The Favor

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Chapter 4

Jessica, clad in a worn pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, padded down the hall to the laundry room. She pulled on a pair of boots, grabbed a rolled-up blanket from the shelf above the washer and stepped outside. A morning mist hung low over the trees. She took a moment to breath in the fresh clean air before heading to the footpath that led to Meyer’s Creek.

Except in the dead of winter, she often visited the spot affectionately known as the Newland private sanctuary. Over the years, Newland descendants sold portions of their original property, but the clearing remained on Newland land. In the two hundred years of Newland ownership, few outsiders had been invited to visit the clearing.

In the early eighteen hundreds, Stanley Newland purchased seventy-five acres of what was then state-owned land. The family eked out a living as farmers. A community began to form in the vicinity when other farming families moved into the county. In 1915, the Newland land was annexed by the newly incorporated town of Laurinburg.

The descendants of Stanley and Emma veered from tradition to become lawyers, doctors and educators. Other Newland’s lived in the county, but Jessica was the last living direct descendant of Stanley.

Since most of the males in the family were storytellers, the Newland's passed down their history via oral tradition. The storytellers embellished and refined the history, but the stories were based on actual events and tradition.

One of the stories Jessica’s dad shared was about Samuel, Stanley’s grandson, Samuel. According to the story, three generations were living in the Newland home at the time. Frustrated because of the lack of privacy, he found an innovative way to court his bride-to-be. He forged through the brambles and saplings to make the original footpath to the creek, then built a courting bench and placed it in the clearing. Samuel and Rachel’s carved initials on the back of the bench gave credence to the story that it was based on fact. Though weathered and worn, the bench remained standing.

Before her dad died, her family often spent lazy Sunday afternoons at the creek. Her parents relaxed on the bench while she lounged on a boulder nearby or waded in the creek. The dancing waters of Meyer’s Creek happily gurgle over an outcropping of the rock, and over time, chips of rock filled the creek bed. In the spring when the waters warm, minnows are plentiful. As a child, the clearing was Jessica’s happy place.

When her dad died, the clearing became the place where she found solace. Jessica didn’t want to add to her mom’s desolation and grief, so she desperately tried to hold back her own tears. There were days, though, when her couldn't contain her sorrow. She cried buckets of tears while sitting on the rock. Eventually, she began to feel a sense of peace. There were even times when she felt her dad’s presence.

She returned to the rock when a school bully knocked her to the ground and called her names, when her best friend’s family moved out of state, when she failed a math test and countless other traumatic times. It was there she felt the comforting presence of her Newland progenitors. The rock was a place of healing.

An hour at the clearing was cleansing. The silence and beauty of the spot fed her soul.

It was still early when she returned to the house. She assembled the ingredients for pancakes before turning on the coffee maker. By the time her mom rolled into the kitchen, she had plated the first stack of pancakes.

“Do I smell pancakes?”

Jessica put a mug of coffee and a plate of pancakes at her mom’s place at the table. “You do. I hope you are hungry.”

“I’m famished. Are we celebrating?”

“I am. I have a free day for the first time this month.”

“That’s fantastic, sweetie. That means you have completed all of the music arrangements you have been working on.”

“I have, and my students are happy with the changes I’ve made. We used all of our budget earlier in the year, so the choral group was stuck with performing last year’s program. With a new set and a new score, the production should be a big hit.”

“They are lucky to have you. So, what are you going to do with your day?”

“Nothing special. Just enjoy it!”

“Max is coming over at one. He’s bringing a new friend. I’d like for you to meet him.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “You and Max haven’t gone into the match making business, have you?”

Her mom feigned indignation. “No way. You will like this male.”

“Okay. Out with it. Who is he?”

“His name is Thor. Does that give you a hint?”

Jessica breathed a sigh of relief. “You and the German shepherd bonded.”

“Thor likes people in general, but service dogs need to focus on one person. He was curious about my wheelchair. After he checked it out, he put his snout on my knee and wagged his tail. That’s all it took to win my heart.”

Jessica laughed. “You were always a softie. Where does Jason live?”

“He breeds and trains dogs at a small farm out on Burrows Road. Max and I drove out yesterday. We were impressed with Jason and the kennels. I had read a little about service dogs, but I had no idea that there are approximately 500,000 dogs working with people with disabilities today. 10,000 of those dogs are guide dogs. According to Jason, 43 million people in US have disabilities. That’s a lot of people.”

Jessica nodded. “After you mentioned the possibility of owning a service dog, I did some reading. What I was shocked to learn was how much it costs to adopt a dog?”

“The price seems high until you know how long it takes to train a dog. On the positive side, there are organizations who work with prospective owners who don’t have the financial means to own a dog.”

“Since Thor isn’t suited for the program, did you get a good deal.”

“Great deal.”

“Fantastic. So, where is he?”

“Max has him. He was going to the pet store last evening to buy the supplies we’ll need. He also wanted to observe Thor overnight.”

“Does the dog need any more training?”

“Max has learned enough to do the training Thor needs. If we run into issues, Jason has agreed to help.”

Jess grinned. “I’m impressed. If you needed proof that Max is committed, you have it.”

There was something about her mom’s expression that alerted Jessica her mom had an issue she was reluctant to discuss. “I recognize that look, Mom. What’s up?”

“Would you object if I invited him to stay here as a guest? If he is to be my partner in this venture, it would help for him to be here during the training. Thor needs to see us as a team.”

Jessica hid a smile. “As a guest or officially as your boyfriend?”

Helen rolled her eyes. “It will be a business arrangement, but it will also provide an opportunity for him to see what he will be getting into if we take our relationship to the next step. All couples have issues, but ours are extreme. I won’t say yes to marriage until I’m sure it will work for him.”

“Max is a realist, Mom. He will never demand more than you can give. That being said, my loyalties are with you. Whatever you decide is fine with me.”

“I appreciate your support, Jess.”

Jess asked, “Before I forget, did Simon Enright call you?”

“He did. Max and I talked to him Friday evening.”

“He asked me to hold off talking to Ken and Marie. I think he wanted to talk to some of Kathryn’s friends. I’m not sure what he hopes to gain, but I told him I would wait.”

“Simon has resources we don’t have. If anybody can locate Kathryn, he can.”

“I don’t understand. I thought he worked for a corporation. Is he in the people finding business?”

Her mom shrugged. “I don’t know what agency he works for, but he works for the government.”

Jessica’s eyes widened. “You mean like the FBI or the CIA?”

“All I can tell you is that his work is classified.”

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