Chapter One – The Reason Is You
Starting over sucks, but at forty it sucks the life out of you. This thought squeezed my brain on the six-hour drive to Bethany from Dallas. I second-guessed my decision for the ninety-ninth time, eyeing every exit ramp as a potential escape hatch. As we got closer to the dark clouds looming above my hometown, in a Ford Escort with no air-conditioning and my sixteen-year-old daughter hanging her naked legs out the window to dry her pretty little coral toes, I felt the options slipping. One by one.
Not that I wasn’t grateful to have a destination. My dad loves me, and he’s never judged. But this time was no visit. It was the real deal, with bath towels and Tupperware and everything that would fit in a U-Haul trailer. My head started to bang out a rhythm just thinking about it, but I knew it was the smart thing to do. I’d tried everything after losing my job, and despite the number of times I pushed reality aside, it kept waving at me.
I had Riley to think about. I had to keep a roof over her head, and I couldn’t afford to be choosy on what roof that was. We would be okay. I glanced over at her, eyes closed, jamming to whatever her iPod was pumping into her head, and I prayed she would be okay. That she wouldn’t be tainted by association with me.
“So, when do we get to Podunk?” she said after we drove through Restin, the nearest big town. Not big like high-rises. Big like it has a Walmart.
I cut my eyes her way. “Wow, that’s nice, Riley. Good attitude.”
“Well?” she whined, holding her cell up to the window. “I barely get a signal when we go to Pop’s. It’s like the world falls into hell at the city limit.”
“Sorry. Make do.”
She rolled her eyes with a smirk, then pulled her dark hair down from its ponytail and fluffed it out before tying it right back up again.
“It’s so sticky,” she muttered.
I scooped my own hair back. “Rain’s in the air,” I said. “Get used to it.”
The scenery turned from flat and drab to rolling hills of pine trees and underbrush. I knew we were close. I knew my dad had probably adjusted and readjusted the furniture on the wraparound porch. Probably checked out my old bedroom and the extra bedroom just one more time. It was one in the afternoon, and he most likely had dinner planned for that night and the next two.
The sign came closer as we topped a hill, barely visible under the neglected tree branches. The paint was worn off to nothing, and the words were just a darker shade of old.
Riley squinted as we approached.
“Never noticed that sign before. What does it say?”
“Welcome to hell.”
That won me a fun look. On the downside of the hill, the town came into view, but not before a few straggling old houses made their unfortunate presence known. Riley turned in her seat as we passed an old wooden house with an iron rooster on top and three broken-down trucks out front.
“Was that a toilet in their front yard?”
“Uh—yeah, I think so,” I said.
“It said for sale.”
I looked over at her. “You in the market?”
“Somebody’s actually going to buy a used toilet?”
I bit my lip to keep from smiling. “Makes a dandy barbecue grill, I’ve heard.”
She rubbed a hand over her eyes and slumped in the seat. “Oh God.”
“Yeah, good luck with that.”
We drove past the embarrassment, into the timeworn little town ofBethany. Past the different levels of new, getting progressively older as we reached the center and drove halfway around the circle before we veered off to the right. Past the old market and then past the Bait-n-Feed. I eased to a halt at the stop sign, and stared ahead. It was the last one.
Riley pulled her feet in, and I felt her eyes on me.
“So—” she said, letting the word hang.
I tugged at my bottom lip with my fingers. “What?”
“Just wondering how long we’re gonna sit here?”
I took a slow breath and let it out. “Just thinking.”
“About it being final?”
I stared at the blue eyes so much like mine. Damn, that kid could hit a nerve when she wanted to.
“It’s not for a weekend this time, Mom,” she continued, her voice smaller. “When we get to Pop’s, that’s it.”
My eyes burned and I had to look away. I grabbed my lipstick from my purse and blindly swiped some on as I contemplated being Worst Mom of the Year.
The house waited as we rounded the gravel driveway, like it knew we were coming. Faded and solid, with memories soaked into the solid oak beams, it was home. I wanted so badly to give Riley that feeling. All I’d managed so far was three apartments with thin walls and a key to the pool gate.
True to my guess, my father sat in one of the porch chairs, nursing an orange soda. His blue fishing hat looked newer than usual, but the blue coverall jumpsuit and ragged work boots were the same.
Riley stretched her way lazily out of the car and met my dad halfway up the steps.
“Hey, Pop,” she said, winding her arms around his neck.
He did his little growl that used to make her giggle when she was little, and lifted her off the ground. Barely.
“You’re getting tall.”
“I put an extra inch on this morning, just for you,” she said as she tugged on his short white beard.
I gave the trailer a look and then decided to come back later for all that. Pretend it was temporary for a few more minutes. Instead, I let my dad suck me in for a giant hug. I closed my eyes and breathed in the smell of tobacco and Steen’s pure cane syrup that I would know in my sleep if I was struck deaf and blind.
“How was your trip?”
My voice was muffled into his chest, but the answer didn’t matter.
“Just glad y’all are here and made it safe before the rain hits.”
I couldn’t tell him that I knew we would. The rain always waited for me. I looked around. The only new addition was a weather vane in the form of a B-52 bomber plane, metal propellers and all, flying above the house, giving sound to the breeze as the little blades caught it.
“Everything’s pretty much the same.”
“Just older and creakier, like me,” he said, laughing.
We shuffled into the house, and I braced myself for the horse that bounded across the worn hardwood floor.
“Bojangles!” Riley exclaimed, hitting her knees like a little kid.
But the five ton black Rottweiler only had eyes for me. For some damn reason, that beast loved me and felt the need to share the joy every year when we came. His big feet landed on me with the momentum of a subway train, and down I went.
“Bojangles,” I grunted.
“Sit!” Dad said.
“Can you get him off me first?” I asked through my teeth.
Riley giggled and pulled him off, jogging to the kitchen with Bojangles at her heels to get a treat. After all, he’d performed so well. Dad helped me up and looked over his shoulder.
“She seems okay.”
“She’s used to disappointment, Dad, she rolls with it.”
He winked at me. “Come on.”
I heard the back door screen bang and knew they had headed out for a rendezvous. The dog might love me, but he knew who to hit up for the party. With the exception of one unfortunate goldfish, he was the closest thing Riley’d ever had to a pet.
“At least it’s summer. She has some time to get settled in and meet people.”
I looked away. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” I repeated.
“It’ll be fine, Dani,” he said, touching my arm so that I turned back. “She’s tough.”
“Tougher than me.”
“Tougher than you used to be. But you’re a different person now.”
I smiled and looked around me. At the room that never changed, the furniture that never moved, everything still in its place. The same pictures adorning the wall, the same clock ticking in the corner over the rarely used fireplace. The same soft rug on the floor. Everything freshly dusted.
I felt like that room. All the same but freshly dusted.
“You’ll be fine once you start working and get your feet under you.”
He headed to the kitchen and came back with two waters, handing me one. He started to say something, when I heard Riley outside.
“Hang on.” I held up a finger as the back of my neck tingled and I leaned out on the porch.
I walked around to the side steps and stopped cold. Leaning casually against my car, in his usual all black and sunglasses, arms folded across his chest, was Alex.
I was sixteen when I met Alex. He appeared at my car as I left a party I’d only been invited to as entertainment. I was drunk and hysterical and attempting to open my car door with a house key, and he charmed me with his arrogant good looks and convinced me to walk home instead. We took the long way by a diner and he sat with me as I bought a hot chocolate and a muffin.
He was old, I thought at the time. Thirty-one, he told me. Almost twice my age but had that sexy, confident, hot-as-hell older guy thing going for him. He laughed at my bumbled attempt at flirting and told me to drink my hot chocolate. I was too buzzed to notice the other patrons that cut their eyes my way and whispered about that loony Dani Shane talking to herself again. Or maybe I was just hardened to being the town joke.
Call him my guardian angel, or whatever, but he probably saved my life that night. And unlike the others, he didn’t move on. He became my only friend. I won’t deny that my hormone-ridden brain played out more than a few fantasies involving Alex. He was hot for a dead guy, and funny, too. It was easy with him. Instant. Like I’d known him all my life.
When I left for college at nineteen, he left a white rose on my windshield, and that was the end of it. At the time I thought I’d at least see him when I came home to visit, but no. He was done with me.
Until that moment, when he chose to chat it up with Riley as a grand entrance.
My head said to walk forward, but my feet went numb. Then he looked my direction, and suddenly I was head-to-toe buzz with blood rushing in my ears. I took a deep breath and attempted normal as I made it down the steps without tripping.
Riley saw Alex. Riley wasn’t supposed to see people like Alex.
She had her usual folded-arms-with-one-hip-jutted stance, looking annoyed as hell, while Bojangles circled the yard in a frenzy with his nose to the ground. Alex slowly took off his glasses and locked his blue eyes in on mine with that arrogant little smile of his. I felt heat radiate from every pore.
“Dani,” he said, low and smooth, and all the breath left me. “My God, look at you.”
I opened my mouth to say the same thing, that after twenty-plus years he still looked exactly the same, hot enough to melt my shoes. But then the mommy gene stood up and waved and I remembered Riley was there.
He laughed, a deep throaty sound, as he pointed at Riley.
“I knew it had to be.”
A nervous noise squawked from my mouth. Nothing profound like I always imagined it would be.
“The eyes were the first clue,” he said with a wink.
Riley frowned, her expression a mix of disgust and wariness.
“God, you know this perv? He was here on the car watching me and won’t tell me who the hell he is.”
He smirked. “The sweet, gentle nature was the clincher.”
I couldn’t quit staring. Alex—right there in front of me. My whole past poured down over me in a whoosh, as I locked eyes with the one person that had made it all bearable.
Riley’s voice jolted me back and I jerked her direction. “What?”
Her face screwed up in disgust as she studied me. “Ew.”
“What?” My eyes widened, as I imagined boogers on my face or something.
“God, Mom, could you be more obvious?” she said under her breath as she looked from me to Alex. “What, did y’all date or something?”
Alex laughed, and I felt my jaw drop a little, and I briefly wondered if my deodorant would hold up to the nervous breakdown coming on.
“Not exactly, sweetheart,” he said, his gaze hardwired into mine.
The disgust came back again, as I knew it would.
“I’m not your sweetheart, and you can do googly eyes with my mom all you want but stay away from me.” She turned to go and then threw back over her shoulder, “By the way, it’s summer. The all-black thing is a little Goth.”
I stared after her, trying to process it, then closed my eyes and willed it all away. I had never once had a three-way conversation with Alex. No one had ever seen him but me. That whole circus act with Riley had my brain on meltdown.
His voice was soft and low and when my eyes popped open, his expression had gone just as soft.
“Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
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