As he drove us home from my granny’s funeral, Jack reached up to adjust the bill of his ball cap. His chin-length black hair peeked out around the edges of the cap. Sun had darkened his light brown skin. Jack is Native American, and even though I am black, he was only a shade lighter than me.

The closer we got to home, the more the chicken houses thinned out. Gradually, the land turned to dense forest. When Jack rounded the cluster of cedar trees at the start of my driveway, an old-fashioned VW Beetle came into view. Most of the green paint was scratched off of it, replaced by a layer of rust.

Jack stopped the Silverado in the middle of my long driveway. “Expecting company, Ansley?” he asked me.

“I don’t even recognize that car.”

My sister Kasha came out of my house and walked toward the VW. She opened the hatch, removed a suitcase. When she saw the truck she hung back, waiting for us to come into the yard. I hadn’t seen Kasha in about six years, and there she was, waving at me.

Jack pulled down into the gravel driveway beside the Beetle. We got out of the truck. Kasha came forward and held her arms out, but when I did not step into her embrace she squeezed my shoulder instead.

Kasha’s faded yellow t-shirt advertised a farmer’s market, and across the chest were a papaya, a mango and a bunch of bananas. She wore jeans and a flowered headband. Her black hair was streaked with red highlights. The ever-present grin and the bright, primary colors made her look younger than her age, which was twenty-nine.

“You okay?” she asked.

I realized I had one palm to my chest, like people do in movies when they’re having a heart attack.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her.

She laughed. “Good to see you, too, little sis.” She turned to Jack and introduced herself.

“Where’ve you been?” I asked her.

“Cincinnati. The lawyer got ahold of me yesterday and told me about Granny.” She paused and studied me, as if she wanted to see how I was doing with Granny’s death. I waited for the customary, “How are you holding up?” But Kasha didn’t offer it.

“I’m meeting with the lawyer tomorrow, and I came by here because I need a place to stay—” she trailed off as she tried to read my face.

“You mean for tonight?” I asked her.

There were two cardboard moving boxes on the backseat of her car. When she caught me looking at them, she said, “A few weeks, maybe a month?”

Kasha had been bad about not returning Granny’s phone calls. She hadn’t visited in years, not even when Granny offered to wire her money for the trip.

Kasha said, “I could stay in the cottage.”

“Cottage is rented. He’s the boarder,” I said, gesturing at Jack.

“What about Granny’s room?” she asked.

“Her stuff’s still in there, haven’t cleaned it out yet. And the guest room’s used for storage.”

“The couch?” Her eyes went to Jack and then back to me. “The screen porch?” She opened her mouth again, but shut it without speaking.

They both stared at me.

Granny had raised me to look out for family, to basically have compassion for anyone, no matter how badly they’d treated me. I was my grandmama’s daughter.

“I guess I could make up Granny’s room for you.”

Jack started to help her unload the Beetle. I walked into the house and went straight for the bag of chocolate-covered peanuts in the drawer beside the stove. Holding a few of them between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, I closed my eyes and sighed.

Kasha and Jack brought in one of the boxes and a small, carry-on bag. I settled on the couch and clicked through channels on the TV. Adventures in Baby-sitting was on, and the Crystals were halfway through “And Then He Kissed Me” when Kasha rolled her suitcase over to where I sat on the couch. She stood by the armrest. A grin spread over Kasha’s face as Elizabeth Shue danced in her bedroom on the TV. I had watched this movie with Kasha for the first time in primary school. The two of us had danced around our living room together. She blew bubbles at me from a little plastic wand. I jumped up and down. Soap burned my eyes when the bubbles burst against my eyelids and cheeks.

“Remember dancing to this song?” Kasha asked.

“No, I don’t.”

Kasha’s smile disappeared. She rolled her suitcase over to the loveseat, sat down and unzipped her suitcase, removed a package of peanuts. “How long have you lived in the cottage?” she asked.

“Almost a year now,” Jack said. He put the second cardboard box atop the first one and sat by me on the couch.

Kasha started to shell the peanuts. She piled the cracked hulls on my coffee table.

She looked over at Jack, studied him carefully for a moment and then said, “I was good friends with a Mexican woman at my last job.”

This wasn’t the first time Jack had been mistaken for Hispanic. Once, when the cable guy had come to Jack’s cottage to install a new receiver box, he’d said something to Jack in Spanish.

“I’m not Mexican,” Jack corrected him. “I’m Lumbee.”

“He wasn’t trying to offend you, you know,” I said to Jack after the cable guy left. “He just saw that you have dark skin and black hair.”

“You have dark skin and black hair, Ansley. Do you speak Spanish?” he asked in his best smart aleck-y voice.

“I’m black. I don’t look like I speak Spanish.”

“Sure you do. I’ve met some Cubans who could be your close cousins.”

There was no winning an argument with that man.

I waited for Jack to explain to Kasha that he wasn’t Mexican, but he didn’t.

“So what do y’all do for fun around here, Annie?” asked Kasha.

My nickname threw me off a beat. Nicknames, in my opinion, are reserved for those closest to us, not estranged family members.

“I’ve just been working. I’m not the best person to ask about places to go out.”

“What about your boyfriend? Where do you hang out?” she asked Jack.

What made Kasha think we were a couple? Jack and I were close, and I felt a relationship developing, but it hadn’t happened yet. Even so, I had leaned on him a lot this past week. He’d helped prep for the funeral and sat next to me at Granny’s wake, things Kasha should’ve helped me through.

If Kasha’s assumption that he was my boyfriend bothered him at all, Jack didn’t show it. He said, “There’s a bar called Finnegan’s in town. I hang out there sometimes.”

Kasha kept cracking the shells open, picking out the meat and dropping the hulls onto the table. Bits of the hulls and the skins chipped off and fell on the carpet. She didn’t seem to notice.

At dusk Jack stood, said good night, and went out the front door.

I went into Granny’s room. Her bed was still neatly made, the patchwork quilt tucked back. I lay down and buried my face in her pillow, smelled the lotion she’d always used in her hair. Coconut.

“Do you need—”

I jumped. When I turned around Kasha was standing in the doorway, frowning at me.

“—my help with anything?” she asked.

“No. I’ll get you some fresh sheets.”

From the hall closet, I gathered sheets, a comforter and a spare pillow. When I got back to the bedroom she was standing at Granny’s dresser, admiring the scarves tied over the dresser mirror. She ran her fingers along a bright red one and then untangled it from the others. Watching herself in the mirror, she wound the scarf around her neck and knotted it at her throat. Kasha raised her eyes to my reflection in the mirror. She said, “Remember D.W. Kennedy?” When I nodded, she continued, “He eventually moved up to Cincinnati to stay with me. We married, but I had it annulled after a few months.”

D.W. was her high school boyfriend. He belittled her anytime they disagreed or anytime he was in a bad mood for whatever stupid reason. Granny had even thrown D.W. out of our house one time for verbally abusing Kasha.

She came over and stood on the other side of the bed. I stretched the fitted sheet around the last corner of the mattress.

“We were staying together in Cincinnati. I left this morning, just packed my stuff and drove away,” Kasha said.

“Thought you said it was annulled after a few months?”

“Yeah, but we’ve been on again and off again for years.”

I carried Granny’s sheets down to my room and dropped them in the hamper.

“Granny used to keep a set of bunk beds in here for us,” Kasha said.

I turned to find her standing in my bedroom doorway, still wearing the red scarf. The red highlights in her hair somehow looked tasteful against the scarf and that silly, flowered headband.

Kasha walked over to the corner where the bunk beds used to be. Her fingers grazed the wall, no doubt looking for the spot where she’d carved “Kasha and Ansley” into the drywall. She said, “I’ve missed you, Annie. But after so much time passed, I didn’t know if you’d want to hear from me again.” She began to cry. “And now Granny’s gone and I never got to say goodbye.”

She regretted not spending more time with Granny and me; I was sure of that. But I also knew her well enough to see her tears were there to garner pity.

“This house is mine. Mine alone,” I told her.

“I know that. I’m not trying to take it from you,” she said. “You were always the best of us two—smart, reliable, focused. You deserve this place and anything else Granny left you.”

I said, “She didn’t leave you much, just a few thousand dollars.”

“The lawyer told me over the phone,” she said, rubbing the tears away with the back of her hand.

“I’m not gonna kick you out, Kasha.”

She hugged me for a second, released me when I tensed my shoulders. A pitiful look came into her eyes then. She turned her attention to my dresser and ran a finger over the plaque I got a couple of years ago at the bank. It was awarded to me for five years of service in accounts payable.

“Why did you leave us?” I asked. My voice caught in the middle of the sentence, and I couldn’t look her in the eye. “You could’ve come back. You could’ve kept in touch.”

Kasha ran her fingers over the edge of the dresser. She’d played piano when we were kids, and she used to practice her scales that way, running her fingers over countertops and tables. But just then she didn’t look at the dresser as though it were a piano. She was looking at me. She said, “I don’t fit here, not in this family. I’m not conservative and I’m not Christian.” She pointed at the painting of a cross that hung above my headboard. “Plus, I didn’t want to hang around West Virginia with you and Granny and get old before my time.”

“So that’s how you see me. Old at twenty-six?”

She didn’t respond for a minute, but then she said, “You’re three years younger than me, but you’ve always been the mature one. And I do see you as very judgmental, like Granny. You wouldn’t’ve wanted me to hang around you, not with the stuff I was into.”

“What stuff?”

Kasha loosened the scarf and used one end of it to fan her face. “The telephone works both ways, Annie.” She laughed bitterly. “Don’t pretend you wanted some fornicating atheist of a sister in your life. Even Granny stopped calling when she realized I didn’t want to come back here. You both gave up on me.”

Kasha lifted the lid of my jewelry box. “Für Elise” began to pour from the tiny speaker. I slipped off the gold watch Granny had given me for my high school graduation and put it in one corner of the jewelry box.

Kasha said, “I do want to be close to you again, Annie. I know it’s hard to forgive, I’m just asking you to try is all.”

I said, “If one thing keeps me out of heaven, it’ll be my grudge-holding.”

I didn’t realize how much those words would sting until I looked into Kasha’s eyes.

Feeling the need to relieve some of that pain, I said, “I remember, Kasha. I remember dancing to ‘And Then He Kissed Me.’”

She pumped both fists in the air, a gesture I recognized. When we were kids, the air fists meant she’d talked me into some chore neither of us wanted to do—cleaning the fridge or scrubbing the rim of the toilet bowl.

I said, “I’m going out to Jack’s.”

I walked through the living room, right past the peanut shell mess, resisted the urge to vacuum. Let Kasha clean it up. It was her mess.

Jack’s cottage sat behind my house. The cottage was originally a tool shed that Granny expanded and decided to rent out as a way to make some extra money after retirement. The cottage had a fresh coat of yellow paint and a tiny front porch barely big enough for Jack’s two chaise lounge chairs. Jack sat in one of the chairs. Two cans of Co-Cola rested on the porch floor beside him. Once I’d lowered myself into the other chaise, he handed me one. I pulled the tab and took a sip.

“How’d you know to have a cold one waiting for me? Am I that predictable?”

Jack said, “So what’s got you more pissed? Her showing up, or her not contacting you for so long?”

“I’m more angry at her for not being in my life, but I also know she can be difficult. She’s messy, flighty, and doesn’t pull her weight. What if she doesn’t get a job and ends up here for the next year?”

“I get it. I’ve been on my own for years now, so having a roommate would bug me.”

“Maybe this is just me being selfish. I can’t even welcome my own sister home. If Granny were here she’d be so happy to see Kasha.”

Jack’s eyes closed slowly. He didn’t respond for a few seconds, but then he said, “Your grandma could do no wrong. You were lucky to have her.”

“So was Kasha, but she never knew it. Mama and Daddy died Kasha’s senior year in high school. She finished the school year here with Granny and me, and then took off for college in Cincinnati that fall.”

When Jack didn’t reply, I looked over at him. He’d drifted off to sleep.

I put my head back against the chaise. Kasha and I had begun to grow apart right after our parents passed away in a car crash. Kasha fought with Granny more than ever after that. The two of them had always butted heads, but without our parents around to referee, Kasha became more disrespectful, and Granny struggled to control her.

Jack said, “I’ve seen you, sitting out on your porch after dark, looking up at the sky. I’d like to come over, stargaze with you sometime.”

Our armrests touched. He smelled like pine trees. His cottage was surrounded by them, and he was always working in the yard or fishing the stream down in the woods.

Why was I holding my breath? I let it out softly.

“You wanna come inside a minute?” he asked.

We drained the last of our Co-Colas and tossed the cans in the bin by the front door. He pushed the door open and let me enter first. The house was clean but a little messy. A coffee mug and a few newspapers lying around gave it a lived-in look.

My favorite part of the cottage was the old-fashioned chandelier that hung just over the center of the living room. The ceilings were very low, and the chandelier hung low enough that taller people had to duck under it, but I was short, and Jack was only a few inches taller.

Jack took off his ball cap and tossed it onto the couch. Half his face was in shadow, but the other part glowed under the chandeliered light. I had always thought him handsome, and the light made him more so.

I went over to the bookcase on the wall opposite the door. Jack had more books than anyone I knew—a full, floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the living room, and two other big bookshelves in his bedroom. He was into Native American history. Most of the books on his shelves were biographies of Indian leaders and U.S. presidents.

“You should read the Tapahonso poems,” Jack said. His eyes widened and he came over to stand in front of me. He looked like he wanted to jump up and down.

“I like this side of you.” I said.

“What side?”

“Sweet, excited.”

I took a novel from the shelf and flipped toward the end. “I always read the ending of a book first,” I said.

He stared at me. “Why?” he asked.

“I hate surprises,” I told him. I put the book back on the shelf. “Jack, you said once that you wanted to be a history teacher. Still plan to?”

He nodded. “I do think about it. But I’ve been an electrician for almost ten years now. It’d be strange to give that up and go back to school. And I always did get bored in classrooms.”

He glanced down at my lips, and for a moment I was certain he’d kiss me. When he didn’t, I covered his mouth with mine. Our bodies pressed together, and when we walked half-blind through the living room, his hand banged against the chandelier as he pulled his shirt over his head. The chandelier swayed, shifted the light, made the whole room tilt.

We heard a noise out on the front porch. Jack started toward the door, then took my hand and tried to walk me into the bedroom.

“Don’t you want to see who’s outside?” I asked, holding back.

He pulled his shirt back on and went to the door. Shelby Stover stood on the little porch, her hand raised to knock again. She wore short shorts and a tank top, and her red hair was pulled back in a high ponytail.

“Hey, honey,” she said, smiling up at Jack. When her eyes landed on me, she dropped the playful tone. “Hey, Ansley,” she said, looking back at Jack with a question in her eyes.

I stepped around her and headed home.

***

After my shift at the bank on Monday, I went by the grocery to do the week’s shopping. When I got home that evening, Jack and Kasha were standing in my backyard. A black man in a blue baseball cap stood with them. I recognized the man. It was D.W. Kennedy, Kasha’s asshole ex-husband.

The three of them saw me start to unload the groceries, and they walked up the hill toward me.

“Guess what?” Kasha asked, planting a kiss on my cheek.

I’ve never been the hug-y, kiss-y sort. But Kasha is different—very emotional and affectionate. I imagined that before long she’d be pecking Jack’s cheek, too, if she hadn’t already.

“Jack and I are going to start a garden,” she said.

I looked at Jack. Months ago I’d mentioned a garden to him.

“We’ll have squash, beans, watermelon, maybe even corn,” she said. “We better hurry and get the seeds in the ground. It’s June already.”

The plastic handles dug into my arms. I set the grocery bags down on the hood of my Toyota and twisted my wrists back and forth to relieve tension.

Kasha noticed me watching D.W. and said, “You two remember each other, right?”

The smile on D.W.’s lips didn’t meet the expression in his brown eyes. He studied me, probably trying to see what I remembered about him. He was tall and powerfully built. He wore baggy jeans and black boots. I stared at him longer than what would be considered polite.

I picked up the bags and went into the house, where I was met by the smell of onions and some sort of pepper, maybe cayenne. On the stove, a pot of stew simmered. I set the bags on the kitchen table. Jack and Kasha came in, toting the rest of the groceries. Jack began to fill the fridge while Kasha went to the sink to wash her hands. She picked up a wooden spoon and tenderly stirred the pot.

Kasha looked over her shoulder at me, said, “D.W.’s staying for dinner. And you’re staying too, right, Jack?” she asked him.

“Smells so good,” he said. “I can’t say no.”

Aside from D.W., Jack was the last person I wanted to see. Last night and this morning I kept replaying Shelby’s arrival at Jack’s cottage. Jack and Shelby used to go around together. She was a nice girl and I liked her. She’d been friendly with me all through high school. Last year when our first boarder moved out and Granny put the ad in the paper about a cottage for rent, Shelby was the one to call and say that her boyfriend Jack wanted to rent it. She’d introduced us to him. But a couple of months ago she stopped coming around. I thought they’d broken up.

Jack took a carton of eggs and a package of cheddar cheese to the fridge.

I said, “I’ve got it from here, y’all. Go on back to your garden planning.”

“I can help you put the groceries up, Ansley. It’s no problem,” Jack offered. He closed the fridge and went back to the bags on the table.

“No. Just stop.”

Kasha looked at Jack, tilted her head to the side and raised her eyebrows. Jack shrugged at her.

He went out into the yard and stood talking to D.W. under the pecan tree. D.W. lit a cigarette and offered the pack to Jack, but Jack shook his head.

I said, “I thought you were done with D.W.? What’s he doing here?”

Kasha raised the wooden spoon and let it hover over the pot. “He drove down from Cincinnati. We’re not together,” she said. “But he wants to reconcile.”

“You want him in your life? That’s something you really need to reconsider.”

She rolled her eyes and turned back to the pot. “Thanks, Mama,” she said.

The urge to grab her hair and pull her to the floor came over me so strongly that I almost reached my hand out. She used to call me mama whenever she felt I was being too bossy or cross. Fact is, I was born old. Responsible and mature as early as elementary school, I did my homework at the kitchen table right after school without Mama and Daddy even having to ask. My dolls and stuffed animals were neatly placed in the toy box at the end of each play session. But Kasha was different. As a teenager, she loved talking on the phone for hours with her friends, and she had lots of them, something I never managed.

“You know,” she said, “D.W.’s not that different from Jack. Both work with their hands. Both—”

“They’re nothing alike,” I said, watching the two men from the window.

“You think Jack’s perfect?” Kasha asked. “Get a brain, baby girl.”

Kasha opened the kitchen door and called the men in to dinner.

I went to the bathroom and washed up.

When I came back to the table, everyone was seated already. The stew was beef chunks, carrots, and potatoes seasoned with onions and pepper. I was impressed with it, especially because I had never known Kasha to be a good cook. I realized how little I knew about my sister. What had she studied in college? Did she graduate?

“You want to run with us to town for seeds tomorrow, Annie?” Jack asked.

I pointed at Jack and Kasha. “I guess y’all are taking the garden project away from me.”

“We’re not taking it from you. We just want to help, that’s all,” Jack said.

“I can manage it on my own.”

In the silence that followed my words, D.W. belched softly and Jack cleared his throat. I finished the last of my stew and cleared my bowl away. When I came back to the table, my watch was gone. I lifted the placemat where I’d set it, but only the cream-colored tablecloth looked up at me. No watch.

“What is it?” Jack asked.

“My watch is gone,” I said, looking at D.W. “Did you see it?” I asked him.

He shook his head.

“You went to wash your hands. Could you have left it on the sink?” Kasha asked.

I went to the bathroom to look, and Kasha followed me in there. As soon as we were alone, she said, “Why’d you look at D.W.? That was incredibly rude.”

“The watch was sitting right there beside him. Now it’s gone.”

“That doesn’t mean he stole it.”

“We got it, Annie,” Jack called to me from the hallway.

When I came out of the bathroom, he was standing in the kitchen doorway, dangling my watch from his pointer finger. I slipped it off his finger and onto my wrist.

“It was sitting on the floor beside your chair,” Jack said.

As I fastened the clasp, I bumped the screen door open with my hip and went out to the screen porch. The summer night was muggy. I sat on the wicker loveseat and listened to the voices coming from the kitchen. Jack and Kasha laughed as dishes rattled and silverware ting-ed. D.W. stood in the kitchen window, dishrag over his shoulder, and watched me.

Before long, the three of them came out to the screen porch.

“We’re gonna go have another look at the garden spot, unless you’re banning us?” Jack teased. “C’mon,” he said, taking me by the arm.

I followed the three of them down the porch steps. When we came to the little patch of land I’d told Jack I wanted to set aside for a garden, D.W. turned to face Kasha. He rubbed his hands over her cheeks and hair. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. I’d never seen him this way with her. The boy I remembered was sullen and quick-tempered.

Jack said to me, “I’m going to turn the field after work on Wednesday. He chewed his bottom lip, like he did when he was reading. His hands moved around, telling me which crops should go where, pausing to see if I agreed.

As we walked back to the porch, Jack said, “Are you mad at me about Shelby?” A second earlier he had been talking about squash, but now he had his eyebrows drawn together as he studied me.

We sat down on the porch steps.

“Nothing happened last night with her. She left right after you did,” he said, and then, “I don’t want to keep pretending there’s nothing between you and me, Ansley. And I’m bringing it up now because now is when you’re so pissed you can’t even have dinner without storming off. That’s so you. You hold everything in until you can’t take it anymore and then you blow up.” He smirked and bumped his shoulder against mine. “You know, your grandma wanted me for you. She loved me.”

I snorted. “What a way to hook up with me. Use my dead grandma as leverage.”

This was a milestone for me. It was the first time I’d thought about Granny without feeling sadness.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.

“I know.”

He looked off into the distance as he spoke again, “Your grandma interviewed me once. She asked all these questions about my future.”

“What’d you say?”

“Said I’m a hard worker with a nest egg.”

I reached out and ran a finger over the tiny hole at the neck of his t-shirt.

“Said I’m looking to buy some land over near Beckley,” Jack said.

My finger froze on the back of his neck.

“Unless you want me to stay around here,” Jack said. His eyes demanded an answer to a question he hadn’t properly asked.

“Yes,” I told him. “I want you here.”

Over in the side yard, Kasha leaned in through the open window of D.W.’s truck and kissed him goodnight.

***

I hadn’t worked a garden since my daddy turned the field when I was in elementary school. Back then I wasn’t old enough to understand garden work. I simply followed Granny and Daddy outside and watched them. On so many of those dusky summer evenings, I fell asleep on the screen porch to the sound of Daddy’s hoe pulled slowly back and forth over the earth.

This time around, I had Jack and Kasha to guide me. Kasha had helped plant a community garden in Cincinnati, and Jack had gardened as a boy with his mama down in North Carolina.

After the first long Saturday of hoeing and planting, I felt it in my back and legs. I never knew gardening could be such strenuous work.

“It gets better once you get in shape,” Kasha promised me. “Before long you’ll dream of fresh vegetables and dirt under your nails.”

And she was right. After a few weeks had gone by, I often spent my whole shift at work longing to be in the garden.

We usually worked in the evenings when the sun was low. Light and wind played over the distant trees. Everything smelled fresh and clean. I even grew used to the peppery smell of the natural pesticide Kasha made.

We had a bunny rabbit that nibbled our cabbage plants. I saw him hopping away into the woods some afternoons when I drove in from work.

“I’ve seen the little devil,” Jack said one evening. “If I ever spot his butt from the window, I’ll get him with my rifle.”

“You wouldn’t!” Kasha said.

“What should I do then? Let him eat up all our crops?” Jack said. “I’d love to have his ass in a stew.”

It became a longstanding joke with us. Kasha would complain that the bunny had nibbled the cabbage leaves, and Jack would make morbid jokes about killing it. After a couple of days of this, Jack drove home with his truck bed loaded down with a critter fence.

Working with Kasha and Jack made me realize how lonely I’d been before they came into my life. My friend Jenny had moved away and married almost a year before. Once Jenny left, I had only Granny. Though Granny was good company, you couldn’t tell her a dirty joke or even swear around her. Fuddy-duddy, that’s what Kasha always called her.

For our garden, Jack and Kasha chose tomato plants, cabbage, squash, cucumber, and okra. Jack liked watermelon, and though it had never been my favorite, I wanted to plant it just because it reminded me so much of Granny. When I was little, I’d picked a watermelon off a vine and tried to carry it up to the house to show it off to Mama and Daddy. I made it halfway up the back porch steps and dropped it. I rolled the busted melon down the steps and into the grass in attempt to hide it. Granny teased me about it for years. “Remember when you busted that melon, girl?” she’d say.

On the August day that I walked out to find a tiny watermelon on Jack’s vines, I cried.

“What’s wrong?” Kasha asked.

“Just reminds me of Granny.”

She looked like she wanted to hug me, but she didn’t dare. She no doubt remembered her attempts at closeness from when she’d first moved in. How I’d rejected her. I regretted it just then. I wanted a good cry, a hug, and to reminisce about the family we’d lost. But I was raised by Mama and Daddy and Granny, three folks who scoffed at sentiment, so I never learned that showing strong emotion is acceptable. I’d always thought of Daddy, Mama, and Granny as saintly. How strange it was to admit they had flaws! And that I did, too.

One day, not long after we’d fenced our vegetables, the three of us cut okra together. In a hushed voice from across the row, Kasha said, “Look.”

I turned and saw a deer standing not ten feet from me. It had a large rack of antlers. I’d heard stories of deer being so people-friendly nowadays that they would walk right up and head-butt you. I froze. He blinked, licked his lips. I picked up a hoe and shook it toward him. He bounded off into the woods.

“Are you all right?” Kasha asked.

When I turned, I saw that she’d asked the question of Jack, who stood at the end of the row. Red-faced and sweaty, he drew his arm up to wipe his face. He nodded at Kasha without saying a word.

“Jack,” I said, going over to him. “You okay?”

“I’m all right,” Jack said, shooing me away. His hands shook, and his chest heaved up and down. Jack picked up a basket of tomatoes and okra and started toward the porch with them. His shoulders slumped forward, and he no longer walked in relaxed, confident strides.

Once when I had ridden with him into town, a car almost sideswiped us. Jack turned red-faced and sweaty then, too. He mentioned anxiety attacks that day in the car, but when I tried to probe for more information, he dropped the subject. He undoubtedly thought his anxiety showed weakness. To say that Jack was a macho man would be an understatement.

As Jack and I lay in bed together that night, I said, “Jack, you scared me this afternoon.”

We lay on our sides facing each other. When he didn’t answer, I said, “I’m talking about the deer, and the—”

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“Well?”

“Well, what?” he asked, looking me in the eyes. “You think I should see a head doctor?”

“I’m not calling you crazy, I just think your panic attacks could be controlled better if you got some sort of help.”

Jack chuckled, but in a sad way. “Look, I’ve been living with this my whole life. All that happens is I get a little nervous sometimes. Hell, it only happens once a year or two. I don’t think taking pills and talking to some quack doctor can change it. Nervousness’s not really a big deal anyway.”

“It’s more than nervousness. You should’ve seen yourself today. You—”

He pushed himself up to a sitting position so fast he startled me. “Just shut up about it, Annie.” He flung his legs over the side of the bed and sat there, his back turned to me. “Goddamn it,” he muttered

Damn you.

I got up, went through the kitchen and out to the screen porch. I hugged myself against the frigid air. The moon was so bright that I could faintly see bright squashes and tomatoes down in the garden. When I turned to sit on the porch’s loveseat, I was slightly startled to see Kasha there on the loveseat. Cellophane crackled. She raised her hand to her mouth. As I sat down beside her, I saw that she was eating my chocolates.

I put my hand out, and she poured a few chocolates into it.

An apple, a bag of chips, onion dip, and a bottle of soda sat on the table in front of us.

“Doggone,” I said. “Anything left in the fridge?” When she didn’t even crack a smile, I said, “Thought I heard D.W. come in?”

“He’s staying here tonight,” she said. “You don’t mind, do you?”

I shrugged. “You live here, too.”

I took a potato chip from the bag and munched it.

“Is Jack staying the night?”

“Yes, unless he’s still pissed at me.”

I felt her eyes on me, but she didn’t speak. Maybe she’d had a disagreement with D.W. Why else would she be sitting out here while he was there in her bedroom?

I used to measure how close I was to a person by how long we could sit together in comfortable silence. This was the first time I’d shared a comfortable silence with Kasha; whereas, Granny and I could sit out on this porch together for hours without speaking.

“You look like Granny,” I said, not really knowing the words would come out until they did. “In this light you do.”

She shook her head. “Nope, I look like you.”

I heard the soft sound of her lips parting across her teeth as she smiled.

Kasha was full of surprises. I’d thought she’d be a bad roommate, but she’d proved me wrong. Though she left dental floss over the shower curtain rod and little gobs of toothpaste in the wash basin, sharing a house with her wasn’t bad. After she’d stayed with me for only a few weeks, she found a job as a receptionist at a car dealership in town. She even offered to pay rent. Most importantly, it was nice to have someone to share things with. If I had a hard time at work, I could come home and play cards with Kasha or bake bread for us to share. Those things ward off loneliness.

I took a few more gulps of the cool, fresh air, said goodnight to Kasha and went back to the bedroom. Jack stared at me as I walked toward the bed.

I stretched out on my back beside him. He rolled onto his side, propped up on one elbow, his face hovering above mine. He said, “I love you.”

My heart stopped. “How’d you go from being angry at me to loving me?”

He rolled his eyes. “I can’t stay mad at you. And I planned to tell you how I felt tonight. Was set to do it before you started talking therapy and medication.”

When I didn’t respond, he said, “You’re so much like my mama. She always showed me how she felt, but she rarely said it. I know you love me, Annie. Not saying it doesn’t keep you from feeling it.”

The kitchen door closed softly. The fridge opened, and then a cabinet. I imagined Kasha putting her snacks away and making her way to her bedroom.

“What am I going to do when you get tired of me?” I asked Jack.

“What?”

“I mean, what if I say ‘I love you’ and then we break up? Or what if you die tomorrow?”

He said, “So you refuse to tell me you love me just because we might break up someday?”

“I know how stupid it sounds, but it’s a real fear for me,” I said. “Besides, you’re obligated to tell me you love me,” I teased him. “I own your house.”

His eyebrows shot up and then down, which meant he was ready with a smart aleck reply. Before he could respond, we heard low moans coming from Granny’s room.

I looked at Jack. We watched each other’s faces, our ears cocked toward the wall. A guttural Oh-hhhhh-hhhhh came from the bedroom, which sent Jack into quiet hysterics. He clutched his chest. He said, “Old D.W.’s having a good time, ain’t he?”

I’d seen the lust on Kasha’s face every time she was near D.W. The man couldn’t carry on much conversation without pausing for long moments at a time and going away somewhere inside that head of his, but he was strong and good-looking. Kasha had pointed this out one night while the two of us folded laundry. “That man is the best lover in the universe,” she’d said.

When another moan came from Granny’s room, Jack moaned in response. He laid his head against my chest. “Oh, girl,” he said, plenty loud enough for the others to hear.

“Stop it,” I whispered.

“Ohhhh An-nie,” Jack said. He paused. When no sound came from them, he dropped his head back to my chest. His giggles shook my body.

What would an eavesdropper think if they overheard Jack and me having sex? That Jack got the best of it, definitely. He was always able to let go and enjoy it. I, on the other hand, held back. He was always having to ask what felt good, and this was because I was too ashamed to tell him what I wanted. Nice girls didn’t do the things I did with him—that’s what Granny had taught me. But what about Kasha? She’d been raised in the same house; yet she somehow had no reservations about what she should or shouldn’t do.

***

On a cold day in December, Kasha and D.W. went up to his place in Ohio for the weekend. D.W.’s truck broke down as he was driving Kasha home, so Jack and I had to drive the two hours to Ohio to fetch them. The four of us piled into Jack’s truck and started back to D.W’s place to drop him off, but it began to snow. Big flurries covered the windshield. We decided it’d be best to take D.W. home with us and then give him a ride back once the weather cleared.

On the drive home, the four of us sat bundled up and squeezed together in the cab of Jack’s truck. Kasha’s elbow kept digging into my ribs.

Jack pulled into a gas station parking lot.

Kasha said, “Let me out, sugar. I need some hot chocolate or something.”

D.W. opened the door, crawled out, then helped Kasha down. For about the hundredth time, I thought what an odd couple Kasha and D.W. made. She was thin and health conscious. No health food stores for him, just beer and red meat.

“I’ll pay for gas,” D.W. said. “Fill it up.”

I slid off the seat behind Jack.

“Truck’s warmer,” Jack said, pointing back to the cab. He started the gas pump.

“I have to stretch my legs,” I said and sidled up to him, laid my head against his chest.

A car pulled up to one of the pumps beside us, and a woman got out. She wore snow boots and a heavy, puffer jacket. The woman watched me intently. I nodded at her but she didn’t acknowledge me. Instead, she looked Jack up and down and then looked back at me. Instinctively, I took my head off his chest.

“It may not be about race. Maybe she envies you for being with a man as cute as me,” Jack teased. When I looked up at him, he winked.

A black and an Indian is a rare pairing, especially in West Virginia. I didn’t like it when people stared, but it never bothered Jack.

Kasha and D.W. came out of the store. The woman at the pump still watched us. She huddled under the shelter of the carport. Ribbons of snow fell behind her. Finally, she raised a hand and waved, just for half a second.

Kasha held two paper coffee cups in her hands. We all climbed into the truck, and Jack pulled out of the parking lot.

Kasha handed one of the coffee cups to me, probably her way of saying thanks for making the trek to rescue her and D.W.

“What’s this?” I asked, pointing at the lipstick stain around the cup’s drinking hole. “You drank out of it?” I asked.

“How else was I supposed to know it was sweet enough?” she asked.

I handed the cup back to her.

“She was just trying to be nice,” D.W. said. “And y’all are sisters. Swapping spit ain’t a big deal.”

“Maybe not to you. It grosses me out,” I told him, pushing my head in front of Kasha’s so that I could look him in the eye.

He gave me a go-to-hell look. “Everything bothers you. I never seen anybody so bothered,” D.W. said. He scowled at me. It was evident he’d been holding it in for a while. This was the most D.W. had ever said to me at once.

Neither Jack nor Kasha said anything. It was the kind of silence that confirmed D.W.’s words were true. And yet his treatment of me felt foreign. When I was younger, I was the girl so often praised at church and at school. I made good grades and respected authority. Little Miss Perfect. That’s how people tended to view me, and this was how I viewed myself. Sure, I judged others, but rarely had I seen this as a character flaw. D.W.’s words embarrassed and shamed me. I couldn’t wait to get home and out of everyone’s sight.

The snow slowed down a little, and Jack sped up, but we still moved along at only fifty miles an hour.

“We should be there by now,” Kasha said. She held herself erect, tried not to lean into me when Jack rounded a curve. Her elbow dug into my ribs again.

“This is all your fault, Kasha,” I said. “Why’d you have to drive off to Ohio during the worst weather of the year?”

“It wasn’t snowing when we left!”

“Hey,” Jack said. “Everybody calm down. Doesn’t matter whose fault it is. We’ll be home soon.”

He’d hardly gotten the words out when the truck slid off the road. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Kasha screamed. I felt her elbow in my ribs again, heard D.W. draw in his breath. My bottom lifted off the seat and plopped down hard. When we stopped moving, I opened my eyes. We’d slid into a tree, and the truck’s hood was dented.

In a voice I’d never heard before, Jack asked, “Everybody all right?” He let out a shaky breath. He put his hand on my thigh and squeezed it, then looked to the others, verifying we were all okay.

“I’m all right,” Kasha said.

D.W. opened the door, went around and tried to pry open the truck’s hood. Grunting and straining, he managed to raise the hood a few inches at a time. Kasha got out, drew her coat closer around herself and stood by D.W. He fiddled with something under the hood.

“See if you can start it, Jack,” D.W. said.

Jack stared off into the distance.

“Jack?” I said. “Are you hurt?” I shook his shoulder.

“I-I’m okay,” he said. “Just shaken up.” He gripped the steering wheel with his hands on three o’clock and nine o’clock.

“See if you can start it, Jack,” D.W. said again.

Jack’s hand shook as he reached out for the ignition switch. When he finally turned the key, the engine didn’t say anything.

Kasha crawled back into the truck beside me. “Maybe someone will drive by and see us,” she said.

D.W. came over to the driver’s side door.

“C’mon, man,” he said to Jack, “let’s walk up to the highway and flag down a car.”

Jack didn’t reply.

“I’ll do it,” I said to D.W.

Kasha let me out and then crawled back into the truck. D.W. took off his heavy overcoat and handed it to her. She draped it around herself.

The steep embankment was covered with snow, making the climb up to the main road a strenuous task. I slid down to the bottom twice. D.W. wasn’t fairing much better until he got the idea that we hold onto one another and use each other’s weight to heft us up. When I slid for the third time, he dug in his heels and helped me right myself. With his other hand, he grabbed hold of a tree root that poked up from under the snow. Like a rock climber, he used the root to lift himself higher. I followed.

When we reached the top of the hill, I was breathing heavy and, despite the cold, sweating a little.

D.W. stopped to examine the truck’s skid marks. “Good thing Jack was driving so careful,” he said. “Otherwise we probably would’ve turned over, and we wouldn’t have walked away from hitting that big old oak tree.”

“Jack doesn’t think so. He’s probably blaming himself,” I said.

“He’s a good guy,” D.W. said.

“He is,” I said, suddenly wanting to run down the hill and tell him what a good guy he was.

“I bet you think I’m a monster,” I said to D.W.

“A little,” he said, and then chuckled. “I think your biggest problem with me is that you see only the teenage me.” He shook his head. “No one stays who they were at seventeen. Everybody changes. I didn’t always treat Kasha so good, but I’m better now. We’re better now.”

“This is the longest conversation I’ve ever had with you. When you come by the house, you always wait for Kasha out on the porch. And when you do come inside you barely even look at me.”

“I wait outside ‘cause I don’t want you to accuse me of stealing again.”

His words nearly knocked the air out of me. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I should—”

“You thought that since I argued with Kasha as a kid I somehow turned into a thief?”

The way he put it made me feel like the dumbest person alive.

Headlights crested the hill. D.W. immediately started waving his arms. As the car braked, I turned to look down the hill at Jack’s truck. He still sat there, his hands on the wheel at three and nine. Kasha tugged on his coat sleeve, and the two of them got out and began to climb the hill toward us. As he placed his feet carefully on the snow, Jack met my eyes for a second and then looked down. Men like him think the world will cease spinning if they show vulnerability.

Seeing him vulnerable like that made me love him more. How many months had I gone now without telling him I loved him? Too many. I vowed to do it as soon as we were alone together.

Kasha and D.W. went over and talked with the driver that D.W. had flagged down. I took Jack’s hand and squeezed it.

“Head doctor?” he asked.

I nodded. “Together,” I said. “We’ll figure it out.”

MONIC DUCTAN’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Water~Stone Review, Appalachian Heritage, Still: the Journal, Cold Mountain Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and So to Speak. Monic is the winner of Blue Lyra Review’s 2015 Short-ish Poetry Prize, the 2016 Garth Avant Fiction Award, and a second place creative writing award for her personal essay at the 2016 Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference. Monic has an M.F.A. from Georgia College and has also studied fiction at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and University of Georgia. She lives in Mississippi.