Authors: Michelle Gable
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For my mom,
the best there is.
And for great mothers everywhere.
GOOSE CREEK HILL
“Maybe she'll surprise us,” Eric said.
They walked along the path toward the barn, Annie's sandals crunching against the gravel. It was eighty degrees, unusually warm for that time of year, an Indian summer. The sun was bright, the hillsides green and flashing. The leaves had not yet begun to change.
“Surprise us?” Annie said, her stomach wobbly. Somewhere in the distance a horse whinnied. “Uh, no. My mom doesn't surprise anyone.”
“Come on, have a little faith. It happens all the time. You think you know someone and suddenlyâ¦” He snapped his fingers and turned. “Just like that. Boom. A complete one-eighty.”
As he spun around, Annie laughed.
“Laurel Haley doesn't make one-eighties,” she said. “Her entire life's been a strictly measured line going in one direction.”
Except for a slight detour, she hastened to add. The detour being Annie.
“But she loves you,” Eric said, taking her hand. “And I know she'll be as excited as we are. I can feel it.”
Annie smiled, his relentless optimism enchanting her every time. He was unflagging with it, dedicated to perpetual sunniness like he was working it out in boot camp. She couldn't decide if this was a very useful or extremely dangerous attitude for someone about to board a Marine Expeditionary Unit bound for the Middle East.
“Maybe you're right,” she said, succumbing to his Eric-ness yet again.
It wasn't impossible. Laurel claimed Annie's happiness was her number one priority. She was happy with Eric. Perhaps this really was enough.
They paused by the stable's entrance. Annie inhaled deeply as a gaggle of tween girls loped past, all lanky and athletic and at the start of beautiful but not quite grown into their breeches or boots.
“Okay,” she said. “Here we go.”
She took a few cautious steps forward and then peered into one of the stalls where she saw Laurel tacking a horse.
“Beautiful job today, Sophie,” Laurel said as a mother and daughter scooted by. “I'm out of town for the next two weeks. Margaret will be doing the lessons for me.”
The young girl waved, and then grinned at Annie as she passed. Sophie was one of the twenty or so children Laurel taught for free. Medically challenged girls, those not expected to live long or those not expected to live well. Even when Laurel worked full-time at the gleaming law firm downtown, she always made time for these girls.
“Oh, hi, Annie!” Laurel said as she buckled the mare's bridle. “Eric. I didn't know you guys were here.”
“Was that your last student?” Annie asked, feeling Eric's presence solid behind her. “Are you busy?”
“Nope, not busy at all.” Laurel tightened the strap. “Just finished a lesson and headed out for a ride. So, what's up?”
She gripped the reins in her right hand, face playing at a twitchy smile. Laurel always knew when Annie was up to no good, when she was hiding something or stretching the truth in some important way. This savvy baffled Annie given her mom lived in the narrowest possible world, comprised of work and Annie and the horses. Laurel quit her job a year ago so now it was down to Annie and the farm. How was it she understood so much?
“The two of you have something to tell me,” Laurel said, breaking the ice because no one else would. “Might as well fess up. I think your nervous energy is about to spook the horses.”
“Ma'am, I wanted to get your permission,” Eric started, his voice strong and assured.
Annie winced, waiting for Laurel to drop a big fat cloud over them. Her mom was kind, generous, at times outright funny. But Laurel could sniff out a bad idea from a mile away and was never afraid to complain about the smell.
“I'm sorry I didn't ask you first,” Eric went on. “But, well, there's not a lot of time before my deployment. And y'all have your trip to England. Everything's happened so fast. But I'm asking now.”
Annie thought, heart sprinting.
Maybe this is a mistake.
But it was already too late.
“May I marry your daughter?” he asked.
After that: silence. Even the horse seemed uncomfortable, sheepishly kicking at the hay.
“Are you truly asking me?” Laurel said at last. “Or are you telling me?”
“It's okay, Annie,” Eric said and rubbed her arm. “We've ambushed her. Give your mama the chance to adjust.”
“I'm weirdly not that shocked,” Laurel said with a careful laugh. “Somehow I knew this was coming.”
“I love her, Ms. Haley. I swear to you before God and country that I will treat your daughter better than any prince she's ever dreamed.”
“My daughter was never one for princes,” Laurel said. “Annie's not that kind of girl.”
“Mom, can you chill out for a second?”
“Ma'am, I love Annie,” Eric said, his Alabama accent at maximum strength.
Though Annie's insides puddled at the sound of it, she knew her mom was skeptical of anything resembling romance. Futures were best made in barns and investment accounts, not in “I love yous” from handsome young marines.
“I'll make this world a better place for her,” he added.
“Oh, Eric,” Laurel said, and chuckled again. “There are so many things I could say right now.”
“How about âokay'?” Annie grumbled. “That'd be a good start.”
As much as she wanted her mother's approval, and held out the feeblest hope she'd receive it, Annie understood what Laurel saw. The whole thing smacked of desperation, of
what the hell am I going to do with my life now?
Screw it. I'll just marry the next guy I meet.
Standing in that barn was a mother, and before her was an unemployed recent college graduate. Beside the graduate was a manâif you could call him thatâa twenty-one-year-old marine about to board a float destined for Afghanistan.
This marine was suggesting marriage, to the jobless daughter no less, who'd been dating a different boy only a few months before. By the time Eric returned from deployment, they will have been apart longer than they were togetherÂ â¦ times seven.
All that and Annie had met him at a dive bar. She was sucking down the last dregs of a bad house wine while listening to her best friend, Summer, lament that working in a senator's office wasn't so much public service as coffee service. Starbucks runs in exchange for a paycheck and health care sounded like a respectable gig to the incomeless Annie but Summer disagreed.
“I'd rather be unemployed,” Summer insisted.
“And have your mother buy your birth control pills?” Annie asked.
“Admittedly that would be awkward. But it's just so damned boring. I want to be doing more.”
“Don't we all,” Annie said, and took a final gulp of wine.
Without warning, a man rose to his feet.
He was a large boy really, screamingly clean-cut and soldierly, a marine as it turned out. A round of drinks on him, he announced, to celebrate his upcoming deployment and to thank them, the citizens, for supporting their efforts. Annie's first thought was,
Thank God, because I can't afford another drink.
Her second was:
Wow, that guy is hot. Too bad he likes guns.
Amid backslaps and handshakes, the brown-eyed, black-haired puppy dog of a man then gave an impassioned speech about fidelity and freedom and the U.S. of A. It was a week after 9/11 and so the response was deafening. By the end of it, every person in the bar stood, looped arms with a neighbor, and belted out the only song that mattered.
And I'd gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land God bless the U.S.A.
“Jesus Christ,” Summer said when the excitement dissipated. “Why do I suddenly feel like joining the navy?”
At once Annie was changed.
At once she was done with aloof Virginia boys and their swoopy hair, those lame belts embroidered with smiling whales. She wanted a hero, a man with a little spirit, a guy who could raise a room to sing.
Perhaps it was the result of too much Edwardian fiction in college and the hours spent soaking in whimsy. Or maybe he was that valiant. Either way, with 9/11 the entire world changed, in major ways and in minor ones, all the way down to, it seemed, Annie's taste in men.
There was no decent way to explain this to Laurel, of course. Military or not, you simply didn't marry someone you met last month. Annie wanted her mom to be excited but understood why Laurel couldn't find it in herself to even pretend. A tiny part of her wondered if Laurel was right. She was about most things.
“Don't pressure your mother,” Eric said, reaching once again for her hand. “Ma'am, any questions you have about my family or my character, I'm pleased to answer.”
“Eric,” Laurel said and sighed. “It's nothing against you personally. In the three seconds I've known you, you seem like a very nice boy. But you're young, you've only just met. On top of that you're going off to war.”
“Geez, Mom, don't be so dramatic. This isn't 1940.”
“A war's a war.”
“She's right,” Eric said.
A war's a war.
He was going off to fight, wasn't he? Did she even appreciate what it meant to be a marine? Had the people in the bar comprehended what they were singing about?
“At least tell me you're waiting,” Laurel said. “That you'll get married when he's done with his tour. All his tours. When the war is over and there are no more deployments.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, though they'd agreed to no specific timing.