I didn’t expect it at all.
I suppose I should’ve– the signs were all there. All the subtle hints about the future, all the dreamed-up plans, each one involving me.
Today’s excitement was contagious. Had I known something like this would happen, I would’ve stalled for every precious moment, and maybe tried to explain that I wasn’t ready for this.
Streamers, balloons, confetti– the works. They were scattered all around the room in all their rainbow-colored glory, just like the mess that were my emotions. And I stared at it all as I took it all in, unable to speak, the shock and panic nearly paralyzing.
He laid a knee down on the ground. I watched as he reached into his pocket, drawing a small square-shaped box out.
Oh my God.
Dread filled me, my stomach like lead. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. Not yet. Things were going so well between us. Why couldn’t we have had more time?
“Sherry Jasmine Clayton… I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” His smile made it harder, it made me feel like something twisted in my chest, one I knew I could never pull out. “Will you marry me?”
I heard faint murmurs, and looked up. All our friends and relatives were watching, their expectation and stares like a heavy weight, pressing against me. Waiting, demanding, and silently pressuring.
Not yet. I wasn’t ready.
“I…” I trailed off weakly.
I couldn’t speak. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what the hell to say. In front of so many people, I didn’t know how to do it gently, if at all. Not in a way that he would really understand right now. Not in a way that I could really explain.
As if sensing my hesitation, the smile on his face slowly dropped, confusion fast taking its place.
And I thought this is the part when he would start to hate me. The part when he would realize I wasn’t worth it.
“Sherr? Baby?” he slowly went back up, a hand brushing my cheek, worry all over his face.
And shame filled me because I wasn’t going to make him happy. I didn’t deserve someone like him for doing what I was about to do.
“I’m so sorry.”
And I saw it clearly, annihilating me, the precise moment I broke his heart.
I needed to get out.
I tore my eyes away from his, and I felt the wet hit my cheeks as I ran all the way out.
Chapter One- Home
They say karma was a bitch. In my case she was a two-horned bull carrying a pitchfork from Hades.
I learned this in the next ten minutes, after I sat crossed-legged on my couch, my laptop sitting on a small pillow, furiously typing.
I learned this after my stomach grumbled, and as an afterthought, realized I’d skipped lunch again. I also learned this when I stretched my neck, and grabbed my phone from the desk to check the time.
It came to me in the form of surprise, when I saw the notification on my phone’s lock-screen.
Ever since a couple of calls from people who loved pranking, I was cautious in answering them. When I was wrapped up in work I often told people, so they knew to call when it was urgent.
The screen flashed a soft glow.
Three missed calls. One voicemail.
All from Haley around twenty minutes ago, five minutes apart.
That… hadn’t happened in two years.
I tapped to listen to the voicemail. My heart pounded loudly in my chest, almost too loud for my own ears as I waited.
“Sherr,” Haley said. Her voice sounded hoarse, like she’d been crying before she decided to make the call. “Call me as soon as you get this.”
The way her voice broke as she said the words grabbed my heart. Her urgency alarmed me.
The last time I saw her, we’d just come back from a girls’ night. She was angrily tugging off her heels. She’d been confused and a little frustrated as I told her that I couldn’t stay there anymore.
It had been years, and neither she nor anyone back home asked anything from me or tried to contact me. It had to have been really important to make her reach out. That was why I didn’t hesitate as I chose her from my list and hit call.
Two rings. Three.
Slowly, I felt it; time swallowing the gap of the distance I’d created.
“S-sherr?” came the hesitant voice of my best friend.
It had been two years. I loved her dearly and I missed her, and all those feelings came to the forefront, overwhelming me. So many things I wanted to tell her. Things I wish I could’ve said. “Haley? Is everything okay?”
“God, Sherr,” she began, her voice tugging at my heart.
Nothing could’ve silenced me faster than her next words. “Gemma’s gone.”
My heart skipped a beat.
My grandmother’s face flashed in my mind, and I was brought back to the time in her kitchen, when she wiped away a tear from my face when I scraped a knee tripping during tennis practice. Her affection was warmth, and the smell of apple cinnamon muffins baking, heaven. A pang of emptiness hit me. I felt it deeply and recognized it for what it was, that seemingly endless, aching regret.
“What?” I whispered. I felt my face wet with tears. I swiped it off angrily with a hand.
“She passed away in the living room last night, a smile on her face while watching a re-run of Buffy,” she said with a snort. “Leave it to her to end her life with bloodsuckers.” A humorless laugh, followed quickly by a muffled sob.
Her voice softened, and she continued cautiously, “I know you had that past with Chase. I know it’s hard for you, but–”
That was a name I hadn’t heard in a while. For so long, his name lingered in my thoughts, and still did. I hadn’t heard anyone say it in a while. The validation somehow made it real, made the pain feel new.
I pushed it aside. That was something I’d have to deal with sooner or later, even though I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I was due for a break anyway. Without hesitation or second-guessing my decision, I told her, “I’ll be there tonight.”
* * *
There were some things in life neither distance nor time could diminish.
As I packed my bags on a chilly Friday night, this came to me in surprising clarity.
I was going back to Fortuity.
Sure, I’d imagined returning before at least a hundred different ways, but nothing could’ve prepared me for this.
Without a second thought, I packed everything up, not giving myself to chance to back out.
I was going to do this. I just had to be prepared about what people would say.
I wasn’t even going to be there long. Three weeks max and I’d be back. I wasn’t there for them anyway. I was there for my grandmother, my best friend, and my confidante, because she was all those things and more.
* * *
There was nothing quite like returning to the Ramirez’ home. Growing up, their place was my fortress, and in some ways, more than Gem’s had ever been.
I plastered a smile on my face, even though I didn’t really feel it. I needed the mask again, like I’d worn it so long ago right until before I left.
Paula Ramirez, Haley’s mom, welcomed me with a hug so tight like she always did, and it felt like I hadn’t left. She hadn’t changed at all. Her hair was a darker shade, but she didn’t look a day older. I told her as much, and she chuckled as she denied it, waving me in.
That she could still welcome me into her home and made me feel like I’d belonged made me feel comfort and an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
It reminded me of the bottomless cookie jar, a fond memory of my childhood. It was the jar that kept refilling itself during the duration of my stay at their place, whenever I did sleepovers. Me, Kate and Haley would sneak in after midnight and take a chocolate chip cookie and tiptoe back to our rooms.
And it struck me that I missed her. Really, really, missed her. She was like a second mom to me, and Haley a sister, and because I stayed at their place often, it was also home.
“How’re you feeling, sweetheart?” she asked me gently.
Reality crashed back in.
Gem was gone. Someone who was a steady figure in my life. Someone who understood me, supported me in my dreams, and never once blamed me or made me feel guilty for leaving. There were few people I could say that about. I knew it had to happen at some point, and I never dwelled on the thought too much, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.
“Still trying to wrap my head around all this, I guess. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“She had a good life. And she loved you. Even when you left, she always talked about how you’d return. She never stopped believing in you.”
I sat down on the plush couch and asked hesitantly, “You’re not mad at me for leaving?”
A brow raised, she handed me a cup of coffee. “Why would I be?”
I stared at my cup as its warmth seeped through my hands. Cream and three sugars, just how I liked it. She remembered. The gesture, as simple as it was, touched me.
I shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “A lot of people are, and I don’t blame them.”
“What would they be mad at you for?” she said, working herself up, her lips pressed tightly, enraged. “What right would they have?”
“I left him.” It hadn’t really went away, the guilt that ate at me. Even when enough time had passed, at night, I would lay awake thinking what I could’ve done, the things I could’ve told him. And although I’ve partly forgiven myself, that look he gave just before I left still haunted me.
“Sherry,” she said softly. “I love you both like my own children. You were broken. You both were. You both needed a break.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “He hates me.”
I accepted that. Or at least I tried to.
“That’s not true,” she denied fervently. “I’m sure whatever he feels about you is only because he cares about you deeply.”
I examined the rose pattern of the coaster as I lightly traced my finger along the edge. And I couldn’t really explain why, but my eyes were suddenly wet.
“I had a good thing, Paula. I don’t think I know what it means to not destroy something so good, something so pure.”
Casting me a stern look, she told me, “Sweetheart, you have so much to give. Don’t ever think that.”
We drifted off on what she did last summer, planting some new roses and potted plants in their garden, her new paintings, and what she thought about the last book I wrote. She told me Haley was at work too and had an afternoon shift at the hospital.
“You’re different now,” she commented as she whipped together something in a bowl.
“How?” I frowned. I didn’t feel any different.
“I don’t know,” she said, her eyes assessing. “You’re… Quieter? No. More… reserved.”
I shrugged, suddenly feeling exposed.
“How long are you staying?” she asked me after a while.
“Two, three weeks,” I replied. “I’m not really sure.”
She looked thoughtful as she handed me a plate of sugar cookies. “Promise me you’ll think about staying here.”
And because she was important to me, and because it was all I could really offer, I gave her that.
As I took a bite of the cookie, it tasted like childhood and dreams, and home.
* * *
I didn’t want to announce I was there. Meaning, I didn’t really want to see Chase. I didn’t come here to see him. So as much as possible, I wanted to reduce the chances of clashing with him.
I asked that it be kept a secret that I was staying.
And in a town our size, I had to do all I could to protect myself, because no one was going to do it for me.
* * *
Wanting any kind of distraction, I decided there was nothing better than to get some comfort food. We had a fair variety of options even in a town our size, but I wanted to try something different, preferably somewhere people didn’t regularly frequent. Where there was less of a chance of people recognizing me. As if to punish me, as I made it there, people decided to line up too, a few managing to squeeze in before me.
The shop was small, but it gave out a nice vibe that felt homey.
The smell of vanilla wafted over, and it promised delicious treats.
* * *
It happened two minutes later, when I was least expecting it. On hindsight that was stupid, because I was back, and there was no ‘least expecting’, because I needed to expect. I needed to be prepared for everything. I knew it was going to happen, eventually, one way or another.
I was agonizing between a chocolate-flavored slice and a coffee-flavored one, when I heard his voice.
“There’s a fucking long line. I can’t yet. Give me fifteen.”
I froze on the spot, the soft rumble of his voice washing over me.
I knew that voice. I knew it so well, I dreamed about it. I also knew I didn’t even have to look to know it was him.
There was a donut shop, a bakery, a cookies and cupcakes patisserie, a few more shops for savories, and of all the places he chose to eat something for a snack, he came here.
If I left now, it would just draw attention to me. If I looked back, it would also draw attention to me. As much as possible, I wanted to be invisible. I wasn’t prepared for this right now. So I stood stiffly as I waited in line.
This was what happened when I got out of the house to eat cake. I imagined meeting him again in at least twenty different scenarios, and none of them involved being in a line to buy freaking cake.
Thank you God for shades. My hair was back to my original color now, a few shades darker than it was years ago. That probably added to the obscurity. The only thing that was missing was a hat.
I mentally calculated the places to buy some sort of cap that I could use that didn’t resemble anything I’d owned. There should be a clothing store two streets over–
“Sherry! Been a while,” a voice cried out my name in delight.
Ellen. She looked ecstatic, flashing me a wide, toothy grin.
She was a neighbor’s daughter, one I used to see all the time. She was super smart, and as far as I knew, she frequented the library, and was always in the company of a stack of books. She must’ve been approaching her senior year in high school. She had thick glasses on, but that only added to her charm.
Right now she wasn’t charming.
She just called my name like I was across the street, and not, say, in the same room.
I grimaced. “Thanks for blowing my cover.”
She didn’t look the slightest bit apologetic. Her eyes roamed behind me and squinted a little. She whistled. “Hot stuff looking your way, eight o’clock.”
I closed my eyes in defeat. How the heck could I escape this? “Couldn’t you have called me Juliet?”
She stifled a laugh. “I’m sure we can work something out next time. What would you like?”
“Umm… Which is more popular, your coffee or choco one?” I indicated the slices on the first row.
“Hmm. I’d say coffee, but the choco one’s pretty awesome, I must say. There’s also a salted caramel one, but that’s a personal favorite.”
It turned out that the coffee one trumped all others. I eagerly took my slice and paid, thanking her.
Spotting the exit, I was about to leave, my steps quickening, when I heard footsteps behind me. Seconds later, a hand was on my shoulder, startling me into stopping.
Now would be the perfect time for the ground to swallow me up. I dreaded what was coming.
I winced at the way he’d said it. Gone was his nickname for me, the easy familiarity and affection, and the subtle change on his inflection when he said my name.
Okay. I wasn’t prepared for this. I was never going to be prepared for this. But somehow, I made myself turn around to look at him.
How do you say hi to someone whose heart you crushed?
“Chase,” I acknowledged. I slowly managed to look up at him, saw his glittering eyes, and quickly averted my own, focusing instead on the slope of his shoulders. He had nice shoulders.
I looked at the chair behind him. Chairs were good. Chairs were safe.
“You’re back.” There was nothing soft in the way he spoke. Each word was clipped, like little cuts that dug deeper with every word.
“Yes. Just today.” I kept my face even.
He took a step forward, closer this time. “I’d like to say welcome back, but you know I wouldn’t mean it.”
He took one more step closer, close enough so he could lean a little closer to my ear, and no one could hear. “So for old times’ sake, gonna say hi.” The iciness of his voice chilled me, his look stony as he moved back.
“Hi,” I replied back weakly.
Then he took another step, walking completely past me, all the way out.
I didn’t look back.
But I had a feeling, deep in my gut, neither did he.