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.
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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.
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.
My husband’s mother, Irene, was the kindest, sweetest, softest person you would ever want to meet. I may be wrong, but I believe the woman never raised her voice. Ever. When she baked cookies they were shaped perfectly. It is possible that they appeared out of thin air. Yes, she was that amazing.
And here is where the story begins. Those closest to Irene knew she had some gusto hidden in beneath her sweet personality. My husband told stories. When he played junior high football, she helped him train. One time he mentioned in passing that if they allowed wooden spoons in baseball, she would have been an all-star player. Up until I shared the forthcoming story, I had never seen this side of Irene.
Over the Christmas holiday of 2005, our family binge-watched the entire seventh Season of the Amazing Race. It was an all out, pull all the blankets and the pillows in the living room. Everyone wore their Christmas pajamas. And thanks to Irene who stayed with us in our Arizona home, we had munchies.
If you haven’t figured it out, I’ll just tell you. Irene is the muse for the family matriarch, Aunt Tee. For the entire binge session, Irene quietly commented on the activities but conveyed little emotion about the results. Seriously, she could have played poker. While I hated Rob and Amber, she objectively commented on the method to their madness and assured me everything would work out. My heart wanted to believe her, but Rob’s duplicitous behavior irked me. Why couldn’t he trip in a mud puddle and get stuck?
So we are in the last minutes of the season. And, one contestant doesn’t have money for the cab fare. (No spoilers in this blog) The team could just high tail it to the mat and pay when all was said and done. But this guy had to show good character. Irene sat there quietly and observed the events unfold. I lost my mind.
When the winning team crossed the mat, our family went into full our team just won the Superbowl mode. We’re talking yelling, jumping, hoots of joy, and hugging abounded. Irene broke through her usually calm demeanor and was in there with us adding to the celebration. That stuck with me. The family matriarch enjoyed the Amazing Race! To this day, every time I watch the Amazing Race, she is there with me in spirit.
Twelve years later, she moved on. Our kids moved out. My husband and I moved into his childhood home. I had no job and somehow Nanowrimo came up. Nanowrimo isn’t as stressful as the Amazing Race, but it was enough of a challenge for me to remember that Christmas with Irene. I wrote the story in the house she lived in for over fifty years. I’m sure she was whispering over my shoulder in those three a.m. writing sprints and shaking her head when I gorged myself on Oreos. But we got it done. Three days early.
And there you have it. The story behind the story of Let The Games Begin. People make the mistake of thinking that it’s the earth-shattering moments that change your life. And, yes that is true. But sometimes, life molds the heart by warming it with a subtle gesture of love. I know…the world of Ashbrook, Montana developed out of a quiet, uneventful to the rest of the world, family Christmas.
And, so I close this post wishing you warm moments and smiles.
I promise this is the last post about Welcome Home because it launched yesterday. But, I made this trailer and want to share it one last time before I move on to my next writing project.
It is available at
As for the next project, I’ll give you a little hint. Remember the story Jesse’s Girl I posted a year ago. It is now a 16k word novella that is one revision away from the editor. Next week I’ll post the first chapter.