Maggie's Fork in the Road (Montana Bound Series Book 2), p.4
“You didn’t have to have us over.”
Deflated, I thought about the grains of salt hitting my wounded heart. It burned. “Just because we’re at odds doesn’t mean I have to ignore Chloe. We can be adults,” I said, turning the faucet on to rinse the vegetables. I glanced at John. “What do you want me to do? You asked my mother to babysit while you go see your dad.” His green eyes flickered. “If she’s involved, you get me too. You know that.” I turned my back to him and washed the carrots.
“I know,” he mumbled.
The faucet clunked as I shut off the water. “I know, you know.” My blood ran hot and my patience thin. “Look,” I said, smacking the hamburger patties together. “I don’t get it.” I leaned over the counter and held his stare. “It took me long enough to trust you. Not to mention, I said that I loved you and where did that get me. Nowhere. You could have said something about leaving a little sooner.”
“I’m sorry.” His voice broke as the front door slammed shut.
Chloe trotted in. “Mission accomplished.” She held up the cake she and Mom picked out together.
Not quite. I nudged the platter of uncooked burgers toward John. “Could you put these on? I’ll get the plates. We’ll have salad while the burgers cook. Should be quick,” I said, avoiding John’s gaze.
Mom filled Chloe’s bowl with tossed salad. Chloe licked her lips and rubbed her tummy. “Yum. I love salad. Does Winston like salad?”
“You really shouldn’t call him that. He’s your grandfather.” John handed Chloe a napkin to wipe her chin.
She popped a cherry tomato into her mouth. “But I like his name. What’s his whole name again? You say it better than me.”
John swallowed his bite. “Winston Ludlow McIntyre.”
Chloe smiled. “I like it!”
“That’s a fancy name,” my mom said with a wink.
I listened to them talk about the ranch, horses, and cattle.
After dinner, John kissed Chloe. “You mind your manners while I’m gone, young lady. Glad has my number and she can call at any time.” John held her chin in the palm of his hand.
Chloe grinned her toothy grin as she clung to her father’s neck. “I’ll be good. Glad is my friend. She’s not like the others.”
I couldn’t help but grin, too as John stared through me. “She’s right about that.” I squeezed my mom’s shoulder then kissed her cheek.
John stroked Chloe’s messy hair. “You finish your cake while I talk to Maggie for a minute. In private.”
I scooted my chair back and walked with John to the far side of the yard. Chloe cackled at Mom’s silly jokes while I tried to focus on John’s words. I shoved my hands in my pockets. He put his finger under my chin and I gazed up into his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Maggie. I never meant to hurt you. There’s a lot to figure out here. I really do appreciate your help with Chloe. She needs you.”
“What about you?” I asked barely able to speak. He caressed my cheek just like he had done to Chloe moments ago. My insides crumbled.
“It’s time to go.” He checked his watch, shifted his weight, then put his hands in his pockets. “You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. We can talk when I get back,” John said, reaching for the gate.
He kissed my forehead then waved goodbye to Chloe and Glad.
Chloe and Mom swung on the porch swing as I drove up the driveway. They belonged together. It amazed me how some people just fit. I parked my Equinox and got out. Bones ran up to me and nudged my leg. His tail whipped back and forth against my shins.
“Hey, boy,” I said, reaching down to pat his head. Papers from my book bag flitted to the ground. As I knelt down to retrieve them, Bones snatched one from my hand. With his head between his front paws on the ground and his hindquarters in the air, he beckoned for me to chase him.
“You can keep Justin Knight’s paper. He won’t miss it,” I said, walking away. Bones trotted alongside me up the stairs to the front porch with the paper between his teeth. Chloe stopped reading to Mom as soon as she saw Bones.
“Drop it,” she commanded.
Bones dropped the paper at her feet then jumped up in her lap making the swing lurch. Mom dropped her knitting needles.
“Geez, Louise,” she said.
I dropped my school bag, picked up her needles then handed them back to her. I inspected Justin’s paper. It was sopped with dog drool and now had holes in it just below his name, thanks to Bones.
“That’s funny,” Chloe said. “You can tell your student that your dog ate his homework.” Chloe used air quotes when she said the word, “your.” She read the name aloud on the paper. “I know a boy named Justin and he’s not very nice. He thinks he’s funny, but really I wish somebody would clean his clock.”
Her Justin and my Justin had a lot in common. Mom peered over the rim of her peony pink reading glasses. “Clean his clock?”
“Yeah, you know, give him a taste of his own medicine, beat him up a little so he’d stop picking on others. Clean his clock, that’s what Dad calls it.” Chloe scratched Bones’ head as his eyes drifted closed.
“Speaking of your dad, has he called?” I inquired nonchalantly.
Mom continued knitting. “He called earlier. He arrived safely. His dad sounds nice.”
“I don’t want to move there. I want to stay here,” Chloe said. “It’s not fair, I’m the one that has to sacrifice because grown-ups don’t know what they want. First, my mom with this modeling gig and now dad wants to move back to Montana. I know I haven’t seen my grandfather in a long time, but now we have to move there? They didn’t even bother to ask me what I wanted to do.”
Mom’s gaze met mine.
“I’m sure it will all work out,” Mom said, yanking fuzzy purple yarn from the knotted skein.
“Right,” Chloe said, rolling her eyes. “For who?”
Bones settled in her lap and snored.
“That’s just what grown-ups say so us kids will think something good will happen.”
“Can’t argue with that,” I said, picking up my things before heading inside. My phone chimed with a text. I inspected the screen, John’s name flashed across the digital display. I kicked off my shoes and plopped down on the stairs. Blue sky and mountains filled my screen as I opened the multi-media message. The photo reminiscent of a classic National Geographic. I read the message. Just checking in. This is what I’m talking about. I closed the photo and marched upstairs to change my clothes. My phone chimed again. This time, Brook’s name flashed across the screen. I sat at the end of my bed slumped over like a losing prizefighter. “Nothing good can come from this.” I sighed then opened the text. Just checking in. Chloe called today. Where’s John?
I typed my response. Chloe’s fine. Call John for the details. “Oh for God’s sakes.” Lying back trying to fan away the hot flash, my phone chimed again. I checked the screen then read John’s next text. Do you know if Chloe called Brook? I set the phone down on the bed. Irritated about being the monkey in the middle, I closed my eyes. “Oh for God’s sakes, just talk to each other,” I said to myself before stretching out and grabbing Lou Ann Rice’s latest novel from my nightstand.
I thumbed through the pages to find where I’d left off. Immersed in the words the day’s drudgery seemed almost tolerable. With additional cuts and demands at school, my energy was being zapped. Like today, I felt my fingers slipping from the lifeline. John knew what he wanted and I wavered in the land of indecision. The unknown sparked worry. I wanted a clear picture. Once upon a time, that picture was crystal clear, but like Beckett it had faded into the background.
“Five minutes’ peace is all I want.” I sighed as the phone rang. Brook’s name flashed across the screen. That little voice warned me against answering it. I continued to read, hesitating to answer the call. “Hello,” I said as the cover of my book flipped closed when I put it down.
“Let’s get over the pleasantries. I’m fine. How about you?” she said.
“I’m great.” I sat up. My hair fell into my face as I leaned forward to inspect my toenails.
“So, what’s this about John going to Montana?”
“Um, I think you should really talk to him.”
“I tried calling. He didn’t pick up. Is your mother really staying with Chloe while he’s gone?”
“Yeah, everything is fine. They’re downstairs reading at the moment. I really think you should talk to John about this.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “So Chloe called you?”
“Yes. I have to go. Please keep an eye on her while he’s gone.”
I rubbed my right temple as it began to throb. “Sure.” I inhaled and held my breath thinking if I held it long enough I would pass out from the lack of oxygen instead of this conversation with John’s ex-wife. “Quick question.”
“You sure you want me watching your daughter?”
“Chloe likes you. Thought maybe you could head her off at the pass if she decides to act up. She seems to listen to you.”
My lip curled upward at her annoyed tone. Deep down Brook trusted me, even if I got under her skin. The clock read six. That meant it was three o’clock in Hollywood. “Brook.”
“Why did you really call me? I haven’t seen you since you left last summer. You never called to say you received your photos. And now you’re calling me to find out about Chloe?” I heard her sigh, again. I pictured Brook pushing her newest pair of Channel glasses up onto her forehead in disgust.
“No reason. Tell Chloe to be good. Talk to you later.” Brook’s faint words trailed off.
Brook disconnected herself before I could say goodbye. “Whatever?” I said to myself. The thought of making dinner pained me. The thought of eating dinner exhausted me. I scorned my rumpled bed and forced myself to go downstairs after slipping on my sleeping pants and a T-shirt.
Mom peered at me as I lollygagged about the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator, inspected the contents, then shut the door. The cake from last night’s dinner sat on the counter. Opening the box, I sized up the contents, broke off the corner, and shoved it into my mouth leaving a trail of crumbs.
“You’re a sad state of affairs,” Mom said.
“Yup,” I murmured, trying not to lose any cake in the conversation.
“Rough day?” she asked.
I swallowed. “Rough everything,” I answered.
“Chloe had a rough day, too.”
“How rough could it be being in third grade at this time of year?” I asked, shoving another bite of cake into my mouth. I grabbed a napkin and wiped the frosting from my lips.
“She got into a fight. I picked her up early.”
“What!” A few crumbs flew in Mom’s direction. I swallowed then wiped them off the counter. “That doesn’t sound right.” I pictured Chloe scrapping with another child.
“Does John know?” I asked, reaching for another bite of cake.
Mom grabbed my hand before my fingers touched the frosting. “I’ll make you two sorry girls diner dinner. Stop eating that. And yes, John knows. Go turn on the grill.”
The cool tile floor soothed my tired achy feet as I walked across the kitchen toward the patio doors. It wasn’t like Chloe to get physical. Her scrappy demeanor and quick wit seemed like the perfect combination to detour any jerky kid. Running my fingers through my hair, I rubbed my neck, and waited for the grill to ignite.
Bones scurried across the patio and out to the Dogwood tree. My eyes followed his path. So did my feet when I saw a pair of high tops peeking out from underneath the blooming branches. I knelt down to wiggle Chloe’s toe. “Hey, Glad is going to make us diner dinner.”
Chloe didn’t stir.
“Hey, are you in there?” A hot flash warmed my cheeks and singed my nerves. I wiggled Chloe’s toe again. “We’re having diner dinner. You won’t want to miss that.”
“Fine, have it your way,” I mumbled. Chloe wasn’t the only one feeling sucker-punched. It was a tough time at school with the angst of unknown projections for the following year and the students’ excitement for summer vacation.
“What’s diner dinner?” Chloe said.
Bones gave a little woof then licked Chloe’s shins. She wiggled her legs. I thought I heard her giggle.
“Stop that,” she whined. “What’s diner dinner?”
“Hotdogs, homemade fries, and milkshakes.” It’d been a long time since we’d made a diner dinner. Mom made them for me a lot during my teenage angst years. I’d made my share of them for Bradley when he needed comfort. Glancing over to the house, the whirr of the blender purred through the open window. “You want a strawberry or a chocolate milkshake?”
Chloe didn’t answer.
“You know, you aren’t the only one that had a crappy day.”
“You shouldn’t swear,” Chloe jabbered.
I rolled my eyes. “If you’re gonna stay under that tree, I’ll have your milkshake, too.” My knees creaked as I stood up. The shaggy grass tickled my toes. I felt a thin grin creep across my lips as a ladybug waddled across the top of my bare foot. I touched my collarbone remembering my bought with breast cancer and the tattoos radiation left behind. The insect’s tiny wings fluttered as it flew away. I envied its freedom to come and go as it wished. It flitted past my ear sending a shiver down my spine. I was pretty sure it was delivering a message. Mom yelled from the patio. “I need to help Glad,” I told Chloe.
The lower branches rustled. Bones sat and waited at Chloe’s feet. When she emerged, her face was smeared with dirt and tears.
“I want chocolate.”
“By the looks of you, I think you’re going to need whipped cream and extra fries.”
Chloe joined Mom and me on the patio after she cleaned herself up. I scooted out her chair then helped her get situated. Her eyes grew big as she scanned the table of junk food. Bones rested his head on my feet under the table anxiously awaiting his share of greasy morsels. His bristly whiskers tickled my skin and I was grateful for his company as well as Mom’s and Chloe’s. “Thanks for making dinner, Mom.” I sucked the whipped cream from the top of my milkshake.
“It’s the least I can do. You and Chloe are one sorry sight. Tomorrow is a new day. You can start over after a good night’s sleep.”
“It’s still going to be the same old shit on a different day,” I said, holding her gaze.
“I told you, you shouldn’t swear,” Chloe gurgled around a mouthful of milkshake. “Dad says it’s not ladylike.”
“Well neither is fighting,” I said, connecting with Chloe’s stare. I wasn’t sure why I picked on her now.
“Hey, she deserved it,” Chloe said. Her narrowed green eyes scorned me.
“Knock it off, you two.” Mom handed Chloe the ketchup bottle. “Geez. What a bunch of sourpusses.”
Chloe’s scrunched her nose up. “Sourpuss?” Her lips curled upward. “That’s a silly word,” she said, squirting ketchup on her plate.
An air bubble caught in the bottle and spattered ketchup across her plate.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
Mom and I stared at her.
“It farted.” She shook the bottle. “That’s not ladylike either.”
“Nice,” I said, biting off the end of my hotdog.
Chloe giggled. “Yeah, you’re right, Maggie, this has been a crappy day!” she said, nodding in my direction.
Mom smiled. The grilled hot dog danced on my tongue with the tangy ketchup sending happy pheromones to my brain.
“I won’t tell your dad you swore,” I said.
Chloe winked at me. Things seemed to be better already. “I won’t rat you out either.” Chloe’s cheeks bulged as she
Mom smiled. “That’s more like it. Now hand me that farting ketchup bottle.”
Chloe giggled and settled in at the table. “That girl really made me mad today,” she said. “That Hilary Barnyard thinks she is all that and a bag of chips, too.”
Mom’s eyes lit up. “Her last name is Barnyard?”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Actually, no. It’s Barnhardt, but I call her Barnyard, because she stinks.”
I handed Chloe a napkin to wipe the mustard from her cheek. “What exactly did she do?”
Chloe swiped the napkin across her face then smacked her lips.
Mom sipped her strawberry milkshake, her eyes focused on Chloe. Obviously, knowing more than she let on.
“Well, serve it up. What was the fight over?” I asked.
Chloe shifted her weight in his chair. She dug into the pocket of her blue jeans.
“Those are some skinny jeans,” I continued, curious if her hand would get stuck, wondering if we’d have to call 911, wondering what Randolph Mantooth looked like nowadays.
“Skinny jeans. Mom wears them.” Chloe wiggled to retrieve whatever was jammed in her pocket.
“I bet she does,” I said.
Chloe produced a folded piece of paper with tattered edges, her face intent on the importance. Her adult teeth almost fully grown in as she smiled at the worn advertisement. She seemed older, but just as scrappy with her wispy dishwater blond bangs hanging in her eyes. She handed me the advertisement ripped from a glossy magazine. When I saw the image of Brook, I began to understand.
Mom peered over as I showed her what Chloe harbored. Her eyes flickered as her gaze met mine. I looked back over to Chloe. “Your mom is beautiful,” I said, smoothing out the photo. Brook’s ultra-blond hair was like a halo of light framing her face. It was lighter than last summer. She was dressed in Ralph Lauren head-to-toe. Her lanky body and smoldering blue eyes captivated my attention. “What did that girl say that made you angry enough to hit her?”
Chloe chewed furiously then swallowed. “She said she wasn’t my mother.” She pointed to the photo. “I said she was and then Barnyard said there was no way I could have a mom like that on the count of what I looked like.”