Clay’s sister Pamela brought her family to Lubbock for Christmas and Clay decided to drive home. The long trip gave him plenty of time to think. When he pulled into the driveway without Lauren, his mom asked about her.
“What do you mean, gone?” Bonnie held the door open for him.
“She moved out.” He didn’t acknowledge her surprise as he walked past her.
“She just got out of the hospital a few weeks ago.”
“I know.” He took off his coat and hung it on the rack by the front stairs.
He hated being short with his mother, but he knew whatever he said would be repeated to his dad and sister. If they wanted to hash over the gory details of his life, they’d need to wait until Christmas was over and he was gone.
Pamela’s sons, Hunter and Dakota, were five and seven. The two boys were all Texas twang and twenty-two rifles. Every time he talked to those boys on the phone, they told him how excited they were about Christmas at Meemaw’s and Peepaw’s house. They loved their grandparents for the four wheelers, the hunting and the cows. And when the boys said cows, Clay knew they meant cow manure fights in the barn. They were a pair of “yes ma’am” and “no sir” saying, Wrangler jean and Justin boot wearing, red-headed whirlwinds.
Clay put his bag in his room even though the boys were sleeping in his room. He would be sleeping on the fold-out. It wouldn’t work to have the little ones on the sleeper sofa while “Santa” was putting together bicycles.
His mother and sister spent their time making sure the house felt like Christmas. They hung holly and lights in the living room. While they worked together on the holiday feast, Christmas music played from a radio on the kitchen counter. Clay cleared out when the women corralled the boys in the kitchen to make plaster-of-Paris Christmas ornaments of their handprints. That effort only produced a mess. But, the boys did successfully manage to make long popcorn garlands that they wrapped around the bottom half of the tree, because they refused to accept help getting them any higher.
Clay was comfortable out there on the farm, with family traditions being passed down, and two rambunctious little boys running roughshod through the house like they owned the place.
He knew his family was concerned. His mother kept looking at him, head tilted back and eyebrows pulled together, as if waiting for him to tell her something. He couldn’t give her any satisfaction.
Still, keeping information from them didn’t stop them from hashing. On Saturday afternoon, Clay came around the corner, carrying Dakota’s newly sighted rifle.
“You have got to be kidding! How old do you think she was?” Pamela asked, before she realized he was there.
Bonnie snapped her eyes over to him, and Pamela followed her gaze.
There was only a moment’s silence before Bonnie recovered. “Are you boys getting hungry? I made chicken and dumplin’s.” She grabbed her spoon, as if suddenly remembering to stir the pot on the stove.
He looked between Pamela and his mother, irritated. “I’m sure the little guys are hungry by now,” Clay said. “They’re going to wear dad smooth out. His nerves can’t take it like they used to. I’ll tell them it’s ready?” He turned back toward the door and Pamela put her hand on his arm.
“Clay, are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Pamela.” He looked down at her hand and then up at her, but she left her hand there.
“Well, I know it’s hard now. It’s a downright tragedy. But maybe in the long run.. Maybe…Well it sounds like everything may have worked out for the best.”
“What would make you say that?” Clay asked her.
“Well… Uh… It’s just that… Well it didn’t sound like she was right for you.”
“Well I’m glad you have it all figured out. I feel better already.” He told her as he walked to the door. He turned back before he walked out. “Listen. Don’t ever think you have the right to judge her, Pamela. You have no idea who she is.”
He walked out and reported to the men in the barn that dinner was ready. When everyone gathered around the table to say grace, Pamela looked apologetic. He could tell that she was sorry about their earlier exchange, and he was too.
Even though Pamela and the boys were out of school until after the first of the year, Todd had to go back to work the day after Christmas. So once the presents were opened and loaded into Todd and Pamela’s car, his sister gave him a goodbye hug.
“It sure was good to see you, Clay, and I’m so sorry about your loss. If there is anything I can do…”
“I’ll be fine. You have a beautiful family, Pamela. You’re doing a good job with those boys. I envy you.”
Bonnie stood watching, twisting a towel nervously in her hands. She patted Clay on the back as they walked to the porch, where they stood and watched Pamela’s family drive out of sight.
Like Todd, Clay had to be back at work, so he left the farm right after lunch. Before leaving town, he drove out to the cemetery. He ran his hand over the metal plaque, tracing the outline of her name. It would be spring before the new grass would take hold and keep the loose dirt in from covering the marker. With frost soaking the knees of his jeans, he wept there alone at her grave. It was a short lapse, and he caught himself quickly. He pinched the bridge of his nose to stop the flow of tears. Then he stood up, took a deep breath, and went back to his truck. He drove east to Waco while the sun went west and eventually set in his rearview mirror.
Back in Waco, he spent New Year’s Eve at a bar with Logan. And as the new year took shape, he found himself in the same routine that had been his life before Lauren. The blank space left in his day-to-day was similar to the vacancy after Allyson left. But the hole that he couldn’t go near for fear of being sucked in was the one in his future. All planning, all hoping, all looking forward had been sucked into it already. What was there but more of the same stretching out in front of him? The only difference between life before and life after was the new knowledge that his life seemed to have no purpose.
Clay tried hard to push thoughts of Lauren and Emily out of his mind. There was a new space to fill and only work to fill it. He was old enough to know that life wasn’t over. He was old enough to know that he might find someone else before long and end up married with kids. He knew it wasn’t his last chance. It wasn’t even his best chance. But he had enjoyed them while they had been in his life. And now that they were both gone, he only wanted to get some distance from his loss, so that when he did look back on it, it wouldn’t hurt so damn bad.
His mother tread lightly when she called and asked if he wanted her to pack up all of the baby’s things and store them at the farm. Clay let her clean up after the tempest that blew in and out of his life, leaving everything slightly askew. Bonnie did the work silently. No comments. No questions. He knew his mother was angry at Lauren for the way she left. He could feel her watching him, looking for a way to approach the subject, but he didn’t give her the chance.
When he got to the house to see her, he noticed that she had dusted and he thanked her for cleaning up. Then he carried the heavier things out to the truck for her, and she thanked him, as if he were doing her a favor.
“Are you going to keep this house?” she asked him that night as they ate at the dining room table.
“Might as well. The longer I keep it the more I’ll make when I sell it.”
“Is she supposed to come back for those maternity clothes in the closet? Or should I take them?”
“You should take them. She’s not coming back.”
“When was the last time you talked to her?”
“Mom.” He put his fork down and gave her a sharp look.
“Clay, I just don’t understand. What happened? Who was this girl? This is just so unlike you.”
“Mom, I’m a grown man. She was just a girl. I met her out in Curt and…” He couldn’t remember what came next. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
“You fell in love with her,” she finished for him. “I could see it all over your face.”
“I just don’t understand how she could just leave you like that.”
“I guess she didn’t love me back.”
“Sure she did. That’s why I don’t understand. What happened? Didn’t you tell her that you loved her?”
“Mom, please. I don’t want to go into this. She’s gone. It’s over.”
“You didn’t tell her, did you? Have you called her?”
“She changed her number.”
“Well, I’ll be.” She got up and took their plates to the kitchen to wash them. Then she went down the hall to finish packing up Lauren’s old clothes.
The next morning, he walked her outside to say goodbye.
“Have you even been sleeping here?” she asked as they were standing by Dwayne’s truck, packed up and tied down, the baby furniture covered by a blue tarp.
“Sometimes, but I have a couch at the office.”
“You sleep in your construction trailer?”
“Sometimes.” He tested the rope that criss-crossed the bed of the truck. “You all set? You have gas?”
“Yeah, I guess I better get on the road. I hate driving at night, and Dwayne hates eating those frozen casseroles I left him.”
One Saturday in March, driving back to work after lunch, Clay passed a softball field and saw Lauren’s car parked on the street. He drove by slowly and searched the people on the field. Then he saw a girl pull her shoulders back and lift her chin to laugh, a mannerism he would have recognized in a crowd of thousands. He hadn’t known she had imprinted herself on him so completely until he saw her again after so much time.
He didn’t stop. He watched her in the space of a few seconds as he passed. She was out in the sun, wearing shorts and a ponytail. She had on a cap and a team shirt with Teleserv across the back. She held a softball glove and she was talking to someone across the field. He had never seen her in a ball cap.
She looked fine. Not just pretty and healthy, but whole. She didn’t look like a victim. Part of him was relieved. The part of him that felt responsible for the bruising of such a young girl’s heart was off the hook.
But it bothered him that they had recovered from the loss of their child separately. She was the only one he had wanted to share his grief with, and she hadn’t felt the same way. That part of him felt discarded, like a splinter that needed to be pulled before she could heal. He had been watching her longer than he had known her. She had always been better without him.
He went home and painted the baby’s room back to the same taupe color in the rest of the house. Then he called his mom.