Forever Country by Brenda Kennedy

Abel Kennedy

It’s been six months since I lost the Heavyweight Boxing Championship fight to Bobby Grether. Although I’m disappointed, I know that he won fair and square. Even I can admit that.
Forever Country
Forever Country by Brenda Kennedy
After the fight, I stayed hidden in my suite at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was waiting for the swelling and bruising to go down on my face before being seen in public. I looked bad. In fact, I looked as bad as I felt. I was never one for public humiliation. I was the fighting champion, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It hurt. It hurt almost as bad as the injuries. I talked to Momma and Pops every day. Pops said he saw the fight on television, and he knew the condition I was in. He said Momma busied herself in the kitchen, makin’ fried chicken and peach cobbler so she had an excuse not to watch the fight. I invited them to all of my fights, but they didn’t attend any of them. Pops is busy on the farm and Momma, well, she doesn’t want to see anyone hittin’ her baby. “Baby” is her word, not mine. I’m 31 years old, so I’m hardly a baby. But I’ll always be her baby, no matter how old I am. My managers, Tony and Mack, stayed with me during my recuperation time after the fight. They were disappointed when I lost the championship belt, but I think they were more disappointed when I told them I was retiring. Well, maybe I’ll semi-retire; I haven’t decided yet. I do know this body needs a long rest. I decided to return to my country roots in Rose Farm, Ohio for the holidays. My parents are getting old and when my brother called and asked if I could come home and help on the farm, I couldn’t say no. I fly into Columbus, Ohio, rent a pickup truck, and drive myself to Rose Farm. Pops calls the farm “The Kennedy Mule Hill Farm,” but I’m not sure why. As I travel the old country roads, I see not much has changed. I left the rural area right out of high school and returned home only a few times over the years. I didn’t want to be a farmer, and I didn’t want this life for me. I’ve stepped in manure way too many times. I like music, and I know that the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson, who used to work as a field hand, had a very good reason for quitting and taking off with his guitar to play the country blues I love so much: “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life behind a mule that’s farting.” Of course, that was back in the days when mules pulled plows. Pops works hard, and he’s a proud man, but I wanted more for me, and for them. I thought if I made a lot of money, I would move my family away from the farm and into the city. I would be able to provide for them, and their life would be better, happier, and easier. I was wrong. They never left the farm, and they never cashed most of the checks I sent home for them. I sent them more than enough to pay off the farm, the farming equipment, and a sufficient amount to retire on and hire a farmhand. Those checks are stored away in a box in a closet. I will never understand why they chose to struggle the way they do. Pops did call me once and asked if he could cash one of the checks. He said Momma was getting’ mighty tired of holdin’ an umbrella over her head while hearin’ the gospel. I think that translates into “the church roof leaks.” Most people call their farms ranches, but not in this neck of the woods. They’re just farms. There’s nothing fancy about a farmhouse, country land, or country living. I drive through Crooksville, and nothing has changed. The old Crooksville Bank, now called “The Community Bank,” is still there and Peaches Place, a family restaurant, is just up the street. I watch the people as they mosey down the road stopping to talk to their neighbors. Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, Carhartt workwear, flannel shirts, and camouflage anything is still the dress code for these parts. I look around and I don’t see anyone I recognize. I wonder if I would even know anyone if I saw them. Probably not. I consider stopping at Peaches Place for some homemade apple pie but decide against it. I wonder if my sister-in-law, Mia, is working today. I’m not the same person I was when I left here, and I already feel out of place. I look down at my black slacks and white button-up shirt, and I definitely don’t fit in. I have cowboy boots, a guitar in the back of the pickup, and a cowboy hat. Maybe I fit in more than I want to admit. I also have a brand-new harmonica I’d like to learn to play. Fortunately, a harmonica doesn’t take up much space. I stop at the only country bar between Crooksville and Rose Farm. The County Line Bar is a popular bar that was open when I lived here. It used to be called The Jolly Bar. It looks like the only place in town to grab a cold one. I put on my cowboy hat and make my way into the bar. It’s early on a Wednesday night and there’s already a small crowd gathering inside. Is it Ladies Night? I get I.D.’d and pay the $5.00 cover charge at the door. I’m a little surprised to have to pay a fee in this area. “When did you start charging a cover charge?” I ask the bouncer at the door. “Since the Max Bleu band started playin’ here.” He nods to the stage in front of the bar and I can see the band setting up. Max Bleu Band. I kind of remember in high school a few guys getting a band together. Max was one guy’s first name, and Bleu was another guy’s last name. For the life of me, I can’t remember their whole names. I make my way to the bar. After I order a Bud Light, I take the only seat left at the bar. It’s beside a girl with long brown hair. I don’t complain. I look around the bar and drink my beer. When the band begins to play, I turn and face the stage. They introduce the band members and then themselves. I quickly recognize them as the guys from high school. The brunette sitting beside me orders a Pepsi and I’m a little surprised. Who comes to a bar and drinks pop? Someone bumps into her and she almost falls off of the barstool. I quickly reach for her to prevent her from falling onto the floor. The drunken guy looks at her and stumbles away. “Asshat,” she yells after him, and scoots back onto the stool. She turns around and looks at me and says, “Thank you. You can’t even have a drink without some drunk bumpin’ into you.” I remove my hands from around her waist. “You’re welcome. You’re only drinking Pepsi?” I ask. “My boyfriend’s the drummer. It’s still too early to drink. If I started drinkin’ now, I’d be like that asshat,” she says, nodding to the drunk guy staggering across the room. I smile to keep from laughing. “I don’t think I ever heard a girl say ‘asshat.’” before. When I say that, her smile matches my smile. “Sorry, that’s not too ladylike, is it?” “It’s fine. It’s just not a word I hear everyday.” “And I’m not like any other girl.” She laughs. “Hi, I’m Megan Rose.” She reaches her hand out for mine. I shake her hand and say, “I’m Abel Kennedy.” “I know that name.” I watch as her brows furrow together. “Abel Kennedy… how do I know that name?” I watch her take a drink of her Pepsi from the can. I don’t answer her, I just smile. The room starts filling up and it’s now standing room only. Onlookers now block the view we had of the band. I watch as she leans forward to try to get a better view of her boyfriend. The drunken guy reappears and stands beside her to order another drink. “Hey, baby,” he slurs. She leans back away from him and says, “I’m not your baby.” I watch him, and he watches her as he orders a double shot of Jack Daniels from the bartender. “Not yet, you’re not, but I was thinking we could hook up later.” His licks his lips and it’s disgusting. I watch as she stiffens. He takes his double shot and downs the entire drink. I watch as he wipes his mouth off with the back of his hand and says, “You ready to suck me off?” I stand and put my hand on Megan Rose’s shoulder. I look down at him and say, “Don’t talk to my sister like that.” She stiffens more but doesn’t say anything. I don’t know if it’s because I’m touching her, or because I just called her my sister. Probably both. His smile now fades and he stutters. “Sorry, man. I didn’t know she was your sister.” “Well, now you do.” I look down at Megan Rose and say, “Sis, why don’t you go and get us a table closer to the band?” She doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t look at him or me. She stands and quickly walks away. “You stay away from her, got it?” “It’s just a misunderstandin’,” he slurs. He raises both hands and stumbles away. I watch as he makes his way through the crowd to the exit. I finish my beer and pay my check and Megan Rose’s Pepsi bill. As I make my way out the door, I see Megan Rose sitting at a table closer to the band. She’s sitting with other girls who I assume are the band members’ girlfriends or wives. She sees me and I tilt my cowboy hat and leave. As I make my way to my truck, I see the drunken guy getting into a car with a girl. Just as I open my door, someone yells, “Abel.” I turn around and see Megan Rose running towards me. The air is cold and she wraps her arms across her mid-section for warmth. “I wanted to thank you for what you did for me in there,” she says out of breath. I look behind her and I see a guy standing at the doorway watching us. I recognize him as the drummer in the band. I watch her and say, “You’re welcome, but I really didn’t do anything.” She laughs. “You did do something, and I appreciate it. Most people just keep to themselves; they don’t want to get involved. I can tell that you aren’t from around here.” “I’m just visiting.” She doesn’t need to know that I am from around here. I’ll be leaving soon and chances are I’ll never see her again. “I told Nick what happened and we both appreciate it. Thank you.” I look behind her, and I assume Nick is her boyfriend. He nods and I return the gesture. “You’re welcome, Megan Rose. You should get inside because it’s cold out here.” “Okay, be careful, and I owe you a drink the next time I see you,” she yells and walks towards the bar. I watch as she makes her way towards Nick. They both wave and I watch as he holds the door open for her and walks in last. I get in the truck and head home. I’m stalling and I don’t know why. It’s home; I’m home. I arrive in Rose Farm, which is only a few miles from Crooksville, and see that the old school is still standing. It’s been condemned: Windows are busted out, and pieces of graffiti are written all over the brick building. I have to wonder why the eyesore of a building is still standing. Why wouldn’t they tear it down? Memories flood my head with the stories of the old schoolhouse that I heard when I was a child. I was too young to attend there before they closed it. I look further into the field behind the school, and thankfully, the outhouses — there used to be one for the boys, and one for the girls — are no longer there. This was a three-room schoolhouse, and each teacher taught two grades: 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6. We still need to fight the War on Poverty, but we may never win it because in Mark 14:7 Jesus said that “ye have the poor with you always.” Even if we never completely win the war, we need to fight it. Let all of us remember Proverbs 28:27: “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.” When President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty, the Rose Farm School was shut down, and students were bused to York Elementary School in Deavertown, which was just a few miles away. Federal money flowed into York Elementary, which started a library. Boxes of paperback books arrived frequently at the school, and the students did the work of setting up the library. The school also got one of the first videotape machines, which was used to show students such things as anti-smoking documentaries. The school also occasionally put on special programs. A few days or weeks before he died in the late 1960s, an elderly world-famous violinist — was it Mischa Elman? — performed a concert there. The students were excited because he owned a Stradivarius, which they had heard was worth $100,000. However, the students were disappointed when a string broke on the Stradivarius and the violinist disappeared behind a curtain and brought out and played a different violin. The best part of the concert was when he played a medley of classical music that was used in famous movies and TV shows. For example, he played the theme from Hitchcock Presents: Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” The principal, Gerald Clutter, told me. This is a place where people sometimes say “George Warshington,” “warsh rag,” “drownded,” and “Crooksville swimming pull” — not “Crooksville swimming pool” — and lots of people don’t pronounce the ‘g’ in -ing words, but culture still comes here occasionally. Of course, now, with the World Wide Web and other modern technology, culture is available anywhere modern technology is available. Clarence’s small store is no longer at the bottom of my parents’ driveway. In its place is a parking lot for the only church in Rose Farm. The village is too small for a McDonald’s, but of course it has a church. I look up the snowy rocky path and thank the good Lord that I rented a Chevy truck. Otherwise, I would have to park at the bottom and walk up the one-mile long driveway that leads to my parents’ farm. I check my cell phone and of course, I don’t have any messages. I shut it off and tuck it into my jacket pocket before driving up the steep driveway. The road is dark and rocky. On one side of the one-lane road is a dirt wall, and on the other side is a cliff-sized hill. It would have been nice — and safe — if my parents had used some of the money I sent them over the years to install a guardrail running the length of the driveway. It’s a dangerous drive up the hill although no one has ever had an accident on it. Not that I know about anyway. In my younger years, Pops always warned me about the blind spot right around the sharp bend. Blind spot? Is he crazy? The entire driveway is a blind spot. When I reach the top of the lane, the red barn comes into view first. I look at the barn before I look past it into the open pasture. The sun is setting and I’m not sure what I expected, but the field is empty. The large oak trees that offer shade for the horses and cows are now bare of their leaves. I see no signs of farm life anywhere. I park the rented truck and grab my duffle bags and guitar case before heading towards the white farmhouse with tattered black shutters. The screen door bursts open, revealing Momma in her white apron and black dress. She wears a smile only a mother would have for her child. I could be a drug dealer, and she would still love me. Behind her is Pops. He smiles as he follows close behind her. “There he is — my boy’s finally home.” Momma throws up both hands and makes her way down the four steps leading from the large wrap-around porch. I place the duffle bags and guitar case down on the gravel lot and hug her tightly. Her hug is warm and welcoming. Sadly, it’s been awhile since I’ve been home. I hug Momma and wonder if she’s always been this small. I definitely get my height from my Pops. “I missed you, Momma,” I say, honestly. “You’re home and I couldn’t be happier.” She backs away and places her small hands on my face. She searches my face for what? Scars? Bruising? Battle wounds? Honesty and happiness? I can’t be sure. I hunch over so she can see my face and smile to let her know I’m okay. “I’m happier than a pig in waller,” she says seriously. Do people really say that? Happier than a pig in waller. “Huh?” “Oh, never mind. Are you hungry?” she finally asks. “I am.” Momma is the best cook around. Pops always said she was an excellent cook — her food wasn’t always pretty, but it was always delicious. I have to agree. My mouth waters at the thought of her fried chicken and homemade biscuits. “Good, dinner’s almost done. Get warshed up and I’ll finish up supper. Your brother, Levi, and his wife, Mia, are on their way.” I hug Pops while Momma wraps her small arms around herself for warmth. It’s November and it’s already cold. “Let’s get inside before your Momma catches a cold.” Pops grabs a duffle bag and helps Momma into the house while I follow close behind with the other items. Once we are inside, Momma tells me to put my things in my old room. The smell of Momma’s chicken and biscuits fills the air. It’s my favorite meal and I knew she would make it. Since I became a boxer, I almost always only eat food on the healthy list. Fried chicken and biscuits were never on the healthy list. I’m looking forward to pigging out on a few home-cooked meals while I’m here. I walk through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, and then into my childhood bedroom. Everything is as I left it over ten years ago. The room is clean and smells of cedar. I look at the white curtains, white walls, and dark hardwood floors. My high school sports trophies are still on the bookcase along with some medals and ribbons I won. Although I loved football and weightlifting, I think track and wrestling were my favorites. Momma thought after-school sports would keep me out of trouble and it would set a high standard for Levi, my little brother. I think she was right. I place everything on the double-sized bed and head into the only bathroom to wash up. Pops is putting logs into the wood-burning fireplace. He still wears flannel shirts and Wrangler jeans. The house is simple and warm. A lot has changed in my life in ten years, but not much has changed on the ole homestead. The bathoom is just as I remember. The same white, iron claw-foot bathtub and cast iron pedestal sink from my childhood is still in place. I guess these things are made to last forever. I hear a car pull up and I know Levi and Mia are here. The long and winding driveway is not a welcome sight for people to travel on. I quickly wash my hands and rush out to greet my brother and sister-in-law. Levi and I were close as children, but I think he harbored ill feelings towards me when I left home. Just as they did me, Momma and Pops greet Mia and Levi outside on the porch. I open the door and watch as they exit their truck. Levi married his high school girlfriend right out of school. I suspected pregnancy, as did half of the town, but time proved us all wrong. Fortunately, no one brought diapers to Mia’s bridal shower; if they had, I would have heard. Neither went to college, both work hard, and they were able to buy a home in Roseville, not far from here. Mia works as a waitress at Peaches Place and Levi works for Shelly and Sands doing construction. His experience as a former Navy Seabee and a construction worker helps him in his personal life. He sees me and smiles. Levi is my height but not my size. I walk off the porch into the chilly night air and hug Mia first. “Abel, you look incredible,” she says, sincerely. “Thank you and you do, too. I’ve missed you.” I release my hold on my sister-in-law. Mia is small and petite with long blond hair. She’s wearing jeans, boots, and a brown Carhartt coat. “We missed you, too.” She backs away and smiles. I turn and look my brother in the eyes. He smiles and hugs me. His embrace is stronger than I thought it would be. “I missed you, Bro,” he says, laughing as he pats me on the back. “I missed you, too. You look great, Levi.” I back away and look at him. His hair is dark brown like mine, but it’s longer and curlier. His eyes are blue where mine are brown. We still look a lot alike, although he’s thinner than me. He’s wearing long johns under his flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots. “Just getting off work?” I ask in reference to his clothing. “No,” he says in confusion. “We’re helping Pops cut the firewood after dinner. Farmer’s Almanac is predictin’ a cold winter this year.” “Colder than a well digger’s butt in January,” Momma pipes in. Momma and Pops take turns hugging Mia and Levi. “Let’s eat while it’s still hot,” Pops says. Levi says grace before we eat. We sit around the solid wood choppers block table and have dinner. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s the best meal I’ve had in a long time. I swear I recognize some of the serving dishes from my childhood. The table is full of food. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cheesy grits, creamed corn, homemade biscuits, and milk. While most Yankees don’t eat grits, we do. I developed a love for them in my early years. Momma met Pops when he was in the Air Force while stationed in Savannah, Georgia. Momma’s name is Nell, but he calls her “Belle.” It’s a nickname, short for his Southern Belle. Sometimes he’ll call her Nelly; it all depends on his mood, and her mood, too. Often, Momma calls Pops “Bud.” So do other people. Dinner is filled with light conversation and friendly smiles. Mia talks about her customers at work, Levi tells an anecdote about his days in the Seabees, and Pops talks about the homemade blackberry pie he helped Momma make. Mia talks about something that happened last year just before Christmas. Someone called Peaches Place and said, “Oops! Wrong number! I have you guys on speed dial.” The person was a regular customer who came in about 15 minutes later with a big container of homemade muffins for the people who worked there. She said, ‘You have been serving me good food all year and I thought I would return the favor.’” Levi learned construction when he was a Navy Seabee — soldiers have battalions; the Seabees are members of construction battalions. He says that the Seabees are not greatly impressed by rank. What impresses them is competence. One Seabee met an Admiral and told him, “You’ve got an important job, sir, don’t mess it up.” After hearing Pops talk about helping with the homemade blackberry pie, Momma laughs and corrects him. “Bud, you ate the berries as I was preparin’ them for the pie.” “Belle, I only ate the bad ones—” he begins to say with a chuckle. “—and some good ones,” she teases. “Okay, and some mighty tasty good ones.” I’m relieved when the conversation doesn’t get directed at me. Since my retirement from professional boxing, I have no plans. I know I need to do something, I just don’t know what. Momma probably wants a daughter-in-law and some grandbabies, but I’m not sure that’s what I want. I know my time here on the farm is limited. I don’t see this lifestyle for me long term. I’ll stay through Christmas, help out as much as I can, and hopefully, talk my folks into accepting some money from me. After dinner, Momma and Mia clean up and the guys go outside to cut and haul some firewood from the barn to the front porch. It’s definitely work, and I soon realize I’ll need some flannel shirts, a work coat, work gloves, and work boots. Before Mia and Levi leave, they make plans to meet up on Saturday to winterize the farm for the bitter winter. I had forgotten that people do that. I remember from when I was a child Pops covering all of the windows in plastic. Do people still do that? Use plastic for insulation? Time will tell. I throw on a jacket and walk Mia and Levi out to their truck. It’s dark and I notice that the light over the barn isn’t on. I’ll see if it’s burnt out in the morning. If memory serves, the light was set on an automatic timer. When that light came on, it meant to get your tail home. “How long ya staying for, Abel?” Mia asks as she pulls her coat tighter around her. “I’ll be here through Christmas.” She snaps her head up and looks at me. “You aren’t stayin’ for New Year’s?” “Not really planning on it.” “Your momma know that?” “Not sure, it hasn’t come up.” “Abel, you think about that long and hard before you go tellin’ her and breakin’ her heart.” Mia leans in and hugs me. “I’ll be in the truck while you two talk.” I watch as she gets into the truck and starts it up. “She all right?” Levi looks at me, and then to Mia. “She’s okay. She doesn’t want Momma to be disappointed when you leave again.” “Levi, look.” I shift my feet in the dirt driveway and say, “I left the farm, but I didn’t leave my family.” “Didn’t you?” “No. As soon as I found my way in the world, I sent money. A lot of money.” “Did you ever think it wasn’t about the money? Bro, some people in these parts don’t care much about money. As long as Momma and Pops have food on the table, gas in the car, and a roof over their head, that’s all they care about.” “I understand that, but the money would have lightened their load. Made life easier for them.” “You think that’s what Pops and Momma want? A lighter load?” “Yes, isn’t that what we all want? It’s nice to live on the farm, but wouldn’t it be nicer to live on a new and improved farm?” Levi shoves his hands into his pocket. “You have it all wrong and you’ve been gone far too long.” He looks in the pickup at Mia before looking back at me. “I gotta go, but I’ll be back first thing in the morning.” “You’ll be here before you go to work?” He looks confused and says, “There’s a storm threatenin’ the area tonight. I come by every mornin’ and feed the animals and gather eggs. Who did you think did that, the farmhands?” I look in the direction of the chicken coop. “Really, Abel? Farmhands? We need to talk. I’ll see ya tomorrow.” “It’s good seeing you,” I say. “You, too. Take Mia’s advice and consider stayin’ through the New Year. Momma’s gonna be right sad when you leave here again.” “She knows I’m not staying.” “Abel, she may know that, but in her heart, she doesn’t wanna believe it.” I shower and go to bed. Looking at my phone, I see I still don’t have any messages. After I put my things away, I set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. I no longer fight, but I still work out every morning. I don’t want to be the ex-fighter who gains 40 pounds the year after retiring, although if I’m not careful I may end up being like the many people who become obese by gaining one pound a year for 40 years. The high winds wake me from a restless sleep. The wooden shutters continue to beat against the house, and I wonder if my folks can hear it. Lying awake in bed, I wonder why my parents never spent the money I sent them. I understand this is their family farm, but why not use the money for home improvements or even a farmhand? Money isn’t everything, but it can be helpful. It’s a tool; people can use it to make their lives better. In the morning, I work on the farm. I dress in jeans, a sweatshirt, and a pair of boots. My boots aren’t the kind of boots you work on a farm in; wearing them for farmwork is kind of like a woman wearing an original Dior to hoe weeds in a garden. I slowly open the creaky wooden bedroom door, and walk across the cold hardwood floor. I smell coffee and bacon before I notice a chill in the house and add more logs to the hot embers in the fireplace. Momma’s standing at the stove. “You’re up early?” I ask, looking from her to the clock. I take a seat on one of the four bar stools. She’s still in her nightgown and a housecoat. “Nah, this isn’t early. Your brother’s comin’ over, and I wanna make sure he’s got something hot in his belly before he leaves here. He comes over every day, and I make him breakfast every day.” She pours a cup of coffee and asks, “Did you sleep well?” I gratefully take the coffee she hands me. “I did, thank you.” She looks up at me and smiles. “Abel Lee, you didn’t hear that shutter bangin’ against the house all night?” I smile. “I did sleep well before the wind knocked the shutter lose.” Truth is, I didn’t sleep well at all. “It was so loud I thought it was gonna send the pigs into a panic.” She turns back around and flips the bacon over in the cast iron skillet. Pops walks into the kitchen and smiles. “Mornin’, Son.” He’s wearing a brown flannel shirt, Wrangler jeans, and work boots. “Morning, Pops.” I watch as he walks over and kisses Momma before he fills a large mug with hot coffee. The timer goes off on the oven, and I watch as she removes a casserole and biscuits. “Mornin’, Belle, breakfast smells delicious.” Pops smiles and takes a seat next to me. “We have a busy day today.” He takes a drink of his coffee. “The wind knocked that shutter lose again and the horse fence is fallin’ apart. If you’ll help me, I’d like to get those two things taken care of before noon.” “Sounds good. I need to run into town and get some work clothes sometime today.” “Good, we’ll stop in and have lunch with Mia. She’s workin’ today, isn’t she, Belle?” “She sure is. She’s probably there now. I’ll also need to get some groceries while we’re in town.” I see headlights before I hear the sound of tires in the rocky driveway. If I were at home, I would be concerned about who’s pulling up this time of day, but here on the farm, it can be only one person, Levi. “I should help him.” I stand and begin to walk towards the door. “Nah, don’t bother.” Momma looks out the window and using her apron, she wipes her hands. “He’ll get the eggs before he comes in and eats. It’ll only take ‘im a few minutes.” The way he made it sound, he really had a morning full of chores to do here, before heading to his real job. Momma was right, after a few short minutes he walks into the house, carrying a metal basket filled with farm-fresh brown eggs. “Didn’t get many eggs today,” he says, placing the basket on the counter. “Maybe the storm frightened the chickens.” “Maybe, or maybe they’re just gettin’ old,” Pops says. Momma hands Levi a cup and coffee and takes the basket of eggs from the counter. “Thank you, these are just fine.” I look at the basket of eggs and it’s full. I wonder how many chickens there are and how many eggs he thought he should have gotten. I don’t ask. After a hearty breakfast and two cups of coffee, I go outside with Levi to feed the animals. “You’re gonna ruin them good boots of yours.” I follow Levi’s eyes to my cowboy boots. “They’re just boots,” I lie. These are actually very expensive boots and I had them specially made. I can’t admit that out loud. “They don’t look like ‘just boots,’ but suit yourself.” I am surprised and amazed at all the animals that are still on the farm. Cows, pigs, chickens, roosters, horses, and even a few mules. It takes a good hour between the two of us to feed all of the animals. “What’s up with the mules?” I finally ask. “Pops went to a livestock auction in Hartville and got ’em at a ‘good price,’” he says, using air quotes. “It’s not very practical, is it?” I ask. “Not hardly, but when he came home, he named the farm and made a sign and hung it over the barn doors. Welcome to ‘The Kennedy Mule Hill Farm.’” We both laugh and Pops asks, “What’s so funny?” Levi looks at me and I say, “The mules. I’m a little surprised to see you have mules on the farm.” “Yep, got ’em for next to nothin’ at an auction. It must have been my lucky day,” he says proudly, petting a mule like it’s his favorite pet. I smile, although I am still confused as to why he would want mules. Has he not considered the amount of money he spends on feed for them weekly, monthly, and especially yearly? I look from Pops to Levi. Levi subtly shakes his head at me. He knows what I’m thinking. “Well, you can’t beat that,” I finally say. Once the animals are fed, Levi leaves for work. Pops and I fix the shutter before we repair the fence. The fence was in worse shape than he thought. Once it’s repaired, we head to the house for lunch. Pops wanted to have lunch with Mia at Peaches, but it’s too late. The repairs took longer than expected. After we eat, Pops and I shower and we all head into town to get me some appropriate work clothes. As Levi said I would, I ruined my expensive boots from working in them this morning. Since I need to return the rental truck today, I follow Momma and Pops into South Zanesville. Rose Farm is too small to have the stores I need to buy work clothes; actually, it is too small to have any stores. The country roads are winding and dangerous. I worry about my parents driving on them although they don’t seem concerned. The light dusting of snow that was here yesterday is just a memory now. I return the truck first, then we shop for some work clothes for me. I stock up on work boots, Wrangler jeans, several flannel shirts, and long john underwear. I’m also able to buy an insulated coat and work gloves at the same store. As I pay for my purchase, Momma tells the man he should be ashamed of himself for chargin’ an arm and a leg for the same things that Wal-Mart sells. Pops and I quickly usher Momma out of the store. “Nelly, you’re a feisty one today.” “I reckon his Momma don’t know what he’s chargin’ in his store. Abel, you coulda gone to Wal-Mart or even K-Mart for the same stuff and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper,” she insists. I understand the man sells better quality than the big-box department stores, and I also realize he needs to upcharge his items to make a profit. I didn’t think he was outrageously priced. The boots I ruined cost more than everything I bought today. “It’s all right, Momma. He has a family he needs to feed.” We go to the Campbell’s Food Town on S.R. 22, and the people there greet my parents by name. I am introduced to the owner and I think I remember him from my younger years. Momma compares prices, sale items, and coupons on everything she buys. It takes a lot longer to shop than I expected, and I have to remind myself I don’t have any place else that I need to be. Pops pushes the cart and reads a magazine he took from the shelf as we came in. I keep waiting for someone to say something to him, but they don’t. This is something straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. I must learn to relax. Momma shops for her Thanksgiving Day meal. I’m a little surprised that the cart is almost full when she finally gets to the register. I also notice that she bought two or more of everything. I’m disappointed and hurt when she refuses to let me pay. I almost have to threaten the cashier to make him use my credit card instead of taking Momma’s cash. I calmly and as nicely as I can explain to Momma that while I am here, she will not be paying for anything herself. “It’s the least I can do. I’m staying with you, so please let me buy the groceries,” I beg. She reluctantly agrees. Momma would expect me to pay for my girlfriend’s groceries, if I had a girlfriend, yet she doesn’t want me to pay for hers. Does she feel like this is a handout? Does she still look at me as her little boy she needs to take care of? The answer to the last question, of course, is yes. As we are in line at the grocery store, I overhear the cashier tell a woman that she is short on money. Momma is busy searching through her coupons as Pops holds her coupon organizer. They don’t notice. The manager comes out from the office and offers the woman store credit. She leaves with her purchase and her small child. I remember this same store used to help Momma out years ago. Pops got paid on Fridays and they would always let Momma shop on Thursdays. They would hold the post-dated check until the next day. It’s good to know they still help out in this small community. Campbell’s Food Town is a privately owned and operated business, with a hometown feel. The owners are older than my parents and still live like they did in the days when you trusted most people and helped out the community. I miss some things from rural living, and this is one of them. People in the city aren’t as trusting. While a young man loads up our groceries into the back of the truck, I run back inside and quickly settle up the debt owed from the woman. I also give Mr. Campbell a little extra money to cover arrears for future customers. He tells me, “You’re a good man, Abel Kennedy.” I watch as he places the money in an envelope and writes “Customer Emergency Fund” with a black magic marker. “Thank you. Can’t have people going around hungry now, can we?” “I can’t imagine anything much worse than hunger,” he replies. He hands the envelope to his wife, who is the only other person in the office with him. She smiles as she puts the envelope in the top desk drawer. “There needs to be more people like you in the world.” “Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving. I would like the donation to remain anonymous.” “Yes, of course. Happy Thanksgiving to you. Many people run short this time of year. This emergency fund you set up will make many people happy,” Mrs. Campbell says. I nod and leave. On the drive home, Pops takes the long way. It’s late fall and many trees are bare of leaves. I remember how beautiful the countryside is in the middle of fall. Mom looks out the window as if in deep thought. I wonder if my paying for the groceries is still bothering her. “After we get the mail from the post office, I need to stop by the church.” Momma reaches up and readjusts the bobby pin in her hair. Pops looks over at Momma and smiles. “Whatever you want, Belle.” We go to the local post office, then we pull up at the church, and she asks, “Abel, would you mind helping me?” “No, whatever you need.” I get out of the truck and then help Momma out. We walk to the back of the pickup and she sorts through the bags of groceries. Pops also joins us. A man walks out of the church and greets us warmly. My folks introduce me to the preacher of the church, Pastor Jenson, and we shake hands. “Nelly and Bud, the church sure does appreciate everything you do for us.” “No need to thank us, we’re plumb tickled we’re able to help a family in need. I think this is about everything.” Momma looks through the last of the bags. “We bought Sugar-Frosted Flakes because kids like them.” It looks like she gave half of the groceries to the church. “Oh, I forgot the eggs. I’ll bring them down if you’ll still be here for a few minutes.” “That’s fine, I’ll be here for another hour or so.” Pastor Jenson gathers up some of the bags of food and offers a warm and friendly smile. We all carry bags of food into the cold church. After we place the grocery bags on the counter of the small kitchen, Pastor Jenson says that they already have a family to give the food to. “If you need anything else, let us know. We’ll do what we can,” Pops says. “I’ll run the eggs back down within the hour.” “Thank you so much, and you have done so much already.” We drive up the hill to the farm in silence. I think about how generous and caring my parents are. Not just my parents but also my brother. I also think back to the young mother in the store. Have I been that displaced from my hometown that I forgot that people still struggle? Is that why Momma didn’t spend the money I sent them? Is she afraid of becoming detached from her friends and the community she loves? Once the food is put away, I say, “I’ll take the eggs down to the church. I need to get some exercise today.” “Thank you, Abel. I’ll start dinner while you’re out.” Once I’m dressed for my run, I take the bag holding a few dozen eggs from the counter. “Hang on, your dad went to the basement to get some walnuts. He thought maybe someone from the church could use some, bein’ so close to the holidays and all.” A memory comes into my mind of my brother and me collecting fallen walnuts from the tree along the side of the house. It was considered one of our chores in the early fall. “Does that tree still produce nuts?” I ask in disbelief. Momma smiles as she wipes down the counter. “Sure does, more now than she ever did. The peach tree on the other side of the house provides more peaches than I know what to do with.” Pops appears from the basement with a large brown paper bag of walnuts. Momma smiles as he sets them down on the kitchen table. I watch her as she walks into the pantry and returns with a box of freezer baggies. We all pitch in as we fill several bags full of the walnuts. “This should be plenty. Abel, are you sure you can carry all of this?” Momma asks as she places the nuts into another bag. I watch Pops, who has the nutcracker out and is already cracking open some of the nuts for himself to eat. “It’s fine. I’ll take this to the church, run for a bit, and then when I return I’ll feed the animals. I also want to look at the light outside of the barn. I noticed last night that it was burnt out.” “Levi’s been wantin’ to change it, just not enough hours in the day,” Momma says as she hands me the grocery bags. I smile and she kisses me on the cheek before I leave. “Thank you, Abel.” “Momma, you never have to thank me. I’m happy to do it.” I walk towards the driveway and look over at the huge walnut tree. It’s much bigger than I remember. It still produces nuts and my family still harvests them. This should not surprise me. I have very fond memories of gathering them with Levi, peeling the foul-smelling green husk from the shell and then seeing who collected the most. Momma and Pops always had something special for the child who did the best, collected the most, or helped out when they weren’t asked. It wasn’t much, maybe a couple pieces of candy, or a cookie. But it was enough for Levi and me to always want to do better. When I arrive at the church, I see the woman from the grocery store leaving. I nod at her and she gives me a shy smile. The preacher is still standing at the door, watching her drive off. “Thank you for bringin’ these by so quickly, Abel. Your folks never let the church down.” I smile and hand him the two bags with the eggs and the walnuts. “They’re good people. They also sent some walnuts.” He smiles and peeks into the bags. “I was hopin’ they would. They do that every year. With the holidays fast approachin’, these will be nice to have.” He looks up from the bag and says, “Please, thank them for me.” “I will, have a good night.” “You, too.” I don’t run. Instead, I walk around the old neighborhood. I look at all the homes and try to remember who lived where. It’s too cold for people to be sitting outside, but I can see them through their windows. Although the community is poor, it doesn’t lack love or happiness. I can see smiling faces and can imagine the laughter coming from within the house. I smile. It’s a good feeling. I walk past the houses in the direction of the old Rose Farm Elementary School. It’s disheartening to see the building in such shambles. The busted-out windows and the graffiti on the walls are painful to see. What makes it worse is that it’s in the middle of town, within view of many homes. I once wondered why no one fixed it up, but now I understand the financial reasons. I also have to wonder who would have busted out the windows and written the graffiti on the red brick building. It doesn’t seem like an area with juvenile delinquents running around. “It’s sad, isn’t it?” I turn around and I see the woman from the store walking with her small son. “Hi, I’m Savannah Mae Dickerson, and this is my son, Sawyer Jackson.” She smiles and reaches her hand out for mine. I extend my hand, “It’s nice to meet you, Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson. I’m Abel Kennedy.” “Nelly and Bud’s oldest boy? Your Momma’s been braggin’ about you all week.” I smile. “Has she now?” “She sure has. Been tellin’ everyone that Abel Lee’s comin’ home for the holidays.” I admire her country twang and laugh before I release her hand. “It’s Abel.” She laughs and searches my eyes. “I wondered did you go by Abel Lee.” “Not since I was five years old.” Although on occasion Momma still calls me Abel Lee. On a very rare occasion. “I was born Savannah Mae and I’ll die Savannah Mae.” She thinks for a minute and says, “Just Savannah would be nice.” “I think Savannah Mae suits you just fine, Savannah Mae.” She smiles. “Thank you. Mae’s an old family name. I imagine my folks would be disappointed if I stopped using it.” She looks past me in the direction of the old school. I turn around and look at the old dilapidated school. “Do they have plans for the old school?” I ask. “I don’t know. The township struggles enough. They don’t have to announce it by having this building lookin’ the way it does.” I put my hands in my hoodie pocket and frown. “Maybe they are going to turn it into something to benefit the community.” “Really, Abel Lee. No one in this neck of the woods got money to spend on fixin’ this here buildin’.” I look at her and smile. She’s cute and that country slang is music to my ears. I hear a horn and she says, “C’mon, Sawyer Jackson, your daddy’s here.” She looks at me and says, “Abel Lee, it was mighty nice meetin’ ya.” I nod and say, “The pleasure’s all mine, Savannah Mae.” Savannah Mae “Ethan, buckle him in the booster seat and I’ll get his overnight bag from the house.” “Who’s your friend?” Ethan asks, noddin’ in the direction of the school. I look up and follow his eyes to Abel Lee. “Don’t start.” “I just asked who your friend was. I ain’t startin’ nothin’.” “He’s Nelly and Bud’s oldest boy.” “The boxer?” “I didn’t ask, but he must be. They only have two sons, and we know Levi don’t box.” I look at Abel Lee and then at Ethan. I shake my head and run into the house to get Sawyer Jackson’s overnight bag. I hate it when Sawyer Jackson leaves to go to his daddy’s house. We have been divorced for only a few months and every day it’s still a struggle. It’s hard livin’ in these parts with a man, but to live here without one is mighty tough. I walk outside and Ethan is still watchin’ Abel Lee. I hand him the duffel bag with Sawyer Jackson’s change of clothes in it, and focus my attention on my little boy. “Sawyer Jackson, you be a good boy for Daddy.” “I will, Momma.” I smile at my dark-haired, four-year-old son. “I know you will. I love and miss you.” I look at Ethan and ask, “Any news on a job?” “Savannah Mae!” “I’m just askin’. I’m fallin’ behind on the bills, Thanksgiving’s this week, and then Christmas is next month. Gettin’ a little worried.” “I know, and I’m sorry. I’m doin’ my best.” Ethan gets in the driver side of the truck and fastens his seatbelt. He looks sad and worried. I try to smile to assure him everything will work out. “Well, maybe something will come up this week.” “I hope so,” he says as he starts his old Ford pickup. I know he’s tryin’ so I don’t say anything else. “I’ll see you both tomorrow.” “Good night, Savannah Mae.” Abel I stand in the field, looking at the old schoolhouse longer than necessary. I want to see if Savannah Mae was leaving with her son’s daddy. She didn’t. He kept watching me when she disappeared into the house. Me being me, I just watched him back. I don’t even know that girl. Why would I have cared if she left with him? She didn’t say her husband or boyfriend. She did say, Sawyer Jackson’s daddy. Maybe she’s divorced. While running, I push the thoughts of Savannah Mae far from my mind. I’m here only for the holidays, and I’m not looking to hook up with a country girl. Even if she is beautiful. The girl from the bar last night was also beautiful. Megan Rose. This area sure does have some pretty girls. I run around the local streets of Rose Farm before I run on the back roads. It’s been awhile since I’ve been here, but it doesn’t take long for me to remember where the back roads take you. The air is cold and crisp, and it feels good pumping in and out of my lungs. I think about being back in Rose Farm, and I also think about Savannah Mae. If anyone else ever called me “Abel Lee,” I think I might have been angry at them. But not Savannah Mae. It sounded like honey coming from her sweet mouth. After completing my run, I force myself not to look in the direction of her house on my way to my parents’ farm. My body deceives me. As soon as I turn the corner, my eyes dart straight to her little white house with red shutters and her yard with a white picket fence. The house is dark with only a single dim porch light lit. Turning in the direction of the farm, I walk up the mile-long driveway to my parents’ house. It’s dark and the barn light is still out. I chastise myself for not fixing that earlier today. Even though I had only a few things to do, I couldn’t get everything done. Tomorrow, I’ll do all of the chores, and then I’ll complete my workout. I see Levi’s truck and it makes me feel even worse. He helped on the farm this morning, went to work, and still had time to come back and help out on the farm again. Momma and Pops need help and I feel like I let them down. I hang my head in shame as I walk through the kitchen door. The house smells of food and the sound of laughter fills the air. Momma looks up at me and smiles. “There he is.” I smile. It feels good to be home. “I’m sorry I’m late.” I look over at Levi, who is standing at the refrigerator door. “How was work?” “Good, I could use some help feedin’ the animals, you game?” “Ready whenever you are.” “We’ll be back.” Momma turns to stir a pot on the stove. “By the time you finish, dinner will be done.” I smile and nod before shutting the door behind me. I feel resentment against Levi for being here helping Momma and Pops. I know it’s misplaced anger. Why would his helping them bother me? It makes no sense. Maybe I feel bad for not doing what needs to be done today. “Something wrong?” he asks as he walks into the barn to get some feed. “No, nothing. I’m just glad you’re here to help.” “Wouldn’t have it any other way.” When we return to the house, Mia is standing in the kitchen with Momma, and Pops is adding more firewood to the fireplace. Levi smiles and rushes over to Mia. “I missed you.” Mia stands on tiptoes and kisses him. “I missed you. How was your day?” “It just got a heck of a lot better.” He smiles. Tonight’s dinner consists of soup beans and hamhocks and homemade cornbread with peach cobbler for dessert. During dinner, Mia and Momma plan the Thanksgiving Day menu. Pops listens intently. Thanksgiving will be on the farm. For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving dinner has only been on the farm. My parents always host the dinner. I think it’s because Momma likes to cook, and it’s easier to have it here as opposed to transferring all the food to another location. After we eat dinner and clean up the kitchen, Levi and Mia leave. Momma and Pops go to bed, and I’m unable to sleep. I take my guitar out to the barn and prop myself up in the corner on a hay bale. Strumming a few chords, I close my eyes. I play a few country songs by Luke Bryan and Josh Turner. When I finally open my eyes, I have an audience staring at me. “Hey, girl.” I stand and walk over to the midnight black mare watching me. I pet her mane and she moves her head closer to me. “You like music, girl?” I see a few apples and pick them up to feed her. Watching her eat, I admire her beauty. All black with a white diamond shape on her nose. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I give her one last stroke and leave. I know there is another horse in the stable, but he doesn’t come over. The night is dark and cold. The sky is clear and filled with stars, and a crescent moon. I soon realize everything is so much clearer and cleaner in the country. Living in the city, you don’t understand what pollution does to the air. Light pollution from such things as streetlights also makes it hard to see stars. I stop on the porch and take a seat on the step. I listen. Nothing but silence. I reflect on the last decade of my life. Savannah Mae “Momma, can we please put the tree up?” I stand and put my hand on my hip. “Sawyer Jackson, what did Momma say?” He frowns. “Not until after Thanksgiving.” I smile. My son was listenin’. “And why did I say not until after Thanksgiving?” He thinks for a minute and raises a brow. “’cause you’re not supposed to rush the holidays.” I walk over and kneel down to my son. “That’s exactly right.” “Why not?” He frowns again and crosses his small arms over his tiny chest. I take Sawyer Jackson’s hand and walk him over to the couch. Because I don’t have money for a tree. Because I don’t know where the money will come from for the gifts this year to put under the tree. I don’t say any of those things. I set him on my lap in hopes the right words come to me. A smile forms on my face when I look him in the face. My beautiful baby boy. “Because we’re supposed to enjoy the holidays, not rush through them.” “We can still have Thanksgiving with the Christmas tree up.” He’s right, we can. “We can, but we aren’t. When Thanksgiving is over, and not a day sooner, we’ll put the tree up.” “Momma…,” he whines. “Sawyer Jackson? If you keep that up, we’ll wait until Christmas Eve. Do you understand me?” “Yes, Ma’am.” “Good, go get your hat and coat on, I need to run to the grocery store.” A quick trip, we walk in, and I attempt to pay off my credit debt, but Mrs. Campbell says, “Savannah Mae, I’m not showing a debt from you.” I scoot closer to the customer service window/ manager’s office window, and whisper, “Are you sure? I was here the other day and told your husband I would bring the money back in. I still owe $24 and change on my purchase.” The privately owned store is too small to have a customer service desk; instead, it has a manager’s office with a sliding glass window. “Ah yes, I remember that day. I was here working. Your debt has already been taken care of.” She smiles and I wonder did she and her husband erase the debt for me. They own the non-franchise store and it wouldn’t surprise me if they did that. I look down at Sawyer Jackson and smile. “Just a few more minutes, Buddy.” I adjust his hat and he readjusts it after me. Holdin’ his hand, I look back up to the window. “No, please don’t do that. I have the money to pay it.” I show her the money I’m holdin’. “Savannah Mae, it wasn’t me, dear. We had a visit from an Angel.” I hold Sawyer Jackson’s hand tight. More people are comin’ into the store, and the line behind me is gettin’ long. “Okay, thank you. I appreciate it more than you know.” I have no idea who would have paid for my purchase. Ethan doesn’t have the extra money and he didn’t even know I was short the other day. “Happy Thanksgiving, Savannah Mae.” She smiles, and it’s a genuine, friendly smile. “Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.” I drop off Sawyer Jackson with his daddy before my shift at Peaches. I kiss and hug Sawyer Jackson and wait at the door for Ethan to answer my knock. This sure isn’t the life I had pictured for myself. I always thought Ethan and I would be married forever, have two kids and some grandbabies, and grow old together. “You know you can come in,” Ethan says, opening the door. Looking into the apartment, I fidget. “I know, I need to get to work.” Ethan leaves and when he returns he hands me some money. “It isn’t much, but it should help you with some bills.” I reluctantly take the money and say, “Did you find work?” “I sold the infant cradle today.” Ethan makes the best wooden furniture in these parts. I swear it’s better than what the Amish folks make. I remember the cradle he’s talkin’ about. Dark walnut wood with spindle sides. “I hope it went to a good home.” He smiles and nods. “It did.” I look at the money again and it reminds me of the grocery store. “Have you been in Campbell’s Food Town lately?” “Not since the divorce. I feel funny walkin’ in there. I get sympathy stares from Mr. and Mrs. Campbell.” It wasn’t him. “Why?” I fidget again. “They’re havin’ a sale on meat this week,” I lie. I bite my lip to keep from spittin’ out the truth that threatens to escape my mouth. “I need to go. Are you sure you mean for me to have all of this?” I hold up the money for him to see. “I’m sure.” He looks behind him at Sawyer Jackson and looks at me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for us to end up like this.” He looks sad and tears threaten to spill from my eyes. I’m not sure what to say. Never in a million years did I think my high school sweetheart and I wouldn’t be together. I swallow the lump in my throat. I try to dismiss the memory of when I caught Ethan kissing Heather Sue under the maple tree last year. It was the night of her birthday party. I walked home cryin’ and he came home drunk shortly after. I wasn’t able to get over it, although he swore he didn’t do anything. But kissin’ ain’t nothin’. “Well, you better get goin’ or you’ll be late for your shift.” “Thank you for the money. If you need some…” “No, Savannah Mae. You take it.” He takes his hand and pushes my hand with the money in it away from him. “It’s for you, and our son.” “Thank you, Ethan.” I step back and give him a sad smile. “I’ll be here in the mornin’ to get Sawyer Jackson.” “Sounds good. Be careful and if you need me, call me.” “I’ll be fine.” I peek into the apartment and say, “Sawyer Jackson, I love you, Buddy.” “Love you, too, Momma.” He runs up and hugs me goodbye, almost knockin’ his daddy over. During my shift, the customers and the employees are all talkin’ about a local girl who was murdered earlier this mornin’. I pick up the Zanesville Times Recorder and read the main headline: “Local girl found murdered outside of County Line Bar.” “Are you kiddin’?” “Where have you been? It’s the talk of the town,” Cathy says. I shiver at such tragic news hittin’ so close to home. I don’t have time to read the article before we start to get busy. I don’t need to read the paper to know what it says. I hear the story over and over again from the customers. Cathy was right, it’s the talk of the town. The girl, whose name is not bein’ released yet, was found outside of the bar, by the wooded area in the back parking lot. I overhear people say that Megan Rose hasn’t been seen around town in a few days. I don’t ask any questions and I try to not engage in any gossip. Ethan and I used to frequent that bar when we were married. It’s a nice place. Everyone in town goes there. I can’t imagine who or why someone would have been murdered there. “They don’t know who she was?” I ask Cathy when the customers leave. “The paper’s not releasin’ her name, pendin’ notification of the girl’s family. But I heard she was unrecognizable.” I sit down before I fall down. “The chance is very good we know her,” I whisper. “Who you tellin’? Everyone knows everyone in this town. I heard Diane and Bobby say it was Megan Rose. You remember her, don’t you?” I can only nod. I do remember her. She went to school with my sister, Samantha Marie. After my shift at the diner, I walk into my lonely house. The house is small and at one time, it felt too small. However, since my divorce, and with Sawyer Jackson at his daddy’s, the house seems too large. After a shower, I make a pot of coffee. After the news I heard at work tonight, I doubt I’ll be able to sleep. I place a few logs into the fireplace and go outside to sit on the porch. The air is crisp and cold, and the neighborhood is dark and quiet. Work was busy and it feels good to just listen to nothin’. I pull the quilted throw tighter around me. I sip on my hot coffee when I see a dark shadow joggin’ down the street. It is out of the ordinary to see a dark figure runnin’ this time of night. I should probably run inside and lock the door, but I don’t feel threatened. I continue to watch the figure in the dark hoodie jog closer. The person stops when he gets in front of my house. What am I doin’? I look up and down the street and I don’t see anyone. Maybe it was a mistake to sit on the porch. Maybe I should have run into the house and locked up. The jogger lowers his hood before speakin’. “Can’t sleep, Savannah Mae?” My heart beats hard and fast. I look closer at the figure walkin’ into the street lighting. “Abel Lee.” I smile. “Didn’t your momma ever tell you it’s not safe to be out this time of night?” He smiles, revealing perfectly white teeth and a single dimple. “As a matter of fact, she did.” He walks closer to me and stops when he reaches the steps leading up to the porch. “And you chose to not listen to her?” I take another sip of my coffee to try to hide my smile. “Lots to do throughout the day, so running at night works out better for me.” He takes a step closer and raises his right foot to the next step. “Can’t sleep?” he asks. We make eye contact. “No. Sawyer Jackson’s with his daddy, and I just got off work. Just enjoyin’ some quiet time before bed.” He nods. “Let me leave the pretty lady to her quiet time then.” He lowers his foot to leave. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” I can see uncertainty in his eyes. He puts his hand in his hoodie jacket pocket and says, “Are you sure?” “I wouldn’t have asked ya, if I didn’t want the company.” Abel I have to think for only a second before I answer. “I think I would, thank you, Savannah Mae.” She stands up and drops the quilted throw she was wrapped in on the wooden rocker she was sitting on. “Don’t just stand there, c’mon up.” She motions with her hands for me to join her on the porch. “How do you take your coffee?” I walk up the three steps as she holds open the screen door for me. “Black, please.” She smiles and says, “I figured. Come in while I get your coffee.” She holds the screen door wide open for me. “Thank you.” I stand at the door and wait as she disappears behind a beige wall. I look around the room and notice the handmade walnut end tables, coffee table, and the corner cabinet. The house is small and comfortable. The local newspaper is on the coffee table, and I walk over to pick it up. I recognize the bar on the front page and I read this headline: “Local girl found murdered outside of County Line Bar.” I skim the article looking for a name. There isn’t one. Savannah Mae reappears with a mug of black coffee. “Thank you,” I say as I take it from her. “You have a beautiful home.” She looks at me and raises a brow. “It’s small and cozy, but beautiful? I’m not so sure.” She walks over to the fireplace and adds another log. “Shockin’ news, isn’t it?” she asks, looking at the newspaper I’m still holding. I lay the paper down on the coffee table and say, “It sure is. This is out of the ordinary for this area, isn’t it?” “It is. I still can’t believe it. Everyone at work was talkin’ about it.” I think back to the girl sitting at the bar, the drunken guy, the bouncer, the bartender, and the band members. Could that sweet girl be the victim? Could she have lost her life so soon after I met her? Could any of those guys have killed someone? God, I hope not. I take a sip of the hot coffee and follow Savannah Mae outside. I stayed talking to Savannah Mae a lot longer than I intended to. We talk briefly about the local murder, and then we talk about something more uplifting. I learn she was born and raised in Crooksville and then moved to Rose Farm after she got married. She is easy to talk to, and down to earth. I like that. She runs her hand up and down the arm of the wooden chair. “These are nice chairs,” I admit, honestly. “Thank you. My ex-husband and his father made them. He also made most of the wooden furniture inside the house.” I run my hand along the arm and feel the smooth wood. “Do they own a shop around here?” “No. They currently work out of my ex-husband’s parents’ garage.” She takes a sip of her coffee. “One day maybe they’ll be able to open a store. They do great work, but it’s barely enough to pay the bills.” When my coffee is gone, I decide it’s time for me to go. “Savannah Mae, it was my pleasure, but I do believe I need to get going.” I stand and offer her my hand. She takes it and smiles. “Thank you, Abel Lee.” I hand her my cup and open the screen door for her. “Have a good night, Savannah Mae.” She takes the cup from me. “You, too, Abel Lee.” I wait for the click of the door before turning to leave. I already feel better, knowing that she locks the doors, at least at night. Placing the hood on my head, I finish my run. The next few days leading up to Thanksgiving, Pops and I get a lot done on the farm. We place plastic over each window on the farmhouse, replace any burned-out light bulbs on and in the barn, and go to the old mill and load up on feed for the animals. Pops buys a newspaper daily, and we watch the news when we can. The whole town is concerned and frightened about the recent murder. I hear bits and pieces about the killing from the locals, and although I try to not listen to the gossip, it’s hard not to. I drive past the County Line Bar and see that it’s taped off with crime-scene tape. I have to know if the victim was Megan Rose. I want to see where the body was found, but I can’t tell from the road. On Sunday, we go to church. I am surprised to see the church is full. The sermon is about living your life to the fullest. He’s talking about the murder, no doubt. After the service, we all stay for a potluck dinner. The church used to have potluck on the third Sunday of every month, but they now offer it every Sunday after church. The women of the congregation said they had to cook anyway, so they might as well bring the food to the church. Pops said he readily agreed and thought it was a great idea. Momma later said that Mrs. Hackler makes a chocolate cake from scratch and Pops was hoping she would make it every week for church. I have to admit, it was the best chocolate cake I ever had. On Wednesday, before Thanksgiving, Momma and Mia spend the day at home cooking. It reminded me of past Thanksgivings. Momma always cleaned several days before the actual holiday, and cooked all day, the day before. It feels and smells like Thanksgiving. I have to admit, I’ve missed this. If I could bottle up the smell and the feel of the holidays on the farm, I think I could make millions. It just smells and feels that good. There’s breaking news on the television because the name of the murdered girl has finally been released. I’m in shock when I see a picture of Megan Rose come across the screen. They show a picture of the drunken guy and say he’s wanted for questioning. “Do you know them?” I ask everyone in the room watching the news. “Megan Rose Bower. Everyone in town knows her,” Mia says. “One of the nicest girls you ever met.” Everyone in the room is now sitting down and watching the news broadcast. “What about him?” I ask, referring to the male suspect. “Nope, can’t say I know him,” Mia says. Levi adds, “I don’t know him, either “If he’s from around here, they’ll find him. Pretty much everyone in Rose Farm knows everyone in Rose Farm. Pretty much everyone in Crooksville knows everyone in Crooksville. The same is true of all the other little towns around here.” Momma stands and wipes her hands on her apron and says sadly, “I reckon we all need to pray a little harder tonight for Megan Rose’s family. I imagine they don’t see much to be thankful for this holiday season.” Right before dinner, Momma packs up several large containers of food and says, “Are ya’ll ready to go?” “I’m ready, Belle,” Pops says, standing up from the brown rocker/recliner nearest the fireplace. Mia is removing her apron and Levi is putting his coat on. I also stand. “Where we headed?” “Every other Wednesday we go to the church for a community supper.” “You mean a soup kitchen?” Momma says, “We prefer to call it a community supper at the church. No since is taking the dignity of the people who eat there.” “It’s the day before Thanksgiving, are they even open?” “Abel Lee,” Momma says sternly, “just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean people aren’t hungry.” “Yes, Ma’am.” I feel like a scolded child and put my boots on in the bedroom. I think everyone is right, I have been gone too long. Of course my family would cook and volunteer to feed the hungry. It’s what they do. When I return, everyone is standing by the kitchen door with large containers of food. “Abel, if you can get that roaster on the counter, I would appreciate it. Be careful, it’s mighty hot.” Momma smiles and I feel better. “Yes, Ma’am.” We take two cars to the church. When we pull up, a small group of people are already waiting. They smile when they see my family getting out of the car. “Larry, Mark, and Pearl, would you mind givin’ us a hand carryin’ the food?” Pops asks. I look over and see three smiling faces walking towards us. “Is that turkey I smell?” an older man asks. Momma smiles brightly. “Larry, have I ever let you down?” He smiles a toothless smile. His clothes are worn and dirty. “I can’t say you have, Miss Nell.” He takes a step closer, and Pops hands him several containers of food. “Smells mighty good. Been a long time since I had turkey.” Momma’s smile fades before she says, “You’ll have to eat extra today then.” He smiles and starts to walk into the back door of the church leading to the kitchen. “Yes, ma’am. I think I can do that.” Once the food is in the kitchen area, Levi adjusts the heater, while Pops and Momma get the food ready. The room fills up quickly and I wonder if there will be enough food. Fifteen people must be here, including us. I hear a familiar voice and turn to see Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson walking through the back door. She’s carrying a large Crock-Pot and a tote bag. She sees me and smiles. I nod. Before I can get over to help her, Pops is at her side. I’m surprised and happy to see her here. Sawyer Jackson stays close by her side, and Mia rushes over to hug her. It’s a small community, so I’m not surprised they know each other. I help set all the food out in a line and Sawyer Jackson stacks the paper plates and other paper items on the other side of the serving window. There’s no television on or music playing, just the sound of polite conversation filling up the spare room. Levi makes coffee while Mia and Savannah Mae cut the desserts. “Everything all right, Abel?” I look at Momma and say, “Just taking it all in.” I look around the room filled with people. Most of them are sitting around the folding tables on gray metal chairs. Some are standing up and talking to each other. “How does this work?” “The church opens up the kitchen every Wednesday and calls it a community kitchen. They provide a free meal to the community,” Momma says. “Everyone is welcome and anyone can come.” I look out the window at the church sign: Free Community Supper Every Wednesday. I then, look at Momma and ask, “Who supplies the food to feed everyone?” “Those who volunteer that day are responsible for preparin’ enough food for everyone. Sometimes we fix it at home and bring it in and sometimes we make it at the church. It all depends.” Momma looks around the room. “We try to make it fair for everyone. People struggle certain times of the month. As you know, certain foods are cheap and can stretch a long way. Sometimes the meals are all-you-can-eat pancakes and eggs, soup beans and cornbread, or rice and beans.” I furrow my brows together. “Where do these people come from?” Momma sadly looks around the room again. “They’re all locals. People who have lost their jobs, or who have become ill and can no longer work or cook.” “Are there always this many people?” “No, not usually. It’s Thanksgiving. I think that brought out more people than normal.” “You ready to start serving?” Levi asks. “We are.” Everyone stands and Pops says the grace. Once the food is blessed, we all do our part in serving everyone. Even Sawyer Jackson does something to help. He stands on a chair and hands the plates out for our guests. Once everyone is eating, we all get a plate and sit down at the table to eat. I look around the room, and I see my family has all separated and is eating dinner with other people. It looks and feels like a casual dinner at a diner. I see an empty seat near Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson, and I decide to sit there. I sit down quietly to not interrupt the conversation already going on. “Are you sure you want a turkey?” someone asks Sawyer Jackson. “Yep, it’s Thanksgiving. It has to be a turkey.” “Okay, as soon as dinner is over, I’ll make you a turkey.” Savannah Mae tries to include me on the conversation already taking place. “Larry here makes the best balloon creations around.” “Really? That takes some serious talent.” “Thank you. Unfortunately, it’s talent that doesn’t pay the bills,” Larry says. Sawyer Jackson pipes in and says excitedly, “Yep, Larry can make anything you want.” The conversation at the table flows easily. Savannah Mae looks over at my plate and frowns. “Didn’t like my soup?” I look around the table and everyone has a bowl of soup sitting in front of them. I didn’t take the soup because I didn’t want to take food from the people who need it. “We’re out of bowls,” I lie. She leans into me and whispers, “There’s plenty of food and bowls.” I stand and get a bowl of Savannah Mae’s soup. After dinner we all clean up. I watch Larry go to the kitchen drawer and remove a few brown, yellow, red, and orange balloons. I decide to observe for a few minutes. I toss the dishrag on the kitchen counter and join Larry and Sawyer Jackson at the table. Savannah Mae also joins us. Taking a seat across the table from me, she raises a brow, smiles, and says, “Watch this.” I turn my attention to Larry. He blows the long thin balloons up and ties them off. It makes my cheeks hurt just to watch him. Soon he turns the brown, red, yellow, and orange balloons into a beautiful turkey complete with a beard. Sawyer Jackson jumps up excitedly and thanks Larry for making him the “best turkey, ever.” Sawyer Jackson jumps down from the table and shows everyone in the room. I look from Savannah Mae, who is grinning ear to ear, before looking at Larry, who is also smiling. “That’s very impressive.” Larry looks up at me. “It’s nothin’.” “How did you learn to do that?” He runs his hand across his graying beard. “My granddaddy taught me many years ago.” “That takes skills.” That definitely takes talent. “A bunch of useless skills,” he mumbles from under his breath as he stands to walks away. I watch Larry walk away from the table. He joins some of the others at the far end of the room. Savannah Mae turns to face me, and I say, “Not much work in these parts requiring balloon animals.” I look to Savannah Mae, who is still watching Sawyer Jackson. “No, I guess not.” Savannah Mae I watch as Abel Lee looks around the room. I follow his eyes as he watches Sawyer Jackson play with his balloon turkey. I smile. Anytime I watch my son, I smile. He is so young and innocent and pure at heart. “Please excuse me,” Abel Lee says before he gets up from the table. After we clean up, Sawyer Jackson and I say our goodbyes before leaving. I search the parking lot, wondering if the murderer is still lurking around. I’m glad that Megan Rose’s murder wasn’t the main topic of discussion at dinner tonight. I saw a glimpse of the broadcast on the news, before Sawyer Jackson walked into the room. I quickly shut off the television. I don’t want my son to be tainted by the ugliness in the world. I bathe him before puttin’ him to bed. “Momma, I had fun tonight.” “You did? Why?” “Because the food is good, and the people are nice.” I warsh his face before cleanin’ behind his ears. “The people are very nice.” “And I got a balloon animal.” “You got the coolest balloon animal, ever.” Later, at home, I listen to Sawyer Jackson sayin’ his prayers before bed, and I make sure he is asleep before I shower. I call my sister to make sure the plans for Thanksgiving haven’t changed. They haven’t. I work every day, and make the money stretch as far as I can. The church calls me whenever Bud and Nelly drop off eggs. I am forever appreciative of the church and everything they do for me and for Sawyer Jackson. Without them… I don’t even want to think about it. The church gave me a few bags of soup beans, and I made them with a ham hock tonight. I like makin’ food and volunteerin’ my time at the church for the community supper, but some days, I’m not sure where the food will come from. It’s hard to feed Sawyer Jackson and me some days, so it’s often very difficult to help feed a church full of hungry people. Sometimes… well, a lot of the time, Sawyer Jackson and I have breakfast for dinner. We call it our special meal. He loves pancakes, and so do I. I can’t tell him we have to have pancakes for dinner because it’s the only food in the house. He doesn’t need to know that. The late comedian Bernie Mac knows that. I heard him say on TV that if you’re eatin’ breakfast food at night, you’re poor. I’m glad Sawyer Jackson wasn’t watchin’. The next mornin’ Sawyer Jackson and I get up early and go to his grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving. Mom and Dad are excited to see us. Mom is in the kitchen cookin’ with my sister, Samantha Marie, and Daddy is in the livin’ room watchin’ the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sawyer Jackson runs in and jumps in his granddaddy’s lap. “There’s my boy. I’ve been waitin’ on ya. Where ya been at?” “Momma had to do her hair and makeup,” Sawyer Jackson teases, and he makes a face at me. I release a soft laugh. “She wanted to look purdy,” he adds. Daddy looks up at me and smiles. “She’s beautiful without all that fuss.” I walk over and bend down to kiss Daddy. “Thank you.” “Happy Thanksgiving, Pumpkin.” “Happy Thanksgiving, Daddy.” Sawyer Jackson looks at me and asks, “Why did you fix your hair?” “Because it’s a holiday, and I wanted to look nice.” “Why are we watchin’ a parade on TV?” “Because it’s only on once a year,” Daddy says to Sawyer Jackson as he looks up at me. I shrug my shoulders. My son is asking a lot of questions today. “Why’s it only on once a year?” Sawyer Jackson asks. Daddy laughs, “Why you askin’ so many questions?” “Because I don’t know anything — I’m only four. How old are you?” Sawyer Jackson asks. Daddy laughs. “How old do you think I am?” I watch Daddy and I also watch Sawyer Jackson think for a moment. “What’s the biggest number in the world?” Sawyer Jackson asks. I try to hide my laugh and quickly turn to leave before Daddy answers. I help Mom and Samantha Marie in the kitchen, while Daddy keeps Sawyer Jackson entertained in the livin’ room. Daddy keeps walkin’ in and askin’ if the food’s done. Every time he walks in, he samples something before leavin’. “He’ll be plumb stuffed full before suppertime,” Mom laughs. Ethan shows up and spends Thanksgiving with us. It’s more of a benefit for Sawyer Jackson than anything. This is the first Thanksgiving since our divorce, and I wanted our son to have both of his parents with him. I’m grateful that Ethan and I are still on friendly terms. Sawyer Jackson likes havin’ him here, and it reminds me that I am doin’ the right thing for my boy. After supper, Mom plays a DVD of the Christmas movie Rudolph for us all to watch. I fall asleep on the floor in front of the fireplace. When I wake up, Sawyer Jackson is in my old bed, sleeping peacefully. I kiss him and cover him up before turnin’ to leave. I take a pillow and blanket out of the cedar chest and sleep the rest of the night on the couch. CHAPTER TWO Abel Thanksgiving Day is just like I remember it as a child. Momma’s in the kitchen, fussing over piecrust that isn’t rolling out right, and Pops is sitting at the bar and laughing at her. “Bud, if you think you can do it better, go right on ahead.” “Nelly, it’s gonna be delicious. Just slap it on there, we’re gonna cut it soon anyway.” She places her hands on her hips. The look on her face says exactly what she is thinking. He stands up and laughs. “Don’t be gettin’ your panties in a bunch. I’m just sayin’ it’s gonna be delicious and frankly, I don’t care what the pie looks like.” Did I just hear him right? “Pops, did you just say, ‘panties in a bunch’?” Everyone in the room starts laughing, including Momma. Momma tries not to laugh but swats the dishrag at Pops. “Go on and git outta here.” “Belle, I’m just saying, purdy or not, your pies are the tastiest around.” I think I see Momma blush. Pops leaves and takes a handful of walnuts with him. Yep, just like ole times. Just because it’s Thanksgiving doesn’t mean it’s a day off on the farm. We still have work to do, and Levi is here helping. Mia and Mom stay in the house, and Pops, Levi, and I cut more firewood and feed the animals. When that’s all done, Pops hooks up the wagon to the tractor. “What’s up?” I ask. I’m not really sure what he has in mind. “Let’s surprise the girls with a Christmas tree.” Dad sits on the tractor and looks back at Levi and me. I look at Dad and then at Levi. “Will a live tree last that long?” Levi answers, “It will. It helps to cut off an inch from the bottom once in a while and to always keep the tree in water. It won’t be in the best shape in a month, but Momma and Mia like to put them up early.” He looks and smiles and me. “Mia will love that, let’s go.” Levi walks into the barn and comes out with a chainsaw and a hacksaw. I watch as he jumps on the wagon. “Whatcha waitin’ on? You move like you got molasses in your britches.” Do people really talk like that? “I’m coming.” I shake my head and pray this is one saying I won’t remember. Pops follows the trail leading to the back part of the property. When we get to the pine trees, he stops and shuts off the tractor. Levi and I follow him and I am once again reminded of my childhood. This is truly country living. “Pick a tree, Abel,” Pops says, looking around. I try to remember the rules to follow for selecting a live tree. They look smaller in the open field than they really are. Measure it next to you, and try to wrap your arms around it. I walk around the area with the spruce pines until I find the perfect one. “Here it is.” Pops walks over and looks at the tree. “This one right here?” “Perfect height, perfect width, makes for a perfect Christmas tree.” Levi hands me the saw. “Cut her down.” I forgot about that part. Pine needles can be very prickly. Once we get Momma a tree, and Mia and Levi a tree, we also decide to cut a couple extras. One for the church, and I cut one down for Savannah Mae. Not sure she needs it, but you never know. We’ll have it just in case. Dinner is delicious and the piecrust looks like a raggedy patchwork quilt. But just as Pops said, it’s delicious. No one says anything about the way the pies look, but everyone raves about the delicious taste. I have no idea how she does it, but the crust melts in your mouth. No one talks about the murder of Megan Rose, although I know it’s on everyone’s mind. After dinner, we all help with the cleanup. While we guys put the tree in the stand, Momma and Mia divide the leftover food up into containers. Momma still uses the same ole Christmas decorations she used when I was home, over ten years ago. I shouldn’t be surprised. Once the tree is decorated, Levi and Mia leave. I shower and go to bed. I’m whooped. I mean, I’m beat. Man, I’m turning into a country hick. Savannah Mae Everyone in town is talkin’ about Megan Rose. The killer is still at large, and the details of her death still remain a secret. I don’t ask and I try hard not to engage in the conversation about her demise. There’s a sayin’ — “Ignorance is bliss” — that I firmly believe applies to cases like this. Today is her funeral service and I imagine everyone in town will be there. The church is small, but that’s where the service will take place. Burial will be in the cemetery behind the church. Sawyer Jackson and I dress in our Sunday clothes and walk to the church for the service. Cars are lined up from one end of the road to the other. One advantage of livin’ in a small village is you’re walkin’ distance to everything. I feel sad when I see Megan Rose’s parents talkin’ to the funeral director. I sent flowers and a personal note, but I didn’t do anything else. I knew her, so maybe I should have gone over to her house and spoken with her parents. When someone dies, it’s hard to know the right thing to do or say. Sawyer Jackson and I walk up to the closed casket, and I have to wonder if the rumors are true about her death. Someone said that she was unrecognizable when they found her. I shiver at the thought. I see a large, beautiful framed picture of her taken during happier times. To the left of the casket are several collages of pictures. Some are of her alone, some are of her and her boyfriend, and some are of her with her parents and friends. Sawyer Jackson whispers, “Is she in heaven?” “Yes, Buddy, she is.” I speak briefly to Megan Rose’s mom and dad and then to her boyfriend before I take a seat in the back of the room. The line leading to the casket is long, but it moves quickly. I see Ethan come in with Heather Sue. I stiffen. I knew they were together, but I haven’t actually seen them together. “There’s Daddy!” Sawyer Jackson says excitedly. “Can I go see him?” he asks as he hops up from his chair and runs over to Ethan. I watch as he makes his way through the full church to the end of the line. Ethan ruffles Sawyer Jackson’s hair, and Heather Sue looks back at me and smiles. I don’t return the homewrecker’s smile. Nelly, Bud, Mia, Levi, and Abel Lee arrive next. Now, I smile. Abel Lee sees me, but he continues to look around the room. When he sees Sawyer Jackson, he excuses himself from his family and walks over to me. “Is this seat taken?” “Only by my son.” “Good, I’ll sit here until he returns.” I lean in and whisper, “You don’t want to pay your respects?” “I sent flowers. I really didn’t know her or her family.” I watch as he looks around the room. He stares at Megan Rose’s boyfriend, who is standing near the casket with her parents. “He was her boyfriend,” I whisper. Abel Lee only nods. Sawyer Jackson comes back and sits on my lap. Abel Lee doesn’t leave. I’m glad that he sits with us throughout the service. After the funeral and lunch at the church with the surviving family members, we say our goodbyes. Thanksgiving was last week and I still don’t have a Christmas tree. I told Sawyer Jackson that after Thanksgiving we would put a tree up. I guess I didn’t realize how much they were. I keep prayin’ for a good night in tips, but everyone’s pinchin’ pennies this time of year. I try not to think about money, but when you don’t have the money for bills and food, it’s all I can think about. Tonight at work, Ethan came into the diner with our son. He gave me some more money and said the sales of the furniture have been consistent. I hate to take his money, but I have no choice. When we divorced, we divorced on sort of good terms. I didn’t go after child support, and he vowed to help me as much as he could. We both love Sawyer Jackson more than life, so I have no doubt this arrangement will continue to work. We brought him into this world lovingly, and we’ll raise him with just as much love. Just because I’m single doesn’t mean I’m his only parent. Just before closin’ time, Abel Lee comes into the diner. He’s the last customer and offers to leave so we wouldn’t have to stay. “Get in here. We still have plenty of work to keep us busy while you eat.” I wave him into the empty restaurant. “I don’t want to keep you,” he says, removin’ his cowboy hat. “Sit at the counter so I can talk to you while I do my side work.” I pat the counter top so he knows I’m serious. If he were anyone else, I would let him sit anywhere he wanted. He reluctantly takes a seat and asks, “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m positive.” I hand him the menu. “Because it’s so late, we don’t have any specials left.” He browses the menu and smiles. “I really just want a big ole greasy cheeseburger and some steak fries.” “Now that, I can get for ya.” “With a Coke?” “Comin’ right up.” We talk about the holidays and laugh about old times. He was a few grades ahead of me in school, but we know a lot of the same people. He says he’s been away trying to find himself and realized when he came back home, that maybe he lost himself along the way. “Sadly, I know what you mean.” He lays his hamburger down and looks at me. “Really? You seem to be really put together.” I can’t look him in the eye, I stare at the counter. “Looks are quite deceivin’.” He pays his bill and leaves while I’m in the back. When I get to the counter to clear his glass and napkin, there is a hundred-dollar bill on the paper place setting. I hear, “Looks like someone has an admirer.” I look over my shoulder; Bill is refillin’ his drink. Bill has been the cook here ever since I can remember. “I’ll be right back.” I make a dash for the door and hope Abel Lee is still within hollerin’ distance. I’m happy when I see him openin’ his truck door. “Hold up,” I yell, wavin’ the hundred-dollar bill in the air. He pauses and waits for me to catch up with him. “What’s this?” I demand. “Your tip.” He looks confused. I try to soften my scowl. “I can’t take this!” He looks at me and I think I see hurt and sadness in his big brown eyes. “Savannah Mae, it’s just a tip. It’s not a big deal.” I take a step closer and say, “This is not just a tip. It’s way too much.” I slip the money into his open hand. “Thank you, but I honestly can’t take it.” I want to explain that this is an insult, but I don’t. I’m hurt that he even did this. He watches me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm.” “It’s okay.” I try to smile. “Don’t do it again.” I turn and walk away, leavin’ him standin’ near his truck. I prayed to God for good tips, but I don’t want a tip I didn’t earn. Abel I stand at Pop’s truck I borrowed, holding the money I left Savannah Mae for her tip. I watch her walk into the diner. My mouth hangs open and I’m speechless. I swear, I only had good intentions. Now I feel as though I’ve offended her. That was never my intent. I just wanted to lighten her load a little for the holidays. I pull my truck around back and park beside her car. I need to clear this up. But how? “Sorry, I never meant to insinuate you couldn’t make it on your own.” Or, “Sorry, I didn’t mean for this to look like a handout.” I’m such an idiot! From the pickup I watch as she and the cook lock up and exit the back door of the diner. I get out of my truck and lean against the truck bed waiting for her. The cook sees me first. He whispers something to her and she nods. I hear her say, “It’s okay, you can leave.” Still leaning against the pickup, I watch as he cautiously walks to his truck and drives away. “I thought you would be home by now.” She pulls out her keys and unlocks her car door. I push off from the truck and stand taller than I normally would. “Not until I resolve this misunderstanding.” I slowly walk towards her, almost expecting for her to hit me. If she did, I’d have to say that I was deserving of it. She leans against her car and pulls her coat tighter around her. “You think this is a misunderstanding, Abel?” She called me Abel. I think she’s mad. She only calls me Abel Lee. “I do. I thought I left you a one-dollar bill.” I crack a smile, but quickly try to hide it. She giggles and her smile lights up her face. “You did not.” I want to say I did, too, but it would be a lie. “I wish I did, but I didn’t. I didn’t mean to insult you either. I was just trying to help you.” “By giving me money I didn’t earn?” I watch her and I want her to understand. “By trying to do something nice for you.” “Abel, some people might like and appreciate a tip like that. But to me, it’s an insult. Almost like a handout.” She stops, and I give her a minute. I think about what she is saying. “If you want to do something nice for me, bring me flowers, or bring me firewood, or buy me a drink or something.” “Really? Firewood?” I want to laugh, but I want to smooth this over more. She smiles and it makes me smile. “Maybe not firewood.” She thinks for a minute and says, “Coffee would be nice. A normal tip would be nice. A slightly bigger than normal tip would be nice. Polite conversation might also be nice.” I hold up my hand in surrender. “Okay, I get it.” “Do you?” “Yes, I do, and I’m sorry,” I say, honestly. “Good, apology accepted. Abel Lee, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my son from his daddy’s.” I hold her car door open and she smiles as she gets into her car. “Be careful driving home.” She replies, “I will, thank you.” I watch as she drives off and I think about what she said. Bring me firewood or coffee. I get in my truck and drive past her house. The street is sparsely decorated with Christmas lights. Some homes have their Christmas trees in the front windows. Savannah Mae’s house is dark. No lights, no electric candles burning in the front windows, and no Christmas wreath on the front door. I drive by, looking in her window, and I can’t see a tree. Her house is small and I have a good view of the entire living room. I know what to do, so I drive to the farm. Savannah Mae After I pick up Sawyer Jackson, I pull up at my house and I’m surprised to see Abel Lee sittin’ on the wooden rocker. I get out of the car as he walks off of the front porch. “Hi,” I finally say as I open the passenger side door to get a sleepin’ Sawyer Jackson out. Abel Lee is right behind me, looking into the car. “I’ll get him for you.” Steppin’ out of the way, I wait for him to unfasten the seatbelt. I watch as he carefully picks my son up. “Thank you.” I close and lock the car door behind us. We both remain quiet, careful to not wake Sawyer Jackson as we walk into my house. Abel Lee follows me and I lead the way to Sawyer Jackson’s room. I pull the Thomas the Train covers back and watch as Abel Lee gently lays my son on his bed. Once his coat and slippers are removed, I kiss him and pull the covers up to his waist, the way he likes it. Abel Lee is leaning against the doorframe, watching. I follow him out into the livin’ room. “What brings you here?” “I forgot to tip you.” I can see a hint of a smile on his lips. “Are you back to that again?” I walk into the kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink?” “No, I’m okay. I have to run out to the truck, I’ll just be a minute.” Before I fill the glass with water, he’s gone. I walk to the front door and watch in surprise as he removes a live Christmas tree from the bed of his pickup. He is wearin’ a grin of a five-year-old. I have to smile as I open the door as wide as I can for him and for the tree. He holds the tree up in the middle of the living room floor. “What in the dickens is that?” He smiles, revealing that single dimple in his cheek. “Savannah Mae, that is called a Christmas tree. See the long pine needles.” I have to laugh. “Abel Lee, I know it’s a Christmas tree, but what is it doin’ in my house?” “It’s your tip.” He smiles even bigger, revealin’ a beautiful boyish grin. “You said to bring you firewood or coffee. I had one of these lying around the barn and thought you and Sawyer Jackson could use it.” I cross my arms over my chest. “You just so happen to have a tree in the barn you weren’t usin’?” “Sure did.” “Abel Lee, does your Momma know you be tellin’ lies?” He places his hands over his heart and acts as if he’s wounded. “Savannah Mae, did you just call me a liar?” I try to hide my toothy smile. “I may be from the country, but I ain’t plumb dumb.” “Whoa, I never thought you were.” He readjusts the tree and says, “On Thanksgiving, we cut a few trees, one for us, one for the church, and this one here is for you and Sawyer Jackson.” “Really?” I tilt my head and squint my eyes. “Really.” I smile. “In that case, I reckon you should put it over there.” I point to the area between the window and the fireplace. I get the tree stand from the basement and the tree fits in it perfectly. Abel Lee and his daddy even had the bottom of the tree cut and trimmed to make it fit into a tree stand. He holds it in the corner and looks at me. “Here?” “Nope, it’s crooked. Turn it again.” He lifts the tree and turns it. “Here?” I pretend to be inspecting the tree. I raise my hand and twirl my index finger around to indicate he needs to spin the tree again. “Nope, bare spot.” He repeats his action and turns the tree before settin’ it down again. “Here?” He leans back to try to get a view of the tree. “Nope, spin it again.” He looks at me and then the tree. He looks at me again and says, “Savannah Mae, are you pulling my leg?” I laugh out loud. “Nope.” Smilin’, he sets the tree down and walks over to where I’m standin’. “It looks pretty good to me. Are you sure it’s uneven?” I tilt my head side to side. “Musta been seein’ things, it looks pretty good now.” He turns to look at me. “Savannah Mae, do you lie to your momma with that mouth?” “Abel Lee,” I laugh, “there’s a big difference between a lie and a…” “White lie?” he interrupts, laughin’. “No, I was going to say fib.” “Same difference.” Abel Lee builds a fire in the fireplace. He also offers to stay and make sure the Christmas lights from last year still work. They do. He also helps me carry up the boxes of decorations from the basement. “Sawyer Jackson is gonna be so excited about this. Thank you so much.” “You’re welcome.” I stand beside him and admire the tree. “It fits that corner perfectly.” “I need to get going. Momma won’t be happy with me keeping a beautiful woman up this late.” I feel the heat rise to my cheeks. I walk him to the door. “Then you shouldn’t disappoint your momma.” “Good night, Savannah Mae.” “Thank you again, and good night, Abel Lee.” Abel I go home and think about Savannah Mae. In fact, she’s all I can think about. When she was telling me to adjust the tree, I could see the mischief in her eyes. She’s beautiful. I haven’t allowed myself to have a serious romantic relationship since college. I couldn’t. Not after what happened. I push those memories aside and try to think of something else. Nothing else comes to my mind but beautiful, sweet Savannah Mae. Momma is in the kitchen making food for the community meal at the church. She is making a huge pot of beef stew and some homemade biscuits. “Something hot and hearty will sure make some people mighty happy,” Pops says, sampling the stew from the pot. “Bud, don’t,” Momma says, swatting Pops’ hands away. He laughs and drops the empty spoon in the sink. Mia pulls the last tray of biscuits out of the oven. Once they are cool, she’ll place them with the others in the wicker breadbasket. Momma stirs the pot one last time, before turning off the stove. “Levi, would you go to the basement and get that box of hats, scarves, and mittens.” “What are you going to do with those?” I ask. I watch as Momma removes her Christmas apron. “Been buyin’ ’em at Goodwill and other thrift shops, all year. Thought the good people of the church could use ’em.” My momma, who doesn’t spend the money I give her, shops at Goodwill for the needy. She cooks and donates her time for the sake of the community. I feel so blessed to have been raised by this woman, but I wonder where I went wrong. Have I even thought about homeless people or starving people since I left? I have made millions in my boxing career, and what have I done with it? Nothing. Banked it and invested it. I surely didn’t give it to the church, or to the schools, or give it to any worthy causes. Did Momma’s goodness and kindness skip me? Did Levi get the good genes from my family? God, I hope not. “We best be leavin’ or we’ll be late,” Momma says, gathering the large basket of hot biscuits. The truck is loaded down with the Christmas tree, a few boxes of decorations, and the food. We arrive at the church and there are just as many people there as were here two weeks ago. Savannah Mae and her son are already here. Sawyer Jackson runs up to me and jumps excitedly. “Thank you for the Christmas tree. It’s really, really big,” he says as he tries to show me with his hands how tall and wide the tree is. He is wearing a red Santa’s hat, his cheeks are rosy, and his smile lights up his green eyes. “You’re welcome, Buddy. Did you get it decorated?” I follow behind him into the building. “Sure did with the different color lights. It looks berry good.” “Good, I’m glad.” Savannah Mae is standing at the doorway with her arms folded across her chest. Our eyes meet and I can’t look away. Her long blond hair is in a high ponytail. She is wearing jeans, a red and white flannel shirt, and a pair of rubber duck boots graces her body. Nothing fancy, but she sure does look good in it. As we approach the door, she takes a step back. “He’s a little excited about the tree, I see.” “A little? He’s berry excited about the tree,” she teases, using his own words. We quickly set the food out, and Pops and I put the tree in the corner of the room. Sawyer Jackson helps and scoots the boxes of decorations nearest the tree. I watch everyone as they line up for their hot meal. It smells delicious. Savannah Mae brought a large pot of white rice to go with the beef stew, and some assorted cookies for dessert. As soon as the last person gets their plate, we all fill our plates and sit down to eat. Just like last week, there is plenty of food for everyone. I take the last seat; it’s beside Larry and an older woman named Pearl. Pops and Momma are sitting across from us. Everyone raves about the food and is very appreciative. “I found some things lyin’ around the house I thought you might be able to use,” Momma says, taking a bite of her rice and stew. Pearl sits up a little straighter. “Miss Nelly, you do so much for us already.” Her skin is discolored and it almost looks transparent in some places. “Oh, fiddlesticks. It’s not much and there’s no sense in havin’ things just layin’ around the house, when someone could be gettin’ some good use out of them.” Even Momma tells a fib every now and then. She bought those items; they weren’t just sitting around the house. Well, maybe she didn’t tell a fib — after she bought them, they were sitting around the house. “Miss Nelly, we sure do appreciate your kindness. You and Mr. Bud, you both are such good people.” Pops says, “God is very good to us and in return, it’s only fair that we help others. We can only do what He allows us to do.” And just like that, it hits me. I know what I need to do. We finish eating, clean up, and decorate the tree with lights and ornaments. Savannah Mae and everyone sings Christmas carols. It brings a smile to everyone’s face. A smile is still a smile, no matter how temporary it is. “Would you mind if I come over tonight? I have an idea about the people who attend the community supper, and I wanted to see what you thought,” I whisper to Savannah Mae. She looks at me with concern. “Is everything all right?” “It’s fine.” I scan the room and watch Sawyer Jackson as Larry makes him a snowman from balloons. “I just want to get your input on something, and see what you thought.” “Sure, Sawyer Jackson goes to bed at 8:00. You can come over whenever you want. You sure you’re all right?” “I’m fine, I’ll see you around 9:00.” “I’ll make some coffee.” I arrive at Savannah’s just before 9:00. When I enter her house, I smell the coffee she promised. The lights are dim, the fireplace has fresh logs burning, and the tree is lit with all sorts of colorful lights. A few candles are lit on the stone mantel. I sit down and excitedly share my ideas with Savannah Mae. “Abel Lee, I mean no disrespect, but where is this money comin’ from? You ain’t dealin’ no drugs, are ya?” I hide the laugh that threatens to come from deep down. “No, I don’t sell drugs and I’ve never done drugs. I’m a retired boxer. I invested my money over the years.” I have millions and I want to do this. I’m not sure she would be able to comprehend the amount of money that I am actually worth. For a long time, I didn’t either. Early in my career, but after I had started to make big money, I called my accountant and told her to bring my money over so I could see it and be sure it’s real. She had to explain to me that it was invested. Also, that it would take several suitcases to carry that much money, assuming that a standard attaché case can hold approximately $1.2 million in $100 bills. Too bad. Too often, savings and investments are just electrons on a computer screen. Until I got used to that, I wanted something I can see. “This is something I want to do. I just wanted to see if you thought it was a good idea.” “I think it’s a great idea.” I set my empty coffee cup down on the cork coaster. “So you’ll help me?” She smiles and mocks my movement. Leaning up on the edge of the couch, she clasps her hands together. “I’ll do whatever I can.” Savannah Mae I meet up with Abel Lee, Nelly, and Mia at K-Mart in South Zanesville. Bud and Levi made some excuse why they couldn’t come. Everyone is excited and in a good mood. “Nothin’ like spendin’ other people’s money, huh, Abel?” He looks at Mia and she smiles. “As long as it’s for the benefit of the cause.” He slides Mia a shopping cart and she excitedly takes it. Nelly takes a cart, I take a cart, and Abel Lee takes two. We all have our lists and go in different directions in the store. I watch as Abel goes to the customers help desk in the front of the store. I get everything on my list, but I’m concerned if it’s correct. I double-check it and it’s right. I shop for a few other items from the list and soon my cart is overflowin’. I head towards the front of the store where Mia and Nelly are standin’. Some full carts are lined up along the wall. “This seems like a lot of stuff,” I say as the employee takes my cart from me and pushes it next to the other ones. “Does he have enough to pay for all of this?” Mia whispers. Nelly laughs softly, “I hope so. This will be mighty embarrassin’ if he doesn’t.” “Where is Abel Lee, anyway?” I look around and I don’t see him. The manager smiles and says, “He’s finishing up in layaway.” We wait and soon he comes up with a few employees at his side. His mother asks, “How are we goin’ to get this stuff home? I didn’t realize how much we were gettin.’” “We’ll be delivering everything,” the store manager clarifies. “Since when does K-Mart deliver?” Mia asks. No one answers. We wait while everything gets rung up and Abel Lee pays for the entire purchase with one swipe of his credit card. It is a black credit card, and I didn’t even know they came in that color. I can’t begin to imagine how much everything costs. “For the benefit of the cause,” he called it. I imagine he’ll be sleepin’ mighty good tonight. Helpin’ others always helps me to sleep better. The most important thing is not to hurt anyone, even unintentionally, but since none of us is perfect, we need to help other people in this world. “We’ll have everything delivered by 7:00 this evening. Someone will be at this address, correct?” The store manager has a huge grin on his face. “We’ll be there, thank you.” Abel Lee reaches his hand out for the manager’s. “Thank you, Abel. You just made some kids very happy.” I stop by the store before goin’ home. Helpin’ Abel Lee and his family to help others feels incredible. I can’t imagine being able to do something so generous, something of that magnitude. I know the small things I do to help others feel good, but to do what Abel Lee did today, I can’t even begin to imagine how good he feels. He’s a good guy, no doubt about that. After I check the mail, I open the gas bill and cringe. I hate the winter months. The heatin’ bills are higher than the mortgage on my small house. Even usin’ the wood-burnin’ fireplace, it’s outrageously high. Of course, I have to pay for the wood I burn. I also get a water bill and a personal letter. No return address, but I know it’s from my friend in Florida. Brea always sends me letters trying to bribe me to come down for a visit. If I had the money, I would visit her every chance I get. I smile as I tear open the notecard size envelope. I’m excited to see what kind of a bribe she’s posted this time. A picture of her toes in the sandy white beaches. A picture of her on the beach with a margarita in hand. It could be details of her trip to the Florida Keys. I’m happy she got away, but I miss her terribly. I read: Savannah, Watch out! I drop the card and watch it fall to the floor. I rub my arms with my hands to warm myself. The note isn’t what I expected, and it’s not from Brea. With the murder of Megan Rose, I have to wonder if this isn’t a warnin’ from the killer. Is it possible the small town of Rose Farm has a serial killer at large? I pick up the note and read it again. I flip it over, but there isn’t anything else written on it. It’s ridiculous to think it’s from a serial killer. My mind thinks about the people I know, and the people who know where I live. I have no enemies so who could it be from? Well, I do have one enemy — Heather Sue. She stole my husband, but what else does she want from me? As the weeks pass, so does the story and news about the murder of Megan Rose. I guess it’s best, especially in a small town like Rose Farm, to let that kind of story dissolve. I wonder about her killer and about her family. I’d like to think the family is healin’, and that the killer died a slow and painful death in some undisclosed location. Abel Lee Christmas Eve is on Wednesday this year. As always, it’s our night to work the community meal at the church. And just like Thanksgiving, Momma has prepared a Christmas feast for everyone. Pops slaughtered a couple hogs and a cow last week. We don’t cook the food at home this time; instead, we prepare the food at the church. Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson are already there when we arrive. Sawyer Jackson is sitting on a blanket in the middle of the floor playing with toys and books. A few board games are scattered about the blanket. Christmas music is playing from the corner of the room. Although it’s not home, it has a homey feel. I help where I can, but I mostly stay out of the way and play with Sawyer Jackson. A few people arrive early and come in to get warm. Mia and Momma have the coffee pot ready for them. Mia also places some decorated Christmas cookies beside the large coffee carafe. “Savannah Mae had to leave, so would you mind keepin’ an eye on Sawyer Jackson?” Momma asks. “No problem.” “Just make sure he doesn’t eat too many cookies.” She smiles and I follow her eyes to the cookie platter where Sawyer Jackson is standing. “This will be a job, won’t it?” “Why do you think I asked you to watch him?” She looks over her shoulder and laughs. I get Sawyer Jackson away from the cookie tray and work on keeping him occupied with games and puzzles. A girl walks in and for a minute I think it’s Savannah Mae. It’s not. I’m introduced to her and learn it’s Savannah’s younger sister, Samantha Marie. “Aunt Sammie,” Sawyer Jackson yells, running up to her. People start coming in and I soon start recognizing they are from the local church. The preacher and his wife, Savannah Mae’s parents, and even the staff from Peaches Place show up. I fold Sawyer Jackson’s blanket and pick up his toys so people won’t have to walk around them. The rest of the Wednesday night regulars start coming in closer to suppertime. I see Savannah Mae when she comes in, and I nod at her. It looks like she’s looking for someone. She comes over and hands me some money. “What’s this?” “Money for the layaway you paid for at Wal-Mart. I told you, I don’t need your handout.” She says sternly and she looks very upset. “I didn’t pay for your layaway at Wal-Mart.” I carefully take her hand, with the money in it, and push it away from me. “Don’t lie to me.” “Savannah Mae, when I tell you I didn’t pay for your layaway at Wal-Mart, I would hope that you would believe me.” “If you didn’t, then who did?” “That would remain a mystery. I paid for the layaways at K-Mart the day we were in there. I have no idea who they were for. I was just trying to make sure that every child has a blessed Christmas. I didn’t pay for the Wal-Mart layaways. Someone else did that. Every Christmas, we read about anonymous Layaway Angels. Lots of Good Samaritans are named Anonymous.” She watches me and her eyes become shiny; they glisten with unshed tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come off like that. I just don’t want anyone feelin’ sorry for us.” “No apology needed and I don’t feel sorry for you.” She leans into me. “I already overlooked one good deed.” She must be talking about me paying her debt at the grocery store. “What good deed is that?” “Abel Lee, don’t be actin’ like you didn’t pay for my groceries awhile back.” I just look at her without saying anything. “Thank you. That was mighty nice of you.” “You’re welcome, Savannah Mae.” “Doesn’t answer the question of who paid for my layaway? The woman working at Wal-Mart said all of the Christmas layaways that included toys have been paid for.” I look down at her and smile. “Maybe it’s time to start believing in miracles.” “Maybe you’re right.” The preacher stands up and gives a small sermon before we eat Christmas Eve dinner. I sit with Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson. The preacher also reads the Christmas Story out of the Bible during dinner. It’s the real meaning of Christmas. We eat a hearty meal of ham, sweet potatoes, deviled eggs, green bean casserole, and homemade bread. This year, no one brought potato salad. Last year, Pops tells me, way too many families did. There is plenty of food and enough for seconds, and even thirds. After we eat, and after everything is cleaned up, Pops and the preacher stand up to get everyone’s attention. “We have a special treat for everyone this year,” Pops says humbly. “Santa came early and brought everyone blankets, socks, long johns, hats, mittens, scarves, coats, and a backpack full of personal items and food.” There are smiles and excited chatter from everyone. Mia, Mom, Levi, Savannah Mae; her sister, Samantha Marie; and even Sawyer Jackson scatter the items that were in bags under the tree, around the tables, in front of everyone. They watch, but no one touches anything. “Go ahead, these are for you,” Pops says. “Don’t be shy. There’s enough for everyone.” I watch as Pearl cries into Larry’s shirt. “Are you sure?” Mark asks. Momma walks over and says, “Yes, Santa wanted to make sure everyone was warm and well fed this winter. He also stocked the church with food.” “Oh, Nelly,” Pearl cries. She is unable to say anything else. I look away. I can’t watch. It pulls at my heartstrings to see so many people so appreciative of so little. Savannah Mae comes over and leans into me. “You did this,” she whispers. “You made this happen. It’s almost magical to witness this.” I watch as people start to gather their items and put them on. “I don’t think I have ever seen something so touching in my whole life. People are so humble and grateful to receive so little. No one should have to want to be warm, or to have food in their bellies. No one should have to want a bed to sleep in, or a roof over their head.” “People in these parts are very grateful and thankful. Sure would be nice if they all could find work.” Savannah Mae’s eyes are misty and she sniffles. “The secret to happiness for a lot of people is a steady paycheck.” I remember the old Rose Farm School sitting empty and I get an idea. I look around the room at the fifteen people who gathered into the kitchen of the church on Christmas Eve for a hot meal. “Abel Lee, we want to thank you for everything,” Pearl, the oldest woman present, says as she leans in to hug me. I return her hug. “You’re welcome, but how did you know it was me?” “I asked your Momma. I had to thank you personally.” I only nod. I wish Momma hadn’t said anything. Not much of a secret if everyone knows. “You’re very welcome, Miss Pearl. Did you get some things that you can use?” “Oh, Lord, did we! Everything we got, we can use.” I watch as she wipes her tears away. “Thank you. That was mighty kind of you to go out and do all this for us.” “Miss Pearl, it was my pleasure.” I smile and pat her on her hands. “We’ll help everyone get home tonight since you have a few extra items to carry.” She searches my eyes with a sad smile, before patting my cheeks with both of her hands. “Your Momma and Daddy sure did raise a nice boy. You and Levi both are mighty fine boys.” “Thank you, Miss Pearl. Pops and Momma wouldn’t have it any other way.” “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone your secret,” she says and walks away slowly. Savannah Mae smiles and leans into me. “You know, what she said is right.” I laugh. “So, you think I’m a nice boy, too?” “I think you’re nice, and I think your Momma and Daddy raised both their sons to be good people.” I’m so happy she didn’t call me a boy. “Thank you.” “Just statin’ the facts.” She looks up at me and says, “I was meanin’ to ask ya, whatcha doin’ tomorrow night?” I look down at her. “It’s Christmas. I don’t guess I’ll be doing much of anything. Farm work and dinner with the family.” Should I invite her to dinner? She looks around the room. “Would you like to come over tomorrow night? Sawyer Jackson will be at his daddy’s, and I was thinkin’ maybe we can watch a movie, or something.” She looks away. “I mean, if you…” “I would love to,” I quickly say, before she changes her mind. She looks up and smiles. “Really?” “Yes, really.” “Good. I won’t be home from dinner from my folks until after 6:00 p.m. But anytime after that is good.” I quickly remember my manners. “I would bring pizza, but I don’t think anyplace will be open on Christmas day.” She looks up at me and I notice her beautiful blue eyes. “We can have leftovers if you get hungry. I need to get my boy home. I still have gifts to wrap before Santa comes.” Before we all leave, we make sure everyone has a ride home with all of their things. It makes me happy and sad to see some people are wearing their hats, coats, and mittens. I’m deeply happy they can use them, but it saddens me that they need to wear them now. As the Farmer’s Almanac had predicted, it is a mighty cold winter. Momma sent the leftover food home with whoever wanted it. Thankfully there was plenty for everyone to have something. Pops locks up and we head home. Mia and Levi will be over tomorrow for dinner and the family gift exchange. I know they’ll be there early to help with the preparation of the food. Before bed, Pops puts a few logs in the fireplace. “You’re not tired, Abel?” Pops asks as he takes a seat across from me in his recliner. I lean up from the couch and interlock my fingers. “I thought I would stay up a bit longer. I’m not far from bed myself.” “Got something on your mind, Son?” I nod, “I always have something on my mind.” “Well, spill it.” Taking a deep breath I say, “Savannah Mae asked me to come over tomorrow night.” “She’s a mighty fine girl. What’s the problem?” “It’s Christmas…” Pops interrupts. “And you don’t know if you should take her something for Christmas or not?” “Yeah, that’s right.” “Unless you have her something already bought, it’s too late to get her something now. Unless you go to a gas station and buy her beer nuts.” “I don’t think it’s right to just show up empty handed, or with beer nuts.” I crack my knuckles and suddenly feel strange talking to my Pops about this. “Is it a date?” “I don’t know.” I hope so. If it is, I hope to get more than one date with her. I don’t think beer nuts will do it. “Well, I guess if you’re lookin’ to impress her, you need to get to makin’ her somethin’.” He looks in the direction of his bedroom. “Your Momma might be the one you need to be talkin’ too. She’s mighty good when it comes to courtin’ a woman.” He chuckles. “She taught me everything I needed to know.” Momma comes out of the bedroom wearing a flannel robe and fuzzy slippers, carrying Christmas gifts. “Looks like you fellows are in deep conversation.” I watch as she makes her way to the tree. “Abel has a question for ya, Belle.” I look at Pops, and I’m suddenly embarrassed. He smiles and I want to rescind my question. Momma places the gifts under the tree. It’s Christmas and she is just now putting the gifts out like Santa brought them. Momma sits down and tells Pops to get the rest of the gifts. As soon as he disappears into the bedroom, she says, “What’s on your mind?” She is sitting beside me on the couch and is staring me in the eyes. I blink and look away. There’s something about the way she was looking at me, almost like she can read my thoughts. “Savannah Mae invited me over tomorrow night to watch a movie. I’m not sure if I should…” “Of course you should. You better not show up there empty handed. And if Sawyer Jackson’s gonna to be there, you’ll need to take him something, too.” “He’ll be at his daddy’s.” I look at her. “I have no idea what to bring her. It’s Christmas Eve.” Pops places the gifts under the tree, sits down, and watches the fire. “Well, you have until tomorrow to figure something out. You still play that guitar, serenade her.” She leans in and kisses me. “Good night, Abel.” “Good night, Momma.” I kiss her back and watch as she and Pops stand to go to bed. “Good night, Pops.” “Good night, Son.” I continue to sit by the fire and watch the blue flames dance around the wood. It sizzles, cracks, and pops. Serenade Savannah Mae? There must be something else I can do. When the fire dies down, I place another log in the fireplace. I look at the gifts under the tree and shake my head. My parents still play Santa Claus. Walking quietly into my bedroom, I get the envelopes I have for everyone and tie them to the tree. They won’t be happy with my gifts to them. The thoughts of Savannah Mae keep me awake. I throw on my Carhartt coat and grab a bottle of Budweiser from the fridge before heading outside. The night is cold and the clear sky is filled with stars. It’s a lot brighter out here since the barn light is fixed. I carry some firewood from the barn to the wrap-around porch. Serenade Savannah Mae? Really? There must be something else I can do for her. I hear the horse and walk over to feed her an apple. “Can’t sleep either, ole girl?” I pat her and she likes it. “You wanna go for a ride?” I search the barn for a saddle and bridle and saddle her up. It’s been awhile since I’ve been on a horse, but I’m pretty sure I can do this. We gallop in the direction of where we cut the pine trees on Thanksgiving. I stop to give the horse a rest and admire the quiet night. I remember when I was younger, I couldn’t wait to leave here. Now, I can’t remember why. When we get back to the barn, I brush the horse and put her away. “You got a name, girl?” I feed her an apple and head into the house. The next morning, I collect the eggs and feed the animals. Momma always has the coffee maker on automatic start for 5:00 a.m. Between the smell of coffee and the roosters crowing, there’s no chance of me, or anyone else, sleeping in. When I return from the morning chores, Momma and Pops are up and sitting at the kitchen table. The lights are all on in the house and it smells of food, even though it’s just getting to be dawn. Momma sees me and stands up from the table. “Merry Christmas, Abel.” Bending down to kiss her, I say, “Merry Christmas, Momma.” “It’s so good havin’ you home for the holidays.” “It’s good being home.” She turns to walk over to the stove and she removes something from the oven. I take the seat at the table across from Pops. “Couldn’t sleep last night?” he asks. “How did you know?” “I heard Bluebelle nickerin’. She must’ve been glad to see ya. Figured you were takin’ her for a ride.” I don’t think anything gets past him. “Bluebelle? You named a horse after Momma?” “Nope, Belle named her. I named Colonel. He’s a feisty stallion. Be careful ridin’ that one. He’s been known to buck your brother a few times.” “Bluebelle’s a sweet girl,” I admit. “She is,” Momma says as she lays a plate of sausage gravy and biscuits in front of me. “She’s sweeter than honey on a biscuit.” “Thank you,” I say, readjusting my plate of food. After breakfast, Pops and I go outside and cut some more firewood. “Have you decided what you’re gonna take to Savannah Mae’s?” “No idea.” “Serenadin’ her didn’t appeal to you?” I look at Pops and he’s grinning. Even he knows that’s old fashioned. “No, it didn’t.” “I hate to be the one to break this to ya, but you’re runnin’ out of time.” “I know.” I have an idea, but I can’t mention it to Pops. “Maybe Mia will know of something.” “I’m sure she’ll have some ideas for you.” After the firewood is cut and stacked, Pops goes into the house to shower. I walk into the barn to check on Colonel and Bluebelle. He’s neighing loudly and appears to be agitated. I walk over with an apple in an attempt to make nice. He takes the apple from me and raises his head high in an effort to dismiss me. Bluebelle walks over to me and nudges me with her nose. “Hey, girl, you miss me?” I feed her an apple and she eats from my hand. I pet her and she lets me. “You sure are a sweet girl.” I feed her and Colonel another apple before leaving. After a shower, I get ready for Christmas dinner. I offer to help Momma with dinner, but she shoos me out of the kitchen. I hear her fussing over the pies and Pops chuckles. He stands and walks into the kitchen. “I wouldn’t aggravate her.” Pops replies, “There’s nothin’ sexier than an aggravated Nelly. I wanna watch her fuss over her pies.” Nothing he just said made any sense. Since when is an aggravated woman sexy? I stay in the living room. Mia and Levi show up and place their gifts under the Christmas tree. Momma has Christmas music playing from the old stereo standing in the corner. I hug them both before Mia rushes off into the kitchen to help Momma. After dinner, we gather around the tree for our gift exchange. Pops hands out gifts, as Momma sits on the couch taking pictures. Mia and Levi get a family gift of bath towels, and an outfit each. Mia is excited and stands up to hold the white sweater next to her. I get a few pairs of Wrangler jeans, long johns, and a couple flannel shirts. I’m grateful to have some more clothes to wear. Mia and Levi pass out their gifts next. Momma and Pops insist there isn’t anything they need, and I think Mia looks hurt when they don’t want to accept their present. “It’s not much, please just open it,” she pleads. I watch, and Mia and Levi sit together on the couch holding hands. We all open the envelope, and it’s a baby announcement. I look at Mia and Levi and they are both grinning. The only thing filled out is the parents’ name. The baby’s name, weight, length, and date of birth are all left blank. Suddenly, I hear Momma squeal with excitement. “A baby?” Mia nods. Her long blond ponytail is bouncing with every nod. “Oh, my word, a grandbaby?” Momma asks again. “Yep.” Mia stands and Levi looks proud. He also stands and puffs his chest out further than usual. I lay the unopened gift on the floor and rise to congratulate the expectant couple. When Momma and Pops are finished hugging them, I congratulate them both. “This is good news.” I never wanted children, and I never wanted a wife either. But for my brother, a family suits him. He is smiling and I know this is something that he wants. “You’re gonna be an uncle,” Mia informs me. “I guess I am. Do we know when?” “On or around June 30th.” We finish opening our gifts and I stand and remove the two envelopes from the tree. I hand Mom and Pops one, before handing Levi and Mia one. As soon as I sit down, Momma says, “Abel, if this is money…” I interrupt. “It’s not.” I know from past experience that they won’t accept money from me. “Please, just open it.” I brace myself for an onslaught of yelling, but it doesn’t come. “Abel…” Mia begins to say and stops. I look at her and Levi and they are both looking at the paper that was in the envelope. I slowly look over at Momma and Pops. He takes the paper from Momma’s hands and reads it. “Abel, how did you get the deed to our house?” Mia asks. I rub my hands together and take a deep breath. “I wanted to do something nice for everyone.” I let that sink it, before saying anything else. “You paid off the farm?” Pops asks. “I did.” “Bro, you paid off our house?” Levi asks, and he sounds happy and excited. Finally, someone appreciates my gesture. I look at him and smile, but my smile fades quickly when I see the scowl on Mia’s face. Suddenly, I feel the need to protect myself. I stand up so I have an advantage. “Look, before you say anything.” I take a deep breath and continue, “Please, I just wanted to do something nice for the people I love the most in this world.” “Abel, this is too much. We can’t let you pay off our house.” Mia thinks for the right words to say. “You can’t just go around payin’ off people’s mortgages.” I did. I want to chuckle because it was really quite easy to do. The bank was eager to take my money. But I don’t chuckle, and I don’t say that the bank was eager to take my money. “Since I’ve been home, I see what you…” I look at Mia and then look to Levi, Pops, and Momma and then say, “You donate food to the church to give away. You even donate Sugar-Frosted Flakes because you know that kids like Sugar-Frosted Flakes.” I look at Momma and say, “I sent money home to help you, and you refused to take it. I want to assist you so you can continue to help others.” I look at Pops and then at Momma. “This gift is for me as much as it is for you. I want to do this for you… for all of you. Please, don’t take that away from me.” The room goes quiet and I walk towards the fireplace. “Thank you, Abel,” Momma says. I watch as she and Pops stand and walk over to me. I think I see tears in Momma’s eyes. I hug her. “Thank you,” she whispers. “You’re welcome, Momma.” “Thank you, Son,” Pops says. I hug him next and then Mia. “Abel, you have more money than you know what to do with,” she says, standing on her tiptoes to hug me. “This is really nice, especially with a baby on the way. Thank you.” “You’re welcome, Mia. There isn’t anything I won’t do for junior.” I hold back the laugh that threatens to come. “Don’t start that, Abel Lee. There’ll be no juniors in this house.” She backs away and Levi hugs me next. “Bro, you paid off the house.” I want to laugh, but I smile instead. “You’re welcome, Levi.” “Thanks, Bro.” Pops speaks up and says, “I have one more gift. Abel, can you give me a hand?” “Sure.” “Stay here,” he tells Mia, Levi, and Momma. Momma smiles — she knows what the gift is. I follow him to the barn and help carry the heavy, unwrapped, cardboard box into the house. He sets the present in front of Mia and Levi. “Belle and I bought this a few weeks ago. We knew we would need it one day, we just didn’t know we would need it so soon.” Mia and Levi open the cardboard box and reveals a handmade, wooden cradle with spindle sides. “Oh, my goodness,” Mia says, holding her hand to her mouth. “This is gorgeous.” I learn that Savannah Mae’s ex-husband and father-in-law made the cradle. After checking out the cradle, I realize it’s top quality workmanship. I gently swing it back and forth, and I wonder if Savannah Mae had one for Sawyer Jackson. When Mia and Levi leave, I remember that I didn’t ask Mia what I should do about meeting Savannah Mae. I decide to go with my first plan. Savannah Mae “Why you rushin’ off?” My dad stands from the couch. “I just wanna get home and clean up. It’s still a mess from this mornin’.” “You sure that’s the only reason?” “Yes, Daddy. I need to drop Sawyer Jackson off at Ethan’s, then I’m headin’ home.” “It’s not like you to be in such a hurry on a holiday.” Mom is standin’ next to Daddy and my sister, Samantha Marie, is placin’ ear buds into her ears so she can listen to some music. “I know, I’m sorry. You didn’t see the condition I left my house in.” “Okay, I understand. Call us if you need anything.” “Thank you, Daddy, I will. Mom, dinner was delicious. Thank you.” I take the containers of leftover food, then Sawyer Jackson and I head to his daddy’s house. When I pull up to his apartment, my stomach does a flip when I see Heather Sue’s car parked next to Ethan’s truck. Homewrecker! “Momma, that’s not Daddy’s car.” I look back at Sawyer Jackson and smile. “No, it sure isn’t.” I try to not show the hurt on my face, and I try to not remember the night I caught my husband kissing her. “Ready to see what Santa Claus brought you?” I say too happily for his benefit and mine. “Yay, Santa,” he says, excitedly. Before I have time to get Sawyer Jackson out of his booster seat, Ethan is walkin’ out of the house to greet us. He probably thought I would cause a scene. “Merry Christmas, Daddy.” “Merry Christmas, Buddy. Wanna see what Santa brought you?” “Yay, Santa.” “I love you, Sawyer Jackson, and I’ll pick you up tomorrow.” “I love you, too.” I look at Sawyer Jackson and hand him to Ethan. “Look, Savannah Mae…” “Ethan.” I raise my hand to stop him. “I don’t want to hear it. I’ll pick Sawyer Jackson up tomorrow around noon.” “I know what you’re thinkin’,” Ethan says. I give him an icy stare. I’m pretty sure he has no idea what I’m thinkin’. I furrow my eyebrows and whisper, “Don’t. You have no idea what I’m thinkin’. Don’t talk to me about her again.” I look up at his apartment and Heather Sue is standin’ in the doorway. He backs away from me, holdin’ our son. I put on my Mommy smile for my son. “Go see what Santa brought you, and I’ll be back tomorrow.” “Yay, Santa came,” he says, clapping his hands. “I wanna see my presents.” I get into the console of the car to retrieve the small gift Sawyer Jackson and I got his daddy. I wish it were just from Sawyer Jackson, but stupid me, I wrote it was from the both of us on the card. “Here, we got you a little something for Christmas.” He takes the small box, wrapped in Santa paper, gives me a faint smile, and says, “Savannah Mae, I’m sorry.” “Please don’t.” I raise my hand and shake my hand. “Just don’t.” I lower my head and stare at my boots. I can’t look at him. I’m not sure why I feel like this. I knew he saw Heather Sue while we were married, so why does him seein’ her now bother me? My eyes burn and I know tears are comin’. I had always hoped maybe it was a one-time incident, although I knew it wasn’t. Savannah Mae, you are so stupid! “You got Daddy a gift?” I look up and he is talkin’ to Sawyer Jackson. Sawyer Jackson nods his head so hard his hat begins to fall into his eyes. Reaching up, I readjust the hat on his small head. “Get him in the house, it’s cold out here.” I look my son, but I’m talkin’ to Ethan. “Mommy loves you, pretty boy.” I can feel my smile when I see my son. I gently touch my boy’s rosy cheek. “I love you, too, Mommy.” I drive home and quickly pick up the house and run the sweeper. I stack Sawyer Jackson’s clothes and toys neatly back under the tree. Although Christmas is over, my family always put the opened gifts back under the tree once they were unwrapped. I think it’s to not rush the holidays. I admire the gifts and I am reminded of the wonderful morning Sawyer Jackson and I had together. I will always do what’s right for my son. I was raised to never do anything to embarrass my mother. I laugh at that. Even as an adult, I still use that one sayin’ as a guideline of the do’s and dont’s of life. If it embarrasses Momma, don’t do it. I’ll never do anything to embarrass my son, either. After showering, I put on a pair of jeans and a red sweater, and pull my hair into a ponytail. A little mascara and lip-gloss, and I am now looking okay, not great, but okay. I’ll take it. I still have a small twinge of pain in my heart from seein’ Heather Sue in Ethan’s apartment. I am such a fool. Abel Lee should be comin’ soon. I light a few candles and make myself a cup of hot herbal tea. Admirin’ my house, I suddenly realize it looks like I am tryin’ to set a romantic mood. I quickly blow out the candles and fan the smoke away with my hand. What am I doin’? I never should have asked Abel Lee to come over. I grab the quilt and head out to the front porch instead. Fresh air will help. Takin’ some deep breaths, I exhale slowly. The sun is already settin’ when I hear a cluckin’ noise comin’ from down the street. Blinkin’, I try to focus in on the cowboy ridin’ the horse. He waves and I smile. It can’t be. I stand and wrap the quilt tighter around me, walkin’ towards the steps of the porch. Omigod, it’s Abel Lee Kennedy. The horse doesn’t gallop but walks at a leisurely pace. Anticipation builds as I watch Abel Lee make his way towards me. He removes his cowboy hat and stops in front of my house and says, “Howdy.” I can feel the smile spread across my face and I remind myself to tone it down. “Howdy,” I reply, closin’ my mouth and tryin’ to hide my bright smile. He looks so good on top of that horse, I don’t think I’m able to say anything else. The horse moves and he steadies it. “I thought we could go for a ride.” “Is that Colonel?” I know Bud and Nelly have only two horses, and I know what Colonel did to Levi not too long ago. Bucked ‘im off and almost trampled ‘im. “The one and only.” The horse moves and he tries to steady it again. “Where’s Bluebelle?” I want Bluebelle. “She’s home. Colonel and I had a long talk and he promised to be good.” I laugh. “I ain’t ridin’ on him,” I say, pointin’ my finger at the massive solid black stallion. “C’mon. He’s just misunderstood.” I have been up to Nelly and Bud’s a few times and I do like Colonel. He’s beautiful, black, and massive in size. I’ve been ridin’ horses since I was in diapers, even took lessons growin’ up. I know a lot about horses, probably more than most people. I often thought that Colonel was misunderstood because of his size. I also know that if you feed him, he listens a lot better. “Okay, give me a minute.” “Yeah, you’ll come?” “Let me get a coat on.” And some snacks to feed Colonel while we’re gone. Once I am dressed properly for the cold, I head outside. Abel Lee is still sittin’ on top of Colonel. He smiles when he sees me. I walk up to the horse and pet him before I do anything else. I talk nicely and tell him to be nice, before feedin’ him some carrots I stashed in my pockets just for him. “Be nice, Colonel, Abel Lee’s a newbie.” I give him one last pet before movin’ away. “Ready?” I ask Abel Lee. “Do you need help?” For a minute, I wonder if I should act clueless and defenseless. I quickly decide against it. I don’t want to mislead him. “No, I think I got it.” He scoots up in the saddle and offers me his hand. I put one foot in the stirrup and hoist myself up in one try, using his hand for support. Colonel moves, but he doesn’t buck. “Easy, boy,” Abel Lee says as he steadies the stallion. “Ready?” he asks over his shoulder. As I’ll ever be. “Yep,” I say instead. I wrap my arms around Abel Lee and Colonel walks us down the road. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a horse and I soon realize that I miss it. The horse behaves himself, and I’m grateful. Abel Lee and I don’t talk but just enjoy the silence of the evening. He stops by the creek and says, “Let’s take a break.” I climb off Colonel and feed him some more carrots while Abel Lee climbs down from the saddle. Abel Lee comes up and also offers him an apple. “A bribe?” I ask, teasingly. He chuckles. “As long as it works.” He strokes him between his eyes and down his long nose. “He does like his apples.” “And carrots,” I add, pulling out more carrots from my coat pocket. “Smart girl,” he says. He ties Colonel up to a tree and takes me by my hand, leadin’ me to the stream of runnin’ water. “I used to come here as a boy.” He leans against a tree and looks around the dark wooded area. I sit down at the base of the tree trunk near his feet. He lowers himself and joins me. “It’s beautiful here.” I watch as he stretches out his long legs. “I can’t wait till Sawyer Jackson gets old enough so I can teach him to catch crawdads.” He looks over at me. “You hunt crawdads?” “Favorite pastime ever.” “You fish, too? I laugh. “You’re looking at the recipient of the blue ribbon award of the Perry County Catch and Release Tournament three years in a row.” Now he laughs. “No.” “Yes. I would never lie about something like that. That’s a big deal in these parts.” I try to hide the hint of a smile I feel on my lips. “Now, Savannah Mae, that is very impressive.” He looks from one eye to the other, and I quickly look away. I pick up a twig and break it in half. “Thank you. What about you? You hold any significant titles or anything I should know about?” He pauses for a moment and looks beyond the creek. “No, nothing as impressive as yours.” He looks at me and gives me another faint smile. There’s an awkward silence. “Mia tells me you’re just here visitin’. You got plans of leavin’ soon?” “I should be leaving tomorrow. But I’ll be staying through New Year’s.” I look over at him. “You’ll be goin’ to the big New Year’s Eve party then.” “Excuse me?” “The American Legion in Roseville. They always put on a big party, complete with square dancin’ and everything. Your Momma and Pops never miss it.” He watches me with crinkled eyes. “Square dancing, huh.” “And line dancin’, too. It’s a big deal, you should go.” “Will you be there?” “Not this year.” I remember it’s my first New Year’s Eve since my divorce. I don’t want to be out on New Year’s Eve as a single woman. “Sawyer Jackson and I have a date with each other that night. I’ll be home bringin’ it in with my son.” He nods. I suddenly feel sad thinkin’ that he isn’t here to stay. Although I don’t know him very well, I like what I know of him. “Sounds like you have big plans that night.” “We do. I bought some hats, noisemakers, and some sparklin’ cider. We’ll play some board games and watch a few movies. We’ll both be asleep by midnight,” I say, laughing. He smiles. “It sounds like fun.” He skips a rock or two and says, “I should probably get you home.” He stands and offers me his hand. Before leavin’, we both offer Colonel some love and snacks. I laugh, “Nothin’ like bribin’ a horse to get us home safely.” “Whatever works.” He gets on, then I climb on after him. I hold on tightly and rest my chin on his shoulder. “I had a good time, thank you.” He keeps a hold of the reins but leans back into me. “I did, too, thank you.” “What made you decide on a pony ride tonight?” I giggle because Colonel is anything but a pony. I can see his eyes crinkle from the street light and I know it’s from a smile. “It’s Christmas, I couldn’t just show up empty handed.” “You put a lot of thought into this.” “I spent the last three hours trying to break him in.” That explains why the massive stallion hasn’t bucked us off yet. “Thank you. It’s probably the most memorable date I’ve ever been on.” Date? Did I say “date”? I didn’t mean to say “date.” I hang my head and pray he didn’t catch me calling tonight a date. I feel his hand touch my lower leg as we ride the rest of the way home in silence. “Home, safe, and sound,” he says, soundin’ surprised. Thank God. “Thank you.” I hold onto him as I slide off the massive animal. Once my feet hit the ground, I get my balance and look up at him. “I had a great time.” “Me, too. I would walk you to the door…” I interrupt, “It’s okay, I can manage.” “Before I forget, I have something for Sawyer Jackson.” He unzips his coat and hands me a small wrapped gift. “It isn’t much, just a small something I thought he would like.” I take the gift and look at it. It feels like a box and it’s wrapped in snowman wrappin’ paper. “Abel Lee, you didn’t have to do that. Thank you.” “You may want to hold off on the gratitude. Later, you might wish I never gave him such a present.” I roll my eyes. “I doubt that, I’m sure he’ll love it. Thank you.” “I’ll watch you from here.” I roll my eyes. I walk into my house every night without someone watchin’ over me. “Let me feed Colonel before you take off.” “I think he’ll be okay. Goodnight, Savannah Mae.” He’s livin’ on the edge. I like that. “Good night, Abel Lee.” I walk towards the front porch before turnin’ back around. He’s watchin’ me as he sits on top of the massive beast. “Should I wait and see if he bucks you off? Maybe you’ll be in need of help.” “Are you insinuating I can’t handle Colonel?” I want to smile, but I need to maintain a straight face. “I’m just sayin’ I know what he’s capable of.” Colonel turns around into a complete circle before Abel Lee gets him under control. “No, I think I can handle a little pony.” Now, I am bearin’ a show-all-my-teeth smile. I walk the rest of the way to the porch and open the door. “Suit yourself. Have a good night,” I say, closing the door behind me. As soon as I hear Colonel take off down the street, I open the door. I watch as Abel Lee rides Colonel with expertise. The black stallion and his master. I lock up and take another shower before bed. CHAPTER THREE Abel Lee When I hear Savannah Mae lock the door, I hit Colonel on his butt and let him do what he does best. He gallops fast and hard down the street. Once we get to the farm, I feed and brush him before putting him up for the night. “I’ll see you in the morning, boy.” He walks up to me and takes the few sugar cubes from my hands. “Good boy.” I look over, and Bluebelle is standing at the stall. “Did you miss me, girl?” I feed and brush her, just as I did Colonel. She is very receptive to being groomed. I offer her a few sugar cubes and she graciously takes them. “You really are a sweet girl.” I pat her one last time before closing the barn doors. Standing on the front porch, I see snow flurries falling from the heavens. It’s just before midnight; it’s still Christmas day. It’s cold and I can see the fog from my breath. I didn’t notice the chill earlier. I down some water, place a few logs on the fire, and head to bed. I dream of returning home to New York, leaving Savannah Mae, and leaving my family. I also dream of Mia, Levi, and the baby. I wake up before the alarm and lying awake in bed, I reflect on the past month. When I arrived here a month ago, I wanted to stay only through Christmas. I should be heading back home today, but I haven’t even checked on airline flights. Coming back to my childhood home has put things into perspective for me. I left here over ten years ago to find myself, just to realize ten years later, that I was never lost. In the morning, as soon as I collect the eggs and feed the animals, I jog into town. I stop at the small market and get the newspaper and then I run to the post office to check the mail. I’m surprised to see there’s something for me in the mailbox. No return address and it’s written in shaky cursive writing. There’s other mail for my parents and I remember they check the mail only once a week. I open the letter addressed to me. Abel Kennedy, I’m watching you. Not a Fan I read it and turn it over. There’s nothing else written on it. It’s not a handwriting I’ve seen before. I look at the envelope again and nothing else is written on it; it’s just my name and mailing address. I’m a professional boxer, so it could be from anyone. I’m not too concerned, so I tear it up and toss it in the trash. I do wonder how anyone would know I am in Rose Farm. When I arrive home, Momma is in the kitchen getting ready to make breakfast. “Would you like to go out for breakfast today?” “At Peaches Place?” Momma asks. “Anyplace you want.” I lay the paper down on the bar in the kitchen. “Bud, is Mia workin’ this mornin’?” “She sure is,” he yells from the living room. “Do you mind if I run into Campbell’s afterward?” Momma asks as she adjusts the hairpin in her hair. “No, I have no place I need to be.” We have breakfast and visit with Mia. Mia tells the staff and all of the customers about the pregnancy. Everyone is excited, especially Momma and Pops. Momma says she’s going to start buyin’ something for the baby every week and puttin’ it back for when the baby is born. Pops reads the paper and nods. “Bud, did you hear what I said?” He smiles and looks over the paper and over his glasses at her. “Yes, Nelly.” He sets the paper down and repeats everything she said, word for word. That even impresses me. “Are you happy?” he asks. “Yes,” she pouts. He raises the paper and continues to read it. I take a sip of my coffee and say, “I had an idea the other night while we were at the church for the community meal.” Pops lowers the paper and removes his glasses. “We’re listening.” I chose my words wisely. “I was checking out the old Rose Farm School.” “Isn’t that a sight?” Momma says in disgust. “It is,” I admit. “However, it’s a well-built building with a solid foundation.” “That it is,” Pops agrees. He watches me and doesn’t look away. “Wouldn’t take much to fix it up.” I take a drink of my now lukewarm coffee. “Some money, and a whole lot of muscle. Savannah Mae tells me the township owns it.” “They do. The building’s been sittin’ empty since 1966. Mr. Gerald Clutter was the last principal there.” Momma says, “You got something cookin’ in that head of yours.” “I have an idea. Not sure if it’s a great idea yet.” “Well, let’s hear it,” Pops says, as he signals to Mia for more coffee. “I was thinking of buying it, and having something with a playground and a park or something. Turn it into something that’ll bring in jobs and benefit everyone in the community.” Momma smiles. “Does that mean you’re not leavin’?” “I would like to stay. I would also like to do something for the residents of Rose Farm.” Momma rushes up out of her chair and causes a scene as she rushes over to me. “My boy’s stayin’,” she says as she hugs me. “That makes me happier than a pig in slop.” Mia looks at me and smiles. I think I see her eyes glistening with tears. Momma sits down and Pops is also smiling. “We can go down Monday and talk to the people at the township.” “I’ll need a place to stay until I can find something.” “You can stay right where you’re at. We don’t use that room for anything.” “Nelly, he’s a grown man. He’ll want his own place.” “I have some business to attend to at home. I’ll need to sell the condo and clear my things out.” Pops says, “You thinkin’ if everything goes well, gettin’ to work on it this spring?” “I think the spring would be best.” “Let’s see what the township says next week.” Pops finishes his coffee. “Belle, don’t be sayin’ nothin’ just yet.” “And who do I got to tell?” “Who won’t you tell?” Pops says and chuckles as he raises the paper to read it. Savannah Mae The next morning when I pick up Sawyer Jackson from his daddy’s, I begin to feel anxious. My palms sweat and I take several deep breaths. I haven’t felt this way since our divorce. I don’t like feeling like this. I remind myself that I can’t do anything about it, so just breathe. I’ll pull up, blow the horn, and wait in the car for Ethan to bring Sawyer Jackson out to the car. A thin layer of snow is on the ground, but the streets are clear. I let out a sigh of relief when I see that Heather Sue’s car is gone. I stick to my plan and blow the horn. Ethan stands at the door, waving me in. I shake my head and blow the horn again. After several minutes, he carries Sawyer Jackson and a large bag out of the house. I get out of the car and buckle Sawyer Jackson into his booster seat. “You don’t want to keep that here?” I ask about the bag he’s holding. “This is what he wanted to bring; he left some things here for when he comes back.” “Oh, looks like Santa was good to him this year.” I take the heavy bag and place it in the trunk of my car. “Savannah Mae, about yesterday…” “Jesus, Ethan. I don’t want to talk about it.” I look at him and I suddenly want to cry. I just want to move on and get over the pain. “You don’t owe me an apology. It’s over between us.” “I’m gettin’ married.” “What?” I hold onto the car for support. “Heather Sue and I are gettin’ married.” I get a high-pitched noise in my ears and my head feels like it’s going to explode. I slowly walk and get into the car. As soon as I buckle my seatbelt, I pull off. I don’t remember closin’ my car door, and I don’t remember anything else. I drive to my parents’ house. I don’t cry, I don’t talk. I just need a minute. I need to process this without my son watching me. I promised myself I would never bad mouth his father in front of him, but that has proven to be difficult to do. There is so much I have to say, but none of it is appropriate for a child or a teenager or an adult or anyone. My mom and sister are outside waitin’ for me when I pull up. Ethan must have called them. “I’m sorry, Sis.” “Aunt Sammie,” Sawyer Jackson says, excitedly. “C’mon, Buddy. Let’s go play a game.” I remain in the car and watch as my sister takes my son into the house. When they are out of view, the tears fall. “He’s gettin’ married.” “I know, Baby,” Mom says. “He called and said you left upset. He said he tried talkin’ to you.” “He’s gettin’ married. Ethan had an affair, he broke up our family, and he gets to move on,” I cry. “That’s not fair. I’m the one who should get to move on. I’m the one who should be happy. Not him.” Mom gets in the car and sits with me. “I wish I knew what to say.” “I don’t understand it.” I look at my mom through tears. “He cheated on me. Why does he get to move on, and I’m stuck here strugglin’? What am I supposed to do?” “You can always come back home. We have plenty of room for you and Sawyer Jackson.” “Thank you, but I can’t.” I think for a minute and say, “If he decides to stop helping me financially, I won’t be able to make it.” “He won’t, Savannah Mae. He wouldn’t do that.” “I hope not.” Abel Lee We go to church on Sunday and stay for the potluck lunch. I was excited about getting to see Savannah Mae but disappointed when she and Sawyer Jackson weren’t there. The sermon was about moving on and taking care of yourself in the process. It seemed to touch home for me today. We came to church a little earlier today. Pops and Momma wanted to bring in some more eggs and a few packages of meat from the pigs and cow they had slaughtered before the holidays. I think my paying off their mortgage is giving them more of an opportunity to help others — if that’s even possible. When the collection plate came around today, I placed a sealed envelope on it. I have made millions in my boxing career and have never paid my dues to God. This is the perfect time and place to do that. Coming back home to my country roots has opened my eyes and my mind. After church, Mrs. Hackler made her homemade chocolate cake for the potluck. Pops is the first one in line for it. I was second. I soon realize I need to join a gym. Momma is the best cook around, and she never misses cooking a meal. I never miss eating a meal, either. I see the back of a little boy’s coat. It looks like Sawyer Jackson and his aunt. How did I not see them in church? Sawyer Jackson has a coat and hat on, so I take long strides to catch up with them before they leave. “Hi, Savannah Mae’s sister, right?” I clear my throat and smile at her. She looks like Savannah Mae, but a younger version. “Oh, hi. Yes.” “We met at the church for the community meal.” “I’m Samantha Marie, Savannah Mae’s sister. I remember, how are you?” she asks, holding onto Sawyer Jackson’s hand. “Hi, Sawyer Jackson,” I say when he looks up at me. He waves. “Savannah Mae couldn’t make it today?” She isn’t here, so of course she didn’t make it. Just ask her where she is and get it over with. “Daddy’s gettin’ married and Mommy’s sad,” Sawyer Jackson blurts out. I raise a brow. Her eyes get big and she bends down to whisper something to Sawyer Jackson. She stands up and looks at me. “Sorry about that. She has to work today.” “I see. Is she all right, Samantha Marie?” “She’s okay. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get goin’.” “Of course. I didn’t mean to keep you. Bye, Sawyer Jackson.” He waves again. She smiles and takes her nephew by the hand. “See ya.” I stand and watch them leave the church through the kitchen. Looking around the room, I see everyone is finishing their dessert and having polite conversations. The preacher and a few members of the church’s congregation are in a deep conversation in the corner of the room. Talking about the amount of today’s offering, no doubt. They all walk out of the room together. Walking over to the window, I watch Savannah Mae’s sister and son get into the car and leave. Daddy’s gettin’ married and Mommy’s sad. It’s been a few days since I saw her. I don’t know much about her, and I know less about her marriage to her ex. Maybe I’ll stop in for a late lunch and see how she is. After getting a few things from Campbell’s, Momma, Pops, and I pull up at the farm and I ask, “Would you mind if I use the truck for a bit?” “It’s all yours.” Pops helps Momma out of the truck. “Headin’ someplace special, Abel?” Momma asks. Looking across the seat at her, I say, “Thought I might ride over to Peaches.” “Bein’ ya just ate, you aren’t goin’ for lunch,” Momma says, knowingly. I never lie to Momma, even though sometimes I want to. “Nope, not going for the pie, either.” I laugh. “Savannah Mae’s working today. I thought I might stop over for coffee.” “Coffee, huh?” Pops chuckles as he closes the door. I watch them as they make their way into the farmhouse before leaving. I pull up at the small diner on Main Street, and I can see Savannah Mae through the large picture window in front. She is talking to the only customer in the restaurant. He stands, and it looks like she is crying. I look away and stare straight ahead as I give him time to leave. It looks like a private conversion. They’re in a restaurant, how private can it be? He walks past me and gets into the pickup parked on the other side of the street. I recognize him as Savannah Mae’s ex-husband. He was at Megan Rose’s funeral, and Pops and Momma introduced us. When he drives away, I chance a look inside the diner. It seems empty. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel and try to decide whether I should go in or leave. Main Street is empty; it’s a typical Sunday in this small town. If I don’t go in, I defeat my purpose of coming to see her. The reason I wanted to see her was because Sawyer Jackson said she was sad. I decide to go in. The bell over the door chimes to alert the employees that a customer has arrived. “Take a seat, the waitress will be right with you.” The cook is standing at the serving window wearing a white chef’s hat. “Thank you.” Walking into the empty diner, I decide to take a seat furthest from where she was talking to her ex-husband. I pick up the plastic menu and pretend to browse it. Suddenly, I feel like my tie is choking me. I should have changed first. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. When I stand to leave, Savannah Mae comes out of the bathroom. Her hair is pulled into a high ponytail, and her eyes are red and puffy. She fidgets with her white work apron before she sees me. “Looks like you’re leavin’, Abel Lee.” “Nope, just getting here.” I sit down and loosen the noose, otherwise known as my tie, around my neck. “Coffee?” “Yes, please.” I turn the coffee cup over and wait. She shows up with a pot of fresh coffee. She says as she looks at the coffee as she fills the cup, “I’m surprised to see you here today.” “Why’s that?” “It looks like you’re just gettin’ out of the church. Didn’t you stay for the potluck?” I move the cup of coffee closer to me and say, “I did. I saw your sister and Sawyer Jackson; she said you were working today.” She looks sad as she stares at the coffee pot she’s holding. “I had to pick up an extra shift this week, and this was the only one available.” “Looks like a slow day.” “It’s Sunday. Sundays are always slow. ‘most everyone goes to church and then stays for the potluck.” She looks around the empty diner. “Are you havin’ lunch?” “No, just coffee.” “Let me put this back on the warmer, and I’ll be back to check on you.” She turns to leave and I reach my hand to stop her. “Savannah Mae?” She stops and looks at me. “Is everything all right?” “No.” Savannah Mae I walk away and set the coffee pot back on the warmer, and just stand there with my back to Abel Lee. My hands shake and I make a fist in each hand in an attempt to stop the shakin’. When he asked was everything all right, why didn’t I just smile and say yes? Because it would’ve been a lie. Sometimes a lie is better than the truth. Right? Not accordin’ to my Mom. “It’s better to always tell the truth,” she always says. “Savannah Mae?” a deep husky voice murmurs behind me. Why didn’t I just lie to him? I turn around and Abel Lee is standin’ closer than what I expected. I tilt my head back to look up at him. “Come and talk to me.” “I can’t. I’m workin’ in case you can’t tell.” I lift the bottom of my apron so he can see that I’m in my work uniform. I’m hopin’ a little humor will help. I even add a small smile. It’s the only smile I’m capable of. I see a hint of a smile. “I’m not leaving here until you talk to me.” I’m at work. I don’t want to discuss my problems with him, especially here. I think about the conversation Ethan and I had just before Abel Lee got here. My eyes begin to tear up. “I can’t.” I close my eyes and I can feel a single tear roll down my cheek. Next, I feel a large hand behind my head, pulling’ me into him. His chest is broad and muscular and hard. I don’t pull away, I lean into him instead, restin’ my face against his body. I hear his heartbeat and I feel safe. Why do I feel safe? I barely know him. “Tonight. I’ll be over tonight, and we’ll talk then.” I can only nod. I’m afraid to say anything. I’m afraid the tears will start and the waterworks won’t stop. The bell over the door rings, alertin’ us of a customer. Abel Lee kisses the top of my head before he releases me. I turn around with my back to the restaurant and stare at the coffee pot, willin’ my tears to go away. When the bell rings again, I know Abel Lee is gone. After work, I go home and find that my sister, Samantha Marie, has already bathed Sawyer Jackson. He is dressed in his Thomas the Train pajamas that Santa got him. “I missed you,” he says, jumpin’ up in my arms. “Oh, Buddy. I missed you, too. Were you good for Aunt Sammie?” “Yep. We went to church, played games, and I even had a bath. Smell,” he says, lowerin’ his head for me. I inhale deeply and I agree he does smell good. “Thank you for keepin’ him for me.” Samantha Marie gathers her coat and purse. “I love watchin’ him.” She leaves, and Sawyer Jackson and I play for awhile before bed. We both have milk and cookies. I remember the gift that Abel Lee got him for Christmas. “I have another gift for you.” “From Santa?” he asks. “No, this one’s from Abel Lee. He brought it over for you.” I stand and walk into the bedroom to get it. When I return, Sawyer Jackson is at the table smiling. “Here ya go, Buddy.” He eagerly takes it and smiles. I watch as he tears the wrapper off of the white box. He removes the box lid and smiles even bigger when he reveals a beautiful shiny harmonica. “This is so cool.” Sawyer Jackson removes the new harmonica and blows in it. I take the box and try to read the instructions that came with it. It might as well be written in a foreign language. Sawyer Jackson continues to inhale and exhale into the instrument. It’s the worst soundin’ thing I think I’ve ever heard. Abel Lee’s words come back to me. “You may want to hold off on the gratitude.” We finish our cookies and milk. “You can play with it more tomorrow,” I say, placing the noise maker, aka the harmonica, back into the box. “I wanna play it now,” he says. “Tomorrow.” I wanna tell him he can play it all day long to Abel Lee, but I don’t. Sawyer Jackson says his prayers before bed and he falls asleep quickly. The house feels colder than usual, so I add another log to the fire and adjust the furnace. I shower quickly and dress in a pair of sweats and an Ohio State hoodie. I hear the creakin’ sound of the wooden front porch, and it alerts me that Abel Lee is here before he knocks. When I open the door, he’s standin’ there and holdin’ an Adornetto’s pizza and salad. There’s nothin’ better than a salad and pizza from Adornetto’s. “Hey, come on in.” I hold the door open wide for him. He’s wearin’ jeans, boots, and a black leather coat. “I brought dinner.” He smiles and holds up the pizza box. “I can see that, thank you.” He takes the food into the kitchen while I lock up behind him. “I hope you like pepperoni,” he asks from the other room. “I covered the pizza box with my coat to help hold in the heat. My coat will smell good for the next few days.” When I get into the kitchen, he’s already removin’ the salads from the bag. “I do like pepperoni.” Adornetto’s has the best food around. I reach up into the cabinet and remove two plates. “Water or pop? I don’t have any beer to offer you, sorry.” “Not much of a pop drinker, water’s fine.” We take the plates and walk into the livin’ room to eat. I sit on the floor, in front of the fireplace, tryin’ to get warm. Abel Lee sits on the chair nearest the door. He opens my pop and his water before he begins to eat. “I gave Sawyer Jackson your gift you got him tonight.” I just watch him. He smiles slightly. “Did he like it?” I watch as he takes a bite of his pizza. “He did. A noise maker huh? When did you think that would be a good gift for a four-year-old?” He laughs, “‘A noise maker?’ Is that what you think that is?” “Sure didn’t sound much like music.” He leans up in his chair. “I was afraid of that. I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. It’s pretty nice. Doesn’t look much like a toy.” “It’s not. It’s a real harmonica. Maybe when he’s older, he’ll be able to learn to play it.” Halfway through the meal he asks, “So, are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Looking up at him, I say, “Abel Lee, you don’t want to hear about my problems.” “Sure I do.” He wipes his mouth off with his napkin and leans back into the chair. I shake my head. “You’re gonna regret this.” He rests his arm on the back of the chair in an attempt to get comfortable. “Something’s bothering you and I want to know what it is.” I tell him briefly about my marriage and catchin’ Ethan kissing Heather Sue last year at her birthday party. I also tell him about Ethan denying it and about our divorce. “He pays child support?” “We agreed to handle the child support outside of court. He helps me out whenever he can.” Abel Lee nods. “The other day, he told me that he and Heather Sue are gettin’ married. Isn’t that something? His life moves on as if he’s never been affected by our marriage or the divorce.” I take a deep breath. “While I’m sittin’ here, not really sure how to get my own life together, let alone my son’s life.” “I’m sorry.” “Me, too. We live in a small town and as soon as word gets out about the upcomin’ weddin’, people will start talkin’ — more than they already are.” I think for a minute and say, “It’s Sawyer Jackson that I’m worried about.” He leans up in the chair and rests his elbows on his knees. “When’s the wedding?” “He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. It’s not fair that he destroyed our life together, and he gets to move on and be happy.” I close my eyes and pray this is just a dream. Sayin’ it out loud only makes it even more painful. “Do you still love him?” I open my eyes and he’s watchin’ me. Do I still love him? “No, not anymore. I’m an old-fashioned girl. You get only one chance to hurt me. The night I saw him kissin’ her, that was it. I do miss the thought of havin’ a family.” I wipe away the single tear. “I’m sad that Sawyer Jackson won’t have his dad around. I feel sorry that my son will be missing out on so many things. He didn’t ask for this, and he doesn’t deserve the struggles that we face.” “Is he still giving you money?” “He came into work today and gave me some. He said work’s slow, but he gave me what he had. My biggest fear is that he’ll stop payin’ me altogether.” I think for a moment and say, “That’s a lie. My biggest fear is he’ll move on and forget about our son.” Abel Lee I watch as Savannah Mae breaks down in front of me. She tells me personal moments in her life and her worst fears. I doubt she has ever told anyone about this, other than her family. She fidgets with her hands before looking at the fireplace. I watch as she stands to add another log to the fire. She looks at me and smiles. It’s not a real smile. “Bet you wish you never asked.” She sits down on the couch and tucks her legs under her. “I’m a bit of a mess.” “I wouldn’t say that.” She laughs. “Really.” I wish I knew what to say to her. I wish I had the right words. “I see a strong, beautiful girl.” She shakes her head, but I don’t stop. “I also see a fighter.” I look her in the eyes. “I know a lot of women who would have overlooked a cheating husband. Ignored it, as if they didn’t see it.” She watches me with big eyes. “Really?” “Sure do. They would rather stay in a bad relationship because it’s easier, only to be cheated on again and again. Not a lot of women would have done what you did — stand up for something you believe in.” I watch her as she takes in my words. “It may not be easy, but you’ll get where you need to be. And one more thing.” She watches me. “If that ex of yours was stupid enough to cheat on someone like you, he’ll surely do it again.” She doesn’t say anything. I stand and walk into the kitchen to leave her with her thoughts. I put the pizza and the extra salad in the fridge. “Thank you, Abel Lee.” I close the refrigerator door and turn around. “I didn’t think it was possible, but I feel better. I have always second guessed myself for my decision. I wondered if I should have stayed because it would have been easier, or stayed for Sawyer Jackson’s benefit.” I interrupt, “And you shouldn’t have.” “I know that now. Thanks to you.” “You’re better than that. It may not seem like you’re moving on, but you are.” I look at the wall clock hanging over the door. “I should leave. Momma wouldn’t be happy if I kept a beautiful girl awake.” I watch as her face lights up with a smile. “Do you always do what your momma wants?” “Yes, ma’am. Always been a good rule to live by. Never wanna disappoint your momma.” She walks me to the door. I don’t open it until I’m ready to leave. “Thank you, Abel Lee.” “Savannah Mae.” I look down at her and take a deep breath. “Would you like to go out with me on New Year’s Eve?” We’ve been hanging out lately, and I think it’s time I asked her out on a real date. “I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s my holiday to have Sawyer Jackson.” Oh yes, the divorce stipulations or maybe this is a polite way for her to say no. “If I can arrange the best sitter in town to babysit, would you go to the American Legion with me in Roseville and bring in the New Year, country style?” She laughs. “In country style?” “In country style,” I repeat. Because country style is a style of its own. “Abel Lee, if you can get a sitter for Sawyer Jackson on New Year’s Eve, I’ll be happy to go out with you.” The way she said that sounds like it will be almost impossible to do. How hard is it to find a sitter on New Year’s Eve? “Good, I’ll be in touch.” “And not just any babysitter,” she adds. “No, ma’am. Wouldn’t dream of leaving your son with just anyone.” I open the door and say, “Good night, Savannah Mae.” “Good night, Abel Lee.” When I get home, I take my guitar and head out to the barn. Bluebelle and Colonel are standing at the stall door. “Hey, girl, did you miss me?” I stroke her and feed her a few sugar cubes. Colonel stands there and patiently waits his turn. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever seen him calm. I cautiously raise my hand to pet him. He moves slightly but allows me to stroke his nose. “I didn’t forget about you, ole boy.” Colonel takes the sugar cubes from my hands and eats them. I walk over and prop myself on the hay bales that sit in the corner of the barn. I form chords, strum the strings, and play a few songs from Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton. I think of Savannah Mae and our possible date on New Year’s Eve. The next morning at breakfast, I ask Momma about their plans for New Year’s Eve. She tells me that she and Pops will be going to the American Legion. “What’s on your mind?” she asks. “If I was looking for a babysitter, where would I find one?” “Abel, you got a child out there we don’t know about?” I quickly shake my head. “No Ma’am, no kids. I was thinking about taking Savannah Mae to the Legion for New Year’s.” “Findin’ child care on New Year’s Eve can be almost impossible.” She looks at Pops and says, “But I do know that Mia and Levi are stayin’ in that night. With her bein’ pregnant, they don’t want to be out in a crowd.” Mia? She’s friends with Savannah Mae. I think this might work. “Do you think she would watch Sawyer Jackson?” “I can’t say. You can always call her and ask.” I make plans to call Mia later. “I’ll do that, thank you.” Pops and I head out to talk to the township about purchasing the old Rose Farm school. Later that night, Mia and Levi come over for dinner. They called Momma and Pops and said they had something to talk to them about. I feel like it’s important, but Momma and Pops don’t say anything. At dinner, Mia begins to talk about the pregnancy. It looks like she is about to cry and Levi holds her hands. Momma, Pops, and I stop eating and give them our undivided attention. “As you know,” Levi says, “Mia had a test done to see if she’s at risk of carrying a baby with Down syndrome.” “This was the routine test they do with your pre-natal care?” Momma asks. Mia nods, but doesn’t say anything. Levi says in a shaky voice, “The test revealed that Mia is at risk and the baby may have Down syndrome.” I run through my mind all of the things that I know about the syndrome. It’s not hereditary, and Mia isn’t over the age of 35 to put the baby at risk. The severity of the syndrome varies. I soon realize that I know very little about it. “Are they certain?” I ask. Mia tries to smile. “Just because I’m at risk, doesn’t mean the baby has it.” Levi explains they did a blood test and Mia had some abnormal blood levels that indicated the baby may have Down syndrome. “Are there more tests they can do so you know for sure?” Pops asks. Mia pipes up, “There are.” Levi looks at Mia and says, “We talked about it, and whatever the test reveals won’t change anything. Mia’s pregnant and we’re thrilled about it. If our child has Down syndrome, we’ll still love him or her and we’ll take care of her, no matter what.” I’m not surprised by his statement, and I don’t doubt they’ll love and care for their child no matter the severity of the problem. I just hope the test is wrong. Momma says as she holds Pops’ hand. “You’re right, Mia and Levi. It doesn’t matter and we’ll all love the baby, no matter what.” The rest of the meal goes by with us talking about the baby and the pregnancy. Momma and Pops have a way of making everything seem all right. I know this diagnosis could be a problem, but if they aren’t concerned, who am I to dwell on it. I do know that later on that night, I’ll research Down syndrome. Savannah Mae When Abel Lee asked me to go out with him on New Year’s Eve, I got butterflies in my belly. The good, excited kind of butterflies. I don’t want to get my hopes up because I know that childcare will be a problem. Not many people stay home on New Year’s Eve, and if they do, they are already babysittin’ their grandbabies or for someone they know. He said he’ll be in touch. I hope so. While I work, Ethan, Samantha Marie, and my parents keep Sawyer Jackson for me. Childcare has never been a problem for me. I’m grateful for that. I spoke to Ethan and asked him if he could start pickin’ up and droppin’ off Sawyer Jackson at my house. I don’t want to have to see Heather Sue if I don’t have to. I know one day I won’t have a choice, but today, I do. I work today and I pray for a busy shift, although I know it’s not likely. Everyone is catchin’ up on their bills from Christmas. I have a few regulars come in and I’m working with Mia. A winnin’ combination, although she’s been gettin’ sick and spendin’ a lot of time in the bathroom. “Why don’t you go home?” “It’s just mornin’ sickness. It should pass soon,” she says as she holds up one finger and runs into the bathroom. We aren’t busy, but business is steady. After an hour, Mia is feelin’ better. I forgot how quickly mornin’ sickness comes and goes. We talk about her pregnancy, and she seems reserved. I wonder why, but I don’t ask. If it’s something important and she wants me to know, she’ll tell me. I share with her some things about a pregnancy, but I don’t tell her everything. The pain, she’ll have to experience that on her own. Abel Lee, Nelly, and Bud come in for lunch. I hug Nelly and Bud like I always do. I want to hug Abel Lee, but I don’t. I leave and let Mia attend to her table. I have a few customers and I’m glad for the distraction. Abel Lee said that he’ll be in touch. He hasn’t, so I’m assumin’ he couldn’t find childcare. I glance over at their table a few times and I catch him watchin’ me. He doesn’t look away like most guys, he holds my look. I smile but quickly look away. My cheeks warm, and I hope he can’t see the blush on them. There’s something about him and the way he looks at me. I like it. I’ve missed the feelin’ of attraction. I’m standin’ at the register cashin’ out a customer when Abel Lee and his family stand to leave. Abel Lee walks up to me and asks, “What time should I pick you up?” “For what?” “For our date on New Year’s Eve. “Did you find a sitter?” He stands tall and puffs his chest out. “I did,” he says, proudly. I can’t help but smile. “Who did you find on such short notice?” He looks behind him and my eyes follow in that direction. Mia is standing at the coffee pots. “Mia? Mia is your babysitter?” He looks back at me. “What time should I pick you up?” We talk it over and decide on a time. They leave and I’m still smilin’. Mia rushes over and hugs me. “You’re datin’ my brother-in-law.” She squeals, “One day, we could be sisters-in-law.” “Stop it. We are not getting’ married.” “No, but you are datin’.” “Mia, it’s one date.” I want her to understand that one date does not mean marriage. Throughout the day, we talk about what I should wear. Mia is the fashionable one out of the two of us. She tells me that she’ll be over to help me find something unforgettable to wear. Abel Lee Pops, Momma, and I leave the restaurant and head to the farm. I’m excited about my upcoming date with Savannah Mae. It won’t be like other New Year’s Eve celebrations I’ve attended over the last decade, then again, Savannah Mae isn’t like the other women I’ve dated. It’ll be nice not wearing a tuxedo and spending a few thousand dollars in one evening. I’ll need to find out what the dress code is for the American Legion. Mia and Levi haven’t told anyone about her test that came back abnormal. They are both going about their lives as excited expectant parents. I was reluctant to ask Mia about babysitting Sawyer Jackson on New Year’s Eve, but when I mentioned it, she was excited and eager to keep him. I’m not sure if it’s because she likes Sawyer Jackson, or she likes the idea of me dating Savannah Mae. Maybe it’s both. Momma makes a pot of coffee and we all sit down at the table. We discuss the meeting with the township over the Rose Farm School. The school was actually up for sale with no interested buyers. I put a cash bid in and they accepted it fairly quickly. “So, Abel, what are your plans for the school?” Pops asks. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I want to do something to benefit everyone in the township.” I look at Momma. “I want to put in a playground and some benches, for sure. “There’s a lot you could do with it to benefit the community. A park and playground would be enjoyable for everyone. I’m sure you’ll decide on something wonderful,” Momma says. “I’ll need to return home for a while. I’d like to get my condo on the market.” “You still plannin’ on startin’ to work on it this Spring?” Pops pushes aside his empty coffee cup. “Yes, as soon as the weather breaks.” I get a rental truck to get through the next week. I have a date with Savannah Mae and I definitely need my own vehicle for that. I’ll also need a vehicle to get me to the airport. I have a truck in New York, and as soon as the condo sells, I’ll load the truck up with some of my personal belongings and drive it home. It’s New Year’s Eve and Momma and Pops left early to help the American Legion set up for tonight. I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t anything that Momma and Pops aren’t involved in. I decided to wear a pair of jeans, brown boots, a white button-up shirt, with a brown winter blazer. A little cologne and I’m ready to pick up Savannah Mae. I leave a little early to allow time for us to drop off Sawyer Jackson at Mia and Levi’s house. I’m surprised to be feeling this excited about seeing Savannah Mae. When I knock on her door, she yells for me to come in. I stand at the door and wait. “Abel Lee, I’ll be just another minute. Grab a beer from the fridge if you want, and have a seat,” she yells from the other room. I wish that with the killer still loose, she would be more careful about inviting strangers into her home. “How did you know it’s me?” I stand by the door, not sure if I should make myself at home. “I saw you pull up. Who else would be knockin’ on my door on New Year’s Eve? You’re early,” she adds, still from the other room. “I wanted to allow enough time to drop off Sawyer Jackson.” I look around the room and decide to pass on the beer and have a seat on the couch facing the hallway. I want to see her when she enters the room. “Mia picked him up a couple hours ago.” Her voice fades deeper into the next room. “I didn’t expect Mia to pick him up.” I stand and walk closer to the hallway, but I still stay in the living room. If we’re going to have a conversation, I think I should be closer to her. There’s just something about yelling from room to room that doesn’t seem right. I hear footsteps and I move away from the hallway. Savannah Mae walks into the living room, adjusting her belt. She’s wearing a pair of skinny jeans with a white button-up blouse, a brown belt, and a pair of brown cowboy boots. She looks hot. When she sees me, she begins to laugh. She looks at me and then she looks down at herself. “Should I go change?” she asks, still laughing. “You look beautiful. Why would you go change?” She laughs again. “We’re dressed just alike.” I look at her and then I look down at myself again. We sure are. White shirt, jeans, brown boots. I smile. It looks like we’re a couple who color coordinated our outfits. “Are you wearing that jacket?” I nod toward the blue jean jacket she’s holding in her hands. “I am.” “Then we don’t match.” I think I like the idea of us matching. I’m not sure why. I look at her again and her belt buckle is larger than I expected. I look closer and she laughs. Her silver, overly large belt buckle reads, “Catch and Release.” My mind drifts to the several meanings the belt buckle could mean. I remember her saying she held the Perry Country blue ribbon for catching the largest fish and releasing it. Maybe that’s what it means. I don’t say anything. I’m not going there on our first date. I nod to her jean jacket. “You might get cold.” She looks out the window and asks, “Is your truck warm?” “It is.” “Then I won’t get cold. You ready?” I hold the door open and wave my hand for her to go first. “After you.” We pull up at the American Legion in Roseville; the parking lot is full. I decide to park at Shriver’s Pharmacy along with several other patrons. As I pull into the parking lot, I see Savannah Mae’s ex-husband walking in with a girl. Savannah Mae also watches. After I park the truck, I ask, “Are you all right?” Her eyes glisten. “My ex-husband is here with his fiancé.” “Do you want to leave? We could always go somewhere else.” I have no idea where. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’ll be impossible to get in anywhere without a dinner reservation. “Abel Lee, can you dance?” “I can.” “Are you any good?” I see a hint of a smile on her beautiful face. “I am. Won the ‘Perry County Line Dancing Contest’ three years in a row.” I smile, brightly. “Did not,” she says, sternly, still smiling. “C’mon, I’ll prove it.” I get out of the truck and walk over to her side and open her door for her. Savannah Mae Abel Lee and I walk into the American Legion hand in hand. After I watched Ethan and Heather Sue walkin’ in, I wanted to go home. Abel Lee tried to take my mind off it by sayin’ he won the “Perry County Line Dancin’ Contest.” I never heard of such an event. It worked. All I can think about now is Abel Lee boot scootin’ boogiein’ across the dance floor. Abel Lee and I walk straight over to where his momma and daddy are. Lucky for us, they came early and saved us a table in the corner of the room. I wanna look around the room to see where Ethan is, but then again, I don’t wanna see Ethan or Heather Sue. We greet his family before takin’ our seats. “What would you like to drink?” he asks. “Budweiser in a bottle unopened, no glass, please.” I know from the way he’s lookin’ at me, he thought I was gonna order a girly drink. I look at him, and he smiles and says, “Not a wine or champagne kind of girl?” Can’t usually afford wine or champagne, but I don’t say that. “Nope, always been a Budweiser girl. You got a problem with that, Abel Lee?” He smiles, but his smile doesn’t reveal his single dimple. “Nope, not at all, Savannah Mae.” He leaves and when he returns, he opens my beer and hands it to me. “Do you always order your drinks unopened?” “I do. Don’t laugh, but I have this fear of someone puttin’ something in my drink.” He pauses for a moment and says, “That’s smart thinking, Savannah Mae. It would be nice if everyone were that vigilant.” “I wasn’t always like that.” He sits down in the seat next to me. “There was at a party once, and this girl went crazy. She got really mean and violent. They had to call her parents and they took her to the hospital. Later they found out she had drugs in her system. She didn’t even do drugs.” “Was she a friend of yours?” I look at him and I can see his concern. “She’s my sister. It was at the end of her senior year of high school and a bunch of kids went out to celebrate their graduating. They had a party with food and drinks at someone’s house. My sister’s friend was there and noticed Samantha Marie was acting strangely. She wanted to take her home, but some of the guys thought it was funny and were trying to get my sister into one of the bedrooms to ‘help calm her down.’” “I’m sorry.” “Thank you. I’m just glad her friend called my parents. She’s better, and now we always order our drinks in a can or a bottle, unopened.” “I’m glad everything worked out for her.” “Me, too.” We order a cheeseburger and French fries for dinner and we both have another beer. I can see Ethan and Heather Sue out of the corner of my eye, but I try to ignore them. Abel Lee makes it easy to think only of him. He sits close and puts an arm on the back of my chair. He’s very protective and it feels good. I feel someone watchin’ me, but I don’t look to see who it is. I don’t care. When the music starts, I excuse myself from the table to go to the little girl’s room. When I walk in, Heather Sue is standin’ at the sink warshin’ her hands. I stay in the bathroom stall longer than needed, because I want to make sure she’s gone. Of course, she’s still standin’ there when I open the stall door. I look at her and use the sink next to her. I don’t say anything, I have nothin’ to say. “Ethan said that he told you about the weddin’.” “Congratulations,” I say sarcastically as I continue to warsh my hands. She smiles and rubs her hands over her belly, “He failed to mention the baby.” I hold onto the sink for support. I blink a few times and I wonder did I hear her right. “We were goin’ to get married anyway, but the baby kinda put a rush on the weddin’,” she says, smilin’. I stand a little taller and grab a few paper towels to dry my hands on. Instead of crumblin’ over like I want to, I say, “Who’s the baby’s daddy?” She looks shocked. “Ethan, of course.” “Rushin’ the weddin’, huh? Wouldn’t want the good people in the community thinkin’ you were a home-wreckin’ whore now, would we?” I watch her and when her mouth falls open, I leave. I see my date sittin’ at the table, watchin’ me. I smile, and when I reach the table I pull him by the arm. “C’mon, Abel Lee, it’s time to show me some of those dance moves.” “I thought you would never ask.” He follows me to the dance floor, takin’ the lead. We dance and laugh through every song. He is light on his feet and is a very graceful dancer. We dance fast, and then we dance to a few slow songs. After several songs, we sit down and have another drink, but this time we both have ice water. After a few moments of silence, he asks, “Did something happen in the bathroom with you and Heather Sue?” “How did you know Heather Sue was in the bathroom?” “I watched her go in before you. I’m not a creeper, but I try to be aware of my surroundings.” He leans in closer to the table and says, “Did something happen?” “Can we go?” I ask. He walks up to the bartender and I watch as he settles up the bill. He takes my hand and leads me out of the buildin’. As we walk towards the car, I say, “She’s pregnant.” He doesn’t falter in his step. He opens the door for me and I get in. He doesn’t say anything as he closes my door for me. I wonder if he heard me. I don’t want to have to repeat those words. My stomach clenches at the thought. Abel Lee gets into the truck and pulls off without sayin’ anything. “Are you all right?” he finally asks. “I am. I have no idea why this bothers me so much. It’s not like I didn’t know he was seein’ her all along. As soon as we separated, I used to see them ridin’ around town together. After the divorce, Heather Sue even called me to tell me some personal details of their relationship. Like I cared what she and Ethan were doin’. I did care and it hurt, but I wasn’t about to admit that, not to her or to anyone else. I should be thankful that she didn’t get pregnant while we were still married.” “I’m sorry,” he says as he drives in the direction of my house. I look over at him and say, “I’m the one who should be sorry. I didn’t mean to ruin your evenin’.” He looks over at me. He doesn’t smile and he doesn’t say anything. I remain quiet the rest of the way home. I blew it. I blew my one and only chance with the only man I’ve been interested in since my divorce. I fold my hands, place them on my lap, and remain quiet the rest of the drive home. We almost make it home before Abel Lee pulls over into an empty parking lot. I look over at him and he watches the clock in the truck. “Something wrong with your truck?” He looks over at me and says, “No, my truck’s okay.” Of course it is, it’s a brand-new rental. “I want to kiss my date at midnight.” My belly does a flip and my breath hitches. I slowly look away from him and then I look at the clock on the dashboard. It’s 11:59 p.m. Abel Lee lightly touches my chin and turns my head slowly to face him. I stare at him as he leans in and kisses me. It’s a sweet, soft kiss. He slowly backs away from me but is still close enough for me to smell his cologne. I lean into him and he does the same. This time, the kiss is more intimate. I wrap my arm around his neck and pull him in for more. He cups my cheek with his hands and he kisses me aggressively. I feel like I could kiss him forever. Not only is Abel Lee smooth on his feet, but he is also an excellent kisser. He slowly stops and I release my hold on him. I keep my eyes closed as he rubs his thumb over my bottom lip. “It’s just as good as I imagined,” he says. I open my eyes and he is just inches from my face. He smiles that dimpled smile and leans in and kisses me quickly, before releasing his hold on me. “Happy New Year, Savannah Mae,” he says, still watchin’ me closely. The clock on the dashboard now reads 12:01 a.m. I whisper, “Happy New Year, Abel Lee.” Abel Lee I reach over and hold Savannah Mae’s hand on the ride to her house. “Do you need to get Sawyer Jackson tonight?” “No, Mia and Levi are keepin’ him overnight. They didn’t want me to take him out this late.” I nod my understanding. When we pull up to her house, I say, “I’ll get your door for you.” I always hold the door open for her whenever I can, but she usually beats me to it. I was almost expecting an argument from her, but she waits for me to walk around the truck to her side. When I open her door, she hops out of the truck. I laugh. She really is quite amusing. “Did you buy a new truck just for our date?” She holds the blue jean jacket tighter around her. “I did.” I close her door and lock it. She stops and her mouth falls open. Her eyes are big with shock. “No, you didn’t.” I smile and walk the short distance to her. “I didn’t. It’s a rental.” “Does your momma know about the lies that come out of that mouth?” I take her hand and lead her to the front porch. “I reckon Momma wouldn’t be much happy with me tonight.” “Why do you think that?” “Kissing a beautiful girl on a first date. Momma would expect more from me.” I hold out my hands and give her my dimpled smile. “Keys?” She reaches in her purse and hands me her house keys. I start to walk in after her when I hear a glass breaking. We both stop to listen. I look around the street to try to find out where the noise is coming from. Glass breaks again. It’s not coming from inside the house, it’s coming from outside. “Go inside and lock the doors.” I turn to leave and she says, “Abel Lee…” “Do it now, and leave the lights off,” I demand. “Abel Lee,” she says as I jump from the porch. I don’t look back, and I don’t answer. I hear more glass breaking and it’s coming from behind her house, in the direction of the old school. It’s dark and difficult to see. The moon is covered with clouds, giving off barely enough light to see. I see someone pick up a brick and I wonder if it could be the man who killed Megan Rose. I watch as he throws the brick at the already broken glass window at the old school. I watch as he throws another brick and bends down to pick up another one. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” “Why’s that?” he yells. “Because it’s destruction of property, that’s why.” I walk closer and realize it’s a teenage boy. “No one cares about this old buildin’.” He raises the brick again and throws it at the already broken window, breaking the rest of the glass. “I own this building, and I would appreciate it if you would stop.” “You do not, the township owns it.” He watches me before he bends down to pick up another brick. “I bought it this week.” I watch him, but I can also see a light come on in Savannah Mae’s kitchen. She didn’t listen. I told her to leave the lights off in the house, “Looks like you’re waking up the neighbors.” “I don’t care. Why would someone buy a stupid old buildin’?” He throws a brick again. I take a few steps closer. I have to wonder why he’s out this time of night. “Because I want to turn it into a business with a community park or basketball court or something.” He looks at me and watches me carefully. “You got kids?” I expect him to pick up another brick, but he doesn’t. “No.” “Then why do you want to build a park? You ain’t a pedophile, are you?” I want to laugh, but I remain stoic. “No, not hardly. I just came back to town and I want to do something for the children in the community.” I figure honesty is the best policy. He watches me and I wonder if he believes me. “I’ve lived here my whole life. Why haven’t I seen you around here before?” I hear a screen door open and close and I know Savannah Mae is coming out the back door. The boy bends down and picks up another brick. I’m getting nowhere with this kid. More truth, Abel. “I’m Abel Kennedy. My parents live on top of the hill.” I hear footsteps behind me, so I turn slightly in that direction. I see Savannah Mae getting closer and I really wish she would have listened to me and stayed inside. “Hi, Savannah Mae,” the boy says. He knows her? “Johnny, does your momma know you’re out here wreakin’ havoc on the neighborhood?” “No, Ma’am.” I watch as he lowers his head and drops the brick. Savannah Mae just got here and she is already making more progress than I am. She stands tall and puts her hands on her hips. “If you take your tail home, I’ll think about not tellin’ her.” She looks down the street. “If you hurry home, you might be able to get there before she does.” “Yes, Ma’am,” he says as he starts to walk away. Somehow this doesn’t seem right. “Johnny?” I say. He stops and says, “Yeah?” Savannah Mae clears her throat and glares at him. “Yes, Sir?” I look over at her and her arms are now crossed over her chest. She doesn’t look at me, but she is watching Johnny intently. “Do you have a job?” I ask. With his head still down, he says, “No, Sir.” “Do you want one?” “No one will hire a sixteen-year-old.” “Johnny, if you want a job and if you want to work, I’ll pay you to help me fix this place up.” Now Savannah Mae is watching me. Johnny looks up at me, “Really?” I nod. “It won’t be until March. Too cold to work outside in the winter. Especially with all the broken windows. The first weekend in March, I want you to show up here and be dressed in work clothes and be ready to work.” “You’ll forget about me by then.” He hangs his head and begins to walk away. “Johnny, look at me.” He stops and looks me in the eyes. “I’m a man of my word. You show up here and I’ll remember you. Besides, it’s kind of hard to forget the person responsible for this.” “I’m sorry about that.” “No problem. I’ll see you when?” “On the first weekend in March.” “Go right home, Johnny. I mean it.” Savannah Mae taps her foot in the grass, arms still crossed. “I’m going. Good night, Savannah Mae.” “Good night, Johnny.” “Does he need a ride home?” I whisper. “Nah, he lives two houses down.” She loops her arm through mine and we begin to walk towards her house. “Mind tellin’ me why you told that boy you bought this buildin’?” “Because I did. I bought it this week. I want to turn it into a business to help the community.” I look over at her and ask, “Do you mind telling me why you didn’t stay in the house when I told you to?” “Because you didn’t ask me to.” I put it to memory that Miss Savannah Mae doesn’t like to be told what to do. We walk arm in arm to her house. “You comin’ in?” she asks when we reach the back porch. “I want to, just not sure if I should.” I hold the screen and the door open for her. She says, “C’mon in, your momma won’t like it if you leave me here alone with some hoodlum runnin’ loose.” “You think Johnny’s a hoodlum?” I ask, walking into the house behind her. “No, not at all. I just said that so you’ll come in.” I lock the doors and then start a fire in the fireplace. We talk about the old schoolhouse, and I tell her my plans and she listens. I can see the excitement in her eyes and it fuels me to want to get started on it as soon as the weather breaks. “I need to leave for a few weeks,” I reluctantly say. “I need to return to New York to sell my condo and get my affairs in order.” “When will you be leavin’?” “I plan to leave this week. I want to get things wrapped up there, so I can move on with my life here.” “When you come back, you’ll be stayin’?” “That’s my plan, yes.” When I stand to leave, I ask, “Savannah Mae, would you lock up when I leave?” I stand at the door, waiting for her to answer. She laughs instead. “Since you asked nicely, yes, Abel Lee, I will.” “May I call you while I’m away?” She looks embarrassed. “I haven’t had a cell phone since my divorce.” “No landline?” I ask. She shakes her head, “Sorry.” I lean in and kiss her, “I’m going to miss you.” “Me, too, hurry home.” Savannah Mae Abel Lee has been gone for two weeks already. He stopped in at work on his way to the airport to tell me goodbye. He said he wanted to hurry up and get his affairs in order so he can begin his life here. I remember the excited feeling I got in my belly when he said that. It’s Wednesday, our day to work the community supper at the church. I pick up Sawyer Jackson from his daddy’s and head over to start preparin’ supper. Since Abel Lee stocked the kitchen with food, Nelly, Bud, and I have been fixin’ dinner there. I have to admit, it makes it a lot easier than totin’ the food from my house to the church. I haven’t talked to Abel Lee since he left. I’m hopin’ Nelly and Bud have heard from him. I miss him. I’ll have to remember to hold back my excitement if they share anythin’ about him with me. When we walk into the church, it smells of food. Pearl and a few other ladies are in the kitchen helping Nelly. I wave before I see Bud with a mixer in one hand and a book in the other. I try to hold back my laugh. There’s nothin’ sexier than a man readin’ a book, but there’s somethin’ about the mixer part that brings a smile to my face. Sawyer Jackson throws his coat and hat on the floor before takin’ off and runnin’ to Larry. “Hey, little boy, this isn’t where that goes,” I say, pointin’ to the pile of clothes on the floor. He rolls his eyes and runs back to me. “Sorry,” he says as he picks everything up. I lay my coat and scarf on top of his on the chair in the corner of the room. I watch as he talks to Larry, probably about makin’ him something out of balloons, no doubt. I walk over to Bud and offer to finish the mixin’. He smiles and it’s a friendly smile. “Readin’ something good?” I ask. “Abel sent me a box of books the other day. I already read this one, but it’s just as good the second time around.” I look at the title and it’s an old Western book. Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey. Zanesville was named after Ebenezer Zane. Zane Grey was a member of the Zane family; in 1872, he was born in Zanesville. I say, “Western, huh?” “It’s an old schoolbook. Nothin’ like the cowboys you read about these days,” he says, laughin’. I’m sure it’s not. He adds, “Not everyone likes this book. H. Allen Smith once visited a dude ranch, where a cowboy learned that Mr. Smith was a writer of humorous books. The cowboy then said, ‘Never read but one book in all my life … book called Riders uh the Purple Sage … never gonna read another’n’ long as I live.’” I finish mixin’ the brownies and get them in the oven when a little girl about four or five years old with brown pigtails walks into the kitchen. Her momma isn’t far behind. Pearl stands up and smiles. “I want y’all to meet my grandbaby Jewel.” Pearl picks up her granddaughter and I can see the little girl looks like she has Down syndrome. She has flat facial features, small ears, and upward slanted eyes. I put on a smile and walk over to Pearl and Jewel. Jewel smiles and appears happy. My heart is sad for the little girl, Pearl, and her mother. “Hi, Jewel,” I say. “Pearl, I didn’t know you had grandchildren,” Nelly says. “I have three. Jewel and her momma and daddy are here visiting. They live in Michigan and came for a quick visit.” I look behind me and see that Pearl’s daughter is wearing a toothy smile as she looks at her daughter and her mother. “She’s beautiful,” I say because it’s the truth. “C’mon, Jewel. Let’s go and see your daddy,” Jewel’s momma says. They leave the room and Mia and Levi come in and help with dinner. Mia places her hand on her pregnant belly while looking at Jewel. “Aww, who’s that little cutie?” Nelly says, “Pearl’s granddaughter, Jewel.” Mia smiles. “Pearl? Jewel? Think she’s named after her granny?” Everyone in the room laughs out loud. “I didn’t think of that, but yes, I do.” “Do you need help?” Mia asks. “No, I believe that we have everything almost done.” “I’m going to talk to the little girl’s mother,” Mia says. I wonder why she would want to speak to the little girl’s mother, but I don’t ask. During dinner, I notice that Mia and Levi are eating with Pearl, her daughter and son-in-law, and Jewel. It looks like they are in a deep conversation. Mia and Levi are very attentive to Jewel. I can’t help but feel like something is goin’ on. Sawyer Jackson and I eat with Nelly and Bud. “Abel sent you and Sawyer Jackson something to the house today,” Nelly says. “He did?” “It’s wrapped up with a note attached.” My heartbeat quickens and I get butterflies just at the thought of Abel Lee. “How is he?” I try to ask in a monotone voice. Bud says, “He’s good, he said he thinks his condo sold.” “That was fast.” To sell a house in Rose Farm would take years if it would sell at all. When everything is cleaned up after dinner, Nelly gives me a note and two wrapped gifts from Abel Lee. I want to open the envelope now, but I wait until I get home. I’m excited to read what he has to say. I knew I would miss Abel Lee, I just didn’t expect to miss him this much. When Sawyer Jackson and I get home, I open the card and read it before I give Sawyer Jackson his gift. Savannah Mae, I miss you. I didn’t want to begin with that, but it’s the truth. Things are going better than I expected. The condo has a potential buyer, so hopefully I’ll be home soon. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to sell so quickly. New York is beautiful, but it’s cold and dreary in the winter. I think the view of Central Park from the master bedroom might have been the selling point. It really is a beautiful sight. I saw something and I thought Sawyer Jackson would like it. It’s not much but a little something so he knows that I’m thinking about him. How are you? Did I say that I missed you? I do. I also found something for you, and I wanted you to have it. Okay, to be honest, it’s probably more for me than for you. I’ve prepaid it for the next year. See you soon, Abel I give Sawyer Jackson his gift, and he excitedly takes it. “Mommy, I like Abel Lee.” “You do? Because he bought you a gift?” “Because he makes you smile,” he says, innocently. I can feel the smile on my face, and it makes me proud that my son sees it. “Yes, he does, Sawyer Jackson, and I have a feeling as soon as you open your gift, you’ll also have a smile on your face.” Sawyer Jackson quickly opens his gift and I’m surprised when I see the movie The Toy Story, and a box of six moveable figurines of the characters from the Toy Story films. There’s Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, Bullseye, Rex, and Hamm. I open the box and Sawyer Jackson is excited to play with his new toys. He holds Buzz up in the air and says, “To infinity…” I finish, “… and beyond.” I put the movie in the CD player and he watches it while I open my gift. I’m excited and I have no idea what it could be. I’m surprised when it’s a Samsung Galaxy Note 5. It looks like a cell phone, but it’s the size of a small tablet. I remove the item from the box and it covers my hand completely. It’s huge. I have never seen a cell phone this big before. I don’t know whether to laugh or read the instruction booklet. I turn the phone on and read the instruction manual. It’s even more complicated than I thought it would be. Is there anything this phone can’t do? After the movie, I put Sawyer Jackson to bed. He insists on sleepin’ with all six of his new figurines. After I shower and get ready for bed, I read the note from Abel Lee again, and then I play with the phone. I download a few free apps and read more of the instruction booklet. The phone buzzes and I get excited, thinkin’ it’s from Abel Lee. Abel Lee: Don’t be mad, I needed a way to contact you. Savannah Mae: Why? Did something happen? Abel Lee: No, I just missed you. I get those butterflies in my belly again. Savannah Mae: I miss you, too. You said your condo may have sold. Abel Lee: I’ll know in a few days. I want to return home as soon as I can. Savannah Mae: Thank you for the phone and for Sawyer Jackson’s gifts. He loves them. Abel Lee: Good, I wasn’t sure what to give him. Never shopped for a little boy before. Savannah Mae: You did good, thank you. Abel Lee: No problem. Do you work tomorrow? Savannah Mae: I work tomorrow night. Abel Lee: Can I call you tomorrow? I miss that country accent of yours. I have to laugh out loud. I don’t think I have a country accent. Unless that country is the USA. If anyone around here has an accent, it’s Abel Lee. Savannah Mae: Abel Lee, I don’t have a country accent. Abel Lee: Okay, whatever you say. I’ll take that as a yes. I’ll call you tomorrow after lunch. Savannah Mae: Night, Abel Lee. Abel Lee: Good night, Savannah Mae. The next day, Sawyer Jackson and I run into town to get a few things. The store is busier than usual. Campbell’s is runnin’ a sale and I’m thankful I have the money to stock up on a few much-needed items. Sawyer Jackson is too big to sit in the cart so he walks behind me. When I look behind me and he isn’t there, I begin to panic. I search the aisle and he’s nowhere around. I head to the front of the store searchin’ the exits frantically. Just as I begin to ask someone for help, I hear him yell, “To infinity.” I yell, “And beyond.” I hear, “To infinity,” again and I walk in the direction of Sawyer Jackson’s voice. I smile and feel so much relief that my boy is safe. “And beyond,” I yell one more time. When I finally reach him, I find him in the toy aisle. There is a woman holdin’ his hand, walkin’ him towards the front of the store. “I assume he belongs to you,” she says, lettin’ go of his hand. He runs up to me and hugs me tightly. I try to replace the fear on my face with a smile, but my heart is still poundin’. My mind races with thoughts of what could have happened. “Thank you,” I say to her. She smiles and continues shoppin’. I kneel down and hug my son. “You scared me.” “When I looked up, I couldn’t find you.” “It’s okay, Buddy.” I lift a too-big Sawyer Jackson and place him in the grocery cart. “Mommy, I’m too big to be in a cart.” “If you can get lost, then you’re not too big for the cart.” CHAPTER FOUR Mia Levi and I have an appointment with my OB/GYN doctor today. We received the news of the testin’ that my blood levels were abnormal and that I’m at risk that our baby may have Down syndrome. Levi and I dismissed the option of terminatin’ the pregnancy. When we told his parents, they took the news just as I thought they would. They were understandin’ and compassionate. They understand that Levi and I will be wonderful parents to a child with or without disabilities. Levi and I had three miscarriages before this pregnancy and we really want a child. Just because a child has disabilities doesn’t mean we’ll love them any less. My parents are both deceased and I have no other family members who live nearby. I was an only child and my parents died in an automobile accident shortly after Levi and I got married. I have a few aunts and uncles who live in Texas, but we aren’t close. We wait in the small waitin’ area of the doctor’s office for the nurse to call our name. I reach into my bag and pull out two identical books. I hand one to Levi and I keep the other one. Everything You Need to Know About Raising a Child with Down Syndrome. I doubt that the book has everything we need to know, but I do think it’ll be helpful. Levi takes the book and looks over at the book I’m holding. “I thought we could read it together.” “Good idea.” The nurse calls me back. She gets my weight and put us in another room where the doctor is already sittin’ and waitin’ for us. This isn’t the normal protocol for this doctor’s office. They usually put us in another room to wait again. “Please have a seat,” he instructs and we do. Once seated he says, “During your last visit, we didn’t have much time to talk. I was hoping to remedy that. I know your decision was to continue with the pregnancy and I just wanted to see if your decision still remained.” I hold up the book Everything You Need to Know About Raising a Child with Down Syndrome. “Very well. Do you have any questions or something you want to know?” he asks. We tell him our concerns and we also tell him our mind is made up. We won’t be abortin’ this pregnancy. If God wants to take this baby, it’s His will. We won’t willingly abort it because there’s a chance something is wrong. He explains to us the different severity levels of the syndrome and briefly explains what we should expect. They’ll know from the appearance of the baby at birth if it has the syndrome, but they’ll still do testin’ to confirm it. He also tells us his daughter was born with Down syndrome and that her case was severe. He sadly tells us she passed away before her first birthday. Of course, that was years ago and then he and his wife never suspected their child was at risk. He smiles and says, “It wouldn’t have mattered, my wife and I would have still had her.” He says, “It’s better to have loved her for only a short time than not at all.” He also adds that it didn’t stop them from having other children. He nods to the picture on the wall of him, his wife, and their four sons. The sons all look fine with no indication that any of them has Down syndrome. The doctor does say that one problem is who will take care of the child after the parents die, if the child outlives the parents. Before we leave, Levi and I feel better about this pregnancy than we have since we found out the news. The doctor tells us that my body could still terminate the pregnancy, meaning that I could still have a miscarriage. I know if that happens, it’s God’s way of correcting something that isn’t right. We’ll just pray that doesn’t happen. Savannah Mae I drop Sawyer Jackson off at my parents’ house and I head to work for the dinner shift. I work with Mia tonight and I’m excited to see her. We both arrive at the same time and we take our assigned tables and get to work. Dinner is busier than breakfast and lunch, and the tips are considerably higher. We get a rush, and then it dies down before we get another rush. It’s cold and there’s talk that a storm’s comin’ in tonight. Mia and I keep the coffee fresh and alert each other when we sell out of a special. We both keep up and work well together. Her purse falls over from under the counter and when I pick it up, a book falls from it. Everything You Need to Know About Raising a Child With Down Syndrome. I read the title and freeze. My heart immediately hurts and I get a feelin’ of deep sadness for her and for Levi. “You taking a break down there?” Mia asks. I stand up still holdin’ the book. “This fell out of your purse,” I say as I hand her the book. Her smile fades and she takes the book from me. “I meant to leave that in the car.” She shoves the book deep into her purse and zips it up before replacin’ it back under the counter. “You need someone to talk to?” Mia and I have been friends for many years. I understand if she has something personal to deal with, but I want her to know I am here for her. When I found out Ethan was cheatin’ on me, the last thing I wanted to do was go tellin’ everybody my business. Not that this is anything like a cheatin’ husband, but I still want her to know I’m her friend. “Do you mind if we talk after closin’ time? I don’t really want customers to overhear us.” “I’m here whenever you need me.” I try to give her my best smile. “Thank you, Savannah Mae.” When the last customer leaves and it’s closin’ time, we lock up and do our sidework. We sit down at the booth and begin to roll the silverware into the paper napkins. “You know that test you do in your first trimester to see if you may be at risk of havin’ a baby with Down syndrome?” “The blood test?” “That’s the one.” “I refused to take that test when I was pregnant for Sawyer Jackson.” “I wish I had. My test came back abnormal.” I can see the tears in her eyes. “Indicatin’ you’re at risk?” She nods. “It’s still difficult to talk about.” My mind drifts back to the church when Pearl was there with her daughter and granddaughter. The granddaughter was functional with her Down syndrome. I know there are different degrees of Down syndrome. Mild to severe. Those who are mild do well, and the most severe cases aren’t so lucky. “When do you get further testin’ done?” “Soon, probably with my next appointment. I think the doctor is waitin’ to see if my body terminates this pregnancy. Whatever the other tests reveal won’t change anything. Levi and I are excited about the baby and nothin’ will change that. This is our fourth pregnancy; we had three miscarriages previously. I have to believe that everything will be okay, and if it’s not, we’ll do the best we can.” We continue to roll the silverware as we remain in deep thought. “I’m glad you told me. Does Abel Lee know?” “He knows. We told him, Bud, and Nelly right after Christmas.” That was a couple weeks ago. They’ve known for a while and she never came to me. “I wish I knew what to say or do. I know very little about that.” “I talked to Pearl’s daughter. She was a wealth of information, and their daughter, Jewel, gives us hope for a brighter tomorrow.” “Let’s go girls, the storm’s a comin’,” Bill the cook yells from the kitchen as he shuts off the kitchen lights. Mia and I gather the wrapped silverware and place it in the tub. We turn off the lights and leave. We all say our goodbyes and Bill waits for Mia and me to leave before he pulls out behind us. The snow is comin’ down pretty heavy, so I decide to go to my parents’ house and stay there with Sawyer Jackson. If we get the blizzard people say is comin’ and we lose power, I want to be with them and Samantha Marie. Samantha Marie still lives at home while she attends college. I park on the street and use my key to let myself into the house. Mom, Samantha Marie, and Daddy are in the kitchen, watchin’ the snow fall from the window. “There she is,” Daddy says. “Comin’ down pretty good; we were gettin’ worried about you.” “Work was busy, then the streets started gettin’ slick. How was Sawyer Jackson?” “Good, he’s in bed with his new toys. He sure does like them.” I smile and then I remember that I forgot my cell phone at the house. It’s brand-new so I’m not used to carryin’ it and so I walked out of the house without it. If Abel Lee calls, he’ll wonder where I am. If he sees the storm on the television, he’ll probably worry. “Savannah Mae, you feelin’ okay?” Mom asks. “I’m all right. I just remembered I left something at home. I was plannin’ on stayin’ here durin’ the storm, but I wonder if I shouldn’t just go home.” “There ain’t one thing that’s that important for you to be drivin’ around in weather like this. If you still need it tomorrow, I’ll go over and get it for you if it’s safe to drive,” Daddy says and it’s the end of the conversation. “You’re right.” And he is. I look out the window and the snow is comin’ down in big snowflakes. It’s beautiful to watch from inside the house, but I pray for the safety of those who are drivin’ in it. I hope Mia and the cook, Bill, got home all right. Mia lives close to work, but Bill, he lives in Deavertown. That’s a windin’ road he’ll need to travel on. I’ll pray for him. “I’m headed to bed, good night.” “Good night, Savannah Mae,” they all say in unison. Abel Lee My condo sold and I have an auction company coming in to sell off my furniture. I boxed up my personal items and boxing mementos and had them shipped to Momma and Pops’ house. I’m trying to finish up here so I can return to Rose Farm. I’ve been attempting to call Savannah Mae, but there’s no answer. Ohio and the East Coast were hit by a terrible snowstorm and it’s being broadcast all over the television. “The Storm of the Decade,” they’re calling it. It’s been over a week since I sent her the cell phone. I called her the first night of the storm and again the next day, but I haven’t been able to reach her or anyone else since then. I wish my family would have been tech savvy. Momma and Pops don’t even have a microwave in their house. It’s possible Mia, Levi, and Savannah Mae don’t even have an email address. If they do, I don’t know about it. With the murder of Megan Rose still unsolved, and with the anonymous letter I received, I can’t help but worry. I’d like to think everyone is snowed in and without phone service, but the idea of something of the likes of what happened to Megan Rose happening to Savannah Mae creeps into my head. The storm hit Ohio and is slowly making its way to the Northeast. It’s coming my way. I tried to get a flight out of New York, but all flights into Columbus, Ohio have been canceled. I want to get home and check on my parents, my brother and Mia, and Savannah Mae and Jackson Sawyer. I’m worried, and I don’t like the idea of not knowing what’s going on with any of them. The news has reported blizzard conditions with sub-zero temperatures. Several deaths have been reported in other counties from the storm. My mind replays the situation I left the farm in. Was there enough food in the house for Momma and Pops? Did I chop enough firewood? With that amount of snow, and with the deeply sloped driveway, they’ll be stranded. I wish I had someone to contact. I could call 911 for a well check, but I know that law enforcement will be busy with more important things. But what’s more important than the well-being of my family? Nothing. I call 911 and wait for some news. They said they’ll get out as soon as they can to check on Momma and Pops. I wait, I pace, and I stare out the large floor-to-ceiling glass window as the storm is making its way into the city. The snow is falling and is quickly accumulating. With the snowstorm settling in over the city, the people of New York aren’t even fazed. I watch them down below going about their life like any other day. It’ll take more than a snowstorm to stop New Yorkers. I get a letter with no return address. I sign for it and soon recognize the handwriting. It’s from the same person who wrote me while I was in Rose Farm during the holidays. I debate on opening it or just tossing it in the trash. I decide to open it. Abel Kennedy, Consider this a warning. Not a Fan Just like the last letter, there’s nothing else written on the note, and on the envelope is nothing but my name and address. I refold the letter and place it back in the envelope. I tap it on the table and try to think about every fight I’ve ever had and won. There are too many to recall all of them in any detail. Nothing and no one stands out in my head. My phone rings and I rush to answer it. It’s the Sheriff’s department telling me they were unable to make it up the hill to make the well check on my parents. Even on foot, the climb was impossible. I know they tried, but I still don’t feel any better. I can’t fly home, and I certainly can’t drive home in these conditions. I’m stuck until God knows when. I decide to make a run to the store to get a few must-have items. Coffee, beer, and more coffee and beer… maybe some bread and lunchmeat, but definitely coffee and beer. Standing outside is a woman panhandling. I reach into my wallet to give her some money when I hear a baby cry. She bounces up and down and the crying stops. I hand her the $20.00 bill and ask, “You got a baby?” “He’s hungry. I need money to feed him.” “Are you hungry, too?” “Yes, sir. I haven’t eaten today.” I look around and see a small diner a few buildings away. “I’ll be right back with some more money for you.” “Thank you, sir.” I walk into the convenience store and buy a couple baby bottles, a can of powdered formula, diapers, and baby wipes, before leaving. I thank God when I see she is still standing outside of the store. “Let’s go eat,” I say. “No sir. I don’t feel comfortable leaving with you.” She bounces up and down and pats her belly through the thick coat she’s wearing. I look at her and I understand and appreciate her concern for her and the baby’s safety. I’m a big guy and when women see me walking toward them on the street, they sometimes cross the street or duck into a store until I pass. On many occasions, I’ve slowed down while walking so the woman walking ahead of me doesn’t think I’m trying to catch up with her. I’ve also crossed the street so that a woman going the same way I am doesn’t think that I’m following her. “I bought some things for your baby. The diner is right up the road. It looks busy enough and I promise not to hurt you. I just wanna talk and buy you something hot to eat.” “You won’t hurt my baby or me?” “I give you my word. I just want to buy you something to eat.” I hand her the bag of baby items and give her some more money. “I’m hungry,” I say. “If you want to join me for a sandwich, I’ll be right there in the little restaurant.” I don’t give her time to answer before I turn to leave. I walk into the well-lit diner and ask for a booth. I order a coffee and stall on ordering my dinner. I hear the bell over the door and I hope she’s decided to join me. “I need to change the baby. Would you mind watching this for me?” she asks, handing me the sack of things I just bought for the baby. I smile. “No, I don’t mind at all. Do you want me to order you something to drink?” “Can I have some hot tea?” “You can have whatever you want.” I watch as she removes her baby from a baby pouch beneath her winter coat. The baby and she are clean and wearing clean clothing. I’m not sure what I expected, but this wasn’t it. She and her baby are not stereotypes. She later returns from the bathroom with the baby. I offered to hold him while she fixes his bottle, but she refused my help. I notice she’s very protective of her son, something many homeless drug addicts aren’t. Something doesn’t add up. Maybe she isn’t a homeless drug addict. She feeds him formula and he eats eagerly. We both order salads, cheeseburgers, and French fries for our dinner. I try to get her to talk to me about her circumstances and she refuses. I talk about myself, Momma, and Pops. I figure she will get bored and tell me something just to shut me up. I tell her about Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson, and the small rural area we live. Rose Farm is enough to bore anyone. She says, “You don’t talk with a country accent.” I explain that I left home years ago. I tell her I didn’t want to stay on a farm in the country. “I never liked country life until I went back home. Then I saw what I’ve been missing. Momma makes the best pie of anyone in Southeast Ohio. She even won the “Perry County Best Pie Contest” three years in a row,” I lie, proudly. She never entered that contest, but if she did, she would win it every year, hands down, as long as the contest is based on taste, not on looks. “Now you sound all kinds of country,” she says, laughing. I noticed her perfectly white, straight teeth. “You can take the man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the man.” “It sounds like you’re forever country.” “I guess I am.” I watch her eat and I also watch her baby sleep. “What brings you to the streets of New York?” I say, bluntly. “Finding my way. I wanted better for myself and look where it got me.” “You live on the streets?” “Not yet. I have a small efficiency apartment down the road. I met the man of my wet dreams and he left me as soon as he found out I was pregnant.” “I’m sorry.” “It’s not your fault.” She takes the last bite of her sandwich. “I should have known he was worthless. I don’t know anyone here and I refuse to leave my son with people I don’t know to watch him while I work or find work.” She thinks for a minute and says, “Makes it a little — a lot — hard to work.” “Why don’t you go back home?” She looks at her sleeping baby lying beside her on the bench. “Because I’m too proud to admit I’m a failure. “Because I’m too proud to ask for help from people I know. Because I don’t want to hear Dad say, ‘I told you so.’” We talk some more and we both order chocolate cake for dessert. “If you had unlimited money, what would you do?” Her eyes get big. “I would get me a small house in my hometown of Leo, Indiana. I would go back to cosmetology school, I can do some hair like no other. You can’t tell now, but my hair used to have highlights and was cut into a cute bob. I used to do my own hair.” She sighs. “I really messed up, didn’t I?” “I don’t think it’s so bad that you can’t fix it.” “Really?” I think for a minute about how I want to approach this. “I’m leaving New York for good in a few days, let me help you.” “Is this like Pretty Woman where you put me up in a condo?” she says, laughing. Her laugh has no humor. I watch her take a sip of her now warm tea. “No, not like Pretty Woman. It’ll be a small house in your hometown and you have to promise to go to cosmetology school and cut my hair for free whenever you see me.” She laughs loudly and I just watch her. When I don’t laugh, she says, “You’re serious?” “Yes, I want to do this.” “You must be a drug dealer to have that kind of money. A small house in Indiana will cost you $60,000, maybe more.” She puts her coat on and reaches for her baby. “No wait, I’m not a drug dealer. I made some money as a boxer and I banked most of it. Please, let me help you and your son.” She reminds me of Savannah Mae with her long blond hair, but I don’t tell her that. I remove my checkbook from the inside of my coat pocket. “What’s your name?” “It’s Anna Harris,” she whispers. I write her a check and place it on the table upside down so she can’t see the amount. I settle up our dinner check and say, “Anna Harris, when you become a cosmetologist, call me. I’ll be expecting a haircut, and I may even want some highlights, too.” I smile. I push the check towards her and add, “Thank you for having dinner with me. I hope to see you, and your son again, soon.” I stand to leave and she doesn’t say a word. As I walk to buy my coffee and beer, I think about the word “cosmetology,” which is based on the word “cosmos.” All of us know that the cosmos arose out of chaos; many people, including me, believe that God made order out of that chaos. I guess that a cosmetologist also makes order out of chaos. Maybe my check will help make order out of the chaos of her life. Savannah Mae It’s been ten days since I’ve been home. The storm has passed and people are finally gettin’ dug out from beneath the blizzard. We lost power at Mom and Daddy’s and I have never been so grateful for the stockpile of food and necessities that Mom insisted on havin’ for such times as these. Sawyer Jackson and I wouldn’t have been able to survive the storm on our own. We lack food and firewood. I make a mental note to get a storm kit made up for us. Water, batteries, candles, and a radio, to name a few items. Every day that passed I worried about everyone. Mia and Levi, Bud and Nelly, and the people from the church. I wanted to call Abel Lee but wasn’t able to, since I forgot the cell phone at the house. With no electricity, everyone’s cell phone died and they weren’t able to recharge them. Same thing with laptops, for those who have them. Today is the first day that the temperatures are above zero. Daddy says, “We’re havin’ a heatwave.” I laugh. It’s still bitter cold and it’s hardly a heatwave. I look out the window and I have to squint my eyes from the bright snow and sunshine. Many neighbors are out shovelin’ their cars out from under several feet of snow. It looks like a winter wonderland. You can’t tell where the road ends and the sidewalk begins because it’s just a sheet of snow and ice. Maybe drivers don’t think it’s a winter wonderland. I check with Samantha Marie to see if she’ll watch Sawyer Jackson for me. If it were warmer, I think Sawyer Jackson would be able to walk home with me. I need to go home and get us some clean clothes and my cell phone. I went a year without a cell phone, but suddenly, I have the need for one. I want to check on the safety of my friends. I dress warmly and prepare myself for the onslaught of bitterly cold air as soon as I open the door. Daddy is outside, talkin’ to a deputy sheriff. I pray it’s not about Nelly and Bud. They live on top of an impossible hill to go up in bad weather. I close my eyes and try to breathe through the cold. It burns my face so I wrap my scarf tighter around my mouth and nose. I walk up to Daddy and the deputy, and Daddy says, “I hate to hear that.” “What’s goin’ on?” I ask. “Do you remember Larry from the community supper?” Daddy asks. “Yeah, of course. He always makes Sawyer Jackson something out of balloons.” “Deputy Miller was just tellin’ me that Larry was found dead yesterday.” I fall against the snow-covered car. “What happened?” I think for a minute and get another chill that runs through my body. “Omigod, it isn’t related to Megan Rose’s murder, is it?” What if we have a serial killer in town. “They’re not sure. His neighbor said he went over and tried to get Larry to stay with them durin’ the storm, but he refused to go. He said the house was cold and there was very little food in the house when they found him.” “When will they know the cause of his death?” I ask. “In a few days, a month, tops. I was there and there weren’t any signs of foul play,” Deputy Miller says. I shiver and this time it has nothin’ to do with the cold. “Daddy, why would Larry stay there without heat or food?” “Some old timers do that. They don’t want to feel like they are a burden to others. It’s the same thing with some homeless people.” “I’m headin’ up to do a well check on Bud and Nelly,” Deputy Miller says. “Their son called several days ago from New York concerned about them.” “Abel Lee must have been goin’ crazy, hearin’ about the blizzard but not knowin’ what’s goin’ on here.” I look from Daddy to Deputy Miller. “Will you let us know if they’re okay? Their driveway makes it impossible to get up there in these conditions,” Daddy says. “You must be planning to walk up the hill.” “Sure will, and sure do. Better get goin’ if I want to be back by dark.” It’s early in the day and Deputy Miller made a joke, but no one laughs. “Be careful, it looks pretty treacherous, even for someone who is walking,” Daddy says as he begins to brush off the car with a straw broom. Instead of walkin’ home, I walk back into the house. My stomach hurts at the thought that Larry, a man I know, has died. There was help available, and he refused to take it. Why? You read about the elderly dying durin’ winter months because their heat gets shut off. Never did I imagine that it could happen to someone I know. Later that day we learn that Nelly and Bud are fine and that they also have a stockpile of food and wood. Deputy Miller said Nelly and Bud were in good spirits. It makes me feel better to learn they are both safe. Over the next few days, the electricity comes on and the roads begin to clear. The storm has passed and will soon be nothin’ more than a memory. A bad memory. Daddy drives the 4X4 truck into town and gets some necessities and a newspaper. The Zanesville Times Recorder has a front-page article about Larry: “Local Man Found Dead in Deadly Storm.” I read it and cry. It talks about the lack of food and heat in his house. He has no family. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to his body. What will they do with him when no one claims him? What does it cost to bury someone? Funerals are expensive. Abel Lee would have the answers; he would know about these things and what we should do. We could take up a collection, but people in these parts don’t have money like that. They’re lucky enough to have money for their own needs. “Daddy, would you take Sawyer Jackson and me home?” “As soon as you’re ready, we can leave.” I gather the few items we have there and head home. Daddy comes into the house and starts a fire in the fireplace while I clean out the refrigerator. The little bit of food we had spoiled while we were gone. Daddy leaves and goes to the store for me to get some much-needed items. Milk, bread, butter, and some other things. Sawyer Jackson takes a bath, and I check my cell phone. I cringe when I listen to the voicemails and read the texts from Abel Lee. I knew he would be worried, but I had no idea he would be this worried. I try to call him and it goes right to voicemail. I leave a message to let him know we’re fine. I also leave a text message to let him know the sheriff’s department has checked on his parents and they are also fine. I look through the stack of mail that has accumulated over the past week. Bills, junk mail, and a postcard from Florida from a good friend of mine, Brea. The postcard is a divided picture. On one side is a girl on a sunny beach and Brea wrote, “This is me.” And on the other side of the card is a wintry blizzard and Brea wrote, “This is you.” I laugh out loud before turning it over to read it. Hey, Mae, The blizzard has been all over the Weather Channel. Hope you and Sawyer Jackson are safe. I couldn’t resist sending you this postcard. Let me know when you’re ready for a visit. I have a spare room reserved just for you. Love you bunches, Brea I went to school with Brea and she is the only person to ever call me by my middle name. I miss her terribly. Oh, how I wish I could visit her in Florida. Sunny beaches and warm weather would be perfect right about now. I open another letter with no return address. Looks like a card, probably a birthday party invitation. Savannah, He’ll hurt you, too. Confused, I read the card again. The hair on my arms stand and I get goosebumps. Not the good kind I get when Abel Lee is near me. I flip the card over and nothing else is written. This feels like a warning, but about what? From whom? It’s the same writing that was on the last note I got like this. Heather Sue will stop at nothin’. She stole my husband and she can’t stand the thought that I’m able to move on with my life. I toss the note in the trash and forget all about it. It’s gotta be from Heather Sue, who else could it be from? The house was cold and took awhile to warm up. When dinner is in the oven and Sawyer Jackson and I both had our baths, we sit down and play Go Fish. It’s a simple game and one of his favorites. I hear a vehicle comin’ down the road, crunchin’ through the frozen snow still coverin’ the roads. Finally, the small community is comin’ back to life. I raise up slightly from the floor and see Johnny’s mom drivin’ slowly past the house. After dinner and a bedtime story, “Snoopy the Sheep” by Helga Moser, I put Sawyer Jackson to bed. While sittin’ on the couch, I check my cell phone for a message from Abel Lee; sadly there isn’t anything from him. I wonder if he’s mad, or maybe he’s out of service, too. Now it’s my turn to worry. I don’t have cable or a satellite, so I have no idea if he was also affected by the storm. The snow stopped, but it’s still blizzard conditions. It’s too bad and still too cold to leave the house. There’s no way for me to find out about Abel Lee. Abel Lee The sheriff’s department called me and told me they were able to check on my parents and they were both fine. What an enormous relief. I wanted to ask about Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson, but I didn’t. I know the sheriff’s department is busy without running around doing well checks for everyone. I load up some of my personal items and drive to Ohio. I think about the letter I got in the mail. Who would know my whereabouts in Rose Farm and in New York? Who would have a vendetta against me? A fighter? An ex-girlfriend? Savannah Mae’s ex? Megan Rose’s killer? I honestly have no idea. And what kind of threat are they making? It would be foolhardy to think I can be easily beaten in a fight. I can’t get home fast enough. I never thought I would ever say those words. It’s bitter cold, and although I’ve been watching the news, I still wasn’t prepared for it. My mind races with thoughts of Levi, Mia, and the baby, Momma and Pops, and Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson. It also races with thoughts of the people from the church. I wonder if the entire Rose Farm community is struggling to keep warm and have food. I wonder what the best way would be to help everyone. Wouldn’t some kind of a job to employ people be a better way to assist them? What kind of a business would be beneficial for that area? I have money, but not many people like handouts. I’m sure some people would love nothing more than a free ride, but I also know it’s a sure way to offend many men and women. I think back on the time I left Savannah Mae a $100.00 tip. I thought she was going to rip my head off. I don’t want to suffer that kind of wrath again. Think, Abel, think. Before I get into town, I stop by the grocery store and make a small purchase. The shelves are almost bare, and I learn that delivery trucks are having a hard time making their deliveries. I also leave extra money to cover arrears for the customers with the owners. I’m not surprised to learn the account I set up earlier is in the negative. At the checkout, I pick up a copy of the Zanesville Times Recorder newspaper. I skim the article and learn that starvation may have had something to do with Larry’s death. Pain seizes my heart and I know I have to do something. As soon as I pull into town, Levi and Mia’s house is my first stop. I’m relieved to see they are both safe, snowed in, but still safe. I see a book on the coffee table: Everything You Need to Know About Raising a Child with Down Syndrome. I don’t ask about it and I don’t mention it. They don’t need to be reminded. If something new happens, I’m sure they’ll tell me. “How’s Junior?” I ask. “She’s wonderful,” Levi says as he pats Mia’s small baby bump. “It’s a girl?” I ask excitedly. “We don’t know for sure,” Mia says, “But she sure is growing.” I visit briefly and Levi helps me carry in some groceries before I leave. “Did you hear about Larry?” I ask Levi. “I did. Can you believe it?” “Is it true that he possibly starved to death?” I ask as I get the last of the groceries for them from the backseat of the truck. “I think so, yes. Well, that and a combination of freezin’ to death, but I haven’t heard firsthand the details of his death, just what the paper is reportin’.” “That’s so hard to believe. Is there any news on Megan Rose’s killer?” “No, nothin’. The killer’s still at large.” Levi and I stop talking as soon as we walk into his house. There’s no need to upset Mia with this kind of talk. Once everything is put away, I say my goodbyes and leave. I need to see Momma and Pops, but I stop by Savannah Mae’s first. I’m grateful when I see the lights on in her house. I wasn’t sure if she would even be home with the storm. I decide to get some groceries out of the truck before I knock on her door. The door opens before I have a chance to knock. “Abel Lee, you can’t answer your phone?” she greets me. Savannah Mae can be quite sassy, and I secretly admit, I think I like it. She isn’t like the girl’s I’ve dated in the past. I try to hold back a chuckle. I’ve been so worried about her, but as soon as she opens her sassy mouth, I realize I had nothing to worry about. “I’m sorry. Did I miss a phone call or two from you?” I walk through the door and I walk past her en route to the kitchen. She follows behind me. “Yes, you did. I’ve been worried about you.” I can only laugh. “I turned off my cell phone while driving. The road conditions weren’t the greatest to drive in. Do you really want to talk about missed calls and text messages?” She giggles, “No, I guess not.” I set the groceries on the counter and look at her. “I’m glad to see you’re all right.” I walk past her and head to Sawyer Jackson’s bedroom. I poke my head in and I’m happy to see he’s warm and sound asleep. Walking back to the kitchen, Savannah Mae is watching me. “I’ve been calling you for a week,” I say when I get closer to her. I stand in front of her looking into her blue eyes. She is just as beautiful as I remember. I touch her soft cheek and lean down to kiss her before she can say anything. She stands on her tiptoes and welcomes my kiss. “I missed you,” I mumble between kisses. She moans and after the kiss she says, “I missed you, too.” “You both are safe.” I kiss her, again. She says between kisses, “We are.” “I’m glad I was worried for nothing.” I kiss her again and touch her soft cheek with the pad of my thumb. I begin to remove the groceries from the brown paper bag and she says, “I went to work one night and left the phone at home.” “That was the night of the storm?” I ask. “It was. The snow was comin’ down pretty hard, so Sawyer Jackson and I stayed at my parents’ house. We actually just got home today.” She opens the refrigerator and puts the cold food away. “Wait? Why am I puttin’ this food away?” I laugh as I open the cabinets and place some canned vegetables and soup on the middle shelf. “Because I bought you and Sawyer Jackson some food.” “Daddy just bought us some today.” “That’s okay, I’m sure it won’t go to waste.” That’s all that she said about the food I bought. I was expecting more sass from her, but I’m glad it didn’t come. I have a need to take care of her and her son, and I’m not sure why. She tells me about the blizzard, losing power, being snowed in for over a week, and hearing about Larry’s death. Then I realize why my buying her food isn’t an issue. She shows me the newspaper article about Larry’s death and I sit down to read it while she makes us some tea. I haven’t had time to do more than scan the newspaper I bought at Campbell’s. She asks me, “Why wouldn’t he have accepted the help that was offered to him?” “I don’t have that answer, Savannah Mae. I wish I did. The only thing we can do is give him the memorial that he deserves.” I take a drink of my herbal tea. “We’ll talk with others to see if they know what his wishes were. Maybe his neighbors or friends would know what he wanted.” She sits beside me and I can tell this worries her. “This is just a preliminary article; as law enforcement officials get more details, the newspaper will update the story. We’ll know more in the next few days.” We talk for a few minutes and I finish my tea before I ask, “Can I leave my truck parked here? I need to run up and check on Momma and Pops.” “Sure. Other than the deputy, I don’t think anyone’s been up there,” she says. “I doubt it. I appreciate them making the climb up the hill to check on them. I know it wasn’t easy. She laughs, “Daddy said the deputy looked like a polar bear comin’ off the hill.” “I’m sure he was covered in snow. It looks like you got a few feet of snow.” ”We did. It snowed for a week straight. You got warmer clothes with you?” she asks. “No, I wish I did.’ “Hold on. I think I have some coveralls that’ll fit you.” I change into the coveralls she offers me. I don’t ask, but I’m pretty sure they belong to her ex-husband, Ethan. “Are you going to be up later?” I ask as I slip my feet into my boots. “You comin’ back?” “I was thinking I would if you’re still going to be up.” “If you’re comin’ back, I’ll still be up.” I kiss her goodbye and make the climb up the steep driveway to see my parents. Before I see the light on in the barn, I see smoke roaring out of the chimney. It’s bitter cold and I know they are going through an excessive amount of firewood trying to keep the house warm. Even with a coal furnace, it’ll take extra heat to warm this old house. The house is dark with just a faint flicker of light coming from the kitchen and living room. Making the climb up the snowy driveway was more difficult than I expected. Carrying four plastic sacks of groceries didn’t help. Momma and Pops don’t know I’m coming and I don’t want to startle them. I fear what I’ll walk into. My worst fear is that they’ll be huddled together trying to stay warm, or they’ll be hungry, or both. The article about Larry’s death has brought a real problem to light for all of us. When I get to the front porch, I’m surprised when I hear laughter coming from the kitchen. I knock on the door before walking into the house. Momma and Pops are sitting at the kitchen table with a candle lit in the center. The room is warm, and they look happy. Nothing like the image I had in my head. It’s 9:00 p.m. and I thought maybe they would be in bed for the night. “Am I interrupting?” I ask jokingly, but it really isn’t a joke. I’m amazed and thrilled at how well my parents get along, and how well they both look. “Well, there he is,” Momma says, standing up from the table. Pops also stands up. I put the groceries and milk on the table and bend over to hug Momma. Lights come on in the kitchen, lighting up the entire room. Why were they sitting in the dark? Do I dare ask? “I was so worried about you,” Momma says. “I’m fine, no need to worry about me. How are you both doing? From the looks of it, you’re both doing great.” I hug Pops next and Momma sits back down at the table blowing out the candle. “We’re good. Nelly made some peach cobbler, do you want some?” I look at the table and I see two plates with crumbs on them and two coffee mugs. I laugh on the inside. There’s a blizzard and Momma makes peach cobbler. I know the heat from the oven will help warm the house, so I imagine that while they had electricity, Momma did a lot of baking and cooking. “I do. I brought you some groceries. I thought you might be running low.” Picking up the sacks of groceries, I set them down on the kitchen counter. Momma, Pops, and I put everything away before Momma scoops me out a hefty portion of peach cobbler. To my surprise, it’s still warm. We sit down and I tell them I stopped in and saw Mia and Levi on my way into town. They are relieved to hear they are both all right. Momma explains that the electric just came back on last night. They also ask about Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson. Pops opens up the newspaper I bought and he looks shocked when he reads the headlines. He reads the article about Larry aloud to Momma and me. I wish I had mentioned Larry to them before Pops opened the newspaper. It may have softened the blow of his death, but then on second thought, I don’t think anything would have softened the blow. It’s shocking and devastating, no matter how you hear about it. We talk about Larry, the snowstorm, and the stockpile of food and wood my parents have in the basement, and in the barn. “What kinds of food are you storing in the basement?” I ask. “What kind of food you lookin’ for? We have a freezer full of meat from the animals we slaughter. The garden was pretty good to us this year, don’t cha think, Nelly?” “Oh yes, mighty good. Don’t forget about the peach tree and the walnut tree.” I should have known that they would have plenty of food. After all, they live on a farm. That’s their job — raising food. I’ve been away a long time to forget that. I find it amusing that I didn’t consider that my parents would have been prepared for such a situation. They aren’t new to this, and this isn’t their first winter on the farm. Seeing how well they get along and how well prepared they are, I have to wonder if they don’t prefer being snowed in together. Savannah Mae I don’t have the words to describe how excited I was to see Abel Lee standin’ at my front door. I didn’t want him to know, so I gave him a sassy attitude about not answerin’ his cell phone. I’m afraid if he knew the feelin’s I had about him, that might scare him off. I check on Sawyer Jackson and leave his bedroom door open so more heat can flow into his room. These old houses get cold quickly. I lie on the couch and cover myself up with one of my grannie’s homemade quilts. I’m reading Beyond Secrets by DB Jones when the knock at the door scares me. I jerk so much that I drop the book and kick my legs up off the couch from terror. I hear laughter and I know Abel Lee was watching me through the window in the door. I stand and straighten my clothes before answerin’ the door. “Did I scare you?” he greets me walking into the house after he stomps the snow off of his boots. “No, not at all,” I lie. He stops and looks at me. “Are you sure? Because it looked like you were scared the way you jumped off of the couch in a hurry.” He smiles and I can see the single dimple that I’ve missed so much. “I wasn’t spying, but I could see you through the sheer curtains hanging over the window in the door.” “I’m sure.” I watch as he walks over and picks up the book I dropped out of fear. I close the door and lock it. These days, I always lock the door. I make a mental note to replace the sheer curtain with something thicker and heavier. I never once thought about killers or peepin’ Toms until very recently. I might have thought of Peepin’ Abels, but I don’t think he’s a peeper. “I think you dropped this,” he teases as he hands me the book. “Thank you,” I take the book and set it on the coffee table. I look at him and then his mouth. Oh, that mouth. I quickly look away. He removes his boots, hat, gloves, winter coat, and the overalls I gave him to wear. I almost wish he wouldn’t stop there. “How are your parents doin’?” I sit on the couch and pat the seat next to me to indicate that he should sit down. “They’re doing better than expected. In fact, I almost felt like I was intruding on them.” He walks over and takes a seat next to me. “Intrudin’ on what?” I ask, coverin’ myself with the quilt. Abel Lee looks at the small flame burnin’ in the fireplace before he stands to add another log. “Like I was intruding on… I don’t know, on their alone time or something.” He watches me and comes back and sits down beside me. “Alone time?” I ask. “They’ve been stranded up there for almost two weeks. Are you sure?” He laughs and says, “Yeah. They were sitting at the table in the dark having peach cobbler and coffee, laughing like they were on a date. The peach cobbler was still warm.” Smiling, I say, “I think it’s good they get along so well.” When we get quiet, I ask, “Are you hungry?” “No, I’m okay. I think maybe it’s too late for me to be here. Maybe I should leave.” “Do you want to watch a movie with me? I can make us some popcorn if you’d like.” “You don’t want to be alone? It’s getting kind of late.” “Not really.” I look at him and then I see the book on the coffee table. “I was readin’ that book earlier and it was kind of scary.” He smiles and leans up and turns the book over. “No popcorn but a movie sounds good.” I jump up, euphoric that he’s stayin’ awhile longer. “What do you want to watch?” I hold up several DVDs for him to choose from. He laughs. “I don’t want to watch Pretty Woman.” I take Pretty Woman away and lay it on the floor. I say, “I don’t want to watch Tombstone.” I remove it and lay it on the floor on top of Pretty Woman. “Your turn.” He smiles, “I really don’t want to watch Toy Story.” “Are you sure? You bought this for Sawyer Jackson and it’s now our favorite movie.” “I’m sure that you’ll get tired of seeing it before Sawyer Jackson does so there’s no need for you to watch it now. Put it on the floor with the other do-not-watch films.” “Okay, your loss,” I tease as I place Toy Story on the floor. “Two movies left,” I say, waving the DVD’s in front of me. “Which one will it be?” One movie is behind the other and he can see only the top movie. We both laugh. He begins to speak, and I interrupt, “Nope, it’s my turn to pick.” “Fair enough, as long as you don’t choose Pitch Perfect to watch,” he says, pointing to the DVD that he can see. “I do not want to watch Pitch Perfect,” I laugh loudly and place Pitch Perfect on the floor with the other movies. I wave the final movie — Pitch Perfect 2 — in the air and sing, “We’re watching this one; we’re watching this one.” I put the movie in and Abel Lee and I lie on the couch, watchin’ the show. I laugh and he kisses the top of my head. After awhile he becomes silent, and I don’t think he’s watchin’ the movie at all. By the time the movie is almost over, I believe Abel Lee may have fallen asleep. I slowly get up from the couch, and he doesn’t move. Lookin’ around the room, I decide to cover him up and let him sleep here. I gently kiss him goodnight before turnin’ the television off, and goin’ to bed. CHAPTER FIVE Abel Lee I wake up in an unfamiliar house. Blinking a few times, I remember last night. I’m at Savannah Mae’s house. I have a kink in my neck that I try to work out before I stand up. Sitting on the couch, I realize how uncomfortable I am. Should I leave? Should I stay? Do I make myself at home and make coffee? I really want some coffee, and I want to go to the bathroom, but I can’t remember if her floors creak. What will Sawyer Jackson think if he sees me? I hear the coffee pot before I smell the coffee. Thank God, Savannah Mae’s up. I stand and walk into the kitchen, expecting to see her standing at the sink. When she isn’t there, I look around the small house. No Savannah Mae; the coffee pot is on the automatic timer. The floor didn’t creak when I walked across it. I go to the bathroom and I’m surprised when I come out and Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson are still in bed asleep. I quietly wait for the coffee to finish brewing while I stand at the kitchen window and look out at the pile of wood in the backyard. I also notice a few dead trees around the old school that need to be cut down. If they fall on their own and hit the building, it could cause a heap of problems. I pour myself a coffee and drink it while looking outside. I think I’m afraid if I move, I’ll wake up Savannah Mae and her son. There are a hundred things I need to do and I’m not getting anything done standing here. I need to leave, but I don’t want to leave without seeing Savannah Mae. Looking around, I’m grateful when I find a stack of Post-it notes and a pen in a drawer in the kitchen. I jot down a quick note, and after I check on Sawyer Jackson, I quickly put on my boots and coat, add a log to the hot embers, and leave. On my way walking to Momma and Pop’s house, I see the preacher getting out of his truck. He takes a few items from his backseat and walks into the church. It’s still bitter cold, but at least it’s not snowing. I decide to stop by and see the preacher before going home. The death of Larry is weighing heavy on my mind. Maybe Pastor Jenson will know something about his funeral and his death. I need a newspaper to see if anything new has been posted. I knock on the door before walking in. I yell, “Pastor Jenson, it’s Abel L… Kennedy.” I clear my throat. Now Savannah Mae has me calling myself Abel Lee. “Yes, Abel, please come in.” I hear him, but I don’t see him. Closing the door tightly behind me, I can still feel the chill in the air. I used the back kitchen door to enter the church. It’s the same door he used to come in. I stand by the door and wait to be invited in further. It’s the house of the Lord, but I still feel like I need an invite on a non-Sabbath day. He appears from the other room and invites me in. “What brings you here today?” He pulls out a chair for me to sit on at the table. “I just got back into town last night and I heard about Larry.” “Ah, Larry Adams.” He nods and says, “There’s been a lot of talk about him these last few days.” “I’m sure there has. I didn’t know him outside of the church.” I look at him and say, “Is there any news other than what’s being posted in the paper?” “I called the Sheriff’s Department to try to find out what I could, then I went to Larry’s neighbor’s house when the police couldn’t tell me anything. It seems that Larry was the last living relative other than a few distant cousins who live out of town.” “He really was a loner. Is there any news of how or why he died?” “Did you read the Zanesville Times Recorder?” “I did.” “According to the neighbor, all of that was the truth. He asked Larry to ride out the storm with him and his wife, and Larry refused. He went back to check on Larry a few days later and that’s when they found him dead. The neighbor said that when he didn’t see smoke coming from Larry’s chimney, he knew something was wrong.” “So it’s true. He froze to death.” I look at the preacher and he looks as sad as I feel. “Not sure until the autopsy report comes back, but that’s what it looks like.” I stand and walk towards the kitchen door of the church. “Was there food in his house?” Please say yes. “The house had very little food in it, according to the neighbor.” “This is a real problem, isn’t it?” “For some people in this area, it is. That’s why we are so grateful to your folks. They do so much for the community and it is so appreciated.” He stands and walks towards me. “I need to thank you for the generous offering you gave to the church a few weeks back.” “Please, don’t thank me for paying my dues. I should have already had those taken care of years ago. God has been very good to me, and I should’ve paid my offerings for that.” “Our God is a very kind and forgiving God, Abel. We try to live our life like He would want us too. If we do wrong, we try to correct it. We aren’t perfect and we don’t pretend to be.” “Thank you.” “The church is very thankful for your generosity, and we plan to use the money wisely. That’s why I’m here today.” I look down at him and he has a kind smile, “The church is in need of a furnace, and with your help, we are able to get a new one. They should be here very soon to install it for us. Please, tell your Momma that on Sunday, the church will have heat as long as the power stays on.” He chuckles and I know he’s referring to the snowstorm and the lack of electricity recently. “Momma will be happy to hear that. I need to get going.” I begin to open the door to leave and I remember I didn’t ask about funeral arrangements for Larry. “Is there any word on a funeral or a memorial service for Larry?” “No funeral. Larry donated his body to Ohio University in Athens. He made clear his wishes to his neighbor, and he also carried a donor card in his wallet.” “To the Department of Osteopathic Medicine?” “Yes, that’s right.” “Momma and Pops are also future donors. It’s a great cause and many people will benefit from it.” “Yes, they will.” “Thank you, Pastor Jenson, for your time.” “Anytime, Abel.” I leave and walk up the steep driveway to Momma and Pops. I get a call on my cell phone from a private number. I answer it, but no one is on the other end. I wonder if it’s a prank call or poor phone reception. The snow is frozen and makes it difficult to walk on the ice. My mind races with thoughts of Larry Adams and of Anna Harris, the girl in New York I helped just a few days ago. I hope she is able to start over. She seemed sincere. Was the money I gave her enough to make a difference in her and her son’s life? I hope so. I have breakfast and take a quick shower. Pops has been taking care of the chores while I’ve been away, and Levi has been snowed in. Momma, Pops, and I talk about Larry Adams. I learn that awhile back Momma and Pops were discussing their plans to donate their body and Larry was very interested. They are pleased to hear that he made the decision to give his body to help others. Thinking about dissecting a body is gruesome, but it is an important part of a doctor’s training. Often, one body is used to train two doctors. One medical student dissects the left side of the body, and the other medical student dissects the right side. Two doctors can save many thousands of lives during their careers. “Do you think that we should have a memorial service or something for him? Seems wrong to not celebrate that man’s life.” Momma says, “I know the church is planning on having something for him on Sunday.” Pops and I go outside and cut some firewood. The exercise feels good and I realize how much I’ve missed it. I visit with the horses and feed the other animals. With these cold temps, they burn more calories trying to stay warm. I check my cell phone and I have a message from Savannah Mae. Savannah Mae: Mornin’. Did you sleep well? Abel: Good morning to you. Still working out the kinks in my neck, but after a few days, it should be all right. Savannah Mae: I’m sorry about that. I should have offered you a pillow, but I didn’t want to wake you. Abel: Really, I’m fine. Thanks for the coffee this morning. Savannah Mae: You’re welcome. Sorry, you missed out on the eggs and pancake breakfast. I’m an excellent cook, but you wouldn’t know that. Now I feel bad. Maybe I should have stayed. Abel: Had to leave early, didn’t want your son knowing about me spending the night at his Momma’s. He also might say something misleading to other people. Savannah Mae: Good thinkin’. Abel: Raincheck? Savannah Mae: Sounds good. There’re lots to do on the farm, so I busy myself with it. I don’t go in and see Savannah Mae, although I want to. I’m a grown man living with my parents, and I have nothing to offer her or her son. My mind drifts back to an ex-girlfriend and I fight the urge to contact her. Things ended badly between us, but I have a need to see how she is. I hope Savannah Mae never finds out about her or our break-up, because there is no way she would understand. The snow is melting and it looks like the driveway might be clear enough for us to make it to church on Sunday. I attach the snowplow to the tractor and help with the snow removal on the steep driveway. After several trips up and down the driveway, I can finally begin to see the gravel. The warmth of the sun should melt the rest of the snow in a day or two. As soon as I walk into the house, Momma and Pops are putting on their boots and coats. “Going somewhere?” I ask. “Bud needs to get out for a minute. He was doin’ fine in the house until he heard the gravel crunchin’ beneath your tires.” Momma laughs. “We’re headin’ to the grocery store and thought we would have lunch at Peaches Place. I wanna see Mia and my soon-to-be-born grandbaby.” “Do you want to come, Abel?” Pops asks. “No, I’m going to shower and maybe take Colonel for a ride.” “There’s some chicken salad in the fridge if you get hungry.” Momma throws her scarf around her neck as Pops opens the door for them to leave. “Be careful.” The next day, Pops and I go into Zanesville and shop at Mattingly Foods and Sam’s Club. There are very few places where you can buy in bulk without a vendors license. We stock the church’s kitchen cabinets, freezer, and the refrigerator full. On Sunday, we get up early and Momma and Mia make a large meal for the potluck at the church. Larry’s death is the reason for the feast and Larry’s death will weigh heavy on all of us for a long time. Savannah Mae Today, Sawyer Jackson and I have a hard time findin’ a place to park at the church. I think everyone in the community is attendin’ church today. Mom and Daddy walk over and Sawyer Jackson takes off runnin’ towards my sister, Samantha Marie. Daddy carries the food into the kitchen while we find a place to sit. The church is warm, and I have to unbutton my coat and remove my scarf. I can’t remember this church ever being too warm in the winter. The church is full, but we find a pew in the back of the room to accommodate the five of us. “Mommy, I’m hot,” Sawyer Jackson says, stretchin’ his neck out of his zipped-up coat. He is holdin’ a dog made from balloons that Larry made for him a few weeks ago. The balloon dog is slowly deflating and feels rubbery. Sawyer Jackson doesn’t care. It’s one of the few things he has to remember Larry by. Samantha Marie takes off his coat and hat before she removes her own. “It is warm in here,” Mom says. “It feels good,” I say. Daddy joins us and the service starts after a few minutes. Today’s service isn’t like any other service. Pastor Jenson starts off by giving thanks to the community for making it possible for the church to purchase a new furnace. Next, he talks about Larry Adams, food and nutrition, and the importance of accepting help when it’s offered. To refuse needed help when it is offered is to be guilty of pride, one of the seven deadly sins. To offer help when it is needed is one way to show that you have faith: Both faith and good deeds are necessary to live a good life. He closes the sermon with talking about giving the gift of life through organs or the entire body. He reads the short obituary that was in the paper for Larry. Today’s sermon wasn’t a sermon; instead, it was a memorial for our friend, Larry Adams. The preacher says, “This is from James 2:14-18: what good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Several people are cryin’ and sayin’ “Amen” in agreement with what the preacher is sayin’. After the service, we all congregate together for the potluck dinner. I see Abel Lee and his family and he waves and smiles. I haven’t seen him since he fell asleep on my couch. I made sure to have my phone on and charged, but he hasn’t called me. Mia once said they don’t get good phone service on the Kennedy Mule Hill Farm. I smile at the thought and I hear a deep husky voice in my ear. “Thinking of something funny?” “As a matter of fact, I was.” I turn around and face him and he looks handsome. ”I was hoping maybe you and I could do something later?” “Whatcha got in mind?” “How about I surprise you? Dress warm, and I’ll pick you up at 3:00 p.m.” “That doesn’t give me much time to get ready.” “I know. I’ve already arranged for Samantha Marie to watch Sawyer Jackson.” When I open my mouth to answer, he turns and walks away. Abel Lee After church, I picked up Savannah Mae and took her sled riding at Dillon State Park. It’s the perfect place and on that day, it wasn’t overly crowded or cold. After sled riding, we went to Giddy’s Restaurant over the hill and had hot chocolate and marshmallows. We talked and laughed and we have been officially exclusive ever since. I like Savannah Mae — she isn’t like anyone else I have ever dated. I never told Savannah Mae about my ex-girlfriend. I decided that it’s in the past and it doesn’t need to resurface into the present. There’s a lot I haven’t told her about my life, but some things are better kept private. As the Farmer’s Almanac had predicted, we had one cold and snowy winter. The Farmer’s Almanac has long had an excellent reputation for weather predictions. In 1816, the guy who did the predictions forgot to write something for some days in the summer in New England. The editor decided to have fun and wrote such things as “Snow. Ponds frozen over.” Lots of people had a good laugh when they read the predictions, but that year an inactive volcano — Mount Tambora — got very, very active. The dust and ash in the air blocked enough sunshine that the weather got cold, and yes, New England had snow and frozen-over ponds for some days that summer. In New England, 1816 is known as the year without a summer. The community is coming to terms with the sudden death of Larry. I think the memorial service the church had for him helped everyone be more accepting of his death. The Zanesville Times Recorder also wrote two fantastic articles: one on hunger in rural areas and another on organ and body donation. I don’t always agree with things that get published in the newspapers, but I have to give credit when it’s deserved. They did an excellent job with both articles. Organ donation and hunger are both topics that need awareness brought to them. What good are your organs to you after you die? They will just rot. Why not donate them and keep one or more people alive? Or, if you are old and your organs cannot be used in transplants, why not give your body to a medical school so it can be used to educate doctors who will help heal thousands of people? People won’t throw away a TV that is worth a couple of hundred dollars, yet they are willing to let organs rot that are worth a few lives. Mia and Levi are reading every book possible on Down syndrome. I applaud them for their decision and for standing firm. I also pray that God doesn’t give them more than they can handle. I haven’t told anyone, but I’ve been doing my own research on the syndrome. The depth of it has a very broad range of severity. I just pray if my niece or nephew has it, it’ll be a very minor degree of the syndrome. When we talk about the baby, which is often, we focus on the good things. When the baby is born, the gender will be a surprise to everyone. That alone is pretty exciting. I’m still staying with Momma and Pops, but I need my own place. I want to build my own home, but I don’t want to come off as flashy. I don’t need much, but I do need a place of my own. Over the last month, Pops and I have been recruiting people in the community for help with the rehabilitation project of the old school. It’ll take a lot of manpower to remodel the school and remove the debris. I had a couple empty dumpsters and a porta potty brought in and purchased some chainsaws and other tools I thought we could use. My plan is to clear everything from the building and the lot, then powerwash the building to get rid of the graffiti. Then I want to start replacing the windows, roof, plumbing, and the electrical wiring in the old school. Yesterday while Pops was checking the mail, there was another letter addressed to me. “You got fan mail?” Pops asks. I smile and take it from him. “Thank you, it sure looks like it.” “They seem to follow you all over the place,” Pops teases. “I don’t know about that.” Later that night I open the letter with no return address. It’s from the same person with the shaky handwriting. Abel Kennedy, You’re going to pay for what you did. Not a Fan I flip the page over and, of course, there isn’t anything else written on the paper. I have no idea who this is. My mind thinks back and I honestly can’t pinpoint who it is. There’re so many people who could be out to get me. This isn’t the first time that I have received hate mail, but it is the first time anyone has ever tracked me back to my country roots. I know there isn’t anything the police can do, and I don’t feel threatened. I do wonder why or how someone could have tracked me back to my hometown. Next I open a letter from Anna Harris from Indiana. I remember the name from the girl I helped out in New York. I’m a little surprised to hear from her. The envelope was mailed to my New York address, but was forwarded to Momma and Pop’s address, which is my temporary address. Dear Abel, Where do I begin? You are an angel from heaven. Thank you. Thank you for helping me and my son. Thank you for giving me a fresh start and a chance to make something of myself for me, and for my son. When I met you, I had honestly hit rock bottom. I was at the lowest point of my life. I was perhaps a week away from becoming a prostitute. Well, I hope that will be the lowest point of my life. I sure don’t want to go through anything like that again. When you left the restaurant, I sat there. I was stunned or in shock, or maybe both. I held the check you left me and just looked at it. $100,000. A complete stranger left me $100,000. I never had that much money before. At first, I was afraid this was a twisted joke. What if the check bounced, or the account was closed? I was scared, but if it was a good check, I knew exactly what I would do with it. I knew I only had one chance to get it right. I only had one chance for a fresh start, and I didn’t want to mess it up. We needed a car to get us back to Indiana safely. I needed a house for my son and I to live, and I needed to get back in school and pay it off in advance. Once the check cleared, I got a car. Nothing new or fancy, but a nice, used Honda Civic. We arrived home and my parents greeted us warmly and lovingly. Now, I wonder what I was afraid of. They love my son and it’s nice that he has grandparents. I immediately enrolled in cosmetology school and paid off the tuition in full. It felt good. We are still living with my parents, and I banked the rest of the money. Of course, I’m helping my parents with groceries, when they let me. In the spring, I want to buy a house, but I need to find the perfect one for my son, Beau. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. I hope one day I will get a chance to see you again. I want to personally thank you for my second chance. I wrote my phone number at the bottom of this letter in case you need it. Anna and Beau I put her number in my phone and quickly send her a text. Abel: Thank you for the letter. This is my number if you ever need it. Anna: Cool, thanks. Heading into class. I need my education. Have a great day and thanks, again. Today I’m starting the rehabilitation project of the old school. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do with it. It came with the small lot it was built on, but I also bought the 30-something-acre land behind the school. Pops and I get a large thermal jug and fill it to the brim with coffee. We also bought several dozen donuts from Darrell’s Donuts in South Zanesville. It’s not a hearty breakfast, but it is better than nothing. I figure, if I can get people to work for me, I should at least feed them until they get their first paycheck. We also fill another cooler with bottled water, pop, and Powerade. We’ve been recruiting people for the past month and to be honest, I’m not sure how many people will show up. “Well, look at that,” Pops says as we pull up to the school. I smile when I see Johnny sitting on the steps. “He showed up,” I say, proudly. “And he’s dressed for work,” Pops adds. I look around and I don’t see anyone else around. “I hope he’s not the only one working with us today.” “We’re early, there’ll be others.” Johnny stands up and walks over to the truck to greet us. “Mornin’,” he says. “Good morning, you ready to get started?” “Just waitin’ on instructions on what you want me to do.” “Are you too young for coffee?” I ask. Pops laughs as he sets the thermos of coffee on the tailgate of the truck. “No, sir. Your Daddy and I drink coffee together on the weekends.” I look at Pops and he just laughs. “Your Momma know you drink coffee?” “Yes, sir. She buys me cream and sugar for it. She’d rather me drink coffee than whiskey.” Pops clears his throat. I bet she would. “Please, help yourself to the coffee. We’ll start work in a few minutes.” After a few minutes and just before 8:00 a.m., several trucks pull up. I’m happy to see some people from the church are here to help. Savannah Mae’s dad is also here. I know some of the guys, but Pops introduces me to everyone by name. I give instructions on what I want to be done and everyone begins work. The guys go inside the building and Johnny and I start cutting down trees and clearing the debris from the lot. While I cut the trees down, Johnny carries the cut wood and stacks it neatly in the field. Johnny and I take a break and we both walk into the building. It’s the first weekend in March and it’s still cold out. Not bitter cold, but it’s still cold enough to see your breath. I’m happy to see everyone working so hard. I didn’t mention paying anyone but Johnny, but I see these guys deserve something. I’m sure paying them under the table will be acceptable, at least for now. Johnny stays with me as I walk around the room. The broken windows have all been removed from the frames and carefully disposed of in the dumpsters. Some of the guys have already started removing the old light fixtures from the ceiling. Just before lunch, Mia and Savannah Mae pull in. I smile as soon as I see them. I always smile when I see Savannah Mae. “Hey, cowboy,” she greets me. I look down at my work boots, jeans, and Carhartt coat. I don’t seem much like a cowboy. It’s been my nickname for a few months. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a nickname before, and I hardly consider myself a cowboy. “I’m surprised to see you here.” “We brought lunch,” Mia yells from over the trunk hood. “You did?” I ask. “Johnny and I were just heading out to get food for everyone.” “Hi, Johnny,” Savannah Mae says. Johnny nods and smiles. “Looks like we’ll save y’all a trip,” Mia says as she opens the back door of the truck, then adds, “Don’t just stand there, help us set everything up.” We set up the back of the truck like a buffet with all of the food they brought and the drinks we brought. The guys are very grateful as they shuffle through the line. I eat last because I want to make sure there’s enough food, and there is. In fact, there are enough sandwiches and chips to feed everyone twice. The girls sit in the truck with the heater on, and I stand next to Savannah Mae’s window talking to them. Pops is on the other side of the truck, talking to us. Mia becomes startled and feels her belly. “Something happened,” she says, placing her hand on her belly. Pops and I look concerned and Savannah Mae asks, “Did the baby kick?” “What?” “Did the baby kick? Feelin’ movement comin’ from the inside of your belly can sometimes be startlin’.” Pops and I look at each other as fear leaves our face. Mia smiles and says excitedly, “It did it again.” “I miss that feelin’. That’s your baby you’re feelin’. It’s amazin’, isn’t it?” “I have to call Levi. He won’t believe it,” Mia squeals. “We need to get back to work. This buildin’ won’t reconstruct itself. Thank you both for lunch,” Pops says, downing the last of his bottled water. “You’ll be over for dinner?” Savannah Mae asks. “If that’s an invite, I’ll be over.” Mia pipes in, “Since I’m off, why don’t everyone come over to my house for dinner? We’ll celebrate the baby kickin’.” Pops, Momma, Savannah Mae, and I will have dinner at Mia and Levi’s at 6:00 this evening. I thank Mia and kiss Savannah Mae goodbye. The guys and I work until 4:00. “I didn’t expect so many workers to show today.” Pops look around at the eight workers. “They did come out in full force.” “It looks like I’ll need to set up a payroll account for this. I initially thought of just paying the one or two who showed up cash.” “See how many plan to continue this project until the end. If the majority plan to stick around, you’ll definitely need a payroll account for them. You don’t want to get in trouble with the tax people or labor department.” “Good idea.” I pay everyone the same amount in cash and I’m pleasantly surprised to see they are all planning on helping out until this project is finished. They are also hesitant about taking the money, although I know they need it. Johnny thanks me and says, “This will help Momma pay the light bill.” I nod and it makes me a little sad because a 16-year-old boy is working to pay the electric bill. Hopefully, with the money he earns tomorrow he’ll be able to buy something for himself. His school lessons come first, but he can work on the weekends. When everyone leaves, I get the wheelbarrow from the shed at Savannah Mae’s, and I start hauling the firewood we cut down earlier. She’s over at Mia’s helping with dinner while Sawyer Jackson’s with his dad. I didn’t get all of the wood hauled the short distance to her house, but I did get most of it. This will be a nice stockpile for next year. Savannah Mae Mia and I fix dinner together at her house, and Nelly even came over to help us. It’s nice havin’ a girls’ day while the guys are at work. It’s the first time Mia has opened up about the concerns of her baby havin’ Down syndrome. “My biggest fear is the baby will be born with a severe form of the syndrome. I’m praying every day that if she has it at all, it’ll be very mild, but honestly, she could be born with a very severe case.” “Have you talked to Levi and your doctor about this?” I ask. “All the time. The research is frightening to us. If the baby does have Down syndrome, she can have other health issues such as heart problems and seizures, and she can even have muscular problems. What if Levi and I are selfish? What if our decision to continue with the pregnancy is the wrong decision?” she cries. My eyes well up with tears. I know her concern is real. Abel Lee and I have been doin’ our own research. The severity level is alarming. “What does your heart tell you, Mia?” Nelly asks. Mia looks at Nelly and wipes away her tears, “That my baby will be fine. I can see her smilin’ and laughin’; she’s happy and healthy.” “Then hold on to that thought, Mia. I also can see my future little grandbaby runnin’ around and laughin’. Believe that he or she will be okay. Don’t give up hope on that.” The front door opens and in walks Levi. Mia wipes away her tears before he can see them. He enters the kitchen with a smile. “Hi,” he says before he walks over to kiss Mia. “So, my baby was kickin’ today.” “She was,” Mia says, proudly. “He missed his daddy,” Levi corrects the gender of the baby. “He might be a girl,” Mia says. “And she might be a boy,” Levi laughs. We all laugh and soon forget the unhappy thoughts of the baby’s future. I personally think the baby will be okay. I don’t want to think anything different. “I need to shower before dinner. If he kicks again, come get me.” “Yeah, I’ll do that. Get up there and shower before your Pops and brother show up.” “I’m goin’, little Momma.” It makes me smile to hear Levi call her “little Momma.” It is such a sweet gesture. Bud and Abel Lee show up and we have a sit-down dinner in the eat-in kitchen. We had to use extra chairs from the card table to accommodate everyone at the table. The baby kicks and Levi, Nelly, and Abel Lee are able to feel it. They are all excited and thrilled. This is the first child in their family, and I know how excited they are. I decide I need to make plans to throw Mia a baby shower. I remember how little I had when Sawyer Jackson was born, and how much I needed. Havin’ a first-born baby, you really don’t know what to expect or what you’ll need. I’ll need to get with Nelly and talk to her about a date and time. After dinner, I get a text from Ethan asking me to pick up Sawyer Jackson. He said he hasn’t been feelin’ well. Abel Lee watches me from across the room and I try to smile. I’m worried, but I try not to show it. Anytime my son is sick, I worry. It’s all part of bein’ a parent. I stand and say, “I need to get Sawyer Jackson from his dad. I’m sorry, I hate to rush off.” “Is everything all right?” Nelly asks. “He’ll be fine. Ethan said that Sawyer Jackson’s not feelin’ well.” Abel Lee stands and says, “I’ll take you.” He doesn’t wait for an answer as he kisses his momma and Mia and shakes his Pops’ and Levi’s hands. I also kiss and hug everyone before leavin’. “Is he all right?” Abel Lee asks as I get into his truck. “I hope so. He’s been complaining of a headache the last few days. I wish he had called me earlier, I could have taken him to the doctor today.” “Call and get him in to see his doctor first thing in the morning.” “My car. I should take my car home. I’ll need it for tomorrow.” Abel Lee says, “You can use my truck,” before he shuts my door. We rush over to Ethan’s apartment and I’m surprised when Abel Lee goes to the door with me, but he stands back while I knock. “How is he?” I ask when Heather Sue answers the door. I hear someone throwing up and I walk past her into the apartment. Sawyer Jackson is on the couch and Ethan is holdin’ a bucket up for him to throw up in. “Please come in,” she says after I’m already in. I ignore her and focus my attention on my sick boy. I have a lot I want to say to her, but this isn’t the time or the place. “He just started throwin’ up,” Ethan says. I kneel down to be closer to my son and feel his forehead. “He said his head and his belly’s been hurtin’.” “He has a fever,” I say. “We’ll take him to the hospital,” Abel Lee says. “Do you have a blanket we can wrap him up in? The truck’s already warm.” “That’s my good blanket,” Heather Sue says, looking at the blanket fallin’ half off the couch onto the floor. Abel Lee walks up and wraps Sawyer Jackson in the blanket and says, “We’ll see you get it back.” He lifts Sawyer Jackson up and cradles him like a newborn baby. Heather Sue says, “Ethan, you can stay here. I doubt that it’s anything serious.” “You might need this,” Ethan says as he hands me the vomit bucket. “Call me when you find out what’s wrong,” Ethan yells out the door to us. I sit in the backseat with Sawyer Jackson as Abel Lee drives us to Bethesda Hospital in Zanesville. Rose Farm, Roseville, and Crooksville are too small to have a hospital. Sawyer Jackson throws up on Heather Sue’s good blanket; if I didn’t feel so sorry for my son, I might have gotten a little enjoyment from that. “We’re almost there. Hang on, Buddy,” Abel Lee says. It’s the first time I ever heard Abel Lee call my son by his nickname. It almost sounds unnatural comin’ from his mouth. When Sawyer Jackson vomits again, I get worried. I repeat Abel Lee’s words: “Hang on, Buddy.” I ask Abel Lee, “Can you hurry?” It’s all I can say. My son has never thrown up this much or this often before. “Almost there,” he says as he picks up speed. He pulls up at the emergency entrance and parks. He rushes out of the truck and I scoop Sawyer Jackson up in my arms. Abel Lee opens my door and takes Sawyer Jackson from me. Usually, he waits and closes the door after me, but today, he rushes inside the hospital, leavin’ me to close the door. I love that he is lookin’ out for my son. I wonder why Ethan didn’t think it was urgent when Sawyer Jackson was sick and vomitin’ with a fever? We are led to a room right away. Abel Lee says, “I have to park the truck, I’ll be right back.” “Hurry,” I say as I watch the nurse attending to my sick son. “I will. It’ll be all right, Savannah Mae.” Within minutes, the doctor is in the room orderin’ the nurse to give my son a shot of Phenergan for his vomitin’, some Tylenol for his fever, and an IV of fluids for dehydration. I’ve never seen my son get an IV before. I hold Sawyer Jackson’s hand as he dozes off to sleep. I’m thankful that Phenergan causes drowsiness. The doctor orders blood work and we wait. Sawyer Jackson’s fever comes down, but he moans in his sleep from pain. Abe Lee walks into the room and sits beside me. “How is he?” I tell him what the nurse and doctors are goin’ to do for him. “He’s dehydrated.” “It’s because he’s thrown up so much. I called Momma when I parked the car, I didn’t want them to wonder where we are.” I nod and Abel Lee holds me close; I let him. I continue to hold Sawyer Jackson’s hand as he sleeps. I pray and Abel Lee looks fearful. It dawns on me that Abel Lee doesn’t have children and although I’m scared, I still kind of know what to expect during a hospital visit. “Are you okay?” I ask, looking at Abel Lee. He tries to smile, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “He looks so tiny lying there.” “He does. He always seems so much smaller when he’s sick.” “I feel so helpless. I don’t think I ever felt this way before.” I look away and watch my sick son lie helpless on the hospital bed. “It sucks. Feeling useless is the worst part of parenthood.” We sit quietly and stare at the IV dripping fluids into Sawyer Jackson’s tiny hand. I wonder if I should call his daddy or my parents. I decide to wait until I know something. The doctor comes in and tells us someone is in the waitin’ room. “I’ll go talk to them.” Abel Lee stands and walks out the door to give the doctor and me some privacy. “Your son’s white blood count is elevated. We’re going to admit him overnight.” “What does that mean?” I ask as I watch Sawyer Jackson sleep. “It means he has an infection. We’re just not sure what kind. We’ll run some more tests and hopefully, we’ll get an answer soon.” I look from Sawyer Jackson to the doctor. “It isn’t anything serious, is it? He’s gonna be all right, isn’t he?” “Mrs. Dickerson…” “It’s Miss, I’m divorced.” The doctor nods. “Miss Dickerson, it’s probably nothing serious. We’ll know more tomorrow.” Abel Lee I walk out into the waiting room, expecting to see Sawyer Jackson’s dad, Ethan. I know if my son were in the hospital, I would want to be there. I’m surprised that he didn’t come. To my surprise, I see Momma, Pops, Levi, and Mia. Momma stands and she looks concerned. “How is he?” “I’m not sure, the doctor’s in there now.” I look around the room and everyone looks sad. “He’s dehydrated. They gave him something for his fever and his nausea.” “Can we see him?” Mia asks. “We’ve been so worried about him that we needed to see him for ourselves to make sure he’s all right.” “I don’t know, he’s so sick.” I look at Mia and say, “He’s so small and helpless lying there.” Pops says, “You feel like you want to do something for him and you can’t.” “Yes.” Pops says seriously to Levi, “Welcome to fatherhood.” “Is that what fatherhood feels like?” Levi asks. “Sometimes, yes,” Momma agrees. The doctor comes out and Mia asks him if she can go back and see Sawyer Jackson. He informs us they are admitting him and will be moving him upstairs. I go back with Savannah Mae while Pops, Momma, Mia, and Levi go up to the pediatric floor to wait for us. We all visit while Sawyer Jackson sleeps. Thankfully, the medication causes drowsiness. I decide to leave when everyone else does. “Do you need anything for tomorrow?” I ask before leaving Savannah Mae there to attend to her sick son. “Clean clothes and a toothbrush would be nice.” She thinks for a moment and says, “You’ll be at work tomorrow on the old schoolhouse, so I’ll have my sister bring my things up when she comes. It’s better that way. I don’t mind if she looks in my underwear drawer.” “Do you have your cell phone to call her?” “Yep,” she smiles. “Is it charged?” I watch as she reaches into her purse for her cell phone. “Abel Lee, you treat me like a child,” she says as she looks at her phone. Her smile fades and I don’t need to ask. “Here, take mine and I’ll charge yours,” I say, handing her my cell phone for the night. I take hers and kiss her goodnight. “Thank you, you know me so well.” “It’s my job.” I kiss her again and I lean down and kiss Sawyer Jackson on his forehead. He’s asleep and doesn’t move. I wait at the door for everyone to say their goodbyes. “Call me if you need me, and I’ll be up right after work.” Savannah Mae walks up to me and hugs me again before I leave. “Thank you, Abel Lee.” “You’re welcome, Savannah Mae. Call me if you need me or if there’s any changes.” When I get home, I do the chores and shower before bed. Momma and Pops go to bed early, leaving me to my thoughts. It’s still cold, so I add another log on the fire before turning in. I lie awake and think about Sawyer Jackson. I can’t get the feeling of helplessness out of my head. I wanted so much to help him, and I couldn’t do anything. I never wanted children and this is the reason why. It’s hard to want to help a child and there’s nothing you can do for them. I also think about the anonymous letters I’ve been getting. I have no clue who sent them, although I know several people who could have a vendetta against me. Being a professional boxer isn’t easy. You go into the ring knowing there is the possibility that you may not come out alive. It’s something you know and you accept. You just pray that fate will be on your side and you’ll live to see another day. I’ve been very lucky in my boxing career, but others I fought haven’t been so fortunate. I once killed a man in the ring. It was almost enough to make me hang up my gloves forever. However, my trainer and coach pushed me to continue. While I was seeking counseling for killing a man, they were promoting me and scheduling my next fight. The next fight didn’t happen right away. Boxers were frightened to go into the ring with me. I was thankful because I needed that year to heal. I took a man’s life. Although it was unintentional, it weighs heavy on my heart, and on my mind. I set up a financial account to help the family with funeral and living costs, I sent flowers to the funeral home, and I also sent a letter of condolence. I took a man’s life, and no money will ever replace that. I just wanted them to know I was sorry. If someone had killed my brother, Levi, would I be mad enough to go after them? I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d beat them down and not even think twice about it. The letters must be from that man’s family. The next morning after church, Pops and I go to work and Momma goes to the hospital to see Savannah Mae and Sawyer Jackson. “Tell Savannah Mae I’ll be there as soon as I can.” “I will, Abel, but I’m hopin’ that they’ll both be home by then.” “He was pretty sick, so I doubt he’ll be home anytime soon.” “You’d be surprised what antibiotics can do.” Pops and I fill the cooler with drinks and the thermos with coffee before we head down to the old schoolhouse. Johnny is already there waiting for us, just like yesterday. All the guys who were here yesterday show up for work today. Danny from the church brings hot breakfast sandwiches for everyone. “I heard about Savannah Mae and her son. I figured you didn’t get much sleep last night,” Danny says, handing me a cup of coffee. “Thank you, I didn’t.” I wonder how word spread so quickly about Sawyer Jackson. “How is he?” “He was pretty sick last night. I haven’t heard anything yet today.” “Pastor Jenson said he was going’ to start a prayer chain for him. Send out a group e-mail to everyone in the church. Hopefully, he’ll start feelin’ better soon.” I take a drink of my strong black coffee and watch as the other workers help themselves to the breakfast sandwiches Danny brought. “I hope so. He was pretty sick last night.” “Never underestimate the power of prayer, Abel.” We get to work and Johnny and I finish cutting down the trees and then we haul them over to Savannah Mae’s house. I’m pleased to see the stockpile she’s starting to get. Although it’s the beginning of March, it’s still cold in Ohio. Pops, who is a certified electrician, and a few guys start tearing out the electrical wires while the other people are removing the old doors and cabinets. “We’re makin’ pretty good progress,” Johnny says. “Yes, we are. It still looks bad, but not as bad.” We both laugh and he looks around at the interior. When all of the wood is cut and stacked over at Savannah Mae’s house, Johnny and I go inside and help the others. At lunch, I call Dena’s Floral Design in Zanesville and order something for Sawyer Jackson and a little something for Savannah Mae so she knows that I am thinking of her. I haven’t heard anything, so I’m hoping that’s good news. By the end of the day, all of the windows and light fixtures are removed from inside the building. We all agree that we’ll get the building power washed tomorrow, before we do anything else. After work, Pops and I quickly shower. I stop by Savannah Mae’s to check her mail from yesterday before heading to the hospital. Savannah Mae Mom, my sister, and Nelly have been here all day. Sawyer Jackson is still very sick and they continue to run blood tests on him. He sleeps, but he doesn’t throw up. He hasn’t eaten anything since we’ve been here. No tellin’ the last time he ate; he was with his dad yesterday. The way he looked when I picked him up last night I don’t think he ate anythin’ most of the day. Ethan hasn’t called or stopped up to see Sawyer Jackson. I thought he would have stopped by, but he hasn’t. I haven’t left Sawyer Jackson’s side. I’ve never seen him this sick before. I can’t bring myself to leave his side, even to eat. Mom, Nelly, and Samantha Marie stay in the room. They are quiet and are here for support. I just want my boy to get well. Shouldn’t he be awake? Shouldn’t he be cryin’? He’s just lies there and sleeps. He’s so lethargic. I pray and hope for him to feel better, to get better. The doctors and nurses come in frequently. They keep tellin’ me he has an infection, but they aren’t sure where. Shouldn’t the tests reveal something? When will they know something? The hospital door opens and I can tell right away that it’s Abel Lee without even lookin’ his way. His woodsy scent gives him away. I love the smell of Abel Lee. Woods and leather, he smells like a workin’ man. Nothin’ has ever smelt better than a guy who works hard to provide for his family. “How is he?” Abel Lee asks, pullin’ a chair up next to me. He lightly strokes my arm with his fingers and I shiver. “No change.” “They don’t know anything? They ran tests, right?” He kisses my left temple and I lean into him. “They have,” I whisper. “Nothing else is comin’ up abnormal but his white blood count. They’re still givin’ him IV antibiotics to treat his infection.” “Has he been asleep all day?” I stare at Sawyer Jackson and I don’t look back at Abel Lee. “He wakes up for only a few minutes at a time.” “Where’s Ethan? Has he been here?” “No, I left him a couple messages, but he didn’t answer my calls today.” “I’ll be back.” I hear the chair move and Abel Lee walks out the door. I didn’t have time to ask where he’s goin’. Maybe he forgot something in the car. No one says anything, they all remain quiet. I focus my attention on my sick boy. A short time later, Abel Lee comes back into the room and a doctor and a nurse is right behind him. The doctor tells me he would like to do a spinal tap on Sawyer Jackson and that they believe he may have meningitis. My mind runs through everything I know about meningitis. Stiff neck, seizures, vomiting, headache, and fever. Meningitis is either viral or bacterial. Has he complained about a stiff neck recently? He was with Ethan when he got sick. Did he complain of a stiff neck with his dad? I know kids have died from meningitis. My hearts races, and I begin to feel sick. “I need to call his father.” I can’t think straight. Ethan and I always made big decisions together. Where is he? Why hasn’t he been here? Abel Lee comes up to me and speaks softly, “I think we should let them do it. The sooner they know what’s wrong, the sooner they can get him the right treatment.” Mom and Samantha Marie come over with Nelly and stand on my other side. “Savannah Mae, it’s been long enough, let’s not wait any longer,” Mom says. “Shouldn’t Ethan have a say in this?” Mom says, “If he were here, yes, but he isn’t.” “I’ll go call him again,” Nelly says. “Again?” I look up at Nelly. “You’ve already called him?” She looks sad. “I’ve called a few times today.” “Where is he? What did he say?” “I left a message with Heather Sue, and I left other messages on his phone. I didn’t actually get to speak to Ethan.” My heart hurts at the thought that Ethan knew his son was sick and didn’t come to be with him. I’ve called him a couple of times throughout the day and thought maybe he didn’t answer because he didn’t recognize the number. Surely he would have come after he heard my pleading messages. I look at the nurse, the doctor, and then Abel Lee. “What would you do if he were your son?” I stare Abel Lee in his eyes. I want the truth, and I want to know he’s tellin’ me the truth. “If I were lucky enough to have Sawyer Jackson as my son, I would want to know what’s wrong so they can fix him.” Abel Lee looks sad as he returns my stare. I know he’s tellin’ me the truth. I know he wouldn’t put my son in danger. I know the benefits outweighs the risks of the spinal tap. “Okay, we wasted enough time, let’s do this.” I speak with the doctor and the nurses about the risks of the lumbar puncture. I cringe when they explain the procedure. I know it’ll be painful for Sawyer Jackson, I just hope he sleeps through most of it. They get Sawyer Jackson ready to take him to the treatment room where the procedure will be done. Bud, Levi, Mia, and my daddy show up. I’m happy to see them but disappointed when it isn’t Ethan. After the procedure, when I finally get to see Sawyer Jackson, he is awake and crying. I want to hold him, but I am instructed that he needs to lie flat on his belly for awhile. “He may suffer a headache but other than that, he’ll be fine,” the doctor says. “As soon as we get the results, we’ll notify you.” I walk beside the bed, holding Sawyer Jackson’s hand, on the way to his hospital room. Abel Lee and our family are behind us. We all waited outside of the treatment room for Sawyer Jackson. It wasn’t surgery, but it was a sterile procedure. Once inside the room, everyone kisses and talks to Sawyer Jackson, before he dozes off to sleep. I try to be polite and visit with everyone, but my attention is on my sleeping, sick son. Abel Lee takes a place beside me and doesn’t move. I try to join their conversation, but my mind can’t focus on anything but my boy. When I hear Mia say she had a doctor’s appointment today, I can’t help but look up. She and Levi are smiling. “Our son is growing as he should be,” Levi says proudly. “She’s weighing over a pound already,” Mia says, laughin’ when she corrects the gender, as she pats her large belly. Neither one of them knows for sure the sex of the baby. If Levi calls it a girl, Mia calls it a boy. If Mia calls it a girl, Levy calls it a boy. It’s funny and always brings a smile to my face when they fuss over the sex of their baby. I’m happy to see they’re excited about the baby and not focusing on what may be wrong with him or her. “I’m glad he or she is growing as it should.” “Us, too,” Levi says. “Really we just joke about the gender.” Mia says, “All we want is a healthy baby. A boy or a girl, it doesn’t matter.” Mia and Levi have told only a few people about the possibility that their child may have Down syndrome. I hope the tests are wrong and their baby is born perfect. Soon after, everyone stands to leave. Abel Lee stands with them. “I’m going to walk them out. I’ll be right back.” “There’s no need for you to stay. You should go home, too.” “Do you need anything on my way back?” I look at Abel Lee and say, “You’re not leavin’ yet?” “No, not yet. I want to spend some time with you and Sawyer Jackson.” I lean into him. “Neither one of us is very good company tonight.” “I don’t care, I just want to be close to you both. I stopped by your house and brought you your mail.” He lays a small stack of mail on the bedside table. It mostly looks like junk mail. “Thank you, Abel Lee.” I snake my arm around his waist and he holds me tightly. “Have you had dinner?” Before I can say anything, Nelly says, “She hasn’t eaten anything all day.” I look up at Nelly and my stomach growls. I don’t have time to reply. He frowns at me and says, “I’ll be back with something hot for you to eat.” He kisses me and turns to leave. I kiss and hug everyone, and as soon as he closes the door I look at my cell phone, well, Abel Lee’s cell phone. Still nothin’ from Ethan. This isn’t right. I know Ethan would be here. Wouldn’t he? Before Heather Sue got pregnant, I know he would want to be here for his son. Has he changed that much since he’s been with her? I send him a text and hope that he replies. Savannah Mae: Ethan, this is Savannah Mae, can you please call me? Sawyer Jackson is in the hospital. I sit and watch my son and hope for my phone to beep with a reply message. I pray that Sawyer Jackson wakes up feeling better. Neither happens. Sawyer Jackson sleeps and the phone might as well be broken. As least my son is sleeping. Abel Lee walks into the room. He looks tired or worried, I’m not sure which. “I got you some soup and a dinner roll from the cafeteria.” “I’m not hungry…” “Eat. It’s only soup. You need to have something in your belly.” I watch as he removes the lid from the Styrofoam bowl and removes the spoon from the plastic. He hands it to me, and it smells delicious. “Thank you.” He sits in the chair closest to my son and watches over him as I eat. My intentions were to act like I was eatin’ some of the soup, but I was hungrier than I thought. I devoured the entire bowl and ate the roll that was with it. It’s funny that when you’re that worried about someone you love that you forget to take care of yourself. I stand to throw away my trash when Abel Lee asks, “Do you want something else to eat?” “No, thank you. That was plenty.” And it was. Abel Lee and I talk about my son and about the progress being made at the old school. He speaks with enthusiasm, with a spark in his eyes. I look at him and he watches me. “I’m happy that you’re here with us. I think just havin’ you here is helpin’. It was a pretty rough day today.” “You had company all day, right?” “I did, but it wasn’t you. You make everything better.” Abel Lee takes my hand and leads me to sit on his lap. I snuggle into him and inhale his masculine scent. “I wish I could make Sawyer Jackson better,” he says honestly. “I wish his dad would come and see him. This is exactly what I was afraid was going to happen.” After awhile, Abel Lee stands to walk out of the room. I move over nearest to Sawyer Jackson. The mail he brought from the house is sittin’ on the bedside table. Most of it is junk mail, but a letter with no return address is tucked inside the advertisin’ flyers. I quickly open it and I’m shocked by what I see: a snapshot photograph of a person in a hospital bed. Ice runs through my veins at the image. I can’t tell if this is a man or a woman. The photo reminds me of how they described Megan Rose when they found her. They said she was unrecognizable. This person looks horrific. Who would do this to someone? Why are they sendin’ me this photograph? I stare at the picture. The person is black and blue, and it looks like the person is on a ventilator. I look closer and the person’s right arm is in a cast. I read the note enclosed. Savannah, Do you know who did this? Your boyfriend, Abel, did. Oh, my God! It’s a girl! Isn’t it? I think this is a picture of a girl, but I’m not sure. I can’t tell. The person is so beaten and battered, I can’t tell if it’s a male or a female. Abel Lee walks into the hospital room. “I got ahold of Ethan. He’s on his way.” I can feel the blood drain from my face. My hands shake, but I continue to clutch the photo and note in both hands. “What’s wrong?” he asks. He slowly walks closer to me. “Did they get the test results back from the spinal tap?” He looks fearful. I try to blink and swallow, but I don’t think I do either. I stare at Abel Lee. Is he capable of doing this? “Savannah Mae, please, what is it?” I slowly lift my hands from my lap. I set the note and photograph on the bedside table. “D-d-did you do t-t-this?” I stutter. I watch him closely. He closes his eyes and I already have my answer, but I need to hear him say it. “Abel, did you do this?” He opens his eyes and they are red. He looks broken. “I can explain,” he murmurs. “Abel, are you responsible for this? Yes or no?” I demand. I need to hear the words. Please say no. Tell me you’re not responsible for harmin’ a human being this badly. Please don’t be capable of causin’ these kinds of injuries to anyone. “YES OR NO, ABEL?” I yell.

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