I have no choice but to march right back to the shack and stop him before he gets started. I’ll convince him I don’t need any repairs. With the rug there, I almost forget there are gaps in the floor, and plenty of people lived in Texas before the advent of air conditioning. It’s kind of nice living in a sauna, and the spiders don’t bother me in bed because enough sweat pools around me to form a moat.
I knock on the open door when I make it back, as if I’m encroaching on his space instead of mine. He’s over at the window near my bed, using a power drill to anchor the air conditioner. His baseball hat is gone and I see now what I didn’t notice before: he got a haircut. The dark strands are trimmed short, sharpening his features. He’s the grown-up man version of a boy who was already intimidating to begin with. My stomach squeezes tight as I fight back the words that are spilling into my thoughts: kissing, touching, wanting, yearning.
“Not a very long walk,” he notes, oblivious to the fact that my mouth is open and there is drool dribbling onto the floor at my feet.
I’ve forgotten my agenda, my name, the year. The president? What’s a president?
He stops what he’s doing and turns to look at me. The profile—which was already killing me—changes to the full-frontal view, and I’m hit with the realization that I was married to Andrew for five years and never once felt weak in the knees like I do now, but that can’t be right. Maybe I’m just exhausted from my walk—all four minutes of it.
“You got a haircut.” I sound like English is my second language.
“You look different.” I’m a three-year-old, stringing beginner words together to form my first sentence.
His brow arches and he shakes his head. “What’s up with you?”
I force my attention to something else and my gaze lands on the air conditioner. Box thing make cold? Very brr-brr-freezy-freezy?
I have a purpose for rushing back here, and it’s not to swoon.
“I don’t want you to do any repairs in the shack,” I declare confidently. “I do appreciate the thought.”
“Thanks boss,” he retorts sarcastically, “but last time I checked, I don’t need your permission to work on my own property.”
Then he turns and gets back to work.
I pinch my eyes closed for a second. It’s so hard to be nice to a dick. “No, I just mean…you’re not doing them on my account, right?”
There’s no pause before he replies, “Right.”
I step forward, trying to angle myself so I can see his expression. Spoiler: it’s not happy.
“So you’d be willing to go on record that you’ve been wanting to fix the place up for a while?”
“Okay, because it’s just that I don’t need you to do anything on my account. I won’t be living here that long.”
“No, I just mean after payday I should be able to get my own place, get out of your hair.”
I can’t help but notice that, in the confusion over my departure, he looked disappointed rather than jubilant, but he regains his composure in an instant.
He goes back to installing the air conditioner, and I’m left standing there aimlessly. I turn on my heel and then pivot back. I have nowhere to go. I need deodorant and a bra, but I’d die before I put a bra on in front of him.
I try to make myself useful by picking up a wrench off the ground (at least I think that’s what it is). “Err…do you want my help or—”
“Yeah, can you not touch anything?”
I drop it quickly then declare I’m going to take another walk, though it’s the last thing I want to do. I’m still sweaty from the first one.
This time, while I stroll around his property, I think about my conversation with Edith at the diner. She really let it spill about Jack. It’s like she opened up his case file, pushed it toward me, and said, Here, catch up. All those secrets, all those emotions were foisted on me, and now I don’t know what to do with them. Up until yesterday, I saw Jack as two-dimensional. He was an angry, hotheaded cowboy. His main tasks in life included barking orders and wearing tight denim. Given the choice, he wanted me off his property and out of his life. He’d made that abundantly clear, and I was okay with that, but then Edith had to change things. She had to take a man I generally disliked and stuff him full of explanatory emotions.
Up until then, I could almost believe Jack had spontaneously sprouted up from the underworld one day just the way he is: jeans, hair, smoldering gaze. Edith disproved that theory. She turned him into a scared twenty-year-old kid, grieving the loss of his parents and learning to carry the weight of his newfound responsibility with the ranch. Of course he’s angry! Of course he’s stressed and short-tempered! No one’s a happy-go-lucky person after going through an experience like that.
I hate this. I hate Edith for telling me his secrets. We could have gone right on bumping heads and throwing jabs, but it’s not fun anymore. I can’t look at him the same way. I can’t go back into that shack without apologies spilling out of me. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry you had to live through that. Then I’d probably try to offer him a hug, and I know how that would go: he’d shoot his hand out, smack me on the forehead, and stiff-arm me so I’d be left swinging my arms in vain.
Therein lies the problem: just because I know why Jack is the way he is doesn’t mean he’s going to stop being that way. He still wants me off his property and out of his life. He still finds me to be a general nuisance, and I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m a spoiled brat from California who’s never worked a day in her life. Well, guess what, buddy boy? I’ve worked FIVE DAYS NOW! So ha!
All this…this knowledge about Jack paired with Helen’s warnings about not taking advantage of him has left me feeling like things have to change between us.
I’m just not sure how.
I start the week with one clear goal: to be the most productive, useful employee Jack has ever had, like if Mary Poppins and Monica Geller had a love child. On Monday, I wake up at the crack of dawn, toss my thin sheet aside, and get to work. I clear everything out of the shack so Jack can have easy access to the floors for his repairs. Then, I make sure to stay out of his way by cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. By the end of the day, the farmhouse is gleaming, and I’m confident Jack could lick any surface and come away with the lemony taste of Pledge on his tongue. Yum!
My efforts are thwarted when I see that Jack has half a dozen ranch hands working on the shack all day. By the evening, they’ve not only fixed the floors, they also repaired the drywall and moved all my stuff back inside, plus there’s a new pendant light hanging in the center of the ceiling. It doesn’t even look like a shack anymore, more like one of those adorable tiny houses from HGTV.
With the A/C on, it is—dare I say—chilly inside. I lie awake that night with TWO soft blankets tucked around my body, worried sick about Jack having gone to all this trouble.
Helen’s words keep reverberating in my mind, leaving bruises.
You better not be taking advantage of him, Meredith.
Keep your head down, work, and try to make yourself as useful as possible.
My only choice is to redouble my efforts on Tuesday. Jack sends a few guys in to retile the shower in the shack-turned-tiny-house, so I decide to draft a list of menu options for him. I’ve seen the way he scowls when I put down a plate of salmon or try to pass off baked asparagus as a carb. No more! If he wants burgers with mac and cheese by the boatload, by golly he’s going to get it! The list I compile includes everything I’m comfortable making (or attempting to make) for his lunches, that way he can cross off anything that doesn’t sound appetizing.
Later that morning, when I’m sure he’s not too busy, I tap, tap, tap on the door of his office and let myself in after he gives me the go-ahead.
“Good morning!” I chirp like a songbird.
“What do you need?” he asks gruffly, skeptical of my cheer.