I smiled. Tanner stared her way as if truly interested in her story. After a few minutes, Tanner sent Emma off with a few dollar bills to go attack the candy machine with one of his workers, Gary. The whole way, I could hear Emma rehashing the story of how her outfit had come to life to poor Gary.
“She’s cuter than I remember.” Tanner smiled. “She has your smile.”
I grinned and thanked him, even though her smile reminded me more of Steven.
“So, I have something for you, come here.” He led me to the back room where a sheet was covering a car. When he pulled it off, my legs almost buckled beneath me.
“How?” I asked, walking around the jeep, running my fingers across it. Steven’s jeep looked newer than ever. “It was totaled.”
“Ah, bumps and bruises can always be healed.”
“This had to cost you a fortune.”
He shrugged. “Steven was my best friend. You’re one of my best friends. I just wanted you to have something familiar to come home to.”
“You always knew I would come back?”
“We all hoped.” Tanner bit his bottom lip as he stared at the jeep. “I still can’t stop blaming myself. The week before the accident I begged him to stop into my shop so I could give the car a tune up. He said he would be good for a few more months. I can’t help but think that maybe I could’ve noticed something was wrong with the car if he stopped in to see me. If he had let me get under the hood, then maybe he would still…” He pinched the bridge of his nose and stopped talking.
“It wasn’t your fault, Tanner.”
He sniffled and gave me a tight smile. “Yeah, well. The thought just passes through my mind every now and then. Now come on, hop inside.”
I stepped into the driver’s seat and sat. My eyes closed and I took a few deep breaths as I lay my hand across to the passenger seat, waiting for that touch, the warmth of another’s hand to hold. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. I’m good, I’m good. Then I felt the hold from another, and when my eyes opened, I saw Emma’s small hand sitting in mine, chocolate all over her face. She smiled wide, causing me to do the same.
“You okay, Mama?” she asked.
“Yes, baby. I’m good.”
Tanner walked over to me and placed the keys in my hand. “Welcome home, ladies. Remember, if you need me to help with the lawn and stuff, just give me a call.”
“Tick already did it!” Emma exclaimed.
Tanner arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“I actually ended up hiring a guy to do it. Well, kind of. I owe him some kind of payment.”
“What? Liz, I could’ve done it for free. Who did you hire?”
I knew he wouldn’t like the answer. “His name is Tristan…”
“Tristan Cole?!” Tanner ran his fingers over his face, which was turning red. “Liz, he’s an asshole.”
“He’s not.” Yeah, okay, he is.
“Trust me, he is. He’s a fucking nut job too. Did you know he works for Mr. Henson? He’s the freaking case study of insanity.”
I didn’t know why, but Tanner’s words made me feel as if he were speaking about me. “That’s really harsh, Tanner.”
“He’s insane. And Tristan is dangerous. Just…let me handle the work around the house. God. I hate that he lives next door to you.”
“He did a great job. It’s really not a big deal.”
“It is. It’s just, you’re too trusting. You need to use your head a little more than your heart. You have to think.” Ouch. “I don’t like this at all, Liz. And I doubt Steven would’ve either.”
“Yeah, well. He’s not really around anymore,” I hissed, feeling a bit embarrassed, and a lot hurt. “I’m not an idiot, Tanner. And I can handle this. Just…” I paused, forcing out a smile. “Thank you for this. For the jeep. You have no clue how much it means to me.”
He must have seen through my fake smile because he placed a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry. I’m an asshole. I just worry. If anything happened to you…”
“I’m fine. We’re safe. I swear.”
“Okay. Well, get out of here before I say something else I’ll regret.” He smirked. “Emma, take care of your mama, all right?”
“Why? I’m the kid, not her,” Emma sassed. I couldn’t help but laugh, because she was one hundred percent right.
Each Friday after I dropped Emma at her grandparents’ house, I walked into town for the farmers market. All of the townspeople came to the center of downtown Meadows Creek to sell and trade their products. The smells of the fresh breads, the displays of the flowers, and the small town gossip always made the journey worth it.
Steven and I had always come to the market to check out the fresh flowers, so when Friday came around with the fresh roses, I always stood in the middle of it all, breathing in the memories and breathing out the hurt.
During my weekly trip to the farmers market, I always noticed Tristan walking around. We hadn’t spoken since he’d cut my grass, but I couldn’t stop thinking about his sad eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about his wife and son. When had he lost them? And how? How long had Tristan been living his current nightmare?
I wanted to know more.
Sometimes, I would see him walk out to the shed in his backyard, and he would stay there for hours. The only time he came out was when he would cut wood with his table saw, and then he would go back inside and stay hidden.