Tears pricked my eyes and I blinked them away as I stared at the young boy smiling back at me.
Penn . . . God, he had the best smiles. Big. Toothy. He hadn’t cared that his front tooth was chipped. Well, he hadn’t cared until middle school. He had the prettiest brown eyes, framed by heavy lashes, and hair the color of raven’s wings. He’d always been small, and even in a picture that only showed his upper half, his shoulders were slim. Frail. I had no idea how much time had passed, but my cheeks were damp and I’d probably ruined the mascara I’d put on.
I smoothed my thumb over his picture, sniffling. I wished I could go back to the past and pay attention to the signs that had been there. I wished I could go back and we didn’t do what—
Sucking in a sharp breath, I slammed the yearbook closed. It slipped from my hands, smacking off the floor. I stood up, stepping around it as I hurried into the bathroom. With shaking hands, I grabbed a makeup toilette and hastily wiped under my eyes.
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.
Fixing my face so I didn’t look like I was coming out of withdrawals, I tossed the tissue in the bin then went back into the bedroom. I picked up the yearbook with two fingers, like it was venomous snake. I shoved it back into its place.
It was almost time to meet Dad.
Before I left, I picked up the small jewelry box off my dresser. I sat down on the edge of my bed, cracked it open, and rooted around for the bracelet Dad had bought me for my seventeenth birthday. It was a diamond tennis bracelet, really too pretty and fancy to wear, but I always slipped it on before I saw him. It seemed like the right thing to do.
A frown pulled at my lips as I nudged a pair of hoop earrings out of the way. Where was the damn bracelet? Unable to find it, I got up and checked the top of my dresser, thinking I might’ve dropped it there after the last time I’d worn it, but other than some costume rings and faded receipts, there was nothing.
“What the hell?” I muttered, shaking the box.
I tried finding it again, but not only was it missing, so was the ring Gavin had bought me two Christmases ago—a white gold promise ring with a tiny speck of a sapphire. He had to work three months of odds and ends jobs to afford the ring. I had wanted to give it back to him when we broke up because it didn’t seem right to keep it, but he’d insisted.
Both the tennis bracelet and ring were gone.
Had I misplaced them? I quickly scoured all the visible surfaces of my bedroom, but I came up empty. It was strange, because I was always careful with them. A niggle of unease gnawed at me as I closed the lid.
I placed the jewelry box back on the dresser, lingering just a moment longer, and then I left the room, stopping to close the door behind me.
Saturday lunches with Dad were a biweekly tradition since the divorce. We always met at the same café downtown, sat in the same booth, and ate the same food.
Dad always ordered a grilled chicken salad—no croutons or salad dressing—and I always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. We shared our potato chips, and we’d been coming here for so long that the waitress brought them out on a separate plate, placing it between us.
Neither of my parents had been that old when they got married and popped out baby Ella. Dad had been twenty-one and Mom had been twenty. They’d met in college, fell in love, and then fell out of it four years ago.
“How’s the school year panning out?” he asked as our food arrived, brushing his fingers through the brown hair at his temple.
Turning out to be the seventh circle of Hell, all things considered. “It’s looking really good.”
“Your mother said you started taking self-defense classes?”
“I did. And that’s going good too.” I peeled the crust off the sandwich.
“And you’re taking these lessons seriously, right?” He dipped his chin, pinning me with his best stern look, and my smile turned real. “I still don’t look like I have an ounce of authority, do I?”
“I’m really going to have to work on that.” He speared a piece of chicken. “So, I ran into Mr. Carver at the post office the other day.”
I could feel the heat spreading across my cheeks.
“I didn’t know that it was Jensen teaching you self-defense,” Dad continued, and my brain started to backpedal from this conversation. “Mr. Carver seemed really happy about that. So was I. It’s about time you two started talking again.”
My eyes widened slightly as I stared at the chips.
Dad chewed thoughtfully. “You know,” he said, pointing his fork at me. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to start doing other things.”
My eyes narrowed. If I were a cat, the hair along my spine would be standing straight up. I’d be hissing at this point, too. “What other things?”
He wisely changed the subject, but I knew it wouldn’t last long. “The mark on your face is almost gone. How have you been with everything?”
“I’ve been okay.” I popped a chip in my mouth.
“Your mother said you’re going to be seeing Dr. Oliver next week.”
Another chip flung its way into my mouth. “Yep.”
“I think that’s also a good idea.” He paused, chasing down another slice of chicken. “I also think going away for college right now might not be—”
I sighed. “Dad, please don’t start. I don’t want to be living here for the rest of my life.”
“Martinsburg isn’t a bad place, honey.”
“I know.” Martinsburg was great, but I had to get away. Too many memories clung to this town.
Dad pushed his fork away. “Part of me can understand why you’d want to go elsewhere, with what happened all those years ago, but that’s in the past.”
I stiffened. “Anyway.”
He looked at me and then shook his head. “How’s your mother?”
“Good. Still single.”
His look turned bland. “Ella—”
“What?” I said innocently. “She hasn’t gone out on a single date, and Mom’s hot. You’re losing your window of opportunity here.”
“Honey, there’s no window of anything. Rose and I are still together.” He fished out a slice of radish. “And things are serious between us. You know that.”
She who shall not be named.
Around six months after my parents legally separated, Dad started seeing Rose. He swears to this day, along with Mom, that there was nothing happening between him and his co-agent at the realtor firm. Rose was a good ten years younger than Dad and seriously could pass as a college student.
The waitress swung by our table, refilling my Coke. I took a big ole hefty drink of it as Dad eyed me. “Is that diet?” he asked.
“Nope.” I gave him a cheeky wide smile. “It’s a hundred percent real soda pop with lots and lots of empty calories.”
His brows furrowed. “Do you know how many throw-away calories are in that?”
I shrugged, but I did know. One hundred and forty to be exact. How did I know this needless information? Dad had told me already. Like about one hundred and forty times.
Dad wasn’t a health nut. To people on the outside, they’d take one look at his trim physique and the OT he put into the gym, and think he was all about the health and fitness. But, oh no, Dad was a fat nut. In other words, he was petrified of getting the middle-aged paunch.
“I wish you hadn’t given up the running. It’s so good for you,” he began. “You know, I can add you to my gym membership. You can even go with me after . . .”
Aaaand I just entered the eighth circle of Hell.
EVERY YEAR, THE Leadership of Blah Blah group partnered with the Future Farmers of Blah Blah group to put together the annual Halloween haunted hayride and farmhouse attraction where all the proceeds were donated to various charities. And every year since I had become a freshman and became friends with Linds, I got conned into volunteering.
The old farmhouse butted up to orchards, and during the fall, the whole place took on a creepy transformation as the leaves began to wither and the days grew shorter.
Parking my Jetta in a lot that was more weeds than gravel, I climbed out, wishing I’d worn something thicker than this thin paisley blouse and capris. The first weekend of September had rushed in cooler temps in spite of the cloudless, sunny sky.