Everyone always talks about how quiet and peaceful the country is. But that’s not totally accurate. The cacophony begins at dusk—grasshoppers, mosquitoes, crickets, and scurrying vermin, louder than you’d ever think possible. And at dawn, there’s the baying of animals, the machine-gun clicking of cicadas, the thumping of hooves, and the deafening sonata of chirping birds.
It’s the birds that pull me from sleep—the deep slumber of a man who’s at peace with a choice he’s made.
Even before my eyes crack open, I know she’s gone.
I feel it in the empty space beside me, the missing scent of shampoo and gardenia and Sofia. I bolt upright, squinting, and look around.
Jeans on the desk? Nowhere in sight.
Red dress from the floor? Vanished.
How the hell could I fall asleep without talking to her first? Without telling her—
I jump into a pair of jeans and run shirtless and barefoot down the stairs. I jog into the house—hoping.
But when I get there, the only person in the kitchen is Brent, sipping a cup of coffee and eating one of my mother’s blueberry muffins.
“Where is she?” I growl—pissed at myself, but all too willing to take it out on him.
He swallows the mouthful of muffin, regarding me with distant, assessing eyes. “She called the hotel about four this morning. Asked for a ride to the airport. Jake wouldn’t let her go alone and changed his ticket to fly back with her.”
My chest goes hollow. I’ve fucked up so badly.
But then I remember— “Sofia doesn’t fly.”
Brent’s gaze warms just a little—with pity. “Then I guess she really wanted to get out of Dodge—because she flew today.”
I collapse in the chair, wheels already turning, figuring out ways to track her down—tie her down if necessary. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“She asked us not to. Said she needed to pull herself together. She promised that by the time we get back, everything will be back to normal.” He pauses, then adds, “I’m sorry, Stanton.”
I bang the table. “I don’t want things back to goddamn normal! I love her, Brent!”
He scratches the new growth of brown stubble on his chin. “I’m not Dr. Phil or anything—but you probably should’ve mentioned that to her.”
There comes a time in every man’s life when he takes a good, long look at himself and admits he’s been an asshole. A self-centered prick.
I don’t know if it’s the same for women, but if you’ve got a dick, it’s inevitable. Because even good men, brave men, world leaders, renowned scientists, theologians, and Rhodes scholars have a greedy, selfish space inside them. A childish, needy black hole that will never be satiated. Look at me, listen to me, it says. It wants what it can’t have, as well as all the things it can. It wants to eat all the fucking cakes. It knows the world doesn’t revolve around us, but that doesn’t stop it from trying to defy the laws of physics and make it that way.
This is my asshole moment. Forsaken by the woman I love. The infuriatingly beautiful girl I have no intention of living without.
The worst part is, I see how it all went wrong. Every mistake. Every terrible choice.
If I’d had the awareness to step back and evaluate the situation from the outside, none of this would’ve happened. But I was deep in the black hole—with only me, myself, and I for company.
My momma would say my chickens have come home to roost. It’s a fitting metaphor. Fowl possess a never-ending supply of shit that they proudly leave in their wake. So when they roost?
It just plain stinks.
Brent wipes his mouth with a napkin and stands. “In any case, it’s nine thirty—the wedding starts in two hours. I need a lift back to the hotel to get dressed. JD invited me last night—hell of a guy.”
I snort. “Yeah—Saint fucking JD.”
He smacks my arm. “Don’t worry, you’re still the coolest southerner I know.”
It’s only then that I notice how still the house is. This house is never still. “Where is everyone?”
Brent heads toward the back door, ticking off his fingers. “Your mother’s getting her hair done, your father’s taking a nap—which apparently he rarely gets to do. Carter is passed out on the living room couch, naked. And your little brother hasn’t come home yet.” Then he points at me. “Oh, and your sister, Mary? Scares the fuck out of me. If I go missing tonight, promise me her closet is the first place you’ll look.”
I laugh. And force myself to bury my feelings—the panic, the yearning—for Sofia. Swallow it down, suck it up. Because today . . . my girl’s getting married.
The church is filled to the brim. Miss Bea plays the “Bridal Chorus” on that old organ. Presley scatters rose petals down the aisle. And Jenny . . . Jenny is gorgeous, as I knew she would be. I watch JD’s face when she steps into the church—it’s filled with wonder and gratitude and so much love.
And it doesn’t make me want to punch him—not even a little. It doesn’t make me sad.
It just feels . . . like it’s something that’s supposed to be.
The reception is held outside, behind the church, in white tents with elegantly decorated picnic tables and padded folding chairs. The grass is as green as my daddy’s pastures, the sky almost as blue as my daughter’s eyes. The whole town is here—the people who’ve known me even before I was born. Brent chats with Pastor Thompson. Marshall leans against a tree, trying to look cool talking to a girl. Mary’s surrounded by a group of giggling females, all whispers and wide eyes. Carter holds court on the grass, preaching to a gaggle of worshipful-faced kids, who gaze at him like he’s Jesus Christ on the mount. My parents dance to the band’s music.
The only thing missing . . . is her.
I’ve tried calling a few times, but it goes to voice mail. I tell myself that she just forgot to turn it back on after the flight, but my powers of persuasion appear to be stronger with a jury than with my own fucking head.
“I saved a dance for you. Feel like cashin’ it in?”
Jenny stands next to me, hands folded, smiling. We head out onto the wooden makeshift dance floor. As we slowly rock I tell her, “You look stunning.”
She bats her lashes. “I know.”
We chuckle and then, cautiously, she asks, “Sofia went back to DC?”
I nod silently.
“I like her, Stanton. I hope you don’t plan on letting her get away.”
“I have no intention of letting her get away—she just doesn’t know that yet.”
I look down into Jenny’s baby blues, hold her in my arms—my dearest, sweetest friend.
“I’m glad you didn’t let JD get away. You deserve to be looked at the way he looks at you.”
She pushes my hair back from my forehead. “You deserve that too.” She glances over my shoulder for a moment, and then her gaze is back to me. “Remember the other day by the river? When you said that Presley and I are your family?”
Her eyes grow shiny with emotion. “We’ll always be your family.”
Warmth rises in my stomach—a comforting, tender sort of heat. Presley’s voice catches both our ears and at the same time, we look over at our beautiful, laughing baby girl.
“We did good though, didn’t we, Stanton? All things considered.”
My voice is rough, choked with feeling. “Ah, Jenn—we did great. Just look at her.”
And for a time, we do. Intimately joined by memories and the unending love for the same little person.
“If I could go back and do it all over again with you, I would,” Jenny whispers. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
I look into her eyes, and then I press my lips to her forehead gently. “Me too. Not a single thing.”
And that’s how Jenny and I say good-bye.
• • •
Later on, I sit on the wooden, two-seater swing beside Presley, watching the celebration continue. “And then, when school lets out, you’ll come to DC for the summer.”
“For the whole summer, right? You promise?”
“The whole summer,” I say, nodding. “You have my word.”
“Will Miss Sofia be there?”
“She will be, yes.”
My daughter looks at me sideways, with round, knowing eyes. “Did you screw that up, Daddy?”
A little bit, yeah. But I’ll make it right.”
She bestows her approval with a quick nod of her head. “Good.”
A blond boy in a button-down shirt and clip-on tie calls from a few feet away. “Hey, Presley! We’re goin’ down the river—you comin’?”
“I’ll be right there,” she shouts back.
My brow puckers. “That was Ethan Fortenbury, wasn’t it?”
“Yep, that’s him.”
“I thought he was a horse’s anus.”
“Well,” she sighs, “he said he was sorry for sayin’ I had man hands. Tol’ me he only did it ’cause his older brother dared him to.”
This sounds uncomfortably familiar.
“Those big brothers can certainly be trouble.”
Then she grins bashfully. “He thinks I’m pretty. And he likes how I throw a football.”
“He’s got good eyesight, then.”
She stands up, smoothing her blue satin dress. Before she runs off, I implore, “Hey baby girl, can you promise me somethin’?”
“Just give me a few more years before you start turnin’ my whiskers gray, okay?”
She laughs and kisses my cheek. “Alright, Daddy—I promise.”
Then she skips off.
And I shake my head. “Ethan fucking Fortenbury. Sonofabitch.”
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