THERE IT IS. THE ONE stoplight I thought I’d never see again, still blinking its irregular red pattern that no one ever paid attention to. As most of the shops are centrally located, few people drive in town. Their cars are used for driving to neighboring cities when what they want isn’t available here, so there is no real need for the stop light, but the people had decided the town needed at least one stoplight to be called a proper town, and so it had been erected.
There had been a huge ceremony the day it was christened; the whole town had shown up. The mayor had had to stand on a ladder to cut the red ribbon as someone had placed it too high. Once he was up the ladder, another member of the city board had handed him a giant pair of silver scissors. Then it had become a balancing act as the mayor tried to open the giant scissors without losing his balance – that had been comical – and we had watched in awe as it blinked, blinked, long pause, blinked, blinked. The awe had faded quickly, and a squabble had broken out among the adults about the broken light. The whole affair had been rather disappointing to a sixteen-year-old, who had been looking forward to getting his driver’s license, and I remembered that day as the nail in the coffin solidifying my idea of leaving this tiny backwards town and returning to normalcy.
Then I met Presley, and my life changed.
“Are we there yet, Daddy?”
I glance in the rearview mirror at my daughter, Joy, strapped in her car seat. Her dark curls came from me, but her blue-grey eyes are her mother’s. Joy is the one good thing that came out of this town.
She resumes her stare out the window as we continue down Main Street. The Diner still sits on the corner, probably still run by Max, the same uninspired owner who wore a ball cap and plaid flannel shirt to work every day. His choice of attire left a lot to be desired, but he was a good cook. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve had a better burger.
Next to the diner is the small Post Office. I never spent much time in it growing up, but I knew the man who worked there, Bert. He was an odd man to say the least – always trying out new ideas that never seemed to work. One year, he had tried raising chickens to supply eggs for the general store, but he had become attached to one of the chickens, naming her Stella and carrying her from place to place in a little bag like wealthy old women do with tiny dogs. The chicken had escaped the bag one day in the middle of The Diner and wreaked havoc, incensing Max. Stella disappeared after that, and I was fairly certain she ended up on Max’s menu, but I could never prove it.
The general store appears next. It carries groceries and a small selection of clothing and household goods. I had been shocked by the meager selection when I first arrived, but the town wears on you and has a way of making you forget the outside world moving on around it. By the time I graduated high school, I had been accustomed to the small offerings until I arrived in Dallas and felt like a total hick, at least three years behind the times.
“Daddy, look, cupcakes. Can we get one?”
Twisting in the black leather seat, I follow her finger pointing out the opposite window. There had been no cupcake shop six years ago, but there is indeed a shop there now, where the laundromat had been, sporting a colorful cupcake sign and logo on the window. Sweet Treats. It’s not a highly original name, but neither are most of the stores in this town.
“We’ll come back by later.” I am curious about the owner. Who would choose to put up a new shop in this sleepy little town?
Her bottom lip turns out in an adorable pout, but she does not continue to fight me. For her, this trip is like a vacation to a new and unusual place. We rarely venture from Dallas, mainly because my work keeps me too busy for vacations. For me, it’s a return to a past I want to forget. There’s too much pain, too much sadness here in this little town.
I make a right down Cooper Street, the road that leads to my parent’s house. Though it has been years since I have been back here, I could drive the route blindfolded, partly because it is a simple route, and partly because I walked it so many times as a teenager.
The two-story yellow house looks exactly as I remember it, though the paint is chipping in a few more places and faded in others. The gravel of the driveway crunches under the tires as I pull in. I park the car and take a deep breath.
“Let me out Daddy,” Joy calls from the back seat.
Sighing, I open my door and then reach in to unbuckle her. Though five, she is still too small to qualify for a booster seat, and I feel safer having her in the bigger car seat anyway. No one ever told me that when I became a parent, I would have crazy nightmares about all the ways I could lose my daughter. The car accident is always the worst.
Joy scurries out of the car, her faded pink bunny clutched in one petite hand. On the day she was born, my mother had given her a soft pink cuddle bunny. Joy had latched onto it, sleeping with it every night. When she began crawling, she would often pick up the bunny in her mouth, dragging it across the floors. Even after she began walking, the bunny would go outside with her to play in the dirt or be flung around the room. The bunny has seen better days, but she refuses to part with it for any longer than an occasional trip in the washing machine, and of course, no one sells this bunny any longer. I dread the day when it falls apart and I can’t replace it.
As she scrambles up the wooden porch, I pop the trunk and grab the two suitcases I packed the night before. My hope is that we’ll only be here a week, but I have no guarantee and therefore packed for at least two.
Joy is banging on the door when I reach her side. She hasn’t been around my parents much, as we left shortly after her first birthday, but they did visit a few times and Joy always clung to them when they did as if she knew the time wouldn’t be for very long. Now, she has created this idea in her head of what they’ll be like while she’s here and regaled me with it the last few days. I hope she won’t be disappointed, but I’m afraid she might. My mother probably won’t be able to spend much time with her as she will be taking care of my father, at least when he gets released from the hospital.
My mother opens the door and breaks into a smile. She looks older than I remember her looking last time. There are more lines in her face and more grey streaks coloring her hair, but her eyes still twinkle the way they always have.
“Joy,” she says and bends down with her arms out.
“Nana.” Joy runs into her arms, squeezing the woman tightly about the neck. “You smell like cookies.”
A smile plays across my lips. My mother always smelled of vanilla and sugar, and while she did often have a plate of cookies waiting for me when I arrived home from school, she didn’t every day, and I often wondered how she still smelled of cookies on those days.
“That’s because I have some in the kitchen.” She taps the end of Joy’s nose, earning a giggle. “Now, come in, and let’s get you settled.”
“Then can we have cookies?” Joy asks. She is bouncing up and down, sending the lights in her pink sneakers into overdrive. Mother nods, smiling at her enthusiasm.
I pull the two suitcases into the homey entrance and shut the door behind me.
The house hasn’t changed a bit. A wooden coatrack still sits just to the right of the front door, holding Dad’s derby cap and a few coats, and the sign, announcing “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” still hangs prominently on the wall. I shed my coat, adding it to the rack and then remove Joy’s as well.
“Let me show you to your room.” My mother grabs Joy’s free hand and leads her down the beige carpeted hallway. Pictures of Anna and I line the walls. My mother never let an opportunity to take a picture go by, and I’m almost certain she bought every school picture we ever had so she could display them all on the walls. I tried to remove one once and replace it with something else, but she noticed right away and forced me to rehang that picture.
Mother opens the door to what was the guest room. Though it is still the guest room, she has added some decorations for a younger child to enjoy. The daybed has been covered with a flowery pink and purple bedspread and a blond doll is propped on top. An old dollhouse sits near the dresser along with a faded toy box filled with toys.
“This is all for me?” Joy’s eyes are wide as she looks up at my mother.
The lines around my mother’s eyes are more visible as she smiles. “Yep, all for you. A girl needs proper toys.”
“Especially in this town,” I say under my breath. Not quietly enough though as my mother shoots a look full of daggers my direction. How quickly she can change from sugar to fire. I hold my hand up in silent apology.
“Where is Daddy staying?”
“Right across the hall,” my mother says, opening the door. My old room stares back at me, looking very much like it did in high school. My football awards still line the shelf, though they are coated in a fine layer of dust, and the tattered posters of my favorite bands cover the walls.
“Didn’t feel like updating this one?” I ask.
My mother shrugs. “Maybe I would have if you came around more often.”
I want to reply, but I don’t want to start a fight, so I bite my tongue and carry the suitcase inside. After dropping off Joy’s suitcase as well, we follow my mother back towards the open living room and into the country-themed kitchen. I’ve always hated the flowered wallpaper trim that circles the kitchen, but my mother hung it herself and has always loved it.
A plate of chocolate chip cookies sits in the middle of the scratched kitchen table. The usual wild flower display has been pushed to the side. Joy turns eager eyes on me.
“You may have one,” I say, holding up a finger. “I don’t want you to spoil your dinner.”
She climbs up in a chair and snatches a cookie off the top of the pile, shoving most of it in her mouth.
I shake my head at her. “You could chew more slowly.”
Her ravenous munching changes to a thoughtful chewing, and I join her at the table, plucking a cookie for myself off the pile.
“How is Dad?” I ask before taking a bite. My father is the whole reason I am here. He is in the hospital after falling off a ladder and fracturing his skull. Though my mother said I didn’t need to come, I couldn’t very well stay in Dallas if there was a chance this was life threatening, and brain bleeds often can be. Plus, she might need some help with him when he gets released. I doubt he’ll be as active as he was before the accident. However, I am in the middle of a big presentation, one that could set me up for life with an even bigger company, so I left strict instructions with my assistant to keep me in the loop.
A flicker of doubt erases her twinkling for a moment before she recovers. “He is doing better today. The nurses say he only had a few instances of confusion yesterday, but they want to run another CT tomorrow.”
“Any idea on when he’ll be released?” I take a bite of the cookie, enjoying the warm chocolate goodness. I have missed my mom’s cooking.
“Probably another few days, but it depends on what the scan shows. He has a pretty big brain bleed.”
“Your brain can bleed?” Joy’s head pops up, her eyes as wide as saucers.
My mother shoots me an apologetic look and without saying it, we agree to finish this discussion later when little ears are not present.
“Don’t worry,” I say, patting her arm. “The brain is amazing and can heal itself. When does Anna get in?” Anna, my younger sister, has been away at college studying to become a nurse.
“She has finals this week, so she’s coming as soon as she finishes the last one. Oh, and guess who else is back in town?”
I raise my eyebrow at her; I’ve never been a fan of the guessing game.
Presley Hays. The name knocks the wind out of me like a sucker punch. I haven’t thought of her in years. In high school, Presley had been my best friend – the one person who had made this town bearable – but for some reason we had grown apart when Morgan entered the picture, and then one-day Presley had come over to tell me she was going to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu.
“The cupcake shop?” I say the words for myself, but my mother smiles and nods.
“Who’s Presley?” Joy asks, looking from my mother to me.
“Just an old friend,” I say. Just an old friend.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish