‘The Faultfinder and The Almighty’ Sample – Chapters 1+2

Below you will find the prologue and first two chapters of my novel. Check them out, and if you enjoy it and want to read more, please visit Amazon to learn how you can get your hands on the rest of the story.

The Faultfinder and The Almighty

by

Winstead Oakley

PROLOGUE

        Her breath came in a soft, even rhythm, and he counted with it. It had become the way he lulled himself to sleep during long nights in the hospital as he waited for his best friend to wake up. Each breath was one of his imaginary sheep, and he watched until his own eyes grew heavy and the world dampened away.

        He hadn’t moved from the hard recliner in the corner of her room in seventeen days. 

        Seventeen.

         Just one less than his years on earth. His parents begged him to come home and rest, but he refused. Lyla was his best friend, and Barry wouldn’t leave her. He was all she had now.

        He shook his head and picked up his Bible, thumbing down the side of the pages. He knew all the names of all the books inside of it, in both alphabetical and chronological order. He knew just how much to flip into the other hand to land on the chapter he wanted to read. He tilted it into his hand, disgruntle. It fell open to the same place it had been falling to since the night after their graduation. A yellow letter sat tucked into the Old Testament. He rubbed his thumb along the hard edge of the cover and sighed. 

        It closed loudly in his palm, and he looked at the back cover. He traced his fingers on the loopy letters where his girlfriend Cecelia had written “I love you” in gold ink. He’d been irritated she had written on the leather with a gel pen, but now he just wished she were with him. If she were, he would let her doodle wherever she pleased.

        He stared at it as sadness and bitterness welled in his gut. He should be in El Salvador on a mission trip, not in a hospital. He tried to bury those feelings of anger, but they were strong. He wasn’t angry at Lyla; he wasn’t sure what he was angry at. The accident? The helpless feeling of things changing in a literal second? He shook his head, trying to come up with what his bible would tell him to do, but he fell short when he thought of Mr. and Mrs. Strait. 

        It flashed in his mind as a vision he couldn’t stop, like a picture plastered on the wall of every turn. Their bodies…

        He prayed for Lyla to wake up, but sometimes he also prayed for her to stay asleep. The dread of the horrible news to come when she opened her dark grey eyes from under their heavy lids felt too much to bear, so sometimes he was okay with prolonging it.

        If he were honest with himself, perhaps he’d admit that he was a little angry at God. This made him feel guilty, and so he prayed more.

         Before these seventeen days, he’d had a plan for his life. He had plotted his purpose: to become a priest. It felt like it was all slipping through his fingers, and he didn’t know how to slow it down, much less stop it. His entire childhood lay in that bed, and her entire life when she woke up would be gone. Just like that, she was part of a family, and now there was no one but her. She didn’t have an extended family to take her in. She didn’t have people waiting in the halls, praying for her. The Straits had lived a life of quiet solitude, and in this moment, it left a harsh by-product for their only surviving child.

        Barry wanted to be there for her, even if it meant he went against his parents’ wishes, and even if it meant he lost Cecelia. Perhaps he was just being a hard-headed teenager, but he’d formed a pact with Lyla as small children to be there for each other and he intended to fulfill his promise.

        He almost didn’t notice that the rhythm he had been keeping such a guard over was changing. The ugly print of the hospital gown was rising and falling much faster than he had seen it since the accident. 

        He rose and his legs felt stiff and awkward from sitting too long. He had to shake his feet a little as he made his way to the bed to relieve some stinging pain.

        Her lashes fluttered. She opened her eyes and then closed them tightly. He looked around the bed and tried to find the button to call the nurses, but she was grasping around in a panic and snatched his hand and held it tightly. 

        The grey eyes he’d known since the earliest days of his life opened and crossed as they fought to adjust. She grunted and coughed. Lyla looked pained and raised a tube and tape covered hand to her head and winced. 

        She moaned. Her eyes were locked on the flashing television and they finally made their way to Barry and focused. He looked down on her with concern. They held each other’s hands tightly for stability. 

        “Here,” he said, getting one of his hands-free and pouring her a small glass of water from the fat pitcher beside them. “Sip this.”

        She slowly took a drink. The cool water hit her hot lips and soothed her dry throat. She yearned for more and tipped the glass back and took the entire contents. It was too much, and she began gagging and sputtering. Barry reached over and handed her a tissue to dry heave into. 

        “I said sip it, not chug it,” he chided as his mind raced and he looked around the room for the call button again or even his phone to call his parents. 

        She was so confused. 

        The last thing she could remember was coming across the stage at graduation. 

        She could remember the itchy cheap fabric of the tacky blue gown scratching her shoulders, and she could see the faces of her parents in the top row of the gymnasium, smiling down on her. 

        She wondered where they were, and how she had gotten here. 

        She wanted to know what was causing the sharp, hot pain in the back of her head, and why she was lying directly on it. 

        She was stiff like she hadn’t moved in a very, very long time. Lyla pushed her blanketed legs out to stretch them, but one of them didn’t move. She patted through the thin sheet and felt a hard cast encompassing her extremity. Her eyes cut back to Barry.

        “What?” was all she could say, having difficulty speaking. She tried to convey with her eyes the confusion she was feeling. 

        Barry’s usually happy face was pale. His blonde hair hung limply to the sides, hitting just below his eyebrows. Dark circles had formed beneath his glazed auburn eyes. He was almost unrecognizable, looking much older than his eighteen years. She pushed her head forward, urging him with her eyes to explain.      

        He shook his head and looked down. He placed a hand on her thigh, and she thought she saw a tear fall. She wrinkled her brow and placed her hand on his.

        He looked up, meeting her eyes. Her best friend had never looked so pained.

        “Ly,” he began shakily. “There was an accident.”

        She took a deep breath, fear creeping into her. Her mind evaluated all the people missing from the room. Her mother, her father, her boyfriend Beau… The three most important people, all missing.

“When I lie down,

 I say, 

‘When shall I arise?’

But the night is long,

and I am full of tossing till the dawn.”

Job 7:4

CHAPTER ONE

2001, One year later.

         Lyla lay with her eyes closed after waking, wishing there were some fragments of a dream left from her dark sleep. 

         There was nothing. 

         Her hands stretched above her head, and they hit the wooden board behind her. She withdrew them quickly, hiding them under the sheet. Some mornings when she woke in her parents’ bed, she felt like a young child swallowed up in the fluffy blankets and tangled sheets. Mostly, she woke to a feeling of dread because she knew another day awaited her and her life would be painfully the same. 

         Lonely.

         Even with all of her fellow students in beauty school… all the clients whose hair she worked on… her friends, instructors, Cecelia, Barry…

         No matter what, a feeling of being utterly alone weighed inside of her.

         She sighed to herself as she pushed the comforter off, only to have cold lake air pour in from her open windows and hit her bare legs. She’d had some wine the night before and had fallen asleep without closing them. She chided herself as she ran to the windows and slammed them shut. A shiver ran through her and she slung a heavy house coat over her shoulders. It had been her mothers. She jammed her feet into her father’s brown slippers and trudged out of the room, enveloped in her loved one’s leftovers. 

         The smell of fresh coffee hit her nose as she entered the hall. She was always happy when Barry woke up before her; he was good about having a hot pot waiting. She tilted her head around the side of her old bedroom door and the pink walls glared at her as she looked for him. A few high school pictures still hung in the same places she had left them. Barry had left most of her room untouched over the past year.

         He had moved in shortly after her release from the hospital, and she had offered to have the room painted for him to make it feel more like home, but he said it wasn’t necessary. He wanted to keep things as normal as possible. He barely had any belongings there. Most of his things were still down the road in his parents’ house. It was a very short walk. She suspected that since the rehabilitation on her leg was complete, he was trying to leave her. She tried not to think about it often because she worried that without him there, the feelings of being alone in the world would magnify. Rather, she would wait to deal with the challenge when it came.

         Sometimes days went by without that brand of sadness falling over her, but others it appeared in the strangest ways. Just out of nowhere, like a haunting. There it would be again, and it made it a lot harder to be happy when she actually felt good because she knew it wouldn’t last and something would trigger that woe. She would remind herself of all the people she had, mainly Barry, but Barry didn’t seem to want to be there anymore because his life was moving forward and hers seemed stuck.

         She stepped into the kitchen quietly, finding him. He was still there, she reminded herself. For today, at least.

         “Mornin’,” Barry said over his shoulder without turning to her. He stared through a window above the kitchen sink at the expansive lake. He spent a lot of time there, watching quietly, as if waiting for something to appear to him from the water. Nothing ever came. She often wondered if he regretted his choice to forgo college to stay with her. He had plenty of time to left pursue his goals of seminary but staying behind for her had strengthened his bond with Cecelia and he seemed to be fast tracking a course to family life. If nothing else, he was certainly bound for sainthood because of his sacrifices for his friend. 

         “Morning,” she replied to him shuffling to the coffeepot. She hid her hands from the cool morning air under the sleeves of her housecoat. She poured a large cup, threw in a lot of sugar and milk, and escaped thru the screen door onto the back-porch swing to leave him in his peace. She did her best not to disturb her dear friend from his thoughts longer than needed.

         She settled into an oversized wicker swing just outside the door. She sat as far as possible to one side from habit, leaving a space that her mother normally would have held. Her head shook as she scolded herself for her minds momentary lapse.

         There was a fog hanging low, covering the green water and rolling through the trees and up the hill to the house. It was hard to tell if it was coming to her, to swallow her, or away from her, to avoid her. She shut her eyes and inhaled as the faintest whisper of sweet cigars floated to her, causing her mouth to turn up and smile as the fragrance wafted from the stained log chair beside her. If she thought about it hard enough, her memory would allow her to hear the soft cuts of a knife into a piece of wood that her Dad would make while whittling, as if something imprinted them into the surrounding air.

         Barry walked out onto the porch interrupting her daydreams. He caught the door with his heel to ease it shut as he made his way into the chair beside her.  She caught the dirty look he threw at her as he ruffled his sloppy hair. It was something she wasn’t proud of. He had assumed incorrectly that because she was halfway finished with beauty school, that she would know what she was doing when he let her cut his hair. Lyla smiled sheepishly in his direction, wishing she had the ability to glue his hair back on into a fashionable position.

         Barry leaned his head back, resting it on the top of the chair as he shut his eyes and groaned. He looked tired. His usual aura of happiness had vanished. Sometimes she was sure it would never be back. He’d started a job with the local coal mines months ago, and coupled with Cecelia’s decision to return home and finish her nursing degree at the local community college, he was seriously lacking sleep. It was like the coal dust was sticking to his soul and making everything about him gray.

         “Couldn’t you sleep in today? It’s Saturday,” she reminded him.

         He shook his head.

         “Nah, I’m trying to pick up some overtime,” he responded. He still didn’t open his eyes. Steam rose in front of him from his coffee cup. 

         “Saving up for a mansion?” 

         He opened one eye and looked at her.

         “Why, do you want me to move out?”

         She diverted her gaze, wishing he’d given her a different answer. It stung a little, but this was the only one she had been getting lately. Ever since Cecelia had come home, he’d turned most conversations to moving out. It was annoying her, so she played along in jest. She didn’t want him to leave. She had too much pride to admit to him she needed him, so she was stuck in a fight between letting him go or admitting that she was depressed and lonely.

         “Nah, I thought maybe Cecelia could move in here with us, and we could live happily ever after. I could be like a sister wife,” she smiled before bursting out with a loud laugh and correcting herself. “With no, uh, other things, of course.”

         He chuckled with her, but the joy from their shared laugh was only on a surface level. His patience with her was growing tired as his efforts to keep her sober and happy were all failing. She preferred to spend her time with a bottle of wine she would get from one of the older women at the beauty school, and alone, than with him and Cecelia. From what he had been reading and been told, that wasn’t good. He was sure she was depressed, but she refused to talk about it. He worried about her so much it caused him to neglect other areas in his life. It was causing him to become bitter. 

         He was resentful for many things. Staying home from the mission trip he should have taken with the church, for not going to college so he could help drive his orphaned best friend to doctors’ visits, for almost ruining his relationship with Cecelia when he couldn’t give her the attention she needed, for even more things he knew he shouldn’t hold against her, but still deep inside, the bad feelings were there.  He hoped she wasn’t picking up on them.

         “There’s a party tonight out on Charlie Miller’s granddad’s farm. Do you want to come with us?” he asked, trying not to get his hopes up that she would come. He had long given up on her accepting his invitations.

         She thought for a moment, contemplating whether she would prefer to stay home and drink her feelings away alone, or be social.

         “There’s a keg,” he sighed.

         Her eyes lit up.

         “Count me in,” she chirped, smiling. His face fell, and she felt embarrassed that he didn’t like her attempt at humor.

         “Okay then,” he said, getting up from his chair. “I gotta get to work. I’ll just meet you here this evening?”

         She nodded in response and watched him leave. The reflectors on his pants changed colors as the rising sun grew stronger. Lyla looked forward to the day things were normal again, only she was losing sight of when that would be. She looked out off of the porch at the large lot in front of her. The green grass rolled down the hill until it stopped at the water’s edge. The lake was a pale shade of green. It was beautiful, and she watched as the emerald ripples broke when they hit the wooden pillars of the dock. She had been raised there, and while she knew she would leave eventually, she hoped she would always keep it. There were too many memories of her life with her family to part with the property. 

         She relaxed into the swing, daydreams of her mother humming songs to her put her in a calm state, as she prepared to get through one more day. Still, she kept her gaze fixed on the water, wishing for a miracle for herself, and for her friend.

~~~

         “Lyla, Lyla…cuuuuuus-to-mer,” a singsong voice called over the intercom into the break area of the beauty college.

         Lyla groan and threw her sandwich down in disgust. It was just past noon, and it had already been a long day. It seemed each time a customer came into the school, her instructor, Mrs. Carroll, called her name to give another perm. It convinced her the woman hated her. 

         “I want these wrapped in under twenty minutes,” she had tisked to Lyla that morning, holding a timer while scowling at Lyla’s makeup free complexion. “And you better not show up to school without your face on again. We pride ourselves on other people’s appearances, put pride in yours.”

         The other students were gathered at the round table beside her, and they gave her a sympathetic look. Smoke from their cigarettes caused a fine haze in the air, and it was burning Lyla’s eyes. 

         She didn’t converse much with her peers, but she enjoyed listening to them chatter. They all seemed to like her, often asking her for help or advice because she was one of the more talented girls enrolled.

         The massive amount of smoke that floated off of them amazed her, and she couldn’t help but have concern about the damage it was doing to her own lungs being in the room with them. She looked at their concerned faces.

         “What did you do to make her mad?” one of them asked after a long drag.

         “I have no idea,” Lyla answered, frowning. “This is getting old.”

         “I’d love it if she let me do something,” a girl with choppy teal hair said through a mouth full of smoke. “Ever since I cut that lady’s ear, she won’t let me do anything but shampoo.”

         Lyla suppressed a laugh as the girl blew smoke out of her nose.

         “It’s like this every day now,” Lyla grumbled. “Thank goodness I’m almost done.” 

         She wrapped her lunch back up in plastic wrap and drug herself down the stairs just as Mrs. Carroll repeated her call a second time with less of a song to it and more of a firm tone. She stopped at a mirror to make sure there wasn’t food on her face and fluffed her long dark curls. The black and white outfit was boring, but it made her grey eyes pop, so she was fine with it.

         She bounced to the front desk and stopped short a few feet. The customer’s back was to Lyla, but her flowing red mane instantly gave away who it was.

         “Mrs. Kellen?” she asked, surprised. Her boyfriend’s mother stood before her. Well, her former boyfriend. She hadn’t seen or heard from Beau Kellen since the night of her high school graduation.

         The woman turned at the sound of Lyla’s voice, revealing one of the most beautiful faces Lyla knew. Her green eyes twinkled. Fine wrinkles surrounded them, lines that went deeper depending on who the smile was directed at. For Lyla, they were as deep as they could go. 

         “My Lyla,” she said in her warm Irish accent. Her arms stretched out, and Lyla gladly walked into them. “How are you my dear?”

         “Good… I’m good. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you,” she answered nervously pulling back. Mrs. Kellen inspected Lyla up and down. She seemed satisfied with what she saw. “What brings you in here?”

         “I thought I’d let you test your manicuring skills,” she said raising her hands up, her large diamonds twinkling.

         “Well, come on over,” Lyla gestured toward the small black tables. Her annoyance at missing out on lunch faded away. She was so happy it was Mrs. Kellen and not a perm.

         She gathered her supplies and settled onto a stool across from Mrs. Kellen. She took one of her delicate white hands and began her work, trying to mask the slight shake she felt from nervousness.

         “How have you been, really?” she asked Lyla leaning in and forcing eye contact after watching her work intently. Her blue eyes widened, prompting honesty.

         Lyla sighed, looking down again. Mrs. Kellen had been around little since her parent’s had died. It was a welcome occurrence to see a familiar face, but it was also painful because it took her right back to that hard time and made her remember how alone she felt. Everyone else’s lives were moving, but not hers. She wondered about Beau, but she had too much pride to ask anyone about him. 

         Lyla and Beau had broken up abruptly. As far as she knew, something happened between them on the night of the accident that was so bad he didn’t even come to the hospital to see her afterward. Lyla couldn’t remember the reason they had split, as it all fell muddled into that hazy night, and it made her feel awful and gave her a strong lack of closure. It was one thing to lose a boyfriend; it was something entirely different to lose Beau and not even know why. He had been her everything.

          The only explanation she had for the breakup was a note Barry had given to her following her coma. Beau and Barry were cousins and best friends, yet even he didn’t know the reason Beau had left. Last Lyla knew, he was traveling through Europe and staying with extended family, but that was just offhand gossip she had gotten from Barry. It was extraordinarily painful that he had left her in the condition she was in without a word, and she felt it spoke volumes to how he truly felt about her. She told herself that maybe the accident was too much for him, and he didn’t want to have to take care of her or have a crippled, traumatized girlfriend. She was simply his high school sweetheart, whom he didn’t hesitate to toss aside the minute she tethered him down.

         Mrs. Kellen had still tried to keep in touch with Lyla, sending her messages to Lyla by word of mouth thru Barry over the year. She also sent a few delicious casseroles that would appear in the kitchen half eaten. Lyla was almost positive they hadn’t been sent in that condition and had succumbed to the hunger of a teenage boy’s appetite.

         “I’ve been all right,” Lyla answered her honestly, focusing on filing her nails.

         Mrs. Kellen nodded.

         “And the house, the bills, is everything all right financially?”

         “Yes. I used the estate money to pay off the house, and for this.” She motioned around the school with the file she was holding. “Then, I’ve saved what was left for bills and such. I also had Barry move in, and he helps me keep the place from falling apart. He loves doing yard work, so I clean, and he mows and it’s a fair trade.”

         Mrs. Kellen was silent for a moment. 

         “I’m very proud of you, you know. Few girls could handle the situation you’ve found yourself in. I really wish things would have worked out for you and Beau,” she trailed off.

         Lyla bristled at the mention of his name.

         “He misses you. I think. When we talk to him, he asks of you.”

         Lyla looked up at her, finally meeting her eyes.

         “I don’t want this to come out rude,” Lyla began. “But that’s hard to believe.”

         “Why is that?” She asked, surprised.

         “Well, if he cared so much for me, he wouldn’t have left me a note after the accident and never came back,” Lyla answered bitterly. She tried not to show many emotions, but this one was hard to repress. They had been close, her and Beau, Barry and Cecelia, and then he just disappeared. “Has he even come home yet?”

         “He’s in now,” she answered quietly. “He’s saying he wants to join the Army.”

         It surprised Lyla. 

         “Really?”

         “Yes. I am not happy about it.”

         “You should be, I think it would be good for him.”

         Mrs. Kellen appeared shocked.

         “How is that?” she asked curiously.

         “Well, he’d get some discipline. It would be a steady job, and it’s not like we are in a war or anything. He would be safe. I honestly can’t see anything wrong with it.” And it would keep him from coming back here, she wanted to add.

         “We’ll see. Maybe he won’t follow through with it,” she seemed to convince herself of this. “He and his father were arguing about it last night. I hope he got through to him, because he sure won’t listen to me… I mean, I am his mother, and he acts like my opinion is nothing sometimes.”

         “Ma’am, I don’t care if you are Eve, the mother of all humans, your son will not listen to you. He is the most stubborn person I know.”

          “You’re right,” she chuckled. “O, where did I go wrong? At least he’s handsome.”

         She was right. He had his mother’s features and his father’s tall stature and black hair. Beau was stunning. Lyla sure would not admit that anymore, though. She ignored her comment and kept working. 

         “But please, Ly, if you run into him, try to talk some sense into him.”

         Lyla nodded, though she knew if they found each other while he was home, it would be anything but pleasant. She could still remember the day Barry finally gave her the note…

         I’m sorry, things are just so complicated right now, and you will need more than I can offer. Please forgive me for not being here. I hope the best for you.

          She didn’t recall crying. Instead, she became full of a bitterness that grew. Some day’s if she allowed herself to think about him, she would feel a hatred towards him for leaving her and it would put her in a bad head space for days. It was just another thing on her list of things that ruined her mood. How could someone leave someone they claimed to love in their lowest time? 

         Lyla shook her head and pushed the thoughts of Beau far from her mind, telling herself she didn’t care anymore. She focused on making small talk and not destroying the lovely hands of her client and pretended it wasn’t his mother.

CHAPTER TWO

         Lyla lay across the back of Barry’s toolbox. Her hip ached from a long day of standing. A small red cup of beer was in one hand resting on her stomach. 

         The metal felt cool through her sheer white shirt, and she was contemplating getting up and joining the crowd by the fire to gain warmth. There was nothing else around, just trees far past the cornfields. The moon reflected off the short stalks in glistening waves of green and gold that rustled ever so slightly when the wind blew. Music played from the stereo of a large truck that had its doors open, and excited chatter filled the air. Most of them had just graduated high school. There was a mix of stay behinds interspersed among the group, encouraging the ones who were leaving, and making plans with the ones who were staying. 

        Lyla had been listening to people saying they would keep in touch when they left for college, and she smirked to herself as she knew it was all a drunken lie. They wouldn’t ‘keep in touch’, they would go off to their respective colleges and forget each other until Thanksgiving, as they had done the previous year.  She sighed bitterly. Her conversation with Mrs. Kellen came back into her mind. Beau would be there, and that kept her in her hiding place. The thought of meeting up with him and the hateful conversation that came with it was not appealing to her. She would need more alcohol for that.

         “I know you,” a voice called from the end of the open tailgate. 

         Lyla turned her head and saw the silhouette of a man, average height, with shaggy hair that stuck off his head. The fire behind him blurred out his face, and she didn’t recognize the voice. She hadn’t the time, nor patience, for boys at the moment.

         “How do you know me?” she asked, aggravated.

         She heard the male chuckle at her irritation.

         “You were on North’s dance team. I saw you at basketball games.”

         “There were many people on the dance team, how do you know me specifically?”

         There was a pause.

         “You were the one that had no rhythm,” the voice laughed.

         She smiled up to the stars and turned her legs over the side of the toolbox, rising to a seated position. It was obvious with that response he had the right girl, and since by the sound of it he wasn’t there to flatter her, she would entertain the conversation further.  She patted the bumpy silver spot beside her. 

         “Come on up,” she laughed. 

         He put his hand down onto the gate and pulled himself up into the back of the truck, his features still darkened from the back light of the fire. A small breeze blew his scent to her, and it was a distinctive smell. Earthy, like cedarwood.  Halfway across the bed, he came into view. Lyla’s mouth slightly dropped open as she realized that she, too, knew the stranger. 

         Maxwell McGovern was coming towards her. His high cheek bones caused shadows in the hollow space beneath them. His lips, the top larger than the bottom, turned up in a smile, showcasing a row of perfect white teeth. His green flannel shirt was sloppily buttoned, and as he sat beside her, she saw it was the same dark green shade as his eyes. She knew this face, as she had watched him play on their rival school’s football team for years and had always thought he was one of the more handsome boys their age. She knew Cecelia would just die if she saw them talking.

         “Max McGovern,” he said, stretching out a hand to her. She already knew that but pretended not too.

         “Lyla Strait,” she nodded, firmly returning the shake. She felt uncomfortable now, her stomach was turning like a thousand butterflies were inside about to take flight. It annoyed her she felt this way. 

         “So, what are you doing over here all by yourself?” he asked as he sat.

         “Honestly,” she sighed. “I’m antisocial.”

         He laughed. When he realized she was serious, his face became equally solemn. He looked down at her, cocking one eyebrow up higher than the other.

         “Well, shall I go?” he mocked her. “I hope I’m not too people-y for you.”

         She smiled, wrinkling her nose.

         “Nah, I think you can stay.”

         He laughed.

         “Why are you antisocial?”

         “People annoy me,” she said with a drawl. 

         He laughed louder.

         “Well, they annoy me too, but I don’t avoid them.”

         She nudged him.

         “Obviously.” 

         He leaned back against the glass. She mimicked him, hoping she looked casual and not awkward like she felt. Her face was hot, and she knew it was red. She followed his gaze to the group in front of the fire. She could see Cecelia and Barry standing by the keg, laughing with some friends from high school. Barry’s arm slumped lazily over Cecelia’s shoulders, pinning down her white blonde hair as she sipped a beer. People huddled in small groups, most hanging close to the fire as the air cooled. Two boys chased each other, one poured a beer on another’s head, sending laughter roaring through the cliques.

         “You came with Barry, right?” he asked, fiddling with his fingers and gesturing in their direction.

         “Yeah, how do you know each other?” she asked in return, raising an eyebrow at him.

         “We started out at the coal mines together. They have us shoveling,” he answered. “How about you, how do you guys know each other?”

         “Well, we’ve been best friends since we were little. Our moms were close. And he’s my roommate, and he’s dating my other best friend,” she rambled, laughing nervously. “Basically, he’s like a brother to me.”

         He nodded. 

         “Cool.” 

         They sat in silence for a moment.

         “So, your dating Beau, right?” he asked. 

         The question took aback her.

         “No,” she answered, shaking her head. “We’ve been apart for a long while now.”

         He looked up at her, and his eyes lit up, sparkling in the night light. It made her heart flip-flop in a way she hadn’t felt before.

         “Good,” he stated flatly, looking relieved. “I never liked that guy much. He’s always seemed so cocky.”

         “You have a perceptive way of pegging people, Mr. McGovern,” she muttered with a wry smile.

         Max smiled warmly at her, turning his head fully in her direction now.

         “I won’t lie Lyla,” he began seriously, resting his head on the back window and looking into her eyes. “I know about you, and your parents. I saw the papers and heard the talk. I mean, I was honest when I said I remembered you from basketball games, but I know about the other stuff.”

         Lyla nodded, not knowing how to respond. Her stomach twisted as she looked into his eyes. Everyone knew her story. They knew about the car accident, and her coma, and her injuries, and that she was an orphan. She knew they all prayed for her, but very few reached out to help her. It infuriated her to be a topic of gossip for people who held themselves up as noble citizens and Christians, when they knew she struggled. She felt like entertainment, not a person.

         “I figured you would. Most people know me now because of the accident. It’s kind of weird.”

         There was more silence, but it wasn’t as awkward as she would have expected. It was a comfortable silence, but Max broke it.

         “What do you do, Lyla? Are you in school? Work?”

         “I’m in beauty school.”

         His head raised up sharply and his laugh bellowed across the open space, causing a few people to look in their direction. Lyla shyly turned her head down as he laughed, her cheeks growing warm again.

         “What’s so funny?”

         “Your antisocial, and you’re in beauty school?” he cracked. “Isn’t that a rather social job?”

         She thought about it for a minute, then smiled with him.

         “I didn’t think about it, really,” she giggled. “I just went with what I was good at.”

         Max squinted into the dark.

         “Did you give Barry that haircut?”

         Lyla mouth went tightly shut. She knew he was referring to the uneven etching going around his blonde head, and the cowlick she had inadvertently caused to stand on end in the front. She was shocked Max had even seen him without a hat.

         “Uh-huh. That response was enough for me,” he smiled slyly. “I think you will need a little more practice before I let you near me with a pair of scissors.”

         She blushed at the mention of them spending more time together. 

         He stood abruptly, turned to face her, and the light from the fire played tricks on him. Max placed his hand out in front of him, palm up. She looked at his hand, and then her eyes slowly gazed up his body, over the sloppy flannel shirt, over the tanned skin of his neck, the full pink lips, his perfectly carved nose, stopping at his almond-shaped eyes surrounded by thick full brown lashes. She had never seen a man like him. In her eyes, he was perfect. Her breath became uneven, and it made her blush even harder, and she was thankful for the dark.

         “Dance with me,” he said lightly, pushing his hand forward.

         Her hand raised without even thinking, as if her body would not let her mind screw it up. His hand was warm as his fingers enveloped hers, tugging, lifting her off the cold toolbox. Suddenly, she wasn’t cold anymore.

         Max wrapped one arm around her waist and the other held her hand. Warmth radiated off him, in such contrast to her previous condition. She took a step into him, holding her body closer to his. She wasn’t sure where her free hand should go, and she settled it onto the middle of his back, feeling his strong muscles through the soft fabric.

         They swayed slowly to the music coming from the other truck. The wide-open air around them intensified the sound. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she hoped he couldn’t feel it. She didn’t want him to know how nervous he made her. He pulled her closer, their bodies fully touching now. His head tilted down closer to hers, and she could see over his shoulder as his hot breath made its way through her hair and into her ear. She watched the people in their own groups, chatting, oblivious to her, and it didn’t make her feel lonely at all. She hoped if she distracted herself, she would calm down inside. A few other couples danced to the slower music. The mood was changing at the party, becoming more mellow. 

         Then she saw him… out of place, standing alone by the fire. He was watching her. 

         His tall body loomed high above everyone else. She could see his face perfectly from this angle, his black hair glistened with shades of red that reflected off the flames and momentarily matched his mothers. His classic, refined features were set in a harsh scowl as he watched her dance with Max. She smiled smugly, wishing he could see it clearer. Lyla lay her head down onto her partner’s shoulder so Beau couldn’t see her face anymore. Then she shut her eyes and decided to never think of him again. 

~~~ 

         “You have lost your ever lovin’ mind!” Bob McGovern bellowed loudly as he paced back and forth in his small living room.

         “Dad, calm down.”

         Bob’s eyes bugged out at his son as his round face became red. He seemed to yell, but no sound was coming out as his lips moved.

         “I think what your father is trying to say is, you need to think this through a little more, honey,” Max’s mother said delicately as she sat in the corner wringing her hands. She wore her long grey hair down, and it was making the red veins in her bloodshot eyes stand out. She looked as though she could burst into tears any second, and Lyla felt sorry for her. 

         “Marley, let me handle this,” Bob finally yelled. He didn’t appear to be one bit more in control of his anger. He wagged a finger at them. “You are both too young to get married!”

         “I am nineteen years old!” Max said, raising his voice. “You two got married when you were seventeen!”

         “That doesn’t mean we are the example!” Bob yelled back to him, running a hand through his thinning white hair in exasperation. 

         He was pacing in front of Max and Lyla. He’d hit his shin on the table twice, but only noticed it once. That’s how mad he was. Lyla kept looking for excuses to leave, but Bob shushed her, which was the only sound he had made for a solid five minutes. Just a constant, shhhhhhhhhhh

         “Do you know how hard it is to start a family? To have bills?” his demeanor changed from panic to seriousness, and his words sounded more of a threat than a warning. “You’ll need to take care of that girl.”.

         “Are you pregnant?” his mother asked, leaning to the side of the men.

         Lyla sat wide eyed on the couch behind Max, twisting the tiny diamond around her finger.

         “No,” she said flatly.

         “Are you sure? This might be easier to take if there was a reason,” she laughed nervously.

         “I’m sure,” Lyla reassured, hoping to only be a spectator in the family drama and not make things worse.

         “You’ve two haven’t even been dating that long,” Bob exclaimed. He turned to Marley. “How can you be so calm?”

         She shrugged.

         “Well, I figure they will either come to their senses or do it anyway. Why burn a bridge, Robert?”

         “See?” Max said, gesturing towards his mother. She shook her head at him not to bring her to his side. “She makes sense.”

         Bob’s face grew red again, and he took a step towards his son. Max recoiled on the couch and wrapped his arm through Lyla’s for support.

         “Look, I have a good job…”

         “In a death trap,” Bob muttered. He had worked in the same coal mine, but hated his son following suit. Max ignored him.

         “Lyla will be finished with school soon. We’ve been looking at houses, and we’ve crunched the numbers. Besides, we practically live together anyway.”

         “In a house you don’t pay for,” Bob scolded.

         Max shifted his eyes to Lyla, who was oblivious.

         “Sorry, Lyla,” Bob apologized, with zero sincerity.

         “No problem. It is true, no rent on a paid house,” she laughed nervously. “Which is actually a pro, not a con, I’d like to point out.”

         Bob ignored her.

         “It’s not like I don’t like Lyla or want you all to be together. I just think you need to wait a while longer. You’ve been together… what, a couple months?” he explained more calmly.

         “Five,” Lyla interjected quietly, wishing the couch could swallow her whole.

         Bob sighed. He could tell his point wasn’t getting across. He looked at the two young people in front of him. Max, with his big green eyes and sloppy light hair, pleading with him to see his side of the argument. In his eyes, Max was still the child he had raised, who he had taught to fish, and who he watched kill his first deer. He just couldn’t fathom his child starting his own family. He couldn’t justify making that large of a commitment to someone at such a young age, especially when they hadn’t been together that long. At least when he and Marley married, it was something more of a norm, and they waited many, many years before beginning a family.

         And then there was the orphan child, with her expressive face, her heartbreaking eyes, and her curls that fell over her shoulders like armor. She was strong, he could see that, and he knew that was the one thing keeping Marley from acting as irrationally as he was. He knew she was as capable to take care of Max as she had proven she could take care of herself. Bob was thankful for her, but he wasn’t ready to give Max to her. Not yet.

         “Dad,” Max started, his cheeks were pink with flush from their argument. “Please, trust me on this. This is what we want.”

         Bob studied his son’s face, and the way he clung to Lyla’s hand, and he knew he would not win. He threw his hands up, exasperated. It defeated him.

         “Well, when do you plan on doing this? Where will it be? Have you thought these things through?” he said, crossing his arms as he sat by Marley on the edge of the recliner. “Weddings are expensive.”

         Max and Lyla’s features relaxed in unison. A smile spread across his son’s face, a goofy childlike grin that clutched at Bob’s heart.

         “We were thinking in August. That’s eight months away, plenty of time to save up and find a house. We would like to do it at Lyla’s parents’ house, on the lake. We just want you guys there, and Barry and Cecelia, so it won’t be expensive.”

         “What do you mean look for houses?” Marley asked. “Aren’t you going to be living in Lyla’s house?”

         Lyla spoke up now.

         “No, I want to keep it, but after we marry, I’d rather start over. I want to make my own memories,” she said firmly. Living there was like living inside of a constant trigger to her depression. Max was bringing her out of it, and she wanted a fresh start. 

         They nodded, understanding. Bob had read the papers about the accident that took her parents so abruptly. He understood if she didn’t want to continue to live in that house when starting a new life.

         “Well, fine,” he said. “You know how I feel, I guess if this is what must be, then it must be.”

         “Gee, Dad, don’t sound too enthused,” Max laughed.

         Bob laughed with him, but on the inside, he was distraught about the situation.

~~~

                 The grass was soft beneath her. The first days of spring were approaching, and she let the sun absorb into her face. It was warm and felt good, so she kept her eyes closed, concentrating on trying to fall asleep as Max lay beside her. He had his head propped up on a folded shirt while he read a book. 

        She felt him spring to life. A splashing sound came from the water in front of them. They had come to a creek behind his father’s house to relax and fish. Max loved walking aimlessly through the woods in search of new fishing holes.  Lyla raised up on her elbows, putting a hand over her eyes to see him fighting the reel.

         “How did you know you got a bite?” she asked confused as he hadn’t been watching the water. 

         “I just know,” he grunted, pulling back on the rod as it bent at the end. His top lip stuck out as he concentrated, fighting the fish to the bank. He drug it up by the thin string. A black catfish flopped in the grass. Its mouth opened and shut with a cawing sound. Lyla turned her head as he leaned down to dig the hook from its jaw. 

         “Good size,” he nodded, the tiniest bit of sweat dripped off his face. He looked up at Lyla and noticed she wasn’t looking. “Something wrong? Too gross for you?”

         “No,” she winced at the sound of the poor fish wanting to return to the water. She felt sorry for it. “I don’t enjoy watching things die.”

         “Oh Lyla,” he laughed. “Everything dies, it’s the cycle of life.”

         He raised the fish up, inspecting it with his head cocked to the side.

         “Gonna be good for dinner,” he commented insensitively. “So, its life meant something, right?”

         Lyla rolled her eyes.

         “Really? You think this fish is suffering?” he asked curiously as he popped the hook on the stringer through its mouth and threw it back in the water by the shore.

         “Did you hear it?” she exclaimed. “The poor thing was dying.  Of course, it was suffering.”
         He shook his head. 

         “I don’t think so. I don’t think they have that ability.”

         “Anything can suffer,” she argued, growing agitated and laying back in the grass. “A painful death is not exclusive to humans.”

         “I’m not worried about it,” he scoffed. He thought for a moment. “Do you think your parents suffered?”

         Lyla’s eyes bugged out of her head. 

         “That isn’t something I’d like to talk about right now.”

         He shrugged his shoulders. 

         “I’m not trying to be mean Ly, I’m just trying to show you how I think, and see how you look at things too. I’m marrying you, shouldn’t I ask these questions?”

         She stuttered for a moment, and then gave herself a second to think before responding. She felt he was being insensitive, but also, no one else had even attempted to talk about this kind of thing with her. Secretly, in her head, she’d asked herself that question many times. 

         “I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “I hope not. I honestly can’t remember that night. Maybe my brain is broke, or maybe I’ve blocked it out. I don’t know. I hope they didn’t.”

         “I’m not saying a death can’t be painful,” he murmured to her as the fish was swirling in the water, anchored to the shore. “It’s what happens after that matters. Who cares if you go through some excruciating pain on the way out? When you’re finished, you will not feel it anymore, you’ll be in heaven and that pain will be gone. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about that kind of thing.”
         She shook her head, not satisfied. That was too simplistic.

         “That is if there is a heaven. I’m not so positive on that one yet either.”

         “Sure, there is, what else would there be?” he protested.

         “Nothing.” 

         The word hung in the air.

         He shook his head at her, becoming annoyed.

         “Well, you may think it’s bad to die in pain, but I think it’s worse to live thinking there’s nothing, Lyla.”

         He looked mad. Or annoyed, or… his expression was hard to read.

         He picked up his fishing pole and opened the cooler beside him and yanked the stringer from the water, pitching in the fish. He flipped his shirt up towards him with the toe of his boot and motioned with his head for Lyla to grab his book.

         “Come on,” he said, his muscles glinting as he began to sweat. “Field trip.”

         Lyla’s brow furrowed in curiosity as she followed him back towards his parents’ house. He was quiet the whole way, walking slightly faster than her as she tripped behind him on mounds of dried, flattened grass in her flip-flops. They reached the house, and he set the cooler on the inside of the screened porch. He pulled his shirt over his head and took the book from Lyla. He pitched it in on top of the cooler and grabbed her hand, pulling her to the truck.

         “Where are we going?” she asked.

         “You’ll see,” he said as he started his old brown truck and a small cloud of dirty smoke blew from the tailpipe. She settled into the passenger’s side, though she usually sat in the middle. She was too curious as to their destination to worry about sitting close to Max. It was funny how an intrigued mind could forget all about infatuation when stimulated.

         They rolled down the back roads through expansive corn fields, rolling hills, and gravel roads until they came out into an intersection Lyla was familiar with. Her mouth dropped open as he turned right, and she realized where they were going.

         “Um, if you’re going where I think you’re going, you need to stop,” she said calmly. 

         He ignored her and kept driving towards the cemetery. 

         “Max, I don’t want to go in there,” she stated firmly as he turned the truck in and slowed just before the open black iron gates. The well-manicured lawn sprawled up a steep hill, and silver stones reflected in the shining sun. Towards the back, where the hill tapered off into flat land, sat a large looming willow tree. Its branches hung like a protective arm over a large stone. Lyla had never been past the gates, and she had no intention of going further.

         “I’m serious, I don’t want to,” she said again, her voice starting to crack with panic as they moved closer to the entrance. She put her hand on the door, ready to open it and jump from the moving truck. Max noticed and came to a stop.

         “What’s the big deal?” he asked, turning to her. She was dizzy, and it felt like her heart would beat right through her chest. Her head dropped, and she held it in both hands, trying to steady her swirling mind.

         “I don’t like graveyards, and I don’t want to go into that one,” she said trying to calm herself from crying. She’d tried to go in it once before, but a panic attack had stopped her that time too, leaving her sitting outside the gate for a while until she could bring herself to drive home.

         “You have to go in there someday, Lyla. You can’t avoid this forever, it’s almost been two years, and you don’t talk about them or the accident at all. It can’t be healthy,” he consoled.

         “I’m fine,” she grumbled. “Why did you bring me here?”
         He sighed, rubbing the steering wheel with his palm.

         “You said after you die there’s nothing. I wanted to bring you here and see if you still felt that way after seeing their grave. How can you really think your parents are just nothing now? Does it not make you feel better to think of their souls being in heaven or here watching over you?”

         “I don’t know, that’s just how I feel,” she answered. “I’ve always thought that way. I don’t know what happens after we die, and neither do you. Nobody really does. You say they could be in heaven, or here with us, but there’s just as much of a chance that they’re just lying in the ground decaying.”

         “Well, I don’t like it,” he said stubbornly. 

         “You don’t have to like it, think what you want.”

         “But we’re getting married, shouldn’t we be on the same page on this kind of thing?”

         She looked at him blankly.

         “Why? I’m not saying I won’t be enlightened one day and see things differently, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. I don’t know what happens when you die, but I have to keep the option open that there could be nothing. I have had nothing to convince me otherwise.”

         Max brainstormed for a moment.

         “I’ve heard about people getting these weird dreams. Dad was telling me about this guy he worked with, when his wife died, he kept having these dreams that were all realistic and stuff and it helped him deal with it, to feel kind of like she was still around him,” he explained enthusiastically.

         She looked at the floral arrangements around the brick pillars that sat by the gates. 

         “I don’t dream,” she answered sadly. “Head injury, remember?”

         “Oh,” he sighed, looking at her sideways with a small smile creeping on his lips. “You’re a lost cause, Lyla Strait.”

         She laughed.

         “God help the man who marries me,” she joked. Max loosened his seat belt and leaned over, pulling her to him for a long kiss.

         “Ew,” she mumbled under his lips.

         “What?” he asked looking at her with heavy eyes trying to kiss her again.

         “Isn’t there some kind of rule in your religion about not kissing in a cemetery?”

         He chuckled, pulling back. He reached over and undid her seat belt, reaching around her waist and dragging her to the middle. 

         “Not that I know of,” he smiled, nuzzling her neck. “My religion.”

         He chuckled.

         “Maybe I’ll come around,” she mumbled. “Sometimes it’s just hard to believe in something you can’t see. Or, to have something bad happen to you, and not understand why. Cause, I mean, I’m a good person. They were good people. My mother was always at church… I just don’t get it. At all. So, it’s easier for me to say there’s nothing, than to let myself think there is something, and it just didn’t care about me. Or them, more specifically.”

         He sighed.

          “I’m sorry for bringing you here,” Max apologized. “I really didn’t know it was that hard for you. I would never have pushed you to do something that made you feel this way had I known.” 

         “That’s okay,” she smiled, leaning her head on his shoulder as he yanked her to the middle seat before turning the truck around. “But let’s not have any more of these conversations on death. I promise, I’m dealing with it in my way. I will be just fine, I swear.”

         He nodded and rested his head on hers as he pulled away. Lyla felt uneasy inside, because though the words came easily from her, that she would be fine, she wasn’t sure if she believed them. 

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