Adeline couldn’t stop her hands from absentmindedly rubbing her ring finger. It felt so empty, so light without the wedding ring she’d worn for the past five years. Her hand felt bare, and in a way, she did too. Like she should run back to that house and beg him to take her back. Would he even? She hadn’t seen him since that day she’d moved all of her belongings out, and back into her mother’s home. She’d heard his name everywhere though, seen his influence all over their tiny town. Gosh, why hadn’t she seen it before? Maybe the marriage had made her wear blinders to the fact that she could not escape Jackson Lawson and Lawson’s Peach Canning Company.
A loud chorus of titters rang up from around her and her fingers unknowingly clenched her glass of lemonade tighter. She tried to will herself back into the superficial conversation held by the women around her, hoping it could be a good enough distraction. The last thing she needed was to be further into her head.
“And next Saturday is the first day of the Summer Sugar Festival, so everyone, make sure you’ve got your booths ready. This year, we’re supposed to get over 50,000 tourists from the West Coast! I gotta say, when Westley told me he was hirin’ a marketin’ agent, I told him it was a waste of time, and money,” More titters. “But now, he’s rollin’ in cash and I am one happy wife!”
Grace Burn looked over the other women sitting at the table like a wildcat stalking its prey. Though the smile on her face stood strong, she never let her gaze waver. It made Adeline shiver.
“I, for one, know we’re doing a pie-eatin’ contest,” She told the other four women. “Because nobody makes a blueberry pie better than I do!”
“The boys are already in the square, scoutin’ out places for rides. We’re settin’ up a Ferris Wheel, a mirror maze and one of them rides that whips you around in circles for a while! I think Connor is wantin’ as many people to throw up on the Mayor’s doorstep as possible,” Felicity told them, making them all laugh again.
The conversation continued and Adeline tuned them out. These women had been her friends for five years. Well, not so much friends… they’d sort of pounced on 19 year old her when she’d entered into the Lawson family, young and without knowledge of how a business tycoon’s wife should act. They taught her everything she knew about being a socialite; how to act, who to respect, and who to shun outright. They’d become a form of friends, she guessed. And she desperately needed friends now.
Jerking her head up, she looked to the other women. “Huh? Oh, sorry, I must not’ve heard you.”
“We just asked how you was doin’. We know how hard it’s been on you, leavin’ Jackson and all,” Hope took her hand, patting it gently. It actually brought her some comfort.
“I’m alright, I guess. Livin’ back home is weird. My mama’s been runnin’ rampant, tryin’ to get me out and about,” She told them, looking at her bare hand. “It’s just nice to know I’m still invited out here with you girls.”
She looked up at them, expecting to see sympathy. Instead, she got awkward glances between the four women, with Felicity smoothing out her dress.
“Right, about that,” She started, looking to Grace.
“We had a talk about it and, well, since you and Jackson aren’t married no more, we figured it’d be best if you didn’t come around so much,” Grace was obviously trying to phrase it delicately. Adeline looked shocked. “You just might feel bad, hearin’ us plan all our events and then you can’t come to any…”
“Who says I can’t come to any? I’ll still be at the Sugar Festival,” She tried to tell them.
“We know, and you’ll still be workin’ but…” Felicity touched a hand to her necklace. “Sweetie, didn’t Jackson keep everythin’ in the divorce? We heard you walked away with 10 grand and some clothes.”
“Do the squealers in this town ever shut their traps?” Adeline wondered aloud.
“So it’s true?” Grace sounded scandalized, hanging off her every word to no doubt go back and tell others. “Only ten thousand?”
“More than that!” Adeline shot back, before settling back down. “Right now, I have 18 grand.”
Grace shook her head, a hand on her mouth. “Bless your heart. Honey, that ain’t gonna last very long. Pretty soon, you’ll be workin’ and we’ll be here… we’ll have two very different lives, Adeline. And we don’t want you feelin’... outta place here.”
Adeline looked at the women, still so shocked she could barely comprehend what was happening to her. “So you’re tellin’ me to go?”
“We think it would be best,” Felicity supplied.
Standing up, she looked to Hope, the only woman there she considered her friend. The blonde wouldn’t meet her eyes. Adeline headed for the door, stepping out into the hot summer afternoon. She looked around at the huge, colonial houses with perfect lawns and shiny cars out front. It was like a photo out of a magazine, so beautiful and pristine. But she knew what went on behind closed doors. How many of these women were alcoholics, how many of these men cheated on their wives. But she was the only one who left though. Did that make her stupid?
Unbuckling her handbag, she called for a ride. She wouldn’t let them have the dignity of watching her walk out of their neighborhood for the last time.
“Mama, I told you, I don’t wanna go to the festival. It’s bad enough seein’ Jackson’s face every time I go to the store, I don’t wanna see it in person,” Adeline said, pouring out another mess of strawberries into their ice cream machine.
“And I told you that I need help sellin’ all this, and with your pretty face, we’ll be out of stock in no time,” Her mother took her chin in hand and kissed her nose. “You’ll see. Out there in the heat, gettin’ to see all your old neighbors, you’ll feel better.”
Adeline shook her head and measured out the cream. Her mother had been begging her all week to come help her sell ice cream at the festival, and she’d kept on saying no. The last thing she needed was to be trapped in a small booth, watching as people whispered about her as they walked by. It was bad enough for it to happen at church, where she could hear it from behind her, but in front of her face? That would be too much.
“Those ‘old neighbors’ have been waitin’ to sink their claws into me since January, mama. None of them are very happy with the choice I made. And if I remember right, you weren’t neither.”
“Well forgive me if I thought it all happened a little fast,” Her mother snapped. She then sighed. “I’m sorry, baby. I know you think you did what was right but… people don’t really get divorced around here.”
“I know, mama. I knew when I had to almost go out of the state to find a lawyer,” She sat down at the dining room table, watching her mother flit about the kitchen, preparing for tomorrow. “But it was the right thing, mama. He cheated on me.”
“I know that honey, but you didn’t have to make it such a… public thing.”
Adeline looked down at her sundress; white, decorated with little peaches. It had been a wedding gift. She stood, heading upstairs for her bedroom. She knew she’d have to go to the festival tomorrow, no matter how hard she tried to fight her mama on it. It would be a day of hearing contests and winners announced, listening to her ex-husband and the husbands of her ex-friends banter, and being told over and over that Jackson was a catch and she shouldn’t have been so rash.
If there was one thing she never considered herself to be, it was rash. It was only natural to divorce someone who cheated on you. She hadn’t been being over emotional or unreasonable. If anyone was unreasonable, it was Jackson. The divorce had been brutal, him fighting her tooth and nail on almost anything she’d wanted to keep. Their house? His. Their cars? His. Their dogs? Heartbreakingly his. She’d been allowed to keep her clothes and purses, and a measly sum that had been chipped into when she’d had to pay her lawyer.
Still, she didn’t second guess herself. She never went back on her choice, never wondered if she had been wrong. In her mind, leaving Jackson was the best choice she could have made.
That didn’t mean everyone agreed, though.
She’d been at the grocery store for her daddy, picking him up some cigarettes, when she’d first learned how people thought of her. The clerk frowned when he saw her coming.
“What can I get for you?”
“Can I get a pack of Marlboro Eighty-Threes, please?” She asked, looking at his nametag. “Hey, Kensley, Kensley Adams?”
“The very same.” He unlocked the display.
“I went to highschool with you! It’s Adeline Barnes,” She smiled, glad to see a semi-familiar face, even if it was from years ago. The cigarettes were tossed onto the counter and her face fell a little. “Hey, did I do somethin’ to upset you?”
“Besides divorcin’ my cousin?”
“Jackson Lawson is your cousin?” That didn’t sound right.
“Second cousin, on my daddy’s side,” He glared at her. “You shouldn’t’ve left him.”
“You don’t know what happened between us-”
“He cheated on you. So what?” He rung up her cigarettes. “You don’t think my daddy ever cheated on my mama? You don’t think my granddaddy ever cheated on my grandmama? It happens all the time, men can’t be expected to stay loyal to one woman. We’re expected to procreate, and we gotta do it with as many people as possible.”
“So can a woman cheat on a man?” She asked, crossing her arms.
He let out a cruel scoff. “Hell no, they can’t. They’s supposed to be loyal to one man, they husband.”
Handing him the money, she picked up the cigarettes. “Now tell me how that makes any sense at all, for a man to cheat on a woman, but a woman can’t cheat on no man.”
“You wouldn’t get it. You obviously don’t understand men, because of how you divorced Jackson. I bet you, your spot’ll be filled in no time. Just you wait.”
That thought sat uncomfortably in her gut. How long would it be before Jackson found a new woman? Would he have a new wife, before her side of the bed even went cold? Why should she care? She divorced him and wasn’t going back to him. If he chose a new wife, that was just another woman for him to abuse in place of her. She shouldn’t care what Jackson did.
And that’s how she ended up behind the counter at the Sugar Festival.
She’d put on her sweetest blue sundress and pinned her hair up nicely, showing that she still had her dignity. They could take everything else in the world from her, but they’d never be able to have that. She’d been placed at the register and was doing fine, taking backhanded statements from older people with a smile and facing down the looky-loos who hung about the front.
It was a massive turnout. Everyone from the town had come, as well as so many tourists, it almost felt like she wasn’t in her home anymore. The fresh faces of people who had no clue what had happened to her were a nice change from everyone else. She’d handed a bowl out to one of those tourist families when their town pastor approached the window. Adeline put on a smile so sweet someone could have sold it out of their booth.
“What can I get for you, Pastor Greene?” She asked, trying to ignore his haughty gaze.
“Yes, I’ll have a cone of blueberry,” He said, looking down his nose at her. “Would you like me to announce it to the whole crowd, as well?”
“Just tellin’ me will do just fine, Pastor Greene. One blueberry cone, please!”
“You know, Ms. Barnes,” Here we go. “First Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 34 states that: ‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.’”
Her eye twitched a little. “Well, I do believe we are not in the Lord’s house, Pastor Greene.”
“But, as God says, a woman is to be in submission to her man. She should serve him, and her Lord, quietly and without fail.”
The ice cream was passed to Adeline, who narrowed her eyes a little, her smile never wavering. If there was one thing Grace taught her, it was how to keep up a happy facade, even if you wanted someone six feet under the ground. She held her palm out to him.
“That’ll be $2.60, sir.”
“There’s no discount for you beloved pastor?”
Her smile turned a bit malicious. “You’d think, with how often the collection plate comes up short, you could afford a $2 ice cream cone.”
Their gaze was locked and fiery, and the money was pressed into her hand. She handed over his food and put the money away in the lockbox, looking back up at the man before her.
“Enjoy the festival, Pastor Greene.”
The day drug on and as the sun began setting, Adeline approached her mother by the coolers.
“I’m goin’ to get an iced tea, mama. Lucille’s coverin’ for me.”
“Oh good, get me one too,” Her mom told her. Nodding, Adeline ducked out onto the busy streets. Children ran about, fighting each other with foam swords and screaming in excitement. The mechanical whirr of rides filled the night air, underneath the sound of live music. Vendors shouted for customers, trying to sell as much of their product on the first day, which would be the most lucrative. She walked the streets quietly.
Last year, she’d been dolled up and hung off the arm of Jackson as they judged the peach cobbler contest. Of course, she hadn’t eaten any, just sat like a pretty doll and gave the winner her ribbon when she’d won. That contest had to be well into the judging phase now. Maybe she could walk by and see how dumb Jackson looked, standing up there by himself.
After picking up two iced teas, she headed for the judging stage. The five bakers all waited nervously by their cobblers while Jackson deliberated behind the backdrop. People had gathered to watch, some holding homemade signs for the person they wanted to win. Last year’s winner, Deborah Cull, had come to defend her title. It was a pretty fun atmosphere until Jackson entered the stage. He looked the same, tall and pale with a lot of hair gel and an overly expensive suit. But that wasn’t what caught her.
It was his secretary, dressed to the nines, holding his arm, like Adeline had. She smiled like a model and scanned the audience, just like Adeline did. It was eerie, in a way. Seeing her, but also seeing herself.
“You all made wonderful cobblers, but there can only be one winner,” Jackson said, looking at the bakers. “And that winner is… Deborah Cull!”
The crowd erupted and Deborah was handed her ribbon, looking out into the audience.
“I am just so grateful to win again! I’m sure these ladies made wonderful cobblers, but you can’t beat the champ!”
Jackson laughed and smiled at his secretary, who kissed his cheek. “Well Deborah, I hate to steal your limelight, but there’s somethin’ I’ve been meanin’ to do.” To Adeline’s horror, he got down on one knee. A gasp ran through the crowd as he opened up a blue ring box, the diamonds inside glinting. “Valerie, we ain’t been together long, but I feel like I’ve known you all my life. You’ve made these past few months so much easier on me. You’ve been my rock, my hand to hold and my reason for livin’. Which is why I wanna ask, will you marry me?”
Adeline felt her chest tighten. Her hands were shaking, so violent she could feel tea running over her fingers.
“Oh, Jackson… I, yes! Yes, I will marry you!”
The ring slipped on her hand and they kissed, causing another cheer from the crowd. The cups slipped from Adeline’s hands and fell to the pavement, splashing the people next to her. One cried out.
“Hey, watch what you’re- oh my God. Adeline?” He looked at her, then back up at the stage. “Shit, you’re Adeline! Hey, it’s Adeline!”
People around her began turning and shouting until all eyes were on her. Jackson peered into the crowd and, sickeningly, smiled at her.
She could hear it. The whispers. The hushed laughs and the people shushing one another. Her face burned red and her eyes flooded with tears; she was so... humiliated. Her stomach was rolling and she dashed off, tears falling down her face as she ran back to her mother’s booth, grabbing her purse and digging around for her phone; she was getting out of this and going home.
“Adeline, good Lord, what has gotten into you?” Her mother asked.
“He just proposed to the woman he cheated on me with, mama!” She shouted, voice choking with tears. “And, and I just stood there like an idiot and watched him! They all, they pointed me out and the laughter, I couldn’t take it. I just need to go home.”
“Honey, you’ll get back on your feet,” Her mother came to her, taking her arms in hand and rubbing her biceps. “And soon, your daddy’s gonna find you someone who works with him. A good, nice man for you.”
Shock struck her like lightning.
“You think… that’s what this is about? That I don’t have a man?”
“Isn’t it?” Her mom looked confused.
Adeline wrenched out of her grasp. “No! I don’t care about that, mama! I don’t care that I’m single, I care that everywhere I go, I’m being laughed at, or lectured, or told I made the wrong choice like a child! I’m treated like some second class citizen because I left my husband!”
“That’ll all die down-”
“And what about now? I can’t show my face around here for more than two minutes!” She shouted, drawing everyone’s attention. “This place is supposed to be my home, but everyone here makes it feel like a prison.”
“Now don’t say that,” Her mother spoke sternly. “Why don’t you go on home? I can things here.”
“That ain’t my home. This place is not my home,” She swung her purse over her shoulder. “I can’t stay here anymore. I’m sorry, mama.”
“Where are you goin’?”
“I don’t know,” She said honestly. “Anywhere but here.”
She shielded her face as she pushed through the crowds, getting into the car she’d called and crying in the backseat. Her driver said nothing, just turned up his music and took her to her mom’s.
Once she was home, she packed. She packed up everything she owned and left her room as barren as it was when she moved in. At that moment, she didn’t care where she was going. She could end up in Mexico, or Florida, or even Europe.
As long as she wasn’t there, it would be heaven.