Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson
Leeda folded up the letter like it had been and carefully replaced all of them in their box. She felt heavy and exhausted. She hadn't read one word written by her grandmother, but the weight of her suffering had come through on every page. Leeda felt, most of all, her grandmom's fear in the face of her lover's courage. He had been begging her to do the brave thing. And apparently, marrying Leeda's grandfather had been the easier choice, though Leeda didn't know why.
Leeda wondered whether her grandmom had thought about someone finding her letters in the closet after she died. Surely she knew that if she kept them, they would be found eventually. It wasn't like she had died a spring chicken.
But she had left the house to Leeda for as long as she had the ponies. Had she thought Leeda would find them? Did she want her to? And did she want Lucretia to know? Did she want everyone to know? Did she care?
It seemed that, after years of keeping secrets, Eugenie would have had some plan for the evidence she had left behind. But Leeda had never known her well enough to guess what her intentions could have been.
She stood and slid the box back into the closet. Then she shuffled into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Back in the bed
room, she pulled back the covers and crawled underneath, turning off the lamp beside the bed. The light coming through the window illuminated the room, reminding her there was a full moon.
Leeda laid her head back on the pillow, and her mind drifted rapidly but aimlessly to the baby chicks that never got a chance, and to Grey being alone once he turned eighteen, and to the poor doomed love of her grandmother. It was a long time before she came back to herself and remembered that no one but her was in the room, and much of what she was thinking of was now in the past. She was only a girl lying in a quiet house with the moonlight on her bed.
he Bridgewater Courthouse was lit up in the summer sun; the reflection off it was so bright that Murphy shielded her eyes as she climbed out of the truck she'd borrowed from the Darlingtons. The air smelled like hot tar and melted grape Blow Pop. Murphy squinted at the large wooden front doors, and then at the clock hanging above them. Quarter to three.
Murphy had no romantic notions about finding her father. She wasn't looking for a hug, or any
-type crying, or hours spent reconnecting. She didn't want him in her life, and she respected that he had chosen freedom over her. Most girls would have been angry or angst-ridden that their dads had skipped out when they were babies. But when Murphy had thought of her dad at all, she had always hoped he was off somewhere living exactly the life he wanted. She understood his desire to be unfettered. She had been sure that, if nothing else, that was something she had inherited from him.
The discovery that he existed in some real, connected way had just made her want to see him; that was all. She knew Jodee was meeting him here. She just wanted to lay eyes on him.
She had gone with Birdie to her mom's for lunch and had left Birdie there. Now Murphy sat at a spindly picnic table on the grass at the side of the lot, playing nickel basketball with herself in the sun. It was no easy task, and between failed shots she glanced up at the courthouse. She was out of the way enough to be unseen, but close enough to see everyone coming and going.
One of her friends in New York worked at a Starbucks. He'd said that during training, they were told to try to make Starbucks a customer's “third place.” Home. Work. Starbucks. In response, Murphy had turned her fingers into devil horns and told the guy that Starbucks was the devil. But if Murphy had a “third place,” it was here at the courthouse. She knew the schedules of the two receptionists who worked there. She could have written the biography of Judge Abbottâhow, though he was probably only her mom's age, he was graying at the temples, jowly, and serious-faced. How he wore shiny Payless loafers, was an upstanding citizen, and liked to tap his feet to the beat of “Row, Row, RowYour Boat” when he was listening to testimony from Murphy's various accusersâBob's Big Boy for stealing their mascot, Kmart for stealing underwear, the town council for replacing all the framed pictures of the legislators in their hallway with pictures of players from the Orlando Magic.
Now a rumble drew her eyes to the road, where her mom's Pontiac was just pulling into the parking lot. Murphy slunk closer to the picnic table even though she didn't need to. As Jodee got out of her car, she barely looked where she was walking as she made her way into the courthouse.
A few moments later, another car followedâa green Chrysler LeBaron. Murphy leaned forward. A moment ago she had been perfectly relaxed, still not quite believing this would actually happen. Now her heart fluttered in her chest. She leaned rigidly into the picnic table.
A man got out of the car. He was wearing jeans and a burgundy-colored T-shirt. He was tall, with dark brown hair and green eyes. Murphy took in everything about himâhis skin, his shoes, whether or not there were bumper stickers on his car. (There was one. It said, nonsensically,
MY OTHER CAR IS A BROOM
.) She sent up a silent prayer that he wouldn't have one of those “peeing Calvins” of Calvin and Hobbes stickers on his back windshield. Thankfully, she didn't see one.
Murphy knew she should feel emotional, but she didn't. She didn't feel connected to the man crossing the lot. She just felt eager to know. And eager to keep a safe distance.
He walked casually, as if he didn't have a care in the world, as if he wasn't on the way to a paternity hearing. In another moment, he was gone, disappearing through the double doors.
Murphy pulled away from the table and walked over to her truck. She got in and waited, sinking low in the seat but keeping her eyes on the door.
Half an hour later, the man reemerged with Judge Abbott and Murphy's mom. They all separated, Judge Abbott walking in the direction of town and Jodee and Murphy's dad heading to their respective cars.
He walked to his car and got in, pulling out of his parking spot and pausing at the exit. Murphy started the engine.
She hadn't planned on doing it. But when the LeBaron pulled onto Main Street, Murphy pulled out behind him.
They had been on I-95 North for about twenty miles when he finally pulled off at a familiar exit. But instead of heading into the residential area of the town, he turned left, finally parking at a bar called Buckets.
Murphy looked at the clock. Four-thirty p.m.
That's my dad, all right,
She watched him walk inside.
Now was her chance. She could follow him in. Say hi. Introduce herself. Ask him a thing or two. What was his favorite drink? Was he as free as he wanted to be? What places had he been to? What did she have that came from him? Or she could drive away. Put it behind her. Possibly never see him again.
Murphy wasn't ready to talk to him. But she wasn't ready to give him up forever either. She idled for several minutes, debating with herself. And then she turned the truck around toward Bridgewater.
On the way back, the whole event got bigger in her mind. She regretted not going in. She worried he was gone for good. And she needed to know. She needed to know if being unfettered had been worth it for him.
Bridgewater looked small as Murphy turned off the exit ramp. She felt no attachment to the town itself. But it did look pretty while driving inâbeyond the fast-food joints that greeted her at first, downtown was small and quaint.
Instead of heading toward the orchard, she turned toward home. She would confront her mom with what she'd seen. Murphy wouldn't let her deny it.
Her headlights, as she turned in, swept the lot of Anthill Acres Trailer Park and her own front stairs. Two figures were standing outside her mother's trailer, talking. Murphy stopped the car, frozen in place.
The man reached out for Jodee, and Jodee gave him a tight hug and thanked him loudly. They said good-bye, and Jodee disappeared into the house. The man continued down the stairs toward his truck, got in, and started the engine.
Murphy only could gape at him as he pulled out onto the street. Not before he looked both ways, of course.
Rex always was a careful driver.
e's staying at the Homewood Suites,” Murphy said. She was standing in the doorway of the cider shed, looking incredulous, her arms hanging at her sides. Birdie, a crate of peaches midair and ready to pour into the press, squinted at her.
“Yep.” Murphy nodded. “The guy at Circle K told me.”
It was a misty, cool day, and even though it was noon, it was still dim and felt early. The mist had infiltrated Murphy's hair and had made it twice as puffy as usual. It felt like they were somewhere remote and alone.
Overcast days were always blessings at the orchard. As long as the picking wasn't interrupted, they were a pleasant escape from the relentless sun and heat. And if rain began, picking ended for the day, and the workers retreated to the dorms to relax, play cards, talk, watch TV, and hang out. Everything slowed down.
“That's crazy. Why hasn't he come to see you?” Murphy had told Birdie what she'd seen the other night and that she'd planned to sleuth it all out. Murphy had taken on an air of cool determination that, Birdie knew, never boded well.
“Why's he going to see my mom?” Murphy asked.
A weird, awkward thought hung between both of them. Jodee McGowen had always been crazy about Rex. And she was single. And she had dated younger guys before. But Birdie quickly dismissed the thought as ludicrous and hoped that Murphy had done the same.
The sound of damp footsteps and voices announced someone approaching, and Murphy turned as Emma and Raeka appeared beside her in the doorway with crates of peaches.
“I'm gonna go up to the tree house,” Murphy said to Birdie. “I'll see you up there in a bit.” She waved to the two women and left.
Emma and Raeka sidled up beside Birdie and began dumping their peaches into the press. Birdie watched Raeka's strong hands.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you guys something,” Birdie said in English. Some things were too important to her to communicate in a foreign language. And now that she had them alone, she felt it was a rare opportunity. Her gut throbbed a little. “How was Enrico when you left?”
Emma and Raeka came from Enrico's town in Mexico. They knew him well.
Raeka ran a wrist across her forehead to wipe back her damp hair and smiled at Birdie knowingly and sympathetically.
“He was okay.”
“Do you hear anything about him?” Birdie swallowed. “Does he have a new girlfriend or anything?”
Emma grinned sadly. “You don't want him to move on, Birdie?”
But Raeka was shaking her head. “It's not that easy, Birdie. Nobody is allowed to talk about you,” Raeka said. “He just locks himself up with his chicken and listens to music, and he doesn't want to hear your name.” Emma nodded along, her eyes wide for emphasis.
Birdie flicked her thumbnails against each other, staring at them dismally.
“Oh, Birdie.” Raeka reached her hand to Birdie's face and squeezed her chin. “You are young. You will be in love again, maybe many times. It's okay to let it go.”
Birdie found the thought nauseating. “I don't want many more loves.”
Raeka nodded. Birdie knew she had divorced two years ago. She felt like a broken engagement was a small loss compared to that. But they were both pampering her, as always.
Emma squeezed Birdie's shoulder before she and Raeka turned and headed outside again.
Birdie wasn't far behind them. Once she was done with the day's cider, pressing it and pouring the juice into jugs assembly-line style, she stored the jugs in a corner of the shed and walked outside, trudging toward her tree house. The damp grass wet Birdie's feet as she walked, and the sound of tiny raindrops on thousands of leaves sounded like static. When she was almost there she noticed a figure coming toward her across the soggy grass. Birdie was only a couple of feet away before she realized it was Horatio Balmeade.
“Hey, Birdie.” He stopped, grinning with his white, white teeth. “How are you? I hear you've been on all sorts of adventures.”
“Yeah.” She shuffled her feet a couple of times. “Are you looking for my dad?”
“We're meeting about an offer I'm making on the place. Looks promising.”
Birdie hardened into stone. Mr. Balmeade waited for her to say something, and when she didn't, he adjusted his straw fedora. “Well, I think we'll all be pretty happy.” He raised a hand in the air. “I'll see you.” With the same manufactured smile, he walked on past her up toward the house.
Birdie's mind reeled. She felt a rug had just been pulled out from under her. But instead of heading up to the house, she practically ran the rest of the way to her tree, climbing the ladder two rungs at a time. The edges of the platform were wet with rain where there was no overhang. Murphy and Leeda had brought over snacks. Leeda sat with her pen poised over paper, drafting letters to prospective pony adopters.
“We brought you some peach cookiesâ” Murphy said, but her mouth froze in a questioning O when she saw Birdie's face.
Birdie held her breath for a moment. And then she let out a long string of obscenities, enraged half sentences, names, and words disembodied from any kind of context.
She paced from one end of the platform to the other, as if her words made it impossible for her not to move, not to wave her arms to her ranting, in time. The looks of utter shock on Leeda's and Murphy's faces only fueled the fire.
As she went on, something drew the girls' attention away from her, but Birdie didn't careâshe only got louder.
“What's he doing here?” Leeda murmured, looking down.
Birdie whipped around to look too, but at the same moment she lost her balance, teetering on the edge of the platform. She waved her arms frantically.
The last thing she saw was Grey running toward the base of the tree, reaching out as if he might catch her.