The cow turns then and walks away, as if it, too, cannot wait to get away from me.
Okay, now I’m just shouting into the void. No one, not even the cow, is listening.
Get a grip, Meredith!
I march right back into the shack and lock the door. Good. This is better—a night of no distractions. I have a ton to do. I need to roll up my pretend yoga mat and fold that t-shirt over there. Really, it’ll take me all night to decide if I like the twin bed where it is or if maybe I want to switch it up. I could put the bed against that wall, or that wall, or that wall. The possibilities are endless. Phew. Honestly, I’m booked. If that cow could see me now.
Thank God I made plans with Edith for Saturday morning. We’re going into town to shop at a thrift store, and then she’s going to take me to her favorite lunch spot. I’m so excited, I’m ready and waiting for her out in front of the farmhouse fifteen minutes before we’re due to leave. I spent all morning getting ready as if we were going to the Oscars. I showered and gave myself a blowout with the Cold War-era blow dryer Edith lent me (I needed a break from the ponytails) then I applied a little bit of makeup from the bag I had stashed in my purse for on-the-go touchups.
I put my jeans and white blouse back on since no one saw me in the outfit last night (cow not included), and then I slip on the loafers I’ve been avoiding for the last week. Thankfully, my blisters have morphed into calluses. In the end, I look nearly like I used to back in California: poised and polished. Who cares that I’m wearing the only outfit I actually own, or that I put it on in a dingy shack? By the time I get back from the thrift store, I’ll have a few more options for clothing, and hopefully a few things to soften this place up.
I have all of my cash on me, safely stashed in my wallet. I don’t plan on spending all $500, instead capping today’s purchases at $75. A week ago, I wouldn’t have blinked at spending that amount. Now, it makes my stomach ache. It’s nearly one-fifth of my entire savings. Too bad I really don’t have a choice. I need some more clothes, and while Edith’s sneakers have worked so far, I need a pair that actually fit.
The rest of the cash is going straight to the bank. I’m opening up my own account today—one Andrew has no claim to. $425 might not be much, but it’s better than nothing, and more importantly, it’s all mine.
The farmhouse’s screen door swings open and I glance up with a smile, expecting to see Edith. Jack strolls out instead. He has a steaming mug of coffee in one hand and a to-go cup in the other. I’m surprised to see he’s still wearing his pajamas: loose gray sweats and a white cotton t-shirt. Usually by this time, he’s already been working for a few hours, and this weekend version of my boss is an intriguing sight. His hair is slightly rumpled. His expression is soft, almost as if the effects of sleep haven’t totally worn off yet. He almost looks sweet, but I know better.
He stands there, squinting to keep the morning sun from blinding him while he surveys me.
I check for signs of a broken heart: puffy eyes, downcast gaze, slumped posture.
I see chiseled features, broad shoulders, and a face that looks well rested and tan. He looks like he’s never slept better.
“Edith told me to get you coffee,” he says by way of greeting.
Oh. I was planning on getting some in town, but now that I think about it, that’s not really an option. A $5 cup of joe is now a luxury, not a necessity.
I meet him halfway and reach for the to-go cup.
“That was nice of you,” I say, holding it up in thanks. Even if it was Edith’s idea, it was still a nice gesture.
He shrugs and brushes me off. “Probably put too much creamer in.”
The coffee is the exact shade of light brown that I prefer.
“Looks good. I can’t even tell you spit in it,” I tease.
“Your hair looks different.”
I jerk my gaze back up to find him staring down at me with a confused expression. His head is tipped to the side, and from this angle, the morning light is sparkling in his eyes so they look more golden than brown. I’ve seen that exact shade once before, on a lion at the San Diego Zoo. He had his face pressed right up to the viewing glass and I forced myself not to look away. Looking at Jack from this perspective feels eerily similar.
“Did you cut it?” he asks.
I resist a smile. “No, I’m just wearing it down for a change. I finally had time to style it this morning.”
“Oh.” He nods and averts his gaze, turning toward the pasture and sipping his coffee. It’s probably the closest thing to a compliment I’ll ever get from Jack. “Been meaning to get mine cut.”
“I think it’d look good a little shorter.”
He takes another sip of coffee, and I catch myself staring at his profile…not just staring at it, totally transfixed. It’s the strong jawline and the scruff—he’s a type of handsome I’m not quite used to. Andrew was good-looking in a pretty way. Jack’s sort of handsome makes my stomach twist tight and my hands get a little clammy. He notices me staring out of the corner of his eye and I jerk my gaze away quickly, narrowing my attention on a meadow in the distance. Yup, flowers—thought that was what those were.
Edith—bless her heart (as she’s taught me to say)—chooses that moment to join us outside. She pushes open the screen door with Alfred hot on her heels. The golden retriever gets one look at me and bounds down the stairs for a greeting. Oh god, I’m about to be trampled to death. Goodbye, cruel world. I brace myself, holding the to-go cup out in front of me to keep hot coffee from spilling all over my white blouse, and then I pinch my eyes closed, thinking it’s best not to look death straight in the eye.
Jack must foresee the incident a moment before it happens, because he emits a loud, sharp whistle. I peek just as Alfred’s attention jerks to him and in a flash, he sits and stays, happy to obey his owner.
“Good boy,” Jack says, patting his head.
Damn. “I really need to learn how to do that whistle.”
“Jack, please tell me you’re going to get a haircut today,” Edith interrupts with a disdainful shake of her head. “You look like a damn hipster.”
Hipster? Edith is full of surprises.
“Plannin’ on it,” he says as she waves me over to her truck.
“Let’s go,” Edith says briskly. “If we don’t get there early, the thrift store’ll be overtaken with old biddies, and we still need to stop by the bank on the way.”
Edith seems to be oblivious to the fact that she is technically a biddy herself, but I sure as hell don’t point that fact out to her. I just keep my lips zipped and dutifully hop into the passenger side of her truck. Jack waves us off from the porch before he pats his thigh to summon Alfred and they both turn back for the house.
We stop at the bank and somehow turn a task that should take 20 minutes into an hour-long affair. Edith knows everyone. Every employee inside the branch stops to chat with her, which inevitably leads to an introduction with me, “Helen’s little sister”. As a newcomer in a small town, they want to know it all: where I’m from, why I’m here, blood type, SAT score. I get it, and while I’m careful to sidestep their personal questions, I’m still happy to chat. I’ve had very little in the way of human interaction for the last few days, so I will happily accept the company of Lisa, the rambling teller, and Dotty, the elderly manager, with their bouffant hair and southern accents and nosy niceties. By the time we leave, I feel like I’ve made a whole group of new friends. This must be what it feels like to have a girl squad.
When we arrive at the thrift store, I expect the same kind of greeting, but other than the short white-haired man with the coke-bottle glasses behind the counter, we have the place to ourselves, and boy, do I clean up. I was expecting California prices, but these tags have me feeling like I can walk out and buy a Coke for a nickel.
“EDITH! THESE SHORTS ARE FIVE DOLLARS!”
She yanks them down from where I’m hoisting them over my head, looks at the fabric, and shakes her head. “We can talk him down to three.”
Am I dreaming? How is everything so cheap?!
I find a few fitted t-shirts I can wear while working and snag two pairs of denim shorts. I even toss in some pajama shorts and two sundresses, one of which is a little fancy. I have zero places to wear a dress like that, but it’s too pretty to leave on the rack. After that, I stumble into a section of the store filled with bras and unopened packages of underwear, and I’m shaking with excitement. Sure, they’re Fruit of the Loom tighty-whities, but the entire pack costs $3.50, and if I buy them, I won’t have to wash the same freaking pair over and over again.