Authors: Reeni Austin
"I know, I know. Look, I'm not helpless. I'm just busy."
Sure wish you'd sell off those new ranches already. One's plenty. Gonna work yourself to death if you don't take a break, son
Ramon bristled at the sound of Henry calling him "son." "Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm still thinkin' about it." Another lie. He had no intention of selling those ranches but that wasn't an argument he felt like having this morning.
Well, good. That'll sure lighten the load. I worry every day I'm gonna get a call about you dyin' a young death. Heart attack. Fallin' asleep at the wheel. I'm sure glad you got some people livin' there, lookin' out for ya
Ramon rolled his eyes. He was doing just fine before they came along. "So, when you comin' home? I can't lie to my brothers forever. You know, Victor and Cara decided they're gonna have a wedding at the ranch in about a month. It was bad enough you missed Armando's wedding. You miss Victor's and they'll probably hire someone to track you down. They're worried."
Well, then, you tell 'em I called. Don't let 'em report me as a missing person
"All right. But I can't put 'em off forever."
." Henry let out a sad sigh. "
Well anyway, I gotta go, but I just wanted to make sure you'd finally taken care of things. Don't wanna come back to find all my hard work in shambles. You need to maintain the property if you wanna sell it someday—
Mindlessly, Ramon nodded along to Henry's speech. He always received this lecture before they hung up. Ramon secretly wondered if Henry would come back at all. He seemed to be having too much fun traveling in a camper with Elsa, their former housekeeper.
Henry always ended the call before the conversation got too deep, finishing with a simple, "
Take care, son
," and hanging up before Ramon could respond.
Ramon put the phone in his pocket and kept one hand on the steering wheel. To no one, he mumbled, "You too, Henry."
For years, Henry sometimes referred to Ramon and his brothers as, "son." And for years, Ramon thought nothing of it. It wasn't a term of affection. It was just a casual greeting, like "buddy" or "
But Ramon's thoughts flashed back to those pictures. The ones he found in Henry's secret safe deposit box at a bank in Houston eight months earlier—the pictures that caused Henry to sign his ranch over to Ramon and leave town.
Ramon knew Victor and Armando would be furious at him for withholding this information, but he was held back by fear. Fear that maybe Victor and Armando were only his half-brothers. After all, everyone always talked about the resemblance between Victor and Armando… but Ramon looked a little bit different. And he felt stupid for not seeing it before. Ever since he found those pictures, he noticed the resemblance in his own mirror. Henry's nose and wide jaw. He and Henry were even the same height—exactly six-foot-three.
Wiping his eye, Ramon took a slow breath to steady himself, then drank the last of his coffee.
The last thing he wanted to do was disparage Mama's memory. And he sure as hell didn't want to ruin his brothers' newly-found happiness. So, he just had to lie to his brothers for a little while longer, until Henry came back to town to explain himself. That's when the shit would hit the fan.
"Have a good night, Mrs. Perry," Ramon said as he waved goodbye that evening.
"You too." The frail, white-haired woman sat on the couch in the living room. She returned Ramon's wave, smiling. "God bless you."
Ramon nodded one last time before heading out the door to his truck. Seeing Mrs. Perry's face light up at the end of the day always reminded him of how valuable his long work hours were. And these days, he was so exhausted, he desperately needed those reminders.
Mrs. Perry usually offered to make dinner for Ramon, but he always refused. It was hard enough for her to get up and walk, let alone stand over a stove.
Edna Perry, Ramon's high school English teacher, retired the year he graduated. Her late husband, Leonard, had been a rancher all his life, living on the land passed down to him by his father. A few years earlier, Leonard had a heart attack. His doctor advised him to take it easy on the physical labor. He heeded that advice at first, but a few months later he felt good enough to work too hard once again until he had another heart attack. And this time, it was fatal.
A few months after that, Mrs. Perry found herself near foreclosure, with two ranches she didn't know how to manage.
It seemed like a good investment to Ramon at the time. He'd finally have something of his own, away from Henry. He'd also save some jobs and make his favorite teacher happy.
But if he'd known Henry was going to leave town, he may have chosen differently. Now Ramon spent more time here in Kernersville than he spent at his own ranch.
So, as usual, Ramon turned on the radio in his truck, trying to unwind during the forty minute drive home. At least he knew he was going home to a house that didn't feel so bleak and lonely anymore. There would be a nice dinner waiting on him, courtesy of Patty. Isaac would greet him when he walked in, making Ramon chuckle as he thought about it.
He tried not to make his enjoyment too obvious, fearful that guilt would make everyone stay longer. For now he would simply enjoy their company and be thankful.
As he drove, Ramon saw a new car parked outside his ex-girlfriend's house. He read in the paper that she'd gotten married. In fact, over the past year, several of Ramon's ex-girlfriends had gotten married.
He snickered to himself. Marriage must be an epidemic. His brothers were too eager to fall into that trap, but Ramon knew better. Besides, what woman would put up with his lifestyle? Sleeping five hours a night, if he was lucky. Working six days a week, sometimes seven. Even before he acquired the new ranches, he didn't have nearly the time to devote to a woman that most men had.
Women expected way too much. Dinner at a nice restaurant every weekend? Talking on the phone every night if they didn't see each other that day?
Or worse—moving in with Ramon.
To satiate his need for female companionship, every few weeks Ramon would drive to a bar two counties away where no one knew him. He'd scope out a stranger, talk to her for a while, then go back to her place. Before she woke up the next morning, he was gone and she had no way to contact him.
All things considered, Ramon considered himself to be a happy guy. He was his own boss. Aside from the new ranches, everything he owned was paid for. And there were no women putting extra demands on him. If he wanted kids, he could just live vicariously through his brothers and be Uncle Ramon.
That was more than enough for him.
* * *
On Tuesday evening, Marcy waited anxiously at the airport for Victor and Cara to arrive. Days earlier, she accepted the offer to work as a maid for a month. Thankfully, she had the foresight to throw herself a going away party the previous Saturday, knowing once she accepted the job, she would have to move quickly.
As she stood at the curb with her luggage, she felt like she was embarking on a new journey. Something about the change of scenery filled her with hope. After all, what did she really give up back in Jersey? A bad roommate? A crappy little apartment? Her two last clients whose fees would barely cover Marcy's half of the rent?
Marcy started waving as soon as she saw a car drive up with a blonde and a handsome Hispanic man in the front seat.
Cara and Victor immediately waved back at her, then opened their doors as soon as the car stopped.
Cara reached her arms forward to hug her. "I've missed you so much!"
Marcy smiled and hugged her tight. "I've missed you too."
Victor immediately went for Marcy's luggage. "Hi Marcy," he said. "Is this all you brought?" He picked up one of her bags, heading to the trunk as it popped open.
"Yeah." Marcy let go of Cara, nodding. "Most of my stuff went to storage."
A few minutes later Marcy was in the back seat as they headed to the ranch in Turnbrook.
"Isaac's gonna be so surprised," Victor said as he drove. "He's been asking about you for weeks."
"Oh?" Marcy said. "He doesn't know I'm coming?"
Cara shook her head. "No. It's easier this way. Besides, he loves surprises."
"Okay." Marcy nodded. "But everyone else knows, don't they?"
Victor casually said, "Everyone except my brother. Ramon."
Marcy's mouth dropped open. "Oh no! It's his house, right?"
"Yeah," Victor said.
Marcy gulped. "And he's a jerk… right?"
Victor shot Cara a look.
"I'm sorry," Cara quietly replied. She turned in her seat to face Marcy over her shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Seriously."
Victor nodded, glancing at Marcy in the rearview mirror. "It'll be fine. He may be upset at first but he's barely at the house anyway. He'll get over it."
Marcy picked at her nails. "Still, I wish he knew. This whole thing already felt kinda weird and now it feels… well… weirder."
Cara grinned. "It'll get better. Mom's there and she can't wait to see you. You'll feel right at home in no time." She patted Victor's shoulder and whispered something in his ear that made him smile. Then Cara turned over her shoulder to Marcy again. "There's something else."
"What?" Marcy asked.
"I'm pregnant," Cara said in a shy voice, smiling.
Marcy squealed and reached forward for Cara's shoulder. "Oh my God!"
"We wanted to tell you in person," Victor said.
"Aw." Marcy brought her hand to her chest. "How far along are you?"
"Six weeks," Cara said. "So, it's really early. That's why we're getting married in a month, before I start showing. We'd rather Isaac not ask too many questions."
"I see," Marcy said.
Victor took his hand from the wheel and put it on Cara's thigh. "Of course, I'd marry her anyway."
They shared a smile that made Marcy wish she had a Victor of her own.
Then Cara groaned, giving Marcy a look of clear displeasure. "But Mom doesn't know. Please don't tell her."
Marcy's eyes rolled. "Great, Cara. Put me in the middle. She already suspects it. You know that, right? She grilled me about it last week on the phone."
Cara huffed. "I figured as much. She asks me if I'm pregnant at least once every day."
Eyes widening in annoyance, Marcy asked, "Then why don't you just tell her the truth?"
"Because she stresses me out," Cara said. "Do you remember how she was when I was pregnant with Isaac? She called me five times a day to make sure I was taking my vitamins, getting enough rest, having normal…" her voice got quiet, "bodily functions…"
Cara continued. "I just don't need it right now. She'll be up in my business all the time, watching everything I do."
"Well, she's probably already doing that," Marcy said. Then she took a deep breath. "Oh well. So, how much farther is it?"
* * *
Ramon strolled into his house, ready to settle in for the night.
First, he was greeted by the mouth-watering aroma of fried chicken wafting from the kitchen.
Second, he was greeted by Isaac, who nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran down the stairs, yelling, "Wuh-moan!"
Chuckling, Ramon said, "Hold on there,
. You're gonna hurt yourself."
Isaac rushed toward him with a frantic look, unlike his usual bright smile. His face slammed against Ramon's hip as he hugged his legs.
Ramon quickly mussed Isaac's fluffy blond hair with his fingers and said, "What's wrong, man?"
Isaac shook his head and didn't answer his question.
"Hmm." Ramon placed a hand on Isaac's shoulder as he shuffled them both toward the kitchen. "Let me say hi to Grandma, then we'll go outside, okay?"
Isaac nodded and let go of Ramon, walking along beside him.
Patty's back was turned to them, her attention focused on the stove. When she heard his familiar boots clacking against the tiles, she said, "Hi Ramon. How was work today?"
"Fine." He closed his eyes and let the savory smells engulf his senses. Mashed potatoes, fried chicken, green beans. He walked up beside Patty and saw her stirring a pan of gravy. "Can't wait for dinner. I'm starving."
"Good. I made plenty." She gave him a gentle, affectionate nudge with her elbow, her face lighting up.
Ramon smiled, but it quickly disappeared. He knew the inevitable was coming—the day they would all head back to New Jersey. He'd go back to his former routine of driving through a fast food restaurant to pick up dinner on the way home, then eat it all alone in his empty house. On the bright side, Victor seemed to be toying with the idea of building a house on Ramon's property. But Ramon was afraid to get his hopes up.
"Where's everyone else?" Ramon asked. "They go somewhere?"
Patty nodded and turned a dial on the stove. "Victor and Cara had an errand to run," she cleared her throat and added, "for the wedding. And Tom's at the grocery store picking up a few last minute things for dinner."
Isaac tugged on Ramon's jeans.
Ramon gave Isaac a nod and said to Patty, "Okay then. We'll be back in a few." He reached down and patted Isaac's head. "Come on. Let's go outside."
Isaac smiled as he scuttled out of the kitchen. Ramon yawned and followed along.
When the back door slammed shut behind them, Ramon asked, "So, you have a good time at school today?" as they strolled through the grass to the cattle stalls.
Isaac referred to daycare as "school." Cara enrolled him there several weeks earlier, after he complained of missing his friends from the park at home. In a short period of time, the outgoing child had amassed a new group of friends, all of whom were already invited to his fourth birthday party, which was a few weeks away. Today was Isaac's first day back after taking a short break to attend Armando and Katie's wedding.
"It was okay." Isaac let out a labored breath and stared down at the ground as he trudged along.
"Just okay?" Ramon asked. Usually Isaac babbled excitedly about his adventures with the other kids. "What's wrong? Something happen?"
Isaac's eyebrows knitted together. He peered up at Ramon and weakly asked, "Is Bictow my daddy?"
A chill passed through Ramon. There was no way this little boy could know how such a question would strike a nerve within him. Ramon stopped walking. "Tell you what. Let's do a really quick inspection out here and then we'll sit down and have a talk. All right?" Ramon put his hand on Isaac's shoulder.
Isaac nodded and softly said, "Awwight."
With Isaac in tow, Ramon did a brief end-of-day check. Usually everything was in fine working order. And since he would be here all day tomorrow, he knew he wouldn't have to be so thorough tonight. The ranch foreman, Joe, had worked there for two years now and earned Ramon's trust. Tonight, Ramon spotted Joe inside a barn and gave him a quick wave as he passed by. Without Joe's help, Ramon knew he wouldn't have time to spend at the other ranches.
Fifteen minutes later, Ramon plopped down on a lawn chair in the back yard with Isaac taking the seat beside him. He was so tired, but he felt a little burst of energy when he heard Isaac's worried sigh.
"So." Ramon gave Isaac's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Tell me what happened. Why'd you ask me if Victor's your daddy?"
Isaac stared down at the ground as he spoke. "He's gonna have a wedding with Mommy. Wight?"
"My fwiend said it means Bictow's my daddy." Isaac frowned in confusion.
"Well, okay…" Ramon thought for a moment, unsure how to proceed. "So, why's that got you so upset? You like Victor, don't you?"
"Uh-huh." Isaac nodded with enthusiasm.
"And you want him to marry your Mommy. Right?"
Isaac shrugged. "I guess so."
"You guess so?" He gave Isaac a thoughtful stare. "Maybe you're worried 'cause you think your life's about to change and you don't know what to expect. But, you know what, man?" Ramon patted Isaac's arm. "Everything's gonna be fine. You and Mommy'll live with Victor, just like you do now. He'll still be good to both of you. There's nothing to worry about."