In no time at all, Rachel’s arms are covered with flour as she takes more of a handful from the powdery substance and piles it onto the counter. She accidentally drops the ball of dough on it, and the powder puffs out into the air, landing on her face and all over her apron.
Carol and I burst out with laughter at my best friend’s expense. Rachel glares at us, but the corners of her mouth pull up. She wipes the dusting off her face. “I told you that I’m no good at this.” Rachel laughs at herself.
“Honey, you’re going to have to learn how to bake and cook.” Carol mentions in between her fits of laughter.
“Do I really, though?” Rachel asks with a smile while I cut a strawberry in half.
“What else will you eat?” Carol asks.
Rachel’s mouth moves to the side. “Frozen pizzas, SpaghettiOs, takeout...”
Carol and I both laugh. “You can’t keep a man with that stuff,” Carol says. “The only way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. If you ever want to keep a man, you need to learn to cook.”
I roll my eyes even though she may have a point there. Some men cook and are very good at it, but so many men don’t. Mike has mentioned that he’s not a good cook... I now kind of wish I held on to those baked goods for Mike instead of giving them to Rachel.
“I thought that’s what sex was for,” Rachel blurts with a sly grin.
“Rachel!” I shout, throwing a kitchen towel at her. An embarrassing smile spreads across my face at my best friend’s inability to have a filter. Carol laughs, nearly dropping the rolling pin. With us all in a laughing fit, the slider door opens.
“Y’all okay in here?” Mike peeks his head in to see the three of us barely holding ourselves together by our stomachs. His face is a little red, and beads of sweat are falling from his forehead. He must be working up an appetite with cutting all the firewood.
“What the hell happened in here?” Mike looks at a flour-covered Rachel.
“Mikey, language,” Carol corrects him.
He raises a hand and chuckles. “Sorry, ma.” He turns, closes the slider, and walks back to where he came from.
I giggle to myself about Mike’s nickname: Mikey. It sounds so boyish for a man who is a large biker.
“Oh, that boy. Here honey, how about you cut up the rhubarb.” Carol pulls out a chair at the table then gives Rachel a cutting board and some rhubarb with a knife.
It surprises me with how much I really like Carol already. I was pretty sure that I loved her instantly when I first met her in that Grinch sweater, but now? She’s awesome. She reminds me of my mother in some ways. My mother hardly took crap from anyone, and she was an excellent cook. She had this way of making everyone feel at home, much like Carol.
“How are you doing with those, honey?” Carol asks me as I cut the last of the strawberries.
I smile at her. “Fine.”
“You look like you know your way around the kitchen,” Carol observes.
I nod my head. “My mom and I used to cook all the time together. We would prepare a meal, or some treats and just talk about our day.” I reflect on those memories with a smile.
The first time I ever tried to attempt making brownies on my own, I was five. I mistook the salt for the sugar. When my mom came home, she took a bite and graciously told me the truth: it was awful. I wanted to cry, but she told me that she’d help me fix it. We made a new batch before dad came home.
“I’m sure your mother is a lovely woman,” Carol says, tucking her short brown hair behind her ear.
“She was.” I gurgle my throat at the memory of her.
Carol pauses and wipes off her hand with her apron. “Was, dear?” She looks concerned. Rachel stops cutting the rhubarb to see my reaction. The sudden silence that swept over the kitchen is deafening.
Clearing my throat, I tell Carol, “Uhm, my mom passed away when I was thirteen.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry.”
I nod my head. “Me too.”
“Do you mind if I ask what happened to her?” she asks.
“No, I don’t mind. Cancer took her. She battled it for three years and finally decided she was done fighting.” A shiver erupts inside at the memory of how shriveled her body was, how frail she looked at the young age of thirty-four.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” Carol comforts. Rachel has a solemn look on her face as she places the cut rhubarb into a bowl. She was there with me for all of it.
I shake the gray clouds of sadness away and smile. “It’s okay. She lived a very happy life before then.”
As I measure out the sugar, my eyes wander through the windowpanes to Mike and Paul. If I talk any more about my mother, I may mix tears with the other ingredients. I focus on the nearest distraction - Mike conveniently pulls off his cut off shirt as if he knows I’m watching. He rests it on a nearby pile of wood, then picks up a log and sets it on a stump. With an ax, he swings it effortlessly in the air and splits the log in half with one swing as if splitting butter. If I wasn’t head over heels already, I think I am now.
Carol clears her throat. I snap out of my daydream of how incredible that body feels on mine and fling my sights to the mother of the man I was just ogling over. Talk about embarrassing.
“Uh, here’s the sugar.” I blush and quickly hand out the measured brown substance to Carol. She gives me a knowing smile and takes the measuring cup from me.
“It’s okay, dear. Just remember that looks aren’t everything.” Carol combines the strawberries with the sugar and begins to mix them in the bowl. “Make sure my boy treats you with the respect that you deserve. Don’t let him walk all over you. If you do, then what happened to me may happen to you.”
I wipe my hands on the apron and glance at Rachel. She’s not sure what to think of the situation either. She’s giving me warning eyes not to press the matter, but this just opened a new can of worms for me. My dad was so concerned about me dating Mike because of how similar he may be to his father and the fact that his dad left his family behind...
“What do you mean?” I press gently.
Carol sighs, and Rachel silently facepalms her forehead behind Carol’s back. “Has Mike told you about his father?” Carol asks.
“Not really. Just that he left when he was eight.”
Carol pours the contents of the bowl on top of the pie crust in the pie plate. “Mike and his father, Jack, both have that same mentality - the one where they know they are in charge; they use it for their advantage and what they say goes. They can be cocky and overconfident. They make great leaders but view a relationship as running a club, not a partnership. If you stay silent, he will speak for you. If you let him, he will do everything in his power to take control of every situation.” She takes an apple and begins cutting it into slices. “That boy does like to be in control.
“The difference between Jack and Mike is that Jack never guarded his heart. Mike has gone through something so dark that I’m afraid it consumed him. I’m afraid he’s blocked out the light for good. I blame myself for not knowing what was happening under my own roof for so many years. It doesn’t surprise me that my son doesn’t even say ‘I love you’ anymore. I know that he has so much love to give to someone too, I know he wants to, but he’s scared. He has such a great heart, though...he just doesn’t like to show it.” Her voice croaks as she sets down the knife and wipes a couple of tears.
“I’m sorry, girls. Neither of you needs to hear any of this from me. I’m just a big ’ol ball-bag. There’s not a whole lot of people I can talk to other than my pastor and a few women from church.” She lets out a burst of nervous laughter as Rachel and I reach out to comfort her.
“It’s okay. Really, I appreciate what you’re telling me.” My heart throbs for this woman. I had no idea that Mike hasn’t been able to say that he loves her. Will he ever be able to say it to me? Will he be able to ever say it at all? What is he so scared of?
What darkness was able to consume him? Is he still in that darkness? What happened to him?
Carol looks into my eyes. “I know my son; he is head over steel toe boots for you.”
I doubt that he’s in love with me already. “How do you know that?” I ask.
“Because you’re the first girl he’s ever brought home to meet me.” Her warm smile reaches her eyes. “Please don’t give up on him. He needs a strong woman who will hold his heart.”