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A memory knocked.
Before Beth Armstrong had time to even think about opening the door to the past, she slammed on her brakes, hard. Her wheels slid and the car went sideways until she finally came to an abrupt stop facing the royal blue truck that looked hauntingly familiar.
The truck wasn't going anywhere. Not after the power skid that took it offroad, bouncing over an irrigation ditch and plowing into the McClanahans' fence.
Help me, Lord, and please let whoever is in there be all right Don't let this be a fatality.
She pushed open her car's door andwith only the moon to witness her flightmanaged to make it through the grass, then down and up the irrigation ditch. She climbed clumsily over one of the broken fence posts using the truck to steady herself.
The vehicle was caught in mangled barbed wire and still warm to the touch. The smell of gas and exhaust warred with the strong aroma of the McClanahans' hay field. She balanced on the shattered fence, trying to get the courage to move forward and wishing she had more than the glow from her headlights combined with the truck's taillights to assist her. As if answering her prayer, the truck's driver's side door opened, and the light from the inside dome gave her all the illumination she needed.
The memory stopped knocking. Just one look at what lay in the truck's beda gear bag and bull ropeopened the door to the past and let the memory in.
The prodigal son.
It had been more than eight years since he'd been the focus of her girlhood fantasies.
He didn't look like a fantasy now. He slouched forward against the steering wheel, his face turned her way. His eyes were closed, and a trickle of blood ran from a cut just above his left eye. She closed her eyes. Blood. Not good.
Opening her eyes, she reached in and gently touched his shoulder. "Joel, are you awake? Are you okay?" Her voice sounded loud in the silence of the moment. He didn't move at all. She looked at his chest to make sure it moved up and down. It did. He was still alive.
He moaned, didn't open his eyes and then slumped forward. This time, his chest hit the horn. Beth nearly toppled over thanks to her precarious perch, before shouting again, this time over the noise, "Joel!"
Well, okay, she could holler Joel's name until the cows came home for all the good it would do. Not that he'd be able to hear her over the blare of his horn. Carefully, she nudged him back so he wasn't pushed against the steering wheel. Nothing changed, not the expression on his face or the stillness of his body.
Roanoke had one ambulance, and she could get him to town faster than it could get here, most likely. "Joel, you might need to help a bit here."
His eyelids fluttered, and he grunted. She took both hands and shoved with all her strength. As he slowly adjusted to the passenger side, papers, folders and what looked like a Bible fell to the floorboard. "You weigh a ton, Joel," she muttered.
"And that's just my aching head," he moaned.
Good, at least he was conscious and somewhat lucid. When he was finally settled on the passenger side, she let out her breath. She got behind the wheel and tried closing the doorno such luckso she buckled her seat belt and put his truck in Reverse.
One thing about old, old trucks. They were made of pure steel. Backing up, Beth managed to destroy a bit more of the McClanahans' fence. She bounced over the irrigation ditch and skidded only a bit on the dirt road as she aimed for traction and headed into town, stopping just long enough to turn off her own car's headlights and grab her purse, before hurrying back to Joel's truck.
He hadn't moved.
With one hand clutching the door closed and the other clasped tight on the steering wheel, she made it maybe half a mile before Joel finally stirred again and turned to look at her. In the shadows, she couldn't see his eyes, but she knew they were a deep brown and full of hurt.
She had a million questions and not all of them had to do with his health. Joel McCreedy, the prodigal son, back in Roanoke, Iowa. He must have just arrived, because if he'd been here a day or two, she'd have known.
She braced herself and let the driver's side door swing open. Then, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket and hit the zero. She should have done that first thing. After a moment, an operator came on and Beth asked for hospital emergency. Once she'd warned them about what to expect, she hung up and tossed her cell phone on the dash. It promptly slid to the ground. Forcing the door to close again and holding it tightly, she again looked at the man slumped next to her, suddenly aware of the feel of his weight leaning against her right arm.
His forehead hadn't been hot, but his body was. She could feel it through her sleeve. His blue Tshirt was tight against a rock hard chest. Jeans covered legs so long they reached the passenger side door.
His eyes remained shut, but a tiny bit of color had returned to his face. The trickle of blood started to drip off his chin and onto his shirt.
As if to remind her not to look there, not to dwell on the blood, the truck hit a bump, and Beth's head almost hit the roof.
For the next half hour, until lights shimmered in the distance and the town came into view, Beth concentrated on keeping the driver's side door shut, listening to make sure Joel still breathed and making it to town. Easing up on the gas, Beth passed the convenience store and small motel beyond the Welcome to Roanoke, Iowa sign. The hospital was just a few blocks in. Joel finally twitched a little, shifting his weight away from her, but instead of feeling relief that he was finally giving her space, she felt loss.
Not what she needed.
Joel McCreedy was no longer the boy she remembered. But he was still the man most of the town wanted to forget.
In the scheme of things, a little blood and a wicked headache were the least of Joel McCreedy's problems.
Nothing was going as planned. This wasn't how he had imagined his homecoming. Even in his wildest nightmares and after riding a good draw named Homeless a few weeks ago, he'd had some pretty wild oneshe'd not figured on being turned away from his childhood home, wrecking his beloved truck and then being escorted to the hospital by a gorgeous female.
He was lucky she'd been on the deserted road that late at night and was willing to stop.
"We almost there?" he asked, careful not to move his head.
Waves of pain were just one more unwelcome reminder of a lousy evening.
"Five minutes," she answered, not wasting words. He liked that.
She obviously knew him, had called him by name, and knew her way around Roanoke. If it didn't hurt so much to talk, he'd ask her name. Instead, he concentrated on keeping his head still and gritting his teeth every time she hit a bump.
"When did you get back, Joel?"
Joel closed his eyes. He'd made it to Solitaire Farm sometime this evening. How long ago? Thirty minutes? An hour? Two? Did it matter?
"This evening," he finally answered. The sky had already turned to night when his beloved, aged 1958 royal blue Ford truck idled in front of the sign reading Solitaire Farm. A home he'd turned his back on almost a decade ago and that had now turned its back on him.
No more questions followed. Maybe she figured from his short answers that he wasn't up for conversation.
Truth was, he wasn't up for much of anything else, either. He'd left New Mexico yesterday, pretty much driving straight through. He'd caught a catnap or two at rest stops. Still, he'd had almost twentyfour hours of sitting in one position, trying to ignore the pain in his back and the pain in his heart.
Without the rodeo, where did he belong?
They reached the tiny Roanoke hospital. She managed to hit the curb as she pulled into the parking lot, and then skidded to a stop in front of the emergency room doors.
More medical bills, great.
There wasn't but five dollars in his pocket. He did, however, already have a folder full of medical expenseswith more to comeand a stack of unpaid credit card bills. The debt and his need for family were about to increase.
He'd waited too long and now instead of a hero's welcome and a bank account guaranteed to make his older brother sit up and take notice, Joel had his tail between his legs.
The legs that weren't strong enough to allow him to walk into the emergency room alone. Instead, he had to lean on a young woman whose name he couldn't recall and a hospital attendant he recognized from his high school graduating class.
Kyle Tuckee was the attendant's name. He'd been two years ahead of Joel and a second stringer for the football team. He seemed to move a lot faster now, sprinting from the emergency room door to Joel's truck.
Through the glass doors, Joel also recognized the woman manning the front desk. She'd been a friend of his mother's. She raised an eyebrow at the sight of Joel, quickly recovered and hurried to assist. She opened a swinging door and soon Joel was escorted into a tiny room with a bed and chair.
"What happened? When did Joel get home?" Delores Peabody asked, helping him into the bed and reaching for a blood pressure cuff.
Joel closed his eyes. Nausea kept him from answering, but his hearing still worked.
"I don't know how long he's been back," his rescuer said. She really was quite beautiful, with blond hair just reaching her shoulders and a compact body. He was tempted to open his eyes again, just to get another look. Unfortunately, she wasn't done talking. "And he's not with me, not really, and please don't tell my mother that I'm the one who brought him here. I just happened to see him drive off the road."
Joel's interest was piqued, but before the women could say more the doctor came in. He asked the nurse a few questions and came over to stand next to Joel.
"How are you feeling?"
"Head hurts," was all Joel managed to say.
The young woman started in, and this time she didn't say anything about her mother, just got straight to the point. "He was driving east on Rural Route 7 and went off the road. He didn't slow down or anything. He hit the McClanahans' fence, I'd say maybe fortyfive minutes ago, probably going about fifty. When I got to him, he was pitched forward. He was unconscious then, but only for a moment, and he had a cut above his left eye, which kept bleeding. I figured I could get him here faster than the ambulance could get there. I scooted him over because I didn't think I could get him out of his truck and into my car. Will he be all right?"
"Are you family?" the doctor asked.
"No, more a friend of the family."
"Has family been contacted?"
Delores said, "I'll do that now." She left the room, and the younger woman followed.
Funny, throughout this whole mess, until tonight, Joel had been on his own. He'd already done the hospitalization routefor two days after he lost the ability to walk. Then he'd started physical therapy before running out of money.
He'd been alone but hadn't really felt alone.
Beth had a total of four hours of sleep, thanks to Joel McCreedy and then the emergency room. It had been almost midnight by the time she had retrieved her car with the help of her oldest sister and roommate, and then finally made it home to their small house on Oak Street. She'd been too keyed up to even think about going to bed.
Roanoke Elementary would celebrate its hundred year anniversary this year. Just three weeks ago, Beth had started her second year as its kindergarten teacher. Fridays were always rough, but today was one for the record book.
"Miss Armstrong," one of her girls said, "you already read us that page."
"Twice," another bright little girl spoke up.
"Keep reading," a little boy suggested.
Little Mitzi Gabor tapped Beth on the knee. "Maybe we could have free time?" she said in a hopeful whisper.
"Good idea," Beth whispered back.
Soon, she had a classroom full of kids playing cars, building towers, coloring and some even sitting at their desks with a book. Most of the kids who chose to read looked content. Matt McCreedy, frowning at an upsidedown book, looked lonely.
As Beth headed for her own desk to do a little catchup work, she wondered what he was really seeing.
Beth knew what she wished she wasn't seeing. Her mother, the school secretary, walking by the classroom, lips pursed, a half dozen times.
Since the three Armstrong girls hit puberty, their mother had had two purposes: educate the girls so they could be selfsufficient and/or keep the girls safe and marry them off to nice churchgoing doctors or lawyers or business owners. Patsy wasn't oldfashioned or a snob. She just wanted her daughters to graduate from college and/or be married to men who chose nice, safe, wellpaying professions.
Two areas in which Mom felt her own life had suffered.
Beth's oldest sister, Linda, hadn't met either criteria: no college, no nice young man. Middle sister, Susan, had started college, but dropped out to get married and Mom didn't really approve of her husband's profession as a police officer.
Not a safe career.
Her mother's dreams settled like a yoke across Beth's shoulders. Attending teachers college hadn't been a choice, it had been an order. To save money, Beth had managed to graduate in three years instead of four. And right now, her mother was championing the new youth minister at their church. Being a youth minister wasn't a wellpaying job, but Nathan Fisher was also a physical therapist.
Beth set most of the class to cleaning up their seat area.
Then, row by row, she called them by her desk where the mailboxes were. With the exception of Matt, all did her bidding.