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“They are really one tree, Granny told me. They are related to the Aspens in the Rocky Mountains, she said. The stand of willows along the creek bottom back of the house provides a wind break and shade but a strong wind always gets a few of them. But Granny says that same family of trees has been there since before she moved onto the farm. I think it is because they stick together and there are always new trees sprouting. So even when two or three crumble to the ground, new ones take their place.” From Eleanor Brown’s Journal

‘on the ground. meet u outside baggage claim?’

Brian read the text, while drinking a cup of coffee just up the road from Will Rogers Airport. He took another sip before chucking the cup in the waste bin and heading to his car. He had plenty of time to get to the baggage claim pick up area, before Clara could be outside waiting for him since parking was minimal and timed for pick ups. Ending up having to circle the airport did not appeal to him.

In an effort to convince Mandy to come along he had tried calling his sister but got her voice mail. No surprise there. He did not leave a message. His instincts told him Mandy’s avoidance of his attempts to contact her served her denial well. She’d always had that tendency preferring to ignore anything that caused her distress. She’d barely come home when their Dad had his accident, coming up with excuse after excuse for not driving the hundred miles to visit.

She had loved Ellie like a second Mom, so he suspected she was pretending nothing had happened. Actually, there were times he envied her capability to avoid the unpleasant tragedies of life. At least she hadn’t taken to booze or pills as far as he knew, but then he really did not know his sister anymore.

“Hi.” A quick kiss on the cheek, before helping him lift her luggage into the trunk.

“Hi, back. How are you holding up?”

“Ok at times, dazed at others, so far…” a swallow, an intake of breath, followed by a sideways look into the car’s interior, then, “No Mandy, I take it.”

“No, just the two of us on the ride. That ok? Surely we won’t kill each other during a 90 minute drive.”

His attempt at humor fell flat and his manufactured chuckle even flatter. Clara looked up at him, her clear gray green eyes trained directly on his blue ones, clearly she was calculating whether to bolt for the car rental booths or stay.

“Brian?”

“Sorry, Clara. Bad taste, bad timing, story of my life, I know. Let’s get on the road. You pick the music and I will do my darndest not to make an a…, donkey of myself. Ok?”

Clara nodded. Brian Wingate had been, no, correction was her oldest and dearest friend, her confidante, her protector, her back up date for the Prom when Danny White had stood her up, but at her college graduation, he had turned up with a wowser of a ring and proposed to her. Out of the blue, in her opinion…they hadn’t really even dated. Unless, those late night coffees, occasional movies, concerts, lengthy phone calls while she carved out a separate life in Colorado counted. For him, their parting chaste kisses and “I love you”, “I love you more”‘s after marathon phone conversations added up to a match made in heaven.

Therein lay the real rub, the deal breaker for Clara, Brian was a pastor of a small suburban church in Skiatook. Despite her mother’s evangelizing and praying, faith eluded Clara, she became a skeptic her first year at the university. What was even crazier was that Brian after all their heated discussions knew that about her. What on earth could he have been thinking, proposing marriage to a non-believer. Even she got that “unevenly yoked” bit.

Still there he was driving her home for her mother’s funeral. He had grown silent in the car, allowing her to fiddle through his collection of CD’s finally inserting Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away.” She glanced sideways at him. His jaw clenched slightly, lips moved, but in spite of the fact that she could see he wanted to talk, he held his tongue. That was Brian and she softened, even wished she loved him and loved his God, wished she could be the woman he deserved. Not happening, she thought especially now after her mother’s death and the contents of the letter.

A part of her wondered if the letter was in fact a kind of suicide note. She hadn’t revealed that to Nancy when they talked, but she couldn’t dismiss it entirely. Nor could she accept the concept that her life loving, faith filled mother would choose such an exit.

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