Brix Kelley is a typical, small-town girl, who grew up with scraped knees and dirty fingernails. Nash Cooper was the defiant teen of the town, who’s been in trouble with the law, practically from birth. The two have been friends for longer than they can remember, and somewhere along the way, a flame ignited.
They were inseparable. Then, suddenly, when she was just 15 years old, Brix left town, leaving behind everyone she’s ever loved, in search of a fresh start. She cut off contact with all five of her closest, childhood friends, never intending to return. But, when a tragic event forces her to go back six years later, she’s hesitant and unsure of what kind of reception she’ll receive…especially from Nash.
Still tortured by the ghosts of his past, Brix finds Nash as rebellious as ever, but for the first time since they met, his anger is aimed at her. Just when it seems as though things might be looking up, secrets, which have been long held and deeply buried, begin to surface, throwing them both into a tailspin.
With all the outside forces meant to keep them apart, can they find their way back? Was the love they shared as teens strong enough to bond them again as adults, or will the secrets from the past cause irreparable damage?
The corner of his mouth twitches ever so slightly, as he takes a step closer to me.
“Have you told him you love him?” he says, taking another step. My heart beats wildly, as I look anywhere but at him. He steps closer again, until he’s just inches away. “Have you?” I turn my head, but his hand touches my chin, steering it back to center. “Brix.” His voice is soft, seductive, and I’m not sure how much longer I can take being this close to him. “Look at me and tell me.” I finally find the courage to look at him, and it’s as if his eyes pierce through to my soul. “Have you told him you love him?” I open my mouth to speak, but I can’t say the words. He sees my hesitation and goes in for the kill. With his hand still on my chin, he lets it slide around to the side of my neck. His fingers easily glide into my hair, and his thumb rubs gently back and forth against my cheek. “I need to know,” he says, just above a whisper. I close my eyes, my lips part fractionally, and my heart is about to leap from my chest. I can feel his warm breath against my cheek, as his lips graze my ear. “Yes or no, Brix?” A sharp intake of breath fills my lungs, before I exhale in desperation.
“No,” I say, and it’s as if I’ve just confessed every sin I’ve ever committed. The relief is profound, but now I know I’ve opened up an enormous gate. I feel him smile against my cheek and hear his satisfaction as he hums his exhale.
“Good. I can work with that.”
As I close the door to my nearly twelve-year-old sedan, I’m already stressed. The thought of driving four hours to my childhood town is more than I want to think about. I sigh and slump into the back of the seat. Should I really be going? I haven’t seen Trey in over half a decade. Do I have the right to go back, when I deliberately gave up contact with all of them? Then again, Trey won’t even know I’m there, since it’s his funeral.
Despite my misgivings, I turn the key in the ignition, and the engine roars to life. Figures. It never not starts when I want it to.
“Call me when you get there, sweetheart. Oh, and drive carefully,” Mom says, as she leans in the passenger side and hands me a potted aloe plant. I roll my eyes but take it from her.
“Tell me again why I’m bringing this with me?”
“Aunt May requested it. Besides, our plant is having babies faster than I can get rid of them, so she’s doing me a favor as well.” I place it on the seat next to me and snicker quietly.
“And this was the only pot you could find? I think I made this for you in first grade.” I touch my middle finger to my thumb, then flick one of the googly eyes that adorns the front. The black, plastic pupil shakes, then settles down to the bottom of the clear enclosure. I then swipe my fingers across the red pom-pom underneath, which serves as the nose of what I think is supposed to be a clown’s face. As I sneer at my lack of childhood artistic ability, I decide to call him Larry.
“Yes, and I want it back. Aunt May will plant it in something bigger. Now, you’d better get going if you want to beat the traffic. Be safe. I love you,” she says, blowing me a kiss, then backing away from the window.
“I will. Thanks, Mom. I love you too. I’ll hug Aunt May for you.” I blow her a kiss in return, but her expression suddenly turns sullen. I take a deep breath then smile. “Don’t worry, this will be a quick trip. I probably won’t even see anyone.” With a small smile, she nods, so I put it in gear and let off the brake. The fan belt under the hood protests loudly, but its cries are fleeting, and it soon quiets down. I pull out of the driveway slowly, hoping a hurricane or a monsoon will force me back into the house. I look right, then left. Damn. No such luck.
“Well, Larry, I guess we have no choice but to go,” I say to my googly-eyed friend. He tips slightly to the side, as I turn the corner, so I reach over and straighten him up. “I know. I agree with you, but going there is the right thing to do. Now, get comfortable. It’s going to be a while.” As if he understands my words, he falls back against the seat, as I accelerate, seemingly settling in for the long ride to the middle of nowhere.
I’ve barely driven five miles on the highway, when my phone rings. Like the good girl my mom thinks I am, I use my hands-free device to answer it.
“Hi. How far have you gotten?”
I sigh, ruefully.
“Too far from you, but not far enough for it to be over with. Do you miss me yet?” I say with a smile, as if he could see me.
“Pff! Not at all,” PJ says. I can almost hear his sarcastic grin.
“You know, one of these days, I might believe you.”
“I’m hoping you do,” he says in jest. “But seriously, be careful, okay? I love you.”
I smile again.
“Call me when you get there.” he says, but it’s more of a command. I smile at his concern for my wellbeing.
We say our goodbyes, and I hang up just as Larry tips over again.
“It must be nice to be able to sleep all day, lazy plant.” I reach over and straighten him again, this time pinning him in between my small duffle bag and a half-empty bottle of water I find on the floorboard. His eye twitches with the movement of the car, almost as if he’s winking. I chuckle to myself at the ridiculousness, then fix my gaze back on the long, lonely road ahead.
Hours have passed, and after taking a quick potty break and stocking up on the best food the rest stop vending machines have to offer, we hit the road again. I’m determined not to stop again, until I see the mind numbingly slow pace of Ashton Falls.
The radio, which I normally keep on mute, is playing faintly from the speakers. I recognize an oldie, but goodie, and turn it up a bit. My thumb starts first. It’s tapping out the rhythm to the song, when my other hand joins in. Soon, my head is bobbing and the rest of my torso contracts and arches with the beat.
I’m singing to a song that used to be one of my favorites back in the day. It reminds me of the carefree days of my youth. Not that I’m that old but, in some circles, 22 is old. Memories float by of innocent times at the local swimming hole. I can almost see my friends and me swinging on the rope that hangs over the water, then splashing into the murky depths of the pond. The smiles and laughter my mind recalls make me grin fondly, then frown as I realize those days are long gone. I look down at Larry, but he seems unsympathetic to my conflicted memories.
This long tedious drive is making me restless. And, even though I’m finally only a few miles outside the city line, I’m desperate for something to drink and to stretch my legs. I pull off the highway and into the nearest gas station, which looks as if time has forgotten it. Idly, I wonder if they even have room for a store inside this run down looking shack. I park next to a fuel pump and as I do, an air hose alerts the attendant that I’m here.
Didn’t those alarms go extinct fifty years ago?
Before I can get unbelted and open my door, a dirty, jean overall clad man, who’s wiping his hands on a greasy towel, comes out and walks toward my car.
“Afternoon, ma’am. Beautiful day, ain’t it?” the man says. He smiles at me, and I instantly notice his missing front tooth.
“Gorgeous. I’m not looking to fill my tank. I was hoping you had a bottle of water or two.”
He scratches his head as if he’s contemplating his answer.
“Nope. We ain’t got nuttin’ fancy like that. I do have a cooler full of Faygo though. You’re welcome to it.”
I smile politely, wondering if it’s his own stash, or if he’s referring to beverages that are for sale.
“No, thank you. I’m on a diet.”
“You? On a diet?” I nod. “Dang. What for? You’re as skinny as one of them there models on Broadway.”
I chuckle at his words, but I smile at the compliment.
“Thank you. That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a while.”
His returning grin is genuine.
“Well, I call ‘em as I see ‘em. You sure you don’t need no gas? Where you headed?”
“I’ve got half a tank, and I’m only going as far as Ashton Falls.”
His face lights up in recognition.
“I’ll be damned. I know lots of folks in that podunk town. What on earth you going there for?”
“A funeral.” My face falls a bit, as does his.
“Oh, I’m sorry about that. Them folks up there is good people. You be sure to give ‘em my condolences.”
I nod my agreement as a small smile appears on my face at the fact that even though he has no idea who died, his small-town manners kick in.
“Will do,” I look down at his sewn-on name tag, “George.”
Despite the fact that I could make it into town on the amount of fuel I have, I decide to give him my business, and he fills my tank with a smile.
I do miss some things about small towns…other things, not so much.
Mayberry was a made-up town. Ashton Falls could’ve been Hollywood’s model for it. With ornate, old fashioned lampposts on the corner of every street and the main drag of downtown looking every bit like an old western movie set, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. I’d almost forgotten the charm this town has. The trouble is, I also remember it all. I can almost picture myself as a kid, running down the sidewalks in a hurry to get to the ice cream shop before it closed up for the night at 7:00 pm. Hannah and I would press our noses up against the windows, when we got there a little too late, but Mr. Sommers always took pity on us and let us in. He’d tell us not to let the rest of our friends know, or else he’d have to open back up for them too, but I had my suspicions that he gave that privilege to most of the kids in our town anyway.
I look to my right, as I pass by Norton Street. At the end of that road lies a river bank, where we all used to skip stones and wade after church. Our moms would get so mad at us, well, all accept for Eli’s mom, who was usually still hung over from the night before. That’s also where Hannah pinned Trey up against the oak tree and kissed him. I smile in remembrance of the look of sheer terror on his face, just before he went running home. Hannah was so mad at him. That tree has special significance for me too, but I immediately shake that thought out of my head.
Larry and I finally arrive at Aunt May’s house, and it’s exactly how it was before I left. With its white, wooden siding, and the flower boxes that rest atop each of the front window sills, this place is surely a postcard of every typical small town in this country. The lattice that surrounds the bottom of the porch is in desperate need of a paint job, but if I’m honest, so is the rest of the house. I snort, when I notice the hole on the side that’s just large enough for the local wildlife to take up residence. I remember more than a few litters of kitten that were born under that porch.
It’s warm today, and I wish I’d thought to put on a pair of shorts before leaving my house. As I approach the old, wooden steps, the wind picks up slightly, causing the porch swing to sway and bump against the house. I recall this happening all the time when I was a kid, but I haven’t heard the sound in six years, so I instantly notice it.
The stairs are creaky as I step up each one, and Larry, who’s in my arms, seems unaffected by the sound.
I roll my eyes at my insanity.
“Wow. I really need to stop talking to you,” I say, still talking to him.
I step up onto the porch and wonder if Aunt May is home. I don’t have to wait long, as the weathered screen door opens abruptly to a wide grinned expression from a rather robust, older woman in a ruffled apron.
“Brix! You’re here!” Aunt May exclaims, as she opens her arms as wide as they’ll go. Before I can respond, her embrace engulfs both me and the plant, and I almost have to fight for my next breath.
“Hi, Aunt May,” I say into her shoulder, although my voice sounds muffled. I smile as her white, wavy hair tickles my nose, so I quietly blow the strand of it away from my face. After a long, savored moment, she releases us, but her face-splitting grin remains. She holds me at arm’s length, looking me up and down.
“Let me take a look at you. Oh, my. You’ve grown up to be quite beautiful. Isn’t she beautiful, Winston?” She turns and asks her old basset hound. His droopy face tilts slightly upward, as if he’s trying to see for himself. “And your hair! It’s gotten so long!”
I toss my long mane of auburn hair over one shoulder.
“Well, it’s been about six years, since I’ve been back here.”
“Has it really been that long?” I nod. “Come inside, dear. I’ll get you something cold to drink. What would you like?” She ushers me inside, as the screen door slams behind me, making me jump slightly. “I have tea, or lemonade, or—”
“Water. I’ll just take some water, please,” I say, placing Larry on the kitchen table, then taking a seat. Winston comes in for a closer inspection, so I affectionately pat the top of his ancient head. He seems satisfied and soon disappears into another room.
“So, how was your trip?” Aunt May says, placing a glass of water in front of me, as she sits at the opposite side of the table. Aunt May has always been very hospitable. She’s actually my mom’s aunt, which makes her my great aunt, and the fact that we lived with her from just about the day I was born, didn’t change her ingrained social charms. I take a long swig before answering.
“The trip wasn’t bad; it was long though. The traffic was pretty good.”
“So, does that mean you’re going to start coming here for regular visits?” Her voice is hopeful.
“Um…I don’t know.” I’m not sure how to answer her without making it seem like I don’t want to come to see her. In reality, this place just isn’t me anymore, and I don’t foresee me ever coming back after this trip. “I’m not sure how much I can leave my job,” I say, as an excuse.
“And how is our rising star?” Her smile exudes pride. I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m just treading water, barely enough to keep my head afloat.
“Aunt May, you do know that I’m not a famous author, right? I mean, I won a short story contest, which got me the job at the magazine. It’s not like I’ve published anything myself.”
She waves me off dismissively.
“Pff! All in due time, sweetheart. You’ve been the talk of the town since the news came out.”
I bet I was. I humor her with a grateful smile and let her have her delusions of grandeur when, in reality, I’m no one.
“Well, I’d like to get the rest of my things. Is my room still available or has it turned into your sewing room?” I say in jest and to change the subject.
“It’s as if you never left, sweetie. Top of the stairs and to the left. I’ve put fresh sheets on the bed for you.”
“Thanks, Aunt May.”
“Anytime, Brix. Welcome home.” It’s good to see her excited smile, but I’m not looking forward to watching her wave at me through my rear view mirror on Monday.
As I wander back out to my car to retrieve my luggage, the humid, North Carolina air hits me, as do the memories of this place. She welcomed me home, but this place hasn’t been home for what feels like an eternity. The hustle and bustle of the big city makes this place feel as if the clocks somehow run slower. It’s like an hour in this place would really be a week back home. I sigh. I’ll be happy to go back to Charlotte.
After calling my mom and sending PJ a quick text, letting him know I made it safely here, I gather my bags from the car. As I trundle up those creaky stairs, I wonder why I didn’t pack lighter for a simple weekend trip. I’m squeezing my laptop under one arm, while a small suitcase is in one hand, and a duffle bag is in the other. Reaching for the doorknob seems to have its challenges.
“Here, let me help you,” says a voice from behind me. I see a hand reach for the knob, and I step aside to allow the door to open. When the door is open wide enough, I look back to thank my chivalrous assistant, and my face pales.
“Justin?” I say, as my eyebrows shoot up in surprise at the more mature, but still familiar, face. He nods, then smiles wistfully back at me.
“The one and only.”
“I can’t believe it. You look so…grown up. When did that happen?” I chuckle awkwardly. His short, blond hair blows slightly in the breeze, but it doesn’t look any different than the last time I saw him. His build is bigger, more buff than I’m used to, but then, his scrawny, teenage body was easy to improve on.
“Um, in the six years you’ve been away,” he says, grinning broadly. He takes my bags, and I nod my thanks. I shake my head, still in shock, if I’m honest, at the first of many childhood friends I purposely left behind so long ago, but his sincere expression puts me at ease a bit. “Moving back home?”
“No, I’m just here for the weekend. It’s good to see you. H—how’ve you been?” As he stands before me, holding my bags, he waits expectantly for me to tell him where to put them. This is awkward. Justin and I were friends, but not as close as I was with the others. It’s also weird because he’s Trey’s cousin, and I’m not sure what to say to someone who just lost a close family member and good friend. “I’m sorry about Trey. I know the two of you were close.” He bows his head slightly, as if to gather himself together.
“Thanks. It’s been…hard…and strange, but I’m managing. We’re all managing. Have you…seen anyone else?”
I look subtly down, then shake my head.
“No, just you.” My smile is forced.
“Oh, well, let me be the first one to welcome you back then.” His smile is genuine and wide, showing every tooth.
“Thanks. Would you…like to come in for tea or whatever?”
“Yeah, sure, but I can’t stay long. My family is having a pre-funeral get together.”
It’s weird to think one of us has passed away. The last time I saw any of them, I was just a kid—we all were. I can’t help but think about the injustice of it all.
We walk inside, just as Aunt May is walking toward the stairs. She stops in her tracks when she sees him, then opens her arms. He sets my bags onto the floor to reciprocate her all-encompassing embrace. After a few seconds, she pulls back, but keeps her hands on his shoulders, looking intently into his eyes.
“Oh, Justin. I’m so sorry to hear about Trey. Please accept my condolences. He was always such a nice boy. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
He gives her a slight smile, then nods.
“Thank you,” he finally says. “I’ll relay the message to my aunt and uncle as well. Will you both be going to the wake and funeral?” He looks from me to her and back again. His expression is hopeful. I bow my head a bit and clear my throat.
“I’m going to the wake for sure, but I’m not really a funeral service kind of girl.”
Aunt May swiftly looks back at me. Her expression silently chides me.
“Of course we’ll be there.” She looks back at him. “We wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
She then glances at me again as if to say, what on earth’s gotten into you?
Well, I guess that’s settled then. I take in a deep breath and exhale.
“I guess…we’ll see you then.” My tight-lipped smile feels awkward. I reach down to grab my bags, but he reaches down at the same time.
“I can take them up to your room for you.”
My eyes widen slightly, as an uncomfortable feeling washes over me. I shake my head.
“It’s okay. They’re not that heavy. I’ll manage.” He nods solemnly, and I feel a little remorseful, so I add, “But, thank you for helping me with the door.” My smile is appreciative.
“You’re welcome. I’m going to go. Aunt May, it was wonderful seeing you again. Brix…welcome back. I hope we can get together before you go back home.”
I shrug noncommittally.
Again, he looks as if he’d like to say more, but he doesn’t. Without another word, he exits. No sooner does the door close when Aunt May turns on me.
“What in the world was that all about? You don’t want to go to the funeral of one of your closest childhood friends? Why on earth not?” She stands, with her hands fisted on both hips, pinning me with her best scolding expression.
“It was just a thought. Don’t forget, I haven’t seen any of them for a very long time. I don’t even know if I’ll be welcomed or chased away.”
She waves that thought away with her hand.
“It may take some time, but you’ll see, you’ll all fall right into step, just like old times.”
She taps my cheek with her palm before going upstairs. I’m left alone with my luggage and an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.