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Iris reminded her mother of a hatchling popping out of its shell. She'd slept through much of western North Dakota, missed crossing the state line, and now she was about to get her first look at her new stomping grounds. Her new airspace. Plenty of air, plenty of spacetwo more points Lily Reardon could add to the plus side of the next pointless discussion about the move they had to make. It didn't matter that Iris only bothered with one minusleaving her friendsagainst Lily's multitude of pluses, or that the discussion was no longer a discussion but a fait accompli. It would come up again, mainly because Iris was waking up in more ways than one.
She blinked, head bobbing atop a long, slightly wobbly neck as she emerged from the white folds of her old Minky blanket, still the hatchling for another second, maybe two. Blink, blink. No judgment in the big blue eyes that searched first for assurance that Mommy was nearby. Last year's Iris. Lily's little girl.
Then the curtain came down in those eyes.
"Where are we?"
It wasn't the question that was hard to take; it was the tone. It was like the landscape surrounding the second-hand Chevy that was one missed payment away from getting repossessed: beautifully straightforward and unforgiving. The answer wasn't important.
"We're almost there."
Iris drew a deep breath as she took a look at either side of the two-lane road. Winter had receded from the brown grasslands, but spring wasn't ready to put up any green shoots. Nights were still too cold, and the sky was still untrustworthy. The beauty would come. They only had to wait a little longer, drive a little farther. But Iris could only know what she was seeing here and now. Montana was Lily's birthplace. It had narrowly missed being Iris's.
"I hope there's a 'there' there," Iris said. "I don't see any here."
Lily chuckled. Whether trying her patience or plumbing her trove of trivia, her daughter loved testing her. Being both mother and teacher, Lily lived in double jeopardy.
Lily took the bait. "You know where that comes from, don't you? 'There's no there there'?"
Lily smiled at the road ahead. Point for knowing the answer, extra point for not saying duh. They passed a turn marked by the sign that told Lily they were getting close. Iris had stopped noticing signs the day before, two or three hundred miles back. She'd been asleep when Lily had turned off the road at a truck stop near Dickinson, North Dakota, when she'd started nodding off herself.
"She was talking about California," Iris said. "Can you imagine?"
Point docked on Lily's mental scoreboard. But this wasn't the time for a tally.
"Cali-freakin'-fornia," Iris said, as though she knew the place firsthand. "If there's no 'there' there, I quit."
"The journey. Life's a journey, right? Literally and figuratively both. And this" Iris made a sweeping gesture toward the brown fields and foothills beyond the windshield. "is just a layover. Who goes to a place like " She sucked in the deep breath her dramatic sigh required. "Back to my original question. Where are we?"
"As far west as your thirteen-year journey has taken you so far. We just passed Lowdown, Montana."
"Who goes to Lowdown, Montana, Mom? Who? Oh, God, we do." Iris slid back down, tucking her chin into her blanket. "We two, we unhappy two, and we don't even stop in Lowdown. We drive right through on our way to Bottom Feeder Farm."
"The Rocking R Ranch."
Iris groaned. "That is so Roy Rogers, Mom." Lily laughed. "And what do you know about Roy Rogers?"
"Enough to beat Rachel Varney at TV trivia. We were running neck and neck until we hit the fifties, and then I" She slid one palm across the other and whistled through her teeth. "Because I never miss American Pickers on TV."
"You and your grandfather will get along just fine. He never throws anything away." Except people, Lily reminded herself. But her quick follow-up reminder'water under the bridgehelped her keep her foot on the gas pedal. Her father would be glad to have them. His words. No qualifiers, no pregnant pauses.
"OMG, speaking of Roy Rogers.. " Iris straightened in her seat. Lily chuckled. Iris hadn't noticed old man Tyree's fence post boots until they'd passed the first few. Old boots capped steel fence posts along the right of way for at least a mile, kicking their weathered heels at heaven. Iris swung her head back and forth, counting under her breath as they passed each one. Finally she laughed. "Is this what passes for recycling here?"
"I never thought of it that way." Some of the leather looked like beef jerky. Lily wondered whether her father's neighbor was kicking up his heels somewhere beyond the big sky. "The exhibit has been growing ever since I can remember. Supposedly the man who lived here started it when he got stuck up to his boot tops during a gully washer and he hung them up there thinking the rain would clean them off."
"I don't even know whether the story's true." Lily glanced over at her daughter, hiking her eyebrows. "Could be a rural legend. Think Snopes dot com would have something to say about that?"
"I think it's called 'Lies My Mother Told Me.'"
"Oh, come on. Lighten up."
"You kids with your boots on the ground," Iris mocked in a crackly voice. "We had to leave ours on the fence post so we didn't lose them in the mud. We walked to school." She wagged her forefinger at the windshield. "Twenty miles each way. Barefoot."
"Only when it rained," Lily said with a smile.
"Carrying your Roy Rogers lunch boxes, which are now worth more than Don't tell me this is it," Iris said, as Lily flicked the turn signal. The last fence post boot was a speck in the rearview mirror. A break in the four-wire fence was marked by a sparsely graveled approach, a new cattle guard and an old sign. "Mom, there's nothing here. Just Omigod, you weren't kidding. The Rocking R Ranch. Really."
It was hard to keep a straight face, but Lily had to put forth the effort. Otherwise she wasn't sure whether her mouth would turn up or down. She hadn't seen much of her father since she'd left the ranch over thirteen years ago. She'd seen him twice, to be exact, and both times he'd been the one to initiate the contact, and pay his only child and grandchild a visit in Minneapolis. It had been four years since the last visit. She'd told herself she was going to make this trip with Iris one of these days, just as soon as the right day came along. It never had.
Lily wasn't kidding herself thinking this was the elusive right day. On the right day she would have been at the top of her game, returning on terms of her choosing. If she'd made the time when times were good, this trip might not be so difficult. But she hadn't. Once she'd lost her job, times had gone from tight to tough to agonizingly tense, but she wouldn't call for help from her father until she had no other choice. And no home plus no money equaled no other choice.
So here they were, and here, at the very least, was a place to be. The house hadn't changeda box with a topbut it promised a roof over their heads, over doors that opened and closed, over quiet rooms with safe beds. It wasn't home anymore, not since she had walked away carrying Iris inside her. But it was a place to be. Nothing quite like an eviction notice to put a necessity once taken for granted into perspective. All they had now was each other, and Iris would never have less. She would never be alone, certainly not by Lily's choice. Pride didn't go down easily, but it did go quietly. For Iris's sake.
"Does the Rocking R Ranch have wi-fi?" Iris's voice had lost all its edge, all its humor. Could this be the sound of a thirteen-year-old's reality setting in?
"I don't know." It wasn't a lie. She didn't know for sure, and what were the words I doubt it really worth?
"It didn't occur to me to ask," Iris said. "Until now. Not that it would have mattered."
Lily stared straight ahead. They were nearing the place she'd last seen in the rearview mirror of a friend's pickup. Not a boyfriend's pickup. The driver hadn't been the father of her unborn child. Molly Taylor had driven her to Glendive, where she'd boarded a Greyhound bus and headed for Minneapolis, which hadn't been exactly what Mom had it cracked up to be. Nothing ever was. But it was a place to be until Lily took matters into her own hands and made it more than that. She'd worked her butt off to get her degree and her own place and her teaching position, and she'd almost gotten tenure. Almost. But then she'd lost her job, and she hadn't been optimistic about the prospect of getting on at another school. You pay your dues so you don't have to take any more chances. She'd had her standards, her requirementsdamn it, she'd earned the right to hold out for more. At the very least for nothing less. Security, maybe?
How about survival?
She had fought it, cursed it, and finally she'd made her peace with reality. But she wasn't ready to force the whole reality enchilada on a thirteen-year-old. There had to be some scrap of fantasy left for Iris. Lily couldn't provide internet, but surely she could come up with something wonderful and wireless.
She pulled the car around back of the house, and there was her something.
"Horses, Iris." The old barn's new metal roof glinted in the sun. Two sorrels stood in the small pasture outside the corral, where a man was working a beautiful black-and-white paint on a lunge line. "You've always wanted to ride," Lily said. "Now's your chance."
"Oh." Iris released the buckle on her seat belt as she leaned closer to the windshield. "Hey. That's not Grandpa." Closer still. Lily wondered whether it was time for an eye exam. "Mom, who's the cowboy?"
Iris got out of the car, shut the door a little harder than necessary and met her mother on the other side. Lily was pretty sure she'd made the entire move without taking her eyes off the corral, not even for the motley-colored dog that darted out from behind the barn growling and then, at a glance from the cowboy, quickly retreated to the fence and sat. Lily glanced back at the cowboy, whose connection with the dog was clearly below the radar.
"Okay, this place is suddenly looking a lot better." The comment was sotto voce, not that the cowboy seemed to be paying them any mind. "His pants are kinda tight and geeky, but maybe that's not such a bad thing."
"They fit" Lily gave her daughter a who-are-you? look. "Not that it matters."
Iris squinted, gave a tight smile. "I saw him first."
"You keep telling me to look on the bright side. I finally found one." She turned back to the corral. The man was concentrating on his horse. "We should go introduce ourselves."
"We should go present ourselves to your grandfather. He knows we're coming, but " Lily put her arm around her daughter's shoulders and urged herself by urging Iris toward the back door of the house. "I wasn't sure exactly when."
After several knocks the door still stood closed.
"Is it locked?" Iris wanted to know.
"We'll wait for him to let us in." Lily could feel the doubt, the disbelief, the adolescent impatience growing on her left flank. Or was it really her own uncertain center, the feel of her tail stuck between her legs? Her head was telling her to get on with itthe first few moments would be the hardestbut the strings to her limbs were tied somehow to the knot in her stomach. She glanced at Iris, who questioned her with a puckered brow.
"You can try it if you want." With a gesture toward the doorknob, Lily took a step back.
Seriously? the voice in her head scolded.
"He's your father." Iris's frown deepened. "He's expecting us, isn't he?"
"Yes, but I should have called him before we left. Or when we stopped in Fargo, maybe." Lily gave her head a quick shake. She was making a complete fool of herself. "I don't know what I was thinking. Trying to time it just right, I guess. After chores, before bed. You don't want to " get him on the phone when he's been drinking. She turned away from the door and looked elsewhere. "Let's ask the cowboy."
Iris's delight was understandable. From a distance the man was promising. He knew what he was doing, and he looked good doing it. Smooth, sure, confident. The horse didn't question it, and neither did the dog. Lily wanted some of that right now. The confidence, not the man. But the closer they got, the better he looked. His long, lean body, his deft hands, his handsome face all kept faith with the promise he'd shown at a distance. Lily was sure he'd noticed them, but the easy-loping paint had his full attention.
A man who minded his business. Always impressive.