It had been weeks since Dana’s car crash but Emily still hadn’t recovered. She was curled up in her bed on the ranch, hugging her teddy bear. She was still wearing the clothes she had worn the week before. She hadn’t showered much, and had barely eaten anything. Her grandpa tried to cheer her up, but nothing worked. She remained in bed, in her room, with her shades closed and the lights off. To her, there was no point in living anymore. She had lost her parents and now it felt like her sister was gone, too.
Dana was in a hospital in their home city. She was on breathing support due to the fact that she was in a coma. Pa insisted on going to visit her since he and Em were her only remaining relatives. Em didn’t want to go, though. She didn’t want to face the truth that her sister was no longer truly alive. She couldn’t bear to look at Dana lying in a hospital bed with tubes and needles coming out of her. Emily would also be expected to contain her emotions while the doctors talked to Pa. She would have to stand there and listen while the doctors told her the facts about her sister. Her worst fear was that the doctors might tell her that Dana was beyond saving: brain dead. And Emily couldn’t handle that.
“We need to go,” Pa declared, packing Emily’s suitcase. “The doctors need to talk to her relatives, and we’re all she has left.”
Em just pulled the covers over her head and closed her eyes. Yes, she understood the doctors needed members of Dana’s family, but why couldn’t Pa go by himself? He was their last guardian, after all. And Dana wouldn’t want Emily to go, anyways. She wouldn’t want her little sister to see her in the hospital covered with tubes. She’d want Emily to stay away and take care of herself. Pa, regrettably, disagreed.
“She’s your sister, Emily. You owe her,” the old man grunted as he carried the girl’s suitcase downstairs. “We won’t risk the drive, of course. I’ll pull some money out of the bank so we can fly.” There was no point arguing with Pa once he had made a decision. It was just like with Dana when she decided to bring Emily to the ranch.
The flight to the city was mostly filled with silence and tears. Em and Pa only spoke to each other if they needed a question answered. Even the people walking by knew something was wrong because the tenseness in the air was so thick someone could slice it with a knife. It got even worse when the two of them arrived at the hospital. Emily’s mood automatically changed from bad to worse. Her stomach lurched up into her throat from the clean taste in the air because she knew her sister was somewhere in the building fighting for her life. And Em just wanted to smack and scream at all of the smiling people because she didn’t understand how they could be so happy. Her sister was dying and people were laughing!
Pa eventually found someone to direct them to Dana’s room. They marched down bright white hallways, passing patients in wheelchairs who were connected to IV units. They eventually reached Dana’s room, but just then Em felt like she was glued to the floor. She couldn’t make herself go in. Her entire body screamed out to her to turn around and walk away. When Pa motioned for her to go in, though, she tentatively took a step forward and cautiously entered her sister’s hospital room. The sight in front of her made Emily want to puke. Dana was dressed in a pail blue hospital gown that made her skin look like a ghost. There was an IV coming out of her left hand, and it was connected to a drip bag with clear liquid. Her once bright red hair was all greasy and spread over the pillow, and her beautiful eyes were shut. But the most horrific part to Emily was the breathing tube coming out of her sister’s mouth; it was the only thing keeping her alive.
“Can I help you?” a younger looking doctor entered the room.
Pa immediately turned around and introduced himself and Emily. “What can you tell us about her situation?” he asked.
“Well,” the doctor stumbled for words, “we’ve declared her brain dead. The impact from the car wreck caused her brain to bleed so much it lost all function. The only thing keeping her alive is that breathing tube.” Emily knew the next words the doctor was going to say even before he said them. “We suggest you let her go and pull the plug.”
Emily nearly fell over; she had to hold on to the end of the bed to support herself. Her head uncontrollably shook left to right and tears began to spring to her eyes. She couldn’t lose her sister, too. No matter how bad Dana’s condition was now, she was still alive. She was still there for Em. As soon as they pulled the plug, Emily would have lost everyone…everyone. The doctor and Pa continued to talk about their options, but the girl didn’t hear a word they said. Her focus was on her unconscious sister because she kept thinking about all of the things she would never do. She would never fall in love. She would never grow old. Eventually, Em refocused on the doctor and noticed he was trying to convince Pa to pull the plug.
“No!” Emily blurted out, taking a step forward.
“Emily – ” Pa turned to his granddaughter.
“No! I have lost everyone. Everyone! I can’t lose her, too,” Em choked down tears. “You can’t take her away from me!”
The doctor looked at Pa uncertainly, not sure what to do or say. There was obviously a heartbroken, shattered young girl standing in front of him. But there was also an unconscious, vegetable-of-a-girl lying in the hospital bed next to him. Realizing the doctor was clueless on what to say, Pa turned to his granddaughter and told her everything would be alright. He reassured her that no one was taking Dana away from her. Without saying another word, Pa guided Emily out of Dana’s room and out of the hospital. Em had expected to leave the hospital and head straight for the airport, but Pa proceeded to wave down a taxi and give the driver a completely different address. The girl stared out the window – sniffling – and watched as all of the nice buildings disappeared and were replaced with broken windows, boarded up doors, and graffiti painted walls. The taxi eventually came to a halt in front of a leaning apartment building. Emily gaped up at the familiar outside walls and her eyes immediately landed on the second story window. The glass had a crack in it and Em suddenly remembered all of the memories that she had forced out of her mind.
“I don’t understand why we have to stay here! Why I have to stay here!” Emily yelled at her sister.
The walls of the tiny apartment seemed to suffocate the girl as she stood in the middle of the room. It was a lot smaller than their house; everything was shoved into one tiny room. The kitchen and the living room overlapped each other, and Em wouldn’t even describe the kitchen as a kitchen. Their bathroom was the size of a small closet and the shower smelled like crap. And the only bedroom was hidden in the back corner. Dana had hauled Emily to the studio apartment as soon as she claimed guardianship over her little sister. It was located in a bad part of the city, but it was the only place Dana could afford. She was only working one job that paid minimum wage, but she was hoping to get another one. Since Emily was still in high school, Dana wasn’t going to make her get a job. She figured it was better for her little sister to stay focused on her education than worry about paying bills.
Dana had just dropped a large cardboard box in the middle of the kitchen; it was labeled Photo Albums. She wanted to save every picture – every memory – she had of her parents. The albums contained pictures from their wedding; of the girls as babies; of all the birthdays and Christmases. Dana knew that for a long time it would be difficult to look at them because of their parents’ recent death. When it happened, Emily was so distraught that she destroyed all of the pictures sitting on display, but Dana wanted to save the ones in the albums. She shoved the box under the counter in the kitchen and then wiped sweat off of her forehead with the back of her hand. Emily was busy yelling and pacing in the living room, her arms flying everywhere.
“This is ridiculous! It’s stupid! I fucking stupid!” Em screamed, grabbing the nearest thing and throwing it at the window.
Dana rushed over to her sister and grabbed her from behind. The younger girl wiggled and kicked, but Dana had a tight hold on her. She held Em until the girl stopped screaming and just started wailing. Emily leaned into Dana’s arms and nearly fell onto the ground. Her entire body shook uncontrollably as the sobs took over her small body. Big fat tears rolled down her blotchy cheeks, and snot dripped from her nose. Em gasped for breath, but it was always interrupted by sobs. And Dana just held her and let her cry. They eventually sunk to the floor and clung to each other. No matter how much Dana wanted to let her tears go, she knew she needed to stay strong for her baby sister. A few tears slipped, but she quickly whipped them away. She wasn’t going to let herself look broken in front of Emily; she couldn’t.
Emily could feel the tears coming on, but she gulped them down as she pushed herself out of the taxi. “What’re we doing here?” she asked a little too harshly.
“We need to pick up a few things,” Pa grunted as he climbed the steps of the apartment building.
The old man explained who he was to the emo kid behind the counter and retrieved the key to the girls’ apartment. Emily and her grandfather slowly and carefully climbed the rickety steps until they reached the studio apartment. The door squeaked as Pa pushed it open and stepped in to the empty space. The girl was more tentative to enter, though. Everything seemed gray and lifeless; dust covered everything. The sun seeped through the pulled shades and made the floating dust particles visible. The air was stale and unfamiliar as Em walked through her old home. Pa didn’t seem to notice anything unusual about the apartment because he immediately started gathering up Dana’s belongings and throwing them into an empty laundry basket he had found in the bathroom. The girl remained in the middle of the apartment floor, though. She didn’t know how she felt about being back in a space that had so many terrible memories. Everything started to come back to her; the first night in the apartment with the unusual smells and sounds and the girls holding on to each other, crying; family friends knocking on their door to tell them how sorry they were; the first time Dana saved Em from the police. There were so many memories Emily had forgotten about.
The girl suddenly noticed her grandpa getting onto his knees and retrieving a cardboard box from under the kitchen counter. Grumbles and groans kept escaping his mouth as he shoved the box onto the counter and stumbled to his feet. Emily thought about helping him, but it felt as though she was glued to the floor. She simply watched as he limped over to her and shoved the box into her hands, making her snap out of whatever spell she was under. Em looked down at the top of the box and noticed the fading of the marker that labeled the box Photo Albums.
“I’m worried about her,” Pa explained to Carol.
The two of them were sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea. Pa had called the town nurse once they got back to the ranch because he didn’t know what else he could do for his granddaughter. As soon as he and Em had gotten back, she shut herself in her room. She wouldn’t eat or shower; when she slept she always woke up screaming. He had tried everything, but nothing seemed to cheer her up. He was once a stern man who would’ve yanked her out of bed and outside, but that part of him disappeared with his two sons.
“She’ll be fine, Pa. She’s just had a really rough couple of weeks,” Carol explained, blowing on her steaming tea.
“Carol, you don’t understand,” the old man grumbled. “She hasn’t gotten out of bed at all. She hasn’t showered. And she’s barely eaten.”
“I just want you to talk to her. Maybe someone new and different can talk some sense into her.”
“Fine,” Carol agreed. “I’ll go talk to her.”
“Thank you,” Pa breathed a sigh of relief.
Carol patted the old man’s arm and gave him a small smile. She was a nurse, not a psychiatrist, but they didn’t have a psychiatrist in town, so she would just have to do. Carol pushed herself out of her chair and waddled over to the steps. They creaked under her weight, but that didn’t stop her. She gripped the railing with her chubby hand as she marched up the steps and onto the second floor. The woman noticed that the guest room door was closed almost all the way, so she very gently pushed it open. The only indicator to Carol that Emily was in the room was the lump under the covers. Carol stepped into the room and walked over to the bed, searching for Em’s face. She eventually spotted the girl’s nose, and slightly chuckled to herself. The woman sat down on the edge of the bed and lightly tugged on the covers to reveal Emily’s entire face. The girl simply groaned and rolled over.
“Hi there,” Carol started. “Your grandpa’s worried about you. He asked me to come up and see if you were alright.”
“I’m fine,” Emily cried into her pillow.
“Yes, I can see that,” Carol responded sarcastically. “It might help if you actually got up and did something.”
“At least a shower, maybe?” the woman suggested.
“Please, just leave me alone,” Em whined, pulling the covers back over her head.
Carol sighed in frustration, realizing that Emily wasn’t going to listen to anything she said. Because of this, the woman stood up and walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. Joe was waiting by the door, his tail thumping against the wall. He tilted his head at her as if to say “is everything alright?” Carol just smiled at the puppy and made her way back downstairs. Joe trotted along beside her as the woman navigated the steps and walked onto the main floor. Instead of following her, the dog decided to investigate outside. Pa was still in the kitchen drinking tea when Carol made her way into the kitchen. He must’ve moved, though, because he was now wearing a pair of large round glasses and had an open book in his hand. The old man looked up once Carol got closer.
“Well?” Pa inquired with hope.
Carol shrugged. “I’m sorry.” The woman sat down next to Pa at the kitchen table. “She’s a stubborn little thing. I wonder where she gets that from.” Pa simply grumbled. “Just give her some more time. Sooner or later, she’ll come around.”
Carol opened her mouth to say something else, but then her phone began to ring inside her purse. The woman reached into her large red purse and pulled out a flip phone – she didn’t believe in smart phones – and answered the call. A concerned look spread across her face, and she quickly looked at her gold watch. Carol listened to the rest of the call without saying anything and then hung up. She stood up abruptly and reached for her purse.
“I’m really sorry,” Carol said urgently. “There’s a patient across town that’s in bad shape.” Pa watched as the woman slipped her purse over her shoulder. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
Carol kissed the old man on the cheek and then rushed out of the house. Pa heard the front door slam shut, and then listened for the car engine to start. Once he could no longer hear her car, he got out of his chair and carried both tea cups back to the sink. He washed them carefully and then returned them back to the cabinet. He then limped back over to the table and picked up his book and his glasses. Pa glanced up the stairs as he walked by, thinking about inviting Em outside, but then shook his head at the idea. Carol was right; Emily would come out when she was ready. So Pa limped out the front door and sat down in the glider on the front porch. Dusty moseyed over to him and laid down at his feet. The old man had no idea where Joe was, but the dog was probably somewhere on the ranch. In an attempt to stop worrying, Pa placed his glasses back on his nose and opened his book.
The old man rocked gently in the glider as he read his book. Even though the heat was excruciating, it wasn’t terrible in the shade on the front porch. There was a slight breeze that relieved everyone from the heat of the sun, and if you occasionally drank something cold, you could survive all day under the sun. Of course, Pa didn’t work as hard as his ranch helpers. He simply couldn’t in his old age. He had already had both knees replaced, but now his left hip was causing him problems; that’s why he limped all the time. His doctors had suggested that he use a cane or a walker when walking on uneven ground, but he just grumbled that comment away. Pa continued to work after that, only hiring one other helper: Brian. But then he took a hard fall in the barn and hurt what was left of his joints. After that, Pa hired Johnny and Jackson – father and son – and trusted them to do all of the necessary work. He remained in the house doing the paperwork and cooking since that was supposedly easier on him. Once all of the paperwork was done for the year, though, there wasn’t much left for him to do. That’s when Pa started reading. He usually went through three books a week since he didn’t have the internet to distract him. He loved reading about historical people such as the past presidents and founding fathers. And Dusty always listened when Pa started reading out loud.
The old man was absorbed in his book when Brian marched up onto the porch. Dusty looked at him and watched as the larger man fell into the glider, making it shake uncontrollably. Pa didn’t seem to notice,though. Brian, surprisingly, didn’t say anything. He removed his baseball cap from his bald head and wiped the sweat away with his shirt sleeve. The two men sat in silence for quite a while – Pa reading his book, Brian staring at the horizon – before something happened. Joe came hurdling towards the front porch with a bone in his mouth. Jackson was chasing after him and shouting for the dog to drop it. Pa looked up from his book and Brian leaned forward to see what was going on. Joe jumped up onto the front porch and hid behind the glider, chewing happily on his bone. Jackson leaned against the front porch, breathless. He took off his cowboy hat and let sweat drip from his sandy hair.
“What’s going on?” Pa requested, looking at Joe as he noisily chewed on the bone.
“We found a dead deer,” Jackson panted, “on the edge of the ranch. Dad was about to burn it when Joe got ahold of one of the legs. He chewed off most of the meat before I could catch up to him.”
Pa looked at Joe over the rim of his glasses. The puppy seemed very content with the prize he had found. Jackson nervously leaned against the porch, waiting for Pa to get mad. Brian moved his eyes between Pa and Jackson, waiting for something to happen. The old man shook his head at the young dog and started to laugh. He laughed so hard the glider shook, and eventually the other two men laughed with him.
“You’re not mad?” Jackson wondered in surprise.
“Mad?” Pa chuckled. “Why would I be mad? As long as the deer didn’t look like it was sick, then I have no problem with Joe chewing on a bone.”
Emily had no idea the men were laughing outside. She couldn’t hear anything from her spot in her room. Light was shining in room through the pulled shades, but she had her covers up over her eyes. Em groaned as she pushed the covers aside and stood up. The light from the shades made her squint and look away. The only reason the girl was getting out of bed was because she had to pee. If it wasn’t for her stupid bladder, Em would remain in bed for the rest of her life. She slid into her slippers and wrapped her bathrobe around her body as she shuffled towards the door. The bright lights from the hallway hurt her eyes, so she practically felt her way to the bathroom. Once in the bathroom, she closed and locked the door behind her before going to the toilet. She sat there for quite a while – even after she was done – because she didn’t want to stand back up. She honestly felt weak because she had been lying in bed for weeks. She had barely eaten anything, which resulted in Emily’s stomach growling and echoing through the bathroom. She wrapped her arms around her waist and sighed. Maybe it was time to get a snack. The girl stood up and finished her business before leaving. She shuffled down the hallway and marched down the stairs. She was about to turn into the kitchen when she heard noises outside.
Emily could kind of see through the living room windows and onto the front porch. Pa and Brian were sitting in the glider, and her grandfather was laughing. Jackson was there too, and she could barely see Johnny in the distance. They were all laughing about something Emily didn’t know about. And, for some reason, the girl wanted to know what it was. She nervously walked towards the door, their laughter growing louder as she grew nearer. She pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the front porch. The Texas wind hit her unexpectedly, and it took a while for Emily to regain her breath. As soon as the girl had stepped outside, though, all of the laughter ceased. It was so quiet they could’ve heard a pin drop. All of the men were staring at her in disbelief.
“Hi,” Emily said.
“Hi,” Jackson responded with a slight smile.
Joe quickly stopped chewing on his bone to look at the girl. She was wearing a pair of grubby sweatpants and a wrinkly t-shirt. On her feet were a pair of fuzzy slippers, and her large bathrobe was hugging her small body. The puppy let go of his bone and walked over to Emily and sniffed her; she smelled terrible. Dusty just watched as Joe suddenly jumped up on Em and licked her. This disgusted the girl, of course, and she quickly retreated from the dog and wiped the slobber off her face. Pa laughed quietly and then got up and handed his granddaughter a handkerchief. Emily took it and wiped off her face. All of the men could smell Em’s unpleasant scent, but nobody said anything. It was a miracle that she was out of bed, so they didn’t want to push their luck. They simply smiled at her, glad that she decided to join them outside.
“Um…” Emily trailed off, not knowing what to say. All of the men were staring at her, which made her feel uncomfortable.
“Would you like some tea?” Pa offered with hope in his eyes.
“That would be nice,” Emily smiled, fiddling with the sleeve of her bathrobe. “I think…” the men waited anxiously to see what she was going to say next. “I think I’m going to take a shower.”
Everyone breathed a small sigh of relief. Pa headed indoors – Dusty followed him – and limped into the kitchen. He was going to get the tea started while Emily took her shower; he didn’t care how long the shower took. She could shower all day for all he cared. The old man was just pleased to see Emily up on her feet. For a while, he was afraid he was going to lose the only family member he had left. Emily and Pa were the only ones left in the family. Of course, there was still Dana, but she was barely living. One of Pa’s sons committed suicide, and the other one was killed in a car accident. If Pa had to bury another family member that was younger than him, he would have just died from heart break. He wouldn’t have been able to live knowing that he was the only one left. And Emily was thinking the same thing. As she gathered clean clothes from her room, she realized that Pa was the only person she truly had left. Just weeks ago he was a stranger to her, but now he was the closest thing she had to a family. And so were the ranch helpers; they were practically her family now. She had no parents left, and barely a sister; only a grandfather and his men.
Emily dug through her closest for a pair of jeans, a sports bra, underwear, and a tank top. As she walked out of the guest room, she turned back around and gazed at it. The unique quilt on the bed stared back at her. The three bladed fan struggled to make it all the way around as it turned. And the plain walls contained too many sad memories. Maybe it was time to make the guest room into her own. Em headed to the bathroom thinking about ideas on how to decorate the room. She would have to paint it a different color, of course. Maybe green or blue? Something to match that ugly quilt on the bed. And she would have to find pictures to hang on the walls to make it more cheerful.
The girl stepped into the shower and allowed the hot water to wash away all of the stink that covered her body. She ran her fingers through her short strawberry blonde hair, slightly missing the black color. Even though she wanted to move on, she wasn’t quite ready to let go of who she was in the city. The black hair was all she had left of her old life. Maybe, when she was ready, she would dye it again. Emily scrubbed shampoo and conditioner through her hair and slowly rinsed it out. She was in no rush, so she stood under the hot water for quite a while. She wrapped a bar of soap in a wash cloth and rubbed it over her body, not only washing away the dirt but the past as well. She scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin turned red, and then she was satisfied. The hot water poured over her and washed away everything bad that had consumed her life: her parents’ car crash, her friends and the weed that allowed her to escape reality, Zach, moving to Texas, her sister’s coma, and the depression that immobilized her for weeks. The hot water washed away all of that and Emily felt as though she could finally breathe again. She stepped out of the shower feeling like a new person ready to take on the world. Well, maybe not quite that ready, but pretty close. Emily dried her body with a towel and then put on her clean clothes. She exited the bathroom with a smile on her face.
The girl threw her dirty clothes in the laundry, grabbed her cowgirl hat from her room, and marched downstairs. Pa was in the kitchen heating up water for tea. He had set out two mugs – one for her and one for him – and was now leaning against the counter waiting for the water to be ready. Once he saw his granddaughter, though, a smile immediately covered his face.
“You look good,” Pa commented.
Emily gave a weak smile and joined him by the counter. “Thanks.”
“Emily,” Pa started, clearing his throat. He wasn’t very good at comforting speeches, but he was going to try. “I know how you must feel. I know what it feels like to lose everyone close to you.” Emily smirked. “You may not think so, but it’s true. I lost the love of my life when we were young. And then I lost both of my children; your uncle and father. And then Dana.”
Pa grabbed Emily’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m just saying that life may be terrible, unfair, and stupid,” he spat out the last word, “but we cannot give up. There is always something good around the corner. For example, when I thought I had lost everything, you came into my life. And I promise that I will take care of you until I die.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Emily remarked, gripping her grandpa’s hand.
The smile that was plastered to Pa’s face made his cheeks even more wrinkly. And even though his bushy eyebrows hung over his eyes, Emily could still see a sparkle in the old man’s gray eyes. He gave the girl’s hand one last squeeze before taking the tea kettle off the stove. Pa poured water into both mugs and placed a tea bag in each. Emily grabbed her mug and headed towards the front porch. The three men were still sitting out there, whispering about the girl. As soon as she stepped outside, all conversations ceased. Pa shuffled outside, as well, trying not to spill the hot liquid that was splashing around in his mug. Even though it wasn’t officially break time for the workers, everyone was sitting around instead of working. Even the dogs were being lazy. It was just that sort of day.
Emily sat down on one of the porch steps, sipping her tea. She could see several horses grazing in the field, and a few colts were dancing around their mothers. The breeze felt good as it brushed through Em’s hair. The sun was bright, of course, so she had to squint as she looked over the ranch. Maybe a life here wasn’t so bad after all. But then again, she didn’t really have a choice. As Emily drank some more of her tea, Jackson made his way over to her and sat down next to her on the steps.
“Hey,” Jackson nudged the girl.
“Hey,” Em responded, setting aside her tea.
“I like the hair.”
Emily took off her cowgirl hat and ran her fingers through her short strawberry blonde hair. “Thanks. I’m still getting used to it.”
“It looks good,” the boy smiled. Emily smiled back but didn’t know what to say. The two sat in an awkward silence – the rest of the men watching them – before Jackson spoke up. “I’m glad to see you’re alright. I can’t imagine how you must feel right now.”
“I’m still in shock, honestly… Sometimes I wish I could just call my sister, but then I remember that she won’t answer…”
“I’m sorry, Emily. But you’ve got me. I mean, us. You’ve got us,” Jackson stuttered.
“Thank you,” Em nudged the boy with her elbow.
They sat next to each other in silence and looked out towards the horizon. They had already said everything they needed to. Of course, there were a few words resting on the tip of Emily’s tongue that she was afraid to say, but she kept her mouth shut. Jackson was a friend and was one of Pa’s helpers. He was kind, and sweet, and cute, but he was just a friend. The only reason they talked more than the other guys was because they were similar ages. It wasn’t because they felt anything for each other; at least, that’s what Emily told herself.
Pa finished his tea and then staggered to his feet. Brian watched him to make sure the old man didn’t fall. Once Pa was stable, he limped over to the two teenagers and stood over them. Emily saw her grandpa’s shadow and abruptly turned around, nearly knocking over her mug. Pa was just smiling down at the two kids. Jackson took his time turning around, curious about what the old man was going to say.
“Do you think you’re up for a job, Em?” Pa grumbled.
“Sure?” Emily answered cautiously.
Pa turned around to face Johnny who was now leaning against the porch, “Does the deer still need taking care of?”
“Yep,” Johnny responded.
Pa turned back towards Emily and Jackson. “I want you to go down and take care of that dead deer. Burn it or bury it, I don’t care,” he explained. “You can take the horses or the truck.”
“You want me to do that all by myself?” Emily squeaked.
“I’ll help her,” Jackson piped up. “We’ll take the horses.”
The horses? Emily had never ridden a horse before. Living on the ranch was the closest she had ever come to a horse, and now Pa and Jackson were expecting her to ride one. She argued against the idea at first, but Pa reassured her it wasn’t that difficult to learn. As Jackson marched towards the barn, Emily trailing behind him, she continued to argue against the idea. She gave every excuse imaginable as to why she shouldn’t ride a horse. Jackson, or course, just chuckled and shook his head at her. He marched through the barn and out into the field where all the horses were grazing. Emily cautiously followed him, unsure of what his plan was. Jackson put his fingers in his mouth and whistled so loud it hurt Em’s ears. All of the horses, though, looked up and stared at them.
“Baker! Gypsy!” Jackson yelled. “Come here!”
Emily stood behind Jackson and waited to see what would happen. At first there was no movement, but then two horses appeared from a distance. It looked as though they were running at full speed towards the two teenagers. Emily, of course, bolted for the safety of the barn, but Jackson stood his ground. The two horses ran up to the boy and then abruptly stopped a couple feet away. Emily recognized Gypsy right away, but she did not remember the other horse. It was a cream color with a speckled mane, and was a few inches taller than Gypsy. Emily nervously walked back out into the field and up to the painted horse. Jackson patted the cream one on the neck.
“Baker?” Emily inquired about the horse. “How did you come up with that name?”
“When I was little she reminded me of a vanilla cake with black and white sprinkles. My dad wouldn’t let me name her Cake, though, so I went with Baker instead.”
“Let’s get them saddled up.”
Jackson started walking towards the barn, and the two horses obediently followed him. Emily watched for a moment, and then wandered into the barn. Jackson grabbed two halters off of hooks and put one on each horse. He then grabbed a couple leads and tied up the two animals so that they wouldn’t go anywhere. Emily watched the entire process from a distance, secretly curious about what was going on. The horses didn’t seem to mind that they were tied up, which slightly surprised Em. She was expecting them to throw a fit or something, but they just stood there patiently. Jackson disappeared into a closet and reappeared carrying a large western saddle and a blue blanket. He carefully set the saddle down and tossed the blue blanket onto Gypsy. After that, he put all his weight into throwing the saddle onto the horse’s back. Emily watched as he adjusted everything, and then fastened the saddle using a belt that went under the horse’s belly. He did the same thing for Baker, except her blanket was red. After the saddles were securely fastened to the horses, Jackson retrieved two bridles. Emily noticed that the bridles had a metal bar where the horses’ mouths would go. Before Jackson put the bridle’s on, he removed the halters from each horse. Emily then watched in slight horror as Jackson slipped those metal bars into the horses’ mouths and then secured it with a strap that went over their ears.
“Don’t they hate that?” Em remarked.
“They do at first, but then they get used to it,” Jackson explained, untying the horses. “Ready?”
“Ready for what?” Em requested.
“Ready to ride.”
“Come on,” the boy declared, leading the horses outside and not back to the field. “It’ll be fun.”
Emily followed, slightly terrified about what was going to happen next. Jackson led the horses to an open area and then stopped. He retrieved a nearby stool and placed it next to Gypsy. Em walked up to it and stared at it uncertainly.
“Now what?” she inquired, chewing on her thumbnail.
“Now, you climb on.”
“It’s really simple,” Jackson went on to explain. “Step up onto the stool. That’s it. And place your foot into the stirrup. Yep. And then you pull yourself up and throw your other leg over.” Emily did everything she was told and nearly fell off the other side. She held onto the saddle for dear life and adjusted herself so that she was sitting upright. “That’s the general idea,” Jackson chuckled. He moved the stool out of the way and gracefully climbed onto Baker. “Ready?”
“I suppose,” the girl commented, gripping the reins too tight.
“So to steer, it’s just like a car. Pull right to go right, and pull left to go left. Pull back for Gypsy to go backwards. And you might have to give her a little nudge with your heel every once in a while.”
Emily took all of this information in. She could feel her cowboy boots slipping out of the stirrup, so she shoved them forward. Jackson gave Baker a slight kick with his heel and the horse obediently moved forward. Emily copied his motions and Gypsy followed behind the Jackson’s horse. Since Em wasn’t a skilled rider, they took their time and walked to the other end of the ranch. The two teenagers could see the dead deer from a distance because there were birds circling the carcass. The girl nearly threw up once they could see the body, but it barely seemed to bother Jackson. He jumped off Baker and marched over to the dead animal. Emily watched as he reached into his large pockets and pulled out a box of matches. He lit three at a time and threw them onto the carcass. It took a while for the deer to burn, but once it did, the smell was almost unbearable. Em had to pull her shirt collar over her nose to try and block out the stench. Jackson pulled himself back onto his horse and turned her around to go back home.
“You’re just going to let it burn?” Em asked.
“Yeah. It’ll burn itself down,” Jackson explained. “Why don’t we head back to the house.”
“That was easier than I expected,” the girl mumbled to herself and followed Jackson and Baker.
Pa was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen. He had put on a record and was humming along to the music as he cooked. There were several pots on the stove, each containing something different. In one pot, Pa was boiling white potatoes. In another pot, red meat sauce was bubbling. And a large pot contained the spaghetti that was slowly getting softer and softer. Pasta was always a favorite meal on the ranch, so Pa cooked it about once a week. As the food cooked on the stove, the old man opened some cabinets and took out plates, cups, napkins, and silverware. He limped over to the table and set it down very carefully. His hunched back made it difficult to reach across the table, but he managed. Once he was finished setting the table, Pa shuffled over to the fridge and took out apple sauce, cottage cheese, and cheese that the guys could put on their pasta. He carried those one at a time over to the table, and then checked on the pasta. It was almost finished, so he turned down the burner, and then checked the potatoes and the sauce. Everything was almost ready to eat.
They should hurry up if they want to eat, Pa thought to himself with a grumble.
Just then, the front door screeched open and voices echoed through the house. Emily stepped in first and pulled off her boots before walking further into the house. She took off her cowgirl hat and hung it on the wall, and then joined Pa in the kitchen. Jackson followed suit, and scurried over to the table. Brian and Johnny took their time, laughing about something that had happened moments ago. Jackson brushed out his sandy hair with his hand, watching as Pa drained the pasta.
“Let me help you!” Emily insisted, taking the pan away from her grandfather.
Em finished draining the pasta, and then poured it into a fancy bowl that she set on the table. She did the same for the potatoes and the sauce. The girl arranged the kitchen table so that all of the food would fit on top, and then she sat down. Pa carefully fell into his chair at the head of the table. Brian and Johnny sat down, as well. Emily knew by now that she needed to wait until grace was over before she started eating; she folded her hands and closed her eyes, along with everyone else.
“Dear Lord, we thank you for this meal,” Pa declared, his eyes squeezed shut. “We thank you for the life we have, even if it may be difficult at times. And we thank you that we are all here to enjoy each other’s company. Amen.”
“Amen,” the men echoed.
“Amen,” Emily said with confidence.
Everyone served themselves and started eating. Emily had never been a huge pasta eater, but Pa’s was delicious. She devoured the food that she had put on her plate, and then got a second helping. It was possible that she was so hungry because she hadn’t eaten a real meal in weeks. She had simply snacked in bed, never eating a meal that her grandpa had cooked. So, because her stomach was so empty, Emily ate several helpings. The men simply watched her and shook their heads, not saying anything.
“Hey, Pa,” Emily said in between bites.
“Hmm?” the old man responded with a mouth-full.
“Do we have any plans for tomorrow?”
“Well,” Pa started, wiping his mouth with his napkin, “tomorrow’s Sunday, so we’ll go to church in the morning. Why?”
“I was wondering if we could go to town and get some paint,” the girl explained.
“Paint?” Pa asked, confused.
“Yeah. I want to repaint the guest room. And maybe rearrange it.”
Pa looked at the three men who were staring at Em in confusion. “Why do you want to paint it?” the old man requested.
“Well, if I’m going to be staying here for a while, then I want it to be my room.”
Pa sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. A small smile spread across his lips, but it was barely visible due to his mustache. He made eye contact with almost everyone at the table before turning back to his granddaughter. Emily was sitting there with her fork midway to her mouth. She was nervous about what her grandfather was about to say, afraid that he would hate the idea of painting the guest room.
“I think we can go to town after church,” Pa confirmed. “I’m sure we need something for the ranch, and you can look for your paint.”
Emily smiled at her grandfather. He looked scary on the outside, but maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. She finished eating – so did everyone else – and then helped Jackson do the dishes. Once everything was cleaned and put away, everyone headed out to the front porch. Pa and Brian sat in the glider with Dusty at their feet. Johnny leaned against the house next to Pa. Emily and Jackson were sitting on the porch steps with Joe in between them. Together, they watched as the Texas sun set.