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Tumbleweeds, p.15
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       Tumbleweeds, p.15

           Leila Meacham
 

  “You practiced your singing.”

  “Ouch. Anything else?”

  “You snore a little when you sleep.”

  “So I’m told. Anything else?”

  “No.”

  “You’re sure?”

  “I’m sure. Believe me.”

  She lifted her head to look affectionately into his eyes. “I do, John, with all my heart. That’s what I love about you. I can totally believe you.”

  “Why don’t I drop you off at your house and go pick up your grandmother? You’re in no condition to drive.”

  “Oh, thank you. You’re so good,” she said, pulling away distractedly to look for her purse. He might have been a piece of furniture, endurable, reliable, always there, forgotten. She removed her car keys and gave him a weak smile as she handed them to him. “I’ll get through this, John. When my heart understands it, my mind will accept it. Right now I just can’t make sense of it. I’ve reserved the palomino for tomorrow, and I’m going riding after work. You and Bebe want to come with me?”

  “Yeah, sure,” he said, sorrow burning like a ball of fire at the base of his throat. “Sounds good. I’ll call her.”

  But the next afternoon, he and Bebe rode out on their rented horses into the prairie alone. Trey was back in Cathy’s life.

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  For the first time in his life, he’d crossed the line with his aunt, and she was in no mood to forgive him. She’d learned from Miss Emma what had happened, and the morning after she’d refused to look at him, even though a blind person could see how miserable he was. They’d never discussed personal things, mainly because he wasn’t open to heart-to-hearts. She was his caregiver; he, her ward. Their conversations consisted of, “Trey, have you done your homework?” and, “Aunt Mabel, have you seen my brown belt?” and the like, and those exchanges were the extent of their intimate communication.

  Now, though, Trey wished they were closer so that he could confide to his aunt his reason for letting Catherine Ann go.

  I didn’t do it because I no longer love Catherine Ann, Aunt Mabel. I did it because I do. I didn’t want her to get even deeper involved with me, a guy who may end up shooting blanks, when I know that someday she’ll want children. If I tell her the truth, she’ll stick with me anyway. She would never abandon me for any reason. That’s the way she is. That’s the reason I love her.

  He’d tell his aunt about the glow he’d seen on Cathy’s face last November in Affiliated Foods when she held a baby while its mother unloaded her basket. I might never put that glow there, Aunt Mabel. We could eventually adopt, but God only knows what we’d get. Catherine Ann deserves her own kids, blond and blue-eyed—gorgeous, like her. At this point, don’t you think it’s better to hurt her—and me—by letting Cathy believe I was unfaithful to her (he had been, but not in his heart) than by telling her the truth?

  He longed to explain all that to his aunt, get her woman’s opinion. It would be such a comfort to him to have her understanding. She was likely to agree with him and say that he and Cathy were only eighteen, after all, awfully young to be tying themselves to one person, talking of babies and marriage and forever. They had futures and careers—life!—ahead of them. But his aunt had thrown up a wall between them, and the air was so thick with judgment he could have ladled it into a bowl. Aunt Mabel adored Cathy, and he was now, in her mind, the biggest jerk of all times. He’d taken to making his own bed so she wouldn’t see tears on his pillow, but his aunt had interpreted the deed as a means to get back in her good graces.

  Even John had deserted him, and Trey missed him almost as much as he did Cathy. His best friend’s disgust with him had reached unprecedented levels, and they’d never gone this long without speaking. He wished he could tell John why he’d gone “off the reservation,” but he couldn’t bring himself to share his secret even with him. A guy’s private parts were just that—strictly off-limits for discussion—and there was just something about another guy, even your best friend, knowing you weren’t as… manly as he was that made for an uneven playing field, not to mention the awkwardness and embarrassment the knowledge would bring to the relationship.

  If he could just hold out from seeing Catherine Ann for two more months until he and John left for fall practice, he’d be over the hump. Meanwhile, he missed her with an ache so physical, it recalled the agony of the mumps, and there was no relief. He had no desire to date the girls who’d set the telephone ringing within days of his split with Cathy. Coach Turner’s daughter, Tara, was one of them. Jeez, what a brazen tramp! How could a man as great as Coach Turner have produced a daughter like Tara? Trey wondered just how much Coach knew of her activities beyond his all-seeing eye. Out of respect to him, the football team had nothing to do with her. She’d come around to Aunt Mabel’s on the pretense of getting Trey to sign her yearbook, thrusting out her big breasts and rubbing up against him. He’d signed it and seen her to the door.

  He hadn’t even called the telephone numbers he’d carried home in his pocket. All he could see was Cathy hurt and silent in her house from the trauma he’d caused. All he could feel was shame and guilt and pain. All that filled his heart and soul was the feeling he was giving up something he would never have again. He would never know anyone as faithful and steadfast as Catherine Ann. He would never feel as safe and secure with anyone else.

  He’d never felt so alone since his mother had abandoned him.

  It was his aunt’s displeasure with him that led to his agreeing to drive out to the Harbison place to pick up her order of eggs and vegetables. This past year, since November, he’d adamantly refused to go in her place, his obstinacy not unusual since he’d always grumbled about the boring drive and then having to deal with Mrs. Harbison. The woman had never expressed it, but her manner left no doubt what she thought of Mabel Church’s jock nephew who considered himself nose-bleeding heights above her horn-tooting son. But now, Trey didn’t dare refuse. He’d give anything if John would go with him, but he wouldn’t even think of inviting him to the scene of their worst nightmare, one Trey had engineered.

  It was hot as an oven compared to that cold day in November, but otherwise everything about the Harbison place was the same. Trey approached the big front porch uneasily, the swagger gone. He heard Mrs. Harbison coming to answer the bell, and when she opened the door he couldn’t help but blink in surprise. She’d put on a few years since he’d last seen her. He cleared his throat. “Hello, Mrs. Harbison. I’ve come to pick up my aunt’s order.”

  She held up an arm that was bound in a cast, her hand and fingers strapped to a supporting device. “Well, as you can see, I’m a little handicapped. Had a fall the other day. You’ll have to help me gather the eggs.”

  “The eggs? From where?”

  “The barn. You’ll have to follow me holding the basket.”

  Trey felt the blood plunge from his face. “Uh, maybe I should come back another time when—when you’re feeling better.”

  “I feel fine. It’s my arm and hand that aren’t so good. Go on around the house. I’ll meet you out back.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Trey said.

  The stepping-stones and gate and backyard were exactly as he remembered. The concrete picnic table and ram’s pen, looking deserted, were still there. The slam of the screened back door carried the same sound of that awful day as Betty Harbison came down the back-door steps and shoved an egg basket into his hand. She carried a knife as well. “Follow me. The door to the coop is in there,” she said, pointing the knife at the barn.

  Trey forced himself to enter. “We built the chicken pen next to the barn and the door inside, so poachers couldn’t steal our eggs and stock from outside,” Betty explained, catching his sickened expression. “In this heat, the smell’s pretty pungent, but you’ll just have to put up with it.” She handed him the knife. “You’ll need to help me cut some tomatoes, too, and I want to send your aunt a few sprigs of rosemary I’ve got drying up there.” She nodded to the beam where he a
nd John had hung her son. The crucifix was still nailed on the far wall.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Trey said, gulping down a threat of nausea.

  When all had been gathered, she said, “You’ll have to come into the kitchen to help me sack up everything.”

  Trey was horrified. He’d expected to hand over his aunt’s check for the amount and to wait outside until Mrs. Harbison returned with the sack of eggs and vegetables. He found himself snared by her gaze. It was the kind you couldn’t get away from, and her tone was not one to say no to. She’d probably been strict with Donny, like a mama bear quick to swipe her cub, but prompt to hold and protect him, too. There was something missing in her that had been there before that November day.

  “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

  Holding the basket, Trey followed her march to the back porch into the kitchen and closed the screened door softly, as if he might wake Donny’s ghost. The room was huge and airy and smelled good, but its atmosphere reminded him of an empty auditorium with the audience gone. Two sets of silverware wrapped in napkins were in place on the large, round table. A school photograph of Donny smiling crookedly gazed from a shelf almost hidden by cookbooks and a vase of flowers. Trey stood, feeling tongue-tied and awkward until Mrs. Harbison took the basket from his hands.

  “You’ll need to wash the dirt off,” she said. “Use the sink. I’ll get a sack for these things.” She ripped paper toweling from a dispenser and handed it to him. “And…” Her tone dropped to a shy level, and she did not look at him. “I expect you’d like a piece of pecan pie for your trouble. Just take a seat at the table, and I’ll cut you a slice.”

  Eat at her table? Where Donny sat? “Oh no, ma’am, I couldn’t do that,” Trey said, his voice rising on a bubble of panic. He whisked the check from his pocket. “I’ll just pay and be on my way.”

  She stiffened and her mouth set into a thin line. He could have shot himself. The poor woman had just wanted to feed a boy a slice of pie again, and his refusal had hurt the place where her hurt never healed. He could see it plain as day, though she wouldn’t reveal it for the world. “I’ll get that sack,” she said, and went off to the pantry.

  Should he tell her he was sorry about her son? If he did, he might give himself away. He could water up at the drop of a hat lately. He opened his mouth when she returned and began busily to sack the produce without help from him. “Mrs. Harbison, I—”

  “There,” she said, handing him the sack. She snatched the check from his fingers. “Tell your aunt thanks for me. You know the way out.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

  He drove away in his Mustang from the spot where he had parked it that fateful day, the crunch of the gravel echoing a sound he’d never forgotten. A terrible sadness worked its way up through his chest, his throat, his brain, and he pulled to a stop a distance from the house and threw open the door to get out for room to breathe. The hum of summer insects filled his ears—a waterfall of accusing sound. The prairie weaved and blurred. “Catherine Ann…,” he sobbed. “Catherine Ann… Catherine Ann…”

  When she opened her grandmother’s door to him, his eyes were red and swollen and he could hardly get out the words he wished to say to the person he loved the most in all the world. “Catherine Ann, I—I’m so sorry. I—I don’t know what got into me. I’m the biggest jerk in the world. I love you so much. Please, please forgive me.”

  Her stint at the clinic was over. Emma was at the library. Cathy took his hand and drew him inside the air-conditioned house. She telephoned the stable to cancel her riding reservation, then instructed an excited Rufus, “You stay here, boy,” and led Trey into her bedroom.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Trey was at summer conditioning camp at the University of Miami when the drugstore pregnancy test confirmed her suspicion. A bomb exploded in her brain. Oh no! Oh, God, no! Then the bomb cloud lifted and the devastation was not as severe as she’d thought. She was even guardedly delighted. Pregnancy wasn’t the end of the world. She and Trey would simply have to marry earlier than planned. The going wouldn’t be easy, but then nothing of worth ever was. She’d have to forfeit her scholarships. They were for unmarried students only. Her studies would be interrupted, but there were other grants and scholarships she could apply for and they’d be in place after a year. Meanwhile, Trey’s scholarship would cover their living costs and Aunt Mabel would want to help. Trey would be of a mixed mind at first. A baby and marriage this early were not what they’d had in mind, but he’d eventually warm to the idea, might even be thrilled. He had never mentioned children, but she knew how much he valued family—how he treasured belonging to people who loved him—and who could give him greater love than a little son or daughter? Her grandmother and Aunt Mabel would be beyond themselves with joy. John would be excited to be an uncle! They would all pull together, and she and Trey would make it.

  He returned from Coral Gables the following week, and in Aunt Mabel’s parlor Cathy allowed him to tell her all about it—how the veteran quarterback had taken him under his wing, how much he liked Coach Mueller and his staff and the other team members, how well he and John had performed as rookies—and then she said, “Trey, I have something to tell you….”

  “Before you do, I have something to tell you,” he said, taking her hand. “I’ve kept something from you, Catherine Ann—something you may not forgive me for.”

  She stopped him by pressing a finger to his lips. “Too late for confessions,” she said, smiling. “They won’t change anything.” Did Trey not realize she knew why he’d proposed they take a break from each other the last time he came back from Miami? This time, though, he’d called her every night to declare how much he loved and missed her and that he was so glad they’d be at Miami together so he wouldn’t suffer the misery of not being with her every day.

  “What I have to say is awfully important, Catherine Ann,” he said, looking worried.

  “So is mine.”

  “Okay. You first.”

  Snug against his calisthenics-hardened chest, she said, “I’m pregnant, Trey,” and explained that it must have happened—had to have happened—the afternoon he came to her after their breakup and caught her unprotected. She’d thought it hadn’t mattered, that she was still in her safe period.

  She felt his body stiffen, grow absolutely rigid. His arms fell away.

  “You’re what?” he said.

  She pulled back to look at him. His eyes were still as glass. Even his voice was expressionless, his lips pale as a mummy’s, barely moving.

  “I’m… pregnant, Trey,” she repeated, a tremor chasing through her, the small of her back grabbing, the seat of her pain when she was anxious or afraid. “We’re going to have a baby.”

  “Are you sure?”

  Her smile flickered. “Yes. Isn’t it… wonderful? I know this has come as a shock….”

  “You can’t be pregnant. You’re mistaken.”

  “There’s no mistake, Trey. I saw a gynecologist in Amarillo to make sure.”

  He pushed away from her as if she’d suddenly become infectious. “I don’t believe it.”

  Her mouth had gone so dry, her tongue felt like sandpaper. She moistened her lips. “Believe what? That I’m pregnant? That it could happen to us?” She forced a small laugh. “Well, considering that afternoon you came to the house, you shouldn’t be surprised….”

  “I trusted you, Cathy. Even more than John, I trusted you.” His voice collapsed, his gaze burned with what she could only interpret as the hurt of betrayal. He staggered up from the couch.

  “Trusted me to take the pill?” she said, astonished. “But Trey, darling, why would I have needed to continue them? You’d broken off with me—”

  “Get out,” he said, so quietly and deliberately she hardly heard him through the growing roar of her terror. “Leave. Right now.”

  “What?”

  “You heard me. Get out!” He looked around wildly, and she realized he was searching for her purse. He
located it and threw it at her while she stared at him, speechless. “We’re through. Get up!” He grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet.

  “Trey… What are you saying?”

  “I’m saying…” His voice crumpled to a whimper. “How could you do this to us?”

  “Well, I didn’t do it by myself,” she said, beginning to get angry. “I had a little help, you know. These things happen. A baby isn’t the end of the world.”

  “It is for me. Get out!”

  “You can’t mean that.”

  “The hell I don’t.”

  He pulled her by the arm to the front door and pushed her roughly out onto the porch. Feeling paralyzed, unable to grasp what had happened, she stood with her mouth agape as he slammed the door in her face and shot the bolt in place.

  Mabel woke the next morning to find him gone, his sheets folded on top of the made bed, a note on his pillow. “I love you, Aunt Mabel. I’m going back to Miami. Thanks for everything. Trey.”

  Cathy flew to John. Trey had not said good-bye even to him. “Explain it to me, John,” she begged. “Why is having a baby so horrendous to him?”

  John was as flabbergasted as she. This time at Miami, Trey hadn’t so much as glanced at another girl. He had been full of his love for Cathy, beating himself up to John over his notion that he could live without her. John had thought that now nothing could separate them. Trey was made of a complex mass of twists and turns hard for John to fathom at times, but he never shocked him. It was Trey’s mode of operation to blast off in a storm of huff when he was angry with those he loved—John, his aunt, Coach Turner—but when his rage blew out he reentered the atmosphere, disarmingly apologetic, as he’d been with Cathy after their one and only separation.

  But John had the terrible feeling this time was different.

  “What are you going to do?” he asked.

 
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