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City Spirit, Country Heart



Scarlett Knight



City Spirit, Country Heart

Copyright © 2018, Scarlett Knight

Published by Painted Hearts Publishing

Smashwords Edition


About the Book You Have Purchased


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Unauthorized reproduction of distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.


City Spirit, Country Heart

Copyright © 2018 Scarlett Knight


ISBN 10: 1-946379-96-4

ISBN 13: 978-1-946379-96-2


Publication Date: July 2018

Author: Scarlett Knight

Editor: Ashley Kain

All cover art and logo copyright © 2018 by Painted Hearts Publishing

Cover design by E Keith


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.








Chapter 1



When I was in sixth grade, I got expelled from school for hitting a boy in my class.

This was not a planned event—the hitting or the getting expelled.

I’d been lost in thought all day, a cloud of frustration following me from the moment I left Mom’s car with my backpack sagging off one shoulder. Dad had left us again, and this time I just knew it was for good. He’d left before, only to come back later, but this time there was a finality to it, something in the way he wouldn’t look me in the eye when he quietly told me to take care of my baby brother, Jason, while mom was outside keying his pickup truck.

I didn’t like the way my parents fought, but I also didn’t want to be one of those kids who grew up without a dad.

So instead of playing tag or showing off on the monkey bars at recess, I sat on a bench in the shade of a mulberry tree. My dark hair fell across one eye, and I let it stay like that, like a shield against the outside world.

“Macy! Come play Red Rover with us!” a friend cried, but I ignored her.

I had one of those throw-away cameras and raised it so that my feet entered the view. Framing my sneakers, which I had decorated with magic markers, I snapped a photo. It wasn’t exactly magazine-quality photography, but taking pictures made me happy and got my mind off my troublesome home life.

A jarring little girl’s scream nearby jolted me out of my melancholy. I looked up to see one of the third grade boys with his pants down around his ankles, his tighty whities in plain view. His face was crimson as he crouched down to yank up his pants. Nearby stood Adam. He was doubled over with laughter, standing in the center of a small circle of sixth-grade boys.

I narrowed my eyes, irritation creeping into my already somber mood.

I never liked Adam.

Most of the class shared my sentiments. He had, however, bullied a few gullible saps into being in his posse, and there were a few silly girls who forgave his bad behavior because they thought he was cute. They didn’t see past the outer shell like I did. But if you got beyond the all-American blond hair and blue eyes, all you had left was straight-up ugliness.

As evidenced by yanking down the pants of the third grader, Adam liked to pick on kids at recess, especially the children who were younger and smaller than he was. He normally stuck with bullying boys. It wasn’t unusual to catch him casually tripping them or knocking them off the playground equipment and then pretending like it was an accident as his cronies stifled their giggles. He’d also throw out typical insults like “four-eyes” to kids wearing glasses and “fattie” to the ones who were overweight. Outside of the characters we all loved to hate in movies and in television, I had never seen someone so rude in real life.

I also found it super annoying how he seemed to have the teacher in his back pocket. Even at that young of an age, he knew how to charm people with compliments. In addition to always telling the teacher she looked nice and asking her how she was, he’d do things like help her erase the blackboard and push the chairs under the desks at the end of the day. I was convinced he did this so he’d have an ally and could get away with his bad behavior.

The teachers on duty were gossiping under the shade of an awning as they tended to do. The whistles they wore around their necks hung lifelessly, the women caught up in who wore what this past weekend on their dates. They had totally missed the incident with the third grader. It looked like I was going to have to be the playground monitor instead.

I watched Adam like a bird of prey, just waiting for him to do something else.

His sights settled on a pretty little redhead in a yellow dress.

She held a pair of binoculars that were awkwardly large in her small hands. As she looked off into the trees of the nearby neighborhood, birdwatching perhaps, Adam and his two cronies approached her from behind.

Oh, no, he’d better not, I thought.

Everything seemed to go into slow motion from that point forward.

It had just rained that morning, so we were all avoiding the puddles of mud, the redhead included. She carefully stepped around a big patch of wet earth to get better access to the trees. I saw a hawk alight from one of the trees’ branches, and the redhead gasped in delight.

Nobody else was paying attention to what was about to happen. Just me.

The two boys moved ahead of Adam a few feet, passing behind the redhead, letting Adam linger behind. When he did, he leaned toward her with his shoulder. Then, pushing into her back, he knocked her into the puddle. She fell with a shriek, her binoculars flying from her hands. When she looked up from the ground, mud dripping from her ruined yellow dress and her mortified face, I saw red.

Without thinking, I made a beeline for Adam. I let out an animalistic growl as I charged toward him. He looked up at me with a dumb, confused look on his face. Then I tackled him to the ground like an NFL linebacker.

In an instant, I had him on his back. He was too shocked to move. All he managed to say was, “What the—?” before I punched him right in the eye.

“You jerk!” I shouted, ignoring the pain in my fist.

His wide eyes welled up with tears. “Get off me! What are you, crazy?”

I immediately heard the teachers blowing their whistles and crying out, “Macy! Macy! Stop!”

In my peripheral vision, I saw two teachers running toward us. But I wasn’t done with Adam yet. I grabbed him by the shirt collar, preparing to pound his head into the dirt. It was at that point that the shock apparently wore off him, and he started trying to block me with chubby hands and shove me off him. But I was already a tall, lean girl, having hit my growth spurt before him, so I had an advantage on him in size.

“Don’t you ever bully people again!” I tried to grab his hands away from his face so I could smack him again. “You’re just plain mean! We’re all sick of it! You hear me, Adam?”

But I didn’t get in another hit because at that point, the teachers yanked me away.

“Macy, what’s gotten into you?” one asked.

“Holy cow, girl, calm down!” the other exclaimed.

Flailing, I cried, “Oh, so now you pay attention!” I fought against them until I realized it was futile. Then, hanging my head, I said, “You weren’t even watching! He’s been picking on people all afternoon, and you weren’t paying attention!”

“Now that’s enough,” the first said. “I think it’s time we took a trip to the principal’s office.”

Shit got real when I heard those words. My throat went dry. Mom was going to kill me.

As the first teacher led me off the playground and toward the back door of the school, I caught a glimpse of the redhead, who had gotten back on her feet by then. She had mud smeared across her face where she’d apparently tried to wipe it off. She wasn’t crying anymore. She didn’t even look upset. Instead, she was smiling at me.

When Mom came up to the school, I realized the error of my ways. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to make the trek through those doors. I had already gotten detention twice this year.

The first one was because I’d used foul language in the classroom. But I wasn’t cussing anybody out; I was just repeating a line from a movie. So that hardly seemed fair.

The second one was because I’d talked back to the teacher.

Detention number two had been totally unfair though. I’d been framed for throwing paper airplanes when it had been Adam and his stupid friends who were disrupting the class, not me.

But today’s incident, beating up Adam on the playground, took my previously unacceptable behavior to a whole new level.

I was officially expelled.

Mom cried in the principal’s office way more than she needed to. She was crying a lot those days, so it didn’t affect me that much. What did affect me was the realization that life for me and what was left of my family was about to change in a big way.

The town we lived in, Lamppost, Texas, was so small that it only had one school. There was nowhere for me to transfer to.

Since I couldn’t return to class at Lamppost Elementary, I spent the next week grounded and stuck in my room. It was the most boring week of my life. In the meantime, Mom made plans for us to move in with her sister in Dallas until she could find a job and get on her own two feet without Dad.

I didn’t care about moving.

I didn’t care that Mom was upset.

The only person I truly felt bad for in that whole situation was Jason.

My baby brother cried all afternoon when Mom told him that he was going to have to leave all his friends and move to a brand new, much larger school. And all because of me. Thanks, Mom.

Jason was so young, and he was terrified. My heart ached for him.

I knew I could survive wherever I went. I was adaptable. I knew Jason would adapt in time, too, so I tried to encourage him about the positives of moving to the big city. We had fond memories of visiting Dallas during the summer. I reminded him about Six Flags and the museums and Wet and Wild. It helped a little. It didn’t do much to quell my guilt, though.

Once we settled in Dallas, I behaved myself in school.

Mostly.

I never got into another fistfight, but by my senior year, I was known among my classmates for being an outspoken rebel. If there was a protest for a worthy cause such as protecting the environment or saving animals’ lives, I was there proudly holding a handmade sign. If there was one thing Adam had taught me, it was that the world needed more people to be a voice for the defenseless.

The other thing I was known for by my senior year was that I was one of the schools few out-and-proud lesbians. I had cropped my hair into a short funky pixie cut, proudly wore rainbow bracelets on both wrists, and became the “girl crush” of many so-called straight girls.

By the time I graduated, Mom was so disgusted with me, and me with Mom (she was on husband number three at the time), that moving out and getting an apartment for myself and Jason seemed like the smartest idea.

Independence at last!

It felt great.

Now, it was just me and Jason against the world. When he enrolled in college, to say I was proud of him would have been a major understatement.

I gladly footed the bills so he could get the degree he wanted, meet his goals, and live the life he’d dreamed of having. It was the least I could do for being the cause of his heartache back in elementary school.

Sure, I hated every lame job I’d had since high school. But that didn’t matter. I was making money, and I wasn’t relying on anyone to help me.

Nothing else mattered.

But that all changed when I got the phone call from Jason one fateful morning.

I was on my way to work…




Chapter 2



As I pulled into the parking lot to start another fun-filled day of customer service for Connect Universe Mobile LLC, my phone rang. The electric guitar riffs that I’d assigned as the ringtone for my brother blared from my purse. I pulled into a parking space and searched my bag for the device. Answering the phone, I cleared my throat.

“What’s up, Bro?”

“Hey, Sis,” he said.

“Don’t tell me I left the toaster plugged in again.”

I’d been doing that a lot lately. Jason had been using it as an excuse to tell me I was overworked and distracted. And maybe I was.

“Nah,” he said. “Not this time. Well, at least not that I noticed.”

“Well, that’s good. So what’s up?”

“I’m calling to tell you some news about Granny.”

“Granny? What’s up with Granny?”

“Mom’s moving her in.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Mom’s moving her in with her and Dane?”

“Yeah. He said to tell you hi, by the way.”

“Super. So how are they going to do that? Dane has his three kids he has custody of. Where are they going to find the room?”

“Don’t know. But they have to. It’s to take care of her better. She’s fallen twice in the past week. Her eyesight is so bad she can’t get around. Also, I think her dementia is getting worse.”

“Oh, wow.”

Although it wasn’t a normal occurrence for me, I fell speechless.

“Sis?” Jason asked.

I found my voice again. “I—I had no idea things had gotten this bad. This quickly. I—I just don’t know what to say.”

Eyes welling up, I blinked back tears. My heart broke for my Granny. I suddenly regretted not actively asking for updates on her health, even if it meant calling Mom.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“Actually, there might be.”

I got out of the car and started walking toward the building. “Oh?”

“Mom told me that someone needs to go through the house, declutter it, get rid of a lot of things, you know, like clean it up and all that before they can sell it. I’ve got school, so it’d be hard for me to go down except on weekends, and even then, I’ve got so much homework.”

“How fast are they trying to get it ready to sell?”

“Not sure. I don’t know if they’re in a huge hurry, but you know how Mom panics about things until they’re done.”

“Yeah.” The gears of my mind began turning. “I only get one day off a week. I could make trips down once a week, but I don’t know if that’d be fast enough for her.”

“True. But hasn’t your boss been suggesting you take some time off?”

“She has.”

“Why don’t you take her up on it? Everybody needs a break, Sis, and you know you’re kind of a workaholic.”

This was no secret. It was also no secret that I was long-due a vacation. I was caught between a rock and a hard place whenever I thought about taking time off. I loved the money and staying busy with work, but I also had a nearly permanent tic in my right eye from dealing with frustrating customers. Just last week, I was on the phone for nearly an hour with a totally irate woman. She went on and on about her life problems and why she couldn’t pay her bills on time, and I finally broke. We weren’t supposed to let calls go this long, so I figured I was already in trouble. I let it slip through my lips that she needed to either grow up or get rid of her cell phone.

Normally I would have kept a thought like that inside of me, but alas, it had escaped my mouth before I could secure a filter in place. Luckily I had an understanding manager who only gave me a write-up and didn’t fire me on the spot. During that uncomfortable meeting, she suggested I take some time off. Said it’d be good for my mental and emotional health.

Maybe she was right. I’d been with this company for two years and had never taken a sick day or a vacation. That sort of work ethic was as rare as gold these days.

“So,” I said to Jason, “you think I should take some time off and go out to Lamppost and take care of Granny’s house?”

“I think it’d be good for you. Granny was kind of a hoarder, you know, so it’ll take someone with patience and a love for that sort of thing to go through all of it. You’re one of those weirdos who actually enjoy things like that.”

He had a point. If I didn’t have the responsibility of seeing Jason through college, I might have even tried to make a career out of organizing.

“Hmm, I’d probably want to stay there for the duration rather than drive back and forth since it’s almost a two-hour drive, one way,” I said, thinking out loud. “But if I do, that’s a long time.”

“Nah, not that long, Sis.”

“Are you sure you guys won’t burn down the apartment while I’m gone?”

He laughed, but I was only partially joking. The one weekend I’d decided to leave Jason and his college buddy roommate, Toan, I’d returned to an apartment that reeked of burnt popcorn. They’d tried microwaving it without the glass dish in the microwave, and the bag had caught on fire.

“We’ll be fine,” he said. “We’re adults.”

“Just barely.”

“So what do you think?”

As I entered the building and approached my cubicle, I was overcome with the sensation of being suffocated. It was a daily experience when I got to work. Sad to say, I was used to it. I sat down in my rolling chair and looked at the collage I’d made. I’d hung it eye-level on the wall. It was a happy collage with happy images selected to inspire me not to blow my top at customers. There were puppies and other baby animals, pictures of exotic travel locations, and motivational quotes.

“Are you still there?” Jason asked.

“Yeah, I’m here.” I leaned back in my chair and eyed the headset I really did not feel like putting on today. “I’ll give it some thought.” Then, defensiveness crept into my tone. “Funny, it almost sounds like you want me to go.”

His laughter was infectious. “No! I love you, Sis! I just thought that it might be a good opportunity for you to get away, especially since your manager was down for it.”

“Okay. Well, we can talk more about this when I get off work.”

“All right.”

“Love ya, bro.”

“Love ya, too, sis.”

I hung up the phone and tossed it back into my purse. As I sat and stared at my computer monitor, I hesitated turning it on. In the black screen, I could see my reflection. I prided myself on always looking my best, no matter how shitty I felt. My stylishly cropped hair, bleach blonde, had some dark roots showing. It wasn’t really like me to skip a hair appointment, but work was non-stop lately. My makeup, patented red lipstick, dark eyeliner and shadow that made my dark blue eyes pop, was impeccable. But I could still see the stress bags under my eyes. I slid off my faux leather jacket and put it on the back of the chair. Phones rang everywhere. Other customer service representatives calmly talked angry customers off the ledge. The clickity-clack of typing mixed in with the voices and rings. It all formed an unwelcome symphony of noise around me.

Lamppost, Texas.

I rarely thought about that place anymore. Granny always drove to the Metroplex to see us, so we wouldn’t have to make the trip out there. A widow from the age of forty-one, she was a feisty old woman, independent like her granddaughter. But unfortunately her health had started to spiral down so dramatically in the last year. It all started with her eyesight getting poor. Not being able to drive worsened her depression, and then her mental health tanked with the freakishly fast onset of dementia. I felt so bad for her. I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to experience that disease. My heart sank just thinking about it.

I stared at my headset, my right eye already starting to tic. A vacation was probably in order, especially at a time like this when taking off work could actually be helpful for someone like Granny. I scooted my rolling chair out of my cube and into the aisle to peer down at my manager’s office. The door was open, and she didn’t look busy. Taking a deep breath, I tapped my fingers on my lap, my purple nail polish sparkling.

Oh, why the hell not?

I got up from my chair and headed to her office.


***


“I did it,” I said as I set my purse on the kitchen counter.

Jason, seated at our apartment’s tiny kitchen table, looked up from the game on his phone, his mouth filled with pizza. “Hmm?”

“I decided to take some time off and go help clean out Granny’s place.”

His eyes widened, and he chewed quickly and swallowed. For a second, I thought he might choke.

“Wow, for real? I didn’t think you’d do it!”

“Well, you were right. I do need to take a break from work. I’m just worried that you and Toan won’t—”

“Won’t what, know how to wipe our asses?” He stood, and despite the fact that he was twenty-one years old now, I still felt like I was looking at a kid. “Come on, Macy. You need to get out more. All you do is work these days. It’s not like you. You used to have more fun.”

“I work so the apartment bills can be paid.”

“Toan and I work, too, you know. And go to school. And we still manage to have fun.”

“Part-time. And I do have fun.”

“When’s the last time you’ve been on a date?”

I rubbed the back of my stiff neck, not liking where this conversation was going. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, like forever.”

Six months, actually. It ruffled my feathers that he was taking the conversation in this direction. It wasn’t that he disapproved of my being a lesbian; it was that he was putting a painful spotlight on my life’s lack of romance. Time to change the subject.

“How’s the pizza?” I asked.

“Fine. Want some?”

I shook my head. “No thanks.”

He took the pizza box and put it in the fridge. Then he walked over to me and surprised me with a big hug. I relaxed and hugged him back. When he pulled away, he took his plate and began to wash it at the sink.

“You know I’ll be graduating in December, right?” he said.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And Toan will be graduating, too. He’s been talking about moving in with his girlfriend.”

“Oh, really?”

“He practically lives over there with her anyway. He’s rarely home, if you’ve noticed.”

“Well, that’s good. That’s good for him. Right?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m happy for him. And me, I’ve got a couple of job opportunities lined up already and the semester’s barely getting started.” He looked down at his dish, scrubbing it more than it needed to be scrubbed, his longish dark hair falling across his face. “One’s in Seattle. Actually.”

“Washington?” The word escaped my lips a lot louder than I intended.

He grinned and looked at me, his gaze filled with uncertainty. “Yeah?”

“That’s a long way away,” I breathed. I reached to unlatch the black choker from around my neck, suddenly feeling in need of a beer and a hot bath. “But I guess we could think about moving…”

“Sis,” he said, turning off the water and placing the dish on the drying rack. “I love you. But I would not for one minute think to ask you to move to Seattle with me. It’s not like I’m a kid. And besides, it’s not set in stone. It’s just a possibility. I just wanted you to start thinking about the fact that things are going to change in December, and possibly in a big way.”

“Oh, I know,” I said, trying to lighten my tone. “I’m not ignorant. I know you’re growing up, Jason.” I forced a smile despite the lump in my throat. “That’s why I’m taking these two weeks off and going to Lamppost. I know you can take care of yourself.”

He eyed me carefully. “You do?”

“Of course I do!” I moved past him and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

When I shut the refrigerator door, I had to still my shaking hands. I was surprised that this news, which should be happy news, was affecting me like this. Looking at Jason, I found him staring at me with a sympathetic smile.

“Hey, don’t be butt-hurt,” he said. “It’s not like I want to leave you. It’s just I’ve been talking with this company in Seattle because of connections from college. I can’t help that it’s up there. But it’s a job.”

“I’m not butt-hurt. Who said I was butt-hurt? I know jobs are everywhere, and people move to find work. I know all of this. So, no biggie!”

I ruffled his hair as I passed by him. Popping the beer open, I headed to the bathroom.

I didn’t want him to see that I was upset. I wasn’t mad at him. Hell, I was miffed at myself. I should be happy for him. What the hell was my deal?

I knew he was growing up and that he didn’t need me so much anymore. He wasn’t going to need my protection or my financial help forever. But to move states away, not knowing a soul, now that would be hard. He’d always lived in Texas. He had friends and family here. A move that drastic would give anyone a shock, even him. I’d just let him think he could do it alone, but I knew he’d need someone to go up there with him. We’d been a team since we were young, and I’d be damned if I was going to abandon him right as his adult life was beginning to start.

Hell, I didn’t even know who I was without Jason. Aside from being my best friend, he’d given my life purpose ever since I was a kid. Being his caretaker was a huge part of my identity. Who was I without that responsibility?

I wondered what kind of job offerings Seattle had for someone like me, someone with only a high school diploma to my name and a myriad of work experience at sucky jobs. I had a few months to think about it and do some research.

Maybe Jason would end up taking a job in Dallas, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Right now, I needed to think about Lamppost, Texas. Getting to Granny’s house. Getting it cleaned out and organized and ready to sell. The physical labor would be a welcome change. I wasn’t a fan of sitting at a desk all day even if it did pay the bills.

I drank my beer, letting the fizziness tickle my throat as the bathtub slowly filled up.

It wasn’t long before my mind drifted away from making a to-do list of all the things I needed to take Lamppost.

Before I realized it, I was sitting in lukewarm bathwater, my beer can now empty and sitting on the floor, my mind reeling as I tried to calculate the miles between here and Washington.




Chapter 3



My first day of vacation was here before I knew it, and I admit I hugged Jason longer than was necessary before I left the apartment. It wasn’t that I thought he couldn’t handle himself. But leaving him for this long was a step in acknowledging that he was growing up. And that sucked.

“I’m going to be fine,” he said. I could hear the eye-roll in his voice. “Can you let me go now?”

“Fine.”

Toan, his buddy and our roommate, stood behind him, his black hair spiking out in all directions. His eyes, wide behind his dark-rimmed glasses, had a playful spark in them. As soon as I let Jason go, he gave Jason a gentle shove to the side and opened his arms. I didn’t have time to dodge before he gave me a massive hug.

“We’re gonna miss you, Sis!” he said, mock-sniffling.

Jason snickered.

I got enough air in my lungs to say, “Just don’t get the cops called on you or burn the place down, all right?”

Toan sighed dramatically. “We’ll do our best.”

I gave both of them a look of warning. Then I couldn’t help but smile as I waved goodbye to them. They waved in the doorway. Once I’d gone down the stairs and reached my car, I looked up. They were still standing there. It was almost as if they didn’t believe I would actually be able to leave.

My pride kicked in, and I pressed the button on my key to unlock the car door. “Bye.”

“Byyye!” they both shouted.

I waved at them again and got in my car.

I resisted the urge to check my rear view mirror to see if they were still there. Turning onto the highway, I let out a sigh. Today was the first Monday in a very long time that I wasn’t driving to work. Despite the twinge of sadness I felt, knowing Jason and Toan were probably on top of the world now that big sister Macy was gone for a while, I did feel a sense of adventure lying in wait on the road ahead. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it almost felt like I was meant to do this. Sort of like déjà vu but clearer.

I savored the sensation of being free of the call center. No dealing with angry customers for me today! I was so relieved to be able to relax and enjoy the morning that I barely registered the long line at the Starbucks drive-through. The sea of red lights on the traffic-jammed highway didn’t bother me. This sort of busy life was what I was used to day in and day out.

Leaving the Dallas Metroplex behind, I drove with my favorite local indie radio station on blast. Eventually the signal became weaker and weaker until I was singing along with static more than I was music. So I changed the channel. Country music stations were about all I could get, all fiddles and guitars and dudes crying into their whiskey. So I turned the radio off.

Then I drove. And I drove. And I drove.

I wasn’t used to being able to just coast like this, not having to slam on my breaks or pass people clogging up traffic. There was barely anybody out on the road, and I had to admit, it was kind of nice. Unusual, but nice.

Plugging my iPod in, I ignored my phone, which pinged with a number of text and social media notifications. Last night, I had posted an Instagram pic of my suitcase and a caption that read:


Going off grid for a while! Will keep you updated with all the photo-worthy sights I might see! #vacation #countrylife #decluttering


I had gotten a ton of replies to that, and some of my friends had texted and called late into the night to express both happiness that I was taking time off, but also sadness that I wasn’t going to be able to make it to this or that upcoming party, get together, show, etc. Between work and trying to keep up with social obligations, I hadn’t realized how worn out I was. I loved the busy city life, but if this peaceful trip was any indication, a quiet get-away was just what I needed to put balance into my life.

At last I approached the small town of Lamppost. When I did, I felt a shift in the air. It was almost like entering another dimension or another time. Big Texas cities were so different from the small Texas cities it was hard to believe they all occupied the same Lone Star State.

Once inside of the town, I turned off my iPod. I slowed to the required 35 miles per hour and rolled down my windows. There were no honking horns out here. Nobody was in a hurry. Hell, there was barely a soul on the road at 11:00 a.m. on a Monday, just a few pick-up trucks and a beat-up old Cadillac. The sound of birds chirping in the oak trees, thick with late summer foliage, was foreign but so soothing. A nearby train rustled on its tracks. I stopped at a flashing red light as I got to the town square. The old buildings sent a gentle stirring of nostalgia through me.

Everything was the same as it had been when I was a kid: the ice cream parlor where Jason and I used to go after school on Fridays, Boone’s Restaurant were Mom and Dad would take us on weekends, the antique shops I was never allowed to go into out of Mom’s fear I’d break something, Lamppost Boots where I got my first pair of authentic cowgirl boots, and the historic city courthouse that always looked so sturdy and authoritative, even during Christmas-time when it was all decorated and lit up.

How had I forgotten about all this? And how did it all come rushing back in only an instant of seeing everything? Mystified, I took my time driving around the square, enjoying the memories. I slowed to a near stop when I saw Boone’s Restaurant.

I’d skipped breakfast, and my grumbling tummy was currently reminding me that I needed sustenance. Maybe it was being hungry coupled with seeing the café that made me flash-back to my childhood years and remember how amazing their cheeseburgers were. Could they still be as good as I now magically recalled? There was only one way to find out.

I pulled into an empty parking space down the street from the place. It wasn’t noon yet, but there were quite a few customers inside already. According to my memory, not only was it one of the best restaurants in town, it was also one of the only restaurants in town. So people didn’t have many options.

As I walked, my lace-up biker boots tapped an upbeat rhythm on the sidewalk to accompany the birds singing in the trees and on the courthouse lawn. An old-timey bell chimed on the door as I entered the restaurant.

Aha. Here was where all the life in town was. This place, with its old wooden furniture and charming red and white checkered tablecloths, was already more than halfway full. A heavy-set middle-aged woman with a friendly smile and a head full of thick brown curls grabbed a menu.

“Howdy! How many people will be dining in today?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said. “Just me.”

She gave me the once-over, not in a rude way, but in the same sort of way that everyone inside the restaurant seemed to be staring at me. I knew I didn’t fit in. My hair wasn’t gray, nor was it in rollers. I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat. There was a seriously laid-back vibe going on in this place, and here I was, the city girl with bright red lipstick and daring haircut, following the waitress with my brisk walk as if I had somewhere important to be and wasn’t about to have lunch in Lamppost, Texas.

I sat down at a booth near the back and did a double-take at the jarring taxidermy longhorn bust staring at me from the wall above the bathroom. I didn’t remember that from my childhood. Maybe it was new. The waitress handed me the menu, and I had to make an effort to stop staring at the bull. I looked instead at the antique Coca-Cola signs on the adjacent wall.

“What can I start you off with?” the waitress asked.

“Just water.” I’d had enough caffeine this morning, and that wasn’t helping my nerves. “With lemon if you have it.”

“Sure do.”

She didn’t write anything down. Most likely she’d been doing this all her life and had a memory I’d be jealous of.

“Thanks,” I said.

She hesitated before leaving my table. “This your first time in Lamppost?”

“Actually, no, but the last time I was here was a long time ago. I remember the cheeseburgers being good. Are they still good?”

“We haven’t changed the recipe in thirty years,” she said with a proud smile. “I’ll get you your water and put an order in for a cheeseburger. All the fixin’s?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Now my stomach was really starting to grumble. “And fries.”

“You got it. Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be Eunice Johnson’s granddaughter, would you?”

“Actually, yes.”

“I thought you looked familiar! Family resemblance. Your mom was in here not too long ago. I remember when y’all used to live here. You were a little girl back then. And I was much younger, myself!”

I gave a courteous laugh. Ah, the dynamics of small towns. The odds of anyone knowing anything about my life in Dallas were next to none, which was nice. But in Lamppost, I ran the risk of strangers being in my business. At least there wasn’t much that could get me into trouble around here.

“So sorry to hear about Eunice, by the way,” she continued. “She’s been a member of Lamppost Baptist as long as I’ve been alive, and she was a frequent customer here at the restaurant up until last year. Dementia is a terrible thing. My great aunt Hattie had it. Just terrible.”

“Yeah, it really is.” My shoulders slumped a little. “Last time I gave Granny a call, oh, maybe two months ago? She didn’t remember who I was. It’s come on so fast.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie.” She shook her head as if to disperse the dark cloud that had settled over the conversation. “Anyway, my name’s Margie. Just holler if you need anything. And if you don’t see me, Sophia’s around here somewhere, too.”

“Great. Thanks, Margie.”

When she left, I pulled out my phone and opened the Instagram app. I had tons of likes and comments on some of my pictures that I needed to look through and reply to, but I’d do it later. Instead, I opened the camera function, put it on selfie mode, and posed with an overly dramatic surprised look on my face. The taxidermy bull was in full view behind me. I snapped the picture, and then I chose a filter and typed the caption:


Ever feel like you’re being watched? #moo


I put my phone away, leaving the mystery of where I was for my thousands of followers to decide. Instagram was a fun hobby. I’d started out with a few friends and family as followers, but in the last year, my account had really taken off. I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t trying to sell anything. I just had fun with it and took my pictures on instinct, anything from nature shots to goofy selfies to pictures of local hot spots, whenever the moment grabbed me.

I looked around. Now, this wasn’t so bad. The patrons from before had quit looking at me by then, and I was happy to observe them instead. The demographic was as expected: no children, mostly elderly, Caucasian, conservative in their manner and their dress. That was fine. As long as they let me be me, I’d let them be them. I didn’t anticipate any problems. I wasn’t here to start drama anyway. I was here to take a break from work. And I was here to clean and organize Granny’s house. I—

Oh, my God. Who was that?

She was wearing the same outfit as Margie, so she had to be the other waitress. She looked much younger than Margie, maybe in her early twenties, I’d guess. What had Margie said her name was? I couldn’t think anymore. It was like everything had a real-life Instagram filter, the rosy kind like you see in movies when the protagonist experiences love at first sight.

Being a self-professed cynic when it came to love, I didn’t exactly believe in love at first sight, but I was willing to entertain this moment of attraction just for the fun of it.

Ringing up a ticket for a gray-haired couple, the woman smiled modestly as her fingers flew across the cash register. She was left-handed. Unique. And she wasn’t wearing a ring! Score one for me.

I couldn’t hear her voice amid the buzz of talking in the restaurant, but I watched as her bee-stung lips, shiny with a clear gloss, moved across porcelain teeth. Her skin was creamy white, and her thick hair was a rich, dark auburn running in a braid down her back. The smattering of freckles across her nose had me shifting in my seat, wondering if the air conditioner was working in here. I’d always had a thing for freckles.

As she spoke to the couple, long lashes brushed across her cheeks. She mouthed the words “Thank you” as she laughed then faintly blushed. What had they told her? Had the man, like most men who don’t have any manners, commented on her beauty?

I couldn’t see from this distance exactly what color her eyes were, and I was dying to get a closer look. When the couple was done paying their ticket, she moved from behind the counter, and I got a better look at her figure. The apron she wore over her blue dress didn’t hide her delicious curves very well. She tucked a stray strand back into her braid, securing it beneath a bobby-pin. What would she look like if she released all those pins and let her glorious hair fall free? Probably akin to a goddess.

Okay, I needed to stop. I was getting poetic.

But really, there wasn’t any harm in admiring one of God’s creatures, was there? Although I had departed from the church years ago, I could still get religious over pleasant surprises like this. Especially since I hadn’t been laid in months. But I had a firm grip on reality. I knew that odds were she was straighter than a wooden ruler. Still, a gay girl could dream, couldn’t she?

She looked up in my direction, and I did my best to make it look like I hadn’t been staring at her. My eyes migrated back to the longhorn bust, which definitely took me out of my reverie. Then I looked out the window. When I glanced back, she had gone somewhere, maybe into the kitchen. I let out the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding.

Margie returned with my order.

“Here you go! Classic burger and fries.”

The basket she put in front of me looked amazing and smelled downright mouthwatering. “Thank you!”

“You are welcome. Enjoy.”

I picked up the burger with both hands and bit into it. So. Much. Flavor. It was even better than I remembered it from my childhood. Shamelessly, I inhaled every bite of it, as well as the fries, and was momentarily distracted from the other waitress. As I came back to reality from my heavenly chow-down full and happy, I started looking around for her again.

Margie brought me my check. “Was it everything you dreamed?”

“That and more.”

“Good. Glad you enjoyed. Whenever you’re ready, just take the ticket up front, and we’ll get you at the cash register.”

I thanked her and got up to stretch. Then I checked myself for any crumbs that might have fallen on me during my feast. I needed to look presentable because the auburn-haired beauty was back at the cash register, now visiting with a group of four Stetson-wearing men.

I got in line, careful to look casual and not too eager. One of the men, a tall and slim country boy, made eye contact with me. He looked about Jason’s age. If my family had stayed in this town, would Jason have grown up to wear cowboy hats and boot-cut jeans like this guy? I made an effort not to look too defensive and gave him my best friendly smile. He nodded and tipped his hat, an otherworldly gesture I had to admit was kind of sweet.

Then when they cleared the way, I finally got to see what color the waitress’s eyes were: a gold-flecked brown, like warm honey. But I didn’t get to enjoy them for very long because they grew wide at the sight of me. Then she cast them down on the ticket I’d placed on the counter. That little blush was back on her cheeks.

She seemed flustered. Had she seen me staring at her earlier? Shit.

“The food here is wonderful,” I said, trying to keep things nonchalant.

She nodded as she rang up my bill and said, “Thank you.”

Her voice matched her eyes, a warm liquid sound that made my heart beat a little faster.

Keep it friendly. Keep it light.

“I used to live here as a kid,” I said. “I remember this place being good, but I think it’s better than I remembered it. Give my compliments to the cook?”

“Of course,” she said, her cheeks reddening further.

There was something about her, something beyond the fact that I was wildly attracted to her. She seemed almost familiar. But maybe it was the setting and the fact that everything felt familiar.

I paid my bill, putting the cash on the counter rather than handing it to her. It would have been too tempting to linger if I touched her skin, and I had apparently already made her uncomfortable. Oh, well. The fantasy had been fun while it lasted.

Catching a glimpse of her name-tag, I said, “Have a good one, Sophia.”

Giving me the briefest of eye-contact, she said, “Thanks.” Then looking away, as if in hesitation, she added, “You too.”

There was something in her manner interacting with me that made me really wonder what was going on in her mind. Maybe she really had seen me staring at her, and she felt self-conscious. Yet again, I got that feeling that she was familiar somehow.

She looked up at the customers behind me and greeted them with a smile, and I took that as my cue to exit. Before I did, I made my way back to my table to leave a tip for Margie. Looking at the longhorn one last time, I wondered how the hell anyone could think using a dead animal for decoration was a good idea. Oh, well. Small-town culture. The bell on the door chimed as more customers came in. I weaved my way around them but looked over my shoulder one last time before I left.

Sophia, still at the cash register, quickly turned her head away.

I grinned, opening the door.

This time, she’d been staring at me.





Chapter 4



Granny was a hoarder, but she wasn’t an extreme hoarder, thank goodness. I had seen the shows about people who couldn’t even move through their houses without climbing over piles of their stuff. They’d find unmentionably disgusting things hidden amid the clutter. But Granny’s place wasn’t anything as awful as that. Nevertheless, I still had my work cut out for me.

Her three-bedroom brick home had been well-kept on the outside. Granny had always done her own yardwork until her health started failing, and then Mom had hired someone to take care of it for her. Apparently the yardmen were still keeping it up. The manicured lawn and neatly trimmed hedges were all a vibrant summer green. One thing about living in an apartment that I regretted was that there was no space for gardening. Maintaining a few pots on my windowsills was about all I could do. It was nice being able to enjoy the fruits of her labor out front and back of her house. Standing on her porch, I savored the peace and quiet of the neighborhood. No honking horns, no sirens. Just birds chirping, a neighbor mowing his lawn, the chatter of squirrels chasing each other along the long limbs of her trees.

I could have stayed out there all day, but there was work to do. I had to jiggle the key in the lock, as Mom had suggested, and once inside I flipped on some lights. The darkness of her house was a stark contrast to the light outside. Not sure where the light switch was, I clumsily made my way around stacks of books and newspapers in the living room to the sliding glass door. Pulling the long, heavy dark green drapes open, I let in the day’s natural light. Dust particles danced in the sunbeams as I looked around.

Yes, I was in the home of a pack-rat, but it was also familiar. It had that scent of cinnamon I recalled from my youth that I always associated with Granny. It came from three bowls of her favorite potpourri, which sat on the overcrowded fireplace mantle, squeezed in between dusty knickknacks, framed photos, and candles.

My fingers itched to get started. It didn’t matter which room because just glancing up at the kitchen let me know that room was just as cluttered as the living room. It was possibly even more so with all those cabinets available to hide things in. Mom had warned me that the drawers and cabinets in all the rooms were especially overwhelming. As I did a quick scan of the house, I discovered she was right. But that was all right with me. I welcomed the challenge of organizing this mess.

The sad part of doing this alone was that Granny wasn’t in good enough mental health to be able to help discern what we should put into storage, what we should sell, what we should donate to charity, and what we should throw away. Mom had marked some things via masking tape and sharpie, the most important items according to her, but if it wasn’t obviously trash, she had ordered me to take pictures and text them to her so she could make the final call.

“Okay,” I said to myself with my hands on my hips. “Put similar things together.”

That was always the first step. I figured I might as well start in the living room. After grabbing a cup towel from the kitchen, I sat down on the floor and began sorting the stacks of books. Hardbacks in this pile. Paperbacks in this pile. I wasn’t worried about sorting by genre. That didn’t matter at the moment. Outdated encyclopedias that nobody would want to buy, old newspapers, and dated cooking magazines with pages torn out of them could go in a “recycle” pile. To an onlooker, it might have seemed like I was just moving the mess around, but this system truly worked. It seemed so simple, but it was the key to getting organized.

I came across a paperback novel with an auburn-haired beauty on the cover and paused.

I wondered what time my waitress crush Sophia got off work. Where would she go afterwards? What kind of life did she lead here in Lamppost? Did she have a significant other? Was there even the tiniest chance in the world that she might be bi or gay or at the very least, a little curious about experimenting?

A loud knocking on the front door rattled me out of my thoughts.

“Who the hell?” I muttered, my heart pounding from the unexpected noise.

Getting up from my cross-legged position on the living room rug, I wiped my hands free of dust with the towel and made my way to the front door. When I opened it, I stood up a little straighter. A cop? What on earth was a cop doing here?

“Hi,” I said. “Can I help you?”

“Is that your car out front?” he asked, his southern drawl so strong I almost thought he was a parody.

“Yes. Why?”

“Your inspection sticker’s about to expire.”

I felt my brow furrowing as I stared at this in confusion. What the hell was a cop doing coming to the door to let me know that my inspection sticker was about to expire? Not that it had actually expired but that it was about to. And not only that, but I’d never in my life heard of policemen making house calls to inform people of such a thing. They didn’t even pull people over for about-to-be-expired stickers. Hell, in Dallas, I went a whole year once without realizing the sticker had expired, and it was the guy who did my oil change who’d pointed it out to me. Was this house-call a Lamppost thing?

I observed the man in front of me. We stood about the same height, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. The fact that I couldn’t see his eyes bothered me. The way he stared at me made my blood grow cold. This guy didn’t even know me, but I had this weird gut feeling that he hated me for some reason. His stocky build hinted at either a love of booze or love of sweets or both. His blond goatee was perfectly groomed, and his hair was buzzed about as short as a buzz cut could get. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but his presence made me seriously uncomfortable.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said with a sneer.

“Should I?”

He let out a laugh. “I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t.”

I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but it almost sounded like a threat. I did not like this guy one bit, but I knew better than to let my temper get the best of me in front of a cop. I forced a smile and leaned against the doorframe, a subtle way of showing him I was relaxed and not intimidated.

He took off his glasses. His eyes were large and blue. They were a pretty shade, but there was something about them that came across as cold and unsettling.

“Sixth grade,” he said. “You attacked me and got kicked out of school.”

Oh, holy hell.

I kept my stance against the doorframe, but every inch of my body had stiffened. Memories of that day came flooding back.

Adam.

The way he’d pushed that little girl. How pissed off it had made me. Yeah, I did remember him. And now he was a policeman. Well, that figured.

“Wow,” I said. “It’s been such a long time. How’ve you been?”

“I’ve been wonderful. I have to say, your insane attack on me that day woke something up in me. It was the beginning, when I realized how much I wanted to go into law enforcement. I realized that the world is filled with criminals and that the world of innocent folks needed more people like myself to make sure those criminals are kept in line.”

If that wasn’t a blatant threat, I didn’t know what was. My heart began to pound, but I calmly pushed away from the doorframe and crossed my arms. I looked him dead in the eye, my smile now gone.

“From what I remember, officer, you pushed a poor defenseless little girl into the mud and then laughed about it. I think in that situation, I’m the one who protected the innocent from a criminal.”

If that got to him, he didn’t let on that it did. “I don’t know what you think you saw I did to Sophia that day, but I’m sure you imagined it. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know about your inspection sticker. And to welcome you back to the town.”

Welcome me. Right. I wanted to scoff but didn’t dare show any emotion.

“How did you even know I was here?” I asked, masking my anger with a syrupy sweet tone.

His grin made me want to slam the door shut in his face. “I was just at the diner having lunch and overheard a conversation. They said you were back taking care of your grandmother’s affairs. So sorry to hear about her dementia.”

Oh. Now this was a new development. He hadn’t come to the door to tell me my inspection sticker was up. He’d planned this out. He came over to bully me. He hadn’t changed one bit. And he sure as hell didn’t care about my grandmother, not with that sneer.

“Huh,” I said. “Small town gossip travels fast.”

“It does. And besides that, I make it my business to know things.”

If he had been any other person, I would have told him where he could shove his so-called business, but it looked like Adam was the kind of cop who operated like a snake in the grass, waiting for any reason at all to arrest people. I just got here. I couldn’t get in trouble yet. People were relying on me to get this done. And plus, I didn’t want to go back to Dallas just yet. I was enjoying the change of pace.

Since I couldn’t think of anything nice to say, I just kept my mouth shut. He just stood there, as if silently daring me to challenge him.

Static from his walkie-talkie broke through the tension between us. He grabbed it from his belt and looked away from me. As the female dispatcher spoke, my mind drifted.

Sophia.

A few moments ago, he had said the little girl’s name was Sophia.

The woman at the restaurant, her name was also Sophia.

There was no way…

My heart flipped in my chest. Could the gorgeous waitress I was currently crushing on be the same little girl I had avenged all those years ago? And if so, was there a chance she remembered me?


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