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Lost in Plain Sight
Ainsleigh Dawson sat on the porch of her grandmother's house, mesmerized by the dance of brittle leaves that skittered across the driveway. This was her favorite time of year. The air was clean and the sky was so bright it made her eyes water. Fall had arrived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and brought with it mild temperatures, vivid colors and cool breezes. She closed her eyes as the next one blew the loose fragments of her ponytail away from her face.
She gently nudged the swing forward as she watched her neighbors going about their daily routines. The man across the street, whose name she could never pronounce correctly, was raking the leaves in his front yard into small piles. His wife, Mrs. Unpronounceable Name, stood near the fence and pretended not to gossip with Mrs. Addison, but the way Mrs. Addison glanced furtively around gave them away.
Ainsleigh jumped when she heard a loud thump and then laughed at a young boy who rode by on his bicycle as he delivered the evening edition.
"You got me that time, Joey!" she shouted with a wave.
The lazy stray cat she had adopted, but not yet named, circled the jack-o-lantern on the top step. She wondered whether the fat orange tabby was afraid of the pumpkin, or maybe thought it was a relative.
Her mood turned melancholy as she took in the idyllic scene of happy families bustling through their busy lives while she sat alone, her own happiness stolen. She eyed the steeple in the distance. Only a few blocks from Main Street, she could hear each clanging chime of those church bells. As a girl, she would run into the yard to listen. Not anymore.
With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and turned her face into the welcome breeze. Nothing else mattered in that moment; just the wind in her face and the faint smell of lighter fluid from a neighbor's barbecue grill. It was the most relaxed she had been in a long time. She could almost forget.
"Am I interrupting?"
Ainsleigh opened her eyes to find Evan, her best friend since childhood, staring at her from across the porch. He dropped the kindling in the box by the door and took a seat in one of the nearby rocking chairs. As usual, he avoided the white wicker chair, having long ago declared it "too girlie" for a manly man such as himself.
"Shouldn't you be getting your own firewood by now?" he grumbled good-naturedly.
"Perhaps," she said with an unrepentant grin. "And yes, you are interrupting."
"What, you falling asleep at four in the afternoon? And right out here in front of people, too," he teased. "Or were you about to fly away? That's what it looked like."
She caught the way Evan's jaw twitched at her remark. He rarely indulged her dark moods, choosing instead to cheer her up.
"Are you ever gonna give that cat a name?"
It was an obvious attempt to change the subject, but she obliged him. The day was too glorious for sadness. As if she knew she was being discussed, the cat came to sit at Evan's feet and stared at her, waiting for a decision.
"I guess I should." She furrowed her brow as she gave the matter careful consideration. "But she responds pretty well to 'hey cat,' so maybe it's too late."
"Hey Cat it is," Evan said easily.
That's when they heard it: the urgent wail of a siren in the distance. In an instant the blue sky was gone, at least for Ainsleigh.
Evan joined her on the swing and took her hand. They had been in this position before. She gripped his hand and leaned into him, taking the comfort he offered, and closed her eyes against the memories that were never far away.
It was a chilly night. Sheets of driving rain made visibility non-existent. Ainsleigh was not usually afraid of thunderstorms, but this one was unearthly. She jumped with each crack of lightning.
It was already after seven, which meant Danny had to pick up Matthew from daycare. She was sure he would be angry and was trying to hurry, but traffic moved slowly.
Less than a mile from home she discovered the cause. Emergency lights flashed up ahead. She couldn't hear sirens over the sound of her overworked windshield wipers, but half a dozen police cars had converged on a spot just around a bend in the road.
The traffic inched closer, revealing the tangled aftermath of a car accident. As the sound of the sirens finally broke through, she saw the vehicle. It was a red jeep with an Ole Miss decal in the back window.
The tears she hated ran down her face unchecked. She knew it was self-indulgent, but she could not control herself. She was angry and there was nobody to vent it on — no drunk driver to blame or car manufacturer to sue. Instead, the only person she could hold responsible was her beloved husband, Danny.
Her gaze wandered back to the church steeple. If there really was a God, would he have let that happen? Would he have taken everything from her?
"It's been almost three years, Ains," Evan said softly. "Don't you think it's time for you to see someone?"
She flinched, and felt him tense in reaction, no doubt bracing for the barrage to come. But there was no barrage; just more tears.
"I can't, Evan. Spilling my guts to some stranger won't change anything. My family is gone. What's left?"
"You are, whether you like it or not. And so am I," he added as he threw his arm around her and pulled her closer. "And we've got each other. Always. Right?"
With her head on his shoulder, she thought back to that day, more that fifteen years earlier, when they met. It was the first day of junior high and Evan sat in front of her in homeroom. The first thing he ever said to her was "Hey Red," a reference to her amber-colored hair. Since his hair was the color of fire, she thought the nickname ironic. They instantly became best friends.
Through their school years she had been the nurturer in their relationship, looking after him like a mother hen. With his gregarious personality, he charmed everyone, but Ainsleigh was quiet and aloof. Evan had taught her how to lighten up and have fun and she had taught him that taking things seriously wasn't always a bad thing.
Over the years his hair had turned a deep, rich auburn and the freckles that once splashed across his face had faded. But the sweet, friendly boy still remained. And when her world fell apart, he had taken care of her. He still did. And he was right; they did have each other. Always.