If You Believe
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And again she thought of Thomas, and the promise of his life.
He blinked at her, and a thick lock of dirty hair fell across one eye. He blushed and pushed it aside. "Sorry," he mumbled, "my hair's sorta long.. . ."
Mariah reacted immediately to his shame. Hope niggled through her, a fraying thread. She wet her dry lips and tried to sound casual. "I ... I could cut it for you."
He looked up, surprised. "You'd do that... for me?"
"Certainly, but—" She glanced down at the table, uncertain suddenly. A host of sad memories took hold of her for a heartbeat before she could push them away.
She swallowed and met his gaze. "I've never cut a young man's hair." / should have, but I haven't. .. .
"I just do it with a razor."
The quiet, matter-of-fact words lifted her from her moment's sadness. "I have shears."
He smiled; it was a slow, tentative smile that matched her own emotion. "I'd sure appreciate it."
Mariah looked at him, and knew somehow that this moment was as important to him as it was to her. It felt potent and right... almost like a beginning, though she was afraid to really believe it.
She got to her feet and filled a bucket with warm water, then lugged it back to the table. As she set it down, water spilled over the bent metal rim and puddled on the oilcloth cover. "Go. ahead and sit on this chair," she said, indicating the butter stool.
"I'll go get a comb and shears."
He glanced at her nervously. "Okay."
Mariah turned and bolted up the stairs, grabbing the shears and comb from her dresser. When she returned to the kitchen, he was sitting on the stool in the middle of the room.
She wrapped a towel around his neck and dampened his hair. Standing behind him, she studied his dirty, unkempt head. "How long do you like it?"
"My mama used to cut it along my collar." His voice was quiet, almost wistful. "She liked it a little long."
With shaking fingers, she touched his hair, running her index finger along the ragged, uneven ends. Again she wondered how he came to be here. Once, he'd obviously had a mother who cared, who cut his hair and took care of him. Who wouldn't have wanted her little boy's hair to look like this.
She picked up the comb and tugged the tangles from his hair. For a dreamy, unreal moment, she was flung back to a time that never had existed but should have.
Thomas .. .
Jake made a soft, gurgling sound in his throat.
She paused, pulled from the dream by the quiet noise. "Did I hurt you?"
"No." His voice sounded thick, embarrassed. "It felt ... good."
Mariah started to smile. "Oh." Slowly she combed his knotted hair and massaged his scalp with her fingers. Then, biting her lower lip, she began to cut along his collar.
Snip. Snip. Snip.
She tried to think of something to say to him, but it had been years since she'd made small talk, and never with a young man. It was suddenly important that he like her; she didn't want to say the wrong thing and ruin everything.
He was like her, she could tell. Alone and lonely and afraid. She wanted desperately to connect with him, to forge some kind of a friendship, but she didn't know how.
For many years she'd been unconnected to people, a loner. She had no idea how to change that.
"Jake .. ." She said his name softly, unaware even that she'd spoken until he answered.
She froze, trying to think of something to say now that she'd started. "I ... uh ...
notice there's a rip in your shirt. I could sew it for you."
"I'd really appreciate that, Miss ... Mariah. Thanks."
She felt a surprising rush of relief. It was a beginning, anyway. More of one than she'd made in years. "Good."
His body relaxed, lost some of it rigid stiffness. "I'm not too good with a needle and thread." His voice was soft and quiet, almost casual. And she thought perhaps he'd smiled.
Yes, she thought in amazement, it's a beginning. For both of us.
Marian stirred the thick, bubbling oatmeal and stared out the window, watching dawn creep through the orchard in a rising curtain of rose-gold light. She tried to tell herself that she wasn't looking for anything—or anyone—in particular. But her gaze kept veering toward the creek.
"Is this enough ham?" Jake asked, turning expectantly toward her.
She glanced at him and smiled. He stood beside her, carefully slicing ham on the slopstone. He looked like a different boy than he had just half an hour ago. He'd taken a bath, and his shorter newly washed hair shone like a copper penny in the early morning light.
Her heart squeezed at the sight of him. For a second, just that, she felt as if he belonged here. As if maybe he'd even stay. She swallowed a lump of emotion and nodded at him. "That's just right, Jake. Thanks."
"You want me to put it in the frying pan?"
"Sure." She sidled away from him, making room.
He scraped a scoop of bit-studded leftover lard from the battered blue speckled tin and slapped it in the hot pan. The gray-white smear slid across the pan in a hissing trail.
"You helped your mother cook, didn't you?"
Jake looked up at her. Their eyes met, and in the green depths she saw a heartbreaking sorrow. "Yeah."
Mariah wet her lips and smiled down at him, feeling a sharp sting in the region of her heart. This time she did reach out and brush the hair from his eyes. "She's a lucky woman to have a son like you."
He started to say something, but before he could get a word out, the front door opened.
Jake gasped and jerked back. His eyes rounded. "Mad Dog's here."
Mariah's heart lurched, her breathing sped up. Anxiously she glanced at the doorway. "Go on and sit down, Jake. I can finish it from here."
"Okay." He grabbed his lukewarm cup of coffee and hurried back to his chair.
There was a squeaking groan of wood and wire as he sat down.
Mariah stiffened, breathing deeply. Calm down, Mariah. Don't let Mad Dog rattle you. What happened at the river was nothing. Nothing at all.
But it was a lie, and she knew it. No amount of rationalization could change the truth. Her time with Jake had given her a brief respite from thinking about this morning, but now that respite was over, and the truth of what had happened hammered her until she could hardly breathe.
God help her, she'd wanted that kiss today, wanted it with a desperation that left her dizzy and out of control. And fool that she was, she wanted it still. She couldn't see him right now, or speak to him. She was too damn vulnerable and needy to be strong. She didn't have the strength to keep her distance. If he looked at her right, or touched her, she was afraid she'd melt into his arms.
She jerked back from the stove and spun to leave. She had to get away from him, now before he made her forget again.
He strolled into the room and stopped in the doorway. He angled against it, resting one shoulder against the jamb. "Hiya, Jake." He tipped his hat slightly and grinned at her. "Mariah."
Her step faltered for a half second and no more. She tilted her chin up and started to push past him. "Excuse me."
He grabbed her wrist and pulled. She stumbled against him, making a small, quiet sound of protest. "It won't work," he said softly. Almost against her will, she looked up at him. He was smiling, but it was an easy, gentle smile without mockery or sarcasm. Just a smile. She wet her lips. "What won't work?" "You can't run from it."
She wished to God she misunderstood him, but his meaning was crystal-clear. "It?"
She tried to sound haughty. To her horror, her voice was breathy and weak-sounding.
He leaned infinitesimally toward her. "There's something between us, Mariah."
She stiffened and tried to pull away. He held her fast. "There's nothing between us. I don't know what you're talking about." "You're lying." She licked her dry lips and stared up at him, breathing too quickly. "I don't want there to be anything between us."
He gave her a look that was so sad, so filled with compassion and understanding, that for a moment, she felt light-headed. "That's not the same thing, is it, Mariah?"
She made a strangled, gasping sound of fear and wrenched herself away from him, running blindly from the house.
Mad Dog watched her leave, shaking his head as the door slammed shut.
Turning back around, he strolled into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Hiya, kid," he said, taking a seat across from the boy.
Jake spit up his coffee. "H-Hi."
"Women," he said, shaking his head again.
The boy didn't say anything, he just sat there, staring at Mad Dog through wide, questioning eyes.
Silence pressed into the room, thick and awkward. Mad Dog felt increasingly uncomfortable. "You fight much?" he said, for lack of anything better.
"Nope." Jake set down his cup and stared at Mad Dog as if he were waiting for something.
"How 'bout baseball? That's a helluva game, huh? The Cincinnati Red Stockings are my team."
He set down his cup. "Christ, kid, help me out here. I'm just trying to make small talk. What do you like?"
Jake shrugged. "I dunno. Reading, talking, being home. You know, regular things."
Mad Dog grinned. "Not too excitin', kid. Didn't your dad teach you anything?"
For a second, Jake seemed to stop breathing. Slowly he set his cup down and stood up. "No. My dad didn't teach me anything."
Mad Dog frowned. "Look, kid—"
But Jake wasn't listening. He shoved away from the table and ran from the room, leaving Mad Dog sitting alone.
"Jesus Christ," he said into the silence. "The kid's as touchy as she is."
Mariah bolted breathlessly down the loose rock path, trying to regain control. Then suddenly she stopped.
Ahead lay the white picket fence. She stared at it, trying suddenly to remember how it felt to be on the other side.
That gate used to be nothing to me. ...
She tried to imagine reaching for the latch, turning it, pushing through.
Fear set in immediately, suffocating her. Her heartbeat sped up, her breathing stalled.
She swallowed hard and turned away from the fence. Clasping her hands together, she ran toward the orchard.
Maybe tomorrow, she thought desperately. Maybe tomorrow you won't think twice about leaving. ...
But the words were hollow, empty, and she knew it. She hadn't wanted to leave the farm in years; not since she'd come back years ago, humiliated and ashamed and pregnant. Then, she'd closed the gate behind her and tried to forget about the world that lay beyond the safety of this farm. She'd never meant to stay here, never meant to hide, but somehow she hadn't left.
She squeezed her eyes shut and felt a drenching wave of despair. Involuntarily she remembered the last time she'd closed that gate behind her. She'd been sixteen and full of fire and dreams.
She sank slowly to her knees in the dewy grass and bowed her head. Memories of that time, that life, surged through her mind, and she was too tired to fight them off, too weak to make herself forget.
The night she'd met Stephen she'd been in town with her parents for a performance of Romeo and Juliet by a troupe of traveling European actors.