The last good man?

KATHERINE HAMPSTEAD WAS WAITING OUTSIDE school when Emily came out pushing her bicycle. Though the air was cold, the sun had shone for five days, warming the streets and railroad tracks. Mother and daughter were bundled for the cold air. Emily snapped her book-bag pannier to her bicycle rack.

“Hi, Mom.”

“How was school?”

“Fine.”

Katherine arched her eyebrows. “All I get is a four-letter word starting with F?”

“Really, Mom, it was fine. I can tell you about it at home.”

“Okay.”

Mother and daughter enjoyed the commute each day, but it had been the subject of their first argument since moving to Newton the first week of school. After Christmas break, Emily asked to ride her bike to school instead of taking the bus.

“It’s only two and a half miles, no farther than Colonial Elementary in Fredericksburg.

“Emily, there are seven sets of tracks between here and the school. It’s too dangerous with all that traffic.”

“Mom, I can cross railroad tracks, and Main Street has a wide shoulder. You’ve ridden there before.”

“What’s wrong with the bus? Are you still being bullied?”

“No. But I hate the diesel fumes, the waste of time, and the smell. Sitting at the bus stop when I could be in school already.” She spread her hands and looked up at her mother. “Five miles per gallon and hours of idling. Want more?”

Her mother had ranted about fossil fuels for as long as Emily could remember. She even complained about having to use a car to commute to her job teaching literature at Wichita State University.

“I think I get it.” Katherine looked out the window and sighed, as if thinking out details.

“Okay, but I will ride with you.”

“You haven’t done that since second grade.”

“I know, but there are too many unknowns here, for both of us. Besides, I’m bigger, so the drivers should see me easily.” Emily had started growing, but she was still one of the shortest girls in seventh grade.

“What about snow and ice?”

“They don’t have as many snow days here as they had in Virginia. I’ll drop you off on my way to work. You will have to walk back if I am held up.”

“Two and a half miles?”

“Got a problem? You’re the one who hikes ten miles with a pack. Find out if you can use the bus for the return trip. It has to make the stops anyway.”

Emily thought for a moment. Then she smiled.

“This will be more fun than the bus. Thanks, Mom.”

“I must be nuts, but you’re welcome.”

***

Emily’s phone rang as she and her mother walked into the kitchen after unloading the bikes and closing the garage.

“Mark? Why are you calling on my phone?”

Katherine put down the groceries and stared across the island.

“Because I want to ask your mother to the movies, but I have a hunch about it. Is she there?”

“Yes. Should I put this on speaker?”

“Sure.” Emily put the phone on the island.

“Well?” said Katherine.

“Hi, Katherine. Would you like to go to the movies Friday night? I’d like to see the new flick at the Chisholm Trail theatre.”

Emily gasped and put her hand to her mouth.

“I don’t know, but someone else here seems to know what you’re talking about. Emily?”

Hunger Games?”

Katherine could feel his grin on the line. He said, “See why I called Emily’s phone?”

“Are you asking Emily for a date?”

“No, of course not. But could I face her later if you went and she missed it?”

“This is a threesome, I take it.”

“If Emily wants to bring someone, it could be a foursome. Still on me. I want to see it.”

“Have you read the book, Mark?”

“The whole series. Surprised?”

“Actually, I am. You’re the first man I’ve met who would admit to reading YA novels.”

“Collins writes well and I like awesome women. You know that. Emily, have you read the books?”

“Of course, Mark. I’m the target reader.”

“Well, would you two like to go to the movies?”

“He’s dating you, Mom. Better make up your mind.”

“Of course, Mark. I’d love to. And I’ll bring my chaperone, with or without her friend.”

“Great. I’ll pick you up at your place.”

“Let’s do dinner and a movie. Get tickets for the seven or eight show, and have dinner here before we go.”

“Okay. See you Friday.” He ended the call.

Katherine and Emily finished putting away the groceries.

“You didn’t tell him that you read the books too, Mom.”

“He didn’t ask.”

“This is like watching a ballet, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re attacking through his stomach, and he’s wooing you through your daughter. Ever notice that?”

Katherine stopped folding the empty grocery bag. “I think you’re right. Funny, isn’t it? How do you feel about it?”

“I think it’s fun. I like Mark.”

“I’m glad. How much homework do you have?”

“None. We had a study hall last period.”

“Want to ride?”

“Always.” Emily was already heading for her room to change.

They rode out Hesston Road, which carried only local traffic because it paralleled Interstate 135. Speeding past Roadside Park, they turned west on 60th Street out to North Ridge Road, then south back to Newton. Twenty-four kilometers on Emily’s bike computer.

Less than an hour later, they were back in the kitchen, stretching between gulps of protein shakes.

“One thing I can say about Kansas,” said Emily. “I love being able to get up speed. There was always something to climb before.”

“Me too. Those ravines at Middle Emma Creek are like road bumps compared to Virginia.”

“Mom, that wasn’t fast for you. You’re holding back, aren’t you?”

“Not as much as I used to. You’re getting faster, dear, and I sit in a car all day going to the University and back.”

“Why didn’t we get a place in Wichita?”

“Mostly the cost. I was able to buy the house here with a much smaller mortgage. I took a pay cut to come here.”

“I didn’t know that. Why did you do that?”

“I needed to move, Emily. Too many memories of your father, too many friends asking after me, which only kept reminding me.”

“I think I know what you mean. But I traded in my friends for a bunch of bullies.”

“I’m sorry about that, dear, more than you know. I had no idea that would happen. Are you making any friends since the bullying stopped?”

“Kind of. Everyone is in cliques, you know, but at least they’re all friendly now. And the girls in the Scout troop have been swell.”

“You’re enjoying Girl Scouts, then?”

“Oh yes, especially this troop. I’m glad you let me join.”

“You’ve been in the program for a month now, and you haven’t sold me any cookies. Instead, I just signed a release form for monthly campouts. Am I missing something?”

“Probably. This troop likes the outdoors. The other girls told me we’ll learn sewing by fixing the clothes we ruin in the woods.”

“What woods?”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. But I hear there are trees around Wilson Lake. Also, we’re going to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in April. They say the bison birth their calves then. It will be so cool.”

“Do you miss Virginia?”

“At first, yes. But it hasn’t been so bad since about Christmas.” Emily felt something deeper about the question. “What about you?”

“Same. But looking back, I realize that I haven’t had a nightmare since we moved. Have you?”

Emily took in a sharp breath. “No. We both needed this move, didn’t we?”

Katherine put her arms around her daughter. Emily snuggled in and sighed. “You don’t miss Daddy?”

“Oh, I miss him. Badly. Every day. And I still cry easily when I think about it. But the terror of that day is slowly fading as we move on.” [see the story, “Daddeee!”]

“What about Mark?”

“Mark helps me move on. For one thing, he seems to be deeply empathetic. I cried over Charlie one night. He held me and cried too.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Yes. Unlike any man I’ve ever met. He feels deeply, and that’s unusual. When Charlie comes up, I sense no jealousy at all. Mark wants to have his own place in our lives without displacing Charlie at all.”

“He loves you, Mom.”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Do you love him?”

“I don’t know. I want to, but then I get scared. When I met Charlie, I was convinced that there weren’t any good men in this world. Then he showed me that there was at least one. Now I have to convince myself that he wasn’t the last one out there.” She looked at Emily with glistening eyes. “Does that make any sense to you?”

“Yes, but you just made me think that if Daddy was the last one out there, I’ll be out of luck.”

Katherine gasped and paused. “My God, Emily, what a thought.” She squeezed her daughter. “Thank you.”

 

 

© 2021, JT Hine

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