Thicker Than Blood (Part 4)

The lights came on at 4:00am and showers were announced. Cheri rolled over and pulled the sheet over her head for relief.

“Come on inmates, up and at ‘em.” Officer Richards was great at announcing showers. His voice carried the entire hall with ease.

Crystal smirked at the newbie. Prison had made her a morning person, but she quickly forgot her own struggle to adjust to the schedule.

“Come on lazy ass, it ain’t that bad.” Crystal said, looking back from the front of their bunk area.

“Your snoring kept me up all night.” Cheri protested.

All the other inmates were at attention at the openings of their bunk areas as Officer Richards returned from the other end of the hall.

“He’s comin’ back you better—”

“INMATE. I SAID UP AND AT ‘EM.” Officer Richards waited to yell until he was next to her bunk.

For such a large man, he was quiet and quick when he needed to be. As he gave the order he reached down and grabbed a handful of Cheri’s sheet and pulled it off as if he was pulling a Kleenex from the box.

“INMATE. I WILL NOT SAY IT A THIRD TIME. THIS SHEET IS MINE UNTIL YOU LEARN TO ANSWER THE CALL.”

Startled, Cheri spun around until her feet were on the floor and quickly stood up. Officer Richards tucked the sheet under his arm, muttering under his breath as he left their bunk area.

When Officer Richards was out of earshot, Crystal finally released a giggle.

“It’s gonna be a cold night.” She continued to laugh.

Cheri sheepishly looked around the hall to find most eyes on her. Most were disapproving, a few pitied her.

The quiet finally broke as they began filing into the showers.

“Sucks doesn’t it? You’ll get the hang of it. They’ll make sure you do.” Crystal seemed to pity her a bit.

“This isn’t my first stint in Clayton.” Cheri responded.

“Really? So you just don’t care, huh?” Crystal’s tone went from pity to respect.

“Something like that.” Cheri trailed off as she found a shower and enjoyed the comfort of warm water.

As they filed back to the bunk area before breakfast, Crystal couldn’t help but pry.

“You didn’t tell me who came to see ya yesterday.”

“It was no one.”

“Oh come on, it must’ve been someone. No one comes to visit us if they ain’t important.”

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t, but in case you can’t tell there ain’t a lot goin’ on in here. When a visitor comes, it’s a deal. I ain’t had one in a couple weeks.”

“It was no one.”

“Nah, it was someone. Was he handsome?”

Cheri looked out of their bunk area and tried to act distracted.

“Oh boy. He WAS handsome. He your man?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Ain’t it always? Men are the worst.”

“No kidding.”

“I didn’t want to say nothin’ when you came back but I know you was crying. He break up with you?”

“There wasn’t anything to break up, really. We were a thing at one time and it fell apart a while ago. But then it kinda started back up before I got here…I don’t know.”

“He’s got your number, huh?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

“Jared’s his name?”

Cheri smirked, “No, Jared’s my son. You lookin’ at my ink, huh?”

“You sure as hell don’t look old enough to have a kid.”

“Well, he’s definitely here.”

“How old is he? Who’s got him while you’re in here?”

“What is this 20 questions?” Cheri protested.

“Nah, just makin’ small talk is all. We got lots of time in here and not much to talk about.”

Cheri nodded her head and looked down to fidget with her fingernails.

“He’s three and he’s with my sister, headin’ to Arizona to be with my dad and step-mom.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah, she’s got a job and, well, it’s complicated.”

Crystal looked Cheri over. “So you ain’t gonna see him much huh?”

Cheri shook her head and wiped a tear.

“That sucks…at least you have a reason to get the hell outta here. That’s your blood, you gotta do what you gotta do for your blood. You know what I mean? It’s all we got in this world. You hear me? It’s all we got.”

Their eyes met and Cheri nodded, fighting back tears.

“INMATES. BREAKFAST.” Officer Richards bellowed.

——————–

I don’t know why I even put him in the other bed. He just ends up in mine. This time, his hot breath on my face. It IS possible for a three-year-old to have morning breath, by the way.

I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but the daylight was creeping through the heavy curtains and I was too excited to get on the road to sleep.

The shower was the usual cheap hotel shower. It took me a good five minutes to find the point between scalding hot and ice cold, but it was worth it. As I finished and pulled back the curtain, Jared was standing in the middle of the bathroom, holding Marty and staring at the shower, lower lip quivering. I didn’t hear him come in and it scared the royal shit out of me.

Even more startling—his wet pants and shirt. Apparently, he still has accidents. Good to know, thanks Cheri.

“H-hey buddy, good morning.”

Silence, with lots of bed head.

“Do you want to watch some cartoons?”

“I’m hungry.”

“I bet you are. Let’s get you out of those clothes and I’ll turn on the TV. Then we’ll get some breakfast.” I didn’t want dry hair today anyway.

He nodded and shuffled back to the bed. Thank goodness for the hotel garment bag. Pee clothes are a rude awakening in the morning and I didn’t want it to continue to the car. Let’s hope the next hotel has a washer and dryer, and a Walmart for diapers.

Another continental breakfast. This time with only toast and bagels, but they had cinnamon and sugar for the coffee. So I used an old trick my dad taught me and mixed the two together. If the butter on the toast is melted, it’ll stick to the toast and taste like a donut. I wasn’t sure if Jared could handle cinnamon, but he scarfed it down without any complaints. Another nugget to tuck away.

This was a big day. We could make it to Texas if all went well. Texas. It just felt legitimate. Like I’m actually doing this. But it was on the other side of 8 hours of driving, at least 9 hours if you include breaks and lunch.

We hopped on I-44 West and headed out of town. Music on, coffee hot, stomachs full, and bladders empty. The green pastures and old rickety barns passed as my Camry hummed at 70 miles per hour down the highway.

All these lives, families, houses and homes. Some have been here for generations and will carry on for generations. I know nothing about them and they know nothing about me. It makes the world feel bigger, and my life feel smaller.

Just after we made it through Tulsa, Oklahoma, I started keeping an eye out for a McDonald’s or Burger King. But before I spotted one, my phone started vibrating. It was Rachel at the restaurant.

Rachel was a good manager, always willing to work with me in my new role as a waitress. It wasn’t as easy to go from a hostess to a waitress as I thought it would be, and she put up with my messes—most of them literal. She was also very kind when I asked for time off to make the trip.

“Hey Rachel, how are you?”

“I’m good, Heather. The questions is, how are YOU?”

“Oh, alright, considering. I never knew traveling could be so tiring.”

“I bet, especially with a little one. They always make things more difficult.”

“You couldn’t be more right.” I said, nervously laughing. I’m not sure why she’s calling. While we got along at the restaurant, we didn’t talk much outside of it.

“Where are you anyway?”

“Oh, just on the other side of Tulsa, Oklahoma of all places. We’re starting to get hungry so we’ll probably stop soon.”

“Good, good. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“Sure, go ahead. What’s up?”

“Well, I’m just going to get to the point. I’m sorry honey but the restaurant is shutting down.”

The blood left my face and my heart was in my throat. My hands went weak. I pulled the car over to the shoulder.

“Wait, shutting down as in closing down for good?”

“I’m afraid so honey.”

“What? How? When?”

“I know, it’s a lot to take in, especially right now for you. But I, I wanted you to know right away so you could do what you need to do to find another job. I’m happy to help you however I can.”

“No, I just don’t get it. We’ve been doing well. The place has been packed for months.”

“I know, I know. It’s a shame. Brian and Jason just couldn’t make it work anymore.”

Brian VanderReydan and Jason Kelley were the co-owners of Griffon’s on Main. Brian had the skills in the kitchen after he left the area to study culinary arts in New York. When he came back to the area to start a family, he re-connected with Jason, his old high school friend who had stayed in our hometown and built up several successful businesses. From the outside, it seemed like a perfect partnership.

The problem was Brian didn’t stick to the kitchen, so most of the arguments were about the business side of things. Jason had never run a restaurant—his success was in manufacturing, and a restaurant can’t run like a factory. They had a lot of arguments, which we all heard, but the restaurant was doing so well that no one worried about whether the place would stay open.

“Is Brian going anywhere else? Or will he start his own place?”

“I wish I knew. Even if he was going to, you know how long it takes to get a place set up and running. I’ll see if I can get more out of him. I don’t know, he may have to go somewhere bigger like Fort Wayne or Indy.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m not sure. I might be done with the food industry. With a town our size, it’s so hard to find something steady. At least you have Kyle you can rely on. Us single gals have to find something more stable.”

“Ugh, shit Rachel. This was my chance to get good experience as a waitress. It’s been less than a year—”

“I know. You didn’t have a lot of time. Wherever you go, give them my name and I’ll vouch for you. You may not have had the best memory at times but you handled people well and you’re such a hard worker, that’s something any place would want. I’m really sorry honey.”

Her kindness started to burn off what anger was left.

“So do you know when it will be done?”

“Um, a couple weeks, maybe a month tops. With your trip, it’s probably best to start looking and making phone calls now. That’s why I wanted to call you first. I know you’re relying on this to help with your family and the issues you guys have had. I’m, I’m really sorry Heather.”

My eyes started to blur and fill.

“Okay, well, I gotta go. Thank you Rachel.”

“I’m sorry hon, have a safe trip and I’ll talk to you when you get back, okay?”

“Okay, bye.”

I was embarrassed that I couldn’t keep it together until the end of the call, but the flood had rushed over. The frustration, anger, and sadness. I had held it back for too long. After the miscarriage, I just wanted to move on and get pregnant again. After Cheri interrupted, I just wanted to move on and get pregnant again.

But this, this was where the levies broke. This was more than I could take without breaking down on the side of Interstate 40. It all came rushing over and for the first time, I grieved without being angry with myself, finally giving myself permission to just be sad. So I sobbed. Snot-nosed, wet-faced, wailing sobs that seemed to come out of the depths of my soul. A place I didn’t know was even sad. All the anger and frustration had masked it so well.

By the time I caught my breath, I was in the fetal position between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. I sat up and stared out the windshield of the car for a few minutes. To my surprise, I felt a sense of satisfaction. Like after a good workout.

I looked to the back seat of the car because, oh yeah, Jared. He was holding Marty and a few tears had run down his cheeks. His patent-pending quivering lip was out. He must’ve been crying and I hadn’t noticed.

“Hey buddy. I’m, I’m sorry. Are you hungry?”

After a few skipping breaths he whispered, “Yeah.”

“Alright, let’s see if we can find a McDonald’s.”

I pulled the car back onto the highway and found the next exit with the golden arches.

___________________

We continued on from Tulsa to Oklahoma City to Amarillo, Texas. Racing through the plains with long stretches of flat pastures, there was plenty of space to think. The rest of the trip went surprisingly fast as I distracted myself with next steps, running through names in my head. Businesses and prospects.

With the miles I swung like a pendulum between tears and anger. Mile marker 134, I was mad and ready to storm the mountain. Mile marker 141, certain that we’d never have a family.

I didn’t call Kyle. I suppose I just wanted to be in my own mind for a while. And I don’t know if I could take would come out if I opened up to him. Besides, he might take it upon himself to work even harder than he already was—-this wasn’t his problem. It was mine.

I cried more times than I’d like to admit between Tulsa and Amarillo. After each time, I’d look back and find Jared looking at me, forehead furrowed. He’s been quiet today. Only piping up to tell me he saw horses or cows, or that he had to go potty. Understanding emotions must come naturally, at least it did for Jared. He seemed to give me the space I needed.

That or he was deathly scared of the crazy lady at the wheel and didn’t want to nudge me over the edge. I’ll take it either way.

We pulled into Amarillo just in time for dinner. After checking into the hotel, we headed straight to Walmart for nighttime diapers, then to Wendy’s because I wanted, no, needed some form of chocolate ice cream.

By the time we got back to the hotel, the wave of our longest day caught up with me and I dragged myself through the hotel. Jared somehow still had enough energy to sprint up and down the hall until we reached our room, where we crashed and watched Cartoon Network. After a short scuffle about wearing a diaper again, Jared and I sat on the bed.

I had driven in one day almost twice as far as I’d ever driven before. It was the only saving grace of the day. At least I was making progress somewhere, accomplishing what I could with what I had control over. The wheels may have been coming off, but I was moving ahead.

It was about a 12 hour drive left to Prescott and it felt good to know it could be done in one day, but two days in a row of this much driving was too much. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I needed to be smart about it. Gaining a day at the risk of an accident just wasn’t worth it. With my luck lately, it seemed that if I opened the door to something bad, it was bound to happen.

By the end of the second episode of Sponge Bob, Jared’s head was propped up on my legs and my eyelids were heavy. I was brought back awake when I heard my phone vibrating on the nightstand. Kyle’s name popped up on the screen. I silenced it, turned off the light, and rolled over to get some sleep for the day ahead.

——————–

I guess my subconscious had figured out that sleeping on the edge of the bed facing the window was the only way to make sure I didn’t wake up to hot morning breath or a foot in my face. When I stood up to get in the shower, it hit me that we had two queen beds between a small woman and a small boy but somehow I was sleeping on the edge. But at this point, I was too tired to care.

We went through the motions of every other morning, thankful for a continental breakfast that included waffles for the little monster. The little monster who didn’t pee in his nighttime diaper last night. And he probably wouldn’t the rest of the trip.

While we ate, I went through my phone. I had several phone calls from co-workers, and a couple calls from Kyle. I wondered if he had somehow heard about the restaurant. No matter, I wasn’t ready to talk to him about it. All I wanted was to get back on the road and move forward, so I sent him a text that we were leaving for Albuquerque soon and I’d call when we were on the highway.

We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore. The dry landscape of northern Texas forced me to keep a bottle of water in the console. I wasn’t even that thirsty, I just needed it there.

As my Camry’s rubber bands wound up for the highway, I couldn’t help but feel a little, just a little, excited about what was ahead. Maybe this wasn’t a setback. Maybe I could find a better paying job somewhere. Maybe. Probably not.

It was going to be a short driving day, so we slept in a little to recover from yesterday and it was well worth it.

As we crossed over into New Mexico, I couldn’t help but think of the picture I’d seen so often in our family’s old living room. In the background was the Albuquerque hot air balloon festival with balloons dotting the sky. In front was my dad’s new family. His new wife holding Cheri on her hip and me cradled in her arm. She was doing a balancing act physically and emotionally between a step-daughter and birth daughter.

It was a proud moment for my dad. He had finally started a normal family. Or at least as close as he could get to a normal family. Cheri’s mom wasn’t around yet, and my mom was so great with Cheri that it felt normal. My dad had moved on and made the best of his situation. It’s one of the many things I admire about him.

But just then my reminiscing was interrupted by my vibrating phone.

Kyle. I only answered because I was afraid he might start worrying. He didn’t deserve to worry just because I didn’t want to deal with it.

“Hey honey!”

“Hello love. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, sorry. We just had a really long day yesterday and we were wiped by the time we got to the hotel.”

“It’s okay, I figured that’s what happened, but I wanted to make sure. We had a long one yesterday too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, but today is going to be cut short. We just had a downpour roll through, so I’m sitting in the truck to see if I can wait it out.”

“Oh, well at least you get a little bit of a break. You’ve been working so hard lately.”

“Yep, well you know how the end of the season goes.”

“I know.”

I could hear the rain hitting the cab of his truck, it was really coming down.

“Well, we just crossed over the border into New Mexico and there’s definitely no rain here.”

“I bet.”

Silence.

“Is everything okay babe?”

He was always so good at reading me. Or maybe I wasn’t as good of an actress as I thought.

“Well, I’m okay, but something happened yesterday and, I guess I just wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.”

“Heather, my gosh what happened? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, we’re fine, but I got a call from Rachel yesterday.”

“Yeah? Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, it’s the restaurant. She told me it’s going to shut down in a few weeks, maybe a month tops.”

“What? Really? You guys have been so busy though. Wow.”

“I know.”

“Are you okay babe?”

That’s all it took. Someone, anyone really, asking if I was okay. The lump in my throat grew to an unbearable size and the tears started flowing. I pulled over to the shoulder.

“Oh man…I’m sorry babe.” I could hear him take a deep breath.

“I, I don’t know. I just can’t seem to win lately.”

“Shit, no kidding. If it makes you feel any better, I’m sure you won’t have trouble finding another job. You’ve learned a lot there and I’m sure other places will want you.”

“I don’t know. I’m just so frustrated.”

“I know, I’ve noticed.” He trailed off at the end.

“What do you mean you’ve noticed? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, it’s just you’ve been a little on edge lately. And with each setback you get even more intense about getting pregnant and that just adds to the frustration.”

“I’m sorry that I want to have a family, Kyle.”

“Don’t do that, you know I’ve supported you all along. I want to have a family too, it’s just—”

“It’s just what?”

“It’s just that making a family was supposed to be fun and not so stressful and mechanical. I mean, we have a calendar of the days we have sex. We have a, a sex calendar for crying out loud. We can’t do it within 72 hours of the last time we did it because that’s when my sperm are built up just right and we have to do certain positions and I can’t get in a hot tub or even take a bath or too hot of a shower because that might lower my sperm count. Each month brings a new rule or procedure we have to meet. I mean it feels more like we’re buying a house than making a family. I feel like a sperm machine, not your husband or a father.”

“Well, that’s what we’re stuck with right now. We don’t have a choice. You think I want to have to do this? That this is what I want?” It was a good thing I was crying or I’d sound like a genuine bitch right now.

“No, not at all, I’m just saying that we’ve put so much pressure on it. Then add the cost of it all while we’re trying to get a business off the ground. I just, I don’t know…”

“How else am I supposed to give you a family Kyle? I don’t know what else to do.”

“Give me a family? We’re already a family and I’m fine with that. I’m not saying I don’t care if we have kids, I do. I want to have kids, but why don’t we let it be a little more, more natural?”

I suppose you rarely have the conversation you need to have when you actually need to have it. Kyle had let me off the hook. A hook I suppose I had put myself on.

“But I want to have a family now. While we’re young.”

“I know babe, and it sucks that it hasn’t happened yet. But shit happens. Like rain in the middle of a concrete job. I can’t control that and we can’t control this. I get it, I do. But I’m starting to wonder if we’d have better luck just letting it happen on it’s own time. I mean, I’d rather live happy with you and let it happen later than be all stressed out and miserable and then throw a baby into the mix.”

“I, I didn’t know it was bothering you so much.”

“Of course it does. I just want you to be happy. Don’t put pressure on yourself on account of me. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a baby. But there’s so much other stuff going on that I just, I’m happy being with you right now. We can still save money and get ready for IVF, but maybe we just need to take the pressure off ourselves and, I don’t know, maybe even put more faith in God that it will happen. You hear stories of people who quit trying and they end up having a baby the next month.”

“I know. I love you.” He was sincere and I wasn’t sure he wasn’t tearing up through this all. I know I was.

“I love you too. I miss you and I just want you back here. Not just from your trip. Just, back.”

He had a point. I couldn’t remember the last time we had a lengthy conversation without talking about making a family and something new to try. He had never questioned any of it. He may not have been as intense as I was about it, but he was always willing.

“I know, I miss you too. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be. But can we just take a break from all the procedure and calculating?”

I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I think we can do that.”

“Good. I would really like that.” He didn’t give me time to change my mind.

“I’m sorry to run so fast but the rain has let up and the guys are getting ready. Can we talk tonight when I get home?”

“Oh okay, yeah of course. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I hung up and realized all the tears had stopped. I felt lighter than I had in months. He was sincere and genuine. Maybe we really did need to take a break from it all. He was right, each month brought a new requirement and it had added up to a pretty ridiculous sex life. It was just that, sex. Or procreation at best. There wasn’t much love involved at this point.

I pulled the car back onto west-bound Interstate 40 and turned the music up a little louder.

——————–

The trip to Albuquerque passed quickly. We missed the evening traffic and found a hotel with a pool. Yes, a pool. Jared did so well yesterday, I wanted to reward him with some fun. Besides, it was unusually warm that afternoon and I wanted to get my face in the sun. By the time I got back to Indiana, the sun was going to be a rare sight.

So we pulled our best white trash impression and Jared swam in his underwear again. I rolled up my jeans and enjoyed the water on my feet. Jared played the game of holding his breath and damn near drowned. I gotta hand it to the kid. When he wants something, he’s all in.

By the time bedtime rolled around, we were both exhausted and tinged with chlorine. Poor Jared had the most bloodshot eyes so we went to the drug store and picked up some eye drops. I’m not sure if kids are supposed to use it, but he wasn’t going to sleep if he didn’t have some relief.

When I heard Jared’s heavy sleep breathing on my chest, I took some time to text and e-mail friends who may be able to connect me with a job. When I left the RV manufacturing world for the restaurant industry, I swore I’d never go back, but at this point it’s hard to argue with the paycheck. Plus, the hours matched Kyle’s hours more.

I got a few “I’ll check and see”s in return, and a lot of sympathy, but nothing promising yet. It was a start. When I got halfway through my contacts, I finally gave in to my heavy eyelids.

_________________

I woke up and a surge of relief poured over my body. It was the nightmare again. The same as usual, rocking my baby girl in our nursery until she starts choking and slips through my fingers. Only this time I woke up just after she started choking.

I sat up and looked at the clock shining 6:03am. I rubbed my eyes and rolled over to try and get more sleep. We had a 7 hour drive ahead of us today and even if it was the last leg of the trip, I wasn’t going to count on adrenaline to get me there.

But just then my mind decided to run through all my job options and worst case scenarios. The clock shined 6:37am. Then 6:59am. I couldn’t take it anymore and jumped in the shower. The blow dryer woke Jared from his deep sleep, so we watched cartoons and I used the dryer to finish drying his swimming underwear.

We hit the continental breakfast and I got some strong coffee. Jared was extra talkative and ate the two waffles I’d made with peanut butter. As I threw away his plate, it hit me that he hadn’t thrown a fit in days—not counting the whining I heard all the from the pool back to our room last night.

As I stood over the trash can, I couldn’t help but feel a little proud. Intentional or not, Jared had changed. Maybe he figured out he catches more flies with honey. Or maybe he just adjusted to his environment. I can’t say it was intentional. I mean, most of the time I just ignored his fit because I didn’t want to deal with it. Plus, headphones.

No matter, I was proud of him and myself.

As we pulled back onto Interstate 40 west, the sun was warming the flat, dry stretches of New Mexico between Albuquerque and El Malpais Conservation. For an Indiana girl, this all seemed so barren. Brown here, brown there, brown everywhere. But the more miles we passed, the less I noticed the barren ground and the more I noticed, and admired, the small spots of green that made this land work for them.

It was going to be a long drive today but I was too excited to care. I don’t think I would’ve even needed coffee. I would see my dad today for the first time since Christmas and it was the first day of returning back to normal.

Normal? I’m not even sure I know what that is anymore. It’s not trying to have a baby or work toward IVF. I suppose that’s not the right word. Returning to MY life. That’s a better way to put it. But then again, I don’t know if I’ll recognize my life when I get back. Kyle will be knee deep in the business and finishing up the season. Maybe I’ll try yoga, or start a blog.

I gotta get a job.

As we drove through the hills and valleys of I-40, Arizona started to win me over. The brown landscape may not have been full of life, but it made the life that was there all the more precious. Those bushes, those cacti, those lizards (I didn’t see any lizards but I’ve seen movies), they may not be the prettiest or the most familiar, but they’re the survivors, the ones who took what they were dealt and made the best of it. I can respect that, even admire it.

It was just before dinner when we pulled into dad and Jane’s cookie-cutter neighborhood. One of my earliest memories with my dad is sitting on his lap to mow the lawn, but there wasn’t a grass lawn in sight. The only familiar thing here was my father, and I couldn’t wait to see him.

Jared was getting anxious to get out of the car. I couldn’t remember the last time we saw a cow or horse, the music had looped for the 100th time, he was hungry, and his boredom had hit a new level. Cue waterworks.

We pulled into dad’s short driveway and up to the closed garage. I turned off the car and sat back with my head on the headrest. I closed my eyes and said something dangerously close to a prayer.

It was done. We were there and I could hardly believe it. All the scenes of the trip flashed through my mind—tantrums, fast food, cheap hotels, chlorine pools, a flat tire, and a lost job. But we were there. All 1,800 miles behind us.

Jared’s whine and struggle to get out of his car seat brought me back to reality. So I got him out of the car and we headed to the front door, past the garage. It was a small home, nothing fancy and nothing unique. It was white stucco with a few plants in the front yard, or space. I don’t know if you can call it a yard since there’s no grass.

I held Jared’s hand, he held Marty, and we knocked on the turquoise door. I had a flashback of peering out our front door when Cheri brought Jared to our house a little over a week ago. Jared’s young life had already seen his share of front doors.

I gave it a good knock and immediately there was an explosion of yips from what could only be a tiny dog. They got louder as it got to the door and on we could hear tiny claw scratches on the other side. Jared stepped behind me and grabbed my leg.

“It’s okay buddy, It’s just a little guy, he won’t hurt you.”

He nodded but didn’t seem assured. The door opened slightly and the little poodle was scooped up as the door continued. It was Jane, smiling and welcoming.

“Hello! Oh I’m so glad you made it! Come in, come in.”

“Thank you Jane, it’s good to finally be here.” We walked in the house, Jared had a death grip on my hand and stuck to me like glue.

Jane crouched down to introduce Jared to Whitney. Thankfully, she’s all bark and no bite. Jared nervously put his hand out and after the first lick he giggled and gently touched her head.

“Is dad around?”

“Yep, he’s up in the attic, moving stuff out of the spare bedroom to make room for this little rascal.” She tussled Jared’s hair and put Whitney down so they could play together and we went to the hall to the drop down stairs.

Jane called out to dad, “John? Heather’s here!”

“I thought I heard someone! Hey honey!” He grunted and his footsteps called out until his old tennis shoes popped down from the ceiling onto the first step on the ladder.

“Sorry I’m a little sweaty but—” I didn’t let him get the words out before I gave him a big bear hug. “Oh, I missed you.”

“I missed you too. It’s good to be done.”

“I bet, what a trip! The tire’s holding up okay?”

“Yep, sure did.”

“Well, you must be exhausted. Why don’t you hop on the couch and I’ll get you a glass of wine.”

“Oh thank you.” The sigh I let out was more intense than I expected and it halfway scared me.

Dad laughed. “You deserve it.” He hugged me again and gave me a hard pat on the back before heading to the kitchen to get a glass.

“Jared, I made some chicken fingers just for you. Are you hungry?” He nodded and got up from petting Whitney to follow Jane to the kitchen.

I stood quietly in the middle of the hall and took another deep breath. I had done it. I was here. I closed my eyes and whispered “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I opened my eyes to my dad’s smirk and large glass of white zinfandel. He handed me the glass and took a swig of his own beer.

“There’s dinner in the kitchen if you want. Or you can just relax in the living room. Whatever you want to do.”

“Thanks dad.” I took a quick gulp.

“You are staying at least two nights right?”

“Dad I—”

“I know, I know. You gotta get back and get on with your life, right?”

“Come on, you know I’d love to stay. It’s just. Well, things got more complicated.”

“Ahh shit. I mean shoot.” He looked behind him sheepishly.

“I HEARD THAT.” Jane yelled from the kitchen.

“Oops. What’s going on?”

“I got a call from the restaurant and, and I lost my job. They’re shutting down.”

“No.”

“Yeah.”

“Aw, I’m sorry honey.”

That was all it took. The tears immediately filled my eyes and when he gave me a hug, I was over the cliff.

“Wow, honey.”

I took a deep breath and backed away, wiping my eyes.

“I’m sorry, I just…a lot has happened in the last week. Cheri and Jared showed up, Cheri disappeared, Jared stayed. Then I had to drive all the way out here and all the shit.” I whispered. “Involved with that, as you know.”

“Right. Right.”

“Then I lost my job. Then Kyle tells me he’s not happy with how we’re uh, we’re. Well, he’s not happy.”

“I think I get it.” He nodded.

“I’m sorry, I’m just dumping on you and…sorry.”

“Nah, come on. Dump away.”

“It’s just been a hard week or so.” I wiped my eyes again.

“I’m sorry hon. Come, let’s sit down and relax. Jane will take care of Jared. Or Whitney will.” He let out a little chuckle. The little one he does when he thinks he’s funny.

Their home was an open-concept house. The open spaces made it feel larger than it actually was, but all the knick-knacks that seem to come with age cluttered the house and closed in on us. As I fell into the blue overstuffed couch I got a glimpse in to the spare bedroom and noticed several boxes still on the floor.

“How’s the move going?” I smirked.

Dad smiled. “Slowly. It’s been good for us. I’ve been going through some old stuff and reminiscing along the way. I’ve got a few things I’d like you to see before you go.”

He left it at that, so I just nodded my head.

“So. What do you think of the wild West?” He said as he took a few more gulps.

“It has a different kind of pretty.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, it’s dry and rough, but the plants and animals that live here are pretty amazing.”

“There’s not much.”

“Right, they’re survivors. I like that.”

“You know, you’re right. I never thought of it that way. I like that.”

I took another sip of wine and he took another gulp of beer. The drink was hitting me pretty hard on my empty stomach, but that was nice. Being alone with Jared and so far from home, I hadn’t felt good about having a drink during the trip. This was a nice ease of reality.

“I know we just sat down, so there’s no rush, but can I show you something?”

He seemed anxious, and even a little excited. But not like a kid on Christmas morning. More like a kid who made something he wanted to show his mom and dad. He went for the spare bedroom so I scraped myself off the couch and followed, my head now swimming a bit from the trip and the alcohol.

The bedroom was small, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, with a twin-sized bed in the corner, a dresser, and a wooden toy box chest. They were all the same wood tone.

“I see you went shopping.”

“Well, more like thrifting. There’s a second-hand furniture shop in town and we got a heck of a deal on this stuff.”

“That’s good.”

“Have a seat on the bed.”

The dark blue comforter was spread nicely on the bed. The closet still had a couple boxes piled in it with a lamp, picture frames, and more knick-knacks.

He put an old banker’s box on the floor in front of me and pulled up a small step stool to sit on the other side of the box. He smiled.

“If you’re only staying one night, I feel like this can’t wait any longer.”

I gave him a puzzled look, and he smiled again, but seemed a little more nervous, fidgeting on the stool. He opened the box and pulled out a large file. The kind with the accordion sides.

I undid the string, pulled back the flap covering the documents inside, and scanned the dividers labeled inside.

When I got to the third section, my heart skipped and I dropped the file.

To Be Continued…