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Authors: Eliza Lentzski

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BOOK: Bittersweet Homecoming
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Charlotte picks up the blanket we’ve been sitting on, and I help her fold it.

“It’s not Los Angeles,” she remarks, “but I like it.”

I shake my head. “I didn’t say anything.”

“I know. But you were thinking it.” She gives me a wistful smile that almost makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong. “Have a nice night, Abby. And Happy Fourth of July.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

The next morning I’m up later than usual. I don’t know if my internal clock has gotten used to the time zone difference yet. Kambria had told me she’d call later, but besides a text from Anthony telling me that one of my plants bit him, my phone remained silent all night.

I rub my bleary eyes as I tromp down the staircase. My dad is at his usual breakfast spot at the kitchen island. It takes me a moment to realize what’s missing from the counter top.

“Let me guess,” I say upon entering the room. “The toaster oven was broken, too?”

My dad looks at me over the rim of his coffee mug. “Yup.”

“Are you going to keep letting her break your stuff?”

He takes a sip from the steaming mug. “I’m not sure I have much of a say in this.”

“You could always tell her to stop.”

His eyebrows dance. “I’d have better luck locking away anything that plugs into a wall.”

I’ve been in Grand Marais for nearly a week. So far my dad will need a new garbage disposal, a bread maker, an original Nintendo gaming system, and now a toaster oven. While the rest of the house sleeps, Emily systematically dismantles electrical devices. In the morning, a new pile of parts and broken gadgets has appeared. The pieces of various devices cover nearly every surface on the first floor, parts mixed among other parts with no hope of ever figuring out what goes with what. The moment she goes after the coffeemaker, however, I’m going to have to put a stop to it.

“What’s the plan for today?” he asks.

I grab a clean mug from a cabinet and pour myself a cup of black coffee. “Writing. Or at least I’m gonna try.”

 

 

Two Adirondack chairs sit near the water’s edge. A worn American flag flutters lazily in the breeze. Emily’s hidden away in her bedroom and my dad is cutting firewood a few hundred feet away. For as long as I can remember, he’s always split his own wood for the fireplace in the living room.

I breathe in and fill my lungs with the scent of the lake—a combination of algae and earth. We have few sandy beaches in Grand Marais; the lakeshore bordering my dad’s house is rocky, not that you’d ever want to go swimming. As kids, Emily and I used to go swimming all the time in Lake Superior, but at that age your body knows no limits, just like your brain knows no fear. In adulthood, I’d never been able to handle more than a few minutes of wading before my ankles went numb and my lips turned blue from the cold.

I shake out my hands at my side. It’s a superstitious ritual I perform before I start writing. I’d picked up the habit in an unexpected place. I’d tried running track in seventh grade, but my stomach would twist into knots in the moments before each race. My track coach used to tell us to shake out our hands and let the nervousness fall out of our fingertips. It was the only year I tried an organized sport, but the habit of shaking out the nerves had followed me through adulthood.

It’s been months since I’ve been able to write anything more than a few sustained lines of dialogue. I’m hopeful that the change in scenery will inspire me enough to knock me out of this writing slump.

 

ACT 1

Scene 1

 

SETTING:                            A small fishing boat on a slow-                                                                      moving river.

AT RISE:                            Two women sit on opposite ends of the boat, casting their respective lines into the water.

“No, no, no,” I mumble to myself. In the distance, my dad fires up a chainsaw. It sounds like the climax of a horror film.

 

SETTING:                            A roadside rest stop in the                                                                                     middle of nowhere.

 

AT RISE:                            Two women stare at their rental                                                                       car and the front tire on the                                                                       driver’s side. The tire’s flat.                                                                       A loud animal calls out in the                                                                       distance, like a wolf’s howl,                                                                       catching both women’s attention.

Really, Abby? A horror play?
I snap my notebook shut and heave out a great sigh of frustration. I’m not going to get any work done here.

 

+ + +

 

Roundtree’s Bar & Grill is practically empty at this early hour. The breakfast patrons are on their last cups of coffee, and it’s too early for the lunch crowd rush. Sports Center is on one of the TVs hanging over the bar, relaying the day’s sporting news. I sit at a table for two, and a waitress takes my order. I have to admit it’s a disappointment that the server’s not Charlotte Johansson, but I order a sandwich anyway since my stomach is empty.

As I eat my lunch, I look over my spiral notebook full of failed starts and stops. I’ve never really experienced writer’s block before. It’s debilitating. My brain is usually crowded with lines of dialogue and story scenarios just waiting to be written down, but lately every time I make a concerted effort to work, I struggle to the point of frustration. I’m not panicked yet, but it’s certainly worrisome.

“I think I’m mad at you.”

I twist my head in the direction of the voice to see Charlotte Johansson standing in my peripheral.

I swallow down a too-large bite of my sandwich, and the toasted bread scratches down my throat. “M-Me?” I choke out. “What did I do?”

She places a hand on her hip. “Amelia has been pestering me to get her a book about fireflies. She wants to learn everything about them.”

“Oh,” I breathe out, my anxiety slipping away. “That doesn’t seem so bad. Wouldn’t you rather her be into bugs than, I don’t know, dating and makeup?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. She’s still got more than a decade before I let that happen.”

“Before you
let
that happen?” I repeat with a wry smile. “No offense, but I don’t think parents have much control over when that stuff starts happening.”

“You might be right. My parents had a hell of a time trying to wrangle me in. I’m afraid Amelia will be the same, like some kind of karmic payback.”

As we talk, she rests her arms on my table. Every time she leans forward, she innocently offers an unobstructed peek down the front of her t-shirt. I try to stay focused on her face, but that’s just as dangerous of a view. Her hazel eyes are warm and inviting and her smile reveals white, gleaming teeth. This woman is gorgeous from head to toe, and I wonder if she knows it.

“You didn’t seem to turn out too bad,” I observe.

She chuckles, but I don’t get the joke. “How’s your day going?”

I shrug. “It’s okay.”

“Your enthusiasm is overwhelming,” she deadpans. “How’s Emily doing?”

“The same,” I grunt. “Still hiding out in her bedroom.”

“It’ll take time, but she’ll get through this,” Charlotte says sagely. “She doesn’t have a choice.”

Loud laughter coming from a far corner of the bar-restaurant pulls my attention away from Charlotte. The heads of the town’s municipal departments are seated at a large table: the chief of police, the mayor, the city treasurer, the city water department head, the marina director, and even the guy who mows the grass in the city parks. They’re life-long friends having all grown-up together in Grand Marais; it’s a bit of a good ol’ boys club.

I can’t hear the entirety of their conversation, but a few telling words and phrases reach my ears:
runaway mother, dead husband, California, writer, lesbian.

The words themselves aren’t malicious, but their laughter is unsettling. I feel my body sinking into my chair, and I stare at my half-eaten plate of food.

“Excuse me.” I hear Charlotte’s distracted tone. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s walking away in the direction of the boisterous table.

“Gentlemen,” her voice carries over to where I anxiously sit, “how’s it going over here?”

The city treasurer taps a finger against his coffee mug. “I could use a warm up when you get the chance.”

“I’m pretty sure you guys are finished,” she says.

“What?”

“Did I stutter?” She stands tall, with an icy look on her features.

The men collectively avert their eyes from her stony glare. After a tense moment, money is thrown on the table and chairs squeak against the wooden floor as they all stand.

When the last of the table has left out the front door, Charlotte returns and sits down in the empty chair across from me. “Idiots, all of them,” she mumbles. “Makes me worried about this town’s future.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes I did.”

“They practically run the town.” I’d hate for the Roundtrees to have lost patrons because Charlotte felt some strange obligation to stand up for my family and me.

“All the more reason for them to act like decent humans.”

“Thank you, Charlotte.” The words feel like an inadequate way to show my gratitude, but especially as a writer, they’re all I have.

 

+ + +

 

I had arrived at Roundtree’s late that morning feeling discouraged about my inability to write anything. But when I leave the bar later that afternoon, there’s a noticeable bounce in my step. I’m still not eager to go back to my dad’s house where Emily is no doubt dismantling the television, so I begin to walk down the main street of Grand Marais.

Two white-haired men sit on a bench in front of the barbershop. Their conversation stops when they see me, but they continue talking to each other once I’ve walked by. On any other day, their reaction would have me scampering down the sidewalk and ducking into the closest store to hide. Instead, I smile at them and wish them a good afternoon.

A little farther down the street is a bookstore that I don’t remember from growing up. I think the building had been a video rental place or a Pizza Hut before. The only opportunity we had to buy books in town had been the Book Fair at school or when the public library had its annual book sale.

I don’t recognize the woman working at the store. She looks up from the novel she’s reading when I walk in. “Hello,” she greets. “Can I help you find something?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have any books on fireflies would you? Preferably something geared for little kids?”

The bookstore clerk frowns. “Nothing comes to mind, I’m afraid. But we could order something and have it here in a few days.”

It’s an impulsive, ill-advised errand. This is probably the Universe’s way of telling me to back off.  ”No, that’s okay, thanks.”

I’m about to leave when I notice someone browsing the magazine rack at the front of the store. She’s thinner than I remember—taller, too. Her dark brown hair hits the tops of her shoulders.

“Julie?”

Deep blue eyes turn in my direction. There’s a moment of puzzlement before recognition. “Abby? Abby Henry?” Her eyebrows rise on her forehead. “It’s been a while.”

It
has
been a while since we’ve seen each other—over a decade at least. “What are you doing in town?” she asks.

“Oh, uh, Emily. Her—”

“Oh, that’s right,” she jumps in before I can continue. “I heard about Adam. I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks.”

“How is she doing?”

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question since coming back to town. My answer is always the same: “About as good as can be expected.”

“I see your dad from time to time,” she remarks. “He updates me on what you’ve been up to. Are you still in California, writing plays?”

“Yep.” I bob my head. “Los Angeles.” Before she can ask me another small-talk question, I ask a question of my own: “Are you hungry?”

“I can always eat. Why?”

“We should grab lunch next door,” I say with a jerk of my thumb. “We can catch up for real instead of standing here awkwardly.”

When she doesn’t immediately reply, her delay makes me wish I hadn’t put myself out there.

“Yeah, sure. I’ve got some time.”

 

 

Next door to the bookstore is Brantley’s Diner, a breakfast and lunch place popular with locals. They serve up greasy-spoon comfort food. On that day the lunch crowd is largely gone and we’re two of the only diners, not counting the grey-haired men drinking coffee at the counter, all retired with nothing better to do.

Julie continues to make idle chitchat until after our waitress has taken our order. I’m still full from my sandwich at Roundtree’s, but I order a grilled cheese so Julie’s not the only one eating.

“You’re my one big regret,” I blurt out.

Julie stops pouring sugar in her coffee mug. “Me? Why?”

“You were my best friend. And then we weren’t.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“Mine. I know it is.”

“You dropped off the planet, Abby.”

“It wasn’t that dramatic,” I sullenly defend.

“You didn’t write—e-mail or otherwise. And whenever you came home from college, you never looked me up.”

“I did that to everyone though,” I excuse myself. “I needed to get my head right. I needed to figure out who I was.”

“And you didn’t trust me enough to confide in me?”

BOOK: Bittersweet Homecoming
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