The “What If” Guy
by Brooke Moss
(Autumn Cole clocked hers with an encyclopedia.)
After losing her job at a swanky Seattle art gallery and finding out her father has been hospitalized, single mother Autumn Cole reluctantly returns to her tiny hometown of Fairfield, Washington to put the pieces of her life back together.
Her disgruntled twelve-year-old son isn’t thrilled about going from hip to hick, but Autumn’s got it worse. She resumes her role as the daughter of the town drunk, promptly facing a crisis with her father that’s been decades in the making.
Running into Henry Tobler, and nearly breaking his nose, is almost more than she can handle, but can rediscovering love–and herself–with her “what if” guy teach Autumn to forgive before it’s too late?
Praise for The “What If” Guy:
“Brooke Moss has crafted a wonderfully entertaining story with strong emotion, a compelling plot, and scenes charged with a humorous touch. The “What-If” Guy takes the reader back to small-town America and keeps one glued right to the very end. Don’t miss it!”
~ Jane Porter, Award-winning author of Flirting With Forty
“Warm, witty, wonderful… I loved it!”
~ Bestselling Harlequin author, Susan Meier
“The What If Guy calls to you from page one. Brooke Moss gives you characters that are alive from the very beginning and a setting that you don’t want to leave. Be prepared to rearrange your schedule…”
~ Tara Taylor Quinn, author of Yesterday’s Promise
© 2011 Brooke Moss
“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.”
“Ya know,” Ramona said, leaning across her husband, “Ray was pinned by Jensen’s rig and hasn’t been able to lift a box in years. And don’t you think for a second that lug nut mechanic, Tom Jensen, gave two hoots about it. No siree, he couldn’t have cared less. In fact, he told people he thought Ray was milkin’ it for sympathy’s sake. Anybody who knows Ray knows what a pile of hooey that is. So I stopped sellin’ Tom smokes at the store, on accounta he ran his mouth so much. Plus, he shouldn’t be smokin’, anyway. His dad died of lung cancer, and for Pete’s sake, his mother is on oxygen now, too.”
“Good lord, woman.” Ray pulled a crumpled package of Camel non-filters out of the front pocket of his T-shirt. He lit a cigarette, then glanced at me sideways through the smoke plume. “What she’s trying to say is, I can’t change the tire for you because I’m in traction at night. Plus, my tire iron’s been missing since Dwight borrowed it. Damn fool couldn’t return something if his life depended on it. But we can give you two a ride into town.”
That’s just great. I thanked the Fisks and pulled our suitcases out of my car.
“Hey, look alive,” I said to Elliott. “We’re catching a ride into town. Grab your bag, and we’ll come back for the rest tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Can’t Grandpa bring us tonight?”
The familiar shame and embarrassment caused by my father crept in. Well, son, Grandpa can’t bring us back tonight because by the time we get to Fairfield, he’ll be half-crocked and probably on the verge of getting his butt kicked for vomiting on someone’s shoes. Again.
“He’s busy,” I said. “He’ll help us tomorrow. He works better in the mornings, anyway.”
Elliott scowled at me. “Whatever.”
I returned the scowl and gestured at the back seat.
Elliott dragged his bag to the back of the Fisks’ pickup.
“Hello, there,” Ramona said to him.
“Hey,” he mumbled.
Baggage stowed, we stood next to the truck. “Elliott, this is Ray and Ramona Fisk.”
Ray spat through his open window onto the pavement. “Where’s your dad, young fella?”
My stomach leapt into my throat. “It’s just Elliott and me,” I said quickly. The Fisks exchanged a knowing glance. I narrowed my eyes.
“Well, you sure don’t look like your mom,” Ray said.
I ignored Ray’s inappropriate remark, even though he was right. Elliott had his father’s eyes and dark, unruly hair. I had fairer skin, with a smattering of freckles, and defiant, red hair that was hovering above my head in the static-electricity-charged air.
My son blinked at me with wide eyes.
“The Fisks own the store.” I said.
“Which one?” Elliott asked.
“The only one in town, son.” Ramona snorted and jerked her thumb at the back seat. “Get in.”
“Your chariot, sir.” I opened the squeaky door of the pickup, trying to provoke a smile from Elliott.
“There’s only one store?” he whispered, panic-stricken.
“Count your blessings,” I muttered, hoisting myself in behind Elliott. “It’s not fishing season, so they won’t be selling night crawlers in the cheese cooler.”
The Fisks dropped us off at Smartie’s, conveniently located directly across the street from Fisk’s Fine Foods. No doubt, Ramona would watch the goings-on through the front windows of the store.
I stood on the sidewalk amid our suitcases, pulse racing, my country upbringing coming back to me in flashes. The scraped knees when I’d wrecked my bike outside of the post office. My first kiss outside of the little library. Evening walks to Smartie’s to pick up my father because he’d been too drunk to drive home.
The main street looked exactly how I remembered it. A few cars were parked along the road, which was old and patched with mismatched squares of pavement, rolling down a slight hill to railroad tracks that trains hadn’t traversed in twenty-plus years. The brick buildings appeared tired and worn beneath layers of dull paint and hastily caulked cracks. Several of them had collected a thick coating of dirt on their windows from the passing grain trucks and now rotted like forgotten dog houses in a back yard. The air was still and silent.
Elliott looked around warily. “Where’s Grandpa?”
I gazed at my son. In just a day, he had gone from the energy and excitement of Seattle to a town where every business—except Smartie’s—closed at five o’clock. Elliott looked lost standing there, silhouetted by the setting sun.
I ruffled his hair and tipped my head toward the seedy-looking bar we stood in front of, bright neon beer signs shining in the windows. “He’s in there, buddy.”
Elliott raised an eyebrow. “The bar?”
My son had seen me drink an occasional glass of wine, but I made sure he never saw anyone drunk. I tried hard to protect him from all of the ugliness I’d seen growing up.
I glared across the street at Ramona, who’d made pretty quick time of getting into Fisk’s and situating herself near the window to watch the show. “You wait here. I’ll go get Grandpa.”
“I can’t come in?” He looked around and gnawed his lip.
I would never have left him standing alone on the sidewalk outside a bar in downtown Seattle at dusk. But this wasn’t Seattle. In the five minutes we’d been standing here, not a single car had passed, and the only sound was the frogs croaking in the creek that trickled through the park nearby.
I pressed a kiss to his head. “Sorry, El.”
“I went into bars all the time back home,” he grumbled.
“Those were called bar and grills, hon.”
He hung his head.
“And this is home for now.”
Elliott enunciated his words, slowly and concisely. “This isn’t my home.”
I winced. This puny little farming community was like no home he’d ever known. Elliott had grown up surrounded by galleries and music halls. But I’d fallen victim to the economy eight months ago, and lost my job at the posh art gallery I’d managed in downtown Seattle. We’d lost almost everything during my unsuccessful search for employment, including our cute loft-style apartment, most of my nicer belongings, and ultimately, Elliott’s position in the private fine arts school I’d worked overtime to send him to. For the past three years, he’d played cello in the school orchestra. He wore hats and ties and black Converse tennis shoes. I’d brought him to the land of Wranglers, boots, and flannel.
“This is temporary, honey,” I said. “We just need to make the best of it until Grandpa is back on his feet.” And we’re back on ours.
I ducked inside Smartie’s.
I bristled. The crackly voice sounded like a chainsaw on idle, just as it had over the phone. I didn’t have to know Stanley “Smartie” Guire to deduce that he’d done some hard living for the past forty years.
I hadn’t been referred to as “Auto” in a long time, and the nickname didn’t conjure fond memories. I’d been given the name Autumn Ann Cole because I was born on a crisp Halloween night. My father had wanted to name me Martha, after his mother, but he’d missed my birth. He had passed out from over-celebrating Halloween with his friends and hadn’t been able to drive my mother to the hospital. Eight years later, my mom had left and never come back. My father had promptly shortened my name to Auto, even though it infuriated me.
“Hello,” I said. I had spent many a night walking down the hill in the dark to fetch my father—so often that Smartie had stopped nagging me about minors not being allowed in his fine establishment long before I’d hit fifteen. You acquire certain rights and privileges when you’re the town drunk’s daughter.
Smartie’s was filled with farmers, still dirty from spending their day in the fields, and the men who worked at the grain elevators, equally filthy and tired-looking. They sat, sucking on dark beer bottles, vacantly watching football on the tiny television propped between liquor bottles on the counter behind the bar.
“Good to have you home.” Smartie pointed to the corner of the bar, near the wall of small, brightly lit pull-tab gambling machines that distributed small, instant lottery tickets that the patrons at Smartie’s enjoyed so much.
My dad sat slumped, his head resting on the bar among a scattered pile of discarded pull-tabs, a half-empty beer mug, and an ashtray containing a lit cigarette burning precariously close to his thinning, reddish-blond hair. I thought he was asleep, but then realized he was mouthing the words to the country song playing on the jukebox. He wore a grayed shirt, untucked, and had at least a couple of days’ dirt under his fingernails. His face appeared ashen beneath his whiskers.
The air escaped my lungs. I barely recognized my own father.
Smartie shook his head. “Won’t work. You gotta shake him.”
I nodded, my face heating with a mixture of shame and gratitude. “Thanks.” I pushed on my father’s bony shoulder and shouted, “Wake up.”
His bloodshot eyes popped open. “Whaught?”
“Hi, Dad.” I tried to smile. “We’re here. Elliott is waiting outside.”
“Auto?” He sat up, a pull-tab stuck to his temple.
I plucked it off. “Did you forget?”
Smartie appeared before us, rubbing the counter with a dirty towel. “He didn’t forget. He was in here celebrating your arrival.”
I glared at Smartie. “Shouldn’t he be at home? What did the doctors say?”
He shrugged, a hint of sympathy in his eyes. “Got no idea. When I got to the hospital this morning, he was waiting out front.”
I sighed. “Thanks for picking him up.”
I took my dad’s arm—tanned deep bronze from working outside every day. Beneath my grip, his skin stretched over his bones, little muscle mass left. “Let’s go home, Dad.”
“S’Elliott here, tshoo?” My dad slid his stick-figure frame off the bar stool.
Good lord, he’s gotten thin. I held on to his arm, steadying him.
When I was a kid, people had feared Billy Cole. He’d been six-foot-three and had cut slits up the sleeves of his shirts to make room for his muscular arms. But forty years of hard drinking had changed him. His chest no longer filled out the front of his shirt, but was concave down to his small, protruding belly. His face and neck had turned red, his nose swollen and lumpy, just like my grandfather’s.
An unexpected wave of sadness washed over me. He no longer looked like the father I remembered. I found myself wishing that Elliott and I had come to see him more often, that I had made an effort to reconnect. Or, more accurately, to connect for the first time. I didn’t recognize my father, and I didn’t know him. And I wasn’t sure we had much time left with him.
I gestured to the door. “Elliott’s waiting outside.”
“Elliott,” he crowed, as I led him to the door. “Whereyouat, kid?”
Outside, Elliott stared at us, wide-eyed. “H-hey, Grandpa, what’s up?”
My father looked nothing like the picture I’d kept on our mantel for years. In that picture, a robust version of my dad beamed, a fly-fishing rod in one hand, a rainbow trout in the other. The man standing in front of Elliott was haggard, dirty, and swaying back and forth. Even outside of the bar, my father smelled acidic.
“Is thish the kid?” My father’s voice echoed between the buildings.
“Elliott, why don’t you grab the suitcases? Dad, I need your keys.” I cast a dirty look at Ramona, who still watched us from the window of Fisk’s, now with a phone pressed to her ear.
I could barely understand his slurred speech. “I need to get you home, Dad. Didn’t the doctor tell you to stay in bed?”
He waved his leathery hand. “Damndoctorsareidiots.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache settling in. “Elliott is starving, I’m extremely tired, and you need to go sleep this off.” I nudged him toward his worn out Datsun, parked nearby.
“Whadthehelliswrongwishyourcar?” He dug into the pocket of his jeans and retrieved his keys.
Gesturing for Elliott to get in the back seat, I rolled my eyes. I was breaking every rule I had set for myself when I’d become a mother. Please don’t hate me for bringing you here and exposing you to this.
“I had a flat.”
My dad gazed at me, confused, as if he’d just realized to whom he was talking. “Whydidn’tyoucallme?”
I grimaced. I didn’t want to be here right now, yet I needed to be. Tears welled in my eyes while I wrestled to get the seatbelt across my father’s bag-of-bones body, Ramona Fisk watching and reporting the play-by-play on the phone. What the hell had happened to my life?
“We didn’t call you because there’s no cell coverage, Grandpa,” Elliott said from the backseat. “Mom says we’ll have to find a plan that covers us out in the sticks.” He laughed, then offered me an apologetic shrug.
“You ssshhhould’ve called me.”
My father tipped his head against the headrest and immediately fell asleep, his jaw slack. I sat in the driver’s seat and watched him for a few seconds. The streetlights buzzed to life with a once-familiar sound that I had almost forgotten.
“You wouldn’t have answered, anyway,” I said.
After three tries, the Datsun’s engine sputtered to life. I put the car in reverse, backed onto the street, and headed for home.
“Where’s your car?” my father asked.
I drew a deep breath. Typical. My father’s routine hadn’t changed—get inebriated, then wake up the next morning completely oblivious to the mayhem that had gone on the night before. That was the story of my entire youth.
I rubbed my eyes. “I got a flat about four miles outside of town. The Fisks brought us in and dropped us off.”
Confusion clouded his blue eyes. “Did you find the key?”
“No, I used yours. We picked you up at Smartie’s, remember?”
He lifted his veiny hand and scratched his chin. I could tell he didn’t remember. “Oh, that’s right. So… get yourselves settled, then?”
I nodded and looked around the worn kitchen. “I took my old bedroom and Elliott’s bunking in the spare room. I told him we would paint soon.”
“Why would we do that?”
“The walls in the spare room are lined with fishing rods and old beer calendars.”
“Doesn’t the boy like beer?”
“I liked beer when I was twelve.”
I slammed my coffee mug on the counter. “Oh, good grief….”
“Don’t have a fit. I’ll take the calendars down.”
We faced each other in silence. After a spell, I cleared my throat. “Dad, I’m concerned about your health. When Smartie called me, he said you wouldn’t tell him what was wrong.”
He grunted, then gulped some coffee. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong. Just an old man, I suppose.”
“There’s got to be more—”
“So, does the kid know how to run a chainsaw? I’ve got a tree out back needs pruning.”
I tempered my frustration. “No, Dad, he doesn’t know how to run a chainsaw. And since Elliott and I are staying here, we need to set some ground rules. Elliott is absolutely not allowed to drink. No beer calendars. No offering him a smoke—”
I put up my hand. “No giving him ten bucks to walk down to the store for your beer—”
“No letting him drive the car—”
“I only did that once, and you were fourteen.”
“No falling all over yourself. And, so help me, if the cops come to this house while Elliott is home…”
My dad’s lips tightened into a line—a sign that the conversation was over. It felt wrong to discipline him the way a parent would a child, but I didn’t know how to make this work, otherwise.
“Do you think Smartie can help me change my tire?” I asked.
My father’s expression twisted into a snarl. “Me and the kid can change a damn tire. We don’t need Smartie for that.”
“You just got out of the hospital. You can’t be—”
“Yes, I can.” His steely gaze settled on mine and dared me to contradict him.
After Elliott woke up, we drove to my car and parked the Datsun behind it on the shoulder of the highway. Using his rusty tire iron, my dad changed my flat, grumbling to himself because Elliott couldn’t lift the spare.
“We’re gonna have to toughen you up, kid.” His voice had a hard edge, and I winced for El’s sake.
Elliott stood next to the car, scuffing the toe of his sneaker in the dust. Earlier, he’d emerged from the spare room wearing skinny jeans and a black fedora. My father had snorted out a plume of cigarette smoke and shook his head.
“I took a cardio class at my old school.” Elliott puffed up his chest. “Mom says there might be a class like that at my new school.”
Dad’s mouth twitched. “Yeah. It’s called P.E.”
Elliott’s face reddened. “Well, maybe you could show me how to do some stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?” my dad grunted, tightening a lug nut.
Elliott pursed his lips, and looked at his grandpa carefully. “Maybe you could teach me how to change a tire?”
“We could start there,” Dad replied. “Can’t lift things the way I used to.”
I smirked. “This from the man who used to juggle gallons of milk to make me laugh?”
“Always was a high-maintenance child.” He turned to Elliott. “She was a real pain in the ass.”
“Dad.” I lowered my eyebrows.
“S’cuse the swear. She was a real pain in the butt.” He rolled his eyes, making Elliott snicker.
“Not much has changed, huh, Mom?” Elliott razzed.
“Har, har,” I said, glancing at my father. He wheezed with each breath. “Maybe you should sit down, Dad.”
“I’m just tryin’ to catch my breath. Stop fussin’ over me. I have one little accident, and everyone wants to help.”
“You were lying in your garage all night. You mean to tell me you didn’t need help?”
His face tightened. “I fell asleep.”
I flared my nostrils. You mean, you passed out.
“I got the breath knocked out of me. That’s all.”
“They don’t keep people in the hospital for two days because they get their breath knocked out.”
“They did this time.”
Why was he being so tight-lipped about his health? Every time I looked at him, my heart pitched. He was a quarter of the man he’d been when I was a kid, and he wanted me to believe that his deterioration was attributable to “falling asleep” and age? “Dad, I’m here to help. I—”
“Glad you’re back, Auto. But I don’t need any help.”
“Mom, what’s that?” Elliott asked in a sorrowful tone.
I followed his line of sight to a coyote that had been hit—and consequently smashed—on the highway. The dog’s guts had spilled out of its abdomen, and blood was spattered for twenty feet. A typical sight for rural roads in these parts. My heart tugged for my vegetarian son.
Before I could speak, my father stood, groaning as he straightened his legs. “Want me to grab my shovel, kid? Maybe your mom can cook it up for dinner.”
Elliott’s eyes shifted to mine in horror. “Mom?”
I grasped his wiry shoulders, and squeezed. “He’s kidding.”
My dad’s scoff made me bristle. “Don’t be a wimp. Shovel ’er up, and I’ll mount ’er on my wall.”
“Shut up, dammit.” I led Elliott to the passenger side of my car. “Just sit in the car. He’s kidding.”
“It’s not funny.” Elliott jerked open the door, then flopped into the seat.
He glared at my father. “Why does he keep calling me ’kid’? I have a name.”
“He knows it, hon.”
“I hate him.”
My shoulders slumped. I didn’t want my son to hate his grandfather. “You don’t hate him.”
“Well… I don’t like him.”
I cast a sharp glance at my dad. “I don’t like him very much right now, either.”
Apparently, I needed to lay down a few more rules. “Dad?”
“Oh, lighten up.” He lit another smoke and watched me from the corner of his eye. “I was just messin’ with Elliott. He needs it. He’s so—”
My jaw clenched. “Just because he’s not like you—”
“It’s good for him. He’s been raised by his mother. Hasn’t had a man in his life to teach him how to be.”
“How to be?”
He shrugged. “You know…manly.”
I shook my head, aggravation boiling my blood. “He’s twelve. Why the need to make him manly?”
“His dad’s never been around, and you never took up with anyone else. It would have been good for him to have a man in his life.” He took a long drag and squinted at me.
I’d said those very same words to myself at least seven thousand times over the past twelve years.
Once Elliott’s father, Cliff, had left, I’d raised my standards to an almost unreachable level that no man lived up to. I’d used poor judgment with Cliff, and vowed not to do that again.
I’d been attending art school when we met. He was a bartender at a club that my friends and I snuck into using fake IDs. Cliff and I had a short-lived fling that ended as quickly as it began. I moved on and met someone special—fell for him—only to find out a couple of months later that I was pregnant with Cliff’s child.
Away from my hometown for the first time in my life and determined to become an artist, I was proud that I’d left Fairfield. I had gotten out of that small town. I was going places. I wouldn’t go back home in shame.
Cliff did the honorable thing and offered to marry me. Regrettably, I accepted.
If I had to face my father, knocked up, at least I’d have a fiancé on my arm. So what if we lived in Cliff’s grandmother’s basement and his car had been repossessed? I was going to make our relationship work.
I was eight months pregnant when Cliff left—without fanfare. One night, he called from his shift at the fourth job he’d had since we’d met. When I asked what time he’d be home, he said, “I won’t. This family thing just isn’t for me.”
And that was that. Cliff was long gone, and his grandmother asked me to move out. Too ashamed to go back to Fairfield with a giant belly and no husband, I quit school and started working as a waitress to pay the bills.
Five weeks later, Elliott was born. My son was everything to me. One look into his deep brown eyes, and I fell for him. We took on the world—together.
“I take it you disagree, Auto?”
My dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts and I faced him. Elliott was creative and musical, two things my father couldn’t relate to. El probably did seem weird to him. But that didn’t have anything to do with my needing a man.
“I don’t want to discuss this,” I said.
I was on the side of a road with a dead coyote and a car full of our meager possessions. I’d lost so much that was important to me, and was trying to forge a relationship with the father I’d all but abandoned. Talking with him about my need for a man wasn’t the place to start.
My father walked back to his rusty car, tossing his cigarette butt on the pavement. “I’ll tell you what, you can cook me a roast tonight, instead of coyote.” He smirked, then sat behind the wheel with a groan.
I watched him drive away, and fingered several wrinkled twenties in my pocket. The last of my money. Now, after my lovely morning, I had to go into Fisk’s Fine Foods to face Ramona.
Great. That’s just great.
I hoped their chocolate selection was good. And cheap.
“Oh my gosh, Autumn Cole? Is that you?”
I knew that voice, even though I hadn’t heard it in fourteen years. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention.
The last time I’d seen Holly Momsen was on the day I’d left Fairfield for college.
We’d known each other since preschool, and in every photograph I had of my birthday parties, Holly stood next to me with a grin. In my high school dance portraits we smiled, arm-in-arm, complete with bad hair, puffy-sleeved dresses, and pimple-faced dates.
After graduation, Holly had stayed in Fairfield to marry her long-time boyfriend, Cody Judd, and I’d headed to Seattle for bigger and better things. She’d helped me pack my possessions into the back of my light blue Chevelle, then we’d hugged and cried and vowed to stay in touch. For the first few months, we’d written each other religiously. She’d described her wedding plans, and I’d told her about the teacher’s aide who’d asked me out—the most amazing man I’d ever met. We’d tried to share everything, so we didn’t feel like we were hundreds of miles apart.
And then I’d found out I was pregnant. After that, all of Holly’s letters had gone unanswered.
When she’d left a message on my answering machine asking me to be her maid-of-honor, I’d ignored it. When the wedding invitation came in the mail, I’d thrown it in the garbage. Holly was the closest friend I’d had, and I’d dropped her like a box of rocks. Not because I didn’t like her anymore, but because I’d no longer liked myself.
I turned slowly to face Holly, and it dawned on me how awful I looked. Wearing battered yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt, I smelled like exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke from riding in my father’s car. To top it off, I was shopping with a pissed-off twelve-year-old vegetarian who couldn’t find meatless patties among Fisk’s limited selection, and I barely had enough money for the candy bar I craved.
“Holly? Oh my gosh, how are you?” My voice squeaked, and I tossed several boxes of cereal into my cart, trying to appear casual. “It’s good to see you.”
Holly approached me, a happy, drooling baby sitting in the front of her cart. She looked every bit as adorable as she’d looked in high school. Short and waif-like, her honey-blonde hair was now cut into a flippy bob, and the jeans she wore couldn’t have been any bigger than a size two. I instinctively sucked in my tummy.
She eyed my cart, now filled with eight boxes of cereal. “I heard you were coming back to town, but didn’t believe it.”
I tried to remain chipper, despite the mountain of awkwardness between us. “You didn’t believe it? Why’s that?”
Her smile flattened. “You never come back. Not even for weddings.”
I deserved that. I suck. I set another box of cereal atop the pile in my cart. “Listen, about that… ” Blood rushed to my cheeks.
“Mom?” Elliott came around the corner carrying a stack of boxes and a few frozen meals. “They didn’t have any veggie sausage, but they had those crackers that Grandpa asked for.”
“Just toss them in the basket,” I said.
He dropped his armload into the cart and furrowed his brow. “In the mood for some cereal, Mom?”
I felt so stupid. I had Fisk’s entire stock of Cheerios in my basket, and my son had pointed out how idiotic I looked in front of the friend I’d treated horribly. Super.
“Yes. You’re starting school, so I thought I would get you some breakfast foods.” My voice sounded sharp, and I glanced at Holly, who watched me with tempered interest. “I’m constantly reminding him to eat something before he goes to school.”
“Right,” she replied. “So, this is your son? I’d heard years ago that you were pregnant and married.”
I put a couple of boxes of cereal back on the shelf. “Um, no. It’s just Elliott and me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Holly’s gaze softened. “Divorced?”
I put my arm around Elliott and squeezed. “No. It’s always been just us.”
Holly blinked at me, then turned to Elliott. “What’s your name?”
He smiled and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Elliott.”
“It’s very nice to meet you. I’ll bet you’re almost the same age as my oldest, Tabitha. You’re what? Ten?”
I cringed. This sort of thing always happened to El. Small for his age, he looked more like a fourth- or fifth-grader instead of the sixth-grader he was.
“I’m twelve,” he said.
“Middle school. Very cool.” Her gaze returned to me. “Is he your only one?”
I nodded and tickled the chubby baby’s chin, invoking a damp smile. “Yes. And you? You have two?”
“Lord, no. I’ve got five. The rest are outside in the minivan, watching cartoons. Thank God for the DVD player.”
Holy Moses, five kids?
“Wow, Holly, congratulations. Who is this little one?” I discreetly wiped the baby’s drool off my hand.
“This is my youngest, Ty,” Holly announced proudly. “And Thomas, Trevor, Tanner, and Tabitha are in the van. Tabitha’s your age, Elliott. She’s in sixth grade.”
What’s up with the T names? The dusty minivan parked outside appeared to be rocking back and forth.
“That’s quite a family. And you’re still with Cody?”
She nodded, beaming. “Thirteen years and still going strong. We took over his dad’s farm a couple years ago.”
I pictured the small pea farm Cody had grown up on. “That’s great.”
“Mom,” a childlike voice called.
I peeked around Holly’s cart to see a pretty little girl with long hair the color of spun gold staring at her mother with her hands on her hips. Tabitha looked just like Holly, twenty years before. I glanced at Elliott, who’d taken notice as well, his cheeks pink.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Holly said over her shoulder.
“Trevor pulled on my iPod cord, and now it’s broken, and Thomas is crying because he was going to borrow it for the field trip tomorrow, and I told them both to stop yelling, and so Tanner gave me a wet willy, and his breath smells like garbage.” Tabitha spouted the minivan play-by-play without taking a breath.
I stifled a giggle.
Holly closed her eyes and shook her head. “Listen, it was nice to see you. I have to be going now.” She pushed her empty cart back to the corral, picked up the baby, then offered me an apologetic shrug.
“It was good to see you, too.” I bit my lip.
I wanted to say more. To apologize for being a giant jerk. To ask her to be my friend again, because moving back home made me feel like crying. But I said nothing. I just watched as she walked toward the door with the baby screaming on her hip.
“Bye,” I called.
She glanced back at me and hesitated for a second, her hand hovering above the door handle. “Bye. Nice to meet you, Elliott.”
Elliott’s hand went up in a robotic wave, his eyes still locked on Tabitha, who followed her mother out, complaining the whole time. I nudged my son. “Got a crush?”
Casting me a dirty look, he snatched a candy bar off of a nearby rack. “No. Stop it. Can I get this?”
I sucked in a breath, mentally tallying our grocery bill. “We’re on a tight budget.”
“Then why did you put eight boxes of cereal in the cart?” He raised an eyebrow. “That lady made you nervous.”
Holly pulled her minivan into the street and drove away with a seatbelt hanging out of one of the sliding doors. “She used to be my friend. A long time ago.”
I looked at my son. It’s never fun to admit to your child that you behaved badly. “I was a horrible friend.”
Elliott’s eyes grew wide. “What did you do?”
“Just get your candy bar and stop asking questions.”
I had some serious fences to mend.
“How can there be just one hallway?”
Elliott looked stricken, but I tried to appear at ease.
Monday morning, we stood in the main entryway of Palouse Plains Grade and Middle School—yes, they’re combined. The school had three hallways total—two utilized for grade school and only one designated for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. A row of beige lockers lined one side of the hall. Many lockers hung open, and several backpacks had been left unattended.
Elliott examined the open bags and abandoned books and binders. “Why are their bags on the floor? Doesn’t their stuff get jacked?”
“School out here is different,” I said.
The school in Seattle I’d worked so hard to send him to was very different from this single corridor that passed for a middle school. His other school featured classes in figure drawing, stringed instruments, and poetry, among the standard courses. Palouse Plains offered only the basics, with a handful of contact sports thrown in for extracurricular activities.
I led Elliott to the office, where a woman with a fuzzy beehive hairdo watched us expectantly. She looked just like Miss Price, the head secretary when I’d attended school here, years before. She grinned, her crooked teeth reminding me of a jack-o-lantern. It was nearly Halloween, and the paper streamer with black cats and candy corn hanging above her head didn’t help.
Holy crap, it is Miss Price. I studied her curiously. She’d been pretty old when I’d been a student here, so she had to be in her eighties by now, if not her early hundreds. What was this woman doing to keep herself alive? Hyperbaric chambers at night?
“Miss Price,” I blurted.
“You remember me?”
“Of course I do.”
Miss Price wrung her gnarled hands. “That’s sweet, dear.”
We looked at each other for an uncomfortable moment. Her gaze bounced between mine and Elliott’s with unabashed curiosity.
“So…I’m back in town.”
Of course you did. “I need to enroll my son in school.”
“He’ll be a Lancer, too. How wonderful.” She referred to Palouse Plains the same way that someone who graduated with honors from Harvard would proudly claim their school.
“Right.” I glanced over the registration forms. “I have his transcripts here.” I handed them to her, then nudged my son. “El, Miss Price was the secretary when I went here.”
Elliott’s eyes went wide. “Whoa.”
I gave him a stern look. “This is my son, Elliott.”
“Elliott…?” She waited for a last name, her pen poised.
“Cole,” I said, confirming there was no father in the picture. That would make for some good gossip once I’d walked away.
“Of course, dear.”
She handed a schedule to Elliott, giving him another jack-o-lantern smile. “You’ve already missed first period.”
“Who does he have for homeroom?” I asked.
“Mrs. Holbrook is still around? Ugh.”
A flash of panic shot across Elliott’s face.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be great,” I said. “What class comes after that?”
Elliott looked at the paper. “Pre-algebra.”
“That’s with Mr. Smith,” Miss Price said. “You remember him, don’t you? He’s the one who sings and dances. He did a nice rappy thing for your generation, if I recall.”
“Rappy?” Elliott snorted.
I squeezed his shoulder, warning him to reign in the sarcasm. “He’s still here, too? Are all of my former teachers still around?”
She lifted one of her wrinkled fingers to her chin. “Goodness no. Mr. Lincoln passed away ten years ago.”
“Did he get shot in a theater?” Elliott asked, without blinking.
Miss Price pursed her lips. “He had a coronary. Took him out, right in the parking lot.”
“Oh, lord,” I gasped.
Miss Price spouted off a few more names, my heart dropping with the mention of each one. After a moment, she patted my hand. “Anyway, all of us are awfully glad you’re back.”
“Are things the same as they were when I was here?” I asked.
Miss Price blinked a few times. “What do you mean?”
I looked at Elliott and pointed to the nearby trophy case. “Go check out the trophies, hon. They’re pretty cool.”
He scuffled over to the glass case, muttering, “I’m not two, you know.”
I turned to Miss Price, who stared at me like a dimly lit bulb. “Okay. I’m going to be honest. When I went here, I didn’t fit in.”
“Oh, you were a good girl.”
“I was a good girl, but I didn’t fit in. I was a geek. I painted and drew instead of trying out for cheerleading. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me. Nobody knew where I fit in, so they either ignored me or poked fun at me. It was miserable.”
Guilt weighed on my shoulders as I talked to Miss Price, but I pressed forward. Elliott had experienced so much change over the past two days, it broke my heart to have to enroll him in a tiny school that didn’t offer the classes he was used to.
“Elliott’s creative, artistic, musical. He won’t blend in here. He doesn’t play sports. I don’t think he knows how to shoot a basket. Is he going to feel left out like I did? Are there any programs that will interest him?”
Miss Price stared at me for a full ten seconds before offering me a reassuring nod. “Things have changed. Three years ago, we started a nice, after school arts and crafts program. We got a new social studies teacher this year who has started all sorts of clubs. Activities that don’t involve sports. Like exploratory music and art history.”
Art history? At Palouse Plains?
Miss Price blushed, her face turning the same purplish shade as her Halloween sweater. “The new teacher—he’s quite nice to look at, too. Don’t mean to embarrass you, dear.”
I motioned for Elliott to come back. “Why would that embarrass me?”
“Well, he’s single.” She giggled. “And you’re single.”
My cheeks heated. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not interested in being set up with the new teacher.”
She patted her teased hairdo, and clicked her tongue. “Rumor has it, he’s going through a divorce. He apparently left the big city to escape the pain of it all. I can’t even imagine. But you see there? He’s from a big city, you’re from a big city.”
I mustered a serious look. “No fixing me up. I don’t want to date anyone here.”
Miss Price handed Elliott a bright pink, cardboard square with “Hall Pass” printed on it. “Here’s your hall pass.”
For one hall?
“Go to Mr. T’s social studies class,” Miss Price said. “He’ll show you where to go after that.”
Elliott smirked. “Mr. T?”
“That’s what the kids call him. You know, like the muscular man on that TV show? I pity the fool, and all that gold jewelry?”
I swallowed back laughter. “Right.”
“Autumn, you know the way around. Why don’t you take Elliott to room five?” She smiled crookedly at us, and gestured down the hall.
I picked up my purse and hitched it on my shoulder. “Five. Got it.”
While Elliott opened his locker and dropped off his belongings, I looked at my reflection in the trophy case. Thank goodness I was a few hundred miles away from any place important, because I looked like hell. Day three of the dry weather in Fairfield, and my hair had enough static electricity in it to jump start a school bus.
Since most of my nice clothes, not to mention all of our knickknacks and furniture, were being stored in a friend’s attic back in Seattle, I’d rushed around the house in a flurry that morning, looking for something to wear. When I’d decided to move back to Fairfield, I’d realized that my compact car was only going to hold the bare necessities, plus Elliott’s giant cello case, and since my hometown wasn’t exactly the hub of fashion, I’d decided on bringing mostly casual clothes. This morning, I’d slid into a pair of jeans and the first shirt on the top of my suitcase, which was a tee with Fake it ’til ya make it printed on the front.
I knocked on the door of room five. Elliott briefly slipped his hand into mine and whispered, “Love you, Mom.”
I squeezed his hand. “Love you, too, buddy.”
“Come on in,” a male voice called.
The classroom looked and felt exactly the same way it had when I was a kid, including the judgmental stares from the students. With his back to the class, the teacher scribbled a makeshift map on the whiteboard at the front of the room. All of the students’ eyes shifted to Elliott. Some looked at him with interest, but others already glared with disapproval. I wished that El hadn’t been wearing his yellow and black checkered vest and a bow tie when I’d thundered down the stairs to find him waiting at the front door, tapping his foot. What had been stylish in his funky Seattle school was a blinking neon sign declaring I’m an oddball at a small country school like this.
“Um, hi?” Elliott’s voice cracked. “I’m Elliott Cole, and I’m, uh, new.”
Pride swelled in my chest, and I beamed at my son. I leaned down and whispered in his ear. “You’re awesome, El. I love you.”
He gave me a stiff nod. “Thanks.”
“Welcome, Elliott, it’s good to have you.” The teacher spoke in a low, gravelly voice.
I straightened and smiled at the teacher. “Thanks…”
All the oxygen left my lungs, and I stood paralyzed. The class became silent. Elliott’s teacher and I stared at each other, dumbfounded—mouths open, hands half-extended, eyes round and wide like headlights set on bright. My insides vibrated like the engine of an idling grain truck. All in response to the teacher, who gawked at me with what appeared to be the same mixture of shock and disbelief.
Elliott’s teacher was Henry Tobler.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered.
I regretted my words the moment they came out. I should have said something eloquent or profound. Something that would have made seeing each other for the first time in over a decade less awkward. As if that were remotely possible.
Henry’s eyes, that rainy-day shade of gray, narrowed, and a line formed between his eyebrows. “I work here.”
I couldn’t help staring. Henry looked like a teacher, but no teacher I’d ever had at Palouse Plains. He wore a grayish-blue, button-down shirt, untucked, and a worn, olive-colored sport coat. His wavy, brown hair was cut shorter than I remembered. Even at ten o’clock in the morning, he sported a sexy five o’clock shadow that made my stomach twist. I remembered those whiskers well.
He still resembled the young man I’d made eyes at across the lecture hall during college, so long ago—his face chiseled and rugged-looking. Back then, a perpetual smile had teased at one side of his mouth. Now, I saw no hint of that smile. But his eyes still revealed his emotions, no matter how hard he tried to hide them. I wished he’d outgrown that, because his eyes screamed I’m not happy to see you.
“Y-you’re a teacher now?” I stammered.
“I’ve always been a teacher.”
I opened and closed my mouth two or three times like a deranged fish. Henry looked so good. He wore the years well, whereas I looked like I’d been working underneath cars with very little time left for grooming for the past thirteen years. Yeah. I looked that bad.
I slapped at a strand of hair that had fallen across my forehead. I couldn’t believe that I was facing my long-lost love for the first time in years in Fairfield, of all places.
“You were… Your degree was… Art history.”
A hint of pain flashed in Henry’s eyes. “I changed my major.”
Elliott shifted his weight between feet. “I take it you guys know each other?”
I started. I’d forgotten about Elliott. I put my arm around him and tried to smile. “Yup. El, this is Henry…er, Mr. Tolber.”
Elliott looked around self-consciously. “Geez, Mom, chill. I already know this is Mr. Tobler.”
“Of course you do. Sorry. I just… He’s um….”
Henry stood frozen in place, staring at me as if I were a ghost.
I trembled, struggling to regain composure. “He’s an old friend.”
Elliott squinted at me for a few beats, then turned to Henry. “I’m sorry. She’s… uh, wired this morning. Where do you want me to sit?”
Henry’s mouth remained set in a line. “There’s an open seat by the window. Go ahead and grab a textbook off of my desk.”
“Okay. Mom, you can go.” Elliott bumped my toe with his.
I waved at him and backed toward the door. “All right. Have a good day… And you,” I said to Henry, “have a good, um, class.”
“Yes.” Henry nodded stiffly.
I misjudged and backed into a bookshelf, ramming my butt into a sharp corner. A shockwave of pain shot through my right cheek, and several encyclopedias tumbled onto the floor.
The kids laughed. Elliott sat at his desk, then covered his face with his hands.
“I’m so sorry.” I bent to pick up the books, hot tears of embarrassment pricking my eyes.
Henry stepped closer and reached for one of the encyclopedias. “Here, just let me—”
“No, I’ve got—”
I stood, bringing an armload of the thick books up as I did. Whack. The books collided with Henry’ nose. Bright-red blood instantly flooded all over the “G” encyclopedia and the sleeve of my shirt.
“Argh.” He grabbed for the box of tissues on his desk, leaving a trail of blood droplets on the floor.
The kids gasped, and Elliott slowly laid his head on his desk. One girl in the back of the room grabbed her stomach. “I’m gonna puke, Mr. T.”
I dropped the encyclopedias onto the desk of a very pale-looking boy, and he shrank from the bloody mess.
“Oh, shit,” I muttered.
The students giggled.
“She said shit,” a kid in the back of the room whispered to his friends.
They giggled more.
I pointed my bloody finger at them. “Don’t repeat that. It’s a bad word. I made a bad choice in choosing to use that word. What I meant was—”
A girl with braces grinned smartly. “You’re sorry for breaking Mr. Tobler’s nose?”
“Yes.” I pressed my lips together tightly.
The braces girl said, “Want me to go get the nurse, Mr. T?”
Henry whirled around with a softball-sized wad of tissue pressed against his nose, drops of blood trailing down the front of his shirt. “My node id not broken.” His voice was muffled by the tissue, and I winced. “I broke id playing Frisbee in college. When I get hit in the nose now, id bleeds. I don’t need the nurse.”
“Frisbee?” The boy sitting next to Elliott frowned.
Henry glared at me from behind the bloody wad. “Id was extreme Frisbee.”
Elliott caught my eye and mouthed the words, Please leave now.
“I… I should go.” I wiped my hands on my jeans and walked toward the door. “Unless there’s something I can do?”
“No,” Henry said, “just go.”
I was pretty sure that every one of Elliott’s classmates thought I was clinically insane by the time I finally left their classroom. I bolted to the parking lot as quickly as my legs could take me.
I’d just seen my “what if” guy for the first time in thirteen years. I’d busted his nose with an encyclopedia and made him bleed profusely in front of a classroom of twenty twelve-year-olds.
I wanted to die.