If You Believe
Page 6

 Kristin Hannah

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Somewhere inside him was a voice that never stopped, a heart that never gave up.
His mother and grandfather had tried to make him see the truth a thousand times. A thousand times they'd failed. That secret part of him kept dreaming.
But the dream was beginning to tarnish, dulled by too many freezing nights and sweltering days and too much loneliness.
He glanced at the farmhouse again. At the sight of it, so warm and welcoming and homey, something inside him twisted hard. He wanted to belong in a place like this again, wanted to have someone tell him he was welcome.
Welcome. The word brought a quiver of response.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to be grown-up. But he was so hungry and alone and afraid. Life on the road was killing him slowly. He wanted to stop worrying that he would get sick and die alone, or that a train would run over him, or that he'd starve in the winter's coldness. He wanted someone to sit beside him and brush the too long hair from his eyes, or touch his forehead when he felt ill.
He wanted his mother back....
Hot tears slipped from his eyes and slid down his cheeks. He barely noticed. They were familiar, these tears, as familiar as the cowardice that made him follow but never act. He was so tired of trying to be strong.. ..
Bowing his head, he turned away from the farmhouse that stirred too many memories. In the distance, an animal howled. The sound throbbed on the gentle breeze, then dwindled into nothingness.
He crept through the darkness toward the barn. Twigs snapped beneath his heels, leaves crinkled, but other than the nervous nickering of the horse in the pasture, the world was still and quiet.
He passed an apple tree and grabbed several, stuffing the ripe, red fruit into his sack. Then he raced across the farm and disappeared in the barn.
Behind him, the huge, cross-beamed door slammed shut. Somewhere a cow mooed. Dusty darkness curled around him, thick and smothering. Gripping his bag, he cautiously crossed the hard-packed dirt floor and felt for the loft ladder. When he found it, he clambered up the creaking wooden rungs and flung himself onto the soft piles of hay.
He closed his eyes and smiled, inhaling the familiar scent. This was heaven. He hadn't slept on something this soft in the four months he'd been following Mad Dog.
He lay there a long time, almost falling asleep. Then hunger roused him. Sitting up, he burrowed through his pack and pulled out the apples. Greedily he ate three of them, then flopped back down and tried to sleep.
The spasms came on suddenly, clutching and twisting his stomach. He stumbled to the loft window and shoved it open, sticking his head into the cool night air. He retched until there was nothing more to throw up. The bile splashed on the dark ground below.
Trembling, he closed the window and crawled into the corner, curling into a tight, miserable ball. Tears stung his eyes and mixed with the clammy sweat on his face.
Stalks of hay stuck to his damp cheeks. The sour odor of vomit hovered in the dusty air.
God, he was tired of this. ...
He closed his eyes and prayed for a night without nightmares. He needed sleep, needed it something awful, because tomorrow it would start all over again. Mad Dog would leave this wonderful little farm and hit the road for some smoke-filled hellhole in the bad part of town. And Jake would follow.
He had nowhere else to go.
Chapter Four
Rass glanced at his precious specimens, now lined with military precision along the shelf above his desk. Mariah had been at it again.
He shook his head slowly and crossed to the window. Pushing aside the lacy curtain, he gazed outside. The land, his land, looked as it always looked in the first short evenings of autumn. Night was beginning to creep in. The sky was an endless lake of midnight blue studded with diamondlike stars. Greta's grave was a dim glimmer of pale gray against the velvet shadow of the grass. The bunkhouse was an indistinct white square against the advancing night.
He stared at the little building, wondering about the man within. Though he wouldn't have admitted it to Mariah, Rass had a niggling sense of worry. Of doubt.
He didn't know exactly what he'd thought when he tacked the slip of paper to the wall at Ma's Diner, but he knew what he'd expected.
A husband for Mariah. Someone to take care of her when Rass was gone.
What he'd gotten was an irresponsible drifter with a ready smile and itchy feet, a man who moved on but never moved in. At first, Rass had meant to tell Mad Dog the job was filled. He'd even opened his mouth to say the words, then he'd looked into Mad Dog's eyes. Really looked, in the way Greta had taught him. And there, beyond the cocky grin and the easy going manner, he'd seen the same quiet loneliness he saw when he looked in his daughter's eyes, or, lately, in his own.
Somehow, they were the same, the three of them. The surprising thought had come to him out of the blue. Then a breeze touched his forehead in almost a caress, and he'd sworn it carried with it the lavender-sweet scent of his late wife. And so, without even thinking, he'd invited Mad Dog into his home.
But now, without the breeze, he wasn't so sure.
Sighing, he rested his forehead on the cold window. "What do I do, Greta? I've got to take care of her. .. ."
For a split second he found himself actually waiting for an answer. But, of course, there was nothing; no sound in the lonely room except for the whispered cant of his own breathing. He was alone, he reminded himself for the millionth time in the eight months since Greta's death. There was no one to bounce his ideas off of, no one to give him the advice he needed so desperately.
He drew away from the window, let the curtain flutter back into place. The house was depressingly quiet, without even an echoing remnant of the laughter that had once filled its walls. Without Greta, it had lapsed somehow from a home to a house, and he had no idea how the transformation had occurred. He knew only that he missed what this place had once been, missed it desperately. Without Greta's guiding hand, he and
Mariah had become strangers, hearing without listening, talking without communicating.
Somehow, everything he said to his daughter was wrong, or her reaction made it feel wrong. He knew it, could see it in the stiffening of her back or narrowing of her eyes; he could hear it in the reedy, defensive tone of her voice. He knew instantly when he'd said something wrong, but he didn't know how to correct it. She was so
... remote sometimes. And she was hurt so very easily.
Ah, Mariah, he thought, feeling a familiar surge of regret. They were together now, but someday she'd be jl alone, rattling around in this big house with no one to talk to.
He was an old man, and old men died.
And what would she do then? That was the question that had prompted him to tack the ad to the diner wall.
He couldn't leave her alone and lonely and closed off from the world around her.
He'd let her hide here with him too long. Years ago, when she'd first come back, humiliated and emotionally battered, he should have forbidden her to return. He should have forced her to recuperate in the real world, instead of allowing her to lick her wounds here, in safety. Because he and Greta had been so soft and forgiving and safe, Mariah had never healed.
For a while, they'd thought she was improving. Her smile came back; the bounce in her step returned. She was, if not the impetuous, passionate child of her youth, at least content. Then they noticed her reluctance to leave the farm. At first it was a family joke. Mariah couldn't open the gate. Mariah couldn't go to town.
Greta and Rass had laughed loudly, then quietly, and then not at all.
He and Greta had handled it badly. He saw that now. They shouldn't have allowed her to remain within the safety of the white picket fence. They should have pushed her out.
It was a lesson well learned. They'd let her have her way because she was in pain.
Because she'd lost so much.
No more, he vowed silently. Now the stakes were too high. No matter how hard he had to be or how cold, he had to force Mariah to break down her defenses. She'd grieved long enough—or not at all. He wasn't quite sure which. But either way, it was time for a change. Now, finally, she had to face the fear that kept her trapped behind the ordinary picket fence.
Maybe Mad Dog was a pisspoor choice. But he was here, and he was an interruption in the carefully ordered routine of her life. She couldn't ignore him.
Maybe he'd make her laugh, maybe he'd make her cry, maybe he'd make her scream in frustration, maybe he'd scare the be-jesus out of her. Rass didn't care. As long as he made her feel something.
For once, she wouldn't have her father looking out for her. No matter what happened, what Mad Dog said to her, how upset she got, Rass wasn't going to step in and protect her.
This time she was on her own.
At precisely five o'clock, the Bee alarm clock rang. Mariah was already awake, sitting stiff as a nail, her gritty eyes staring at nothing. Absently she swatted the clock.
Dark silence tumbled around her, broken only by the erratic, anxious cant of her breathing.
Day two with Mad Dog Stone.
She let out an irritated sigh and stood up. Shoving her feet in her slippers, she padded to the commode and poured a generous amount of water into the crockery basin, washing her face and brushing her teeth quickly. She finger-combed her unruly, ringlet-curled hair and coiled it into a thick, no-nonsense chignon at the base of her neck. Only the wispiest corkscrews escaped her practiced hand.
She'd made a mistake yesterday, a mistake she had no intention of repeating. She'd let Mad Dog get to her. She shuddered at the memory. It was inexcusable, and stupid to boot.
How could she have let him frighten her? She'd grown up a lot in the years since her girlish infatuation with Stephen. No one could hurt her like that again— and certainly not the same kind of shiftless, lying loser as before. Passion no longer beckoned her with a sly, seductive voice. She was content here, and she was safe. No drifter with an easy smile could threaten her.
She wasn't afraid of him, she told herself firmly. She was simply irritated by his presence. He didn't belong here, and she wanted him gone. She wanted everything to go back to the way it was before. Silent. Safe. Contained.
The walnuts hadn't worked. So she'd try something else. Anything else. She'd keep trying, over and over again with increasingly disgusting chores, until he went, screaming, in the other direction.
And she knew just what to try next.
Smiling at the thought, she went to the armoire and flung the mirrored doors open, reaching blindly into the darkness. It didn't matter what gown she chose; it never did.
Ever since the day she'd returned home, she'd worn nothing but brown. The drab color made her feel unobtrusive. Safe. No one noticed a woman in brown.
She slipped into a coffee brown linsey-woolsey dress and tied a washed-out apron over it. Securing a brown and white striped bonnet loosely around her throat, she sailed out of her bedroom. A quick knock at her father's door wakened him, and then she was down the stairs.
Within moments, she had a fire going in the stove and coffee brewing. She hauled the heavy cast-iron frying pan out of the dresser and slammed it on the stove top.
While it was heating up, she pulled some leftover cornbread and hard-boiled eggs from the Metallic Ice Rack. Packing them in cheesecloth, along with some pickles and cider, she stuffed everything into a wicker basket and headed outside.
She almost ran into Mad Dog on the porch.
His bare, hairy chest filled her vision. She tried to look away; her gaze dropped, and snagged on the sagging drawstring waistband of his drawers. Heat scorched her throat and fanned up her cheeks.