Jory Mitchell squinted at the wild-eyed man before him in the bathroom mirror. His dark hair was matted and styled a la toss-and-turn; his green eyes had spider webs of red framing them; his face looked shallow and gaunt from lack of sleep; and he desperately needed a shave. He groaned, his head throbbing with each movement he made. Red, the family's Irish Setter, whined sympathetically from his sitting position just outside the bathroom door. Jory grimaced and hesitantly shook out two aspirins from the bottle in the medicine cabinet, washing them down with a handful of tap water. He hated having to take any kind of drug, but occasionally there was no choice.
He had risen early despite the little sleep he had received the previous night. He could still hear his sister, Beth, yelling at him as she had during last night's fight. Her haunting accusations had kept him awake into the early hours of the present morning: You're never here, so why can't we do what we want? You don't care about us--all you care about is the ranch! He sighed as he remembered how his brother, Andy, had shrunken back from his touch and how both siblings had been so unwilling to listen; they didn't believe him when he insisted that he did care--that the reason he was so angry with them was exactly because he cared so much. It was going to be a long month around the house while they were grounded.
Outside their neighboring bedroom doors, Jory paused. Something about the menacing note on Beth's door, which read "KNOCK OR ELSE!," and Andy's mimicking notice that warned the intruder to "KNOCK!" made him smile. Suddenly, a flood of memories slammed painfully through his mind: Picking Beth up in tears the time she fell from the tree; teaching Andy how to play baseball; hazy days they had gone swimming down at the pond; the first Christmas they had spent together without their parents ... His eyes smarted from the onslaught of memories burning behind them. With a shuddering breath that ended in a sigh, he knocked loudly on each door, called his siblings' names, and then turned to the stairs.
In the kitchen, the mild early morning sunlight hurt his tired eyes, and he quickly closed a blind. Mrs. Tanner, the family's long-time housekeeper, had left Jory a note before going off to the hospital to do her once a week volunteering. In her round letters, she told him of the eggs and bacon waiting for reheating in the microwave, and of the kids' lunches in the refrigerator. Below this information she had sprawled a big smiley face with a warning that he could almost hear her say as though she were right beside him: Temper, Temper, the postscript advised, try to take it easy on those naughty kids! He couldn't help but smile at her motherly words as he made toast and poured orange juice. His sister and brother had passed the 'naughty' stage a long time ago.
A few minutes later, Beth and Andy came downstairs in somber silence and slumped into seats at the kitchen table. Red collapsed in a pile of auburn fur at Jory's feet, propping his soft chin on one of his master's ankles. While they ate, the silence stretched out uncomfortably. Jory watched Beth's pretty face as she carefully avoided his gaze and scanned a reading assignment over her breakfast. Her long red hair was pulled up from her face today in a haphazard ponytail and it was obvious from her weary green eyes that she had not gotten much more sleep than Jory had. Andy was more alert; he glanced repeatedly between his two older siblings, his green eyes filled with worry. As he always did when he was uncertain how to act, he followed his sister's lead.
"I'll expect you both home right after school," Jory said. He knew it was not the best conversation opener, but he couldn't bear the weighty silence any longer. His green eyes meet Beth's challengingly; she did not back down.
"I was going to try out for the choir today after school," she told him, her little nose held high in the air. "So I won't be home right at three."
He chuckled at her attempt. It was a nice try, he had to admit. Except that she had never shown any interest in school activities before. "Oh, really? Well maybe I'll just swing on down to school so I can watch you try out." His expression sobered and his words turned from casual to loaded. "'Course, if you're not there, then I'll have to hunt you down. And when I find you ... well, let's just say you'll be sorry you lied to me."
Beth had been caught and she knew it. But he did have to give her credit: She hid her defeat well. She buried it under indignant anger.
"Why don't you ever trust me?" she blurted out. Jory chuckled again. "It's not funny either!" She banged her book closed on the table.
"You expecting me to trust you is hilarious," he insisted. He leaned back in his chair and regarded her closely. "You two proved to me yesterday that I can't trust you. Do you really think that after what you pulled I'm going to just let it pass without a word?"
"You already grounded us. You called Sam's dad and probably ruined any chance I had of going out with him. And I hurt my ankle too. Isn't that enough punishment?"
"And you two cost me a ten thousand dollar thoroughbred. Not to mention the fact that you're lucky you didn't kill yourself on that horse. And you're both damn lucky I didn't break your backsides when I came home last night."
Beth rolled her green eyes to the ceiling. "Mrs. Tanner never would've let you..."
"Mrs. Tanner doesn't make the rules around here, Bethany..."
"Don't call me that!" his sister suddenly shrieked. She tossed her wild red ponytail back from her neck angrily. Red's head cocked up in her direction, regarding her with an uncertain whine. Andy turned sharply away from the scene, his chestnut brown hair falling over his eyes as he bent to pet the setter beneath the table. He hated it when his siblings fought like this. "That's not my name!"
"It sure the hell is. Bethany Jane Mitchell. That's the name Daddy gave you..."
"Well, you're not my daddy!" Her bright eyes had darkened with her mood.
"No, little girl, I am not." He noted with a petty stab of triumph how she stamped her foot when he said that. If there was one thing Beth hated more than anything else, it was to be called 'little' anything. She had spent most of her fifteen years, after all, thinking that she was too big for her britches. She despised him when he reminded her otherwise. "But I am your big brother." He sighed, the willingness to fight with them disappearing quickly. "And I love you guys." Beth scoffed loudly at that as Andy looked quickly away from his brother's gaze. "I'm just trying to raise you up right, the way Mama and Daddy would have if they could be here. That's all."
Outside the school bus horn blasted and Beth and Andy jumped up at the grateful intrusion. "I'll be here at three when you two come home," he reminded them. Neither acknowledged his words as they seized their chance for escape, grabbed their books, and ran for the door. It slammed loudly behind them.
Jory sighed. With a weary air, he cleaned up the remains of breakfast, all the while his mind still churning with conflicting emotions concerning his siblings. Despite his thoughts, he pushed himself to keep busy, for experience had taught him that by keeping busy he could postpone thinking about his worries. In the years since his parents' deaths he had learned to turn to the hard work of the ranch to escape from his problems.
Falling into that pattern now, he pushed himself through the rest of the morning. He showered, shaved, and dressed in worn blue jeans, a faded red flannel shirt, and his favorite pair of boots. Next he went down to the stables, checking on every horse in the long, low building. It was a practice his father had maintained every day, although there were more than enough qualified men working at the ranch and keeping up the horses. Jory was lucky if he was able to make the inspection once a week, but he still tried to do it as often as he could. He believed, as his father had, in keeping himself involved in as much of the work on the ranch as possible. He was not the type of man who could sit in the office off of the barn, pushing papers around, while the hired men worked with his horses. He smirked as he acknowledged this truth. Only a few short years ago, he had planned exactly that sort of future for himself. Some crazy idea had gotten into his head that he wanted to be a lawyer. The future he had envisioned for himself was a far cry from the one he was actually living.
He finished out the morning by fixing a leaning post on the corral fence, placing the feed and grocery orders by phone into town, and playing a quick game of catch with Red in the back yard. He ate an early lunch around eleven-thirty, and then looked about him, antsy to have something else to do to keep his mind occupied.
He alighted on the idea of going into town to pick up the next week's supplies he had ordered earlier. He had some donations for the homeless shelter there, too. He could drop them off and visit with Maggie Sampson, the shelter's director. Those tasks should probably take him until nearly three, at which time he wanted to be home for Beth and Andy's return. After gathering the bags of clothes and toys that had collected in the basement over the last few months since the previous donation to the shelter, Jory headed out to the driveway.
As Calmar was a good hour's drive, Jory turned on the radio and tried to sing along with the local country station, but his heart wasn't in it. The Tennessee day had warmed to a pleasant seventy-two and a nice wind was blowing. The light breeze coming in through the windows caught the tiny gold heart necklace that had hung around the rear view mirror of the truck for as long as Jory had owned it. The gold heart gleamed brightly as the sunlight danced off of it into Jory's eyes. It had been a gift he had given Franny when they were only nine. When she had left him, years later, she had left it on the pillow beside him in bed. Although she had never come back to him, Jory had never been able to forget about her. The necklace was his last link to her. But although he couldn't dispose of it, the sight of the gold charm had recently only made him angry. He still missed her so much, despite the number of years that had passed since she left him. And as he drove to Calmar with the bright gold gleaming at him from the corner of his eye, his mood darkened even further.
By the time he pulled up to the brick building that housed the shelter, he was very much lost in thoughts of the past. He forced himself to don a smile as he gathered the bags of donations and entered the large building, looking around for Maggie.
"Well, hello there, stranger!" Maggie Sampson exclaimed as she watched him walk inside. Since she had started the homeless shelter, the only one of its kind in three counties, Maggie and Jory had become quick friends. He was one of her most loyal supporters in a growing town, where many of its older residents worried over the type of character the homeless residents of the shelter might have.
"Hello, yourself," Jory returned, smiling. He set the bags on a nearby table and hugged Maggie, lifting her tiny frame up off of the floor. He set her down and planted a kiss on top of her mass of short, unruly black curls. "How have you been?"
"Good, Jory. How 'bout you? How're those kids?"
Jory sighed, shaking his head. "They're trying to drive me crazy, Maggie, I swear it. Yesterday, I came home from an auction in Knoxville to find out that they had stayed home from school with some friend of Beth's. And they had got it in their heads to ride my new stallion, who hadn't been broke yet."
Maggie's chin dropped at Jory's words. "Oh boy."
He nodded. "Well, the horse threw Beth. Then he took off over the fence. No sign of him since."
"Where was Mrs. Tanner?"
"She went with me, to visit with her daughter that lives outside of Knoxville."
"Oh, jeez, Jory, I'm sorry. Guess they're in a lot of hot water with you, huh?"
He nodded. "You could say that." He forced a smile. "So, anyway, how's married life treating you, missy?"
Maggie beamed. The young woman had been married only two months and she still had the glow of a new bride. "Great. Things are great. Thanks for asking." She eyed him closely, one finger pressed to her pink lips in thought. He groaned inwardly, recognizing the match maker's glint in her brown eyes from previous experience. "There's someone I want you to meet while you're here."
"Aren't you ever going to learn, Mag?" he asked, his tone exasperated. This was the third time she had tried to set him up with one of her favorite refugees. It made him uncomfortable. Not because he harbored any prejudices about the women at the shelter, but because before Maggie had married Dave, she had asked him out. He had refused, explaining to her that he was still not over a past love. She had let it pass, content that they were such good friends. But ever since her marriage, she seemed to have made it her own private crusade to find Jory a partner of his own. He knew he should be grateful to her for her concern, but his feelings had not changed. He didn't trust himself to try to love someone again. Not after Franny. Not after he had lost her. He had only had casual relationships since, and he had recently decided to end those as well. He wished Maggie would just leave well enough alone. He was doing just fine without a woman. He kept himself busy enough that he didn't even think about the opposite sex. With one exception, at least.
"Com'on, Jory. What do you have to lose?" Maggie demanded, her hands planted on her small hips. "I'll go get her. I'll just be a minute."
Before he could make a grab for her, she had darted away into the depths of the old building. Jory sighed. There was no stopping that woman when she got an idea in her head. He turned his attention to the table where he had deposited his bags and began to take the items out, separating them into piles of clothing and toys. He had just removed an old baseball bat, glove, and ball when a small boy of about five or six came up behind him. He was driving a match box car around on the wall behind Jory and making engine sound affects.
Jory smiled to himself. The boy reminded him of Andy at about the same age--or of himself, for that matter.
The baseball Jory had placed on the table suddenly rolled off and stopped at the little boy's feet. He suspended his play and bent to pick it up, looking at it with a slightly puzzled expression.
Jory turned and regarded him with slight amusement. "It's a baseball," he said. "Have you ever played baseball?"
The child shook his head. He was rather small boned, with very dark brown hair and bright green eyes. He continued to study the object in his hand as though it were a foreign concept.
"My name's Jory. What's your name?"
The name caught Jory off guard as it was his own middle name and, until now, he had never known another person to have it. "Really! That's my middle name."
This statement had little impact on the child. He simply looked from the ball to Jory.
Finally, Jory smiled and, crouching down to the child's height, said, "Maggie would skin me alive if we played baseball in here, but would you like to play a little catch?"
The boy's eyebrows furrowed. "Catch?" he asked.
"Yeah." Jory gently took the ball from his hands. "See, I'll throw it to you and you catch it." He tossed the baseball lightly to the boy. It fell at his feet.
"Now you throw it back to me and I'll catch it," Jory encouraged. Caleb picked up the ball and mimicked Jory's throw. Jory caught the ball and said, "That's it! Now you catch it when I throw it."
He gently tossed the ball to Caleb again. This time the child managed to catch it.
"All right! You're a natural at this! And you never even played a game of baseball!"
They continued to throw and catch the ball between them. As the game of catch wore on, Caleb's personality came through little by little, and his serious face softened more and more often into smiles and cheers. Jory's own face was in a perpetual grin at the boy's excitement.
"Oh, my goodness..." a strangely familiar female voice whispered from behind Jory. The voice caused Jory's breath to catch suddenly in his throat and he turned around so quickly, he missed Caleb's next toss. The baseball banged into his knee, but the stab of pain from the ball was not even comparable to the pang of sorrow and regret that struck him when he turned around. He felt as though everything in the world stopped at that exact moment. Except, of course, for his heart, which was suddenly pounding so rapidly in his chest, that he felt like he might be having a heart attack. For several moments all he could do was stand there, staring at her.
The woman standing behind him, next to Maggie, and obviously the woman she had gone to find, was Franny. Franny Woods. His Franny. In a worn flannel shirt two sizes too large, tattered blue jeans and dirty tennis shoes. Her once bright blue eyes now seemed worn and tired. Her long blond hair was unkempt and her eyes had large, dark circles beneath them. Her delicate features seemed even more fragile as she had to be a good ten or fifteen pounds under weight. Her presence in the shelter could mean only one thing and it was horrible for him to admit the truth to himself.
Franny was homeless.