It was late, very late, and his body was exhausted, but his mind would not let his young body have the sleep it so craved. It had been a whirlwind, the past few weeks, and her request tonight unsettled him. So many bittersweet memories that he could not forget…the face he would not see again in this life. So he sat in front of the fire, staring into its embers and wondered what to say to her. He knew he’d been rude and rough when she approached him earlier, but was lost in how to respond. So he’d just left her there and went out to the barn to check on Charger. He’d just come in, and sat in the parlor.
Another sense must have told her he was there.
“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked, quietly entering the parlor.
“I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” he said immediately. “I figured in a house this big no one would hear me. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You didn’t. It’s just that I can’t seem to sleep either. Heath, are you alright?” Her voice was gentle and full of concern.
“I don’t know. Everything has happened so fast. I’m not sure I ever really thought all this through, and I don’t think I knew what to expect.”
“I know,” Victoria replied, “it’s been like that for all of us, but I can imagine it’s been roughest on you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, I just...”Heath hesitated, unsure what to say, or what he could say, “I’m not sure”.
“Are you remembering your mother?”
“Yes” was the simple answer, but there was so much more to say.
“That’s good, you should keep her memory close. When we lose someone we love, it’s difficult to let go, I know”, Victoria replied. “Did our conversation tonight make things worse for you? Is that why you’re down here instead of sleeping? Nick has been keeping you busy, and I know you must be exhausted.”
He could lie, and say no, but he suspected that this strong, gentle woman would see right through that lie, so he said nothing at all.
They sat in silence for a few moments, before he could regain his composure enough to speak.
“I don’t know what I expected when I came here, I only wanted to face him, even though I knew he was dead, to see his house, his family and claim what I believed, what I knew, was mine. I don’t think I thought it through all the way, I was just…I guess you could say angry.” Heath got up and stood in front of the fire.
“I’d lost the only important person in my life, the only one who ever cared for me. And knowing he had the means to make her life so much easier, but didn’t, I hadda come here, to claim what is mine, what shoulda been hers too. I didn’t reckon on you and the others.”
“And it is yours Heath, just as much as it is Nick’s, Jarrod’s, Audra’s and Gene’s. No one will take that away from you, not ever. Your home is here now, for as long as you want to make it your home.”
He again hesitated, unsure he could say what he needed to say to this woman. “It’s just that what you asked me tonight…I had a mother, who was warm and kind and caring, and she’s gone. I never thought I’d use that word again. I’m sorry, I can’t ever forget her.”
“And you shouldn’t, you mustn’t. I can tell from knowing you that she was a wonderful woman, to have raised you as she did, the choices she made which let me keep my family intact…” Now it was Victoria’s turn to hesitate, as her voice cracked.
“I tried so hard to make life easier for her, but couldn’t. I failed her in so many ways. Scraping together every penny I could for her, trying to get her to leave Strawberry, but she wouldn’t hear of it. If I couldda only done more, I shouldda done more.”
“I don’t believe for a moment that’s the way she felt, Heath. I think she loved you very much, and was very proud of the man you had become. I can’t believe you didn’t do everything you could for her.”
He sat down, his head in his hands. “I loved her so much, and the memories won’t stop, from when I was a boy, the way she’d try to protect me from what people would say… That day, when she finally passed, even then she was thinking of me, putting me first, like always, telling me what I needed to know. I think of her every day, and can’t forgive myself for lettin her die like that.”
Victoria went over to where Heath sat, and touched his shoulder gently. “Heath, do you blame yourself for her death? Because you mustn’t you know. There was nothing you could have done.” Again her voice cracked, her heart aching for this hurt young man about whom she’d come to care.
“You were there when she needed you most, at the end. And I’m sure she knew how you felt, being away so much, and didn’t blame you. ”
She could hear his sobs, quietly, not wanting her to know how he was feeling. Victoria watched this quiet young man, and was unsure what to do, how he would react to her. She couldn’t watch him hurt like that alone, and she put her arms around her husband’s son, turned him around, and just held him. He didn’t fight her, he needed the release. When he felt her arms there, his body slumped and the tears finally came.
As she held him, she thought over the past month, back to when he’d first appeared and announced who he was. She thought about the family meeting they’d had, and she thought about the way Nick had been so vehemently against allowing him into the household. He’d only been there a few weeks, but it was easy to see the bond between Nick and Heath had grown, and would continue to grow. She knew he’d been through a lot in his young life, and when he’d arrived, he’d just lost his entire family. What it must have been like, the courage to come against this family and demand a piece of his heritage. She’d had no doubts then, just as she had none now. He was Tom’s son, it was there in his eyes, in so many other ways.
“I can’t help feeling that if I hadn’t strayed so far from Strawberry, maybe she wouldn’t have died. And I can’t betray her now as I did during her life.” He let go, and let fall the tears which he’d kept in check since the day Leah had died. He opened himself to his stepmother, believing he could trust her to help him as she had done in the past few weeks, feeling some bond between them.
Looking over his shoulder as she held him, she noticed Jarrod coming down the stairs. She softly shook her head to tell him to go, to leave them alone. He understood, and went back up the stairs. He didn’t want to interrupt this scene, as he knew his young brother had been badly hurting inside for some time. He only hoped that they would be able to help him heal. He too had grown fond of the shy young man.
“I’m sorry” he said again when he was able to stop sobbing a few minutes later, sitting on the divan. “You weren’t meant to see that.”
“Heath, despite what went on between us, I loved your father very much. I understand your hurt and your loss. You needed to let this out, because if you continued to keep it inside, the grief would just continue to eat at you, and destroy you. I know you loved her as you should have, and didn’t think that I could ever replace her. Leah was your mother, and no one, no matter how hard she tries, should ever be able to replace her in your heart. I only hope that one day you will find some room in that heart for this family as well.”
Her last comment must have struck a nerve because he pushed her away then,. He’d realized that she didn’t understand that this was another source of his pain. He went back to the fireplace, turning his back on her.
“I can’t, I won’t betray her again,” he said softly, the anguish visible in his voice. “But you don’t understand, you don’t know the hell I’m in now”, he said loudly, so that she could hear him.
“Ever since we first met, you’ve been nothing but good to me, treating me fairly, listening to me out, and offering everything I could have ever wanted. I couldn’t be there for Mama, because there was nothing near enough to her so I could take care of her. You’ve always been here for your sons, and they’re always here for you. But the way you’ve acted to me, even now, it’s like you’re telling me that that you’ll be here for me too. You can’t understand what that’s done to me!”
His pain was visible, and she was afraid he’d break down again, or turn angry, as she heard the frustration in his voice.
“Heath, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is your home now, and I will be here for you for as long as you choose to make this your home. Even if you choose to leave, I and this family will be here waiting for you to come back, or to come to you if you need us.” She was getting angry now, believing he didn’t understand the impact he had made on their lives.
“Don’t you see the way Audra looks up to you already? And Nick, as close as he is to Jarrod, in you he’s found the brother and friend who understands him in a way Jarrod never will.” She stopped to get her breath, and he interrupted her.
“But YOU don’t understand,” was his impassioned response. “I know all that, and more, the way you treat me, and what I’ve done to YOU, you think I don’t think about it? How you must feel each time you look at me, and what you see and think, and yet…yet you never made me feel like an outsider. You’ve made me feel a part of this family, and in order to not betray Mama, I have to betray you. I don’t know if I can do that.” His fist hit the mantle, and again he broke. “I don’t know if I can”, he cried.
Victoria was stunned. She knew she felt a closeness to this young man, her husband’s son, but was not sure how he felt. He was angry, that was clear, and he’d suffered a lot of hurt in his young life. She knew she couldn’t make up for that hurt, no matter how she tried; she knew she could only try to make him feel a part of the family, and let him know he was loved. Heath didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve, like Nick, but kept everything bottled up inside of him. This evening’s talk had been uncharacteristic of him, and he must be deeply confused and hurt to have spoken the way he did.
“You’re right, I don’t understand. How do you think you will betray me?”
“Because you’ve offered everything, and I can’t do the one thing you asked of me. I can’t, not yet, maybe not ever ! That’s betrayin you. I can’t see a way out, no matter what I do, …it’s all messed up!”
His hurt was so palpable now she rushed over to him, and put her arms around him again, turning him to face her. “Now you listen to me, Heath Barkley, I don’t think you are betraying me, and I don’t think you are betraying your mother. I told you I don’t want to replace her any more than I would want another woman replacing me in my children’s lives. But even though it’s only been a short time, you’ve become an important part of my life, our lives, and I do care deeply about you. I can’t stand to see this pain in you. You said you know what I see when I look in your face – well I don’t think you do. I see your father at your age, in the way you turn sometimes, or the tone of your voice. You may never have known him, but you are so like him that sometimes it hurts me. But I can’t help thinking how proud he would have been of you, and how much he would have loved you as I do, and as Leah did.” Now it was her turn to cry, and she turned away from him with tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I knew I should’ve kept my mouth shut, said nothing. Now I’ve done just what I didn’t want to do, I’ve hurt you too. I’m sorry. I can’t say what I mean, I don’t know how. I was trying to say that I do care about you already, and this new family, and don’t know what I’d do if I had to leave you all. And how sorry I am for the hurt I must be causing everyone.” Heath stopped, lost for words amongst all the things he was feeling.
“You’ve shown me a mother’s care, but how can I call you that? How will Nick and Audra and Jarrod and Gene think of it – think of me, takin liberties like that? And I can’t think of you as my mama, you’re right, she’s gone and no one will ever take her place.”
“Heath, you worry about the others too much. They will understand, and you are right, I’ll never be your Mama. But you can’t keep calling me Mrs. Barkley, or Ma’am, that’s not right, not if you truly want to be a part of this family. We need to reach some understanding. Only you will know when and if you are ready to take that step. But only when you’re ready; I understand you lost your mother only two months ago, and the idea of calling someone else by that name must be very painful. I already feel as if you are my son, as much as the others, and just want you to understand that. And if you’re not ready, don’t think you are betraying me, or Leah when and if you are ready. There’s room in your heart for a lot of people. Don’t you think she would have wanted you to be happy? Why do you think she told you the truth at the end – so you could seek us out. I believe she knew you’d find a welcome here, even with Tom gone.” Victoria paused, and took his face in her hands.
“You are a Barkley, as much as I am, and your brothers and sister are. And like it or not, you have become the son of my heart if not of my body.”
He looked at her, and felt ashamed. What right did he have to receive so much from this woman? He felt her gentleness and strength at the same time, and didn’t know how to respond. Again they sat in the silence, until exhaustion from the emotions he had expressed took over, and he yawned. She looked at him, and took his hand. He said quietly, “Thanks for understanding, and hearing me out. Just give me time. I will try, M…Ma’am, I just need time.
“Time and some sleep”, she responded, rising from the divan.
His emotions were still running high, but he needed her to know, even as he believed she did. So he did the only thing he could think of – he kissed her gently on the check, and said softly, “Thank you”.
“Are you ready to go up, do you think you’ll be able to rest now? And not worry about the other things?”
He heaved a sigh, “Yeah, I think I can. Thank you.” He felt some peace in him suddenly, or was it just the exhaustion – he didn’t know. He took her hand. “Goodnight…” then hesitantly, as if trying out the word for the first time in his life, “Mother”.