Lauren Atwater sits on the edge of the front stoop, drinking coffee out of a worn plastic travel mug she bought a year ago from a Dunkin' Donuts in Abilene. The coffee is from Revel's Feed Store and General Dry Goods up in town, and it's good as any Organic Fair Trade Limited Edition brew from Whole Foods. Mud streaks her cheeks, and her long, sweat-stiff hair's got hay tangled through it because she woke up at four-thirty to start mucking stalls for her landlord. A woman who, despite her Wicked Witch of the West features, turned out to be the kindhearted, grandmotherly sort. Vera had sweetened Lauren's under the table pay with rent-free lodging in a tiny four-room cottage on her property. But she is exacting about her horses and Lauren's arms hurt from all the shoveling and hauling. Her triceps are looking damn good after a month of this though. She smiles at the thought and takes another sip of coffee.
When she'd gotten home a little while ago, Lauren had taken her clothes off in the postage stamp sized laundry/storage room, wadding the dirty t-shirt and shorts into the washing machine along with her socks, bra and underwear. Now she's wearing a pink bathrobe that clashes violently with her hair. It's a Pepto-Bismol colored chenille affair, soft as a new chick, with wide, deep pockets and a face-cradling lapel. The bathrobe's become a sort of joke now. She bought it for a dollar fifty at a revival tent flea market because, at the time, she didn't have a bathrobe or the money to be picky about what a new one might look like. Now it's traveled so far with her she can't bear to think of replacing it, though she pretends she only holds onto it because money's still scarce.
She shields her eyes as a shadow ambles up the walk, ground up oyster shells crunching under a pair of work boots.
"Goodness. You look a fright," he says.
"I expect I do," she agrees. "But really, I didn't know there was a dress code for the porch. It's before five, so cocktail attire seemed a bit much."
"It's five o'clock somewhere," he admonishes, then glances at her mug. "I don't suppose there's any more coffee, is there? Harvey ran out at the house and tried to buy me off with a second cinnamon bun, but I'll be damned if I can be had that cheap." He wipes sweat from his forehead and scowls.
She smiles in return. "Did you happen to bring me this pastry which you so nobly disdained?"
"I ate it," he admits. "But I made it clear that it was an unacceptable offering. I spent the whole morning out in that west pasture sawing up every single one of those trees by myself because that asshole nephew of his got too drunk to wake up on time." He sits on the step next to her, his left knee scabbed over after a run-in with the tractor on Wednesday.
She'd been afraid he'd need stitches and that she'd attract attention by stitching him up, but once the blood had been mopped away, the cut wasn't as bad as she'd feared. "There's always more coffee," she tells him. "But you'd better make another pot. I have to be out to the shelter by two and I need to shower without falling asleep and drowning myself."
He sniffs her. "I'd certainly hate to interfere with your hygiene. You smell like a right-wing militia bomb factory, Scully," he tells her, with the air of a sommelier ferreting out the blackcurrant notes of a good Bordeaux.
She pinches his arm. "Don't call me that," she admonishes. "You know better."
He rolls his eyes and scratches a mosquito bite on his neck. "Nobody's around."
"Still, it's a bad habit."
"Bad habits are the only kind I ever managed to cultivate," he informs her. "I see you've pulled out the Muppet skin again despite the oppressive heat. Wouldn't you rather go naked than wear fur?"
Scully hunkers down into the silky, synthetic fibers of her robe. "Shut up," she says amiably. "And, by the way, you don't smell like a rose yourself."
"It's becoming on me. It's the manly smell of a man who has engaged in a hard morning of lone, manly labor." He pounds his chest and steals her coffee cup.
"You'll go blind if you spend all your mornings engaged in hard, lone, manly labor."
"Keep me company more often, then. That west pasture's awfully isolated…"
She grins at him and takes her mug back. She turns it slowly in her hands, her thumbnail flicking at the places where the letters are worn away. "I drove by the house again," she says, watching him sidelong. "I pulled around back and walked over to that stream by the woods. There were some huge crayfish in it. They need their ranks thinned. I could plant some grapes out by the woodshed." She knows he doesn't want the house. He doesn't want to settle here or, it would seem, anywhere. But Christ, she's tired of running, and heartsick for someplace to call home. This is the longest they've stayed anywhere, and she's getting attached. They've got five sets of identification that will hold up to the scrutiny of a home loan, Lauren Atwater and Andrew Zeller among them.
He smiles at her, his eyes crinkled up at the corners. She's been looking at his eyes for over a decade and still can't make out what color they are.
"Grapes sound good," he tells her. "What about chickens? There's something so pastoral about a rooster. I may take to wearing overalls if we ever acquire one."
"God forbid. There's a fox-in-the-henhouse joke in there somewhere, but I can't find it," she muses.
"Don't. Besides, my name's Andrew now, remember?"
"You could be an Andrew," she remarks.
"I've come a long was since Rob Petrielikethedish, yes? But you don't look like a Lauren. I think you should be Abigail next time. I always liked the name Abigail."
She sighs a little. "It means 'my father is joy.' But I'd rather stay here and just be Lauren and Andrew until whatever's coming comes." It's as close as she'll get to any mention of 2012. 2012 makes her think of William, and thinking of William makes her hands ache with barely contained anxiety.
"What else do you want at the house, Lauren?"
She can tell he knows what she's thinking and is trying to redirect her thoughts. But even knowing that doesn't prevent her from feeling soothed. She remembers a question he'd asked her years ago. Can you name me one drug that loses its effect once the user realizes it's in his system? She still couldn't. The tension in her hands is receding.
She settles back against the step, resting her elbows on the gapped wooden treads. "I want to have a big garden. I'd like to grow some heirloom tomatoes. Those bright-colored ones that are all misshapen and striped, do you know the ones? Maybe an orchard. Peaches, plums…" she trails off and shakes her head.
"What is it?"
She shrugs. "All the education I have, and I couldn't tell you the first thing about planting an orchard. It's just funny I guess. How life turns out." She doesn't really think it's funny at all, but she'd gotten into the car with him time after time and this was the road they'd ended up taking. She's okay with it now. Mostly. Scully misses her baby and her mother and her various skin creams, but Lauren can rebuild a transmission and field dress a deer. She can certainly grow a damn orchard if he'd just stay somewhere long enough to let her plant one.
"You'll figure it out. You always do." He doesn't specify whether he means the orchard in particular or life in general.
Pleased in either case, she smiles at him. However unwillingly, he's indulged her house fantasy for a time, and she's grateful. "This robe looks ridiculous with my hair," she observes, apropos of nothing. "I was thinking I might get rid of it. Buy something less obnoxious."
"I'm all for it. I heard on the radio that they're having a twofer down at Mr. Ray's Hair Weave. You go pick out something blonde and sexy, and I'll see if they can help a brother out with some dreds."
Scully smiles a little. "I was thinking just a regular old white robe, as in days of yore."
He scoots closer and strokes her sleeve. "Don't. I've found I like you in pink fluff. There's something whimsical and unexpected about it."
"Well, you know me. I'm the Unexpected Whimsy poster girl."
"Oh, there's no stopping you. I remember the time you ordered your grilled chicken salad with lemon-poppy dressing instead of fat-free ranch and I said to myself, 'Fox Mulder, you'd better watch that one because there is no telling what outlandish tricks she'll think up.'"
"Sometimes I'd shock myself and go for the zesty Italian." She checks her watch. "I'd better get cleaned up. Some guy trapped 14 feral kittens out by his chicken house and, more than likely, I'll be spending my afternoon picking ticks off of them. What are you up to for the rest of the day?"
"Taking some hay over to Lorelei's and maybe playing baseball with Dwight and his buddies depending on how long it all takes. I'll probably be home before you though. I'll get dinner going."
She stands, then walks up the creaky steps to the front door. "I like it here," she says. "I'm tired all the time, but it's a good kind of tired." She rubs the tip of her sunburned nose. "I really want you to think about staying."
"I like your freckles," he says.
The screen door snaps shut when she goes into the house.