Travis was exhausted as he lifted Bree’s wheelchair from the back of the truck. He had noticed that she was getting a bit big for it. Another reminder that he needed to get on the phone to the VA and get the paperwork started to add Keisha and Breeanne as his dependents, now that everything was all legal.
Married – he was married again. He still could not get his mind around the idea. Even with a half dozen copies of the license in his pocket. Before he had fully convinced Key-Key of his plan, he had begun to research all the practicalities.
While it might have been nice to get married here, where his father and friends could attend, the opening hours at the county courthouse was so limited and fully booked well into the new year. It had been easier to get the license handled in Atlanta, but they were not performing ceremonies. Bree had been the one to suggest that they get married at her church. The pastor there had been more than happy to officiate.
Of course, he was unsure what to do about a ring, or even if it was important. But his father had settled that issue as they said their goodbyes. He had slipped his mother’s wedding band into Travis’s hand, and with tears in his eyes, said, “She’d want you to have this.” Trav could not push words past the lump in his throat. So he had squeezed his father’s hand around that ring and nodded, allowing answering tears to flow from his eyes.
He was glad that he had insisted on going to Atlanta to help them move and ‘do the deed.’ Something had told him it was not a good idea to let Keisha drive that distance alone with Bree. And when he had stuck his head under the hood of her old car, he knew he had been right. Not even a miracle would have gotten them the seven hundred from Atlanta to here, in that thing. And those tires? He had said a prayer of thanks that they hadn’t blown out or been already in an accident.
He knew how hard it had been for Keisha to let it go. That car was more than just a vehicle to her. It represented her independence. The last shred of it that she had. He knew how that felt. Better than she realized. When he was homeless, it had been so incredibly devastating when he had finally realized that his old truck was more of a liability than an asset. But filling its tank was more than he could afford. And driving without insurance became a risk he could not take.
Then as with hers, he had managed to find someone for whom it would be a blessing rather than a curse. He had given his to a young couple with a baby whose car had broken down at a rest stop where he was sleeping. They could use it to get back home to her family. With Keisha, that preacher had known of another single mother who could use it to get around town, and a member of the church who was a mechanic had even donated four good quality used tires to make it roadworthy. That had made it easier for Key-Key, but he knew it still bothered her.
He forced a smile as he wheeled the chair to the passenger side. She looked so tired. And worried. He wanted to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be alright. That they were safe now. But were they? Was anyone?
He looked to the front porch where his dad leaned against one of the round columns. They had all discussed it and agreed that it would be best for now if they all maintained some distance. His dad had offered to keep mostly to his room for a few days. The master bedroom had its own bathroom. They would bring his meals to him and check up on him a few times a day. There was even a sliding glass door onto the back deck if his father wanted to get some fresh air and sunshine.
Travis knew the situation was probably much better than most people had it. But it did not make him feel any better. They were basically displacing his father from his own home for a week, maybe two. Still that was a better option than something happening to either his dad or the Angel.
They could not be too safe with this damned thing. And Trav had spent the past week in Atlanta, where the disease was much more prevalent. Sure, they had all worn masks every time they left the apartment. But he had been all over the place, dropping Keisha’s stuff at various charities, a couple of trips to the courthouse, picking up Bree’s medical and school records, and of course, going to the store for food. He had been out and about more in the past seven days than he had been in the last seven months. And that was not even counting the dozen or so people from the church who had stopped by to stay goodbye to Breeanne.
“Come on, princess, your carriage awaits,” he reached out to lift the little girl who was now at least partially his responsibility.
Breeanne weighed far less than a young woman her age should. And that fragility weighed on his mind and heart. Yeah, he was not ashamed to admit, he loved the child. She was so much more than some warped sense of responsibility to a Marine he had barely known who had died under his command. Or even the blessing that had drawn him back from the abyss of his own destruction. Over these years, he had come to know her as a person. And her inner strength and beauty always humbled him.
And the way that her face lit up as she looked around her new home made him feel like more of a man than he had in a long time. Since the night he had kept that promise and pressed that faded letter into her mother’s hands.
He looked around at the place he had known all his life through her eyes. The stand of tall pines. The brown fields were cut back, awaiting the first rays of spring to burst forth with life once more. The brick house that his daddy had built for his mama to replace the old wooden framed one still stood on the edge of those woods. His dad had suggested he move there, and they take the main house, but the place was no longer habitable. The old barn with its weathered red paint and the chicken coop next to it. They had brought the cow and chickens in for the winter.
His friend Chad had been looking after the animals while he was away. Such things were well past his dad’s ability these days. Yeah, after a lifetime in the big city, it must all seem strange to them.
Bree beamed up at him as she wrapped her arms around his neck, “Thank you, Travis.”
He was not sure what the child was thanking him for. For lifting her into the wheelchair? For bringing them here? But whatever it was, it could never be enough to repay her for his Christmas miracle.
“It’s my honor and privilege, little lady,” he could barely force the words out his dry throat as tears clouded his eyes.
“We should get you inside, Angel,” Keisha stepped forward to adjust the hat on her daughter’s head.
The woman had dark circles under her eyes. Travis had felt the weight of her worries from the moment she had opened the door to her apartment. This woman had been through so much. In some ways, more than many of the soldiers he knew. And she had done it all alone. But no more. This new start was the least he owed her. If he had…
But what was the point? He knew better than to go down that road. At least not now. Not when they needed him to help get them settled in their new home.
“Look, Mommy, horses,” Bree practically bounced out of his arms.
Travis turned in the direction she pointed to see two horses galloping across the field. He smiled; why should it surprise him?
“Hey, buddy,” the man in the thick Carhartt jacket called out as he brought the red stallion to a stop a reasonable distance from them. “I saw ya’ll drive past and thought we’d ride over. Welcome our new neighbors and see if ya’ll need anything.”
The blond woman by the man’s side hopped from her tan mare. She took a few steps forward and then stopped. “I’m sorry. I just wish I could hug you, sugar. I know how scary all this must be for you. I know you might not believe that, but honestly, I do.”
Travis saw the tears glistening in the woman’s eyes as his friend dismounted and went to stand by his wife’s side, wrapping her in a comforting embrace. He wished that he had the right to do the same for Key-Key. But theirs was not the love-match like Chad and Rose.
His eyes met Keisha’s over the top of Bree’s head, and he nodded. He did not know what was going through the woman’s mind, but he could only imagine. There was truth in Rose’s words. Though the two women could not be any more different, both had lived through their own hells and come out stronger. He hoped that one day Key-Key would see that. That the two women could become friends.
But as always, it was Bree that broke the ice, “I’ve never seen a real horse before.” The light that shown in her eyes told Travis that no matter how tough the road ahead or what came their way, he had done the right thing bringing them here.