Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can never go home again.” Jacob Lorde never took the word of a stranger. He was on the way home, marking the passing of every mile with a war-weary soul. He needed a place to heal and Blessings, Georgia, the place where he grew up, was calling him.
He’d come back briefly over a year ago to bury his father, and the calm and peace of the place had stayed with him long after he’d returned to his unit. Only a couple of months later, an IED on one patrol too many earned him a long stint in the hospital and brought his time with the army to an end.
Now he was coming home to try and bury the soldier he’d been.
He wanted to be done with war.
He needed peace.
He needed the emotional security that comes with knowing where he belonged.
He needed that like he needed air to breathe, so when the Greyhound bus in which he was riding came around the curve and he saw the city-limit sign of Blessings gleaming in the early morning sunlight, his eyes blurred with sudden tears. He took the sunglasses from the pocket of his uniform and slipped them on, then held his breath as the bus began to stop.
The brakes squeaked. They needed oil.
Jake stood slowly, easing the stiffness in a still-healing leg, walked down the aisle, and then out into a sweet Georgia morning. He took a deep breath, smelling pine trees on the mountains around him and the scent of smoke from someone’s fireplace.
He was home.
The driver pulled his duffel bag from the luggage rack beneath the bus, shook his hand, and got back on board. The rest of the trip home was on Jake.
Ruby Dye had just opened The Curl Up and Dye when the Greyhound bus rolled through Blessings, belching black smoke from the exhaust. Because the bus came through Blessings on a regular basis, she never paid it any attention, but today it began slowing down. When it stopped, she moved closer to the window, waiting to see who got off, but the only person she saw was the driver who circled the bus to remove luggage from the carrier beneath.
A few moments later, the bus drove away in a small cloud of the same black smoke. It was then Ruby saw the man in uniform reaching down to get his duffel bag. From this distance she couldn’t tell who it was, but he was limping slightly as he walked away.
“Welcome home, soldier,” she said softly, and then went back to work.
Jake paused on the sidewalk and took a deep breath as the early morning air filled his lungs. Enveloped by the silence, he exhaled slowly as the weariness of the bus ride fell away. Shifting the duffel bag to rest easier on his shoulder, he headed south. Unless he caught a ride somewhere between here and home, he had a six-mile hike ahead of him, but after sitting for so long, he didn’t care.
As he walked through town, it was somewhat comforting to see everything pretty much looked the same. Granny’s Country Kitchen still appeared to be the main place to eat. He thought about stopping there for breakfast, but food wasn’t as urgent a need as it was to see home.
He continued south down Main, noticing one thing had changed. The old barbershop was closed. There was a sign in the window that read: Haircuts Available at The Curl Up and Dye. He smiled, remembering Ruby Dye and the girls at her shop.
When he noticed a school bus heading out of town, he guessed the driver was beginning his route and thought of all the boys and girls hurrying around in their homes right now, getting ready for school, still innocent of what life could do to their dreams.
Traffic was picking up by the time he reached Ralph’s, the small quick stop at the edge of town. He’d already had the utilities turned on at the house a month earlier, had cable set up so he’d have television service, and had the house cleaned at that time as well. But there wasn’t any food, and picking up a few things here would be enough to tide him over while he settled in. The bell over the doorway jingled as he walked in, which made everyone in the store turn and look.
Jake knew the army uniform he was wearing and the military duffel bag marked him as a vet and wondered if there was anyone inside who might give him a ride.
Ralph Sinclair, who had always reminded Jake of Santa Claus because of his white hair and beard, was behind the counter. “Jake! I heard you might be coming home. It’s good to see you!”
“Hi, Ralph. It’s good to be here,” Jake said.
He set his duffel bag against the counter, picked up a small shopping basket, and started moving down the aisles. He was reaching for a squeeze bottle of mustard when he heard someone call out his name. When he turned to look and saw Truman Slade standing at the end of the aisle, the first thought that went through his head was, Well, hell. Probably the only enemy he had in the entire state, and he was not only out of prison, but back in Blessings. A muscle jerked in his jaw as he forced himself not to react.
Truman Slade was two hundred and twenty-three pounds of pure mean, exacerbated by the years he’d spent in prison thanks to Jake Lorde’s testimony against him. Truman didn’t give a damn that all of that had happened when Jake was still in high school. All he knew was the kid’s statement at his trial sent him to prison for eight years. The years and Truman’s lifestyle had not been kind to him. Even when he was young, his short legs and big, round face, plus a distinct underbite, had given him a bulldog look. Now he had the big belly to go with it.
The moment he’d seen Jake Lorde walk in the door, his first thought had been time for payback. He walked up to where Jake was standing, pushed himself into Jake’s personal space, and waited for him to react. He so wanted to whip his ass.
To Truman’s dismay, Jake didn’t acknowledge his presence. Instead, he calmly reached over Truman’s head for a loaf of bread, which accentuated how short Truman really was, and how tall Jake had grown. As he did, his elbow grazed the tip of Truman’s nose, which made Truman flinch. Jake was acting as if Truman were invisible. When he turned around and moved a few steps down and put a box of granola in the basket with the bread and mustard, Truman followed.
“Still afraid of your own shadow?” Truman whispered, then made a gun with his hand and pointed it at Jake.
Jake stared at Truman until he flushed a dark, angry red and shoved both hands in his pockets. Jake walked back to his duffel bag, pulled a big handgun from a side pocket, gave Truman another look, and then slapped it down on the counter in front of Ralph.
“Hey, Ralph, do you know where I could get ammo for this?”
Truman heard Ralph talking, but he couldn’t focus on the words, thinking of that look Jake had given him. It was just beginning to dawn on Truman that war had changed Jake Lorde in a dangerous way. By the time he tuned back in on what was being said, Jake had shoved the handgun back into his bag and was at the deli, waiting to get some lunch meat and cheese sliced to take home.
Truman was leaning against the counter with a smirk on his face, and when Jake approached with his shopping basket to pay, Truman purposefully slid his shoe in front of Jake, intending to force him to step aside. Instead, Jake took the next step right on top of Truman’s shoe and then stopped.
Truman inhaled sharply. The bastard was standing on his foot! He started to push Jake off, and then something told him not to lay a hand on the man. By his own actions, he was momentarily pinned to the floor.
Jake paid, picked up the groceries, shouldered his duffel bag, and left the store.
Truman groaned beneath his breath when the pressure on his foot was released and then hobbled out the door and drove toward town. He needed to put distance between him and Jake Lorde to recoup his swagger.
As for Jake, his head was pounding as he walked out of the store. The blood raced through his veins the same way it had done at the end of a deadly exchange of gunfire. Even though the morning air was cool, he could almost feel the desert heat. Despite his inability to focus, instinct kept him moving toward home.
Laurel Payne was on her way into Blessings to an early morning cleaning job. She would have to drop her daughter, Bonnie, off at a friend’s house in town until it was time for them to walk to school. There were always difficulties arising from being a single parent, and having good friends to help her out like this made her life a little easier.
She was less than a mile from town when she saw the soldier walking on the side of the road. Her heart skipped a beat. The sight of a man in uniform was still a painful reminder of her own husband, Adam, who’d come home from a war without a single wound and then shot and killed himself only a few months later.
As for the traveler, she knew who he was even before she got close enough to see his face. She knew because she’d been the one who’d cleaned his father’s house weeks earlier. He was not a stranger. He was a few years older, but she’d known him all her life.
When she passed him, the first thing she thought was that the neighborly thing to do would be to give him a ride home, but she didn’t want to reawaken the sleeping demons in her life by befriending anyone who reminded her of Adam. Then she glanced in the rearview mirror, saw the slight limp in his stride, and her heart sank. Despite her reservations about getting involved, she hit the brakes.
“Mommy, what are we doing?” Bonnie asked, as Laurel made a U-turn in the road.
“I’m going to give Mr. Lorde a ride home,” she said.
Bonnie frowned. “But Mr. Lorde went to heaven already. Did he come back?”
Laurel sighed. “No, honey. That man we just passed is his son.”
“Oh,” Bonnie said, but her curiosity was piqued.
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.
The explosion from the IED sounded like the end of the world, and when Jake came to, he thought he was dead. The pain from his wounds had yet to register, and he was trying desperately to stand. He couldn’t hear, he couldn’t see for the smoke and dust, and he couldn’t feel his legs. This was a blistering disappointment. He thought heaven would be prettier than this.
Someone yelled at him. DeSosa! He was telling him not to die, but the way he felt, he wasn’t making any promises. It wasn’t until the ground began vibrating beneath him and the air was spinning above his head that he started yelling for help. That was a chopper, and he didn’t want to be left behind.
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.
Laurel was already exhausted and she still had four loads of laundry to do and supper to cook for her and Bonnie. She’d actually forgotten about seeing Jacob Lorde this morning until she drove past the house and saw him on his hands and knees on the porch. She saw the hammer in his hand and remembered the loose boards when she’d been there last month to clean the house. It was obvious he wasn’t wasting any time putting it to rights.
But when she consciously noticed how broad his shoulders were, she looked away. She didn’t care what he looked like. He didn’t matter in her world and never would. She had a daughter to raise, and she wanted nothing to do with another war vet.
Her head was hurting by the time she got home, and climbing those steep steps into their double-wide trailer seemed like insult adding to her injury. Once inside, she breathed a sigh of relief at being in her own home, not someone else’s, and headed for her bedroom.
The first thing she did was take down her hair. It was thick and a slightly curly auburn that hung well below her shoulders, and sometimes having it up all day gave her a headache. As soon as it was down, the release of tension in her body was palpable. She quickly changed her clothes and got to work.
By the time the school bus stopped to let Bonnie off, Laurel was taking the last batch of cookies from the oven. She had the third load of clothes in the washing machine, a load in the dryer, and vegetable soup simmered on the back burner.
The sound of Bonnie’s footsteps coming up the steps of their trailer was Laurel’s signal for an emotional shift. Whatever was bothering her did not belong on her little girl’s radar. She turned toward the door with a smile. Seconds later, Bonnie came inside in a rush, talking nonstop.
“Mama, I got a happy face on my new words, and Lewis threw up on my shoe at lunch. Mrs. Hamilton washed it off but it still smells funny. I think it got on my sock, too. Milly was mean to me at recess but I told her she was acting like a baby. Then she cried, which proved I was right. Can I have a cookie? How long till supper?”
Laurel grinned. “Come here and give me a kiss. I missed you today.”
Bonnie threw her arms around her mother’s neck and kissed Laurel’s cheek as she reached for a cookie.
Laurel grinned when she saw the second cookie in Laurel’s other hand and stopped her long enough to get the stinky tennis shoes and socks off Laurel’s feet.
“Change out of your school clothes before you go feed Lavonne, and put on socks with your old shoes. It’s chilly out today.”
“I will,” Bonnie said. “Can Lavonne have a cookie, too?”
“No. Chickens don’t need to eat sugar. Just her regular feed, okay?”
“Okay, Mama,” Bonnie said, and ran barefoot to her room, her little feet making splat, splat sounds as she went.
In minutes she was out the back door and running toward the little chicken coop. Her daddy had built it for Lavonne, and she thought of him every time she went to feed her pet, but it was getting harder to remember what he looked like. That scared her a little, but she was afraid to talk to Mama about it. She heard Mama crying sometimes at night. It was hard being Mama’s big girl when she still felt little and scared.
When she unlocked the gate to the fence around the coop and Lavonne came running, it made the sad thoughts go away. Lavonne was her buddy and had the prettiest black feathers ever. Mama said she was from a family of chickens called Australorps, but Bonnie disagreed. Lavonne was from the family of Paynes.
The chicken’s constant clucks sounded a lot like Bonnie’s chatter as Bonnie scooped up feed and put it in the feeder inside the coop. When she left the chicken yard to get fresh water, Lavonne was right beside her, clucking and occasionally pausing to peck the ground.
“What was that?” Bonnie asked. “Did you get a bug? Good job!” Then she suddenly squatted and pointed her finger in the grass. “Oooh, look, Lavonne, there’s another one!”
Lavonne was on it in seconds, then wandered off a few feet while Bonnie carried fresh water back to the coop and filled the watering station. As soon as she was through with all that, she pulled a fresh hunk off the bale of straw and loosened it. She was getting ready to put it in Lavonne’s nest when she saw the egg.
She squealed and dropped the straw then came out of the chicken coop on the run, screaming, “Mommy, Mommy.”
When Laurel heard Bonnie’s scream her heart stopped. She dropped the armload of wet clothes back into the washer and went out the back door on the run.
“What’s wrong?” she cried, as Bonnie ran into her arms.
Bonnie held out the egg in two hands as if it were pure gold.
“Look, Mama, look! Lavonne laid an egg. Does that mean she’s all grown up now?”
Laurel was so weak with relief it took a moment to answer.
“Well, my goodness, I guess it does. Way to go, Lavonne,” Laurel said.
“We’re both growing up, aren’t we, Mama? Here, you take the egg. I’m going to play with Lavonne some more.”
Laurel sighed as she watched Bonnie running back to the coop. Yes. Her little girl was growing up. She turned around to go back to the house, carrying the proof of Lavonne’s launch into hen-hood, and the farther she went, the angrier she became at Adam. By the time she reached the back steps, she was crying.
“Oh, Adam, just look at what you’re missing. Why did you have to go and blow your damn head off? We need you. Life wasn’t supposed to be like this.”