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Long Time Gone: Chapter One

TWELVE HOURS. LORETTA COX has been driving for twelve hours, and her butt is numb, legs aching from where they are folded under the dashboard. She’s had to use the toilet for the last hour. Backwoods Tennessee doesn’t offer many public restrooms, though, so she forces herself to focus on the road and not the discomfort. There will be enough of that soon.

The sun hangs low in the sky, bleeding orange through a deepening navy. Trees blur outside, and wind whips through the open window. Rett brushes her hair from her face with one hand while gripping the steering wheel with the other. Thick moisture clings to the air, promising a thunderstorm, and she only hopes she reaches her destination before it comes. Driving in the rain has never been her favorite thing to do, especially not on the winding roads surrounded by woods.

She never thought she would make the trip again—not for the reason why she’s making it. Her life has been thrown into a tailspin, and she is the lucky one who has to clean it up. Grumbling under her breath, she turns off the static-filled stereo and watches the town limit sign pass by: Welcome to Oak Creek! She might not have ever planned on coming back for anything other than Christmas, but once upon a time, the town had been home.

Right on cue, her phone beeps as she loses signal. She never thought it oppressive before, the lack of cell service. Now, she feels disconnected from the rest of the world. From the rest of her life.

Rett slows to a crawl as she inches toward the heart of town. Despite the years away, she remembers how the children like to play in the streets. Townspeople stare through the dim evening light at the car making its way down the roads, bumping and jolting with each pothole. She doesn’t bother waving, though she knows she’ll be the talk of the town before the night is up. She almost wonders if they already know why she’s back in Oak Creek, but there really is no need to wonder. Of course they know.

Misses Agatha Emerson and Jeanie Morgan slow to a stop as Rett puts the car in park outside her childhood home. The white paint is peeling worse than ever, black trim nearly nonexistent with age, and weeds grow through the walkway. With a sigh, she closes her eyes and wallows in the regret that she ever did something so monumentally stupid seven years ago. If she’d never made the decision then, she wouldn’t be back in her hometown now. She certainly wouldn’t have stayed away from it as long as she could.

She switches her sunglasses for her prescription glasses then steps out of the car.

“Hello, Miss Loretta,” calls Miss Agatha with a wave that sends her arm fat swaying. Her bright pink tracksuit nearly glows in the setting sun. The woman is ninety-four years old and still more active than any elderly person Rett has ever known. “It’s wonderful to see you again, dear.”

“You, too, Miss Agatha. Miss Jeanie.”

Rett forces a smile and hurries up to the front porch before the old women can say more. She can see the questions—the knowledge—on their wrinkled faces, and telling the truth is the last thing she needs at the moment. Blowing out a steadying breath, she twists the doorknob and pushes open the door. It feels a lot like stepping into the past.

Dishes clink in the kitchen sink, water gushing from the faucet, and Eliza Cox hums an old hymn. Rett can almost see her mama swaying in play with each bar of Amazing Grace, her light hair pulled into a low bun and her plain nightgown dancing around her legs. It’s a thing, really, something Rett has known throughout her entire life. She drops her bag onto the floor by the toilet then ambles toward the tiny kitchen.

The house still smells the same, lavender candles and fabric softener. A tightness grips at Rett’s chest. How could she have stayed away for so long? Her parents are here. Her life was here at one point. But Indianapolis is her home, and she very nearly regrets ever leaving.

It take fifteen steps before she stands in the archway to the kitchen, and she watches her mother. Eliza’s nimble hands dry a plate before she places it in the cupboard, moving back to the rest of the dinner dishes. Since Rett left, there are only doubles of each plate, utensil, and glass. The sight is sadder than it should be.

“Hey, Mama.”

Eliza jumps, wet hand coming up to clutch at her chest. She’s still wearing her work uniform, and Rett frowns at the sight. It’s going on seven in the evening. Eliza never spends this much time in her uniform.

“Loretta Jean, what in blue blazes do you think you’re doing scaring me like that?”

“Sorry, Mama,” Rett says with a laugh. “Didn’t mean to. Thought you heard me comin’ in.”

“Of course I didn’t, you brat.”

But Eliza embraces her daughter anyway, holding Rett close to her chest. Rett breathes in the scent of floral perfume and cleanser. Tightening her arms, she struggles against the tears trying to form. It’s her fault she has been away for five years, but her new life didn’t allow or many visits. Not without questions. Even if they did, she’d never have been able to come back. Too many memories linger in this town, and Rett can’t be reminded of them more than she already is.

“Oh, honey, it’s so good to see you.”

“I missed you, Mama.”

“Missed you, too, baby. Now c’mon, let’s get you settled in.”

“Let me use the toilet first,” Rett pleads, bolting toward the bathroom as soon as her mother nodded.

It’s no use arguing with Eliza, so Rett lets her haul the duffel bag into the old bedroom. Very little has changed—the walls are still pale yellow with peeling white paint on the window frames. The bed still takes up most of the available space, and her desk is tucked in the same corner it always has been. The bookshelf leans farther to the right but otherwise remains in the back of the closet. Eliza sets the bag on the bed; the springs squeak under the added weight, and she turns to her daughter.

“Can’t believe you’re back.”

“Had to be,” Rett says then pauses, slumping in the face of her mother’s hurt expression, the sadness in Eliza’s blue eyes. “Sorry, Mama. I was planning on comin’ at Christmas this year.”

“I know, sweetie. Now go on, get some rest. Your daddy’ll be home in about an hour.”

She presses a kiss to Rett’s temple—just like she did when Rett was a child—then left her daughter to her own devices. Rett doesn’t bother unpacking her bag. She isn’t planning on being here for more than a couple of days. She drops the bag on the floor in front of the closet and sits in the rickety chair she used to sit in so long ago. The lack of changes in the room brought back the feelings of being an awkward teenager, hiding away from the nosy town while they gossiped about her life. Everyone’s lives, really, but she gave them the biggest scandal seven years ago.

She thought she had done what was best for her. The town, and fate itself, proved how wrong she was.

Now here she is staring at her bed in her childhood room, trying to undo everything she did when she was eighteen.

Eliza was right: Matthew Cox appears in the living room fifty minutes later, front door squealing closed behind him, and his booms Rett’s name. Thick arms pull her in without hesitation, and she melts into the embrace, breathing in the still-familiar scent of cigarillos and beer. He must have been at Mr. Mullen’s weekly poker game.

The man has been hosting them for as long as Rett can remember, and her father has been a willing participant for just as long. The men in town poke fun at the women—call them pests and busybodies—but the men gossip just as much at the games. Rett made the mistake of joining once when she was fifteen. She never went back again.

Matthew kisses her hair and gives her one more squeeze before releasing her. “Glad you came home, kiddo.”

Rett doesn’t bother telling him the visit would be barely long enough to scratch the surface. She has a life to get back to, and Oak Creek isn’t it. She loves the sleepy little town, but her job, her world, is back in Indianapolis. It will never be here again.

Eliza forces Rett to sit at the table and eat dinner while Matthew watches his shows on the television. Rett pushes the food across the plate as Eliza fills her in on the latest breaking news in town. Miss Agatha’s granddaughter announced her pregnancy and impending divorce in one fell swoop. Everyone wondered if it would be enough to finally give the old woman a heart attack, but she’s still going strong. Mr. Jones and Miss Young have been living together for the last handful of years with no sign of marriage in sight. Miss Minnie moved away to be closer to her grandchildren but came back within the year.

“City life didn’t agree with her,” Eliza says before sipping at her tea. Her gaze cuts to the ring on Rett’s left hand. “So I see Austin went for extravagance.”

Rett smiles at the large, glittering stone. “Yeah, he did. He said I deserve it.”

“You never told me how he proposed.”

So Rett does. Eliza examines the ring as Rett tells her about how Austin Sanders took her to dinner with their friends at a high-end restaurant. Halfway through the meal, before they’d even considered dessert, he dropped to one knee and waxed poetic about his love for her. How badly he wanted to spend his life with her. Rett’s cheeks burned when she reminisced on his near-begging for her to say ‘yes’. Everyone had stared, watched, and waited with bated breath for her reply.

How could she have said anything other than ‘yes’? Even as he slid the ring on her finger, as he kissed her amid the applause, she made a silent vow to make the marriage last even if it killed her.

Eliza holds Rett’s hand a moment longer then blows out a breath, releasing Rett from her gentle grip. “And he makes you happy?”

“Oh, Mama, happier than I’ve been in a long time.”

“Then I’m glad you found him. I just wish we’d gotten more’n a few calls with him first.”

“Sorry,” Rett murmurs, grimacing.

Eliza has a point. She and Matthew had never met Austin in person. Rett hasn’t been home since before the relationship with him began five years ago. She couldn’t take the risks that came with being within the borders of Oak Creek. She shipped presents home, called after church every Sunday and Wednesday, and thanked her stars she wasn’t here. Indianapolis and her fiancé are her home now.

“Hey, Mama?” When Eliza hums in acknowledgment, Rett hesitates then stares at her hands. “Does he know?”

“In this town?”

Rett sighs and pushes away her plate. Her appetite has officially disappeared. If he knew she was back in town, and why, maybe he would make it easy on her. Eliza pats her daughter’s arm and rises to her feet, picking up the plate. As she scrapes the leftovers into the bin in the corner, Rett blows out a breath and stares at the far wall.

Being back in Oak Creek brings mixed feelings. On one hand, she was stuck doing something in a place she no longer belonged. On the other, she loves seeing her parents. She loves the town that raised her. Despite the sprawl, the eight hundred inhabitants always came together to make up a generous community. No one refuses to help others. The older members might have said the youngsters have no manners—Rett had heard that particular phrase dozens of times as a kid—but she’d yet to ever see cruelty from her fellows. It must just be a generational thing, she didn’t know.

But if there is anything she does know from twenty-six years of living and the year and a half of knowing him at eighteen, it’s that Calum Winger will never make things easy on her.

Morning comes too soon. Rett stares at the same pebbled ceiling she knows from childhood. The overhead fan circles lazily, dispelling none of the humidity. Dishes clatter in the kitchen, her father’s low singing beneath the cacophony. She closes her eyes, smiling to myself, and lets herself get lost in the sound. Though she knows it is her fault, she hates how long she’s been away.

Blowing out a breath, she shoves her glasses onto her face and sprawls once more on the bed, groaning to herself. She can’t put it off. She has to find Calum. The sooner, the better. She can’t stay in Oak Creek, and she can’t go home until she finishes what she’s come to do. It was a mistake. That’s all it was. A mistake that she’s paying the price for seven years later.

Memories push to the forefront of her mind. Even with how much she loathes him for bringing her back home, she can’t help but laugh at recollections of seventeen-year-old Calum Winger stumbling into town like a baby giraffe. All awkward and gangly, unsure of where he fit in, so angry at the world—and his mother. No one knew why she sent him to Oak Creek in the first place. Only Rett knew the truth, though it took nearly three months before he trusted her with it.

They were thick as thieves by October, and falling in love with him was easier than breathing. It only made sense. They spent all their free time together. If he wasn’t working at his aunt Georgie’s corner store and Rett wasn’t babysitting the neighborhood kids, they were down by the river. They were inseparable. It only led to them making the biggest mistake of their lives.

She clambers out of bed, wincing when the springs squeal, and ducks down beside the desk. The box is still there, lid covered in inches of dust. She maneuvers the box out of place and onto the bed. Her hands tremble as she pulls the lid off and stares down at the items left over from her past. The crinkled piece of paper on top brings back the echo of voices, the ghosts of recollections that she had forgotten over the years.

She swallows past the lump in her throat, setting aside the drawing, and reaches for the notebook they’d passed back and forth in the minutes before classes. It never mattered that they shared classes; they still wrote notes to each other. The school year ended with the notebook in her possession. His handwriting never got neater. She just got better at deciphering the scribbles. Running her finger over the ‘C’ on the last note, she blinks rapidly before slamming the notebook shut and tossing it back in the box.

“Retta?”

She clears her throat and hurriedly shoves the box back in place under the desk. “Comin’, Dad.”

Rett gives the box of memories one last, lingering look before she leaves it behind where it belongs. Her father stands at the stove by the time she enters the kitchen, and he glances over his shoulder at the sound of her shuffling footsteps. His face splits into a soft grin. The storm in her chest abates just enough for her to breathe again, to smile back. No matter how mixed up she feels on the inside, she can’t let her father know how affected she is by being home again.

She knows he knows how little she is looking forward to seeing Calum again.

Breakfast is a quiet affair, but Matthew and Rett never really needed to talk. The only they ever did was when she was eighteen. He was so angry with her—not because of what she had done, but because of how he found out about it. She’d been so wrapped up in what she did that she didn’t think about anyone else but Calum. Their love. It was unfair to her parents, and she regrets that selfishness.

Matthew leaves for work once he’s washed his plate and fork, and Rett sits at the tiny table in the silence left behind. Indianapolis is never so quiet, not even in the winter when snow blanketed the city. There, I can always hear traffic or the neighbors. Oak Creek brings the quiet of sleep. Sure, she can hear kids running around outside, parents and grandparents calling after them, but it isn’t nearly as needling as back home. It’s a lazy sort of quiet. As much as she didn’t want to come back, she’s missed this place.

After rushing through dressing in a pair of jeans and a sleeveless blouse, Rett pins back her hair and grabs her phone from her old room despite knowing it was no good at the moment. There is only one place in town with any real reception, and she doesn’t quite enjoy the prospect of climbing a tree at twenty-six years old. She feels better having her phone in hand, though. She hasn’t gone without since she broke free from Oak Creek.

The silence of the morning, unfortunately, only lasts until she reaches the end of the walkway. Miss Maudie shrieked and descended upon Rett with fervor. It’s impressive, truly, how quickly the eighty-year-old woman can move but only when she had the newest gossip before anyone else in town. She throws liver-spotted arms around Rett’s neck, pulling the younger woman in tightly, and prattled on about how she’d missed Rett. She rambles without interruption, though Rett doesn’t pay attention to the words. It feels like home, the rush of words. She shakes her head inwardly.

The town isn’t home.

Miss Maudie finally releases Rett, and her deep brown eyes shone in the hot sunlight. “You’ve gotten too thin, Miss Loretta.”

Miss Loretta. Rett had always been just plain Loretta to the town, Rett to her friends. Now she was a Miss twice in as many days. She forces a smile and nods along. Miss Maudie doesn’t need a reply; she just pushes on with her questions: How long was Rett planning on being in town, is she home for good, did she enjoy life away from Oak Creek? Rett has no idea how to tell the truth. That she was only back for her own selfish gain. Then she will be back in Indianapolis, and this visit will just be a horrible memory.

Rett manages to extricate herself from the conversation a few minutes later and walks away with hopes that she hasn’t offended the old woman. The air smells of the rain that came in the night, damp earth, and thick flower bushes in Mrs. Betty Lowe’s front yard. Her shoes sink slightly in the soil, and she breathes in the scent of town. The freshness that comes with a small town in the middle of nowhere. No odors of the big city, the car exhaust and factories spewing smoke into the air.

Her trek along the streets is interrupted dozens of times by old ladies and old friends—the ones that stayed behind. Kellie Marie Watson and Jacob Fletcher had a baby when they were nineteen and got married three months after Cory was born. Another kid came after that, less than two years later. All of her dreams were gone in motherhood. Rett wonders if her friend feels stuck. They used to talk about leaving Oak Creek together. They’d run off to college and forge their own paths in life. Now Kellie Marie was a mama. Maybe she longs for something different, or maybe she’s happy with her lot in life. Rett will never know.

As she watches Kellie Marie try to corral her children, Rett remembers all those times they were careless and wild. She recalls every party and going to church every Sunday hungover from the night before. Her breath shakes as she realizes just how much has actually changed. The town might look the same, feel the same, but the people are different. Older. She isn’t the only one who made different decisions in life. She just made her in a different city half a day away.

Kellie Marie sighs and shuffles away with Cory and Henry still fighting and running free down the street. Her shoulder slump even more while she calls after them. Rett runs her hand through her dark hair and blows out a breath. She shouldn’t be asking herself when her friend gave up—there’s no reason to believe Kellie Marie has.

“Well, if it ain’t little Loretta,” a voice calls from behind her.

Rett turns to see Georgi Stone standing in the doorway to her corner store. Rett’s mouth grows dry at the sight of her familiar face. More lines have embedded themselves in the older woman’s skin, and her silver-blonde hair has a bit more silver than blonde. But it was in her customary braid, and she looks jut as steadfast as she always had before. Chocolate brown eyes—so similar to her nephew’s—narrow as the sun beats down on the world.

“Hey, Miss Georgie.”

“Well, c’mon over here. Lemme get a good look at ya.”

Rett bites back a groan. She’s always loved Georgie. A no-nonsense woman, she’s been a surrogate aunt to the entire neighborhood’s children. Most of the older generation has acted in some capacity as stand-in relatives. Georgie took to it like a duck to water. She kept everyone out of trouble, never let a thing slip by.

But just now, she is the second to last person Rett wants to see. The only person taking first place is Calum, and even then, there isn’t much of a gap between. Rett can’t ignore Georgie, not when she accepted what the two teens did without batting an eyelash.

Her rough hands cradle Rett’s cheeks, and they stare at each other. After a moment, Georgie smiles and runs her thumbs along Rett’s cheekbones beneath her eyes. “It’s really good to see you, sweetie. It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, it has.” Rett hates how easily she’s slipped back into the drawl she worked so hard to rid herself of. “How you been?”

Georgie shakes her head with another grin playing on her lips. “I doubt you came here to hear ’bout my troubles. I take it you’re looking for Calum.”

“Just lookin’ around town right now.”

“Well, whenever you wanna catch him, he’ll be at Mitchell’s until six or so.” Georgie releases Rett, pushing a stray lock of dark auburn hair behind Rett’s ear. “You look real good.”

“I’m gettin’ married,” Rett blurts out. Her stomach twists at the abrupt words, at her pleading tone.

“I know.”

“Does he?”

“Yeah, baby. He does.”

“He gonna make this hard on me?”

Georgie snorts and turns back to the store. Her lack of answer is answer enough. Then again, Rett didn’t really need it. They both knew how stubborn Calum is. He could make it as hard as possible if he wants to. And for this. . . Rett was certain he’ll want to be difficult.

By the end of the afternoon, Rett has met with everyone left in the heart of town. She’s pretended she doesn’t feel as out of place and awkward as she really does. The sun is beginning to lower in the sky as she stands in front of Mitchell’s Auto Shop. Impact wrenches whir beyond the massive bay doors, and she can hear tools clattering against metal. Her brain supplies the image of jumpsuit-clad people moving around vehicles, laughing amongst themselves as they crack jokes and do their jobs. She used to sit inside with Calum and watch as cars came and went. They were occasionally allowed to wash the cars before the owners came to pick them up.

Times were simpler back then.

Very few of the cars came from Oak Creek. With a town this small, vehicles are only necessary for going to the next city over or for outer-lying inhabitants, the ones who lived on farms or wanted their space from prying eyes. Folks like the Richardsons who had a pool. She can see in her mind blue water washed silver in moonlight. Shaking her head, she steels her spine and steps inside.

The Bryant twins, Kyle and Ginger, turn away from the Camaro they’re arguing over. His eyes widen, and she gapes. Rett manipulates he rlips into a facsimile of a smile and moves toward back of the shop. Conversations die out as she passes. She isn’t surprised. Years of being away and the entire town knowing why she came back. . . It wasn’t exactly hard to figure out why no one spoke.

“I shouldn’t have to be here,” she announces, and Calum only smirks without looking up. “Calum William—”

“Ooh, middle names. I’m in trouble now, ain’t I, Kingsley?”

Leonard lets out a booming laugh from where he lies under a Jeep. “Sure sounds like it, kid.”

“Shut up, Kingsley,” Rett snaps without looking at the man. Calum’s lips twitch again, and he curses cheerfully when his hand smacks against the side of the engine block. Sighing, she tucks her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “You already know why I’m here, so why fight it?”

He finally glances at her. Her breath stutters at the rich brown of his eyes, the sharp line of his jaw. He raises a thin brow before turning back to his work. “Not fighting anything, Rett.”

“Then please, can you just sign the papers so we can be divorced?”

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