Authors: Jodi Thomas
Tyler smiled and wrote:
How is my hazel-eyed dinner guest?
He watched wondering how long it would be before she answered.
When the screen blinked, he jumped in surprise.
Do you remember the art?
Leaning back in his chair, he described a few of the wonderful pieces that had drawn him that night. She answered back with details on some of the artists she’d learned on her latest visit. The lodge was gearing up for a big weekend and the halls were full.
He told her of the tribes he’d looked up in southwestern Oklahoma just because of one painting that had seemed so alive it could have stepped from the frame.
He wasn’t sure how it happened, but they e-mailed back and forth for a half hour.
Finally, she wrote:
Have to work. Loved talking to you. Let’s do it again. Kate.
He stared at the screen. Kate. Her name was Kate. Glancing over at his forgotten coffee and muffin, he smiled. If he had a few more conversations that were this interesting, he’d be below two hundred pounds in no time.
Three hours later he wrote Kate back.
How about taking a break and having lunch with me?
Staring at the computer, he waited until she blinked back.
Give me five to get my salad.
Pulling a Coke and a couple of candy bars from the break room, he waited. When she came back, he lied and told her he was also eating a green salad.
They talked about food and the weather and how much they both wished they were on a beach. Neither asked any personal questions. She’d told him a great deal without writing a word. She was working on Sunday and in no hurry to go home. He knew without asking that she lived alone.
When she finally wrote:
Have to go.
You bet. Is nine too late? I’ve got a hell of a day, but visiting with you would be a nice way to end it.
I’ll be waiting.
Tyler turned off his computer and grinned. He’d talked to someone, really talked . . . well, almost talked . . . and they hadn’t mentioned death once.
REAGAN HATED HAVING TO GO TO SCHOOL. SHE’D ENJOYED Sunday working in the orchard with Jeremiah. He didn’t talk much. He just showed her what he needed her to do, and she did it. In a strange way she liked taking care of the trees, mothering the saplings and trimming up broken branches.
Old Jeremiah gave out and had to sit a while about mid-afternoon, but told her he thought she should learn to drive. She picked up leaves and threw them in the back of a cart he called his little truck. She felt like she was really driving for the first time, even though her truck was the size of a golf cart with a pickup bed welded on the back.
When she circled by him to ask what to do with the dead branches, he was sound asleep. By the time he woke up, she had another load of limbs stacked and ready to transport.
They’d stopped at sunset and had a supper of ham sandwiches and fried potatoes, then he’d showed her a room with all the furnishings covered in sheets.
“This used to be my sister’s room. If she comes back, we’ll have to find another place for you.”
She didn’t have the guts to tell him Beverly was dead. He’d ask too many questions.
They took the sheets off everything and he gave her a fresh stack of linens to make up her bed, then closed the door without a word.
The place should have made Reagan feel creepy with all the old pictures and old furniture, but everything reminded her of Miss Beverly and nothing about the old woman had been creepy. Reagan pretended she’d come to visit Miss Beverly and been welcomed.
She slept without waking all night. At dawn she awoke to Jeremiah pounding on her door.
“If you’re going to have time to eat before you leave for school, you’d better hurry up.”
She pulled back on her same clothes she’d worn working the day before and ran downstairs. In the shadows of boarded windows, she saw the other rooms. All were covered with sheets as if no one lived except in the kitchen. A light shone beneath a closed door down a dark hallway. She guessed that must be Jeremiah’s bedroom, but didn’t ask as she moved to the counter in the kitchen and began making juice.
“I don’t want to go to school,” she complained as he shoved oatmeal and toast in front of her.
“I don’t care,” he answered.
“I don’t have any of my papers to transfer in.”
“I’ll take you. They’ll let you in.”
She wasn’t so sure. “If they don’t, can I come back here? There’s still a ton of work to be done out in the apple trees.”
He didn’t answer. By the time she finished washing up her breakfast dishes, he and the dog were waiting outside in an old green pickup.
A few minutes later, he walked into the school and told the assistant principal that Reagan Truman was enrolling. No one questioned him. In fact, half the people in the office looked afraid of him, making her wonder just how mean Jeremiah Truman was.
She shrugged. He was good to her. That was all that mattered. She didn’t care if the volume on him was broken. Reagan almost laughed. She’d been tossed around so long that anyone who didn’t hit her was considered a saint. Jeremiah had fed her, given her a place to sleep, and driven her to school. So what if he didn’t talk to her? He was high on her list of friendly.
When they passed her paperwork to fill out, he walked to the exit without saying a word to her, then turned at the door and bellowed, “You got a bus that goes down Lone Oak Road after school?”
“Of course,” the assistant principal answered.
“Then see that she’s on it.”
Reagan wrote her name without looking up when the door slammed.
The assistant principal glanced down at the paper. “Reagan Truman,” he read aloud. “You related to that old man?”
She nodded. “He’s my great-uncle.”
“Sorry about that,” he answered.
Reagan raised her head and glared at him. “Don’t you ever say anything about Uncle Jeremiah. Not ever.”
The assistant principal looked surprised and more than a little angry, then took a breath and answered, “You’re right. I was out of line. You got a right to stand up for your kin. Welcome to Harmony High.”
If anyone else had anything to say about Jeremiah Truman, they kept their mouth closed. Reagan had a feeling they were thinking that she was definitely related to the old man.
TUESDAY MORNING AT SEVEN FIFTEEN, HANK MATHESON walked into the diner with his four-year-old niece on his shoulder. Two days a week he drove her into town for preschool, and on Tuesdays that always meant breakfast out.
He removed his straw hat as he shoved the door closed with his foot. He missed the felt Stetson, but Alex had ruined it. He had no idea when he’d have time to drive over to Lubbock for a new one. It was too early in the year for straw to feel right.
“Let me hang it up,” Saralynn squealed.
He leaned forward so she could reach the rack, his hands firmly on the metal braces around her legs. “Thanks, Princess.”
“You’re welcome, Horse. Now gallop on.”
“Morning, Saralynn. Hank,” Edith said as they passed her. “Hope you can find a seat this morning. Place is hopping.”
“I’m a princess today, Edith, and this is my horse.”
Edith’s quick one-second smile told Hank she didn’t have time to bother with the kid’s fantasies this morning. Last week Saralynn had been a frog and would only croak. “Find a seat, I’ll get to you when I can. The morning waitress quit on Cass as he unlocked the door. Said she’d thought about it and decided she was a night person. When he told her he’d see if I’d be interested in trading shifts, she also decided she wasn’t a waitress person. If he don’t find someone soon he’ll be serving the meals as well as cooking.”
Hank moved down the row between booths. Cass lost several waitresses a year. Some said the only reason Edith stayed around was because she worked nights and didn’t have to put up with him much. Others thought Cass might be easier to get along with than Edith’s husband waiting for her at home.
The place was packed. He saw one empty seat in a front corner booth that held only two. Trouble was, Ronelle Logan was in the other chair. No one in town ever sat at the same table with Ronelle. She wouldn’t have allowed it if they tried. Ronelle worked at the post office sorting mail. If you wanted your mail, you left her alone, so Hank kept moving down one of the center aisles.
Hank noticed that the only other open seat was half of a booth in the middle of the room. The other half was taken up by the local undertaker. Hank moved through the crowd, relieved to find a seat across from someone who wouldn’t talk his ear off.
“Morning, Tyler. Mind if the princess and I join you?”
He carefully lifted his little passenger down. Hank would have sat her next to him, but Saralynn pointed to the space next to Tyler.
The chubby man grinned. “I’d love to have royalty join me for breakfast.”
“I’m Princess Saralynn,” the thin child said. “And you are Sir Wright, my most trusted knight.”
“Great.” Hank gently moved her legs beneath the table without bumping anything. The slightest bump would cause a bruise on her legs. “I get to be the horse and you’re knighted.”
“Can’t win them all, Chief.” Tyler Wright laughed. Hank nodded while he tried to think of something to say to Wright. “How’s business?”
Tyler looked up from his paper. “Business is slow. Only one pending.”
“Anyone I know?”
Tyler shook his head. “You know what they say, the young leave this town for the big city and the dead return to be buried with their kin. This newly departed had been gone from Harmony for sixty years. Half his kin don’t remember him.”
“Well, it’s only Tuesday. Maybe business will pick up.” Hank smiled. He liked the undertaker. He considered Tyler Wright a friend. They’d shared breakfast at the Blue Moon more times than either of them could count.
His chubby friend asked Saralynn, “How’s your mother?”
“Fair,” Saralynn said as if she were grown and not four. “She’s stopped crying and started painting.”
Hank studied his menu. He didn’t like talking about his newly divorced sister, but he guessed everyone in town knew she’d moved back to the ranch. She’d repainted her old bedroom for Saralynn and turned the attic into a studio loft, where no one was allowed. In the four months she’d been back she’d done six paintings, all of men dying horrible deaths.
“Glad to hear she has a hobby.” Tyler pulled a quarter from his vest pocket. “I’ve been saving this for you, Princess Saralynn.” He handed it to her. “It’s the new one.”
Saralynn smiled. “Thanks. I’m going to collect them all.” She turned it over in her hand. “Do you collect anything, Sir Knight? I could help you.”
Tyler shrugged. “I like old maps. I’m kind of a cartophile.”
“Really.” Hank was taken aback. He’d known Tyler all his life and never thought to ask if he had a hobby.
Saralynn lost interest in the conversation and began playing with her quarter. Tiny hands slid it from one hand to the other.
Tyler looked embarrassed. “Yeah. I got maps of this area that go all the way back to the cattle drives. Sometimes I drive out trying to see how much of the original roads are still around.”
Hank wanted to know more, but Edith was back. “What’ll it be?” She pointed her pen at Saralynn. “The usual for you, one pancake with blueberry eyes and a banana smile.”
“Yes.” Saralynn straightened. “And oats for my horse.”
“That’s right, the usual for your uncle.”
She turned to Tyler. “And you, Sir Knight?”
“I’ll just have coffee for now.” He folded his paper.
A few minutes later, Edith slid a diet special of two egg whites, dry toast, a cup of blueberries, and oatmeal across to Hank. He ordered the same meal every Tuesday.
“There you go, Hank, try to enjoy it.” She turned to Tyler. “Did you decide what you’ll be having, Mr. Wright? We got biscuits and gravy with sausage in it for the special this morning.”
“No thanks.” Tyler closed his eyes as if forcing himself to forget the offer. “I think I’ll have what Hank’s having.”