“Go live your life,” her parents said. “You can get a husband after you’ve seen the world.” Her father encouraged. Her mother added, “Don’t make the mistakes we made and anchor yourself to responsibilities when you’re young.”
Grace Hudson followed her parent’s advice. Now she was the only one in her group of friends who was single. She sighed and took one last look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her brown hair shaped into barrel curls hung on her shoulders. Grace spoke to her reflection, “Am I expecting too much?”
Her friends would argue, yes.
“And we still love you,” her best friend, Wendy would add.
It had to be true. They all had boyfriends. Boyfriends that allowed them to go to a concert for a girl’s night on Valentine’s Day. Grace’s last boyfriend broke up with her when she wanted to go to a women’s retreat in France for a month. Since then she had navigated life solo. Whenever she went out with someone, she compared men to him. His lack of response to her texts left a clear message. There were no second chances.
But that wasn’t what tonight was about. It was about having a good time. Grace smiled at a woman who entered the bathroom as she was leaving to meet her friends at the concession stand. She stopped short when a man oblivious of her presence darted by. He was in the middle of an animated conversation with…Grace froze. She could have sworn the stranger was talking to Wendy’s boyfriend, Matt.
Grace focused on the stranger. She recognized the wavy brown hair that peeked out beneath the baseball cap. From the back, his muscular frame did not resemble anyone she knew. Her gut told her to look again. There was something familiar about the man. She shook aside the feeling and wondered if Matt got tickets to the concert to keep tabs on Wendy. That would explain why he was willing to let her go without him. Grace found Wendy in the crowd. “Did you know Matt was here?”
Wendy’s face flushed. “It is Valentine’s Day.” Her eyes darted to their friends, Alana and Sarah, and pleaded for support.
Sarah’s lips folded in on themselves. Her red lipstick formed a downward shape curve. “We bought the tickets six months ago.”
“Yes,” Wendy exclaimed. Her auburn hair made the red on her cheeks even more pronounced. “Yes, Matt is here. He is with Clark.”
“Why did you have to include me in this?” Alana whined. Apparently, her boyfriend was at the concert too.
“She would find out when we sat down,” Sarah held her palms up. “The guys are in the same row as us.”
Grace saw the picture. Her friends didn’t come to the concert without their boyfriends. Technically they did, but once they got to the venue they planned to meet up. The cute backside she saw with Matt came to Grace’s mind. “Did you set me up?”
“No.” Wendy leaned away from the conversation. Her eyes widened at something behind Grace. Grace turned to see Matt and the mystery man walk away. They turned. But not before Grace caught a glimpse of the man’s chin. Her gut was right. She knew the man. Still, she had to ask. “Is that?” she stammered. It couldn’t be. She hadn’t seen Tanner Peterson in three years. Or at least not in person. She had seen pictures of him on her friend’s social media profiles. He unfriended Grace after he broke up with her. He wanted to get married but not to someone who would set a relationship with him on the back burner. Grace saw the writing on the wall. She and Tanner were in different places in life. At the time Grace thought them breaking up was a good thing.
Then she came home from the retreat and her father died. Her mother who was a widow at forty-nine shook her head in bewilderment. “I thought for sure we’d have a fortieth and fiftieth anniversary.”
Then the tune changed. “Grace, you need to find a husband.”
Like they pop out of a garden during husband season and she needed to pick the one that suited her taste.
“You need a man that can make you smile when you’re in a bad mood.”
That Grace could agree with. She wanted someone she could laugh with. Regret hit her. Especially when she saw an article about Tanner on social media. He played games with children at the hospital. Grace assumed Tanner’s new girlfriend was the parent of one of the children. Or he was dating a nurse and wanted to impress her. Regardless of why he was doing it, one thing was obvious; Grace blew it.
“Yes,” Alana confessed. “We bought an extra ticket thinking you’d have a boyfriend by now.”
“By now?” Grace winced.
“Don’t take it like that,” Sarah rubbed Grace’s shoulder. “We were thinking it would suck if you had a boyfriend and all of us had tickets but he didn’t.”
Grace wanted to be mad. They bought the tickets six months ago. They’d known all along their boyfriends were coming along and nobody said a thing to her. It was a conspiracy. They could have told her the truth and she could have offered her ticket to a couple. Then she’d be alone on Valentine’s Day. Embarrassment set in. She was so pathetic she couldn’t get a date for Valentine’s Day.
“Don’t be mad,” Wendy pleaded. “Consider it our Valentine’s Day present to you.”
They thought it was a present to set her up with an ex-boyfriend who hadn’t talked to her in three years.
“Does he know about this?” Grace pulled at the curl closest to her chin.
“No,” Alana said.
The air left Grace’s chest. Her mind flew to the quickest way to get out of the situation. She pulled out her phone to check the time. It was almost seven. If she drove home soon, she’d be home by nine. It wasn’t the best Valentine’s Day. But her friends saved her from wallowing alone in front of the television. “So, he wouldn’t know if I didn’t come.”
“Okay, we lied,” Wendy blurted. “He knows.”
“He wanted it to be a surprise,” Sarah added. “You weren’t supposed to see him until you saw him at the seat.”
Grace’s eyes instinctively darted to where she remembered where she last saw Tanner. Wendy pulled on her hand to get her to turn back toward the group. “He wants to see me?” Her voice hitched. “Why didn’t he just call me?”
“That’s for him to explain,” Wendy replied. “Just give him a chance.”
Butterflies took over Grace’s stomach. The last time she and Tanner spoke came to her mind. “One day, you’ll regret this decision. By then I’ll have found someone better than you and moved on.” She spent the years wondering what better than her was. Was better than her taller, funnier, prettier, smarter?
Alana didn’t give Grace time to answer. “I’m buying the first round of drinks.” She joined the line in front of the concession stands. Wendy pulled Grace in the opposite direction of where the men were talking. “This will be fun.”
Sarah chimed in. “The worst thing that can happen is you’ll pick up where you left off.”
Grace didn’t want to think about the worst thing that could happen. Sarah left out a multitude of other possibilities. So, Grace tried to ignore the empty seat beside her. Singing along with the music on the PA system helped. Taking selfies and posting them to social media set her mind at ease. She almost forgot about the person in the empty seat beside her when the lights in the arena dropped. The stage lights flashed across the front curtain. Live music blared loud enough to send vibrations of energy through Grace’s body. A sense of anticipation filled her. The audience clapped in a rhythm that matched the drum’s beat.
Shuffling in the seats to her right caught Grace’s attention. People stepped back and Tanner sidestepped his way closer to her. His eyes glowed with expectation. The wide smile on his face erased all of Grace’s concerns. He didn’t stop when reached the edge of the empty seat. He wrapped his arms around Grace’s shoulders and hugged her. She melted into his chest and wrapped her arms around his back. Tanner tightened his hold and kissed Grace on the top of the head. They remained in the embrace for a couple seconds. It felt like home to Grace. She forgot she missed the feeling until it returned.
The pain of being apart came at Grace and forced tears to her eyes. Tanner wiped them away with his thumbs. Grace sniffled to push them back. Tanner leaned in to speak in her ear. He said, “Me too, baby,” and kissed her gently on the lips. Then he said, “We’re here to have some fun. You ready for a Valentine’s Day we’ll both remember.” The excitement in his voice made Grace laugh. She nodded, he winked, and they both started clapping in unison.
Wendy bumped Grace with her hip. She leaned in and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day best friend.” Grace bumped her back. “Happy Valentine’s day to you too.”
Next to Christmas, Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday. Actually, the day after Valentine’s Day is my favorite. Boatloads of Chocolate go on sale.
All kidding aside, I love Valentine’s Day because it allows us to recognize love. All too often, the focus leans toward the romantic, happily ever after love. I have had a several happily ever afters and romance wasn’t involved. There are friend, family, and marriage milestone happily ever after stories. The key ingredients in all of them were: the struggle, the help, and the bond that resulted from the combination. When I look back on the defining moments in my life, some form of love was there…I just realized I have a bunch of blogs I could write from those lessons.
Of course, Valentine’s Day is the theme for writing for the next few weeks. I brought the topic up with my publications class. Two students chose the cutest way to approach the topic. One person wrote an infographic about why she loved Valentine’s Day. It has hearts, flowers, and is pink and white. Another person wrote an accompanying one about why he didn’t like it. It has jagged lines, no images, and is teal and orange. Several people helped with brainstorming ideas for the two authors. There were definite sides on the issue. Usually, I let keep my opinion on their topics to myself. My students have their stories to tell. I’m there to guide the process. But, come on! I write romance. I write about love. I had to share my opinion on the topic. I believe in happily ever after. Some happily ever afters are novellas while others are epic journeys. In the vein of you’re writing something for your audience this is what I’m sharing with mine, I shared my writing prompt for the month. I told them about a short story I wrote for my readers to give as Valentine’s Day present.
In less than a minute, I saw wrinkled brows followed by jaws dropping. A couple of people nodded their heads in appreciation. Finally, one student who swore vehemently that Valentine’s Day was the bane of her existence said, “I would pay to see that movie. When are you writing the book?”
For the record, it still is a short story. You’ll see it here a couple days before Valentine’s Day. In the meantime, I’ll post a picture of when I got the idea to give you a hint of what it’s about.
And, this is where I’ll close for now. I wish you moments that warm your heart and stories that will make you smile. Until the next blog
You know that person. The one that makes you repeat yourself. Several times. Then they get what you were trying to say. I’ll raise my hand and admit that’s me.
Here is where I’ll take you back in time. Not too far back. We’re going to the autumn of 2014. We’ve moved to Montana. I’ve been told that I will never get a job teaching (those liar, liar pants on fire people) and it is snowing. We’re talking about the perfect conditions to write a book.
That November, I signed up for Nanowrimo and a rough version of Let the Games Begin made its way into the world. I typed “the end,” laid my head on the pillow, and Jorgen’s voice came to me. He talked about how he messed up with Gina. So on November 29th, I started writing The Chance to Win Her Heart.
At this point in time, all the people our age are at work. So, my husband and I visit the senior center for lunch. Yes, our first friends when we moved here were the men and women who were lifelong friends with my husband’s parents. Through storytelling, they relived shenanigans from their younger days. My contribution to the conversation centered on Gina, Eric, Jorgen, Mayra, Victor, Amanda, and Rick. They laughed at Eric’s failed attempts to woo Gina. They applauded when he got it right.
What I didn’t tell them was I planned to make this a chesty man book. At the time, every best-selling book on Amazon had a chesty man on the cover. My book was going to be there beside them. I was near the end of the book when our pastor joined us for lunch. At this point, Eric and Gina were stranded at the senior center, and the older people were trying to help them figure things out. The pastor said, “When you publish it, I’ll read the book.”
I went home and backspaced through a couple of chapters, and some scenes just got deleted completely. The book launched and the people in our small slice of the world loved it.
The people in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo did not see it. My book with a heart on the cover was lost in the sea of chesty men. That didn’t stop me. I knew the best way to sell a book was write another. So I wrote and published, wrote and published and wrote and published some more. By book six, I was getting tired of that 4,333, 261 book rank. Really? At this point, my chesty men author friends were making more than six figures, and I was selling one book a week.
I declared to my husband I was making a change. I could go back and rewrite my books with sexy scenes under a new name….are you ready for this Jessica Farmer. (Because we live on a farm) With his mouth dropped in shock he exclaimed, “You’re serious.” To make my point, I plotted another book and stormed away to create this imaginary six-figure chesty man book.
Then I opened my email. One of my readers sent a quick note thanking me for writing a clean story. She appreciated reading a story without having to flip through pages. The winds of bravado left my sails, and I wrote Get Well Soon.
Around this time, those successful author friends helped me promote my book. Their solution to my dilemma was so easy, I am embarrassed I hadn’t seen it all along. They showed me that I was not a “romance” storyteller. I was an “inspirational romance” writer.
Last week, when Just a Friend–the novella based on The Chance to Win Her Heart got a number one ranking, my story came full circle.
This is where I bring us back to the beginning of this story. Some of us have to hear things several times before the information settles into the mind and takes roots in the heart. As this story proves, if we try to listen, even when circumstances try to tell us otherwise, things will work out…better than we could have ever imagined.
I close this post wishing you warmth and messages of truth to help you find your path.
I am humbled. I am delighted. I am here to tell you that childhood dreams come true. Enough people downloaded a copy of Just A Friend to make it the number one book on Amazon’s Two Hour Romance Short Reads. That’s a lot of downloads!
Now, I’ll say I had a little help from a lot of friends. Among them was Manybooks.net. They featured my story and provided a link to Just A Friend. The link to the article is here —-> Manybooks article.
You’ve been reading my blog, so you know most of the story. But you may want to check out the site. It is a library of books available for free download. Some are classic books, a lot are contemporary. If you’re not interested in reading the article but want to check out the library for free books. You can get to the library by visiting https://manybooks.net/
While I have you, I thought I’d mention, I’m going to add a tab on the blog. I read a lot of books. In that tab, I’ll share the books I’ve read and liked. What comes next is important. I know first hand how much work goes into writing a book. So, if I don’t like a book I don’t like it. I put it down and move on with life. I’m not going to bash another author’s efforts. If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it too.
After I write the chesty man story on Friday, I’ll start posting my reading list.
So I close this blog thanking you for reading my work. If you downloaded Just A Friend, thank you for liking it enough to consider reading it. It means the world to me.
I wish you smiles to keep you warm on these chilly winter days; laughter to brighten the dreary weather, and loving words that remind you that you are a gift.
p.s. If you didn’t get a copy but wanted one, Just a Friend is still free. I don’t know how long it’ll last.
“We can make a book about ten kids writing books!”
Midway through Nanowrimo I thought I’d merge my librarian and author hat. And, to be honest it was one of those lessons that took on a life of its own. I wanted to show the correlation between the title page and the book cover. Spoiler alert, the kids had an even bigger vision for the lesson.
I said, “Today we will design covers for stories we would want to write.”
The first-grade class heard, “Let’s write stories.”
A bright-eyed gravelly voice boy jumped up from his spot in the circle rug and exclaimed, “I have this great idea!” He raised his pointer finger to hold back objections. Both of us knew he interrupted me, but the excitement was more than his creative mind could contain. “We can make a book about ten kids writing books.”
That one suggestion ushered in a frenzy of book ideas all beginning with “I want to write a book about…” As long as their books had a title page that matched the cover page, who was I to argue with creativity? Ten kids nodded their agreement that the terms would be met. From there the lesson took place at two tables I pushed together. We used construction paper for the covers and blank paper for the interiors. While I used the big stapler for the authentic folding we discussed the different types of bindings for books. At the end of the lesson, they were authors and book format experts. I was a proud teacher librarian.
Thursday, I talked the second graders into making an anthology of holiday stories. And what I loved was every one of them had the same reaction. This was the best library lesson ever! The piece de resistance was their reactions when I showed them the stickers that would identify their books as holiday reads. This was the real deal. They were authors, and I, as the librarian, would be the proud curator of their stories.
When I started Nanowrimo five years ago it was about turning me into a writer. This year it evolved. I became an author who passed the vision on to the generations to come. From now on, when this small group of kids enters the library, they’ll see the names of authors on the spine and connect their experiences. And who knows, one or two of them could be the next small town storyteller?
I’ll close admitting that I didn’t make it to 50,000 words this year. And I’m okay with it. With the help of our six and seven-year-olds, I got a new holiday anthology for our small school library. I’ll call that my November win.
Until the next post
From her post in the kitchen, Annie listened to Noah tell J.R. stories from their childhood. She sipped her cup of coffee while leaning against the kitchen island. A lot of the stories she hadn’t known about because they came from a time when it was just Jesse and Noah. While she was off doing the things young teenage girls do, Noah and Jesse tested their wits against life.
“One time your dad and I got this crazy idea that we could move faster than alkali absorbed.” He chuckled and added, “Which, now that I think about it, made little sense. On more than one occasion our fathers’ tractors got stuck when the soil didn’t match their expectations. If something with a wide surface area couldn’t make it, it would have been easier for something with a tire this thick to sink.”
J.R.’s chuckle at Noah’s insight sent rays of warmth through Annie. She leaned against the counter with her cup of coffee in her hand. The further Noah got into the story, Annie remembered how the story ended. Right after the two friends recovered their vehicles from the muck, a cleaned up Jesse stopped by her house to ask her to a barn dance. Noah got grounded. Jesse, in need of another companion, invited Annie instead. That began the story of Jesse and Annie.
She joined the two in the living room. J.R. sat on the couch with his leg perched on a stack of pillows. They reset the bones in his leg and had him in a red cast that went to the bottom of his knee. Noah sat in the recliner he moved to position himself across from J.R.’s head. The pain medication they gave J.R. in the hospital had taken effect, and he blinked to fight off to sleep.
Noah spoke to Annie, “It looks like I’m losing him.”
“He does it to me all the time,” she joked. Glad that her son was at home and comfortable, Annie brushed a piece of J.R’s hair away from his eyebrows. Sure, she loved her mother and sister, but maternal love drove her to keep moving when she thought the world ended. She didn’t know what she would do if anything happened to J.R.
“What time is it, anyway?” Noah asked.
They both glanced at the clock she made. Framed pictures of J.R. at different stages of his life made up the different times.
“It is four in the morning,” she exclaimed while looking down at the empty cup of coffee in her hands. “Maybe I shouldn’t have drunk this.”
“I’m glad you did.” The corners of Noah’s mouth curved to form a mischievous grin. “That means we have the time to make breakfast together.”
Annie did a quick mental inventory of the items in the pantry. She didn’t feel comfortable offering her staples of oatmeal, Honey Nut Cheerios, and breakfast cookies. Then it came to her. She had biscuit mix. And in the basement, her box freezer full of venison supplied the protein for a quick meal. They had made some into sausage. “If it isn’t too small town for you, I could make us some sausage biscuits and gravy?”
Noah groaned his delight. “Sausage biscuits and gravy. That’s what I love about coming home. Eating the food that I grew up with.” He wriggled his fingers. “I make a mean biscuit.”
Annie pulled out the biscuit mix and gravy mix and handed them to Noah to place on the counter. He followed her to the basement. Annie found the package of sausage and handed it to Noah. “Jesse’s dad gives us half of his deer every season.” He called her at the hospital and said he’d be by the house in the afternoon to check on his grandson. He’d have more food and stories to share to console J.R.
From out of nowhere Noah said, “You’re doing all right, Annie.”
While she appreciated his assessment, Annie wrinkled her brow in confusion. She didn’t know where it came from, or why he shared his opinion with her.
Noah explained, “I don’t know what I expected.” He shrugged. “A more fragile version of the person I remembered from when we were growing up?” He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, “Instead, you seem stronger.”
“I have my days,” Annie admitted. “I wasn’t feeling strong when I was stuck in the snow the other day. Thank you for helping us.”
“To be honest, I’m glad you were stuck.” Noah played with a strand of hair that rested on Annie’s shoulder. “It brought us back together.”
“I’ve been here the whole time,” Annie answered.
“That’s not what I mean,” Noah’s voice softened.
Annie’s heart fluttered at the change in his tone. The voice in her head reminded her that Noah was there for J.R. Before she made a fool of herself, Annie held up the package of sausage, said, “We should get this in the pot. It’ll take a while to cook,” and headed for the kitchen.
Noah talked while she browned the sausage. “When I was in Jinotepe the women brought me fresh tortillas for breakfast every day.”
“Was there a special tortilla baker in your life?” Annie pried for more information about his life outside of Ashbrook.
He fiddled with the utensil drawer. She saw a slight blush in his cheeks. “One or two.”
She had to give Noah credit. He had the decency to blush. She smiled at the change from the Noah she remembered. When they were in high school, he’d tell Jesse and Annie every detail of his dates. There were still a couple of women she couldn’t look in the face because of some things Noah shared.
“What about you? Have you dated since Jesse?” He paused as though he was searching for the correct word, then said, “Left?”
Three years had passed since Jesse died. He died doing what he loved, riding the quad. So while she was sad for herself, she always thought if it was his time to go, that was the best way for it to happen. “No, I didn’t have it in me to see anyone else.” She admitted. “And, J.R. keeps me busy.”
“Jesse said that would happen.” A wrinkle formed in the middle of Noah’s brow.
“What?” Annie had no idea Jesse and Noah talked about her. Although it made sense. He survived cancer in his twenties. After facing death, he approached life differently. Sometimes when they laid in bed, he’d ask her what she’d do without him. Annie always replied that she didn’t want to think about life without him. Now she was living it. If he were to come back and ask how she was doing, Annie would have said that she was right. Life without him was too hard.
“You’re too young to stop living.” Just as Noah said it, the timer signaling that the biscuits were finished baking went off.
The sound startled Annie into moving. She pulled the oven mitts out of the drawer and opened the door. After the initial wave of heat passed, Annie inhaled the aroma of warm biscuits and her mouth watered. As she set them on the counter, she said, “I need to get your biscuit recipe.”
“Some things are best kept secret,” Noah’s eyes sparkled. “Besides, if I don’t tell, you’ll invite me back.”
Annie wished it were true. That he’d stick around to make biscuits whenever she had a taste for them. But she said nothing because it would be too harsh to remind Noah that he was only in town for a visit and then he’d be off living his life of adventure.
I am pleased to announce that For A Visit is available for purchase at your favorite online book retailer. If you like what you’ve read so far download a copy.
The start of the third quarter went off with an intensity that made Annie glad she gave the taco in a bag to Darry. Her gut clenched with the tension. The Paradise Hills Panthers must have had an interesting pep talk from their coach. They executed more physical plays. From her seat in the middle of the stands, Annie saw elbows jut out a little further. One player backed up and poked out his butt with such an intensity it tripped Andy mid layup. The six-foot four center recovered, but it was too late. He missed the shot.
If the strategy was an attempt to intimidate the Ashbrook Eagles into submission, it didn’t work. The players took the negative energy and used it to their advantage. After every free throw they made, they threw out a little fist bump and nodded in determination. They intended to beat their rival.
Annie wanted to look away but kept her eyes glued on her son. She watched the Panthers player throw a shoulder into J.R. Both boys were running at full speed, and the action caught J.R. off guard. His arms flailed as he adjusted his body to recover from the shift in momentum. It didn’t work. J.R. fell to the ground like a building that crumbled in a detonation. The hush of silence in the stand was almost deafening.
One dad who sat in the left row of the bleachers called out, “Shake it off J.R.”
J.R. sat up, and the crowd gasped a collective sigh.
“I think he can’t get up.” Annie heard the concern in Hazel’s voice. When Hazel wasn’t baking pies at the Elderberry Cafe, she sat in the same place in the stands and cheered on her favorite team. Rather than turn around and make sure, Annie devoted all her senses to her son as though wishing him better would make it happen. Through her hand that covered her mouth, she whispered, “Get up son. Please.”
J.R. writhed in pain, and her heart sank to her stomach. Instinct kicked in, and Annie pushed her way through the people between her and the aisle. She ignored the whispers of, “I hope he’s okay,” and “That does not look good.”
Annie hustled down the stairs. Hoping against hope that J.R. would be fine, she stopped at the boundary line of the basketball court. The last thing her son would want was for the team to get a technical foul because his mother coddled him. She craned her neck to get a better view of her son. Officials and his teammates surrounded him and blocked Annie’s view. Under her breath, she muttered, “This is not supposed to happen.” But she knew injury came with playing athletics.
Noah wrapped his arm around her shoulder to offer a side hug. “I’ll take care of this.”
Annie had never been so thankful to have a friend as a doctor. She nodded her assurance in him. As much as things changed, they remained the same. Twenty years ago, Noah was on the court with Jesse. Now he was there in proxy offering support to Jesse’s son. Noah marched to the circle the team of boys formed around J.R. They separated to make room for him and reconverged when he bent down to assess the situation.
Murmurs of speculation drifted from the stands. “I’ll bet you twenty bucks it’s broken,” was followed by, “I’m not stupid enough to take that bet. That family has had nothing but bad luck.”
Although their comments weren’t anything Annie wanted or needed to hear, it was her truth. It began when the doctor diagnosed Jesse with prostate cancer at nineteen. From there, she and J.R. worked through an unfair share of hardship. They didn’t have time to complain. As soon as they recovered from one situation, another one they never saw coming presented itself.
Lennie Archer, her neighbor from down the street, approached Annie. The man wore a maroonish red, long sleeve t-shirt with “will work for beer” written in black letters across his chest. Annie noted that at least Lennie had the decency to wear a shirt that coordinated with the school colors. He looked Annie in the eye and offered a hopeful smile. “If it’ll make you feel better, I can hold your hand.”
Annie blinked in shock. “Um, I think I’ll be fine.” She inched away from Lennie and shoved her hands behind her back just in case he didn’t believe her. “Thank you for your support.”
“I’ll be right over there.” Lennie pointed to an empty spot in the middle of the front row. “If you need anything just holler.”
She had to give the man credit; he tried to be nice. It wasn’t his fault that the thought of holding hands with him made her want to hurl. Annie forced a grin and said, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” and turned to face the middle of the basketball court. Two boys had their hands on their chin as they spoke to each other. Their postures confirmed what Annie feared. She would not like what they saw.
Darryl came up alongside Annie and stood with her in silence. The two of them had been a part of each other’s lives since elementary school and fluently spoke the silent language of close friendship. He didn’t need to say a word for Annie to understand that he worried alongside and for her.
Lisa joined them and stood on the left side of Annie. “Noah’s out there taking care of him. Everything will be fine. Just watch.”
Just then, Andy’s twin brother Rodney trotted to where Annie stood. “The trainer wants to talk to you.”
Lisa, Darryl, and Annie exchanged glances of concern. Annie’s heart raced faster with each step she took alongside Rodney. Her pulse stopped, and the world spun when Annie saw the lump in the middle of J.R.’s leg.
Nobody had to say anything. Annie knelt on the ground beside J.R. who was laid out flat on the ground. His eyes dilated, and his bangs clung to the sweat on his forehead. His voice croaked, “I don’t think I’ll be able to take out the trash when I get home.” Annie choked back the cry that came with her son’s attempt at humor. She took J.R.’s hand in hers and said, “We’ll get you fixed up son.”
He groaned, “I know Mom. Noah’s a doctor.”
There was the teenage son she remembered. He had to let her know she missed the obvious. In the midst of her eye roll to hide her relief, Annie’s esteem of Noah changed. She apologized for getting jealous when he flirted with the younger woman. Her interpretation of the relationship shifted, and she thanked God for bringing a man into her son’s life to help him through this difficult period.
The stands in the high school gym vibrated with energy from the crowd. On the left side, it was a sea of red and white. Some high school students wore wigs while others used colored hairspray to show their school pride. With every basket scored by the Ashbrook Eagles the frenzy grew. Men hooted and hollered, and women cheered. “Get that basket, Nickerson!” or “Way to go Eagles!”
A mixture of pride and concern filled Annie. J.R. had been in the game for most of the first and second quarter. He was a good athlete and handled the pressure from the crowd well. However, the momentum could change with one timeout session. The other team could go back on the court with a new game plan. Then, cheers of adoration would take the form of harsh rebukes, “Go for the rebound,” or “Block your man.” J.R. said the criticism didn’t bother him, but he always stayed after and threw one hundred free throws for every one he missed when the team lost a game.
When Noah arrived, he headed straight to the scoring stand and took a seat beside the coach’s wife. He didn’t acknowledge Annie at all. No wave, or head tilt of hello. It was as if she wasn’t in the building. She sank. Perhaps she thought more of the two dinners they had shared. Maybe he was just being friendly. Annie shrugged away the rebuff, concluding that her loneliness clouded her interpretation of the situation.
After she and Jesse married, things changed. The best friends whittled down from three to two when Jesse and Noah pushed her out of the triangular relationship. She reminded herself that Noah was Jesse’s best friend and was probably making sure the absence of a father didn’t hamper J.R.’s progress.
Annie forced herself to adjust her thinking. Was she attracted to Noah? Of course. Only someone who suffered from blindness or oblivion would fail to notice how handsome he was. Annie overheard Lisa from the donut shop joke about adding some extra sprinkles to Noah’s pastry. The women who sat beside her snickered while agreeing with her.
A woman that had to be at least ten years younger and twenty pounds lighter than Annie sidled up to Noah and confirmed Annie’s conclusion. The smile he offered the young tart, filled Annie with an anger she didn’t know existed. She tasked Noah for being too familiar with someone much younger than him. It should have been obvious that the time they spent together was for J.R.’s benefit. How could she have thought he had any interest in a single mother who had a pie addiction?
Hallmark Channel stories about high school friends reconnecting in their later years happened to other people. Annie stood to go visit the concession stands. Surely, they had something to help her take her mind off the relationship that never was. The quarter was almost over, and if she left now, she’d beat the rush.
The buzzer rang just as Annie reached the counter. Allowing the foul mood she developed to guide her decision, she ordered what she wanted. “I’ll have a Pepsi, a Snickers bar, some popcorn and…” she paused and added, “I should get something healthy to go with this. I’ll also take some nachos in a bag.” Normally, a concoction of Doritos topped with taco meat, nacho cheese, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream would have given her the worst case of the day after consumption regrets. Annie didn’t care. It was her body and her life.
Carly, the cashier, peered around Annie. “Is anyone here to help you carry all this stuff?”
“I’ll shove the candy in my pockets, and it’ll be fine.” Annie’s voice gave off more confidence than she felt. As she paid the $9.50 for the armful of food to drown her sorrows, impulse eater’s remorse struck her. She grinned at Carly, “I’m sharing the popcorn with some friends.”
“Do you want me to help you carry some of that?” Darryl the auto shop teacher offered.
Annie took one look at the grease under his fingernails and thought better of accepting his help.
She placed the nachos in a bag in his hands. “I bought these for you.”
Darryl’s face brightened. “You didn’t have to do that?”
“It’s the least I could do for your kindness.”
“Why, thank you.” Darryl took his reward and stepped forward in the line. “Can I get a Pepsi to go with this.” He waved the bag in Annie’s direction and nodded a last thank you.
Annie rushed to get into the gymnasium before the second half of the game started. If she hadn’t tried to rush, she might have missed bumping into Noah. This time he stepped back and held his hands in the air to avoid the collision. “You have an interesting way of getting close to people.”
“Sorry about that. I was trying to get back to my seat.”
Noah’s eyes searched the basketball court where the team was taking practice shots. Annie knew when he found J.R. because Noah’s eyes targeted in on him. His face changed to show his appreciation. “My memory may have distorted facts, but from what I remember about Jesse, I think J.R. plays better than his father.” He turned back to focus on Annie. “And Jesse was one helluva player.”
Smiling at the shared memory, Annie said, “I’ll tell him you said so.”
“Make sure you do. I want him to know he has the potential to play in college if he wanted.” Something behind Annie caught Noah’s eye, and he moved in the direction.
She walked back into the gym and stopped before climbing the stairs to her seat in the bleachers.
The logical conclusion came to her. Noah and J.R. had formed a friendship. She was just a conduit. A pinch of sadness touched the edge of her conscience. The last thing she expected when they reconnected was the distance between them would remain. With the mystery of Noah’s intention being solved, she went back to her place in the stands and waited for the next half of the game to begin.