In the small, rural town of Appaloosa Plains, Destiny Penelope Farmer loved to play in the yard in the summer atop a heap of fill dirt left over from restructuring the half-acre farm plot. She’d play on the dusty hill from morning until dusk, when the fireflies lit the evening skies in the lot behind the little farmhouse. The dirt pile, dubbed “Destiny’s Hill” by her mother, Fran, was her favorite spot on the entire property.
While her father, Charlie, was on deployment and her mother tended their farm, Destiny would play on the hill, riding her favorite dolls on toy horses, pretending to be the queen of her own kingdom. It was this mound of dirt that inspired her eventual stage name: Destiny Hill. It was the name that would become known in every corner of the world; the red-headed girl with the small-town drawl and the big voice.
My name is Destiny Farmer. My parents called me Desi, mostly because I couldn’t say my name when I was three, and I guess they thought it was cute. This is my story—all the who’s, the where’s, the why’s, and the how’s. Maybe I should start at the beginning? Yes. The beginning.
I’ve always lived in Appaloosa Plains on Pomona Promenade. Across the road were the festival grounds, the place that would set my life on its current trajectory. Each year, the summer festival was my favorite, because that’s when the rides came into town. I loved the carousel, because Daddy would stand next to me, and steady me on the horses. Though I loved my parents the same, Daddy and I had a special bond. Mama called me a ‘daddy’s girl’.
When I was a little girl, he was deployed overseas to fight in the big war. He didn’t come home with the rest of his unit. I remember my mama being sad, and I remember seeing a big box, which I found out later was his coffin. But he wasn’t inside the big box that day. He came home much later, in his own time, on his own terms. Since that day, when I was old enough to understand what he’d endured, I made sure he knew I loved him. We were very close. I could always count on Daddy to have my back.
Next door to us lived the Bradfords; Caleb, Sunny, Junior, Kristen, Tommy, and Maya. They were Mama and Daddy’s best friends. Maya lived with us when I was little, while Daddy was stationed on his last deployment. She attended veterinary school, and now lives in Hidden Springs with her husband, Clay. We saw her occasionally during the summer festivals, but since their first baby came, they stay closer to home. Of the four Bradford kids, Maya was the only one I knew.
My favorite subject in school was, of course, music class. Sara Thompson, the elementary school music teacher, taught me to play every instrument I could get my hands on. She was also the children’s choir director at the chapel, where we attended services every Sunday morning. It was she who fostered in me my love of singing and vocal performance.
I’ve always been a creative spirit, writing my own songs and lyrics, sometimes as I sang them. I had journals full of songs I’d written over the years. From the time I learned to read and write, I wrote songs; love songs, ballads, tunes with a pop flavor, even though my main genre was country music. That was all we listened to on the radio, in the car, or while Mama and Daddy worked on our half-acre farm.
When I was ten, the county built the stage at the fairgrounds. The first year, the festival featured a talent show, and I remember wanting to sing. But that was the year I broke my wrist in the park. It was also the year the Bradfords sold their ranch and moved away. I learned that family isn’t always blood-related; Mama cried the day Aunt Sunny and Uncle Caleb left Appaloosa Plains for good. She told me that Aunt Sunny was the sister she never had.
After the Bradfords sold their ranch and moved away, another family moved into their house. Their only daughter, Polly, was just a few months older than me, and from the moment we met, we were pretty near inseparable. She was beautiful; thin with brown hair and eyes to match, and black plastic-framed glasses. Polly wanted to be a programmer when she graduated college; she loved computers and gaming. We giggled about everything. We had each other’s backs in high school. She was definitely my BFF. This was us at the farmhouse, back when things were good, and we were still friends. I miss those days.
The summer before our junior year, when I was fifteen, and she was sixteen, we both got our first jobs. Hers was at the spa downtown working as a receptionist, but I worked backstage at the festival on the setup and breakdown crew. The job was hard and tiring, but I learned how to run a soundboard and the stage lighting. I also had access to every visiting singer that performed in our little park, including my favorite singer, Katie Price.
Katie opened the festival the first year the fairgrounds had the stage, back when she was still only playing at carnivals and small venues, back before she caught her big break. But she loved playing at county fairs and festivals, which is why she returned to Appaloosa Plains every year, even after her star burned bright and everyone knew her name.
The summer before my senior year in high school was the best of my life to that point. The best, because I finally had the chance to sing on the big stage; Katie asked me to open her concert on the festival’s first day.
The night of my debut, I was so excited, and I wanted Daddy backstage with me. Katie let me borrow a dress from her wardrobe, some of her stage props, and even had her cosmetologist do my makeup. When I walked onto the stage, Daddy was having the time of his life. I saw him mouth the words, “I love you, Desi,” as I took the stage. I played his favorite song first, because he requested it, and because he loved it. After every song, I looked over my left shoulder, watching him enjoying the concert.
Just before my last song in the set, I saw him teetering, grasping at the air, and then collapsing onto the floor. I screamed, and Mama ran right up onto the stage. The crowd, who’d been chanting my name just seconds before, watched as paramedics loaded him onto a stretcher and took him to the hospital. That was when I first learned about his illness. You see, my daddy had cancer; lymphoma, to be exact.
Learning about Daddy’s cancer changed my life, and it almost changed the direction of my career. I didn’t want to go to Sim State. But Mama sat me down and explained what the lymphoma meant to Daddy; to us as a family. There was a chance he could beat it. We prayed every day, hoping those prayers would be answered.
When school started that year, Daddy’s cancer was in remission. I’d already been accepted to Sim State. The work I’d done at the festivals as a stagehand transferred to college as credits earned. I didn’t have to spend a year on prerequisites, which meant getting into my major quicker. Polly and I walked into school that first day of senior year when I felt him tap my shoulder. Who, you might ask? That would be Austin Linde. My first love, my first boyfriend.
Let me tell you about my sweetheart. Austin moved from Sunlit Tides with his dad, who was in the Army like mine was years ago. He transferred to Appaloosa Plains, and Austin left his childhood friends behind. Austin saw my debut at the fair that July. He couldn’t resist telling me how much he enjoyed the show.
Austin was my height, but he had muscles on top of muscles! He played any sports he could, and he started for the varsity football team that year. He was on the swim team, played baseball, and volleyball. You name it, and he played it.
His hair was the color of the beach’s sand, and his eyes as blue as oceans I’ve only seen in pictures. Not to mention his freckles, which were adorable. We hit it off immediately, and he asked me out on our first day of school.
Polly and Austin got along okay, but sometimes I think she resented the closeness I had with him. He intruded on our friendship, though that was more my fault than his. You see, my mama and daddy loved each other with an intensity I took for granted. I believed every married couple was like them. I decided that, when I got married, I wanted a relationship just like theirs; loving, devoted, an unbreakable bond.
Until I met Austin, I saw the world through rose-colored lenses. I believed every relationship survived, that every love was true and everlasting. I’d never met someone my age whose parents had separated, never mind divorced. But Austin’s had, and it turned my personal truth into an enormous lie. It made me realize nothing is perfect. Eventually, Austin would teach me that firsthand.
Austin and I had our first date at the burger place in downtown Appaloosa Plains. He picked me up in his car and drove us there. Much to my great surprise, Mama and Daddy let me out of their sight long enough to date this incredible boy, one I couldn’t believe was interested in me. He held my hand as he drove, rubbing my fingers between his, much the way I’d seen my daddy do with Mama’s.
Austin parked outside the burger place, jumped out of the driver’s seat, and ran to my side. He opened the car door for me, held his hand out for me, and helped me up. He was always the perfect gentleman, and I’d never met a boy as charming as Austin Linde.
We walked inside, hand in hand; he guided me to a corner table with a strange-looking box sitting on it. He told me it was a jukebox. I had never heard of it before. So he asked me what song I’d want to hear. Naturally, I chose a Katie Price song! He dropped the coin into the slot, pressed some numbers, and I waited. And waited. He watched my face as I sat in expectation.
“Where is my song?” I asked.
“It’s in queue,” he said. “It will play eventually, depending on how many songs are ahead of it.”
I must have worn a puzzled look, even after his perfect explanation. “How many jukeboxes are in here?”
“Look around, Destiny.” He pointed to each table that had the same peculiar box; it was every single one. “They’re all over.”
I blushed a deep red. “I guess I’ve never seen a jukebox before now.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I think you’re beautiful.” Thankfully, he changed the subject.
Feeling bashful, I looked away. “Thank you, Austin.”
After the date was over, he brought me back home. He walked me to the front door, where I saw Mama waiting for me. I was much earlier than my ten o’clock curfew. “Can I take you out again? It was fun getting to know you.”
I nodded my head. “I’d like that. Thank you, for supper, and for the song.”
He stared into my eyes and brushed a lock of hair from my face. “I’ll see you in school tomorrow?” I only nodded. He kissed my forehead and stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers. “Goodnight, Destiny.”
I couldn’t think straight. My head felt light, and butterflies swarmed in my stomach. I might have fallen over if not for his arm around me, steadying me. “Goodnight Austin,” I squeaked out. I reached for the doorknob and turned it—the door swung open with my gentle push. I turned around as I walked inside and blew him a kiss.
“How was your date, sweet pea?” Mama asked me.
My answer came in a three-word sentence. “Best night ever.”
Everyday through Snowflake Day that year, Austin and I spent time together. We grew close, much to Polly’s chagrin. But I convinced myself that she understood, that she just needed to find a boyfriend so we could double date.
On Snowflake Day eve, Austin and I exchanged gifts. I couldn’t give him material things that he would need or want. What I gave him was much better. I sat down and wrote a love song for him, complete with musical accompaniment. Then on Snowflake Day eve, I played and sang it for him. Now, Austin isn’t the sentimental type, but the song made him a little misty-eyed. Then a broad smile crept across his face. It was time for him to reveal what he’d gotten for me.
He seemed antsy as I reached for the box and tore the paper from it. The box was small, and I couldn’t guess what was inside. It held a smaller item, a clamshell-type box. The suspense must have been killing him, because he looked at me, exasperated.
“Are you going to open it, or make me suffer?” he teased.
I giggled at him. “I should go slower, just to make you wait.”
“Oh, give it to me!” He grabbed the clamshell from my hands. “Close your eyes.”
“Just do it, Des. Please?”
I huffed. “Okay.”
I heard a faint creak, and him shifting positions. “Open your eyes.” My eyes popped open, and so did my mouth. He was on his knees, sitting back on his feet. The opened box in his hand, a smile on his face, he presented this precious gift to me.
“It’s our birthstones, Des. Green for mine, and blue for yours. I know we can’t get married, or even engaged because we’re too young, and our careers might take us down different paths. But this ring signifies a promise to you, Destiny. Someday, I want us to be together forever. I love you.” It was the first time he’d ever uttered those three words to me.
I wiped tears from my eyes. “I love you, too! Thank you, so very much!”
A silver ring with two stones cut into the shape of hearts sat inside. It was the most beautiful ring I’d ever seen. He reached to kiss me. My heart fluttered, and so did the rainbow of butterflies that lived in my stomach. Then he took the ring from its box and slipped it onto my left ring finger. The dim lighting in the room reflected in the facets of the stones, making them sparkle.
“I never thought I’d find someone like you. Someday, I’ll replace it with a big diamond ring, and a much bigger promise. But this ring shows everyone that you’re taken.” He kissed me again, much longer and with more passion. I melted into his embrace, so in love with the boy from Sunlit Tides.
The next morning was Snowflake Day. I wore my new ring on my finger against my better judgment. Though Mama and Daddy liked Austin, I wasn’t sure how they would feel about the ring, and more importantly, the promise behind it.
I was the first one up, so I lit the tree, illuminating the evergreen with shimmering light. Next, I walked to the kitchen and turned on the coffee pot. Last, I started a fire, so it would be toasty when Mama and Daddy came downstairs. The radio played holiday music; I turned the volume up a little and sang along.
The fire had just begun to flicker when I heard Mama’s soft footsteps in the stairwell. She saw me sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace and greeted me.
“Good morning, Destiny. Happy Snowflake Day!”
I turned around to see her. She was wearing her favorite white robe and matching fluffy slippers, and in the lighting from the tree, I saw my first glimpses of gray hair in her thick, red, curly mane. “Good morning, Mama,” I said. “Happy Snowflake Day. How is Daddy today?”
“He’s still asleep, sweet pea. He had a rough night last night.”
Mama sighed and sat in Daddy’s recliner. “He had a bad nosebleed. It didn’t stop for hours.”
I hated when he wasn’t well. “Let him sleep, then. Gifts can wait.”
“But coffee can’t,” she said with a chuckle. “Thank you for starting it.”
“No problem,” I returned. “I haven’t been out to feed Sweetie yet this morning.”
“That’s okay, Desi. She should be alright until later.” Mama joined me by the fire with her first cup of coffee in her hands. “Would it bother you if we don’t make a big supper today, honey? I don’t think Daddy will eat much, and I don’t feel like fussing.”
“Of course not, Mama. Snowflake Day is more than supper and presents.” I sat at her feet, snuggled up to her legs. “You and Daddy are the most important people to me.”
I saw her eyeing my ring. “Austin and Polly, too.” She reached for my left hand and studied my ring. “Did Austin give this to you, sweet pea? It’s lovely.”
I nodded. “Yesterday. He said it was a promise ring.”
“Remember how we talked about relationships and keeping yourself for your future husband, Desi?”
Oh my goodness, is she really going to give me ‘the talk’ on Snowflake Day morning? I thought to myself. “Yes?”
“Now that you and Austin are in a committed relationship, it doesn’t give you license to pursue a physical relationship with him. You’re much too young for that, Destiny.”
I tried not to act flustered. “I know, Mama. That doesn’t interest me yet. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Good.” We sat in awkward silence until she got up. “I’m going to wake your daddy.”
“You don’t have to, Mama. Let him sleep.” I stood and walked toward the steps. “I’ll get dressed and feed Sweetie.” ‘No’ was not an acceptable answer, either.
As the school year went on, Polly drifted away, and I didn’t notice it. Austin and I were connected at the hip, so to speak, and I spent all my waking time with him. During my diner shifts, he’d come in and keep me company, and since he drove everywhere, I relied on him to carry me around town.
I knew Polly was on the prom committee. One day, she asked me for some help with ideas for our senior prom. Though I was joking, my jest was poorly received when I said, “I’ll play the prom for free!” Her snarky comment took me by surprise.
“I’m shocked you offered that, Destiny. Do you think Austin would let you away from him long enough to sing?”
Her comment stung, but I couldn’t see the pain in her expression. “Ouch, Polly. Where did that come from?”
“If you have to ask, Des, then I’m done.”
“You want to go there?” I asked.
“You already did.” She pushed her glasses up onto the bridge of her nose. “I hope Austin makes you happy, but I pray someday you can see who he really is.”
“What does THAT mean?”
“He’s a snake, Destiny. He doesn’t love you.”
“You’re just jealous!” I snarled at her.
“Yeah, I used to be until I saw the truth. Gosh, Des, I hope you see it before he ruins you.” She wiped a tear from her eyes. “As long as you’re with him, I can’t…”
“You can’t what?” I spat.
“I can’t be friends with you anymore.” She turned from me and walked away. “I hope he’s worth it.”
“Polly?” I called out, stunned to the core. She never turned around or looked back.
“Austin, can I ask you a question?” I took the damp rag from the sink and wiped down the counter where he sat.
“You know you can. What’s on your mind, Des?”
“Why did you give me this ring?” I wiggled my finger. “What does it mean to you?”
He looked shocked. “It’s a symbol of my love for you. I thought you knew that when I gave it to you?”
I nodded. “That’s what I thought. But Polly…” I took a deep breath. “She called you a snake, and she told me you don’t love me.” Tears filled my eyes. “What did she mean, Austin?”
“Why would she say that?” He took my hands and squeezed them in his firm grasp. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
“You don’t know what she meant?”
“No, of course not! She’s probably just jealous of me, Des.”
I shrugged. “She says she used to be.”
“Have I ever done anything to make you question my love?”
“No, Austin, you haven’t.”
“Well,” he said. “Consider the source.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I walked to him and stole a kiss. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re forgiven. Why were you talking to Polly, anyway?”
“She asked my opinion on entertainment for the prom. I joked and said I would sing for free. I didn’t get the reaction I expected. She hurt my feelings.”
“You don’t need her, Des. All you need is us. And that reminds me…” Austin stood and dropped to one knee. My heart raced; all I could think was ‘No!!’ “Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to our senior prom?”
I breathed a sigh of relief, hopefully unnoticed. “Of course I will, though I just assumed we’d go together.”
“Nope! I couldn’t wait to ask you.” He laughed. “You should have seen your expression when I got on one knee!”
I stood with my hands on my hips, feigning insult. “That wasn’t funny!” He laughed harder, and I gave him a sheepish smile. “Okay, I guess it was a little funny.”
“I know this isn’t the time for proposals, Des. But I’m not going anywhere.” His sweet smile always had a way of making me feel at ease. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I worked long hours at the diner, and at the festival when they needed me, to afford the gown I wanted for our senior prom. It was a gorgeous, red, floor-length gown with a crushed velvet ribbon tied in the back; strapless and sleeveless. It was the most beautiful thing I ever owned. Mama drove me to the boutique downtown when I went to pick it up.
I held the door open for her, and she walked inside. “We won’t be long, will we, Desi? Your daddy hasn’t been feeling well since Snowflake Day, but he is too stubborn to see Dr. Bennett.”
“I have to pay for the dress and we can leave. I can’t wait to show you, Mama.”
We walked to the counter, and I told the clerk my name. She nodded and left. When she returned, she had the gown in her hands. Mama must have seen how my face lit up when I saw it. “That dress is beautiful, honey,” she said. “How much was it?”
I didn’t want to admit it was a month’s wages at the diner. But it was my senior prom, and Austin already had the prom bid. “Probably more than I should have spent on it.” My voice sounded weak and unsure. I thought for certain she’d give me a hard time about it. Instead, she reached to touch the fabric.
“I have never seen its equal, Destiny. I bet you will look like a movie star in it.”
My complexion matched the color of the dress. I was sure of it. “Thank you, Mama.” I paid the balance owed and carried the dress and shoes to the car.
“So?” she asked as we got into the car. “When is the prom?”
“A week before graduation, after the exams are finished. They said the timing was unconventional. But, the class president wanted prom to be our congratulatory ‘party’. The principal was outvoted by a wide margin.”
“What will Austin do after he graduates, sweetheart? I haven’t heard you mention it?”
“He’s accepted to Sim State…” I paused. Though he had his acceptance letter, he hadn’t responded to it. “Come to think of it, I’m not sure what he’s doing.”
“Hasn’t the deadline already passed?”
Mama said nothing more.
I stood in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom wearing my new gown and shoes. “Mama!” I called. “I need your opinion.”
She walked in from the sitting room off their bedroom. When she saw me, she stopped in her tracks. “Oh, Desi, sweetheart.” I heard sniffles from over my right shoulder. “You look so statuesque in that gown.”
“That’s what I needed to know,” I laughed. “So you like it?”
Mama nodded. “It’s so elegant. You did a good job picking it out. Austin will love it.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Mama, can I ask you a question?”
She sat down on my bed and patted the spot next to her. “What’s on your mind, sweet pea?”
“When you and Daddy got together, was there any doubt about him?”
Mama shook her head. “No, not at all. Why, Desi? What’s wrong?”
“It was something Polly said a few weeks ago.”
“Polly? I haven’t heard you talk about her in a long time. How is she?”
“I don’t know. She ended our friendship. I think she’s jealous of Austin, and trying to break us up. But she’s gotten inside my head, and I can’t shake this feeling that she might be right.”
Mama took my hand in hers. “What did Polly say, sweetheart?”
“She said that Austin is a snake, and that he doesn’t love me.”
I’ll never forget the look of surprise on Mama’s face. “That doesn’t seem like him.”
“I know. And she said she hopes I see what he is before he ruins me.”
“Did you ask him about this?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but he didn’t know what she was talking about.”
“I see.” She put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a quick hug. “What does your gut say, Desi?”
“It says I should trust Austin, and not Polly.”
“You have a good head on your shoulders, sweet pea. Trust your instincts.”
If only she knew how terrible that advice was…
Austin was supposed to pick me up for the prom at six o’clock sharp. Though supper would be served at 8:00 PM, we’d vote for prom queen and king and have photographs taken beforehand. He hadn’t seen my gown before that night. I wanted to surprise him, but I gave him a swatch of fabric so the tux shop could match the color.
Mama took me to the salon to have my hair trimmed and put up, and my makeup done. When we got home, Daddy was sitting and resting in his recliner. He acted like I was a movie star.
“You look beautiful, Princess,” he said.
I walked to where he sat and kissed his forehead. He didn’t look good. “Thank you, Daddy. Are you okay?”
He coughed and heaved a heavy sigh. “Of course I am. I’m just tired.”
Mama took my arm and pulled me into the sitting room. “He sees Dr. Bennett next week after your graduation. He didn’t want me to tell you, but I vowed to you and myself I wouldn’t keep things from you anymore.”
I felt a glob of bile rise into my throat. “Thank you,” I whispered. I wish she would have waited until after my prom to tell me. I thought of little else that night.
Two hours later, I walked down the staircase, ready for Austin’s limo to pick me up. Mama insisted she take photographs inside before we leave, and I know Daddy wanted that, too.
Five minutes before six o’clock, a sharp knock sounded at the door. Austin stood there in a black tuxedo with a red vest under it, one that matched my gown. In his hand, he held a beautiful corsage with a red rose and greenery that slipped onto my wrist. Mama answered the door and invited him in.
“Hi Austin!” she said and gave him a quick hug. “You look sharp!”
I stepped out from inside the sitting room, and I thought he would drop the corsage he held. “Wow. Destiny, you are gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Mama posed us in front of the fireplace, the usual spot for family pictures. I can’t recall one photo that was taken anywhere else but there. We did a formal portrait pose, and one candid shot. Daddy got teary-eyed when Austin took my hand and led me from the house. He didn’t think I noticed, but I watched every move he made. I wanted to remember him, and that night, forever.
The limo dropped us off at the school gymnasium; together, we walked inside. Much to my surprise, Polly was there by herself. I guessed she was there to make sure everything went as planned. She gave Austin a dirty look, then turned to hide her face. It didn’t occur to me that seeing me there with him was difficult for her, and that she missed my friendship. I was too focused on Daddy to notice much of anything.
We had our official prom picture taken, facing each other and looking cute. Afterward, we voted for prom queen and king, each voting for the other and not figuring either of us had a shot. The music and dancing started early, but Austin didn’t want to dance.
After supper, they announced the prom queen and king. Austin won prom king hands down. But the queen was Polly. She tried to get away from the crowd, tears running down her cheeks, but they formed a circle around her and forced her into my boyfriend’s arms to dance. When their dance ended, she glanced at me with the most pained, hurt look on her face; I excused myself to the restroom.
I don’t know how long I was in the ladies’ room when Polly came looking for me. “Des! There you are. I have something to tell you.”
“Your boyfriend has another girl.” She spat it out so fast. “During our dance, Des. He told me he’s not interested in you anymore, and he’s going to break up with you after graduation.”
“Huh?” My head swam, and I didn’t want to believe her. Would Polly really lie to break us up? “No,” I said. “You’re not telling me the truth. He’d never do that to me!”
“You don’t sound like you believe your own words, Des. I’d never lie to you.”
This wasn’t helping the doubts I had about him since our last exchange together. “How do I know you don’t want him for yourself, Pol?”
“Because I hate him!” she screamed at me. “Don’t you see what he’s done to us? Des, you haven’t been able to think straight since he came into your life. Wake up!” Tears free-flowed down her face, ruining her perfect makeup. “I can’t stand him, but I’d never lie to you just to break you up. Go look for yourself if you don’t believe me.”
I tried to stand up on jelly legs and wobbled myself to the door. I cracked it open to find Polly had been telling the truth all along. Austin was wrapped around someone else’s date, lip-locked with her, and it looked like he was having a grand time without me. I collapsed on the floor, sobbing. “No…”
Polly looked into my eyes. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, Des.”
Ten minutes later, Austin’s voice came through the ladies’ room door. “Des? You’ve been in there a while. Are you okay?”
Polly, to her credit, stayed with me. “She’s not coming out,” she yelled to him.
“Why not? I’m her ride home, and prom is nearly over.”
“Why don’t you tell her, Austin, what you were doing, and what you told me?”
“Des, please come out? I want to talk to you. I haven’t seen you since they announced the prom king.” He kicked the door. “Please?”
I stood up and straightened out my red gown, now wrinkled and dirty from sitting on the floor. I checked my makeup—ruined—and walked back to the door. With a deep breath, I opened it. He stood there with his arms open. I walked past him and back to our table, Polly by my side.
He followed me to where we sat and plopped himself next to me. “Can I talk to her alone, Polly? I won’t bite her, I promise.” That got a weak smile from me, but I was still heartbroken. When she walked away, he wiped tears from my face with his handkerchief and kissed me. “What happened?”
“You tell me.”
“What does that mean?”
I took a deep breath, held it a moment, and forced the air from my lungs in one long huff. “I saw you kissing that girl, Austin.”
“There’s an explanation for that.”
“Don’t tell me. She was choking.” Sarcasm dripped from my words.
“Hilarious. No, Des. She kissed me. I couldn’t get away from her.”
“You’re telling me I peeked out the restroom door at exactly the right time? I don’t believe you.”
“Remember what I told you when I gave you the ring, Des?”
“I love you.”
“Do you still?”
His expression softened. “Yes. Destiny, you’re my life. And someday, I want to marry you.”
“I want to believe you.”
“Why don’t you?”
My gaze shifted to where Polly sat. I didn’t know who to believe anymore. “Polly told me you have another girl, Austin. Do you?”
“Des, I know you and Polly are best friends—”
“Okay, you were best friends. I really don’t like Polly, Des. She’s spent the last three months trying to drive a wedge between us. I see it’s working.” He touched my face and kissed me. “Destiny, I love you. Please don’t give up on me.”
I was so confused. Someone was lying to me, and I couldn’t decide who it was. But I recalled my conversation with Mama, and I went with my gut—the same awful, terrible decision I’d made earlier. “I won’t. I love you, too.”
Graduation day. The end of one chapter, and the beginning of a new one. I gather that’s the reason they call it ‘commencement.’ I knew ahead of time that I would be valedictorian, and I had my speech already prepared. It should have been a happy day. So much weighed on me. So much was unknown. It drove me almost crazy.
Mama and Daddy were waiting downstairs for me. Though it wasn’t confirmed, Mama and I both suspected Daddy’s cancer was back. He couldn’t stand longer than five minutes, and walking for him was impossible. Their bedroom was now on the ground floor in the sitting room. But I knew he wanted to see me graduate, to hear my valedictory address. He wanted to see his little girl take her first steps into adulthood.
I stood in front of the fireplace alone while Mama snapped a picture of me in my cap and gown. She was having a hard time keeping it together, and I had a tough time pasting a smile on my face. It was anything but sincere.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetheart,” Mama whispered into my ear when she hugged me. Even she felt thin; I wondered if she was caring for herself as much as she cared for Daddy.
“Thank you, Mama. We should probably get going.”
Uncle Paul installed a temporary ramp over one portion of the front steps for Daddy’s wheelchair. But Mama needed help with it because of its steep grade. I steered the chair down backwards while she steadied the chair from the front. Step by step, we descended this ramp, my sheer force and determination holding his chair back from running away.
Ten minutes later, we were on the way to the graduation ceremony. Our graduating class had twenty-two seniors. Did I mention Appaloosa Plains was a pretty small town? I was informed that ours was one of the largest graduating classes in almost fifteen years.
Once Daddy was out of the car and Mama had him at the entrance, I needed to join my classmates. We agreed to meet out front after the ceremony, and they walked in ahead of me. Polly stood alone, looking just as sad and dejected as I felt.
“Hi Polly,” I said, approaching her. “Are you ready?”
She didn’t say a word to me and turned her back. I guess taking Austin’s side at prom sealed our fate as friends. I sighed and walked past her.
Austin found me and greeted me with a single rose and a kiss. “Hi, beautiful,” he said.
I blushed. He looked so handsome in his cap and gown. He took my hand, and we walked to the staging area. The principal told us where to stand and sit. I scanned the room for the chair with “Valedictorian” on it, and nodded. That was my seat.
Austin must have noticed I was out of sorts, so he put his arms around me and held me. “Are you okay, my love?”
I nodded, but I had a lump in my throat. “I’m okay. Daddy…” I was trying so hard not to cry. “He isn’t well today. Austin, I’m scared.”
He held me tighter, doing his best to comfort me. “Shh,” he said. “Look at it this way. He’s here, right? That’s a good thing!”
He could make things perfect with a sweet word or a kiss. “You’re right.” I opened the curtain and spotted Mama’s white hair in the audience. “See? There they are.” My smile returned as I pointed to them.
His hand on my shoulder pulled me back to him. “I know how close you are to him. And I’m sorry he isn’t well.” Austin kissed my forehead and hugged me again. “I’m right here when you need me.”
“Thank you,” I said and took his hand.
My valedictory address was brief and to the point. I acknowledged Daddy and Mama because of all they sacrificed for me and my future. And of course, I didn’t make it through my speech without emotion. One by one, the principal called us to receive our diplomas, and when the last graduate walked, we all threw our caps into the air.
Austin and I had plans to meet for supper that night after the ceremony. He said he had some big news. I couldn’t decide if I was nervous or excited about our date. After the spectacular mess at prom, I didn’t know which end was up. I was hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
He found me before I walked outside, and we cemented our plans for supper that night. The restaurant was fancy, so I decided I’d wear my prom gown. We kissed, and he left; I went in search of Mama and Daddy.
Daddy was on his feet, waiting for a hug. I hurried to his side so he wouldn’t have to stand for long, and I wrapped his skinny body in a hug.
“I’m so proud of you, Desi,” he whispered in a raspy voice. “It was a brilliant speech.” I helped him back to his chair.
“Thank you, Daddy. I’m surprised I didn’t cry more!” Mama and I both giggled. She walked to his chair to push him, but I shook my head. “No, Mama. I’ll push him.”
Once we got home, I made getting up the ramp a game for him. Usually, it took both Mama and me to clear the ramp in one shot. But this time, I got a running start with him. His eyes widened like we were on a roller coaster, and we made it up the ramp together, laughing like fools.
“You’re a pretty strong little girl!” he said. “I had no idea.”
“That’s what I get for working as a stagehand, Daddy. It’s hard to keep weight on because I’m so active.” I know he didn’t realize it, but I had a nice six-pack forming.
“I wish I had that problem, sweetheart,” he said, looking sad. “Weight’s falling off me, but for a different reason.”
“I know, Daddy.” I hugged him and kissed his cheek. “You’ve sacrificed and suffered so much. You deserve better than this.”
He took my hands and stared into my eyes. “Even with this outcome, I wouldn’t change anything. Your mama and you have made my life complete, Destiny.”
It was one of the most humbling moments of my life.
Austin knocked on the front door at five-thirty. We had a six o’clock reservation at the restaurant. Mama let him in while I finished getting ready upstairs. My hair was down, and I had on a lip tint with blush. I walked down the steps, and his face lit up. My uneasiness was abating. We were going to enjoy a beautiful evening. I could feel it in my soul.
He took my hands when I reached the bottom step and kissed my cheek. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. “I’ll have her home by ten, Mrs. Farmer,” he told Mama, and she nodded.
“Have a good time, kids.” She stood at the front door waving while we walked, hand in hand, to his car.
Ever the perfect gentleman, he opened his car door for me and helped me in. After he got into the driver’s seat, he turned to me, took my hands and kissed me. “Destiny, you’re gorgeous in that dress. I’m sorry the last time you wore it was so miserable. I want to make it up to you tonight.”
“That would be lovely,” I whispered, and bit my lip.
We drove to the fancy restaurant just a few miles outside of Appaloosa Plains, one I’d only been to once before. He parked his car and helped me out. My arm tucked under his, we walked into the restaurant and to the hostess station.
“Linde, six o’clock,” he announced. The hostess nodded and motioned us to follow. She led us to a table set with a dozen long-stemmed roses. He held my chair while I sat, and he took his place next to me.
Austin ordered for both of us. I felt so spoiled. The roses, the restaurant, the atmosphere were more than I expected. How could I have ever doubted him? The night was perfect.
“You know, Des, I have some big news.”
I nodded. A spark of excitement stirred within me. I couldn’t imagine what he had in mind, or what he was planning. “I can’t wait to hear it.”
He moved his chair closer to mine and turned to face me. With my hands in his, he looked into my eyes. Whatever he had to say, it had to be big. “Des…”
I closed my eyes, preparing myself for his big announcement. Maybe it was that diamond ring he promised me. That had to be it! I knew I would say yes, too. “Yes?”
“I… I, um…” he stuttered. “I joined the Army.”
What? I felt the blood drain from my face. “You… did what now?”
“My dad talked me into enlisting. It’s why I never returned my paperwork for Sim State. I was waiting for the perfect time to tell you.
I wasn’t sure I could endure what Mama had with Daddy’s deployments. I was not cut out for military life. “What about us?”
He took my hands and smiled. “Other couples make long-distance relationships work. There’s no reason we can’t, too.”
“You’ll be away for months, maybe years at a time, Austin. Will you wait for me?”
He peered into my eyes with the sincerest look. “As long as it takes. You know, you can come live with me on the base after I graduate basic.”
“What about my career? You know how long I’ve been dreaming of singing. I can’t give up my ambitions.”
“Not even for me, Des?”
My heart sank. “You don’t know what you’re asking of me.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing from you right now, Destiny. I thought you loved me.”
Why must it always be guilt? “Of course I love you, Austin. But you’re being selfish.”
“I’m being selfish? You’re going to cause our breakup, and I’m selfish. Oh, that’s rich, Des.” He pulled away from me and crossed his arms in front of him.
“Break up? No, I don’t want that!” I hated myself for what would come out of my mouth next. “I won’t go to Sim State, and I’ll go with you, if that’s what you want.” It wasn’t what I wanted, but I loved that boy. Nothing seemed too outrageous when he asked it.
“Then it’s settled. I’ll send for you when I graduate. Meantime, just work for your mom and dad on the farm.” He gave me a half-smile. “That is your last name, after all.”
I was not amused. “Like I’ve never heard that, Austin.” Did he hear the sarcasm in my words?
He chuckled and took my hands in his again. “I just love you so much, Des. I’m not ready to let you go.”
Ah yes, Mr. Charming was back. “I love you, too.”
Mama was waiting for me when I arrived back home. But she sensed something wasn’t right. She was always so astute.
“How was your date with Austin, sweet pea?”
I couldn’t lie to her, because she would have seen right through me. I just had to pad the blow the best I could. “It was okay, I guess. Austin had some big news for me.”
She gazed at my left hand, probably searching for a new ring. “What was his news?”
I sat in Daddy’s recliner and slipped my shoes off my feet. “He joined the Army. He wants me to come live with him on base after he graduates basic training.”
I watched Mama’s smile fade away as a frown took its place. “That means…”
“Yeah,” I said. “It means I don’t go to Sim State, and I don’t move to the city.”
“Did you tell him yes already, Desi?”
I nodded. “I did, Mama.”
“Is that what you want, honey? To spend your life loving a man who is never home, one who doesn’t mind taking you away from your heart’s desire? Someone who is content to make you sacrifice your dreams? Think about this long and hard, Destiny.”
My shoulders slumped, and I sighed. “I don’t know what I want anymore.”
Mama sat back in her chair. “I’m going to say a sentence about you, Desi, and I’m going to stop. When I do, say the first thing that comes to your mind. OK?”
“Yeah, but why, Mama?”
“You’ll see.” She closed her eyes. “Close your eyes, and say the first thing that pops into your head. I’m Destiny Farmer. I am a…”
“Singer.” It came out so naturally, I didn’t even think about it.
“Do you want to abandon your dreams for a boy?”
“No. I don’t want to give it up for anyone or anything. I want it so much.”
Mama smiled. “I think you have your answer, Destiny.” She stood and kissed my forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight.” She walked into the sitting room where Daddy was already asleep. I took my shoes and padded up the stairs to my bedroom. How was I going to tell Austin I had changed my mind? I didn’t sleep that night.
The week after my graduation, Daddy got the news that his lymphoma had returned, and it had worsened. The doctor believed that she could force it back into remission with a rigorous chemotherapy regimen, which he started with right away. At first, the treatments were rough on him. Many nights, I heard him getting sick in the bathroom.
The summer concert series kicked off two weeks after graduation with Katie’s concert. She didn’t ask me to open her show that year. I guess the fiasco the year before decided it for her. I was a liability, and I accepted it.
Austin left for basic training the morning after Katie’s concert. We went on one last date before he left, so I could tell him I’d changed my mind about the plans we’d made. He wasn’t happy, but he acted like he understood. Austin walked me to the front door when he brought me home. He kissed me and begged me to wait for him. We promised to keep in touch, to call when we each had the time. And he walked away, our last confessions of love hanging over us. I wept when he left, but I felt more at peace with my decision.
Chad kept me busy at the festival for the summer. But when August rolled around, I had to leave for school. He called me into his office on my last day of work. When I opened the office door, he asked me to sit, which I did.
“Destiny, I make it my policy to not get attached to my employees. But when they’re as hardworking as you are, well, it’s difficult. I hired you based on your application, in which you had many impressive claims. To your credit, each one of them was truthful.”
“Thank you, Chad, for believing in me. I’ve had so much fun working for you these past years. I’ve learned a lot about the backstage process, and I think it will be useful for me in the future.”
Chad sat back and smiled. “You’ve worked hard in the face of difficulty and adversity. Your parents must be so proud of you.”
I blushed. “They are.”
“I’m going to miss having you around, Destiny. To show my deep appreciation, I’m including a bonus for almost two years of hard work and dedication. You’ve earned it.”
He handed the last paycheck to me, larger than I expected. My mouth dropped open. “Are you certain this isn’t a mistake? You have a few too many numbers on this…” I felt myself getting emotional.
“There’s no error. Thank you for everything. Go off to school and have fun. Take advantage of every opportunity. And maybe someday, the next time I see you, it will be your name in flashy lights instead of Katie’s.” He stood and motioned for me to stand up; he wrapped me up in a hug. “I’m proud of you. Now, go get ‘em.”
I was overwhelmed, not only by his generosity, but by his kindness as well. “Thank you, Chad. I will definitely come home to sing someday. You have my word.”
“I look forward to it. Give my best to your dad and mom, okay?”
“Will do!” He walked me to his office door, one last pat on my shoulder, and I left the fairgrounds, unemployed for the first time since I was fifteen years old.
Mama and Daddy took me for supper the night before I left for school. His treatments were working, and he felt better. He said nothing would have kept him home. I believed him.
At the restaurant, Mama presented me with a gift I wasn’t expecting. It was small but heavy, the size of a block of wood. When I unwrapped it, I saw the book she read every night before she slept, with its worn, faded leather cover, a cross bonded in gold on the front. I wept when I saw it. She was never without her prayer book.
“Mama, I can’t take your prayer book from you.”
“Desi, that is my prayer book,” Daddy said. “I took it on every deployment, and it always came home with me. I want you to have it, sweetheart.”
That didn’t help my emotions one bit. I opened the cover to see he had written a message inside:
Destiny, take this with you. Read it often and let its wisdom guide you. Never forget where you’re from, and to whom you belong. Remember whose daughter you are. I love you more than words can tell you. Love, Daddy.
I closed the book, tears flowing down my face, and I walked to him. He stood up and embraced me, weeping onto my shoulder. “I love you, Daddy,” I whispered to him. “Thank you.”
“I love you to the moon and back, Destiny. Never forget it.”
The next morning, I woke up earlier than I needed to, and looked outside my bedroom window for the last time. Sweetie was grazing in the pasture. She’d gotten older and was slowing down at almost twenty years old. Mama didn’t figure she had much more time with them.
I got dressed to spend some time with Sweetie. On my way outside, I stopped at the sugar bowl Mama kept on the dining room table and grabbed three cubes for her. I whistled for her, and she trotted to where I called her. “Good girl,” I said and patted her neck. My hand produced one cube of sugar, which she took from my palm. She pranced around me and whinnied, as though she had just won an important race. Belly laughing, I gave her the other two cubes of sugar. She nudged me pretty hard, looking for another, but I just wrapped my arms around her neck and hugged her.
My flight to the university was at 2:14 PM. I had some time to kill. I strolled down the street to the old Bradford ranch. Polly was outside tending to her horse, so I called to her. She tried to ignore me, but I kept talking to her. Finally, she broke down and walked to the fence.
“What, Des?” She looked more than a little annoyed.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave for college without at least letting you know.”
She pushed her glasses onto the bridge of her nose. “You really hurt me.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. Polly, losing you was the hardest thing I’ve ever faced.”
“Why did you let him blind you? You must know he’s moving to Sunlit Tides to be with his old girlfriend and their baby.”
I looked at her, stunned. “He told me he enlisted in the Army.”
“Why am I not surprised he lied to you again?”
I was tired of being lied to. But who was lying to me? Polly or Austin? “Do you have anything to back up your claims, Pol?”
“Why don’t you trust me? Des, we’ve been friends for years, but you take his word over mine? Have I ever lied to you?”
“No.” I wrapped hair around my finger and twirled it. “He’s so smooth, and he makes me feel so amazing…”
“But at what cost, Des?”
I had to change the subject. “Where are you going to college?”
“I’m not. I’m staying here to work on the farm. Someday, I’ll take it over.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t imagine a worse fate.
“Why? It’s what I want.”
This wasn’t the Polly I knew. She was a go-getter with higher ambitions than to settle for ranching. “What happened to your dreams about being in IT?”
“I can still do computer stuff. But Mom and Dad need me on the ranch.”
I sighed. “Do you mind if I call you while I’m in school?”
“I’d rather you didn’t, Des. Sometimes, it’s just too late to say you’re sorry. And I can’t forgive you for staying with Austin when you knew what a snake he is.”
Tears stung my eyes. “You don’t really feel that way. Please, Polly… say you don’t.”
“I’m sorry. I meant it when I said I couldn’t be friends with you if you’re involved with him. He’s a liar and a cheat. It’s too bad you don’t see it. He will cost you everything if you stay with him.”
“Well,” I said, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. “I guess this is it, then?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I need to get back inside. Have a good life, Destiny. You won’t if you stay with Austin. It will just be filled with heartache and pain. I’m just saying…”
“You too,” I choked out, ignoring her last comment. “See you around.”
“No, Des, you won’t.” She turned around and walked inside. I never saw Polly again.
Austin’s house was just down the street from ours, so I walked toward the house where I’d spent so much of my time over the past year. His father, Pete, was outside washing the car. When he noticed me, he waved me over.
“Hi sweetheart,” he said. “Austin will be back soon. He ran an errand for me before he leaves.”
I played dumb. Austin was supposed to be at basic training. At least, that’s what he told me. “Well, I’ll wait for him. I’m leaving for school in a little while. I’d like to see him before I go.”
“How odd!” Pete said. “He’s going back to Sunlit Tides today. But I’m surprised you’re here. He told me you two broke up.”
“I still want to see him before I leave.” I was getting ticked off. Polly was right. “When will he be back?”
“He shouldn’t be long. He went to buy a gift for the baby.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “Whose baby?”
Pete looked at me with an odd expression on his face. “Didn’t he tell you, Destiny? He has a baby son back home. It’s why he’s moving. He wants to be closer.”
I played dumber. “Of course, he told me. I just forgot.” Inside, my blood boiled with certain rage. He lied to me!
Ten minutes later, Austin’s car pulled into the driveway. I watched from a place out of his view. He got out of the car and Pete greeted him. I sauntered out from behind the garage.
“Hi Austin,” I said.
“Des! What are you doing here?” The look on his face was priceless.
“Funny, I was about to ask you the same question.”
The position I had him in was most enjoyable. He couldn’t lie to me with his father there, nor could he lie to his dad. Watching Austin squirm was the best revenge I could have had… except for my heart, which was shattering into tiny shards. He lied to me. That bastard…
“Why don’t we take a walk?” he said, but I shook my head.
“No, let’s talk right here in front of your dad. Why don’t you tell me why you’re home from the Army, Austin?”
Pete looked at his son. “Is that what you told her? That you joined the Army?”
“Well, yeah, but I didn’t want to hurt her by telling her about Jules.”
Pete saw the tears welling in my eyes and took pity on me. “How did that work out for you, son?”
He had both of us staring at him, wanting answers. I saw his shoulders slump, and he took a deep breath. “Okay, Des. This is the truth. I found out four months into the school year that my ex-girlfriend was pregnant. She was almost eight months along when she told me, but I’d already fallen in love with you.”
I almost fell for his line of BS. But no more lies, and no more believing them. I was finished. “You never loved me, Austin. If you had, you’d have never lied to me like this.” I was spitting mad.
“No, that’s where you’re wrong, Des. I really loved you. A part of me still does. But I have to return to Jules. I have to take responsibility for my mistakes. That’s why I’m marrying her.”
His confession took my breath away. That was MY ring! He was MY love! He was MY future, and she stole him from me. “Were you going to tell me the truth?” I read his face, and the awful realization hit me. “You weren’t, were you?”
He hung his head in shame. “I hoped that when you went to college, you’d find someone who would sweep you off your feet, and you’d forget about me and the promise I made to you.” He walked to where I stood and tried to hold my hands, but I recoiled away from him. “I meant to keep it when I made it. But that baby needs his dad, Des.”
“Polly was right all along.” I wept bitter tears, our last goodbye still fresh in my mind. “I should have believed her.”
“Well, go make amends,” Austin said. “I’m leaving today. I know you are too. It’s not too late.”
I shook my head. “No… you’ve done a fine job of destroying our friendship, Austin. Now I don’t have her OR you. I’m such a fool.”
“Are you asking me or telling me?” I growled. His apathy was unappreciated.
“I guess I’m telling you. Goodbye, Destiny. I hope I’ll see your name in lights some day.”
“I hope you rot in hell,” I spat back. I took the ring from my finger and threw it at him, turned on my heel, and walked away. The score was 0-2. Time to go home and lick my wounds.
Mama had breakfast cooked, and they were finishing up when I dragged back through the front door, tear stains on my face. My emotions were worn to shreds, and my body ached with fatigue, but I had a long day ahead of me. My feet felt like lead trudging through the house to the kitchen. Daddy watched every step I took while Mama stood there watching me, her hands on her hips. I poured a cup of coffee and sat down.
“Where were you? We’ve been worried sick, Desi!”
I sighed and breathed in the vapors of a stale cup of coffee; it smelled revolting. “Out. I only meant to give Sweetie a treat, but I went for a walk. I should have stayed home.” My shoulders heaved in sorrow as I fought the inevitable tears.
Mama plopped next to me in a chair and took my hands. She noticed my tear-stained face and puffy, swollen eyes. “You’re a mess. What happened?”
“I walked to Polly’s house, hoping to tell her goodbye before I left for school. She told me that as long as I was with Austin, she’s not interested in my friendship. She said she couldn’t forgive me for choosing him. I don’t blame her, either. I’ve been a terrible friend.”
“Oh sweet pea, I’m sorry,” she said. “You two were so close.”
“That’s not all. I walked a little further down the street, and Austin’s dad was outside washing his car.” I had to take a breather and sip my coffee. “Remember how Austin left for boot camp?” Mama nodded, and I saw Daddy smile. “Well, he didn’t. Everything Polly said about him was true, Mama. He has a girlfriend and a baby back in Sunlit Tides. He’s moving back to marry her…” The tears came fast. “Austin lied to me.”
A few years ago, Daddy would have gone to defend my honor. But he was in no condition to stand, much less fight. He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry, Princess. I know how much you loved him.”
“No more. I’m done with boys.” Wet, sloppy teardrops splattered on the tablecloth and soaked in. “I’m just going to mind my business and do my schoolwork.” I got up from the table and took my coffee cup. “My suitcase won’t pack itself.”
“Do you need help?” Mama asked.
“No. I’m just finishing packing my clothes and a few things into boxes that I’ll check on the plane. I almost finished it last night before I fell asleep.”
“Well, holler if you do, sweet pea.” I nodded, gave Daddy a kiss on the cheek, and made my way up the steps.
My clothes were scattered on my dresser, and I had a basket full of clean, folded clothes to pack away. I had two weeks’ worth of outfits; only a few were my favorites. By the time I finished packing, the suitcase was overstuffed. I couldn’t fit a sneeze in there if I wanted to.
“Mama!” I called down the stairs. “I need some help!”
I heard a conversation stop, and her footsteps on the stairs. When she got to my door, I was sitting on the suitcase, trying to zip it closed, to no avail. I must have looked like an idiot sitting there, because she belly laughed when she saw me.
“Do you have your entire bedroom in that suitcase, Destiny?”
“Probably,” I snickered. “Could you give me a zip?”
“Yeah,” Mama said. She grabbed the zipper pull with frail fingers and yanked with all her might. “This isn’t budging.”
“Wanna trade places?”
She snorted—that was a first—and I giggled. “I don’t think I could climb up there, sweet pea.”
“Well, just help me put some pressure on the corners. That’s where I need the help.” I shifted my weight and swung my leg over the short side of the case. Mama pushed down on it with all her strength, and I pulled the zipper around the tight corner.
“Other side?” she said.
I nodded. “The first one was easy!” We repeated it on the other side. Me shifting my weight, her pushing down on that bag with everything she had, and my nimble fingers zipping the corner of the most stubborn suitcase on Earth. “All done,” I announced. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Mama.” I slid off the suitcase and onto the floor. Mama grabbed me as if to save me from a nasty fall, and she clung to me.
“This can’t be happening, Desi. You’re still my baby.” I felt hot tears dampening my shirt. “How did you become so grown up? Yesterday, I was teaching you how to say ‘Daddy.’ Today, you’re a high school graduate, and tomorrow, a college student.”
I returned her hug and held her to me. “I don’t know, Mama.”
She pulled away from me and looked into my eyes. “Always remember how much we love you. Remember everything we taught you. And never forget where you’re from. No matter where life takes you, always remember these three things, Destiny. Promise me.”
I looked at her, tears in her eyes and mine watered, too. “I promise. But you know, I’ll be home for Snowflake Day, Mama. This isn’t goodbye.”
“I know. But your daddy and I aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. I just wanted to say my peace before you spread your wings and fly away from us, little bird.”
She had to go there. I was already struggling with the thought of leaving them. “I will call you every night after I get back to my dorm. After supper. Okay, Mama?” I felt her trembling in my arms.
“Every night,” she repeated, her tears soaking into my shirt.
Time was getting short, and I had to get my bags downstairs. Mama walked down ahead of me, and I lugged my suitcase, a carry on and my guitar case down on the first trip. I eyed Daddy watching me.
“You really are a strong little girl, Destiny,” he said. “But be careful on those stairs.”
I walked to where he sat and kissed his forehead. “I’m always careful.” One more trip and I was moved out of my room. Except, of course, for the furniture I couldn’t take with me.
We sat in the living room together in silence, watching the hands on the clock taking their sweet time. Half an hour before Aunt Jenny came to take me to the airport. Each time I checked my wristwatch, only two minutes had passed. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Are you sure you will be okay without me, Mama? It’s not too late…”
“We will be fine, sweetheart,” she said. And more silence.
The deep, steady ticktock of the grandfather clock in the dining room echoed through the house. I’d never realized how loud it was in total quiet. The house phone’s ring broke the silence and startled all three of us. Mama jumped up to answer it. Daddy and I heard one half of the conversation, but I figured it was Aunt Jenny. Mama wiped tears from her eyes, then placed the handset back.
“She’s on her way.”
I stood and carried what I could onto the porch and walked back inside. Daddy stood by his chair, comforting Mama. I couldn’t imagine what they were thinking, or the pain they were feeling. I know how I felt, and it was awful.
Daddy broke his embrace with her and walked to me. With tears in his eyes, he embraced me, held me so tight I almost couldn’t breathe. “You’re doing the right thing, Destiny. Get out of here and don’t look back.” He kissed my cheek and brushed a lock of hair from my face. “The world is yours for the taking. Grab it by the horns, baby girl, and give ‘em hell.”
“I will Daddy. I love you.” Although I’d be home for the holidays, it felt like ‘goodbye.’ It was driving me out of my mind. I hugged him as tight as I knew he could tolerate. I couldn’t let him go.
A few minutes later, Aunt Jenny let herself in the front door. “Hey kiddo,” she said. “It’s almost time.” She pulled her camera from her purse and gathered the three of us in front of—you guessed it—the fireplace. “Family photo time!”
Mama and Daddy made a Destiny sandwich, both of them holding onto me, all three of us giving our best plastered-on smiles for Aunt Jenny’s camera. She grinned when she looked at the photo, and then declared she needed ‘just one more!’ Of course, we all faked smiles and cheerful faces until it was time to leave. That’s when Mama fell apart.
“Remember what we talked about, Destiny,” she said. “I love you.”
Daddy joined in the chorus. “Give ‘em hell, baby girl.” One last smooch on my forehead from him. My emotions were hanging by a thread.
Aunt Jenny recognized the magnitude of the moment. “I’ll come by later,” she told Mama. “You’re looking good, Charlie,” she said to Daddy and hugged him.
She helped me carry my bags to the car. Mama and Daddy walked to the mailbox together; I worried how he would climb the front steps after I left. They put on a strong front. I know they were hurting inside.
I gave Mama one last hug. “Don’t worry. You raised me well, and I’m ready for this. I’ll call you tonight when I get in.”
Aunt Jenny got into the driver’s seat, and I opened the door. My heart broke watching Mama cry and Daddy holding her. I got in; I couldn’t endure it for another second, and I was afraid I’d chicken out. My window rolled down, I waved and shouted “I love you,” as we drove away from the little farmhouse on Pomona Promenade.
The airport was only a thirty-minute drive from the house. We shared some small talk during the trip, and when she pulled up at the terminal, she helped me to check my bags. All I had left was my backpack.
“Well, this is it,” she said. She wrapped me in a tight hug. “Have fun, Destiny. You’re going to do well there.”
Only one thing was on my mind; I had to ask her. “Aunt Jenny, please watch over Mama and Daddy for me? Let me know if anything changes. It’s the only way I can bear this.”
She pulled back and stared into my eyes. “I will take good care of them for you. Don’t forget, your daddy is my big brother, and I love him, too. It’s hard on all of us, sweetheart. But I’ll keep in touch.” She checked her watch. “You should go. You still need to walk to your gate.”
The enormous lump in my throat prevented any speaking. I just waved and nodded as I walked away. I think she understood.
As I walked away, I was no longer a child, but an adult. I cried all the way to my gate, feeling like I was making a huge mistake.
The journey to Sim State was uneventful. I had no idea the culture shock I was about to endure. The cab driver dropped me in front of my dorm, where a welcoming committee greeted me. I thanked the cabby and set my largest bag on the sidewalk. I walked to the table labeled, “A-F,” seeing as my last name was Farmer. The young man assigned there acknowledged me.
“What’s your name, love?” he asked. His accent was odd, or so I thought. Strangely enough, I had the weird accent.
“Farmer. Destiny Farmer.”
He searched through a pile of paperwork until he found mine. “Oh yes, Destiny.” He fiddled around inside a lockbox and came out with a key. “You’re in room 301, top floor. It’s a single. You’re a lucky girl to get a single as a freshman!” I reached for the key he held to me and attached it to the lanyard I wore around my neck. “Just sign here for your key and this welcome kit, and you’re all set.”
I scratched my name onto the sign-in sheet and picked up the folder of papers he handed to me. His name tag read, ‘Josh.’ “I have a cousin named Joshua,” I said. I expected a comment or at least awareness that I’d said something. What I got was an annoyed look and a gesture to move.
Great. Welcome to college.
I moved the boxes inside the dorm into a common area and piled them up. They had knick knacks, sheets, blankets, towels, and my new coffee maker, along with Angaloo. I couldn’t leave my buddy behind after all he’d been through with me. Maybe I’d seem like a baby with a stuffed kangaroo on my bed. I didn’t care; Daddy gave him to me.
With my suitcase in my hand, I started up three flights of steps. I hit the second landing and stopped for a breather. A guy stood there watching me struggle with the bag. He looked years older than I was, so I figured he was an upperclassman. I could have used help with the bag. I cleared my throat, hoping to catch his attention.
He chuckled when he saw me wrestling with the heavy case on the last flight of stairs. I wasn’t in Appaloosa Plains anymore. And even though I hated his guts, I missed Austin. He’d have rather died than watch me struggle like this. I’ll give him credit for that much.
Out of breath and sweating, I reached the door to my room. I inhaled and held it as I slipped the key into the lock. The portal swung open, and I stepped inside. There was a double bed, fireplace, desk, and a closet. The room was huge, and it was all mine. The fireplace had one prefab log sitting in it, I guessed, as a courtesy or a welcome gift.
Two more trips up the stairs—the same guy watching me—and I finished moving in. First things first, though. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed the house number. It rang once before Mama’s gentle voice was on the other end.
“Hi sweetheart,” she said. “How was your trip? Are you settled in yet?”
“Hi, Mama. The trip was okay. I just got my last box upstairs. My dorm room is enormous, but I have it all to myself.”
I heard a muffled conversation, and then she returned. “That’s great, sweet pea. I’m glad you got there safe and sound.”
“Me too, and thanks.” Should I tell her how afraid I was that I’d made a mistake coming here? Should I just suck it up and act like I’m fine? “I miss you already.” That would have to do.
“Oh Desi, we miss you so much.” I heard sniffles on the other end. “Well, sweet pea, I won’t keep you. I know you need to unpack.”
“OK, Mama. I’ll call you soon. I don’t know what’s going on tomorrow, but you’ll hear from me, anyway.”
Her breath caught in her throat. “That’s good. Want to talk to your daddy?”
If I do, I’ll be on the next flight home, I thought. “No, not right now. But I will when I call tomorrow.”
“OK, Desi. We love you.”
“I love you too, Mama. Give Daddy a hug and a smooch for me?”
“Mmhmm. Talk to you soon, sweetheart.”
I pressed the ‘End’ button on the phone and just stared at it. One warm, salty tear splattered on the screen, and I wiped it away on my jeans. Breathe Destiny, I thought. You can do this.
I spent the next hour unpacking my boxes and suitcase, arranging all of my treasures in the room, and setting up my guitar on its stand. I made the bed with fresh sheets and put the towels in the closet. It wasn’t much like home, but Angaloo’s sewed-on smile comforted me. It’s amazing how one little thing can make a room feel like home.
Suppertime had long passed when I realized I was hungry. I went on a fact-finding mission and explored the dorm outside my four walls. I kept my dorm key on the lanyard around my neck. This wouldn’t come off, even in the shower. If nothing else, I’d have the cleanest dorm key on campus. I locked my door behind me and ventured out into the common area.
The guy who watched me struggle earlier was downstairs, playing pool with a bunch of others. He saw me and smirked. I tried not to roll my eyes at him, gave him a half-smile, and walked toward the kitchen. The cook was off-duty; the fridge was full of wrapped sandwiches for everyone. I grabbed a tuna salad sandwich and a can of pop from the fridge.
A young girl sat down next to me and introduced herself. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Ashley.”
“Destiny,” I said between bites. She gave me a weird look. “Nice to meet you.”
“You talk funny.” Her blonde, almost yellow-ish hair mesmerized me. Certainly, it couldn’t have been natural. “Where you from?” she muttered.
“Appaloosa Plains. How about you?”
“I’ve heard of that place. Never met anyone from there. I’m from Isla Paradiso.” Her hair was short; the haircut looked like a toddler with safety scissors had done it. She was very tan, but I couldn’t decide if that was natural, either. She wore heavy eye makeup and smelled like gardenias.
“Well,” I said. “You have now.” I smiled at her, but she just got up and walked away. After I finished my sandwich, I cleaned my mess. I’d never make friends here if everyone was this friendly. That was okay with me, though. I was there to learn, not party.
I walked back to my dorm room and unlocked it. If nothing else, I had my guitar. I grabbed it by the neck, took a chair from the hallway, and sat. I remembered Katie’s advice about keeping my songs close, so I just played. In minutes, a group gathered around me, listening and talking. I learned my first lesson in college life. Music will bring people together, no matter where they’re from.
I played for about an hour, and when I’d finished, a young man approached me. He looked a little older than me, but I was only seventeen. Almost everyone was older than I was. He held out his hand and introduced himself.
“I’m Jeff,” he said. “You know your way around that guitar. How long have you been playing?”
“Destiny,” I said, returning his firm handshake. “I’ve been playing since I was in grade school.”
“No wonder. You’re fantastic.”
I blushed. “Thank you.”
He motioned toward my room. “Is that single room all yours?”
“You’re a lucky girl.” He turned and pointed to a shared apartment—the door wide open—furnished with two beds. “That’s my room. I live with him.” He pointed to the guy who watched me struggle with my bags. Oh, the irony. “Jacob.”
“What year are you?”
“Sophomore. I know you’re a freshman. You look young.”
I blushed. “I’m seventeen.”
“When’s your birthday?” He didn’t seem fazed by my accent at all. “Maybe I’ll take you for a birthday dinner.”
“Close to Snowflake Day. We’ll be out for winter break by then, I’m afraid.”
“Well, maybe we won’t have to wait for your birthday, then.” He winked at me.
I needed to nip this in the bud before we got started. “Look, Jeff. I just ended a terrible relationship, and I’m not interested in—”
“I’m not looking for a relationship, Destiny. But you’re fascinating, and I like you. Can’t we just be friends?”
“Sure.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “I need to be up early, Jeff. I’m sorry to be rude.”
“You’re not,” he said with a serene smile. “I look forward to running into you again.”
“Likewise. Goodnight, Jeff.”
He nodded. “Goodnight Destiny.”
I walked backward into my room and closed the door behind me. That was awkward. I waited a few minutes, then walked into the bathroom. That Ashley girl was there with someone else. I saw her nudge her friend, point at me, and they both giggled.
Oh super. I’m already the punchline in a joke.
After I washed up, I returned to my room, locked the door, and flopped onto my bed. I changed into a nightshirt and a pair of soft shorts, climbed into bed, and hugged Angaloo to my chest. I wept into his worn, plush fur, missing my family and my home.
The next morning, I was up early for a meet and greet at the Student Union hall. It was mandatory for all incoming freshmen, so I had to go. I made my bed and set Angaloo on it, got dressed, and headed downstairs for breakfast. The chef had pancakes on the hot bar with sausage, bacon, and other breakfast staples. I took two pancakes with some syrup and butter. They were nowhere near as delicious as the ones Mama made, but they were filling.
The campus was huge, and from my dorm, everything was at least a half-hour walk. I needed a better plan than hoofing it around. The walk to the Student Union was longer than I planned, and I was a few minutes late. The event was more of a gathering. My student ID card joined my dorm key on the lanyard and was easy to access. I scanned it into the kiosk and walked inside.
A school mascot dressed like a llama walked around the room, greeting people and answering questions. There were tables with free stuff on them: a kicky bag, or at least that’s what they called it, flying discs, candy bars and cans of pop, maps of the campus, and a place to write class schedules. I checked to see where the bookstore and the concert hall were located; it was where most of my music classes would be held. They were close to the Student Union, so I planned on visiting them on my way back.
The fraternity on campus was throwing a party that night, open to everyone. For a moment, I considered it. But classes started in two days. I still had preparations to make. On my walk back to the dorm, a yellow Camaro pulled up next to me. Jeff. He honked the horn and rolled down his window.
“Where are you headed?”
“Hop in,” he said. “I’m going back home, too. I’ll give you a lift.”
Either I’m too trusting, or naïve, but I hopped into the car with this man. I never once considered the danger I potentially put myself in. Lucky for me, he meant no harm.
“How was the mixer?” he asked.
“It was okay. I picked up a few helpful things.”
“The kick bags always go fast. Did you score one of those?”
I shook my head. “What’s it for?”
“You just kick it around, see how many times you can kick it without letting it drop.”
Well, that just sounded stupid. “Oh. I’m not really into sports.”
“Seriously?” He sized me up. “I figured with that body, you were into ladies’ sports.”
I blushed the same color as my hair. “No.” I wanted to crawl under the seat.
“I’m sorry.” He saw my obvious discomfort. “I forget you’re not of age yet. Please forgive me?”
Maybe Jeff had some redeeming qualities. “Of course, I forgive you.”
“So, you must work out, though.” He couldn’t let it go.
“I worked at the fairgrounds back home. Stage setup and break down. It was pretty physical work.” I didn’t dare show him my six-pack.
“That’s pretty hard work for a young lady.” His winning smile returned.
“I’m going to be a singer someday. The concert stage back home provided some useful life experience.”
He nodded his head. “Now it makes sense.”
“What does, Jeff?”
“The guitar. You. You’re a songbird.”
I smiled. Daddy called me a songbird all the time. “Yeah, you could say that.”
He pulled into the dorm parking lot, walked around, and opened my door. “By the way,” he said, pointing to a rack full of bicycles. “There should be one with your name on it. The college provides them to students for free while you’re here. But if you decide to take it home with you, they’ll tack a five hundred dollar charge onto your room and board bill.”
“That’s a pricey bike,” I said. That solved my transportation problem, though. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“I could drive you anywhere you need to go, you know. Just ask me.”
“Thanks, Jeff. But the bike will be fine.”
“The offer stands. Anytime, anywhere.” He took my hand and kissed it. If he was just wanting to be friends, he was on the wrong foot.
“I’ll remember that. Thanks for the lift.” I had a phone call to make. I walked upstairs to my room and locked the door.
As I settled into a routine, Jeff became less and less available. I guess he was busy with classes. I had a full course load, too; three two-hour long classes a day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday was lecture hall day, and Thursday was ‘lab day,’ so to speak. Most days, homework was abundant, and I got little sleep. It wasn’t difficult, but time-consuming. I always made time, though, for my phone call home every night.
The first term flew by. Before I knew it, I was on a plane back to Appaloosa Plains for winter break. I had a month off before I had to return; a chance to spend some quality time with both Mama and Daddy. Aunt Jenny picked me up at the airport and took me home. Being back home was more emotional than I expected, but comforting. I needed to be here for them.
Mama was waiting at the door for me when I walked up the steps, toting my suitcase behind me. Her arms opened for me, and I walked right into them; her warm, familiar hug felt so good. But my first words to her were, “How’s Daddy?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Destiny, I need to talk with you.” Fear rose inside me. I was on the verge of tears myself. I peeked into the sitting room, where their bedroom was situated, when I left. Daddy laid in the bed and he looked terrible. I gasped at the sight of him and lost my composure.
“He…” I couldn’t say what my mind told me to.
“The treatments aren’t working anymore, sweetheart. He stopped them a month ago. The cancer is spreading, Desi. He doesn’t have much time.”
“How much time are we talking, Mama?”
“Months, sweetheart.” Her hands shook. “I’m not ready…” her words faded to quiet sobs. I couldn’t imagine what she was going through.
“Mama, I’m not going back. I can’t…” We held onto each other and cried.
After a few minutes, I gathered myself and stood up. “I need to say hi.” I walked into his room and touched his hand. It was cold, and it startled me. “Daddy?” I wasn’t expecting a response.
His eyes opened, and he looked right at me. “Hi sweet pea,” he croaked out. “You’re home.”
I sat at his bedside and laid my head next to his hand. “Daddy, I’m not leaving you. I’m staying here.”
His long, bony fingers stroked my hair, and I let him. “How is school? Are you fitting in okay up there?”
Tears ran down my face and soaked into the bedsheets. “Yeah, Daddy. I’m doing okay. I made the Dean’s list this semester.”
“You did?” He patted my shoulder. “I knew you were a smart cookie, Desi.”
I needed to pull myself together. He couldn’t see me crying like this. “It’s so good to be home.”
“Your mama and I couldn’t wait…” he closed his eyes and groaned. “Frannie… when can I have pain medicine, darling?”
Even though it didn’t sound like him, there was comfort in hearing him calling Mama ‘darling.’ That’s when I knew he was still my daddy. She entered the room with water and a small pill. “Now, my love. Sit up, so you can drink the water.”
I stood and got behind him. My arms around his shoulders, I helped him to sit forward, and I held him there until he took the medicine Mama gave him. His body had wasted to almost nothing, eaten away slowly by the monster within him. Carefully, I let him settle back against the bed. His smile was still the same.
“Thank you, Destiny.”
“You’re welcome, Daddy.”
Every morning while I was home, I spent time with Daddy while he couldn’t sleep. We talked for hours, reminiscing about time when I was little. He remembered every detail of his journeys, and he talked about how he made his way home. Everything he wanted me to know, he told me during those mornings together.
My birthday came just days before Snowflake Day. Mama tried to make everything special for me and Daddy, but none of us felt like celebrating. She made a cake with eighteen candles on it. Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul came to see me; as a gift, they paid for a revolving plane ticket for me. We spent the day as a family in Daddy’s makeshift hospital room. I wanted him to be in every memory of my last birthday with him.
We agreed to not exchange gifts for Snowflake Day, but I put the tree up for Daddy. I lit a fire in the hearth that morning and got him into his wheelchair. The three of us sat by the fire all morning, singing songs and talking. When he got tired, I took him back to his bed and got him comfortable. He was surprised that I could lift him without help. I was surprised he allowed me to do it.
It was just Mama and me for supper that night. We folded our hands in prayer while I spoke a blessing over us. It wasn’t a fancy meal, but it was home-cooked and what I needed to feel normal.
“Mama, I want to stay home. I don’t want to return to school,” I said while we cleaned up the dishes from supper. “I can’t leave you, not now.”
She stopped drying the pot she held and looked at me. “Destiny, sweetheart, you have to go back. Don’t let us stop your future.”
“How can I go?” My shoulders heaved in sorrow. “He isn’t well.”
“If you go in and ask him, Destiny, he will tell you what I’m telling you. He never wanted to be the reason you didn’t chase your dreams.” She looked into my eyes, her hands on my shoulders. “Do it for him, sweetheart. It’s what he wants.”
I shook my head. “I can’t leave here knowing it’s the last time I’ll ever see him, Mama. It’s too painful.”
She took my hand and led me to the dining room table, where we both sat. “Sweetheart, none of us lives forever. Someday, Destiny, we won’t be here. But death is not the end, baby girl. You’ll see us again in the next life. That’s what our faith is about.” She wiped my tears away. “Daddy and I want you to go live your life. You’re young, and you have so much potential—”
I interrupted her. “But you need help! You can’t keep doing this alone, Mama. I see how sickly you’ve become! You’re not taking care of yourself…” Tears stole the rest of my words away.
“Desi, we are okay here together. We have nurses here all week. Aunt Jenny comes to help me take care of your daddy. Uncle Paul sits with him while she and I go to shop. I have help, honey.”
That made me feel a teensy bit better, and I had the plane ticket home when I needed it. “Okay.” My agreement was reluctant. I still didn’t want to go.
I had another week home after Snowflake Day, to celebrate the new year. We sat awake until midnight on New Year’s Eve, enjoying sparkling wine together. Daddy even had a glass with us. It was one of his best days in a long time, according to Mama. The next morning, I had to say goodbye all over again. I dreaded my alarm clock.
Jeff was waiting by my dorm door when I returned to school. I’d spent my entire trip crying, and it was obvious by the tears staining my face. He looked concerned and followed me into my room.
“Welcome back. I take it your holiday didn’t go so well?” He hugged my shoulders and sat on my bed. If he saw Angaloo sitting there with his silly, sewn-on smile, he said nothing about him.
“It was hard leaving home,” I whispered. And then I wrestled with how much information I should tell him. I didn’t want pity. “My daddy is dying, Jeff. He doesn’t have much time, so it was painful to leave him.”
Jeff wore a look of shock, and then sadness. “I’m sorry, Destiny. Are you close?”
Tears rolled down my face, and I nodded. “Very. I’m close with both my parents. I was their miracle…” I couldn’t hold it anymore. Deep, ragged sobs echoed through my room. Then Jeff stood and embraced me, allowing me to cry on his shoulder.
He rocked me in his arms, whispering words of comfort into my ears. When I stopped crying and could breathe again, he pulled away and looked into my puffy eyes. “I’m just across the hall when you need to talk, honey.” Honey? I was going to get offended, but I realized… I liked it.
“Thank you. And you can call me honey anytime you want.” I sniffled and wiped my eyes with my hands.
He put his cheek to mine and held me close. “I know you weren’t looking for a relationship, Destiny, but I’m…” He stopped, as though he needed to choose his words. “You’re someone special, and I like you.”
“I like you, too.” He turned his face toward me and pressed his lips to mine in a sweet kiss. My heart melted, and my arms wrapped around him tighter. “Thank you for being here.”
“I’ll always be here for you.”
Two weeks later, my phone rang in the middle of the night, startling me awake from a sound sleep. Mama always told me an early phone call never brought good news. I fumbled for the phone and answered it before it stopped ringing.
“Desi, find a way to make it home, sweetheart. He’s fading…”
I sat up straight in bed. “I’ll be on the next plane out.” There was one problem; the airport was thirty minutes away, and I had no car.
I walked across the hallway and knocked on Jeff’s door. Jacob, his roommate, answered it. “Jeff,” he said. “Jeff, your girlfriend is here.”
It didn’t occur to me to be shocked by Jacob’s declaration. Jeff rushed to the door. “What’s the matter, honey?”
“I need a ride to the airport,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “I need to get home.”
“Hang tight,” Jeff said. “I’ll take you.”
I didn’t bother packing a bag; my clothes were still at the farmhouse. I just grabbed my purse, my keys and the plane ticket Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul gave to me. In five minutes, we were on our way to the airport.
Jeff and I stood at the terminal while the ticket attendant booked me on the last standby spot, leaving for Appaloosa Plains in two hours. He didn’t leave my side, holding me and comforting me. When the coffee counters opened, he bought us each a cappuccino and sat with me. The flight started boarding; he hugged me tight and kissed me.
“Call me, Des,” he whispered. “Let me know how I can help.”
Weeping in his arms, I nodded. “I won’t make it home in time,” I cried. I prayed Daddy would hang on long enough for me to say goodbye.
I stood outside the airport, my purse and phone in my hand. The cab I had called pulled up in front of where I was standing. The driver opened the passenger window. “Going into the Plains, Miss?” he asked. I nodded and gave him the address. On the way, I dialed the house phone.
“Mama, please tell me I’m not too late…” my breath escaping my lungs in ragged, panicked gasps.
“He’s still hanging on, Desi. We believe he’s waiting for you.”
“I’ll be there soon. Tell him I’m coming, Mama.”
The cab driver looked into the rear-view mirror and saw me crying. “Your father?” he asked.
“Mmhmm. I flew in from Sim State. My mama called me… I hope I make it.”
“I’ll make sure you do.” The driver picked up his speed, navigating the streets and roads that led into the neighborhood. When he pulled up out front, he looked at me. “Bless you, sweetheart,” he said. “Don’t worry about the charge, just go see your father.”
“Thank you!” I yelled and waved. Mama was standing in the doorway waiting for me. Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul were there, too.
A nurse sat by him, monitoring him. Mama took my arm and brought me into the sitting room. “This is our daughter,” she said. “Charlie, love, Desi is here.”
He was on oxygen, barely able to take a breath. But when he saw me, his eyes lit up. “There’s my… baby… girl…” he whispered.
I sat beside him, trying so hard to be strong. This was it… the moment Mama and I had dreaded since his diagnosis. How would I live without him? “Hi Daddy,” I said and planted a kiss on his forehead. I took his hand and held it; my heart pounding in my chest, aching with every beat. “I love you so much.”
His weak smile must have taken so much effort. He squeezed my fingers. “And I love you… sweet pea.”
It was obvious he was struggling to breathe. Struggling one last time to be the strong father I had grown up with and respected. The one I still needed. I leaned in to kiss his cheek and I whispered in his ear. “If you need to go, it’s okay, Daddy. I’m going to be alright.”
When I pulled away from him, he smiled. I heard Mama’s sniffles behind me. Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul huddled around her. But they had already said their goodbyes. These last few moments of Daddy’s life were mine to cherish. Mine to remember. I kissed his fingers and held his hand to my face. Low and soft, tears filling my eyes, I began to sing his favorite song to him, and he closed his eyes. He took a ragged breath, then exhaled. I kept waiting for his next one, but it never came.
“Daddy?” The voice in my head screamed ‘No!’ “Daddy?” I repeated, my hand still clutching his. “I’ll always love you, Daddy, and I’ll always remember you.” His nurse stepped in, placing her stethoscope on his chest. She listened for a moment, then laid her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He’s gone.” She turned and hugged Mama, who looked as broken as I felt. “I’m so sorry, Miss Fran.”
Mama looked as though she might pass out, weak and wobbly on her feet. Aunt Jenny caught her before she fell to the floor, weeping uncontrollably. The nurse stepped out of the room to give us some privacy.
I couldn’t let him go, my head resting on his chest. Tears like molten lava ran down my face and dripped onto his skin. Never in my life had I hurt like this or felt this kind of grief. I know it had to be a hundred times worse for Mama; he was all she’d ever known, and now he was gone. This time, there was no mistaking it. Daddy was gone.
Dr. Jordan came out that evening to see Mama. She’d been crying since Daddy passed, listless and despondent. He prescribed a sedative for her to take, and Aunt Jenny made sure she took it. Uncle Paul carried Mama to the sitting room and gently laid her down on the bed. I volunteered to get her ready to sleep. A part of me needed to stay in her bed that night, cuddled up next to her like I used to do when we thought he had died years ago.
After I got Mama settled, I walked back to where Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul sat waiting for me. The room felt so empty without him in it, without his laughter and warmth. I missed him already, and it had only been hours since the funeral director took his body from the house.
“How are you holding up, kiddo?” Aunt Jenny asked.
“Not much better than Mama. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I know, sweet pea.” She wrapped her arms around me for the umpteenth time that day. “We’ll be here tomorrow to help you with anything you need. Your mama needs to make arrangements for him downtown. You should go with her.”
I nodded. “I will. Thank you both for everything today. I love you.”
“We love you both, Desi.” She kissed my forehead and let me out of her embrace. “We’ll see you tomorrow. Call if you need us, okay?”
“Mmhmm,” I mumbled. “Goodnight.” They both waved and left. I locked the door behind them—the latch sounded colder and more final than usual—then sighed. My belly growled at me and I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but I wasn’t starving either. I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and dialed Jeff’s number, remembering I’d promised to let him know what was going on.
“Hi, Des,” he said, his voice filled with concern. “Are you okay?”
“No, but I’m trying to be,” I said. “Daddy passed about twenty minutes after I got here this morning. It’s been a long, rough day. Mama is sleeping and I think I’m going to sleep in the chair by her bed. I’m worried about her. She’s older now. It will be harder for her this time.”
“This time?” Jeff said.
“Remind me to tell you about it someday. It’s too long of a story for tonight, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, okay. I wish—I wish I was there with you, Destiny.”
I nodded my head, as though he could see me. “Yeah, me too. We have a busy day tomorrow, but I’ll call you tomorrow night. I’m so tired.”
“Get some sleep, Des. I’ll be thinking about you tonight.”
“Thanks, Jeff. Talk to you tomorrow.” I hated to be so short with him when he’d been nothing but supportive and sweet to me. But I knew he understood.
I walked to Mama’s bedroom and collapsed into the chair on Daddy’s side of the bed. The room felt so empty without him; his presence, his memories invading my every thought. I finally drifted off to sleep, exhausted, with Daddy on my mind.
The sunshine pouring through the bedroom window awakened me the next morning. Mama was still sleeping, her position not much different from how I’d tucked her in a few hours before. I rose from the chair, stiff as could be from sleeping there all night. I stretched and stifled a yawn, not wanting to awaken Mama any earlier than I needed to, then walked to the bathroom. A little water splashed on my face, and I gave my teeth a quick brush, trying to feel a little more… what? Human? Normal? After yesterday, I’m not sure what normal will be anymore.
It would be a busy day. I wanted to feed Sweetie and let her know Daddy had passed. Daddy was always Sweetie’s favorite, and he seemed to reciprocate that feeling. I walked to check on Mama to let her know I would make banana pancakes for breakfast. She looked so peaceful, but she still hadn’t shifted position and I sensed something wasn’t right. I sat down on the bed next to her.
“Mama?” Normally, she would sense me sitting on the bed, and it would wake her. My hands trembled, as if they perceived more than I did. “Mama?!” I asked again. I grasped her hand; it was cold to the touch. I reached out to brush a lock of her snowy white hair from her face and touched her forehead; it, too, was cool, and Mama never moved, never flinched. I saw her chest still, the rhythmic rise and fall that indicates life gone from her body. “MAMA!” Sliding off the bed and onto my knees, new tears welled in my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I kissed her hand, holding it in mine, then stood and kissed her forehead. I didn’t call for an ambulance; the time for that had passed.
Mama was gone, too, but reunited with Daddy. Their bond no longer broken, their love once again whole. I was both happy and sad.
An odd calm came over me. Maybe it was more of a numbness? It was how I felt when I called the funeral home. Then I dialed Aunt Jenny’s phone number. Her greeting wasn’t as cheerful as usual. My daddy’s passing affected her as much as it did Mama and me. “Aunt Jenny,” I said to her, far more calmly than I would have expected. “It’s Mama,” I said, the solemnity clear in my voice. “I need you.”
“We’re on our way, Destiny!” I heard her say.
When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, it was Joseph Palmer, the funeral director. There was some great irony because I had called him to talk about Daddy’s arrangements, and he was here, having to verify Mama’s passing and discuss her arrangements as well. I met him at the door with the pretense of a smile. I’m sure, in his line of business, he knew my smile was less than sincere. “She’s in here, Mr. Palmer.” Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul burst through the unlocked door a few moments later.
“Desi! What happened?” Aunt Jenny said. She was out of breath and frightened.
“It’s Mama…” I couldn’t talk, my mouth dry, my mind unable to process what was going on. Aunt Jenny peeked through the curtain into the sitting room. It felt like someone had punched me in the gut for the second time. I heard her gasp, or thought I did. The scene was heartbreakingly tragic.
Mr. Palmer confirmed the awful truth I already knew; Mama had passed away in her sleep sometime during the night. I never had time to tell her goodbye. I never got to tell her I loved her one last time. My heart shattered into a million tiny pieces. How could they BOTH be gone? Devastation couldn’t possibly describe how I felt.
I never recognized that Mama hadn’t been well for months, either. She was so wrapped up in her tireless devotion to Daddy that she never told me or him about her own declining health. The weight she’d lost, the pain she suffered, but never complained about. I learned later that the same Beast that claimed Daddy took Mama’s life, too. She was never given the chance to fight it. Mama selflessly sacrificed her own well-being for Daddy, her last act of love for him.
Instead of planning one funeral, I now had two…
Up Next: Meet Destiny Farmer, Part Two
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