In some way, shape, or form, this story has been in progress for a little over three years. I don't really know how to feel about it anymore. For TVSF contest: Together.
The Summer Boy
A life without love is like a year without summer. ~ Swedish Proverb
"This is Kai," Zack announces as he enters the house, a box of labeled MEDICINES in one hand and a small dark-haired boy in tow with the other. "He's here for the summer."
Popuri hides behind her mother's skirts and peers out at the intruder. Lillia chuckles and smooths her daughter's hair with idle fingers as she glances back toward the delivery man. "One of yours, Zack, or did Duke decide to order some help?"
Zack has always seemed large to Popuri, but he seems massive now as he throws his head back and laughs, his voice booming in the small living room. "Nope! His auntie left him at the beach this morning, so I figured I'd take him along with me today." The object of their attentions glares darkly at the floor and scuffs his shoe along the carpet.
"He doesn't seem very happy about it," Lillia comments, earning herself quite the matured dirty look from such a young boy. "Did you ask him if this was what he wanted?"
The delivery man opens his mouth, only to close it again before casting another glance down at the rebellious child. "Well, no, but… it just seemed wrong to leave the little feller there."
Popuri peeks her head out further from behind her mother's skirt, examining the boy even more. He looks scruffy, she decides. And he forgot to comb his hair this morning!
Intent on the boy before her, she doesn't hear the door open. However, she does hear the loud clunk as her brother tosses his boots into the entryway closet. "Ma, I got the chickens fed!" Rick calls out, striding into the room with all the pride a ten year old boy can muster. "We need to get some more medicine though. I used the last of it on Socks," he says, referring to their oldest hen. "Who's this?"
The last is directed to Kai, who eyes the new boy with a wary eye. "Kai," he finally speaks up, and Rick steps forward and holds out his hand, like he's seen the adults do. Lillia hides a smile behind her hand as the new boy stares at the outstretched hand as if he's never seen anything like it. Rick drops his hand after a moment and turns to Zack instead. "Here, I'll put the medicine away."
He's bemused by Rick's air of assumed responsibility, but releases the box with a good-natured grin. "A real man of the house, eh?" he remarks to Lillia, who nods.
"Ricky has been so good about his absence," she says after the boy is out of earshot. Both of them know who he is, but Kai looks confused. Popuri opens her mouth to say something but then Rick is back, heading for the new boy with a determined expression on his face.
"Kai, right?" he asks, and at the boy's nod grabs his arm. "Want to help me clean the coop?"
The job is not an appealing one, but the idea of spending the rest of the day hauling boxes around with Zack is even less appealing. He nods, and Rick uses the grip he has on his arm to tow him over to the closet. "Put on these boots. We'll get some gloves from the toolshed," he says, and Popuri steps back behind her mother's skirt. Cleaning out the coop is her job.
He practically lives at her house that first summer, but Popuri rarely sees him. Rick takes up all his time, and the younger Kai ignores the even younger sister, who is just too young, too girly, too annoying, too everything to play with them.
When Kai leaves, boarding the ferry along with his harried looking aunt and small suitcase, she is only at the dock with Rick to ensure that the boy is really gone. Her brother waves until the ferry is only a small speck in the distance, then turns to his sister and says, "I can't wait till next summer."
"I can," she says, and walks off with as much dignity as an eight year old can manage.
She's almost forgotten the brown, scruffy boy by the time the next summer rolls around. Now at the age of nine, she is so much more grown up, abandoning little girl flower and teddy bear print dresses in favor of checkers, plaid, and polka dots. In one such dress, with a blue polka dot bathing suit beneath, she attends the Beach Day Festival with Rick that first hot, sunny day.
The competitions are about to start, so she hurries over to the small girl she can see over by Zack's house.
"Popuri!" the girl cries, waving one arm in the air. "Come sit with me 'n' Dad!"
"Dad and me," she can hear Doug correct his daughter gently. Ann dutifully repeats the corrected phrase before snatching Popuri's towel from her hands and spreading it on the sand. "We didn't get here early enough to swim first, so now we have to wait till they're done," she complains. "It's hot."
The pink haired girl nods in response, then turns her eyes back to the small gathering to find Rick. He's probably with Gray, she decides, and is about to turn back when she spots him. "Ricky!" she calls, "Over here!"
Now eleven-though sometimes it seems like he's going on thirty- Rick is still young enough to grin incessantly on a festival day. He's grinning even as he turns to someone behind him and says something Popuri can't quite catch.
Then they are walking over, both of them: her brother and a tanned figure she wishes she didn't recognize. Rick greets Ann and her father as well as his sister, but Kai is ever the silent shadow. He says nothing as he sits on the extra towel Rick brought, clothed in loose pants and a long sleeved shirt that she thinks must be so hot in this weather, and remains close-mouthed all throughout the competition. When the festival is concluded by Mayor Thomas, many villagers (Popuri and Ann included) go straight into the ocean. Kai remains on the beach.
With four pairs of hands working the poultry farm that summer, chores don't take half as long as before. Determined to do something, Lillia musters her energy and shoos her children out the door each day, keeping house while they care for the chickens. Kai is the only one she lets back in before lunchtime - both Rick and Popuri have lost their fascination with the culinary arts years ago. Popuri feels herself swell with jealousy every time Kai returns to the house half an hour early (first Rick, now her mother?) but also counts each step the boy takes away from Rick as a sign of victory. Her brother, her family. Kai is still the interloper.
"You want to play hide and seek with us?"
The question comes in one of those moments, the siblings pulling off their boots and washing up at the spigot outside before heading in for lunch. Popuri is so surprised the soap slips out of her hands and falls with a soft plop into the waiting washtub, where it is quickly scooped up. "Why?" she can't help but blurt out, only to be met with an annoyed expression.
"You can't play hide and seek with only two people, dummy." He takes the soap from her hands and lathers his own with it. She ignores the bubbles still strung out along her fingertips in order to frown.
"What about Gray?"
Rick doesn't bother to look at his sister as he turns to place the soap back on its tiny shelf and pick up one of the hand towels. "Do you want to play or not?"
"I want to play," she says, and can't hide the grin that spreads over her face as Rick pins the towel to one of the clotheslines to dry. Mundane as it is, it feels like another victory against Kai.
They are panting in the shade of one of the large trees behind Gotz's cabin by the time evening rolls around. Somehow hide and seek turned into tag and became progressively more rigorous until all three collapsed and claimed various states of exhaustion.
In the moment between one gasp for air and the next, Popuri thinks that maybe if every day were like this she could actually grow to like Kai, that he could be her friend too. The thought whisks away with her next exhalation, when Rick rolls over and says "Gray'll be free tomorrow."
Kai nods and Popuri slides quietly into second best. For once, she doesn't even protest. She had nine years to win Rick, but Kai managed to do it in a season. The best man has won.
She stands up and brushes her dress off. "Mama wanted me home before dinner." Rick doesn't question the statement but Kai's curious gaze follows her all the way back to the path. As soon as she is out of eyesight she takes off running, small feet beating the dirt of the path into dust.
Father returns home for a week that spring, and it seems as if everything has renewed itself. Her mother can't stop smiling and even Rick grins like the boy he is and forgets the man he pretends to be. Everything seems right in the world, though for a few months after Lillia seems to be sick even more than before. And other than the pinched, worried expression that occasionally crosses her mother's face, all is right in Popuri's world.
Kai also visits again with his aunt, and it occurs to Popuri that they must not like each other very much because they stay away from each other all season. The boy once again takes up residence on the Poultry Farm, this time literally. He sleeps on a cot in Rick's room, and sometimes she sneaks in at night to stare at him. He'd scrounged up a bandana sometime during the year and taken to wearing it during the day, and she misses the sight of his dark brown hair. He looks tired when he sleeps, which she thinks is pretty silly but he really does look like he might not wake up.
She bows out of their invitations for her to play with them with much more grace than before, but Rick seems even more determined to have her join them. Kai doesn't argue, but she notices he tends not to say much anyway.
Another year and another summer; they are playing up by the Goddess pond when Rick, now thirteen and beginning to look at girls as girls, asks Kai about kissing. "It looks icky."
Kai shrugs but Popuri pipes up in his place. "It looks romantic."
Rick glares at her and looks again to the boy. "You ever kissed anyone?"
"No," he says, and even three years into knowing him she still is surprised to hear his voice.
Though Rick knows better than to ask his sister, and knows Kai won't say anything else, he doesn't drop the subject. "C'mon," he whines, and sounds a far cry from thirteen. "I want to know what it's like."
"So just kiss Poppy." The darker boy scratches absentmindedly at his arm and misses the disgust that flashes across the blond boy's face. "No way."
"I'm not gonna kiss Rick!" Popuri shouts with all the indignation of an eleven year old. "That's gross!"
"Fine," Kai says, and rises up to his knees. He crawls across the shaded patch of grass they are lying on and leans over Rick. Popuri has a perfect view as the darker boy awkwardly presses his mouth to Rick's, then pulls back and rests on his haunches. "Satisfied?"
Rick is blushing a dark red that fascinates Popuri, and she finds herself saying "But what about me?" And so Kai is her first kiss too, brushing his lips across hers with a bit more finesse than he did with Rick. They are both leaning over her brother, who is still prone and watching each movement with wide eyes. Popuri does her best to kiss back, puckering her mouth the way she's seen ladies do on the television, but it still feels a bit strange. Perhaps kissing is something like the weird vegetables her mother eats, laughing as she looks at her daughter's face and saying "Your tastes will change when you grow up."
"You're not supposed to kiss boys," Popuri says afterward, haughty in the knowledge of all little girls who have played house. Only hers and Kai's kiss was proper, not Rick's.
"Manna said Mr. Saibara and the old farmer used to do it all the time," Rick says, dismissing the concern with a wave of his hand. The matter is dropped after that as they return to their game of tag, the summer sun bright on their freckled skin.
They see Kai off that last day, all of them, even Lillia, who is supported by Zack. The buyer came out onto the dock to say goodbye to the little scamp he's grown fond of, then stayed in order to wave with the rest of them. Her mother looks pale out in the sunlight, and she leans on Zack more like she needs him in order to remain standing rather than to just keep her balance.
Before the sun even rises the next morning, she is shaken awake by Rick, who yells that he's taking Mom to Doctor Tim's. By the time they arrive it is too late, and Lillia strokes her daughter's pink locks with weak motions and whispers that there won't be a little brother, come winter. Popuri doesn't cry, because she can't miss what she never really had, right?
Kai doesn't return that summer, or the next, or even the summer after that. She doesn't see the beautiful, dark haired boy again until she is fifteen. This time, rather than jealousy or anger or even a silly little girl crush, all she can do is grin and wave furiously until his eyes find her, and then, grinning too, stride toward her and catch her up into a tight hug. He is leaner than she remembers, and there is no crotchety aunt in sight, but it doesn't matter because he is laughing, laughing in a deeper, richer voice that sends little shocks through every nerve in her body. "Poppy! Where's Rick?"
He's never been like this before, like he's as free as the seagulls flying overhead, and it floods her with happiness that the timid, closed off boy she knew has grown into this happy-go-lucky teenager. He yanks her to him with one hand and kisses her soundly on the lips before letting go of her, and in a daze she notices Ann watching from afar as he tugs her along towards the town. She thinks Rick will be delighted by the changes she sees in Kai, just like she is.
So enthusiastic in his greeting Kai kisses Rick too, ignoring the incredible blush that creeps over the older boy's face as he moves to pick up Lillia and twirl her around before setting the petite woman back gently on her feet. Ever the lady, she holds a hand over her mouth as she laughs, smoothing down her skirts with the other as she eyes the tall boy. As one of the shorter girls in the village, it hadn't bothered Popuri that Kai was several inches taller, as most people were, but she hadn't realized just how tall until she saw him stand by Rick. He must have topped six feet at least an inch ago, she thinks, trying to mentally measure him. How had such a scrawny child grown into this?
But he laughs to move the sun beyond the horizon and Zack is beaming in the background, bursting with pride at the boy that she realizes is now almost a man. Just like Rick, she realizes. They've all grown up.
She catches them out behind the barn one night towards the end of summer, checking the latches on the coop one last time before bed, only to hear low murmurs.
"Kiss me, please," the whisper sounds calm and in control until she remembers that Kai never says please, and the way he emphasizes the word makes her think of the way Lillia had held onto Father before he left. "Stop pretending you don't care."
She freezes, one hand gripping the railing of the fence and the other somewhere by her throat, as if to hold in the gasp that threatens to explode from her lungs. She's known about this sort of thing, after all, Manna's loose tongue had much to say on the subject of Mr. Saibara and the old farmer being so close, but it's never had anything to do with her. And she can see them, dark outlines against the twilight sky, close but not too close, proper in a way she hadn't before realized was so carefully thought out. But now, as the darker, taller of the shadows bridges that space, she sees the way Rick steps back. Controlled. She wonders what it would take to break that control.
"I'm not pretending! Karen and I, well, we're-"
"Nothing. Karen and you are nothing compared to what you and I could be. You think I came back here for nothing?" He looks threatening, leaning over her paler brother like that, but his words aren't angry. "You think I forgot you? You think I forgot your family? I never forgot you guys."
"You didn't show up for four years. What was I supposed to think?" If a whisper could shout, Rick's voice would be the one to manage it. Popuri doesn't want to hear something this personal, but she can't tear herself away. Rick hasn't sounded like that since Father left again, the spring before Kai did.
"You knew my family situation. The only love I ever got was here! Like I'd forget that; the only thing that kept me going all this time was the thought that I'd come back someday. Stop acting like I'm your enemy! I love you, I love your sister, I love your mother, and I'll be damned if you're going to push me away just because you're in some sort of snit!"
In the movies that Karen always rents when she has sleepovers, the male lead kisses his lady love after declaring his love for her in passionate metaphors. She'd never considered the idea of anger being an aphrodisiac, or the idea of her brother being attracted to men, but it seems to make so much more sense than flowery similes. Rick reaches out and grabs the front of Kai's shirt, most likely his collar she thinks as she stares at the way he pulls the taller boy to him. And she knows, she knows that Kai is kissing Rick because he's never been loved by anyone, not even his own family, and that Rick is kissing Kai because he's so damn alone all the time, not even Karen filling the space because in the end, she too leaves.
She's seen a solitary nature grow in her brother as time went by, one built by a lack of friends and a life focused on work and taking care of his family. He's not good with people - too bossy, too uptight, too stubborn- but he has a good heart, and so she slips away in the darkness, trusting Kai, who has never had anything precious in his life, not to break it.
That summer, Rick doesn't come to the pier to say goodbye. Kai doesn't say anything about his absence, and that's probably for the best. When Popuri finds him out by the coops, she takes a leaf from Kai's book and says nothing about his reddened eyes and hoarse voice. She doesn't need to. By now they both know what it's like to have someone they love leave them.
He shows up the next year with as much welcome and fanfare as the year before. Zack is there waiting (as always) along with Lillia, Popuri, Rick, and Ann. Popuri knows that the redhead is still intrigued by what she saw last year, and hides a smile behind her hand when Ann's blue eyes widen at Kai's enthusiastic greeting. At that moment, she looks more like her mother than she knows.
The shouting is audible from the inn.
"You don't ever say that about my father!" Rick screams, and Popuri knows their summers are over.
The sun seems reluctant to sink, holding on to the edge of the ocean and sending gleaming rays across waves of both water and sand. Popuri shivers as the chill evening breeze blows through her hair, leaning closer to Kai, who amicably accommodates her added weight.
"Your brother's still mad at me," he offers, running his fingertips over the age-smoothed wood of the dock. "I don't know why."
Popuri cocks her head to one side and twirls a strand of pink hair around her finger, looking at her dark and pouting reflection in the water below. "He's always mad." How can she explain the line he crossed? That there was no one more sacred to Rick than Father?
Kai glances at her, but turns his gaze back to the water brushing against the pylons. "But not at me."
She shrugs. "It's just a phase," she says, sounding remarkably like her mother in that instant. "He'll get over it."
His kisses make her go weak in the knees.
She wonders how he got so good at this, then thinks of tool sheds and glasses discarded along with clothes and decides she doesn't want to know.
Whispers of affection, of liking, of loving rain in her ears all summer long. He speaks of sweet seduction, his hands touch her in a thousand little ways, but he never oversteps a single boundary.
The sun is setting once more, and though the dusk gathers she can't bring herself to leave.
"It's so late," he says, dark eyes more mysterious than ever in the few lamps of the Snack Shack. "You should be getting back," he tells her, but his hand on hers begs her to stay.
His bed sits in the back corner, sparse and neatly made with plain cotton sheets, a quiet reminder to all the ways they have never been together. She wants him, wants something more than this flustering dance of teases and flirtations that go nowhere.
It's his last night, and something has to give. She moves closer, her face and chest so hot with flushing. "Please, Kai," she murmurs, knowing what the word means to him, and slowly embraces him.
With a tremble so slight she would never have seen it, Kai extricates himself. "I'll walk you home."
He kisses her goodnight on her doorstep, like usual, but something has changed. Her heart doesn't race and her stomach is heavy with dying butterflies. Rick is watching from the window, but she doesn't know how to explain that it wasn't see you later, it was goodbye.
'Does Karen know?' she wonders as she watches her brother and the pretty blonde talk at the inn one evening.
Karen laughs at something Rick said, and he appears so surprised at her amusement that even Popuri giggles, making Ann look at her strangely. How could Karen know? They were a secret even from themselves.
That fall, Harris arrives on the Poultry Farm's doorstep, a telegram clutched in his hand and a concerned Mayor Thomas hovering behind him. She accepts the notice with the grace of a born queen, holding the shock from her face and senses by the sheer mantra of breathe, just keep breathing.
Rick's face goes ashen when she shoves the slip of paper at him, missing his hands because everything is so blurred. Lillia looks up from the batter she is mixing in the kitchen, and in the vein of motherhood instinct knows deep in her soul that something is terribly wrong. Her only son reads the note like he's reading a eulogy, and though it seems like she can barely hear, she realizes he is as the words jump out at her. Regret. Inform. Dead.
Popuri watches her mother gasp for air as if she were watching a program on the television. My mother is drowning, she wants to say. Somebody help her, she's drowning.
And then their poor, proud mother lets out a long breath and closes her eyes, reaching out a hand to steady herself against the counter. "Funny," she says. "Funny. He's been gone for so long, I just…"
It seems like such an odd thing to say, but as Popuri opens her mouth she suddenly understands what Lillia meant. Instead she silently cleans up the baking materials as Lillia embraces her son, clinging tightly to what she has left of the man she loved.
Though this winter in particular is expected to be freezing- one of the coldest in years, according to Harris- Popuri spends more time outdoors than ever before. The darkened house, the defeated look on her mother's face; how strange that she'd never realized how many hopes they'd placed on their father, even in his absence.
There is a difference, she decides, angrily throwing rocks into the Goddess Pond, between knowing someone is away and knowing someone is gone forever. "Isn't it just like it was before?" Karen had asked in one of her unknowingly cruel moments. Refusing to speak to the green-eyed girl any longer, Popuri had stomped away from the inn. Let Rick try to drink himself into forgetfulness, she would deal with them in her own way.
Lillia is going to die. They've wondered before, felt the grief building with each failed cure, each new medicine that arrived from some distant land, but now there is no doubt. It's only a matter of time.
She can't bring herself to cry for her father, gone so many years before he was actually dead, but she allows herself to cry for her mother. One tear for each thing thrown, she decides.
By the end of autumn, the sandy bottom of the pond is speckled with pebbles and leaves. The leaves had floated at first, but like everything else had eventually given up and drifted to the depths. She thinks of the hopes she'd held, each beginning with 'When Daddy comes home', and tosses another leaf into the water. Eventually, it too sinks.
Though snow covers the ground outside, hiding a thin layer of ice, Jack's barn is always warm. She finds herself there nearly every morning, feeding tufts of grass to the cows and sneaking carrots and lumps of sugar to his horse. He doesn't seem to mind, acknowledging her with a simple nod each morning while he lifts bales of hay to place in mangers before heading out to the mines. She wonders how he feels about coming home to an empty house each night and then realizes that someday soon she'll know.
Prompted by such thoughts, she slips in the barn, so early the sun is barely rising, and asks "Aren't you ever lonely?"
Jack is reasonably startled, his attention drawn away from the cow he was brushing. "Well," he says after a moment, "I suppose I am. But I have work and I have Milky, Megan, and Misty here." He pats the cow lightly on the side and laughs when she turns to lip at his cap. "I have Rowan," he gestures vaguely toward the horse's feedbox and Popuri smiles as an answering whicker floats over the partitions, "Of course I also have friends in the village. May and Stu come over all the time to play with the dog, and Doctor Tim always enjoys a visit."
She can't help but slide in, "And so does his pretty assistant."
The farmer grins and returns to grooming the cow. "Yeah, well, Manna's always willing to chat, and Cliff, Gray, and I are pretty good friends. Karen, Mary, Ann, and you are really nice, and your mother is very kind."
With a final pat, Jack puts the brush down and dusts off his hands. Misty moos softly at him but makes no move to follow as he heads for the storage bin. Popuri notices suddenly how deliberately he does things, as if each movement required thought. Yet he also moves with such ease, and she stares as he hefts a bale of hay, the muscles in his arms outlined.
The hay makes a sound like a tired sigh as it is plunked into a manger but Jack takes no notice of it. He again moves to the storage bin, lifts a bale, and walks to the next manger. "How is your mother, anyhow? I haven't been by to see her lately, what with the harvest and adjusting to my winter workload."
Remembering how he brings her mother flowers nearly every day without fail, Popuri begins to cry. Stunned, Jack drops the hay, completely missing the feedbox in his haste to reach the girl.
Kai had always stopped there, close to her but not touching. It was as if there was a chasm between them that he could not cross, an emotional barrier where he locked up every one of his feelings as tightly as if they were precious jewels or dangerous criminals. But Jack steps over that realm between the two of them as easily as if he were playing hopskip with the children. His hands are warm as he grips her upper arms and pulls her into an embrace.
"What happened to her?" he asks, not realizing he's pulled her so tightly to him that her voice will be muffled by his shirt. "Is she all right? It's not the illness, is it?"
She turns her head to one side and says "Not Mom. Dad. Dad's dead."
Thinking it funny how she can hear his heart beating and feel the rumble of his voice, it takes few seconds before she can make out the actual words. "I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
Though the words are perhaps trite, the sincerity overwhelms her. "I think Mom would like to see you," she whispers. "It makes her so happy when you visit."
The farmer hugs her even tighter, and though she feels like she can't breathe a feeling of peace steals over her. "So there's no more medicine," he says softly, as if she were not quite meant to hear it, but he understands why even if her father was away for so long, it actually matters that he's not ever coming back again.
There's not much to say, but for the simple farmer a 'yes' will do.
Gratitude is a powerful aphrodisiac, she realizes the more she spends time on the farm. Perhaps it is even more powerful than anger. Jack is pleasant company, and with plenty of hours to while away through the winter she finds herself tagging along with him on many chores.
He takes her to the mine with him and they exchange jokes during the breaks he takes in order to ensure he doesn't exhaust himself. She finds herself noticing more things about him: the strength of his grip, the ripple of his muscles, the crinkling at the corners of his eyes when he laughs.
She finds that he is softer than Kai; no less strong, but without the hard edges that shaped the boy from her summers. He is gentler, more sensitive to the world around him. When he tells her about the city she can't picture him there, because he seems to be such a natural soul. She tells him about the Harvest Goddess and growing up with Rick, knowing her stories are small town pathetic but she appreciates that he laughs at the funny ones and sympathizes with her over the sadder moments. She finds herself liking this man, and seeing what her own mother probably sees in him: someone who can be relied on, someone who could carry on a farm all on his own. She thinks he could hold up the world on his shoulders, and would do so without complaint.
But out of all these things that attract her to him, his understanding draws her in most. She craves his sympathies, his smiles, his comments that let her know he is listening. And she is grateful for this attention, soaking it up and basking in it as if he could radiate light. Gratitude and understanding have her returning to him time and time again, each visit intending to do something nice in order to return the favor of his attention, only to come away even more in debt. It's a cycle she never wants to break.
He proposes to her in the spring, and she says "I'll marry you in autumn." She prays that his insight will not reveal everything behind her reasoning, and at his curious glance replies "I want fall to have happy memories, too."
The Beach Shack remains empty that summer, but that doesn't stop her from sometimes stopping by to peer through the windows. There is a light sheen of dust on every surface, but she doesn't bother to enter and sweep it away.
They are married on the first day of fall. Ann is her maid of honor and Gray is the best man. Rick cries and Lillia smiles so radiantly that Popuri can see why Zack loves her so faithfully, even if he's never allowed himself to act on that love. It is a beautiful ceremony, and though nervousness flutters in her stomach all throughout the day, Jack's evident pride as he carries her over the threshold of his home wipes all doubt away. She can love him. She does, and she will.
Her belly is rounding the next time she sees Kai, heavy with pride and child. She smiles and makes small talk, the inane sentences she speaks a contradiction to the paragraphs she doesn't say. He smiles as well, but the jolly grins don't reach his eyes, and eventually they turn away from each other.
Jack knows nothing and everything. He knows nothing of the events that have occurred between these two people he cares for, but he can see what's in front of him.
He asks Lillia how she kept her faith so long, how she held to the idea of love for her husband for all those years when Zack was right in front of her. She only smiles, the gentle sadness she seems to have perfected.
"There was a child, and had he lived he would not have called my husband 'father.'"
Jack never asks Lillia of Zack again, and when Popuri asks later that night about their conversation, changes the subject. This family has endured enough sadness.
They name the boy Zachary, and the buyer cries when he hears. For a moment, Popuri swears she sees her mother wipe a tear from her own eye, but her attention is stolen when the babe squawks his displeasure at being passed through so many hands. She quickly lifts him to her shoulder, cooing at his bright eyes and tufts of brown hair. "Like his daddy," she says, and Jack beams.
Throughout the day well-wishers stop in to see the newest resident of Mineral Town, marveling at his tiny hands and feet. Rick, however, does not stop in to see the child until late that night.
"Poppy," he says, running the back of one finger against Zackary's cheek absentmindedly, "Why didn't you name him Richard?"
For Father, she knows. And in some small way, for him as well. "Because he's going to have a cousin named Richard, and I thought it might be confusing to have two."
Rick smiles, and though he's always resembled Father more, at that moment he could be Lillia's male counterpart. "I hadn't thought of that." He returns his attention to the sleeping baby. "He's going to be a wonderful nephew."
"You'll be a wonderful uncle," chime two voices, and Popuri turns in surprise to see Jack watching them from the doorway. She smiles and moves to stand beside him, watching her brother with her son. She inwardly marvels at the words. Her son.
Jack shifts to wrap an arm around her and presses a kiss to her forehead, his eyes also on Rick. "Our boy's going to have such a great family."
She knows he's thinking of his own father's absence and snuggles closer in response. Rick, too, recognizes this pensiveness in the farmer. He'd seen it time and time again in Kai, all those years ago, before they turned to harsh words.
There's a realization somewhere in those thoughts, but he turns his mind to the matters at hand.
"Sleep well, you two. Let me know if you need help with chores."
Jack nods in response. "Will do."
She knows that, if everything in Rick's life goes the way it should, there will never be a cousin Richard for little Zack to play with.
She finds that the idea is all right with her.
Another summer, and little Zack is toddling about, small hands grasping for larger ones to hold him upright. 'Grandpa Zack', as he likes to be called, takes great delight in doing this, each peal of his booming laughter inspiring chuckles from the smaller of the two. Some days Popuri just sits with her mother and watches them.
Kai had arrived the day before, and he too had found joy in the small boy. "He's like a little Jack," he would laugh each time he saw father and son together. "I can just see him wearing those same overalls and cap in a few years."
Little Zack, their own miracle, even manages to cause others. Kai and Rick speak cordially for the first time in nearly half a decade, and Popuri feels the first stirrings of hope. Perhaps, with enough time, forgiveness can be reached.
She swiftly revises her opinion after hearing the two squabble over some meaningless farm task. Perhaps forgiveness will be reached after a lot of time. But someday, she thinks, watching them eventually cooperate, it will be reached.
Lillia takes great joy in her grandchild, coddling him at every opportunity, and even at a young age the boy knows it. Though Zack's first word is not 'dada' Jack still boasts to all of his son's intelligence.
"He knows that he's gonna be getting all the special treatment from 'Gamma.'"
One Tuesday Popuri stops by the poultry farm on her way to the supermarket. As Zack eagerly falls to the blocks Rick had carved specifically for him, the two women idly converse about the town's most recent gossip: Karen had bought a blue feather.
"You don't think she means to give it to your brother, do you?" Lillia asks, tapping a finger on the tabletop as she sips at her tea. From the other side, Popuri purses her lips and eyes the playing child.
"I hope not. He'd say yes."
The elder woman furrows her brows. "That's not a very kind thing to say, Poppy."
She sighs. "Sorry. Just that I think he'd be happier with someone else."
"Who?" comes Lillia's reply almost immediately. "The only one of the rest of you girls still unmarried is Mary, and we all know Gray's about to propose any day now."
Popuri looks at her mother for a long moment and says. "He's here every summer."
Lillia closes her eyes. "Yes, I suppose that would make more sense. Though I'd hoped for more grandchildren."
Popuri knows that what her mother means to say is 'Who will carry on the family name now?' Part of her scoffs at the question, judging it far below her brother's happiness. "They can always adopt. I'm sure Kai would love to give orphans a good home."
She nods, pink hair tinted with silver swaying with the movement. "That's true."
Sensing her mother's exhaustion, Popuri changes the subject to more town gossip, this time about Gray and Mary. Manna always seems to have a field day with the shyest townspeople.
On her way out of the farm, Zack in one arm and a bag of baked goodies in the other, she turns to her mother and says, "Have you ever thought about remarrying?"
The surprised expression on Lillia's face is genuine as she says, "No, why?"
Popuri shrugs, not an easy movement with arms full. "No reason. Just that you seem lonely and, well… if anyone deserves happiness in this town, it's you."
She makes no mention of the buyer heading down the lane towards them, and says nothing of the notion to him as she passes.
Perhaps Zack, her own little miracle, could bring her mother closer to her own miracle as well. It had been no coincidence, the naming of the boy. Zack had stood by her mother for more than a decade, had held to a love that couldn't be acknowledged for years. If her own son had half the loyalty of the man he was named for, he would grow to be a fine person indeed.
The beach house opens again the next year, and little Zack loves the icy taste of a grape snow cone (and the way it dyes his mouth purple). Though Popuri does not include the restaurant on her daily errands, each time she stops by one is ready and waiting. In time she realizes the treat is his way of apologizing.
She makes a point of stopping by regularly after that, if only to make small talk. It occurs to her that, in his own way, Kai is lonely too.
When she thinks of the way they have all suffered from loneliness; Rick from his strength, Kai from his idealism, Lillia from her faithfulness, Zack from his dedication, and Jack from his love, Popuri feels that maybe she understands the driving force behind them all a bit better.
She finds them arguing out behind the chicken coop one night. It has been a long road, and a costly one. They have both finally arrived where they started, older, wearier, and more scared than ever before.
"Kiss me," Kai says, but this time he doesn't have to add 'please.'
This time, they have arrived together.