As quickly as insanity and rage had fallen on my head, just as quickly it was replaced with peace and love. I awoke on the bumpy forest road that led to the Morgan farm and found my head secured against Will's shoulder by his hand. It was a funny thing, that little gesture. It made all the carelessness and hate that had bombarded me only hours before seem far away and insignificant. Like being dry and warm under an overhang while a winter rain is pouring down only inches from your face. I was safe.
“God if you love me, please help.” I remembered my prayer. With the awkward shyness of a new relationship I sent a response into the darkness, “Thank you.”
I didn't move, reluctant to let go of my newfound security, but Will must have heard the change in my breathing. His hand moved away from my forehead and I sat up, pushing my hair out of my face.
“You slept like a baby,” he said lightly. I blinked away the fog and looked through the windshield at the warm glow of lantern lights shining through the windows of the big, straw bale house.
I didn't answer, feeling embarrassed about sleeping on his shoulder.
What if I had drooled? I cast a furtive glance at his shoulder, looking for a telltale wet spot.
“You didn't snore or drool, if that's what you're wondering,” Will said as he turned the truck in through the gate. He looked down at me with a smile and I laughed timidly. He laughed as well, and my awkwardness melted away.
“We're home,” he said, turning off the truck. “Are you feeling better?”
“Well, I'm starving. I hope they saved us some dinner.”
Will opened his door and got out of the truck. The front door of the house opened and everyone came out to greet us.
“Molly!” Anna was shouting. “Come and see my playhouse! It's made out of blankets.”
As we entered the light of the room, Jon Morgan was the first to notice Will's face.
“Son! What happened to your face?” he asked. The rest of the family crowded around. I was embarrassed. My dad had hit Will. I felt responsible, and ashamed.
“Oh, Molly tried to warn me, but I wouldn't listen,” Will joked, seeing my discomfort. “I got in her dad's way and he let me have it.”
The room was silent for a couple of seconds as the family members looked back and forth from me to Will.
“Did you hit him back?” Jon Morgan asked quietly.
“No, Dad. He fell over on the sidewalk with the momentum of his own punch, and we just got in the truck and left,” Will answered. He squeezed his mom's shoulder reassuringly as she came close to examine his face.
“Good,” Jon answered. “I'm glad you didn't have to defend yourself.”
“He just stood there,” I interrupted, and my voice sounded hoarse. “He just stood there and didn't dodge or block it, or anything. Why did you do that, Will?” I finally asked the question that had been bothering me.
Everyone waited for Will to reply, as curious as I was to hear his answer. Ramona came from the kitchen with a poultice she called Arnica 34 to lay on Will's bruised cheekbone.
“I don't know,” Will said, shrugging. “I just felt like I should. That it would be the best way.”
“The best way to what?” Jake asked, with a dumbfounded look on his face. Jon Morgan was smiling. I could tell that he understood something the rest of us hadn't quite caught onto yet. Will glanced at me briefly.
“Best for Molly,” he answered quietly, and then quickly added, “is there any supper left?”
“Supper? What—are you from the south?” Meg laughed. Susanna came from the kitchen with two plates of food for us. She set them on the table, and the whole family gathered around to drink hot tea and wait for us to finish eating.
“Don't try to tell the story until you've eaten,” Meg advised me. “It can wait.”
He took that punch for me, I thought, as I ate the macaroni casserole and spinach salad35. Because it was ‘best for me.' I realized for the first time that the fight had ended with that one punch. I looked up at Will, and found him looking back at me.
“It's good, isn't it?” he asked.
“Very,” I agreed, turning to Mrs. Morgan. “I was hungry too, and this is so good.”
“I'm glad you like it, but I didn't make it. Ramona made the casserole and Susanna made the salad and cookies.”
“Cookies!” Will exclaimed. “You should warn me about things like that ahead of time.”
Susanna giggled, and ruffled Will's hair playfully.
“They're Tea Time Tarts36,” she corrected. “With apricot filling.”
“Oh, my gosh. Bring it on,” Will sighed, leaning back in his chair, his hair standing on end. I laughed and looked around at the Morgan family with wonder.
“We're home,” Will had said. He was right. This is the meaning of the word ‘home', I thought, as Ramona took my plate and replaced it with a mug full of steaming chamomile tea. Susanna set a plate of tarts down on the table and warned Jake and Anna that they'd had their share already.
“Okay, now you can tell the story,” Meg Morgan announced, sitting down across from us, and next to Jon. “If you want to,” she added.
So I started from the beginning and told them how I had added Mike's story to the end of our second paper and how excited Dr. Meir had been. The scientific periodical had published it immediately, and even featured it on the front page of their website. We'd gotten several positive emails from European scientists, but mostly silence from the US readers.
“I don't know what happened,” I said, shaking my head. “It seems like maybe some financial entity got involved and the school had to get rid of Meir and ‘fix' everything—including me.”
“I should have thought of that,” Jon Morgan chided himself. “I should have known.”
“Well. . . you did warn me,” I said with a shrug. “They encouraged me to publish a retraction,” I added, no longer feeling the anger and frustration I had earlier in the day. “Otherwise it could take ‘a very long time' for me to get my degree.”
“Which means they would have buried your research and kept you waiting for your doctorate as long as possible,” Meg interjected.
“That's what Jeremy said,” Will put in. “He said he was pretty sure that regardless, they'd make sure Molly was kept quiet, while someone else was put to work publishing ‘research' to prove her and Dr. Meir's work is wrong.”
“There are other schools,” Jon Morgan said, looking at me. I smiled weakly and shook my head.
“I'm not sure I want to go back to school anyway,” I answered. “I feel like I need to recover or something—like I just came out of a war.”
“You did,” he agreed. “It's probably a good thing for you to lay low for a while anyway. You can stay here as long as you like, Molly. We're glad to have you. We'll put you to work, of course, but other than that you can rest.” He winked at me, and I knew he understood that I would need the physical labor to help me be at peace.
“We made a bed for you in my room,” Ramona told me, and I looked up at her. At times it had seemed like Ramona was reserved about me, but now her face was clear and welcoming.
“What time is it?” Will asked his Dad.
“It's only 8:30,” Jon answered. “Are you tired?”
“Mostly my rear-end,” Will answered. “I've been sitting way too long. I think I'll walk over and look at my herd and give my legs a stretch.”
“Can I go?” I asked without thinking, and felt appalled at myself for asking so plainly. I don't know why, I was afraid to have Will leave me.
“I guess you need a walk too,” Will agreed. “Sure. Get your walking shoes on. Anybody else?”
I expected more of the family to come along, probably everyone, but when I came out on the porch in my tennis shoes and jacket, no one but Will was waiting.
“It's just you,” I said in a small voice, pausing in the doorway. “Isn't anybody else coming?”
“Nope,” Will answered with a sideways smile. “You're not getting scared of me now, are you?”
“I'll never be scared of you,” I answered as the door closed behind me. “I think I was afraid of you being gone. Afraid of the craziness coming back. It doesn't make sense, it's just—”
“I know, it's been a bad day. One of the worst you've had, I'm guessing,” Will answered.
We walked down the steps and turned toward the path I had taken in the Spring when I met him on the trail where I'd learned to “let go.”
“Let go,” I said quietly to myself, trying out the old phrase.
“Let go of what?” Will asked.
“Let go of whatever I'm afraid of.”
“That's good,” he nodded, and moved over to make room for me on the trail beside him.
The moonlight was bright and we carried no flashlights, following the path the stars and the moon had lit for us. The forest was so quiet I wondered if I'd be afraid without Will beside me. If I were alone.
“Are you afraid of your dad?” Will asked.
“Dad's always been like that,” I admitted. “He's hot tempered. And Mom. . . she's not mean, but she's. . . ”
“Manipulative?” Will asked.
“Yeah. How'd you know?”
“I heard her laying on the guilt vacation, as Jeremy called it,” Will answered and chuckled.
“Yeah. I don't want to be like that,” I sighed, looking out into the trees.
“Are you?” he asked, pausing on the trail to look at me.
“I don't think so. . .I think it's a temptation to me. To control my circumstances, and the people around me. Maybe I'm more like my dad. I fight it though. I don't want to be like that.”
“Good,” Will answered and kept walking. “Me either. People should walk their own path, but not force anyone to walk with them.”
Something in his statement felt familiar. Here I was, walking with Will because I'd asked to come along. Was he pointing that out? What was he saying?
“I'm here because I want to be here,” I said. Will stopped again.
“How long will you want to be here?” he asked. His face had lost the openness it held before. Now he looked reserved and careful. His very caution gave me joy. His question was not in jest or mere curiosity. It was a question he had asked me once before, when I stood by the table watching Susanna light the lanterns.
“How much do you love it?” he had asked. “Enough to live this way?” But I had shrugged the question away with a careless wave of my hand. Not this time.
“As long as there is a place for me,” I answered quietly, meeting his eyes. I wondered at my own words, thinking I should be more cautious. Those words had been in me for so long, it was like they had a life of their own, bursting from my heart and my mouth with relief and complete honesty. I was finally saying what I meant, instead of what I felt like I should say.
“Molly,” Will took a step toward me. The moonlight reflected in his left eye and moved across his face as he stepped forward. The butterfly bandage on his cheek bone caught the light and even in the darkness I could see the bruised skin. I didn't step back. I stood my ground and looked straight up at him.
“Maybe you'd better think about that a little longer,” he said, and stepped back again. “It's been a hard day, and you're all shaken up.”
I nodded, and we walked on. The pine needles crunched under our feet, and a cold draft wafted up from the valley beside us. The cool breeze carried a different scent and temperature than the warm, woody smell of the ridge top. It was as though the two air currents came from different places to meet and meld under the tall trees. I shivered and shoved my hands into my pockets. It was going to freeze tonight. But inside I was warmer than I'd ever been.
Will loves me! I thought to myself. I saw it in his face.
“How long should I think about it?” I asked in a small voice, smiling at Will's back.
“Molly!” Will laughed and turned to hold me by the shoulders. I grinned at him and raised my eyebrows questioningly. “What about your career?” he asked, hesitating again.
“I don't know,” I answered. “I guess I don't care anymore. I don't want to go back out there.”
“It's not something you should just throw away without thought,” Will said, shaking me gently to get my attention. The wobbly, but secure feeling of being held by strong hands reminded me of being a small child. “What you've achieved so far is valuable,” he insisted.
“I could take online courses to finish my degree,” I offered, feeling like I was trying to talk Will into letting me stay. “That is,” I added dubiously, “If I could find an online doctoral, bio engineering program that would accept me.” I laughed and waved the bitter thoughts away like cobwebs in my path.
“You wouldn't have a problem doing that,” Will asserted, releasing my shoulders and dropping his arms. “But the degree isn't the important thing, in my opinion. It's the research you've done—that third paper and the people you know now. There's more research and writing to be done, and you can do it. You already have.”
“But how?” I asked, a little awed at Will's respect for what I'd done. I hadn't known he thought my work was important. All this time I had valued the degree more than the work, without even realizing it. But Will had seen the importance in my work all along. He had loved that in me, just like he loved Jeremy's experience with land management. I felt lifted up and humbled at the same time.
“We'd find a way,” Will answered, pulling my hands out of my pockets to hold them in his own.
“We would?” I asked, smiling.
“We will,” he said confidently.
“You Will. Me Molly,” I replied teasingly. Will smiled, but there was still caution in his eyes.
“What is it?” I asked. “What are you thinking?”
“Molly, I'm not like the guys you know. . . in your university, in the city.” He hesitated, and I opened my mouth to say “I know” but decided I should wait and hear him out.
“I'm not ‘looking for my place in the world',” Will continued, looking beyond me at the forest. He smiled faintly, as though he saw something pleasing, and then glanced back at me, his smile widening. “I know who I am and what I'm going to do with my life. Do you know what I'm saying?”
“That you're going to stay here forever?” I asked.
“Not necessarily—but maybe.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. “In any case, I'm not going to become a different person. I'm always going to be learning from nature, living with the earth, and off the land, wherever I'm at. What I'm trying to say is. . . ”
He hesitated for so long, looking for the words he wanted, I grew impatient.
“You think it's too much to ask me to live that way too?” I guessed. Will smiled and shook his head.
“That's the thing,” he answered gently. “I won't ask you to live this way. It's got to be your choice. I'm telling you—this is me. I'm going to be a rancher and a farmer out in the middle of nowhere. I'm going to be a daddy to a bunch of kids, and a husband to a wife that wants to live this way.” He paused and looked at me earnestly. “Are you that girl? Will you walk beside me in this life—the life that I've chosen to live?”
I knew Will was asking if I was willing to learn, willing to change my direction. It wasn't just because he didn't want to be hurt, but also because he didn't want to hurt me either. It was love that made him hesitate.
“What about all that ‘finding a way' speech you just made about my research? How could we do that and live out here?” I asked, pressing for clarification.
“We'll look into that,” Will assured me. “We can get an internet connection and we can drive to a lab when you need one. Jake would look after the farm. What you know and what you can do is important to me. But—” he took a deep breath and went on,“—things will change. Children will take up your time. Learning to cook and live this way will take up your time. It might be difficult for a while, and you might have to choose what you want the most. I want you to choose now, when there are fewer people involved.”
I knew what he meant. I'd seen people get together just long enough to have kids, and then to go separate ways, tearing the kids in half. I clearly remembered one day in fifth grade, hugging my best friend Becky while she cried until she was sick. Her parents were divorcing and she had to choose between them. We had promised each other that we would never do that to our kids. Becky moved away to live with her dad, and I lost touch with her. I wondered if she had kept her promise.
Although I didn't speak, Will read my expression and smiled, squeezing my hands.
“What do you say? Can you walk with me in this life?” he asked again.
“My name is Will Morgan and Molly is safe with me,” I remembered him saying to my Dad, while blood ran down his cheek from the blow he took for me. Will loved me. He would take care of me for the rest of my life. I would always have a home.
Home. I breathed in the mixed air of the valley and the ridge, the combined scents of sage and pine. Then I smiled up into Will's face and felt his hands tighten around mine again.
“I can do that,” I said simply. “And if I forget and get mad sometimes, don't freak out. I have a temper, but I always regret it later.”
Will laughed, and the sound of his laughter echoed in the valley below us. A cow mooed in response, and something scurried in the trees. I couldn't imagine Will Morgan anywhere but here. This place was part of him and I—I wanted to be part of him too.
“I love you, Molly,” Will said without any hesitation left in his clear eyes. He picked me up and swung me in a slow circle around and around in the moonlight that shined through the pine trees, lighting our way.
“I love you,” Will repeated in my ear. “Did you know that?”
But I couldn't answer. Tears were flowing out of my eyes like water from a spring.
Why am I crying? I wondered and laughed.
“What is it?” Will asked, setting me down. “Are you laughing or crying?”
I shook my head, trying to catch my breath.
“Both,” I said. “Oh, Will. I love you too.”