TITLE: September Shadows Chapter 1
By Debbi Migit
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“You’re doing great, Jess; just keep your eyes on the road and stay in your lane. If that guy in the blue Camero wants to pass you, let him.”
Jessica Taylor gripped the wide steering wheel with a hand planted firmly on each side. Her back was rigid with anticipation caused by the live action on the highway around her. She was thrilled to be the one in control, and a little annoyed at her instructor’s ceaseless directions.
“Good girl,” Cole continued, a thread of anxiety present in his deep voice. “Now, we want to turn left on Maguire Street, up ahead,” he gestured ,"so you’ll need to change lanes up there.”
Jessica immediately turned the wheel.
“Wait! Get back in your lane!” Cole yelled sharply as he grabbed his vinyl-covered door grip with a swift reflex. Jess jumped at his startled yell, and the blaring horn near her; she quickly steered the red pickup back into the right lane, just as a white van sped by. The driver gave her an angry look that said What’s wrong with you? Pay attention!
“Didn’t you see that van?” Cole stared at her, his eyes wide with disbelief. “What do you think you were doing? How many times do I have to tell you to always check over your shoulder before you change lanes? You can’t rely on just the side mirror; that van was in your blind spot!”
Jessica shot him a quick glare that revealed her own stress and returned her eyes to the road, as they neared their turn. “You told me to keep my eyes on the road, then you told me to change lanes!” she challenged as she hit the turn signal, glanced over her left shoulder, and eased into the left lane. “I was just doing what you said. And quit yelling at me!” she added and swung the pickup safely into the parking lot of the Piggly-Wiggly. She cut the engine, flopped back against the seat with a heavy sigh, then glowered at her companion.
“I wasn’t yelling,” Cole repeated through gritted teeth as he swiped his forehead. “You asked me to instruct you. I was instructing,” he said, then turned his attention to the highway before them.
Jessica's gaze followed his, both sensing an unspoken ceasefire. The Saturday morning traffic whizzed by as they each considered silently that it could have become the scene of an accident just five minutes earlier. There was a measure of comfort in seeing the residents of Justice, Montana moving unfazed into their weekend: shopping at the Piggy-Wiggly and Maguire’s Seed and Feed, then lunch at the Dairy Barn, maybe followed by the newly released movie showing at the Cineplex.
Jessica brushed her dark hair from her eyes and turned to see Cole struggling to control his temper as he sat in the seat next to her. That little vein in his neck was standing out. Not a good sign, she thought. She’d seen it plenty of times through the years.
Cole McBride had been Jessica’s best friend since she was eight and he was ten. Now, at 16, she’d realized recently that her feelings for him were deepening into something more unsettling and not so familiar, but she wasn’t sure if those feelings were reciprocated – and she wasn’t ready to find out. Jess was afraid that if she was honest with Cole, she might lose the best friend she’d ever had. But at that particular moment, as she matched his anger with her own, warm feelings were far from her thoughts.
“Yeah, you were instructing all right,” she agreed, “at the top of your lungs!” Jessica took a deep, calming breath and suddenly found the entire incident to be funny.
She allowed herself a small grin in Cole's direction, somewhat easing the tension in the too-warm cab. “Relax, Cole, I’m not going to damage your truck.” She punched his tight upper arm with her small fist and saw his anger deflate a little.
No one knew better than Jess how much Cole’s pickup meant to him. He’d saved for the down payment from his part-time job, working on Ben Hadley’s horse ranch. He wanted to be a vet someday, and already his opinion was valued among the horse breeders of the county.
The truck had originally needed some work, and Cole had fixed it up. Now it was his pride and joy. It was rare that he allowed anyone to drive it – especially a beginner like Jessica. She’d been amazed and honored when Cole had offered to let her use it for driving lessons.
Cole shook his head and answered Jessica’s tentative grin with one of his own, and a playful, “Ouch!” as he rubbed his arm. “Actually, I wasn’t worried about the truck – I could fix her up again – but that van was headed right into you, Jess! I don’t think I could find replacement parts for you as easily.” He cleared his throat, suddenly a little self-conscious, and held out his hand with a stern, “C’mon, give me the keys. I’ll see if I can get us home in one piece.”
“Cole, I can do it!” She wrapped her smaller fingers tightly around the keys still hanging from the ignition and rushed on. “I was just confused for a few minutes, but I’m fine now,” she insisted, her eyes pleading. Then they grew large with possibilities. “Let’s drive up to Mason’s Canyon! It’s a nice flat road, no traffic¼” her voice trailed as Cole began to shake his head.
Her impulsive excitement had taken him back a few years, to when they were little kids and Jess insisted in pulling him into her adventures. Now, he had to be the responsible grownup. “Sorry, Jess. I need to go over to Ben’s and check on Riley. He injured a fetlock yesterday and I promised Ben I’d keep an eye on him.” Cole slid across the seat, intent on taking the wheel.
Jessica had no choice but to get out of the truck and take the passenger seat. I bet Riley’s not the only thing you’re going to keep your eye on at Hadley’s, she thought with a grimace as she marched around the front of the truck. Jessica had always been protective of her friendship with Cole, but it somehow felt…different now, which added to her irritation as she hopped into the cab and slammed the door. Amy Sinclair boarded her mare, Damsel, at Hadley’s ranch, and was also in Cole’s senior class. It seemed to Jessica that lately Amy made it a point to exercise Damsel when Cole was working there.
The Sinclair family was one of the richest families in Liberty County, and Amy got everything she wanted. Jessica fervently hoped the one thing Amy wouldn’t get was Cole. Deep in thought and jumbled emotions, she crossed her arms with an audible huff after fastening her seat belt.
“Hey, don’t sulk.” Cole teased Jessica as he tapped her nose with his finger, a familiar all-is-forgiven gesture that had begun early in their friendship.
But this time Cole's touch sent a charged current through Jess that jolted her back to the present. It seemed like lately every word or touch from Cole had taken on a new significance. Jessica spent more hours than she would like to admit, analyzing what it might mean. Now Cole's words penetrated her thoughts. Don't sulk.
For a minute, Jess was afraid she’d spoken her thoughts out loud about Amy, then realized Cole thought she was angry because he’d cut her driving time short. She sat up straighter and gave him a sly smile when he glanced her way with concern. “It’s ok, Cole; it sounds like you have a busy day planned. I’m sure I can get someone else to help me practice for my driving test.”
She paused and pulled her curly hair up into a quick ponytail and skillfully secured it with the bright yellow elastic band she’d worn around her wrist. “Mark Grayson mentioned something about taking me out driving sometime,” she added with nonchalance, just as Cole swung the pickup into her drive in front of her house. “I can give him a call,” she said lightly as she pushed the door open, hopped out, and shoved it closed with her backside.
Cole’s dark brows lowered into a scowl and his brown eyes became almost black as he leaned across the seat to the open window and snapped, “Mark Grayson is an idiot! He’s already wrecked two cars and he’s only seventeen,” he reminded her as he watched her half-skip toward her front door. “The last time, he was driving drunk,” he hollered after her, “and the only reason he didn’t lose his license was because his Dad’s the Mayor!” Cole was pleased to see that his roaring stopped Jessica in her tracks as she turned to face him. “Don’t you even think about getting into a car with Mark Grayson!”
Hands on her hips and a thoughtful smirk pulling at her lips, Jessica appeared to give his lecture some consideration then gave way to a bright smile. “Don’t worry, Cole," she said with a nod, "I’ll drive!” Jessica waved as she twirled back around toward her porch and ran up the steps, disappearing behind her front door before he could respond.
Just as she shut the door, she heard Cole’s muted demand, “Jessica!” She snickered and tore off her boots. She heard him gun his engine as a parting shot, and the crunching of gravel as he spun out of her drive.
Let him stew about ‘that’ for a while, she thought. Jess had no intention of getting into a car with Mark Grayson, but Cole didn’t need to know that.
“Was that Cole?” Jessica’s sister, Sylvia, called from the kitchen. “He sounded a little angry. Did the driving lesson go ok?” Jess sauntered into the kitchen, feeling pleased with herself. She plopped into a chair at the square which snugged closely along a bright yellow wall , which was decorated with a cluster of dark red roosters. Jess pulled an apple from a ceramic bowl in the center of the table, and took a healthy bite, studying her older sister seated across from her.
Sylvia was paying bills. That worried, distracted look on her face was evidence to Jessica that her sister was trying to figure out the Taylor family finances - again. At twenty-four, Sylvia was responsible for her two younger sisters: Jessica and 10-year-old Maddy.
Two years earlier, the girls’ parents had been killed in an car accident, and since then, Sylvia had done everything she could to give her sisters a normal, healthy family life.
Jessica knew it hadn’t been easy for her sister, which made her love and admire her all the more. Sylvia had dropped out of college to care for her and Maddy, when they’d lost their mom and dad. It was a big responsibility for a young woman who was barely an adult herself, but Sylvia was determined to keep her family together, no matter what the sacrifices.
As Jessica got older, she realized more and more just what those sacrifices were. Money always seemed to be the biggest issue. There was never enough of it. Seeing Sylvia frown at the calculator was as familiar to Jess as the red roosters her mom had hung proudly in their kitchen, long before Jess was born.
Their parents’ insurance had – thankfully – paid off the house and outstanding bills, but Sylvia struggled with the day-to-day living expenses that ate up her salary. She worked as assistant to Robert Sinclair – Amy’s uncle.
Cole momentarily forgotten, Jessica pushed her chair back and circled the table to Sylvia and impulsively gave her a hug. Sylvia lost her air of distraction long enough to smile up at her sister. “Hey, what was that for?” she asked, surprised.
Jessica grinned, hiding the tight squeeze she felt inside her chest that threatened tears. “Just because,” she chirped.
Sylvia squeezed Jess’s hand for a moment and returned to her original question. “So, how did the driving lesson go? Did you make the vein stand out in Cole’s neck?” It was a family joke. Cole was known for his friendly, even temper—with everyone but Jess. She could aggravate Cole quicker than anyone. It had been that way since the day they’d met, and they had been oddly inseparable since.
“Yep!” Jess answered with a little bit of pride. She thought again about her ‘conversation’ with Cole about Mark Grayson and her grin grew bigger. “Twice,” she piped and retraced her steps, making a quick detour to pitch her apple core in the trash can hidden beneath the sink. She was glad Sylvia wasn’t pressing her for details. Somehow she didn’t think Sly would appreciate the joke.
“Oh, Angie called while you were out.” Sylvia remembered as she gathered up the bills and calculator. She caught Jess just before she vanished. “She’s babysitting the Ellison twins right now and asked if you could come over when you and Cole got back.” She smiled at the feigned despair on Jessica’s face. “You can always tell Angie you need to clean your room if you don’t want to go over there. That certainly wouldn’t be a fib.”
Sylvia’s not-so-subtle offering of choices was an easy one for Jess, given the state of her well-cluttered room. “No,” Jess sighed, “Angie’s bailed me out plenty of times. I guess the least I can do is help her out with ‘Lisa and Bart’.” Jess and Angie had agreed that The Simpsons* sitcom characters were fitting nicknames for the feisty five-year-old twins.
Sylvia shook her head. “You’d better stop calling them that, or you might slip up and say it in front of Mr. and Mrs. Ellison someday,” she cautioned.
“No problem,” Jess grinned as she slipped out the back door “the Ellisons* have never heard of The Simpsons*. They only watch the Discovery Channel*.”
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