Mabel: 4 years ago
Mabel Ruth Muldowney stared out the window above the kitchen sink at the vast expanse of farmland that stretched as far as the eye could see, hating the bucolic view and cursing every single stupid ear of corn and each miserable grain of wheat. She reached into the sink and pulled the last plate from the sudsy water, then dried it with a worn dish towel. As more people arrived, more dishes were required. And it was a hell of a lot easier to be in here. Out there, in the living room, disapproving glances and the buzz of condolence-laden conversation had her on the cusp of losing her mind.
Didn’t these people understand that her heart had shattered into a million pieces?
A traitorous tear rolled down her cheek, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.
How was this even happening?
She was in her kitchen—nothing new about that. Same butcher block countertop. Same faded yellow curtains. Same refrigerator humming in the corner. Same old everything.
Except nothing would be the same again.
She set the plate on top of the stack of dishes, still not quite dry. They certainly wouldn’t meet her father’s standards, but she didn’t care.
She carried them over to the kitchen table, teeming with food, and grimaced.
She nudged a lime-green Jell-O mold covered in clear plastic wrap out of the way and set the stack of dishes on the table. Wiping the back of her hand across her forehead, she sighed and stared at the cluttered surface as the waning rays of the summer sun reflected off of a sea of tinfoil. Her gaze grew bleary, but she blinked away the threat of tears as anger edged out heartbreak.
Why did people always bring casseroles?
It was bad enough that she’d never see her beloved older brother again—bad enough that he’d died on her twenty-first birthday. Why did the damn town have to add insult to injury and inundate them with the noxious scent of tuna noodle casserole, green bean casserole, and—the worst—chicken mac casserole?
She peeled back the tinfoil on an imposing seven-quart deep-dish beast with a bubbled over brown film coating the sides of the ivory dish and wrinkled her nose.
Frito pie casserole.
She molded the foil back into place, wishing she could chuck the damned thing out the window. But God only knows what would happen if the chickens, goats, or Jamie’s black lab, Duke, got into it.
Welcome to the rural hell of Elverna, Illinois.
Otherwise known as Nowheresville, USA.
Did these people believe that a dense glop of questionable meats combined with flour, potatoes, or freaking corn chips could stop the pain?
She balled her hands into tight fists, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks, and allowed the misplaced fury to fill the hole in her heart.
Until a week ago, Jamie, her vibrant twenty-four-year-old brother, had his whole life ahead of him. The same brother who used to carry her around on his back when they were kids had stood in this very kitchen and listened to her go on about a new graphic design program she’d mastered. And he’d nodded approvingly when she’d told him for what must have been the hundredth time how once she saved up enough tips from her gig waitressing at the diner, she planned on getting the hell out of this town and making it big as a fashion and lifestyle social media influencer.
That’s my Mabel! Always reaching for the stars!
He’d spoken the words without an ounce of derision because he believed in her. His easy smile and open heart were the polar opposite of the rest of the town’s judgmental huffs and disapproving glances.
Everyone loved Jamie. People naturally gravitated toward him. He had a zest for life impossible to ignore. Even her dad couldn’t help but crack a smile when her brother would talk of his plans to transform the farm.
And while she supported him, she couldn’t understand how anyone could get so fired up about farming. Still, he was near giddy with the prospect of doing something big for this town and for their family.
But he wasn’t alone in his pursuit.
Frustration laced with absolute loathing coursed through her veins at the thought of the man—Callan Horner, her brother’s best friend, no less—who shared Jamie’s passion for agriculture.
Cal wasn’t always the bane of her existence.
She used to idolize him when they were kids. But the guy hadn’t given her the time of day in years.
She shook her head, willing away the thoughts of Cal, and focused on her memories of Jamie.
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