Bliss in Big Falls
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OKLAHOMA SUNSHINE: EXCERPT
15 Years Ago…
Mary braced up when she approached her dad. She was as likely to get backhanded as not, so she always braced up when she left her room in whatever house they lived in. Right now it was a doublewide with three whole bedrooms in the woods outside town. Three bedrooms meant she got one of her own. If there were only two, she’d have to sleep on the couch, and she hated sleeping on the couch because it smelled like beer and cigarettes.
Her dad was sitting at the kitchen table. He was drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and eating a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. She'd baked a big batch yesterday, and it had put him in a good mood for all of ten minutes.
Her mom used to bake. She didn't remember, but he'd said so often enough.
That he was eating the cookie was a good sign, but that he was looking at the 'net cancelled it out. The internet always got him going. Maybe this wasn’t the best time. Her brother Braxton was with him. Brax was eight and already hated her guts. And he was always with their father. She stood still a minute trying to decide.
“Spit, it out kid. What do you want now?” her father asked without looking up from his computer.
She took a deep breath, lifted her chin. “I want to play softball.”
“Softball? Psssh. Softball. You getting this Brax? Little Mary Sunlight wants to play softball. What makes you think you’d even make the cut, kid? They have tryouts for that sort of thing, you know. You have to be good.
“Tryouts were today. Coach said I have the makings of a great pitcher. She thinks I could be good.”
Her brother made big eyes at her. “You made the team?”
“Only two other fifth graders got picked. Everyone else is older.”
“I bet the competition was fierce,” her father said, making it clear he meant the opposite. “Softball. Jeeze, if you play anything, you oughtta pick a real sport.”
She did not back down. It was really hard to disagree with her father, and she knew was risking a solid backhand across the face by trying. But this was important to her. “I’ll have to stay after school for practice during the season, but there’s a late bus so you won’t have to pick me up or anything.”
“And who the hell’s gonna make dinner if you’re off playing softball? You ungrateful little shit.”
She closed her eyes, cowed and frightened. But this was important. Head low, voice soft, she said, “I’ll still have dinner on the table by six, Dad. And on game nights, I’ll cook ahead of time so all you'll have to do is heat it up.”
"She sure as hell won't have time for desserts," Braxton complained, not to her, to their old man. He barely bothered to acknowledge her as a living being. She was more like a piece of furniture to him.
"I'll do all the baking for the week on weekends," she said. "That's not hard. Anyway, it would save on the gas bill, baking everything at once."
He father narrowed his eyes and looked right at her, instead of through her. "I don't like it. Girls aren't meant to play sports. It'll turn you."
Her brother laughed, and started singing, "Mary's a lesbo, Mary's a lesbo..."
Her cheeks burned, even though her little brother probably didn't even know what a lesbian was. "If I don't play, people are gonna wonder why. Everyone at school saw the tryouts." There was nothing her father hated more than school officials poking around his life. He'd given her a black eye once, and her teacher had asked her over and over what happened. She might've given different answers on different days, though she'd never ratted out her father. Still, social services had shown up at the front door a few days later.
He had never hit her where it would show again. So, she knew he feared that, if he feared anything.
He thought for a long time, then took another bite of the cookie. “The first time you’re late or I go hungry, it ends.” Then, just to show he wasn't really giving in, he elbowed Brax. “I give it a week, how ‘bout you?”
“Three days. She’s lazy, and the softball players have to run laps.”
They laughed together. Mary turned and went back to her room.
“Aw, I think you hurt her feelings. Your feelings hurt, Little Mary Sunlight? Are they?”
She closed her bedroom door, careful not to slam it. If she slammed it, he’d surge in there like a bull and knock her around to teach her some respect. She hated when he called her Mary Sunlight. Her mother used to call her that. Sometimes, she’d just hold her close and dance around the room, singing "Little Mary Sunlight" to her. It was one of a handful of foggy memories that were all she had of her mom. Becky Beauregard had died a long, long time ago.
Mary took the framed photograph off its crooked nail in the wall and traced her mother’s face. She was so beautiful, hair just like sunshine, and that sunny smile on her face, too. She wore a pretty dress, pale blue, and white beads around her neck, pearls or whatever.
“Why’d you have to die?” she whispered. Tears welled up and rolled down her cheeks.
Jason swung the hammer in a steady, soothing cadence. Around and down. Around and down. Every blow shaped the red-hot steel on the anvil more. His body was damp with sweat, both from the heat of the forge and the exertion of swinging that hammer.
The trick was to get in as many blows as possible before the metal began to cool. And there was a knack to knowing just when that was. One swing too many, the blade cracks, and it’s over.
But it wouldn't take too many more. This beauty was nearly done. He took the smaller hammer and went up and down the blade, perfecting the shape. And then he heated it once more, gave a final inspection, and doused it in a vat of oil.
The hiss of the steam from the oil and the smell of hot metal were satisfying in a way he could never describe to anyone else, which was why he hadn’t bothered to try.
This was his thing. He didn’t share it.
Using the tongs, he took the blade out, held it at arm's length, tipped it left and right as he eyed its edge. Not a ripple. Not a bend. Perfection. It was ready to be honed, polished. He had a handle ready and waiting; intricately carved bone in the shape of an elk’s head, stylized, long and slender, but you could still tell what it was.
He put the blade on the workbench, took off his goggles, his apron, his oversized leather gloves, and shut down the forge. And only when everything in the workshop was where it belonged, did he go back inside and straight through to the shower.
And as always happened when he wasn’t working at the forge, his brain kicked into overdrive. He’d been working day and night to avoid thinking about what needed thinking about, but he had to stop sometime. He had to think sometime. He couldn’t put this off much longer.
He was going to propose to Sunny Cantrell, the sweetest girl in Oklahoma.
He cranked the knobs, stripped down and stepped into the spray. Then he washed and worried until a voice coming from his living room forced him to call it. Grabbing a towel and wrapping it around him, he opened the door a crack to peer out. His brother Rob stood there grinning at him. Jason gave a quick look at his shop door to be sure it was closed. It was.
“I brought you a beer,” Rob said, holding up the bottle.
“That’s perfect. I was just wishing for a beer. Gimme a sec?”
Rob nodded, sashaying into the living room to plunk himself on the sofa and twist the cap off his long neck. Wrapped in a towel, Tarzan style, Jason left wet footprints all the way to his bedroom where he pulled on a pair of pants. He scrubbed his hair with the towel on his way back out, tossed it behind him and missed the hamper.
“What brings you here, little bro?”
“My better half, mainly.”
Jason went to the easy chair, picking up his beer on the way by. “Kiley sent you?”
“Yeah, with a message.”
“For me? You sure it’s not for Sunny?” Sunny and Kiley and Angie Wakeland had been hanging out since last summer. All the girls were friendly, but that trio had become really tight.
“No, it’s for you. It’s about Sunny, though.”
“Well, by all means, deliver the message.” He tipped his bottle Rob’s way.
Rob stood up and cleared his throat. “Sunny Cantrell is the prettiest, happiest, most successful female in this town, and I have lost my baby weight now–”
“You have, have you?”
Jason scowled at him. “This is Kiley talking.”
“I don't think so. Her voice is higher, and she's easier on the eyes.”
“Do you mind if I finish?”
He waved a hand. “I can hardly wait.”
“I have lost my baby weight now and will look great in my bridesmaid's gown. So get your ass in gear before some other guy comes along and steals her right out from under your slow-moving nose.”
He just sat there a sec. Rob returned to his seat, took his beer off the coffee table and drank a big gulp.
“That’s quite the message.”
“Yeah.” He burped. “The beer was my idea. You’re welcome.”
"Huh. I gotta say, her timing is interesting. Stay right there.” He got up, went into the kitchen, opened a cabinet and took out a box of brownie mix.
“Are we baking, bro?"
“Nah. It’s the only place I knew she’d never find it. She wouldn’t be caught within ten feet of a mix.” He opened the box, tipped it up, and out came the little white box.
Rob jumped to his feet. “Holy Smokes, you’re really gonna do it!” He surged to the kitchen and snatched the ring box right out of his hand.
“I really am.”
Rob opened the box and turned it one way and another to make the diamonds sparkle. "I think Kiley will approve.”
Jason took the box back, snapped the lid closed. “Yeah, well, don’t tell her. No point in her being disappointed if Sunny says no.”
“What the–Sunny isn’t gonna say no. Why would she say no? You two have been seeing each other for what, four years now?”
“Almost five.” He put the ring back in the brownie box, returned it to the cupboard, top shelf, way back.
“She actually might. I would’ve popped the question before now, otherwise, but every time I bring up anything about…you know, a future together, she gets all funny.”
“Funny how?” Rob asked.
“Funny like she suddenly has to leave, or go to the bathroom, or she spills her sweet tea or something.”
“So, if you don’t think she wants it, then why are you asking?”
He heaved a huge sigh. “Because I want it. And if she doesn’t, well at least she’ll have to say so.”
Rob whistled a pretty good impression of a bomb falling as he dropped onto the sofa and said, “I think we’re gonna need more beer.”
“I just…this feels so stupid. What are we, teenage girls?”
“Yeah, we’re teenage girls. Tell me what’s going on with you, Jason. I’m your brother, come on.”
Jason took a deep breath. “I want what you and Joey have. And I want kids. Every time I hold your little Diana or take Matilda Louise on a piggy back ride, I just about lose it. I want a family and I want it with her.”
“And you don’t think she wants that, too?”
“That’s what I’m about to find out.” He went back to the kitchen, picking up his brother’s empty on the way.
“Tonight, I hope.”
“And I can’t tell Kiley?”
“No, because she’ll tell Sunny—instantly. And you know it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know it. But damn, when I get home, she’s gonna want to hear how this all went. You know, what you said when I gave you the message.”
“Tell her I said thanks for caring, and I’m taking it under advisement.”
The text that popped up on Sunny's cell phone said, “We need to talk. Can I come over tonight?”
Sunny was at the bakery’s front counter counting up the day’s take and putting the cash into a bank bag. She set the bag down and stared at the phone. Her heart sank a little.
“Everything okay, boss?
She glanced up at Mouse, who’d got his nickname as much for his large ears as for his actual first name, Mickey. He’d just finished mopping the main floor and was pushing his wheeled bucket toward the back. “Everything’s fine, Mouse. You go on home, you’re done for the day.”
“On my way.”
“Oh, and take this box of pastries with you for Ida Mae.” She set the box up on top of the counter, which was really a chest-high glass display case with shelves inside, and a cash register on top.
“Mmm, cheese danish?”
“Go ahead and snatch one for yourself before you hand ‘em over. These are leftovers.”
He looked up, one brow bent. “But you always send the leftovers to the Tucker Lake Shelter.”
Mickey was a former resident of the Tucker Lake Shelter. That was where she’d met him, back when she used to drive the extra baked goods over there herself. “There’s plenty for the shelter, I promise. I saved a dozen extra for Ida Mae, and one for you. Go on.”
He looked at the box and smiled. “Miss Ida Mae will offer me first choice from the box when I hand it to her. I think she’s nursing a crush on me.”
He was forty-something. Ida Mae was seventy-something. But she loved having Mickey there. He mowed her lawns, tended her flowers and did light repairs in exchange for room and board. He’d fixed up the second story of the old detached carriage house, and worked at the bakery for pocket-money. He was as happy as a millionaire.
He gave her a nod and a smile, took the box, and headed back.
“Tell Tabitha she can go, too, if she’s still in the kitchen.”
“Don’t worry about that one. Tabitha leaves at five. Not one minute later.”
“Gotta love a girl who knows her worth smack outta high school. G’night, Mouse.”
“Night, Miss Sunny.”
He pushed the mop bucket through the double doors into the kitchen.
Sunny picked up her phone again, re-read the message, and knew what it meant. Jason was going to break up with her. She’d been expecting it for a while now, and while she hated that it was going to happen, she knew it had to. Jason wanted more, she knew he did. He’d brought it up enough times. But she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
She’d tried hard not to let things get too serious between them. But as much as she'd held back, she'd become powerfully attached to him. And she cared about him. And she loved being with him. When he wasn't hinting about their future.
They didn't have a future.
She should've told him that from the beginning, but she hadn't, and before she knew it, she'd waited too long. So they'd been doing this dance for five years now—dating, hanging out together, sleeping together, attending all his huge family's events together. And all the while, with him trying to get closer and her trying not to.
He wanted more. He was the most eligible bachelor in the state of Oklahoma. He deserved to have what he wanted.
She looked down at the phone. His text looked back at her, unanswered. We need to talk. This was kind of heartbreaking. The two of them were good together. She liked having someone who was kind of hers. And he was a good man. A great man, really.
Best man she'd ever known.
She picked up the phone and typed “Just closing up," sent it and realized she was still avoiding the inevitable. Time to face the music. She couldn’t get serious with him, and she couldn’t tell him why not, and he deserved more. So she keyed in more. “Meet you in the pavilion down back?” It was, she figured, as good a place to be dumped as any, and a better place than most. It was her favorite spot. She almost decided to take it back, suggest somewhere else instead, but he was already replying. The ellipsis dots blinked a coming attraction.
The bell over the door jangled, but she didn’t look up until the text came through. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Ah, hell,” she whispered.
“Bad news?” Jack Kellogg, her best friend Kiley's father, came up to the counter, smiling his charming smile, dimples digging deep into his cheeks.
"Of course not." She put the phone down and greeted him with her usual sunny smile.
"I’ve always wondered if that’s short for anything. Sunny.”
“Nope.” She set the phone down. “What can I do for you, Jack?” She wasn’t fond of Jack Kellogg. He reminded her of people and things she’d rather forget. He’d done time. But he was Kiley’s father, and had allegedly reformed his con-man ways. Because of that, she tried to be polite to Jack and Kendra, Kiley’s twin sister, another reformed criminal. But as far as she was concerned, the two of them were not to be trusted.
“Looks like you’re closing up. I don’t want to–”
“I got distracted and didn’t turn the sign over, but don’t give it another thought.”
“I promised Diana a cookie," he said. "And if I don't bring one back, I'll lose grandpa points."
Kiley and Rob's little girl. Sunny’s heart melted at the mention of her name. Both her best friends had children, and she soaked up every bit of kid-time she could, knowing she’d probably never have a family of her own.
“Halfmoons are her favorite,” Sunny said. “Wait here.” She started to go, then remembered the bank bag was still sitting on the counter. But there was just no discreet way to pick it up now without being obvious. And she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
She sent Jack a smile and headed back into the kitchen, where the leftovers from the day were ready for delivery to the Tucker Lake Shelter. She put four halfmoon cookies into a pink box with white stripes. Her boxes were just like her awning. Each one bore the logo that was also painted on her front window, a bright yellow sun, with SUNNY’S PLACE spelled out above and below, each letter set within a curvy golden ray.
She didn’t go behind the counter, and she made herself not look at the bank bag as she met Jack in front of it. “Here you go. One for everybody.”
He smiled and said, “You can check if you want. Your money bag’s still there.”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“You went back and left an ex-con with your lettuce, so you wouldn't hurt his feelings. You risked a sack of cash just to be nice. Maybe even trusted me a little. I can’t even get that much out of my daughter.” He gave a shrug and a smile. “Yet.”
He handed her a ten-dollar bill, she waved him off. “I already tallied up for the day. These cookies have been written off. If I charge you, I’ll go to tax jail.”
He took a deep breath, like he was going to say something, but then lowered his head and turned to go.
“What? What were you going to say?”
He looked over his shoulder. “I uh…I have a past. You know that.”
“Everyone knows that. It’s a small town.” But no one knew about hers. She was living a lie in plain sight, and sooner or later, it was bound to come out. She dreaded that day. Jason flashed in her mind's eye, and her heart broke a little. She'd been fighting not to fall in love with him for years.
Jack turned around to face her again, like he'd changed his mind about leaving. “I uh—I don’t like when people from my past start coming around Big Falls. I’m a grandpa now. A very young, very handsome grandpa.”
“Modest, too,” she said smiling. But it felt odd, this conversation. They knew each other, were even friendly, but they didn’t talk. Not like this.
“Is someone from your past in town, Jack?”
“Someone I knew in passing yeah. Not to see me–I doubt he even knows I’m here. But you know, I keep up with a few old friends, so I hear things. He’s bad news, this guy.”
She wanted to ask why he was telling her this, but thought it would be rude. He seemed to really want to get it out. He wouldn't be the first local to come to her out of the blue, wanting to talk out a problem. People really seemed to think she had it all figured out, didn't they? God, if they only knew.
He was quiet. Expectant, so she said, “Do you have any idea what he wants in Big Falls?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged and looked at his toes. “It’s not good, whatever it is.”
“Why don’t you tell Chief Jimmy?”
“Yeah, I’m still not real comfortable around the law."
"He's not the law, Jack. He's family."
"I think you're stretching it there. He's my son in law's step-brother-in-law. We live up to the stereotype, don't we?"
"I'm not related, and they all feel like family to me. I love that about this town."
"You are family to Kiley. And little Diana lights up every time she sees you. I've got a lot to make up for with my girls. So, I wanted to give you a heads-up.”
She was still puzzled, but she thought she saw something in Jack she hadn't before. Maybe he really was trying to be a better person. Maybe they weren't so different, the two of them.
And then he brought his head up real slow, looked right into her eyes. “This guy who's on his way here, his name’s Braxton Hayes.”
Everything in her—body, blood, breath, bone—spun into a whirlpool that had opened under her feet. She was clawing to hold onto the edges, to keep from falling into the dark vortex. And she did it. She held on, palms flat to the counter. No more than a second had passed. Jack might’ve noticed. He might not. Hell, he might already know.
It had been a long, long time since she’d heard her brother’s name. And Jack Kellogg, alleged master of the con, not long out of prison, felt compelled to walk in here and tell her that Brax was coming for her just like she’d always known he would.
“Thanks for the cookies,” Jack said, all easy and smooth, like he didn’t know that he’d just set her world on fire. Trying to read his face was a waste of time. It only showed what he wanted her to see. Schoolboy dimples and mischievous Newman-blue eyes. “So long, Sunny. You take care, now.”
He was out the door before she’d regained the power of speech. She closed her eyes. Opened them again. She wanted to believe it was coincidence, that Jack had just come in here and spilled his guts to her like a drinker to a bartender. Instead of alcohol, she served sugar. And weren’t they sort of the same thing?
But no. It had been no accident. Jack had walked in to warn her, and that meant he knew.
And if he knew, her life in Big Falls was over.
“Oh, no,” she whispered. “Oh no.”