She sighed, exasperated. She was always exasperated with me about one thing or another, which was one of the reasons I hadn’t bothered visiting in the past.
“Fine. Call me when you land.”
Turns out I didn’t need to call her. She apparently guessed the gist of my situation while I was sitting in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air and came to her own conclusions. By the time I landed, I had a dozen text messages from her, each one berating me for my impulsiveness and apparent irrationality.
Helen: Is this all a game, or are you actually leaving Andrew? I’m not going to start calling in favors for you if you’re just going to quit and fly back to California in a week.
Seems cold, right? Well, here’s the thing: Helen and I don’t exactly see eye to eye. We never have. We’re ten years apart in age, and our father left her mother for mine. In her eyes, I had the glorious, perfect childhood that was taken from her…and okay, sure, those first few years were pretty good. I got to go on family vacations and every year I had one big Christmas instead of two small ones, but then just like he’d done before, our dad got bored and moved on to the next woman. We should have bonded over our soap opera-worthy father figure, but she graduated and moved out the second she had the chance. Ever since, we’ve both basically been pretending the other sister doesn’t exist.
When I made it outside the airport in Texas, I tried to call her. I dialed…scooted forward in the taxi line…dialed again. I wanted to explain the situation as quickly as possible, and I couldn’t do that over text. It was a lot to explain, and well, my fingers were still shaking from what I’d done. Also, the sordid truth is best explained sans emojis.
When she didn’t answer, I was forced to text her and keep it brief.
Meredith: I left Andrew for good. I need a job and a place to stay. If you can help, that would be wonderful. If you can’t, that would be less wonderful.
Helen: Fine. I’ll ask Jack if he needs a temp. I’ll send you instructions for how to get to Blue Stone Ranch.
Meredith: You are wonderful.
Helen: Don’t make me regret this.
So anyway, that’s why I’m here, spending what little money I have on a road trip across Central Texas.
Blue Stone Ranch is where my sister has worked for the last six years. I can’t begin to imagine what she does as the executive assistant to the owner. Shine his spurs? Shear his sheep? Bale his hay? It’s all a little out of my realm, but I’ll do it all and more—gladly.
My stomach growls again so loudly that I know the cashier manning the gas station counter can hear it. Thankfully, she seems too distracted with problems of her own.
I peek out the front window just as the taxi driver finishes up at the pump. No one knows the truth about my life except him. He’s heard it all. In the few hours since he picked me up from the airport, he’s acted as my chauffeur and silent therapist. Even better, there’s no way he’ll be repeating any of the details I dumped on him because I’m pretty sure he’s had headphones in the entire time. All morning, he’s responded with resigned grunts and sighs—the universal language of annoyance. I’m pretty sure he’s tempted to get back into the taxi and leave me to fend for myself in the Texas badlands.
I need to get a move on.
Driven by a primal urge, I yank the can of peanuts off the shelf and carry them to the counter.
This feeling in the pit of my stomach is new, and I’m pretty sure it’s not hunger-related. This is like nothing I’ve ever done before. I’ve never stood on my own two feet—I’ve never had to. I married Andrew right out of college. He was seven years older, already well on his way up the ladder at a big production company. I moved out of my college apartment straight into his multimillion-dollar house in Beverly Hills.
It’s funny how much I used to fear what is now happening to me. I assumed it was a fate worse than death to end up alone, poor, and directionless. If Andrew taught me anything, it’s that I was wrong.
I plunk the nuts on the checkout counter and the attendant meets my eye. She offers a weak smile, and I can see the strain of life etched in the crow’s feet around her eyes.
“How are you this morning?” I ask with a small, empathetic smile.
For a second, her mouth starts to form a generic answer, but she must see something she recognizes in my expression because she laughs quietly and shakes her head.
“Honestly? I’ve been better.”
I nod. “Same here.”
She’s pointing to the can of peanuts. I look down and the light catches brightly on my diamond wedding ring. It’s my last tie to the life I’m trying to leave behind, the last vestige of a man who for five years covered me with shiny things while trying his damnedest to dull my own sparkle. I could sell it and use the money as a cushion—Lord knows I need it—but I won’t. I don’t want any more of his money. Besides, soon, I’ll have my own. I basically just got hired at Blue Stone Ranch. I can see it now: me in full denim overalls, bandana tied around my neck, wheat stalk between my teeth. I will be the best employee that ranch has ever seen, just as soon as I get there.
Without a shadow of hesitation, I slide the heavy jewel off my finger and drop it on the chipped linoleum counter with a clack.
“Get a good price for that,” I say, shaking the can of nuts. “I know I did.”
“Fuckin’ hell. Who left the damn gate open!?”
There are pigs everywhere: in the garden, the barn, down the gravel drive. I even found one in the house, a chunky little piglet rooting around in my kitchen, canvassing for crumbs. I snatched him up and walked out onto my porch to find half my ranch hands running low to the ground with arms outstretched, trying to catch as many pigs as they could before I noticed.
Pigs are squealing, ranch hands are tripping and cursing to high heaven, and the head gardener is over near the parsnips looking like an outmatched bouncer at a 21-and-up bar. It looks like a ridiculous rodeo sport that should involve elementary school-aged children, not grown-ass men.
“Max!” I shout, catching the attention of one of the younger guys as he runs in front of my porch. He stops pursuing a pig, whips off his baseball cap, and wipes sweat from his brow. “Weren’t you on hog duty today?”
His eyes go wide in fear. “I swear to God I closed the gate after the morning feed!”
“Might wanna take back that oath because it sure doesn’t look like you did.”
He frowns and looks away, swallowing slowly. His voice cracks with fear as he answers, “Damn sure I did, but I s’pose—”
I step forward and drop the piglet in his hands. “You have ten minutes to fix this. If these pigs aren’t put up by then, I’m docking your pay.”
“Yes sir.” He tips his head in a nod and then he’s off again, running full speed with the piglet in hand.
On another day, I’d find this scene amusing. Today, I’ve reached my wit’s end. It’s Monday and I’ve nearly lost my mind. My executive assistant, Helen, is gallivanting halfway across the world. My housekeeper quit last week to move closer to her daughter, and now my ranch hands are recreating Three Stooges skits on the clock. I have too much on my plate and I feel overwhelmed. I don’t like it. I’ve run Blue Stone Ranch for a decade and I hate to think I’ve gone soft in the last few years and relied too much on Helen. She warned me I wouldn’t be able to function with her in Paris, and now I regret giving her time off. Is it too much to ask that she work every damn day from now until she croaks? What’s so great about France anyway? That place made Van Gogh so depressed he cut his own ear off.
I stomp up to my office on the second floor and slam the door. My grandmother is downstairs, standing at the living room window, thoroughly enjoying the pig debacle taking place outside. The old bird takes too much pleasure in my problems.
I take a seat at my desk and heave a deep breath. My ball cap gets tossed onto the desk and I drag a hand through my hair, no doubt making it stand every which way. I need a haircut. Normally, Helen would’ve scheduled something. I sigh and put the cap on backward, saving that problem for another day.