Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Aunt Esther left after that, giving me some privacy to think; however, thinking at that point was almost outside of my ability to do. I’d gotten one hangover in college from the one stupid party that I had bothered finding the time to go to. It was not too long after my bad break up and I was bent on proving to the world and myself that I was still alive. Unfortunately the gossips beat me to the party and long story short, I was lucky that I had a friend that cared about me enough to take my car keys and give me a place to stay for the night.

My one and only hangover could have gone down in the annals of history as one of the worst possible. That afternoon I wasn’t hungover in the traditional sense but shared many of the same symptoms. Despite the soup I had a terrible taste in my mouth and it felt like a fast growing lawn was taking root on my tongue. My stomach rolled and my head felt like a military drum band was practicing in my skull. Even my teeth ached. I limped around the cabin like a woman who had enough candles on her birthday cake to start a large bonfire.

The first thing I did was hit the shower. Every drop of water felt like a beating … but it woke me up and washed away the nasties that coasted me like rabid dust bunnies. Then I got dressed in something comfortable and did my hair for real this time, only without the braid; my head still hurt too bad for that. I put the mass in a hair net which I bobby pinned in place despite that not being much better than a braid.

I stepped outside for some fresh air and to try and find Micah or Mark. I knew I owed them both an apology and I was bracing myself for it. There was still a nip to the air – we weren’t done with the frosty spells yet despite the ground being thawed by an early spring – and spying one of Mark’s flannel shirts on the clothes line I took it off and slipped it on.

“Looks good on you.”

I spun around at his voice and the world spun with me.

He grabbed me before I lost my balance completely. “Hey! That’s it, you’re going back in the cabin. Esther said you are OK but you’re nearly as white as fresh milk.”

“Mark, I’m … Aunt Esther’s right … or on her way to being right. I am OK, or at least getting there. Look, I’m … I’m sorry for the way I acted. Must have reminded you of Dee at her worst.”

“At her worst? Girl, you have a long way to go before you get that bad. Besides you have good reason to be feeling like you are. I’m the one that should be sorry. I wish I knew what to do for you … to help … to …”

“Mark,” I interrupted. “Don’t apologize. You’ve been there for me since … well, since this all started and had hardly any reason to be. Would you think I was a floozy for saying I need … need you to hold me? Remind me I’m still alive?”

The speed at which he complied left me in no doubt that he was more than happy to do fill my need. From the comfort he offered I asked, “Where’s Micah? I need to apologize to him too.”

“It’s OK Sis,” came a voice from the side of the house. “Aunt Lilah and Aunt Esther both lit into anyone that even came close to criticizing how you were acting. You shoulda seen ‘em. Like a couple of scary … well, you just shoulda seen ‘em. And Rudy explained what I didn’t understand. You are a lot like Daddy, but I’m glad that Aunt Esther … well …”

“That Aunt Esther what?”

“She said that you could choose to be stronger than Daddy if you wanted to be … I’m not sure I understand that all the way but if it means that you don’t go off into a blue funk like Daddy would sometimes I’ll be happy about it.”

Micah hunched his shoulders like he was waiting for lightning to strike for being so sacrilegious and disrespectful.

“It’s OK Micah. We can still love Daddy for all … for all he was … and maybe forgive him for what he wasn’t.” I still wasn’t too steady on my pins and that was about all of that I could take as I was starting to get teary eyed again.

Mark walked me inside and Micah followed. I was going to go into my father’s room and start cleaning but both of them stopped me. “Really guys, it has to be done and … and better to do it sooner rather than later or it will only get harder.”

“Um … about that,” Micah started. Then he looked desperately to Mark who then looked at me.

“Del, we didn’t move anything out but we’ve already cleaned the room and boxed a few things up. We didn’t want you to have to do that on top of everything else too.”

“What?!” I strode past them and threw open the door to the room that had turned into my prison around Thanksgiving. The furniture was still where it had been but the bed had been stripped and the rugs taken up. I suddenly realized what else had been on the clothes line besides Mark’s shirt. The curtains had come down and someone had gone at the single window with such a vengeance they’d taken some of the paint off the sash. I opened the chiffarobe and the clothes were still there, but there was a box on the floor waiting for me to decide what would get packed away and what would get repurposed.

“Oh.” I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I’d been dreading the cleaning and suddenly there was none to do. I still had the important stuff but the worst of it, especially the mattress, was gone.

“We … we took the mattress down to the farm and burned it. Aunt Lilah said to bleach some muslin and she’d give you the pattern for making a hay tick … I think she meant a mattress … and she said to save goose feathers to make a topper with and by winter we’d have a replacement,” Micah told me.

Mark added, “Del, I know we didn’t ask but the mattress … even with all the pads and everything you had on it … it just …”

“I know,” I admitted. “I wasn’t sure how to face it. It was … well … thank you. I don’t … it was the one thing … I …” Mark came up and hugged me from behind like he needed it as badly as I did.

“It’s OK Del. So long as you understand why we did it. It was actually Micah’s idea and Rudy and Sam came up to help. They didn’t know Cal had come up first … uh …”

I got an evil glint in my eye and asked, “And how is Calvin might I ask?”

That started Micah snickering even though I saw Mark frantically trying to give him the eye. “He’s still trying to control his bowels. He keeps having to run to the outhouse.” Micah finally lost the battle and started belly laughing. “Ooh Del, Sam says he ain’t never seen Cal move so fast, not even when dinner is called.”

I could feel Mark’s arms get all stiff so I leaned back into him to let him know that he shouldn’t be worried. He looked down at me and said, “I’m sorry Del. I didn’t mean to cause problems. I just couldn’t figure any easier way to keep an eye on you and on Jessie at the same time.”

“Where is Jessie?” I asked suddenly frantic. I hadn’t had near as much time to play with him while Daddy’s health deteriorated but he’d still been a constant companion, always near, always willing to be hugged even if it was in desperation, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed he wasn’t in the house.

“Hey … you’re shaking like a leaf,” Mark noticed.

“He’s not in the house. I expected him to be with you and now …”

“Hey, it’s OK,” he said soothingly. “He’s with Rudy’s girls. They’re having fun spoiling him and Lilah, Esther, and Cheryl say they’ve missed him too. He’s growing like a weed and is a bundle of energy; it is taking all three of the girls to keep up with him. They’re playing in the yard and hopefully he’ll sleep as good tonight as he did last night.”

I happened to glance at my brother and realized that Jessie wasn’t the only one that had been growing. Seventeen looked a lot better on my brother than sixteen had, he was going to be built just like Daddy only a little slimmer around the middle. I suddenly knew what would happen to most of the clothes in the chiffarobe; boots too from the look of his feet since he was already wearing a pair of Daddy’s old combat boots.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Getting a little past dinner time. I need to go down and get Jessie … if you are gonna be OK up here. Micah …”

“Er … Sis …,” Micah started.

“Hmmm?” I asked not really paying attention as my mind had drifted a little as I noticed my dad’s jewelry box.

“Um … Del …”

Then I noticed the tone and how Mark’s arms had tightened a little bit. I knew that tone, he usually used it when he’d been into trouble and was trying to get up the nerve to confess. And the tension in Mark told me that he was upset for some reason as well.

“Del, could we like you know, go talk … in the living room … please?”

I looked at Mark and he said, “I’ll go get Jessie.”

Micah frantically said, “No! I … I mean … Mark, please like stay.” The pleading look in his eyes was met by a troubled look on Mark’s face.

“OK guys, whatever it is, let’s get this out. It can’t possibly be as bad as … well, it just can’t. Can it?” I looked at them both really starting to get the wooly boogers.

Mark wouldn’t say yea or nay and as we walked to the living room Micah looked green enough to puke. We sat down but Mark obviously wasn’t going to help Micah along so after swallowing several times Micah said, “I … I didn’t mean to bring it up so soon. It … well … circumstances and all that.”

When he stopped and didn’t continue I said, “Micah, if that was supposed to make any sense to me at all I’m sorry but it didn’t.”

He sighed, blowing the air out through pursed lips and then running his hand through his hair. He jumped up and started walking obvious full of the fidgets too much to sit down. “Del, these last couple of months … you know I’ve been … you know … working and stuff at the farm. Well … more than working really … it was like going to school and learning stuff only I liked it better than I ever liked learning stuff in school. And Mr. John … he’s taught me a lot … he’s got training in all of this cool … I mean Daddy did too but different … and …”

Micah looked desperately to Mark again but Mark’s face was as closed in as I’d ever seen it.

“So anyway, Cal … it’s no secret that Cal can’t stand that sort of stuff … he’s going to go work at the Bait& Tackle ‘cause he says there is more opportunity for him there and because Big John … hey did you know that Mr. John was named after Big John’s dad? … anyway it’s not that I’ve forgotten Daddy … I … you know … aw Del … I want to go live with Mr. John and learn about how to build the biofuel system bigger and maybe start a business where we sell it for shares and stuff and he knows all about other things too like putting in wells and rebuilding motors and constructing windmills and …,” his voice petered off.

I’d caught most of what he said but was stuck on … “You want to go live … at the farm.”

“Look … you and Mark need a place to yourself. You’ll be getting together pretty soon and … you know … I … look, I … aw geez … this is embarrassing … I mean thinking about you two … you know … in the next room … and … aw geez.”

He was as red as a beet and so was Mark who was really starting to pull away. I felt like Alice must have when she fell down the rabbit hole.

“You want to go live at the farm,” I repeated.

“Yeah, I said that. I just … you know … was going to like build up to it only Cal … he wants to move to the store now because Big John really needs the help to get everything set up for the barter store … he had decided to go before the funeral so it’s not like what you said … you know … moved him along any faster … I just …” He looked at me begging me to understand.

I was in shock and got up and walked into the kitchen trying not to cry, for what reason I wasn’t sure. I heard Mark whisper fiercely, “Micah, I asked you to hold off, to give her time to adjust. She doesn’t need this on top of everything else.”

My brother answered, “I know Mark … it just sort of came out. I can’t lie about it. She’d know I was holding something back and then be mad because she wasn’t let in on it from the beginning. I never could lie with a straight face to Del.”

I walked back into the living room and said, “You better not lie to anyone, straight face or not. It sets a bad precedent and nobody trusts a liar once found out.”

Micah looked at me like I’d hit him. “So tell me so’s I can understand, why can’t you live here at the farm and still work with John.”

Micah looked nervous but Mark still wouldn’t help him. My fleeting concern that Mark had been the one to egg him on about this evaporated in that second. I understood that Mark didn’t want him to move to the farm at all and I’d find out why after I dealt with Micah.

“It’s … it’s not that I couldn’t Del … it’s … it’s … I don’t want to. There, I said it. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings but that’s the way I feel.”

“Don’t want to. Don’t want to?! I’ve heard nothing from you for almost four years about moving back here and suddenly you don’t want to.”

“I wanted to move back to the farm Del. I like the cabin well enough but you know I was always down at the farm every chance I got. I like it there. Up here … up here was your’s and Daddy’s place … I always like the farm best. Sure I wanted to come back and I would have lived at the cabin if that was the only way for me to stay at the farm, and I knew that one day the farm might belong to someone else but … I wanted to have the chance to be the one that it belonged to.”

“What?!”

“I tried and tried and tried to explain it but you and Daddy just didn’t ever hear what I was saying. I never wanted to play Daniel Boone or Davy Crocket … that was yours and Daddy’s thing … I like the open fields and driving the tractor … and building things it seems like. Yeah, I’m liking building things for the farm too. Please understand Del, I’m not being disrespectful of Daddy … I just want something different than what he always seemed to want for me.”

It was like I was seeing my little brother for the first time in a long time and certain things started falling in place. I wanted to say, “Thanks again Daddy for leaving me with such a mess to clean up.” But I didn’t. It wasn’t Daddy’s fault. It was just life and growing up. But if I’d learned nothing else it was to trust but verify. Micah knew that I was his guardian until he came of age and if I objected no one in the family would really support the move but I knew that one day soon he’d be eighteen and at least legally able to do what he wanted to do. I had to weigh that – and Micah’s right to have a say in his own destiny – if I wanted to continue to have a relationship with my brother … and apparently with the farm.

“Micah this is … this is a lot … all of a sudden. Let me think about it. Just … just let me think about it. OK?”

Micah and Mark’s mouths fell open and I almost smiled. It was good to know I could still surprise people. It also made me feel sad that my willingness to think about something this important was such a surprise to the people I cared about the most.

“Mark?”

Mark jump like something had stung him. “Micah probably needs to gather up a few things around here, you mind if I walk down to pick up Jessie with you? I need to show everyone that I’m not quite as off my rocker as I was acting.”

“Del?” Micah nearly whispered.

“I’m not mad at you Bubby, not really. Just … I need to blow the cobwebs out of my head. But don’t push me on this. You and I both know you are nearly old enough to do what you want … but you aren’t there yet which means I’m accountable for you and to you … so just … don’t … push. Deal?”

“Yeah … yeah sure Del,” he said relieved. He was trying hard not to smile in relief. It would not be easy to tell him if I decided he needed to wait. I turned to look at Mark. He was still closed off with his armor zipped up type. I saw Micah glance at him nervously. At least what Mark thought mattered to him, that was something.

Mark walked down the porch steps without saying a word but at least he walked slow enough for me to follow without having to run to keep up. I bumped him a couple of times trying to encourage him into putting his arm around me but he didn’t. Finally, after we were far enough from the cabin but no where near the farm I grabbed his arm and drew him to a stop.

“Mark …”

“Del, regardless of what you might think this wasn’t my idea. I swore to your dad I would never cut Micah out and …”

“Whoa … who said that is what I was thinking? I trust you.”

He looked at me and suddenly the wind went out of his sails. “You believe me.”

“Well duh, isn’t that what I just said?”

Then he took a step closer and really looked at my face, into my eyes. “You really trust me.”

“Like I said …” I didn’t get any further before his arms were wrapped around me. In all the months we’d lived under the same roof we hadn’t been as physically close as we had in the last two days.

“Mmmph hmm mphmmm.”

Mark let loose enough that I could unbury my face from the front of his coat. “I said you do take on so … especially for someone that has just about carried me through the last couple of months.”

“I haven’t carried you through. I just helped around the place.”

“Says you. You … you … saved my life.”

“Don’t.”

I was surprised at how quick his defenses went back up.

“What?” I asked more than a little hurt.

“Don’t. I don’t want your gratitude.”

“Well you’ve got it whether you want it or not,” I said as I tried to step close to him.

He pushed me away. It was gently but it was still a push. On top of everything else that was just about more than I could handle. I was just furious again all of a sudden. It took two steps back because I found that I felt too much like lashing out at him … physically lashing out. Instead I said, “Thank you. At least now I know where I stand. Or maybe I don’t. Either way you’ve let me know how you feel. So, will you at least tell me why you have problems with Micah moving to the farm?”

“Why I have problems?! Because we’d be alone up at the farm.”

It felt like he’d stabbed me in the heart with a serrated blade. It hurt so bad I stumbled. “My God, you really know how to lay it all out don’t you? I don’t need your pity but you could have let me down a little easier than this!” I nearly giggled in hysteria. I must have turned a full circle looking for an escape route and not really seeing anything but blurs of color.

“Del? Del. What do you mean … I’m … Del!”

I felt like I was losing what oxygen remained in my lungs and I just sort of plunked down on the ground.

“Put your head between your knees,” he told me.

“And kiss my behind good bye?” I giggled stupidly.

I felt him jerking his jacket off and wrapping it around me. I tried to fight it off and told him, “I don’t need this. I don’t need you to take care of me and I sure as @#$% don’t need your pity.”

“Your … your just … let me take you back to the cabin. I’ll go get Esther or …”

“Why go back to the cabin? Apparently you don’t want to be there any more than Micah does.” Another giggle escaped me despite my best effort to keep it behind my teeth.

“It’s the only place I want to be.” He tried to pick me up but I refused to cooperate and this time we both wound up on the ground.

“Don’t lie to me Marcellus Griffey. I heard what you just said. You just said so. You don’t want to be at the cabin because we’d be alone.”

He tried to pick me up again and I made sure to kick him in the shin. “Dat burn it Del, do that again and regardless of whatever is going on I will turn you over my knee and …” He stopped and got a funny look on his face.

“Why are you so mad?” he asked in a suddenly reasonable tone that for some reason made me feel even less reasonable.

“Why am I so mad? Are you witless?! The guy that I finally trusted enough to lay my heart at his feet just told me he doesn’t want to be with me.” I snarled at him trying to get loose from his arms that suddenly felt like a straight jacket.

“And that guy would be me?” he asked again just as reasonably.

“No. I suddenly had a burning desire to be Calvin Carlisle’s bride you idiot and go live over the Bait & Tackle. We’ll have a baker’s dozen and give each of them their own calculators as a first Christmas present.” I don’t know if I’d ever said anything more sarcastically.

“Not with Cal you won’t. I’ll tie him to a log and send him down the Cumberland before I let that happen,” he said with sudden humor that completely blindsided me and made me fight him even more.

The only thing that came out of my mouth was something close to an unintelligible growl but Mark didn’t seem to care.

“Now look at me and listen up. Apparently them classes I took are about to save both of us a lot of pain. See I learned that destructive anger is often a result of misunderstanding and if you find out what the misunderstanding is and clear it up you can avoid the anger. Have I got your attention Del? The reason I didn’t want to be at the farm with you … alone I might add … is because I promised to give you time. The reason I was mad at Micah was because he was pushing you to make a decision when you were at your weakest. The reason I promised to give you time, which Micah’s choice is trying to take away, is because I didn’t want to take advantage of you when you are vulnerable and lonely … I didn’t trust myself not to take advantage of the situation and do some pushing of my own.”

I’d stopped fighting him by the end of the second sentence. When he stopped I just sat there in the dirt with my mouth open. He made the mistake of loosening his arms and I launched myself at him so hard he went backwards and we both wound up rolling around in the dirt.

“Del! Del!! Someone sees us they are going to think we’re crazy,” he laughed.

“I don’t care. You scared me stupid Mark Griffey,” I told him hugging him just so tight he said he couldn’t breathe.

We finally got up off the ground and brushed each other off. “Mark, don’t ever do that again.”

“What? Try and keep my promise and protect your honor from the gossips?” he asked wryly.

“I trust you to keep your promises and you let me worry about the gossips. I’ve dealt with more than a few in my life and they’re fearsome but not undefeatable.”

He just shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t mind following this conversation to a more natural conclusion but I really do need to pick up Jessie.”

“By all means, let’s go get Jessie.” We walked another could of acres and then I asked, “Is this why you didn’t want Micah to move to the farm?”

He slowed down again and got real serious. “Mostly, but I was also worried about how you’d take it.”

“But other than that, what do you think of the idea?”

I surprised him with the question. He was hesitant to answer then but then said, “Del, I’m not sure how you’ll take this but … but I don’t really think it is a problem. You haven’t had a chance to see how he’s been doing these last couple of months. I don’t want you to take that as a criticism, you had to focus all of your energy on your dad. But I noticed after a while that … well … it wasn’t just about getting away from the cabin for a few hours a day. And John says he’s picking up what he is being taught like he has a real talent for it and not just because he is being forced to learn it.”

I nodded. “So … you don’t think he’s being taken advantage of?”

“Well, maybe … but not for the wrong reasons.”

“Wanna explain that?” I asked suddenly concerned.

“Look, when I say that Cal isn’t mechanically inclined that is a complete and truthful statement. Cal … I’m not saying Cal is stupid because he’s not. In fact he’s really smart if you look at his GPA. But if you asked Cal to change a light bulb he’d probably ask whether he would need a flathead or a Philips.”

I snorted a laugh despite myself. “Surely he isn’t that bad.”

Mark rolled his eyes, “OK, not quite that bad but not too far from it. He drives John crazy asking the same questions … not just the same types of questions but the same exact questions … over and over. It’s like nothing mechanical sticks with him. Now give him some numbers to fool with and he turns into a walking calculator, just keep the tools out of his hands if you don’t want them broken or lost.”

“And this affects my brother how?”

“Micah is needed on the farm. Truthfully. Not even Sam and Rudy can compete with Micah now when it comes to fixing things. John is the one that brought up the idea to begin with. I’ll say this for Rudy, he’s refused to discuss it much less agree to it until he knows your feelings on it.”

“Where would Micah live?”

“In Cal’s old room in the trailer, or at least until a more permanent structure gets built. They had a hard time keeping that old cracker box warm this winter using wood alone and there’s been talk of dismantling John’s old pre-fab house and moving it here … again assuming you’re agreeable.”

“Why me? Aunt Lilah …,” I stopped as I couldn’t handle the idea of another death right then, even a hypothetical one.

“You OK?”

“Yeah. Like I asked, why me?”

“Rudy’s no fool that’s why. The cabin and the farm will probably always need each other to some extent. The cabin’s land is virgin for the most part and is the best for hunting and foraging. The farm doesn’t have land to compete with that, especially as that forty acres of yours backs up to the forestry land and that land owned by the railroad that’s never been built on except for the tracks running through it. The cabin … well, I’ve looked at that terracing idea of yours Del and while it can be done it is going to take years to ever develop the land so that you can pull as much in as the land down on the farm and you’ll never be able to compete with total capacity. I expect Rudy has some plan to … er … incorporate more of the land around the farm and put it to use – at least temporarily – but that still doesn’t change the way things already are.”

I had a lot to think about and we’d just walked into the open and been seen by Rudy’s girls. They called out, “Grandmother! It’s time for Jessie to go home!”

We walked up to the house and everyone made a bit of a fuss which was hard to take. My emotions were still raw and near the surface and all of their sympathy and concern felt like a brillo pad being rubbed against a fresh burn. Before I could lose control again I asked Mark, “Give me a sec to talk to Rudy?”

At his nod I headed over to the little room at the back of the barn that I’d heard Rudy had turned into his “office.” I knocked on the door and heard, “Few more minutes Cheryl; I’m almost done.”

“It’s me Rudy,” I called out.

A sudden scraping and the door jerked open. “Del? Anything wrong?”

“No. Look, you got a sec? I know you’re busy but … I don’t think this’ll take long.”

He pointed to a chair beside the desk he’d been setting at and I could see he was looking at a couple of maps and redrawing some lines. “First off Rudy, I’m sorry about …”

“Don’t apologize. Hy was the same way. I’m glad to see though that Esther was able to … er … hep ya a little bit.”

We both grinned conspiratorially as Aunt Esther’s help had always been of the rather rough and tough love variety.

“I’ll cut to the chase … Micah sprung this … this plan about him moving to the farm full time. I’d like your honest opinion of it.”

He chewed on the inside of his cheek before speaking. “Del, I’ll be honest, with Cal moving to the Bait & Tackle we need him. On the other hand I know that you and Mark aren’t likely to be able to get everything done up at the cabin without some help. On the third hand my brother seems to think Micah has a real talent in areas that … let’s just leave it at areas that Cal doesn’t.”

“So I gathered from Mark. Is there more to it than that?”

“You ain’t stupid, you’re daddy saw to that,” he said while I could see him trying to decide how much to tell him. “Del, we need to expand. I’ve worked the numbers six ways from Sunday but even adding into it anything that you can forage from up around the cabin we’re going to be lucky to barely get by in a good year. I wanna … nope, I’m gonna … take over part of the Montgomery farm next door. I heard they all died and as far as I know there ain’t no one left to inherit and frankly even if there was they ain’t here and we are and we are in need.”

“It can’t be that bad surely,” I said, concerned.

“Oh yes it can. We need fuel. To get it means we have to grow it to some extent or other so that John can refine it. But growing it means we have that much less space to grow feed and crops. I can maybe squeeze one year out of this land IF the year is a good one, but that doesn’t leave any room for crop failures and low yields for feed for our animals. We don’t have any fertilizers or pesticides which means crop yields are going to go down whether we can afford them to or not … maybe way down. I’ve been talking to some of the old timers down at the Bait & Tackle, trying to figure out which crops and varieties will yield the best but most of them only really remember the last few decades.”

Beginning to see the enormity of the problem I asked, “Still, how does this affect the issue with Micah?”

“I need man power to pull this off; not just hired hands but people that are going to be invested – completely invested – in making this venture a success. I also need ‘em to have some brains. John says Micah has surprised him more than a few times by being able to see things intuitively. And stop your blinking girl, I’m may talk like a hillbilly but I do have a brain that I’m partial to exercising more often than not. When I said intuitively it was because it was the best word for it. He can see a problem, understand what’s wrong, see what needs fixing, and have a general idea of how to fix it … he just doesn’t have all the skills yet to implement the fixing. And John’s the right man to teach him if he’s as willing to learn as he’s shown himself to be thus far.”

“And he can’t do that living at the cabin.” It was more a statement I was thinking than a question but he answered me anyway.

“To a certain extent yes; that’s been my primary reason for holding back … that and wanting to talk to you about it directly first. But the optimal situation would be for him to live here on the farm.”

“Especially since this is where he wants to be anyway,” I said, still having a hard to with that.

He didn’t deny it. “It’s nothing against Hy … or you for that matter. I never would have known it myself if I hadn’t overheard him talking to Sam about it.”

After a moment of thought I asked, “What about a trial period. I’m not ready to just jump into this with both feet. Micah has … well, I’ll say he has grown up a lot since we moved back and for more than one reason … but Micah has always been a bit of a flibberty-gibbet about things he gets interested in. It’s time he grew out of that but neither do I want to force him into some kind of apprenticeship either. It … it won’t be the same without him at the cabin but at the same time …,” I sighed before continuing. “I can’t keep him a little boy forever. He has to grow up. He needs to find his own way. I just don’t want to send him on his way without him knowing that he has a way home just in case it turns out he’s picked the wrong path.”

“I think that is more than reasonable. That still leaves the problem of you and Mark being shorthanded however.”

“Let me talk to Mark and see exactly how shorthanded it is going to leave us.”

Rudy tried to keep the smirk off his face but he couldn’t help himself. I told him, “Don’t you start. Mark and I haven’t done anything improper.”

“More’s the pity. You could have probably used some ‘improper’ to take your mind off your troubles.”

“Good gracious Rudy!” He just laughed but I decided I’d had about all I could handle and he was still laughing as I lit out for the farmhouse.

We made it back to the cabin in time for Micah to get to the farm before dark. “Del …”

“I said don’t push me Micah. I’m thinking about it.”

“I know … just … just thanks for at least thinking about it. I honestly don’t know if Daddy would have given me the chance.”

I sighed because I had a feeling he was right but I wasn’t ready to admit it. I did ask him to radio us when he got down to the farm which made him roll his eyes but I knew I wouldn’t have my little brother to mother for much longer and I decided to do it while I still could.

After Micah got to the farm and Jessie went down for the night Mark and I were left staring at each other.

“Del … this isn’t going to be easy. I do promise to try not to push … for God’s sake you just buried your dad yesterday and listen to me.” He ran his hand through his hair in frustration.

“I understand better than you think I should.” He only groaned in response like I was teasing him on purpose. “But you are right.” That brought him up short and made him look at me.

“I am?”

“Yeah. I’m not in any shape to be making the kind of decisions I’m wanting to make. Not right now Mark,” I said sadly. “I don’t want either one of us to look back and wonder if we took the wrong road even if it felt good doing it.”

He nodded, sighed, and asked, “So what do you suggest?”

“Work . We’ve got to do it anyway, may as well let it serve two purposes.”

He looked at me, finally grinned mildly and said, “I still say you have to be one of the strangest girls I’ve ever met.”

“Strange or not you know what I’m saying is true.” I realized all of a sudden I was actually hungry. “If I fix some hot chocolate would you pop some popcorn in the fireplace?”

His grin got enormous. “You bet, then we can sit and … work.”

When we were sitting once again I asked him, “What’s your take on this plan of Rudy’s?”

“Said something to you out in the barn I suppose.”

“Yeah. Have you looked at his numbers?

With a surprised look on his face, “Del, don’t give me too much credit. I’ve never farmed and Rudy’s been at it since before we were both born.”

“I know that but I also know Rudy. He’s always dreamed of owning one of those megafarms or whatever you call them. He’s also a shrewd business person. I’m not sure that those two things might not play into this plan of his.”

A log with some green still in it popped in the fireplace and I turned to make sure nothing had popped out onto the heart rug. It took until I turned back for Mark to fit the words he wanted to say into a sentence. “Look, you know and I know that Rudy was always ambitious but I’m admit it was an honest ambition, certainly more so than Butch. Yes, Rudy wants to get ahead but I’m also thinking that he’s realist enough to know that getting ahead might mean something different than it used to. Yeah, I’ve seen his numbers and I’ll be honest Del, they ain’t pretty.”

“So he isn’t exaggerating.”

“Not as far as I can tell. He’s cautious yes, but not to the point of exaggeration.”

I sat thinking hard. Rudy saying it was one thing but Mark suggesting that Rudy was right was another.

“Del … you sure you’re up for this. Just this morning …”

I stopped him with a sigh. “I know what I was and what I was doing this morning. I was … angry … at everything and everyone. I hope that I’ve got the worst of it out of my system. But one thing is for sure, I don’t have time to sit around feeling sorry for myself.” I hugged myself feeling a little fear creep in. “It suddenly feels like I’m months behind where I should be Mark. I haven’t planned the gardens; don’t even know if I’ve got enough seed or the right kinds. The beds aren’t prepped. I need to get out and see if any early forage has come up. With this early spring we seem to be having … oh no.”

“What?” he asked seeing my tone suddenly change.

“I missed … I think I missed … tree tapping season.” I could have kicked myself.

He relaxed. “No you didn’t. Ms. Lilah said if the weather stays this sharp at night she wanted the boys to tap a couple of maples on the other side of the hog pens.”

At his words I started to relax as well. Maybe I could still get a few things right. “Mark, do you know anything about syruping?”

“Only what I remember from school. I used to help with the fund raiser every year.”

“Oh that’s right. Well, I’ve done it a number of times but it’s not the easiest thing to do. I marked trees when we moved back and was foraging so much but I haven’t even looked to make sure the equipment is in working order. Could we make that our project for tomorrow?”

He nodded his agreement.

“Got another question for you that Rudy made me think about.”

He looked at me with raised eyebrows indicating he was listening.

“If … and I mean if … I agree to this scheme of Micah’s, how shorthanded is that going to leave us?”

“It isn’t going to make my job any easier but if they can produce enough fuel that we can run a tractor up here that’ll more than make up for it.”

“Are you sure, have you really thought this through. I’m leaning towards it since you and Rudy both you support it, at least on a trial basis, but I won’t if it is going to really handicap us. Micah does have some responsibilities up here since he is part owner.”

“You really are more mother to him than sister aren’t you?”

“It hasn’t been by choice Mark, that’s just been the way it has turned out.”

“Well, you can relax … like I said assuming they can get enough fuel to run a tractor up here. I even know where I can get an old Ford tractor with a three point hitch that will work and we won’t have to bring it up that steep road from the farm.”

“Where?” I asked wondering if he was going to start “liberating” things like Rudy seemed to plan to.

“The barn at the forestry station over by the old WPA camp. I checked it out when a couple of times over the winter. I’ll need some help getting it up and running but I know for a fact that it was used fairly regular. It was out that day that I was trimming those limbs so that you could get the streamline up the back road.”

We talked about some long distance plans … wants as well as needs … but it didn’t take much longer for me to be totally give out.

“Del …,” Mark whispered in my ear. I jumped. At some point I’d dozed. “Come on Sugar, time for bed.” I looked around. He’d banked the fire and locked everything down.

“Oh glory, I’m so sorry … how long have I been asleep?”

“Not long. I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did.”

We both walked down the hall and then I faced my cold, empty bedroom. I turned from the door and was left facing Daddy’s bedroom door.

“Try and not think about it Del. You need some rest and you aren’t going to get it if you … Del … are you listening?”

I turned to look him full in the face. “Mark, I don’t want to be alone.”

“You’re not, I’m right here and I’m not going any place. Remember?”

“No … I mean tonight … I don’t want to be alone.”

He looked at me before saying gently, “Del, sweetheart, you said yourself that it isn’t a good idea to make those kinds of decisions in your current state of mind.”

“I don’t care.”

“You will.”

“Mark …”

He gave me a very chaste kiss on my forehead. “We’ll leave the bedroom doors open. I’ll be right here. When we get together … and we will … I want us both to have clear heads and no regrets.”

I suppose I have to be glad that he had the willpower he had because at that moment I was just about as weak as I’d ever been and I was prepared to offer anything just to feel emotionally safe for a while.

I crawled in my bed thinking, “Who am I and what did I do with the girl I used to be?”

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