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If I'd worn my ruby slippers today, I'd click those babies together three times and chant, "There's no place like home." Unfortunately, it won't work for me. Number one, my name isn't Dorothy. Number two, I don't own a pair of ruby slippers, and, last but not least, my home is in Maine, not Kansas.
Okay, so I'm not in Maine either. I'm on my way to my sister's house, which happens to be in my hometown of Tappery, Michigan. A couple of miles from her house, I've stopped at Lighthouse Bakery to buy some cookies. My taste buds can no longer abide store-bought sweets, so bakeries are my constant friend.
Back in Maine I own a beautiful oceanfront property, have more money than I need, and I feel confident and in control. Yet when I come back to Tappery and see glimpses of my past--the love I never thought would end, the miscarriage, pain, affair, separation, divorce, and shame--my confidence shatters into a million pieces. Hence, the cookies.
Which brings me to my current dilemma of hiding behind a cardboard cookie display while Gail Campbell, a.k.a. former high school class gossip queen, heads straight toward me.
Standing at five-eight and with honey-blonde hair that brushed my shoulders--and still does--the senior class voted me a Michelle Pfeiffer look-alike--an honor Gail always resented. No doubt she's already noticed my extra twenty pounds.
There's no place like home. There's no place--
"Well, Charlene Kaiser--it is Kaiser, isn't it?--what on earth are you doing in Tappery? Or have you finally come to your senses and moved back home?" She laughs at herself, but I don't join her. Well, not until she snorts anyway.
Dressed in a black leather miniskirt, tight-fitting blouse, and tall spiky heels, she prances toward me lugging a baby on her hip. Perfect round cir cles of red blush dot each of Gail's cheeks, and her eyelids glitter a bright blue, making me wonder if the bulbs blew on her makeup mirror.
Stepping casually out from behind the fake cookie and almost knocking it over, I flash a wide smile. "Actually, I came home to help with the syrup harvest and to help plan a family gathering."
She hesitates, no doubt hoping I'll tell her more, but I don't.
"Oh, so where do you live now?" she asks, while quickly assessing my hips.
" Seafoam, Maine."
"Are you married, working, both?" She acts all hyper here. "We've got to catch up, girl."
Oh, I'm sure you'd love whatever tidbit of gossip you can get.
"I sell commercial real estate," I say, taking note that her eyes widen enough to satisfy me.
"I don't understand how all that works. Must be hard to move commercial property. I imagine there are some pretty lean times," she says, looking hopeful.
"Actually, it's quite a lucrative job, if you do it well." I'm pretty sure I hear a harrumph while she studies me. The ball's in my court, and I'm practically rocking on my heels. "Oh, and I've taken my maiden name of Haverford back."
Gail's Barbie eyebrows spike into upside-down Vs. "Oh? Never remarried?" She leans in for my answer and holds her breath.
"Nope." Before I can stop myself, I look at the little girl on her hip and say, "A baby at your age?"
Her eyelids flutter, and she shifts the baby on her hip. "This is my granddaughter, Carrie Matilda." It's hard to miss the emphasis on the middle name. "You may recall my middle name is Matilda."
"How nice for you." A tiny pause. "She's, um, sweet." Poor kid can't help it if she has her grandma's beady eyes, and I'm not even going to mention the pointy nose. That would be rude.
"It's too bad you don't have any grandkids. They're the greatest." Her hand flies to her mouth in mock apology. "Oh, sorry."
She knocks the wind out of my lungs in one blow. We both know there will be no grandchildren, because I have no children. "No problem," I say with a carefree attitude, trying to conceal the searing pain she's caused me. The ball's now in her court.
"I still think it's just dreadful what Eddie did to you."
"That was a long time ago, Gail. It's over." The last thing I want to do is talk about my failed marriage with the town gossip.
"Still, he was such a stinker."
Not quite the name I had in mind for him, but whatever.
A frown pulls her brows together. She looks me over. "I almost didn't recognize you."
Yeah, I've put on twenty pounds since I was here last. Thanks for noticing.
"You look a little"--she glances at my thighs--"um, different some how."
In a flash, I tuck the hand holding the bag of cookies behind my back. A knowing smirk tugs at the corners of her mouth. She's got the ball and is heading for a slam dunk.
"Don't we all," I say, as in, honey, there ain't enough cream in Wisconsin to fix those ruts in your face. A tiny twitch of my lip is all that's standing between my smile and a snarl.
Shame on me. My sister Janni would never think things like that--a fact which my mother loves to point out. It's true that Janni doesn't have to fake sweetness. It flows from her as naturally as sap from a maple tree. Still, ask her to throw out her instant coffee and creamer for a mocha latte, and she'll hurt you. Am I the only one who can see that?
Little Carrie Matilda starts to squirm. Bless her. "Well, I guess I'd better get going. My family is waiting on bagels this morning. Good to have you back in town," Gail says as she edges away. "Hey, if you stop over at the gym, I'm there most every day. Just look me up." Another glance at my body. "I'd be glad to help in any way I can. Ta-ta."
My blood pressure shoots up fifteen notches. Oh, yeah? With that face you could feed and clothe a plastic surgeon's family for the next five years.
Mouth pursed, eyebrows furrowed, I clench the cookie bag in a death grip and shove through the front door.
My emotions begin to calm as I drive the familiar winding roads into the rural area of Tappery. Naked maples that now stand frigid, cold, and unyielding will soon release a sugary sap fit for a king and will blossom a thick mane of green.
Gazing over the countryside, I keep in mind that the Scottens are looking for prime property in this area that will support a discount store. They hope to set up chains across the country, so I told them I would look around. I'm almost positive I'll be able to come up with something, and thus secure my promotion to partnership at McDonald Realtors. Reaching over, I turn up the radio and sink back into my leather seat. Though I try not to let my ego get the better of me, it can't hurt to let the community see that I've done all right since my days in Tappery.
A one-lane, wooden bridge groans beneath the weight of my BMW, while the swollen river below bubbles and races over smooth boulders and eroded debris. It seems only yesterday I stood on this same bridge and experienced my first kiss with Eddie. My heart still gives a slight twist with the memory.
Isolated patches of snow remind me that spring has not fully arrived. Yet, obviously enough warmth has caused some snow to melt and fill the riverbeds.
Farmhouses, a weathered grist mill, red wooden barns, and rusty barbed-wire fences color the rolling hillsides. A smattering of cattle meander about. Small forests cluster in the distance. Here and there, monstrous new homes stretch across properties where abandoned farmhouses and log cabins used to stand. Though I have my privacy at my cottage in Maine, it's hard to imagine I once lived in this type of isolation, among cattle, horses, and open meadows. Give me the sounds of water lapping the shore over cattle mooing any day.
As I draw close to Mrs. Walker's homestead, I ease on the brakes and think back a moment to the memories of lazy Sunday afternoons on her wraparound porch--sipping iced lemonade, munching on maple cookies, and swatting flies while listening to the tales of her younger days. Since Mrs. Walker lived just down the road from us, Mom never minded when I went to visit the elderly woman. In fact, this was one of the few things I did of which my mother approved.
Wonder how much land comes with her property? If I remember right, she only had a couple of acres, but out here it's hard to tell where property lines begin and end. I doubt there's enough land here for the Scottens to build their store, though. Crumbled concrete dusts the foundation of her front steps, leaving jagged edges. The wooden porch swing, now faded with age, still hangs from rusty chains. A splintered birdhouse hangs from her front maple tree. From where I sit, it doesn't look like a viable property for any of my clients. How sad to see that the new owners don't keep the property up the way Mrs. Walker did.
As I drive down the gravel lane that leads to our homestead, I roll down my window. The sweet scent of early spring rides on the cold afternoon breeze, reminding me of maple syrup, tulips, and spring break. Memories of sailboat rides cracking through fresh water waves soon follow. A lifetime ago, this was my home.
I shove the shifter into park, grab the bag of groceries from the backseat of my red Beemer, and step out of the car. Glancing around, I see that the farm hasn't changed much since Daniel and Janni moved in, though the chicken coop looks a little rough--as in, one stiff wind and it's history. They'll need to fix that if they ever decide to sell.
The floorboards creak beneath my heels when I step onto the sagging porch. Those extra twenty pounds are mocking me--I can feel it. Warped wood ripples here and there, making my steps unsteady. They need to fix that too.
The late February wind whips past me, and I pull my jacket closer to my neck. After several knocks on the door with no answer, I turn the knob and the door...
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