Chapter Thirteen

    Their marriage was whole again - or at least should have been. Maybe they had been through too much too soon. The light banter was no longer there. They laughed now, but the overall mood was serious. Maybe things would never be the same as they were before the baby.
    Fall painted the hills in splashes of orange, red and yellow and there was a chill in the breeze. While she was out doing chores, she had seen several flocks of geese flying overhead, traveling south in chevron flight. Late September aroused the instinct to prepare the den for winter - so to speak.
    Carmen and Alex were gradually repairing their relationship, but something new had raised its ugly head - a dark fear that lingered around the recliner. With each day it seemed to be growing until now she had a feeling of dread when she entered the living room. She avoided the recliner, choosing the window seat instead. There she felt secure - especially when Alex was with her. Finally even that didn't work, so she simply avoided the living room all together. Her phobia didn't go unnoticed by Alex.
    "Why don't we ever sit on the window seat any more?" He asked one morning as she was preparing breakfast.
    She poked at the egg in the frying pan with a spatula. "I don't know. There's just something about that room. I can't explain it, but it frightens me."
    He leaned against the counter and gazed down at her with a troubled expression.
    "But I thought the window seat was your favorite place."
    "It was - is. Oh, I don't know. It's kind of like when you wake up from a terrible nightmare, and then something happens to remind you of it. Only I don't know what it is that reminds me of what." The egg popped grease and she jumped back.
    Alex watched her reflectively for a few moments. Finally his eyes registered comprehension. Of what?
    She met his gaze. "What? You know something."
    He took her hand. "You can't keep avoiding the room, Carmen. You're going to have to face it sooner or later. When you're ready to walk through that dark valley, let me know and I'll walk with you. It's no place to be alone."
    Dark valley? Walk alone? What was he talking about? She played along with him.
    "You sound like you've been there before."
    He nodded. "Several times. Only I knew why I was there. You will too, when you get there."
    Apparently he thought she should know what he was talking about. She knew well about the darkest hour - she'd been there. What could be worse than what she had already been through?     Things were improving now. She sighed.
    "You say the strangest things, sometimes."
    Alex was unusually quiet through breakfast and she assumed he was thinking about that darkness thing. Finally he broached a subject almost as painful.
    "I was talking to one of my customers the other day. She works with social services." He hesitated and spread some jam on his toast. "She was telling me about a little boy...."
    "I don't want to adopt a baby," Carmen interrupted tersely. That gnawing fear had made its way into the dining room and it was lurking around the edges of their conversation.
    He went on, undaunted. "I wasn't talking about adoption." He carefully placed the knife across his plate. "He's handicapped." He took a bite of the toast and she was certain he was waiting for a response. He swallowed. "Anyway, she was telling me how much he loved animals - horses in particular. I told her about your ranch idea and she wanted to know if we would consider showing him around sometime."
    She breathed a little easier. He was simply being Alex - trying to help someone who was having a hard time.
    "That would be nice. Is he in a wheelchair?"
    "No, it isn't that bad. One of his arms is deformed - short. It doesn't stop him from living a normal life, though." He took a sip of his coffee. "I thought it would be nice to have him stay for a couple of weeks."
    A couple of weeks? What was he up to? She eyed him suspiciously. "And this little boy - would he happen to have a mother and father?"
    He avoided her eyes and his neck darkened. "Everybody has a mother and father."
    He chopped up his egg. "His mother died and his father doesn't want to be troubled with a handicapped child. He's gone from one foster parent to another. He's seven years old and he's never experienced a normal family situation. I thought maybe a little time here might be good for him."
    "Do you think we have a normal family situation going on here?" She didn't mean to sound so bitter.
    He glanced up sharply and eyed her critically. "Better than most of the places he's been."
     Probably a lot better. At least things were better than they had been for the last four months. Still, the idea troubled her. The uneasy feeling about the living room was growing. Who knew how big it was going to get? If the child picked up on her fear, it could cause him worse problems. Of course, if the boy was interested in horses and the ranch, maybe it would be balanced out. More important for the child, though, was the fact that Alex actually wanted him to visit the ranch. A few weeks with Alex could do wonders for the boy.
    Alex watched her reflectively. "It's only two weeks."
    Once before he had used that logic and it had been a prelude to a fiasco. A lot could happen in two weeks. She gnawed at her lower lip and twisted a fork in her eggs. Alex was looking forward to this visit - the boy would enjoy the opportunity. How could she refuse?
    She sighed. "All right. Two weeks...but that's all."
    He reached out and tenderly put his hand over hers. "You won't be sorry."
    Her heart did a flip-flop and she turned her hand over so that her palm touched his. How could they have drifted apart when they loved each other so much? Now that they were back in sync, would this unexplainable fear wedge itself between them? It couldn't. She wouldn't let it. She would face that fear. Ferret it out and destroy it.

    Their house guest turned out to be a sandy-haired boy named Jonathan. From the moment Alex brought him home, Carmen knew she was in trouble. There was no need for bonding time. It was as if they had always been a family.
    Enormous sky blue eyes gazed back at her hauntingly from a face too thin to be attractive. His left arm looked like it belonged to a three-year old. He walked with a slight limp and his gaunt frame was gangly. Carmen felt drawn to him - not by pity, but by his strength. Far from the timid and self-conscious child she had expected, Jonathan was both confident and demonstrative. He was enough like Alex to be his son.
    Jonathan's interest in horses was genuine. In spite of his nearly useless arm, he eagerly helped with the chores. It took him less than a week to work his way into their hearts. Although he was quiet and reserved most of the time, it was soon apparent that he missed little that went on. One morning, while Carmen was cleaning the house, he caught her standing in the living room, confronting the recliner with a questionable amount of courage.
    "The chair makes you sad."
    She glanced at him. "I used to sit in it all the time."
    He glanced around the room. "I like that place over there by the window. Two people can sit there - maybe three."
    She smiled down at him. "I'm sure it could seat three very comfortably. Alex and I used to set there together and watch the sun rise."
    "You don't like it anymore either?"
    "I still like it. I just don't have time now." Even if she could explain, he wouldn't understand the gnawing fear that drove her from their favorite spot. How could he? Even she didn't even understand it.
    He eyed her doubtfully. "I'll sit with you, if you're afraid."
    How could he know? Had Alex said something? "I'm not afraid," she finally said.
    He gazed up at her with a solemn expression. "It's okay to be afraid. Everybody is afraid of something."
    She put a hand on his shoulder. "You're a very special young man, you know that?"
    He shrugged. "I know. Mom said God made me special."
    "You must miss her a lot."
    He nodded. "Yes, but she doesn't hurt now."
    She was in a lot of pain before she passed away?"
    He eyed her thoughtfully and then shrugged again. "She died of cancer. She was pretty - like you."     He took her hand and led her to the window seat. "You can sit here for a while. I won't leave you alone."
    The moment was too poignant to be amusing. This child had been through so much. How could she let her fears reign when he was so brave? She sat down on the window seat and he crawled up beside her.
    For the better part of an hour they gazed down on the scene below and discussed her plans for the dude ranch. Who would have guessed that a seven-year-old would make such a great companion?     For a little while, she even forgot about the fear, but as they rose from the window seat, her gaze was drawn back to the chair. Maybe she should give it to someone. She would talk to Alex about it tonight.
    "Let's go down to the old house. I need to take some measurements."
    "Cool," he responded cheerfully and followed her out the door.
    As they walked down the hill, Jonathan made a detour to the Oak tree and she called him back.
    "I just wanted to pick some flowers," he said. It's funny how they grow under that tree."
    "The hill protects them from the cold wind," she explained briefly. "Let's get to the house now." The sooner they got away from the tree, the better. The flowers should have made her feel cheerful, but they ushered in that dark feeling instead.

    Together they slid down the hill on make believe sleighs and waded the creek. They crossed the field, stopping at the pond when Jonathan insisted on watching the wild ducks.
The buffalo and longhorns were nowhere in sight, so there was no need to be concerned about their safety.
    The screen door squawked a protest as they entered the old house. A week ago she and Alex had been down to open some windows, but the house still smelled stale. They had decided on putting down a new floor and putting sheet rock over the walls. A crew was supposed to be out in the next week or so to do the work, but she wanted to measure the windows for curtains. Three bedrooms and one bath - not much of a dude ranch, but she intended to rent the house out to small groups. The upstairs bedroom would become an office. The old dairy would be converted into a bunkhouse, adding more room. It wouldn't bring in a fortune, but at least she could feel she was contributing something to their income.
    Turning from the window, she spotted Jonathan climbing the stairs. She called to him. "Be careful you don't fall."
    He held the banister with his good arm and waved to her with the other. "I'll be careful. I just wanted to go up to that room. It looks cool."
    The feeling hit her with such sudden force that her voice rose almost to a frantic level.
    "No, don't go up there. Come down here."
    He turned; his expression a mixture of annoyance and surprise.
    "But I just wanted to look. I won't touch anything."
    She battled a wave of panic and felt drained as the feeling subsided. "I'm ready to go back to the house. I need to start supper. Alex can take you down here some time."
    He turned and climbed back down the stairs, obviously disgruntled, but not arguing further.

Continue to Chapter 14
The Darkest Hour
Linda Louise Rigsbee
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