
“It’s OK, Momma. I want to do this. It’s the right thing for right now. I can always change things later, OK?”
Momma nodded, offered her a sad smile in agreement.
“I’ll be back before dinner, Momma, but don’t wait on me, there’s plenty of meals in the refrigerator to pick on. Breakfast was good, thank you.”
Rising from the table, she carried the plate to the sink and rinsed it quickly before dropping it into the dishwasher. The dishwasher was the one real modern convenience that Momma had insisted on when they bought the rambling old farmhouse.
Her quick departure did what it was intended to do-Momma didn’t say anything else to her as she left the house and headed to the barn. There was no way of knowing by the dry earth beneath her feet how much it had rained the day of the funeral. Dust shimmied in the morning sunlight, coating her damp legs in a fine orange sheen by the time she reached the barn. Heat shimmered in waves levitating a few inches above the ground.
Bessie brayed quietly when she entered the barn.
“I’m coming Old Girl. I bet you need a milking this morning, don’t you?” She spoke quietly but the animal heard her- if not her words, her soft tone. She brayed again in response and kicked up a hoof.
The air inside the barn was hazy and stale with damp heat and dust. Jennie threw open the large doors and let the sunshine pour in. The haze quickly burned away as she grabbed the old milking bucket off the rusty nail where it had hung as long as she could remember.
Now that she had done the chores a couple of times herself, the process was getting easier. It took less than an hour to milk the cow and gather the hen’s eggs. After slopping the pigs, spreading the chicken feed and laying out hay for the cows and horses, she headed to the driveway. Pausing for just a moment to consider cleaning up a little, she decided against it. The air was as thick as mud; she would just be covered in sweat again by the time she reached the school. Besides if things went the way she wanted, this would be her last visit to the small county high school anyway. Who really cared how she looked- or smelled- while she was there?
The dust rolled away from the car in waves as she made her way down the center of the rutted dirt road for the first time since the day Daddy died. Her mind wandered back to that day, it felt like a million years ago now, when Trisha told her she had slept with Michael. Jennie thought her heart could never hurt as much as it had in that moment. And then Daddy had collapsed and her whole world had fallen apart.
Damn it! She missed him! How would she and Momma ever get along without Daddy there to keep them safe? To hold all the pieces together?
The little coupe Momma usually drove bottomed out against the hard dirt sending a shockwave through her spine. Shaking her head as if to will away the headache it caused, she steered the car around the next big rut, vowing to pay more attention to the road and less to her emotions and her wandering thoughts.
A mile before the end of the road sat Michael’s family’s farm. Much bigger than the tiny Marshall property, it sprawled over two hundred and seventy five acres with fields dedicated to corn and wheat and barley and hops. Grazing pastures housed cattle, horses and even a few goats. The McKee farm was a working farm, it made money and supported the family. The Marshall farm provided food and shelter but there was no profit. Daddy worked at the factory to make ends meet. What was she thinking? All the chores under the sun wouldn’t help pay the mortgage or the taxes or the insurance.
There was Daddy’s life insurance. Maybe Momma was right and that would keep them going for a while? She wasn’t sure how much there was but she was fairly certain there wasn’t enough to last for too long.
Jennie was more certain than ever that leaving school was the right decision.
There was no way the farm would survive if she didn’t. Of course, there was little chance it would survive if she did drop out.
She would have to find a job.
There was no way around it. Between a job and the farm her time would be completely consumed. Definitely no time for classes.
The road ended at the paved highway. Turning left, her front tires spinning just a bit as they fought for traction on the new surface. The smooth blacktop made driving so much simpler, it was easy for her mind to wander again. It wasn’t long before she was back in the barn on the McKee property, listening to Trisha gush about how happy she and Michael were and how sorry she was for hurting Jennie but sometimes things just happened and there was nothing that could be done to prevent it. And then she was walking down the dirt road toward home, Daddy’s truck whining as it pulled up beside her. Why hadn’t she noticed how pale he was? Demanded that he let Doc Hansen come by, check on him. Maybe they would have made it to the hospital in time. Maybe Daddy would still be here and she wouldn’t be heading into town to do the one thing she swore to never do.
Her grades had always been her ticket out. Now they were going to be the shackle that forced her to stay in this tiny little town forever.
The only intersection in town was quiet; the usual midmorning bustle minimized by the heavy heat. As she passed the factory where Daddy had spent two thirds of all his days, tears filled her eyes. The massive flag pole in the center of the property held the America’s colors at half-staff and black ribbon adorned the trunk of each of the imposing oak trees that lined the drive to the employee parking lot. The whole town was taking the death of John Marshal to heart and soul.
Their sadness was oddly comforting. The pain deep inside her heart eased just the slightest bit knowing that so many others shared it with her.
It was only a minute or two before she reached the high school. The low brick building had become as familiar to her as her own home over the past three years. It was the only high school in the county, shared by nearly a dozen small farm towns just like hers. A bus trip could take the other side of an hour for some students.
The sprawling structure seemed almost out of place in its size and progressive design. Everything else in town looked the same as it had for over a hundred years. The only real changes being indoor plumbing and electricity; and there were still a large number of hold outs on both those amenities.
It took only a minute or two to find a parking space. Most of the main lot was empty. The school ran on a skeleton staff during the summer break. Jennie hoped Ms. Burch was in, she hadn’t thought to call ahead and make an appointment with the young guidance counselor who was closer in age to being one of Jennie’s classmates than an adult she needed to consult with for permission to get on with her life.
The secretary smiled at her when she entered the office, the undeniable sadness in her eyes. Even she was mourning the loss of John Marshall. Jennie never realized how far reaching her father’s influence was on the townspeople where he had lived his whole life.
“Good morning Mrs. Calhoun, I was wondering if Ms. Burch was in this morning?”
“Good mornin’ Jennie Marshall. How are you and your momma doing? I was so sorry to hear about your father.”
“Thank you Mrs. Calhoun, Momma and I are doin’ just fine. Is Ms. Burch here today?”
“Why yes, yes she is. Let me call into her office and see if she is available. You just sit tight right over there.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Jennie busied herself reading postings for summer jobs on a bulletin board while Mrs. Calhoun made the necessary calls to the guidance office. It wasn’t long before Ms. Burch appeared in the doorway between the office and the hall, arms already outstretched for a hug. Jennie was a bit on the tall side. Everything about Ms. Burch was perky and petite; she had to almost reach up to embrace Jennie and pat her on the back.
Stepping back, Ms. Burch held her at arms’ length studying her for a long moment. “Jennie, I am so sorry about your daddy! Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Thank you, Ms. Burch. There is one thing you might be able to help me with. Can we talk?”
“Oh, of course! Of course! Let’s go to my office.” Ms. Burch led the way down the hall to the next door. Holding it open, she ushered Jennie into the office suite and led her to her own tiny corner office barely large enough to hold a desk, a couple of chairs and a bookshelf. Stacks of file folders and piles of papers covered every available surface. Ms. Burch’s organizational skills were a bit- well- unique.
“Here, sit.” Ms. Burch grabbed a pile of file folders off of the chair facing her desk and climbed her way through the disarray to her chair behind the cluttered surface, dropping the files on top of another haphazard stack of papers. She flopped down in the oversized chair and pulled it forward until her elbows rested on the desk top. Folding her hands under her chin, she eyed Jennie with her sharp blue eyes through thin, wire framed glasses.
“OK, Jennie Marshall, what can I do for you?”
“I want to graduate early. I have enough credits to be done now.”
Ms. Burch leaned back in her chair and tapped her two forefingers together. “Now why would you want to go and do that, Jennie? It’s much too late to apply to college, there’s no reason for you to drop out.”
“I’m not droppn’ out. I’m graduatin’ early.”
“But, why? You have a plan. We made it together in the spring. This is your senior year.”
“Plans change. Things change.”
“Plans change. Things change.”
They looked at each other over the desk. Ms. Burch studied Jennie intently, trying, it seemed, to assess just how serious Jennie was about the request she had just made. Jennie tried to will back the tears that were ever threatening while silently begging her counselor to make this easy on her. Everything else had already been so hard lately.
Ms. Burch’s expression softened as she reached a hand across the desk to touch Jennie on the arm. “Have you thought about what you would be giving up?”
That was all she had been thinking about but it didn’t matter. She had to do what had to be done.
Ms. Burch continued. “Prom. Senior trip. Walking the stage and receiving your diploma. You’ve worked hard Jennie, you deserve those things. Those experiences are irreplaceable.”
Hard core, repressed emotions propelled her to her feet. The anger, the frustration, the sadness welled up like Mount Vesuvius within her and she slammed her hand down against Ms. Burch’s desk just to release some of the energy inside her.
“My father is irreplaceable. The home and the farm he worked so hard to build are irreplaceable. A diploma is a piece of paper. The cows and the horses and the hay bales have no interest in whether or not I have one. Walking across a stage won’t change the fact that I have completed the requirements to graduate high school. Will you let me graduate now or do I have to drop out? Because I am NOT coming back here next week when classes start.”
Ms. Burch just stared at her, eyes wide with shock. Jennie was always so even tempered. Her outburst had been uncalled for and she instantly felt guilty for taking out all of her jumbled emotions on the young guidance counselor. Dropping back into the chair, she pushed the stray curls that had worked their way out of the knot on her head away from eyes. Her skin felt clammy even to her own touch. She had to get things taken care of as quickly as possible and get out of here.
“I…I’m sorry Ms. Burch. It’s … It’s been … hard …the past few days. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. But I meant what I said. I am not coming back to school, even if it means I have to drop out.”
“I wish… I wish I had the right words to say to make you feel better Jennie. Both my parents are alive and well and I have no idea what sort of pain a loss like yours creates. Everyone has a breaking point and if I had to guess, you have reached yours. Have you even cried once since your daddy died?”
“Of course I have!”
“No, I mean really cried. Kicked something. Hit something. Let the anger out so it doesn’t eat you alive from the inside out.”
“Ms. Burch, I have way too many things to do at home to sit here and discuss this with you. Momma, she needs me right now…”
A light brightened Ms. Burch’s blue eyes as she latched on to a new angle in her plea to keep Jennie in school.
“How does your mother feel about your decision?”
“I’m old enough to decide for myself. State says you only gotta be sixteen to drop out. I am seventeen…almost eighteen in a few weeks.”
“Ahhh…” Ms. Burch sat back in her chair and formed a steeple with her fingers under her chin. “So, she isn’t happy about it. Come on, Jennie. It’s only one more year. Surely you and your mother can get some help for a while? Just long enough for you to get your diploma? Maybe go to prom.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Ms. Burch, but I don’t give a damn about prom. Not anymore. It’s not like I would have anyone to go with anyway.”
“What do you mean? I thought you and Michael McKee…?”
“Not any more. But that doesn’t matter. Are you going to let me out of here or not?”
Jennie was trying very hard to maintain her composure but Ms. Burch’s attempts at trying to change her mind were beginning to grate on her nerves. The other woman studied her intently for a moment.
“This is really what you want, Jennie?”
“Yes. I don’t have any other choice.”
“All right, then. I will file the paperwork. I just need you to sign this paper.”
Ms. Burch handed her a yellow piece of paper. There was a different kind of sadness in her eyes now. Jennie signed her name with the black pen her counselor offered her.
“I am not happy about this Jennie Marshall. You’re a smart girl, you could have earned a scholarship, gone to college.”
“Like I said, Ms. Burch, things change. Things have changed. I have other things to worry about now.”
“Well, I suppose that is true. Once this paperwork is approved, I will have your diploma printed and mailed to you.”
There was no mistaking the disappointment in the guidance counselor’s voice. Maybe she got a bonus for every kid that she counseled who graduated. Or worse, did her pay get docked for every kid who dropped out? A punishment for failure to counsel properly? That would make her feel bad…not bad enough to say another year but bad nonetheless.
“Thank you, Ms. Burch. I appreciate your help.” She stuck out her hand to shake the woman’s hand but the teary eyed counselor grabbed her and hugged her hard.
“Everything is going to work out just fine, Jennie Marshall. You are a smart girl, stronger than you think.”
She stepped away from Jennie. There were tears in her eyes as she held the door. Jennie stepped into the hall and made her way to the main entrance of the school. She never once looked back as she drove away from the sprawling compound where she had spent the majority of the past three years. That part of her life was done.
It was done. Her entire senior year of high school passed over in a twenty minute meeting with Ms. Burch. Now she could focus on what was important. Keeping the farm running and finding a job had to be her main focus. It was enough to occupy her brain, enough to keep her from thinking about Michael and Trisha and all the lost dreams she had just discarded with a single signature on a yellow piece of paper.
The black ribbons around the trees at the paper factory waved slightly in the hot breeze. A man she recognized as Joe Kelty, an old friend of her father’s stood in front of the lighted marquis placing big black letters into the slots inside.
HELP WANTED APPLY INSIDE
Apparently they were done mourning her father. In the space of an hour they had moved on. His position stood open and needed to be filled. Life would go on as though John Marshall had never spent some twenty years working the giant mills and presses.
It didn’t say experienced help wanted.
She needed a job, there was a job opening.
Slamming on the brakes, she whipped an illegal u-turn right there in the middle of Main Street and pulled into the side parking lot by the huge main building passing all the trees with the black ribbons blowing gently in the light breeze.
What were the chances the company would hire John Marshall’s daughter to fill his empty position?
A quick glance down reminded her she was still wearing the same clothes she had done her morning chores in and she wished she had taken that moment to clean up before going to the school. What she wore was not exactly a stellar outfit for applying for a job. But then, how dressy could factory work be? Daddy always wore jeans and a tee shirt with his old worn work boots.
Ice cold, machine cooled air slammed into her as she opened the door into the main lobby of the building where human resources was housed. It felt refreshing against the wet heat she left behind. Goose pimples formed on her arms in quick response to the temperature change as the constant layer of perspiration on her skin chilled almost immediately. She reached up and pushed the stray curls that had escaped the knot on her head behind her ears in a futile effort to smooth the crazy mess.
The paper factory was the biggest company in their small town, at least half of the locals either worked there currently, had been employed there at some point or would one day be a part of the factory workforce. It was a family business for many- two, three even four generations back. Jenny would be a second generation employee. Not exactly the glamorous city lifestyle she had once longed for but it would have to do for now.
“Good morning, Ma’am.” She addressed the woman behind the main desk. “I would like to fill out an application please.”
The woman eyeballed her up and down from under thick layers of mascara and blue eye shadow. She tapped one long, red acrylic nail against the formica countertop as she twirled a bleached blonde curl around a finger on her other hand. Her gum popped and snapped as she stared at Jennie.
“I don’t think we have any openings in the offices, honey. Sorry.”
“I don’t want an office job. I’ll take whatever you have available. I’m not above gettin’ my hands dirty.”
The woman didn’t answer, just scowled a little as she picked up the phone and tapped four numbers in with the ridiculously long nail on her left forefinger.
“Hey Susie, I’m sending someone to ya. Says she wants to apply for a job. Nope, wants to be on the floor. OK, thanks Susie.”
Pulling out a lime green sticker with the word VISITOR on it in large black letters, she handed it over to Jennie. “Stick this here to your top and then follow that hall there on the left to where it ends. Make a right and go three doors down. Sign will say Human Resources. Tell them you are there to see Susie.” With a wave of her hand she dismissed Jennie and returned to whatever game she had been entertaining on her computer.
Jennie did as she was told, following the directions to the human resources office, all the while thinking about her father walking the same halls. She missed him so much it ached in her soul.
As she stood in front of the large glass window embedded in the center of the steel door, Jennie inhaled deeply in an effort to calm her nerves and control the emotional quake that had begun to threaten her insides.
A much friendlier smile greeted her as she pulled the heavy door open.
“I… umm… I need to see Susie. I …I want to …to apply for a job. Your sign says help wanted.”
“Did Ms. Macy tell you that there aren’t any current openings in any of the offices?”
Ms. Macy had to be the overdone woman that sat behind the front desk. Yeah, she told her but Jennie didn’t believe her- or care. It wasn’t the office she was looking for.
“I want to work on the factory floor. Like my father did.”
“Your father works here? Well, dear, who is he? I’ll call him up to the office and we can get you moving on the process.”
“My father was John Marshall. He…”
“Oh, right.” The woman’s eyes warmed with compassion, “ I am so sorry dear. You must be Jennie. I knew your father for many years, he was very proud of you.”
Jennie dropped her eyes to the floor, waiting for the tears to recess back behind her lids before making eye contact with the kindly woman again. “Thank you, ma’am. Now, about a job?”
“What about school? We don’t do much in the way of part time work, dear.”
“I’m looking for a full time job, preferably the hours my daddy used to have. I won’t be goin’ to school next week, just arranged it this morning. I had enough credits to graduate already. Don’t need to go back for another year. It would be a waste of my time.”
“Um… OK. I see. Well, Jennie are you quite sure your daddy would be wanting you to be working in a paper mill?”
“I don’t see as how he would have much to say ‘bout it, now would he?”
Her tone was sharper than she intended and guilt flushed her cheeks a deep crimson. The other woman was taken aback but recovered quickly, probably chalking her behavior up to the sudden loss of her father.
“All right then, dear, let me get you an application packet to complete. Once you are done, someone will be in touch about an interview.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you. It shouldn’t take me too long to fill it out.”
Susie led her to a small table with a single chair and placed a packet of papers down in front of her. It took twice as long as she thought it would to get through the thick stack of pages. The criminal history check was the funniest- whatever sort of criminal history could she, Jennie Marshall, have living on a farm in the world’s smallest town?
Just last week she was wishing Michael and Trisha dead…
Yeah, but she didn’t actually kill them…
When the final page was signed and dated, she rose from her seat and carried the packet back to Susie. “About how long until I hear from someone?”
“Well, now, I really couldn’t say for sure, dear. These things take time.” Susie hedged her answer, avoiding eye contact.
“But you have at least one opening.” Of course she referred to her father’s position and the other woman knew it.
“Yes,” she responded quietly, “there is at least one. But, Jennie, your daddy worked here twenty some years. You aren’t qualified for his job.”
“Ma’am, I really need a job. I will work hard and I catch on quick. Daddy didn’t leave so much behind and I swore to him I wouldn’t let my momma lose the farm. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep it; it’s his legacy and all we have left.”
A single tear fell from her left eye and rolled slowly down her cheek. Damn it all, she swore she wouldn’t cry any more.
The other woman’s face softened instantly.
“Oh, my dear, I had no idea! I am so sorry. I will do everything I can to get your packet to the top of the pile, OK?” Susie patted her arm in a grandmotherly sort of way.
“Thank you kindly, Ma’am. I would sure appreciate that. Momma would too, I know. She just couldn’t bear to lose Daddy’s land.”
There was no mistaking the deep pity in Ms. Susie’s expression as she patted Jennie on the arm once again and sent her on her way.
Two days later the phone rang.
The time passed quickly with all the things that needed doing around the farm; Jennie barely noticed that Trisha and all her friends and classmates would return to celebrate their senior year on the following Tuesday. It was already the Friday before Labor Day when the call came from the paper factory.
“Hello?” Jennie answered in a breathless rush, wiping the garden soil from her hands onto her cut-off jeans.
“May I speak to Jennie Marshall?” The voice on the other end of the line was vaguely familiar.
“Speaking. How can I help you?”
“This is Hilda Worth at Econoline Papers. I am calling in reference to your employment application. Are you available to interview at nine on Tuesday morning?”
A job! They were calling her about a job. Ms. Susie in human resources had come through for her after all.
“I definitely can. Should I bring anything with me?”
“Just your resume and a copy of your birth certificate. Oh, and your social security card. You will be meeting with Jack Smithson and myself. Ask for Hilda Worth at the front desk.”
“I will. Thank you, Ms. Worth, for calling. I am looking forward to meeting with you.”
“I am too, young lady. I am very interested to meet the daughter of John Marshall. If you are half the person your father was he will have left quite a legacy behind.”
Her heart skipped a beat at the mention of her father’s name, followed by the inevitable moistening of her eyes but she cleared her throat and answered with determination.
“I hope that I can live up to your expectations, Ms. Worth.”
The older woman clucked into the phone quietly. A sort of well, we will soon see, won’t we?
“We will see you on Tuesday morning at nine sharp.” With a click the line went dead. Jennie slowly replaced the handset onto the receiver. They were one of the last families on earth to still have a wall phone with that ear splitting shrill ring of the eighties.
Her father was revered by more people than she ever could have guessed. Could she ever fill his shoes? Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea trying to get into his former place of employment. With expectations so high, was she simply setting herself up for disappointment?
No matter, she needed a job and they were willing to consider hiring her. So what if it was only because she was John Marshall’s daughter?
From somewhere in the house, she heard a loud crash. Following the sound to the front room where Momma sometimes sat to read in front of the large windows that let in the natural light of the sun, she found her mother kneeling on the floor in front of a pile of soil and broken pottery.
“Momma! What happened?” Dropping to her knees, she could see her mother was crying. Large tears ran down her face and fell from the end of her chin into the dark potting soil of her favorite tea roses.
“What have I done? Oh, Johnny!! What have I done?”
“It’s OK Momma. I’ll get a broom and clean it up. It’s just dirt. There’s more pots out in the barn. I’ll fix it right up.”
“What am I gonna do, Jennie-girl? What am I gonna do without your father? He was my whole world! We were supposed to grow OLD together! Oh, how I wish I could be with him now…” Sobs wracked her momma’s thin shoulders. Her usually even tempered, soft spoken momma let out an anguished wail as she pounded her balled up fists against the hardwood floor until they turned red. She cursed God and the heavens and all that was holy for taking her true love away from her as the tears ran untapped. All Jennie could do was watch helplessly and try fruitlessly to gather the remains of the tea roses and the handmade pot that had held them.
No wonder Momma was so upset. It was the last gift Daddy had given her, a Mother’s Day find from the local flea market. Momma had cried then too, when Daddy presented it to her. The sad little rose plant had been quickly losing its grip on life but Momma had nursed it back to beauty in no time at all.
The soil trickled through her fingers as she tried to scoop it into the remains of the broken clay pot. The dirt had fallen on Daddy’s casket little by little as they filled in the space around his final resting place. Jennie began to sob along with her mother. The agony that filled the room echoed throughout the house like a Siren’s wail over the ocean. They clung together crying, a never ending flood of tears. Jennie had no idea how much time had passed when the first loud crash of thunder rumbled the very timbers of the house. A flash of lighting lit the accumulated darkness of the storm and Jennie jumped to her feet.
“Momma! Bessie’s still outside! I have to go and let her in!” She was already up and running toward the door as another bolt of lightning parted the black sky. The crack of thunder that followed was deafening. She barely heard her momma calling out to her not to go as she grabbed the copper door knob of the wooden half door in the kitchen and ran across the back yard toward the barn.
Rain drops and hail as big as golf balls pelted against her arms and legs. A hard rock of ice slammed into her forehead nearly knocking her to the ground as she slid through the muddied yard to the ramshackle building that housed their animals. Blood trailed down the side of her face running into her left eye. Rubbing at the warm liquid with her fist, she shoved her now soaked hair out of her face. The door to the barn swung open in the wind, slamming against the side of the barn with a loud crash over and over again. Jennie ran into the barn grabbing the door and yanking it closed behind her. The horses whinnied and neighed as they stomped their hooves in irritation. The wind whipped through the eaves as the hail scattered against the tin roof. The noise was as deafening as the never ending crashing thunder.
The back door to the barn leading to the small pasture where old Bessie spent most of her days, struggled against the onslaught of the storm. The bar holding it in place was the only thing that kept the wind from ripping it off its hinges. Her hair whipped against her cheeks stinging her skin as Jennie yanked the wooden bar away and threw the door open. The wind caught the door immediately and whipped it back against the side of the structure, tearing the top half off its hinges. The door hung precariously as it swung back and forth in the angry weather.
“Bessie! Come here, old girl! Come on, Bessie!” Jennie clanged the old bell on the side of the barn, banging the clapper against the side of the bell over and over as she yelled for her favorite animal. A bright flash illuminated the small pasture briefly. Jennie scanned the area still crying out for Bessie to come home. The words stuck in her throat when she finally saw her favorite pet. The two thousand pound cow lay on her side in the mud, her tongue lolling lazily out of her mouth, her big brown eyes reflecting agonizing pain.
“BESSIE!” Jennie screamed as she took off at a run across the field. Blood still ran freely from the wound on her forehead, rainwater running it into her mouth as she ran. Her flip flops were completely saturated, the foot bed slick. Halfway across the field, the thong snapped away from the sole, tripping her and sending Jennie sliding, right shoulder to the ground, a good ten feet across the pasture. When she slid to a stop, Jennie jumped to her feet, ignoring the burning pain in her shoulder and ran barefoot the rest of the way to her fallen animal.
Bessie brayed quietly as Jennie dropped back down to the ground in front of Bessie’s head.
“What happened, old girl?! What happened?!”
Another round of tears began to stream down her cheeks mixing with the blood and rain water. Bessie lifted her large tongue and lolled it toward Jennie’s hands as she rubbed the animal between the eyes. Bessie was dying.
The rain began to lighten ever so slightly. Thunder still crashed but it was further away, a longer time after each crack of lightning. As the wind began to recede and the black clouds shifted to the east, Jennie spotted a charred area of flesh on Bessie’s left haunch. The beast had been hit by lightning.
“Oh, Bessie! I’m so sorry! I’m so, so sorry!” She wrapped her arms around the cow’s thick neck, the tears and blood on her face mixing with the water saturating Bessie’s coat. Bessie brayed ever so quietly in response as she flipped her tail one time against the muddy ground. As Jennie laid her head against her favorite animal, she could feel the change as Bessie’s body relaxed against the ground with the onset of death.
There was no telling how long she lay there in the soaking field crying into Bessie’s fur. The rain eventually stopped, the sun began to warm her back and the birds had resumed their chirping conversations when she felt Momma’s hand against her back.
“Come on child, come on. Let’s go back to the house so I can tend to that cut on your forehead.”
“NO!” She cried into the side of Bessie’s still body.
“Come on, Jennie, get up out of the mud. Let’s go inside and clean you up. Bessie’s gone, nothing we can do for her now.”
Her sobs drown out the sound of Momma’s pleas and eventually Momma just gave up. Why did everything she love always have to leave her?
“I’m sorry Bessie! I’m so sorry I didn’t get out here in time. I didn’t know it was gonna rain and then the storm came outta nowhere so fast…”
She cried until the tears ran dry, fists gripping the wet coat of old Bessie. There was no telling how long she lay there, hugging Bessie before she heard a familiar voice behind her.
“It was an accident, Jennie-girl. Bessie was a good animal but she was tired.”
The deep voice, warm and smooth as fresh maple syrup, made her freeze. There was only one man with a voice like that.
“Da…Daddy?” She turned her head real slow away from Bessie’s still body and followed the sound of the familiar voice.
Standing behind her, the light of the sun enveloped him like the light of heaven. “Daddy? Is it you? Is it really you?”
“It’s me Jennie- girl. Just dropped in for a quick visit- thought Bessie might wanna see a familiar face on her way home.”
“Oh Daddy! I have missed you so much!” She jumped up, feet sliding in the mud throwing off her balance and sending her back to the ground where she landed square on Bessie’s haunch.
“I’ve gotta get Momma! She’s gonna want to see you too! Ma….”
“Don’t Jennie-girl.” Daddy smiled at her warmly, love shining from his eyes. “Don’t call your Momma.”
“But…but, why not?”
“Because she will want me to stay, and I can’t stay, sweet pea.”
The tears came again, running down her cheeks unchecked. “But Daddy! We miss you so much! Why did you have to leave? We need you. I am trying to keep things going, trying to take care of Momma and the farm, but I don’t know if I can do it all on my own. Look what I did to Bessie…!”
“It’s OK Jennie-girl. It’s OK.” Daddy’s voice was soft, comforting. His words wrapped around her the way his strong arms used to. “You can do it, sweet pea. I have faith in you. You are so much stronger than you think. You are gonna be fine. Marshalls always come out on top and you are a Marshall through and through. But your Momma, well now, she’s gonna need you for a while.”
“She’s so lost Daddy. All she does is cry and sleep. I beg her to eat, I plead with her to leave the house but she won’t.”
“It’s just gonna take her some time, Jennie. But as long as she has you, she will be fine. I am countin’ on you to take care of your Momma. Don’t let her do anything stupid. She will be with me soon enough. Soon enough…” His words trailed away as he looked toward the house, the home he had tried to build for his family.
“You will always be my best girl, Jennie. I love you and I always will. It’s time for me to go now. Remember, I love you.”
“No! No, Daddy! Don’t go!” The plea in her voice was heartbreaking, even to her own ears. A heavy cloud passed in front of the sun suddenly, throwing the landscape into darkness, before moving quickly past and allowing the bright sun to prevail again. Her eyes struggled to adjust to the extreme changes and she rubbed both eyes with mud covered fists. When she was able to see clearly again her father was gone.
Had he even really been there?
In the place where she thought he had stood, a brilliant rainbow filled the sky, its colors bright and luminous against the bluest sky she had ever seen. A lone monarch butterfly fluttered by her; it’s dance slow and deliberate.
Her father’s promise that everything would be all right.
“I love you too, Daddy.” She whispered completely certain he could hear her wherever he was.