Jared stared at Mary, her question hanging between them like the rope connecting the tin cans with which they played that old telephone game. He’d walked right into that one, spouting off psychobabble as if he had a right to dissect her and her choices. She wasn’t his patient and yet he sensed a hurt in Mary, one buried so deep that it colored her every action.
Pastor Smith told him that she rarely left the house these days, not even to go out into the yard. Jared had pressed him for an explanation, but the pastor said he had no idea as to why. It was one of the reasons Jared had accepted the job. The Mary he remembered loathed being indoors, even on drizzly days.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.” She took a step back as if to return to the house.
“No, it’s okay. Please don’t go in on my account.” He took a step onto the patio and stopped, aware of his sweat-drenched body and aching leg. “I’m usually the one asking the tough questions, that’s all.” He shifted his weight to relieve the stress on his left leg.
Mary gestured to the patio chairs. “Why don’t you sit down and rest for a little while? You don’t want to overdo it your first week.”
“Thanks, I will.” He gingerly walked over to an Adirondack chair and lowered himself onto the weathered wood. He stretched out his leg and leaned back.
Mary took the chair opposite his and crossed her legs. She flipped a long, black braid over her shoulder. The movement brought back memories of tugging on her pigtails when they were kids. He had been pleasantly surprised that she’d kept the long hair of her youth. Back then, it had sometimes overwhelmed her small face, but now, it suited her rather well.
“How come you’re not working? I mean, at a, well…” Her voice trailed off and she blushed.
“A real job?” He smiled.
She grinned back. “I hate to point this out, but you don’t seem particularly skilled as a gardener.”
He laughed outright. “You don’t think I’ve been tackling your weed problem with enough dexterity?”
Her eyes strayed to the hacked stalks littering the outline of the patio. “Not exactly. I am, however, grateful that the grass is shorter in the back yard.”
“It’ll take more than one pass with the lawnmower to get the grass down to a manageable length.”
She sighed. “I know.”
“Why did you let it go so far?” At her widening eyes, he hastened to add, “The yard, I mean.”
Mary turned her gaze from his face to the backyard. “Aunt Geraldine loved to garden. Every morning right after breakfast, she’d put on her gardening gloves and apron, and gather up her tools in a little bucket, and head outside. The first summer I was here, I tagged along, but she didn’t want my help and seemed to resent my intrusion while she worked.” She shrugged. “So I learned to occupy my time with other things and left the yard work to her.”
That explained some of Mary’s aversion to taking care of the yard. But since she seemed at ease, he decided to push his luck and satisfy his curiosity about her. “What did you do when she died?”
“Hired a neighborhood family with five kids to cut the grass, but the youngest went to college last fall and I kind of let the yard go to seed.”
“That’s the understatement of the year.”
She shook her finger at him. “Don’t get smart with me, mister. I expect you to whip my yard back into shape.”
He rubbed his leg. “At least enough to keep the city happy and the weeds at bay. I’m no gardener like your aunt. She must have had a real green thumb, if the remnants are any indication.”
“She poured lots of love into this yard.”
Jared cocked his head at her words, his ears picking up on the sadness in her tone. He firmly squelched his psychiatrist’s antenna, that had begun to wave madly at him. He wasn’t going to try to fix Mary. He could barely even function himself.
“So what do you do when you’re not battling weeds?”
He breathed a sigh of relief at her obvious change of subject, even if that meant he was on the hot seat. His first words would probably douse that spurt of idle interest quicker than a fire hose on flames. “I’m actually a psychiatrist.”
“A psychiatrist?” She folded her arms around her waist.
Her defensive posture didn’t surprise him one bit. “Yeah. It wasn’t something on my list of things to do when we were kids.” There, that ought to steer the conversation away from dangerous topics for them both.
She relaxed a bit. “I seem to recall your wanting to be a firefighter, policeman, FBI agent, sheriff, gunslinger, doctor, and lawyer.” She ticked off the jobs on her fingers. “But all those do have one thing in common.”
He took the bait. “What’s that?”
“The desire to rescue people.”
Mary’s perception startled him. He’d forgotten about her ability to cut through the wrappings and see the heart of the matter. As kids, she had been too direct, too forthright. Apparently, it was one trait she hadn’t outgrown.
“Do you have a practice?”
He blew out a breath. “Not exactly. I was on staff at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia, and also worked with referrals from a local free clinic in downtown Washington, D.C., where I did my residency.”
“Sounds like you wanted to help those who really needed it.”
“The short answer? Yes, I did, do want to help those in need.”
“Some things never change. You were always quick to help the less fortunate.” She grinned. “I still remember how you decked that big seventh grader when he wouldn’t stop harassing me down by the creek.”
“I was scared, but couldn’t let him bully my best friend.” He had gone home with a bruised hand and a black eye, but the memory of Mary’s radiant smile made the pain worth it.
“Is your leg wound related to not practicing now?”
He touched his left leg. For the course of their conversation, he had forgotten about the wound. Since he had been shot, there wasn’t a moment that went by he didn’t think about his leg or the circumstances relating to the pain. Now Mary’s questions were probing a wound far deeper than slowly healing muscle damage. “Indirectly, yes.”
Her watch beeped, slicing through the warm air. A surge of relief coursed through his body. He wasn’t ready to share his story with anyone, even an old friend.
“Don’t think you’re off the hook, Jared. I’ve got to go now.” She stood and smiled down at him.
She nodded and waved. “Yes. See you around.”
Jared watched her walk to the kitchen door, part of him relieved at her going and part of him already missing her company.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.