The doctor replies, “Yes, she can have visitors, one at a time. But she’s asking for Stanton.”
And the sighs turn into a wave of what the hells.
I stand. “Me? Are you sure?”
The look on his face says Nana’s been quite the pain in the ass about it. “She was very insistent.”
My eyes meet Jenny’s—both of us puzzled. Then I shrug and follow Dr. Brown down the hall, leaving June Monroe clucking in the waiting room like a hen whose egg’s just been taken away.
He leaves me outside the closed door of Nana’s room. I open it slowly and step in cautiously—aware that I’m entering the room of a crone who’s threatened to shoot me on more than one occasion—and it’s possible she’s pocketed a needle or a scalpel that she has every intention of launching at my head.
Or somewhere lower.
But when I get inside, it’s just Nana, in a hospital bed with covers pulled up to her chin. And for the first time in my life, she seems . . . frail. Old.
When I swallow, I taste tears in the back of my throat. I don’t think it makes me any less of a man to admit it. It’s been one hell of a day.
And a hero needs his foe. It’s only in this split second that I realize what a wonderfully formidable foe Nana has always been to me. How wrong it would be—how much I would miss her—if she couldn’t fill that role anymore.
Her next words, wheezy and feeble, bring those tears straight to my eyes.
I smile, my voice a bit strangled. “Ma’am.”
Her brittle hand pats the space beside her and I sit in the chair next to the bed.
She regards me with a tired but determined expression—bent on having her say.
“You know why I never liked you, boy?”
I clear the knot from my throat and reply, “Because I knocked up your granddaughter?”
“Ha!” She waves her hand. “No. My Juney was bakin’ in my oven for two months before I got around to sayin’ my own vows.”
That’s more information than I ever needed to know.
“Is it because I didn’t marry her?” I try again.
She shakes her head. “No.” And pulls in a ragged breath. “It’s ’cause, even when you first came sniffin’ around my grandbaby, a twelve-year-old nothin’ carryin’ a football . . . even then, I could see you were goin’. Had that look in your eyes, a hankering for somewhere else—the way a colt looks at a closed gate, just waitin’ for someone to leave the latch off. Rarin’ to go.”
I nod slowly, because she’s not wrong.
“And I knew . . . if you had the chance . . . you’d take her with you.” Her cloudy eyes look into mine, seeing straight through me.
“But you’re not takin’ her with you anymore, are you, boy?”
I blow out a breath and sit back in the chair. All the things that have been twisting me up, swirling in my head the last few days, have suddenly straightened out. So clear. Such a simple answer.
“No, ma’am, I’m not.”
Nana’s face relaxes a bit and she seems relieved to have the confirmation. “Some horses like bein’ penned. Belongin’ to someone, grazin’ on the land they know—don’t have the desire to venture out.”
And I think back to every late-night riverbank talk Jenny and I shared, filled with fire and dreams. Of different. And my mind’s eye sees what that seventeen-year-old boy didn’t—Jenny’s enthusiasm was always for me, but never for us. Because her heart was here, in this small town with its warm people. She didn’t have any need for more . . . and I was already gone.
“It’s important,” Nana says, patting my hand, “that a woman doesn’t feel like the ugly sister. The second, lesser choice. That’s a bitterness that won’t sweeten.”
I blink down at her. “How did you . . .”
“Jus’ ’cause I’m goin’ blind, doesn’t mean I don’t see.”
I close my eyes and it’s Sofia’s face that comes alive. Her smile, her laugh, that sharp mouth, those arms that can hold so tight and tender, I would gladly stay within them for every moment of a lifetime.
I cover my face with my hands.
“I have screwed up, ma’am. Everything. Badly.”
“Well then, fix it,” she gibes. “That’s what men do—they fix things.”
“I don’t know where I’m supposed to start.” My hand rises. “And before you say ‘at the beginning,’ we’ve already begun. How am I supposed to show her that it’s always been her—when everything I said, everything I did, told her it wasn’t?”