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Beard Science(64)

By:Penny Reid

But Jennifer was not an idiot. Jennifer was brilliant and wise, and kind and good, and everything.

And I’d just fucked everything up.

Billy’s hands came to his waist. “Blackmailing her father?”

“That’s right.” I defended myself, but my words lacked conviction. “The man has plenty of secrets, as most evil people do.” I picked up the ax and swung it at the stump. The splintering wood held no satisfaction for me.

“How many secrets do you have, Cletus?”

I narrowed my eyes on my brother. I didn’t respond. If he was trying make me angrier, if he was trying to increase my misery, his plan was working.

His eyes flickered between the chopping block and me. “We don’t need any more wood split.”

“Too bad.” I set another piece on the block. “Y’all are selfish wood splitters. Maybe Beau is having a hard time, did you ever think of that? Maybe he needs to split some wood. Just because you and Jethro cut down half the forest over the summer doesn’t mean I can’t split wood now.”

“And just because someone has secrets doesn’t mean they’re evil.”

Billy’s pejorative tone had me straightening and meeting his stare, my lungs burning, filling with fury.

“He’s having an affair, Billy,” I said, barely controlling my desire to shout in his face. “Kip Sylvester has been having an affair for several years with his school secretary. He tells Jennifer that dressing like a normal person is sinful and makes her feel ashamed of herself. He takes her money and buys himself fancy cars and boats. He calls her names, belittles her in front of people—his own daughter!”

Billy flinched, lifting his hands and showing me his palms. “Calm down. I know he does, I’ve seen him cut her down before. He’s a terrible person. But I’m not talking about Kip Sylvester. I’m talking about you.”

I continued, ranting mostly to myself. “He’s the stupid one. What was he thinking? That I was bluffing? I’m going to ruin him. I swear, we’re surrounded by assholes and idiots in this town.”

“Just because someone is an idiot doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. And just because someone is smart doesn’t mean they’re good.”

I glared at my brother. This was not the first time he’d reminded me of this fact. I dropped the ax to the ground and turned, searching for a satisfying outlet for my wrath.

Jennifer had been right. I didn’t trust her. I didn’t trust that she would choose me over her parents. I lacked faith. I knew too much. I had too much experience. I was jaded.

Finding nothing to destroy, I growled in frustration and punched the side of the shed. “If ignorance is bliss, then knowledge is a cage.”

“But knowledge is only a cage if you dwell in isolation.” His voice was careful and controlled. “Jennifer is smart. And she’s good. Life hasn’t been particularly kind to her, but she is still kind.”

I nodded, some of my anger giving way to weariness as I thought of her kindness. “I know. Her kindness doesn’t make her weak, it makes her strong.”

“She’ll forgive you.”

I huffed a humorless laugh and shook my head. “She shouldn’t. She should hate me, plot my demise.”

“But she won’t. And that’s why you two belong together. You’re looking for a key to your cage? Well, that woman is it.”

Billy turned, not waiting for a response, and walked back to the house, leaving me in the dark with an ax and an enormous stack of wood. I tore my attention from his retreating back and eyeballed the woodpile. We had so much, we couldn’t fit it all in the shed. The overflow pile was also teetering, already too tall.

Getting rid of it was going to be a pain. If Jethro’s baby were born and older, then maybe we could arrange to sell it, teach the kid about commerce.

Maybe Jethro’s kid and my kid could sell it together . . . and lemonade . . . and Jennifer’s cakes.

My throat tightened until I couldn’t swallow because I saw my future with Jennifer and it included kids. And cousins. And baking cakes and fixing cars. I would make them a sandbox out of a tractor tire and plastic shovels out of plastic milk containers. And when they were old enough, I would teach those little rascals how to use Granny Oliver’s moonshine still to the consternation of their mothers.

It was a future worth fixating on.

And Jennifer was the key to my cage. She was the key to my future. We fit together. Her strengths counterpoised my weaknesses. If she gave me another chance, I would give her my faith. I would trust her completely. I would give her everything. I would tell her everything.


Because knowledge is only a cage if you dwell in isolation.

The ache in my chest didn’t ease. The wound festered. The torment persisted. I frowned at the woodpile, discontent settling like lead and acid in my stomach. There was still the distinct possibility that she wouldn’t forgive me. But that possibility felt slim. Jennifer was a forgiving person. Because she was so forgiving, people took advantage of her generous heart.

And, God Almighty, I didn’t want to be one of those people. I refused to take advantage, even though she’d probably let me.

I was at an impasse.

Asking Jennifer to be my key would be asking too much.

But I couldn’t let her go.

I couldn’t.

I can’t.

I couldn’t sleep.

Consequently, I woke up Duane and informed him that I required a getaway driver one last time. He was surprisingly cheerful about it even though it was just after 6:00 A.M.

“Are we sneaking in? Or knocking on the door?” Duane slowed as he approached the Sylvester’s driveway.

“I’m knocking on the door. But if they give me trouble, I’ll need to grab her stuff quickly and leave. You stay in the car until I give you the sign.”

“Sounds good.”

I strolled to the front door, noting that Jennifer’s BMW and her momma’s BMW were still parked in the drive, but Kip’s car was gone.

I rang the doorbell. I waited. I rang the doorbell again.

Diane Donner-Sylvester yanked the door open and stared at me with wide searching eyes. “Oh,” her face fell, “I thought you might be someone else.”

I gave the woman a once-over. She looked messy. Mrs. Donner-Sylvester never looked messy. She always looked tidy.

“You were hoping I was Jennifer?”

She glanced at me sharply. “What do you know about Jennifer?”

“I know where she is.”

Diane gasped, her hand coming to her mouth. “Oh my God. Is she okay? I’ve been worried sick. She left her phone.” Jennifer’s momma grabbed my arm and held on to me tightly, her eyes wide and panicked.

The woman appeared to be truly distraught. Clearly, her husband hadn’t seen fit to fill her in on the details of why Jennifer had left. I turned to Duane and motioned him forward, then gave Diane my somber nod.

“She’s just fine. Though her feet need some rest.” I led the woman into her house, leaving the door open for Duane to enter. “We’re here to pick up some of her things, so she can be more comfortable. Can you pack her a bag?”

“A bag? What? Why?” She stopped our forward progress and stepped in front of me, her eyes darting to Duane as he walked in, then back to me. “No. She needs to come home.”

“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, not today at any rate.”

Diane drew herself up straight and tall, removing her hand from my arm. “Are you saying you speak for Jennifer? You know her mind? What she wants?”

“No, ma’am. I most assuredly do not speak for Jennifer’s mind or pretend to know what she wants. But I do speak for her feet. And she can’t presently walk on her feet. Therefore, she’s not coming home today. What happens tomorrow is up to her.”

“What’s wrong with her feet?”

“She walked from your house to ours with no shoes on. Her feet are in bad shape,” Duane volunteered, his tone accusatory.

Diane swallowed stiffly, her mouth in a tense line as she looked between us. I noticed with some frustration that Duane met her glare with a glare. He wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type.

I should have brought Beau.

Duane should have stayed in the car with his winning personality while Beau could have sweet-talked her into packing the bag.

Her shrewd eyes bounced between us and finally landed on me. “If you don’t speak for Jennifer, then why is she any concern of yours?”

Duane opened his mouth to respond, likely with something else charming and delightful, so I cut him off.

“Your daughter came to me for help,” I hedged.

“I want to see her,” she demanded suddenly, crossing her arms.

I sighed.

I was tired. And as much as I wanted to fight with this woman, this wasn’t my fight. It was Jenn’s fight. As she’d proven many times over the last few months, she was perfectly capable of fighting her own battles. I wasn’t used to allowing people to fight their own battles, especially people I loved.

Consequently, I sighed.

“Mrs. Donner-Sylvester, whether you see or do not see Jennifer is not up to me. It’s up to your daughter. So let me tell you what’s going to happen.” I paused, giving her a minute to react or interrupt. She didn’t. Instead she glared at me—half hope, half anger—so I continued. “We’re going to pack a bag for Jenn—just a few things—so she can be comfortable. And we’ll take her phone, so you can call her. How does that sound?”