I was elbow-deep in rich Redemption soil when my mother called.
I’d been spending a lot of time in my garden since CB, my cousin, was arrested a couple of weeks ago. There was something soothing and grounding about surrounding myself with plants, their quiet focus on simply growing … something comforting about burying my fingers deep in the earth, inhaling the sweet scents of flowers and cut grass, and listening to the buzzing of bees and chirping of songbirds.
Oscar, my black cat, would often join me, lying stretched out on the ground, lazily enjoying the sun. Occasionally, he would pay a little too close attention to a songbird, and I would scold him. He would flick his tail at me in response, his green eyes fixed on mine.
In the garden, I was at peace.
Talking to my mother would not be peaceful.
The phone kept playing its cheerful little song, joyfully letting me know my mom was still waiting for me to pick up.
I’d only talked to her once since CB was taken into custody, and that was a pretty short call. She’d asked me when I was moving back to New York. I told her I had another call and would talk to her later.
I sat back on my heels and wiped the sweat from my forehead. Honestly, would there ever be a good time for this conversation? I figured I might as well bite the bullet and get it over with. I picked up the phone and answered it.
“Rebecca? What has been going on out there? I’ve been calling and calling.”
I got to my feet, rubbing the slight ache in my lower back. “I know. Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“Too busy to talk to your mother?”
I winced slightly at the reproachful tone. “It’s not just you,” I said as I headed over to the wrought iron table to retrieve my lemonade. “I haven’t wanted to talk to anyone.”
Which was true. Technically. If you didn’t count my friends Mia and Daphne, or my stepdaughter, Chrissy, in the “anyone” category. I had yet to leave the house since it had all happened, other than a single visit to CB in jail.
Mia and Chrissy, now my roommates, had settled in nicely. They took care of errands and shopping while I focused on the garden and the house. Chrissy handled much of the cooking (thank God). Neither were around much, really. They both worked at Aunt May’s, and when they weren’t working, Mia focused on getting herself ready to attend an online college in the fall, and Chrissy balanced therapy with her friendships.
Still, even though I spent much of my time alone in the house, I wasn’t lonely. Just knowing I was living with people who cared about me made a huge difference. And, besides, Daphne came over nearly every day.
My mother sniffed. “I would hope I’m not just ‘anyone.’ But never mind all of that. I assume you’ve been busy packing and getting the house ready to sell. When can we expect you back?”
And there it was—the moment I was dreading. I took a long drink of lemonade and wiped my mouth. Might as well get it over with.
“I’m not leaving.”
“Excuse me? I think we have a bad connection. When did you say you’re leaving?”
“What do you mean, you’re ‘not’? You’re not what?”
“Leaving. I’m not leaving.” I clearly and loudly punctuated each word.
“Rebecca, don’t be ridiculous. Of course, you’re leaving. Why would you stay? There’s nothing for you there.”
“I have a house.”
“Which you can sell.”
“And a stepdaughter,” I continued as if she hadn’t interrupted.
“Who loves New York! And her real mother is here. I’m sure she misses Chrissy and would love to have her back.”
I gritted my teeth. Chrissy’s mother most certainly did not miss Chrissy or want her back. The last time I tried to talk to her about her daughter, she basically hung up on me. I wasn’t even sure when Chrissy had last spoken to her.
“I made a promise to Chrissy that she could stay with me as long as she wanted.”
“Well, of course you did. That’s what good stepmothers do. And once both of you are back in New York, she won’t need to stay with you any longer. I’m sure she would love to move back home with her mother.”
No, Chrissy would not love to move back home with her mother. I bit back my response as I could tell the conversation was going nowhere, fast. I took a breath and plowed ahead. “And I have another roommate, Mia, who needs a place to stay while she goes back to school.”
“A roommate? That’s what’s keeping you in Redemption? I’m sure she could find somewhere else to live.”
“She just moved in, so I doubt it.”
“Well, Rebecca, that was pretty irresponsible. Why would you let her move in knowing you were going to leave? Why would you do that to her?”
“Because, as I just told you, I decided not to leave.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you make that decision? Don’t you want to come home? Don’t you want your life back?”
I took a deep breath. “I am home. This is my home. This is my life.”
“But, but,” my mother sputtered. “You can’t be serious. You grew up in New York. Your family is here. We’re your family. You can’t possibly be putting a ... a roommate before your family? You must come home.”
“I’m not putting anyone in front of you. New York isn’t that far away. I can come visit.” That was true, even though I had no plans to do so any time soon.
“You’re not making sense, Rebecca. Why would you choose to stay there? I don’t understand.”
“This is my home now.” Maybe if I said it enough times, it would finally sink in, or at the very least, keep her from repeating the same question over and over again. I didn’t know how else to explain the feeling of belonging I now experienced in this house, this town. I had never felt that in New York, despite living there my entire life. This was where I was meant to be.
Even if that meant finally taking a stand for myself.
“But we have an apartment waiting for you here. A job.” My mother’s voice sounded genuinely bewildered. I hated that my words brought her pain, but I didn’t know any other way to tell her my truth. “Your brother has been holding that job open for you at his firm. You know that. Why would you give all that up?”
“I’m ...” Dare I tell her about my desire to start my own business? Would she just belittle my dreams like Stefan, my second (and unfortunately current) husband had? It was still so new, so fragile, I didn’t think I could bear it if she started lecturing me on what a bad idea it was. I decided to keep it simple.
“They have jobs here, too.”
“I’m talking about a good job, Rebecca.”
I felt my spine straighten. “They have those here, too.”
“Now you sound just like my sister.” Aunt Charlie, my mom’s sister, was the one who had willed both her home and money to me. I still had the house, but the money was nearly gone, courtesy of Stefan.
“I’m not trying to hurt you or dad,” I said, trying a different tact. “I appreciate what you’re offering me. More than you know. Truly. But it feels like I need to learn to stand on my own two feet. That’s all this is.”
“Is there a boy?” My mother’s voice grew sharp. “Is that what this is about?”
“A boy?” I asked in disbelief. Did she not hear a word I had said? “Mom, you do realize I’m over thirty.”
“Are you dating someone?” My mother continued like I hadn’t interrupted. “Do you think that’s wise? Is your divorce even official?”
“I’ve got to go. I’ll call you later,” I said, hanging up before she could protest any further.
I knew that wouldn’t be the last conversation we’d have about my living situation, but it was all I could take at the moment.
I took another gulp of lemonade, which had grown warm and watery in the sun, and figured it was time for a break. On second thought, after taking another glance at the time, I decided to call it a day. I was going out with Daniel that night, and I needed to get cleaned up.
After putting my gardening gloves and tools away, I headed into the laundry room to scrub the dirt off my hands before moving into the kitchen. Mia and Daphne were there at the kitchen table, huddled over Mia’s laptop.
“Hey, you two,” I said, opening up the fridge to pour myself a fresh glass of lemonade.
“Hey yourself,” Mia said, eyes never leaving the screen. ‘”See, Daphne, I think this is what it’s supposed to be.”
I tuned out their conversation, focusing instead on drinking my lemonade and trying to figure out what to wear on my date. Did I keep it casual with shorts or jeans? Or was this a dress-worthy occasion?
Ugh. Dating sucked.
My phone beeped, informing me I had a text message. It was from Daniel.
I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to cancel. Work. Rain check?
“Great,” I said out loud.
That got Mia and Daphne’s attention. “What happened?” Mia asked.
I swear, one of Mia’s superhero powers was a radar sense for gossip. “Daniel just canceled on me.”
“Why?” Daphne asked.
“Work?” Mia exclaimed. “What work? Where’s my phone?” She pushed away from the table and started hunting around for it.
“Is this your first date?” Daphne asked. She pulled her dark, brownish-red hair back from her plain, freckled face before adjusting her red glasses. I could see puffy dark circles under eyes and wondered how much sleep she was getting. She took care of her sick mother, which sometimes demanded long and restless nights.
“Yes. Well, no. We did go out to dinner a couple of weeks ago, but it wasn’t exactly a date. He had some ‘official’ questions to ask me.”
“Maybe I should talk to him about proper dating etiquette,” Daphne mused.
“Or maybe it wasn’t a date at all,” I said.
Daphne opened her mouth to answer, but Mia interrupted with a loud “ah-ha!” She came back into the kitchen, triumphantly brandishing her cell phone. “He is on a case.”
“Did you think he wasn’t?” I asked.
“I figured you would think he was lying.” Mia said, narrowing her almond-shaped, dark-brown eyes at me. Her father was Japanese and had somehow found his way to Redemption, Wisconsin, where he met and married her mom. Her mom had passed years ago, but her dad was still there. “Daniel wouldn’t lie to get out of a date. I was just looking for proof, just in case I needed to convince you,” Mia said.
“I wasn’t thinking that. Well, not exactly,” I said. While it was true my first thought had been that he was trying to get out of the date, my second was that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. There was likely a reason why I was a two-time marriage loser—maybe it was smarter to just steer clear of the dating game altogether.
Daphne gave me a knowing smile, as if she could tell precisely what I was thinking. I stuck my tongue out in response.
Mia continued as if I hadn’t said anything.
“It appears Ellen has disappeared.”
“Ellen? As in Nurse Ellen?” Nurse Ellen was my nemesis when I was trapped in the psych ward of the hospital.
“That would be her.”
Daphne’s face had gone quite pale, and I suddenly remembered she had dated Ellen at one point. “Oh God, Daphne, are you okay”
Daphne took a big gulp of lemonade, waving me off with the other hand. “We dated a long time ago. I just ... what happened?”
“I’m not sure,” Mia said, before eyeing Daphne over her phone. “It’s okay to be worried about her, you know. Even if she didn’t know a good thing when she had it. Not to mention being a grade A bitch.”
Daphne snickered, some color returning to her face. “That’s mean,” she said. “She has issues. I shouldn’t laugh.”
“Issues?” I asked.
Daphne shook her head. “Too many to get into now.”
“Think she ran off again?” Mia asked.
“Again?” I asked.
Daphne played with her lemonade glass, creating wet circles on the butcher-block kitchen table. “Anything is possible with her. Especially if she’s mad at someone and wants to get even.”
Mia rolled her eyes. “That is just so Ellen, to ruin other people’s love life when hers sucks.”
“It’s probably for the best,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m even ready for a night out.” Which was true. At least mostly true. Yes, I wanted to go have fun. I was VERY ready to have fun, in fact, but I also didn’t feel like running into anyone who didn’t want me in this town, and who wouldn’t be shy about telling me so.
Mia slammed her phone on the table. “Absolutely not! You are NOT spending Friday night cooped up in this house. We are ALL going out. God knows I need a break this week, too, with Todd and Jack both quitting.”
“Wait, you lost both dishwashers in one week?” Daphne asked.
Mia groaned. “In one day. I guess Jack got into a bar fight the other night and can’t work for at least a few weeks because of his injuries. His sister came in to tell us. Todd has some family emergency he’s dealing with. His grandmother, I think, or maybe an aunt? Either way, it’s some family relative who doesn’t live here, so he’s moving.”
“Man, talk about bad luck,” Daphne said.
“You know it. I guess Todd was sitting at the airport waiting for his flight when he texted us to let us know.”
“Well at least he remembered before he got on the plane,” I said.
Mia rolled her eyes. “I suppose. Not that it did much good. It’s not like we have anyone else who can help. We only have one other dishwasher, and he’s a super-part-time high school student. The rest of us waitresses have been pulling double duty. Anyway, enough about that. We’ve got a night out to get ready for. Go on now, put your party dress on. Chop chop.” She clapped her hands.
“Maybe you and Daphne should just go,” I said hesitantly. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“I don’t want any trouble either,” Mia said. “What does that have to do with going out tonight?”
I shot her a look.
Mia gave me the same look back. “I’m serious. There’s no reason to expect anything bad to happen. I keep telling you that you have more friends here than you realize. But you have to leave the house to see it for yourself.”
“Besides,” Daphne chimed in. “Don’t you want to go to Jessica’s memorial tomorrow? Do you really want that to be your first time out in public since CB’s arrest?”
Daphne had a point. Now that the truth had come out about Jessica, thanks to CB and my recovered memory, the town could properly grieve.
When Mia had first told me about the service, I had been adamant about not going. It was my fault, after all. Out of respect for the family, I needed to stay away.
But then Brittany, Jessica’s niece and Chrissy’s friend, had showed up at my doorstep to personally invite me to attend. “It’s time to heal,” she said. Her father and grandfather both thought it was important for me to be there. It was time to put the past behind us and come together as a community. And besides, they wanted to properly thank me for my role in saving Brittany. Brittany had already thanked me herself, but she said her family also wanted the opportunity.
I noticed she didn’t mention her mother, who was Jessica’s sister, or her grandmother, who was Jessica’s mother. Needless to say, they were not my fans.
As much as I wanted to attend so I could pay my respects, grieve, and maybe start to find some closure myself around what happened to Jessica, I still wasn’t sure it was a good idea. I had been making myself sick going back and forth about it.
“Daphne is right,” Mia said, seizing the opening. She knew how much I had been agonizing about whether or not to go. “This will be a perfect test run for tomorrow.”
I sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Look, if you’re worried about Celia, don’t be,” Mia said. “She’s just difficult. It’s not personal.”
The last time I had seen Celia, she had been comforting Gwyn, Daniel’s ex-fiancé. I had a feeling it was very personal, indeed, but decided not to argue the point.
“Why do you all put up with her then?” I asked instead. I had wondered it for a while, but hadn’t found the right time to ask.
“Well, she is Barry’s wife,” Mia said. “Although I admit I’m surprised by his choice.”
“Maybe she makes him happy,” Daphne said. “ Celia isn’t so bad once you get to know her.”
“If you say so,” I said.
Daphne made a face at me. “And stop trying to change the subject. Regardless of whether Celia is there or not, it would be good for you to get out of the house.”
Mia elbowed her. “It would be good for you, too. When was the last time you went out? I’m not taking no for an answer from either of you. Go get ready.”
Daphne held up her hands. “Far be it for me to resist.”
“But what if it all goes to hell?” I asked. “What if we run into people who want to fight with me again?” Or worse, I thought, but didn’t add.
Mia shrugged. “We’ll deal with it.”
I stared at her. “Just like that?”
“Of course,” Mia said, surprised. “Becca, what do you think you’re going to do? Hide in this house for the next ten years? If you’re going to live here, you likely are going to run into people who don’t like you or your aunt, and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it. It’s not that big of a deal.”
Mia had a point. It was starting to look like a night out was in my immediate future.
Even though I still wasn’t convinced I was ready.
Mia must have seen something in my face, because she started hoisting me out of my chair. “No more stalling,” she said sternly. “Off to the shower you go.”
I tried one last time. “But ...”
“No ‘buts.’” Mia wagged her finger at me. “We’re leaving in an hour. You too, Daphne.”
An hour? I couldn’t possibly be ready in an hour. I opened my mouth to argue, but the determined expression on Mia’s face stopped me, and I slunk out of the kitchen.
“Besides,” she called out. “Chances are very likely that nothing is going to happen, other than all of us having a good time.”