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CHAPTER 23

“It says you won’t graduate.” I held the letter from Willow Falls High School, the one that outlined why Trey would not be marching to “Pomp and Circumstance” with his fellow classmates unless he added driver’s education to his schedule.

“It’s fascism,” he said. “Pure fascism.”

“I don’t care what kind of -ism you call it—you can’t get a high school diploma without it.”

“We could sue. We could call the ACLU.”

“This isn’t funny.”

I busied myself making pancakes and scrambled eggs, Trey’s favorite, minus the bacon, as he’d recently discovered the truth about industrialized pig farming. His passion made me smile—who could deny the devotion of the teenage activist?—and I could feel it rising in myself a bit thanks to the garden. There really was something to living a simpler, more natural life. I always knew that to be true, but the notion never sank deep.

Trey pushed back from the kitchen table and grabbed his backpack from the peg. “I’m going to Colin’s.”

“I’m making breakfast! We never eat together anymore. I thought we’d have a Saturday morning pancake fest, like we used to.” I could hear in my voice all the things that acted as instant repellant to a teenager—disappointment, nagging, hurt, and anger.

“We’ve got a project to work on. Save it and I’ll eat when I get back.”

“Fine,” I said. “But I’m driving you.”

“I can take my bike. It’ll be easier.”

Trey had managed to avoid getting into a car with me since the attempted driving incident. He’d been surly and defensive any time I brought it up. Actually, surly and defensive seemed to be his primary personality traits overall. I alternated between being worried and annoyed with his behavior. Ultimately worry won out, as it always does with mothers, and I made an appointment with the therapist we used after Jesse’s death. He went once, about three weeks after the car accident, and then refused to go back.

“We’re going to have to talk about this again. It’s not going to go away.”

“I need to go away,” he said. “Far away.”

He was trying to hurt me, and with the precision of a teenage assassin, he did. “Please don’t say that, Trey. We have each other. Can’t we be nice?”

“Sean’s coming up the driveway,” he said, effectively dodging the question.

Once upon a time, I didn’t mind unexpected visitors. But that was when I showered every morning and kept myself as well maintained as Mr. Eckhardt’s BMW. A quick scan of my person told me I was not only unshowered but not wearing a bra. “Are you sure it’s him?”

My son shot me a look that said he was less than impressed with me, but for other reasons. “Yeah, it’s definitely the cop you’re trying to hook up with,” he said before stepping out. “I’ll let him know you made pancakes.”

Sean wore his uniform, so I was briefly uneasy. “Is there a problem, Officer?”

He smiled shyly. Occasional hesitance in a confident man could make a woman forget she wasn’t wearing a bra.

“I just got off my shift,” he explained. “I was driving past and thought I’d stop in.”

“Really?”

“Well, I did have something to talk to you about.” He grew serious, more professional, and my stomach dropped.

“Trey?”

“Oh, no,” he said quickly. “Not him. Your next door neighbor, Bill Eckhardt.”

“Did he off his wife?”

He laughed, dug a Post-it note from his pocket, and stuck it to my kitchen table. On it he’d scrawled an address. Somewhere in New Mexico. “Nope, he did nothing of the sort. Noreen Eckhardt did disappear from Willow Falls sometime in the early seventies, but she lives in Santa Fe now. Definitely breathing.”

“Disappeared?”

“That might be overstating it. Left? Got outta Dodge?”

“She just left him?”

“Looks like it. I couldn’t find any record of divorce.”

“So he’s still married?”

“It’s not uncommon.”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

“You sound disappointed.”

It was my turn to laugh. “No, I just thought the story would be more interesting.”

“You don’t know the story,” Sean said. “It might be very interesting.”

I wondered if I would ever hear it. Would it change my impression of Mr. Eckhardt or reinforce it? “Thanks for looking into it.”

“All part of the job.”

Silence. The kind that felt like it could preface something important.

Sean took a deep breath. “I didn’t just come over to discuss Mr. Eckhardt’s failed love life. I felt an overwhelming need to see your garden.”

“That sounds slightly inappropriate.”

That got a laugh. “Seriously. It’s peaceful, and my night was anything but. Can we go sit out there for a while?”

“Could you give me a minute to freshen up?”

“You look fine.”

I shrugged. “Okay. Let me grab you a cup of coffee first.”

“Paige,” he said, taking my hand. “I just want to see the garden. You don’t need to keep adding things to keep me interested. I am interested.”

“Okay,” I managed. Interest. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that. The scrutiny was uncomfortable and wonderful all at the same time. How much did he see? Just the surface or down deep? I’d never been someone to allow too much emotion to reach the surface, but the past two years had painfully carved new pathways through my brain and heart.

That gave me pause. The unfairness of it all.

Jesse’s death was making me a better person. As he’d done throughout our life together, he was still making sacrifices on my behalf. Sean would get a different Paige—slightly more empathetic, definitely more relaxed and open, and possibly more likeable. It just wasn’t fair.

We walked outside, and the morning sun caught the red in Sean’s hair, and I thought, I could get used to looking at that. He inhaled deeply and took in my haphazard mix of plants, all barely contained in their spaces, growing with an untamed wildness I’d come to truly appreciate.

“I like it out here,” was all he said. “Sometimes I feel like the older I get, the more I chase down moments like these.”

“Peaceful ones?”

“I guess that’s it,” he said with a slight shrug. “Growing up, I was the youngest of eight. My house was loud. My parents yelled all the time. If we wanted to be heard, we had to shriek above the rest. Do you have siblings?”

“I was an only child,” I said quietly. “My mom wasn’t equipped to have me, much less anyone else.”

Sean took my hand in his. “That sounds like a sad story. I see a lot of those, even in Willow Falls.”

“And how do you handle the sad stories?” I got flashes of my mom, cops at the door, my grandmother crying, bruises on my legs and arms, screaming, dirty fingernails, and blood. It wasn’t a way any child should grow up, and I was glad for a moment that Trey’s biggest problem, save losing his father, was getting up the courage to get behind the wheel of a car.

“I try to be kind,” he said after a moment. “But firm. Given the way I grew up, I’m pretty good at defusing problematic situations.”

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