Chapter 1: Zach
Zach Rivers stole another look at his watch. Dawn had come and gone hours ago but the chill in the air still held. Autumn was too late for calving, but then, randy bulls took no notice of the time of year when they tore down a couple of fences.
The cow in labor moaned then shifted her weight, sensing Zach’s rising anxiety
“Easy there, Momma. You’ve got this. Just push that baby out of there a little faster.”
A soft step behind him, then a man-shaped shadow, gave hint to his youngest brother Shawn’s quiet arrival.
Shawn had changed from his usual flip flops and cargo shorts into boots and jeans and hoodie, evidence that he’d remembered Zach’s appointment and had come ready to take over. But Shawn’s calf delivery skills hadn’t had a lot of practice and this one looked like it might take some finesse.
“Sorry. I lost track of time. These Monday morning online classes are brutal,” Shawn said, low and slow, crooning the words to keep the cow calm.
“Did Cade catch the school bus on time?” While his nephew was a good kid, he was also a typical teen who had a hard time getting up most mornings, especially since school wasn’t his favorite activity.
“Adam texted early, so Cade woke up when he heard his phone beep.”
Zach was torn between wanting Cade to turn off his phone at bedtime and knowing that missing any contact with Adam would devastate the boy.
Neither Zach nor Shawn had ever intended to be a substitute parent for Cade, but they were doing the best they could by making it up as they went along.
“Did he tell you what his dad had to say?”
“He just said that Adam was checking in.”
“So no mention of his coming home any time soon.”
Shawn shook his head.
The cow moaned again, a pitiful, mournful sound.
Shawn looked as pained as the cow sounded. “Should we call the vet?”
Zach did mental math. This unborn calf had just about cost them more than the market would bring once they were ready to sell. How much more credit could they put on their tab at Doc Shelley’s? She had bills to pay like the rest of them.
“Come on, beautiful, let’s see that little baby of yours. Push it out for us, alright?” Zach whispered just to have something to say to keep the cow calm.
The cow shuddered and bellowed as her sides heaved. Finally, the calf started to come from the inside out, front feet extended, head first.
Zach breathed out relief. Not a breech birth, just a long one.
Shawn kept his voice low, too, but the laughter came through anyway. “If you’d told her to push sooner, you could have saved yourself a sleepless night.”
Zach smirked at his brother’s goofy humor. Then the cow gave a long, victorious moan.
Both he and Shawn kept still while the calf emerged and Momma cow did her clean up act.
In the soggy heap, Zach counted four tiny hooves and one little nose and tail.
The miracle of life was messy, but no less a miracle.
All looked good.
And he was very, very late.
“You got this?” Zach asked.
“Not my first rodeo, brother.”
Still, ranching wasn’t really Shawn’s calling. Like too many times before, Zach felt guilty for holding his youngest brother back to save the family legacy.
Reluctantly, Zach headed to the house to clean up.
He should think about selling. Again. His oldest and youngest brothers only held onto this place for his sake. He should put them all out of their misery and figure out something else to do with his life.
But now, he had a more immediate concern.
After a night sitting in the barn, cooing sweet little nothings into his laboring cow’s ear, he stunk. A shower wasn’t optional. But he skipped the shave and let his hair dry with nothing more than a finger-comb into place. Without a lot of goopy stuff in it, he’d end up with big loopy curls whether he dried it or not.
When he had time, he’d get to a barber. Or maybe he’d let Shawn try the clippers on him again. What’s the worst that could happen? Another buzz cut? It had only taken three months to grow out last time. Three months of folks avoiding his eyes so they wouldn’t stare at the scar that crossed his scalp. He’d just let it grow for now.
He took his oldest brother’s truck since it had been sitting up too long already and he knew it had fuel. With Shawn’s SUV, the gauge level was always a guess.
He pushed his foot down on the gas pedal, and the engine roared as the old truck sped up. Not as fast as when it had been new. The twenty-two year old F150 had been Adam’s eighteenth birthday present, back when the family could afford extravagant gifts. Adam’s son would be lucky to get his driver’s license when he graduated.
If the boy ever graduated.
Zach passed Sagebrush Elementary, then Sagebrush Middle School and put on his blinker to turn toward Sagebrush High School across the street. Adam had always complained that even if the town of Sagebrush was only large enough for one school for each age group. Some folks complained that surely they could have been a little more imaginative with their names, but Zach liked the simplicity of it all.
The high school’s bells went off as Zach slowed to make the turn into the parking lot. He was now officially an hour late to his appointment.
He threaded through trucks much newer than his, drove around a Toyota or two and finally pulled into a visitor’s slot next to the vice principal’s where a hybrid Prius with out-of-state plates was parked.
He squinted. California.
Every time he walked through the heavy metal double doors of the nineteen-sixties’ built high school, the smell was the same. Puberty sweat, dust and chalk even though chalk hadn’t been used in years. Every time, he got a tightness between his shoulder blades and had to work to keep from gritting his teeth. High school was not his best years.
Sadly, even though his nephew Cade was only a sophomore, he was following in his uncle’s footsteps. Cade had inherited Adam’s big build and dark looks, but not his dad’s big brain. Although, before his mother died and his dad left for wherever Doctors Without Borders would send him, at least the boy had tried.
The hallways were full of teens leaving for the half-day that signaled the end of their first six-week grading period. Zach’s text from the Vice Principal had requested he be there an hour before the last class for a discussion. What were the odds that this new Vice Principal from California would understand farm life and grant him mercy for his tardiness?
Without realizing it, his pace had picked up so much speed that he practically skidded to a stop at the receptionist’s desk.
“Well, hey there, Zach. In trouble again?” Mrs. Washbourne had said that to him every time he’d been sent to the office. He figured she would have retired when old Vice Principal Harris had his second heart attack and finally call it quits last week. But here she was.
She scooted her rolling office chair around, like she always had, and grabbed a can of coke from her little personal refrigerator for him, like she always had. He never understood why she was so nice to him when he was in trouble all the time, but he’d always been grateful.
“Have a seat. I’ll let Ms. Maisie know you’re here.”
The wooden bench, taken from the original school, was just as hard as it had always been.
He popped the tab on his coke can and took a sip, finding greater than expected pleasure and comfort in the cold fix of caffeine and sugar.
“Hey there, Zach.” Ronny Beaver came in, wearing some kind of short shorts with knee socks and a golf shirt embroidered with the title, Coach and the school’s mascot, a bright orange mustang. The bulk he’d had as a full back in high school had shifted from his chest to his belly but he still had the same enthusiasm for sports as he did back then.
“Ronny.” Zach nodded, acknowledging him, and took another sip of his coke, hoping Ronny would keep on passing through.
He didn’t, of course. “Make that boy play football and he’ll stay out of trouble.”
Zach was just about to answer sarcastically, “Like you did?” when Mrs. Washbourne saved him from being rude.
“Ms. Maisie will see you now. You know the way, right?”
Ronny lifted an eyebrow. “You watch yourself around her, you hear?” Ronny wasn’t smiling when he said it.
What was that supposed to mean?
Zach’s feet automatically carried him down the well-worn path past the teacher’s lounge, past the nurse’s office, toward the Vice Principal’s suite of waiting room and office.
Zach braced himself. He hadn’t made it to Parents Night to meet Cade’s teachers. Cade hadn’t told him about it until the day after. And Cade hadn’t said anything about the new vice principal, but then Cade didn’t say much to anyone lately. Was it only a couple of years ago when the boy talked so much he even talked in his sleep? When would they see that smiling face again?
And when was Cade’s father getting home? Zach and Shawn would always step in for their older brother, but they weren’t who Cade needed right now.
Zach paused just inside the Vice Principal’s waiting room, expecting to feel the judgment from all the pseudo-inspirational posters that had hung on the walls since a decade before he’d started high school. ‘Be Somebody Special.’ ‘Leaders Lead.’ ‘No Try. Do.’
But the posters were gone, replaced with posters of art found in museums. Helpfully, the artists’ names were on the posters. Georgia O’Keefe. Jackson Pollock, Norman Rockwell, No First Name Lichtenstein. Zach liked that one the best with it’s Zing! and Pow! superheroes.
Eclectic, but interesting. Much more uplifting than those posters of mountain climbers with thick mustaches and knee-high white socks and eagles frozen in time spouting at him to be better. Where those old posters where Ronny had found his inspiration? Maybe someone should suggest he update his look like the Vice Principal had updated the artwork?
The new Vice Principal had also changed out the furniture in her waiting room. Instead of the four orange, cracked-vinyl chairs that sat so low his knees had bumped his chin, the room had a thick wooden table and four chairs that might have been recycled from a popular franchised coffee shop. On one chair sat Cade, hunched over an open book in front of him, pencil in his left hand thumping to an internal rhythm. He’d grown at least four inches since Adam had been gone. By summer, Cade would be looking Zach in the eye.
Cade had been born big and had kept on going. Folks had always seen Cade as older than he was and expected more from him than they should because of his size. No, life wasn’t fair.
Next to Cade sat a boy who looked undersized more than underaged. Maybe it was the stiffness of his spine or the bruising around his right eye.
The school didn’t think Cade did that, did they?
Cade might be a lot of things, but bully wasn’t one of them. He would never pick on a kid half his size, even if the kid was his age.
“Uncle Zach.” Cade looked up and acknowledged him, then looked down again in shame.
“Cade.” Zach kept it neutral.
The smaller boy studied Zach in a way that made him want to wipe at a smudge on his face.
Before it got too uncomfortable, Zach looked away, toward the Vice Principal’s office.
The door was open, but all he could see from where he stood was a room slightly darker than the waiting room with framed certificates on the wall along with a few photos he couldn’t quite make out. A deep-piled rug in colors of blue and orange, the school’s colors, softened the hard tile floor. The old Vice Principal would have never had a rug, even a cheap one.
Then, from within the office, Zach heard the creak of a chair and the swish of fabric, an impatient sound to his ears.
He’d kept Ms. Maisie waiting long enough. He took a few big strides but then stopped short in the doorframe.
She stood when she saw him.
Gina Middleton. The name that had been coupled with his beginning in middle school, right through high school graduation. The name he’d expected to be on the wedding invitations along with his.
Her brown eyes used to sparkle. Today, they looked at him with wariness. She’d always worn her hair long, but now it was short enough to show off her small blue mustang earrings. Go, team spirit, right?
The fun, laughing Gina of their youth now stood before him, tight-lipped, in a tailored jacket and slacks. The clothes were loose enough to make him think she’d lost weight since their purchase. He wanted to take her to the local hamburger hangout and feed her French fries and ice cream. He wanted to make her smile.
“Gina.” He said her name for the first time in twenty-one years. The syllables rolled right off his tongue like they always had.
Now he wished he’d have shaved and dried his hair. And gotten a haircut last week. And left the farm earlier so he wouldn’t be an hour late.
But he couldn’t have left earlier, couldn’t have left a cow in distress. Couldn’t have pulled Shawn away from his online classes earlier. Couldn’t have gone off to her expensive university with her when she had pleaded with him all those years ago. Couldn’t have chosen her over everything and everybody that depended on him. Just couldn’t have.
Just like the last time they’d seen each other, Zach didn’t have the right words to make it all better for everyone.
“Mr. Rivers,” she said back to him. “It’s Ms. Maisie, please. Or Vice Principal Maisie. I keep things professional here.”
Maisie, her married name.
Whoever Mr. Maisie was, he better be treating her right, that’s all Zach could think but he had sense enough to not come out and say it. Well, barely sense enough.
“Please, come in.” She stood back from the doorway, expecting him to enter.
“Yeah, sure. Uh, yes, ma’am. Yes.” He was blabbering. He locked his mouth shut and entered.
He stood next to the chair she offered, one of the old orange cracked vinyl ones that had made its way into her office in front of her desk, waiting for her to take her seat first.
Respect. He might not be able to articulate, but he could show respect without speaking.
Or maybe he was just showing stubborn, waiting for her to make the first move.
It could be both, right?
She gave him a pointed look as she pulled out her chair and took her sweet time putting her butt in the seat, making him feel even more awkward standing there.
As he plopped down, and down and down, he hadn’t forgotten at all how these low chairs put his knees up to his chin.
Yes, he was now thoroughly put in his place.