Seeing Noah the day before added fuel to Annie’s fire to get tone. While he failed to age, she looked like life had put her through the wringer and forgotten to leave her out to dry. She regarded the tiger stripes around her waist and the laugh lines around her eyes with pride. Both marks of aging represented a mother that loved. When she put her head on her pillow, she felt good about herself. Still, she couldn’t help hoping that the 10,000 steps she walked faithfully would magically melt inches from around her waist.
Before J.R. left for school, she reminded him that they had a crock pot meal for supper. She didn’t want to be tempted by Hazel’s pies. The action proved prudent when she imagined the cinnamon and brown sugar-coated apples tendered by the baking process melting in her mouth.
Annie rounded the corner of the hall and pulled up her wrist to check her steps. It was the same place she always checked her steps. This time the turn surprised her. From out of the blue, a man’s body pressed against hers. He wrapped his arms around her and twirled so quickly Annie didn’t realize what happened until she landed on top of him and exhaled with an “oof.”
She struggled to gather her senses. What had happened? One minute she was walking down the hall and the next she was on the ground in Noah’s arms.
A smile spread across his lips, and his eyes sparkled. “I’ve had women fall for me. But not with as much vigor.”
Uncertainty filled Annie. Her heart raced, and her world lost its balance. Annie pushed at his chest to get away from him. She couldn’t help noticing that someone replaced his chest muscles with rocks. It was like pushing herself away from a wall. “I am so sorry. I wasn’t paying attention…” She rolled away from him and scanned the area around them to see if anyone else had seen the fall.
The sound of balls dribbling on the other side of the gymnasium wall told her the whereabouts of everyone else. Nobody had seen her make a fool of herself.
Noah stood and offered her a hand to help her up. “J.R. told me you’d be here exercising. I thought I’d join you.”
Annie accepted his hand and pulled herself up. “When did he tell you…” She never finished the question because the answer sparkled through his copper colored eyes. She also understood the sly smiles the two of them had shared over dinner after she returned from the ladies’ room.
She arched an eyebrow in challenge. “Is there anything else I need to know about what you two discussed?”
The dimple in Noah’s chin deepened as he tried and failed to suppress his smile. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
Annie swallowed hard to tamper down the fluttering of the butterflies in her stomach. What has my son done? Because she feared the answer, she kept the question to herself.
Noah eyed her Fit Bit. “How many steps do you have to go?”
Annie pressed the button too hard, and it bypassed the steps and displayed the heart rate monitor. Her pulse read at 142 beats per minute. Twenty over her normal walking heart rate. Her eyes widened, and she pressed the button several times to get back to the home screen. When she skipped it again, Annie dropped her wrist to her side and said, “It doesn’t matter, I have enough.”
His gaze traveled her body, and he smiled his assessment. “Yes, you have enough.”
It had been a long time since anyone had flirted with Annie and she didn’t know how to respond. Heat flushed through Annie’s body, and her face reddened.
Noah cleared his throat and adjusted his tone. “What are you two doing for dinner tonight?”
His inclusion of J.R. in the dinner plans set Annie’s mind at ease. Perhaps she had misinterpreted his intention.
“It’s crock pot, chicken and rice for us. We have extra if you’d like to join us.” Annie always made extra because Jesse’s uncle and brother made it a habit to stop by. When they didn’t have the company, J.R. brought leftovers to school for lunch the next day.
Noah reached over and fiddled with the hair around the base of her neck. “I’d love to, but I promised my Aunt Peggy I’d eat with them. She’s making a chocolate silk pie for dessert. If you’re willing to change your plans, you’re welcome to join us for dinner.”
Just then Al came around the corner. Noah pulled his hand away, and Annie startled. For the brief time they had talked she forgot they were in a building full of people.
“What are you two crazy kids doing in the hall by yourself,” Al’s eyes twinkled through his scowl.
“Pie,” she exclaimed, “we were talking about pie.”
Al’s face changed to reflect his congenial nature when he laughed. “Ha! You should see the look on your face Annie.”
“I can’t wait to see what it looks like when she tells J.R. that they’re not having pie because she wanted to eat crock pot, chicken and rice casserole,” Noah joked.
Later that night Anne smiled quietly as she looked back on how her plans failed to come to fruition. She only walked 8000 steps and J. R. had to help her pack two lunches of chicken and rice casserole for the next day.
They were half a mile from the Elderberry Cafe when Annie turned the corner of Puckett Street and drove straight into a snowdrift. Her vehicle was high centered and refused to budge. Annie shifted her pickup into reverse. Sometimes it was easier to back out of the situation and add speed. Her engine revved, the wheels spun, and the pickup remained in the same spot where it had stopped.
“Do you have it in four-wheel drive?” J.R. snapped at Annie.
She sighed in resignation. “We’re going to have to get help.” They were in front of the mercantile. Someone in there had to have the equipment to tow her out of the drift.
“If you had a boyfriend like normal women your age, we could call him,” J.R. grumbled. He shoved the door open and jumped out of the pickup. He craned his neck and peered in the window. “Bob Miller is in there.”
Annie didn’t want to ask Bob Miller. She already asked him for help more times than she wanted. “This snow could stop anytime,” she groaned and prepared herself to go into the store and grovel.
It was so cold the door resisted opening and Annie had to give it a sharp shove. She jumped out with both feet for a safer landing. She turned around to see the last person she expected.
Noah Flynn knelt beside a tire and searched under the car. “I can give you a push with my Suburban.”
“Holy mother of snow!” Annie exclaimed. On any occasion, she’d have been delighted to see Noah. The last time she heard anything about him he was practicing medicine in some tropical location. His arrival at the exact moment she needed help was a sign from above. Everything was going to be okay. “Where did you come from?”
“My mother says heaven,” Noah winked. “But my father says I got here a different way altogether.”
“I don’t care which one is right. I’m just glad to see you.” Annie launched herself into Noah and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
He wrapped his hands around her waist and gave her a warm squeeze. “It’s good to see you too.”
Hugging him felt like home. Like he hadn’t been gone for the better part of fifteen years. Annie pulled out of the hug and said, “Do you remember how to tow a car out of the snow?”
“It has to be easier than avoiding a mudslide,” he stepped away and looked at the underside of her car. “The worst thing that can happen is we can call someone with a plow to get the both of us out.”
J.R. trudged through a snowbank to the sidewalk. He clapped his gloved hands together and folded his arms in front of him. He bent down and examined the car. “It’s caught by the rear axle.”
The three of them worked together. Noah attached the tow rope to the back bumper. J.R. used his right hand to guide Noah and left hand to help Annie. In a matter of moments, Annie was freed from the snowdrift and headed toward the Elderberry Cafe with a teenager who seemed more congenial since Noah agreed to join them.
For a minute Annie’s mind made a trip to the past. A younger Annie, Noah, and Jesse crammed into the front of Jesse’s Ford Courier pickup were walking into the cafe. She’d eat her French fries dipped in her chocolate milkshake while listening to Jesse and Noah talk about plays they learned. She never imagined she’d be doing the same thing close to twenty years later.
Before they got out of the pickup to go into the cafe, J.R. reached for Annie’s hand. When he wanted her undivided attention, he’d anchor her to him with a touch. His voice held the tenderness from when he was a child and wanted something from her. “About what I said earlier. I’m sorry. That was hunger talking.”
Annie offered him a soft grin of conciliation. “Thank you for your apology.” She tapped him on the shoulder and gave a gentle shove. “Otherwise I’d have pushed you out of the vehicle.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” J.R. grinned wide enough to show the blue band on his braces. “I’m your darling boy.” He motioned to open the door and turned back to the conversation. “And, the only one who is able to give you grandchildren.”
“Not anytime soon. I hope.” Annie scowled.
“Don’t worry. I have my eyes on something bigger,” he answered. “Right now, it is a double bacon burger with tots.” He curved his body to avoid the swipe she made at his arm.
With the air between them cleared they helped each other navigate the icy parking lot to the entrance of the diner. Noah was already there and had saved two seats for them. He greeted them with, “J.R. told me the bacon cheeseburger is good enough to make him clean his room.”
J.R. rolled his eyes. “Now she will use it against me.” He pulled out the chair across from Noah and took Annie’s purse and put it in the seat beside him. “You sit on the other side of the table. This will give me room for all the food I want to eat.”
Annie chuckled at Noah’s raised brow. “He’s joking.”
The joke worked at keeping the tone light and opened the door for Noah to get acquainted with J.R.
The last time Annie had seen Noah was at Jesse’s funeral. He came back from a hospital in Panama and returned as quickly as he arrived. They had had little time to catch up. Noah entertained J.R. with stories of injuries and illnesses, and he described in detail the ones J.R. had never heard of.
The conversation gave Annie a whole new perspective on life. If she ever thought about complaining about the snow, she’d remind herself that there were people in the world who needed a doctor to extract fly larvae that had been embedded in their backs.
It was getting late, and J.R. still had homework, so Annie asked for the check. As she signed the credit card slip, she said, “If you’re not too pressed for time, we’d love to have you come by the house.”
“And take in a game,” J.R. added, “We have a chance at taking state this year.”
Annie wanted to give Noah a way out if he was too busy. She knew how visits back home went. People made more plans than they’d ever be able to fulfill. “If you can’t we understand.”
“Jesse made me promise that if anything happened to him, I’d come back and check on you.” Noah’s smile softened. “It’s what I’ve been looking forward to ever since I knew I’d be back in town.”
“How long are you going to be here?” J.R. asked. He stole a fry off of Annie’s plate and shoved it in his mouth.
Noah cast a quick glance at Annie. “I have a month to decide where I’m going next.”
Annie stopped in front of the portrait of her graduating class on the wall. She couldn’t help smiling at the younger version of herself. Close to twenty years of life had happened since the portrait had been taken. Crow’s feet accented her amber eyes, and the hairstyle changed. Otherwise, she remained the same. She still loved deeply and gave all she had. Annie laughed out loud at her lie. She power walked the halls of the school three times a week to slim down the hips widened by childbirth and her love of apple pie.
Portraits for the all the classes that attended the school lined the hall. The picture of her husband, Jesse, who graduated a year earlier hanged adjacent to hers. It was as if something meant for them to be together from the start. Only the frames from the two graduating years of 1995 and 1996 served as a boundary between them.
Her smile faded as quickly as it appeared. Like the pictures, something beyond her control separated Jesse and her. This time it was life and death. Annie shook her head to pull herself back to the present. Her brief visit down memory lane pinched less, but it still hurt. She needed to focus on what she could control—getting 10,000 steps before her son finished basketball practice.
She marched to the end of the hall, circled around, and slowed only to check her steps. Pleased with her progress of 8,432 steps she kept her eye on the prize. Jesse Jr.’s basketball practice ended in twenty minutes. She had more than enough time to get the last 1500 steps. Then she wouldn’t feel so bad about eating a piece of pie for dessert.
The gym door was open enough to allow Annie to peek through them as she made a pass to make sure practice was still in session. The screeching sound of sneakers against laminate answered her question before she watched her son touch the ground with his fingertips and sprint down the court. Annie continued her walk but hadn’t got too far.
With his face tightened in concern, Al, the school janitor, asked, “Is something bothering you?”
In the name of being polite, Annie stopped her routine to talk to Al. “I’m trying to lose weight.” Holding out her arm to show him her Fitbit, she said, “I’m at 9,112.”
“I’m sure it’d be easier if the weather were a little more cooperative.”
A boom of thunder cracked in the sky.
He rubbed the back of his neck and cast a concerned look toward the door. “Lightning in February isn’t common. My mother always said when you have lightning in the winter, a big change is about to come.”
“I could handle a big change right about now,” she tapped her thigh and giggled.
Al shook his head and joined in the laugh.
The pounding of feet running in their direction caught both of their attention. Both looked up to discover that Annie and Al stood between fifteen tired basketball players and the drinking fountain. They stepped to the side to let them pass. Her favorite player stopped in front of Annie and swiped at her water bottle. “I’ve never been gladder to see you than I am now.”
Her time to exercise had ended and her time to be mom began. Annie promised herself that she’d get those last 900 steps before she went to bed.
Coach Evans approached her while she waited on the bench. “J.R. plays just like his father,” To eliminate confusion on who they were addressing people got into the habit of calling Jesse jr. J.R. A tint of sadness mixed in with the pride in his voice. “I’m sure Jesse would be proud if he saw how J.R. turned out.”
“I see him more in J.R. as he gets older,” Annie offered a warm smile. Thankfully she was past the stage where the mention of Jesse brought tears to her eyes.
J.R. came out of the locker room with his duffel bag hanging off his left shoulder. His wavy brown hair still wet from the shower hung onto his forehead. For that brief moment, time transported Annie back to 1994, and she was outside the locker room waiting for Jesse.
“Does that mean no?” J.R.’s voice interrupted Annie’s reverie.
Annie blinked herself back to the present. “I got lost in a thought. I’m sorry what were you saying?”
J.R. frowned, and a crease formed in the middle of Coach Evan’s brow. Impatience flicked across J.R.’s face. “I asked if we could eat dinner at the Elderberry Cafe tonight. I could go for a burger.”
She wrapped her arm around her son’s shoulder. He was having as hard a time as her without his father. It had been three long years. They made it by taking it one day at a time, and when that didn’t work, they tackled life by approaching it from one minute to the next. The scent of fabric softener from his clothes combined with the soap he used made her heady. Her life wasn’t perfect. But there sure were a lot of things in it to make it worth living.
This ends the first chapter. Since the entire book is already written, I can promise that chapter two will release next Saturday morning. Until then I hope the week treats you well.
A year ago, I shared a short story with you. After a discussion on Facebook, one of my friends challenged me to write a short story. I had written blogs, but short stories were not within my comfort zone. Three days later, the story was written and shared with you. At the time, I thought it could be developed into a novelette. A year later the characters talked me into a novella. As I share this blog post, the story is in the editor’s hands.
Here is a link if you didn’t get a chance to read the original post.
The video is a peek at the story. It is what I used to keep my focus. Beginning this Saturday, I’ll start posting a chapter a week. The first couple posts will be before the editor tells me to eliminate parts. Just thought I’d warn you.
I hope your as eager to read the story as I am to share it. See you on Saturday.
p.s. Chapter One begins here.