Still A Surprise
I lay awake on my sleeping bag that is stretched out across the floor of my loft, listening to the sound of Stella’s light breathing. Tonight started out as a fun night out with my best friend, but turned into a rescue mission for Stella. Had I not known a girl in college who was roofied, I would have never known the signals or the smell it leaves behind. I keep replaying the night in my mind, watching Stella make out with that creep who ended up drugging her, to holding her hair while she vomited most of the drugs out of her system. By the time we were home I think she was pretty much back to normal, though she still couldn’t walk on her own. I know her dad would absolutely kill me if he knew she was up here with me, but I also don’t want to be the one to explain to him that his daughter was drugged at a party. Hey, at least I’m sleeping on the floor, right? I stare at the ceiling while willing the sound of Stella’s breathing to lull me to sleep. It never works. When I start to see the first hints of daylight through the loft shutters, I sit up on my elbow and shake Stella’s shoulder to wake her up. Oh, how I hope she’s better after a few hours of sleep.
“Stella, you need to get to your own bed.” I yawn, shaking her until her eyes blink open.
“What time is it?” She asks, rolling over and staring down at me. “And how the hell did I get here? Did you sleep on the floor?”
“It’s time for you to get inside and catch a few hours of sleep in your own bed. Do you remember anything about last night?” I ask, dropping my shoulders and head back to the sleeping bag.
“I remember going to the bonfire and dancing with Casey and Joe.” Stella says, squinting her eyes at me. Well, at least her voice isn’t still slurred.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” I ask.
“Um, I remember you showing up when Joe went to get me a beer and telling Joe I wasn’t going to have sex with him.” She answers, and I close my eyes, trying to push back the urge I just got to smash his face in.
“That the last thing?” I ask, and she nods.
“But I bet you’re going to tell me how I ended up in your bed.” Stella guesses, and I fill her in on the hour she missed out on. “I can’t believe Joe would do something like that. I’ve known him since the 2nd grade!”
“Come on, Stella. Your dad’s going to figure out you didn’t sleep in your bed last night if he wakes up to find the Jeep in the driveway and you not in your bed.” I try to reason with her before she finally yawns and crawls out of bed.
“Damn, my head hurts.” She winces when she stands up, and I stand up too, just in case I have to catch her again.
“Take a few Advil when you get inside and drink an entire glass of water. Then go back to sleep.” I tell her, following her down the stairs to make sure she makes it down okay. I watch from the barn with my arms crossed across my chest as she slowly walks across the driveway to the house before sneaking through the window to her room, most likely to keep the front door from squeaking. Once she’s safely inside, I turn and climb the stairs back up to my loft and crawl into my bed – that smells sinfully of Stella – to catch a few hours of sleep, hopefully.
“Beau!” I wake up to hear the extremely angry voice of Mr. Hawkley at the base of the stairs. It takes me a few blinks to adjust to the sunlight streaming through the window, and I spring out of bed and shrug a shirt up my shoulders and hop down the stairs tugging my boots on.
“Yes sir, sorry sir.” I apologize profusely as I start buttoning my work shirt while I start scooping morning feed for the horses.
“You alright, son? You’re usually up before now.” Mr. Hawkley asks, helping me feed the horses so we can get started on our day.
“It was a, uh, late night. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.” I apologize again, before Mr. Hawkley shakes his head. The memories from last night come flooding back, and I feel guilty about lying to him, but then again I do NOT want to be the one to tell him. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him.
“Just don’t make a habit of it, kid.”
“I won’t, I promise.” I tell him after we’ve finished feeding the horses and I hurry back up the stairs to grab my hat.
I check my nearly dead phone for the time, only to find it’s nearly 9 AM. Holy shit, I’m usually up before 7 working. I plug my phone in before hurrying back down the stairs. Mr. Hawkley and I finish sorting the cattle he bought yesterday while we wait for the horses to finish their breakfast so we can saddle them up.
“You’re taking that bunch across the river. These are going up to David’s Trail and I’ll take them up there. This afternoon I need you to go down and mow the hay in the pasture across from Miss Cecilia’s place. Hopefully it’ll be hot enough today that it’ll dry out in time to rake and bale tomorrow.” Mr. Hawkley says as we’re saddling Faith and Jessie. Jessie is a solidly built sorrel mare who I’ve been riding since I came here. She hasn’t failed me yet.
“Yes’ir.” I answer, swinging up on the mare and trotting her through the gates so I can open the gates to let the cows into the pasture. Once one cow finds the opening, they all stream through, and I have to keep the moving to keep them from sticking their heads down to eat. An hour later, I finally have the cows across the river and secured in the other pasture. When Jessie turns to head back to the house, I let her run, and she gallops the short distance back to the barn where I unsaddle her and turn her out to the horse grazing paddock before heading into the house to grab a bite of brunch and fill a water jug. It’s already blistering hot out there since it is the beginning of July, and I know the tractor that hooks up to the swather has no air conditioning. I wonder how Stella’s doing this morning? I check outside to make sure Faith isn’t in the paddock even though it should take him more than twice the time to get up to David’s Trail so I shouldn’t have to worry about him snooping. I grab some Advil and a glass of water just in case she might want it.
“Stella?” I ask, walking down the hall and knocking on her door.
I hear her groan and a thump, and I’m pretty sure she fell out of bed because a string of curse words fly from her lips before she says, “It’s open.”
I push open the door, not at all surprised to find her trying to untangle herself from sheets and a comforter on the floor. “I brought you some stuff. I’m sure your head doesn’t feel so great.” I tell her, putting the glass of water and pills on her night stand and offering her a hand to stand up. She takes it before standing up and tugging down her shorts to cover her ass that I promise I did not spend most of last night staring at.
“Thanks.” She mutters, sitting back down on the bed and gulping down the Advil and water I handed her.
“Hey, I’ll make some breakfast if you’re hungry. After all the medicine I’ve been telling you to take, you should probably eat something with it.” I mumble, rubbing the back of my neck when she stands up and walks to her closet and I realize she didn’t succeed in getting her shorts tugged down. I shoot my eyes to the ceiling, and I can feel the sweat on my back starting again.
“I like omelets. Three eggs, lots of cheese, no veggies.” She groans, finally disappearing behind a closet door.
“Coming right up.” I dart out the door, thankful to have a task before I have a heart attack trying not to stare at her. I find the egg carton in the fridge and get a bowl and scramble three eggs before dumping the eggs in a pan to start cooking. Once they’re semi solid, I add a ton of cheese to the middle before flipping half of the omelet on top of the other half and letting them finish cooking while I shove some bread in the toaster. Stella comes out of her room in a pair of nearly painted on jeans and another tank top, but she’s carrying a button down shirt similar to the one I put on this morning. I just took off her omelet and am buttering a piece of toast for her when she sits down, and I start frying myself an over easy egg.
“This is actually really good, Beau.” She compliments, munching on her omelet when I take my egg off the stove and cut into it before taking a bite of my own piece of toast.
“I’m also really good with pancakes, and I can make a mean bowl of cereal.” I wink at her, and she actually laughs. “I hope your head doesn’t hurt too bad after last night.”
“My eyes still hurt a little bit which is causing my brain to hurt, but I’m really not that bad. Thanks for everything you did for me last night.” Stella murmurs, her cheeks turning pink and her eyes darting to her plate. I don’t know how to tell her that I’ve known her for almost 24 hours and I know I’d already take a bullet for her. “I know that taking care of me was not how you planned on spending your night, but really, thank you.”
“Stella, don’t worry about it. Even though you weren’t all there last night, you were still better company than Colt and Corey. Don’t tell them I said that though.” I laugh, sending her another wink.
“I won’t.” She chuckles, and gets up to pour a glass of orange juice while I finish my toast and egg. “What are you doing today?” She asks, looking at me from behind a glass of the juice.
“Your dad has me mowing the hay across from Miss Cecilia’s. That should take a good chunk of my day.” I answer, grabbing the carton of milk before thinking twice about drinking straight from it. Reluctantly, I grab a glass from the cupboard and pour my milk in it before swigging it down and grabbing my water jug.
“Good luck.” She calls as I head out the door to go in search of the tractor.
By noon I’ve stripped my shirt off, and am debating taking my jeans off as I drive the tractor in circles around the outside of the pasture. I can feel sweat rolling off my face and down my chest and back, and if I’d have sweated this much during baseball practice in college, I would have played a lot better.
By 3, I’ve already drained my water jug and gone across the road to Miss Cecilia’s place, twice, to refill it. I’m a little over halfway done with the pasture when the swather gets plugged for the fourth time today, and I groan as I climb off of the tractor and walk through the grass to go unplug it. All of the hay seed is sticking to my sweaty body, and I know that I smell worse than a high school football locker room.
“Hey cowboy.” I hear a sweet voice call my name while my head is stuck in the swather, and I smack the back of it when I jerk up to see who it is. “I bet you’re hungry, aren’t you?”
I mumble a few curse words under my breath as I straighten up, rubbing the back of my head where I smacked it, and see Stella sitting on Zeus with a picnic basket sitting on the saddle horn. “I wouldn’t get close to me if I were you.” I warn while I watch her swing down from her horse and walk towards me.
“Come on, turn the tractor off and have a picnic with me. I made you lunch to repay you for everything yesterday and last night and this morning.” Stella smiles, and I try to concentrate on sniffing myself to determine how badly I actually do smell. “Sweat doesn’t bother me, Beau.” She laughs when she realizes what I’m doing, and I smile sheepishly.
“What’d you bring?” I ask, heading to shut off the tractor.
“I’m not the world’s greatest cook, so I’m sorry you’re going to have to settle for sandwiches and potato chips and strawberries.” She answers, her cheeks going a little pink, and not because of the Georgia heat.
“As long as there is at least one turkey and cheese sandwich in that basket I’ll be happy.” I say automatically, my stomach actually starting to growl at the thought of food. I didn’t realize I was hungry until she said sandwiches.
“Well you’re in luck.” She smiles, and puts the picnic basket down and pulls out a blanket that she lays down in the cut hay before going to take the bit out of Zeus’s mouth so he can much on the prairie hay while we eat. “There’s turkey and cheese, ham and cheese, and a bologna and cheese.”
I take the time that she’s unpacking the basket to jump back in my tractor and grab my shirt and attempt to wipe some of the sweat and hay seed off my chest so I don’t look as disgusting as I feel. When I climb back out of the tractor, she’s standing on the blanket laughing at me. “Shouldn’t you still be nursing a roofie hangover?” I mutter, walking towards her and the food.
“Hey, not nice.” She gasps, and smacks my stomach with the back of her hand when I get close enough. “Fresh air does wonders for a hangover didn’t you know?”
She flips her blonde hair over her shoulder and sits down, tossing a sandwich in a baggie to me. I tear it out of the bag and sink my teeth into the bread, reminding myself not to moan at the deliciousness of the sandwich. “I’m not sure I believe that you’re not a good cook. This is perfect, and so was supper last night.” I tell her after swallowing my first bite and stuffing another bite in my mouth.
“Don’t put me in front of a stove with anything more than a box of macaroni and cheese or hamburger. Whatever it is, it will burn. Just kidding, I’m actually not that terrible of a cook, I mean, I had a father to feed for almost 5 years.” She laughs, opening a bag of Doritos and taking a bite of a chip. Who does that? “What?” She asks when she notices I’ve stopped chewing and my eyebrow has shot up, questioning her chip eating method.
“Who bites a chip?” I ask, completely bewildered.
“Eh, I’m not really hungry, just thought you might be. I needed to get out of the house, anyway.” She answers, eating a whole Dorito just to prove her point. “I’ve spent the last four hours pampering that big dude. He got a bath and a full grooming.”
“He’s going to be so spoiled he won’t want to work anymore.” I tease, finishing off my turkey sandwich and reaching for the bologna.
“Hey, I didn’t see him for 51 days. I think I’m allowed to spoil him a little bit.” She answers, frowning at me.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” I raise my hands in defense, before shoving another bite in my mouth. “What’s the story behind him, anyway?” I ask, knowing the bits and pieces of the story, but wanting to hear the full story.
“Dad brought him home from an auction when I was 12 when he went to to buy a new horse for my mom. The horse was supposed to be a birthday present for her, but when he saw this tiny orphaned colt who was just a few days old standing in a pen all by himself, he knew he had to bring him home. Of course, Dad still bought mom Faith, but even she turned into his horse after Mom decided she didn’t want the horse, and instead wanted a divorce. Zeus rode in the passenger’s seat of Dad’s truck all the way from South Carolina wrapped in his Carhartt coat because it was one of the coldest winters on record for this part of the country.” She starts the story off before pausing to munch on some more chips before continuing while she’s still chewing. “Mom, Bryndle and I were all inside drinking hot chocolate and making ginger bread houses when we heard the truck and trailer rattle into the driveway and Dad comes in saying he’s got a couple of surprises. I fell in love with that little black ball of fur the moment I saw him. Of course Dad told me I had to share him with Bryndle, but he and I both knew that wasn’t going to happen. Bryndle has always been more interested in nail polish and books about horses instead of the actual animals.”
“How old was Bryndle when this happened?”
“She’s exactly 14 months younger than me. She was 11. I was almost 13.” She answers before finishing her story. “This was the night before the fighting started. I spent more nights in the barn for the next three months than I did in my own bed. My teachers started wondering why I smelled like a barn. They didn’t realize I was actually sleeping in one. I spent my 13th birthday in this little guy’s stall. Dad didn’t realize he was part Friesian when he brought Zeus home because he was so small. He grew a lot in the first year; so much that after Mom and Dad got the divorce and Mom remarried and moved to Panama with Bryndle, Dad considered selling him because he thought I couldn’t handle his size. I mean, I was a pretty small 13-year old, but the older and bigger Zeus got, the more Dad realized that we had such a special bond and Zeus would never do anything to hurt me. In fact, he probably saved me. I trained him myself. He never bucked when I got on him the first time. He hasn’t bucked with me on him since.”
“What do you mean he probably saved you?” I ask, watching her carefully as she tucks her hands under her thighs and crosses her legs.
“When my parents divorced, it was such a shock to me, I kind of shut down. I barely passed 7th grade. If the teachers didn’t know what I was going through and hadn’t cut me some slack, I would be getting ready to go into my senior year. If it wasn’t for that horse, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. Dad didn’t know what to do with me. He didn’t know what to say. It took me almost six months to figure out that Mom wasn’t coming back.” She shrugs her shoulders from where she laid back on the blanket about halfway through this part of the story. “Once I figured it out though, I was fine. But Zeus was there every single day without failing me. He’s truly my rock.”
If I wasn’t so sweaty I’d try to give her a hug, but since it’s so hot out, I don’t think any skin contact would be okay. “Thanks for telling me.” I murmur, reaching out to touch her hair that she swept towards me.
“Yeah, well I’m sure you weren’t expecting all of that when you asked about him.” She chuckles, watching me play with her hair.
“No, I definitely wasn’t, but I’m glad you told me anyway.”
We sit on the blanket for a few more minutes before I decide that I better get back to work if I want to finish before supper. She waves over her shoulder as she and Zeus head back up the road, and I hurry over to Miss Cecilia’s to fill my jug up again before I start back in the tractor. I think it only got hotter while Stella and I ate, and I am not looking forward to sitting in that tractor for another three hours, but I begrudgingly do. I mean, it’s what Mr. Hawkley pays me to do. By the time I’ve cut the last row of hay, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost probably 15 pounds because of all the sweating I did, and I am more than ready to take a shower and eat something.
As soon as I have the tractor parked in its normal spot behind the barn, I head up to my loft to grab a set of clean clothes. It’s still way too hot to wear another button down, so I grab a cutoff and head for the bathroom in the house.
“Mmm, it smells good in here.” I mention when I walk inside and the scent of what I think is chicken, fills my nose.
“Fried chicken will be ready in 25 minutes.” Stella calls over her shoulder while she’s standing at the stove.
I head into the kitchen to grab a drink before I hop in the shower. “See, I told you that I didn’t believe you weren’t a good cook.” I smirk, filling a mason jar up with sweet tea from the fridge before swigging it down. Yeah, yeah, I know tea is dehydrating and I should be drinking water, but I was really feeling some tea right now.
“Oh, my granny taught me how to fry chicken when I was 10. It was always my favorite meal of hers, besides her apple pie – which is in the oven right now for dessert, and I begged her to teach me how to make them.” Stella replies, working on frying the chicken. She looks so adorable in an apron with her hair tied back at the nape of her neck, and I seriously need to stop thinking about seeing this view every day for the rest of my life. “You best be getting a shirt on if you’re gonna stand in my kitchen, Beau. Ever heard of a no shirt, no shoes, no service place? Well that what my kitchen runs on, so get a shirt on or get out.”
“I’m going, I’m going.” I laugh, holding my hands up in surrender after she finally looks at me and starts waving her tongs at my chest. “Don’t miss me too much!” Stella rolls her eyes at me and I hurry to the bathroom, too busy thinking about how perfect she is to realize the hall table had been moved. I jam my toes into one of the metal feet on the table, and I am no proud to admit the string of profanities that come flying out of my mouth as I hop on one leg back to the kitchen as she comes running around the corner.
“What the hell happened?” She gasps, and I swear I see a smile when she sees me hopping around on one foot.
“Why did you move the table?” I ask, gingerly putting my stubbed foot back on the ground and looking at the victims.
“I thought it looked better on that side of the hallway.” She shrugs, and I’m pretty sure my eyes bulge out as I stare at her.
“You thought it looked better?” I nearly shriek, and Stella completely starts laughing. “You think this is funny?”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing, your reaction is just too comical though! Go take your shower, I have chicken to fry.” She giggles, turning her back to me while trying to hide her laughter.
I roll my eyes and continue my mission to the bathroom, this time succeeding. I strip my jeans that have been completely sweated through, and step into a nice cool shower. After standing and just letting the water cool my hot skin for way too long, I finally find the luffa and soap and rid my body of the stench I know was being emitted. I run my fingers through my hair and turn the water off and shake the water out of my hair, kind of like a dog before grabbing a towel to dry off with enough that I can put my jeans on. After they’re buttoned and sitting on my hips like they should, I hang the towel back up and put my cutoff on. I toss my disgusting jeans in the laundry basket in the bathroom, and head back out to watch Stella cook.
“Don’t you have something you should be doing right now?” Stella asks when she feels my presence behind her.
“Nope. I’m all done for the day. I’ll feed the horses and do night check when I head to bed. Where’s your dad?” I ask, kicking my feet up on the kitchen chairs I’m currently lounging across.
“Dad went into the city today to pick up a load of pellets for the cattle and run some errands. He was supposed to be back by now, but he sent a text that said he’s running about an hour late and for us to not wait for him to eat.” Stella answers, and swats my feet of the chairs as she starts to bring dishes over. I oblige and sit correctly in my chair before getting up to help her. She quickly scolds me, and I sit back down while she brings the platter of fried chicken to the table along with mashed potatoes and green beans.
“You said there’s a pie for dessert, right?” I ask, my nose sure it’s smelling heaven when she puts the chicken on the table. She points to a drying rack by the oven that has a beautiful pie resting on it, and my mouth starts watering again.
“Do you want tea to drink?” She asks, heading back to the refrigerator.
“Sure please.” I answer with a smile. Stella brings back my sweet tea and again, my mind tries to trick me into thinking that we’re a real family. I swear I can almost hear our kids running around in the background and I almost expect Stella to yell at them to go wash their hands for supper. Wow, I really need to stop letting myself think like this.
We eat supper – which I have never tasted a better fried chicken in my entire life – and make small talk until we’re both full, and then I help her clear the table. She makes a plate for her dad and sticks it in the still warm oven, and I head to put my boots on to go do final checks. The sun is finally starting to set, and I’m actually looking forward to getting a full night’s sleep.
“Do you want some help with feeding the horses?” Stella asks, leaning against the wall while I sit on the bench in the foyer to stuff my feet into the boots.
“If you want to.” I answer, wanting to spend as much time with her as I possibly can. I mean, I’m definitely not going to tell her no.
“Night check and feeding was always my responsibility after Mom and Bryndle moved away. Before they left, it was always Bryndle’s job while I did morning rounds, feeding them as soon as I woke up and turning them out right before I left for school.” She says, and I then notice her boots are already on, so we head outside to the barn. Together we fill hay nets, steering clear of Apollo’s teeth, and I start to bid Stella good night before she gently touches my arm.
“You can come back inside and we can watch a movie or something if you want to?” She offers in an extremely small voice that kind of takes me by surprise. This girl has never seemed shy since I met her, and I wasn’t expecting it. Of course, once again, I’m unable to tell her no, so I simply nod and follow her inside.