Beeeeeeeeep! Emily jerked awake and almost fell out of bed. She scrabbled to find her phone, desperate for the alarm sound to stop. But when she found her phone under her pillow, she realized that her phone wasn’t making the noise. The girl squinted around the room and saw a blinking alarm clock on the end table. She reached over and slapped the top of it, making it shut up. She stared at the alarm clock and waited for her eyes to adjust in order to read the numbers. 6:00am. Emily groaned to herself and fell back onto the bed. She grabbed a pillow and threw it over her face, wanting to fall back asleep. Why the alarm clock was set for six she did not know. All she knew was that she wanted to sleep for several more hours.
As Emily laid in bed, she heard voices coming from downstairs. She suddenly realized that Dana’s side of the bed was empty, and that Joe was gone, too. There was light coming from underneath the closed door, and voices echoing through the house. Realizing that she was wide awake – no help to the alarm clock – Emily slipped out of bed and wandered over to her suitcase. She dug through it until she found her bathrobe, and then slipped it on. She tied it around her waist and then searched for her fuzzy blue slippers. Emily slipped those on as well, and then shyly made her way downstairs. Her tired eyes still had to adjust to the brightness of the house, so Emily squinted most of the way. The stairs squeaked as she hobbled down them; that got the attention of the dogs. Joe leapt over to her and proceeded to sniff her; Dusty watched from her spot on the couch. Unsure of the Rottweiler, Emily nervously slipped around him and into the living room. As soon as she stepped into the lively room, Dana walked through the front door carrying a paper bag.
“All they had was yellow, Pa,” she proclaimed.
“That’s alright. Thank you,” Pa hollered from the kitchen.
“I can’t believe that thing finally broke,” an unfamiliar male voice said from the kitchen. “You’ve had that thing for years.”
Emily cautiously walked through the living room and into the kitchen. Around the kitchen table sat three men, each a different age. One was bald with glasses perched on his nose. He was a large man with a belly that stuck out, and he was gripping a gray baseball cap in his hands. Another man was tall and slender with clipped gray hair; he sat comfortably in a pair of bib overalls. And the third man was much younger than the other two. He had sandy hair that fell into his eyes and on his knee rested a black cowboy hat. Emily froze in the kitchen when she saw the three strangers. She looked around for her sister and found her at the sink filling up a yellow tea kettle. Dana seemed unbothered by the men sitting around the table. And Pa didn’t seem to care about anything happening around him. He was focused on turning on the stove and retrieving enough mugs out of the cabinet for everybody. Not knowing what else to do, Emily just stood there. Nobody seemed to notice her for quite a while because everybody was busy carrying on their own conversations. Slightly hoping that nobody would notice, Emily turned to leave.
“Em, you’re awake!” Dana proclaimed with a smile. “I was going to let you sleep in.”
“Yeah, well, the alarm clock went off, so…” the younger sister slightly complained.
“Sorry about that,” Pa apologized. “I set that clock so that Joe gets up.”
You set an alarm clock for a dog? Emily thought to herself. “It’s okay,” she replied.
“Do you want some coffee? Or tea? Pa’s in the process of making some,” Dana asked, helping her grandfather scoop ground coffee into the mugs.
Pa and Dana proceeded to fill six mugs with hot water and then mixed ground coffee into it. Once the cups were all mixed well, Dana passed them out to the men at the table. She handed Emily a mug with a cow on it. Uncertain, the younger sister took a sip from her mug. She was surprised to find that her sister did, in fact, remember the sugar and peppermint. Dana and Pa grabbed cups of coffee for themselves and then joined the men at the table. Emily remained standing a few feet away from the table, not sure whether she should join them or go back to her room.
“Oh, Emily, I almost forgot. These are some of Pa’s ranch helpers,” Dana quickly explained.
“Brian. Johnny. Jackson,” Pa spit out.
Brian was the one with the bald head and baseball cap. He smiled at Emily, showing a mouth that was missing a few teeth. Johnny had the gray hair, and he nodded politely at the girl. And Jackson was the younger one, who promptly got up and shook Emily’s hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he stated with a Texan accent.
“You too,” Emily found herself replying.
Jackson gave her a crooked smile, and then returned to his seat at the table. Emily found it surprising that her sister seemed comfortable around the three strangers. She just casual carried on conversations with them without blinking an eye. The younger sister remained standing, sipping from her coffee, and observed everyone around the table. Pa was sitting at the head of the table, laughing along with the conversation. He didn’t say much, but every once in a while, he would grumble to himself. Emily noticed her grandfather did a lot of grumbling. He clutched his mug on his lap and sat back in his chair. His eyes moved between speakers, and he always nodded if he agreed with something. Overall, though, Pa wasn’t a very talkative person.
Dana looked as though she fit right in next to the three ‘cowboys.’ She had on a pair of boot-cut jeans and the cowgirl boots she always wore. She was also wearing a pink and white checkered button up shirt, and a large belt. Emily thought as though it looked like her sister was trying too hard to fit in, but the men didn’t seem to notice. They talked to Dana as though she was part of the ‘team.’ In fact, they asked her several times if she would be willing to help them outside in the barn. Emily didn’t quite understand it all, but she did hear the part about her sister leaving.
“I’m sorry, but I should really start packing,” Dana explained, rinsing out her mug.
“Packing?” Emily blurted out, nearly dropping her cup. “For what?”
“I’m leaving,” Dana replied as though Emily should’ve known.
“To go back home,” the older sister emphasized.
“You’re not staying?” Emily couldn’t believe it.
“I told you this. I want to go back to the city and get everything on its feet.”
The men sat quietly at the table. They felt awkward sitting in the middle of this conversation, but they didn’t make a move. Instead, they remained silent and drank their coffee, careful not to comment about the girls’ conversation.
“You’re just going to leave me here?” Emily barked at her sister, almost yelling.
Emily slammed her mug down on the table and marched out of the kitchen. Joe trotted behind her, curious about why the girl was upset. Emily stomped up the stairs and ran into the guest room, slamming the door behind her. Joe was determined to follow her into the room, but Emily slammed the door in the dog’s face. The girl yanked a pillow off of the bed, held it over her face, and screamed. She screamed until her throat became sore, and then she flopped onto the bed and punched the mattress. She held back angry tears, but a few escaped. She hated that she was an angry crier. And she hated that her sister was leaving. Emily barely remembered them having a conversation about Dana heading back to the city. It was probably when the younger sister was complaining or griping about the whole idea. For the first day in the car, Emily practically argued against whatever Dana was saying. So it was very possible that they discussed Dana leaving the ranch. It probably went through one of Em’s ears and out the other, though.
Joe was still sitting by the door when Dana finally made her way upstairs and to the guestroom. She shooed the dog away and then slowly opened the door. She saw her sister face down on the bed, kicking the air with her feet. Dana walked into the room and closed the door behind her. She cautiously walked up to her sister and sat next to her. The older sister honestly didn’t understand why Em was being so dramatic. They had discussed the whole situation the first day they were in the car. And Emily didn’t seem extremely worried about it. Yes, of course she didn’t like the idea, but she didn’t seem too distressed about it. Thinking about this, Dana gently pushed away Emily’s black hair and tucked it behind her ear. The younger sister turned away, moaning.
“What do you want?” she mumbled into the bed.
“I thought we talked about this, Em,” Dana began. “I thought you understood why I want to go back.” Emily remained quiet, having no comment about what her older sister had just said. “I want to move out of that terrible apartment. I want to get a good, solid job. I want to build a good life for us. But I can’t do that and worry about you at the same time. You, being here on the ranch, gives me time to straighten things out in the city. Plus, it’ll be good for you to stay here and work. Pa’s a good man. And his helpers are filled with nothing but respect. They’ll take care of you.”
“But they’re strangers, Dana. You’re leaving me with strangers,” Em emphasized.
Dana thought about this for a moment. She knew that Pa and Em had never met, but she honestly didn’t think it was a big deal. Dana trusted Pa to take care of her little sister; there was no reason not to trust him. But maybe she just thought that because she had spent half of a summer with him. The girls’ parents never took the time to travel down to Texas once Emily was born. They were both extremely busy with work and taking care of the family, and Pa couldn’t just leave his ranch. It never seemed that important to Dana’s father that Em meet Pa. And Pa would never comment about the situation. It was a confusing mess, so the girls’ parents just stopped trying. And now Em and Dana were lying next to each other in their grandfather’s guest room, not knowing what to do next. Dana really wanted to go back to the city, but Emily really wanted her to stay.
After thinking for a long time, Dana replied to her little sister. “I tell you what. Give me a month –”
“Three weeks,” the older sister reconsidered. “Give me three weeks. I’ll do my best to get a better job and a nice apartment in three weeks, and then I’ll come back and get you. With a goal and a deadline, it won’t feel so bad.”
“But what if you can’t do it in three weeks?” Emily inquired.
“Then I guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer.”
Emily grumbled to herself, sounding a lot like her grandfather. She still hated the idea of being left here with a bunch of strangers, but maybe her sister had a point. With a deadline in mind, she would know exactly when she’d go back home. She could start a countdown on her phone, or on an actual calendar since her phone didn’t seem to work very well out here on the ranch. Should could survive that way, knowing her sister would eventually come get her. It was a good idea.
“Okay,” Emily sat up and pushed the hair out of her face. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Dana agreed. “Now, why don’t you help me gather my things. I should head out pretty soon.”
The two girls crawled onto the floor and sat around Dana’s duffle bag. They grabbed loose pieces of clothing and shoved them into the older sister’s bag. Dana hadn’t brought much, so there wasn’t much to pick up. And she didn’t make a big mess last night or this morning, so the packing process was really easy. Emily remained quiet through the whole thing, even though Dana was trying to make conversation. The younger sister was just imagining how her first day on the ranch would go. Would her grandfather put her to work right away? Would he ‘show her the ropes’ first, and then give her a job? Would he make her clean out the barn? Em sure hoped not… And what about the ranch helpers? Would they be quick to snap at her if she did something wrong? Or would they be patient and understanding? Either way, the girl was not looking forward to it. So instead of thinking about it some more, Emily focused back on the packing.
“I think that’s everything,” Dana commented, zipping up her duffle bag.
Realizing her sister was still upset, Dana leaned over and nudged her with her elbow. “It’ll be okay.”
“I know,” Em stated.
“Good.” The two girls stood up and Dana swung her duffle bag over her shoulder. “Now let’s head downstairs.”
Emily opened the door for herself and the two of them almost ran into Joe. That dog seemed to be everywhere! They maneuvered their way around him and his destructive tail, and marched down the steps. The men were still conversing in the kitchen, and Dusty was still curled up on the lopsided couch. Dana walked into the kitchen, Emily trailing behind her, and dropped her bag. The thump spooked both dogs, and interrupted the conversation happening at the kitchen table. Pa, realizing that his granddaughter was about to leave, stood up and limped over to her.
“Have a safe trip back to the city,” he commanded.
“I will,” the older sister replied.
The two stood facing each other for what felt like a really long time. Pa wasn’t much of a hugger, but Dana was waiting for him to hug her. Or at least say something like ‘it was nice to see you.’ But he just stood there, gripping his coffee cup, and shifting his weight between his two feet. Dana just stood there, occasionally looking at the three other men, and waited awkwardly.
“Well,” the two of them said at the same time. Dana chuckled to herself, and Pa cleared his throat. “Just…let me know when you get there,” her grandfather decided.
“I will.” Dana turned to the three gentlemen, “It was nice to meet you.”
“You as well,” they all replied.
“Well, I better get going,” Dana declared, promptly picking up her duffle bag and marching towards the door.
Emily followed her sister outside. The screen door slammed shut as they let go of it and walked down the porch steps. Dana dug her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the trunk to her station-wagon. She threw her duffle bag inside and then shut the hatch. She then walked around her car and to the driver’s side door. She unlocked that, too, and then pulled it open. Emily just watched her sister, secretly begging her not to go. Dana turned around to look at her sister.
“Well –” Dana started, but then was shocked when Em leapt forward and hugged her.
Emily clung to her sister’s body as though she would never see her again. The little sister took in everything: Dana’s height, width, size, smell, texture. Em buried her face in her sister’s neck, forcing the tears to go away. It was only going to be three weeks, but it was going to feel like a lifetime. For both of them. Dana hugged her sister back, having to bend down to reach her. Emily was hugging her so hard that it was getting difficult to breathe, but Dana didn’t say anything. She just let Emily hang on for as long as needed. Eventually, Em let go of her sister but still held on to her hand. She brushed away a few tears and rubbed her nose with the back of her arm. Dana took Emily’s face in both hands and looked her in the eyes.
“I’ll be back soon,” she said. “Be good and don’t do anything crazy.” Emily nodded. “It’ll be alright.”
“I love you,” Em sniffled.
“I love you, too,” Dana replied, kissing her baby sister’s head.
The two let go of each other and Dana climbed in to her car. Emily stepped back and watched as her older sister shut the door and started the station-wagon. Dana manually rolled down the window and smiled at her sister.
“I’ll be back in three weeks. I promise,” she shouted over the noise of the car.
Emily nodded and stared as her older sister put the car in to drive and drove away. A cloud of dust gathered together as Dana drove down the dirt road; the horses began to gallop alongside the vehicle. Em stood outside until she could no longer see her sister’s ugly station-wagon. And once the car had disappeared, the girl waited until the dust settled back down to earth. She didn’t want to go back inside and face her grandpa alone. She didn’t want to start her new life here on the ranch. But she didn’t really have a choice. So the girl turned around and moseyed up the porch stairs and into the farm house, which now seemed bigger without her sister. Emily thought about sticking her head into the kitchen to talk to Pa, but instead she decided to head back to the guest room. She quietly walked up the stairs and into her new room. She sat down on the ground in front of her suitcase and shorted through all of the clothes she had brought. She pulled out a pair of black skinny jeans, a white tank-top, and a pair of black combat boots. Emily stood back up and undressed herself. She found an empty corner in the room where she tossed her dirty clothes, and then she changed into the clothes she had just picked out. Once the girl was dressed, she brushed through her hair and put on some deodorant. Then she sat down on the edge of the bed.
“What am I going to do,” Emily said to herself.
Em looked around the room and finally noticed how messy it was. She had thrown her clothes everywhere while there was a perfectly empty closet ready to be filled. So, instead of going downstairs to talk to the men, the girl decided she would start organizing her clothes. There weren’t very many wire hangers, so she just folded most of her clothes and placed them on the closet floor. She stacked her shoes in one corner of the closet, and then placed her bathroom bag on the top shelf. The girl stepped back to look at what she had accomplished, and then sat back down on the edge of the bed. It was time to go downstairs. Alone.
“So you’re from the city?” Jackson inquired.
“Yeah…” Emily replied.
The two of them were outside in the barn, just where Emily didn’t want to be. There was a stack of square hay bales that needed to be unloaded from the truck and placed in the barn, and Jackson and Emily were assigned to do it. Em didn’t even know what hay was, or what it was for. And she had no idea that it could be so heavy! Jackson lifted them as though it was nothing, but Emily had to put her entire body into it. She tried to carry a couple from the truck into the barn, but they just fell apart in her arms. After Jackson was finished laughing, he just told her to kick them out of the truck and he would carry them. So she was currently standing in the truck, surrounded by hay bales, and watching Jackson walk in and out of the barn.
“What’s it like?” he grunted as he lifted a bale.
“It’s a city,” Em shrugged.
“Yeah, but what’s it like?” Jackson yelled from inside the barn.
“I don’t know. It’s big. There’s lots of buildings. And the traffic is hell.”
“It’s big?” Jackson commented, wiping sweat off of his forehead with his sleeve. “That’s all you have to say about it?”
Emily nervously chuckled to herself and kicked another hay bale out of the truck. She wasn’t in the mood to talk, but Jackson seemed to blabber on for forever. Apart from his good looks, the boy was actually really annoying. At least Emily thought he was. He first wanted to talk about the ranch, and how he grew up on a ranch just like it. He loved all of the animals, but the horses were his favorite. He went on and on about his favorite horse, and then talked about how she was the best jumper there was. Of course, Emily didn’t really understand what a jumper was, so she asked, and that was a mistake. Jackson explained that it was when you jumped a horse over hurdles, and that people would compete in the sport. And then he talked about all of the medals and trophies he had won jumping his horse. Eventually, Em just stopped listening. But he just kept talking. And when he realized she had stopped reacting to what he was saying, he started asking her questions.
“What’s your favorite part about it?” the boy quizzed, sitting on a hay bale.
“The city?” Emily sighed.
Well, Emily loved her friends: Zach, Ana, Jimmy. She loved hanging out with them and smoking with them. She loved the dark alley ways where it seemed as though the rest of the world didn’t exist. She loved the graphite that covered every broken down building. And she loved the smell, which people always found disturbing. But she loved it because she always knew that it meant home. Her city had one distinct smell, and that’s why she loved it. But she couldn’t just explain all of this to Jackson; he’d think she crazy. So…
“I like the people,” she lied.
“Yeah. There are so many different types of people in the city. Unlike here. Here everybody’s the same.”
“No they’re not!” Jackson denied.
“You all live in the middle of nowhere and own horses,” Em remarked with a snotty tone.
“Well, with that argument, I could say that everybody in the city is the same.”
“They all live in the city and own, I don’t know, cats.”
Emily opened her mouth to give another snide remark, but then shut it. She was tired of arguing with him and telling him he was wrong, so she just stopped talking. They finally finished the job at hand, which took longer than Em anticipated. She continued to kick the bales out of the truck, but then Jackson had to take the time to carry them into the barn. She watched him work, and she noticed that he never complained. He never whined about how heavy the hay bales were, or how hot the sun was. He was sweating like no tomorrow, but he would simply wipe it away and continue working. Emily, on the other hand, had to sit down every minute because she was so exhausted from the heat. Her black hair wasn’t long enough to put in a ponytail, so she constantly had to brush it out of her face. And her jeans were way too tight to be working in; they were sticking to her legs because she was sweating so much. And her white tank top was practically see-through due to the sweat trickling down her body. She felt like a disaster. Once they got all of the hay bales out of the truck, Jackson helped Emily down to the ground. He wrapped his hands around her waist and lifted; he brought her down to the ground without any problem.
“Wow. You’re a lot lighter than those hay bales,” the boy commented. “Let’s go get something to drink. This heat is going to be the death of us.”
The two walked towards the farm house, Jackson slightly in front of Emily. The girl had to walk abnormally because her pants were sticking to her in unwanted places. She had to constantly pull on them, but then they would make a sticky noise as they separated from her skin. She had never sweated this much in her entire life. Sweat was dripping from her forehead and down her cheeks. Sweat was coming off of her boobs and dripping down her stomach. She had made the mistake of wearing a brightly colored bra with a white tank. Honestly, Emily didn’t know what she was thinking when she grabbed it out of her suitcase. And the skinny jeans were a huge mistake! Unfortunately, that’s all she had brought. These three weeks were going to be awful…
As Emily and Jackson got closer to the porch, Dusty’s head popped up and watched them. The dog was curled up on the welcome mat that sat in front of the screen door. Joe, however, came running around the house to greet them. Even though the puppy had met them both before, he was still excited to see them. Jackson gave both dogs a pat on the head and then walked inside. Emily avoided both dogs and followed the boy into the house. The girl was expecting there to be a big difference in temperature, but the house honestly wasn’t that much cooler than the outside. There were a few fans placed in corners of the house, and Em noticed a window air-conditioner, but they didn’t stand a chance against the Texan heat. Disappointed, she followed Jackson into the kitchen and to the fridge. He pulled a jug of pink lemonade out and set it on the tan counter. Emily opened a few cabinets until she found the cups, and then grabbed two. Jackson poured out lemonade for both of them. It was slightly sour as it hit Emily’s tongue, but she welcomed the ice cold beverage. She gulped it down before Jackson had taken two sips. She anxiously reached for the pitcher, wanting to pour herself another glass. She was about to pour the liquid into her glass when Jackson’s voice stopped her.
“Why don’t you save some for the others,” it wasn’t a question.
Emily reluctantly released the pitcher and leaned against the counter, still thirsty. The two of them stood silently in the kitchen when they heard a noise come from upstairs. They both looked at each other, curious about what was going on on the second floor. Another clatter came from above, and so the two teenagers made their way over to the stairs. Pa was on his way down, carrying several things in his arms. He could hardly see the steps beneath him, which meant he was pretty much feeling his way carefully down the stairs. Jackson set his cup down and hopped up the steps and took the load from Pa so that the old man could hold on to the railing the rest of the way down. They eventually stepped on to the flat surface of the main floor and hobbled into the kitchen. Jackson put the armload of stuff on the kitchen table and picked his cup back up. Pa fell into a kitchen chair and ran his shaking hand through his thin white hair.
“What were you doing up there?” Em asked. “And what is all this stuff?”
Pa cleared his throat, “I was looking through some old boxes, trying to find stuff for you.”
“For me?” the girl replied, puzzled.
“You know, jeans and boots. And I also found an old cowboy hat, if you wanted it. It belonged to your father.”
Emily curiously walked towards the boxes on the kitchen table. She looked through them as Jackson poured a glass of lemonade for Pa. There were two cardboard boxes that Emily pried open. Inside one was several pairs of boot-cut jeans and button down shirts. They seemed to be the perfect size for Emily, but she scrunched her nose at the thought of looking like her sister. But then again, the skinny jeans she had were extremely uncomfortable in the heat. The second box was full of packing peanuts, so Emily had to dig around for the object. She eventually pulled out a white cowboy hat that had a few dirt smudges on the edge. The girl looked at it, and then put it on; surprisingly, it fit snugly on her head. Beside both boxes were a pair of plain cowboy boots with pointy toes. Emily gazed at everything in front of her, surprised that Pa still had his son’s stuff in storage.
“Thanks, Pa,” the girl said.
“No problem,” he grumbled. “I thought those jeans and shoes of yours might cause problems.”
Emily chuckled at the comment and then picked up the clothes and the boots while wearing the hat. “I’ll take these up to the guest room,” she said, and then stumbled up the stairs.
Once inside the room, Emily placed everything on the bed and pulled out a pair of jeans. She wiggled out of the ones she was wearing, throwing them in the laundry corner. She stared at the boot-cut jeans for quite a while, not caring that she was standing in her underwear. She wasn’t a huge fan of the idea of wearing them, but she knew she would be a lot more comfortable if she did. So, with a slightly annoyed sigh, Emily grabbed the jeans off of the bed and pulled them on. They were a little big around the waist, so she dug around her closet until she found a scarf. She took they red scarf and looped it through the belt loops and then tied it off to the side. The jeans were also extremely long – her father must have been a tall teenager – so she bent down and folded them up. She snatched the cowboy boots from the bed and tugged them on, wiggling her toes around in them. Emily searched through the button down shirts and found a black and white checkered one, which she pulled on over her white tank top. There was no mirror in the room, so she tried to inspect herself with the reflection on her phone. The girl shuddered at her reflection, realizing that she didn’t look at all like herself. Zach would just laugh if he saw her right now. But knowing that these clothes would keep her comfortable on the ranch, Emily exited her room and marched back into the kitchen. Jackson nearly spit out his lemonade when he saw her. Pa simply smiled.
“Wow,” the boy remarked.
“Too much?” Emily inquired, taking off the hat.
“You look perfect!” Pa piped in. He emptied his glass of lemonade and then stood up. “I need you two to go check on the horses. Make sure they have enough water in their troughs and then maybe clean out the barn.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson responded, and then headed towards the door.
Emily groaned to herself because the thought of cleaning out the barn grossed her out. She didn’t say anything, though, because she was afraid to complain to her grandpa; she didn’t know what he would do. Reluctantly, the girl followed Jackson outside. Dusty woke up as they walked out on to the porch and stepped over the dog. She didn’t seem worried that she was in their way. The dog watched Emily and Jackson as they walked towards the barn, and then she plopped her head back down and went back to sleep. Jackson yanked open the barn door and then walked inside. There were a couple horses in their stalls, but most of them were out in the fields. In order to get to the fields, though, you had to walk through the barn. Jackson lead Emily through the barn and past several horses, and then opened a gate on the other side.
“After you,” the boy motioned for Emily to step through.
Emily stepped through the gate and out into the field where the horses were roaming. She watched her step as she made her way over to the water troughs; they were made out of old bathtubs. Jackson was busy unwinding the hose that connected to the barn. He pulled it behind him as he walked over to the troughs and then threw the nozzle in the water.
“Can you turn it on?” he asked.
Emily nodded and then marched back over to the barn. She bent down to turn on the water, and when she stood back up she was face to face with a horse. The girl gave a frightened yell, which got Jackson’s attention. He giggled to himself, but then went to Emily’s rescue.
“It’s alright, Em,” he explained. “She won’t hurt you.”
Emily was surprised to hear Jackson use her nickname because she had never told it to him. The girl reached out to stroke the horse’s nose, which was a lot softer than Em expected. It was a painted horse, with a coat of brown and white. It looked huge next to Emily, which was why the girl was slightly afraid of it. She had never been around horses before, but here was one standing in front of her. The girl honestly didn’t know what to do because the horse would not go away.
“She likes you,” Jackson commented.
“What’s her name?” Em asked, still petting the horse’s nose.
“Gypsy. She’s a jumper.”
“Hi, Gypsy,” Emily whispered.
The horse breathed onto Emily, which made the girl take a step back. As she took a step back, though, Gypsy simply took a step forward. Realizing that the horse wasn’t going to leave her alone, Emily cautiously moved closer and started petting Gypsy’s neck. She ran her fingers through her mane and across the horse’s beautiful coat of fur. When the girl looked at her hands afterwards, they were covered in dirt! Wrinkling her nose, Emily wiped her hands on her jeans.
“You need a bath,” Em told the horse.
Jackson grinned, “Be our guest. She hates baths.”
“Why won’t she leave me alone?”
The boy shrugged. “Who knows. Horses get attached to certain people, but her owner died last year in a riding accident. Maybe you’re her new human.”
“But I don’t know anything about horses,” Emily replied.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jackson remarked.
Emily turned back to Gypsy – who was now nibbling on the green grass – and gave her one last pat on the neck. The girl wandered back over to the trough and noticed it was overflowing. She removed the hose and drug it back over to the barn. Jackson then proceeded to wind it back up as Emily shut the water off. Gypsy continued to watch the girl, and then whinnied at her when Emily stepped into the barn. For some reason, Emily found herself turning around and waving to the horse. Then the girl followed Jackson into a stall and stared in disgust at the mess on the floor. The boy tossed her a shovel, and then he began working. There was a wheel barrel that Jackson was throwing the mess into, and then Emily guessed they would wheel it out into the field. Gulping in disgust, Em took her shovel and started helping Jackson. If her parents were still alive, they would probably faint at the sight of her cleaning out a horse stall. They had a really tough time getting her to take out the trash, but now she was scooping horse poop into a wheel barrel. Emily couldn’t believe it either, but she made her sister a promise. She promised that she would be good, and that included following directions. Pa had told her to clean out the barn stalls, so that’s what she was going to do. Emily did not want to get on his bad side because she had no idea what would happen. Her father used to tell horror stories about how Pa would whip him with a belt, or use a paddle. Emily did not want that happening to her, so she obediently did a job that she despised.
Jackson didn’t seem to mind, though. He loved being outside doing the dirty work. He had grown up working on the ranch, so he was used to getting his hands dirty. He loved everything about it, even the smell. Emily thought the ranch smelled worse than the city, and that was hard to beat. But Jackson didn’t mind it. The ranch was his home, and he was willing to work to keep it clean.
As Emily worked, she occasionally glanced over at Jackson. He seemed focus on nothing but his work. He scooped and then dumped. Scooped and then dumped. Every time he bent over, his sandy colored hair would fall across his eyes. Sometimes he blew it out of the way, and sometimes he would remove his hat, brush his hair back, and then put the cowboy hat back on his head. Nothing seemed to stop him from working, Emily noticed. She would have to stop every once in a while to take a breather, but Jackson just kept at it. His shirt was soaked with sweat, and his jeans were sticking to him, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Emily was actually impressed by his determination. She was also impressed on how muscular he was. His arm muscles flexed under his shirt as he scooped up a horse pile. He always made a grunting noise when he lifted it up and dumped it in the wheel barrel. And his hands never seemed to get cut on the shovel’s wooden handle. They were so rough and worn that nothing seemed to bother them. Emily wondered what it would feel like to hold them in her small, soft hands. How much bigger were his fingers compared to hers? How hard were the muscles that coated his body? How would it feel –
Emily shook her head and erased the thoughts that were popping up. She couldn’t think about him in that way. She had Zach waiting for her back in the city. Besides, Jackson was a ranch helper. She couldn’t have a relationship with one of Pa’s helpers. That just would never work. And Jackson didn’t seem interested in her, so what was the point? Emily would just have to let it go. But no matter how much Em told herself, she still stole glances at him as they worked. She could at least imagine, couldn’t she?
Emily was in the kitchen helping Pa fix dinner. She wasn’t a very good cook – in fact she hated cooking – but she could at least set the table. Pa only had nice plates; nothing flimsy like what Emily and Dana had in the city. The silverware he had were a lot heavier than normal, and made a loud thump as she set them on the table. And the glasses were pretty big as well. Everything around the ranch was big, including the people. She quietly set the table and then helped her grandpa with the food. He was making meatloaf, which looked disgusting but would taste excellent! Dana never did real cooking in the city. She would simply throw something in the microwave and call it good. But Pa was actually cooking and Em was so excited. Her dad was the cook of the family, and he used to make meatloaf all the time during the winter. It was probably the same recipe Pa was using now. But whatever recipe her father used, it was Emily’s favorite meal.
Pa slowly and carefully mixed ketchup, rice, and eggs into the raw beef. He then dumped the mix into a pan and lavished the top with a barbeque sauce. He made a grunting noise as he bent down and slid the pan into the oven. Emily watched from a distance, afraid of the heat of the oven. Once the meatloaf was cooking, Pa opened the fridge and took out different sides they could eat with the meatloaf. He placed cottage cheese on the counter, along with applesauce, cherry tomatoes, bread and butter, and fruit. Emily quickly stepped forward to help Pa carry those items to the table. The girl looked at all the food and heard her stomach growl in hunger. It had been a while since she’d had a good, home-cooked meal. Dana was so busy with work that they rarely had a meal together. She was constantly running in and out of the apartment, and not really worried about food. She was more worried about getting paid.
The oven timer went off just as the three men stepped through the front door. Brian stepped in first and noisily took off his boots, which were covered in horse manure. Johnny stepped in next and made some joke about dirt in a ranch house. Emily simply shook her head at the joke and blocked him out. Jackson stepped into the house last, and he was followed by Dusty and Joe. The boy took off his cowboy hat and hung it on the wall, and then he removed his boots. Em watched as the three of them clambered into the kitchen. Johnny immediately went over to the fridge and opened it, removing the pink lemonade pitcher. He poured everyone a glass and then put it back in the fridge. Emily completely forgot about pouring drinks, and secretly thanked Johnny in her head. She was so busy watching the three men that she didn’t realize Pa was struggling to get the meatloaf out of the oven. The girl quickly grabbed a pair of oven mitts, and the two of them lifted it out of the oven and onto the counter.
“Smells delicious, Pa!” Jackson chimed from the table.
Pa? Emily thought. Why do they call you Pa?
“Thank ya, Jackson,” Pa replied, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Here, let me give you a hand,” Johnny remarked, lifting the meatloaf off of the counter and placing it on the table. “There.”
“Let’s eat!” Brian declared, stuffing a napkin around his shirt collar.
Pa sat down at the head of the table and Emily sat next to him. Jackson sat across from her, which meant she was going to struggle to not look at him. And he was going to struggle to not look at her; she was a very pretty girl, after all. Not knowing, Emily reached across the table to lift a piece of meatloaf on to her plate, but then Brian and Johnny gave her a stern look. She looked over to her grandfather, who had his hands folded as if to pray. The girl put the piece of meatloaf back in the pan, and then folded her own hands. Her family was never a praying family, so this would be something she would just have to get used to.
“Dear Lord,” Pa began, squeezing his eyes shut. “We thank you for the food we eat and the people we keep. We thank you that Emily is able to be here with us…” Emily squinted her eyes open and looked at everybody, surprised that Pa mentioned her in the prayer. “And we pray that Dana is having a safe trip back to the city. We thank you that you have kept us happy and healthy so that we can continue to work. And we pray that you continue to watch over us. Amen.”
“Amen,” the three men said in unison.
“Amen,” Emily mumbled.
It was getting dark out and Dana could barely see what was in front of her. She had her country music turned up all the way and a half empty cup of coffee in the cup holder. She was trying her hardest to stay awake. There was nowhere to stop, of course. She just prayed that she would make it home safely. She would be satisfied once she drove into her apartment building’s parking lot. Only then could she call Emily and say everything was going to be okay.
Several water droplets hit the windshield, and then a whole bucket started spilling onto Dana’s car. She turned her wipers on and started driving slower. The rain started slow, but then it got harder and faster; even with the wipers all the way up it was hard to see out the windshield. Dana was squinting and leaning forward in her seat to help her see. She pulled her sleeve over her hand and wiped the windshield with it, trying to get rid of the moisture inside of the car. She turned on her fog lights, then her brights, then turned them both off. Dana glanced down at her speedometer and realized she was only going thirty-five on a sixty-five. She didn’t realize how slowly she was actually going and suddenly felt bad for the cars around her. But, as the girl glanced around, she noticed that there were no cars around her. Nobody was brave enough to drive in this rain, or ridiculous enough.
“Lord, please get me home safe,” Dana begged, not quite sure if anyone was listening. “Please. I need to make things right for Emily. I have to get a good job and a nice house. I have to give her a good life. I have to.”
“Dana,” her father walked into the kitchen. “I need to talk to you.”
Dana was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. She was old enough to be on her own but she kept postponing moving out. She was secretly afraid of moving out because then she would have to take care of herself. She loved living at home with her parents. The only reason she would move out would be Emily. Her little sister could be so annoying and irritating sometimes. As her dad pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat down, Dana closed her book and looked at him.
“What’re you reading?” he inquired.
“It’s called A Forbidden Love.”
“Sounds like your kind of book,” the man chuckled. “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about next week.”
“Next week?” Dana requested.
“Well, your mother and I are going to see her parents. You know that they’re getting old and probably don’t have very much time left. She wants to go see them and spend time with them,” Dana’s father explained.
“Now, we thought about bringing you and Emily, but we don’t really want to pull Em out of school for a week. So, I was wondering if –”
“I could stay and watch her?” Dana finished his sentence.
“Yes, exactly. Would you be willing to do that?” he requested. “Of course she would have school during the day, so that means you could still go to work. And then make sure you both eat and sleep. It’ll only be for a week.”
Dana looked past her father and landed her gaze on her little sister. Emily was curled up on the couch in the living room. She was already in her pajamas even though they hadn’t eaten dinner yet. A bright pink blanket was wrapped around her small body – that was Em’s favorite blanket. An action movie was playing on the TV, but Emily was probably asleep and not watching it. Her strawberry blonde hair was draped over her face, which meant Em was most likely sleeping. Dana smiled slightly to herself, realizing how cute her little sister was.
“I can do that,” the older sister declared. “I can take care of her for a week while you go see grandma and grandpa.”
“Thank you!” her father proclaimed. “And, like I said, it’ll only be for a week.”
“Okay, dad,” Dana smiled.
“Okay! I’ll go talk to your mother.”
Her father got up and walked out of the kitchen and to his bedroom. Dana got up as well, but she walked into the living. She looked at her little sister’s face and realized that Em was in fact sleeping. She reached down and adjusted the blanket so that it was covering her entire body. Then the older sister found the remote and turned the TV off. Watching Emily for a week wouldn’t be too bad, Dana told herself. It wasn’t like she was going to have to take care of her forever.
The rain continued to get worse and Dana was now crying. She remembered the day her parents left to go see her grandparents. She remembered them kissing both her and Em and telling them how much they loved them. They promised that they would return in a week, but then they never did. They never came back, and Dana was stuck. Dana was stuck in the ‘parent’ role, which she was not ready for. She wasn’t ready to take care of Emily forever, but she had promised her father several times that she would. She wasn’t going to leave Em to fend for herself. She was going to take care of her because they were family, and that’s what family did. Family stood by each other even when it seemed all hope was lost.
Dana temporarily took her hands off the wheel and pulled her hair back in to a ponytail. She drove the car with her knees, and then placed her hands back on the wheel. She wiped the tears out of her eyes, turned her music up louder, and reached down for her coffee. As she brought the cup up to her lips, a deer leaped out in front of her. Dana immediately dropped her cup and gripped the wheel with both hands as she stomped on the break. The coffee cup came tumbling down onto her lap, spilling hot coffee everywhere. The breaks squealed as Dana pressed on them harder, but the car would not stop. The back end of the car began to fishtail, and Dana began to correct the direction of the car. She overcorrected and the vehicle went spinning. Dana began to scream and gripped the steering wheel for dear life. Her heart was racing and bounding in her ears. Everything seemed to stop and all the girl could concentrate on was the spinning vehicle that she was helpless to stop. The station wagon got closer to the edge of the road and a wheel slipped off the edge. The car began to tumble down into the ditch, Dana being thrown everywhere within the car. The vehicle rolled and rolled until it got to the bottom of the ditch and smashed into a tree. Dana was conscious enough to understand what had just happened, but then everything went black.
Dana and her station wagon sat at the bottom of the ditch for quite a while before someone noticed the smoke. A newly married couple saw the smoke in the air and stopped their car on the side of the road. Even though they were dressed in extremely nice clothes, they stumbled down the ditch and came across the wrecked car. The wife let out a shriek as soon as she saw Dana. She gulped down a lump in her throat, but she couldn’t hold it back for long; the wife ran behind a tree and vomited. The husband pulled his phone out and threw it at his wife.
“Call 9-1-1! Now!” the husband nearly yelled.
The wife fumbled with the phone as she wiped her mouth. It was still pouring so she had no idea if the phone was actually going to work or not. She punched the buttons and held the phone up to her ear. She heard a ring on the other end and a woman’s voice suddenly appeared. The wife let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. She explained everything to the woman on the other end of the phone as her husband tried to reach Dana. The wife remained on the phone until sirens could be heard in the distance. She ran up the hill, trying not to slip in the mud, and waved down the ambulance. The ambulance stopped in front of the wife and several EMT’s followed her down the ditch and to the car. They pushed the husband out of the way and tried to reach Dana. A firetruck suddenly appeared and they came down the ditch to put out the smoke that was escaping the station wagon. The EMT’s finally reached Dana and searched for a pulse, hopeful to find one.
“Thanks for cooking, Pa” Johnny said. “It was delicious as always.”
Emily leaned over to her grandfather. “Why do they call you Pa?” she whispered.
Pa shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just a name that people started using, and now everyone uses it.”
Em was in the process of clearing the table and putting the dirty dishes in the sink. Her grandpa was standing in front of the sink, a dish towel over his shoulder, and scrubbed the dishes clean that were placed in front of him. They had practically eaten dinner in silence with a few grunts here and there. Emily just sat awkwardly in her chair, staring at her plate, and picked at her food. The meatloaf was delicious, but after the prayer, the girl didn’t have an appetite. When Em was little, her parents tried going to church every Sunday. Dana would be the good child who sat quietly in the back of the sanctuary, but Emily was always loud and obnoxious. The pastor would give her parents a disappointed look when they exited the church. After that, they did a lot of church surfing, but never found one that fit. Once they realized church was not going to work for them, the girl’s mom started to say grace before every meal. But they eventually got so busy with work and school events that they stopped eating meals as a family. So religion just slowly exited their lives. And once Em’s parents died in the car crash, Emily and Dana forgot about religion all together. After all, if there was an all loving God, why would he kill two innocent people and let the idiot walk away unharmed?
Emily helped Pa finish the dishes, and then everyone gathered in the living room. Dusty was in her spot on the couch; Brian and Pa sat down in the rocking chairs; Johnny was sitting next to the old dog; and Jackson was laying down on the floor. Emily awkwardly stood at the edge of the living room, leaning up against the wall. There wasn’t a good spot to sit, and she wasn’t comfortable enough with anyone yet to sit next to them. So she found a cozy corner and stood there, observing everyone. Joe continuously trotted in and out of the living room, looking for someone to either feed him or play with him. Everyone seemed too exhausted to pay attention to him, but that didn’t stop him. Eventually, Jackson found a tattered ball and threw it across the room. Joe immediately rushed after it, making the floor vibrate. Emily was so distracted by the vibration from the dog that she didn’t feel her own phone vibrate in her back pocket.
Her phone buzzed for quite a while before Em noticed it. The girl pulled her phone out and looked at the screen. It was a number she didn’t recognize. She usually didn’t answer calls from unknown numbers, but something in her gut told her to answer this one. So Emily pressed the green button and brought the phone to her ear.
“Hello?” she asked.
“Is this Emily Parsons?” a woman on the other end requested.
The four men in the living room turned their heads towards Emily, wondering what the phone call was for. She turned away from them and held her hand over her free ear, blocking out the noise that Joe was making.
“Who is this?” Emily inquired.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman began. “It’s your sister. We just found her car in the bottom of a ditch. She’s not responding to anything we do, which we believe is the result of a coma. We’re taking her to the hospital now to put her on support.”
It felt as though all of the air in the room disappeared. Emily’s breathing quickened as she frantically searched for the TV remote and punched the on button. The old square TV came to life in the corner, and Em quickly flipped through the channels, looking for the news. She eventually found it and watched in horror as the camera swooped down to reveal a twisted station-wagon in a ditch. Smoke was coming out from under the hood, and all of the windows were smashed. A scratched and bloody arm hung out of the driver’s window, but the rest of the body was blacked from view. The woman on the phone was still talking to Emily, but she didn’t hear what she said. Her eyes were glued to the television in disbelief. Police cars and ambulances surrounded the accident, and yellow tape encircled the wrecked vehicle. The lights from the sirens flashed in the background as a news woman appeared in front of the crash. Emily didn’t hear what she said, but she read the words at the bottom of the screen. Station-wagon found in ditch with woman inside.
Emily bolted out of the house. Pa called after her, but she was already outside. She didn’t even bother to put her shoes on. Em ran and ran and ran. She didn’t even know where she was running to. She had no idea how big the field was, or where it led to. She didn’t care. She wanted to get as far away from that TV as possible. She wanted to run away from the truth. She wanted to find her sister and prove that she was still alright. She wanted to run back to the city and find her sister sleeping on the torn up couch. She wanted to hear her sister yell at her about something Em had done wrong. She wanted to hear Dana sing along to country music. Emily wanted to argue with her older sister, and fight with her, and laugh with her, and hug her.
Dana had promised Emily that she would return in three weeks. She had promised that everything would be fine. Dana was going to get a good job and a nice place to live, and the two sisters were going to move back into the city to start a new life. It was all planned out, but now that dream was shattered; Dana was in a coma. They would never move back to the city. They would never get a nice place to live and have home cooked meals. Emily was never going to see her sister smile again. She was never going to hear her noisily enter the apartment after work, or feel her move in bed next to her. She was never going to see Dana in the police station with an irritated look on her face after Emily had done something wrong. Dana was never going to be able to yell at Emily again. She was never going to be able to raise her little sister properly. She was never going to see her smile or laugh again. Dana was never going to see Emily change into a better person. She was never going to see her little sister give up weed, or leave Zach behind. Everything Dana had hoped for her little sister, she was never going to be able to witness.
Emily continued to run through the field, hot tears sliding down her cheeks. She startled a few horses along the way, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to run away from the image on the TV. She wanted to erase the words she heard the woman say over the phone. She wanted to escape everything and return to the life she knew. So Emily just kept running. She ran until her legs collapsed underneath of her and she fell to the ground. The mud underneath of her splashed up into her face as she hit the ground. The girl tried to get back up, but pain shot through her feet and she collapsed again. Emily cradled her feet in her hands and found them scratched and bloody. All of her energy suddenly evaporated and Em just sat there in the mud. There was nothing she could do. She was all alone. The girl reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. She turned it on and searched through her contacts until she found his number. It rang several times before the voicemail picked up.
“What do you want?” Zach’s voice shouted into Emily’s ear. “You’ve reached Zach’s phone. Leave a message, or don’t. I could care less.”
Emily waited until she heard the beep, and then opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. More tears flooded her eyes as the girl hung up and searched for a different number. Once she found Dana’s contact profile, Emily hit the call button. She knew her sister wasn’t going to pick up, but she needed to hear her voice.
“You’ve reached Dana’s voicemail,” her sister’s voice greeted. “Leave a message and I’ll call you back.”
Emily tore the phone away from her ear and chucked it across the field. She let her body fall into the ground, her head resting in a pile of mud, and sobbed. She sobbed until she ran out of tears. And then she just laid there in the dark, not caring about what happened next. She was already living a nightmare, after all.
Pa went after Emily as soon as she bolted out of the house. He grabbed his keys off of the wall and ventured out to his rusty truck. The three men followed him, and they all four climbed into the vehicle. Pa got behind the wheel, Brian sat in the passenger’s seat, and Johnny and Jackson sat squished in the back. It took them longer than necessary to find Emily. The ranch was huge, and they had no idea which direction Em went in. They quickly drove around the entire ranch, keeping a look out for the girl. It was going to be difficult to find her in the dark due to her black hair and dark clothes. Pa drove carefully, though, in case they needed to stop abruptly. A few horses woke up when they heard the truck drive through the fields, but the men didn’t pay any attention to them. They were focused on finding the girl. And, eventually, they did find her. She was curled up in the mud, oblivious to the world around her. Pa let the truck coast over a few bumps and then stopped the vehicle a couple feet away from Em. Pa’s helpers frantically unlocked the doors, but Pa stopped them with a movement of his hand. They watched as the old man fell out of the truck and limped over to his granddaughter.
Emily heard movement behind her and quickly sat up. The lights from the truck temporarily blinded her, but then she saw the outline of a hunched figure walking towards her. Pa came into view, but she didn’t move. Em watched as her grandfather sat down next to her in silence. She stared at him, expecting him to say something, but he just stared up at the stars. After several moments of silence, Pa reached out and wrapped his arm around Emily, and she fell into his shoulder. They didn’t say anything; they didn’t need to. They cried together, and the men just watched from the truck. And as they watched, tears began to form in their own eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Emily,” Pa sniffled.
Emily wiped her runny nose with the sleeve of her shirt but didn’t respond. The two of them sat in the mud for a while longer, but then a rumbling noise came from the sky. Pa looked up and watched as gray clouds began to cover the stars. Another thunderclap echoed through the night, and then a few raindrops started to fall.
“Come on, Em,” Pa said, struggling to get to his feet. “Let’s go home and get you cleaned up.”
The old man held out a hand and Emily reached for it. She stood up, but then quickly fell back down. Her feet were now red and swollen from all the cuts. Pa realized this and motioned for someone in the truck to come help. Since it was easiest for Brian to get out, he opened the truck door and jogged over. He carefully bent down and picked up the girl; Emily clung to him. He cradled Em in his arms as he carried her back to the truck. Pa limped over to the driver’s side and climbed in. Brian, with Emily in his arms, climbed into the passenger’s seat and shut the door.
“Someone call Carol,” Pa ordered as he started driving.
“I will,” Johnny declared, pulling his phone out.
“Who’s Carol?” Emily shivered.
“She’s the town nurse. She’ll take care of you,” Pa explained.
Everyone rode in silence back to the house. Brian cradled Emily on his lap and tightened his grip every time Emily shivered. Pa continuously glanced over at his granddaughter, but the two men in the back just stared out the window. When they finally got back to the house, a bright red car was sitting in the driveway. Once Pa drove closer to the house, a large woman stepped out of the red vehicle. She was carrying a doctor’s bag and wearing a red vest that almost matched the color of her car. She watched as Pa parked the truck, and then rushed over to help. Brian clutched Emily as he stepped out of the truck; the woman was quick to fuss over the girl.
“Let’s get her inside, quick. Take her to the bathroom. You, boy,” she pointed to Jackson, “fill the bathtub with hot water. And you,” she pointed to Johnny, “get me clean towels and a clean set of clothes for her.”
Everyone rushed to get what was needed. Emily wrapped her arms around Brian’s neck as he climbed the porch steps. Pa held the door open and the large man stepped through the door with Em. The woman rushed after them and watched as Brian climbed the steps to the second floor one by one. The full bathroom happened to be upstairs, so Brian made sure to be careful as he walked up the steps. Pa and the woman in the red vest followed him up the stairs and into the bathroom. Johnny and Jackson were standing near the door of the bathroom and watched as Brian set Emily down on the toilet. The woman rolled up her sleeves and pulled back her hair.
“You better leave her to me,” the woman told the men.
“Thank you for coming, Carol,” Pa remarked. “You’re a lot better at these things than I am.”
Carol patted Pa’s shoulder, “She’ll be fine.”
Pa, reluctant to leave, exited the bathroom and shut the door. He stumbled down the stairs and joined the three men in the living room. They all sat in silence as Emily and Carol remained in the bathroom. Carol began by undressing Emily. She talked to the girl as she unbuttoned Em’s shirt and pulled off her white tank top. Emily didn’t care that a middle aged woman was undressing her and preparing to bathe her. All of Emily’s cares and emotions seemed to no longer work. She saw Carol fussing over her, but she didn’t hear anything the woman was saying. She honestly didn’t care.
Carol helped Emily step into the bathtub and sit down. The hot water burned Em’s feet, but Carol was quick to clean them up. She gently held the girl’s feet in her hands and wiped them with a soft washcloth. The woman made sure that the scratches were clean, and then poured alcohol over them; that stung even more than the hot water. After she cleaned Emily’s feet, Carol then washed the girl’s hair. The mud from outside had dried in it, so Carol had to really scrub to clean it out. A lot of the black dye came out, too, as the woman scrubbed and scrubbed to get it clean. By the time Carol had gotten all the mud out of Emily’s hair, it was back to its normal color: strawberry blonde. After her feet and hair were cleaned, Carol then gave Em a quick sponge bath, and then helped her out of the bathtub.
“There,” Carol smiled as she wrapped a towel around Emily’s body. “Now you’re all clean.”
Emily reached for the clean clothes sitting on the bathroom counter and began putting them on. She tugged on the pair of gray sweatpants and then pulled on the black t-shirt. The girl rubbed her wet hair with the towel so that it would dry faster, and then prepared to stand up.
“No, no!” Carol nearly shouted. “You can’t get up yet. I need to wrap those.” The woman took some gauze from the cabinet and began wrapping it around Emily’s feet. “It might take a while for these cuts to heal,” she explained. “Next time you go outside, just make sure to put some shoes on. Nobody knows exactly what’s out there in those fields.”
Carol finished wrapping Emily’s feet and then started cleaning up the mess in the bathroom. The girl watched as the woman scrubbed the floor dry and then put all of the dirty clothes and towels in the laundry basket. Carol had dyed orange curls that bounced up and down as she moved. And the floors slightly shook as she walked. Emily just then realized that the town nurse had gotten up in the late night and had come to the girl’s rescue. Zach wouldn’t’ve even done that for her.
“Thank you,” Emily mumbled, rubbing her bandaged feet.
Carol turned around and smiled. “You’re welcome.”
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
- Psalm 34:18