Mara heads from Kentucky to Alabama in this chapter. I might have to convince her to give us a 'Roll Tide!' at some point. If she's not too busy ...
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Chapter Eight - August
Mara hesitated, punched in 256, changed her mind, and laid down her cell phone beside her on the porch swing. The last touches of pink lingered in the sky, soon to be overtaken by darkness. She had a decision to make and it must be tonight. The list had been stuffed in the side pocket of her purse, and she pulled it back out, unfolding the crinkled edges, glancing at the name. Russ Farlow.
He was one of her earlier conquests. He had dark hair, cut football player short. She saw him once again, in her mind, dark brown eyes, a strong chin, and the lean muscles of a wide receiver. Attractive but not her type with his plain middle-class family. As a freshman, he’d been easy and the dinner at Alton’s steak house when she’d finished with him lingered. She’d known then that she could use her looks for whatever she wanted.
Jenny had found that he lived in Alabama now with his folks. How convenient. A quick conversation with Mom, and she had Aunt Ruthie’s number. She just had to call.
“Mara. Are you coming in soon?” Mom’s voice floated to her from inside the house.
“In a minute.” She called back.
She picked up the phone and dialed. 256-555-0987. Could she stand living in a hick town with her redneck relatives? Stop it. That was the old Mara. Her relatives were sweet country people, and Decatur, Alabama, was a sweet country town. Old habits were hard to break. God, I need some help here.
“Hello? Aunt Ruthie?”
“Why bless my heart. Is this Mara?” The twang of southern goodness greeted her. “It is, isn’t it? I haven’t heard from you in a month of Sundays.”
“Yes, it’s me, Aunt Ruthie. How are you?”
“I’m fine, child. How are you?”
“I’m good.” How was she supposed to do this? “Aunt Ruthie, Mama said she talked to you about finding me a job.”
“She did. She did, child. And I hate to tell you, but the economy is just not too good here in Bama. But I asked all my friends, and everyone at church, and I found the perfect place for you.”
Aunt Ruthie never could get to the point. “You did? What is it?”
“Right outside city limits, not ten miles from my house is Blake and Lucy Leland’s farm. Lucy used to live up around y’all, and then she got that nasty divorce and remarried a farmer from down here.”
“And the job?” Mara swatted a mosquito on her arm and stood. Time to get inside. She moved through the backdoor and leaned against the wall of the utility room.
“Lucy needs someone to manage their farm for a month while they travel to California to see their new grandbaby. From what I understand, the job’s mostly bookkeeping and computer stuff. I told them about you, and she said to offer you the job if you called. You can start Monday. You know, farming is very high tech these days. Not like when we were young uns. I remember when …”
“I understand.” Mara had to stop her before she got started. Jenny said Russ lived in the Decatur area, and this would probably be as close as she could get. “Aunt Ruthie, tell them I’ll take the job. If you really don’t mind me staying with you.”
“Mind? Darling, we are so bored around here since Joe retired. I’m already fixing up the room.”
“Thank you. This means a lot to me. I’ll see you Sunday evening. I love you, too. Bye.”
She smiled. Bookkeeping and computers should be no problem. Only for a month. How hard could running a farm be?
The heat from the sidewalk worked its way through Mara’s thin-soled flip flops. How could Alabama be so hot and humid? The Morgan County Café sat directly in front of her, but the crowd forced her to park across the street in a lot. She tiptoed the last few yards and pushed her way inside the restaurant.
Why here? After settling at Aunt Ruthie’s, she’d talked to Lucy Leland who’d set up a meeting with her foreman, who also helped out at the farm. She would get final instructions from him and then meet at the farm tomorrow.
She glanced over the crowd, mostly men from the nearby cat food plant. Many stopped speaking and offered her their full attention. Mara was used to that.
Lucy said the foreman would be sitting in the first booth to her right. She directed her attention there, above the stares still fixed in her direction. No. Couldn’t be.
Her body tensed as her mind suddenly refused to work. Russ Farlow. Russ hadn’t aged too much, except his hair had grown out of the athletic cut into a wavy mess. He wore a neatly trimmed beard and the well-fitting Crimson Tide t-shirt showed his lean muscles had bulked considerably. Russ was more handsome than ever except for the lack of a smile on his face. No. it wasn’t a lack of a smile. It was pure hostility.
This couldn’t be happening. She wasn’t ready. Not now, not in this crowd of testosterone. Not for his apology. He motioned to her, refusing to stand. She didn’t blame him. Not after the way she’d treated him.
Mara moved to the booth, but she didn’t sit. She’d been set up. “Are you Lucy Leland’s foreman?” Aunt Ruthie owed Mara an explanation.
He glared. “I’m Lucy Leland’s son. She and my dad divorced two years ago, and she remarried. Mom didn’t give me your name. It’s a good thing, or I wouldn’t have showed.” He stayed in his seat.
Practiced or no, she could get the apology over with now. “May I sit down? Please?”
“I guess. Mom and Blake have already left, and I’ll need your help tomorrow. At least until I can find someone else.”
Mara slid into her seat, studying his face as she did. Bitterness. Hatred. Disgust. How could she have created such a mess in the short time they’d dated? Russ was a good-looking man who should have plenty of women chasing him. Why did she repel him so?
If he didn’t soften up, tomorrow would not be a fun day. She would try the direct approach. Kind of. “First, I’d like to apologize. I shouldn’t have kept dating you when you were serious and I wasn’t.”
“Whoa.” He threw out his hand. “You were playing me. It was all a game to you and the others.”
So he knew. Now what? “I was. And I’m still sorry.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” He spit out the words. “Tomorrow I need you to be at the farm at seven o’clock. Wear old clothes and rubber boots if you have any.”
“Rubber boots? I thought this job was bookkeeping and computer.”
“The computer is in the control room at the chicken houses. And there’s a little more to it than that.” His smile did not ease the sudden apprehension settling over her.
“I’ll be there.” Maybe she’d have more time to make amends there. What else could she do? She couldn’t make him forgive her. She’d work as long as he’d allow before going back home, to the next name on her list.
Mara smoothed her South Carolina t-shirt, tucking it into faded jeans. After she’d talked to Russ, she stopped at the local supercenter and purchased rubber boots. Why you would need boots around all those fuzzy little baby chicks she couldn’t fathom. Hopefully, she wouldn’t step on any. She searched the Internet last night and educated herself on the technology of the chicken farm. Ready for anything. She slipped into her boots and headed out to the Leland farm.
Aunt Ruthie said it was right off the main road, and as she turned onto the gravel drive and then right into the parking lot, she could only stare. Four large chicken houses, each football field length it seemed, rose in the middle of two barns. Giant feed bins lay halfway back of the chicken houses with two on each side. Small outbuildings were in front of the feed bins. Must be the control rooms Russ spoke of. She spied an older model beat-up Ford truck parked near one of them and parked her small car behind it.
Russ stood by one of the feed bins. She stepped out of her car as he bent down and began to beat the metal bin down low with a rubber hammer. What in the world? As she came close to him, she noticed a cane held tightly in his left hand, the hammer in his right. “What’s wrong?”
“The feed is hung up in the bin. Too much humidity.” He smiled, and this time it appeared genuine.
Mara smiled back. “Is this a bad thing?”
“Normal in the summer. There. See how it’s running through now?” He pointed to the transparent red plastic boot at the bottom of the bin and the feed running through it into the pipes. “Goes through these pipes into all the houses.”
He walked around the bin, a slight limp noticeable, until he reached her side. “I’m sorry about yesterday. It was a shock seeing you after all these years. How’d you end up here?’
“Have you ever heard the term you reap what you sow? Well, I finished school, started to work, and then lost my job.”
The hammer fell from his hand at the same time his mouth fell open.
“Let me get that.” Mara picked up the hammer and handed it to him.
He tucked the hammer under his arm. “But you’re not here just for the job, are you?”
She smiled. “Well, I do need the work, but I came here looking for you. I just happened to find you and the job at the same location. I’m asking every guy I hurt in college to forgive me. You were the youngest guy I dated, a freshman if I remember, and I dragged you from your sports world to my fashion shows and chick flicks. I shouldn’t have dumped you like I did.”
Russ leaned heavily on the cane as he hung the hammer on the outside wall of the control room. “What’s done is done. Life can’t be relived.” He opened the control room door and pointed to the small computer inside on a desk. “You’ll have to go in each control room and record the statistics of each day into a database. The dead, the culls, temperature, and feed quantity. Do you think you can do that?”
“I can.” Mara couldn’t take her eyes off the cane. “Did you hurt your leg?”
“I’d rather not talk about it. We’ve got work to do.” He slipped on a pair of gloves and handed her a pair. He then opened the door to the chicken house. Aroma that reminded Mara of a thousand litter boxes poured into a trash can of three week old garbage left in the sun assaulted her nose. Feathers and dust swirled in the air as Russ strained to hold the door. Wood shavings littered the floor. She shuddered.
“Get in. The fans are running and the door is hard to keep from slamming.”
Mara gingerly stepped inside. As her eyes adjusted to the dimmed light, she gasped and moved back toward the door. Large chickens. No. Giant chickens. They surrounded her, tilting their heads as they moved close to her pink and green swirled rain boots. One large chicken pecked at her feet. “These aren’t baby chickens. They’re all grown up.”
“They used to be babies.” He spoke loudly to combat the squawks and squeals that filled the house.
Another thought leaped in her mind. “What did you mean when you said you had to record dead and culls?”
“If we find a really sick chicken, we have to get rid of him and as far as the dead, look by that feed pan.” He gestured toward a lump of feathers. “Grab one of those five gallon buckets there and put the chicken in it. Then we’ll take it to the refrigeration unit outside for pick up to the rendering plant.”
Dead chicken? Rendering? What had she gotten herself into? “I have to pick it up? With my hands?”
“Uh, I gave you gloves.” He grinned. “I’ll probably need your help all week. With school starting back, this kind of laborer is hard to find. Here.” He steadied his cane in the litter, bent a little and grasped the big bird by his feet. The chicken’s head lolled to the side, and Mara jumped.
“He’s alive.” She shuddered and hugged the wall.
“No, he’s not. Put him in the bucket.” He handed the yellow feet in her direction. She reached her hand out and grasped the bird.
“He’s so heavy.” She held him away from her, and chunked him into the bucket. “Now what?”
“You have to walk through all four houses and look for more dead, leave the buckets by the door, then enter everything in the computer. I’ll walk through the first house with you, and then I have to go put out hay for the cows.”
“You’re going to leave me here?” By myself, with all these monster birds?
“That’s why Mom hired you. I can’t do this alone.”
Mara sighed, picked up a bucket in each hand, and followed Russ through the house. He parted the red sea of chickens with his cane and a low whistle. Seems they were used to him.
They ended up with eight chickens and moved to the control room. He then showed her the program for entering the information. She placed it in and wiped sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. She had to do this three more times? “I ought to wear shorts next time. It’s so hot.”
“Did you feel the claws on those chickens you picked up? They’re nervy birds. One wrong move and they will scratch you to pieces. Go on to the second house. I’ll be back and see how you’re progressing as soon as I put out the hay.”
Mara followed him to the doorway. He moved slowly toward his truck and left. What about that limp? He was always so athletic. Maybe a football injury. She’d lost track of him after she dumped him.
By the time she finished the second house, there was no part of her that wasn’t sweaty, dusty, feathery, and itchy. Still two houses to go. The musical notes of her ringtone filled the air. She pulled the phone from her pocket as she stepped outside.
“Hello? Oh, hi, Aunt Ruthie.”
“How are you doing?” Her aunt’s concern sounded through the phone.
“Not bad. It’s hard work though.”
“What did you think of Russ? He’s such a nice young man.”
Mara sensed a matchmaking tone of voice. “He is. I’ve met him before.”
“You have? Will wonders never cease? Where?”
“College.” That’s all Aunt Ruthie needed to know. Mara walked toward the third house.
“So you know about his leg?”
Mara stopped outside the door. “No. What about it?”
“Well, don’t say anything. I hear he’s real sensitive. When he was in college, he fell in love with this girl, and when she dumped him, he was heartbroken. He quit school, joined the army, then lost his leg from the knee down in Afghanistan. Didn’t you notice his limp?”
Aunt Ruthie’s last words were lost on Mara. No. A crushing pain forced the air out of her lungs. It couldn’t be.
“Mara, are you there?”
“Uh, I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll talk to you when I get home this evening. Bye.” She turned off her phone before shoving it in her pocket lest anyone else should call. Tears drizzled unheeded down her cheeks. A loud squawking inside interrupted her grief. Was something wrong?
Mara pushed open the door of the house, stepped inside, and kept the door from slamming. She stood in water. Water was gushing from a broken filter housing amidst the PVC water pipe structure on the opposite wall. Chickens backed away from the lagoon of water and dirty shavings. She had to get the water cut off. Long feeder lines and water lines stretched across the house. Mara carefully picked her way through, stepping high over the thin wires that stretched over the top of the lines. She’d read on the Internet that the thin wires kept the chickens from roosting on the lines. As she closed in on the wall, she traced below the broken housing to a cut-off valve. That should stop it. Water splashed on her as she turned the valve, and then it stopped. She’d fixed it for now, but she had to find Russ.
She lifted one boot-clad foot over the water line and balanced as her other foot followed. However, she’d misjudged the height and her toe caught in the thin wire, throwing her stability. Mara wavered back and forth before pitching forward into the swamp at her feet. She landed on her hands and knees, dirty chicken litter splashing on her face.
Her gloves filled with water, and the wet soaked into her jeans. She jumped up, ripping her gloves off, and then checked her phone. It was dry. The smell stung her nose as the big chickens eyed her from a distance. Mara stumbled to the door, pushed out, and sat on the concrete slab holding the feed bins. She wiped her face with the neckline of her t shirt. She deserved worse. Look what she’d done to Russ.
The backfire of a motor jolted her to reality. The truck pulled to a stop a short ways from her. The door opened, and Russ stepped from the truck, leaning on the cane. A cane that no apology could wish away. And it was all her fault.
Tears filled her eyes as she shoved her phone in her pocket and stood.
“What happened to you?” Russ shook his head.
Her tears flowed again as she stared at the cane. “There’s a flood in house three. I turned off the water. Then I fell.”
“Are you okay?” He shuffled into the control room and emerged with a roll of paper towels. “Here.”
She pulled off several paper towels and swiped at her dirty arms. “I’m fine. But you—I didn’t know about your leg—I—” She stared at the cane. “I’m so sorry.”
His smile vanished. “I don’t need your pity. I told you what’s done is done.”
“But it’s my fault.” She cringed and closed her eyes as the full impact of her childish college game gave full scope. What had she done?
He reached up and wiped a tear from her cheek. “Hey. Listen to me. I was tired of college after one semester. But I couldn’t quit. My parents worked too hard to put me through. So I used our breakup as an excuse to join the military. I grew up there, became more than the partying kid I’d been. I hate my injury, but I’m a different man in more ways than one. Really.”
“You should hate me still. I don’t understand.”
“I could never hate you, Mara. Because even if you did play me, God always knew the direction my life would take.”
She stared into those dark brown eyes and knew he was a different Russ Farlow.
“Let’s get back to work. Too much to do around here to talk about the past. Move forward, Mara, not backward.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Russ.” That’s what the apologies were about. Confronting the past and looking toward the future.
VOTE FEBRUARY 5 THROUGH FEBRUARY 8 FOR YOUR FAVORITE HERO!
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