There was an almost hypnotic quality to painting. Lexi pushed the roller up and down the wall, rolled more paint onto it, moved over a few inches, and did it all again. The repetition was mind-numbing, which was exactly what she appreciated about it.
Her mind was numb, but the muscle in her forearm was burning from the exertion. She rested the roller in the paint tray, and looked around. She was working on the second coat of the living room walls. The light gray paint was a vast improvement over the previous shade of mustardy-yellow. Every room in the house needed updating. The elderly man who had been the previous owner hadn’t changed a thing in the house’s fifty year history that Lexi could see. The house was dated, but, according to the realtor, it had good bones.
Lexi walked into the kitchen, and pulled a cold bottle of tea from the fridge. She sat down at the table and looked around. There were still boxes stacked everywhere. Ideally, she should have painted the walls before she moved in, but the situation she inherited was less than ideal. Her life before her mother’s accident had been exactly the life she wanted to be living. She had a job she loved, an apartment that was perfectly located, and a group of friends that kept her busy. She made the three and a half hour drive from Birmingham to Little River about once a month to visit her mom and her nieces. At twenty-nine, Lexi was perfectly content.
Then she got the phone call that changed everything. Her mom had been in an accident, and they were so sorry but she didn’t make it. The girls were with a social worker and, if Lexi couldn’t come and get them, they would be temporarily placed in foster care. She had made the drive home in record time. She identified her mother’s body in the hospital morgue, collected her nieces from the social worker, spent the next two days trying to contact her sister, and arranging her mother’s funeral.
It wasn’t until the fifth day that everything sank in. Lexi had woken up in her childhood bedroom, went downstairs to get a cup of coffee, and burst into tears at the sight of her mother’s mail piled on the kitchen counter. Something about her mother’s name scrawled across the envelope broke the dam. Her mother was gone, and she wasn’t coming back.
Nearly a month and a half later, Lexi sat in her new kitchen and felt like she was living someone else’s life. She felt the tears pricking the back of her eyes, and stood up in defiance. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, and drained the last of the tea in one gulp. She was returning to her task in the living room when she heard the knock at the door.
Through the peephole, she saw Brady Bowers standing on her front porch, both hands shoved in his pockets. She opened the door for him and smiled. “What are you doing here?”
“I was just in the neighborhood, and I thought I would come see what you had going on here.” Brady grinned, and stepped into the house as Lexi held the door open.
“In the neighborhood, huh?” Lexi narrowed her eyes.
“Sure,” Brady shrugged. “I only had to drive around the block three times before I decided this was the right one.”
“How did you choose?”
“I saw the empty moving boxes stacked by the garage.” Brady grinned.
“You missed your calling,” Lexi teased. “You should have been a detective.”
“I’m just glad you didn’t say stalker.”
“Well, now that you mention it . . .”
“So, you’re painting,” Brady changed the subject. “It looks nice.”
“Thanks.” Lexi smiled. “It looks a lot better in here already. The old color was awful.”
“What else needs done?”
Lexi led Brady on a tour of her house, pointing out the dated bathrooms and kitchen, the stained bedroom carpet, and the sagging gutter on the back of the house. After he assured her that he could help her fix them all, she invited him to have a cup of coffee with her.
“I still can’t believe you are back in town to stay,” Brady commented, his big hands wrapped around the steaming coffee mug.
“Me, either,” Lexi responded. “It’s definitely not the way I saw my life unfolding.”
“If I’m not being too nosy,” Brady’s voice was hesitant, “where is Michelle? Does she see the girls at all?”
“She’s living in Knoxville with her worthless boyfriend,” Lexi answered. “She came for the funeral, but was gone the day after. She didn’t even say goodbye. I’ve not seen her since. She didn’t even show up to court.”
“Yeah,” Lexi made a face. “I hadn’t actually seen her in close to a year. Mom said she would randomly show up to see the girls, but it was like once every couple of months and without any rhyme or reason. Nothing they could depend on.”
“I don’t understand people,” Brady looked genuinely sad. “Your nieces seem like great girls, but, even if they weren’t, how can people walk away from their own children?”
“Michelle left them for a guy,” Lexi answered his rhetorical question. “She met Alex and decided she would rather be with him than be a mom.”
“Where’s their dad?”
Lexi shrugged. “That’s the million dollar question. We have a problem with disappearing men in our family.”
Brady looked as if he didn’t know how to respond. After a moment of silently sipping their coffee, he said, “Well, I think the girls are lucky to have you. I’ve got a niece and a nephew, and I love them to death.”
“How old are they?”
“Four and six,” Brady answered, as he pulled his wallet out of his pocket. He flipped it open and showed her a picture of a little, blonde girl in a pink dress and a tow-headed boy in overalls and no shirt. A little boy she had just met the week before.
“I know Dalton,” Lexi said. “He’s in my class.”
“Seriously?” Brady grinned. “That’s awesome!”
Lexi stared at the photo, and then hesitantly asked, “Who is his daddy?”
For the first time since he arrived on her doorstep, Brady wasn’t smiling.
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.