Jake saw the old pickup coming toward him but paid it little mind because it was going the wrong way to do him any good. When it came closer, he noticed a young woman and a child inside, but didn’t recognize them. He nodded politely as they passed and kept on walking.
When he was a little farther down the road, he heard the vehicle braking, then turning around, and his first instinct was to brace for another confrontation. When the pickup caught up with him and stopped, he didn’t know what to expect.
Laurel rolled down the window and managed a brief smile.
“I’m Laurel Payne, your neighbor down the road. Get in and I’ll take you home.”
Jake breathed an easy sigh of relief. “Thanks,” he said, and put his things in the truck bed. He saw the little girl in the backseat as he opened the door and winked at her as he got in.
Bonnie was immediately charmed, partly because he reminded her of her father, whom she missed, and partly because he belonged to Mr. Lorde, whom she had adored.
Laurel waited until he settled before she accelerated.
“Welcome home,” she said shyly, and kept her eyes on the road.
“Thank you,” Jake said, trying to figure out who she was, and then it hit him. “You were Laurel Joyner, right?”
“You said it’s Payne now. By any chance did you marry Adam Payne? I knew him in high school.”
“Yes, I did,” she said.
“My daddy is dead,” Bonnie announced.
Laurel sighed. “That’s my daughter, Bonnie. She’s a first-grader this year.”
“Hello, Bonnie. I’m sorry about your daddy, and I’m sorry for your loss,” he told Laurel.
“Thank you,” Laurel said, but when she wasn’t forthcoming with any further information, Jake didn’t push the issue.
A few minutes later they drove up on the mailbox at the end of his driveway. Laurel slowed down, and when she turned off the road and headed up the driveway, the ruts were so deep that they bounced in the seats all the way to the house.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Looks like you just pointed out the first repair I need to put on my list,” Jake said.
She pulled up to the fence surrounding the yard, put the truck in park, and started to get out.
“No, don’t get out. I can get it all,” Jake said. “I really appreciate the ride and hope I didn’t make you late to wherever you were going.”
“We’re fine with the time,” Laurel said. “Have a nice day, and again, welcome home.”
“Thank you,” Jake said.
Laurel waited while he gathered all of his things from the back of her truck and then headed for the front door. As soon as he was clear of her truck, she began backing up to turn around.
When Jake turned to watch her hasty exit, he saw her little girl on her knees in the backseat watching him. She waved.
He waved back and then they were gone and he had no other excuses to delay the inevitable. He reached above the door for the key, unlocked it, and went inside. He set his duffel bag against the wall and then headed to the kitchen with the groceries.
His footsteps echoed on the old hardwood floors, and despite the cleaning, the rooms smelled musty. He set the groceries on the counter and then opened the two windows in the kitchen to start airing the house. The house might get chilly, but he was choosing fresh air rather than airless, musty rooms.
Opening the cabinet doors as he put up food was like turning back time. His mother’s dishes were still stacked in the same places they had been when he was growing up. A couple of coffee cups were missing, probably broken from years of use. When he opened a drawer to the left of the sink and found the notepads and pens they’d used to make lists and saw his father’s writing on the top page of one pad, a moment of anger swept over him. His father’s grocery list was still here, but he wasn’t. He picked up the one on top to begin a new list of things he was going to need, then took it with him as he walked through the rooms, making notes of what he needed to buy.
He knew for sure he needed toilet paper, bath powder, and toothpaste for the bathroom. Laundry soap, stain remover, and cleaning supplies for the utility room. Light bulbs for the house, and everything it took to restock a kitchen.
He was passing a window when he saw the school bus go by the house. He glanced at the clock and smiled. Fifteen minutes to eight—-the same time he’d always caught the bus. He continued through the house, checking off things needing repairs. The showerhead was leaking and he’d noticed loose boards on the front porch when he’d stepped on it.
Several times he thought he heard footsteps in the house and would turn, expecting to see his father walk into the room with a big welcome-home grin on his face, and then remember. He made a note to get a Wi-Fi connection at the house and to set up his email.
It was moving toward noon when he finally closed all of the windows and turned on the central heat to warm up the house, then grabbed the keys to his dad’s pickup from a small nail inside one of the upper cabinets and headed toward the barn. It’s where he’d left the truck after the funeral.
A trio of pigeons roosting in the rafters flew off when he entered. The red Chevrolet truck was a little dusty but otherwise intact. Jake unlocked it with the remote and then looked inside. It was just as he’d left it. He backtracked to the last granary where he’d hidden the battery and put it back in the vehicle. He checked the oil, the transmission fluid, and the air pressure in the tires before he was satisfied, then started it up and drove it to the house and parked beneath the carport.
He was back in the kitchen making a sandwich when he thought of Laurel Payne again and wondered where she’d been going so early, then wondered what she did for a living. It had to be tough being a single parent.
He sat down in the living room to eat and turned on the television to catch local news, only to realize he didn’t recognize any of the journalists reporting. So some things had changed after all.
The food he’d made was tasteless, but his hunger had been satisfied, and that was all that mattered. He was thinking about going into town and setting up his banking, then checking in with the post office to let them know he was home and to resume delivery.
But then he fell asleep and went back to war.
Jake woke up in a sweat, his heart pounding and tears in his eyes.
“Son of a… Ah, God,” he muttered, and bolted off the sofa as if he’d been launched, trying to get as far away from the dream as possible.
He yanked the front door open and strode onto the porch, taking in the fresh air in gulps. The sweat on his forehead began to cool as the tears dried on his cheeks, and he began to pace. The loose boards squeaked, reminding him of a job still undone. Furious from the dream and frustrated because the war still haunted his life, he went straight to the toolshed for a hammer and nails, then back to the house.
Every time the hammer made contact with a nail, it took everything he had not to duck, because it sounded like gunshots. He was so focused on getting rid of the nightmare that he didn’t see Laurel Payne driving home, but she saw him.