Wendi Christner, Author
"...descriptive style, original voice and tight Southern narrative." - Writer's Digest
© 2016 by Wendi Christner
All Rights Reserved.
Seven years after Cassidy Strumond set the fire that consumed her parents, the scent of ash still lingered in the newly sprouted corn and in the wide blades of grass that blanketed the rolling hills; only, nobody seemed to smell it but her.
Cassidy rolled her high school diploma over the worn floor planks of her grandmother’s back porch and watched Jared Walker’s horse, Delilah, clomp across the stone footbridge that spanned a stream separating her family farm from his.
The arms of a young man who worked outside and handled livestock for a living extended from the sleeves of a t-shirt that looked like he’d slept in it. His pointed boots stuck out from the frayed legs of his jeans, and the outline of his thighs pressed against the easy fitting denim. Details she had only recently begun to notice. He looped Delilah’s reins around the porch railing and lowered himself onto the steps.
“Is that what you wore under your graduation gown?” She knew the answer before his lopsided smile betrayed him.
“Figured if I was gonna wear a dress, I’d better look like a man underneath. What’d you wear under yours, a suitcase?”
“Nothing.” She eased the hem of her navy blue polyester gown up her bare calves and laughed as the implication registered on his features.
“You shameless liar.”
She took hold of the zipper at her throat. “Wanna find out?”
“There’s something bad wrong with you, you know that?”
“Yeah, I know.” Cassidy squinted at the branches of a massive oak in the middle of the pasture.
Beyond the oak, on the back acres of the property, were the ruins of her childhood home, reduced to a charred foundation and three concrete steps that led to an emptiness she could taste in her soul. From this rubble, the odor of her every nightmare emanated. As long as she stayed here, she would live with the smell of death.
One short summer and she could put this place and its constant reminders behind her. The solace she sometimes found in the cornfields and pastures beyond her bedroom window; the giant oak at the top the hill; Samson, her palomino—and Jared—her best friend would never be enough to hold her or to erase the memory of what she’d done.
She tugged his sleeve. “Come to Tampa with me. I’ll bet the city could use another cowboy.”
His gaze fell to the step between his boots. They both knew he had to live at home and commute to the small university just across the state line in Alabama. A farm the size of the one he grew up on needed more than just his father to manage it, but more than that, Jared loved to farm. It was who he was. He would make a life there in the rural rolling hills of north Florida. He wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.
“Just one semester in Tampa?”
“Heard they don’t even sell boots south of Ocala.” He smiled, but Cassidy could see the sadness in his eyes.
She stood to go inside. “Saddle Samson for me. He needs to get used to you handling him anyway.”
“You’re not ever coming back, are you Cass?” He wasn’t looking at her, focused instead on the pasture. It was more of a statement than a question, and they both knew the answer.
What Jared didn’t know, what he couldn’t understand, was why. And she didn’t have the words that could change that.
This place would always be about fire to her. She would always smell the smoke, feel the heat. The sun would blaze one minute burning her skin, and when that season passed, the maples beyond the pastures would set the horizon ablaze with their red and yellow leaves, or a thundercloud would roll in and turn the sky as gray as smoke. As close as she and Jared were, he could never feel what she felt. He could never understand how long a fire could burn. All she wanted was to leave the pain behind, to find a place in the world that wasn’t scarred by her actions, a place where the ghosts didn’t live.
“Hurry up and get decent,” he said. “I’ve got a graduation present for you.”
Cassidy went inside and changed. When she came out again, his back was pressed against a porch post, and his cowboy boot tapped out a rhythm on the wood. Samson stood nearby, too proud to be tethered to the house.
“What?” she said as she mounted her horse.
“I didn’t say anything.” A thin line creased his forehead and a frown dipped the corners of his mouth.
“You’ve got that look.”
“The look I was born with.” He straightened himself and grabbed Delilah’s reins.
“You look like your Daddy.”
A cloud settled in Jared’s eyes, but he didn’t respond. Cassidy nudged Samson with her heel, and the palomino took off at a trot.
Jared and Delilah were soon alongside.
At the top of the hill, Samson stopped next to the trunk of the oak, but before Cassidy could step down, Jared grabbed the reins and pulled them from her hands.
She jerked them back, but he didn’t let go.
“Trust me,” he said.
She held tight, stretching the leather taut between them.
“Cass, please just come with me. I promise I have a reason.”
She released her grip, and the knotted strips of leather fell against his wrist.
He led Samson down the hill. Over her right shoulder she could see the small iron gate to the family cemetery. At least they weren’t going there.
They crossed the pasture and climbed another hill. Under the shade of a cluster of small oaks, he dismounted and waited for her to do the same. She hesitated, and Samson flapped his lips in protest. Jared said nothing, just stood there with his hand out for her to join him.
She planted her feet on the ground and took his hand. “This better be good.”
They left the horses in the shade, and she followed him toward the cement steps that led to the emptiest place in the world. Moss had begun creeping up their risers and onto the treads. In some places on the hilltop the weeds and grasses were nearly waist high, but beyond the steps, the ground was flat, carpeted with green moss—the concrete foundation of what had once been the home she shared with her parents.
Her heart raced, and her ears roared with the thunder of ravenous flames, the sound that ripped through her nightmares.
“It’s ok.” He steadied her with his arm. “I’m right here.”
She let him lead her to what resembled a bench-shaped topiary. Undoubtedly, it was one of the trusses not completely destroyed by the fire, now upholstered by Mother Nature. He tested the timber’s stability with the toe then heel of his boot, then motioned for her to sit. They sat together, neither speaking until Cassidy steadied her breath.
The place was nothing like the inferno of her dreams. The damp moss was cool to the touch. Birds chirped, a lizard scampered over a stack of bricks, and water pooled in the uneven concrete foundation.
“Why did you bring me here?”
In her palm, he placed a chain with a small silver medallion of a bare-chested man balanced on the flayed tail of a mermaid and an urn tipped over his shoulder. The silver had tarnished and the edges were rubbed with wear. Cassidy had seen the zodiac charm a million times. It had belonged to Jared’s mother. He’d worn it since they were kids, never once taking it off.
“I’m a Leo.” Her voice was as soft as the breeze that brushed the grasses on the hill.
“I know.” He lifted the medallion from her hand. “This is my sign. I thought maybe you could use it more than me.”
She swallowed the lump that had risen in her throat.
“Aquarius is the Water Bearer,” he said, reaching behind her neck to clasp the chain. His fingers brushed her skin, leaving goosebumps. The chain settled into place, and the medallion dropped like a quarter between her breasts. The warmth of his touch still lingered on the silver, and her heart swelled.
At that moment, she understood what it would mean to leave Jared behind. She fought for a witty comment, something to break the tension, something to make them laugh. But she could only stare at the gift he had given her, blurred by the tears burning her eyes.He reached for her hand again. His thumb massaged the ridges of her knuckles, and he squeezed as if he’d never let go. “When you’re ready to put this fire out, maybe you can come back home.”