Lara had phoned Matt a few days earlier to ask if she could meet to take him up on his offer to look at a few houses for rent in the area. She drove into town, kids in the back seat, praying she did not get lost. She'd only been there once or twice. It was a small, older town, not much to see if you were passing through. A school, a church, a grocery store, a couple shops, the volunteer fire department. Lara drove by a thrift shop where a young woman was setting out large gently used toys onto the sidewalk and racks of seasonal second hand clothing. Lara smiled, imagining herself shopping there sometime. A block further and there was a bigish park. Lara turned in.
Matt's truck was parked beneath a tree on the far end of the paring lot, across from a large bank of swings. He was leaning against the drivers side door of his truck, gazing off in the general direction of the street. He spotted Lara almost as soon as she had noticed him, he grabbed his keys and walked towards her little car. He squeezed into her passenger seat and said hey to the kids in the back seat "Are you ready?!" he asked "Where to?" replied Lara enthusiastically. Matt pointed out the way and Lara turned out of the parking lot. "And we're off!!" said Connor loudly from the back seat.
Matt showed her an overprized shoebox of a cottage that had no yard to speak of in a prime spot. He showed her a tiny little duplex townhouse in the more newly renovated area of town. "Ian always hated houses with stairs." Lara muttered half to herself "I would have agreed with him on that." repied Matt with a wink "Next?" Lara nodded. The next house was a dumpy ranch farther away from town than Lara prefered. "It's a bargain." offered Matt "Next!" called Sophie, skipping past them.
The next house Matt showed her was pretty nearly perfect for Lara and her little family. On a quiet street, small but not shabby, cheerful paint in the kitchen, and within walking distance of the school. The kids dissappeared into various rooms around the house, expoloring and calling out to each other from room to room. "I found my room!!" Yelled Sophie from one of the bedrooms. Lara stood in the empty living toom, feeling tears well up in her eyes. She blinked them away. This felt so perfect. "To be honest," said Matt "this is the only house I really wanted to show you." He had a mischievous grin on his face. "A buddy of mine owns it, he's willing to give you a really good deal on it." "I don't need him to." stated Lara matter of factly. "I know, but he wants to. He's ex-marienes. They just moved out into a bigger house down the street. They're expecting their fourth and needed a bigger place." "Their fourth?" "Yeah." "Before, well, you know, there was a time I thought about trying for a fourth, someone for Connor to play with. That probably sounds crazy to you." "Not crazy. Beautiful." said Matt softly "This will be my first house alone." said Lara, almost to herself. "Not alone." said Matt and he wrapped his strong arms around her. He kissed the top of her head. He felt now, more than ever, how fragile, how delicate, this beautiful woman was. "You've got three beautiful children to share it with." He said and Lara smiled.
Lara leaned into him. She loved how he smelled, like a good, clean, hardworking man. She looked around her, noticing the late afternoon sun reflecting on the golden specks of dust in the air. Could she be this happy again? The sun shone brighter for a moment and in that moment Lara almost felt like Ian was watching, happy for her to finally be happy again, and she hugged Matt even closer. "Plus," Matt continued playfully as he let Lara go "this house has a perk I haven't mentioned yet." "What's that?" asked Clara as she skipped in from the other room. "I live at the end of the street." "So we'll be neighbors?" asked Connor jumping onto Matt's legs and grabbing at his waist. "Howdy neighbor." said Clara tipping an imaginary cowboy hat above her eyes.
Through yard sales and the thrift shop Lara quickly threw together enough furniture to get started. She had driven up into the big city to one of those big furniture stores fully expecting to order a house full of furniture but she walked out with only a lamp. She told Mrs G "Why would I pay more money for something I don't even really like?" and before long she had a sparse, but adequately furnished place to call home.
The kids started school, Lara started working again with renewed passion and zest and they all quckly settled into their new normal. They visited Aunt Mae's Farm nearly every weekend now and drove up to Palm Coast Beach often. Lara had found a few more secluded spots where she liked to hunt for shells. The air had begun to cool slightly and the orange tree in her back yard had begun to produce by the basketfull.
For the first time in what felt like forever Lara finally had neighbors. She knew their names, had met their dogs. The kids had friends their own ages to play with at night after dinner & homework before baths and bed.
Lara saw Matt pretty regularly. At first she and the kids waved to him from the front yard if they saw him pass by on his way home from work. Now and then he would stop by to say hello with a basket of goodies from his mother. He'd toss the ball with Connor for a bit, inspect the girls latest artwork. One night he came around a bit earlier that usual with something or other from his mom he had said he'd give her on his way by. "Oh, well I was just pulling dinner out of the oven," said Lara with a smile "why don't you stay for supper?" "You know me" replied Matt with a wink "I never say no to a home-cooked meal." "You may just have to reconsider your rule," laughed Lara "I'm not that good of a cook."
Days turned into weeks turned into months and the routine of Lara's new life made her heart expolde with gratitude. Lara walked Clara, Sophie & Connor to school each morning to their elementary school at the end of the street and walked home again alone. She sat at her little desk and wrote for a couple of hours, she walked to the grocery store a couple of blocks away, her skirt swishing. She'd get what she'd need for a day or two and settle in at home for more work. Then she'd go collect her kids at the end of their school day. They walked home, Lara fed them a snack and Lara helped Connor with his homework. Her kids played outside while she finished up supper and then it was baths, books and bed.
Matt stopped trying to find excuses to drop by, he couldn't stay away and he felt the need for an excuse to come around diminishing on both sides. One night he brought Lara a present, half as a joke. "I thought it would be a way for you to let me know if you want me around or not." he said as Lara looked at the funny garden gnome in a blue hat sitting in her lap. "if you want me to come over, put the gnome out, and I'll stop, if it's in I'll keep going." Matt laughed and leaned his head agains the couch "I know there will be nights you want to work or nights you just want quiet. I respect that." So Lara set the gnome out, and it didn't move.
Night after night Matt found his place with Lara and the kids, sitting at the table, helping with the math homework that drove Lara crazy. Staying till Lara started her bedtime routine with the kids, so she would have uniterrupted one on one time with her kids.
Tonight things were crazy. Connor was wound up, the girls were grumpy and sassy. Matt was about to say goodnight, not wanting to intrude or interfere. Lara grabbed his wrist. "Please, don't go." she said "I hate to even ask it of you but could you please stay a few extra minutes and read to Connor while I get the girls ready for bed? I know you have an early start in the morning -" "Of course" replied Matt, happy to help. He settled down on the sofa with Connor and a couple of books from the library, one about dinosaurs and the other a story featuring construction equipment. As Matt sat there, listening to Connor point to the pictures and chatter away about something he'd seen the other day he couldn't help but feel that all of this was, somehow, one of the best things that had ever happened to him.
Lara glanced up from across the room where she was combing Sophie's post-bath tangles, she blew a strand of hair out of her face and their eyes met. Lara smiled at him. There was a pang of something deep within her. What was it? Grief? No, that was a familiar enough emotion but this was not grief. Joy?
Love? It felt so good for Matt to be here.
Was it right? Was she being fair to him? She was hardly girlfriend material? Did he think of them all as just friends? Their eyes locked. She saw the twinkle in his eyes as he smiled back at her before turning to look at connor as he listened to his description of a pachisepholosaurus. But he left before she had a chance to say anything.
That night as she finished washing up the last of the dishes her thoughts wandered to Matt. She loved how he smelled. She loved the way Connor expected Matt to read him his story after his bath. The way her girls depended on him to listen to all of their latest ideas and while Lara didn't want to admit it she was depending on Matt's presence in her home more and more. What was obvious to everyone a mile away a month ago was suddenly rushing into Lara's every waking moment. Suddenly she was noticing how Matt looked at her, with so much tenderness. She noticed how he lingered each time he left her, she noticed how she didn't want him to leave.
She was falling in love.
It was terrifying.
Matt slowed down, preparing to turn into Lara's house. Something was different tonight though. What was it? The gnome. Where it usually stood was a worn dirty patch of concrete. Matt parked on the street, sat and watched the house. Funny, Lara hadn't mentioned anything. Wouldn't she have let him know if she was going somewhere tonight? He sent a text "Let me know if you need anything"
His phone flashed a reply text almost instantly. "K"
He tried to lean into his naturally easy-going disposition but this was hard. He worried as he parked in the driveway of his house. He sat at his kitchen table, making himself a sandwich, trying to talk himself down. He poured himself a glass of iced tea. wishing he had a TV, if only for the noise. He used to love the quiet of this house. He embraced it like a friend, until now. All he felt was the emptiness of his house and his own lack. He missed Lara, he missed her kids, he puzzled over the gnome, and over the text. He pulled out his lawnmower. His grass didn't really need it but he mowed it anyway. It gave his body something to do.
The next night the gnome was still gone. Still no text from Lara with any kind of explanation. He slowed as he drove past Lara's house, slowed again as he approached his own and then headed out of town. He ate dinner with his mom, asking her if she had heard anything from Lara recently, trying to sound casual, sure he was failing.
The following night Matt stopped his truck on the curb and parked there. Still no gnome. Still radio silence from Lara. He sat there, playing out various scenarios in his head, as he had been alll day, hardly able to concentrate on his work, she had preoccupied his thoughts. He'd considered buying her flowers, and sweeping her off her feet, he considered pounding on her door demanding an answer. He also considered driving by her house from now on gnome or no gnome, never caring about her again. That was impossible. Slowly he put the truck into gear driving home.
He cleaned his barely dirty bathroom, he washed the two dished that were in the sink, and finally headed out to see a movie, which was not as distracting as he'd hoped it would be, but it gave him something to do, somewhere to be. But all he could think about was Lara and all he could do was try to distract himself from the acute feeling of her absense.
As he drove by Lara's house he slowed. No lights. No wait, was that the faint glow of her TV? Was she even home? He drove on home but sat in his truck, parked in his driveway. He texted Lara again "You need anything?" a moment later a text reply came back "We're fine, thx" he headed into the house and went through the motions of going to bed but he barely slept. He struggled through the next day. He held himself back all day from texting Lara. His mind contorted the situation, trying to look at it from this way and that. He stuggled not to feel angry and bitter, thought he felt it threatening to rise up and choke him. He brought his thoughts back to his work, head down, pounding it out. He tried to concern himself only with service tickets and electrical wires. He tried to ignore the dull ache in his heart and tried not to think about Lara and the growing knot in his stomach.
Matt sat in his truck, thinking about heading home. He just sat there, letting the cold air from his truck's AC blow on his hot face. When his cell rang it was an unfamilliar out of town number. He glanced at it and tossed it onto the passenger side seat. It rang again. Same number. "Yeah?" there was a terseness in his voice, an edge he did not like about himself. He prided himself on being unflappable yet here he was being rude to a total stranger for no apparent reason. There was a pause "Is this Matthew, um... I'm sorry I don't have a last name written down here." It was the voice of an older woman, a voice he was sure he'd heard before but where? "Yes, Speaking."
"This is Betty-Jo Bryan" there was another pause "Lara Bryan, er I mean Lara McMullen's mother."
"How is she?" asked Matt, he winced again, he didn't mean to sound so eager
"That is why I am calling" replied Lara's mother. She let out a sigh. "I'm afraid I haven't really heard from her for several days. She has relpied to my texts, but barely. I'm growing a bit worried about her and the children. I was hoping that maybe you would know what is going on."
"I haven't seen much of Lara lately." Matt replied
"Sunday would have been their wedding anniversary. Lara fell into a deep depression after Ian died and I'n worried she may be suffering now."
Of course. Matt took a deep breath. A flicker of a memory of the dark days of his own passed through his thoughts.
"I'm worried about her." repeated Betty Jo. "I feel like I ought to have contacted you earlier, let you know to be on the lookout for her, I guess I thought I could take care of her from here. But anyhow I was wondering if possibly you could check in on her and let me know how she and the children are doing? I would come myself but I am in the middle of a rather big project here..."
"Of course" replied Matt
"I hate to bother you with this..." continued Lara's mother, it reminded him of all of the times Lara hadn't asked him to help her lately, hadn't asked him to stay, hadn't wanted to intrude, hadn't wanted to ask too much of him.
"No, of course, I'm just leaving work now. I'll call you back as soon as I can."
"Please let Lara know I'm here for her. I can leave this and come to her if she wants me to. If she needs help."
"I'll call you back soon."
Matt held himself back from speeding all the way to Lara's house. The ten minutes it took to get to Lara's house felt like an hour. He was out of the truck and at her door before the engine had time to quiet. Clara opened the door, peeking out. Behind her Matt could hear the TV on in the background, he peeked behind her to see any trace of Lara. "Hey there. do you mind if I came in?" "I don't know," Clara hesitated "I think Mama is taking a nap." he could see the conflicted look on Clara's face, but while her mouth said no her body said yes and she stepped aside to let Matt in. It wasn't particlarly messy, but not particularly clean. A box of delivery pizza sat open on the table. Matt heard Lara's footsteps in the hallway as the door shut behind him "Clara, I thought I told you to never -" she stopped mid-sentence as she saw who it was Clara had let in. She froze, she stood there, staring blankly at him. "I, I mean we're" she stammered.
Lara stood there, eyes on Matt, hands on her hips. Connor came running up to Mattt as soon as he realized he was standing there. "Matt!!! Where have you been? I missed you!" Matt reached for Connor who launched himself into Matt's arms. Matt tousled Connor's hair and threw him around a bit before setting him down gently. "Why don't you help your sisters clean up after dinner?" Matt stepped closer to Lara. She looked at him, staring blanking, blinking at him. "Your mom was starting to worry about you, she asked me to check in on you." said Matt quietly so only Lara could hear "She called you?"
"Yes, just a couple of minutes ago."
"I'm sorry, it's just that -"
"No." Matt cut her off "I'm sorry. Why don't you go take a nice long shower. It's okay. I've got this." he touched her arm gently. Lara just turned around obediently, walked to her room and shut the door.
Matt turned to the kids, they were eager for him to play with them, read to them, listen to them. He got them ready for bed. His mind with Lara, his body with her children. He'd played out a lot of scenarios in his mind over the last couple of days. None of them had been this. Her silence, her blank expresion. What could he do to make this better? He asked as he turned out the lights to theee kids room. Matt called Lara's mom. He told her everything was fine and that he'd call her again in the morning. Before he hung up he asked "What can I do for Lara?" "Just be there for her." as all she said.
He looked up, just as Lara was tiptoeing out of the hallyway. She was dressed in aproximately the same clothes as before, yoga pants, an oversized t-shirt, but she smelled clean and her hair was wet. She approached Matt tenatively. Matt searched her face for some clue as to how she was feeling but Lara just stood there, eyes on the floor. Matt stepped closer to Lara, she looked up. He cought a familiar look in her eye, one that he'd seen in the mirror plenty of times over the past five years. He took another step closer and reached for her, Lara walked into his arms and leaned into his chest. "Hey, look at me." Matt spoke the words softly. Lara turned her face up to meet his eyes, Matt looked deep into her eyes. For a moment Matt hesitated, but how much harm had his hesitation caused? Maybe if he had not been so reserved, so "nice" maybe he would have stood her four days ago. "I love you" he said and Lara wept.