“I’m sorry, Rebecca. Due to budget constraints, we’re going to have to let you go.”
Those words changed my life. If anything, my world became the limbo dance that day. How low can you go? Turns out, very low. It was the worst day of my life. Like a bad cliché, I lost my job, my live-in boyfriend, and his apartment all in one day.
Pathetic? Maybe. Well, definitely. However, it all turned out in the end.
As my mother loved quoting, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade with a touch of vodka.” Then she would add, “Using a hammer.”
According to dear old Mom, you beat the lemons until there is nothing left and drink the vodka until you no longer care.
As I didn’t have lemons, vodka, a hammer, and no other place to stay, I did what every other broke American would do: I called my mother for help. She sent me bus fare to come home.
So here I stand at the station two days later, waiting for her to pick me up with two bags of my belongings at my feet. I watch the cars go by, wondering where she could be. After all, my bus was twenty minutes late.
After glancing at my cell phone to confirm I didn’t miss any messages, I grit my teeth. Mom is doing it on purpose, of course. I glance at the phone again while considering calling her.
No. I refuse. It’s all a game I refuse to play. I stand there another twenty minutes before I spot her car rounding the corner. Stifling my complaints, I open the back door when she pulls up and place my bags in the back.
Getting into the passenger seat, I click the seatbelt into place. “Thanks for coming, Mom.”
“Were you waiting long?”
Again, a chance to complain. Refusing to give her the satisfaction, I reply, “No, the bus ran late.”
“Oh. That’s good.”
By her tone, it’s anything but. Turning my head away to look out the window, I roll my eyes.
“Is that all your things?”
“No,” I reply, facing her again. “Mitch is paying to put the rest in storage for a month or two. I boxed it all before I left.”
“Least he could do, leaving you homeless and all.”
I don’t reply. Instead, I go back to looking out the window as my mother drives us home. So many changes over the years. Stores I once knew are now gone. New ones in their place. Where Mini’s Café once stood, a new apartment building.
“When did Mini’s close?”
“About three years ago, after Louie died. Mini decided to retire and moved to Arizona. I heard she got top dollar for the land. Place was a gold mine.”
“That sucks. She made the best milkshakes.”
We pass through the downtown. My eyes drift up to the banner advertising the local school fair happening today.
“You’re just in time for the fair if you want to go. I donated a couple of pies and some cookies to the bake sale. There’s games and food. It’s always a good time.”
That is up for debate. God knows I didn’t enjoy it when I was in school. Then again, we moved here when I started the eleventh grade. Small-town school fairs weren’t exactly exciting to me at that point.
Several blocks later, she turns down the street and drives by the park.
“I see they’ve updated the playground equipment.”
“Yes, a big improvement. Jason Burke ran fundraisers for two years to pay for it. Makes sense with his niece living with him. He wanted a safe place for the girl to play. They put in a new softball field on the other side.”
I let the rest of her words flow by. Jason Burke. I briefly had a huge crush on him when we first moved here. I haven’t seen him since I graduated from high school and left town. Trying to keep my tone neutral, I ask, “What else has he been up to?”
I can feel my mother’s gaze on me before she turns the corner. Damn woman has a sixth sense. I should have kept my mouth shut. I’m surprised when she gives me a straight answer.
“He’s a schoolteacher now in the middle school. History, I believe. Took over his parents’ house when they decided to move to a townhouse. Franklin Burke never did like yard work. I’m surprised he didn’t talk Molly into moving sooner. But she always loved her flowers...”
The rest of her words flow over me as we approach the house. My gaze drifts over the Burke house. Jason Burke. The hottest boy in my grade. Mr. Baseball. Everyone—and I mean everyone—loved Jason Burke back then.
“He’s probably down at the fair. Helping with one of the booths. I’m sure you’ll see him at some point.”
God, I truly hope so.
Mom pulls into the driveway and parks near the garage. As she turns off the engine, I get out and grab my bags from the backseat. As I head toward the house, my mom calls after me. “You’re in the guest room.”
I stop and glance back at her. “What happened to my room?”
“I turned it into my craft room.”
“You already had a craft room.”
She arches an eyebrow at me as she puts her hands on her hips.
Oh hell, I crossed the line.
“Rebecca May Dawson! Who are you to tell me what I can, or cannot, do in my own house?”
Mom sniffles as she passes me and approaches the backdoor. I wait while she digs for the key to unlock the door. She leads the way inside, through the kitchen, and directs me to the stairs. “It’s been a while since you’ve been here. Second door to the right.”
I resist telling her I know where the guest room is. That hasn’t changed. Lugging my bags up the stairs, I enter the room and set them down on the bed.
Stepping out of the room, I listen from the hallway as the television turns on downstairs. Crossing the hall, I open the door to what used to be my bedroom.
Tables of fabric are pinned together, waiting for Mom to sew them. In the middle of the room, there’s a large loom with a quilt in the process of being sewn together. At least she is putting the space to good use.
I walk down the hall and open the door to the room I knew as her craft room. Racks line the walls, filled with odds and ends of various crafts my mother has tried over the years.
Near the corner where the morning light comes in, an easel stands. I approach it and glance at the unfinished canvas. A large blob-like lake with mountains in the background. Lines for trees she hasn’t finished.
So… Mom took up watercolors. Interesting. Not very good, but it’s a good way to spend a lazy morning.
Returning to the guest room, I open my luggage and start taking out clothes. I hang much of it in the closet and stuff the rest into the dresser. I pull my makeup and other toiletries out of the pockets.
While making sure I retrieved everything, my fingers brush against some paper. Pulling it out, I find a twenty-dollar bill.
Score! Sticking it in my pocket, I stuff my luggage in the closet. Once everything is put away, I flop facedown on the bed and close my eyes.
When I lift my head to glance at the clock, I see an hour has gone by. What? I fell asleep?
Rising, I use the bathroom, then head down the hall. Reaching the bottom of the steps, I hear Mom in the kitchen. Entering, I find her by the sink, talking on the phone to God only knows who.
“Yes, she’s here now. Between losing her job and her boyfriend kicking her out, she didn’t have much choice. It’s so embarrassing for her to move home like this…. I don’t know. Until she finds a job, I guess.”
Okay, I can’t deal with Mom’s gossiping right now. I turn around and head down the hall. With money and my cell phone in my pocket, I walk out the front door and head down the steps.
Mom and I will find a way to live together…or kill each other trying. But not tonight. What I need tonight is a little fun and fewer blithe comments. Going to the school fair probably isn’t the best choice, but at least I can get something to eat and blend in with the crowd.
Who the hell would recognize me? I’ve been gone for almost fifteen years.
Entering the fairgrounds twenty minutes later, I walk around the various stalls and eye the choices. Oh, the choices. I haven’t had a real corn dog in ages. The scent from the hamburger stand has my mouth watering. Another stall sells fresh French fries.
I gaze at the cotton candy and popcorn booths. Perhaps this is a terrible idea. God knows I don’t need to gain any more weight. This isn’t the type of food that helps with a diet either.
Screw it. I’ll make up for it tomorrow by starting to run again.
Approaching the corn dog stall, I place my order, then wait impatiently for the woman behind the counter to hand over the dog. Grabbing the ketchup bottle, I squeeze some along the length of the dog. Setting the bottle down, I grab a handful of napkins and walk away.
The first bite is pure heaven. I’d forgotten just how good they are when they’re hot and fresh out of a deep fryer. The outside crunchy, the hot dog perfectly cooked. Not like that grocery store freezer crap you bake in the oven.
As I eat, I wander around the other exhibits. Games to play, craft items, and knickknacks for sale. I pause at the bake sale as I finish the corn dog and eye the goods. Well, what’s left.
Glancing at the wrapped plates, I don’t spot anything from my mother. Figures her stuff would sell quick. My gaze falls on a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Something I definitely should leave there. But it’s for a good cause, isn’t it? Needy school kids and all that.
“Becca? Rebecca Dawson?”
I know that voice. It was in my dreams for years. All my teenage fantasies began and ended with that voice.
I turn around to find Jason Burke standing there with a young girl. His hair is still dark, thick, and wavy, and my fingers itch to touch it. His full lips purse together, and he smiles at me. The dimple in his cheek that I fantasized for years of kissing shows up. He hasn’t changed much, except for maybe becoming even more handsome.
I find my voice and force a smile on my face. “Hello, Jason.”
“I haven’t seen you in years.”
I manage a shrug, and my gaze moves down to the girl. The niece my mother mentioned. I can see the resemblance to Jason with her long, dark hair and bright green eyes that are studying me.
“Oh, this is Lily, my niece.”
“Hello,” I say, my forced smile becoming a real one.
“Did you know you have ketchup on your cheek?”
“Lily! Don’t be so…”
I don’t hear the rest of Jason’s admonishment. I’m too busy wiping at my cheek.
“The other one,” Lily adds.
Such a helpful child. Frantically, I wipe at the other cheek. Even if I managed to remove the ketchup, I’m sure my cheeks are the same shade of red.
Jason clears his throat and tries for another smile. “Sorry about that.”
“No, it would have been worse to keep running around with the stuff on my face,” I reply, though at that moment I would love for the ground to open and swallow me whole. I force another smile and hold up the stick. “I’ve always been a sucker for corn dogs.”
He nods then gestures to the table behind me, “I was hoping to find some of your mother’s cookies still up for sale.”
“Pickings are slim.”
“I see that.”
“Uncle Jason, can we get some cotton candy now?”
Jason nods to his niece, then asks me. “How long are you in town?”
“Not sure at this point.”
“Well, let’s find some time to catch up. See you later,” he replies, then gestures to his niece to lead the way.
“Bye,” I reply as I watch him walk away.
Catch up later? Doubtful. He was just being nice. Jason never knew I existed in high school. My eyes move down. Damn, why does he still have such a nice ass? If fate was fair, he wouldn’t be that good looking. He should have a receding hairline and beer gut at least.
My joy in the fair gone, I turn around and make my way to the exit. I might as well go back to Mom’s and hide in my room. Well, the guest room. Sighing to myself, I head back down the street.
Rebecca Dawson. The proverbial girl next door. I felt her eyes on me. Turned in time to watch her walk away, her shoulders slumped, and almost went after her.
Those wide, brown eyes sucked me right in. Her bright red hair as curly as ever. That pert little nose and those full pink lips. Man, she looked good, despite the ketchup on her cheek.
The brain below my waist could picture myself licking it off for her. Thank God, Lily was there to keep me from doing something stupid. Unfortunately, Lily also took that precious smile off Becca’s face with the ketchup comment.
I was a fool back in high school where Becca was concerned. Maybe this is my chance at redemption. It’s been a while since I last dated. Most of the women in this town haven’t interested me for more than a couple of dates. Maybe that will change.
An idea comes to mind. It would be a good way to open up a conversation with her. Perhaps get on her good side.
“Uncle Jason, what are you doing?”
I force my attention back to Lily and smile. “Just thinking about something. Come on, squirt. Let’s get you some cotton candy.”
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