Chapter 1 Ellijay
The lightweight sports aircraft sped towards its destination of Ellijay, Georgia. The Icon A5 was whisper silent as it sliced through the crisp mountain air. Below Autumn’s magnificent touch had transformed the trees, glorifying every inch of the dense forests along the base of the Appalachian Mountain range. Brilliant bursts of cardinal red, burnt sienna and golden foliage created a stunning aerial view against the blue gray sky. Glistening streams snaked their way into larger tributaries. Aiden Ross saw Carter Lake coming into view. He planned to land and dock his amphibious aircraft there. The plane headed toward the lake. Aiden slipped on his Ray Bans shielding his dark brown eyes from the brilliant descending sun.
His heart had not stopped hammering since he’d gotten the call from Nanna two days ago. He’d dropped everything that he was doing, preparing to return to a place he’d written off, forever. His entire world had crashed into a wall. All his life he’d despised Ellijay, except for Nanna and Jasmine. The rest of Ellijay could go to hell. He checked his controls and prepared for landing. Memories of his father making him fly crop dusting planes burned in his mind. He wanted to play sports like all the other boys, not spend hours in flight and learning the crop dusting business.
Now he would kiss his father’s feet because he could be here for Jasmine, today. She had slipped out of his life ten years ago and now he couldn’t bear the thought of what Nanna said. He could hear the elder woman’s voice like a nightmare in his head. Aiden, promise you won’t mention anything that I said. You can’t discuss this with anyone. He had once loved that woman. “She’s not going to be able to handle this.”
The plane slowly descended. He braced himself for the slight bump he’d feel as the underbelly of the plane made contact with the water. The plane powered down as it skimmed its way to the dock. Aiden smiled when he saw Bruce Roy waving. Bruce walked down the ramp way towards the plane. He’d called in earlier and knew Bruce would be waiting for him. To be honest, there were more than two good people in Ellijay, and the Roy family was one of them. They owned the dock. He’d been friends with Bruce since they were five. But the relationship took a plunge when Aiden moved to Syracuse, New York. The ride to his Madison Square Avenue office in New York city was a stones’ throw from Syracuse.
The plane sputtered to a halt. Aiden stepped out onto the dock, thrilled to finally be able to stretch his muscular 6’2 frame from the long flight. His arms rose toward the sky. Then he reached down and tousled his thick black hair into place. The beautiful hair was a gift from his mother who had Cherokee in her blood. He smoothed his clothes just in time to be greeted with a big slap on the back from Bruce.
“Hey, dude, look at you and them rags.” His eyes widened as he looked at the sleek safari green jacket, black polo and pants that fit Aiden as if he’d spent a mint. Bruce secured the A5 to the dock.
Aiden smirked, giving his friend a quick once over. That was a line he would expect Bruce to say. He hadn’t changed a bit: jeans, tats and all. He was tall, lanky, had an infectious smile and eyes as blue as an Ellijay fishing pond. His long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, like a redneck in stark contrast to Aiden’s expensive Ascot Chang clothing. Even his casual wardrobe from that store brand would cost one third of the average yearly income from the blue-collar workers in their small town. After exchanging a manly embrace, Aiden retrieved his lone bag.
“That’s all you brought?”
“The rest is being shipped. Good to see you Bruce.”
“Yeah, it’s been a minute. Ten years is way too long Aiden.”
“You know I had to go.”
Bruce sent Aiden a sideways glance as they walked towards the building. “Things change, man.”
I wish I could tell you how much it has changed. “I know things may have changed in Ellijay, but I haven’t.”
Bruce’s laughed boomed across the open space. “You lie, boy.” His Georgian accent was thick and southern. “That global marketing firm of yours has got the world singing your praises. You can sell snow to an Eskimo. Billions change a man.” He exhaled. “Come on, Mama’s waiting to see you.”
Aiden got twinges thinking about Mrs. Ella Roy. Between her and Nanna, Aiden had a mother. Although when he was young, he was bitter that his mother had abandoned him a few months after his birth. She’d only visited rarely.
For his early years, the only memories that he had when she did visit was her gentle hand comforting him and her soft voice as she sang him to sleep. In that moment, Aiden realized how much he’d missed Mrs. Roy and Nanna. His stomach twisted into tiny knots. They walked down the pier to the office, but before they got there, Mrs. Roy had dashed from the office, heading towards them with her arms outstretched. “Aiden!”
He was about to fold on the inside, but she scooped him up in a bear hug. Then she reached up and pulled his head down, planting a sweet kiss on his forehead. He laughed.
“Ella, my Ella.”
Her stocky frame felt so good to hug. She smelled of old fashioned rosewater that brought memories of some happy times. His heart was stinging. Some good really had come out of Ellijay. He kissed the top of her short salt and pepper hair. She looked great with so many years between them. Her heart shaped face, dazzling blues and a smile as infectious as her son brightened his day.
Unlike Bruce, she was wearing the Roy Dock’s uniform - black pants and red shirts. The term Roy Dock was engraved in the upper right hand corner of the shirt.
She pinched his cheek. “Well, Bruce tells me that he’s got to get you over to the inn really quickly, but at least come inside and have a cup of coffee with me.”
“Mama, he’s really got to go. He’ll be around for a while and I’ll make sure that he comes by.”
“That’s okay Bruce. Five minutes won’t change a thing. I need a shot of something strong anyway.”
“Well, it’s sitting on the table black like you like it,” said Ella with a warm smile.
The three of them chatted as they headed for the office building. When they entered the office, Aiden glanced around noting how updated things were. The pine paneling that once covered the walls had been replaced by some smart type of architectural boards that looked like beautiful white molded plastics. Everything was clean lined, bright and modern. Some businesses in Ellijay had been on the rise as the community boomed. Others like The Apple Blossom Inn were in dire straits being replaced by commercial hotel chains.
“Sit down, son.” Aiden took a seat and Ella slid the cup of coffee to him. “Lord knows I wish you could have gotten here two years ago. Nanna and Jasmine are having a time at the inn. I told that stubborn girl to call you. She wasn’t hearing it.”
Bruce added, “We’ve all been trying to help. The community voted to take some of the proceeds from the Apple Festival last year and give it to them as a gift.”
The Apple Festival was one of Ellijay’s largest and most profitable events. Ellijay was the Apple capital of the south. They produced over six hundred thousand bushels of apples every year that were sold throughout the country.
Bruce continued. “Too much is going on. Nanna is so proud she didn’t tell anyone about all the repairs that were needed, so the money we collected didn’t go as far as we had all wanted. Jasmine has been so busy running everything and doing all she can to keep the creditors from the door that she’s exhausted. With Nanna’s age and all, she can’t do what she used to.”
“Aiden, I’m just going to be honest,” Ella chided, “Jas is not going to take your charity so don’t think you can come here, write a big check and fix everything. There are some pretty dark places between you and this town that are going to need a lot of light to fix.”
He placed his face in his hands and released a long, grieving sigh. There is so much more to this trip besides thinking about Jas’s pride. His heart ached. “Let’s go, Bruce.”
The shiny red Ford F150 hugged the road as Bruce floored it down the back roads leading to The Apple Blossom Inn, leaving a huge trail of dust in their wake. Aiden laughed as he remembered Bruce’s style of driving. He was strapped in tight and holding on to the handle. Bruce and Aiden knew the curves in the road so well they could literally drive them in the dark with no lights on. They’d played “Chicken,” hundreds of times, daring each other to drive in the dark with Jasmine and Bruce’s girl, Michelle, squealing in the backseat. Bruce had married Michelle. Aiden should have been so smart with Jasmine.
“How’s the family?”
“Good. Michelle spends all her time playing soccer mom with Jordy and Samantha. She checks on Nanna and Jas often helping them out at the inn.”
He observed how Bruce’s face lit up when he spoke of Michelle. A streak of envy washed over him, but it quickly disappeared. Bruce had preserved his relationship, while Aiden had driven Jas out of his life. He was to blame, so there was no point in being envious.
“They are about six and eight?”
“Almost. They are seven and nine.”
Bruce turned and saw stress written all over Aiden’s face. “It’s all going to turn out all right. You’re going to finish your unfinished business. We’ll all be praying that if you leave this time it will be a whole lot better for you than the last time.”
Aiden squeezed his eyes tight unable to fathom the thought of being in Ellijay, let alone a possibility of him not leaving as Bruce had suggested. He hated Ellijay but after what Nanna had said, could he bear to leave?
Bruce smirked and slipped a piece of Red Hot gum in his mouth, chewing like a cow on the cud. “Like I said, things change, man.”
The F 150 wound its way up the mountain. The motor whined as it shifted into front wheel drive.
“There is nothing more beautiful than this, is it?” Aiden said, soaking up the pallet of colors swirling around him.
“Nope, we live in a lazy paradise.”
“Hey, I want you to stop right here. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“No, I’m not going to let you do that. You’ve had a long day. They’ll be plenty of time to walk while you are here.”
Aiden smiled at his friend. He was the same old caring Bruce and the type of person who would do anything for anybody. “It’s only about a mile away. They don’t know that I’m here.”
Bruce lifted his brow. “I thought you said that you spoke with Nanna.”
“I did speak with Nanna; we just didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the inn.”
Astonishment washed over Bruce’s face. He really wanted to talk to Bruce about it but knew he couldn’t.
“Then what did you talk about?”
Aiden bit his lip. “I can’t talk about it.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“A little bit of both.” Aiden rubbed his forehead that now was throbbing. “Just let me out. I’ve got to get my head together before I see them. We’ll catch up tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?”
Bruce slowed down the truck and pulled onto the side of the road. He gave Aiden an assuring smile. “If you need anything, you know I’ll be there for you.”
Aiden nodded. “I know.”
Then he grabbed his bag and stepped out of the truck. He waved as Bruce drove off. Nostalgia swept over Aiden like the fall breeze. He stood for a moment, just absorbing everything that the big city could never have – the mountain vistas, the crisp, clean air, and the song of birds that never had to compete with the clamor of urban noise. He looked up at the dense canopy of trees surrounding him and took a deep breath. The leaves rustled gently against the chilling wind.
“Oh Jas,” he said, shaking his head.
Aiden rubbed his hands together and shoved them in his pockets. Then he exhaled and began his trek down the two-lane asphalt road, the memories from his past colliding with his present.