Well, it isn’t backpacking across Europe. It’s suitcasing in the Georgia mountains. But, hey, it beats the possibility of running into Nelson at the grocery store or the awkward forward stare as he walks to his IT consulting job every day, which unfortunately requires him to pass by Pink Line.
A week after the breakup, my Aunt Marlene convinced me to move up here temporarily and take over her candy shop while she goes backpacking across Europe. After thirty-two years of whipping up everything from bonbons to caramel-dipped pears in this tiny tourist town, she was ready to move on. And as I started my journey of moving on from Nelson, she swore being up here in the fresh air would give me purpose and help me heal. But, unless my purpose is to be covered in sticky goo every day and have close encounters with bears, I don’t think I’m going to find it here in Peach Creek.
After my morning cup of coffee, I set the shop’s oven to pre-heat, lay out some cookie sheets and wax paper, then haul Tootie back to the cabin and take a shower. When I emerge, just as I’m squeezing the water from my hair, Tootie starts barking downstairs. I step onto the landing and see him scratching like crazy at the glass door.
But he keeps going. For a second, I wonder if Tess has come to visit, but she would have called me first.
Or perhaps it’s Kit at the door. She has worked for Aunt Marlene for years as the manager of Candy’s Candies. She only recently came out to her family as a lesbian after dealing with their homophobic insults her entire life. But it can’t be her at the door because she took the day off to go on a first date in Atlanta.
So, who the hell is it?
I scurry back to the bathroom to look out the window, my jaw falling at the orange flames I see flickering in the oven through the shop’s back door window. “Oh, shit! Shit, shit, shit!”
Frantically, I rush downstairs, and fling open the door, the towel wrapped tightly around me. I hesitate for a split second, wanting to turn back to get some shoes, but there isn’t any time. I dance across the gravel barefoot, letting out a few more expletives until I can take off running on the soft dirt. When I reach the building, I’m relieved to see that there are no customers waiting outside. I secure the towel around my breasts. The air is heavy with smoke, the smoke alarm blaring against my eardrums.
I grab a large mixing bowl from the sink. Careful not to spill it, I dash to the oven and spot the pizza box I’d left inside from last night’s hosted back-to-school cookie night. When I open the door to douse it, I’m immediately met with a whoosh of heat that sends me stumbling back, the bowl of water clattering to the floor.
“Close the oven!” a familiar voice shouts at the same time another familiar voice echoes the same.
Glenn, a regular customer who orders a tin of fudge each week as a treat for his grandkids, is standing right beside … my ex.
Wait … is that my ex? He has grown a thick beard, his espresso brown hair is a bit longer, and his signature geeky glasses are missing from his head.
But … yes, that’s him. Those aquamarine eyes are unmistakable, but he looks more like a carefree lumberjack than the mostly serious geek I remember.
My eyes widen with horror. “What are you doing here?”
“Close the oven!” Glenn shouts again.
My eyes fly back to the flames, which are growing and dangerously close to licking the cabinets above. I slam the door closed, and as I do, my towel decides it’s a perfect time to relax, and it falls to the floor.
Desperate to cover my post-breakup fro––and not believing that this is happening to me again––I yank the towel from the floor and quickly fasten it back into place, one hand holding the tucked portion together for safety as I wonder if the universe is trying to tell me to join a nudist colony.
Nelson opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I mumble an apology to Glenn, which he gratefully ignores, and says, “Never open an oven when it’s on fire.” He adjusts his Vietnam Vet hat. “Fire needs oxygen. Turn off the oven and leave it be. It’ll die out.”
“Thank you.” My cheeks are hot from embarrassment and the flames. I grab two tins of fudge from the back and slide them across the counter. “It’s on the house today.”
“Thanks.” He clears his throat, careful to keep his eyes on my face like a gentleman. “You gonna be okay with this guy here?” He pivots to Nelson.
Nelson takes a step back, realizing Glenn perceives him as a threat to me. He holds up his hands. “Oh, I’m h-her … her––”
“Ex-boyfriend,” I say for him, recognizing his struggle.
“Oh, I see.” Glenn eyes him disapprovingly. “Well, call down to Glenn’s Garage if you need me. I’ll be there.”
I promise him that I will, a big smile on my face as I lock the door behind him to prevent anyone else from coming into the store, and I pull Nelson to the small office in the back.
“What are you doing here?” I demand, taking in the new him. “And where are your glasses?”
“I got c-contacts.” He bites his lip. “I n-need to talk to you.”
I shake my head. Laugh in disbelief. “No. No, no, no. I’ve been there, done that. I don’t want to hear whatever bullshit you have to say, so let’s rewind. Please tell me this was all random––that you were in the area and came in for some chocolate-covered pears.” I motion toward a tray of pears on a rolling cart outside the door.
His eyes narrow. “Those aren’t ch-chocolate covered.”
I smile, my eyes wild. “They will be after I shove them up your ass.”
He frowns. “Can w-we talk, please? Over dinner or s-something? How are you?”
“How am I?” I laugh, bringing my hands to my hips. “If you mean in general, I suppose I’ve been fabulous. Just burning shit down, you know. If Tootie hadn’t barked, I––” I gasp. “Oh, shit!” My heart pounds in my chest. “Oh, fuck!”
“Tootie? Tooootie?” I sing-song, bolting from the office. I walk briskly through the shop, Nelson following after me. Before he can pry any further, I’m out the back door, sprinting toward the cabin, its door wide open, terrible scenarios playing out in my head. “Tootie!” I run toward the cabin, scanning the trees and yard on the way. Please be in the house, please be in the house.
“W-What’s going on?” Nelson calls after me.
I turn just before my feet hit the gravel path. Narrow my eyes. “Go away!”
Pain shoots through the pads of my feet when I hit the rocks.
Ouch, shit, ouch, shit, ouch!
I hold out one arm for balance, making sure to keep a firm grip on the towel, my body wobbly as if I’m on a tightrope. “Go…” I yell back to Nelson through gritted teeth. “Aw—” Before I can get the word out, my ankle twists, my raven hair whipping against my eyes as I stumble to the ground, landing in an unnatural position that looks as if I’m unwillingly straddling a pointy cactus.
“Oh, m-my God,” Nelson says.
Despite my embarrassment, I breathe a sigh of relief to see the towel is still safe and sound in my fist and covering all my parts. Lucky me!
I think there might be a pebble stuck between my labia. Never mind. There is definitely a pebble stuck between my labia.
Nelson holds out his hand to me. “Let me h-help you up.”
If I didn’t have a rock in my vagina, I’d say no. But I do have a rock in my vagina, so I relent, holding on to my little white towel for dear life, discreetly using my other hand to extract the pearl from my clam on the way up.
When I’m upright, he says, “Are you okay?”
I ignore him, quickly turning for the cabin, thankful to soon reach the smooth pavers leading to the porch steps. I sprint up the rickety wood, all senses on alert when I dash through the door, calling for Tootie. But I already know he isn’t inside. A city dog since puppyhood, he’s become somewhat of an escape artist since we’ve been in the mountains. One time, I caught him just as he was about to run under the wheel of a garbage truck.
Footsteps behind me. Nelson stops at my side. He’s in my house. Okay, Aunt Marlene’s
house, which is now basically my house. Whatever you want to say, it’s not Nelson’s house, and he just marched right in without so much as knocking. Of course, the door was open, but—
“Is he gone?” Nelson says.
When I turn to him, fully prepared to rip him a new one for walking in, I soften when I see the concern on his face. Regardless of what happened between Nelson and me, he is the first guy I’ve dated to actually like Tootie. Sure, others pretended at first––until he shit in their shoes or chewed up their couch or ate the money out of their wallet––but Nelson truly liked him. Loved him, even. He never scolded Tootie when he shredded his Jennifer Aniston autograph or ate a crayon at the park and vomited it all over his car’s tan upholstery. He treated him like his own.
But then I remember he gave Tootie up the second he decided to cheat on me. “I need to go find my dog, if you’ll excuse me.” I motion toward the open door.
He presses his lips together, as if he has a lot to say to that could possibly make what he did any better. I note the dark circles beneath his eyes, the wrinkles in his T-shirt, his general dishevelment, and I almost feel sorry for him.
And if I hadn’t been through this same song and dance more times than I’d like to admit, I would definitely feel sorry for him.
I raise my brows with impatience. “Did you hear me? Bye!”
“Come on. Let me help you f-find him. We just n-need to think like a dog.”
A smirk crosses my lips. “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem for you, should it?” I glare at him. “Goodbye, Nelson.”