The metal zipper on the suitcase squealed as Jena bounced on the piece of luggage, tugging the zipper the last few inches. Climbing off the suitcase, she sighed and swiped sweaty straggles of hair behind her ear. I look like a molting chicken.
Her phone chimed and Jena dug through the pile of clothing rejects around her suitcase. Finally discovering it under her camo jacket, she turned a disgusted eye from the cluttered floor and glanced at the screen. Stef.
Hail, fellow traveler! I shall arrive in my golden chariot in approximately 10 minutes to spirit you off to parts unknown. Fifteen minutes if Nana pinches my cheeks one more time and I have to commit murder first. Tootles!
Jena smiled, tossing the phone on the unmade bed—she winced at the sight—and surveying the path of destruction from her closet. Doubt crashed over her and she sank back onto the bed, gaze seeking the comforting sight of wheat fields rippling outside her screened window.
What was she thinking? She couldn’t do this—move to Italy, take a translating job with the U.N., leave her family for the foreseeable future. Who was she kidding? In 21 years she’d barely made it out of Stafford county.
But you can’t stay. The nagging voice poked at the sore ache in her heart. The smell of alfalfa and the bang of the screen door and country music blaring from the barn (Tim McGraw on repeat. Bill the Ferrier must be re-shoeing Fidelis) made this place home. But it carried too many memories of tagging around after Seth and Sean, shy kisses under a blood moon…
Jena firmly closed the door on memory lane and sighed. Kansas would always be her home, but she couldn’t stay. If she could let go of her home, maybe she could start to let go of Sean too.
Her phone chimed again. Mission successful. Murder averted. And no, you’re not allowed to bail. Who else would cook for me? You want me to starve in Italy? I knew I could count on you. Bring your hat, partner, it’s time to get back on your horse.
Jena rolled her eyes. Stef knew her too well. The yin to her yang. They’d been potluck roommates her freshman year in college. Jena hated meeting new people. Stef never met a stranger. Jena like pastels, Stef liked her colors as bold and bright as a Kansas sunset. Stef lived life in the moment—Jena preferred to plan extensively in advance. They’d hated each other the first two months and had been fast friends ever since.
Seth’s deep voice in the doorway brought her head up. Oh no. He had on his older brother face, intended to keep wayward little sisters on the straight and narrow—which did not include gallivanting off to foreign countries. Apparently only the menfolk of the family were allowed to do that.
Jena rolled her eyes, sliding off the bed and nodding at her suitcase. “You bet your fancy cowboy hat.”
He didn’t move, his long-legged frame leaning on the doorframe. “You know, it’s not too late to change your mind.”
“I can’t stay, Seth.” She looked directly into brilliant blue eyes the same shade as her own.
He sighed, holding out an arm to her. Jena went to him gladly, hugging him tight and burying her face in his strong, flannel-covered shoulder. Always her safe place, from the time the neighbor girls teased her about being an ugly brainiac to that horrible day that shattered them both.
But somehow Seth had come to terms with Sean’s death in a way she never could.
“I miss him too,” he said gently in her ear. “But running never helps anything. I just want to keep you safe.”
“Too late for that,” Jena said without heat.
Her phone chimed again and Seth released her so she could check it. Stef had arrived. Now or never. Jena hefted her backpack over her shoulder and headed out the door, down the stairs where the third step creaked, out onto the porch with sweeping vistas of fields and the grain elevator a tiny white tower in the distance.
Stef poked her curly black head out of the window of her hideous yellow Crown Vic and waved wildly. Seth came out behind Jena, carrying the suitcase with ease and stowing it in a trunk that could have easily held six people and a Great Pyrenees dog.
Jena swallowed hard, breathing deeply and taking in the familiar sight one last time. Seth approached and pulled her into a bear hug. Stop, Seth. I’m never going to be able to walk away if you keep this up.
But he finally stepped back and looked down, eyes serious. “If you get in trouble, call me. You know I’ll come for you.”
Jena smiled. He always had, and he always would. “I know.”
She turned away, refusing to look back at Seth standing on the front porch of the sprawling blue farmhouse, and climbed into the passenger seat of the Crown Vic. Jena glanced down. Stef had already started in on the Skittles. It was going to be a long day.
“Woohoo!” Stef gunned the engine and they sped off down the teeth-rattling dirt road in a cloud of dust. “Italy or bust!”
Special thanks to our model, Robin Dinsmore. Photography by Katie Morford (http://storyforhisglory.com).