Home > Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(5)

Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(5)
Author: Daisy Prescott

I don’t eat pork, and Patsy doesn’t eat me. It’s an unspoken pact between us.

Not that she’s some sort of demon pig crazed with bloodlust. Not at all. She’s the best pig in eastern Tennessee. Don’t need a blue ribbon from the state fair to make it true.

This leisurely stroll around town is all part of my ruse.

If someone sees us ambling someplace we don’t belong, they’ll leave us alone, which is the entire point.

There’s freedom in being a weirdo. Folks keep their distance. Sure, there are the asinine comments, but for the most part they assume I’m dimwitted or crazy. Fine by me. With or without my porcine sidekick, I’ve always been different. I learned early on that people like to form and hold onto their own opinions. It’s pretty pointless to try to change someone's mind and what they think of me is their problem, not mine.

 

 

On my way out of town, I drop off the majority of unsold produce at the back door of the food pantry. Sure I could keep it and try to sell it next weekend, but I’d rather people get fresh vegetables instead of sad leftovers. In my opinion, food insecurity shouldn’t equal puny carrots and wilted lettuce.

After knocking to let them know the crates are here, I climb inside the van and turn the key, only pausing to make sure someone opens the door.

A curly-haired woman wearing a volunteer smock over a red and black buffalo-plaid dress gives me a friendly wave. She says something and I roll down the window, gesticulating that I can’t understand her. Shouting her words of thanks, she braces the door open with a wedge of wood.

“You’re welcome,” I say loudly enough to be heard over the engine.

I don’t need to stay for more chitchat and praise. If I could donate anonymously, I would. Accolades aren’t the reason for my generosity. Words and awards won’t fill your belly if you’re hungry.

A notification flashes on my phone and I catch the name of an old friend in the text, someone I haven’t thought about in a long time, not since I left my old life behind to return to Tennessee. Ignoring my phone, I swing a wide left across traffic and onto the road that will wind its way up into the hills and take me home. Whatever is within that message can wait.

Long after commercial buildings give way to houses and the neighborhoods transition to farms, fences fading into trees, I realize today’s date. The farm and my other projects have successfully distracted me from the outside world this month.

Another August is almost over, and I survived.

Four years ago today, my mentor and one of my best friends skipped out on this life and changed the course of mine.

A mix of anger and sorrow blur my vision as I slam my hand down on the steering wheel. Goddamn you, Tony.

The van swerves into the gravel shoulder and the pull on the tires draws my attention back to driving. I roll down the window and let the warm, humid air fill the van. Using the side of my hand, I swipe away the tears on my cheek. Nothing would piss Tony off more than knowing I was upset. He’d slap my shoulder and remind me there’s no use crying over the dead or burnt toast. Tears won’t fix anything.

Antoine “Tony” Beard was one infuriating fucker, one of the biggest assholes and egos I’ve ever met. He was also one of the best chefs who ever stepped into a kitchen. If I let myself, I would miss him every day. Instead, I try to forget he’s gone by pretending he’s off doing his thing in some remote pocket of the planet while I’m doing mine in this forgotten corner of the country. Sounds crazy, but most days it works.

I make a plan to cook something tonight in his honor, maybe even open up one of the few bottles of wine I have tucked away in the cellar. I’m not saving them for special occasions so much as times like today when I need to remind myself I’m alive, and living means indulging in the best this existence has to offer.

My shoulders relax when I spot the mile marker right before my road. Past the pavement’s end, I navigate the van around the dips and ruts in the dirt. The old house sits with her back to the hill, the view from the porch looking out over the gardens and fields, encompassing the valley below. The location is as close to ideal as I could imagine, and I have my great-great grandfather to thank for building his homestead here.

Patsy grumbles and snorts as she walks down the plank into the yard. I have a fenced area around her house, but we both know she spends most of her time acting as my second shadow. Where I go, she follows, unless she’s found a shady spot for a nap and can’t be bothered with my constant productivity nonsense.

My dog, Roman, leaps off the side of the porch, ignoring the steps. His curly brown and white coat gives him the appearance of a poodle mix.

True to my word, once I’ve unloaded the van, I head for the old root cellar’s entrance on the outside of the house and use the flashlight on my phone to pick out a bottle of wine.

The open kitchen and living room take up the first floor. Hand-hewn boards cover the exterior, but the original logs are exposed in the interior. Ceiling beams of sturdy, local hardwood have withstood storms and wars for centuries. Worn floorboards don’t mind new scratches from boots, claws, or hooves.

My restorations and additions to the original structures have been minimal. Among the modernizations required to make the cabin inhabitable in this century, my favorite is the professional gas range, powered by a large propane tank I buried in the yard. A bonus is that I never have to worry about running out of hot water in the shower.

I grab a glass and the bottle opener before returning to the porch where the afternoon breeze carries the scent of rain and the promise of storms. As I open the bottle, distant thunder echoes through the valley. Patsy lifts her head and sniffs before trotting up the steps. I keep one of her beds next to my chair, and she settles in it while Roman chases something in the yard.

I pour the deep claret into my glass. French wine for a French bastard.

Giving the glass a swirl, I inhale the scent of the fine Bordeaux. A gift from someone who tried to impress me, I’m certain the bottle cost half as much as the old church van I bought to haul cargo for the farm.

I take a sip, swishing the liquid in my mouth, rolling my tongue through the expensive wine like I’m savoring the taste of a first kiss.

Thunder crackles across the dark sky to the west, and the boom of sound takes five seconds to catch up. Roman gives up the hunt and joins us on the porch.

Lifting my glass, I toast to the storm and the memory of my dear friend.

By the time I pour a refill, fat drops of rain have turned dirt into mud. The wind bends the skinny trees and flattens plants in the field. On the porch, Patsy and I remain dry.

As soon as the downpour begins, it ends. All that blustering and blowing are forgotten as leaves unfurl and trees return to stillness.

I raise my glass to the sky. “Thanks for the show, Tony.”

Standing, I carry the half-empty bottle to the railing. As a curtain of rainwater drips from the roof onto the ground, I pour the remainder of the wine over the pebbles, watching as it swirls with the clear water before disappearing.

Feeling melancholy yet satisfied, I head inside to make dinner. Patsy relocates from her bed on the porch to her bed in the living room.

Instead of something fancy, I decide to make a pot of broth beans using Nannie Ida’s recipe.

I might not have everything I’ve ever dreamed of or wanted, but I have what I need.

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