She swung open the door of the little white Honda Civic, her shapely legs emerging one at a time, followed by the rest of her tired, tanned body. She sighed with relief when she planted her bare feet onto the warm concrete and stretched, a smile spreading across her face as she breathed in the pine trees and mountains and summer sun, wishing she could suck it all into her lungs and keep it there. It was hot, but not suffocatingly so, like the Oklahoma summers she’d grown accustomed to. It was a comforting heat, wrapping her up in its arms and asking her not to leave ever again… sort of like her boyfriend when she’d broken up with him and set out for the Northwest. It hadn’t been easy, but she had no idea how long she would stay, and nothing was going to tear her away before she was ready.
She knelt and pulled on her sneakers – she never drove wearing shoes – then slammed the car door, making her way across the parking lot in her black shorts and t-shirt. Her head was spinning with the painful familiarity of everything, but she felt more content than ever. It was like stepping back onto solid land after a little too long at sea.
Charlotte looked up at the big sign above the supermarket: Safeway. God, how long since she’d been in one? They didn’t have the chain in the Midwest – at least, not where she lived – and she tried to avoid them on her travels because they reminded her of, well, here. She stepped inside, shuddering a little at the air-conditioned environment, and headed for the back of the store, hoping it was laid out like she remembered. There – they still kept a display of cold energy drinks near the beer; her 13-year-old self had known that well. She was about to open the fridge and grab a Java Monster – it had been a long morning’s drive, and she was sure the rest of the day would be tiring – when a silhouette caught her eye. She turned her head discreetly, wondering whether it was someone she might recognise. Probably not. She knew from friends that the town had flooded with newcomers over the years, getting slowly bigger and bigger as its beautiful charm made way for industry.
But when she saw who it was reaching for a six-pack of Michelob a couple doors over, she gasped involuntarily. Butterflies flooded her insides. Surely he wasn’t 21 yet? She was only 19, and he shouldn’t have been legal to drink until the winter. No – she spotted his older brother’s lanky frame hovering way down the aisle, back turned to them as he chatted up some girl. Did anyone besides her ever make it out of this town?
The boy next to her – well, man now, she realised – had heard her sharp intake of breath and glanced up. He looked confused for a moment, then recognition dawned on his face.
“Char…Charlotte?” he asked, bewildered.
“Hey Joel,” she said quietly. “Long time no see.”
He looked good. Really good. She’d seen photographs over the years, but they hadn’t done him justice. His shoulders were broad, his voice far deeper than it had been at 16, his muscled arms and torso accentuated by the tight-fitting black tank top. The signature blonde hair was a little shorter and darker now, but his piercing eyes were blue as ever as they held her grey ones. There was a reason they’d playfully called him “Angelboy” growing up, though that childish mischief seemed to have given way to something more serious, even sinister, as he grew up.
He broke her train of thought when he spoke.
“Listen, I would really love to catch up, but I have to get back to work.”
Her stomach, which had been threatening to climb up and out of her throat, dropped. Of course. What had she expected? This was what she deserved, after everything that had happened that summer.
“No problem, sorry to keep you,” she said too cheerfully. “Bye then, see you ’round.”
She turned and walked away quickly, chastising herself for hoping, and willing herself not to cry. Of course the universe would punish her, but why did it have to be now?
(I’m really sorry if this post showed up twice)
Want to keep reading? Pt. II: In Their Own Time, They May Be