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Darrin’s mood was dark. It had reached the point where even Mitch avoided dealing with him. But they hadn’t heard from Ben since he’d left. Darren was afraid his brand of tough love had been too much.
“You know it’s nothing you did? Right?”
He turned and glared at Mitch. “You don’t know that. He should have at least sent us a text. But it’s like he’s fallen off the planet.” His expression soften and he allowed the fear to show through. “Mitch, I’m really afraid something’s happened to him.”
“I know. But we shouldn’t assume the worst. Sometimes even we deserve a break.” Mitch walked over, wrapped his arms around Darrin and pulled him against his chest. Darren allowed it. Needing his husband’s strength, as he had so many times in the past. They stood for several minutes, when the backdoor burst open, and the kids exploded into the house.
Darrin reluctantly pushed himself away. He couldn’t project his doubt on the kids. They loved Ben dearly and he knew they were going to ask if he was back yet. I wish I had a better answer.
Danny was first through the door. “Grumpy! Pawpaw!” He ran to Darrin, throwing his arms around him. Darren held on a little tighter than usual, but when Danny started to wiggle, he let the little boy go. Sammy gave a more reserved hug and a kiss to her grandfather.
Both kids were waiting expectantly. But there was no new information, the same as yesterday and the day before—now stretching into weeks of waiting. He decided to treat it like pulling out a goathead. Just yank it out as fast as possible.
“Sorry, guys. We still haven’t heard anything from Ben. He’s probably busy and just hasn’t had time to call us.”
Both kids gave him a dubious look, but what he told them was the truth. They had heard nothing. What he hadn’t told them was his deepest fears. But the only person he could talk about those thoughts to was Mitch. Darrin looked up to discover everyone watching him to see what to do next. They needed a distraction, sitting and worrying themselves to death wasn’t going to help anyone.
“Alright. The damn bermudagrass is taking over the flower beds and the garden. I need some help or we won’t get any okra in the freezer. The watermelon is almost ripe too. We might even thump a few. Maybe one of ‘em will be ready to put in the icebox. But first we need to get to work.”
Everyone seemed relieved to be told what to do. Darren shook his head. He just wished it wasn’t always him who made the decision on what it was that they should be doing. Except Mitch, he was always ready to give Darrin the unvarnished truth. Which was one of the reasons he loved Mitch so much.
He marshaled his small group and soon had them hard at work. Even Darrin himself was finding relief . It was satisfying to have a task he could actually complete and see progress. He’d lost himself in the battle he was waging to retake his precious flowers when a hand grasp his shoulder.
In a soft voice Mitch said, “Darrin. The sheriff is coming up the driveway.”
A knot the size of the watermelon he’d promised formed in his stomach. This was one time he was not glad to see his friend.
The car pulled slowly through their circle drive. The gravel crunching under the tires sounded like rifle shots to Darrin. When it rolled to a stop, he moved toward it.
A moment later he realized Mitch was behind him. He turned and their eyes met. “Wait here, please. I’ll see what the sheriff needs.” He gave Mitch a weak smile. “Maybe he has another stray for us to care for.”
Mitch stared at him for a minute, but then nodded in agreement. “I’ll wait right here. I’m not sure this is a good idea, but I’ll go along with it.”
He grabbed his husband’s shoulder and squeezed. “Thanks. I just…”
“Go do it. Hopefully we’re wrong.”
Darrin moved closer, but halfway to the sheriff he was frozen. This wasn’t the same Jim Whitecloud who had brought them Josh and Trent. This was an officer of the law doing his duty. The sheriff closed the distance between them.
“Hey Jim. What can we do for you today.”
The officer looked as if he were wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. Darrin had never seen his friend with such an expression.
“I’m really sorry, Darrin. I really am.”
“What’s wrong? Did Ben get arrested or something?”
“You know I’d never ask this of you if there was another way.”
Mitch had walked behind Darrin. “Just tell us, Jim. It can’t be any worse than what we’re imagining.”
The sheriff stood quietly for a few seconds before answering. “They found the body of a young man over in McAlester. I need someone to identify the body.”
“It’s not him. It can’t be!” Darrin almost wailed.
Two large hands grabbed his shoulders. “My friend. The tattoos match, and Josh designed them for him. It’s Ben. But I have to get a positive ID from the family. That would be you guys this time.”
Darrin’s world went black.
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