Love’s Bitter Reward
By Jas T. Ward
“You have to tell Katy, Matt.” The therapist was putting his gear away; glancing into the kitchen of the McCalls farm house to make sure no one could hear and shook his head. “She needs to know, my man.”
Matt was sweating and even though he was in peak physical shape now, even being wheelchair bound due to being a paraplegic for the last 3 years, his physical therapy sessions had become insanely tough. Sure, he worked eight hours or more out in the orchard overseeing the day-to-day business of the place and had even adapted to help with labor tasks—best as he could from his chair—but the therapy sessions lately needed to be intensified due to some changes in his condition. Todays may have been even more so due to Teddy’s disapproval of his plan. He downed a bottle of water as he moved from the workout mat on the floor, checked that his wheelchair was locked, shifted to grab the armrests and hauled himself up into the seat. Positioning his feet on the foot rests, he hissed back in response, “No. You hear me? She doesn’t need to know. I need to do this my way and in my time. I got a plan.”
Teddy gave a sardonic smirk as he zipped up his gear bag before crossing his arms on his chest. “Oh, I didn’t know you had this in with your usual Matt McCall way of dealing with shit. It’s worked out so well in the past. If you discount your marriage ending, getting your butt in a gorge, shattering your spine and almost losing the family farm as a good way to handle life choices. It’s a stellar foundation to do anything if you take all that into mind.”
Matt snorted, picked up the empty water bottle and threw it at Teddy’s head. He received smug satisfaction when it bounced off after hitting the man in the temple to then land on the floor. Gripping the wheels of the chair, he leaned back to do a wheelie and said smugly, “But I have noted your concerns.” Gave a charming smile as he landed the front wheels before rolling past him when he heard Katy along with Molly, his almost 2-year old baby girl, he called out to Teddy who followed, “You coming to the birthday party Saturday?”
Teddy smiled and picked up the happy toddler, tweaked her nose and caused her to giggle. “Yeah. Wouldn’t miss it.” He waved to Katy and then turned his smile back to Matt and Katy’s daughter. “You sharing a birthday with your mommy is pretty cool. I wouldn’t miss it.” He nudged Matt’s chair with a hip as he set the child in the man’s lap. “Even if you’re cranky butt daddy is going to be there.”
Matt snorted once more as he was hugged tight by Molly with her chubby arms going around his neck as she stood in his lap. “I’ll be on my best behavior. And I’m never cranky.”
Katy laughed from her vantage point to the interchange as she leaned on the kitchen counter. She tilted her head and replied with great humor, “I don’t think you can be the decider of that, Matt.” She moved her hand to point a finger between herself and Teddy. “We are the ones that decide that. And you’ve been knock-in-the-head cranky lately.” All amusement aside, it was very true. Matt had become so much better with his frustration and temper—which was almost unbearable right after the accident. The man had always been stubborn—it was the primary factor that had forced Katy to walk out the door six-years ago when he didn’t make the effort to stop her do to a career opportunity. He had let her walk away and they had not even spoke for almost four years—which included not discussing a divorce. His life went downhill and he had almost lost the generational farm while her career gave her a focus to avoid thinking about the life she left behind. Until she had gotten a call that something horrible had happened there.
Now, three years later, their marriage was the best it had ever been. His accident had brought her home when he had all but given up on life and the thought of walking away from the McCall family farm again, never once came to mind. She was happy. They had so much joy and add to having the most adorable little girl in the world; Katy normally had not a single complaint.
Until the past few weeks—Matt had become sullen and snappish. Never to Molly but to any other adult that got in his way or just shared the same air— yep, old Matt was not completely gone from the picture. Katy had tried to ask what was wrong and got the typical McCall generic answer of, “Nothing, it’s fine,” when it was obvious the opposite was the case.
“Hey, Teddy. I’ll walk you out.” Katy stepped over to kiss Molly’s cheek followed by her father, knowing the little girl loved being in her father’s lap and Matt felt the same way. Matt had become such a doting father and Molly was most definitely daddy’s little girl. Katy hoped that the joint birthday party this weekend at the farm, held so that all the family and workers could attend was the core to Matt’s moods—he did not do well with crowds or parties, before or since the accident. McCall’s were not social butterflies in anyway; more like bossy moths that demanded to be heard when they had something to say, but preferred to solitary.
Following Matt’s physical therapist out of the house and to the driveway, she closed her eyes for a moment to breath in the fresh air of the sunny day. There were hints of plants starting to wake up to await Spring and even small buds were appearing on the apple trees. They rented out the side pastures to the local beef farmer and the scent of fresh mowed hay joined the sweetness of the orchard. How could she had ever been happy in Chicago with that job, shut inside an office and living under the crush of the city was beyond her to comprehend now. This was home. No other locale could possibly come close.
Teddy stopped by his car and sighed as he stowed his gear bag in the backseat. “I can’t tell you, Katy. I want to. I really do, but patient confidentiality.”
Katy and the therapist had been in this very same spot years ago; and he had viewed her as an adversary then—not there for the right reasons for his patient. Now, he knew differently and Teddy had become part of their family. She let out a frustrated sigh before she asked, knowing she most likely was not going to get the answer she wanted, “I know. But can’t you give me something to go on here? Something is really bothering him. He’s back to not sleeping well. He tosses and mumbles all night long. And if I try to ask if he’s okay, he bites my head off like when I first came back.” Katy sighed as she wrapped her arms around herself and looked at the gravel in the drive. “He always apologizes afterward, which is not like he was then, but I can tell. Something is wrong. And it’s big.” She lifted her eyes to look sideways at Teddy as she leaned against the man’s car. “Please, Teddy. It’s driving me crazy.”
Teddy shook his head as he opened the driver’s door of the car. “Oh no, Kat. I learned not to get between you and the awe-inspiring, fear-inducing McCall stubborn streak. I like to keep my head on my shoulders.” He laughed as he saw her resigned face. “Have you met your man, sweetie? He’s mean.” He gave her a wink and then paused before he entered the vehicle. “Look. I am pretty sure he’ll tell you soon. Matt’s smart.” He thought about his response a bit and laughed. “Well, he normally is very smart. Just makes dumbass decisions.” He closed the door as he sat behind the wheel, started up the car and rolled down the window. “I’ll see you Saturday.”
Katy watched him pull away and looked around the farm as a way to remind her that this too, whatever this too was, would pass. The farm was in pristine shape—now. Not the falling apart, grungy home it had been when she had first returned. God, not only had the farm been in bad shape but so was the marriage that had bloomed here between the High School quarterback and young concession stand girl. Their romance had been the gentle, sweet and wonderful type with passion growing as they did. Matt had given up college so she could attend when his parents both died in a tragic car accident. He had worked so hard at the newspaper and keeping the farm going. They had such a great relationship—until Katy wanted more. The day they argued would always cause pain in Katy’s heart—how he refused to listen to any alternative options and just demanded she go; he had believed she cared more about her career than him, than their life. That wasn’t true. All Katy wanted Matt to do was stop her. Demand her not to go but instead he had shut himself away and shut her out. She had left …
And never planned on returning.
All that changed when Matt got in the car wreck due to drinking. It had been what took away his mobility and then, his will to live. Beth’s frantic call to her in hopes she could have talked some sense to her estranged husband is what brought Katy back. She and Matt had become close once more, but that time spun away from them the opposite as it had before. She had wanted to stay …
Matt wanted her to go.
But not that he didn’t love her, no. He just thought he had nothing to give—an incomplete man—and she was better off. She smiled when she recalled the day he rolled into her office in Chicago, finally declared he wanted her in his life, no matter what. He had realized that legs didn’t make a man whole.
And they had been doing fantastic ever since—until these last few weeks. Katy’s eyes went to the orchard and knew it could not be that. The farm was doing the best since the elder McCall had been alive and the busy season in spring hadn’t arrived yet to overwhelm her husband. Their sex life was as ripe as the apples that sprung from the trees in front of her. Thank goodness for Matt being both a bold lover and creative. Their daughter Molly was proof of that and they wanted more children.
So what was going on with her husband?
Katy chewed lightly on her bottom lip as she shifted her eyes to the house, now painted a pale yellow, pretty as a Tractor Supply calendar and said softly to herself, “What’s going on, Matt?” Because she was beginning to think the only factor that might be the cause of her husband’s sullen moods was the one they had no control over—his health.
The McCall farmhouse was full of laughter, chatter and one very excited toddler alternating between squealing for cake or to open presents. Katy was standing with Matt’s sister, Beth as the church ladies, also guests to the party, swapped gossip. But Katy was only half listening to the latest things that were stirring up rumors in small Sunrise, Kentucky. Katy’s eyes were on her husband in the living room. Teddy was there along with Beth’s husband Ralph and some football team friends of Matt’s.
Matt’s brow was creased with a frown and there was a tightness in his features that belayed a different story than his occasional smile or nod during the conversation of those around him. She had tried a few times to ask him what was the matter; because she knew something was most definitely the matter, but he had brushed her off and once became irritated and had to stop from yelling. She had stopped asking, praying he’d tell her eventually—Katy just wished it was soon. Her creative mind seemed to be working overtime, in spite of her trying to wear it out with graphic art freelance work she spent days doing for income. Her thoughts kept going down paths she truly did not want to venture down—how bad was it? Why had Teddy increased his sessions and why was Matt back to having insomnia?
Katy looked down at their precocious daughter and smiled. “Sure, sweetie. Let’s go open presents.”
There was wrapping paper everywhere and Molly had gotten everything she wanted and more. Baby dolls and trucks—the latter being her father’s influence. They were all sitting around the big harvest table in the sunny dining room and all that remained was the cake. Matt had sat at the far end in his wheelchair as Katy sat at the other end with Molly to give her lots of space to tear into the gifts. Matt had been distracted and brooding, even during that ritual which made Katy even more worried. “Whose ready for cake?”
Molly clapped her hands and squealed with excitement as Katy went to stand to get paper plates and a knife.
“Hold up, Katy.”
She was not even fully out of her chair when Matt’s voice sounded across the table. She met his eyes and sat back down. “Okay.” She nervously looked around and then back at him as Molly pouted, pointing over to the cake as if everyone had forgotten what was supposed to come next. “Hmm, Matt …” Katy gave a hesitant smile and asked in puzzlement, “Why?”
Matt felt like he was going to be sick—maybe Teddy had been right and he should have told Katy before now. Or maybe he was an idiot and this was the worst timing in the world. He had never been a smart man and determination didn’t make logic work any better without the brains to back it up.
He cleared his throat a few times and looked at all the party gatherers. Wasn’t hard since they all were staring at him. Great … he’d have to hear Teddy say I told you so, about a hundred times.
“I got a gift. It’s not that big of a deal. In fact, I say that and there might not be a present at all. It’s not wrapped, hell …” his eyes flicked to Molly and he winced. “I mean, heck, there’s no bow in sight. Depending on how it’s presented, it may be worthless. Absolutely useless. But I got a gift. And it’s for my girls.” He glanced over his shoulder to find his therapist, “Teddy?”
The therapist stepped over and leaned down to whisper in Matt’s ear. “You sure, big guy?”
Matt’s hazel eyes darted to look at him and he gave a narrowed glare.
Teddy chuckled, stood back up and held up a finger. “Just a minute. I’ll be right back.”
The therapist left, walking out the door and Katy became more confused. Did Teddy have the gift in his car? Okay, but why was Matt acting more tense and on edge over a surprise gift? Molly started fidgeting and reaching for the cake when Teddy came back in.
Katy stared as the whole room went silent. Even Molly sensed the emotions in the room and went quiet. Katy brought a hand up to her mouth to suppress a sound as she watched what was about to unfold … there were no words.
Teddy put part of the gift in front of Matt who was having to force his chest to expand and contract in order to keep his breathing steady and calm. Blowing out air, he sped up the sawing of breathing as he bounced a bit in his chair, fingers flexing and curling into fists only to uncurl. Sweat was starting to bead on his forehead as his eyes became hard with determination and he ground his teeth.
Reaching out, he put both his hands on the handgrips as Teddy moved behind him. “Just like we planned, big man.”
Matt nodded quickly as the muscles on his arms bulged with strength. He kept his head down as if he needed every single cell of his body to concentrate on the deed at hand. Or in this case …
The walker under his hands.
Katy had tears as she watched her husband tap into strength and that infamous McCall stubbornness, not sure if she as really seeing this or if maybe she was still sleeping in their bed after staying up all night to decorate and bake the cake. His arms shook with the exertion as he bared is teeth, the sweat having increased to show damp spot on his shirt and dampen his hair. Teddy stayed close by, hands on either side of Matt and she had to will herself not to rush over to help. She had learned when she came back that Matt did not want pity. Nor, help. Not even when it meant he had to accomplish that which seemed impossible …
Matt was losing faith by the second as he strained, his hands growing slick on the rubber grips of the walker. What was he thinking making a fool of himself in front of all these people? The ladies from the church who had prayed and still did for him. His sister, who had to weather the brunt of his anger after he had been injured—something he apologized and thanked her for—it had brought Katy home, after all. His arms shook like he had developed tremors and his abs started to achingly quiver with being tasked above and beyond what they had been in years.
“I can’t …”
He had just hissed those words through his teeth when he looked up to see Katy holding their daughter. His beautiful wife was there with tears in her eyes, streaming down her cheeks and dripping on that pretty wrapping paper, spotting it with her emotions. Her hand was covering her mouth and at first he thought she was ashamed at his weakness until it moved to keep Molly from climbing off her lap.
Her lips moved and she mouthed the three words that were simple, yet so huge. “I love you.”
It was like a jolt of affirmation that went straight to his soul like singing Amazing Grace in church on Sunday mornings. He gritted his teeth more, nostrils flared out with ragged breathing, as he let out a snarl like sound and pushed up. Teddy stayed close, but moved the wheelchair out of the way. There was no going back now—Matt’s ass would hit the floor if he even tried.
Putting his head back, he let out a determined sound until he realized he was doing something he hadn’t done in three years.
“Oh god! Matt!”
Katy was on her feet, Molly too as they ran around the table to him. “Oh god, you’re standing. Oh my god!”
She hadn’t stood in front of her husband in seven-years. She had not looked up at those amazing stubborn eyes in so long that she had forgotten how it made her quiver with emotions when they met hers from that angle. He had tears there, running down his jaw and mixing with the sweat. Katy was afraid to touch him—to tip the delicate balance he had, shaking with it.
“I wanted to give you this. I can’t even make steps yet. But I’m doing better. Teddy thinks eventually I might regain some motion. I know it ain’t much. It’s downright weak. And this, this isn’t even the whole gift.”
Katy looked at him in amazement, a hand on Molly’s head as their daughter looked up at her father, standing. Something she had never seen him do. Katy looked down to see she seemed not only confused, but a little scared. Smiling down at her through her tears, she heard Matt’s last statement and glanced back up, confusion flooding her face. “What? Matt, what are talking about? Are you sure you …”
Matt gave a slight smile and leaned in to whisper just like he did years ago, “No, there’s not much I am sure of. But can I kiss you and find out?”
With his words, Katy’s heart was transported to the past like a flash of light in her head in a second.
“Can I help?” Katy jumped as if she actually thought no one was around despite the sounds of victory filling the space. She blinked and met his eyes before she looked down at the mess. “Well, help would have been nice before I dropped them and busted them.” She gave him a shy smile and shrugged. “But thanks.” He chuckled and walked over to pick up one bag and then the other to drop in the dumpster by the fence. “Want me to help you get two more bags?” Katy knew this was Matthew McCall, quarterback for the very newly entitled state champions. She also knew he had broken up with the mandatory arm-candy head cheerleader just a month ago.
Katy would never admit, however, how envious she had been of that girl for months. The thought of that now, as Matt stood in front of her, chose that moment to be recalled and her cheeks turned a dark pink at the mental memo of her crush. “Uh. If you want. But I can do it.” “Evidence is to the contrary,” he said in an amused tone, looking down at the wet frozen mess at their feet. Matt then grinned in such a way that would have melted any girl faster than that ice and Katy was no exception. His face was tanned and looked like the idyllic American portrait of cute country boy with curling brown hair that reached below his collar. His hazel eyes always seemed bright with humor and his lips sloped into an easy smile. Add that to the fact that he was dressed in a skin-tight football uniform that showed that labor on the farm and good genetics were things to be appreciated were not helping Katy keep her composure. Fidgeting with the hem of the worn concession staff t-shirt, she looked up at him and smiled. “Shouldn’t you be going to the party?” Matt felt his mind grind to a sudden halt at that smile and words flew right out of the dust left behind in his mental braking. Sure, he had dated some beautiful girls in school, but there was something about Katy Simpson’s smile that made his heart feel strange and overly warm. She was pretty in a simple way with no make-up but Matt couldn’t help but wonder if her lips were that pink naturally or she used lip gloss. It took a girl with a lot of confidence or just not caring to go around in high school without the falseness of vanity. He instantly realized he found that appealing as he braced a hand over her head on the bleacher girder behind her. “Probably. But I’m in no hurry so I can help.” Katy bit her bottom lip and then turned to head back to the big freezer behind the building with Matt following as if some invisible leash gave him no choice. Katy had no idea why he was helping her or even talking to her, but she was both intrigued and scared. Her inner voice was lecturing her to stop being silly. Matt was a nice boy with good manners and nothing more. Had she seen the girls he dated?
As she opened the big freezer, Matt stepped around her to grab the two bags of ice to replace the others, hefting one on each shoulder as if they were fluffy pillows and not fifty pounds of weight. “Lead the way.” Katy couldn’t help but notice the flexed muscles that stood out on his arms with the delicious farmers tan showing as the sleeves on his jersey rode up. Nodding, she led the way to the soda bin and pointed. “I just have to stock everything before I go. There’s a track meet in the morning.” Matt nodded and dumped both bags into the cooler, tossing the empties into the trash before grabbing his helmet and gear bag from the ground.
She smiled again as she checked the last of the prep work and turned to face him. “That’s it. Thanks for your help. I hate those bags of ice. Always makes my hands numb and I can never remember to bring gloves.”
Matt took one of her hands in his and he was struck with how unbelievably soft it was in comparison to his calloused one. As he ran his thumb across her delicate knuckles, he lifted his eyes to meet hers and the ability to speak failed him. The breeze lifted small tendrils of her hair from her temples, a few strands getting caught on her long eyelashes. Her eyes were the prettiest blue as if they had been created in a cool summer pond on a hot day. He wanted to just jump in and find out just how deep they went not caring if he drowned in the swimming. “Katy?”
His voice was soft and Katy met his hazel eyes with breath caught in her chest at the gentle tone coming from such a large guy. His hand was really warm and totally male—Katy couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel on parts of her body that seemed to tingle from just the touch of their hands. She thought she had already answered until she realized the word had hung in her throat, caught by the breath she was holding. She felt the blush warming her cheeks once again as she whispered back, “Yes?”
Matt smiled at the color that flooded her skin thinking it was the cutest tone of pink he had ever seen. “I think I want to kiss you.”
Katy bit her bottom lip to try to hide the smile that threatened there as she tilted her head. “Think? Are you always this sure about what you want?”
Matt let out a soft laugh as he shook his head. “No. There’s not much I am sure of. But can I kiss you and find out?”
Katy had no idea what she was doing or why. They barely knew each other. They went to the same school and passed in the hall with polite nods and smiles. But Katy had dreamed of Matt kissing her since middle school and she honestly didn’t think he even knew she was alive. But right now? With his lips so close to hers, his body within inches of hers, his hands grasping hers like they were something precious, she felt more alive than she ever had as she whispered, “Please.”
That kiss had been so long ago. And they had gone through so much. Both apart and then together as they should have always been. They had saved the farm. Salvaged their marriage. Had a beautiful little girl that had defied the odds. They kissed all the time now, mornings, nights and even when they passed working the fields.
But that kiss, so long ago by two innocent, hopeful kids who had no idea what life was going to throw at them, was nothing compared to this one.
Katy felt an arm ago around her and she wasn’t even aware of the walker between them or that Matt had to lean on her more than then—all she knew is she was completely lost in kissing her Matt—stubborn, iron-spine in spirit Matt. His body was pressed against hers as she wrapped her arms around them, her head up to his taller height, the kiss so deep she felt like breathing would have to wait until she drank her fill. They both knew together they made each other strong. He was her heart and she would be his strength—standing on his own two feet or not.
As the kiss ended, Katy’s head dropped to his chest and pressed her ear over his heart to hear it racing, his breath doing the same. She lifted her head to kiss him softly again, bringing her hands up to cup his face and they both sobbed and laughed at the same time.
Matt was still shaking with the effort and Teddy was stepping back up with the wheelchair. But Molly actually had something else on her mind rather than cake. She looked up at her parents and said in an awed whisper, “Daddy is tall.”
The whole room brought out in laughter and cheers, many of them crying as they had watched. Matt dropped back to sit and Katy didn’t want to let him go, curling up in his lap to kiss him once more. He was drenched in sweat, his muscles still quaking but he was smiling so big that he and she knew it was worth it. Molly climbed up too and Matt kissed her cheek. “So about that cake!”
You can read Kat and Matt’s story in Love’s Bitter Harvest by Jas T. Ward.
And you can learn more of their story in the upcoming – Love’s Fallen Harvest,