We're up before dawn, which definitely has taken some getting used to. There's a lot to do. The horses need to be fed and watered, brushed down, their hooves, teeth, and ears checked. We walk and train them in the pens, muck out the stalls, stock grain, and hay, clean out the water troughs.
The land heats up fast, so the sooner the work is done, the better. I like the consistency and stability and am learning to depend on the chores and responsibilities. I don't mind getting dusty and dirty and my muscles being sore from the hard work. It makes me feel normal and useful for a little while.
Ranch life is so different from what I knew back in California, and I like spending my time surrounded by nothing but wide, open green space.
Breakfast is another routine Becca and Ben are firm about never missing together. We eat at seven sharp every morning. All four of us, no matter where we are, or what we are doing on the far corners of the ranch, know to be in the kitchen, sitting at the table, ready to eat.
The conversation revolves around what the work is that day, and who will be taking care of what. Which is how Becca's suggestion came up about me helping Nick fix the perimeter fence on the south side of the ranch.
Nick sends Becca a dark glance over a spoonful of grits, and I feel the lurch in the air as if I can actually hear his stomach drop. "She doesn't know the first thing about working on the fences," he says, and I sense a flicker of panic, of resistance, the fear of me, in his voice.
I think of the afternoon in the stable, it's all I've been able to think about, when he almost told me about his grief, let me in, broke. He wanted to. He'd been so close. But then he changed his mind and shut me out again.
He's been more distant than usual the last few days, off on the far ends of the land, quiet and careful and safely out of my reach. Evading me, any conversation, the risk of one. I understand his withdrawal, but it still hurts.
"Well, how else will she learn unless she does it?" Becca asked as she takes a bite of toast. "You're a good teacher. You know everything about this land. I have no doubt you can show her."
"I can do something else," I offer, trying to keep the peace, to ease the tension, the friction, and static between us. It's so strong, so thick, and loud, I don't know how anything normal is happening around us.
"Don't be silly, sweetheart," Becca says. "You're just as much a part of this place as the rest of us." She looks pointedly at Nick. "And Nick needs the help even if he is too proud to admit it."
Annoyed, Nick shakes his head. "It's not about needing help," he argues. "It's just not a good idea. What if she gets hurt?"
Unfazed, Becca smears more blackberry jam on her toast. "You'll take care of her out there," she says, and just smiles when he frowns at her.
"I don't have time to keep an eye on her, Becca," he says, and I again feel that same undercurrent, the avoiding, the push from him. What is he afraid I will get him to do? "I've got a lot of work to do today. And besides, I doubt she even wants to."
Nick is sitting right next to me, close enough that I could touch him if one of us moves wrong. I notice both of us have been careful never to let that happen. I look over at him. I think he wants me to give him an out, but I can't. I don't want him far away anymore.
"Yes, I do," I say, softly, interrupting him, pulling him back towards me. He's too lost and lonely on his own. We both are. Come here.
He pauses mid-argument, looks over at me, and I instantly feel the fight drain away, as if he's stopped running and comes to a breathless standstill.
I see the same ragged look in his eyes from the other day and wonder if he's struggled to stay away from me, if he thinks about me when I'm not around, if he wishes he would have let me into his pain. I haven't been able to get him out of my mind for a single second.
Neither of us notices the secret smile Becca gives Ben as if this is what she's wanted the whole time.
"It's hard work," he warns me. "You might get bored."
I'll be with him so I didn't think that would happen but don't dare say it. "I don't mind. I want to help." I need to do something to fill up the time here. I don't want to give myself too much space to think. I want to stay busy, to try and stay ahead of the guilt. I'm not ever fully able to do it. My mom is never far from my thoughts. She's a lurking shadow stalking my every step. But, the work is a good distraction. He must sense my aimlessness, he must understand it because he gives in.
"Okay fine," he muttered, letting out a defeated sigh. But, his armor is still tight around him as he shovels in a mouthful of eggs. "We're driving out in ten minutes."
Nodding, I quickly finish the rest of my breakfast. He is already up and heading for the door by the time I swallow my last bite. Becca just winks at me and hands me a thermos of water as I run out after him.
An hour later, I found myself walking the fence line, looking for gaps, sags, or loose nails that can injure the horses and cause infection. Nick's idea of letting me help is telling me not to touch anything as I follow behind him, watching him work. The only thing he's trusted me with so far is carrying the shovel.
I jolt as he bangs a nail into place. "Why do you need to check the fences all the time?"
He straightens. "The horses push up against them," he answers, wiggling the board to make sure it's secure. "Don't want them breaking out and walking too near the road." He tucks the hammer into the slot of his tool belt. "It also keeps horses and cattle from other ranches from getting in."
The fence is a bright, clean white. Nick explains they have to paint them every couple of years to make sure the horses can still see them and won't try to jump over and risk their hooves and legs getting caught.
Music carries over from the radio Nick leaves on in the back of his truck. It's an old classic country song I haven't heard in a while, but one I've always liked. I wonder if I could learn to play it. With as quiet and flat as the land is, I can hear the strain of it perfectly and lean towards the sound as if it said my name. Lulled by the melody, I hum quietly, finding the harmony, and blend my voice in with it.
The air is hot and muggy, the morning light is a golden shimmer around us, the song is slow and pretty. I'm drawn in and drift with it, letting the soft, lazy rhythm wrap around me. I sing softly to myself as the sun shines down and I follow after Nick. For one single moment, everything seems so simple and easy and I think this must be what a perfect day would feel like. I've never had one before.
When the song ends, a commercial comes on, bringing me back. I go still, my soft smile fading, as I look over and meet Nick's gaze. For an instant, it's fascinated, curious, admiring. What is he thinking? And why do I feel like this every time he looks at me? "Sorry if it bothers you," I say, blushing. "It's one of my favorite songs."
He catches himself staring and quickly looks away. "Didn't say it did," he answers, again leaving me wondering as he moves on.
We walk the fence line in silence for a few moments. My tension grows, straining and rippling on the air around me with every step. I have never met someone who can say so much with barely saying anything at all.
"You ever think about doing something with it?" he asks and I'm embarrassed that I jump a little at the sound of his voice. I notice he doesn't look at me. He seems to be concentrating really hard on the posts.
"Singing." He says it with his back to me as he runs his fingers over the nails to see if any are jutting out or loose. "You obviously love it, and you're good at it."
My stomach knots up at the possibility. "What would I do?"
"Anything," he murmurs under his breath. I don't think he meant for me to hear him, and doesn't realize I did. I stare at him but he's not facing me so he doesn't notice. He shifts, shrugs. "You could always post a video of you singing on Instagram or Facebook. People get discovered that way all the time." He's the picture of indifference as he pulls out a rusted, bent nail and replaces it with a screw, tightens it into the fence board. "Or you could try open mic nights. I've also heard of some music schools that are pretty good."
"Yeah, I know. Vanderbilt School of Music is here." I excitedly blurt it out without thinking. He turns and looks over at me then, his brows raised in surprise. Flustered, I fumble, feel my face flush. When he holds my gaze, I give in and tell him. I am dying to share it with someone. The secret has been burning inside of me. "I have an application," I finally admit. I've been holding onto it for months, like a lifejacket on a sinking ship. I still had it, hidden in a pocket of my suitcase. "I filled it out and recorded a demo, but haven't sent them in yet."
I feel so guilty about it. I had printed out more than twenty applications, all to different music schools around the country. I had done it out of the desperation that there had to be something more than what I knew. I'd needed to have something to hold on to, some small shred of hope in the middle of so much darkness and devastation. If the only thing I had for the rest of my life was the disappointment of her broken promises, I knew I wouldn't make it.
He put his screw driver back in his tool belt, retrieves his thermos of water from where he'd set it on one of the posts. "How come you haven't sent them in?"
Feeling overwhelmed, I just shake my head. I'm not sure where to begin. "Everything is such a mess right now. I don't even know how I would deal with it. And I know how much it would hurt her." Just talking about it makes me feel like I'm betraying her. I helplessly look away, wrap my arms around myself. "Besides, I'm not sure if I'm even good enough to get in. I haven't had any training and you have to audition if they accept your application. I've never sung in front of anyone before." I falter and blush again as I realize he's the exception. "You're the only one whose heard me."
Since I can't think of a reason not to, I tell him the blunt truth. "I didn't want her to take it away from me."
He doesn't tell me he understands. He doesn't have to. It's the same reason he doesn't want to talk about Megan. He continues to watch me a moment longer and then slowly nods. He's quiet as he brings his thermos up to his lips to drink, lowers it, screws the top back on. Because he's still watching me, I catch the questions, the pity. Awareness crackles between us, like the sound a match makes when it's just lit. I wonder if he'll risk asking me, but all he says is, "You better drink up, too. You'll get dehydrated real quick out here."
Breaking his gaze, I shakily let out my breath as I turn to get my thermos. Opening it, I drink greedily. The heat is sweltering and drains me. At least I tell myself it's the heat. I pull my gloves off and pour water into my hand, rub it over my face, the back of my neck. It trickles down, soaking into the collar of my shirt, dampening it. With no breeze, it brings little relief.
He'd waited for me before moving on down the line and I wonder if he's getting used to me. I walk up to him and we continue our inspection of the perimeter. I decide it's safe to try talking to him again. "Can you please do me a favor and not say anything to Becca yet about what I told you? I'll tell her," I say quickly. "I just have to figure it out first."
Noncommittal, Nick kicked his boot against the bottom of a fence post. "It's none of my business what you do." His brow creases as he notices the beam give a few inches. He bends to inspect the ground. "Can you hand me the shovel?"
Not safe enough yet, I think, wincing. I keep running into walls. I'm grateful he's not looking at me to see the hurt. I'm quiet as I pass the shovel to him. I know he's right, but his words still pierce me. We're not friends and we don't know each other. Expecting him to care is unrealistic and unfair, but I didn't know until this moment how badly I've needed someone to tell my secrets to. Singing has been all I've had. When there was nothing but my parent's arguments or the horrible silence of the blackouts, music kept me from drowning. I've kept the love for it to myself all this time. I've had to. He's the only one who knows. For the first time, I want to let someone in to be a part of this dream with me. But, he doesn't want to.
Out of sheer survival instinct, I quickly shut down the need. I'm used to the disappointment. I've been on my own for as long as I can remember. But, I wasn't prepared for how lonely it would make me feel. I guess I should be used to that too, but the ache of it is somehow more painful after losing the hope of maybe, finally, being able to trust someone with the one thing that is most important to me.
I change the subject. I need something easy to talk about, something that doesn't require anything out of either of us and will level the ground between us again. "Why is there an old boot hanging on the front gate?"
"It was your great, great granddaddy Beau's. Hold this rail."
Surprised he actually let me do more than just stand there, I turn and look down at him. "What?"
He sighs, rests his arm on his knee and squints up me. Even under the shade of the brim of his hat, I can see the impatience in his eyes. "You want to help or not?"
"Yeah," I say quickly.
He jerks his head. "Then come here." Holding back my annoyance, I walk over to him. Before I can ask what I'm supposed to do, he says, "Just keep it still a second."
I'm not sure what changed his mind. I figure he probably wouldn't tell me anyway. Wanting to prove I can be useful, I brace my body against the rail, grip the top to hold it in place. "Like this?"
"Yeah, that's good." He's close enough to me that his arm brushes against my leg as he sifts through the dirt, using a spade to weed out rocks and roots that are growing near the base. Everything about him is too close, even with so much space around us. To distract myself, I look back towards the front gate of the ranch. The tall, broad posts can be seen from miles around. "Why did my grandfather hang his boot on the fence?"
"It's a tradition that's been around forever." I keep the rail in place as he fills in the hole and packs dirt around the post. "You can let go now." I step aside so he can test the beam. When it holds firm, he gets to his feet, tucks the spade in with the rest of his tools.
"What's the tradition?"
He removes his gloves, takes off his hat, and runs his hands through his hair. The heat and humidity have made it damp, darker. I smell the faint scent of his shampoo. "Back in the days before there was electricity, ranchers would hang a boot on the gate to let neighbors know they were home, and they were done working, and that people could come over to visit."
"Really?" I ask, delighted. "Did all ranchers used to do it?"
He shrugs. "I imagine they did." He uses the backside of his sleeve to wipe the sweat off his brow, sets the hat back on his head, glances past me to the road. "That boot has been on the fence for I don't know how long. Over a hundred years at least."
I could listen to him tell me about the history of this ranch all day. I like the sound of his voice; the lazy, low southern drawl of it. It's soothing and makes me think of cool porches and weeping willows and old westerns on slow Sunday afternoons.
"Over a hundred years," I murmur, letting my family line tie itself to me, securing my feet where I stand. I've been blowing untethered in the wind for so long, with no one and nothing to hold onto. Would anyone notice if I flew away and disappeared into thin air?
Maybe I had originally run to this ranch looking for my mom, but the longer I'm here, I realize I'm also looking for myself, for a home and family. To find somewhere safe and someone to belong to.
I think of the yellowed, grainy photographs Becca had shown me. I can see the Tintype of Beau Montgomery looking serious and strong, in his worn overalls, his young face weathered from the sun. He'd settled on this land with his wife, Adelaide, and they built the very fence we are working on with their own two hands. And now, I'm here, continuing to preserve the life and legacy they left behind for all of us who followed after them. I feel something quietly and perfectly click into place inside of me.
"What a great tradition. I wish I had known him." Nick is facing me as I smile brilliantly up at him, thrilled to be given another link to my family and our past. It seems to startle him. Disarmed, his guard is momentarily down and he allows himself to smile too, not completely, not fully, but enough that his face changes, softens, his eyes lighten.
Fascinated by the transformation, all I can do is stare at him. He looks like he used to, like he did in the photograph I saw of him in the newspaper. Open, soft, painfully tender and vulnerable. He breaks my heart.
There you are, I think, mesmerized. I don't notice I've stepped closer, but the movement makes him suddenly back up, his smile instantly disappearing as the guilt takes over. His expression is carefully hooded again, shielded and closed from me. Off limits. Confused by the abrupt shift, I can't figure out why he seems so frustrated. What do I keep doing wrong? I wonder, my own smile fading, as I watch him turn away.
We don't say much over the next few hours. It's just easier. Talking to him keeps confusing me and leaves me feeling like I'm completely in his way. He finally relents enough to let me do more than just carry supplies. I pay attention and try to learn quick. I want to be a part of life out here. I do what he tells me to and help him test the posts, prune out rocks from the fences so they don't get caught in the horses hooves, hand him the hammer, shovel and hold the nails when he needs them.
I couldn't say how much time had passed. The sun is up in the middle of the sky now and blazing hot and bright down on us. It had been barely a hint between the trees when we'd started out earlier that morning. The days here stretch out long and wide along with the land. Only the shadows shifting farther across the pastures tell of the hours going by.
We finish another section. Nick tosses a rock over the fence and then turns to look at me. "You hungry?"
I nod. My stomach has been grumbling for the last hour. "Yeah."
"We better eat something. Don't want you passing out on me." He walks over to the back of his truck where the cooler is. Becca was right, I realize, as I follow him. He will take care of me out here.
He takes off his tool belt and lays it down. Picking up the cooler Becca had packed for us, he brings it over to a spot in the shade. Opening the lid, he hands me a pastrami sandwich, gets one for himself. He sits down, takes his hat off, and sets it down on the ground beside him. Stretching out his legs, he leans back against the large trunk of an old oak.
I sit cross-legged down next to him. The shelter from the canopy of the branches drapes lazily above our heads. The air is heavy and humid and the hum of insects is constantly around us. I let out a content sigh as I absorb the simple, rustic beauty. The song on the radio has changed, I notice. I always do. I listen for music everywhere. LeAnn Rimes was singing about being blue. I let her rich, lilting voice wash over and soothe me as I look out over the wide acres of land. Even the light seems magical and dreamy.
"This place is so beautiful," I murmur. "I could sit out here for hours."
Nick just nods the way someone would who is used to seeing this kind of beauty all the time. He keeps eating. He must have been hungry because the first half of his sandwich is completely gone in less than two minutes.
"How many acres are here?" I ask, licking mayonnaise from my finger.
"About five hundred, give or take," he answers with his mouth full.
My eyes widen with astonishment, my jaw drops. "That many?"
Unimpressed, he shrugs. "It's a big ranch." He reaches into the cooler, pulls out a bowl of potato salad and two forks, hands me one. "And it's all yours."
Awed by the thought, I look across the sprawling miles of sun-drenched pastures. I can't see the end of them. They go all the way to the skyline. This ranch has been in my family for a hundred and fifty years, passed down from generation to generation. It's been here, waiting for me all this time. I feel the weight of the inheritance rest on me.
Nick hands me the mason jar of lemonade Becca had made from scratch. I take it and drink, the taste is cool and tangy and a little bit sweet. I watch him over the rim. I know he needs this place as much as I do.
I hand the jar back. "This ranch is yours, too. You've been here a lot longer than me."
He shakes his head, puts the lemonade between us to share. "This land doesn't belong to me." He holds out the salad and I scoop out a bite.
"But, you feel like it does," I say, swallowing. He looks at me, holds my gaze longer than I thought he would. He doesn't deny what I've said. "You take really good care of this place. It seems like you wouldn't know what to do without it. I can see why," I murmur, scanning the horizon, taking in the old victorian farmhouse, the scattered outbuildings, the horses peacefully grazing under the afternoon sun. "I'd love to live here."
"Yeah." Does he look worried? I recognize the same frozen look in his eyes from breakfast that morning. "I've never had a home like this. Isn't it strange how somewhere you've never been can feel so familiar? As if you've been here your whole life?"
Nick doesn't answer. He seems distracted and tense. I can't tell what he's thinking.
A few moments pass by while we eat. I need to fill the space between us. I have a feeling Nick could go days and not say a word, but his silence is making me edgy. "Does your family still live around here? Becca said you grew up by Ben."
Lost in thought, it takes a minute for his gaze to come back to mine. His expression is unclear, unfocused. I wonder where he's just been. "What?"
"I was just asking where your family was."
"Oh," he answered absently, his mind obviously somewhere else. "Yeah. They live about thirty minutes away from here. Out in Franklin." Almost as an afterthought, he hands me the rest of the potato salad.
I take the tupperware from him. "That close?"
"Where'd you think they were?"
"I don't know. You never talk about them. Do you have any sisters or brothers?"
His eyes are wary, as if he doesn't trust how far I'm going to ask him to go. Or maybe he doesn't trust himself not to let me take him back to the place we were a few days ago. "You ask a lot of questions."
What I don't know, what I won't find out until later is that ever since Megan died, he barely spoke to his family. He'd pushed them away as he'd done with so many other people he'd known back then. Resigned, I give up. He doesn't want to talk and he doesn't want to let me in. The red warning tape is criss-crossed all over the ground between us.
"Sorry," I mutter, feeling wounded. I keep eating and keep my mouth shut.
We sit in an awkward silence for what seems like hours. I don't have to look up to know he's watching me. I can feel the weight of his eyes as if he's touching me and fight the urge to squirm. Even the daylight seems to be full of him, his heat, his smell, his sweat, his pain.
"I have an older brother," he finally says. Surprised, I look over at him. I can't tell if he answered out of guilt or if he actually wants to share a part himself with me. My guess is the first one. "Before you ask me, his name is Jake and he and his wife live over in Valley Grove."
"Are you guys close?" I ask, finishing the last bite.
"Close enough," he answers, and I wonder why there seems to be a double meaning behind his words.
"It must be nice," I sigh, and I can hear the wistfulness in my voice, the loneliness. "I don't have any sisters or brothers."
He doesn't say anything to that. A look comes into his eyes, one that makes me feel unexplainably sad. I only catch it because I'm watching him, but I see the flash of regret and grief cross his face. I'm guessing it has to do with Megan. Everything about him leads back to her.
He unconsciously rubs at the scar above his eyebrow, old wounds still raw, before wearily turning away from me. He's finished eating and busies himself with gathering our containers and silverware and puts them in the cooler, shuts the lid. Picking up his hat, he gets to his feet, looks down at me. "Break's over."
I don't want him to see that I feel sorry for him and am thankful for the sun in my eyes. I shade them with my hand as I squint up at him and nod. He walks away to put the cooler in the truck. I stare after him, more fascinated than ever. Standing, I brush myself off, walk over to him.
He hands me his thermos. "Will you fill these back up for us?"
"Sure." I take his along with mine and go over to the spigot. I bend down and turn it on, holding my hand under the stream until the warm water cools. I fill both and then meet up with him a few feet down. I hold his out for him.
"Thanks," he says, taking it. He straps his tool belt back around his waist, puts his hat back on. He hands me the shovel as he carries our other supplies. "Let's go."
We get back to walking the line. Mending the fence is tedious and time-consuming work. It doesn't take long for my muscles to get sore and strained from the exertion. My skin and clothes are damp from the heat and humidity, but I don't mind. I like the work and the purpose it brings me. Nick's experience makes him a good teacher and I catch on enough that I can anticipate what he'll need for each task.
As the hours pass, I no longer have to ask and can spot a sagging beam or a nail that needs to be removed and replaced. We don't say much as we trade off tools and make the necessary repairs. With the fence between us, the silence is easier, more comfortable.
When we reach the end of the perimeter, Nick stops, turns. He stretches his neck and rubs his shoulder as he stands back to inspect our progress. I've stopped too and wipe the sweat from under my hair. I can tell from his expression that he's satisfied and I'm quietly pleased. I want him to be proud of me. I watch as his eyes follow the fence back towards where we're standing and then slowly focus on me as I come into his line of vision. "We're done for today."
I nod and take a step forward, expecting to follow him back to the truck. But he doesn't move and I end up just stepping closer before quickly catching myself. My breath hitches as I look up at him. He doesn't back up and is closer to me than I thought he'd let himself be. He doesn't look away this time and I feel my chest tighten, my body instantly tense. How does he do that? My palms are damp.
"You should send your application," he says, his low drawl seeming to float on the breeze between us. Everything in me leans towards him as if he's telling me a secret. "You'll get in."
I blink as it registers that he's talking about applying for the music school. I hadn't known he'd been thinking about it or even listening. I'm so stunned I don't know what to say and just continue staring stupidly up at him.
He doesn't wait for an answer or even acknowledge what he just gave me. Instead, he completely changes the subject. "We better get back. Still have a lot to do today." He takes the shovel from me and swings it up onto his shoulder. It isn't until he finally looks away that I'm able to breathe normally.
I fall into step beside him. I like being close to him and am struck by how natural it feels. I'm not sure if he notices. I definitely wasn't bored. We walk down the fence we just repaired towards his truck. It brings me a great sense of accomplishment to see what I helped work on. I desperately want to be useful, to contribute in some way.
It's a small thing, but I want to succeed at just one thing after years of being slapped in the face with the constant failure of not being able to save my mother. I don't want my life to be a waste. I don't want to feel helpless anymore. Maybe, out here, I can be given a second chance to be something more. To be someone better, and to make up for all the things I never knew how to change.
I secretly glance at Nick. What does he wait for, need, dream about? I don't have the courage to ask him, but quietly wonder if he's hoping for the same thing I am. For the proof that all this pain, all this loss, has to be for something. That somehow, if we ever make it out of this struggle alive, everything will finally make sense and we'll find the answers we've desperately searched for.
As I stay close to his side, I also hope, for both our sakes, that we're not waiting in vain.