The next day passed in slow motion. The funeral seemed almost surreal. How could she lose her parents and then her aunt too, when she had no siblings, cousins, uncles or other aunts to turn to? She was grateful to have a good friend in Joy and someone who cared for her as much as Katelyn did so she didn’t feel as alone, though she still felt the weight of all she’d lost. She had known her aunt was aging and in ill health, but had always assumed that she had another decade or so of life left in her. The fear of losing Katelyn as well was overwhelming.
When the services ended and Ashley and Iris returned to the house, Ashley was surprised at just how full it was of mourners who had come to offer their condolences as well as dishes containing various pastries, salads, and baked goods. She hadn’t realized just how well-liked her aunt had been. After all, she had only seen her once or twice a year before her parents’ death.
Ashley was waiting on the couch by the living room window when Katelyn’s cab pulled in shortly after nine that evening.
“Sounds like your friend is here,” said Iris who sat in a chair knitting with the TV softly droning away in the background.
“I’ll let her in,” Ashley said, feeling the first faint stirrings of happiness since learning of her aunt’s sudden and unexpected death.
When Ashley opened the door, she found Katelyn clad in black jeans, a royal blue sweatshirt and the black suede fringed jacket she’d always thought she looked so good in. Her dark glossy hair shone in the light. She held a small suitcase in one hand and a mixed flower arrangement in the other. She dropped the suitcase just as Ashley threw her arms around her long, athletic-like body. Unexpectedly, tears began to flow freely from her reddened eyes once again.
“Hey, sweetie, it’s okay. I’m here,” Katelyn gently cooed.
Ashley stepped back. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“It’s no problem,” Katelyn said, flashing a quick smile before handing her the flowers. “These are for you.”
“Got some homemade cookies in the suitcase, too.”
“Oh, Katelyn, you really are too much,” Ashley said with a smile. “Come meet Iris. She was good friends with my aunt. She’s been kind enough to sit with me and oversee the things that need to be done.”
They entered the living room which was just a few feet away from where Iris stood up to greet Katelyn with a handshake.
“Boy, you’re a tall one,” Iris said, eyeing Katelyn from head to toe.
“Yeah, my dad always said I should try out for one of the ladies’ basketball teams,” Katelyn said with a chuckle.
“I’m going to go get these flowers into a vase,” Ashley interjected.
“Oh, okay,” said Iris. “They certainly are beautiful.” She turned back to Katelyn. “Would you like her to bring you a drink or something?”
“I hear you’re a law student.”
“Yes, I am,” said Katelyn, voice fading as Ashley headed back into the kitchen to fetch a vase for the flowers. When she returned to the living room, Katelyn was admiring the house. Ashley sat down next to her on the couch.
“It’s a good size,” Iris said. “Four bedrooms upstairs. This is Friday now, so come Monday I plan to contact a realtor.” She turned to face Ashley. “Over the weekend we’ll go through whatever you want to keep that you don’t want to lug to school with you. I’ll store it at my house until you’re settled somewhere on your own.”
“Oh, thanks, Iris,” Ashley said with a smile. “I really appreciate that, though most of it can be sold. Especially bulky items like furniture.”
“What about your stereo system?”
“As long as Iris has room and she doesn’t mind holding the stuff, it’d be okay to hang onto things like that,” Katelyn told Ashley, “because we can haul it in the truck to my place once we graduate. There’s plenty of room on the farm.”
“Your folks own a farm?” Iris asked.
Katelyn nodded. “Eighty acres. My folks live in the main house and I live in the little cottage that’s a couple of hundred feet away. When my grandparents first bought the farm, a couple that worked for them lived in the cottage.”
“Grandparents still around?” Iris asked.
“No, not my paternal grandparents. My maternal grandmother is still alive. She’s in a nursing home, though, and not very coherent most of the time, I’m afraid.”
“What do you farm?”
“We raise cattle. Some are meat cows, some are dairy. Got some chickens too, and a few horses.”
“A twenty-one-year-old sister. She’s out on her own working as a real estate agent.”
“And you’d be willing to take this girl, even though you haven’t known her a year - not to say that you aren’t a very kind and generous person, and not to say that Ashley isn’t a good girl - to your farm to live with you once you graduate?”
Katelyn glanced at Ashley. “I’d love to. If it’s what she wants to do when the time comes, I’d be delighted to take her home with me. As I said, there’s plenty of room.”
“I don’t have that much stuff, though I assure you I just may take you up on your wonderful offer,” Ashley told her with a smile.
“Hope it works out. In the meantime, it’s a good thing you’ll have a sizeable bank account for a while, dear Ashley, for young people just don’t stick together like they did when I was young myself,” Iris said.
“I’m rather old-fashioned,” Katelyn assured her with a smile.
“But you’re living in a time when it’s more fashionable for a lady to seek a career instead of a family,” Iris said.
“That’s okay. I’m seeking a career simply because it’s what I want, and while I’ll admit it would be rather difficult to squeeze children into such a hectic schedule, I’m sure I can make enough time for Ashley. After all, she’ll be a grown adult too, with a career of her own.”
“I waited till I was in my forties to have kids. How I wish I’d had them younger when I stood more of a chance of getting my old figure back after they were born! If you’re like most women, whatever you are after the child is born is pretty much what you’re going to be. That is until you go and have a second one,” Iris added, patting her ample stomach that spanned nearly the entire width of the chair she sat in.
Ashley and Katelyn laughed.
“Keep the careers, girls, keep the careers. Besides, they pay money instead of cost money.”
The talk shifted towards the campus murders with Iris assuring Ashley that she would assist her in transferring to another school if she felt spooked enough to do so.
“That’s sweet of you, Iris, but I think that if I’m extra careful, I’ll be okay. People do get killed everywhere anyway. There’s no getting around that.”
“Just be conscious of your movements, Ashley,” she warned.
“Oh, I will.”
“I made her promise not to go out at night, especially alone,” Katelyn added, “and on weekends we usually hang out together.”
After about fifteen more minutes of small talk, Ashley suggested to Iris that she consider going home. “Iris, I hate to see you spend another night here on my account,” Ashley said.
“You’ve done so much for me as it is. I’ll be okay if you want to go home, but of course, you’re always welcome to stay, too.”
“Well,” Iris began thoughtfully, “now that you’ve got a friend to keep you company, I think I will go fire up the old clunker and head on home. You sure there’s nothing I can do for you ladies before I go?”
Ashley and Katelyn assured her there wasn’t, and Iris had Ashley promise to call if she needed anything.
Alone with Katelyn, Ashley turned to face her. “I am so, so glad you’re here.”
“Good,” she said with a smile. Then her expression became serious as she took Ashley’s hands in hers. “How are you doing? How are you really doing?”
Ashley looked downward and shrugged. “I’m surviving. It’s been hard,” she told Katelyn, looking back up into her caring brown eyes once again, “but I’ll get by.”
“I wasn’t kidding or just trying to ease your aunt’s friend’s worries about the farm. I meant it, Ash. Never think you’re alone in this world. You’ll always have a place with me if you want it.”
Ashley’s eyes misted over. “Oh, Katelyn, you’re so sweet.” She planted a kiss of gratitude on her lips. “It’s just that I’m so afraid of losing you, too.”
“You won’t,” Katelyn assured her.
“I lost my parents and now my aunt, and of course there’s the campus killer that’s still on the loose, and so I worry.”
“I understand, babe, but I’m young, strong and healthy. Besides, I’m extra careful about when and where I go, and I’m a pretty big girl too, who’s not exactly petite and frail-looking. At my height, you don’t tend to attract too many psychos. You need watching more than I do, and to tell you the truth, I’d be quite honored to be your protector.”
Ashley smiled gratefully. “Then come protect me in the kitchen while we try some of those cookies your mom made. I haven’t eaten hardly a thing all day.”
“Okay, but first - mind if I call home? I’ll call collect. It’s just that I know my mom would want to know I made it in safely and all that.”
“Of course. You can use the phone in the kitchen.”
In the kitchen, Ashley nibbled on one of the cookies while she poured them glasses of chocolate milk. “They’re delicious. Thank your mom for me.”
After Katelyn made the call to her mother, the two sat at the kitchen table where Ashley told Katelyn a little more about her aunt and her parents. “I feel like I’m in a dream half the time.
Like my aunt’s going to come waltzing in any minute laughing, saying it was all just a big joke.”
Katelyn gave a slight smile of understanding and nodded her head gently.
“Your mother seems nice,” Ashley said after a few minutes of each girl being lost in her own thoughts.
“She is,” Katelyn said with a smile. “And so is Dad.”
“Your sister’s on her own?”
“Yes. She lives with her boyfriend.”
“So she’s straight?”
“No, she’s bisexual, actually, though she does prefer to have a boyfriend.”
A while later they showered and got into bed. Katelyn squeezed in next to Ashley in her twin-size bed because they wouldn’t have felt comfortable in her aunt’s larger bed. They were used to Katelyn’s bed on campus anyway and the two loved to cuddle up close together.
Weary-eyed and emotionally drained, Ashley’s eyelids fluttered shut as she lay back against Katelyn. In no time at all, she fell asleep to Katelyn’s rhythmic breath, which gently caressed the nape of her neck.