Chapter Ten: Swallowed Up

 

Callie sat at the table, looking out the French doors at the dwarf silver maple overhanging the patio. Her mom had put up a birdhouse in the tree, and a pair of house finches were busily raising their small family inside the gaily painted house.

She had called Ginny Austin that morning, explaining that it was about time for her to leave. There was still so much food in the kitchen; did Ginny know someone who could use it?

“I sure do,” Ginny had answered warmly. “That is so thoughtful of you, Callie.”

She took a deep breath. “I have a favor to ask, too. I’ve got most of the stuff in the house boxed up, but there are a couple of rooms…my mom’s bedroom and her bathroom…do you know someone who could do that for me? I have some space rented at the storage facility and Hank said he’d take whatever needs to be moved over there.”

“Of course,” Ginny had assured her. “I’ll organize that myself. Don’t give it another thought.”

“You can get a key to the house from Daniel Alverson, I’ll make sure he knows you’ll be asking.”

Ginny agreed and Callie checked that off her list. Next she called Hank. “I plan to leave tomorrow,” she said. “Ginny Austin is going to see that everything else gets packed up. Is it okay if she calls you to get it moved to the storage facility?”

“Sure, no problem.” There was a slight hesitation. “So I guess I won’t be seeing you before you leave.”

“No. I guess not.” Callie stared down at her planner, then closed her eyes tightly. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done, Hank. You’ve helped me at every turn and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“It was my pleasure,” he answered in a low voice, without any expression she could detect.

Callie’s pen poised over another item on her list. “I had one more favor to ask, if you don’t mind. Could you stop by every once in a while to check on the house, until it gets sold? I’ll pay you of course.”

“You will not,” Hank told her immediately, his firm tone leaving no room for argument. “I will do it for free or not at all.”

“Oh.” Callie was stunned at that response. “Well, okay. I didn’t mean to offend you, Hank,” she added softly. “I just wanted to be fair.”

Hank’s tone turned apologetic. “I’m sorry, Callie. You didn’t offend me.” He chuckled. “Well, not intentionally anyway, I know that. Don’t worry, Callie, I’ll do that for you.”

“Thanks. Again,” she added with a smile. “Just keep the key then, I’ll tell Daniel it’s okay.” She hesitated. “Well, this is it then.”

He said quietly, “I’m glad I got a chance to see you again, Callie. I wish you well. Be safe.”

Callie swallowed. “Thanks for everything you did, Hank. I was happy I could see you again too. I – well – so long, Hank.”

She hung up and checked that call off her list. She waited a moment to get her emotions back under control, then called Will and Cara to say goodbye.

Check.

She called Anne and Tom to tell them she was leaving.

Check.

She discussed with Daniel Alverson the arrangements she had made, and he said he’d take care of everything.

Check.

She called Olivia O’Neill to let her know the house could go on the market.

Check.

She called Mina to let her know she was coming back and should be home by the day after tomorrow.

Check.

She packed up the rest of the items in the kitchen and garage, then put her things back in her suitcases, keeping out the clothes she’d change into tomorrow.

Check.

And then … there no more items to check off. She was done.

Callie closed her planner and wandered out to the patio. It was such a beautiful spring day. She imagined her mother sitting out here with a glass of iced tea, enjoying the fading sunshine and gentle breezes.

“Oh Mom,” she choked as the tears overwhelmed her. “Why did you have to leave me?”

She hurried inside, down into the basement, and curled up in the sofa, crying hot bitter tears with sobs that tore at her chest. At some point she must have lapsed into sleep, because she opened her eyes to complete darkness. She didn’t know what time it was. She figured it really didn’t matter.

She felt her way to the stairs near the sofa and climbed up the steps. She switched on the light in the foyer and then made her way to the kitchen. There was enough light from the foyer to make coffee, and she took a steaming cup of the stuff to the old wooden table.

It had been a terrible year, so many ups and downs. She and Wes got engaged on New Year’s Eve; then, just over a month later, he dumped her for someone else. She got over that, mostly, and then her mother died in a senseless single-car accident. Then she lost her job. Then she found these wonderful people in Ware who had welcomed her in and taken such good care of her, and now she was losing them too. Including Hank … her crush in high school, someone she still admired so much, even though at best he saw her as a sister now. Probably because Cara had treated her like a granddaughter.

Tears burned again in her eyes as she had remembered how the whole McDonald family had come to sit with them during the funeral. “You are one of us,” Cara had said. But she wasn’t, not really, she wasn’t part of anything anymore. She’d go back to Charleston and her single life, find a job somewhere doing something … Mina would be there but eventually she would leave too, they all did.

She would always be alone. She saw no way, no hope, of that ever changing. There would be no Wes, no Mom, no…no Hank. Oh Hank! She cried out in anguish. I will miss you so much!

  

~~~

  

Hank jerked awake in the middle of the night. He’d been uneasy all evening. Something wasn’t right. But he couldn’t figure out what it was. He finally turned in and fell into a restless sleep – but now he was wide awake. Something awful was happening. Not to him…to someone else. Grandpa? Gramma?

His heart stopped. Callie. It was Callie. He didn’t know how he knew that, but he was absolutely certain of it. He was dressing before he even consciously thought of doing anything. He just knew he had to get to her as fast as he could.

The feeling got worse and worse as the truck sped into town through the silent darkness. He felt pain, unbearable anguish, complete and overwhelming despair – he braked the truck to a stop in front of her house and hit the front steps at a run. He knocked on the door and then tried the doorknob. Unlocked.

He stepped in and saw her crumpled over the wooden table in the dining area. “Callie!”

Her head came up slowly and as he got closer he could see her face was wet with tears. He sank down in the chair next to her and gathered her in his arms. She said his name in a wavering voice, as if she wasn’t sure he was really there. Her face was buried in the hollow of his shoulder and he put his hand protectively over her head, saying softly, “It’s Hank. I’m here.”

“Oh Hank!” she sobbed and he held her tight, whispering to her. He didn’t know what he said, but he kept repeating it over and over.

Eventually – he didn’t know how long – the sobs slowed and she gradually relaxed in his arms. Her head dipped and he knew she had fallen asleep. He gently lifted her up into his arms and carried her to the nearby bedroom, where the door had been left open. He laid her on the bed and pulled the bedspread over her. She shifted restlessly and he sat down beside her. She curled around him and fell into a deeper sleep.

Hank sent a quick text to his grandparents, knowing they wouldn’t see it until after they got up in the morning.

Friend had an emergency, had to go over there, seems ok now but will probably be late getting back.

He brushed Callie’s hair back with his hand and, taking his handkerchief out, dried her damp face. This poor girl, he thought sadly. So much to bear all alone.

Callie’s first impression, when she opened her crusted eyelids, was of sunlight. Then she sensed someone solid sitting beside her, and she turned her face up. “Hank?” she said uncertainly.

“Good morning. How are you doing?”

She buried her face against his side and mumbled, “I like this dream.”

She felt his chuckle. “It’s not a dream, Callie. I’m really here.”

When that finally sank in, she bolted upright and stared at him. “What – what are you doing here?” she croaked in astonishment.

He chose his words carefully. “I knew something was wrong.”

Callie rubbed her face and she started to remember. She’d run out of things to do, and all the anguish she had kept at bay had swallowed her up. She remembered finding her way upstairs, making coffee, getting lost in the despair, hearing her name, looking up – seeing Hank –

“I thought … I thought that was a dream,” she quavered.

“No dream,” he smiled. “You feel like getting up?”

She rubbed at her eyes and face. “Um…yeah. I think so.” She heard a chirp and watched Hank pull out his cellphone. He chuckled when he looked down at it. “What?”

“Grandpa,” Hank smiled, shaking his head. “He says, ‘Your grandmother says bring her back for breakfast.’” At her confused look, he explained, “Bring you. I sent them a text last night explaining a friend had an emergency and I had to go.”

She was still trying to make sense of it all. “I called you?”

“No, not exactly. Come on, let’s get you some coffee.” He helped her up and she turned to the bathroom instead of the dining area. She muttered something about washing her face. He let her go and she heard him making noise in the kitchen as she closed the bathroom door.

She took care of business, then washed her hands and face. Her hair was a mess; she finally pulled it back in a ponytail that she secured with a hair tie she found. Her eyes were red and swollen, her face pale and drawn. Callie sighed. Nothing she could do about that. She emerged to find Hank pouring coffee. This just can’t possibly be real, she muttered to herself, sinking down into one of the dining room chairs.

Hank put a cup of coffee in front of her and sat down beside her. “Well, I’ll tell you what happened, but you’ll probably think I’m crazy.”

She looked at him in total confusion.

“I’d had a feeling yesterday that something was wrong, all evening. Then I woke up in the middle of the night with such a terrible feeling – anguish, despair – it scared the hell out of me,” he said soberly, remembering that awful pain. “I knew it was you. I don’t know how, I just knew. I couldn’t get here fast enough.”

She drank some of the hot coffee and the cobwebs started to clear. “You were worried? About me?”

“I was flat out terrified,” he answered seriously.

She drank more coffee, waiting for that to make sense. It didn’t.

He took a drink of his own coffee, then ventured, “I know you want to get back to your job in Charleston.”

“No,” Callie sighed. At his quizzical look, she explained, “I don’t have a job in Charleston.” She added in a rush, “My mom had just – died and I needed time off and Phil wouldn’t give it to me so I just … quit.”

She expected him to look exasperated, or maybe sympathetic, but she was not prepared for the admiration in his eyes. “Whoa, that took a lot of guts.”

“Or anger,” Callie shook her head.

Hank leaned forward and said quietly, “Stay.”

“What?”

His eyes fixed on hers. “Stay.”

This doesn’t make any sense –

“Why do you have to go back to Charleston?”

She looked at him in confusion, rubbed her eyes again, and stood up. “I have to go change,” she mumbled and walked toward the stairs.

Hank watched her go. He probably shouldn’t have said it, but for a moment it was all so logical, she’d be safe here - he had to ask.

The muscles in his jaw tightened and he slipped his smartphone out of his pocket. He sent a short text to his grandfather before slipping the phone back in his pocket.

 

On it.

 

~~~

 

Callie took her time, taking a shower, washing her hair, combing out the tangles, slipping on jeans and a t-shirt. She mulled over what Hank had said.

He was right. It would solve a lot of problems. She could live at the house rent-free, which would help stretch her budget. In another year, she would have more options, workwise, but she could find something here to get by until the estate was out of probate. She’d have time to heal.

She’d have Hank.

Well, be near him anyway, she sighed. And right now, that was enough.

But in the end she’d just leave again. So what good would that do?

She made a sound of frustration and transferred her phone and keys to the jeans she was wearing. She trudged up the stairs and paused as she saw him sitting at the wood table. Her heart cracked a little more. He looked so good –

He smiled when he saw her, and her battered heart lifted a little. Standing up, he said briskly, “Ready to go?”

“Go?” She could not keep up.

“To the farmhouse for breakfast,” he announced as he walked over to her. “Come on, I’ll drive you.”

“Oh Hank, I can’t,” she protested, instinctively shrinking back against the basement door.

Hank looked down at her intently. “Callie, do you trust me?”

Always, she thought automatically, gazing up at him.

“You need this,” he told her firmly. He held out his hand and raised an eyebrow as he tilted his head.

Her hand found its way to his, again without any thought, and he smiled as he squeezed it. “Come on.”

As he put the truck in gear and pulled away from the curb, Callie rested her head against his arm. She wasn’t so much tired as she was worn out. She could his strength seeping into her and she felt…safe. She relaxed with a small sound of satisfaction.

Hank heard the sound and a slow smile spread across his face. He shouldn’t be so pleased she instinctively turned to him. It wouldn’t last. She would heal and be gone again.

But for now, he thought, for now, he could be here for her.

He’d take what he could get.

 

Chapter Nine   Chapter Eleven ⇒

 

"That Little Thing" Copyright © 2020 by Susan Stafford