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“Why are you doing this?”
The desperate, sad look in Henry’s eyes made my heart ache. His brown hair fell across his forehead in rain-soaked waves, and his eyelashes gathered in dampened clumps. Henry’s eyes, the same shade of gray as the weeping clouds above us, searched my face for answers I was too ashamed to give.
“What we have is real, Autumn.” He pulled me against his chest. I felt his heart pounding through the wet fabric of his soft, flannel shirt, and we trembled in unison, standing on the front steps of Henry’s apartment building. “Why do you want to break up? Don't you love me?”
“Don’t do this,” I said weakly. My eyes filled with hot tears that threatened to undermine my brave façade. When he grazed his fingers across my cheekbone, swiping away a tear, I instinctively turned my face into his hand, breathing in the warm, outdoorsy aroma of Henry.
He kissed my cheeks, my temples, my shivering lips. My resolve started to crumble. Strength. I needed to show strength. I needed to walk away before I ruined his life, before I hurt him any more than I already had.
“Tell me that you don’t love me,” he whispered into my drenched hair, tangling his fingers in my curls. “Tell me, and I’ll let you go.”
I choked on a sob. I did love Henry. The past two months had been the best months of my life. Not once had I dreamt of meeting someone who made me feel safe, peaceful, beautiful, and deliriously happy, the way Henry Tobler made me feel. I wanted to be with him—and no one else—forever.
“Of course I love you,” I said.
“Then why are you doing this?” His voice cracked.
I shivered in Henry’s arms, not only from the cold, but also from the burden I bore. Pulling back, I raised my eyes to meet his. “I….I’m pregnant.” My words were barely audible over the sound of the pounding rain and passing traffic.
His face morphed from shock to anger, then settled on absolute sadness. We hadn’t slept together yet.
“It was from before,” I explained lamely, feeling dirty as the words came out my mouth. Henry’s shoulders drooped. He released me and a shadow fell across his eyes. That said it all. His girlfriend was pregnant with someone else’s child.
Henry deserved better than me.
I had to get out of here. I backed away, down the cement steps and onto the sidewalk. I rubbed my chest, my heart breaking just beneath the surface.
“I’m sorry,” I said, words quavering. “I’m so sorry.”
I turned and ran. Away from love.
Thirteen years later
“Well, if it isn’t Little Miss Big City herself. You got yourself a flat tire, dontcha?”
I cringed. I hated when people pointed out the obvious. Unfortunately, on this particular road, in this particular county, blatant observations tended to be even more antagonizing.
At least they were to me.
My bitter thoughts matched my mood as I stood on the side of the road. Looking up from my cell phone, which didn’t have coverage clear out here in rural eastern Washington, I almost smiled. Despite my predicament, I appreciated the striking contrast between the sharp, azure sky and the rolling, golden wheat fields.
“Well, do ya?” Ray Fisk leaned his head out the window of his dented Chevy truck to get a better look at my flat. Never one to miss a spectacle, his wife, Ramona, slid across the seat toward Ray and craned her neck.
I nodded and forced myself to smile, sweat drizzling down my back. My slacks and sweater had been appropriate for the cool, blustery, October morning in Seattle. Not so appropriate for standing in the unseasonably warm breeze on the side of the two-lane highway that led into Fairfield, Washington.
“It’s flat, alright,” I said.
Ray squinted at me in the late afternoon sun. “Seems you blew a tire.”
Again, with the obvious.
“I thought I could limp all the way to town, but apparently not.” I frowned at my deflated tire. “I tried calling my dad, but…”
I stared at Ray meaningfully. No doubt, the Fisks were still the town’s gossips and knew why I couldn’t reach my dad.
Ray nodded and smiled, his teeth tobacco-stain yellow. “It’s five o’clock. Cheese fries and dollar beers at Smartie’s.”
I grimaced. “Right.”
Why would the return of his daughter after fourteen years keep Billy Cole home when there were flat beer and frozen Ore Ida fries covered in Velveeta waiting? Forget the fact that he’d just been released from the hospital this morning. He should have been at home, resting. But my father wasn’t known for his good judgment.
I looked in my open car window and asked my son, “You all right in there?”
Elliott’s horn-rimmed glasses had slid down his nose, and his expertly tousled hair drooped in the heat. “How long are we going to sit here?”
Twelve-year-olds had no patience. Elliott was no exception. Especially when the batteries in his Nintendo DS had long since died, and he could no longer text his friends because we were out in the hinterlands.
“Working on it.” I faced the Fisks. “Do you mind helping me change the tire? I can’t even lift my spare.”
Ray raised his baseball cap and smoothed his salt-and-pepper hair. “Well, I hurt my back at the grain elevators a few years ago, remember?”
“She doesn’t remember, dear.” Ramona touched his arm. “She left town, and not many folks have heard from her since.”
Ramona was right. I’d left my hometown of Fairfield, Washington, two months after graduating from high school, where my class had consisted of a whopping forty-six students. I’d gone off to art school in Seattle—three-hundred-and-thirty-three-point-six miles away from Fairfield, not that I’d ever counted.
And no, I hadn’t kept in touch. Not until recently, when I’d answered my phone and heard Smartie Guire’s raspy voice on the line. Smartie had found my cell number in my dad’s wallet. He said that my father had taken a spill in the garage behind the house where I’d grown up. Apparently, he’d lain on the floor for twenty-two hours before his neighbor had come over to see why her cats wouldn’t stop scratching at the garage door. My father had spent a couple of days in the hospital and been discharged today.
Smartie had figured it was finally time I knew about my dad’s declining health. And since I was the only child of my parents’ dysfunctional union, taking care of him was my responsibility.
I admit that I’d put off my reunion with my father for far too long. During the fourteen years since I’d left Fairfield, Elliott and I had come back once, for Christmas. After that, I’d sent the occasional holiday card, and made a brief phone call each year around Father’s Day. It had been a long time, yet here I was, almost back in Fairfield, Washington. Population: five hundred. Yes, I said five hundred.
“People always wondered where you’d gotten off to—why you didn’t stick around,” Ramona said.
My initial instinct was to remind her that living under the small-town microscope as the daughter of the town drunk hadn’t enticed me to stay, but that was a moot point. I gave her a tight-lipped, fake smile. “I’m back, now.”