Sweat trickled down Jared’s face as he bent to pick up another stick. His goal of mowing the backyard today was fast becoming unreachable given the number of sticks littering the ground. Mary told him several recent severe storms had shaken loose many dead branches from the dozen trees in the yard. Bending and straightening to toss the wood into the wheelbarrow made both of his legs ache. At this rate, it would take him a week to mow the grass. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve and pushed the wheelbarrow another couple feet to collect more branches.
He shielded his eyes and gazed at massive oaks, tulip poplars, and hickory trees. Come fall, this place would be covered in leaves. Good thing he wasn’t planning on hanging around that long. A few months of yard work should get his leg into shape. If only it were that simple to get his life back together.
But for now, his job involved picking up sticks. And to think he went to med school for this. His colleagues would find it amusing to see him struggling to clear a yard of debris.
He glanced up at the silent house as he passed. Pastor Smith hadn’t said why Mary hadn’t married and why she lived secluded in this old house. He frowned. All his life, he had wanted to help people and maybe he had as a doctor who treated the mind instead of the body. But he couldn’t get past the fact that with the very person he needed to reach, he had failed big time.
He dumped the wood at the curb and returned for another load. He might not be working in his field right now, but maybe he could do some good here. Mary was a far cry from the buoyant girl of his childhood, the one always up for a bike ride down to the creek or an exploring hike through the woods that framed their cul de sac. Somewhere inside that grownup woman there must be vestiges of the girl who left him without a word.
He worked methodically throughout the morning, thankful that his leg muscles held up to the exercise. He took a break around eleven and drank some water. Pushing the wheelbarrow through the tall grass was more of a workout than he had anticipated. Before the incident, he ran five miles three or four times a week and played tennis regularly with some of his former medical school buddies. Now, he huffed as he wheeled the barrow filled with sticks to the curb.
Why Mary had let the yard deteriorate was beyond his understanding. By the landscaping still visible beneath the neglect, he could tell someone had spent a lot of time and money making the yard a showpiece. Toward the back of the yard, he came across the remains of a brick labyrinth edged with an overgrown flower garden. At the center, a stone bench faced a nonworking fountain.
His cell phone chirped. He fished it out of the back pocket of his jeans. He checked the caller ID before answering. Will Fulton. He held the phone as it rang again and debated the wisdom of taking the call. Will would want an update on his progress, but Jared had nothing new to tell him.
“Jared, how are you?”
Jared sidestepped a branch to lean against the fence. “Tired and sweaty.”
A brief silence, then Will continued. “I didn’t think the assignment was all that tough.”
Jared glanced over his shoulder at the house, but there was no sign of Mary. “To avoid suspicion, I had to go undercover as a yard worker.”
“Lawn care? There are hidden depths to you I had no idea of.” Will gave a short laugh. “How’s the leg holding up?”
Jared grimaced. “I can’t say I’ve seen much improvement, but the doctor wants me to exercise it regularly. I have a physical therapist to help with the tough stuff.”
“Sounds like you’re doing okay on that score.”
“Did you call just to ask about my health or was there another reason?” Jared wished he could call back the words as soon as they left his mouth. Will didn’t deserve his sarcasm—he hadn’t forced Jared to work on this or any other FBI case. It wasn’t Will’s fault Jared’s encounters with Mary were stirring up things from his past that he would prefer to stay there.
Will cleared his throat. “You know how sorry I am that you got shot and all, but your help on that case was invaluable. You did some good, too.”
Jared blew out a breath. “Yeah, well, tell that to my dreams, why don’t you.” He used his bandana to wipe his neck.
“Still having nightmares about the shooting?”
“Something like that.” Jared straightened up and stretched his legs. “I’ve got to go. I’ll let you know when I have something to report.”
Jared ended the call and slipped the phone into his pocket. He surveyed the yard. He had cleared enough to mow the back half. Better get on that before the city handed out another fine. Mary had told him her next-door neighbor was monitoring the condition of the yard and would call the city to report any noncompliance.
He grabbed the now-empty wheelbarrow and pushed it across the lawn to the carriage house. Opening one side of the big oak double doors, he pushed the wheelbarrow inside, parking it beside the riding lawnmower. Thank goodness Mary had working lawn equipment. He tugged on his facemask to block the dust and mounted the mower.
As he turned the key in the ignition, he reflected on his conversation with Will. He needed to stop taking his frustrations out on his friend. Will might have convinced him to help with that last case, but Jared was the one who doused it with gasoline and threw in a match to boot. He backed the mower out of the carriage house and headed to the far side of the yard. He was better off concentrating on mowing the grass than dwelling on his conversation with Will. He turned the mower to the left, questioning the wisdom of his decision to help Will again. He should have learned his lesson with his last involvement with the FBI, that if an agent asked for a civilian’s help, contrary to the FBI’s promises, there was nothing simple about it.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.