Thursday, October 31, 2019

Finding the right format

I've been playing around with the format for this blog. I loved the mountains and rain displayed in the past style. However, for whatever reason, everything I copied and pasted into the blog posts came out with white background and black letters. To make it easier for me to format and post stories straight from word documents, I am reverting to a style with white background and black letters. It is simple and clean, something that I think looks best with short stories and poems.

Something of interest to all of my readers and blog fans is that you can select the style of blog you want by clicking on the styles on the black navigation bar directly beneath my name. I find magazine to be my personal preference. Have fun playing around with those. It's another reason I chose this style.

More stories will be posted here. I have two other poems to post. It will take a bit of time to find those and get them up. I appreciate your patience.

Before you go, post a comment to let me know what you think of my new blog. It allows me so much more functionality than the stock blog that came with my Wix hosting package.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Fishing With Grandpa

Copyright © 2019 by Kathryn Blade

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
All events, people, and places in this story are a figment of the author's imagination. Resemblance to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.






"Come on, papaw! Let's go fishing!" my grandson Travis said for the hundredth time that day. 

"Only when our work is done, Travis."


Travis stomped a foot and kicked dirt. Sky blue eyes once filled with youthful hope and innocence clouded with disappointment. I swore to keep my promise. 


Disappointment was forgotten when Travis learned he could feed chickens and gather eggs from the coop. His lyrical laughter filled the barn's mote-filled air when the gentle draft horse snuffed his head. It was a gesture of affection for the bucket of grain and bat of hay given Horse, as we named him, by the boy with golden hair. 


Finally, our work was done. We retired to the front porch to cool off and drink our fill of grandma's sun tea. Rockers creaked. Ice clinked. Travis grew strong and brave. 


"Are we done with work, papaw?"


My chuckle made Travis grin. I rubbed his head when I stood. "Yep, we sure are. Now go get the fishing pole and tackle box. We can get some worms in mamaw's flower garden." 


The task of gathering worms brought joy and laughter. Travis shrieked and shivered each time he pinched a wiggling worm between two fingers. Our cup was filled at long last. We turned to the path leading to the pond. 


The sun settled closer to the horizon. A jar fly rumbled softly in the tree overhead. Magic filled the air with Travis's first cast. 


With a soft plop and ever-growing ripples, the hook and bait settled beneath the muddy teal water's surface. Travis leaned forward, eyes focused on the lemon bobber resting atop the water. 


The first nibble barely stirred the bobber. Youthful zest led Travis to set the hook. Too eager, he ripped the now-bare hook from the fish's mouth. 


Again he stomped a foot in frustration. "Aw, darnit, papaw!" he wailed. 


"You can't catch them all, Travis. Try again." 


A second worm fell victim to my grandson's plot to catch the grandfather fish he said lived in the pond. Content to encourage and observe his quest, I simply grinned at him. The third, fourth, and remaining worms disappeared into some passing fish's maw. Except one. Travis swore it was the best worm ever


He heaved it into the darkening water as crimson raced across the sky. We did not have long to wait. 


The bobber disappeared. Once. Twice. Thrice.


Travis set the hook and reeled. Squealing gears bespoke the heft of whatever lay at the end of the line. 


I grabbed Travis's belt with a hooked finger when his catch nearly pulled him in. 


A tail as broad as my hand swirled and broke the water. 


"It's grandfather fish!" Travis squealed.


Grandfather fish broke the water with a resounding splash. His massive body glistened in the fading light. 


"Don't hoss him, Travis. Slow and easy. Wear him down." 


Travis clenched his youthful jaw. With the skill of an aged fisherman, he drew the fish closer to shore. 


I dared not release my hold on the belt encompassing my grandson's waist. Content and set on his joy, I coached and observed. 


We were both exhausted and covered in sweat before the fish neared the shore. The rod bent nearly double. It creaked. It groaned. And it held firm to my surprise. 


Grandfather fish came to rest upon the shore. He gaped for breath, writhing and twisting in the air. 


I knelt down to lift the fish. His fight was not at an end. With a great twist and heave, the thick body hit the water. 


Snap!


The line gave with a hiss. The bobber whistled past my ear. Travis would be disappointed. Of this much I was certain. I turned to face and soothe him. 


Travis grinned, his sweaty face filled with joy. 


"I'm sorry, Travis. He got away." 


"That's okay, papaw. He lives to fight another day." 


My grandson's wisdom rocked me back on my heels. I held his hand as we walked home. His words were a reminder that wisdom often comes from the mouth's of our children. If only we had ears that hear. 






Why am I? (a Halloween short story)

Copyright © 2019 by Kathryn Blade

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. 
All events, people, and places in this story are a figment of the author's imagination. Resemblance to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.


Crisis center work is brutal and unforgiving. As a human with a soft and caring heart, I should have known to stay away. The rent and bills were due. Credit card past due. Collection calls became my daily, morbid music. 


So I said yes when I should have said no.


My supervisor was less than helpful with training and debriefing. Cold. Callous. I quickly learned I was on my own. 


The first loss was the worst. A stunning, sensitive pianist. A child prodigy. Forced to excel. Forced to pursue higher goals. "Reach the heavens with your music, " she was told. 


It did not surprise me that her parents denied the obvious. Forced her to return home to more of the same. Less than twenty-four hours later her pale, lifeless body was found. Crimson puddles upon an ivory keyboard spoke volumes more than she ever could. Still they did not hear nor understand. 


The second one I lost was a young man of only sixteen years. Trembling, fragile. Wide hazel eyes bathed in terror when he shared the horror of his younger years. Unclean touching, Improper lust. No child should feel that way ever. Yet he had suffered and endured. 


I was the first and last he told. He played along. Took the meds. Completed seventy-two hours of mandatory treatment in yet another hell. Then came out more determined than before. 


A rough rope 'round his neck took the last spark of life. Cold and lifeless. At peace at last. He, not I.


Through the years, first one, then another. Dozens lost. My spirit emptied its last vital breath. Peace. Rest. I needed both. "A vacation," they said, "its what you need."


And so I did.


Reservations made, a peaceful cabin on a mountain top beckoned. Pristine wilderness. A wafting breeze. All would salve my soul. Wouldn't it?


Floors creaked when I first arrived. The sing-song sound eased short hairs aloft. Zinging. Tingling. Sensing?


"Foolish you," I chastised myself. 


Until the grandfather clock tolled three a.m. that night. 


Frost crept across widow panes. The fire fluttered and flickered out. Clutching the sheet to my neck, eyes wide when insane horrors first appeared. Them. 


The tormented pianist.


The agonized boy stripped of innocence.


The abandoned child.


The pregnant mistress forgotten by her married lover. 


And more.


Hovering. Beckoning. Moaning. Tormenting.


For hours--until dawn's timid golden tendrils stretched across the sky. 


By then my sense of self and sanity had gone. I became what they were before. The broken living whispering, "Why am I?"







Woe and torment, a poem

Copyright © 2019 by Kathryn Blade

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. 
All events, people, and places in this poem are a figment of the author's imagination. Resemblance to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.


Slippery, trickle upon my skin
Gnawing devils in then out again
Angels begging, crying, woe!
This soul's hell is life, and so
Over, under, on twisting roads
High and low, dead ends it goes
Dimly lit on cloudless skies
Fill my soul with torment and lies
Why do I bother with this change?
When torment beckons with heavy chains?
Come with me, darling, to my halls of hell
Where exquisite agonies always dwell




Pale Mary's Arms (a short Halloween story)

Copyright © 2019 by Kathryn Blade

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. 
All events, people, and places in this story are a figment of the author's imagination. Resemblance to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.


In the cold, silvery moonlight, I ponder my fate. Toes inches from the cliff's edge, I wonder--how did I get here? 


My fate is self-created. I must own what I have done. Mary was my first love. Innocent. Beautiful. Fragile. 


Although we loved each other, it was not enough for me. Being a young man driven by testosterone and the blazing impulsivity of youth, my eyes wandered. I found another. 


Cowardice ran rampant through my veins. I could not hurt Mary. The words needed to end our fledgling love clung to the tip of my tongue on many occasions. Yet I could not speak the bitter terms. My resolve faded and disappeared. 


Days and weeks passed. Mary clung to me, a beautiful flowering vine. I came to loath our time together. Any excuse gave me a valid reason to cancel a date or avoid her. I found solace in the arms of another. 


Rebecca snared me with her dark beauty. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Tempting ruby lips. Her claws dug deep. Hypnotic. Entrancing. Wicked. By the time I knew the depths of her darkness, it was too late. 


Mary suspected something. She followed, questioned, and eventually begged. The dramatic tears wore me down. I ended it with her after the last ugly incident. The ice around my heart refused to crack. Now I wish I had listened and cared. 


The next night Rebecca demanded recompense. A tryst, if you will, in my black sports car parked at Lover's Leap. Her kisses were fiery and passion filled. 


Too late I saw the wan beauty standing at the edge of the cliff. My Mary, dark circles marring the pristine skin beneath each eye. Face twisted, her tormented wails broke the still night air. 


Not Mary. I stumbled from the car, begging her to stay. I caught her icy fingers, clinging to her as she once clung to me. And she slipped away without a word. The darkness split by her pale beauty tumbling downwards. 


Days afterwards I played the role. Grieving, crying in a dark suit at the services. No one saw my terror when I approached the coffin. 


I clasped an icy hand. Sightless eyes crept open, magnetically holding my gaze. Then came the whisper only I could hear: "Join me." 


It came again that night as I lay in bed, twisting and turning as sleep evaded me. "Join me." 


How could I say no? In life I failed pale Mary. In death I would not. 


I dressed in my best suit. A black silk Armani that clung to me like a second skin. Slicked back hair. And a splash of Mary's favorite cologne. 


Silver moonlight lit the road. The car's throaty roar filled the air only broken by her words. "Join me." 


Here I am. Clinging to the cliff's edge. Eyes closed. Head thrown back. Arms thrust out. 


"Join me." 


And so I do. Weightless. Spineless. Peace in Pale Mary's arms. 






Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Road to Nowhere (A Short Romantic Story)

Copyright © 2019 by Kathryn Blade

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. 
All events, people, and places in this story are a figment of the author's imagination. Resemblance to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.



Dedicated to my local fans who always support me.

Warning: This story is intended for adults 18+ only. It contains triggering material including graphic descriptions of abuse, depression, PTSD, and a suicide attempt. Do not proceed further if this bothers you. 


Chapter 1

The bus rolls into town, sways to a stop and is gone as soon as my backpack is out of the luggage hold. The acrid cloud of diesel fumes it leaves in its wake burns my eyes. I cough and walk away.

The town is small and very much Anywhere, USA. There are no big box retailers here. Locally owned businesses line the streets—grocery store, pharmacy, gas station, feed store, and even a clothing store. Flowers in wooden half barrels decorate the sidewalks at regular intervals. The bar and restaurant sits down the street. The glowing neon sign in the window flickers. That’s where I need to be, meeting someone who can change my future.

This is the last stop on my way to nowhere. Last week I graduated from college and lost the only place I had to stay because I wasn’t a student any longer. On top of that, my roommate stole almost all the money I saved for an apartment.

That’s not all she did though. A few months ago, she fixed me up on a date with a guy from college saying he liked me. She knew I’ve had a crush on the guy for the past couple years. When I got to the dance, he was already there with some girl that looked like a model. Everyone laughed at me standing there in a dress and shoes I spent extra money on just so I could look nice. Then my roommate spread it around college that I tried to kill myself once. Trusting her was a bad mistake. It’s too late now, though.

The job I had as a work study student ended the week before graduation. I saw the job on the farm listed in a local paper that serves three counties. It’s my only hope.

I've lived a life that would kill most people. All I’ve known is the back of someone’s hand or a belt. Being beaten physically and mentally wears you down over time. Not having anyone to say they loved me did the worst damage.

I was thirteen the first time I tried to find nowhere. The knife didn’t cut deep enough and someone at the orphanage found me before nature could take its course. I’ve hung on by a thread for most of my life. Surviving in an orphanage only to be kicked out at the ripe old age of eighteen made the next part of my life hell. It’s something I’m used to.

An older man wearing an AC/DC shirt looks up as I enter. He has greying hair worn in a mullet. He welcomes me with a booming “Howdy!” He stands behind the bar, so I assume he’s the bartender. The bar and restaurant are dimly lit. The rough wood and rustic interior are inviting. It smells like french fries and tobacco in here. A rock ballad plays in the background.

A few customers look up briefly but return to their meals or drinks as if I didn’t exist. Great. The strange girl with glasses and clothes that came from Goodwill is invisible again. I shake the thoughts away and head for the bar.

“What can I get you, little lady?” the bartender asks.

“Coffee and ice water.” I wait until he sits the drinks down before asking the price. “Coffee is a dollar even. We don’t charge for water. Free refills if you want.”

I dig through the thin wad of bills in the front pocket of the faded jeans with holes in both knees. I toss a dollar on the counter before mentally counting the money. I have twenty-four bucks left to my name. Hopefully the job will pan out. I’m desperate and have nowhere else to go. I’ve not had money for two months for the medicine that keeps me on an even keel. I can tell my head is going south pretty quick without it.

The coffee is steaming. A few ice cubes from the glass of water cool it off. It’s bitter and black. The heat soothes my hands which are cold, like always.

“Howdy, Jace,” the bartender says.

A man standing about six feet tall and weighing maybe two hundred pounds takes a seat beside me. His hair is dark brown with blonde highlights. Probably from the sun, I muse. It is cut in a neat fade. I quickly look away, but not before I see pale grey eyes. He is tan and muscular.

“How’s all the family?” Jace asks. He takes a swig of the beer the bartender sits in front of him. His hands are big and blocky with short nails. He smells fresh like sunshine.

“Everyone’s doing ok. How’s the farm?”

“Coming together. All the fencing is up. Barn has been repaired. I’m supposed to meet a guy named Taylor here about helping out. I could use an extra hand with that new stallion. Damned thing is wild,” the man named Jace replies.

Taylor? That’s my name! This is the person I’ve been waiting for. A rush of excitement comes. I push it down, take a deep breath and turn toward Jace.

“Sir? My name is Taylor. I’m here about the job on your farm.” I hate that my voice squeaked.

Jace turns to look at me. His eyes rake over me from head to toe. Then he grins and laughs. “You want to help on my farm? I don’t mean to laugh, lady, but there are hay bales that weigh more than you do. I don’t think you’d be able to handle it.”

My heart falls at his words. A cold sense of dread builds in my gut. I move off the stool and stand there. My hands twist together as fear overwhelms me. He’s rejecting me already. “Just give me a chance. I volunteered at a veterinary office the last year of college. I’m good with animals.”

“How old are you?” Jace sizes me up again. He looks tough in cowboy boots, jeans, and a blue button-down shirt.

“Twenty-two. I graduated from college last week.” I try to smile and look confident while pushing my glasses up.

“Taylor, I don’t think you’d fit in,” Jace says in that lazy drawl of his. Then he turns back to the bar as if I don’t exist.

A tear rolls down my cheek. A muffled sob I try to hold back makes my voice break. After all the crappy things that have happened to me it’s hard to take this. The rejection hurts. The loss of a possible job and place to sleep destroys me. It looks like I’m headed to nowhere. “Thanks for the opportunity.”

I pick the backpack up, sling it over one shoulder and walk out the door with as much dignity as I can muster. I find my way to the bus terminal, glance at the listing of destinations and fares. My stomach growls as I realize the little bit of cash I have isn’t taking me anywhere. The end of town and darkness beckons. At least I had enough foresight to bring the pup tent and a sleeping bag.

I start walking. The darkness makes it difficult to see where I’m going especially when tears obscure my vision. I can see the thin, grey snake stretching out in the moonlight leading me on to nowhere. I fall once, knees taking the worst of it. These damned old shoes betray me yet again. I know my knees are bleeding. But I get up and go on because I have to. Nowhere is out there waiting for me with open arms.

It feels like I’ve been walking forever when a truck passes me, slows down and stops. Reverse lights come on as the truck whines its way back to me. I stand frozen with fear. Then the door opens. Someone gets out and walks toward me.

“Hey, are you ok?”

It’s Jace. I recognize his voice instantly. The darkness across the road seems safer. I cross without a second thought and keep walking. Then I hear the sound of footsteps behind me. The terror grows. I run as fast as I can.

The footsteps behind me pick up the pace until he is running. That darned piece of loose sole on my shoe catches on something on the ground. My hands and knees howl in pain. The ground is hard like concrete. Pain screams in one ankle. The dull throb of both knees becomes a screech of pain.

“Are you alright?” It’s Jace, right at my side. I twist away when his hands touch me. I don’t like people touching me. Especially not assholes unwilling to give someone a chance.

Somehow, I manage to stand. Nowhere is out there. I just have to find it. I turn, biting back a cry of pain. The ankle isn’t happy.

“Don’t walk away from me without at least responding.” His voice is loud, almost a yell. It doesn’t say a lot for his mood. It doesn’t matter what Jace wants. I need to find nowhere even if it takes me all night.

“Are you deaf or something?” His voice is a shout now. Those big, rough hands grab my jacket, hold me still.

“I don’t fit in, remember?” My voice is low and flat. “If you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere to be.”

“It’s you. Why are you walking? And what’s so important that you have to walk in the dark?” He is yelling again. I jerk away, putting both hands over my ears. It’s the only thing that saved me from the ugly things people said when I was a child. Jace doesn’t care. He pulls my hands away. Now his voice is soft, deep, and oddly soothing.

“I have to go.” I pull away and hobble along. “I need to find nowhere.”

“Taylor? What are you talking about? Where is nowhere?” At least he’s not yelling now. His voice is low, and he almost sounds confused.

Good. I’m glad someone else is confused. I’m not confused about where I need to be. “Nowhere is where it doesn’t hurt anymore. I don’t have to worry about food or rent or a job. It’s safe. No one is mean to you in nowhere. I’ve gotta go.”

Dizziness overwhelms me after the first few steps. I haven’t had food in at least two days, maybe longer. Water is free and fills you up. I haven’t had water since the bar. I’m used to drinking lots of water instead of eating. It’s something I learned when I was just a kid. I used to drink a lot of water when I woke up each day because I never knew when or if there would be food for me. It helped my stomach not hurt so much from being empty.

“Taylor. Please come with me. I’m worried about you now. Let me take you back to my place and look at your ankle. We’ll talk about the job in the morning.” He almost sounds like he means it. I know better. People lie to get what they want. He said no once and meant it. People don’t just change their minds. Then he touches my arm.

I sit down on the ground when my head spins. This must be nowhere. The pack slides off my back. I fumble around until I find it. A click brings a circle of light. Jace holds a flashlight in one hand. “What are you looking for?” he squats in front of me.

“This.” I hold out the gun and smile. “I bought it at the last bus stop. The guy wanted forty bucks. He gave me a bullet too.” I hold out the bullet then put it into the gun just like the guy showed me. The cylinder clicks into place.

“Taylor, give me the gun,” Jace holds out his hand. He smiles while he waits.

“It’s mine. I bought it.” I take a deep breath. My fingers shake when I turn the safety off. I bring the gun up just like the guy showed me, inches from my temple. “Nowhere is right here. You showed me how to get here. Thank you, Jace.”

Jace is strong and fast. He grabs my wrist and pins me to the ground before I can put the gun against my head. I fight. No one needs nowhere more than I do! A scream bursts out of my mouth. Then the gun goes off. I realize I’m not in nowhere and neither is Jace.

“Dammit, Taylor! You scared the shit out of me!” Jace takes the gun apart after he stands up. The cylinder goes in one jacket pocket while the rest of the gun goes in another. “Now you’re coming with me.”

He picks me up like a rag doll. I stare up at the cloudless night sky. How could I have been so wrong? I thought I had found nowhere. The only thing I found was hell on earth again.

***

Jace looks up as he pours peroxide on cotton balls. “This will hurt, Taylor.” He presses the cotton balls to one knee. It burns like fire.

He brought me back to the farm anyway. The house is cozy and warm. The furniture is sturdy and made mostly of wood. Jace seems to like the natural manly look where interior decorating is concerned. Everything has a place. The inside of the house is so clean I could eat off the floor, not that I would.

I remain silent because I feel numb inside. Jace took my first hope at the bar. He took my last hope on the road to nowhere. He tapes gauze pads on both knees after smearing antibiotic ointment on the ugly gashes the rocks put there. Then he wraps my ankle in an elastic bandage. I stand up and limp to the door where my backpack is. He catches it before I can put it on my shoulder.

“Taylor you need to stay here with me. Are you hungry?” His voice is soft and gentle. My stomach growls but I say nothing.

I look up for a second and reach for the doorknob, but his hand covers mine. My mind is numb. The knob twists in my hand, the door opens a bit, then he shuts it. My brows draw together as I muddle through the confusion in my head. I had it planned out perfectly. If I didn’t get the job I would find nowhere. Then Jace interfered.

For some reason I feel like a lost puppy. I wander off to the window over the kitchen sink. The soft moonlight shines on the barn. That’s where the horses are. I wanted to see them but Jace won’t let me. I glance at a glass in the dish drainer. My lips and mouth are dry.

Jace follows me then he fills the glass with water. “Would you like a drink, Taylor?” He holds the glass out.

I can’t take it. Fear freezes me in place like a fly on a fly strip. Once you touch those things, you’re stuck, just like me. He holds the glass up to my mouth and tilts it. The cold water sucks me in. I drink even though I didn’t ask for permission. Jace doesn’t say anything but he smiles. Maybe it’s safe here. Safer than before. Maybe safer than nowhere.

I yawn before rubbing my eyes. Jace leads me away to a bedroom. He hands me a t-shirt. “I’ll turn away while you change but I won’t leave you to get into trouble.”

It feels good to have the bra off. The t-shirt is clean and soft. My jeans are stained with blood at the knees. I fold them up with my shirt. Jace puts them on a chair by the dresser.

He pulls back the quilt. I sit down on the bed. Then he pulls up a chair, props his feet on the bed and pulls a blanket over his body. I sit there looking at the floor. “You can get into bed, Taylor. I’m not letting you out of my sight and I’m not going to hurt you.”

I lay down and pull the quilt up to my chin. Before long soft breaths broken by some snoring sounds has me looking at Jace. Having Jace here makes the numbness go away. I can’t fight it when sleep starts to overwhelm me. It’s the first night that I don’t dream about them.

***

Chapter 2

The smell of frying bacon and brewing coffee rouses me the next morning. I limp into the kitchen and stand awkwardly at the table. Jace is making breakfast. My stomach growls as a reminder that it's been empty for a couple days now. Jace turns and smiles at me. I try to smile back but my lips are stiff and numb.

“Do you need to use the bathroom?” Jace sets a cup of coffee in front of me. “Cream is in the fridge if you want some.”  He places two plates of bacon, eggs, and toast on the table.

“I wish you would say something, Taylor.” He puts a hand at my back and guides me to the bathroom. Then he stands there. “I’m not leaving you alone. I’ll turn my back so you can pee and wash up. There’s a toothbrush on the sink for you.”

I bite my lip. Jace turns his back like he promised. My bladder aches so much that I pull the ragged panties down, close my eyes and pee even though he’s a few feet away. I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Jace leads me back to the kitchen, pulls out a chair, and waits.

“Sit down, Taylor. The plate there is yours,” he points toward the plate in front of the chair. His soft voice almost makes me feel at ease. “Please eat.”

I know to be obedient. I eat slowly, chewing every bite thoroughly before swallowing. I keep an eye on Jace just in case. His hands never twitch or ball up into fists. He even smiles when I drink coffee. I sit with my hands folded in my lap. This is new to me. I’m not sure how to react when people are nice. I wait until Jace is through eating. He puts the dishes from the table in the sink then turns to look at me. He leans against the sink, a finger rubbing his chin.

“Taylor, who are you? I want to help you if I can.”

How can I tell him that I am no one? I push the glasses up again, hesitate for a moment before answering him. “I’m no one. You can’t help me.”

The dark brows furrow as he frowns. I take a deep breath, push the chair back slightly and prepare to run. I stand up when he doesn’t move, edging closer to the door.

“Taylor!” I freeze at the sound of his voice. A tear slips free, trailing down my cheek as my eyes squeeze shut. “I’m not going to hurt you. Please don’t try to run away again. I want to help you. Do you have family or friends I can call?”

“No one.” My eyes stay shut. Then I feel his hand on my arm, fingers stroking the skin gently. I’m wearing only his t-shirt and the ragged panties that are filled with holes. It makes me nervous to be this close to anyone. Past experience should remind me to stay far away.

“You have me then. Now it’s someone, not no one.” Jace leaves and returns with my old clothes. They’re freshly washed and folded. “You should change into these. I need to tend the animals. Maybe that will make you feel better.”

I change in the bedroom with the door open. He reminds me to leave it that way. Again, there is the warning about me getting into trouble. I only wanted to find nowhere. How could that cause any trouble for Jace? I follow him to the barn which isn’t far from the house.

I hear the horses before I see them. The snorts and whinnying that come when they hear Jace. There are two of them in the barn. He points to a horse the color of caramel. “That’s the Arabian mare. Not sure what to call her yet.” Then he points to a stallion the color of coal. “This is my problem. I call this one Dakota. He’s a fine Arabian stallion just like the mare. He’s a pain in my ass. I can’t touch him, put a halter on him. Nothing. I think it’s time to think about selling him to someone else.”

The latch to Dakota’s stall clicks open. The door opening easily as I walk inside. Dakota snorts, ears forward, head tossing. He stamps restlessly. I hold a hand out, palm up. The short whiskers on his muzzle tickle the palm of my hand. I don’t have to say anything. Dakota gets me. He nickers softly, pushing against my body. I wrap both arms around his neck and just rest against him. He is all muscle and raw power.

“What the hell?” Jace’s voice is loud. Dakota senses something. A foot stamps, his head bobs up and down.

“Don’t yell.” I reach up and gently stroke Dakota’s ear with one hand. He calms down but keeps a wary eye on Jace.

“Taylor? How did you do that? No one has been able to touch Dakota. Not even the former owners.” Jace moves closer to the stall. He stands there with his mouth open.

“I loved him and made him feel safe. That’s all he needed.” Dakota nickers, head bobbing.

Jace reaches the bucket of grain through the door to me. “You have a job with Dakota, Taylor. If you want it.”

Dakota munches contentedly on the grain while I clean the stall with a pitchfork. He is an obedient horse, at least for me it seems. Jace tried to come in the stall when I started cleaning up. Dakota screamed at him. The mare is more laid back and gentle. She lets me stroke her mane and pet her while Jace cleans her stall. After we give the horses water Jace suggested we go inside for lunch.

I sit at the table while he makes sandwiches. I eat after he tells me to. This time I don’t spend as much time watching for signs of trouble. The sandwich fills my empty stomach. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I took the first bite. Jace cleans up just like he did this morning. He invites me to sit with him on the sofa.

“Can we talk, Taylor?”

I shrug. Words won’t come out yet. For some reason I feel numb deep inside where my heart used to be. That’s where words used to come from. From my heart, until someone broke it.

“Will you tell me more about you? Where you’re from, anything? Surely there’s someone out there worrying about you,” he continues. “What made you so upset that you wanted to kill yourself last night?”

I stand up and walk to the sink. The ache in my ankle has eased some. I don’t hobble as bad this time. Dakota and the mare are in the paddock. They graze quietly, just happy to be together. My backpack still sits by the door. I want to take it and run away. Somehow, I know that Jace would find me. He’s set on keeping me out of trouble for some reason.

“I looked in your backpack this morning,” Jace continues. “You don’t have a lot of clothes. Is that all you have?”

This is embarrassing. Being quiet works best of all. At least that way I can’t screw up and say the wrong thing. So, I shrug instead.

Jace groans and rubs a hand across his face. “You frustrate the hell out of me! I guess we’re going into town then. You need at least a couple pairs of pants, a few more shirts, some underwear and socks.”

My face gets hot. I know I’m blushing like an idiot. Why is it so embarrassing to know that Jace knows I don’t have clothes? “I’ll be ok.”

“You only have a jacket, two pairs of pants, two shirts, a couple pairs of socks and probably the underwear you have on. That’s not ok. Come on, we’re going into town.”

He has my hand before I can say anything. He tugs me along behind him, stopping to get the keys from a nail by the door. We ride in silence until the first buildings of the town come into view. I follow along as he holds my hand. We end up in a clothing store a couple of buildings down from the bar and restaurant. The older woman at the counter looks up and smiles.

“Hello, Jace! It’s good to see you!” The woman comes from behind the counter to hug Jace. I just stand there looking at the floor, wishing I could disappear. Then her attention turns to me. “Who is your friend?”

“This is Taylor. She’s going to be working at the farm. She needs some clothes.” Jace is direct and unapologetic.

The older woman takes my hand and leads me toward the back of the store. I look over my shoulder at Jace. He stands with arms crossed on his chest. I can tell by the set of his jaw that it’s no use to argue.

I cooperate with the woman. She insists that I try on a few shirts and pairs of jeans. Socks and underwear are easy to pick out. Then she asks about my bra size. I freeze up, ears buzzing, and look for Jace. I put my hands up and back up against the wall in the changing room. She sees my scars, the ones I try hard to hide from everyone.

“What happened to your arms, honey?” The woman’s voice is soft, her eyes wide. She puts a hand on my shoulder. “Sit down. You look like you’re going to pass out.” Then she steps out of the changing room and calls for Jace.

He’s there in a second, brows furrowed, eyes blinking fast. He relaxes when he sees me. I’m shaking hard and can’t stop. “Just go ring everything up, Martha. I’ll be out in a second.”

Martha, that’s her name. She was nice to me and I know she didn’t mean to mention the scars. She couldn’t know. No one could know. Jace sits beside me without saying anything. He reaches for my hand, sandwiching it between both of his. After a few minutes the buzzing in my ears stop and eventually I stop shaking.

“You ready to go now?”

I nod. It’s the least I can do since my tongue feels dry and thick like cardboard. Jace pays for the clothes, leads me to the truck, and drives home. When we get there, he opens the door for me. Then he walks along with me until we get on the porch. I go to the couch where he tells me to sit. Then he puts the clothes in the bedroom and sits beside me when he returns.

“What would you like for supper?” Jace glances at me as I shrug. My stomach aches and I really don’t want to eat. “How about chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches?”

I can’t say anything. Jace gets up and just starts cooking. He returns with a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a few saltine crackers. “Just sit there. I’ll make grilled cheese sandwiches after we eat our soup.”

The soup is hot. It makes me feel better. I eat every bit of it including the crackers. Then I sit there drinking milk while Jace finishes his soup. The rest of the evening passes peacefully. Jace watches the news and weather. He tries to talk to me but I’m not much company. Then he brings it up, the one thing I wish he would have forgotten about.

“What happened to your wrists, Taylor? You’ve tried to hurt yourself before, haven’t you?”

I look at the floor, wishing it would open up and swallow me whole. There will be no escape though as Jace moves closer. He takes my hand, turns it over, and runs a finger along the jagged scars on my wrist. I pull away and sit with my fingers under my legs.

No matter what Jace says, I refuse to talk to him. I keep my head down, eyes on the floor, and fade out to the place in my head that beckons when things are too much. The next time I look up it’s dark. Jace stands up and asks me to come with him. I don’t argue. I just get up and go. Exhaustion overwhelms me within minutes of getting under the covers. Then the dream comes.

***

“You stupid bitch!”

The man I only know as my uncle yells when I accidentally spill my milk. He picks it up and slings the remainder in my face. My mommy sits there smiling as he yanks me up by the arm, pulls my pants down and hits me with the belt. Over and over. When he’s done I can barely breath it hurts so bad. Then he slings me in the closet. The lock clicks. I know I’ll be here for a long time.

I find the dirty blanket. Wrapping up in it does little to ease the burning places on my bottom. I can hear mommy and my uncle laughing. I hear the clink of glass bottles. They’re drinking again. I hope they forget me in the closet. I fall asleep.

The door opens the next morning. It hurts my eyes. It’s my uncle again. He sees that I wet my pants. This time it’s worse. The belt stings and burns on my back and my bottom. Then he slings me inside again. My stomach hurts. It’s empty. They forgot about me. I don’t know how long it’s been since I had something to drink or eat. All I know is I hurt everywhere. I know not to cry or beg to get out.

I hear them fighting outside. He’s screaming, calling my mommy all kinds of bad names. Then I hear mommy crying. He hits her a lot. Then mommy screams and stops crying. I hear sirens. The closet door opens. I cover my eyes with my hands. The bright light hurts.

Someone picks me up and takes me out of the closet. A big knife lays on the floor beside my mommy on the floor. Her eyes are open, but she doesn’t move. There is blood everywhere. 

I know not to cry. Crying means I get hurt worse.

***

I wake up screaming, covered in sweat, fighting as hands reach for me. Then Jace says something. I stop fighting because his voice is soft. I let him pull me into his arms. Then he strokes my hair with a big hand. “What the hell did they do to you, Taylor?”

My heart feels like it might come out of my chest. Jace reaches out and wipes the tears away. I jump at the first touch. Then he whispers, “Easy, I’m not going to hurt you. Take a deep breath and let it out. Then do it again.”

I can’t sleep after the dream wakes me up. Jace gets up and leads me to the living room. I feel guilty because I took his bed. He always sleeps in his clothes in a chair by the bed. He puts on water to heat then gets mugs out of the cabinet. He holds up a box of cocoa. “This might help.”

I like cocoa. How could Jace know this? I watch as Jace walks around the kitchen. He glances at me, smiles, and turns back to the stove. My cheeks are blazing. I know better than to stare. Men like Jace aren’t interested in strange girls like me.

Jace hands me my glasses. I put them on and accept a cup of hot cocoa. He sits close, the heat of his leg searing the skin of my leg. Look at the floor. Keep your eyes down. Don’t talk. Old ways of doing things have always worked out well. It kept me safe.

“Taylor, what was that dream about? You were screaming like someone was trying to kill you.”

A tear rolls down my cheek as the memory flashes back. I put the cup on the end table. Jace touches my shoulder. “Taylor?”

“He killed my mom.” It’s all I can manage. I don’t tell him about the other things. About the closet, being starved, or being beaten. Especially not about the mean, hurtful things they said.

“I’m so sorry, Taylor.” His fingers rub my shoulder, then move to my hair. I know it’s a tangled mess. I forgot to brush it earlier today. “Your hair feels like silk.”

That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I lose it then, crying helplessly until Jace pulls me into his arms. He holds me, rubbing my arm, and telling me everything is going to be alright. He tells me he will protect me, keep me safe. I want to believe him. Experience tells me no one will take care of a girl like me.

***


Chapter 3

I’ve been here for three days. I realize I need to talk to Jace. My underarms and legs are hairy. I’ve only washed off with a washcloth since I’ve been here. I stink and I’m sticky. I wait until breakfast is over before I approach Jace.

“I need a razor.”

Jace turns from the sink and stares at me. “What do you need a razor for, Taylor?” The grey eyes are impassive. He gives nothing away.

“I need to shave my legs and underarms. I need a shower.” It’s the most I’ve said since being here. Jace is shocked. He stands there with his mouth open slightly before taking a drink of coffee.

“Horses first, then shower. Is that a deal?”

I nod, grateful that agreeing with him doesn’t require talking. We walk to the barn together. I like the barn because it’s cool and sort of dark there. A ladder leads up to the loft where the hay is. There are several stalls, a room for grain and supplies, and another room with saddles and bridles. It smells like horses, leather and grain. Beams of gold light find their way through cracks in the wall. If you look close enough you can see dust motes gliding through the patches of light.

Dakota is waiting, pawing at the ground as we approach. I walk inside the stall without fear. Dakota comes to me, nickering softly as I rub his neck and ears. Jace pauses as he walks by, glares at Dakota and swears. For some reason I find it funny, so I laugh. Jace draws his brows together, grunts, and walks away. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Dakota lets me put a halter on him. I attach a lead rope, open the stall door all the way, and lead him outside. I take him to the paddock so we can work together easier. I take the lead in one hand and start jogging along the paddock fence. Dakota snorts, tosses his head, and follows along. The gracefully arched neck, perky ears, and long mane are typical Arabian traits. I know that much after studying them while I volunteered at the veterinarian’s office. I reverse directions, jogging along counterclockwise. Dakota spins and follows me. I can’t help but laugh. I love this horse.

The exercise stops when I run out of breath. I release the lead and walk toward the fence only to see Jace standing there. “How the hell did you do that?” he says.

I shrug. There is no way I can explain to Jace, or anyone else, the magic that happens between me and Dakota when we’re together. The horse likes me. He hates Jace. I rest against the fence, watching as Dakota shows out for the mare.

“I want you to try putting a blanket on his back. Would you be willing to try that?”

I shrug and watch as Jace walks to the tack room. He retrieves a saddle blanket and an English style saddle. “Fifty bucks if you get one of these on him for more than five minutes.”

Jace places the blanket and saddle on the fence. I walk toward Dakota and am met with soft nickers. His ears are forward. I attach the lead rope and move toward the saddle and blanket. Dakota sniffs it with interest. I touch the saddle and blanket, let him sniff my hands, and then rub the scent over his back and withers. I pull the blanket from the fence. Dakota stamps a foot and backs up. He’s not so curious now.

I wait patiently, holding the blanket over one arm. Dakota eventually moves in. Curiosity has the best of him. He sniffs the blanket. I move closer and let the blanket touch his body. No reaction is a good reaction. I move the blanket to my hand. Dakota’s ears are still forward. Maybe this won’t go south. I lift the blanket, trailing it across one side of the horse’s body. He dances away, snorting, tail held high.

“Be careful, Taylor.” I glance back and see Jace leaning on the fence watching us.

Dakota eventually returns to me. I rub his neck and shoulder before raising the blanket. I lift it as high as I can and bring it gradually down until it rests on Dakota’s back. He dances away, stamping and pawing at the ground. An ear flicks back and forth. He’s wary now. Then he goes crazy, rear end bucking in the air as he screams at the stranger on his back. The blanket goes flying. Dakota pulls so hard the rope rips through my hand and fingers. I let it go then look at my hand. The first few layers of skin are rubbed away. It burns like fire.

Jace is through the paddock rails and at my side in a second. He looks at my hand and groans. “We need to clean this up.”

“I need to get the lead off of him.” Dakota makes me chase him a bit this time. He eventually slows down and turns toward me. He nickers when I take the lead off, snuffling at the hand. “I still love you, Dakota.”

Tears sting my eyes when Jace washes my hand with soap and warm water. A whimper escapes when he pours peroxide on the raw skin. I keep my eyes closed. It almost makes the burning feel less intense.

“I’m sorry, Taylor. Almost done. You can open your eyes now.”

I open my eyes and find his face inches from mine. He takes my glasses off before laying them on the nearby counter. His lips are soft when they touch mine. Both big hands catch my head, holding it while he kisses me. Then he groans, tongue sliding inside my mouth. I try to reciprocate but find it awkward. No one has ever kissed me. Then I break away, suddenly afraid of where this is headed.

“I’m sorry,” Jace says against my hair. “You’re just so damned sexy, Taylor.”

The telephone rings. It gives us both a chance to catch our breath. I look out the kitchen window. Watching the horses calms me. I’m lost in the moment until Jace’s conversation pique’s my interest.

“Is that all you found? No last name or family?” He pauses as the person replies. “She has to have somewhere to go.”

That’s it! I knew this wouldn’t last. Jace is already trying to find a way to be rid of me. Leaving is easier if I do it first. I grab the backpack and open the front door. Jace is distracted by the phone call. It’s the perfect time to escape.

I make it to the end of the driveway before Jace catches me. “Taylor! Where the hell do you think you are going?” He catches the backpack’s strap in one hand. I’m not going anywhere.

The last time I tried to run away he caught me. I was four and there was no food for a week. I stayed in the closet with the door locked the entire time.

I close my eyes and wait. Jace touches my face. His big hand is gentle, but I still jump and pull away. “I’m not going to hit you. Damn, someone really did a number on you.”

I don’t fight back when he takes my hand. I go where I’m told to go and do what I’m told to do. It’s automatic behavior ingrained in my head since I was a kid living in hell. Jace leads me inside where we both sit on the couch. “That was a friend of mine who works as a private investigator. I asked him to find your family.”

I bolt off the couch into the bathroom. Jace catches and holds the door before I can close and lock it. “I’m not going back.”

“Your family did this to you didn’t they?”

I nod as tears flow unchecked down my face. Jace pulls me into his arms and holds me. “You don’t have to. Stay with me, Taylor. I need you here.”

Jace finally gets the razor for me. He follows me into the bathroom. “I’ll stay outside the door and turn away so you can undress. The door has to be open. When you get done with the razor just drop it on the floor.”

True to his word, he turns away while I undress and climb into the shower. The hot water feels so good I forget to be upset with Jace for hovering. I stand there, leaning against the wall, eyes closed. Then I soap up the washcloth and wash off. Jace has shampoo that smells manly like his aftershave. I use it anyway.

I put my hand outside the shower curtain. The razor drops with a clink on the floor. At least I feel a bit better after cleaning up.

“There’s a robe on the back of the door. You can use it if you want,” Jace says as he stands outside the door.

I'm finally clean. Jace sits with me talking before we go to bed. He goes to sleep in the chair like always. I wake up the next morning without dreaming.

***


Chapter 4

I’ve been with Jace for a couple weeks now. He took me into town where Martha works to buy a robe and some nightgowns.  Martha smiled when she saw us. She gave me a one-armed hug.

Jace takes me to the bar and restaurant for dinner. He agrees to let me go to the bathroom without an escort. I groan when I see the blood in my panties. My period sucks. Every time it happens, I’m in agony for two or three days. Worst of all, I have no money to buy a pad from the machine on the wall.

I go back to the bar and tug on Jace's shirt. My face is red and hot. I mumble in his ear, praying he won’t make me explain. That’s not the case.

He insists on accompanying me to the hallway outside the restroom. “What’s wrong, Taylor?”

“My period,” I whisper while looking at the floor.

He hands me a quarter without another word. I take care of business in the restroom.

Jace is waiting when I come out. “We need to go to the drugstore, right?”

I nod. Jace smiles and takes my hand. We eat dinner before Jace drives to the drugstore. He goes inside with me. Jace is so matter of fact about everything. He pays for the items before walking me to the truck.

Later that night the cramps are so bad that it wakes me up. I stagger to the bathroom, double over while sitting on the commode, and moan. It feels like someone is ripping my guts out through my belly. Jace is sitting up when I return.

“Are you ok?”

I shake my head and curl into a ball. Jace walks out of the bedroom and returns a few minutes later. He hands me two ibuprofen and a glass of water. I take the pills without question. Then he hands me a hot water bottle. The warmth from the bottle on my belly is a thing of beauty. Within minutes I’m half asleep, smiling as Jace rubs my back.

Jace doesn’t fuss or get upset when I’m not feeling well. He’s the most kind, gentle person I’ve known. It makes me feel good about the decision to forget about finding nowhere.

After a few days, I’m back to normal. Dakota missed me. He comes to me before I get inside the stall. “I’ve missed you too,” I whisper. This time Dakota doesn’t get too crazy when the blanket falls on his back. He prances and snorts but the blanket stays in place.

“I’ll be damned,” Jace says from the paddock railing.

Dakota trots around the paddock at my side. He obeys the gentle pressure of the lead and turns as I do. The blanket stays in place the entire time.

A truck appears in the distance. It follows the road right to the barn. An older man with a paunchy belly, bushy mustache and greying hair gets out after the truck stops. He’s smoking a cigarette.

My vision goes hazy when I see the tip of the cigarette glow red. Jace meets the man and shakes his hand. They talk like they’ve known each other for years. Then I catch a whiff of cigarette smoke. All I can think about is running away.

I slide through the paddock rails and run toward the house. I don’t think about Dakota or Jace. I just want to run away from the cigarette. The bathroom is safe. I can pull the shower curtain and lock the door. It’s where I hide if I have time to escape before things get bad. Flashes of memories force their way into my mind.

***

The smell of smoke burns my eyes. Mommy is yelling at me. What did I do this time? She slaps me. I taste something salty and metallic in my mouth.

“I’ll show you,” she hisses.

The sound of her voice scares me. I know what it means. Warm wetness trails down my legs. I wet my pants. Mommy doesn’t understand. She hits me again.

Then the tip of the cigarette glows brighter. The smoke burns my eyes. My shirt is yanked up.

I scream. The sound is too high. No one can hear me. All I can feel is the burn. One after another on my chest.

Then she pulls my panties down. I thought the first burns hurt. I was wrong.

***

Someone knocks on the door. I cover my head with my arms and cry. Jace opens the door somehow. He pulls the curtain back.

“Taylor? You ran away. What’s wrong?”

He kneels by the tub. One hand reaches out for mine. I want to take it. Then I smell the smoke on him, and I freeze up. My arms are crossed over my breasts.

“What scared you?”

He waits for my answer. The grey eyes find mine and he smiles. Jace isn’t upset with me. If I tell him maybe he will understand. He understood about my period and no one knew about that.

“Cigarettes.” It’s all I can manage. I shiver, suddenly cold and afraid.

Jace’s eyebrows lift slightly. He nods then takes his shirt off and tosses it on the floor. Then his hand reaches out again. He waits until I take it before he helps me out of the tub.

***

Chapter 5

The next day Jace gets a phone call from his friend the private investigator. This time he waves for me to come closer. When I lean in, I can hear the man’s voice. “What do you have for us today?” Jace asks. The man laughs and replies. He found my last name and where I went to college. Then he says there are newspaper articles he’s sending by email. Jace thanks the man and hangs up the phone.

It’s funny how little things like a computer pass by without being noticed. I live in a sort of tunnel vision where things on the periphery don’t get noticed. Jace turns the computer on and logs in to an email account. Sure enough, there’s the email. Jace opens it up and starts reading. I sit beside him watching as the articles appear on the screen. That’s all it takes for my world to come to a screeching halt.

The first newspaper article is about my mother and her boyfriend, the man I knew as my uncle, being charged with child abuse and neglect. It’s a small article on the second page of the paper. Then the next article comes into view. I didn’t want to see this article, but here it is anyway. My mom’s boyfriend is charged with murdering her. There is a list of other charges including child abuse and neglect.

Then a copy of my diploma pops up on the screen. Vaughn. That’s my last name and for the life of me I can’t understand why I couldn’t remember. A few more memories come flooding back. I want to work for a publishing company editing manuscripts and finding new writers. That’s what my degree was for. I remember flashes of mean things my roommate did to me. I remember getting on the bus, coming to town, and everything since then. It’s everything before that I can’t remember.

Jace looks up as a truck pulling a horse trailer appears. He glances at me before walking outside. I go with him so I won’t get into trouble. The truck backs in so the trailer is facing the barn. I start to get uneasy when two men get out of the truck. It’s cigarette man from the other day and someone else I don’t know. They go to the barn.

I run to Dakota’s stall and stand between it and the men. Jace sighs, his brows drawn together. “Taylor you have to move.”

“No.” I know what’s going on. He’s selling Dakota. “Take my pay. I help all the time here. You said I had a job if I wanted it. I want to buy Dakota.”

Jace raises an eyebrow at me. Cigarette man stands there scratching his paunchy belly. “It will take a long time to buy him,” Jace replies. Then he grins at me.

“I don’t care.”

“Ralph, I’m sorry but Taylor wants Dakota.”

Cigarette man harrumphs before walking back to the truck. I grin when the empty horse trailer is gone. It looks like I bought a horse.

***

A stray puppy wanders into our yard. It comes straight to me, wagging its tail and whining. I feed it the remains of a peanut butter sandwich. I like the puppy. It doesn’t hit or yell at me. It doesn’t hurt me.

I stay outside most of the day in the backyard. That’s where I’m told to stay while mommy and a strange man are in the house. He leaves before my uncle gets home. Then the yelling starts. The back door slams open.

Come inside now!

I do as I’m told. The puppy tries to follow along. My uncle kicks it. I try not to cry when the puppy yelps and runs off the porch. The next day the dog catcher comes. He takes the puppy away. I never see it again.

The puppy is gone just when I thought I had a friend. No one wants to be friends with the strange, dirty kid that rarely gets to come outside.

***

This time it’s different. I saved Dakota and Jace helped me. The next day Jace makes me come with him when he goes into town. He trusts me to not get into trouble now. I get to see Martha at her store. She lets me sit behind the counter and help her hang new dresses on hangers. Then we put them on a four-way rack near the front door. Martha gives me some money for helping. I give her a hug this time without feeling strange.

“You come back anytime, Taylor,” Martha says. “You better go find Jace, so you don’t get in trouble.”

I wonder why everyone is so concerned that I might get into trouble. I haven’t thought about nowhere for a couple weeks now. I wave goodbye to Martha then step outside to find Jace. The streets are filled with people who live in town. Some of the faces are familiar. Everyone waves and says  “Howdy.” The feed store is near the gas station. I amble along until I see it. Then I see Jace’s truck backed in. A man loads sacks of grain and supplies into the bed of the truck.

When I walk closer, I see something that breaks my heart. Jace is standing at one end of the building with a tall blonde-haired woman. They are talking like they’ve known each other forever. Then the woman puts her arms around Jace’s neck and kisses him. It hurts worse than anything. I walk down the street without a sense of purpose. I keep walking when I reach the end of town.

The road is a twisted, grey snake leading me somewhere. Its yellow and white stripes keep me on track. At least it doesn’t show me its teeth like the first time I walked with it after I came here.

I don’t know how far me, and grey snake have walked when I hear a vehicle on the road behind me. It passes me then stops with a flicker of brake lights. Jace. He gets out, leans against the truck, and looks at me. I don’t say anything. Walking is all I need to do right now. I pass the truck without looking at Jace.

“Taylor, where do you think you’re going?” His voice is soft.

Thoughts of nowhere dance around in my head for a few seconds. I push them back. I stumble on a rock sticking out of the ground, but I keep on walking. I hear the truck behind me. It stays there until I stop walking, then it stops. It’s almost dark now. My feet are sore and I’m sticky with sweat. Jace takes my hand, leading me back to the truck.

Jace throws a tarp over the bed of the truck when we get home. “In case it rains. I’ll put the feed up tomorrow,” he explains before we go inside. Then we sit on the sofa and he talks. “The woman you saw me with is an ex-girlfriend. She doesn’t mean anything to me, Taylor. You mean more to me than anything. I wanted you to know that before we go to bed.”

I nod when Jace talks to me. He gives me a hug before we go to bed. I hang on, face pushed against his neck. He smells like manly cologne and Jace. For some reason it makes me feel safe. I know Jace will be here when I’m ready to talk. He’s here for everything in that quiet, gentle way that only he has.

I like sitting on the front porch watching birds. The next morning, I sit outside watching them again. Two Carolina wrens gather grass for their nest in a flowerpot hanging on a nail on the porch. It’s funny how things are starting to look brighter.

Jace comes onto the porch. He gives me a cup of coffee. “I made you an appointment to see a doctor in the city later today. It’s not that far from here. I think it might help, Taylor. All the things that happened to you have caused problems for you. I want you to get better. I’ll pay for it and buy your medicine.”

“Ok,” I agree. I remember seeing a doctor for the problems when I was a kid after mom died.

Jace takes me into the city. He stays with me the whole time. He even goes in the doctor’s office. The newspaper articles make the doctor nod and prop his chin in one hand. For the first time in forever I talk a little to a stranger. The doctor smiles and nods. He asks lots of questions. Then he scribbles on a prescription pad and hands two pieces of green paper to Jace.

“I’m diagnosing you with PTSD and depression young lady. The medication should help. I would like to see you back in a couple weeks. And I want you to talk to one of our counselors. Would you be willing to do that?”

“Yes,” I say. My voice is stronger today. For some reason being with Jace, Dakota, and all my friends in town the past couple of weeks made me feel better.

Jace drives into town straight to the pharmacy. He gets the medicine then we go to the restaurant. I finally feel like I can talk to Bob. He’s the guy behind the bar who wears rock band T-shirts.

“What are we having tonight, you two?” Bob asks after Jace and I sit on the stools at the bar.

“Apple pie and French fries. I want coffee and water to drink.” Jace and Bob look at me with their mouths hanging open. Bob grunts before he turns toward the window in the wall separating the bar and kitchen. Jace laughs and gives my hand a squeeze.

We eat at the bar. Halfway through the meal I have to stand up. The stool makes my legs numb. Jace places two pills in my hand. “Doctor wanted you to start tonight with your medicine.”

I take both pills without a fuss. If this is part of what it takes to get me out of the fog I’ve been living in, I’m more than willing to do it. Maybe the counselor will help too.

Before we make it home, I’m drowsy. Jace says it’s the medicine and it will get better after I’ve been taking it for a while. I make it as far as the couch. My eyes are so heavy I can’t go any farther. Jace pulls my shoes off and covers me up with an afghan that usually hangs on the back of the couch. I sleep without dreaming for the first time in days.

***


Chapter 6

The next day it takes a little more coffee than usual to wake me up. A smile lingers on my face during breakfast. Breakfast that I made. Jace slept later than usual. I bet it’s because he got to sleep lying down in his bed.

Dakota meets me at the stall door. I’m feeling brave so I take him to the paddock. When the saddle touches his back, he sends it flying. I lead him close to the paddock railing and climb up a couple rails so I’m even with his back.

Nothing happens when I lean across Dakota’s back. I rub his side and whisper the whole time. His ears flick back and forth. A leg slides over his back. I’m sitting on Dakota’s back! Then I lie there, hands fisting in the long, black mane.

“What the hell?”

I turn my head toward the paddock railing. Jace stands there with his mouth open, hands on his hips. Dakota snorts and stamps a foot. I cluck my tongue and touch his ribs with one heel. He moves forward a few steps. Then I’m flying without wings through the air. I fly so high I swear I see the barn’s tin roof.

Stars dance in my head. My chest hurts and it’s hard to catch my breath. “Shit! Don’t move.” Jace is right there like always.

He touches my arm, then fingers are on my forehead. Something warm trickles down my temple. A bunch of different places on my body start screaming and yelling. Jace’s hands move over my arms and legs. The touch is firm. Oh. Shit. Dakota did this to me on purpose.

“I don’t think you’ve got any broken bones. Can you move?”

I open my eyes. Jace’s face swims into view. He helps me sit up. Dakota stands a few yards away staring at us.

“You’re an ass, Dakota. I’m mad at you,” I say after sitting up. I hurt all over. Dakota nickers before he prances away to flirt with the mare.

Jace chuckles when he helps me stand up. “You stayed on for eight seconds. Congratulations, cowgirl.”

“Asshole.”

Jace slaps his knee and laughs again when I call him an asshole. I hobble away, grumbling under my breath until he catches me. “Sorry, Taylor. You’ve talked more this morning than you have the entire time you’ve been here. I think you’re feeling better. Now let’s go home so I can look at that cut on your head.”

Sure enough, I have a small gash on one side of my head thanks to Dakota’s attempt to launch me like the Space Shuttle. Jace grins the entire time it takes to clean it up and put a band aid on it.
I don’t try to ride Dakota for a few days. I put him and Jace on my shit list until I decide they’re forgiven. Jace is forgiven pretty quick because he made pancakes for breakfast the day after I learned how to fly without wings. Then he gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek. What the heck? It looks like this man can do anything, including making me feel better and forget about nowhere.

***


Chapter 7

By the time I go back to see the doctor in the city, things are looking up. I’ve noticed things around Jace’s farm that I never did before. Like hubcaps. There are at least fifty different kinds of hubcaps hanging on the side of the barn. There’s also a field of wildflowers between the barn and a creek that runs through Jace’s property. My tongue no longer feels stiff like cardboard when I try to talk. Amazing!

“So how have things been going?” The doctor asks.

“I feel better and I talk more now,” I reply without hesitating. Jace gives me a sideways grin. He’s always there for me. My knight in shining armor. The good Lord up above still makes good men it seems.

“Any nightmares?” City Doc sits in the black leather chair behind a big polished wood desk. He’s bald and his head shines like a new penny. What is happening to me? It feels like I just woke up or something.

“No dreams. I sleep better and I haven’t thought about nowhere in a long time.”

“Tell me about nowhere.” City Doc is sharp today. He has a lot of questions.

“Nowhere is where I want to be when things are really bad. Nowhere was the corner of the closet I lived in for most of my life. It’s where I wanted to go when I tried to die.” Jace reaches out and holds my hand. His eyes tear up while his mouth is set in a line.

“How many times have you tried to die, Taylor?”

“Twice that I can remember. Once when I first got here. Jace saved me. Then once when I was thirteen.” I held up my wrists so he could see the scars. There’s no need in hiding them.

“It sounds like you’ve had a rough time in life. I think working with the counselor will help with that.” The doctor writes on the green pad again. This time he hands me the two pieces of paper. 
“There are refills. I want to see you back in a month. Call if anything changes.”

I meet the counselor named Cindy. Unlike City Doc, she sits in a comfortable chair and asks us to sit on a couch. Jace lets her read the newspaper articles. I look around Cindy’s office at the pictures hanging on the walls. Then we talk. After a while I’m talking like I’ve known Cindy all my life. I tell her things that Jace didn’t know until now. I cry but then get myself back together. It feels good to not sink back in that black hole that sometimes takes me away.

I agree to see Cindy every week. Jace smiles and encourages me when I hesitate. This has to cost a lot of money.

“I’m taking care of it,” Jace says. “It’s worth it to see you smiling.”

There goes Jace being nice to me. More people ought to be like Jace and the people who live in town. I can’t wait to eat dinner today. Bob wears a different rock band t-shirt every time we see him. I made up my mind to ask him where he got all those shirts.

I sit on a stool as soon as we get to the bar. Bob grins at me through the scruffy mustache he started growing. Jace says Bob grew the mustache because he has the hots for Martha. This time he’s wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt.

“What are we having today, folks?” Bob doesn’t waste any time taking our order.

“Who’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob?” I ask before ordering.

“Only the greatest rock band ever,” Bob replies. “If you haven’t heard Free Bird you should get Jace to find it on the internet for you. That is the quintessential cream of rock and roll, Taylor. Now what are we having today?”

I frown for a second then order hamburger steak and fries. Bob throwing out big words like that worries me. I’m not sure he knows what it means. I think he wants to look smart so Martha will like him. It’s sort of like trying to turn a pig into a model. You can put all the lipstick and makeup on it you want. Underneath it all, it’s still a darned pig.

Jace just laughs at my expression. “It’s Bob. What can you do?” he says. We eat our dinner without much talk.

Martha comes in for a piece of apple pie and coffee. She gives me and Jace both a hug. “Taylor it looks like you’re getting a tan. Is Jace treating you well?”

“Jace is always good to me,” I reply.

“Have you set a date yet?” Martha continues. “You two are the cutest couple.”

I look at Martha like she has an extra eyeball in the middle of her forehead. Set a date? “What date are you talking about?” I ask.

“Wedding, dear. It’s plain to see you and Jace are in love.”

I’ve had all I can handle of meddling people with too much time on their hands. I think Martha needs a lot of Bob in her life. I’m off the stool and out the door without finishing dinner.

Jace finds me sitting in the truck. His jaw is set, and his brows are drawn together. He gets in the truck and starts it without saying a word. Neither of us talk until we get home.

“Martha said she was sorry, Taylor.”

“I don’t like meddling people with big mouths and too much time on their hands,” I reply.

“You know I love you, Taylor. Don’t you? I’ve never said it out loud because I was afraid you would run off.”

Well, shit. Jace has gone and blown me right out of the water. How do you respond to that? The truth is the only thing that works.

“I love you, Jace.”

Then we stand there grinning at each other like idiots for a few seconds. Next thing you know we launch into each other’s arms. Jace is one heck of a kisser. He took my glasses off after a few minutes. The lenses got all steamed up. I’m in love for the first time ever. And Jace loves me right back.

***


Chapter 8

Things change between us after that. I still sleep on the sofa while Jace sleeps in his bed. But we are more touchy feely than before. Jace doesn’t care to kiss me regardless of where we are. I hug him right back when he hugs me.

Another thing changes as summer nears. The mare is pregnant. It looks like Dakota is worth his weight as a stud. People actually pay Jace to let Dakota help their mares get pregnant. It has something to do with pedigree. I’m not sure about all that stuff. Dakota still makes Jace swear and me smile.

I haven’t tried to ride Dakota in forever. Flying without wings isn’t as much fun as you might think. For some reason, I want to try again. Dakota let the blanket stay on his back for days now without getting all crazy. I wait until Jace is occupied in the barn before coaxing Dakota close to the paddock railing.

Nothing happens when I lay down on Dakota’s back. He snorts, both ears flicker back and forth. Then he’s walking over to the mare so he can hang out and nibble on grass.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jace says from behind me

I touch Dakota’s ribs with my heel while pulling in the lead. He starts slow but eventually moves in the direction I want him to. I sit up straight on Dakota’s back and grin at Jace. Dakota obediently walks around the paddock. A big sense of accomplishment builds inside me when I slide off Dakota’s back.

“I owe you fifty bucks,” Jace says with a grin.

“Keep it. I’m still paying you for Dakota,” I reply.

“No, you’re not. He’s yours, Taylor. Will you marry me?”

There’s no way I’m saying no. Since coming here Jace has been my best friend, my healer, my everything. “You know I will,” I say with a smile.

Jace is as strong as an ox. He picks me up, twirls me around, and holds me close. “Let’s go now. The courthouse is open until four thirty.”

Within an hour I’m saying “I do” in the justice of the peace’s office. Bob finds a bottle of champagne in the kitchen cooler. It seems like all our friends are happy for us. I can’t stop smiling and neither can Jace. It is the happiest day of my life that I can remember.

***

The Fourth of July rolls around. It’s impossible to miss it when you go to town. Flags hang from every streetlight and storefront. The town even has a parade and picnic in the park for everyone. When night finally comes, Jace and I sit on a blanket in the park watching when the fireworks go off. I jump every time there is a big boom but grin like an idiot when colors go sparkling across the sky.

Bob and Martha are out on a date, seeing fireworks. For the first time since I’ve known Bob, he isn’t wearing a rock band t-shirt. He’s wearing a red, white, and blue button-down shirt with khaki shorts and flip flops. He even took the time to get a haircut and trim the bushy mustache. Martha looks like an angel in a flower-print dress and sandals. I forgave her for having a big mouth. She saw something that Jace and I didn’t see. I’m happy that Bob and Martha are together. Everyone needs someone.

Fall rolls around before you know it. Indian summer comes in with blistering days and cool nights. Fall is my favorite time of year. Where else can you see crimson, tangerine, lemon, pumpkin, and all the other colors that come when the trees get ready to give up their leaves? On top of that, Bob has pumpkin pie in the fall. Instead of apple pie, I get pumpkin when we go into town to eat dinner. There are more parades and celebrations in town. Labor Day brings a big celebration and another picnic in the park.

Another good thing about fall is that I only have to see city Doc every few months. I see the counselor a couple times a month. Something happened to me after I started seeing them. I talk more, I don’t feel like going to nowhere, and I see things I never saw before. Jace says city Doc, the medicine, and the counselor saved my life. I think they helped but I know in my heart that Jace and Dakota are the real reasons I’m still here.

I haven’t been feeling great the past few weeks. I stay tired and feel sick a lot. Jace takes me into town to see the doctor there. Town Doc is at least seventy years old. He’s tall, lanky, and stoops over when he walks. He wears his glasses sitting on top of his head most of the time. I like him, though, because he sits down and talks to me. Just like city Doc, he has a lot of questions. Then he sends me into the bathroom to pee in a cup. 

A few minutes later town Doc comes into the room, pats me on the back, and says “Congratulations, young lady. You’re expecting.”

Wait! What did he just say? Expecting what? I’m confused so I ask him, “Expecting what, Doc?”

“You’re pregnant, young lady. And I’d say you’ll have a baby in June or July by what you’ve told me. I’m going to make you an appointment with an obstetrician so you can get checked out. The OB can give you a more accurate delivery date.”

I’m numb all over for the first time in forever. What will Jace say? I’ve heard that men sometimes walk out when they find out their woman is pregnant. That Fifty Shades guy did the same thing to Anastasia until he figured out she meant more to him than his need to be a control freak. Well, here goes nothing. Jace is waiting on me like always. He holds my hand while we walk to the truck, opens the door up for me, and closes it after I get inside. Then he comes around and gets in, puts the key in the ignition, and waits.

“Taylor, what did the doctor say? It’s bad, isn’t it? You haven’t said a word since you came out of his office.”

I look at Jace, trying to hold back the tears in my eyes. I’m not sure how he will feel about a baby. I think it’s good because Jace is always there for me. He never gets mean and just loves me. “He said I’m pregnant,” I say in a voice that’s almost a whisper.

Jace just looks at me, those serene grey eyes wide, his brows raised up a bit. Then he grins, hoots, and grabs me for a hug that’s so tight I swear I feel a rib crack. “A baby? That’s the best news in the world, Taylor!”

My head is spinning with all the things that have happened today. What makes it spin even more is the fact that Jace is happy. After the ice around my brain melts, I start to smile too. Having a baby can be a happy thing. Jace is good to me so I know he’ll be good to a baby.

I keep the appointment with OB Doc. He doesn’t want me taking the medicine while I’m pregnant. I don’t think I need it because my whole world is lit up with sunshine. It takes a bit of work between city Doc and OB Doc to get things straightened out, but I’m off the medicine. I haven’t had a dream in forever and I’m not afraid when people accidentally touch me.

By the time winter comes I’ve got a nice little stomach and the baby has started kicking. Jace puts his head on my stomach every night so he can talk to the baby. Like always, his big blocky hands are gentle. Who knew a big man like Jace could be so gentle and caring? I think he has a heart as big as Texas. It’s one of the reasons I love him so much.

We celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The town has parades before Christmas then they set off fireworks for New Year’s Day. I love this little town. This is the first time I can remember having an actual dinner where people sit at the table and eat. Jace makes me cry with the present he gives me. It’s a charm bracelet with a heart, a horseshoe, and a pacifier. I gave him a copy of the ultrasound picture in a nice frame. We agreed not to give each other a lot of presents because being together is the best present either of us could have.

One cold day in January we go out to the barn to feed the horses. Dakota is waiting for us like always. I forgot to mention he actually lets Jace come in the stall and work with him now. It’s a miracle, at least that’s what Jace says.

The mare is laying down on her side in the stall. She’s grunting and straining when I check on her. Two tiny hooves stick out of her a little more with every push. “Jace! She’s having the foal!”

We tend to the mare and before you know it, a little black foal the same color as Dakota is lying on the ground. I rub him off with handfuls of hay. He tries to stand up on spidery, wobbly legs that won’t cooperate. It takes a couple of tries before he stands up.

I can’t help but cry when the foal starts nursing. Jace’s eyes get a little damp but he rubbed his eyes and coughed saying it was an eyelash in his eye. I think Jace was tearing up, but I won’t push it. A man has to have his pride intact even if his woman knows otherwise.

***


Chapter 9

In March everyone in town has a baby shower for me and Jace at the community center. I cry because I wasn’t expecting it. I realize it’s more than me and Jace. Now I have a whole town full of people that love me and want to be my friend.

Jace hires a carpenter to build an extra room onto the house. I’m in love with the room after it’s decorated. The walls are painted a light blue that reminds me of some wildflowers that grow in the nearby field. Blue and white gingham curtains add a special touch. Jace helped put together the crib, changing table and dresser. It looks like we’re ready for our baby boy to get here.

Jace calls June the monsoon season in the Appalachian Mountains. I find out how true that is when the sky dumps buckets of rain on us every day for most of the month. The last week of June is miserable. It rains every day, all day and all night. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, but OB Doc says I could have the baby any time.

Something wakes me up around four in the morning on the last day of June. I hear the rain pouring down and groan. It just won’t quit raining. Then my belly gets so tight I can’t breathe. OB Doc warned me about false labor. After about an hour I realize it isn’t false. This is the real deal.

Jace wakes up after I shake him a few times. He jumps straight out of bed when I tell him it’s time. We wait until daylight and call OB Doc who says come to the hospital. I’m thankful I had things packed because Jace goes haywire. We get in the truck and drive down the driveway.

“Well shit!” Jace yells when he sees a big mudslide blocking our driveway. He backs the truck back to the house.

We go inside and Jace makes a few phone calls. The first is to the town police chief who tells Jace roads are flooding and there are mudslides everywhere. Monsoon season has turned into mudslide season it seems. Town Doc and a deputy are on their way to try and help. I’m glad because Jace is pacing the floor and sweating.

About an hour after the phone call we see Town Doc and a deputy slogging through the mud and rain. Town Doc gets right down to business. He wants to see how far along I am in the labor process, whatever that means. When the deputy makes no attempt to go elsewhere, I refuse.

“I don’t want my vagina on display, thank you very much,” I say to Town Doc. Jace stands beside Town Doc and the deputy with a grin on his face like he knows what’s about to happen. I’ve been a lot feistier since Jace, the town, Dakota, and the medications got me out of the fog I was living in.

“I’m sure it’s not the first vagina the deputy has seen,” Town Doc says.

“I’m not interested in advertising my vagina, Doc. Just take your crabby ass on out of here,” I say a bit louder. “Women have been giving birth for centuries without help. I think I can do it with Jace here to help me.” I make sure to put the don’t give me crap look on my face. Jace grins at me and laughs.

Town Doc gives up trying to convince me. He puts the deputy out of the room. It’s just in time because I feel the urge to push. Before long I’m holding our son in my arms. He looks just like Jace.

Later that day I wake up from a nap. I look at Jace holding the baby and realize something. All those months ago I thought the grey road led to nowhere. I realize it led me somewhere—right where I needed to be.

***

My thanks go out to Photo by mali maeder from Pexels 

for the amazing photograph I used in this story.