If I didn’t know that my daddy was sick, then everything would seem almost normal. He still got up in the morning and went outside to work. He still came inside everyday for lunch. He still talked about the cattle that he’d need to sell off at the end of the summer.
The difference was he didn’t eat a big breakfast like he used to. When I looked for him during the day he was often sitting down in the shade staring off in thought. And at lunch he hardly touched his food. Then there were the times I couldn’t find him. Those were the times he was sick. He hid from me then.
It had only been a week since I’d found out. A week since my world had been altered. I refused to leave him. I had to be here. He had begged me to go at first but after arguing with him I finally broke down and cried like the little girl inside me that was terrified. He had held me and told me I could stay. He understood.
I knew that he didn’t understand. He wasn’t the one who was going to be left. He’d get to be with Momma again. I was the one that would be without them. The doctors had said he could live for six more months if we were lucky. I prayed every night that we were the luckiest people on earth.
“Eva?” Jeremy called my name as the screen door slammed shut behind him. I stopped watching Daddy as he walked across the back yard and walked to the front of the house to see Jeremy.
“Yeah,” I called out as I turned the corner into the kitchen. He was already fixing himself a glass of lemonade. He glanced over at me and frowned.
I knew that frown. He was here to talk. I wasn’t in the mood to talk.
“Cage coming back this afternoon?” he asked while pulling out a chair and flipping it around backwards before sitting in it.
“Yes. He went to get some more things from the apartment that I needed.” The guilt started eating at me again. I tried to ignore it but it was getting worse.
“You gonna make him go aren’t you? It’s his future, Eva.” I had expected this conversation from either Daddy or Jeremy eventually. They’d given me a week reprieve. No one had pushed me to make a decision yet. But Cage had put off going to Tennessee for a week. They were expecting him. He was waiting on me. I knew that if I asked him to stay he would. It was that simple.
“I know that, Jeremy,” I snapped. Because I did know that. I didn’t need him to tell me that I was being selfish. That I was being needy. Cage had a future ahead of him. Going to Tennessee was the first step. He had fought hard for this chance. I loved him enough to let him go without me. I wouldn’t be going with him though. Not this year. I had to stay here. “I’m going to make him leave tomorrow. I planned on talking to him tonight.”
Jeremy sighed and sat his glass down on the table. “He isn’t gonna leave you easily. He’s ready to throw away his scholarship for you.”
I knew that too. I could see it in his eyes. I was going to have to force him to leave me. We could do long distance. Right now he didn’t need to be around me through this. I wasn’t me. I wasn’t myself. I would just drag him down with me. I looked over at Jeremy. “You’ll be here with me?” I asked. Because I couldn’t do this alone.
“I’m not going anywhere, Eva. You got me. I wasn’t wanting to go back anyway. You know that. But Cage. . . He wants to go. This is his chance. I know where I belong now and it’s here.”
It was times like these that it didn’t feel like Josh was gone. When Jeremy reminded me so much of the man I loved and lost. “Thank you.”
“It’s thick and thin, girl. It always has been,” he said with a sad smile.
He was right. We’d been through it all together. I looked out the window and watched as Daddy sat down on the tailgate of his farm truck to drink some water. He was refusing to stop living. This was what he wanted. As angry as I had been when I found out he was refusing to take treatments I couldn’t stay mad at him. It was his life. This was how he wanted his last days to go and I couldn’t take that from him.
“I love that man,” I said more to myself than anyone.
“He loves you too. You’re his world, Eva. You always have been,” Jeremy’s voice was laced with sadness. He loved my daddy too. It was hard not to.
“When Cage leaves tomorrow I’m gonna need you,” I said quietly. I knew I’d made it this week because I’d had Cage’s arms to run to when the pain was too much.
“And I’ll be here,” he assured me.
“I’m going to go visit with Daddy,” I said as I stepped outside.
* * *
Daddy turned his head to see me walking toward him. A smile touched his face. Seeing that smile warmed me. He wasn’t smiling as much these days.
“Hey, Daddy,” I said as I pulled myself up to sit beside him on the tailgate.
“Hey, baby girl,” he replied and reached over to pat my knee.
“It’s hot out today. Normally doesn’t get this hot until July,” I said reaching for the ice towel in Daddy’s cooler and handing it to him. “Cool off.”
He didn’t argue. He took the towel and wiped his face and neck then rolled it up to rest on his neck. “Jeremy inside hiding?” Daddy asked with a grin.
“Probably,” I replied. He always accused Jeremy of hiding when he went to take a break and get a drink.
“Cage was gonna help me with those hay bails those afternoon. When’s he gonna get back?”
Cage had been helping Daddy all week. It was as if it was last summer again… but it wasn’t. This time my dad was working with Cage and I was allowed near Cage… and my daddy was sick. “He should be back soon. He had to go take care of some things and get more of my things.” I trailed off because Daddy liked to try and talk me into leaving here when he got a chance.
He let out a weary sigh and I knew he was about to say something he knew I didn’t want to hear. I prepared myself for him telling me I needed to leave again. “I know you want to stay with me. I understand it. And honestly I’m glad you do. I want to spend as much time with you as I can. You’re the most important thing in my life. You know that right?”
I wasn’t going to cry. I couldn’t do that to him. He needed to talk and I had to be strong enough to let him. I nodded instead.
“Good. ‘Cause I need to say something that you’re not gonna wanna hear. But I love you and I want you to always be happy. I know Cage makes you happy. He may not have been my choice for you but he loves you like a crazy man. I’ve seen it all over his face this week. He’ll do anything you ask him to including go jumping off a bridge. So, I am telling you this cause someone needs to. You gotta let that boy go, baby girl. He came here last summer because he had a plan. He had one chance to get the future he wants and even though he is a rascal he is a smart boy. He got what he wanted. But if you ask him to let it go he will. In a heartbeat. Don’t make him choose. Let him go. Make it okay for him to go take that dream he fought for. Do it ‘cause you love him.”
Daddy and Jeremy had always thought alike. I should have known this was bothering Daddy, too. It warmed my heart to know my daddy was thinking of Cage’s best interest. Not just mine. I wanted my daddy to love Cage too.
“I’m talking to him tonight. He’ll be going tomorrow. I’m not giving him a choice. I’m not breaking things off. We will just do the long distance thing.”
Daddy didn’t say anything more. He reached over and took my hand in his. We sat there and looked out over the fields in silence. I knew we were both thinking about the future neither of us wanted to talk about. I couldn’t imagine a future without Daddy in it. I wasn’t ready to talk about it.
“The day you were born your momma handed you to me and said with that saucy smile of hers, ‘You didn’t get that boy you wanted but I’m willing to bet that this little girl will own you before we even get her home.’” Daddy chuckled and shook his head. “She was right. I never imagined someone so small could control me so completely. When you were learning to walk I swear each time you fell down I fell to my knees with you. When you first said Dada I cried like a baby. Then the day I had to take you to kindergarten and you held onto my leg. I was so tempted to pick you up and run back home where you were safe and happy. Josh and Jeremy had shown up and eased you away from me. But I’d gone home and cried again. I was the first parent in line to pick you up at the end of the day. You were all pigtails and smiles. You chattered the whole way home about playdough and story time. You hated nap time something fierce.” He stopped and let out another low chuckle.
“I love you, Daddy,” I managed to whisper through the lump in my throat.
“I love you too, baby girl.”
I waited for Eva to speak first. She’d been quiet through dinner. When Wilson went to bed right after he’d finished eating, I’d seen the look he gave her. It had been an unspoken question. Eva had simply nodded and he’d kissed the top of her head before leaving the room. Nothing about that eased my mind. Not with the tense way Eva was holding her body. But I was waiting on her to talk.
She stopped walking when we got to the swing down behind the barn. We were out of viewing distance from any window in the house. That made me ease up a little. I didn’t want to have to worry about upsetting Wilson. Because I sure as hell wasn’t gonna like what she was about to say. I could see it all over her face.
“Swing with me,” she said simply.
“I don’t think I can sit down just yet. I need you to say what it is you brought me out here to say first,” I said. I was nervous. I might need to pace some. Sitting wasn’t an option.
Eva walked over and wrapped her arms around my waist and for a moment I was okay. Then she opened her mouth. “I want you to go to Tennessee. Tomorrow. You’ve waited a week already. No more putting them off. You leave tomorrow. Without me.”
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “Hell, no,” I repeated.
“Let me talk, Cage. I’m not done.”
“Don’t give a shit. Nothing you say is changing my mind. I’m not leaving you. Now? How can you even think that would be okay? I can’t leave you, Eva.”
“Listen to me! You have to. For us. You have to leave. If you don’t leave then we will never make it. We won’t. You have fought for this scholarship and you got it. Now it’s time you take it. You go live it. You make a future for us. I’ll be there with you… one day. But you have to go start this now or we lose it. You have to do it with me here. We can talk on the phone everyday. You can come visit me on weekends when you’re free. We can do this. It isn’t forever.”
I wanted to yell but I’d scare her. Instead, I held her tighter against me. I couldn’t make it a f**king day without her. How was I supposed to go a week? Two weeks? I couldn’t do that. “Eva, I can’t live without you.”
“You wont’ be without me. I’ll be here. I’ll still be yours. You will still own my heart. We will just have distance between us for awhile. We can make it work. But you have to do this for our future, Cage.”
She wanted this for us. Not just me. She was worried about our future after her father was gone. Dammit. How could I leave her? Even if she wanted me to. “I can’t leave you,” I repeated because it was all I could say.
“You have to leave me. It’s what is best for us. These chances don’t come around every day. If you lose this… we lose this. It will always be a question in your mind of “what if?” and I don’t think I can live with that.”
I shook my head. “No. No. I won’t leave you because you’re worried about me regretting you and my choice. I will never, and I mean f**king never regret choosing you. Nothing is more important than you, Eva Brooks. Nothing.”
She pressed a kiss to my chest. “ I know that. That’s why I’m out here talking to you about this. I know that if it were a choice between me and baseball that you’d choose me. I don’t doubt that for a minute. But I need you to see that this is a choice for me. A choice for us, Cage. You going to Tennessee is choosing our future. That’s all it is. I know when I was upset last week that I asked you to stay with me but I was falling apart that day. I have had time to think. My daddy. . . my daddy won’t always be here. I need to spend what time I have left with him. But after he’s. . . after. . . we will need plans. A future. It’s your job to go create that future for us while I stay here and do what I have to do.”
Dammit! I understood what she was saying. She was right and I hated it. I couldn’t leave her. How the hell would I be able to focus without her there with me? I wasn’t me without her. But when this time in her life was over she’d need a man who could protect her and give her a future. Staying here and working at a mediocre job wouldn’t be the future she deserved. I wouldn’t be worthy of her then. I had to be the man she needed. Why did that have to hurt like hell?
“I don’t wanna be without you,” I said pulling her against me and burying my face in her hair.
“I know. But right now it’s what we have to do,” she replied.
“ You need me,” I tried again arguing a reason why I should stay.
“Always. But I need you to secure our future more than I need you here right now. I can spend time with Daddy. You go get that college scholarship and I’ll be there with you one day.”
One day. I knew she wasn’t saying soon or before too long because that would mean her dad was gone. She couldn’t say that. I understood. But one day was haunting me. What if she changed her mind? What if that one day came and she didn’t want me anymore?
“I need you to tell me you’ll love me forever. I need to know you aren’t going to leave me.” I was desperate but I wanted to hear her tell me I was it for her. That the future was us.
“No one else for me ever. You’re it. You’re my always.”