She sat across from me in silence, the two of us studying each other for a moment. Her expression was wary, examining me with a look that resembled motherly concern. She pursed her lips and then spoke.

“You eaten?”

The words were so unexpected that I laughed, a welcome emotion. My eyes threatened to water and I blinked back the tears, shaking my head at her. She stood, briskly moving to the kitchen, having bacon and eggs sizzling in minutes. I leaned back on the couch, trying to process my current situation. My mind meandered down different paths, all which ended at similar dead ends—me, deceased, my funeral sparsely attended. Running seemed to be the best course of action.

I turned, wanting something, anything to distract me. Martha stood at the stove, flipping bacon. She seemed relaxed, a calming presence in my new state of anxiety. “Have you worked for Brad long?” I asked. Silently, she went to the fridge, bending over and pulling out a carton of orange juice. I almost repeated the question, but she answered while pouring us both a glass.

“Honey, I been working for Brad since he was twenty-six, but I’ve known the boy since he was a teenager. I worked for his father before him.” She brought the two glasses to the coffee table and slid one to me, setting the other in front of a recliner. I pushed off the blanket and stood, following her to the kitchen. She fixed two plates, passing me one, and we took our food back to the living room, sitting back down. It was weird to be sitting this close to Martha, in her apartment. She was a lot less scary up here, but that was probably thanks to my meek demeanor. The other morning I had been all bitchy attitude. Now I was a scared Chihuahua. A Chihuahua that was incredibly grateful for her kindness, especially given our volatile history.

“Do you like working here?”

She smiled, tilting her head at me, her full face smooth, impossibly ageless. “Oh yes. Me and Brad have worked ourselves into a comfortable life. It takes time, for two people to find their place, and we’ve gotten so we understand each other just fine. I give him his privacy and he gives me my space.”

“Have you ever been married?” I got up and grabbed the orange juice, pouring more for both of us.

She laughed and shook her head. “I’m a loner, Julia. Besides, Brad handles any heavy lifting or odd jobs around the house, and that is enough to keep me from missing a man around.” She took a bite of bacon and sat back, rocking. “So. What’s our boy done now?”

I toyed with my eggs, thinking about how to answer the question, not knowing what information to give. She watched me, clasping her hands on her large stomach, her head tilted, face calm. “I’ve been in Brad’s life a long time, Julia. There was a reason I left his daddy. I believed in Brad, believed in the good in his soul. I saw a lot of things at his daddy’s house, kept a lot of secrets for that family. Secrets I’ll be taking with me to the grave.” She nodded at me, a stern brow arched, and continued her rocking.

Something about the way she spoke made me think that the secrets she kept might be of the caliber of this. And I needed to talk to someone, needed to unload. I took a sip of orange juice and met her unmoving gaze. “Brad hasn’t done anything. It was something I did.”

“You? You have a lot of stress on your face for something you did. What, you fail a midterm or something?”

I laughed, setting my juice down on the coffee table, shocked at the sudden urge I had to burst into tears. I swallowed hard. “No. I was snooping, listening to something I shouldn’t have—and then Brad’s partner, my boss, was killed. Now the people who killed him are after me.” My voice broke on the last sentence, and I tightened my eyes, determined to hold my emotions in check.

She sighed deeply and closed her eyes. “Oh Lordy,” she said, shaking her head. “And let me guess, he’s going to try and save you.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. He wants me to stay up here for a bit. You think I’m in danger right now?”

She, for some reason, found this inexplicably funny. “Up here? Lord no. No one is gonna harm you on this property, I can assure you of that. This is sacred ground, as far as most of the criminals in town are concerned.”

We sat in silence for a minute, me trying to pick up the pieces of what she had said. “What do you mean?”

She exhaled, pushing the arms of the chair, and stood, tottering over to the kitchen and running water into the sink. She spoke over her shoulder, without looking at me. “Julia, I know you think you and Bradley are going to skip off into the sunset, and be together forever, but what you don’t get is that every woman who’s walked into my kitchen during the last five years has thought the same thing, has had the same stars in their eyes. And he has left each one of them before they get too close, before they get any piece of his heart. And as good as he protects his heart—he protects his secrets even better. And that man has a whole heaping lot of secrets.” She turned, a dishrag in hand, and wiped her palms, looking dead in my eyes.

“And death threat or not, I’m not sharing any of his secrets with you. It ain’t my place. I’m sorry, but some things you got to get from him, or go without knowing.” She stared at me, silence between us; then she turned and started washing dishes.

I sank my head back on the soft couch. After a few minutes she wandered over and clicked on the small TV set on a side table, flipping through the stations till she found the one she wanted. On the small screen a preacher stood at a pulpit, gesturing wildly and shouting words of redemption and praise. I watched as she settled into her chair, pulling an afghan over her legs.

Sitting in her cozy living room made me think of home, and my parents. I stood, pulled out my cell and glanced at Martha. “I need to call my mom,” I said softly, over the words of a sermon.

“You can use my guest room, if you’d like,” she said, nodding with her head to a closed door and preparing to hoist herself to her feet.

“You sit,” I whispered, moving around the couch and heading for the room. “Thanks.” I dialed as I walked, quietly opening the door and pressing Send before I stepped inside.

For a woman who had initially seemed inhospitable, she had certainly made her guest room comfortable, with a recliner, neatly made twin bed and thoughtful items placed around the room. I curled up in the chair and listened to the phone ring in my ear.

* * *

TO SAY THAT I am an independent daughter would be putting it nicely. In actuality, I pretty much walked across the graduation stage, accepted my high school diploma, then left town in a cloud of dust, happy to never look back, adios familial responsibilities and obligations. That might be a bit of a dramatization, but not by too much. And now, after three years away from home, college had become the justification of the bridge between my parents and me.

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