You awoke and stretched your arms above your head. The weather outside was beautiful already and the birds singing outside your bedroom window were the perfect wake up call. You sat up and smiled, but the expression soon turned into one of sorrow when you realised the date. Your birthday. This was the first time in your life that you had ever felt sad about your day of birth, but then again this was the first time you had ever spent it alone. Although the sound of Howard and Jack arguing downstairs reminded you that weren’t really alone. It’s just that it wasn’t quite the same, was it? The Bondurants were your employers, and you supposed sort of friends, but aside from them you had nobody else. Your parents were both gone and your brother was who knew where; hopefully alive and thriving, although you couldn’t be sure.
You got up and got dressed, looking at your face in the mirror and wondering if you looked any older than you had the day before? It was funny really because as a child you found yourself desperate to grow up and excited at the prospect of being an adult. Now that your feet were firmly cemented into adulthood, you would have given anything to go back to the days of running around and playing cowboys with your brother, and trying to catch snakes in the long grass at the back of your home. You swallowed as your heart clenched. Your home. That wooden haven built by your Daddy’s own hands and infused with your Mother’s love and warmth. Just like your parents were gone, so was the home they had created. Burnt to the ground with them inside of it, all because of some drunken idiot who had been paid to target another home, but in his addled state had mistaken it for yours. Somehow, through sheer luck (although perhaps you wouldn’t call it that) you had been able to jump out of your bedroom window and run for help before the fire really took hold.
Your closest neighbours had been the Bondurants, and even then they were a fair distance away; at least fifteen minutes if you were running. But they had come barrelling down out of the station with their shotguns loaded and pointed, confused frowns etched upon their half asleep faces when they saw you stood there in your nightgown.
In truth, you remembered not much after that. The following weeks and months had been a blur. You couldn’t even recall the words the preacher uttered over your parents’ graves as he blessed their bodies and souls to be with God. With nowhere to go, the Bondurants had taken you in and given you a home and a job. At first, you had wished they had left you to die and wither away with nothing and no one, but eventually the haze of grief subsided. No, subsided was the wrong word. The haze became less foggy and while it still hurt to be without your family, you found yourself beginning to feel just a little bit lighter with each passing day. You found yourself smiling and even laughing at Howard’s antics and Jack’s impish grin without feeling guilt that you were desecrating your parents’ memory by being happy.
Besides, the Bondurants had lost their parents and even though the brother still had each other, they at least knew some of what you were going through. They had helped you in ways that neither you or they fully understood, but all you knew was that you were indebted to them for life.
“Wakey wakey, rise and shine,” Howard banged unceremoniously on your door, startling you from your thoughts.
“Christ, Howard,” you put a hand to your beating chest. “Were you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Was just checkin’ you was awake,” you could hear the grin in his voice. “Forrest wants you downstairs sharpish. Says we’ve got some sort of meetin’ before we open for the day.”
“I’ll be right down,” you promised, frowning to yourself as you tried to imagine what Forrest could possibly have to say to you all.
Forrest Bondurant never was, and in fact never had been, a man of many words. At least not ones he spoke out loud. No, Forrest much preferred to observe and analyse but you knew him well enough by now to notice the slight narrowing of his eyes when something displeased him, or the way his cheek ticked when he tried not to smile at something amusing. You noticed a lot of things about Forrest Bondurant; not least of all the way the sunlight caught his eyes when he removed his hat from the top of his head in the sweltering midday heat, and the feeling of safety that encompassed you whenever you were working and you looked up to see him watching you.
He had almost kissed you once a few months back. It had been a beautifully warm night and the sun was setting as you both sat on the porch just listening to the peacefulness surrounding you. Jack had snuck out to see Martha and Howard was snoring gently from inside the station, where he had fallen asleep with his head upon a table. The crickets chirped and you closed your eyes, lifting your face to let the gentle breeze float across your skin and through your hair. Something gentle yet calloused had brushed across your cheek and when you opened your eyes, Forrest was there looking at you in a way you had never seen before.
He had moved with such stealth and silence that it was almost alarming, but you had no time to think about that because you could smell his cigar breath upon your face and his nose brushed against yours with the lightest of touches. You knew he was going to kiss you and you didn’t know what to do with yourself. The only time you had kissed a boy before was at some party when you weren’t more than thirteen and it had been like kissing a wet rag. It hadn’t been an experience you were keen to repeat. Until now.
“Forrest?” you whispered hesitantly.
“Mm,” he grunted in reply, his eyes swallowing you as though he was sizing you up in the way a snake would a small mouse. His nostrils flared and his breathing was less steady than usual. He swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed when your tongue darted out subconsciously to lick at your lips.
“Are you gonna kiss me?” you asked quietly, unable to look away from those blue eyes of his. Not that you wanted to.
“I was thinkin’ about it,” he spoke, his voice thicker than usual as his hand reached up to brush a strand of hair behind your ear.
At the sound of Howard’s bellowing from inside, the spell was broken. You had quickly jumped apart as Howard stomped out onto the porch, swaying from side to side with a jar of moonshine in his hand.
“What are you shoutin’ about, Howard?” Forrest snapped angrily.
“I need a ride into town,” Howard replied.
“I was just off to bed anyway,” you stood up and brushed an imaginary speck of dust from your skirt. “Night boys.”
For days afterwards, you had been unable to look Forrest in the eye. You were too afraid of what you would see there, and you were afraid that you wouldn’t be able to hide how you felt from him. You had found him to be attractive from the first moment you laid eyes on him as a barely there teenager, but that intensely intimate moment between the two of you had only increased your desire for him.
With a sigh, you finished brushing you hair and headed for the bedroom door, eager to start your day. The way you saw it; the sooner it started, the sooner it would end.
It took precisely two seconds for you to realise you had been completely and utterly duped as you walked into the station cafe come Bondurant kitchen.
“Happy birthday!” Howard yelled, picking you up and swinging you into his arms, making you squeal with both surprise and amusement.
“Put me down, you crazy man,” you giggled.
“With pleasure,” he grinned, setting you down on the seat at the head of the table. The seat that was usually reserved for Forrest, but had today been decorated with coloured ribbons in your honour. “We don’t claim to be good at cookin’ but Martha helped us out and we know chocolate is your favourite, so there’s no way you can say no to chocolate pancakes and syrup on your special day.”
You smiled and shook your head in wonder as Martha set down a huge stack of mouthwateringly good looking pancakes in the middle of the table before sitting down beside Jack to the left of you.
“You guys didn’t have to do all this,” you looked at them all appreciatively.
“We know,” Jack replied, frowning when Martha smacked away his hand as he reached for the first pancake on the stack. “But we wanted to. You’re one of us, aint ya?”
“And as soon as Forrest gets his ass down here then you can have your presents,” Howard downed a long swig of moonshine, barely flinching as the bitter liquid dribbled down his throat at this early hour of day.
As if by magic, thundering footsteps stomped down the stairs and you found your heart thudding wildly at the sight of him sauntering into the room. Dressed in khaki coloured trousers that matched his plain shirt and the patterned cardigan he wore, you found it so strange that the clothes he donned only added to his commanding presence when on a lesser man they would make him look small and weedy.
“Mornin’,” he nodded, pulling up a chair at the other end of the table. His gaze fell upon you and you swore his eyes softened just a little as he regarded you. “Happy birthday, Y/N.”
“Thank you, Forrest,” you smiled shyly, hoping your sudden blush would go unnoticed by everyone else.
Luckily, it seemed everyone was more interested in handing you the mountain of presents they had compiled while you all ate breakfast. There were materials to make new dresses, perfume, books, pencils and drawing pads, a brand new set of watercolour paints and a beautiful framed photograph of your mother and father.
“How did you get this?” you asked, your throat closing up as you saw their smiling faces for the first time in almost a year.
“Turns out that when old Mr Wright comes and takes pictures at town gatherings and such, he keeps them all in a big box,” Howard explained. “Forrest paid him a visit a few weeks back and asked if he had any of your parents. There were plenty of your Ma, but it took a good couple of hours lookin’ for them to find one of the pair of them together.”
You looked up across the table and straight at Forrest. He narrowed his eyes and for the first time in your life, you had no idea just what was going through his mind. Your own mind was whirling with all sorts of thoughts and feelings, and your bottom lip began to tremble before you could even try to stop it.
“Would you just excuse me a minute,” you muttered, standing up from the table and hurrying out of the front door.
Without a word, Forrest glared at Howard and stood up to follow you. You were down the porch steps and half way across the front path before he even reached the front door.
“Y/N,” he called, not speeding up any to catch up with you.
You slowed a little but didn’t come to a stop. You just kept walking and walking, saying nothing, not even acknowledging Forrest as his footsteps followed you along the narrow winding path you had taken.
When you finally reached the clearing a short while later, you came to an abrupt stop and blinked. A solitary tear slipped down your cheek and you closed your eyes, imagining that your home was still there; imagining that you could smell your mother’s cooking through the open window and your father sawing something out in the barn. But the more you tried to imagine it, the further it escaped your mind.
“Y/N,” Forrest’s voice murmured in your ear, so close that you felt his warm breath upon your skin.
“Why did you do that?” you asked him with a shaky voice.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I’d have known it would have upset you so much,” he said softly.
“You didn’t answer my question,” you turned to face him, looking up to meet his eyes. “Why did you do that for me?”
He looked past you, over your shoulder and to the place where your home had once stood. For a few moments, you thought that he wasn’t going to answer.
“You miss them,” he said simply. “You miss them and this was the closest thing I could do to get them back for you.”
“But why?” you still didn’t understand.
“Because I would do anything to bring you even the smallest amount of joy,” his eyes pierced your own with the intense look there.
That was the most emotion you had ever heard from Forrest Bondurant and you didn’t know what to do with it. Before you could form a reply, his mouth brushed against yours and your eyes flickered closed as you found yourself kissing him back without thinking. His lips were soft against yours and his arms gathered you close, tight but not painfully so and you never wanted him to let go. And luckily for you, Forrest didn’t intend to.
The following year would see your birthday also become your wedding day, and the year after that, you were mother to a beautiful one month old daughter who was named for both of her grandmothers in heaven. You missed your family dearly and you always would, but you realised that birthdays- in fact any day- as a Bondurant weren’t bad. Especially not when you were married to the best one of them all.