A brand new black pickup was parked between LeeAnn’s red Chevy and Jack’s old beater. A man stood beside it, with his hand raised in greeting, but he said nothing more. Coming from the bright light of the barn into the dusk prevented Jack from making out the man’s face. Jack stared in his direction. Some tug of memory caused him to hesitate. There was something familiar about the slight curl in his shoulders.
LeeAnn emerged from the edge of the orchard and the man turned at the sound of her boots on the gravel drive. “LeeAnn?” the man said.
She stopped. “Wade Pierson?” She hesitated a moment more and then walked slowly toward him. “Is it really you?”
There, right in front of him, was his brother. Wade. Back after twenty years. He was still alive, at least. Wade’s arms encircled LeeAnn.
Jack clenched his fists and went back into the barn. He offloaded the fruit from the wagon, bruising most of it. He washed apples with shaky hands and then crushed them for the cider press. LeeAnn and Wade came through the doorway.
“Jack, look who’s here.” Jack glanced up and then couldn’t take his eyes from his brother’s face for a long moment. He wasn’t a sixteen year-old kid anymore. He’d grown taller than Jack and filled out. Damn if he didn’t look even more like their dad now, with that same dark red hair and fair skin. That curl of the shoulder used to give Wade the look of someone unsure of whether he belonged. But now Wade stood there smiling, like he would be welcome. Like he could just show up after all this time with as much warning as he gave on the night he left.
The barn sat at the end of a long lane. Gray, weathered wood lit by a single pole light. Only the cars parked in the grass on Thursdays differentiated it from any other barn. Inside the smells were not of hay and animals, but the stink of sweat and adrenaline, stale beer and cheap perfume. Two spotlights illuminated the ring, which was bordered by a rectangle of straw bales and surrounded by metal folding chairs five deep.
The crowd included a few girlfriends, but mostly men coming to watch and bet on what they were too afraid to try themselves. Jack didn’t know or care why the other fighters came. Fate brought him to this barn to fight.
Some sat and others stood, money and beer cans in hand. Two young kids were at it in the ring. Both fighters were so intent on not getting hurt that they took more of a beating than necessary. The blonder one favored his right side, probably because of a previous punch to the ribs. Another left jab would finish him. And the darker-haired boy couldn’t see well out of his right eye, making him wide open on that side. These two were here for the money, paid to fight by the guy who owned the barn. But Jack wasn’t there for cash.
Rage sheltered in him, like it did in anyone. Except his had been drawn to the surface by love held out of reach.
He looked for the John Deere hat and headed toward Bob, the man who owned the barn, ran the fights, and, judging by his belly, drank most of the beer. Jack told Bob who he wanted to fight. Bob would do what he said. Jack was the reason people came.
Jack looked back at them only once. The baby and LeeAnn, slick with blood and afterbirth, the cord still connecting them, as though they’d both been born of the swollen creek and washed up on its banks.
The sight of LeeAnn with her arms around the child pushed Jack to move faster. He raced back the way he’d come. The ground was soaked and slippery. He fell several times, blindly grabbing onto rocks and trees, pulling and pushing anything that could move him forward. When he reached the cones across the road, his chest burned and his hands bled. Headlights came toward him and he stepped out into the middle of the road with his arms raised. The car slowed. Gabriel jumped out.
“Jack! I heard about the bridge and came right away. What’s happened? You okay? Where’s LeeAnn? I got no answer on her cell or at her apartment.”
“Call nine-one-one. We need an ambulance. She’s downstream, along the shore, straight ahead.” Jack pointed the way. “Stella and the baby, too. They’re alive, but there isn’t much time. The baby’s more blue than pink. I’m going back to wait with them.”
“Take this,” Gabriel said, removing off his coat and handing it to him after pulling his cell from its pocket.
Jack hurried. By the time he got to LeeAnn he could already hear the sirens. LeeAnn was awake, her skin as chalk white as the sycamore in the moonlight. Her lower lip bled.
“Hold on now, LeeAnn. Help is coming.” The rapid, shallow rhythm of the baby’s breath didn’t seem right even to his untrained eye. He wrapped them both in Gabriel’s coat and then went to Stella. When he shook her, her eyes flickered open. “Just lay still for now. Medics will be here in a few minutes.”
He moved back over next to LeeAnn, stripped off his shirt, and lay down under the coat beside her and the baby, wrapping around them to offer what body warmth he could. “Your dad’s waiting for the ambulance. They’ll be here very soon,” he said, kissing LeeAnn’s forehead. “I’m here with you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” he said, muttering it over and over, hoping she heard.