Dawn - Part 1 (Sunset)
**PLEASE SEE NOTE PRIOR TO READING**
Unless....you know, you don't feel like it.
Disclaimer: As with all my stories, this contains mildly suggestive content. The plot, without giving too much away, entails an unmarried couple living together. I know many disagree with that, and I don't dismiss or diminish your completely valid opinions. I simply write what I'm interested in, and a lot of that naturally ends up including modern day practices.
As always, there is nothing explicit and no explicit language--just some situations suited to a more mature audience! I hope it's all right that I post it.
Clem’s braid kept hitting her back.
Each lash as she pushed through the layers of people, well-dressed body after well-dressed body, manifested as a duly-noted reprimand. She imagined her back, having toughened out hot summer afternoons--and ice-cubes down the collar of her shirt, and the angry fingernails of Will’s hand--succumbing to this, more out of human decency than anything else. It would only seem fitting that her skin would flare up, inevitable that she’d contort in the mirror on the bedroom vanity to get a closer look.
Shame on you, the mark would say, even after time wore it away, and her skin’s normal, buttery hue returned. She could picture these things precisely, so well that she didn’t even have to close her eyes to see it. A good thing, that, because the bodies were teeming and it was impossible to get anywhere quickly, much less navigate without full attention.
She stole another glance at her watch to find she was now twenty-one minutes late, and figured it didn’t matter anymore. Wherever this so-called Dyne was, she was probably almost there. She stopped abruptly, and the man behind her cursed.
“Watch it,” he snapped, as he shoved past Clem. She gave herself one, two scattered seconds to collect herself, to note the slight stinging on her back. At the lapse of the braid’s admonishment, she could finally note the reverberation of pain, appreciate the subtlety of it. Then she felt the urge to chop her hair off.
Clem fell into the natural current of bodies, praying that the restaurant was close. She’d been running what felt like forever, since her feet hit the platform after she got off the train. She imagined Grant waiting, having to pass up on the reservations he’d made weeks ago. And he’d been so excited about tonight, talking about it for ages. To him this was important, and yet Clem couldn’t be bothered. She’d sat in her kitchen--her mother’s kitchen, Clem amended, picturing the cool stainless countertops of the apartment on Fifth Avenue. Anyway, she’d sat in her mother’s sunshiny kitchen, with its tile countertops and laminate flooring, eating homemade biscotti and drinking cup after cup of tea until four. She’d watched the hours glide by on the clock, with her own two eyes, hadn’t even given herself enough time to do her hair properly.
Instead it was in that stupid, messy braid that she always wore when she did housework, since that was now the only kind of work she ever did. Time to scrub the toilets signaled the use of her boar-bristle brush and three stretched-thin hair elastics. Grant called it The Braid. He liked The Braid, Clem knew that, but only in the comfort of their own home, where he could yank it as he passed by her watching a movie on the couch. Going to a place as nice as this constituted flat-ironed hair and impeccable makeup, neither of which Clem possessed at the moment.
Up ahead, she noticed the crowd shifting to the right, some people stepping down off the curb, to accommodate something. Clem searched the signs jutting from the facades of the old buildings, printed canvas stretched over metal poles in squares. There was the florist, Rose Knows, and a dessert place called Refined that Clem and Grant had been to a couple of times, eating eight-dollar sundays in leather-upholstered booths. A ridiculous waste of money, Clem had thought as she spooned some hot fudge into her mouth, but again, it made Grant happy.
All her fervent pleas to God seemed to have been heard, because the next sign she noticed was for Dyne, and it couldn't have been more than a half a block away. That’s where people were veering out of their way. A few paces more, and she saw why--a line stretched out of the entrance, taking up at least half the sidewalk. Goodness.
Clem reached the place in no time and stood off to the side, patting around her head to fix any strays. Using the camera of her phone as a mirror, she’d tried to do her braid in as sleek a way as possible on the train, but it still had all the markings of a last-minute hairstyle. The girls in line, she noticed, had shiny hair and perky clothes. Her dress, with cap sleeves and a hemline below the knee, did not quite fit.
The people in line shot her irritated looks as she squeezed past, so she muttered she had a reservation, by way of apology. The host inside greeted her with a strained smile. It was brilliant, Clem observed, in white-teeth and smooth-lipped glory, but his eyes were not in it.
“Hi,” she said as she reached him, still managing to sound out of breath even though she’d been walking. “I, um--I think there’s the reservation. Or there should be. But he’s maybe not here yet, I don’t know.”
The host blinked at her. “Name?”
He glanced discreetly down at a sheet of paper Clem could just barely make out over the lip of the mahogany lectern he stood behind. She noted the smell of fresh garlic.
“Sorry, no Grant.”
“Oh.” Clem stepped back. “There’s nothing?”
“No. The closest thing we have to Grant is Gregory.”
Clem crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, his name definitely isn’t Gregory.”
The host smiled in a way that made her stomach clench. “Right. But reservations are by last name.”
“Uh—” Clem exhaled, hating her hair and her dress even more than she’d thought possible. At least, if she was dressed like the girls outside, she could appeal to him with her chicness. Yes, she’d still be dumb, but at least she’d have been desirable and dumb. That, somehow, seemed better. “It’s--man, that was stupid.”
“Don’t you worry.” The host glanced back down. “What was the surname?”
Except Clem heard it as Sir Name, and she said, “Grant.”
He jerked his head up at her. “Are you playing at something? Because we have people—”
“No, no!” Her brain finally, blessedly, caught up with her mouth. “Surname—as in last name. Got it.” Clem’s lips curved up, but like the host, she didn’t really feel the gesture. Not really. “It’s Perkins. Last name Perkins, first name—”
“Grant. Yes. And yes.” The host plucked a couple of menus from seemingly nowhere. “You’re twenty-five minutes late. Right this way.”
“But, sir—” He seemed to glide through the dining room with ease, weaving past people on their way to the bathrooms and servers on their way to the kitchen. Clem, clunky in her unfamiliarity, tried to keep up as best as she could. Her surroundings were distracting, though, and she couldn’t help as her eyes darted all around the room, officially outrunning her train of thought in the process. Everywhere, there was black. Black tables, black clothes on the customers, black plates and--oh, man--cutlery? Clem was sensing a theme.
She remembered what she’d meant to say to the host as soon as they reached an empty table. Still out of breath, she put two hands on her hips. “So is he--Perkins, or Grant, I mean--is he not here yet?”
“No. He nodded at the vacant chairs. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“But would it be, um, possible that he’s at a different table?”
“Not according to the schedule. And the schedule doesn’t lie.”
“That’s a good thing. A...kind of a good quality to have.”
Finally, he granted her a genuine smile. “Agreed. Will you be okay here, then?”
“Yeah. Just let him know I’m here, when he comes.”
He started to walk away. Clem reached out a hand.
He faced her. He seemed to be speaking through his teeth. “Yes?”
“Are you sure he wasn’t already here, and, like, left or something?”
“Because, um, couldn’t he have come and then left when he didn’t—”
“No, he would’ve had to verify the reservation. And he never did.”
“But what if—”
“Look, I’ve got to go, ma’am. Your server will be happy to answer any questions you’ve got.”
Clem watched as he took off, even faster than he’d brought her here. His pace could almost be considered running, if not for the fact that it was so mind-blowingly steady. Even running was not that measured.
She pulled herself back to the present, reeling in her wandering mind like a yo-yo, and her eyes snapped to the lonely table. She’d been right about the black forks, she discovered as she idly reached forward to unroll a napkin. Black. Black upon black upon black.
The color of the cabinets at the apartment, Clem thought as she reluctantly sat down. It hadn’t occurred to her to be worried, but now, as the fact that Grant truly wasn’t here sunk in, she felt a spark of alarm. It was so unlike him to be late for anything. He had some kind of meeting today, deep in the heart of the city. Which meant public transport. So it was improbable that his car had broken down or something.
She went through all the things that could have gone wrong anyway, illegitimate as well as those more likely, torturing herself with each vivid picture. She saw subway cars turned on their sides, glass sprinkled about like confetti and tires hissing; she envisioned Grant waiting for his post-work coffee, his dark eyebrows pulled together, only to find that they’d lost the order; she heard the sound of a gunshot in her head with absolute clarity, the crack and echo that had woken her on so many early mornings on the farm. Pa would come in, announce he'd killed a gopher or some other destructive animal, but it never made it hurt less. Clem didn't believe in only bad sides.
She made that image of a gun much worse, imagining the barrel aimed at Grant. Maybe he’d been mobbed. Everyone here got mobbed at some point, he’d told her. She had been anxiously waiting her turn for five months.
Clem let out an embarrassingly loud sigh, hoping it would chase away the bad thoughts. She reached for her cell phone for the second time but pulled her hand away at the last minute, thinking pretty selfishly that she’d rather not know, if there was a terrible reason he wasn’t here.
Maybe he had been here, and the host was wrong. The reservation book doesn’t lie, he’d said, or something equally pretentious. Well, newsflash: things lied all the time. Even things like reservation books. Even things--or, in this case, people--like Clem.
She put her head in her hand, forgetting manners to prop her elbow on the table, and sat there for a few minutes. The heaviness of the truth laid in her throat, a slow-burning throb. It was a metaphorical pain, but it hurt worse than the braid, she thought. Way worse.
“Hi, my name’s Hailee and I’ll be your server. What can I get you to drink this evening?”
Clem lowered her hand; she'd been in that position long enough that her cheek burned with the blood flow returned to it. A waitress had materialized, just like the menus had at the host stand. She was pretty, with a freckled face and short, assertive black hair. Her face actually reminded Clem of a friend she’d had back in middle school. Clem entertained herself with the thought that maybe this was her friend, that she’d cut her waist-length hair, changed her name, and plucked herself from the rural countryside to head to New York.
That last part, Clem , she was thinking about herself.
She’d just opened her mouth to answer--water, please--when she saw him. Over the waitress’ shoulder, Grant. He was walking at a clipped pace, doing up his tie as he moved. His hair was all windblown, the way Clem liked it. When his eyes landed on her, they brightened. He raised his hand, one half of a wave. She kept hers at her side but moved it back and forth, completing it.
Relief flooded Clem like the basement of an old house. She knew she’d write that simile down later, in her journal, just for memory’s sake. So that when she thought of basements or houses or floods in the futures, it would trigger this moment: the waitress stepping back to relinquish her position, Grant’s arms sliding around her, Clem breathing in.
They were a few seconds, overall, that felt much bigger than themselves. No, this moment was not unparalleled--Clem could pretend otherwise, but Grant’s hug was no firmer than usual. And she could wish it to be true, but he didn’t smell any more amazing than he usually did. As for the waitress, were her eyes filled with reverence and longing? Was she wishing, hoping, for a love even a fraction of what theirs was?
No, she was shifting from foot-to-foot and scratching at a place on her thigh. But Clem could extract all the visceral pieces of this that she wanted, build them so high, to match her emotions through the ceiling. She closed her eyes and squeezed even tighter, hating her runaway mind with the same intense passion as her braid. It was dangerous, sometimes, to have the brain of a writer. You burned yourself.
“I’m so sorry,” Grant said, quickly pecking her cheek as he leaned back. He extricated himself from her arms, which were a bit clingier than usual, and pulled out the seat across from hers. “I’m sorry I didn’t call. I couldn’t--I lost my cell phone on the subway; that’s why I’m so late. I had to go back and look for ten minutes and I still didn’t find it. Somebody probably took it. But I’ve already been on the phone with the company and they’re shutting off the service, so whatever loser decided to make it his--he’s got a surprise coming.”
Clem opened her mouth, trying to get a few of her own words in, her tools to illustrate her day, but Grant segued into a rundown of his meeting, what a success it was, and their new advertising campaign.
“And I said,” he was saying, as the waitress returned with drinks, “that if we want some really good dialogue, I know somebody who could do it.”
Clem sipped her soda. It came in a black glass that concealed the liquid inside, so she couldn’t be sure it was really coke, but it tasted like it. It occurred to her that she should say something.
Grant leaned back, toying with the olive in his gin-and-tonic. “You.”
“Oh.” Clem breathed deep. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” He laughed, incredulous. “Clem! This is it. Your shot.”
“Yeah.” She was pouting, she knew it, but she couldn’t help it.
“Clem.” His hand came to rest on her wrist. She met his eyes. They were so full of love, so full of pride. “Don’t tell yourself no. Not yet. You don’t have to say yes, but in the meantime, they’d like a writing sample. Something with some spunk. The story you wrote about the girl who’s in the circus—”
“Annalynn,” Clem reminded him.
“Annalynn, yeah, she was hilarious! They would love it.”
Clem’s chin quivered. “Yeah…”
“Hey.” Grant moved his hand to her face. He was so intent, focused only on her. Clem had the presence of mind to glance around, wondering if anyone was watching, but was sucked in by his gaze. She grabbed his wrist, anchoring herself. She had to tell him.
“What are you worried about?” He asked, abruptly. A shadow must have flickered over her face.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Nothing much.”
The waitress returned. “Can I get you guys an appetizer?”
Grant rolled his eyes, privately, just for Clem. “Um, sure.” He dropped his hand. “What’s good?”
He glanced at Clem. She shrugged.
“Put us down for them.”
Hailee clicked away in her high-heeled shoes and Clem let out a breath. “She is the worst.”
“The worst.” Grant picked up his menu. The spell had evaporated in the cloud of Hailee’s skunky perfume. “Her sense of timing is awful. So why don’t we talk about whatever you’re worried about at home? I mean, if you’d rather. That way we won’t get, I don’t know...interrogated.”
Clem smiled, relieved to have a genuine reason to put this off. “Sounds good.” She flipped open the menu. Prices, all over twenty-dollars and scattered throughout, beamed up at her.
Grant laughed. “Oh man.”
“Take a look at the price of the mussels.”
Clem scanned the page for them, then put her hand over her mouth. $35.95, the numbers boasted. A giggle escaped. She couldn’t help it.
“She literally picked the most expensive appetizer on the menu,” Grant scoffed. “I bet she hasn’t even had them.”
“Probably not,” Clem seconded. She cast the menu aside. “So will we be living on takeout the next few months, or…?”
“A step down, probably: home cooking only.”
Clem threw back her head, scattering joyful noise like a handful of birdseed at Central Park. That was one talent of her mother’s she hadn’t inherited. “Sure, sure. Good luck.”
“Hey, I can hope.” He patted the menu. “Seriously, we’re good. I wanted to treat you to something nice. And now you’ll be able to say you’ve had the most expensive mussels in New York City!”
She grinned. She wished she could stay here, with him, forever.
Theoretically, she could.
Clem swallowed and scanned the entrees.
Monday morning dawned early for Clem, but by the time she was fully up and functional, coherently forming sentences and words in her brain--it didn’t take long for her to adjust after wakefulness, maybe only five or ten minutes, not like most people--Grant was gone. He’d had an extra, extra early meeting, or that’s how he’d described it to her. Clem sat on the chaise in the living room, legs curled up under her, as she drank the first of her morning cups of coffee. There was work to be done.
She’d put it off all weekend, kept finding excuses. They’d been in such a lovely, post-date stupor after their meal. The food had been excellent, the conversation even better, so that it carried over into the next two days. Grant didn’t have to work either, only took some phone calls, so they’d spent the weekend in: watching movies on the couch, reading books, side-by-side and rapt with appreciation for each other.
But then, that was the problem. If she cared about him so much, she would’ve been able to tell him.
Clem stood up and went to her closet. It was a big walk-in, six feet wide and deeper than an abyss. She knew she’d stored the boxes somewhere, and she began pushing things aside--shirts from years and years ago and the new pieces that had come into her life by way of Grant's credit card.
They were there, under the back shelf where her summer shoes were currently being kept. Her messy, permanent-marker writing remained, the labeling chaste. 'clos', one said, and 'books', and 'supp'. She tugged at the one for books and carried it out under her arm. Then she cocked her head at the shelf of novels she kept in their bedroom.
Suddenly, she was crying. Clem dropped the box and ran for the phone, picking it up. She dialed home. She didn’t know why at the time, only knew that she needed to hear a familiar voice. Grant probably would’ve picked up, but dear, how did she explain the crying? How did she explain any of this madness at all?
“Morning,” Mama answered in her cheerful voice.
“Hey,” Clem quavered. “What’re you doing?”
Mama didn’t catch on right away, not like Clem had hoped. Apparently, the phone concealed subtle nuances. “Making breakfast. You?”
Now that she’d said that, Clem could pick up those familiar sounds: sizzling, the spatula scraping the edges of a saucepan, talk radio in the background. She closed her eyes and could see Mama, standing in the same place just off to the right of the stove, reaching with one arm to stir the scrambled eggs. It was a picture she’d had implanted in her head from a young age. She could conjure it up just as easily as when she was ten, or twelve, when this was an image that reoccurred daily.
Now she could stick the present-day Mama in the picture, her face just a little older, splashes of grey sprinkled around like little treasures. Diamond hairs, Pa called them.
Clem’s thoughts had got away from her again, and she wondered for the millionth time if there wasn’t a way to harness them. That would have been nice.
Mama cleared her throat. “Clementine? Honey? Everything okay?”
“I—” Clem choked on the word. I, everything about her. Narcissist.
“I’m just...I started to pack up my books.” Clem glared at the empty box that lay on the floor. “Or I tried. I still can’t do it. I don’t know, Mama, about this.”
“Well, then maybe it’s just not right.”
“No, that’s the thing--it is. I can try and convince myself otherwise, but I know this. It’s…”
“Okay, Clemmy. Take a breath. Remember what you said Friday.”
Oh, man. Last Friday afternoon at the house seemed like ages ago. It was when all these final decisions had been formulated, through a series of tentative, guilt-ridden truths from Clem. I don’t like the city. I don’t like the apartment. I think moving there was a mistake. I’m not truly happy.
What Clem hadn’t said, what she was thinking now, was that there was a reason she’d said yes to Grant’s proposition, back in April. Because she loved him. Because she wanted to be with him, more than anybody else in the world. Because he believed in her like no other, and he made her laugh, and he did things like offer up her name in meetings to get her writing jobs. Even though, if she bombed, it would reflect badly on him.
Grant didn’t think that way. He thought in a selfless language, a what-can-I-do-for-you attitude the driving force behind all of his decisions, even advertising. He was great at it too, at appealing to the basic, innate desire in every human to be better. That’s why he’d been so successful, so young.
Twenty-two, and Grant had the world in his palm. But she, Clem, was off to the side. Maybe somewhere around his elbow, perhaps. Still wanting him, but not the lifestyle he’d so carefully fashioned for them.
“I remember,” Clem said at last; she needed to quit pausing so long. It was probably alarming to her mother. “Mama, that hasn’t changed.”
“Nothing. I just am really, really scared to tell him.”
“You know he’ll understand.”
Clem chewed her thumbnail. “I know.”
“And he’ll support you.”
“And he’ll wait for you.”
“I know. But what if he wants to know how long this is going to take? What if he thinks it’s temporary, or that I want to come back?”
“Tell him you don’t know. It’s the truth, right?”
“I guess so.”
“I mean--yeah. Yes.” Clem’s mother hated Yeahs. She said they were fickle.
That was Clem’s worst trait, she’d long-ago decided. She was fickle, down to her very core, when it came to absolutely everything. It was difficult for her to choose what she wanted. Grant had been one of the easiest yeses she’d ever given, internally or otherwise. Now it felt like she was going back on it.
Clem, drawing strength from the familiarity of her mother’s assurances, reached for a book. She dropped it into the box, and it hit the bottom with a dull thud. There was a smile in Mama’s voice.
“What was that?”
Clem drew a breath. “The first step, I think.”
“It sounded like Morris when he jumps off things.” A click sounded as the burner was shut off. “He misses you.”
Morris was, admittedly, one of the reasons Clem was moving back home. Her furry, slightly overweight grey tomcat had started life as a kitten in the barn some ten years ago, when Clem was only nine years old. After they’d bonded, she’d campaigned for his relocation into the house. It took a week of convincing, but she’d won.
Morris. She missed Morris. She missed the bump of his soft head on her arm, when he was craving attention, and the heavy way that he always landed, sending vibrations through the floorboards. Morris was more dog than cat, and Clem had been slightly heartbroken when she'd left him behind.
“I miss him too,” Clem said automatically, all these thoughts having passed through in a mere matter of seconds. She reached for the next book. “I miss all of you.”
“We miss you too, Clemmy.”
She pulled another, and another. “I better go, Mama.”
“All right. Be strong, and call me after you talk to Grant.”
“I will.” They said their I-love-yous and hung up. Clem felt a post-conversation emptiness settle over her, heavy as an afghan. She chased it away with another packed novel.
Clem, from the bedroom, could hear when Grant got home that evening. It was late, well past ten, and normally she’d be asleep. She went to bed with the moon and rose with the sun, like a true farm kid. But she was sitting in the bedroom, still in her jeans and sweater, idly flipping through an almanac. Her Dad had sent it to her a few weeks back, and all the predictions he was excited about were circled. She was studying the probability for corn growth when the front door clicked shut.
She sat up straight and closed the almanac. It was the last of the reading material she’d had to pack. There was a lot of it, and it was all dropped back into that same box, plus one Clem had found in the coat closet. She’d picked up several more novels at street sales in her time here from vendors who mostly boasted collections with worn spines, missing covers, dog-eared yellowing pages. She didn’t mind.
Clem closed her eyes. In her head, there was Grant, pulling off his messenger bag, black hair falling into his eyes as the last of the day’s pomade fizzled away. His jacket was thrown on the arm of the leather couch. His lace-up dress shoes tapped a song on the hardwood as he slid them off, always using the toes of his other foot, even though it broke them down more quickly.
She could see his eyes rove over the room, taking it in. They would go to the Times, which Clem always left on the island in the kitchen for him. They would go to the fridge, where he knew that evening’s takeout awaited. Then, she imagined, as he stepped further in, he would notice the box. Sitting off to the side of the chaise, duct-taped. ‘books’ it said. He’d see the bulkiness, go over to nudge it with his foot. He’d be forced to catalogue the new, empty spaces on the shelf by the window.
His heart would break.
Clem rose up on her knees and waited for the guillotine.
The door opened. Grant stuck his head in and smiled. “Hey, Clem. How was your day?”
He stepped inside and left it open behind him, coming over to wrap his arms around her. She breathed out, shaky, and as their chests met she could feel her heartbeats. They were hard, and uneven. Grant stepped back, keeping his hands on her shoulders.
This was torture. He hadn’t seen the box. She’d counted on that, a way to introduce this conversation without having to do the brunt of it herself. Her hands shook as she fixed them to her hips.
“I…” She raised her chin. He had that quirky little half-smile going, like maybe he was expecting something wonderful from her lips. She couldn’t look at him anymore, the first time in their two-year relationship that she could ever remember that happening.
“Clem?” Grant touched her cheek. “What?”
She stared up at the ceiling. “I’m going back home.”
The plunge, as the mechanism released. Down the blade came, and she was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been.
It was insensitive, maybe, likening this moment to a beheading. But that’s what it felt like.
Later, she knew she’d write that down. So she’d come to associate the word with other ones, like the Oh that came from Grant’s mouth, and the Why, he asked, and the cold, tired, detached ones that came from hers. Because this doesn’t feel like home, and I just think I need to go back for a little while.
“How long?” He asked, his shoulders drooped, his frame impossibly small.
Clem shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“So does this mean—” He stopped himself, like he didn’t want to say it.
Clem glanced up. He was shaking his head to himself.
“I don’t know,” he said at last, “what to say.”
Her eyes watered.
Clem drew a deep breath. “Sunday.”
He crossed his arms. “What did I do wrong? Was it because of the advertisement thing? Because that’s stupid, and of course you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
Clem tried to search deep inside herself, really, to give him an honest answer. She found that wasn’t it, so she shook her head. She appreciated him taking those steps for her, because God knows that, no matter how she lamented that she wanted to be a writer, she was doing nothing to get there.
“New York City’s the mecca of writing,” Grant had told her all those months ago, when he first proposed she move in with him. “There are plays that need writers, and TV shows, and magazines and newspapers. You’ll find a job in no time.”
That was the angle she had gone to her parents with, to convince them. She was well over eighteen by that time, but still young, at least in their eyes. The passion in her voice as she plead her case, over garden vegetables in the evening and eggs in the morning, for weeks and weeks, it seemed, slowly swayed them. Finally, they’d granted her their blessing.
New York was too big, though, and too fast for her. She’d known that a long time now. It wasn’t home.
Even with Grant.
How she could put this into words, Clem didn’t know; yes, she was a writer, but oftentimes she found she had a hard time using words out loud. If she had her pen, and a paper, she was golden. So she just shook her head at Grant because no, it wasn’t him, it had never been him.
He stared at her. “I still love you.”
“I still love you,” she said, softly. “That’s not changed.”
“Then why are we breaking up?”
She felt a start at those words. “We’re not.”
“No!” She lowered her voice, with considerable effort. She reckoned that hysterics would not be in her favor. They just made a person look guilty. “No. Is that what you thought?”
“Well--yeah. I mean, you’re moving out. You’re leaving.”
“Just the city. Not you.”
He let out a sigh. “I’ve got to think about this, Clem.” He rubbed his forehead, hard. “Can we talk in the morning? I need food.”
He ate the Chinese she’d ordered on the couch, with her curled up against him. A movie flickered on the TV, something romanceless and action-packed. But Clem knew both of their minds were elsewhere.
Still, it was nice. That they both could pretend, like this, that it was just another routine Monday night.
Grant insisted on driving her. They loaded her five boxes in the back of his sleek little car, which was hardly ever driven and instead sat in its paid-for parking space, forgotten, over two-thirds of the time. The vehicle stuttered a little when Grant turned the key in the ignition.
“Great,” he exhaled, leaning back. Clem fiddled with the collar of her t-shirt, rubbing the scratchy material between her thumb and forefinger.
“Try it again,” she said, her words cool in the early morning.
He did, and the car roared to life. Grant backed out of the space and followed the path out of the garage silently, like doing so required all his concentration. Maybe it did, Clem didn’t know. Driving, here in New York City, was a foreign concept. If you were smart, you took a taxi. Or, more often, the subway. She’d been through countless punch cards in her time here, yet the cumulative cost was still cheaper than a couple weeks’ worth of gas back home.
As they joined the long line of cars at a red light, Clem took in her surroundings. Skyscrapers, skyscrapers everywhere. Street signs and crosswalks. People, some dressed conservatively, others done up to the nines, even this early. There were the homeless, holding signs, bedraggled. The coffee shops, which she’d never really used. Coffee shops intimidated her. They were filled with edgy, pierced people wearing high-necked shirts and thick black glasses.
It took twenty minutes for them to escape the city, and they didn’t speak, not even once. Another fifteen passed before they were out on the highway, and another twenty before they exited and the roads gave way to rural land. Green plains, etched with fences, bordered either sides of the road. Clem rolled down her window and breathed the deep, hearty smell of crushed leaves and wet earth. Goosebumps rose on her arms.
She could feel Grant’s eyes on her, but she ignored them and closed her own. The wind sent her hair whipping all around her head, and despite the chill of the air, the sun warmed her skin. Autumn, in the countryside, was the most perfect thing in the entire world. Clem knew this to be a fact, true as her name.
Grant drew an audible breath. “You know you’re beautiful, right?”
Clem raised her eyelids. They were droopy, like venetian blinds. “Stop it.”
“No, really.” He freed one hand to rest it on her knee, his palm fitting perfectly over the knobby curve. His skin was a shade or two lighter than Clem’s. She brushed his knuckles with her own, a way of acknowledgement.
“Just so you know,” he continued a minute or so later, surprising her, as she’d thought that was all he had to say. She wouldn't have blamed him. “I’m going to make this drive as often as I can. Every week, at least, and you’re going to be annoyed with how much I come to see you.”
“Never,” she swore.
“We’ll see,” he said.
“Maybe my Dad will.”
He smiled. It was a brilliant thing. “We’ll have to sneak out to the barn to make out, like we used to.”
Clem wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, that's ugly.”
“Jeez, I thought those were some of the best times.”
His hand was still on her knee. She felt a sadness in her chest. “No, I mean ‘make out’. The term. Could there be a less romantic way to describe kissing?”
“I'm sure. Let’s think of some.”
Oh, this game was familiar, too. Like an old song, come on the radio months and months after you’d last heard it, so that you’d forgotten it existed in the first place. They’d used to play this back when Clem was in high-school, on long drives through the scenic roads. They’d made it a game to one-up each other, and whoever lost had to buy the cherry cokes they always got at the diner in the closest town. Dawn, it was called, and it contained only a poorly-stocked grocery store and a couple of restaurants and about three gas stations.
“Smush faces,” Clem piped up abruptly, breaking her own reverie.
Grant gingerly picked his hand off her leg, put it back on the steering wheel. “Make lip pie.”
“Okay…” Clem ran her tongue over her teeth, in her classic thinking pose.
A few seconds passed. “Do you give up? Does the great and powerful wordsmith surrender?”
The clock turned to nine-oh-eight. “Then, in a stunning turn of events, the boyfriend triumphed…”
“Shh.” It was close, Clem could feel it. She smiled. “Mouth wrestling.”
He laughed in repulsed delight. “Sick, sick, sick.” He punctuated each word with a slap on the steering wheel.
Clem folded her hands in her lap, raising her eyebrows at him. “You owe me a cherry coke.”
“You bet.” He surprised her by signaling at the next stop sign. They were few and far between, out here, and Clem immediately knew where they were going. “Let’s get one.”
It was going to delay them by a good half-hour, but Clem didn’t protest. Being here together again had lit the old playfulness back into them, the one that had led them to this moment in the first place. Clem and Grant. They fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the perfect complement to one another. Even when he talked to much, and she thought too much, they persevered.
The little green sign for Dawn popped up a few miles down the road. It told them they were only ten miles away. As they drew nearer, and the familiar postmarks came into view: the old roadside stand that Clem had never seen used. According to the sign, they'd once sold Fresh Cherries; the black paint was worn away by years of neglect.
There was the oak tree that they’d parked beneath one time, had lunch while sitting on the hood of the car, gas station cheddar popcorn and Yoo-hoo; they breezed past the only house out here, where a little old woman name Maribeth used to live.
There wasn’t any kind of indication that they’d arrived in Dawn--newcomers would probably take some time to realize they were even in a town. A bunch of trailers were spread out on the periphery, with lattice and flower boxes. Everything Dawn had to offer was congested in the very center.
They pulled into the dirt parking lot at the Dawn Gas and walked across the street to the Dawn Diner, which had a parking lot, but it was so old that it was mostly broken blacktop and potholes.
Every business here was prefaced with Dawn, like maybe the town's’ inhabitants needed the reminder. It was something Clem loved about it.
It had been a good year or so since Clem had even been here, but she thought it all looked the same as they stepped inside. The linoleum was scuffed as ever, some of the tiles peeling up at the edges, and the pictures hung on the walls were gathering dust on the frames. The booths, forest green and ripped in places, yellow stuffing oozing out, were filled about halfway with people. Families out to breakfast, and farmers eating sausage, and even some high-school kids drinking cups of coffee, somber-faced and baggy-eyed as they tried to sober up after a boozy night out.
Clem had never been a drinker, but one time she and Grant had tumbled in for that very reason. They’d gotten purposefully wasted one evening in the barn, polished off beer after beer after beer, and told all their secrets, even the ones that didn’t need to be heard.
Grant: I’m afraid I’m never going to succeed. I love rap music. I cheated on my high-school final. I’ve only ever been with one other girl.
Clem: My thoughts are so crazy, I scare myself sometimes. I once lied to Mama about something I did so Will would get in trouble. I hate country music. I’ve never been with anybody but you.
Then they had come here in the morning, when it opened at five, and had three cups of coffee apiece and gone through fourteen of those little plastic cups of cream. When they’d left at nine, considerably less giggly and somehow feeling more connected than they ever had before, the table had been littered with the peel-away foil tops.
“Do you remember—” Clem started to say, but a waitress was coming over. Her orange t-shirt had a stain down the front. She smiled, revealing cigarette-stained teeth, and gestured to the unimpressive dining room.
“You kids take a seat wherever you’d like.”
Grant grabbed Clem’s hand and led her to a booth. They fell in naturally across from one another, like they had so many times before. Clem felt her cell phone dig into her thigh and pulled it out. There were no new messages, no missed calls from Mama. She thought maybe she should let her know they’d be a little late. But something about this, the absence of parents and being called kids and all these memories--combined, it was thrilling. She felt seventeen again, out on a date with a guy three years her senior, casting sumptuous looks at him from under her lashes.
“What do you guys want?” The waitress asked, having followed them over.
“Cherry coke,” Clem said, “two.”
“Please,” Grant added.
“Yes.” Clem’s smile was uncontrollable. She clasped her hands on the formica tabletop. “Please.”
The waitress didn’t bother to write it down. “Be right back.”
Clem looked at Grant. He was grinning, too. She felt herself blushing.
“What is this about this that feels so silly?” She groaned, putting her head in her hands.
He nudged her foot with his own. “Because, we’re having cherry cokes and you have a curfew and I think you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Stop.” Her happiness was too big to contain. “I can feel myself regressing.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Maybe.” The waitress returned with their sodas, and Clem slowly unwrapped her straw, bunching it up carefully, trying to keep from touching the plastic. It was a game she always played, something that had come about naturally, without any consciousness about it.
Clem contemplated the slightly translucent wrapper for a moment, then plunged the straw into the glass. It was chock-full of ice. “I don’t feel much different. From then, I mean”
Grant sipped his soda, his hair falling into his eyes. “Me neither.”
She bored holes into him. “Really? Or are you just saying that?”
“No.” He met her eyes. “Really.”
They slowly drank their sodas and talked about things, all mundane details of their lives, like they’d used to back when they were young and everything was still small, manageable.
Finally, their drinks finished, they stood. Grant left the waitress a five-dollar tip. They started for the door and stood outside it for a moment, soaking in the morning sunshine, the cool like a caress on their cheeks. Clem thought about the differences between this meal and the one they’d had at Dyne, with its black glasses and fancy-tasting coke. Here, their sodas had been served in plastic drinkware.
“We’d better get going,” she said at last, reluctantly.
“Yeah.” Grant unfolded his sunglasses from his pocket and slipped them on. They made him look dark and dangerous. Clem’s stomach, if this had been two years ago, if she was seventeen, would’ve flipped at the sight of him. Instead, she just felt this familiarity settle there in ectasy’s place.
After you’d lived with somebody, witnessed them brushing their teeth, watched them spill food in their lap when they ate in front of the TV, and heard the toilet flush as they left the bathroom, not a lot felt new about them.
Maybe that was the point of relationships. Maybe, after all that was boring about somebody came to light, after your stomach stopped somersaulting--maybe if you still wanted to be with them, then you were simply meant to be.
Half an hour later, and Grant signaled to pull into Clem’s long driveway. It was hard-packed dirt, with little soldiers of grass struggling through. Gradually, it gave way to tiny pebbles of gravel, and then a paved rectangle that had been poured when Clem was ten, the year after they had that really bad winter and the car had slid all the way down the hill.
Clem rolled up the window and drank in her house. It was two stories, painted cream and chipping in places. The roof was missing five or six of its dark green shingles. They had shutters to match, which were thrown open, the windows following in the same suit. The barn, planted a ways behind the house, was a traditional red.
Clem stepped out of the car and leaned over to see if the doors were open. They were, which meant that Pa was feeding the chickens. She leaned back over the car, scrabbling for her jacket on the floor, then slammed it shut. She knew Mama would hear the sound and come to greet them.
She was there less than a minute later, as Grant was handing Clem one of her two suitcases, the lighter one. She set it down and hurried to embrace her. The suitcase, tipsy with its poorly-packed contents, went flopping over onto the cement, kicking up a small cloud of soil dust.
“Clem!” Mama cheered, like she hadn’t seen her just last weekend. She pulled back and kissed both her cheeks, then her nose. “You’re finally here. How was the drive?”
Clem looped her hand through Mama’s. “Nice. Lots of nostalgia.”
“Oh, I bet.” She beamed at Grant, who was standing off to the side, giving them their moment. This was, after all, Clem’s homecoming--although nobody would be insensitive enough to say that. “Thank you for driving. Will you stay for the day?”
Clem had already asked Grant, and he’d agreed, and Clem had relayed this information. But Mama was always about being polite, and that meant asking Grant herself.
“Sure,” he said automatically, then glanced at Clem. “If it’s okay.”
“It’s more than okay,” Mama assured him, with such sincerity that the most dubious person couldn’t have denied it. “We hope you’ll be visiting a lot.”
Grant only nodded. The only people he wasn’t truly himself around--grandiose, smart, engrossing--were Clem’s parents. He grew quiet, and agreeable, and polite in their presence. Clem kind of hated it.
Grant was carrying a box and a suitcase now. Mama plucked Clem’s other luggage from the ground and started for the doorway--“Let’s get this all inside, then”--leaving Grant to follow and Clem to scoop up the 'supp' box, then scurry after them.
Mama took the creaky stairs to the second floor, past Will’s closed door. Grant breezed past it without a second glance, but Clem reached out to give it a definitive thump, with a splayed hand.
Will was the antithesis of a farm kid; where she needled into every crevice, he floundered somewhere between city and suburb living. He spent most of his time at friends’ houses, lending a hand to his own parents when he absolutely had to. He was an annoying little brat, but Clem loved him--and maybe even more than Morris, she had missed him, too.
Mama heard the smack and turned around with a knowing smirk, forcing Grant to halt. “He’s still asleep. I told him to set his alarm clock.”
Clem shook her head. “It’s better if he doesn’t get involved. He’d only slow us down.”
Mama made an affirmative sound and continued on down the hallway. Clem’s door was open, letting extra light into the sunny hall. She waited for Mama and Grant to get their bearings first. When she at last stepped inside, Clem let out a sigh.
Her bed. She hadn’t slept in her bed in so long. She set the box down and reached forward to run her hand over the white coverlet. It was starchy, so unlike the fluffy down comforter she lay beneath at Grant’s house.
Already, there was a perceptible difference in her head. Home, and Grant’s house. As if she hadn’t spent the past six months making it her own, instating three new bookshelves and a desk specifically for her to write at. But she never did. She was so busy trying to keep up with the city she forgot to keep up with herself.
The curtains, white and airy and blowing slightly in the breeze from outside, allowed lots of sun to come in. The pockmarked floor, golden brown, prompted her to lift her right foot from her sneaker and run it over the wood. It was rough in random places where the finish had been scuffed away. Clem loved that about this house. The apartment in New York had recently been refinished, everything smooth.
Clem went over to her window seat, which overlooked the front yard. She peered down at Grant’s car, at the still-open trunk, and bent over to press her hand into the pale yellow cushions. Her mother had picked them up for her at a fabric store, some years back, maybe when Clem was five or six. They matched the color of the walls perfectly.
She’d contemplated the idea of repainting many times over the years, gone from lavender to sky blue to pale pink, but she could never go through with it, and because of those cushions. She hated the idea of them having a place to fit in, and then suddenly not. She knew, rationally, that cushions didn’t have feelings. But the writer in her couldn’t help but believe they must.
She whirled around at the sound of a creak, only to find she was alone. Mama and Grant had left her. She turned back to the window and watched them emerge. Mama lead the way, Grant trailing behind, like it wasn’t his car they were going to. Clem watched them stop by the trunk. Mama’s lips moved as she said something--Clem brushed aside the gauzy curtains--and Grant nodded. Then Mama squeezed his arm.
Clem knew intuitively that they were talking about her. She knew Mama was saying consoling words, like I know this must be hard, and we know there’s nobody better for Clem than you. But she also knew Grant, and how those sentiments would not help.
She took the stairs quickly, but by the time she reached the door, their conversation was over and their arms were reloaded with things. Clem rushed over and insisted on taking the box Mama was carrying.
“Is this the last of it?” She asked, breathless, as he turned to Grant.
He smiled. His eyes were kind of sad. “Yeah.”
Mama started toward the barn. “If you two have the rest, I’m going to go get Pa. He probably doesn’t even realize you’re here.”
Clem let Grant go on ahead, watching Mama’s retreating form. Her old blue jeans, her navy blue sweatshirt, her hair up in its bun--all of it was comfort. Then she loped off after him, because even in the midst of all this happy relief, she was still thinking about Grant. First and foremost.
He was on the third stair when she entered the house, and she came up right behind him. He turned around slightly to grin down at her, in this playful way, and she couldn’t resist reaching up to give his rear the smallest pat.
“Wow,” he deadpanned, pausing so that she could catch him. She sprang an extra step up from his, though, so she was taller. Queen of the Castle.“Violating my personal space again.”
She smiled wickedly. “That wasn’t me.”
“It was Will.”
“What was me?”
Clem turned. Her brother, shirtless and concave-chested, was standing at the top of the stairs. He was wearing his snoopy pajama bottoms.
“Nice to see you, too,” Clem quipped. She was delirious with silliness.
“Why were you talking about me?” Will crossed his skinny arms. He was fourteen, and made everything about himself.
“Wow, you were just excellent about saying hello to Grant.”
“I wasn’t—” Will huffed, but a yawn overtook him. “Sorry. Hi.”
Grant nodded. His lips were quirked up. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Will stretched. “What time is it?” Except it came out all garbled, because he’d been in the middle of a yawn once again.
Clem glanced at her watch. “Ten-thirty.”
“Jeez, it’s early. Thanks for that.”
She shrugged and continued up the last few steps. As she brushed by him, she ruffled his hair. “What woke you up?”
“Banging.” He twisted his mouth to the side. “On my door.”
“How very strange.”
Grant let out the quickest of exhales, and when Clem turned around, she saw the muscles in his forearms straining, just the tiniest bit. It was only then she noticed he was carrying her books box, the biggest of the two and the heaviest of all her things by far. She took this as her cue to keep going. Grant nodded politely at Will as he went by.
In the privacy of her room, she turned her eyes to him and watched as he found a place for the box, somewhere out of the way.
“You really don’t mind staying?” She asked, hesitant.
“Good.” She came over, ran her hand down the length of his arm. “Because I want you to.”
“I want to.”
“And Mama meant it, about you visiting.”
She willed him to look at her. He did.
“Thanks for doing this with me,” she said, “instead of just letting me do it.”
He inclined his head, twice. She wondered where his words had gone.
Then the door downstairs opened, signaling Pa’s arrival, and sure enough, he called for her. “Clem! Come and see me!”
She obeyed, leaving Grant behind.
Lunch was cold ham sandwiches and potato chips, plus carrots from the garden with Mama’s homemade hummus. Clem couldn’t remember the last time she’d had food so plain, yet delicious.
While they were in the midst of their meal, trading conversation--all the things that a week had given them to talk about--Morris lumbered in. He had spiderwebs clinging to his whiskers, and he meowed unimpressively. Clem scooted her chair away from the table, plate in hand. He turned his grey head toward the noise. When he saw her, he came trotting, launching himself into her arms.
Pa and Mama laughed. Clem buried her face in his fur as he rubbed all over her, seeming to have forgotten that he, too, had seen her eight days ago, along with the rest of the family. It was almost like he knew she was here to stay, at least for a little while. Crazy as that seemed.
Clem scratched her fingers beneath his ear. “Hi, Morris. I love you, too.”
“Gross,” Will muttered.
Pa gave him a look.
Morris settled into Clem’s lap, and Mama insisted on cleaning up. She wouldn’t let Grant help when he offered, instead sending a directive at Will: “I wash, you dry.” He knew better than to protest.
“So,” Pa said, as the faucet was turned on to full blast. He still had chicken feed under his nails, and he reached for a napkin to pick it out.
“So,” Clem repeated, still fully absorbed in Morris.
“Is everything going good for you, Grant?”
Clem drew herself up and studied her boyfriend for signs of distress. His expression was serene.
“Or business-wise.” Pa smiled in his scruffy way. “Either.”
“Advertising’s good.” Grant’s leg jiggled underneath the table. Clem knew he was dying to leap up and help, to avoid this conversation. It was only Pa being friendly, but it probably felt like an interrogation.
“That’s good. I’m always glad to hear positives.” Pa scooted back his chair from the table and slowly rose, feet heavy in his work-boots. Clem studied his soft face, the warm brown eyes so like her own. People often said that she reminded them of Pa. They shared their skinny builds and the light-brown, wavy hair, and the sun-weathered skin. Freckles dotted his arms, and Clem’s suspected hers wouldn’t be spared much longer.
Their similarities went deeper than physical appearances, though. They both had that innate desire to please, to see to it that everyone else around them was happy, and they were both thinkers. Though Clem often thought of her thinking as more of a curse than anything else. Papa applied his brand of thinking to everyday life: how am I going to fix the tractor and how can I build a cabinet were examples of his practical mullings.
Now he went over to the sink to replace Will. Clem watched her parents for a couple of minutes, at Pa saying something quietly to Mama, his chin touching her temple as he murmured it to her. She wondered if she and Grant would ever look so easy, or if they were already there.
She reached for his hand without thinking and found that he met her halfway. Their fingers interlaced, their palms meeting. Hers was maybe the tiniest bit clammy.
“Will,” Pa said, as his son plopped heavily into a dining chair, “I need you to do something for me.”
“Mm?” Will acknowledged. It was a monosyllable.
“Go out to the barn and grab the eggs from the hens. I forgot to do that earlier.”
Will rose, sighing heavily. “O-kay.”
“Good; that’s the way we like it.”
Clem opened her mouth, then shut it. She glanced over at Grant. If they stayed in this kitchen much longer, she feared he would think up a valid reason to leave early. But she didn’t want to hear that he needed to beat traffic, or that he had work early tomorrow, both of which were probably true. She wanted him to stay.
“I’ll go,” she volunteered, knowing very well that Grant would help her.
Will paused hopefully. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” Clem set up, adjusting an increasingly heavy Morris in her arms. He was comically limp, so ecstatic he didn’t even care that his back legs were drooping. “I got it.”
“That’s not necessary,” Mama chimed in.
“Will, your sister’s not doing your chores,” Papa added. “Now go.”
“No, no,” Clem sputtered. “I’ll go. I--I really want to.”
Will bored holes into Mama’s back. “Well? Ma?”
She shrugged helplessly. “If she says so—”
“Yes! Thanks!” He leapt to his feet and took off into the living room, in the noble pursuit of videogames, before anybody could think up any other chores for him.
Clem chuckled to herself and stood, the chair legs scraping across the floor. Pa turned around, and suds dripped off his work-leathered hands. “Make sure you wear the galoshes. I just laid new hay in there.”
“Okay,” Clem said. She reached the back door and bent over to grab the nearest pair, Mama’s. They were a nice, fire-engine red. Morris’ considerable weight dipped to the left, and she teetered.
Then hands were on her arms, righting her, and Clem seized one of the boots. Grant had come up behind her--ghosted, really. His touch was sure, his smile the tiniest bit cocky, just for her. She lifted the corners of her mouth in appreciation.
“Thanks,” she mouthed. He kept a hand on her lower back as she pulled the boot on with one hand. Morris was still subdued, having not realized how close he’d come to being fallen on.
“Can I help the two of you do anything?” Grant asked stiffly, then tacked on, “Mr. and Mrs. Worsham?”
“Oh, Grant, we’re fine,” Mama said, just as Pa said, “We’ve got it.”
“Then I’ll probably help Clem.”
“Sounds good. Grab my galoshes there, son. You’ll need them.”
“Thanks.” Grant snatched them up and tugged on the door. It was always the littlest bit stuck. He pulled again, harder, and it gave way with a little huff. “Are you going to put the cat down?”
Clem laughed. She was stepping into the second boot. “Obviously, you don’t understand me and Morris.”
They walked to the barn slowly, taking their time. The grass had grown up kind of long in places, and Clem savored the way it tickled her exposed calves. Grant, on the other hand, wrinkled his nose.
“I hate the way this feels,” He complained. “Don’t you?”
Clem considered lying, just to make him feel better. But that wasn’t like her. “No. I love it, actually.”
Grant contemplated the sky. It was starting to go overcast, gray crowding out the blue, clouds concealing the sun. It made her think of the little powder puff in makeup compacts. “You really do belong here, I guess.”
They’d reached the barn. Grant took a second to put on his galoshes, and Clem shifted Morris. Her arms were beginning to ache. “Can you open the door for me?”
They stepped into the quiet shadow of the barn. Papa was right. He had just laid new hay, and the smell was a little damp, a subtle hint of mildew in the air. The hay crunched under her feet as she moved aside so Grant could come in. He shut the door behind them, and Clem reached for the chain to turn on the single bulb that was supposed to illuminate the whole barn, but really only did this area.
It glowed yellow, fainter than usual, and Clem noted that the bulb would probably need to be dusted. She’d do that tomorrow, Monday. Because she’d still be here.
“Okay, Morris,” Clem grumbled, needing to fill the silence. She bent over and set him down. He immediately rolled over for his belly to be stroked, and she obliged him, crouching down.
Grant grabbed the woven basket that hung on a nail by the door and passed it to Clem. He knew the drill. They’d gathered eggs together many a time, stealing kisses in-between. She took it and rose, with some considerable effort. Her legs ached.
“Let’s go,” she said. Distantly, she could hear the hens clucking. Their area was in the very back of the barn, through a little side door that Papa had added a few years back. She pushed through it and the noise swelled around her ears. Chickens, even the twelve that they kept, were loud.
Some of the hens were nesting, and others plodded across the floor. Clem, being mindful not to step on them and trying to avoid their droppings, reached the first hen. She reached under, feeling around, and her hand closed around something smooth. Out came the egg, the hen chirping a little in indignation, and Clem dropped it into her basket. It was a light brown, peppered with darker specks.
Grant came and helped her, and in no time they had gotten all ten of them. He blocked the chickens from the door as Clem stepped out and scanned the barn for Morris, finally spotting him walking across a beam up ahead. Grant nudged her forward and she took another step automatically, because she wasn’t really in her head. She was thinking about rafters, and Morris, and Pa, and eggs.
The basket wasn’t heavy, but it was there, and so she set it down. Grant shut the door, and the noise of the chickens receded. Clem closed her eyes and hoped to feel his hands on her waist, turning her around. But he didn’t.
Well, she decided, she’d have to take charge.
She maneuvered to face him. His features were bathed in grey, making the etch of his nose sharper, the line of his jaw more pronounced. His lips were pressed together, and his eyes slid down her own face. She knew he saw her narrow eyes and her narrow nose and her narrow cheeks. Everything about her, compressed into one thin line. Readable, and unsurprising, and mostly uninspired.
She was going to cry.
“This is not the end,” she said firmly, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Right?”
“Right.” He sounded so sure, and it was just what she needed. But the problem was, he knew that.
“I want you to mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“I don’t want you to go back and to be sad. That was never the point.”
“If you’re happy, I’m not sad.”
Clem laid her head on his chest. His hands came up to rub her back right where that braid had been thwacking her, just a little over a week ago. He didn’t know that, of course, but she did. And it felt—
Like forgiveness. Like she could finally forgive herself for doing this to him.
“I think I have to find myself again,” she said quietly. “You know?”
“And it could take awhile.”
“Just promise you won’t find somebody who knows who she is more than me, and like that about her. Okay?” She drew back, a little snotty, just enough to look at him. “You’re only allowed to love people who flounder.”
“I think, Clem, I’m only allowed to love you.”
She nodded. “That too.”
He put his cheek on her head. “So.”
“So,” she agreed.
He cleared his throat. “Do you want to mouth wrestle?”
Then she was laughing, really hard, into his shoulder.
“Smush faces?” He continued. “Make lip pie?”
She shook her head. “You’re so disgusting.”
“Those were direct quotes. From you.”
“We can pretend they weren’t.”
“All right. But only if you kiss me.”
So Clem did.