AN: This is the epilogue, the end--I'm going to miss writing this SO much, but I'm happy with the finished product. THANK YOU to all you wonderful readers out there! I love you guys burningly. :)
Junior turned down the gravel road, smiling at the familiar crunching sound under her tires. That was the sound that meant she was home. She parked haphazardly in her haste to get out of the car. Buddy jumped up on her and then rolled onto his back for a tummy rub. She sighed and obliged, because she never could quite say no to him. She finally got past the dog and bounded up the front steps.
"Hello?!" Junior called out when she opened the door. No answer. She growled and went to her bedroom to dump her bag on her bed. She needed to do her laundry but she knew she was going to put if off until she didn't have any clean underwear left. Her room was the same, except there were some boxes shoved in there for storage now. It made her a little sad. "Hellllooooo?" She yelled again. Still no answer.
She went out to the barn, where she'd known along they would be anyway. She heard them before she saw them.
"Well, did you look in the drawer under the phone?"
"Course I looked in the drawer by the phone, and they weren't there."
Jack had his back to her, hands on his hips. He was most likely looking for his keys, or maybe his baling gloves. He had a pitchfork propped on the wall next to him and Ennis was in the stall with the wheelbarrow.
"Did you look in your office?" Junior asked from behind him. He started and she heard Ennis curse so she knew it had scared him a little, too.
"Junior!" Jack cried, whirling around and grabbing her for a hug. Ennis hurried out of the stall, wiping his hands on his jeans. As soon as Jack let her up for air, Ennis took his turn.
"We didn't expect you 'til tomorrow!" Ennis was smiling down at her, a full-on wide smile that usually only Jack could coax out of him. But then he suddenly frowned. "You didn't skip class, did you?"
She laughed a little. "Nah, my teacher got sick and cancelled. So I got to come home early."
"Well, shit, if we'd known you were coming we'da made you some dinner."
"Oh, it's no big deal. I can eat sandwiches…it ain't gonna kill me."
"Good thing," Ennis joked. "'Cause you'd sure be dead by now."
Jack pointed, grinning at Ennis. "Hear that? He cracks a joke just 'bout everyday now." He waved his arms around like those TV evangelists he was always watching just to poke fun at. "It'sssss a miracle!"
Ennis threw a piece of hay at Jack. "Ah, you shut up."
"Where's Bobby?" Junior asked.
"Him and the hands had to go fix the damn fence again. We're gonna have to do something about those fences…they're just not strong enough for the wind out here." Jack pursed his lips.
"And how many years we been saying that, Jack? We either gotta do something about it or—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know: quit bitching." Jack rolled his eyes. Junior couldn't help but laugh. It was all so…familiar. The way they teased each other and bickered and complained made that hollow home-sick feeling she'd been nursing since she'd left finally fade away.
"He get home yesterday?" Junior cut in before they could keep picking at each other. (As familiar as it was, it did get a little old.)
"Yeah, yesterday afternoon. He's gonna be pretty steamed when he gets in and finds out you're here already. He had some big idea to decorate the house, was gonna make some banners or something." Ennis rolled his eyes, but with one of those don't-we-love-that-kid smiles.
Just then, they were interrupted by thundering hooves and whoops. "I beat you again!" Bobby crowed.
"You're such a cheater." Jimmy growled back. They both had pink cheeks from the wind and were out of breath from their race. "You kept blocking me out."
"That ain't cheating, Jimmy—it's called strategy. Quit being a sore loser."
"I ain't being a sore loser, you little bitch!"
"Junior!" Bobby dropped the argument, noticing her there. "You weren't supposed to be home 'til tomorrow!"
"I got to come home early." She said with a big grin. Bobby reined Firefly in and scrambled down, rushing over to Junior. He only had a slight hitch in his step these days. In the two years since his accident, he'd been working tirelessly to get his legs back to full strength. Most people couldn't tell it was a limp; they just thought he walked funny.
He didn't hug her, just sort of hovered over her and whacked at her shoulder, grinning that famous Twist smile. When he'd gotten out of the hospital, everyone had loved him again—especially girls. He was still going on dates every Saturday night, whether he was there at home or up at school. He'd always been widely known as a looker, but after that he was a looker with a story. He'd grown a little more, too, so even though she was the tallest of all her friends, he still fairly towered over her.
Junior looked closely at Jimmy. He'd been riding Thunder, which gave Junior a twinge of annoyance. But Thunder was nickering and straining toward her, so she had to get closer to Jimmy to pat the horse. Her horse, actually, thank you very much.
"Hey, Jimmy," she said warily. Although he was much more pleasant to be around now, he was still a bit prickly. In the first few days that he'd stayed with them, he'd been so shell-shocked that he'd done whatever Junior told him to. He'd given Jack blank stares and had shrunk away from Ennis altogether. But after the shock had worn off, there'd been some extremely tense days.
In the months leading up to James Kent's trial, Jimmy had run hot and cold. One day he'd be polite and the next he'd lash out; one minute he was cracking jokes and the next he was spitting fire. He was usually okay around Bobby and Junior; Jack and Ennis had been the problem. More than once, he'd said something that had made Ennis growl at him to pack up and get the hell out, but Jack had always let him stay as long as he promised to change his attitude.
Once they'd had him start helping with chores, things had improved significantly. He and Bobby got along pretty well—they'd never be bosom buddies, but they didn't hate each other anymore. And after the trial, where Jimmy and Junior and Bobby all testified about the accident and Jimmy also revealed that his daddy'd been beating on him for years, he'd become much more relaxed.
"All he needed was to talk." Jack declared more than once. And it sure didn't hurt that James Kent was doing twenty to life in the state pen for assault, battery, and attempted murder.
"So how are you?" Junior asked after Jimmy nodded to her.
"Ah, I'm fine." Jimmy said with a shrug. "I, uh…" He smiled shyly. "I just got accepted to the community college."
"Jimmy, that's great!"
He ducked his head. "Well, it ain't fancy. I ain't smart like you and Bobby…"
"Hey now." Jack broke in. "Nothing wrong with community college, and you're a smart kid."
Bobby and Jimmy shared a look and an eye roll, because they were both used to and pretty sick of Jack's pep-talks. Affectionately so, though. Junior helped Jack and Ennis finish mucking out the last two stalls while Bobby and Jimmy put Thunder and Firefly away so they could all head in to get some dinner.
"Too bad we finally finished off all that food them church ladies brought us." Ennis said with a chuckle. After word had spread about what had happened, they'd had so many covered dishes left on the doorstep that they thought they'd never eat it all. For almost a year after Bobby got out of the hospital, they'd had an overflow of casseroles, cookies, and stews. It'd been the best the men had eaten in a long time.
The phone was ringing when they got inside.
"Ah, shit! I sorta forgot it was Thursday." Bobby hurried as fast as he could to the phone, snatching it up mid-ring. "Hey, Mama. Yeah, we was outside, sorry. Fixing the fences again."
"Does he still talk to her every week?" Junior asked, a little amazed. When Lureen had finally left, a week after Bobby got out of the hospital, they'd set up weekly phone calls. Junior didn't really think it'd last, especially after a big blow-up they'd had over Bobby's schooling. (Lureen wanted to him to go to a bigger school; Bobby wanted to go somewhere half-way between Wyoming and Texas.)
"Sometimes twice a week." Ennis told her. "Bobby really worries about her since her daddy died."
"Even if the man was an ornery old bastard." Jack muttered. Ennis shoved at his shoulder.
"Respect the dead, Jack!"
"I don't gotta respect him! He can't spit on me no more, not from hell."
Ennis just grunted. He didn't like to admit it, but he was slightly superstitious, and speaking ill of the dead was liable to get you into trouble, he was sure.
"I'm going to go over to Samantha's." Jimmy cut in. "I want to tell her the news."
Bobby and Samantha had never become more than friends, but after Jimmy had settled down and quit being such a hard-ass to everyone, he and Samantha had discovered each other. Jack said she was good for him because she'd always tell him when he was being a jerk and she could put him right in his place.
"You coming back for dinner?" Ennis asked. Jimmy had a pretty long rein to come and go as he pleased, but he usually ate there.
"Samantha can come, too." Jack added, brushing Ennis on the shoulder as he slipped past into the kitchen.
"Uh, sure, I guess so." Jimmy murmured. He still got a little awkward sometimes when Jack and Ennis were affectionate, but Jack refused to tip-toe around, and Ennis was getting better.
"Kurt gonna come?" Ennis turned to Junior as Jimmy washed up and left. She and Kurt were still going strong, something he couldn't decide if he was happy about or not. Kurt was a good guy, but didn't she need to branch out, try some other kids?
"Um…no." Junior licked her lips. The subject of Kurt was something she was nervous about. "He's going to spend some time with his family first. There's actually, uh, something I wanted to tell you. About Kurt. And me. About us."
Jack turned off the water and with a last, "Okay, talk to you next week" Bobby hung up the phone, so the kitchen was suddenly very quiet.
"Well, what is it?" Ennis asked hesitantly, worried that she'd say they broke up and maybe she'd cry and what the hell was he supposed to do then?
"Um…" She took a deep breath. "Jack? Bobby? You guys want to come over here? I want to tell you, too."
They were all staring at her now, and she felt herself go red under their gazes. Bobby hoped they hadn't broken up for the sake of his friendship. How awkward would that be for him? He hoped they'd considered him before ending things.
"What's up?" Jack sounded a little worried now. Oh, God, she wasn't pregnant, was she? He tried to keep panic from his eyes because he didn't want Ennis to catch his wavelength. He'd just go kill Kurt straightaway and then they'd never find out what Junior wanted to say.
She licked her lips. "Well, see, Kurt and I are almost twenty, you know, and we been talking 'bout this a lot, and…" She paused again.
"Just spit it out! God!" Bobby cried, always the most impatient.
"Sorry!" She wrung her hands a little. "Okay, look. Me and Kurt are getting married."
Complete silence. And then—she was pretty sure she was imagining this—the sound of three jaws dropping to the floor. Unsurprisingly, Bobby was the first to find the words.
"Holy shit!" He exclaimed. And then laughed, which Junior figured was probably a good sign. She let herself crack a smile and looked at Jack and Ennis.
"Um." Ennis still didn't know what to say.
"Aren't you…a little young?" Jack ventured.
"I'm 'bout the same age as both of you when you got married." She pointed out.
"And look how good those marriages turned out." Ennis muttered. Jack winced in agreement.
"Well, hey." Bobby interrupted scoldingly. "She's the same age as when you two met."
"But we didn't shack up 'til we was nearly twenty-two." Ennis grumbled. Jack put a hand on his arm.
"But that wasn't really a good thing, was it?" He murmured. "'Sides for the kids we got out of it."
Ennis bit his lip, thinking it over. He and Jack had met when they were nineteen—same age as Junior was now. And they'd only spent a few months together before going their separate ways, and then only another week before deciding they were going to make a go of it together. Junior and Kurt had been dating steadily for two years. Hell, they'd technically been together longer than he and Jack had been before settling down.
"Guess you are old enough." Ennis finally said. "And Kurt's…well. He's a good kid. Man, I guess," he corrected with a shrug.
"He is." Jack agreed. "You two'll be happy."
Junior's whole face lit up. "That went easier than I expected." She admitted. "I thought it'd take at least a day for you two to come around."
"Well, I guess we're getting submissive in our old age." Jack said sagely.
"Who you calling old?" Ennis teased with a little nudge.
"Well, Mary Ellen's gonna cater, so you don't gotta worry 'bout that." Junior said quickly.
"Oh, good for her." In the last year, Mary Ellen had started up a small scale catering business, with Louisa as her right-hand woman. There had been a few set backs—Roger's birthday had seen Mary Ellen in bed for almost three days—but for the most part, she was doing considerably better.
"And I was hoping…" Junior didn't know how to phrase her question without it sounding weird.
"Junior, you are killing me today." Bobby said, exasperated.
"Well, I was just wondering about…about the whole walk down the aisle thing." She stared down at her shoes.
"Wondering what?" Ennis asked quietly. Junior looked up and saw how serious his eyes were.
"I was wondering if my daddy would walk me." She couldn't help it—she was a little choked up. Ennis turned his head for a second, so she knew he was, too. And from the corner of her eye, she saw Jack duck his head a little, trying to fight the jealousy that he thought was completely selfish of him to be feeling during this moment. "Well, I was wondering if…if both my daddies would walk me."
Jack looked up quick, eyes wide with surprise. "What? No, no, not me." He stuttered. "That's—well, that's Ennis's place."
"Why's that?" Ennis asked him. "You known her long as I have." He was smiling, Junior noted with relief. She didn't know why she'd worried about his reaction; of course he'd want Jack to have a place, too.
"We'd love to." Jack choked out, drawing Junior in close.
"So proud of you, darling." Ennis murmured into her hair as he joined in.
"Oh, Bobby," Junior looked up from Jack's chest. "Think Kurt's got something to ask you later. See, he needs a best man…"
"Hell yeah!" Bobby crowed. "Knew you guys wouldn't forget who got y'all together."
"You did not get us together."
"You would never have met if I weren't an idiot who couldn't read!"
"Now Bobby…" Jack started.
Junior laughed a little, her family all around her, the arms of these strong men all around her. She was so glad to be home.
Ennis was reading at the table while Junior and Bobby bickered in the living room when Jack came thundering down the stairs, yelping. Ennis jumped up, sure that fool man had nicked a vein shaving or something and needed to go to the hospital, but when Jack came into sight, Ennis didn't see any blood.
"What, Jack? What the hell's going on?" Ennis growled, mad because his heart was still thumping away and he couldn't stop picturing Jack with blood all down his neck.
"I found something." Jack said breathlessly. Junior and Bobby had hustled in to make sure he hadn't been on the verge of death and were now staring at him like he was crazy—which Ennis could agree with.
"I mean, I put it there, I hid it, but I forgot about it! And then I was looking for my blue parka and digging around back there and I found it!"
"Found what?" Bobby asked curiously. It had to be something good.
"The picture?" Bobby repeated dumbly. He looked at Junior; she shrugged, and Ennis looked as mystified as the rest of them.
"Would you quit talking in riddles?" Ennis requested.
"Here—look. Wanted to present it a little better, but—well, just look." He stuck out his hand, thrusting forward a small picture. Everyone leaned in to see better.
It was a young man with a tumble of gold curls and freckles across his wide, grinning face, holding the halter of a horse. His other big hand was stretched out, hovering protectively around the back of the horse's rider—a baby girl with the same curls, grinning wide and showing off her two teeth.
"Is that…?" Junior breathed, even though she already knew the answer—there was no mistaking Ennis, and she'd seen enough of her baby pictures to know who the baby was.
"Shit." Ennis muttered, staring, transfixed, at the picture.
"I found it when we went to Amy's to get those pictures. You know, for Junior's first birthday here with us? And then I hid it because I was going to save it—I don't know, for Christmas or something, but then with everything that happened I forgot about it!" Jack was talking fast, waving his arms wildly because he was excited.
Junior had a lot of pictures of her family—pictures of her and her mother through the years; pictures of her cousins; pictures of her and Bobby at their high school graduation; pictures of the four of them on the trip they'd taken to the beach that summer; pictures of her with Ennis when Kurt came to pick her up for a dance, Ennis's face in a (mostly) fake scowl; pictures of her and Jack taking pictures of each other at the same time, both of them with big, laughing mouths under their cameras; and a picture she'd snapped of Jack and Ennis on the front porch, hats on their heads, smiling their special smiles at each other.
But she didn't have a single picture of her as a little girl with her daddy. Until now. She glanced at Ennis and saw tears glistening in his eyes. She was a little surprised to see that—she'd only seen him cry openly the one time, when they both thought Bobby was going to die.
He hugged her tight and stroked her hair, and when they pulled apart Junior saw Jack smiling at them, tears gathering in his own eyes. Ennis went to him and pulled him in close, whispering something in his ear that wasn't for Junior or Bobby to hear.
Junior looked at the two of them, still so strong after all these years, after everything that happened in their lives, and wished with all her might that she and Kurt would prove to have a love like theirs.