Hard Lessons

***Amanda***

I sink my fingers deep into the rich, brown humus. I always feel whole when I connect like this to Mother Nature. All my cares and worries just seem to melt away into nothing. I’m tempted to just lay face down for a bit. It’s called grounding or earthing.

But I can almost hear Jason’s chuckle, which was usually followed by some sarcastic remark about lack of scientific research or dignity. He was wrong, though. There is research supporting the hypothesis that the transfer of electrons to the human body has health benefits. Maybe if Jason had been more open-minded about alternative health….

I close my eyes and plunge my hands deeper into the soil. I draw in a deep, cleansing breath. “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” It is another of my mantras when my brain begins to circle the drain as it has these past few days.

I do pretty well on days like this when the weak fall sun is shining. I gather the few remaining bits of this year’s scant harvest for canning, drying, or freezing. But most of the time, I focus on conditioning the soil for next year’s crops. There isn’t much to show for my labors this year. Enough to feed me and a couple other families. But that’s to be expected in the first year. It makes me long for my mature ecosystem back home.

Except, of course, it was never truly my home. And I sold Jason’s project. I scandalized the realtor when I accepted a lower bid from a family who intended to keep my gardens. They were actually delighted to have an established permaculture garden. Those gardens were the only thing about that place that I had any control over. And they were my pride and joy. What was another hundred-thousand dollars compared to knowing they weren’t going to be ripped out and replaced with some mostly stone, gravel, and wood entertainment area?

Except I could use that extra hundred grand right now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m nowhere near broke. Not yet anyway. And I keep reminding myself that this community is still in its infancy. Of course, there will be more expenses during these first few years. But that isn’t all that reassuring as I watch my account balances drop at an unsustainable rate.

“Hey, Amanda. How’s it going?”

I turn and smile at Hannah. Her hair and makeup are immaculate, but I can see a couple of stains on her t-shirt. The grubby hands of her son, who is slung across her hips, probably have something to do with that. Is her tummy bigger than it was two days ago?

“Hey, you. How much longer do you have to go now?”

“Another six weeks, don’t remind me.” Her smile is tight as she sits her two-year-old Kyle down. He heads straight for the muddy play area in the back corner of this once vacant lot. Most of the things in it are upcycled; old tires, rocks, a kitchen made from reclaimed wood, and lots and lots of pots, pans, and spoons for digging. All from charity shops, of course.

I wipe my hands on my jeans and stand up. That’s not as easy as it once was. Another reminder that this body is getting older. But I’m in better shape than many women my age. And would I really want to switch places with Hannah? There’s lots to be said for experience and wisdom. Assuming I have any. Which most days, I think I do. But those doubts always come back in the dark.

“How about some herb tea? I have loads of red raspberry leaf. It’s good for pregnancy, helps tone your uterus for labor. The bushes are too young to produce fruit this year, but I had loads of leaves for drying.”

She nods her head, but as she steps closer, I see that her eyes are swollen. Of course, crying is common enough in pregnancy, especially if you’re also trying to corral an active toddler. But I’m more worried about her husband. That man….

I walk over to the small shed and turn on the kettle to boil. I pull a couple of cups from the shelf and two muslin bags, spooning herbs from the glass jars on the table. I add a bit of turmeric powder to mine. It’s anti-inflammatory for those aging joints.

Hannah keeps her head turned away, staring at Kyle most of the time but occasionally looking around the community garden. It’s coming together nicely. The close to two dozen raised beds have wood-chipped paths between them. There’s a composting area as well as a polytunnel and greenhouse for starting seedlings during the upcoming winter months.

In a couple of years, this place should produce a substantial portion of the fresh fruit and vegetable needs of many families in the community. When combined with the additional space around my house, we’ll be almost self-sufficient in them.

But as I pass the steaming cup to Hannah, the tears in her eyes tell me that isn’t what she’s thinking about. I offer another smile but don’t press her. I’ve learned that being willing to listen works better most of the time. We both take a couple of sips as we watch Kyle make a mud pie.

“It’ll probably taste better than anything I cook for dinner.” I notice more tears gathering in Hannah’s eyes.

“I have a rich beef stew in the crockpot. How about I make up a batch of biscuits and bring some over for dinner, sweetie? That way, you don’t have to worry about cooking tonight.” Or feeding the little boy more processed crap, but I’m smart enough not to say that.

She shakes her head and wipes her eyes with the back of one hand, smearing the mascara that has run down her cheeks even more. “I can’t impose like that, Miss Manda. You’ve been so good to us already. Bringing all those fresh vegetables for us. But I will take you up on those cooking lessons now that Kyle is in the head start program three mornings a week. If I can drag my fat ass out of bed….”

More tears are falling, and I can’t resist reaching out and placing a hand on her shoulder. I give it a gentle squeeze, “Give yourself a break. You’re growing a little human inside there. That always drains a woman.” I resight things I learned years ago when I took a doula course and volunteered with domestic abuse survivors.

“Todd says I’m just a fat lazy cow.”

I stiffen at her mention of her boyfriend. I’d like five minutes alone with that man – and legal immunity. I’m not sure if he physically abuses Hannah and Kyle. I haven’t seen any bruises or anything. But sometimes, words and neglect are just as harmful. I feel my chest tighten at my own memories of Jason’s backhanded ‘compliments.’

I’m struggling to come up with encouraging words that aren’t vitriolic of the man. Except Todd Stevens is anything but a man. An overgrown selfish little boy. But I know personally that Hannah has to come to see for herself. But before I can think of those words, she breaks down into more tears.

“I think he’s cheating again. And Mama says it’s all my fault for getting pregnant and letting myself go.”

Hannah’s mother, another of my neighbors and a former ‘friend’ from my childhood, is also less than my favorite person.

Just like when we were in school together, there’s never a hair out of place on the woman’s bleached head. She spends money she doesn’t have on designer label clothes, then puts on old rags and goes to the churches and food pantries for help with her bills and food. Of course, the woman never learned to cook a proper meal, even though she had four children. So when I took over some fresh produce, Tammy just turned up her powdered nose and said, “Whatever would I do with that?”

Hannah is her oldest child and the only girl. Of course, that meant most of the work of raising her three younger brothers fell to her. And without anyone to teach her the basics, her life is less than easy. Even without a lazy, lying, cheating asshole for a boyfriend and the father of her children.

I breathe deeply; that meditation shit sure comes in handy. Who am I to talk? My first husband cheated on me. At least twice. And while I never doubted Jason’s love for me, our marriage was anything but the equitable partnership that it should have been. But the young woman standing here is not me. And hell, yeah, maybe I do know a thing or two about relationships. Even if it is more how they shouldn’t be than how they should.

I’m just about to break down and tell Hannah what I think of both her mother and boyfriend when some fancy limo drives up and parks right in front of my house. I frown as Hannah wipes her eyes and finishes off what had been her perfect makeup. “Looks like you have company. I’ll get Kyle and let you go.”

I want to argue with her, but she is already half away across the community garden. I’ll just send away whoever it is, probably one of Jason’s former financial advisors or maybe one of the attorneys, though I don’t know what they’d want with me. I have my own here now. People whose ethics are more in line with my own. So if they think they can sweet-talk, bully, or cajole me back into using their services, they have another think coming.

I put down my cup of tea and wave to Hannah as she carries a screaming Kyle across the street. “I’ll stop by later with that stew and biscuits, sweetie. We can finish our conversation then.” Maybe if I take my frustration and anger out on whoever is in that fancy car, I’ll even be able to smile and bite my tongue. Keeping my true thoughts and feelings about Tammy Taylor and Todd Stevens to myself.

At least until Hannah is ready to see the truth for herself. After all, it took me close to a decade to get to that point with Jason. And I hadn’t a clue about my first marriage until my husband asked me for a divorce. Yeah, maybe I don’t have any right to judge?

But that’s another of those things to haunt me in that lonely house with its memories and doubts hiding in every corner. And right now, there’s some rich man in over-priced designer jeans and a knit shirt getting out the back of that limo. I can’t see his face; he’s turned in the wrong direction. But price aside, he sure does fill them out nicely. Nothing wrong with a woman looking. As long as she knows the score.

And I’ve learned that. The hard way. I just wish the Hannahs of this world didn’t have to. Just let me deal with this trouble then I’ll take over some food and listen to her woes. I wipe my hands on my jeans as I walk towards my house, “Excuse me, but can I help you….”

The words freeze in my throat as the man turns, and I get my first look at his face. Yeah, this one I’d goggled, but not for that reason. Still, Peter Millner, the third, is even better looking in person than in those photos. Not that I care.

But why the hell would the man be here? Shit, maybe I should have listened to that tiny voice before I hit that publish button. But I thought I was careful to make it clear that those were my opinions and not accusations. Just maybe not enough to satisfy this man? You’d think that someone like him would leave the dirty work to his staff, though. I just hope that a retraction will be good enough. I mean, does Millner Textiles really need the few millions Jason left me? I guess I’m about to find out.

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