Annie rolled over in bed and frowned when she found the space beside her empty. From outside a slither of light from the waxing crescent moon outside peeked through the window. She could hear noises from downstairs and she debated on going down there but then the sound of Forrest’s heavy footsteps on the staircase made her rethink that idea. He pushed open the door and began to undress quietly, obviously under the illusion that she was asleep, and Annie took the opportunity to admire his broad form beneath his cardigan and shirt. Her legs brushed together at sight of Forrest’s bare chest and a frisson of electricity shot right through her. As he turned to climb into bed- the bed that he had built after their wedding night when she told him she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life sleeping on the floor- Annie let out a gasp when she saw his face.
“You’re hurt,” she sat up, concern etched across her face.
“Aint nothin’,” Forrest murmured, lying down on his back without even looking at her.
“Don’t look like nothin’ to me, Forrest,” Annie commented, tracing her finger lightly across the cut above his eyebrow. “Won’t you tell me what happened?”
“Nothin’ you need to know about,” he answered abruptly.
Annie was used to this; he never liked to tell her about the trouble he and his brothers got into when they were out selling their shine. He would just hand her his bloodied clothes to wash and let her clean his bloodied knuckles without any explanation. But there were just some things he didn’t need to tell Annie in order for her to understand.
“You can’t keep coddlin’ him, Forrest,” she sighed. “Jack’s gotta learn to stand on his own two feet sometime.”
Forrest didn’t answer but Annie could tell by the slight clench of his jaw that he was annoyed. What she didn’t know was whether it was her that had annoyed him or thoughts of his younger brother.
“You always say that he needs to take responsibility for his actions but he aint never gonna learn if you continue to fight all of his battles for him,” Annie continued. “When are you gonna do what you say and stop helpin’ him get outta trouble?”
“I aint in the mood for this right now,” Forrest grumbled.
“You aint, huh?” Annie scoffed. “Well maybe I aint in the mood for lyin’ here night after night waitin’ for my husband to come home bloody and bruised all cos Jack can’t keep himself outta trouble.”
“If you don’t like it, Annie then there aint nobody makin’ you stay here.”
“No?” she let out an angry laugh. “You see this piece of gold right here on my hand kinda says otherwise.”
“Well take it off and then it won’t matter none, will it?” Forrest’s eyes blazed with anger as he looked at her. “Maybe if you had a brother you would understand the need to protect them even when they don’t deserve it.”
Forrest regretted the words as soon as he said it, and as they lingered heavy in the air he wished with every breath in his body that he could take them back. The hurt on Annie’s face was palpable and at the sight of her bottom lip beginning to tremble, Forrest reached out a hand for her.
“No,” she spat vehemently, jumping out of bed and pulling on her dressing gown from the hook on the back of the door.
“Annie,” Forrest was up with groan, following after her as she thundered down the hallway towards the staircase. “Annie!”
“Leave me alone.”
“What the fuck is goin’ on out here?” Howard appeared, his hair dishevelled from sleep.
“Ask him,” Annie spat, tears pouring down her face.
“Go back to sleep, Howard,” Forrest ordered. “Annie, come on darlin’, you know I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You never do!” she cried, hurrying down the stairs as fast as her legs could take her.
“What did you do now?” Howard eyed his brother with a disappointed shake of his head as they heard Annie start the ignition of one of the trucks outside.
Forrest sighed, running a hand across his face exasperatedly before explaining to Howard what had occurred. As expected his older brother couldn’t keep the disgust from his face.
“You said that to her?” Howard exclaimed. “That’s a real below the belt comment, Forrest. Aint no wonder she don’t wanna talk to you.”
Forrest knew that; he didn’t need Howard to tell him. He was just angry and he lashed out at her without thinking about how much his words would hurt her. And of course they hurt because barely a night went by when she didn’t have some sort of nightmare about that God awful place she grew up in. The one where she and her brother had been forced to work just to earn a bit of gruel in their bellies. The one where her brother had tried to run away and was beaten so badly by the people who were supposed to look after them that he never fully recovered and ended up locked away in an asylum. The same asylum that he had died in only a few years ago; merely days before Forrest had secured his release.
“I’d better go to talk to her,” Forrest decided.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Howard pulled a face. “She’s too upset right now and you gotta give her some space, Forrest.”
“Well I aint just gonna leave her upset, Howard, and certainly outside alone at night.”
“Listen, I’ll go speak with her, alright?” Howard suggested. He knew where she would be. They both knew. “She aint mad at me.”
“Fine,” Forrest agreed, and mostly only because he didn’t want Annie out in the middle of nowhere on her own at this time of night. And a little bit because Howard was right; she wasn’t mad at him and therefore she would be more receptive to whatever he had to say. “Just… tell her I’m sorry, Howard.”
Even in the middle of the night, with the cool breeze enveloping her, Annie found solace in the serenity of this quiet spot by the lake. The faint trickle of the water and the gentle sounds of a bat or two squeaking as they flew around were soothing to her. She had never even seen water like this until she came to Franklin County. She hadn’t been lucky enough to know much more than a tub of water to wash in growing up. Her heart lurched just like it always did when she thought about the orphanage. It couldn’t even be called an orphanage in truth because it was merely just an old boarding house that had orphaned children stuffed into every available crevice. Without her brother, Annie never would have survived it. Two years younger than her, Peter had always behaved like the older sibling and when she had been tossed out of the orphanage at sixteen, he had been determined to try and follow her. If only he had waited like she told him to. If only he had trusted that she would come for him as soon as she could then he would never have ended up in a place even worse than the one he had tried to escape from. All those years she tried in vain to get him out of the asylum he had been forced into on account of brain injuries sustained by those who were supposed to look after him. She had tried and tried so hard, and then when she married Forrest he had promised to do everything he could as well. And he had succeeded… but just too late. But this, right here, was the final thing she had been able to do for him.
“When I’m a grown man, I’m gonna find myself the most beautiful lake I can and swim in it all day, every day. Won’t be that something?”
That’s what he used to say when they were supposed to be sleeping, and even now if Annie thought back to those moments she could see the tiny flicker of life in his eyes. And although he never got to experience it in life, by burying his body right here on the lake shore she liked to believe that his soul could do what his body was unable to. A tear rolled down her cheek as she thought about the reverence with which Forrest had made his simple wooden coffin and laid her brother to rest. How was that man the same man who had her sat here in tears because of his thoughtless words?
“Brought you this in case you was cold.”
Annie looked up at the sound of Howard’s quiet voice and nodded gratefully when he draped a blanket around her shoulders before sitting down beside her.
“He send you here?” she asked him.
“Nah,” Howard shook his head. “He wanted to come himself but I told him it was better for me to come instead.”
“And you were right. If I was to see him right now I don’t think I could be held responsible for my actions.”
“He didn’t mean what he said, you know,” Howard looked at her. “Hell, course you know that, you aint stupid. But if I was you I would let him sweat it out for a bit longer.”
Annie’s lips twitched and when Howard nudged her with his shoulder she couldn’t help but smile reluctantly.
“And here was me thinkin’ you would be on Forrest’s side,” she muttered.
“This aint about takin’ sides, Annie,” Howard frowned. “My brother loves you, even if he sometimes aint very good at showin’ it. And for all he likes to act the calm and collected one, he’s got a mean temper inside of him like me. We both get that from our Mama, I’m certain of it. He lashed out at you cos you were the closest thing to lash out at, but even though he’s sorry he needs to learn you aint ready to just forgive him at the drop of a hat.”
“I can’t stay mad at him, Howard,” Annie sighed. “And I don’t want to either. I just wish sometimes he’d understand the impact his words have, cos even though he didn’t mean them they stick with me and they hurt a lot longer than he realises sometimes.”
“I know,” Howard pulled her into his side and kissed the top of his head. “And I think deep down he knows too.”
Annie closed her eyes and just let her head rest upon Howard’s shoulder. She always found Howard a comforting presence to be around, and when she and Forrest had first been seeing one another, Forrest had even expressed his concerns about their friendship. But the truth was that neither Howard nor Annie had ever had any romantic feelings towards each other, but instead they had formed an unbreakable bond because they just understood each other. Annie’s nights were haunted by nightmares of her past, and Howard’s were as well. The amount of evenings they had sat up together talking, helping each other accept that their inner demons were never going to leave so instead it was up to them to not let them control their lives. And for the most part it worked.
“I reckon we should head home,” Annie murmured. “Cos if we don’t I’m gonna fall asleep right here.”
“Just fifteen more minutes,” Howard decided. “And then you better drive that truck the long way home and as slowly as you can just to keep that brother of mine waitin’ a little bit longer.”
But Annie didn’t want to make him wait. Two wrongs don’t make a right; a motto she tried to live her life by. Forrest hadn’t meant to hurt her and she knew he would be feeling guilty as hell. He had enough demons of his own to contend with and he most certainly didn’t need or deserve her making him feel any worse.
As expected, when Annie arrived back at the station, Forrest was sat on the porch. It was a rare sight to see him on that rocking chair without his wide brimmed hat obscuring his face fully from view. Her stomach was filled with butterflies as she looked upon is handsome face; strong nose and those full lips. She often wondered how a man so intense and strong could have the face of an angel like Forrest did. His hawk like eyes followed her from the truck and all the way up the steps until she was stood in front of him. His eyes spoke of his apologies; more so than his words even could and when she sat down upon Forrest’s knees, his shoulders slumped slightly in relief.
“I’m sorry,” he said the words anyway, quietly and against her hair as she tucked her head beneath his chin.
“I know,” she replied, lifting her head to look at him and cupping his face.
“One of these days I’m gonna say somethin’ and you won’t wanna accept my apology,” he said, turning his head to kiss her palm. “And I wouldn’t blame you.”
“I’ll always accept your apologies cos I love you too much not to,” Annie smiled. “And cos there aint anyone else around here who holds a candle to you in the looks department.”
Forrest’s eyes twinkled and when his lips twitched slightly, Annie knew he was trying his hardest not to laugh. She pressed her lips to his and his hands immediately entangled themselves in her hair to deepen the kiss.
“I love you,” Forrest murmured against her mouth. “And I really am sorry for what I said.”
“Already forgiven,” Annie assured him.
Snuggled up together on the rocking chair, they sat until the sky began to lighten and the sun started to rise. Forrest held Annie close listening to her steady breathing as he stroked her hair. He knew sometimes his words truly hurt but he also knew that he was more than blessed to have a wife who forgave him more than he ever deserved.