Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 6 of 7

 

 

Pain was a bitter testament to love.

And yet it was not a judgment he would ever seek to avoid—unless it would be by ultimate reconciliation.

But that was never going to be his fate when it came to Corrie.

And yet here he was, actively seeking to be at the periphery of her presence yet unseen, simply to provide himself with that all too temporary surge of joy, only to have it tempered by the reality of separation.

And he had to wonder why she had put herself in the same position—or if she really had. Because he had rarely been more shocked than to see her at his oral argument a few weeks earlier.

Why had she been there?

It couldn’t be for the case. That was boring enough. Did she have her own case with similar issues? That likelihood seemed extremely remote.

But that conclusion could mean she had only been there because of him.

And that was a conclusion neither his heart nor head could rationalize.

So what did he do with facts that made no sense?

If he had his lawyer hat on, he would’ve kept digging. He would’ve kept researching, would’ve kept asking questions until he got to some semblance of an answer or resolution. Maybe it would be imperfect or incomplete, but he sure as hell wouldn’t have been intellectually and emotionally paralyzed.

Like he was now.

Because untangling the mysteries of the psyche of Coraleigh Boyle was something he would never be intellectually or emotionally equipped to undertake, much less actually accomplish.

And yet his own curiosity had burned: Why had she been there?

No answer.

So what had been his response?

He fretted.

He thought, obsessed, tapped out dozens of texts to her only to push that damned little cursor backward, never sending them.

But he eventually settled on doing the same to her.

It seems that they were going into mutual stalker mode, all declarations and promises the previous December notwithstanding.

Proof of such failure rested in his plan for the day: going to see her speak at what had to be the dullest thing on earth next to an oral argument before the state supreme court.

He was going to listen to Senator Coraleigh Boyle speak at a continuing education program to a bunch of lawyers for the better part of the day.

If there were a lifetime achievement award in the legal world for boredom, that kind of event would be most deserving of the accolade.

So that made it all the more pathetic that he was going there.

He didn’t need to. He didn’t have any interest in the particular topic because it wasn’t in an area he practiced—education law. He didn’t need the credits that were required every year to keep his license—he already had those in spades.

She was the only attraction.

The venue was the Kentucky History Center in downtown Frankfort. He had been to the museum many times, enjoying the remarkable relics of the Commonwealth’s unique history. At the back of the facility was a large conference room.

A space much larger than the courtroom in the capitol, a room where he could hopefully disappear into a corner as Corrie had attempted around a month earlier.

It had been a month since he’d seen her.

At least in person.

He’d checked her senate page on the web, official Facebook page, Twitter.

Stalker.

He’d stared at pictures of her at various senate subcommittee meetings. At town halls in her district. At the opening of a business in Woodford County.

The best—and most shattering—was a picture of her standing in the middle of a field, posted on her public Facebook page. Behind her was a field of sunflowers, and the post was to celebrate the beauty of summer in Kentucky and to encourage people to get outside and enjoy it.

The image was mesmerizingly beautiful. But not because of those flowers in the background—a perfect wall of yellow, green, and black standing guard behind her like an army of sunshine armed with arrows of joy.

The perfection, the loveliness had been Corrie.

She had looked so happy.

Wearing only a bright blue T-shirt with the phrase Y’ALL in bold white all caps and a battered pair of cutoffs, she was smiling, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking off to her right.

He had known exactly where that picture had been taken.

Because he could see those sunflowers from Heddenfield.

Hell, he could see them from his room. Every morning. Every evening.

That sunflower field covered about an acre over at Traveler’s Rest.

He’d noticed that the ground had been prepared earlier in the spring and wondered what was up. That site had traditionally been left open to grasses; the crops grown on the estate—corn and soybeans—were on the far side of the Boyle acreage along with the fields for livestock.

So over the course of the warm spring months into the heat of high summer, Clay had watched those plants grow until a carpet of yellow dotted with black had been unfurled in the middle of perfect fields of Bluegrass.

After seeing that image of her—and saving it—he’d tried to stop checking her social media.

That did not happen.

And that’s how he learned she was speaking that day. It was right there on her official page as a state senator, complete with convenient link to sign up for the program.

He had registered then and there.

Even though he’d known he had a court date on that date. No matter. It was just motion hour—his motion to merely get a million-dollar judgment on summary judgment. The law was completely on his side, and the client would be deliriously happy to finally get some vindication in that damn case. And that client would love him. It was that woman’s nature to make him a hero for everything he did, win or lose.

Whatever.

He’d get it bumped another week or two or have someone from the firm stand in for him. And all the better because it was down in Craig County before Judge Richards.

Not that he minded the judge. She was perfectly professional.

It was going back to Bourbon Springs that pained him.

That encounter with Corrie at The Cooperage would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It had gotten so bad that when he had to go to court in that area, say to Van Winkle County, he’d drive out of his way just to avoid driving through Bourbon Springs.

All because of what had happened there nine months ago—

Damn

That reminder again. The thing that was always at the edge of his awareness every time he looked at a calendar and noted the month.

Right now they could’ve been waiting to be parents.

Or maybe that baby would’ve already arrived.

Was she thinking about that this month?

Probably not. Why the hell would she want to have a child with the likes of him?

And yet there in the hospital she’d said she was sorry…

Clay squeezed his eyes so tight it hurt. Not to stop tears. Not to block out the memories.

Although it helped with both of those problems.

He did it to focus. Clear his head.

He was sitting in his car in the parking lot across from the History Center. Once more, the train tracks that sliced through downtown Frankfort were right in front of him. Separating him from Corrie.

But this time he wasn’t going to watch her from across a darkened street. He was going in there.

Thankfully, the topic meant he was unlikely to run into anyone he knew. Education or school law was a niche in which he’d never practiced, and he wasn’t sure that anyone in the firm had ever done any of that work. From what he understood, the kinds of attorneys who would be present that day would be lawyers for local school boards and those representing teachers or other school employees against said school boards. Typical administrative law kind of stuff. He did a smattering of that work, but his heart was in litigation. And that’s where his father expected him to be as well. Much more lucrative.

So even if he had a hankering to do something different, he’d just have to keep on hankering since dad still called a lot of the shots when it came to firm politics and privileges.

And how he hated that.

But today he got to play a little hooky from his lawyer daytime job even if under the guise of going to a talk about the law.

Entering the building, Clay moved to the left, over the mosaic of Kentucky spread out over the first floor of the Center. Then down a hall containing portrait after portrait of Kentucky governors. The first one he came to was the sitting chief executive, Governor Cassidy. And as he walked farther he knew the last one he would see.

Isaac Shelby.

He stopped at the portrait of Kentucky’s first governor.

There was Corrie but not in the flesh. The faintest of resemblance, but it was there, about the eyes and cheekbones. That manifestation of genetic connection reaching through two centuries.

Blinking, he looked back to Governor Cassidy’s portrait at the other end of the hall, the spot where the current governor’s image was always displayed.

Those familiar eyes would be on both extremes of this corridor someday.

A tired, stressed voice distracted him.

“Yes, oh, sorry…”

A woman at the registration desk ahead had her hands full and was trying to do far too much.

In that she had two very tiny babies in carriers on the floor, a purse slung over one shoulder, and a packed, heavy diaper bag over the other.

And that diaper bag was slowly slipping off and about to land on one of those super tiny babies…

Clay lunged just at the moment the woman cried out.

“Got it,” he said.

“Oh, thank you.” She swallowed hard in relief. “Here, go around me. I’ll go on inside and then register.”

“Why don’t you finish while I hold your items?” Clay offered. “No trouble at all.”

“Thank you,” she sighed.

The dark-haired woman transacted her business as Clay studied the babies.

Very small. Couldn’t be more than a few weeks old. And yet this woman was here.

“Do you need any help?” he asked once she had finished checking in and had a name badge and small clutch of papers.

“Oh, my husband will be here in a sec. He’s parking the SUV.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, please let me assist you until he arrives. Let me take those bags so you can get your little ones. It would be my honor.”

“I… well… Thank you.”

They shuffled out of the way of the other attendees arriving to register. Clay took the bags, the woman hoisting the carriers onto each of her arms.

He followed her into the meeting room, where she headed for the back corner opposite the door.

Which was where he had wanted to sit, alone and unregarded and with the perfect view of the door to watch the comings and goings.

The woman positioned the babies on the floor in the tight corner. Clay wondered why she had chosen to haul all that equipment inside along with the children, considering that her husband could have toted some of that load inside for her after he parked the vehicle. Then he knew why she wanted to do it all herself: she didn’t want to be parted from her children and the things she considered necessary for their care.

Examining her features, he noted dark circles under her eyes. There was a slight hunched form, and the hint at exhaustion was evident. He was looking at a very new mother.

“Thank you again,” she said, looking up at him with a weary smile. “And I don’t even know your name.”

“Apologies,” Clay said with a bow. “Clay London. I’m very pleased to meet you.” He offered her his hand.

She took it and with her other hand tucked an errant strand of long dark hair back into her bun. “Harriet Hensley.” She shook his hand. “I’m the attorney for the Craig County School Board. If you have any idea where Craig County is,” she said with a laugh.

“Ah, yes,” Clay said, internally stomping on the memories of the place. “Bourbon Springs. I know exactly where that is. Do you need anything? Water?” He gestured to a table along the back wall where basic refreshments had been set up for attendees.

“No, no. And I can’t thank you enough.” Harriet looked down at her still-sleeping babes. “And as you can probably surmise, I am currently on maternity leave from my job.”

“Congratulations.” Clay looked at the door. “You say your husband will be here as well? So he’s an attorney?”

Harriet laughed. “No, he’s not an attorney. He just didn’t want me making this trip all the way up here on my own with the children.”

“That’s admirable. Unless, of course, you feel those attentions unwarranted.”

“Even if I did,” she said with a shrug, “he’d be here anyway. Just the way he is. Frankly, I can’t believe I’m here myself. Lucy and Georgina are only about three weeks old, but I didn’t want to miss this. There are so few programs exclusively on school law. I had to bring the twins along because I couldn’t go off and pump in a solitary room. I mean, that would completely defeat the purpose of coming to this program if I ended up missing large portions of it.”

Clay blinked. “I’m sorry?”

She pointed to the children. “I’m nursing them. Quite a job with two.” She let loose a long exhale.

Good Lord, what endeavor. She had brought along her newborns to keep them fed while she tried to educate herself. That was either crazy or admirable.

Well, maybe they weren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

“So do you represent a school board or teachers?” Harriet asked.

“Actually, I don’t represent either. I’m just here to… investigate.” His eyes began to scan the room for signs of Corrie.

“Now’s a good time to get into this area. Several school board attorneys are retiring throughout the state. Lots of opportunities.”

One of the babies began to fuss. Clay thought this his cue to leave his new acquaintance and go check in. He took his leave of her, with Harriet once again profusely thanking him as she bent over and unbuckled the squirming child from its carrier.

On the way out, he passed a hulking man with dark hair wearing a deep red polo shirt with some kind of embroidered logo on the front left chest. Ruddy-faced and bit wild-eyed, he carried what had to be another diaper bag.

Made sense. Twins needed twice as much, right?

He was almost about to point Harriet out to him when the husband spotted his family and made a beeline for them in the corner. While Harriet had been frazzled—and with good reason—her husband seemed on the verge of panic. Maybe this was the first time the group had been beyond the confines of Craig County.

Their first family road trip was to a legal seminar. There was something to tell the kids someday.

Clay smiled to himself as he returned to the registration area. That kind of family road trip was just the kind that he and Corrie would’ve had–

He hissed out a long breath, his train of thought coming to a screeching, wrenching stop in his mind.

And of course as he took two steps into the check-in area, Corrie just had to be there.

A man at the registration desk was greeting her with all smiles and handing her a name badge and packet of materials. She reciprocated his warmth with a bright face and kind words and took the materials from him.

Clay darted to his right, away from the main entrance to the meeting room since he knew that was the direction in which Corrie was headed. He had a decent vantage point to observe her, Corrie having been delayed entering the room by running into an acquaintance who appeared to be talking the senator’s ear off.

Dressed in a simple black suit with low-heeled shoes, Corrie was wearing a royal blue blouse. The color brought to mind the irreverent T-shirt he’d seen her wearing in that picture online. Her expression was much the same as in that photo: happy. As she spoke with the woman who had forestalled her entrance to the meeting room, her features were animated, betraying no hint of annoyance at delay. Perfect politician. Or, more likely, just a very nice person indulging another’s loquaciousness.

Clay could’ve lurked in the corner and watched her for some time. But then a familiar man appeared at Corrie’s side; she threw her arms around him and planted a kiss on his cheek.

He knew who that was: Ball Lawson, one of Corrie’s fellow state senators. And like Corrie, he had lost his spouse within the past year, in his instance to a small aircraft plane crash.

And just as he had when he’d witnessed the beginning of the reunification between Corrie and Russell back in December at that conference, Clay was gripped by two impulses.

Fight or flight.

In December, he had chosen to flee. It had been too painful to watch from afar what was happening. Perhaps on some level he had known or feared the future unfolding before him—a future in which he had no part.

So maybe today he would go all testosterone-jacked-up on a man that Clay’s primitive brain had identified as a thief, rival, and threat. That man needed to be wrenched away from the woman no one on the planet was even worthy of looking at, much less touching—

Breathing deeply, Clay willed his civilized inclinations to assume control.

These emotions, urges—they were not like him. Unfamiliar and frightening, they threatened his self-control, a notion he could not process. A result he could not live with. He had managed his feelings for so long that to finally lose a grip on them was unreal and terrifying.

Because the truth of it was he was stalking the woman he loved but could not have. She had made it clear to keep away.

But she hadn’t kept her part of that bargain.

This was not right.

Why was this happening now? He’d been mildly obsessed with her—no, in love with her—for years, his brief marriage acting like a faulty pause button on his damn heart.

Maybe it was simply the passage of time. They were getting older. Chances wasted, thrown away. And if he had to admit it to himself, there was some part of him that told him—no, screamed at him—that he and Corrie were meant to be together and that would, by God, happen someday.

And that was politely called a fantasy. More accurately, a delusion.

Maybe he should just go…

Her laugh pulled him from that idea.

Corrie went inside the meeting room, her original companion on one side and that state senator he wanted to throttle on the other. She hadn’t seen him.

His feet seemed to follow of their own accord.

Corrie of course made for the front of the room, where a long, white-draped table was atop a platform. She picked her way through the room, getting stopped at almost every table. Clay stood near that water table and watched, scanning the vicinity for a place to sit.

And then the keening cry of an infant split the chatter-filled air.

Corrie’s head snapped around, toward the corner where Harriet and her husband had set up Camp Baby. Her stare was just a few seconds too long to be the product of mild interest.

So he had his answer about whether she thought about the loss. About what could’ve been.

And somehow, instead of increasing the pain from that shard of grief that was always sticking in his gut, her reaction relieved him. His sadness was reasonable because it was mutual.

Someone tapped Corrie on the shoulder, and her attention was sucked back to the people around her, the purpose of her presence, reality.

Not the what-could-have-beens.

Oh, yes. She was enduring the same turmoil, the same questions.

And yet they would not, could not come together to ease that burden of loss by sharing it. Because of the expectations of others and the fear of their reactions if those expectations were not met. Invisible bonds that kept them trapped and apart.

Even if things were different—where the eyes of parents and others were not upon them—there still wouldn’t be any guarantee that Corrie would succumb to his rather feeble charms.

But he’d sure as hell give it a try. At least he’d be free to ask.

But he wasn’t. His mother’s situation was getting worse. And that meant his father’s was getting better.

Clay crept to an unoccupied round table near the window, a few yards ahead of where Harriet was stationed. She smiled as he sat and he nodded, sitting with his back to the light. Good little hiding place he’d found as it turned out.

Corrie wasn’t on the podium. As his eyes flitted about in search of her, a swell of concern rose in his chest. He wanted to be able to keep an eye on her so he could duck away if—

“London?”

Clay jerked so hard in his seat that his elbow hit the window to his left. He cursed and immediately regretted it upon seeing the quite unexpected arrival at his table. He hopped to his feet.

“Justice Labrot. A pleasure.”

They shook hands as a messenger bag slipped off Leo’s shoulder and onto a seat.

“And to you, my friend, I will always be Leo. At least when we’re talking by ourselves.”

“Which we are not, considering we’re in a crowd of a few hundred people, rather than the bourbon bar down the street.”

“May I join you?”

“Be my guest. And tell me what brings the court to this event. Are you a speaker? I didn’t see your name on the agenda.”

“Not a speaker,” Leo said as they sat. “Just here for some education about education. I saw that there are a few school and education cases on the court’s docket as well as some petitions for discretionary review. I’m very unfamiliar with it all. I didn’t want to dump this task on the clerk – that’s really stretching it since I really don’t have a clerk right now.”

“Don’t tell me that the court’s budget is in such bad straits that a justice can’t get a clerk.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that,” Leo said, looking up at Clay. “It’s just that the position is vacant and I haven’t had any time yet to find a new one. But forget my staffing woes and tell me what the hell you’re doing here. I never knew you had any interest in this area of law.”

“As you said, just trying to educate myself about education. I’ve heard,” he said, with a glance over his shoulder to Harriet, “that some school boards across the state might be in need of new representation soon.”

“Of course. Always looking for new opportunities. Always a great rainmaker.”

“Thank you. But I endeavor to be known as a better lawyer than rainmaker.”

“Oh, I can confirm that is true. Without giving too much away, my colleagues were most complementary of your oral argument recently. I watched it back in chambers on the monitor. Hell, you even had Justice Knott laughing. And that’s not an easy task. Anyway, I have an ulterior motive for being here. Just like you, I suspect.” Leo smiled, his chin dropping to his chest, giving him a conspiratorial mien.

Clay felt himself pale, a pricking of skin creeping up his face and neck. “What?”

“Sad as it may sound, I bet you’re here just because you can be. Because you wanted to do something different. Break out of a rut.”

“There’s some truth in that.”

Clay turned. Corrie’s glossy, dark hair was immediately recognizable, even in that thicket of people at the front of the room. Everyone wanted to talk to her.

Leo continued, “Another reason I’m here is because I’m going to do a program myself in Bourbon Springs on Saturday. Been a while since I’ve spoken so I thought I might get the feel for it again…”

Leo talked. All Clay heard were those words again: Bourbon Springs.

A few people drifted to the table to interact with Leo, and Clay found the changed dynamic unfamiliar but comfortable. Prior to Leo’s appointment to the court, Clay had been the one sought by others at events like these. Leo had been the polite, charming, reticent friend at his side. But getting a gig on the state’s highest court had switched those roles.

Clay didn’t care. Leo deserved everything he got and more. He was a hard worker and damned brilliant. And his family history—Well, there was one even sadder than Clay’s own.

As the speakers began to take their seats at the front, attendees likewise sat. As for Clay and Leo, they remained the only ones at their table, and Clay was happy for the relative solitude in the midst of a crowd.

The proceedings got underway.

Clay was surprised to discover the first panel was highly credentialed. The state education commissioner, along with several distinguished professors and other educators spoke at length in a panel discussion on… something.

Again, Clay could not concentrate for concentrating on Corrie.

And the continuing sounds of those babies behind him.

It wasn’t that the children were at all loud or disruptive. But the smallest noise from one of them acted like fingernails on his emotional chalkboard. It didn’t help that Harriet and her husband were taking turns standing up and walking around with the babies to soothe them after a feed.

And, yes, he could see Corrie’s head turning in the direction of those noises from time to time as they echoed throughout the high-ceilinged meeting room. If she saw him during the glimpses she was taking of the kids, he could not discern that she had identified him. All the better, considering what was gnawing at their consciences.

After a monotonous hour and a half of speaking, the first panel ended.

And then it was time for Corrie.

Actually, it was a panel discussion about important legislative changes over the past year or so, with a look ahead to new proposals. In checking at his agenda, he saw that the other state senator was on the panel as well. His ridiculous, unreasonable jealousy and resentment at the man’s presence was reduced, rather like the heat of a stove burner. It was still there, just not as dangerous and searing.

If Clay had seen her speak recently, he could not remember it. The instances which came to his recollection were old law school memories where they had to make presentations in a seminar or mock trial.

Even then, Corrie had possessed a presence that stirred him.

Now, seeing her standing before a large crowd, gently lecturing and educating on a complex topic, was enthralling.

Yeah, he was easily entertained. Needed to get out more.

So he took his pleasure where he could, even if it originated in a lonely nerd world.

His little stalker party was therefore going quite swimmingly well, being able to watch Corrie but not be spotted—until Leo just had to raise his hand and ask a question. Since the man was easily identified, everything stopped so deference could be paid to his position by acknowledging his inquiry.

And of course it was Corrie, the panel moderator at the podium, who called on him.

“Justice Labrot,” Corrie said, shading her eyes much as she had done in that picture of her in the sunflower field. “I can barely see you, but I think that’s you.”

Leo stood and waved. “Senator, I’ll stand so you can see me.”

“I’ll do that since you’re a justice,” she quipped back. Corrie descended the platform with a microphone. “And since you’re all the way back there, you’re going to need this mic so we can hear what you—”

Clay’s eyes met hers.

Corrie stopped in her tracks and dropped the mic.

A nasty reverb sliced through the room as the thing hit the floor and the crowd cringed and moaned.

Leave it to Leo to step up. The newest justice moved speedily in front of Corrie, bending low to scoop the mic from the floor. It looked like Leo was falling at her feet.

Or maybe that’s just what Clay imagined himself doing.

Not here, not today. Not even tomorrow or that year. But someday.

The image was vivid, precise. But also another fantasy.

A cascade of apologies tumbled forth from Corrie as Leo patted her shoulder reassuringly.

“Sorry for all the trouble.” The still-live mic picked up Leo’s utterance.

“I think I need to say that since I caused the trouble,” said Corrie.

Leo kept the mic and asked a very convoluted question to the panel, remembering to also address Corrie, who stood by his side.

Clay took the opportunity to study everything about Corrie’s appearance. Her hair, so dark yet shiny in the sun streaming through the window right next to them. The rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. And he could tell that she was attempting to calm herself, noting the few long inhales and exhales. The shape of her suit and the way it was cut and flattered her form.

And damned if that brief reflection on her physical form didn’t dredge up all kinds of images of the body underneath her rather plain clothes.

He shut his eyes and swallowed hard. Images of her figure flashed through his consciousness like the fluttering and jumping of an old reel film.

Their time in Bourbon Springs…

Their getaway at that state park…

The last time—although they hadn’t known it—at The Seelbach…

When his lids slowly opened, she was looking at him from the corner of her eye.

And there, on that perfect face he saw in every dream, was the faintest of smiles. A smirk. A grin.

Then it was gone.

Leo handed the mic to Corrie. He returned to his seat, and she picked through the tables back to the podium.

Had he imagined it?

Of course he had. Trick of the light. Trick of the mind. Fantasy. Dream. Delusion. Not real.

She sure as hell was real at your oral argument. Real as real could be. Not a figment of your imagination.

And you spoke to her.

The rest of the meeting was a blur. He wouldn’t remember a damn thing about the entire experience.

Well, there would be one thing.

While Clay had expected to learn something at this conference, he hadn’t expected that he’d discover that Coraleigh Boyle didn’t hate him. Maybe actually liked him.

And that had been well worth the price of admission that day.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).