He doesn’t look a day over eighteen, especially with the sunshine glinting off his blond hair. With a goofy lopsided grin and sunburned cheeks, he seems relatively harmless.
“Nice to meet you, Chris. I’m Meredith.”
“I saw you at the meeting the other day. I’ve gotta say, I’m surprised to see you around after that. You workin’ up in the house now?”
“Started on Monday.”
We continue heading toward the row of vehicles beside the barn.
“What do you think so far?”
I squint one eye to study him. I don’t know how loyal Chris is to Jack, but something about his gentle manner makes me want to give him an honest answer.
“Let’s just say I’ve had an interesting start.”
“That bad, huh?” He chuckles and shakes his head. “He gets better, I promise. When I first started working here, I couldn’t even look him in the eye.”
“He sure can be a mean son of a gun.”
I’m still deciding if I actually heard him correctly—what exactly is a son of a gun?—when another ranch hand joins us.
“Chris! Why are you bothering this nice lady?”
“David, Meredith,” Chris says. “Meredith, David.”
We shake hands and David flanks me on the other side as we keep walking. Suddenly I’m surrounded by boots and twangs on all sides. David looks a little older than Chris, tall and lanky with a beard so long and thick my chin gets itchy just looking at it. I notice then that they’re both wearing matching work shirts with BLUE STONE RANCH monogrammed just beneath the left lapel. I wonder if Jack would have offered me the same uniform if I hadn’t already stolen his t-shirts.
“Meredith was just saying how Jack’s been a real asshole to her,” Chris informs David matter-of-factly.
Jesus! Keep your voice down. The guy probably has the place mic’d up or something. Just to be sure, I loudly and clearly enunciate, “I have not!”
David bumps his shoulder with mine. “It’s okay. You’ll get used to it—everyone does. He’s a good boss, just can be a real mean sonuvab—”
“Gun?” I finish for him.
He winks. “Sure.”
“Where you stayin’?” David asks. “Downtown? Not much to rent around here unless you can afford the motel down off 173.”
“No, I’m staying on the ranch.”
They exchange a confused glance, and then Chris asks, “Here? You mean he has you up in the house with him and Edith?”
“No no no. He’s letting me stay there.” I turn and point toward my shack-sweet-shack nestled in the tree line behind the farmhouse. The distance has not softened its appearance. The last of the ancient window shutters—barely hanging on by one rusty hinge—finally breaks and falls to the ground as if on cue.
“Lettin’ you?” echoes David, laughing as he keels over. “You’re kidding! Where ya really staying?”
It takes a bit more convincing on my part before they actually believe me. Apparently even they wouldn’t deign to sleep there, and it makes me hate Jack even more than before. He made it sound like I should have been grateful for the provided accommodations.
“That ain’t right,” David says, shaking his head. “Does it even have a kitchen?”
“It’s really not so bad. I’ve been making do.”
Yesterday, for dinner, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while hovering over the sink. I would have sat on the bed, but the mice and spiders were embroiled in a vicious turf war.
“Last time I went in there, I saw holes in the floorboards.”
I nod. “Yeah, those are still there.”
One of them is so big my foot nearly fell through.
“Miss Meredith,” Chris says solemnly, taking his hat off and holding it over his heart. A look of deep concern is etched across his baby face. “As good Christian men, we can’t let you keep livin’ like that.”
My brows arch. “Do either of you have a better solution?”
He thinks hard about it. “Well, David here’s getting married soon, so he can’t have you movin’ in with him, and well, I still live with my parents or I’d invite you to stay with us. My mom got pretty mad the last time I brought a stray woman home.”
He says it like I’m a flea-infested mutt he found on the side of the road. Please Mom, can we keep her? She’s housetrained and everything! I don’t take any offense. Other than Edith, Chris and David are the two nicest people I’ve met so far in Texas.
“Well guys, I appreciate your concern, but I won’t be staying in that shack long. I’m saving up so I can move somewhere else.” We finally make it to the row of mud-splattered farm vehicles ranging from ATVs to trucks. “Now, can either of you get me the keys for one of these? I need to run down to the grocery store.”
David tips his cowboy hat. “You stay right here.”
While he’s gone, Chris gives me detailed directions for how to get to the grocery store. “Take the third left after the Lutheran church, and then the next right after First Baptist, and, now, if you see St. Mary’s, you’ve gone too far.” By the time I hop up behind the wheel of an old Ford truck, I think I’ll just let Jesus take the wheel.
Chris shuts the door for me and puts his hat back on his shaking head. “Godspeed Miss Meredith. We’ll figure something out for ya.”
I turn to the dashboard to see what I’m working with and try not to show my concern. The truck is from an era when designers figured getting impaled by a steel steering column was as good a safety feature as any. The seatbelt, which is draped loosely over my lap, has a few knots tying the pieces together.
“Are there any other trucks available? Maybe an automatic? It’s been a while since I’ve driven a manual.”
David frowns. “That’s all we’ve got. I’d give you a quick refresher, but Chris and I really gotta get back to work.”
Right, of course. I’ll have to make do. I will not march back into the house and announce to Jack that I’ve had yet another failure. He probably keeps a list of them stowed in his top desk drawer. It’s laminated, and he pulls it out from time to time just to make himself smile. Sometime soon, he’ll splurge and have it framed.
To my credit, I manage to peel out onto the main road before I stall for the first time. The truck is old—it belongs beside a horse and buggy—and its lower gears are proving ornery. With every grind of the transmission, it’s like the vehicle is saying, Please just kill me.
I restart the truck and continue down the winding country road, trying to glance down at the directions from Chris while also remaining in my designated lane. I’m chugging along at 15 mph, because third gear seems to be the most cooperative. It’s slow going, but I try to enjoy the ride. I roll the window down, and the summer breeze carries the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine. Every now and then a car comes up behind me and I wave them past. They offer fun little greetings as they swerve around me: “Lady! The speed limit’s 40!” and “GET OFF THE ROAD!” I smile and wave, because I’m taking a summer cruise, and summer cruises are meant to be slow. Unfortunately, there’s a hill up ahead and I’ll need to speed up or move to a lower gear if I have any hope of actually cresting it.
I take a deep breath, let off the gas, push in the clutch, and try shifting into second gear. Wait, is second gear up or down? Before I know it, the hill has slowed me to a complete stop in the middle of the road. I plop my head down on the steering wheel before I register the feeling of backward motion.
“No, no, no!” I shout, stomping on the brake pedal.
A truck blasts its horn behind me so loudly I jump out of my skin.
“Go around!” I shout out the window and they listen, whipping past me at a million miles per hour.
After that, I’m left alone again, just me and the hill. I restart the truck yet again, make several attempts at forward progress, but the backward rolling freaks me out every time, causing me to stall out. Finally, I reach the bottom of the hill—actual rock bottom.