My Once & Future KinbyPenelope Street©
While goose is one of those conventional holiday staples, I don't expect traditionalists would approve of the goosing I received last Yuletide. Then again, I don't approve of traditionalists, so I guess that's fair.
The Carrs' Christmas dinner started, for me at least, as a melancholy affair. Not that the holidays ever raised my spirits much, but this one was more glum than usual. It was the first after my divorce.
As separations go, mine had been a benevolent one. John and I had not split because of any big fight, scandalous affair, or reprehensible abuse. No, we had simply fallen out of love the same way we had fallen in love; slowly. We hung on a few more years than we should have, trying to make the relationship work, but one day we both realized that whatever we had once shared was long gone. Without children or petty squabbling, the process was over almost before it had begun.
Initially, I had felt free for the first time in a decade, as if an enormous weight had been lifted from my soul. Soon, however, this had been replaced by an enormous emptiness, one that still lingered as I sat at the dinner table that Christmas Eve, listening to my ex-father-in-law say grace over the goose.
Not being a terribly religious person, my eyes often wandered during such prayers. On this occasion they strayed first to John and his new romantic interest. Marian's presence on his right made the absence of anyone special at my side all the more poignant.
With a sigh, my gaze drifted again, to John's sister, her husband, and then their newborn. I was more pondering than observing at that point when my wandering focus found a pair of eyes looking back from across the table.
I inhaled a sharp breath as I met Brett's stare. I'd always thought of John's brother as my own sibling, yet there had always been something about his appearance, something engaging, but I could never quite put my finger on what it was. This day, the effect was amplified by the simple, honest smile he wore at what was an otherwise somber moment. My head fell a bit to one side as again I considered his features, nondescript as they were individually, yet somehow striking together.
Mutterings of "Amen" snapped me from my trance. The platters of food began to circulate amid light conversation. I tried to eat, but my stomach felt queasy before I had downed a quarter of my plate. And I knew it was no reflection upon the quality of the meal.
I had been so thrilled when John's father had invited me to the family gathering that I had not considered the awkwardness that might accompany my presence. This oversight had made itself apparent the instant I had arrived at the farm.
Not that anyone had been rude. Far from it; if anything they were too polite. I felt as though everyone, including me, was walking on eggshells.
My anxiety growing, I forced myself to eat while answering the few polite questions directed my way. The instant I thought it remotely acceptable, I excused myself and headed for the front porch.
The crispness of the winter prairie greeted me as I exited the old frame house. I smiled even as I shivered; anything was better than the stuffiness inside.
My eyes roamed the stark landscape even though the details were beginning to fade with the light. I loved the countryside. Others, I knew, thought of the plains as bleak, especially in the grey and white cloak of winter- but I loved the land no matter the season. I had always felt so at home here; I had loved coming home with John. Home, I mused with a sigh. That was exactly how I had come to think of it.
But the farm belonged to his family, not mine. And I was no longer a part of it. I didn't belong. Tears formed in my eyes as I accepted a fact much colder than the dusk air. My chest felt like lead as I glanced to my car and resolved to depart as soon as I could do so without appearing rude.
I was blowing frosty breaths through pursed lips and wondering if I could find a way to leave without staying the night, when I heard the door open behind me. Twisting my head, I brought my eyes over my shoulder.
Brett pulled the front door closed and turned to me, allowing the screen to spring back against the frame with a clap that echoed across the fields.
"I thought you might be cold," he noted, flipping an overcoat from his shoulder and spreading it with both hands. Before I could respond he had closed the few feet between us and draped the garment over my tightened shoulders.
"Thank you," I whispered. "I guess it is a bit chilly."
"My pleasure," Brett replied.
My eyes drifted to my right where his palm lingered upon my shoulder. He moved his hand at once, bringing it to the porch rail.
"Trying not to fall asleep?" he asked with a half-smile, half-smirk.
"Holiday dinners always make me drowsy. Sometimes a bit of cold air will snap me out of it. Just wondering if you were thinkin' the same thing."
I grinned through a half chuckle. "No. Just admiring the view."
Brett's smile widened with his eyes. "Me too."
I looked away from him into the distant and darkening fields. "Do you really find it beautiful?"
"Oh, that. I dunno. Seen it all my life. You've probably seen lots of places, what with John being in the army and all."
With a shrug, I turned to face Brett. "Yeah, but you know I always liked it here. Felt like the home I never had. Every time we came, John had to all but drag me away."
"But you've seen cities; mountains; oceans. Surely this can't compare."
"What? Don't you like it here?"
"Yeah," Brett said. "That's why I never left. Never thought of it as beautiful though."
"Leave for a while and maybe you will. I thought it'd be nice coming back." I paused for a breath. "But somehow it's not the same. I feel like an outsider now. Like I don't belong."
"Dad wouldn't have invited you if you didn't belong."
I shrugged off his attempt at a compliment. "It was nice enough of John to think of me like that."
"Uh, it was Dad that invited you, not John."
"Oh, yeah, your dad called, but I figured it was John's idea."
Brett's head moved in a slow, resolute pivot. "Remember Dad's birthday?"
I twisted my cheek into a low-browed smirk. "It's Independence Day. Who could forget?"
My jaw fell, relieving my face of its twisted appearance. "John?"
"Yep. Guess it pleased Dad plenty that you bothered to send him a card, especially with John forgetting, but what you wrote really impressed him."
I shrugged. "All it said was something about still thinking highly of your family in spite of the break up."
"Yeah, well; I guess the feeling's mutual."
I smiled. "Glad the card at least made his day."
"He did have one gripe though."
I tilted my head. "What?"
"He doesn't much care for you addressing him as Mister Carr."
I issued a half-snort, half-chuckle. "I was just trying to be respectful."
"He'd feel more respected if you called him Bob."
My head remained cocked. "I think I always called him Mr. Carr. Why didn't he ever mention it?"
"I expect he did but he's not one to beat a dead horse. He'll tell you something once; if you don't hear it, he figures that's your loss."
My eyes wandered as I searched my memory. "Must have been a long time ago," I concluded after several seconds.
"Yeah. Probably the first time he met you."
I smiled and looked toward the door. "It was right there. Seems so long ago now; yet not."
"I know what you mean."
I brought my eyes to Brett as I tried to grasp the significance of his words. After a few seconds, I conceded defeat. "You remember your father asking me to call him Bob?"
"No. But I remember that day. The first time you were here; the first time I saw you."
My thoughts drifted back. Brett had been in high school then, or just out. I smiled as I recalled his impish charms. "You were quite the show off back then."
"You practically yelled 'Look at me!' as if John and I were your parents."
"I never said that."
"Not with your mouth, but your actions sure did. I recall you climbed the windmill for no reason except your father said it was dangerous. And that horse, what was his name?"
"Yeah, him. You knew he was going to buck when I got on behind you, didn't you?"
Brett's head vibrated in a crisp shake. "No; I'd never put you in danger like that."
I grinned. "If I recall, it was you that got hurt. I thought the ride was all part of the fun until we flew off."
In spite of my smile and playful tone, Brett's countenance remained stern. "I'd never put you in danger. I'd never do anything to hurt you."
I passed a sigh as I tongued my lips. "No. I suppose not. I just didn't know you then, that's all. Didn't know much about horses either."
The shadows were long and getting longer, but I still saw Brett's eyes shift to the ground before he brought them back to me. "Do you maybe figure you know me now?"
I smiled at what I thought to be a silly question. "Well enough."
"Good. I wouldn't want you to be thinkin' I would ever do anything to hurt you."
"I guess I already knew that. But you were a boy back then." I paused for a breath. "And I was pretty young too."
"You still are."
I issued a token snort. "Doesn't feel like it. I used to see those movies where some woman whines about having given the best years of her life to a dead marriage. I always thought it was just some tear-jerking nonsense, until it happened to me."
"Maybe it didn't. How do you know the best years aren't just around the corner?"
I leaned my head toward a shrug. "Doesn't seem likely. I was always looking forward to becoming a mother, but John and I never had money when we were younger. Later we weren't getting along well enough that I thought a baby was a good idea."
My shoulders slumped with my spirits. "I didn't really think about how much I was losing when John and I broke up. I mean, it was the right move, but starting over's so hard. And I do want children. Carol's newborn is such a darling. Makes me wish I'd had at least one of my own with John, in spite of how everything turned out."
"Yeah, Robert's a cute little cuss, for a nephew; but I've always wanted a girl myself."
"You? A girl? I thought men always wanted boys, to carry on the name and all."
Brett shrugged. "Shakespeare got it right about what a name means. But nothing he could say would ever do justice to how cute a little girl looks in overalls."
My mind flew back a decade. I glanced to the old barn, specifically the hayloft. "I used to wear overalls."
"Yep," Brett said. "You did." I glanced to him; his eyes were on the barn too.
"Well," I sighed. "That was a long time ago. Girl or boy doesn't matter so much to me."
"You'll have one of each I predict. Care to make a wager on it?"
"Maybe," I said with a nod. My eyes shifted to the fields, now much more grey than white. "But not like a divorced mailroom clerk living paycheck to paycheck makes a nice catch in most men's eyes."
"No one has tried to pick you up? I find that hard to believe."
"Sure, I had a few guys make it known they were interested in filling John's void as soon as we split; but I knew what void they really had in mind." I snapped my focus back to my companion. "Not exactly father material in my mind. What is it about men? They seem to think if a woman's been getting some she can't possibly do without."
Brett flashed a broad grin. "Beats me. But as pretty as you are, well, it's probably hard for most men not to at least give that some thought."
"Yeah, well, not like I want the kind of men that are just after sex anyway. And I'm not sure there are any other kind left. I think all the good ones in my age bracket are taken."
"Your age bracket? Why you're prettier now than the first time you stood on this porch."
My eyes fell as I absorbed his second attempt at flattery in as many minutes. "That's nice of you to say, but..."
"You know how rude that is?"
I issued a short gasp as I snapped my focus upward. "What?"
"Deflecting compliments. It says you don't put much stock in the other person's judgment."
My mouth fell. "I didn't mean it that way!"
"That's the way it comes across. Like I either don't know what I'm talking about or I'm lying."
"I didn't think that; I just didn't exactly, well, I know I'm not eighteen anymore, and I don't have tits the size of Kansas like Marian and..."
"So you don't think I'm lying?"
"And you do trust my judgment?"
"Fine. You're beautiful"
I tongued my lips for a few seconds before replying, "Ok. Thank you."
Brett's smile returned as his head moved in a single exaggerated nod. "You're welcome."
I caught myself smiling back. I couldn't remember the last time anyone had said I was pretty without an obvious ulterior motive. And that included John. "Tell me more," I whispered.
Brett's eyebrows bounced upward at once. His hand rose as well, lifting my tresses from my shoulder. "Your hair always reminds me of fresh hay shining in the sun. Your eyes, they're the color of the first buds of spring." His shifted his hand, bringing the back of the same finger to stroke my cheek. "And your skin is so smooth and perfect, just like that sky behind you."
I turned my head toward the tender pink glow that marked the point on the horizon where the sun had just set. I could not recall a finer compliment. As much as I suspected Brett's honesty, I still wanted to hear more. Spinning my shoulders to match my viewpoint, I leaned back until I felt the firmness of his chest against my back.
"My figure is rather plain, don't you think?" I knew I was fishing for another compliment in a most unabashed fashion. What surprised me most was not that I did so, but how good it felt, and how anxious I was to hear his response.
"Why do you find the prairie beautiful?"
My brow dropped as I twitched my clamped lips. That was not the sort of response I had anticipated. "It doesn't pretend to be what it isn't," I said after several seconds. "It's beautiful in simple ways that are easy to overlook because there's no one thing that stands out." I opened my mouth to continue, but stopped with my jaw hanging limp. I understood what he was getting at.
"Exactly," Brett whispered. "It's an honest beauty, but it never gets old. You can look at it every morning and it's just as beautiful. Even when it changes, it's still lovely. It always will be."
I turned to look at him. "I thought you didn't find the prairie beautiful?"
His head shook with the subtlest vibration. "I wasn't talking about the prairie."
My eyes clouded a bit. I squeezed them once, stopping the tears that would have otherwise rolled down my cheeks. I began to wonder if Brett might have some ulterior motives after all. Then I realized it was more a case of hope than wonder, and squelched the notion. "It is getting dark," I noted. "I suppose we ought to get back inside. I don't want your folks to think I don't appreciate the invite."
"You worry too much. Everyone's glad you're here."
"Thank you," I said with a shallow nod. In spite of my expression of gratitude, I doubted his words as he held the door open for me. I doubted them even more as the evening progressed.
Bob insisted the men play pinochle, which left the four women to our own devices. As awkward as things had been earlier, they were worse now as Marian and I tried to interact in a civil manner. Not that I bore the woman any ill will; John was fair game when she had made her move. Still, the situation was uncomfortable at best and I used the fine dinner and long drive as an excuse to retire early.
But the drive had not been so long nor the meal so filling that I could soon find sleep. I tossed and turned for hours; reliving past experiences in the old house, and the farm. I focused on my memories involving Brett, analyzing them for any interest that may have been beyond brotherly. Plenty I found in my recollection to warrant such an opinion, but I kept telling myself it was but more wishful thinking.
Every once in a while a hoot or holler or burst of laugher would erupt from the living areas below. Imagining that the mood had picked up with my departure did not help my spirits. I began to weep as I grasped that this was probably the last night I would spend at the farm. I had not cried myself to sleep since I was a girl. Not even when John and I split had I done so, but that is exactly what I did on the most dismal Christmas Eve of my life.
In spite of the late hour at which I finally fell asleep, I was up with the sun. I dressed and headed downstairs. The smell of coffee greeted me as I topped the stairwell. I knew the lady of the house was already awake.
"Good morning, Mrs. Carr," I said as I entered the kitchen.
The woman looked up from the morning paper with a wry grin. "Good morning to you, Mrs. Carr."
My body stiffened as I heard the name and realized she was correct. Yet I did not understand her meaning; she had never addressed me by my surname before. Something in her soft tone and continued smile convinced me that she meant for me to feel at home. It did not work.
"Coffee ready?" I queried.
The woman glanced over her shoulder. "Sure. Help yourself."
I did, joining my hostess at the table a minute later.
"Vicki?" I prompted.
Mrs. Carr dropped the newsprint just enough for our eyes to meet. "Gina?"
Shoulders tight and hands clasped within one another and my thighs, I leaned forward. "I was thinking to leave a bit early if you don't think it would be rude."
Vicki tilted her head. "I didn't think you needed to be back to work until Monday?"
"I don't," I said. "I just feel uncomfortable; like I'm in the way."
"You're not," the woman assured me at once. Then she moved the paper as if to continue reading it.
"It was really nice of your husband," I said in a rush, effectively halting the movement of the newsprint. "Of Bob I mean, to invite me here; and I am ever grateful, but I don't think it was such a good idea as it maybe seemed at the time."
"When were you thinking to go?"
Vicki dropped the paper. She inhaled a deep breath, then released it over several seconds. I saw her throat flex once before she responded, "At least stay for opening the gifts. I know there's at least one for you."
"I thought..." I started, but never finished. My budget didn't allow for any gifts, so I'd specifically asked not to be the recipient of any. "I mean I wasn't expecting anything."
"It's not much, just a little box. Do stay for it though."
"Ok," I agreed with a nod and a sigh.
"And for breakfast afterward?"
"I could use a hand, if you don't mind?"
I smiled at once. "Ok, for breakfast too."
Vicki gave me a wink. "Thanks."
"My pleasure," I assured her, though I was certain it was a lie.
To my relief, the unwrapping of the presents proceeded with most of the attention on the newborn Robert and his mother as they handed out gifts, allegedly together. I hoped the box that contained my present was small enough that it would get lost, but such was not the case.
As the pile beneath the tree dwindled, Carol fetched a tiny box near the trunk, turned, looked to me, and called, "Gina!" I felt my cheeks warm as the woman crawled through the mass of shredded paper toward me, the gift held before her.
"Thank you," I accepted the package, rolling it in my hands. There was no name on it other than mine. "You shouldn't have," I offered to no one in particular. For what seemed like the first time in half an hour, the baby was silent. I could feel every eye upon me as I peeled the paper back to expose a small box. Within this, I found a small brass-colored key.
My brows dropped as I held aloft the worn and dirty piece of metal, trying to read the remnants of the letters that had once been stamped upon it. "What is it?" I muttered, more to myself than anyone else.