Judy grasped the old wooden railing and looked upward in disbelief. She’d known the farmhouse had passed through several tenants, but she could never bear to turn down that long drive and face the home she longed to live in since she fell in love with James.
Scanning the front porch before her, she spotted a large footprint leading to the ajar front door. Inside, the house stood silent and dark. It had all been a mistake. James was dead…he had to be.
A deep howl, like that of a dying animal, shattered the evening quiet. “No! Ahh!”
She stumbled back down two steps. Not an animal, a man. James? Something was wrong. She snatched her pepper spray from her purse and charged through the door. She broke through cobwebs, stumbled over an old overturned chair and fell against the entry way wall.
James. He sat on the stairs only a few feet away, holding his bleeding leg. She shuffled closer. His eyes were wide and wild, like a caged animal. Not the soft silver of the man she once loved.
His head snapped in all directions at the sound, hands raised in defense.
Judy nudged closer then dropped to her knees. “It’s okay.” Her fingers released the canister of pepper spray and it rolled across the wood floor. The noise drew his attention then his head snapped back to her.
“Yes. It’s me.” She reached out, but he cowered away like a wounded dog. Noticing the bloody splinter and gaping hole in the step below him, she said, “It’s okay, I just want to help.” She indicated his leg with a tilt of her head. “It seems this old house tried to swallow you up,” she teased, hoping to calm him. “You’re sweating. You okay?”
James averted his gaze and shifted his leg away from her outstretched fingers. “You shouldn’t be here.”
She froze, his words slashing through her like a Tennessee tornado.
He rubbed his forehead. “I-I didn’t…hurt you, did I?”
“No.” She hesitated then tried again, reaching out to lift his pant leg and inspect the damage to his calf. “You didn’t hurt me, but it looks like you did a number on yourself.”
James scooted backward, pressing his body against the wall behind him as if her touch would send him straight to hell. “I’ll be fine. Go. Leave.”
Does he hate me that much? She wanted to run from the house and never see those eyes look at her with disappointment and anger, but she couldn’t leave him like this.
Judy tugged the scarf from her neck and wrapped it around his calf. Her fingers brushed his leg and only then, feeling the heat of his skin, did she accept he was real. She swallowed a gasp then busied herself with the makeshift bandage. His calf tensed at her contact, but she ignored it and secured the scarf with a knot. “An Eagle Scout taught me that.” She smiled then scooted to the lower step.
Grabbing her handbag from where it had fallen sideways, she scooped the contents spread across his floor back inside. “I should drive you to the hospital.”
“No. The cut is deep, but small. Just need to wash and bandage it. I’ll be fine. Go.” James straightened and pulled himself upright, puffing out his chest. He’d grown into a strong man. His shoulders and arms had filled out, his hair now silver, matching his eyes. He was the same man, yet different.
“You were gone all these years. Presumed dead.” Judy swallowed a soft cry. “Now, you return.”
He ran a hand through his shiny flattop. “I didn’t…I couldn’t.”
She shoved from the floor and stood a few feet away. Even in the dim light, she made out the familiar, long, dark lashes accentuating his silver eyes, but the crease on his forehead was new. Did he still have knee-melting dimples when he smiled?
They stood there in the dingy, old house, staring at each other. Only the chirping outside and her rapid pulse hammering in her ears made a sound.
“Why?” she asked finally.
James opened his mouth but shut it again without a word. He wobbled then clutched the handrail to steady himself. “You need to go.”
Judy couldn’t move. All she could do was stare at the man before her, former captain of every sports team at Creekside High School, the romantic gentle giant she’d once loved with all her heart.
“I said you need to leave.” He jutted out his chin and stared past her, over her head, though he couldn’t hide the fact his hands still shook uncontrollably.
She wanted to scream at him. Call him an idiot—a selfish, lying animal that didn’t deserve her guilt. But in the next instant, she wanted to beg his forgiveness. For once she couldn’t speak. Not even to say she was glad he was alive, or threaten to kill him for making her believe he’s been dead all these years.