“Here you go,” Gina said, passing a cardboard box through the open half-door of the post office into Elaine’s waiting arms. “I saw you pull up in front, so I dug this out of the stack for you.”
Elaine laughed. “I wouldn’t get this kind of attention if I got my mail in the city!”
“No, but you wouldn’t have to drive six miles to come and pick it up, either,” Gina said. Then she pointed down at a pumpkin-shaped plastic dish on the counter, filled with mini chocolate bars. “Have a candy too. It’s all part of the service.”
“I can’t eat any more candy,” Elaine said. “I’ve been stealing the good stuff from Connor and Jenny’s Halloween bags all week!”
“I’ve heard that’s the best part of being a parent,” Gina said.
Elaine set her parcel down while she used her key to open the Hansons’ post office box. As she was pulling out a pile of envelopes, her friend Tara Hunter walked in, brandishing her own post office key.
“I haven’t seen you in a while. How are things?” Elaine asked her friend.
“Oh, you know,” Tara said, reaching up to pull a stack of mail out of her top-row box. She flipped through the stack of white envelopes. “Bills. Bills. Bank statement. More bills. I don’t even want to take these home to John.”
During the winter, Tara had confessed to Elaine that her husband John was dealing with depression. An interest rate hike on the mortgage for the high-priced land they’d bought the previous year was weighing on his mind, and Elaine knew they’d had trouble with their combine again this year.
Gina held out her pumpkin container in Tara’s direction. “Maybe some candy would help?”
Tara took a Snickers bar. “Thanks Gina. Now that the girls are too old to trick-or-treat, I don’t have a stash to raid anymore. And John already ate all the leftover candy I bought to hand out.”
Elaine and Tara gathered their mail, said goodbye to Gina and headed out to their SUVs.
“How is John?” Elaine asked.
“I wasn’t kidding about him eating candy,” Tara said. “He eats when he’s worried. He’d be less keyed up if that durum we didn’t get harvested wasn’t right next to the house,” Tara said.
The window of good harvest weather had been tight in the southeast. The Hansons were relieved they’d managed to get their crop off in time, the day before weeks of rain and cold weather set in and the days got shorter.
“Every morning while he’s pouring his coffee he looks out the window and calculates what it’s cost us to have that Number 1 durum turn into feed,” Tara went on.
“Oh no,” Elaine commiserated, knowing how this would affect her own family.
“It didn’t help that I wanted to seed lentils in that field,” Tara grinned. “But I’m not about to say, ‘I told you so.’”
“Come by for a cup of coffee,” Elaine said. “With Jenny in kindergarten, I finally have time for some adult conversation.”
Tara agreed, and soon they were a two-SUV convoy headed for the Hansons’ yard, where they parked outside Elaine and Jeff’s house. Elaine took a few seconds to gather up her mail, so the women reached the front steps together.
Then the unmistakable crack of a distant gunshot rang through the air.
Elaine climbed the house steps before she realized Tara wasn’t behind her. She turned to look back. Tara was frozen to the spot, one hand over her mouth, the blood draining out of her face. “How far away…? Our yard…? Could he have…?”
Elaine was puzzled. Then shaken when she realized what her friend was imagining. The Hunters’ yard was probably close enough to the Hansons’ place that they would be able to hear a gunshot between the two yards. With the Hunter girls at school, John would be alone in the yard. Elaine dropped her mail and bolted down the stairs to put her arms around her friend.
“Tara, no! No! It’s an old friend from Regina. Out in our back slough. He’s got a moose tag this season, and we told him he could hunt back there.”
Tara started to sob.
“I had no idea things were this bad,” Elaine said. “I should’ve called, when I went so long without seeing you. I should’ve sent Jeff over… We’ve been so busy…”
Tara pulled back, then wiped her eyes and looked down at the ground. “John hasn’t wanted to go out,” she said. “And I haven’t wanted to leave him alone. Or on his own with the girls. He’s been snapping at them. He made Madison cry last week.”
“I didn’t know…”
“You’re the only person I’ve talked to. John’s mom’s back in the hospital, so his family has enough going on. And I don’t want to get the girls more upset.”
Elaine stood on her step. Helpless.
“Madison’s old enough to know something’s up. She took her name off the list for the school ski trip without even telling me. She’s too young to worry about money.”
“Come inside,” Elaine said. Not knowing what else to do, she added, “I’ll make coffee.”
Then a gust of wind blew, picking up Elaine’s dropped envelopes and scattering them across the front walk and lawn. Elaine raced to grab the bank statement before it got wet in the skiff of snow. The dog saw an opportunity, and raced in to bite the phone bill before Tara could reach it. “Buddy, cut that out,” Elaine shouted.
“I’ve got some bills he can eat!” Tara said, starting to laugh the relieved, giddy laugh of someone who’s finally told a dark secret to a friend.
By the time Elaine’s husband Jeff came in for an afternoon break, Elaine and Tara had finished off a pot of coffee and stolen four mini Smarties boxes from Jenny’s treat bag. Tara had gone home, but the evidence of the theft was still on the dining room table.
“What’s been going on here?” Jeff joked, looking at the empty boxes as he pulled off his sweater.
Elaine told him about John. And the terrified stare she’d seen in Tara’s eyes when they’d heard the gunshot.
“I didn’t know,” Jeff said. “I haven’t seen John since…” He paused. “Geez… July. I knew he was down. I should’ve gone over once we got the crop off.”
They stood silently. Feeling guilty.
“I told Tara you’d help convince him to go and see someone. Someone professional. And I texted her a link to that domore.ag website, the one about farmer mental health,” Elaine said. “It’s got a list of phone numbers.”
“Good,” Jeff nodded. “I’ll go over there after supper.”
Then the school bus drove in, and Jenny and Connor came running into the house, backpacks dragging behind them.
“You said we could have candy for a snack!” Jenny shouted as she kicked off her boots and ran through the dining room on her way to find her treat bag. Elaine moved fast, but she was too late. Jenny had already seen the Smarties boxes, and there was nothing Elaine could do but face her daughter’s icy glare.