He’d insisted on arriving by helicopter. Helicopter! She stood on the roof dutifully, at a safe distance from the helipad, her honey-blond locks whipping around her face. Her boss, Ed, the station manager, sighed deeply. He was as annoyed as she.
Finally, the helicopter touched down and Ron emerged, wearing a flashy suit in a color that could only be described as neon tangerine. His hair, held in place by layers of hairspray, didn’t move as he walked toward them with a swagger.
He greeted Ed first, ignoring Veronica’s extended hand.
“Can you get me a coffee, honey?” Ron asked, not bothering to look at her.
Her eyes narrowed. She ignored his request and decided to head inside. “I’ll see you at six.”
“Wait, what?!” Ron yelled after her. “YOU’RE my co-anchor? YOU’RE going to read MY news??? But you’re a…a…”
She smiled tightly. “Let’s stay classy, Ron.” She disappeared inside the building as Ron stared after her, dumbfounded.
“I’m going to marry that woman,” he said, to no one in particular.
The hundreds-year-old tree between the two houses was the only one still alive who knew how it all began. Past residents of those houses, Ruby and Dottie, had stood under its wavering, winter-bare branches years ago and argued about some trivial, forgettable, nonsense. Each woman, seething with rage, had marched inside and told their respective husbands not to speak to anyone next door again.
Ruby and Dottie were gone now. It was Ruby’s four-year-old great-great-granddaughter, Pearl, who decided to defy her mother and venture to the other side of the tree. Leaning against its trunk was Sam, Dottie’s great-great-grandson, who was absentmindedly playing with a pocket-watch he’d found in his attic. There was a folded note inside. Before the children could open it, the wind picked it up and carried it away. It was in Dottie’s handwriting, addressed to Ruby, and bore only the words, I’m sorry.
The watch forgotten, Sam and Pearl laughed and chased each other around the base of the tree, as she sighed with relief and showered them with blooms.
The Funky Monkey was her favorite bar. Or her new favorite bar. Everything lately was brand new. New supermarket, new manicurist, new apartment, new friends. New life.
She was certain her boss had just replaced her on the sales floor when she hadn’t come in a few days in a row. Her so-called friends had probably shrugged and ordered another round of drinks. And Jared, the boyfriend she neglected to dump before she left town, had likely deleted her number and called one of his many admirers. Good riddance.
She nearly fell off her barstool when she saw Jared speaking at a press conference on the TV above the bar, flanked by police officers. The screen changed, and she saw her own face, a photo taken by Jared during a perfect day at the lake. She looked nothing like that now. Her hair was shorter and dyed jet black, her skin deeply tanned, colored contacts in her eyes. She blinked away tears.
The community garden had been planted by Talia’s grandmother in the late 1960’s. The neighborhood had always been poor, but now, it had lost its pride and charm as well. They’d been taken over by dilapidated strip malls, fast food restaurants and corner stores, the sound of police sirens playing in the background on a constant loop. Developers wanted to destroy the garden. They needed the space to put in yet another strip mall – more discount stores, another fast food place, maybe a liquor store. The neighborhood was gasping for breath. The garden, bursting with green, had been their only source of fresh vegetables for years.
She laid down in the earth, her hot tears falling into the dirt. Her neighbors, one by one, followed her lead, taking spots between each row of plants, gripping hands. She took the hand of her oldest neighbor, the only one left who’d known her grandmother. The old woman nodded at her and smiled. Talia closed her eyes, listening as the roar of the machines became louder and louder.
“Indulge your grandmother,” Mom said as I stared at her skeptically. “We don’t know how much time we have left with her.”
So I drove, grandma directing me the entire time. Her brown eyes were clear and discerning despite the deeply etched wrinkles surrounding them. Our destination was a rambling house at the edge of town, surrounded by acres and acres of long-neglected land overrun by thick brambles.
When we reached the front door, she raised her gnarled hand overhead and touched the red lantern that hung in the open doorway, closing her eyes, wrapping her other arm around me. A powerful wind whipped around us, knocking me to my knees.
That’s when I looked up at her. She was changed. Vibrant and youthful,skin glowing, jet-black hair spilling over her shoulders. I looked down at my hands, which were now gray, shriveled. Frantic, I touched my face, my skin rippling under my fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, though her eyes told a different story, as I crumpled to the ground, choking for breath.
Alice felt like a stalker. Maybe she was one. After all, she’d stood outside John’s office, just out of sight, listening to him tell a coworker all about how he brought his golden retriever to the Piedmont Dog Park every Saturday morning, bright and early. Stella, Alice’s skittish Pomeranian, curled up in Alice’s lap, bored, ready to leave.
Alice took a long sip of her coffee and took another surreptitious look at the entrance. No sign of John. She felt like an idiot. It was probably some big prank. Someone from the office was in the bushes, watching her, taking video of her being made a fool of. It was just so hard to get a guy to ask a girl out these days. She didn’t know how many more hints she could drop. Drastic times.
Just then, she saw a flash of yellow darting across the grass, John looking adorably rumpled, chasing after it. Alice fluffed her hair, then Stella’s, and called out to John.
This would be CeCe’s and Ricky’s last date. She’d been infatuated with him for so long, actually becoming his girlfriend had been thrilling, surreal. She’d felt like Molly Ringwald at the end of Pretty in Pink.And the first kiss…a warm shock of excitement shot through her still when she thought of it. It always would. But they just weren’t compatible.
They stood in front of the scarecrow at the edge of her family’s property, CeCe knowing that they were in full view of her mother’s reproachful gaze. She told Ricky she thought they’d be better off as friends and Ricky seemed genuinely surprised.
“I thought things were good,” he protested.
If you only had a brain.
Alone in her room that night, CeCe’s disappointment faded. Ricky would spend his life in this town, as his family had done for generations. There was nothing wrong with that, of course. She just wanted a different life. There were places she wanted to explore, strange boys she wanted to kiss.
The library was closed. She locked the doors, shut down the front desk, put away the last of the books that were left behind on the tables. When the work was done, she pulled her own book from her bag and curled up on the couch by the windows, reading by the waning light of the late afternoon sun. She heard her phone buzz again in her purse, but ignored it. Was that the tenth missed call? The eleventh?
She read until it was too dark to make out the words on the page. That’s when she saw headlights in the parking lot, heard the angry, urgent pounding against the front door. She closed the book, pulling up the collar on her shirt for the 100th time that day to conceal the blue-black finger marks on her neck. She fumbled in the dark for her phone and with trembling hands, for the first time, she dialed 911. He’d invaded her last safe haven.
The room was spinning. The cheesy green disco lights on the dance floor seemed to whip around her at a dizzying pace. One last dance and she’d go. She’d been saying that for the past hour, but this time she meant it. She didn’t trust herself around this gorgeous man. Not after all the drinks she had. She didn’t even know his last name. She knew nothing of his personal history, his likes and dislikes. His character. Just that he was beautiful. And a great dancer.
He whispered something in her ear and she leaned her head back and laughed just as the room exploded. Flashes of fire, screaming, people running for cover, cries of suffering, hands over bleeding wounds. He crumpled to the floor and she knelt beside him, his white shirt drenched with red.
“Go. Just go,” he whispered, giving her hand a slight squeeze. She kissed his still-warm cheek and crawled for the back exit, weeping for a man whose last name she’d never learn.