Jim spent hours walking the fenced edges of the ranch. The hot Wyoming sun leeched the tears from him, giving him a release for the grief. Pain was a welling pressure, like a bleeding wound. Without changing the gauze or releasing the pressure, he found himself angry, volatile, and sinking into despair. As he wandered through Lisa's childhood, he was able to release it by degrees. Letting go and allowing the healing process to begin.
She hadn't said much about this place. She had always spoken of it like she had desperately wanted to leave it behind. He'd had a hard time understanding her motivations. There was some fear or unspoken concern that she avoided at all costs. To Jim, everything looked like a picturesque painting of the perfect childhood from where he stood.
He could imagine rushing through the tall golden grasses that spread out infinitely, head barely tall enough to find your way. Easily hiding just by dropping to ground. The only indication that those tall grasses didn't continue on forever were the mountains that stood around him, looking like a backdrop from movie.
The fence was weathered, some had even started to buckle, but none of them had fallen. It was a testament to the quality and effort that had been spent when they were first put in place. Like the fences, an abandoned barn stood between the fences. The long boards forming the walls had warped with time, pulling slightly from the sturdy supports underneath. He moved inside, tentatively, making sure it was safe. He could smell the age and sweetness from long dried manure and the sun cured wood. Patches of grass had grown here and there, following the cracks of light that fell to the floor.
There were a series of small fenced areas with a loft that still had the leavings of windblown hay from ages back. The vertical timbers stood strong. He was surprised to see names etched on one of them. There were a series of height markers etched into the wood and a patchwork of names, each vying for space on the wide piece of wood. Janice and Rachel were among the names, as well as a boy's chiseled less precise hand showing the name Sully. They were very old, blackened by time and stained by the oils left by the animals that had rubbed against them. None of the markers appeared taller than four feet.
On another support, Jim found Lisa's name. Hers appeared almost fresh, showing up after the animals had gone. It was isolated and apart from the others.
"Maybe there was something to that," Jim said to himself.
It changed the story if she was a lonely child, the older generations having very little in common with their grand niece, and she remained trapped by miles of freedom.
He slid to the floor and leaned against the support, Lisa's name just over his head as he sat there. He put his hand around and reached into his pocket. He pulled out her wedding ring and looked closely at the tiny row of diamonds that dotted the outer edge. It was a simple, elegant reminder of their union, tiny in his palm. It could barely fit over the first knuckle of his ring finger, but it went over his right pinky finger where it fit snugly. He still wore his own wedding band, not knowing if or when he would ever take it off. He lifted his arm and gripped the support behind him and closed his eyes. She had been here. Ages ago, sure, but it was something.
"I never planned to lose you," he said to the barn walls and that lingering sweetness.
"I never planned to be lost," her voice echoed in his head.
He shuddered, tears pressing to the surface again. He let his bone shaking sobs take him, again bleeding off more of that pressure. He'd held it for so long in order to keep things together for his kids. He was pretty Abigail had seen through it. It was unfortunate that his melancholy had made him blind to theirs. Daniel was probably just young enough to be hurt by it, being about the age where his first indelible memories started. Abigail, was nearly eight and Jim was sure he didn't know what he could do for her to lessen the damage.
"I hope that I can, someday, convey how wonderful of a mother you were." He said softly to himself.
He loosened his grip and dropped his hand to the floor below and closed his eyes, breathing in the summer heat with long breaths.
"They'll know, love," her voice echoed again, then she whispered closely, "dinner's ready."
He gasped, feeling himself wake up as he heard the peal of a bell. He drew a ragged breath and looked around the barn. His heart raced. He leaned against the back of the support, then pulled himself to his feet.
He bowed his head to the childlike letters and brushed his hand over them.
"We'll talk later," he said softly.
Jim kissed his fingertips and touched them to her name.
The ringing bell had stopped. The sunset drenched the valley in a soft red glow. He walked through the grass that was now a rich, coppery color. The heat was still there, but the breeze made gave it a gentle touch.
He saw the large bell at the back of the house and marveled at it. Tarnished with age, but very well built. He'd have expected to see it on the bow of a ship. A weather blackened cord stretched back to the back door that opened into the kitchen. Jim smiled at the antiquity of it.
The table was set and Janice motioned for Jim to sit. The children were already in place, poised over their food, but held back by either words or threats. He smiled to himself, fascinated by the propriety.
The meal consisted of a hearty meatloaf, sweet corn on the cob, and fresh baked rolls. The bread steamed as Jim pulled them apart. He looked to Janice and shook his head in disbelief.
"This is amazing." He said, his mouth still full.
She gave him a reproachful look, then let it fade into a smile. Abigail and Daniel had been talking back and forth giving a pleasant backdrop for the meal.
"How are you doing, Abby?" He asked, leaning in with a tired smile.
"It's great!" She started, excitedly. Her bright blue eyes wide, her dark auburn hair tousled and erratic.
"They have so many dolls in the attic!"
"And toy soydurs!" Daniel said, stumbling around the word 'soldiers'.
Rachael walked in and leaned delicately against the doorway, listening in. This was the second time he'd seen her since he set foot in the house. She whisked the children up stairs and left him with Janice almost immediately. Her eyes sparkled at the sight of the children.
"You should eat, sister." Janice said, a tad more firmly than seemed necessary.
"I'm not hungry, sister," Rachael said, her tone a slight challenge, but she still smiled.
Rachael turned to him.
"They are beautiful children, Jim. Lovely in every way." She said.
She put a hand on his shoulder, and her eyes shone brightly with a barely contained joy.
Janice and Rachael looked similar, but it was clear that Rachael was some years younger, she had a lighter complexion and seemed to have a dusting of freckles that had spread wider with age. Her hair was a light brown that draped down her back. It was held together loosely with a red ribbon. A subtle light gray touched her temples which was a stark contrast to Janice's uniformly dark gray hair pulled tightly into a bun.
Jim looked to each of them, Janice looked on Rachael with some annoyance, but Rachael seemed completely unaffected. Doubtless, being together that long would make for some strained company.
"Oh, daddy! Look at this," Abigail held up a small necklace that had a large, deep red stone in a metal clasp.
It seemed to light up at her fingertips, amplifying the dim light from the kitchen fixture.
"It's mine. She gave it to me."
I smiled to Rachael, who remained focused on Abigail, her eyes glossy with emotion.
"Did you say thank you?" I asked her.
"Yep!" Abigail beamed, "It's called a blood stone."
Janice had a look of disapproval.
"Hmm, I'm not sure," I said, looking closely at it, "Bloodstones are usually green, not red."
"It looks like blood to me." She said with a shrug, looking closely at it.
Jim felt weariness pulling at him. Even with the brief nap in the barn, he'd had a lot of sleepless nights to make up for. Janice seemed to recognize this and all traces of the disapproval had vanished.
"You need to rest, dear," she said, "let me show you to your room."
"I'll ready the children for bed," Rachael said, and stooped to their level, "Daniel, Abigail? Are you ready to see your room?"
Both of them lit up and Rachael flagged them along, toddling playfully from the room with them close on her heels.
"You'll have to forgive her," Janice said with a sigh, "She had always wanted children. She's mostly a child herself."
"I can relate," Jim said with a smile, "Any reason she didn't try?"
"Oh, work to be done. I'm sure you understand," Janice said, elegantly dismissing the question.
"Thank you, again. I appreciate the time. I, needed a moment to collect myself." He told her, feeling a tug at his again.
"I'm not sure I could describe how much this means to us," she said, "We're happy to help."
Janice led him to a hall from the front room that ran parallel to the stairs going up. Ended in the bathroom with a hallway continuing down either side. Immediately to his right was another door that he assumed went into the cellar.
"That was Lisa's room," she said, pointing to the room further to the right, "It's now a guest room, but it felt right for you to stay in it."
Jim thanked her and she nodded and began to step away, then stopped and turned back.
"The children are just above you. I'm sure Rachael will take care of them if they get upset during the night, but they should be easy to find." She said, then nodded, "Sleep well, Jim."
He nodded silently and twisted the knob. The room was small and boxlike. It had the same very tall ceilings like the rest of the first floor. The bed itself was a grandiose queen mattress, placed perfectly in the center of the room. It was layered with comforters and billowing pillows, smelling of a sweet perfume that resembled roses. The bed itself was immaculately made, with extra blankets at the foot. A small chest sat the foot of the bed. Underneath that was a large round rug protecting it from the polished wooden floors.
Opposite the door was a set of corner shelves, holding a variety of keepsakes and picture frames. Some were downright ancient. Near the top, a small antique lamp filled with a thick red oil. A vanity sat against the wall with a tall oval mirror. It stood between a set of East facing windows, three dolls the were positioned on the vanity, facing the South wall. A cubby with a folded curtain revealing a small closet.
Like the front room, it was maintained to an uncanny level of perfection with everything in its place and Jim felt awkward for what he was going to do next.
He lifted the blankets and put them on the vanity, careful to avoid knocking the dolls to the ground. He pulled back the comforter and let it hang to the floor and stripped back the next set of sheets until it was just a thin layer between him and the open air of the room.
He pulled the pillows from the bed and laid them on top of the other blankets and looked at the stripped down bed. He sighed at the work he'd be doing in the morning to try and regain that rigid order that Janice had, undoubtedly, put into place.
Jim switched the light off and laid on his back, listening to movement on the floor above him. The kids' rapid footfalls and Rachael's own following up. The soft sounds of Rachael speaking to those children exactly as a great aunt should. He smiled, his heavy eyes trying to close. The room was full of a soft glow from the moonlight spilling over the Wyoming prairie.
"Lisa." He whispered to the darkness, closing his eyes, "Why did you leave here?"
He could feel the heaviness of his thoughts lulling him to sleep.
"Some things are far too much for someone so young," her voice eddied around him, "But now I understand."
Jim attempted to wake himself with the response, a slight crease furrowing his brow. He cracked his eyes and saw the dark outline of her silhouette against the moonlight windows. He fought to keep his eyes open, but the effort was beyond him.
"Why? ... Lisa." he stumbled through the words weakly.
"Shh, dear. Sleep." She said.
His brow smoothed at her words and he succumbed.