Staying in her mom’s modest two bedroom was surreal. Most of the place looked the same, even her room was practically untouched. The only indication that anyone had been in her room was the fact that there was no dust collecting on her shelves of books, her desk, or any other surface. It was as clean as the day she left.
There was only one bathroom between the two of them, right next to the kitchen, which had been a bit of a challenge when Addy hit her teenage years and discovered the magic of make-up and hair care products. Since she was alone and had an extra hour to spare, she took extra time to look her best.
After her shower, she styled her hair in loose curls that were just subtle enough to look effortless. The reality, of course, was that it took her months of practice and two separate curling wands before she perfected the skill.
When she was satisfied with her hair, Addy pulled out her wide selection of facial products and make-up to begin working the magic she had learned from hours of online videos. She had steady hands from Maggie teaching her different piping techniques, but winging eyeliner was a different ball game entirely. Unless she was going on a date, she nixed liner altogether.
Today she picked out a soft brown for her lids, utilized an eyeshadow trick to fill in her eyebrows (they were thick enough that most people could hardly tell the difference, but Addy wasn’t most people), and lined her lips with a nude pencil before filling it in with a soft pink gloss. Finally, she put the finishing touches on her eyes with black mascara and a setting spray.
Addy smiled at herself in the mirror, pleased with the final product. Most guys she had dated over the years – before her engagement, which ended pretty drastically – praised her on being a “natural” beauty, without realizing that it took real effort to look natural. She didn’t have her mother’s perfect, glowing skin genes, after all.
Just in time, her phone buzzed, alarming her that she needed to make her way to the Kowalski Ranch as she had promised Kayla.
Her mom’s house was located on the edge of Grandloc and East Grandloc, whereas the Kowalski Ranch was nearly half an hour inland. Addy didn’t need her GPS to tell her how to get there since she remembered the place like the back of her hand.
She breezed through the neighborhood, loving the denseness of trees and shades of oranges and reds as the vegetation let go of its summer coat and got ready for the harshness of winter. Nothing could beat the seasons of Michigan, and Addy knew it. New York just couldn’t compare.
As she drove further inland, the trees grew sparser and houses were further apart, making room for the fields and the farms. She was making such good time that when she pulled into the long driveway of Kowalski Ranch, she slowed down to reminisce. The huge block letters on the arced sign looked in disrepair. Addy remembered helping to paint the now chipped letters with Kayla and Alex after school so many years ago.
The wooden fence around the property feebly shook at the light wind blowing outside, but Addy could hear Mr. Kowalski’s voice in her head. “Nah, it’ll hold up yet. This old place has some years left in her.” He would say no matter how broken down something at their property was, and he never hesitated to be the first one to fix something. He and Alex even helped fix up her first truck.
Pulling up the dirt path, the big white house that Addy remembered from her childhood looked so much smaller and more yellowed than the last time she saw it. The porch went all the way around the house, and there were classic shutters on every window. All it needed was a little TLC and it could be back to its former glory, Addy thought to herself.
After she parked the van, she climbed the steps, noting the slight give in each plank of wood, and rapped on the front door. The window was covered with sheer white curtains, allowing her to see into the retro styled living room and partial kitchen. The interior was only slightly different than the last time she remembered. They no longer had shag carpeting, thank goodness since it trapped the smell of manure for eternity, and instead had white tiled flooring. The furniture was still the same scratchy orange couch and green armchair. The square coffee table was made of faux bamboo with a glass covering and a wide variety of magazines from fishing, home and garden, and of course, trashy gossip mags.
Addy grinned, already having read that issue about some American duchess and her new baby coming to a head with her royal in-laws. Thank goodness she herself dodged that bullet. Her former fiance had very high-profile Manhattanite parents that she met on exactly one occasion before deciding to avoid all contact with them.
“Can I help you?” A voice called from behind her. Addy jumped, turning to see a sweaty, shirtless man standing at the bottom of the steps. Her eyes looked over his muscular physique, one that he achieved from either hours at the gym or as a laborer.
“Uh, yeah. I’m here to pick up Alex.” She jabbed her thumb at the house behind her before looking at her phone. “I’m a little early and I just realized I forgot to text him. Sorry, um, do you know the Kowalskis?”
“I’d say so.” He climbed up the steps and moved close enough for Addy to see the stubble along his jawline as he reached past her and opened the front door. Without another word, he entered the house and when she didn’t follow, he looked over his shoulder, a hand on the banister and a foot on the first step leading upstairs.
With a grin, he said, “You could stand outside, but you might be more comfortable inside with a pop, boo bear.” He winked before bolting upstairs. Addy’s voice caught in her throat and she froze standing on the threshold.
There was only one person who ever had the gall to call her boo bear, and the last time she saw him was when he was a scrawny teenager with a goofy smile, not a full grown, hotter than every Bachelor, man.
Had Alex really grown that much? As heat rose to her cheeks, she tried to recall any sightings on social media of little Alex Kowalski over the near decade since she had left Grandloc.
That just couldn’t be, she thought, noting his rounded deltoids, chiseled jawline and taut midsection. And yet, Addy couldn’t help smiling at the similarity in his high cheekbones and barely dimpled chin.
Addy closed the door behind her, turning to look at the scrapbooked living room. Any surface with a picture frame had a lace doily beneath it, leaving scarcely enough room for decor. The walls were covered with huge collage frames filled with pictures from hunting and fishing trips, bonfires, and even backyard camping trips with Addison in them. In one of the slots was a photo of Alex with less of a defined jaw; it must have been taken a few years ago. He was smiling that huge grin he was famous for. She sighed heavily as the weight of just how much she had missed out on rested on her shoulders.
“Finally recognize me?” Addy jumped, spinning on her heels to see a freshly showered and very grown-up Alex standing feet from her with a pair of black slacks, black non-slips, and a white undershirt, the blue Miller Market shirt draped across his right shoulder, but still didn’t cover the evidence of how physical his day to day was.
As he stepped forward, a strange feeling stirred in the center of her torso. She quelled the fluttering before speaking up, “Can you blame me? Geez, Alex, you look like a Ken Doll!”
His smirk broadened. “Shucks, Addy, you shoulda moved back last summer.” He winked at her again. He had to stop doing that. After all, her own failed engagement was still fresh, and this was baby Alex. No matter how much he resembled a beach blonde God.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and took another step toward her. “To Miller’s?” She cleared her throat. The right corner of his lips curled and he nodded. Addy turned on her heel, her ponytail whipping behind her as she made her way to the van. She waited in the driver’s seat as he sauntered over, trying to avert her eyes.
When he got in and buckled, Addy could feel his eyes and crooked grin on her. Five minutes down the road, he was still staring at her with amusement. “Omigawd, Alex, stop.”
“What?” His voice was like warm honey. Addy didn’t even have to look at him as she drove down the long stretch of road into town to know he was grinning at her. “What brought you back?” He asked after a moment of reserved silence. She could feel his twinkling blue eyes penetrating her.
Addison took a moment, wondering if it was time to finally be honest with everyone, and more importantly, with herself. After an uncomfortable amount of time passed, she cleared her throat. “Everything that I thought I was trying to get away from, menial work, mediocrity, no chance for growth. It’s exactly what I was stuck in.”
At the stop sign she looked over at Alex. His eyebrows pressed together and he wore a slight frown.
“Nah. I don’t believe you.”
“C’mon, sweets. You’re a writer with transformative pieces in big name e-zines. You’ve never been mediocre.” Addy gaped at him. For starters, how in the world did anyone know about her articles? Most of them covered beauty hacks and crime in the city. Unless her mom had told someone… but did Maggie even have time to read the links she had sent over the years? Also, did he just use the words transformative and e-zines in the same sentence?
But he was correct in his assumption, not that he had any right to speak on it. She gritted her teeth before caving. “Bad break-up.” She put it in the simplest terms as she had done with other curious townfolk over the weeks of her moving back. Alex seemed to consider this. If he didn’t believe her, he didn’t say so and she silently thanked him for that.
It wasn’t long before she pulled into the parking lot of Miller’s for the second time that day. Alex’s hand gripped the handle but he hesitated, turning to gaze at Addy with his bright eyes.
“It’s good to see you again, Addison.” The right corner of his lip curled in a half smile eliciting a strange feeling in her stomach before he finally left, making his way to the entrance of the market. Edwin could never fill out a pair of slacks like that, Addy caught herself thinking before shaking her head as though the action would shake the thoughts from her mind before a horrifying thought replaced all others.
Alex, the grown man that he now was, was officially her coworker. Did he have a set schedule, she wondered. She certainly hoped so. The last thing she needed was to get distracted by his honey-like voice and well-rounded… vocabulary.
“Kayla!” Addy exclaimed, her eyes bulging as she willed her friend to sense the face she was making over the phone.
“What?” She replied dumbly, sounding as though she was eating. The danish had finally called to her.
“You couldn’t have given me a warning?”
“Shoot, did the cat get out again?”
“Cooper? He’s still alive?” Cooper was the independent tabby who wandered onto the Kowalski’s property one day and refused to leave.
“He’s on his fifth life.”
Addy shook her head. “Why didn’t you tell me Alex got hot?!” There was silence on the other end before an eruption of laughter pounded against Addy’s ear. She pulled her phone away until the sounds of Kayla’s guffaws subsided.
“Funny you say that,” Kayla said after clearing her throat of the last giggles. “Little bro turned into the town heart throb after you left.” Clearly, Addy thought. “Weirdly, he’s only had one girlfriend and she skipped town sometime last year after going nuts-o.”
“That’s a yikes.” Addy muttered, watching the entrance of Miller’s to see the manager, Bill Burlap, with his gangly body in an ill-fitted suit walking towards the entrance. The sun bounced off of his severely balding head when Addy realized who he looked so much like – Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. With long limbs, huge black eyes, and a pale complexion, he could have played Jack in a live action performance.
“Oh yeah,” Kayla responded before muttering, “he definitely has a type.” Addy barely registered what she said, and not nearly enough to be insulted, when an idea struck her.
“I’ll catch up with you later.” Addy said before hanging up, not waiting for a response. Bill disappeared into the store and Addy zoomed out of the van directly toward the entrance of Miller Market.
When she entered the grocery store, she scanned the front until she saw the globe of Bill’s head turning down the furthest aisle that led to the deli and bakery. Addy stood up straight and pushed her ponytail to one side, walking past the registers toward the last aisle. Her heart thumped as she rounded the corner, colliding with a sturdy object.
“Sorry there,” came a vaguely familiar voice as Addy dove to catch her phone mid-drop. She pocketed the phone and looked past the dark-haired man in front of her to see Bill Burlap’s dark eyes look back and forth before darting into the bakery. In a town where everyone noticed everything, she wondered if he truly thought no one would notice him. He was a real life Slenderman after all. Anyone would be hard-pressed not to notice him.
“A-Addison March, is that you?” Addy tore her eyes away from the bakery doors to look at the man before her. Her voice caught in her throat when she recognized the sunken green eyes and shaggy black hair.
“Jay? Jason, I mean, my bad.” Instinctively, she tucked a loose curl behind her ear and cleared her throat. That’s when she noticed the pale blue shirt and black slacks, both of which he was swimming in. His nose and jaw were sharp enough to cut glass. He wasn’t that thin the last time she saw him. Then again, they were both drinking wine coolers and eating ranch drizzled pizza the last time they had been in the same vicinity.
“You look…” He looked her up and down, taking a step back. “I mean, was Hollywood booked up for beautiful women?” She blushed. He may not have been the typical jock like Alex, but Jason Webber had the charisma of one. He was also part of her unofficial, but exclusive serial killer club Gunness and Roses. They ended up with a lot of meetings sans Kayla, the only other member, and made out whenever Jay wasn’t dating someone.
“Still a charmer, I see.” Addy smiled and it was his turn to blush, though it was his ears that reddened rather than his cheeks. He bit his lip on the side that wasn’t pierced.
“I heard you moved back.” His eyes locked with hers and immediately she was filled with the urge to kiss him like she had in secret so many years ago. As though he could sense it, he cleared his throat, “I gotta clock in, but we should catch up sometime. Over coffee.”
“Y-yeah, sure.” With one last bite of his lip, he smiled and ducked past her to the clock-in station at the front. Hazy images of their secret meetings entered her mind when she remembered the last time they sat next to each other.
It was at the last bonfire she would go to before leaving for college. He plopped next to her in the sand with a red cup sloshing with an amber liquid. Addy’s heart pounded now just as it had when he sat next to her and made his confession. It was an admission that she held with her for years after. That is, until she met Edwin.
She shook her head before the memory played all the way out and cleared her throat, looking toward the bakery doors. She moved forward slowly, pretending to look at the baked breads and stopped at the case of packaged cheeses, conveniently located next to the entrance of the bakery.
Luckily none of the industrial equipment in the bakery was on to drown out the conversation happening behind the doors, so Addy caught every single word.
“I lost business because of your indiscretion, Bill.” A voice Addy didn’t recognize hissed.
“I was trying to help this store.” Bill shot back, his voice hitching in desperation. Addy saw out of the corner of her eye a customer looking at her sideways. She picked up a package of sliced Havarti and turned it over.
“No, Bill, you were trying to line your pockets. Now I have to clean up your mess and call for another inspection before the bakery can be reopened. You’ve cost me more than you’re even worth.” The venom in the other man’s voice could have paralyzed a hundred men. The door flapped open and a bead of sweat dripped down her back as a man she’d never seen before flew past her.
Addy returned the Havarti to its place and turned on her heel before she realized Alex had been standing mere feet from her in a large white coat over his uniform. His eyebrows were knitted as he met her gaze.
Without a word, she rushed to the sliding doors and to the van. She pulled out her phone, dialing Kayla’s number and pressing the microphone. She started the van and pulled out of the parking lot and onto the highway. She recited word-for-word what she had overheard as she made her way to Jet’s Freshest, a huge coliseum of fresh food stands from all across the Midwest.
It was a two-hour job to get everything on her mother’s list other than fresh strawberries, butter, and dry goods. As she loaded the van, her phone buzzed. It was a text from Kayla, “Meet me at the station soon as you can!”
Exclamation point? That can’t be good Addy mused. As soon as everything was loaded and she had sat herself in the front seat reaching for the ignition, her phone buzzed again, this time it was an email from Josh Miller, General Manager and store owner of Miller Market.
Today is not my day, Addy thought before opening the email.
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