The sun was sinking in a pretty orange sky. Since he’d known her, more than once he’d caught her taking a moment to enjoy such a view. Yet her attention was not on the horizon. It was on nothing. Charlotte didn’t even acknowledge that he and his brother had returned. She just sat, an almost empty jar of applejack at her lips.
Nathaniel offered a cautious, “Howdy, Charlie.”
“Howdy.” Wasn’t nothin’ nice in her reply.
Climbing the porch steps, Nathaniel gave her a good once over. Finding her drunker than a boiled owl, he clicked his tongue. “Damn, Charlie, if I’d known you wanted to get three sheets to the wind, I’da joined ya.” Plopping down in the rocking chair beside her, Nathaniel reached for her jar. “What’s the matter with you?”
Charlie jerked her arm away, grumbling that she didn’t want any company.
Leaving his brother to waste time asking questions he knew Charlie wouldn’t answer, Matthew took himself inside where he cornered Eli and dragged out an explanation.
All the kid knew was that the sheriff had come, telegram in hand. In response, Charlie had started drinking.
Pushing open the screen, Matthew walked right up to her. “Where is it, Charlotte?”
Smacking her lips, Charlie brushed him off. “Where’s what?”
Calm, Matthew gave his brother one warning. “Nathaniel, get inside now.”
Nathaniel did just that, looking worried, but wise enough to mind his own.
Matthew tried again, keeping his voice low. “Where is it, darlin’?”
Bleary, bloodshot eyes lost just enough edge to well. “If I give it to you, will you leave me alone?”
He nodded and held out his hand. A crumpled ball of paper came from her pocket, Matthew standing to read the telegram by the porch light.
Evangeline Elliot passed away in her sleep yesterday. Cremation took place this morning, ashes spread in the garden as requested. We are exceedingly sorry for your loss.
His scowl deepened, Matthew folded the Western Union missive. Knowing both Nathaniel and Eli were watching from inside, Matthew crouched before his golden girl and cupped his hands to her cheeks.
Her lower lip trembled, and Matthew could see she was fighting with every fiber of her being to keep her expression angry.
She whispered, “You said you’d leave.”
“There ain’t nothing that could keep me from you right now.”
That was all it took. Charlotte began to bawl, trying to hide her face from the man stroking warm thumbs over her wet cheeks. When he put his arms around her, she clung to him, and sobbed all the harder. Ignoring the worried looks of his kin, the gawking patrons, Matthew picked her up and carried her upstairs. He got her out of her dress and put her to bed.
Climbing in beside her, Matthew gave her time, held on tight, and stroked her until Charlotte passed out dead drunk.
* * *
It was midday before Charlie groaned into her pillow. A shuffling noise near the door let her know Matthew waited. Peeking open an eye she found he was already moving his ledger from his lap, reaching towards the bureau where a glass of water waited. Dropping in two Alka-Seltzer, he offered it up.
Taking the medicine, cotton-mouthed and ill, she thanked him. “I’m sorry, uhhhh, about last night.
“Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for.”
“Yeah, there is.”
“No, Charlotte,” Matthew’s voice came harder, “there ain’t.”
Too tired to argue, horribly embarrassed, she swallowed all the liquid and let him take the glass away.
Walking out the door, Matthew said, “Get dressed. There’s something I wanna show you.”
After Charlie stumbled into a dress and made her puffy face look somewhat decent, she found Matthew waiting downstairs. Without a word, he took her hand and led her outside, walking them both straight into the woods.
Ten minutes later they stood inside her wreck of a house.
Light filtered in where portions of the roof and walls were missing, plant life grew out of the floor. But between faded wallpaper and cracked masonry, it was still beautiful.
“Here’s how I see it,” Matthew looked around the parlor, nodding to himself. “You lived your life for your mama, made sure she was well-tended. Because of you, she was blessed enough to pass in her sleep, real gentle.” Pale eyes darted down to find Charlotte gnawing her lip.
Charlie could see what he was not saying, what he was trying to show her. This house he was going to build for her was the symbol of the future she once never thought was possible. There was hope and a whole world just waiting.
“When I was sitting on the porch…” Charlie swallowed, took a shaky breath, and continued her confession, “When I was sitting on the porch, I was numb at first. Then I felt this odd wave of relief. A part of me was glad she was dead, Matthew.” Forcing herself to look him in the eye, Charlie asked, “What kind of woman does that make me?”