After leaving the Courthouse, Charlene found herself driving her car, not in the direction of the hotel, but the small house where she and her mother had lived, the same house where her dad had taken his own life. Looking back on it years later, it had seemed incredible to her that they had continued to live in that house with the haunting memories it held. How could her mom want to stay there? But then she had reminded herself that she had the memory of him hanging from that ceiling, her mom didn’t. His body had already been removed and taken to the morgue when her mother arrived home that day. Her mom had good memories of her husband—her last moments with him alive, of kissing him goodbye that morning in their tiny kitchen before she headed to her job at the J&J. His mood that morning had been optimistic, believing his luck would turn that day, and he would find work. The house Charlene had found cold, filled with nothing but death and despair, had held warm, loving memories for her mother. She later understood why the woman had not wanted to leave that house or the town, and why she had wanted to return even against Charlene’s wishes.
She had driven by the old house when she had returned to bury her mother, late that evening, just as darkness was beginning to set in. The house sat dark and alone, abandoned, run-down even more than when they had lived in it. She had willed herself out of her car and to the front door with its peeling paint and rotting wood. She didn’t know why, but she’d felt the need to go inside, so she had pushed on the front door, noticing that it was not entirely shut. The eerie silence inside made her shudder. Her blood ran cold as her eyes tried to adjust to the darkness of the living room. All at once the silence was broken by the shrill cry of a beast inside, a black creature that dashed across the abandoned room and out the front door. She had not muffled her scream that evening but had let it out, loudly, as, she, too, ran out the open door. She had run to her car, gotten inside, and driven to her hotel, trembling as she locked herself in her room. Once she convinced herself it had only been a black cat and no real beast or ghost, she had showered and dressed in comfortable clothing, and gone down to the hotel bar for a glass of wine, still unnerved, emotional and exhausted from the events of the day.
Now, twelve years later, she found herself once again pulled in the direction of that house. She had hoped to see it gone, perhaps bulldozed and replaced. Much to her surprise, it still stood but was no longer abandoned. Numerous repairs were visible, including a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new front door. Bright curtains hung in the small windows. Flower pots lined the sidewalk, filled with assorted flowers that distracted from the many cracks in the concrete. Two young girls played in the front yard while a young mom sat in a lawn chair watching. The young woman smiled and waved as she slowly drove by. She returned the gesture, then continued down the road.
The old hotel was historic, initially built in 1930, turned into a bank building in the early 70′s, and recently restored and returned to its original purpose. The floors shined with colorful Spanish tile. The walls were painted a vibrant, welcoming shade of yellow, with thick, dark wood trim. Massive wood beams stained to match the wood trim lined the tall ceiling. Marble adorned the tops of the desks. Hand-forged wrought iron railing with intricate scrolling flanked the staircase leading to the second floor, adding to the heavy influence of old world charm.
The lobby where Charlene sat, nervously waiting for Roy, had come alive with guests since earlier in the afternoon. A group of five stood at the check-in desk chatting with one another as the young male clerk checked his computer for their reservation. As she had in another hotel coffee shop early that morning, she found herself studying the different guests, wondering their purpose for being there, which led to her reflect on her own.
It had been simple. Charlene came with the intent of righting the wrong she had done to Roy twelve years ago, and nothing more other than visiting the cemetery. She had made no plans past that. But now that she was there, now that she had seen Roy, spent some time with him, she found herself wondering, thinking for the second time today, as she ran the small diamond back and forth along the long chain around her neck—was it possible?
Could she put the past behind her to have a future with the one man she had truly loved since high school? Could she, Charlene Billows, a new, stronger, matured, improved version of Charlene White, return to this town she had so desperately wanted to escape twenty years ago? Could she handle it all—the town, the people, the memories—to be with Roy? She loved him that she knew. She always had, though her actions, her decisions over the years, had undoubtedly betrayed that.
The even bigger question, of course, was if would Roy have her back? Could he forgive her everything she had done to him the past twenty years? Did he still have feelings for her? She believed so.
She’d expected a hostile welcome from him, and he had not disappointed earlier that morning in the coffee shop. But it hadn’t been the fierce, hate-driven hostility she had expected. And he had shown up at the cemetery, concerned about her. He’d shown no animosity toward her in his office, the contrary actually, making a date with her for tonight and kissing her before she left.
Was it possible that Roy still loved her? With no family of his own, no commitments, no woman in his life, other than Denise, which didn’t seem at all a serious relationship, it seemed possible to her that the three of them could somehow, someday, be a family.
She pulled her phone from her bag, touched the text message icon, then scrolled through the pics her daughter had sent her an hour earlier—photos of her and her friends having the time of their lives back in Dallas at the state fair. She loved her daughter so much; she was the most precious, most important thing in her life. She had to do what was best for Alexandra.
Was this best? She had convinced herself before coming that it was. Suddenly, she had doubts. She loved her daughter, and she loved Roy. Tears began to fill her eyes. Had she made the right decision twelve years ago? It had seemed like the right one—he only one—at the time, but it had been so unfair to Roy. She had loved Roy Slater with all her heart, had never stopped loving him for twenty years, yet every decision she had made over years had affected him, hurt him, deprived him. How could he possibly forgive her any of it? How could he not hate her? They were both going to hate her. Was she strong enough to handle that?
No. It was best to leave things as they were.
She glanced at the clock on the wall above the front desk. 5:52. Could she throw her things in her bag, get back downstairs and to her car in eight minutes? Could she be on the Interstate, heading back to Dallas by the time Roy arrived to pick her up? Possibly, it wasn’t like her stuff was strewn around the room. Her OCD didn’t allow for that. It would take her very little time, just as it had before, to gather her things and leave. The front desk had her credit card information, so she didn’t need to check out at the counter. If she raced upstairs now, she might just make it.
As she stood, Roy entered. The sight of him took her breath away. He looked incredibly handsome, dressed in a sharp, crisp, long-sleeved red shirt, dark denim jeans, and black boots that matched the cowboy hat he held in one hand. In the other hand, he held a large red and black homecoming corsage.
No, there was no running away this time. Charlene loved this man and always had. She had to stay, to tell him what she had done. She had to take whatever punishment presented itself, and pray that in the end, he could forgive her, that they both would forgive her, and someday, in the future, they could be—would be—a family.