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Beard Science(65)

By:Penny Reid

A quantity of her anger dissipated, leaving mostly hope. She licked her lips, her eyes moving to Duane, then to me.

“I guess that’ll have to do. But I’ll pack her bag.”

“No yellow dresses,” Duane demanded out of the blue, scowling. “And sneakers or sandals, no fancy shoes. Her feet are bruised, so she can’t wear those fancy shoes.”

Diane narrowed her eyes on Duane and I thought for a moment she was going to tell him to go to hell. Instead she nodded tightly and turned, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back.”

As soon as she was out of earshot I hit my brother on the shoulder. “Do you think you could dial back the cheerfulness, Duane? I’m getting cavities from all the sweet you’re spreading around.”

He smirked at me, shrugging. “Admit it, you’re going to miss me when I’m gone.”

Despite my tiredness, I returned his smile. “I’m going to miss those blueberry hotcakes.”

“‘Fluffy clouds of awesome.’ Isn’t that what you called them?”

I nodded once, sighing again. I was sighing a lot this morning. Chopping wood for four hours after fighting with the love of your life takes a toll on a person.

Jethro was getting married in a few days.

Duane and Jess were leaving next week.

And Jennifer . . .

“I’m going to give you some advice, Cletus.” Duane hit my shoulder. “It’s something you once said to me.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes.” He grinned, big and wide, and that was a sight to see. Duane never grinned, not really, not unless Jessica was in the room.

I braced myself for whatever nugget of excrement he was about to toss at me.

“Everything is temporary, Cletus. This,” he gestured to our surroundings, “this is temporary. Even mountains fall. Nothing lasts forever. You got a chance at happiness, even for a week, a month, a year? You grab it and hold on to it for as long as it lasts. I want you to seize.”

“You want me to seize?” I asked flatly, lifting my eyebrow at his little performance.

“That’s right. You seize that woman, Cletus. You make her yours. And then after,” still grinning, Duane dropped his hand on my shoulder and gave me a little shake, “you give that woman your sausage.”


“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”

 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray


A gentle hand touched my shoulder, shaking me just slightly. I turned, blinking scratchy eyes at the hand’s owner.

It was Ashley. She gave me a soft smile and pushed my hair away from my forehead in a decidedly maternal gesture.

“I’m here to see about your feet,” she whispered. “You can go back to sleep, I just didn’t want to wake you while I tickled your toes and get kicked in the face.”

She’d turned on the light next to the bed. I rubbed my eyes and searched the dim room for a clock.

“What time is it?”

Numbly, I watched as she arranged disinfectant and gauze on the bed. “Just past nine thirty.”

I shot up, a spike of fear-fueled adrenaline bringing me fully awake. “I’m late!”

“Shhh.” Ashley placed her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back to a reclining position. “You’re not late. You’re sleeping in.”

I frowned at her, at the unfamiliar room, and then the events of the prior evening crashed over me and I winced, my arms instinctively wrapping around myself.

After the unpleasantness with Cletus, Billy had carried me to a bedroom. I surmised it was Ashley’s old room because pictures of her with other people dotted the surfaces, the single bed was covered in a floral quilt, and the letters A S H L E Y hung on the wall.

Last night Billy had set me on the bed and placed a hand on my back; I curled into ball and covered my face with my hands, willing the tears to stop. I couldn’t think, because if I thought about anything, I would have to feel something. I wasn’t ready. So I cleared my mind, pictured a field covered in white snow.

Eventually the tears stopped. And when they did, I drifted into a dreamless sleep, until Ashley woke me.

“That’s right,” I said, remembering, “I have nowhere to be.” And I have nowhere to go.

Ashley moved to the end of the bed and began dabbing at my soles.

“They did a good job,” she mumbled, peeling off a Band-Aid.

“What’s that?”

Her eyes flickered to mine and she gave me a warm smile. “Billy and Beau. They did a good job cleaning your feet and trying to tape them up.”

When I continued regarding her with confusion, she added, “Billy called me. He was worried because you didn’t seem to notice them fussing with your feet. Said you just stared into space and didn’t respond.”

A mild rush of embarrassment crept up my neck. “I don’t remember that.”

“I don’t imagine you do. From what I hear, you’ve been through a lot.”

I didn’t respond. I wasn’t certain what to say. I didn’t want to rehash what had happened with my father. Cletus was her brother, so talking to her about him was out of the question. Plus, it hurt to think about Cletus. It hurt to think about how he hadn’t trusted me to choose him. Or maybe he didn’t think I was strong enough to stand up to my parents and put us first. Maybe he still felt sorry for me. And that thought hurt most of all.

I didn’t want his pity. I didn’t want him seeing me as weak or feeble. I wasn’t.

“I can hear you thinking,” Ashley said, her eyes on my feet. “You might as well talk about it. I’m a trained healthcare professional and I guarantee you I’ve heard more hair-raising stories than the bartender at the Pink Pony.”

I studied her, watching her concentrate with steady hands. How she spoke reminded me a lot of Cletus. She was very matter-of-fact, but with a softer touch.

I cleared my throat and glanced at the ceiling. “How do you prove to someone that you’re strong?”

“Through your actions,” she answered without hesitating.

The room descended into silence for a full minute while I thought about her response. A plan developed, one where I would prove to Cletus I was strong, that he could trust me, that we were equals. And the more I thought my plan over, the more I realized that this plan wasn’t really about proving anything to Cletus. This plan was about proving something to myself.

Ashley broke the silence. “Now, if that someone is Cletus Winston . . .” Her eyes lifted and our gazes connected. “Then may I suggest you add a little sneaky in with the recipe? Because, as much as I love my brother—and I do, don’t tell anyone, but he’s my favorite—he needs a taste of his own medicine every once in a while. So if you can think of a way to prove your strength and pull one over on the puppet master at the same time, just let me know how I can help.”

I stared at Ashley, unable to speak. Some overpowering emotion held me in its grip and I couldn’t quite untangle myself.

Just let me know how I can help.

Her gaze flickered to mine, then back to my feet. “Are you okay? You’re looking at me like I’m a loony bird.”

“No. Sorry. It’s just . . .” I struggled to find the correct words. “It’s just, I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before.”

“What? That Cletus needs a taste of his own medicine?”

“No, ‘let me know how I can help.’”

Ashley’s movements stilled, and her frown of concentration became something else. After several contemplative seconds, she lifted her eyes to my face and gave me small smile.

“You know, I just moved back—back to town—last spring and I’ve been missing my gal pals. I Skype with them every Tuesday, but I miss having good girl friends to go places with. I haven’t taken the time I should to build a new tribe here in Green Valley.”

I continued to stare at her, but I rolled my lips between my teeth so I wouldn’t shout, I VOLUNTEER!

“How about this?” she continued. “No matter what happens with you and Cletus—no matter whether you split up and go your separate ways or get married and raise chickens and goats—you and I are going to be friends. We’ll can our gardens together and I’ll teach you how to knit.”

“And I know how to make soap,” I blurted. “I can teach you how to make soap.”

“Sounds great.” Her smile widened.

“So it’s a deal?” I reached out my hand, eager to finalize this friendship.

She laughed lightly, gripping my offered fingers and giving them a small shake. “Good friends.”

“Good friends,” I echoed, my voice cracking. I tried to return her smile, but mine was a little wobbly. Overwhelmed, tears stung my eyes so I blinked them away and cleared my throat.

“It’s a deal.” She released my hand, giving me one more smile, then returning her attention to my feet. “I’m just the first of many, Jenn. It’s time you started building your tribe. But if I can make a suggestion?”

I cleared my throat, still clogged with emotion. “Go right ahead, all tips are welcome.”

“Stay away from the normals.”

“The normals?”

“Yep.” She nodded once, the side of her mouth hitching in a way that reminded me of Cletus. “Stay away from the normals, the small-minded people who fill their brains with small-minded pursuits, who blend in and keep up with the Joneses. Those people will tear you down and make you boring. Instead, surround yourself with the weirds. With the misfits, oddballs, and outcasts. Because the normals, bless their hearts, have no idea how to have fun.”