Letters from Owen, Part Two
by T. L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
For Part One, please click here.
August 8, 1963
Storm clouds were approaching from the southwest, illuminated in the dark by fierce flashes of lightning that danced across the horizon. The wind was kicking up, bringing with it the scent of rain.
“We’ll probably lose power,” Owen said quietly as Sarah wrapped her slender arms around his waist. “Think we’ll be okay?”
It was still a jolt to feel her body so close without the press of her pregnancy between them. The twins were three days old and had been home now for just over twenty-four hours.
“We should be.” She rubbed her face against his shoulder. “They’re all three sound asleep finally. Big day tomorrow, Papa.”
Owen clasped her hands. “Very big.”
The renovations were finally complete on the house, and though they’d not made their deadline of moving in before the twins were born, they’d tried not to stress too much about that.
“A few days in the studio with three children isn’t going to kill us,” Sarah had said a couple of weeks ago when it became apparent they weren’t going to make it. “It might even be easier, as we won’t have to fight to figure out where everything is.”
“It’ll be good to see everyone,” she said now. “I wish I could cook a big meal or something as a thanks.”
Owen’s uncle Eli and most of Eli’s family were coming up from Laurel County to help with the move and lend a hand at getting them settled into the farmhouse.
Owen turned and hugged her. “Oh, they’ll take a raincheck. Eli sounded so excited. I think he’s finding the fact that I have a daughter a bit too funny though.”
Sarah grinned at him. “Sweet Owen, I am finding that fact funny. Everyone who knows you is. You were so adamant about not having girls, and you’re already wrapped around that baby’s finger.”
He laughed, albeit quietly, and shrugged. “What can I say?”
She grew serious. “That you’re happy? That you really are okay with us moving into that house?”
Sobering, Owen cupped her face. “I’m far beyond happy. As for the house, this process of remodeling, of expanding things here and there and erasing other aspects of the place, it’s allowed me to take control of the memories, to make the house my own. I can see our children playing there and see us living there for many, many years as a family. I want that so much it surprises me.”
Eyes closed, she nuzzled his palms, dropping sweet little kisses there. “We could have built another house.”
Owen tipped her chin up as he chuckled. “Sarah Jane Campbell, you love that old house.” He kissed her softly, then with more intensity, pulling back before the embrace became uncomfortable for them, given her physical limitations. “What do you say we hold each other while this storm rolls through?”
Low, rumbling thunder cascaded across the sky. Gusting wind chased after it and darted into the room.
“Let me make sure they’re not in a draft.” Sarah turned to check on the babies and John, who were tucked away in their respective cribs behind a divider screen. “I know I need to sleep, but I feel full of energy tonight.” But she sat on the side of the bed anyhow.
He held the covers up for her as she swung her legs into bed with a small grimace. “How’s the soreness?”
“Better. I’d give a hundred dollars to be able to run a big tub full of hot water and soak in it, but that’s not an option at the moment. Soon, I keep promising myself.”
Owen looked in on the children even though she’d done that only a minute ago. “We have a nice start to our little family here, you know? Three’s a good number.”
She smiled as he came around the bed and turned the lamp off, then slipped under the sheet. “I have to admit I’m pretty proud of our accomplishments.” When he rubbed her back and hip, she moaned. “Who needs a soaking bath? Oh, that’s nice.”
“Don’t let me hurt you.”
She squeezed his arm. “You never could.”
“I hope not.”
A loud clap of thunder sounded, then rain started pounding against the roof. Thanks to the deep overhangs, Owen didn’t worry about the water getting in through the open windows.
Sarah sighed as he found a particularly tense muscle and worked it. “Have you written your letters yet?”
He kissed her neck. “Not yet. I will soon. I love you, wife.”
“I love you.” She reached back and touched his face. “I can’t believe the storm hasn’t disturbed the babies. Maybe that means they’re wild children at heart.”
“Maybe. But I’m sure Emma isn’t. She’s a little angel.”
Sarah laughed so hard the bed shook, and she had to bury her face in the pillow as she snorted. “I’m going to remind you of this moment every time she gets in trouble for the next twenty or so years,” she said when she could speak.
“You go right ahead. I’m sure that won’t be often.” He gently hugged her then resumed the massage.
By the time the storm had almost passed, she was sound asleep. Owen wasn’t nearly ready to doze off, however, so once he was sure she was out, he got up. The divider was set up in such a way that it blocked the lamplight from his desk, and he got his pen and paper out as quietly as he could. With his entire world asleep and safe behind him, he started writing.
This week, our little family grew by leaps and bounds. It isn’t so little anymore. So many changes, and such a short amount of time has passed between what feels like two distinct eras: “then” and “now.”
John, you’re a big brother now. Sarah and I are already seeing your caring nature develop, as every time your brother or sister cries, you’re there to make sure nothing is harming them. I hope that means you’ll always look out for them, that the three of you will form a tight bond, similar to what your mother has with her siblings. That’s how it should be.
Emma Jean, Benjamin Wayne, I marvel at your similarities and differences. I can hardly wait to see your interactions as you grow older, to see if you have that closeness twins are said to share.
You’ll each get your own letter, but for right now, I wanted to write something for the three of you as a collective. Something your mother and I can share with you when you’re older, when you’re teasing your old man about being sentimental.
I hope I can be the father you three deserve. For some reason, this is a bit more daunting than I’d expected, the prospect of guiding three children through the pits and traps of the world, much more so than it felt with just John. I wouldn’t trade any of you for all the riches in this old world, and I hope I never let you down.
We’re getting ready to take another big step as a family—we’ll be moving into the old farmhouse tomorrow. The new old farmhouse, I feel I should say. So much work has been done to modernize the structure, yet keep the characteristics your mother adores, that it bears little resemblance to the house I grew up in.
Someday you’ll probably come to know why my memories of the house aren’t that good. By the time you’re old enough to hear those stories, I hope that we will have, as a family, built so many new, good memories that the old, painful ones are just flickers of remnants of the past.
For now, it’s enough that I love you, that I love your mother, and that I am loved in return by you and by her. And I have to admit, I’m looking forward to finally sleeping in a bedroom that doesn’t have a toddler in it at least some of the time. I’ll probably not sleep a wink the first week or two, John, knowing you aren’t an arm’s length away from us. You might find your dear old dad sleeping on the floor in your room or bringing you downstairs to stay with the rest of us since Emma and Ben will be sleeping in our room for a few months.
Maybe putting our bedroom downstairs and all of your rooms upstairs wasn’t such a good idea after all. Time will tell.
With love and all my affection,
August 8, 1963
For a long while now, at least ever since I met your mother, I’ve known that Fate would probably take it upon herself to set daughters upon my shoulders. I’ve long protested to the world that only boys were acceptable, that girls were too much trouble and I only wanted sons. Can I make a confession to you, my darling, dearest daughter? There’s an old phrase about “he who doth protest too much…” That he is me.
I’m not at all disappointed you’re here. In fact, I’m as far from disappointed as a man can get. You’re so beautiful, my tiny Emma Jean, named after your grandmother Eliza Jean. I can only hope that as you grow, your spirit matches that sweet lady’s and your mother’s as well. Strength, courage, tenacity… all elements Sarah and Eliza share in spades.
I might rue those elements from time to time as you grow up, as I expect you’ll test me in ways your brothers wouldn’t dare, all because you know you can get away with more than they can. I’ll admit here and now that you’ll probably be a daddy’s girl, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The doctor said you came into the world squalling with little fists raised, almost as though you were ready for anything. A strong warrior princess, no doubt. A Campbell through and through, with Browning thrown in to pepper the mix. You’re a six-pound, three-ounce dynamo who is already showing her brothers how feisty a girl can be. John doesn’t quite know what to think of you, which your mother finds tremendously amusing.
I wonder if you’ll resemble your mother or me as you get older. Or someone else entirely—one of your grandparents or cousins or none of the above. A mix of all of us maybe. I’m absolutely certain you’ll be beautiful, inside and out. You have quite the shock of dark hair, much like your brother John had when he was born. Sarah laughed and said you got your share and your brother Ben’s, as he’s blessed with only the teensiest bit of blond down.
Speaking of your mother, she’s as pleased as punch to finally have you here. She’s already talking about all the girly things the two of you can do together as you get older, and if we’re being frank, I think she’s also looking forward to watching you keep the males in the household at sixes and sevens. Given how much she loves to tease your uncle Jack, I think she’ll probably be a bad influence on you in that department. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There was quite a bit of concern over the last couple of weeks as we waited for your arrival, yours and your brother’s. Your mother was a trouper, a steady rock. I was a blathering idiot. But twins are a scary proposition, you see, in an already terrifying situation.
Emma, I’ll admit to you here and now that one reason I so adamantly protested having daughters was because I knew you’d have my heart from the time you took your first breath, and there are so many ways in the world that a girl can be hurt, ways that boys perhaps don’t have to face quite so much. I can only hope that your mother and I can prepare you for those situations while we pray to God they never arise in the first place.
You’re already asserting yourself, and that’s a good thing, I believe. I hope you never lose your voice, your ability to tell the world what you need and when you need it. I’ve seen so many good women who didn’t have that kind of spark. I’ve seen too many men eager to stamp out what spark there was. I aim to make sure we never do that with you or allow anyone to do it to you. You have my word, Emma Jean Campbell.
I already adore you, and you’ve not even been on this earth a week. I fear I’m in trouble now, truly in for it for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing. If someone offered me a son in your place, I’d knock him off his feet for asking.
My baby girl, my daddy’s girl, sweet little Emma Jean Campbell, I love you.
August 8, 1963
I’m overcome with emotion as I try to write this letter, my heart so full it’s near to bursting with joy. Your arrival, and that of your sister, has been so very anticipated it’s difficult to put into words.
You, Benjamin Wayne Campbell, are so different from your brother John it’s astonishing. You’re quieter than he was, and you don’t look much like him either. I hope you’ll forgive me when I say I was expecting you to be similar to him in looks and temperament. I’m certainly not disappointed that you’re different, but I am perhaps fascinated.
Your mother, sweet Sarah, thinks you look like me. I suppose that’s a good thing. I’ll certainly say you are cuter than I think I am, even if you are toothless. Oh, Ben. To have two sons… I worry that you won’t be close, that you’ll be opposites, like my brother and I were. But then I think about Uncle Eli’s sons, how well they rub along together despite their differences, and I know you’ll be okay.
Whatever you are, whatever you become, you’ll know that you are loved. I’ll see to that, I promise you. Your brother, your sister, and you, I never want a moment’s doubt to enter your minds about that.
John already adores you. He’s not sure what to think about your sister other than saying she cries a lot and turning a perplexed frown to me or your mother, which has us hiding laughs. But he already wants to play soldiers and horses with you. I’ve promised him that in a few months, he’ll be able to do more than sit and hold you. He’s only a baby still himself, so that hasn’t made a lot of sense to him.
As for your sister, she outweighed you by a couple of ounces and beat you to the finish line by an hour. She’s not shy about making her presence known, whereas you are much less adamant about your needs. I was concerned at first, but Sarah and the doctor both reassured me you’re healthy. You’re just calm, quiet… and that’s probably not going to last long. Dr. Boggs said his oldest son was the same way when he was born, and now he’s a holy terror who torments his young siblings, much to their delight.
You’re named after Silas Wayne Combs, one of our neighbors. He’s a tremendously good man who would quite literally give a stranger the shirt off his back if they were in need. Your mother and I think the world of him, and we hope you’ll get to meet him someday.
Time will tell whether you are the baby in the family or not, but regardless of the order of your birth, you’re as precious to me as any of your siblings. You each hold a special place in my heart, which feels ten times larger today than it did last week. I look at you and wonder how you’ll see the world, how your view will be different from John’s and Emma’s. I hope someday you and I can share talks about those views, embracing our similarities and our differences in turn.
I hear one of you stirring, so I’d best go see who’s fussing. You’re so precious and new, a bundle of potential and hopes and dreams, my son. I can hardly wait to see who you become, but I’m also in no rush for that time to get here. The journey of watching you and your siblings grow is one I’m looking forward to like nothing else in this world.
April 21, 1966
My heart is breaking tonight, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it. I can’t make this better, and I’m lost because of that. How’s a man supposed to protect those he loves when things like this occur?
Our children are asleep, blissfully unaware of what’s happened over the last few days. I wish they could stay that way, unharmed by the cruelty in this world. I wish we all could, but that isn’t how things work, is it? No one ever promised life would be fair, and if they did, they were lying.
You finally drifted off a little while ago, fatigue and the doctor’s pill working together to knock you soundly out. Your mother and I were relieved, as you’ve not slept for two days despite the tremendous stresses you’ve been under physically and emotionally. We were starting to get concerned that you would have to go to the hospital.
I’m still wide awake, unable to lie down beside you for fear that I’ll wake and you’ll be gone. I know that isn’t rational. Nothing about how I feel right now is rational. God, I wish we were home so I could run with the wind tonight, screaming out my rage and anguish to the forest. But you need Eliza so much right now, and I wouldn’t take you away from her if I could.
I blame myself for this as much as I know you blame yourself. Eliza’s doctor, kind woman that she is, warned me about these feelings. So did Eliza. It’s natural, they said, for a woman to question everything she’s done in the days and weeks following the loss of a child.
Sarah, you didn’t do this. You didn’t cause this. You’re the best damned mother in the world, and God himself would never be able to convince me you were to blame for losing this baby. No one was to blame, Dr. Sanderson said, and she was quite adamant about that.
You kept apologizing to me earlier, so I’ll offer you my forgiveness even though I never, ever blamed you and never would. I don’t know that I can forgive myself. I have to laugh—harshly, mind you, and without a shred of humor—because the only way I could have prevented this was if I had been God himself. I know that intellectually. I think it will take some time to get it through my thick skull as far as my heart is concerned.
I know you’re questioning whether or not you thought this into happening, as we aren’t really ready to have another child. I have those questions too, about my own thinking. Time and again over the last two days, I’ve had to remind myself that I’m being silly.
Ready or not, I wanted this child. I know you did as well. Who would he or she have become? What would it have looked like? Perhaps that’s what hurts the most—all the things we’ll never know. And calling the baby an “it” feels so wrong. It was our child, damn it all to hell and back! I can’t stand the pain, and I can’t not bear it either. God, Sarah…
I’m back now. John came to the door a few minutes ago just as I was on the verge of losing my mind, a well-timed godsend who needed a drink of water and a cuddle. He knows something isn’t right, beyond Mommy having a tummy ache. He’s picked up on our sadness, and he’s worried. I did my best to reassure him, and he’s here with me now, sound asleep in my arms as I write this.
He’s such a good boy, Sarah. It’s so funny to see his personality developing so strongly, and Ben’s and Emma’s as well. They’re all three so different, so precious. This was their loss too, this brother or sister who wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he or she is a guardian angel to them now. Please tell me you believe that as much as I do.
I hate like hell that this happened while we were here, at least so far as it concerns Kathy. She’s doing so much better these days, but she’s still fragile. Thank God she has Charles to lean on. I could tell it bothered her deeply, not being able to be here for you. I know you’re angry right now about that but that you also understand why she can’t be here. I hope with some rest you’ll be able to see that. If not, I’m certain once you regain your footing, you will.
Maybe I shouldn’t bring those feelings up right now, but you and I have never held anything back from each other. I don’t want you to think I’m chastising you in any way. I understand your anger and even share it to some degree. You feel like, in some way, she put her children at risk and paid the ultimate price. You didn’t do a damned thing, and we lost this baby. I know—I feel that way too. It isn’t fair.
And that’s the completely, utterly irrational side of grief. I hate myself for thinking that, and I can guess that you do as well. The terror and pure hell she went through, is still going through, and probably always will compared to this loss? As tragic as this was, it doesn’t hold a candle to what she must feel.
This pain we now share is from our perspective, and it’s personal and deep, something only the two of us fully comprehend and understand. It’s as devastating to us in this moment as anything we’ve gone through. As hard as it may be, we should forgive ourselves for that emotional anger we feel, and we have to stay strong until it passes. Not for all the world do I want to hurt Kathy more, and I know you don’t either. This isn’t her fault. She doesn’t deserve our wrath.
That begs the question: who does? I don’t like the answer your mother gave me earlier, and that was that no one does. How can I wrap my hands around this pain and squeeze the life out of it so that it doesn’t hurt so much if I can’t blame someone?
I know you want to be home, but your mother thinks you should stay here for at least the rest of the week until you can go back to Dr. Sanderson to make sure things are all right. I want to be home too, my love, safe and sound in our home, surrounded by all the normalcy we can muster. We will make the trip as soon as we can, I promise you. For now, I’m glad we’re here with Eliza. I think you need her right now, more than you need me or maybe in different ways.
I should close now. John’s restless, and I should try to get some sleep while you’re resting. But I don’t want to go without telling you how much I love you. I hope you realize, especially now, how very much you mean to me. How much I respect you and adore you and, yes, how much I admire you. You are still my Sarah Jane; this doesn’t change how I feel. It doesn’t change my love for you, my devotion to you and our family. I hope you feel the same way.
I would have done almost anything to prevent you from having to go through this. I wish I’d had that choice. I don’t like feeling powerless. I don’t like not being able to keep you from harm. I feel like I’ve failed at my job. I hope you can forgive me for that.
The Big Fight
Long after Sarah and the grandkids had gone to bed, night found Owen too restless to sleep. Moving quietly, he slipped through the house like a shadow, considering what he wanted to do.
Insomnia had plagued him when he was younger, before he met Sarah. He’d had a lot of devils riding his back then, personal demons who’d dug in with deep claws. Being married hadn’t exactly gotten rid of all of them, but they’d mostly been banished, only appearing now and again. When that happened, he’d simply shift into the wolf he could become and go for a long run, making passes back by the house on a regular basis to make sure he wasn’t needed.
Through the years, they’d had many sleepless nights as a couple, part of the ups and downs of raising children. Dealing with sickness, the turmoil of teenage years, worrying about their adult children…
The sleeplessness of a parent didn’t really go away when the kids turned eighteen, he thought with a chuckle. It just became a different kind of worry. With few exceptions, he wouldn’t have changed any of that struggle, as it would have meant changing the present, and Owen very much treasured his present reality.
Since he’d turned eighty a few years back, he’d not felt up to the job of letting his body shift into anything else. Though he was still spry, often amazing strangers who didn’t know his age, shifting took too much out of him these days, expending energy he wasn’t willing to waste anymore. Far from extending his life, as he’d felt the process had done in his younger days, his gut told him that trying now would shorten his allotment by precious days. Owen wasn’t willing to risk that. He had too much living yet to do to make that kind of capricious sacrifice.
Instead, he settled for grabbing a glass of chocolate milk and a handful of the homemade cookies he’d stashed away where the kids couldn’t find them and headed for his comfy rocking chair on the front porch. The moon was full tonight, and he would enjoy watching it rise over the mountains.
He’d no sooner finished the cookies than he spied two figures walking back toward the house from the barn. One shorter, one tall; one light, one dark. Sadie and Colin. The youngest and the oldest of his baby Amelia’s children, they were both shapeshifters.
Sadie was a silver wolf like Amelia. Colin, who was about as near a clone as he could be to his father, was a mountain lion in his animal form, also just like Logan. If the boy hadn’t had his mother’s blue eyes instead of his father’s green, they could have passed for twins, albeit of different ages.
Owen could hear them laughing softly, and he watched Colin tug Sadie into a headlock. He also heard Colin grunt as she jabbed him and then danced away, and Owen chuckled softly. They had a good relationship, those two, similar to the one Amelia had with her own siblings. Amelia and Logan had done a good job with them, with all four of their children really—even though Sean tended to get a bit of a stick up his rump from time to time. That, Owen acknowledged with a sigh, was something he got straight from his father.
They slowed when they reached the walk leading up to the porch and saw him.
“Grandpa. Everything okay?” Colin asked.
“Sure. I just wanted some fresh air. Did you two have a good run?”
Colin slung his arm around Sadie, pulling her into another headlock. “Yeah, until this little brat decided to shove me into a big puddle with leeches and snapping turtles.”
Sadie was laughing too hard to fight him, so she ended up leaning against him. “You’re such a chicken for a guy who spends so much time in the woods. Did you know that?”
“Do you know how much those snapping turtles like my long tail?” Colin countered indignantly. “It hurts when they bite!”
Owen laughed. “You have such a hard life, young man.”
Colin grinned. “It’s sure tough. Go fix us a snack, brat.” He released Sadie with a gentle hair ruffle.
She propped her hands on her hips. “Why, because I’m female?”
“No, because you’re a brat and you owe me,” Colin said as he sank into the chair beside Owen. “And because I’m bigger than you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just don’t be surprised when your sandwich has worms or some such inside. Grandpa, do you want anything?” She picked up his empty dishes.
“No, sweetheart, I’m fine, thanks.”
Once she’d gone in and a faint light shone through the dining room window, indicating she was in the kitchen, Colin let out a low growl of frustration. “Sean’s been picking on her again. I’m going to have to do something about that.”
Owen was aware that the kind of picking Colin and Luke did and the kind Sean handed out were vastly different. All the boys had tempers—Sadie did as well—but Sean’s tended to come out a bit more meanly than his brothers’. Sadie, although she tried to avoid him when he was brooding, had a penchant for setting him off.
“What’d he do?”
Colin shrugged. “He had something wrong with the driver’s window in his car, and when she told him she didn’t have time to work on it, he snubbed up. Sean tends to think that just because she’s a natural-born mechanic, she’ll work for free and on demand. Dad just about took his head off over it a couple of times last week. I think he’s counting the days until Sean leaves for college this fall, and Sean’s just as eager to go.”
Owen knew Logan was struggling with butting heads with his youngest son. He’d expressed his frustration to his brother Archer and to Owen a couple of weeks ago after a family dinner at his and Amelia’s house.
To Colin, Owen said, “Sometimes it takes distance—and a lot of it—to smooth a boy’s sharp edges down into a pattern that makes him fit better within the family. A young man oftentimes has to leave home in order to find himself.”
Colin laughed softly. “Yeah, I’ve heard that. Maybe I don’t look at Sean the way I should. Even though we work really well together on the videos and stuff, we’re not that much alike. Mom says he’s too similar to how Dad was before they got married, and if he doesn’t cool it, she’s going to take a skillet to his head. Says he has too much Gibson and not enough Campbell in him.”
At twenty-four, Colin had only moved out of Logan and Amelia’s home last year, and even then, he’d just gone as far as an apartment over their detached garage. The funniest part of the whole thing was that Logan—who’d teased his son relentlessly for years with good-tempered frustration about his unwillingness to move out—had been devastated.
“I’ll make sure she knows she can stay here as long as she needs to,” Owen said quietly as soft voices approached from inside the house. “That might help a bit.”
Colin touched his shoulder. “Thanks, Grandpa.”
Sadie stepped out carrying Baby Owen, followed by Easton, who had a tray of food.
“Look who’s awake,” she said.
“How’s she doing?” Owen asked. He turned on the lamp beside him as Easton distributed the food. “Want me to take her while you eat?”
“I can multitask,” Sadie said, grabbing half a sandwich. “She seems calm enough right now.”
“She’s had several hours of sleep,” Easton said. “She didn’t make a peep from the time I put her down at eight until just a few minutes ago. I hope Noah and Sophie are getting some rest. He hasn’t texted me since ten, so maybe that means they’re knocked out. What are you doing up so late, Grandpa?”
Owen stretched out his legs. “Enjoying my grandkids and the moonrise.” He held his hands out to Sadie, who was struggling to keep a curious Baby Owen away from her food. “You can take her back when you’re finished eating.”
A few scant minutes passed before the door opened quietly. “Goodness, are we having a party?” Sarah came outside and took the chair Easton pulled over for her. “Thanks, sweetie. How long have you all been up?”
“Not too long, at least some of us.” Owen touched her hand. “Did we wake you?”
She kissed the back of his. “You know I don’t sleep well when you’re not with me. It’s fine.”
“Aww, you two… you’re so cute.” Sadie sat cross-legged on the floor in front of them, tucking into her food. “Did you re-read the letters?”
“Some of them,” Owen replied. “There are a lot of memories in that old box.”
“Good memories, right?” She licked her thumb. “Mm-mm. Peanut butter and jelly never gets old.”
“Mostly good,” Sarah answered. “There are some sad times chronicled in those letters too.” Her hand tightened around Owen’s.
He knew she was thinking about the point when they’d stopped reading earlier that evening—the letter he’d written to her after the miscarriage. Even fifty-some years later, it was still a painful time to consider.
“There are also some embarrassing stories within those pages,” he said, hoping to lighten the burden. Shifting the baby to his other side, he dug into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a folded paper. He handed it to Sarah. “Look what I found.”
When she unfolded the note, he held his breath.
She read it, tilted her head, and re-read it, then looked straight ahead with a single shake of her head. “Oh, my God. I’d forgotten about this.”
“Don’t leave us curious cats in suspense for too long,” Colin said. “You know that’s dangerous.”
Sarah’s laughter pealed out. “A little curiosity is good for you, silly boy. As to the story… I’m assuming by you bringing this out in front of all these lookie-loos, you’re okay with finally telling the tale?” she asked Owen.
He shrugged. “Might as well. It’ll give them something to rib their folks about. None of your parents even know the story, you see.”
“Yes, because your grandfather was so embarrassed by how hugely he lost his temper, he forbade any of us to tell it.” Sarah made a face at him. “I still can’t believe you did that. You could have been arrested, you know, you silly man.”
Owen glowered at her. “Sarah Jane, I’d do the same thing tomorrow if presented with similar circumstances. Though I will admit I could have probably held my temper and my tongue more than I did.”
She huffed. “I know you would. Well, go on. They’re all dying from curiosity.” A smile played around her lips, and he could swear her eyes sparkled with anticipation.
Grumbling, more because he liked to tease her than because of any real aggravation, he passed the baby back to Sadie and settled in to tell the story.
“It was getting close to Valentine’s Day, 1967. We’d had a rough few months, and we were looking forward to spending a few days alone. Uncle Eli and Amy had come up to get the kids and take them back to London so we could have some time for us. We had John, Emma, and Ben at that point,” he said, lacing his fingers with Sarah’s.
“What kind of rough months?” Easton asked quietly. “I didn’t think you two had ever had any trouble.”
When Sarah nodded, Owen answered, “We didn’t, not the kind you mean. We lost a baby in sixty-six, when Sarah was just a couple of months along. It took the wind out of our sails for a bit, that’s all.”
Words of sympathy came from all the kids.
Sarah smiled at them, her glance tinged with sadness. “It was a long time ago, but thank you.”
“Anyhow, to say our romantic vacation didn’t go as planned is a bit of an understatement.” Owen shook his head. “It went straight sideways on day one and all downhill from there.”
Sarah raised her eyebrows. “That’s not the way I remember it at all. And we did end up with Rachel a few months later, so I must not be imagining how things turned out.”
To his consternation, Owen felt his cheeks heat as the kids snickered and “eww’d” in turn. “Woman, hush. You’re getting ahead of yourself.” But he kissed her hand and winked. “Now, where was I?”
“Hopefully getting ready to tell us why you almost got arrested,” Easton said with a grin.
“I didn’t almost get arrested. I could have been. There’s an important distinction there. But you’ll see what I mean.” Owen grinned. “It all started with a high-school crush…”
February 10, 1967
Owen Campbell was a man full of anticipation. For the next few days, for the first time in too long, he was going to have his wife all to himself. With their three children safely attended to by trusted family and with Sarah having a few days off from work at the library starting tomorrow, they had nothing planned except each other.
The last few months had been reminiscent of the first few months of their marriage, when a painful loss had somewhat overshadowed their joy at being newly married. These next few days would be the first time since Sarah’s miscarriage that they’d had more than a few hours to themselves. Owen knew they were both very much looking forward to the privacy.
With an empty house and nothing but time on his hands, he decided to head to town. He could indulge his genealogy habit at the library for a few hours, and maybe he could even take Sarah to lunch. It only took a few minutes to grab his work satchel and stuff some notebooks and pencils inside, along with the charts of the particular lineages he was working on. Feeling like a man ready to pick up his girl and whisk her away, he even whistled a cheerily off-key tune as he headed for his truck.
When he got to the library in downtown Hazard, he lucked out and grabbed one of the coveted spots directly behind the structure. It was still early, just past nine, and he hoped there wouldn’t be many people around this time of day. If the parking lot was any indication, he’d gotten his wish.
As he walked through the tiny lot, he slowed to admire a cherry-red sports car with white trim. Owen had never been terribly interested in cars, but he had to admit, as he continued on past, that the sharp, sleek lines of the low-slung vehicle were impressive.
As soon as he opened the glass door at the front of the library, he took a deep breath and slowly let it out as the familiar scent created by thousands of books washed over him. Ever since he was a small boy, Owen had been enchanted by books. That’d he gotten lucky enough to fall in love with a woman who shared that fascination was simply one more aspect of his marriage he was thankful for.
Shirley Baker looked up as he opened the second glass door off the vestibule, her smile tense. “Owen, hello.”
Concerned, Owen nodded. “Shirley. Everything okay?”
She eyed him up and down. “I hope so. How’s your temper today?”
Before Owen could answer, he heard Sarah scoff in the stacks. The sound was one he was familiar with, as they were both stubborn people who tended to butt heads over small things on a somewhat regular occasion. That half snort of exasperation indicated a deep-seated frustration that was a hair away from turning into anger. Straightening, he watched as she came out of the stacks, a man strange to Owen not far behind her. When she saw Owen standing at the counter, her eyes widened and she mouthed a curse.
A strong sense of déjà vu settled over him. Before he and Sarah had started dating, he’d walked in on a similar scene that had ended badly—courtesy of his book-wielding wife—for the man. He set his bag down, ready to intervene, but Shirley placed a hand on his arm and drew his attention.
“Let her handle this, you hear me?” she said in a low voice. “Nobody else is here, and she needs to get this off her chest.”
“Handle what?” Owen scowled as Sarah went around the opposite end of the long checkout counter, putting it between her and the man. He glared at the man who, having turned his back toward Owen and Shirley, was oblivious.
The man spoke. “Sarah, it’s just lunch. What harm is that going to do anyone? You’re acting like I’m asking you to run away with me. Come on, for old time’s sake. I know you had a crush on me back when we were kids. I’m not above using that to get what I want now. We can be friends, right?”
Shirley’s question about the state of his temper made sense now. It was easy to imagine himself lifting the man off his feet by the scruff of his neck and tossing him through the plate-glass window that overlooked High Street. The only thing holding Owen back, aside from disbelief, was his need to see Sarah’s reaction.
When she laid down a book slowly, as though it were a bomb ready to detonate at the slightest jostle, Owen winced. He certainly didn’t feel sorry for the man, whoever he was, but he knew what was coming wouldn’t be pretty.
Lifting her eyes from her hands, which had a white-knuckle grip on the hapless book, she squared her shoulders. “I had a crush on you when I was fifteen. That ended the day I heard you laughing about me with my sister and her friends. You can ‘use’ that until the cows come home, Paul Turner, and all it’s going to get you is more of the same cold shoulder. Even if I wasn’t married—happily married—I’d not be interested in the likes of you.
“Now I’m not supposed to talk about the patrons, and I do my best not to listen to gossip, but I’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to know what sorry shenanigans you’ve been up to the last few years. With every piece of information that comes my way, I thank God I heard you all talking that day in the drama room. Because without that wake-up call, I might have been stupid enough to make cow eyes at you long enough for you to pay attention, and I’d have been the one knocked up in the backseat of your daddy’s car.”
“Now that’s not fair,” Turner protested, straightening from his casual slouch against the counter. “Come on, Sarah.”
“Don’t you ‘come on’ me, you dumbass! I can’t imagine being stuck with you for lunch, never mind the rest of my life. I’m not interested in you, in who your daddy is, how much money he has, or what flashy car you drive this week that he bought and paid for. There’s not a single thing in this world that could change that. You’re wasting your time, my time, and everybody’s time with this… this line of bull you’re standing here spouting. I’ve put up with it for a week, and that’s enough already! And so help me, if you ‘now Sarah’ me one more time, I swear I’ll hit you. I don’t care if I get fired, and I promise you this—I’ll make it count, buddy.”
Owen had heard enough. He didn’t care that Turner was holding up his hands in resignation. He didn’t care that Sarah was more than capable of doing exactly what she’d promised. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were dark with anger. The man had upset her enough, she’d said her piece, and it was time for Turner to go.
In a couple of steps, he was behind Turner, his arm around the man’s neck and one of Turner’s arms pinned up behind his back between them. “You’re done here. Let’s go.”
“Hey. Hey! What the hell, man? I was just talking to the lady.”
Owen growled and tightened his arm around Turner’s neck. “Yeah, and now you’re not.”
“Owen…” Sarah warned, “He’s not worth it.”
“I’m not going to hurt him. We’re just gonna walk out to his car. A personal escort off the premises. That’s all. Let me guess—flashy red car parked in the back?”
Shirley, who’d come over to stand beside Sarah when Owen moved, nodded. “Mr. Turner, the library is closed to you for the time being. I’d appreciate it if you’d adhere to that.”
When he didn’t answer right away, Owen pinched his wrist.
Turner squeaked. “Yeah, fine. Fine! Let go of me. I’ll leave.”
Owen released him, then widened his stance just in case the man turned around swinging. But Turner stepped away, rubbing his wrist, and glared at Owen like a wounded animal.
“Who the hell are you?” Turner asked.
“Her husband.” Owen closed the distance between them. “Let’s go.”
Turner snorted, but he moved toward the door. “Figures.” He hit the glass door with a hard hand, cursing under his breath.
With a glance back at Sarah and Shirley, Owen followed. Turner was muttering the whole time, but he didn’t directly address Owen until they’d reached the parking lot.
Owen shrugged. “Now’s simple.”
In a flash, his fist shot out in a quick jab that snapped Turner’s head back. Before the man could recover, Owen had his hands in Turner’s shirtfront and Turner himself pinned up against the side of the building, dangling a foot off the ground.
It took everything in Owen not to let Turner see the flash of his eyes that would reveal his shapeshifting nature, but he did nothing to stop his old-fashioned anger from shining through. “I know all about you, just like Sarah does. I know you hurt her in high school, and I know you’re trouble now. I’m not about to let you bother her. You stay the hell away from my wife, or I’ll rip you apart and nobody will ever find all the pieces. Is that simple enough?”
Maybe it was the statement itself, or maybe Owen had slipped up and let some of the wolf show after all. But for whatever reason, Turner’s face paled. “You can’t stop her if she wants me.”
For good measure, Owen gave him another little shake, then he let him down, laughing even through his anger. “You’re a pure idiot. Sarah doesn’t want you. She says what she means, means what she says. If you had a lick of common sense, you’d realize that. You’re wasting your time.”
Turner kept a wary eye on him as he wiped blood from his busted lip with the back of his hand. “You believe what she said in there?” His tone was derisive. “What did you think she’d say with you standing there?”
Owen first went hot and then cold all over. When Turner’s eyes widened, Owen knew without a doubt the wolf was shining through. For the first time in his life, he was too angry to care about the danger of being outed.
The other man swallowed, then crossed himself. “My God, what are you?”
If he touched Turner again, Owen knew he might well kill him. “I’m a man who loves his wife. You still doubt me when I say I can tear you apart? Are you that stupid even now, huh? Why don’t you tell me again she didn’t mean what she said? Better yet, why don’t you get the hell out of here and forget that Sarah Campbell exists?”
Turner lowered his eyes, not looking directly at Owen again. “Gladly.”
“That’s probably the best decision you’ve made in years.”
After a charged minute, Owen stepped back so that Turner could get past him. He didn’t turn his back on the man though, knowing too well how duplicitous people could be.
When Turner reached his car, he lifted his chin. “I can’t believe she married you.”
“Yeah? Well, she did, and she’s happy. Go find someone else to harass. If I see you near her again…” Owen huffed as the door to the balcony above his head opened and Sarah stepped outside. “Though I might not have to do a damned thing if she gets her hands on you.”
By the time she reached the bottom of the metal steps, Turner was gone. She gazed down the street after his car, then turned to Owen. “What happened? Are you okay?”
Owen didn’t answer her straight away. He couldn’t. All the adrenaline and fear and anger was churning inside him, and he needed a minute to pull himself together. Closing his eyes, he took some deep breaths, letting them out slowly.
“Please tell me you didn’t hurt him,” she said softly when he finally looked at her.
“Why? You worried about him?” Owen shook himself, growling, as anger flashed in her eyes. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I gave him a fat lip, that’s all. How long has he been coming around you?”
Sarah’s eyes widened with disbelief. “You… a fat lip? You hit him? Owen! What were you thinking?”
Incredulous, he glowered at her. “What was I thinking? Oh, I don’t know, maybe how best to avoid my deep-seated desire to rip his throat out.”
“Oooh, you stubborn man! Don’t you realize he could have you arrested? Then where would that leave us?” She paced away from him, arms crossed. “Unbelievable. Why is it that men always go straight for punching?”
“Sarah. How long?” Hands on his hips, Owen stared at the ground. In the nearly seven years they’d been married, they’d never had a major fight or gotten beyond raised voices to the yelling stage. He was terribly afraid that today they’d reach that stage.
A tense pause ensued.
“A week,” she answered. “He showed up a week ago and a couple of times since. He… came in and chatted a bit, asked me to lunch, and when I turned him down, he left. That was the end of it until today.” She glanced at him, then away, and walked to the other side of his truck, where she stood beside the railing that separated the parking lot from the building next door.
After a moment, Owen followed. He leaned his hips against the rail, turning so that he faced her. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She lifted her hands, then let them fall back to the rail, where she twisted her wedding rings. “What was there to tell? I didn’t expect to see him again after the last time. He was never this pushy before. I hope to God I never see him again.” She rubbed her forehead and growled. “Stupid man. He should have known better in the first place. Did you flash?”
Owen felt his cheeks heat, and it was his turn to cross his arms. “Yeah.”
Sarah sighed. “Owen…”
“What? I tried not to, but… he got way out of line.”
When she snorted, he chanced looking at her. Though she wasn’t smiling, he didn’t think she was still angry at him.
“How’d he react? Since you aren’t panicking, I’m going to assume he didn’t try to call down Jesus on your head and grab a pitchfork. What’d you say to him anyhow?”
Owen frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. “I just told him that if he bothered you again, I’d tear him apart and no one would find the pieces.”
She shook her head slowly. “Well. Okay, then. That’s creative.”
“I could have said I was going to rip his balls off and feed them to him. Would that have been better?” He sighed. “I’m sorry about the flash. I… I didn’t think. I was too mad. For what it’s worth, he recovered fast enough. Maybe I’m not as scary as I think I am.”
Sarah, who’d seen him flash once or twice through the years, though not at her, lifted an eyebrow. “Um, yeah, you are. Did he say anything?”
“Asked me what I am and crossed himself. So maybe he did call down Jesus.”
“So long as he didn’t grab a pitchfork. What’d you tell him?”
Owen ducked his head. “That I’m simply a man who loves his wife and won’t stand for seeing her harassed.”
This time when she shook her head, there were tears in her eyes. “I can’t stay angry at you, even though I probably should try at least a little. I’m not a piece of meat for two men to fight over, you know.”
Taking a chance, he touched her cheek. “No, you aren’t. But I would kill for you if you were truly in harm’s way.”
Sarah pressed his hand against her face, and she sniffled a bit as she kissed his palm. “Stubborn man.”
He pulled her close for a tight hug. “We probably should go reassure Shirley that we’re all still standing.”
“In a minute,” she said, snuggling nearer. “It’s cold out here, and you’re so warm. Besides, she hated him on sight. Apparently she knows his father and has a similar relationship with him.”
“Proof positive that stupidity runs in families,” Owen promptly responded. “Let’s get you inside.”
She led the way, but she kept her hand tangled with his. “You know, when I was fifteen and I overheard him joking with Kathy and her friends about me… I’d really have enjoyed seeing you tear him apart then. Figuratively, of course. But it scares me now, thinking about that kind of violence and anger. Not because I fear you, but because I know it could take you away from me, and I don’t want that. Promise me you won’t take this kind of risk again?”
Owen touched her shoulders and stopped her, turning her toward him. “I’ll never promise not to stand up for you, for us. But I will be more careful if this kind of thing happens again. Okay?”
She searched his eyes. “Okay. I love you, you know.”
He smiled, nearly grinning, and dipped his head to give her a very fast, very chaste kiss. “I do know that. I really do.”
The funny thing was he meant it. He did believe she loved him, though he’d struggled for years to understand why. Early in their relationship, he might have been shaken by Turner’s taunts, but now? He didn’t have a single doubt about what he meant to Sarah.
Sarah touched his cheek. “Stubborn man. You’re the love of my life.”
“And you’re mine, Sarah Jane, for always.”
~ * * * ~
When Owen finished speaking, he kissed Sarah’s hand, then looked at the grandkids. “Well? Did you think I had it in me?”
Easton laughed softly. “Oh, yeah. After all, didn’t you bust Lee’s lip over Mom just a few years back? I am impressed that you didn’t rip Turner limb from limb. That was bold as brass for those days, wasn’t it? What he said to Grandma?”
Lee was Easton’s stepfather, Rachel’s husband, and he and Owen had had a rocky patch before Lee and Rachel became engaged.
Owen waggled his finger at Easton. “Now, now, I’m reformed. As to what Turner said…”
Sarah shrugged. “Paul was bold. A lot of men were in those days—women too. It was just dressed up with more of a ‘pretty’ veneer then, I think. Aside from his refusal to take no for an answer, he didn’t get that far out of line. I’d heard worse before and did after that too.”
“What?” Owen sat forward. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She laughed. “Why do you think? It wasn’t very often, and it was always swiftly taken care of. I did tell you when it was important, which wasn’t enough to even mention except in passing.”
He huffed and squeezed her hand. “You say that now.”
“Well, I couldn’t have you beating up every man who came into the library, now could I?” She winked at him. “Besides, Shirley really enjoyed taking on some of those guys. That’s how she ended up married to Arnold, you know. He got fresh with her.”
“We’ll have to finish this discussion later, young lady, when we don’t have an audience.” He looked at the kids. “See what you get when you marry a stubborn woman like your grandmother?”
Colin’s smile was soft and maybe just a bit sad. “A lot of happiness, I’d say.”
Owen sat back with a contented sigh. “Oh, yes. That much and then some.”
~ * * * ~