Chapter 1 - Ryan
Five years later
“It is a beautiful Sunday evening here in Cedar Ridge, Tennessee. We hope you enjoyed your flight, and welcome home!” The pilot’s voice echoes over the intercom.
I look up from my contract I was reading over and adjust the glasses that sit on my nose. My eyes are blurry from trying to read all that fine print, but I understand the pilot’s words clear as day.
I haven’t been back home for a long time. The last time I was here was Christmas two years ago, for Thalia’s sixth birthday and the holidays. She just turned eight this year.
My visits and phone calls became scarce as the years went on. My mom tried to be understanding, but I knew it was hard for her. Germany became my home, and Bates Industries became my outlet.
But now, things are different, and not in a good way. I was needed here permanently. So I packed my life up and crossed the pond one last time for good.
I briskly pull of those dang glasses, collect my work, and grab my carryon suitcase from the bin overhead. The rest of my belongings have already been shipped to my mom’s house. They are probably waiting for me there. I file behind the rest of the passengers through the aircraft and then into the terminal of the airport.
I walk straight past the baggage claim and over to the place where I know they will be waiting. A huge grin splits my face once I see them. The girl drops her homemade sign with my name on it and runs at me with full speed, giggling the whole way. I catch her and spin her around.
“Hey, squirt!” I exclaim to my little sister as I feel her clutch my neck in a huge bear hug.
“Hey, Ryno!” She squeaks back.
I pull away and set her down on the ground, crouching, so I’m not towering over her. Thalia is eight now, but I am still amazed at how tiny she is. She has blonde hair and green eyes just like me. Though over the past couple of years, my blonde hair has turned more of a dark sandy brown.
“Geez you’re getting big girl, how old are you now?” I pretend to think about it. “27?”
Thalia smiles at me shyly. “No, that’s you. I’m only eight.”
I slap the side of my head mockingly. “Oh, that’s right. You’re eight!” I reach out and tickle her small waist, and she bursts into a fit of giggles.
I glance up while I’m tickling her and notice my mom and Derek walking over to us. I smile and stand up. Mom wraps herself up in my arms. She is also much smaller than I remember, much frailer. When I let her go, I see she has tears in her eyes.
“Mom, don’t cry,” I say softly as I hold onto her shoulders.
She smiles through her tears and wipes them away. “I’m just so glad you’re back.”
I pull her in for another hug and hold her tight, but not too tight. “Me too, mom.”
My eyes dart to the older man standing behind her. Derek looks at me with pride as he extends his hand for a shake. I release my mom and accept his offer, gripping slightly and shaking it.
“Good to see you back, Ryan,” He says Derek loosens my hand and claps his hand on my shoulder. He and my mom had been married right before Thalia was born. He has been a permanent part of my family since, and I am happy to see him. He is the perfect father to my little sister and an amazing husband to my mother.
After the first round of hellos is made, we file into the parents’ car and start the trek home. Thalia is overjoyed that I get to sit in the back seat with her. She is relatively small for her age, so she still sits in a booster seat. But I happily buckle in next to her and play “I Spy with my little eye” the whole drive.
We stop for dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant at my mom’s suggestion. Over an abundance of chips and salsa, Mom and Derek ask lots of questions about work and life in Germany. I do my best to answer them, though my job can be confusing for many people.
I got my degree in structural engineering. I began working at Bates Industries as a full-time employee right after graduating. Since then, I’ve helped Teddy, the new official CEO, and one of my best friends, grow the business even more. Teddy is moving the company back onto US soil since he’s been living here with his wife for the last few years. It will be easier for him to run his company with its headquarters back in the same country as him. This transition proved to be beneficial when I put in the request to move back.
Since I got my family’s life-changing news, I’ve been contemplating how I can continue to do the work that I enjoy, while not having to travel all over to serve Bates Industries. When I approached Teddy with the idea of leaving Bates and starting my own firm, he was more than supportive and offered to invest in it.
It was one of those moments in life where everything seems to fall into place perfectly. And I couldn’t be more thankful.
Now that I’m home, I have to start looking into renting office space and setting up an LLC to begin the venture of small business ownership. I have a lot of work to do.
But first, I need to demolish this burrito.
Once my family and I are all fed and happy, we head back out to the car. I rummage around in my carryon bag sneakily and then shoot my sister a silly look. She smiles at me and raises her eyebrows.
“Now, I know you’re probably too stuffed for dessert, right, pretty girl?” I tease her as I hold my surprise behind my back.
Thalia sticks out her hands in a “gimme, gimme” gesture, and I happily hand over my treat. Her little mouth circles in an O as she observes her gift.
“Chocolate! Mommy, Ryno got me chocolate!”
“Not just any chocolate,” I say, tapping the outside wrapper. “That’s chocolate straight from Germany!”
Thalia throws her arms around my neck and hugs me again. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re the best big brother ever!” then she turns to our mother. “Mommy, can I have it right now?”
My mom looks at the two of us with a soft smile and nods gently. “Maybe just a little bit. We’ve gotta get you home and into bed, young lady.”
I ruffle my sister’s hair and then load her up into her booster seat again. By the time we actually arrive home, Thalia is passed out in her car seat with chocolate smeared all over her face. I unbuckle her seatbelt and carefully carry her inside and up to her room, while Derek is kind enough to grab my bags.
Thalia’s room is awfully girly. The walls are a light purple. Her bed has a canopy, and a lot of stuffed animals strewn everywhere. Along the perimeter of her room are twinkly fairy lights that give off a soft, calming glow.
I pull back her covers and settle her into bed, pulling off her shoes before tucking her in. I reach over to her nightstand and grab a tissue and wipe off the evidence of her chocolate coma.
Such a sweet little girl. What I wouldn’t give to be eight again.
I watch her for a second, sound asleep before I head back downstairs. I don’t see my mom, so she must have called it an early night as well. Derek is sitting in the living room, a golf game on the television. He has a glass of liquor in his hand. The older man looks up when he hears my footsteps.
“Hey, thanks for getting her settled in. Your mom was feeling the effects from the excitement, so she headed to sleep,” He nods down at his glass. “Can I get you one?”
He gets up and pours me a glass before settling back on the couch. Both of us sip at the amber liquid before I get the courage to ask the question.
“So, how is she?”
Derek sighs and takes a deep sip. “The chemo is scheduled to start on Wednesday. They diagnosed her in stage three. So treatment will be intense, but it’s still treatable.”
“Geez,” I murmur as I take another sip.
“Yeah, neither of us saw this coming. That’s why we’re so grateful you were able to come home to help with Thalia.”
I glance over at my step-father. “Have you guys explained to her what is going on yet?”
Derek shakes his head. “Not really, she knows that mommy is very sick even though she doesn’t look like she is, and we’ve told her that her medicine might make her lose her hair. But I don’t think she fully grasps the severity or implications of cancer.”
“That’s probably for the best,” I say. “Let Thalia keep her childhood for as long as she can.”
I watch Derek as we sit in silence. The recent diagnosis is taking a significant toll on him as well. His normally dark hair and beard have started to get gray speckles, giving him the salt and pepper look. He has dark circles under his eyes, proof of many nights spent awake worrying about the future of his family.
Derek has turned out to be the rock that my family needed. After my dad died in the war, it was just my mom and I. I did not take to Derek well at first, but now he is a man I respect and value as part of the family. If Derek hadn’t come around, I wouldn’t have Thalia, and my mom may not have been as happy as she is now.
My eyes travel over to the collection of family pictures hanging on the living room wall. The pictures show the story of our family growing and expanding. Only the first one has me, my mom and my father. The others develop from just me and mom to me, mom and Derek, then to our family of four, once Thalia was born.
I think about what my mom is facing with this cancer, and I am immensely glad that I am home to be by her side. Cedar Ridge hasn’t been my permanent place of residence for many years, but it has always been my home.
And while the house looks and feels the same, everything about life at home is not how I left it eight years ago.
“Here, Ryno, have some more pancakes!” My mother’s sweet singsong voice rings from across the kitchen that Tuesday. I had pretty much slept through the last few days, trying to catch up from the jetlag.
I chuckle. “Really, mom, I’m fine. I’m full.” I motion down to my plate, cleared from all the bacon, eggs, and pancakes she piled on twenty minutes ago.
Of course, Mom acts like she doesn’t hear a word I said and skips over to me before plopping another full stack of her famous blueberry pancakes onto my plate. “Eat up!”
I groan as I fold up the newspaper I’m reading and set it on the table. “Are you trying to make me explode?”
Mom’s blue eyes twinkle with happiness as she watches me start to dig in. Her pale blonde hair is pulled up into a messy ponytail with small wisps still hanging free. I hate to think that she may lose her hair since she loves it so much.
“I know it’s been a while since you’ve had a home-cooked meal, Ry, so I wanted your first breakfast to be memorable!” She exclaims as she plants a kiss on the top of my head.
I am almost twenty-seven years old—my birthday is next month—but I will never not accept affection from my mother. I grin between mouthfuls of pancakes, and she laughs.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” My mom asks as she sits down next to me at the table.
I swallow my bite and then turn to her. “I need to find a condo or an apartment or something today, and then maybe start searching for some office space,” I answer as I take a sip of coffee. “Then, I might stop by and see Liam and Juliet if they’re free.”
My mom nods and fiddles with the edge of the newspaper. “You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need, sweetie.”
I give her a small smile. “I know, thanks, Mom.”
“Also, you should zip up to Bennett sometime this week if you have time. Your old friend Todd is the headmaster there.”
“No, shit?” I ask, my eyebrows raised. Mom shoots me a glare, and Thalia wrinkles her nose in my direction. “I mean shoot.”
Mom rolls her eyes. “Yes, he took over once your headmaster passed away a year or so ago. Oh, and Izabel’s teaching up there too, I think.”
The pancakes I just swallowed turn to lead as they travel down my throat. Izabel. I pound my fist against my chest and cough, trying to dislodge it.
“Such a sweet girl. It was a shame you two didn’t work out,” my mom speculates, unaware that I am choking to death right next to her. “I run into her mom every once in a while at the supermarket, and we get to chatting. It seems like she’s delighted with that Mark fellow. He’s a good guy, from what I hear.”
I scowl down at my pancakes, my appetite now officially gone. “Yeah, I’m sure he’s just the perfect boyfriend.”
I haven’t heard from Izabel in years. Since we broke up five years ago, there had been a total of two exchanges between the two of us. Once when her sister married Teddy, and we were both in the wedding party. Slutty wedding sex ensued, and it was forever etched into my brain. And the other time was an out-of-the-blue phone call in the middle of the night.
Both instances left me with more heartbreak than I care to admit. It is pathetic. I am over it, though. We both made our choices, and we both have moved on. I haven’t heard from her since, which is probably for the best.
“Alright girly,” my mom says, clapping her hands, addressing my little sister. “Time to get you ready for school.”
Thalia wipes her face with her napkin before bouncing away from the table and up to her room. My mom turns to me again and places a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry if being home causes you pain, Ryan,” She whispers. “I know how difficult things got for you after everything.”
I sigh and close my eyes. “It’s okay, mom. I’m happy to be back so I can help you. And besides, Izabel and I are long over. There’s nothing there anymore. She’s moved on, I’ve moved on. It happens.”
Mom looks at me compassionately before nodding and gets up to start cleaning up breakfast. I scarf down the rest of my pancakes, even though I still feel sick, and rinse my plate before setting it in the dishwasher. I press a kiss to my mom’s cheek and then head off to my room to get ready for the day.
I spend hours looking for a condo. I finally settle on one that is relatively close to downtown Cedar Ridge. Our town isn’t huge, but we still have a significant business district to show for the smaller population. Since I will be starting up my own business soon, I figure it’s a good idea to be close to where all the magic happens.
It isn’t until that afternoon that I get around to catching up with some of my friends. After a quick visit with Liam and Juliet, I find myself pulling into the paved lot of Bennett Institute.
I sign into the visitor’s center and start my trek towards the headmaster’s office. Walking the hallowed halls, I’m surprised at how much hasn’t changed with the school. The same old banners and motivational posters are tacked up on the walls. The big trophy case has only increased by a few gold trophies. On a podium in the middle of the stand sits a large shiny trophy that my team got from nationals for soccer.
I smile at the memories that come flooding in.
Slowly I walk down the halls, my shoes making an echoing noise throughout the hallways. Occasionally I run into a student who nods my way but doesn’t say much: same uniforms, same insignia on the shirts.
By the time I actually make it to Todd’s new office, I’m overrun by the glory days. I shiver slightly before I knock on his door. The secretary told me earlier that he isn’t in any meetings. I just hope I don’t walk in on him chewing some troublemaker’s ass.
“Come in,” Todd’s voice rings through the wooden doors. I swing them open and strike a pose as I make my entrance.
It takes Todd a minute to catch up to my arrival. He looks up from his paperwork and gives me a glassy stare before his brain catches up with his eyes. “Ryan?” he asks, standing up and walking around his desk towards me.
I clutch him in a hug. “Long time no see, brother!”
Todd laughs as he claps my back. “What are you doing here, man? When did you get back?”
I pull away from my friend and look him over. “I got back Sunday night. Look at you, all headmasterly.”
Todd looks down at his suit and dusts off some imaginary lint. Then he looks at me sheepishly. “Yeah, who’d have thought I’d be right back at school all these years later?”
“Not me, that’s for sure. Get me as far away from this place as possible.”
“Oh yeah, how was Germany?” Todd asks, leaning his backside against the edge of his desk.
“It was great. I loved every second of it,” I say. Which is true, mostly. I loved everything about Germany, except that it ruined my relationship with the most amazing girl in the world. But the past is in the past.
Or was it?
I can’t help the words that fall out of my mouth next. “Hey, so my mom said Izabel Sanders is working here now too?”
I immediately frown at my word vomit. What the hell was that?
Todd presses his lips into a tight line and nods his head slowly. “Yes, she is. She teaches Freshman and Sophomore history.”
“Could you tell me what room she’s in? I’d like to pop in and say hi.”
I don’t know what is possessing me to think that this is a good idea, but the urge to see her, just a glance, is suddenly overwhelming.
I’m not back for her.
I’m not back for her.
Still, it couldn’t hurt just to say hi, right?
Todd rubs the back of his neck nervously, “Actually, she’s not here today. She took a sick day.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise,” I say sheepishly. Todd looks at me with a knowing expression and then gracefully changes the topic.
“Have you been to see Liam yet?”
“Yeah I stopped by there earlier today, seems like he’s doing well.”
Todd nods. “Yeah, definitely. He’s got his hands full with Juliet and little Ashton. Oh speaking of, did he tell you about Ashton’s first birthday party in a few weeks?”
“He did, I plan on going.”
“Cool, me too. It should be fun. I hope Ashton demolishes that cake they give him. He’s a cute kid, but he’d be even cuter with cake smeared all over his face,” Todd jokes
“Not to mention the outrageous reaction his mother is going to have,” I shoot back.
We both laugh, thinking of our friend Juliet. She is a blonde beauty, but she is not one to be messed with. Her bite is definitely worse than her bark.
“Well, man, it was great to see you, but I should probably get back to work,” Todd motions back towards his desk.
“Sure thing, it was cool to see you too. I guess I’ll see you at the party in a few weeks,” I say as I extend my hand for him to shake. He agrees, shakes my hand, and then walks me to the door.
We say quick goodbyes, and then I’m alone again. As I walk back to my car, I glance at the trophy case one more time. I can’t help the nostalgia that sweeps over me. Life is crazy sometimes.
I used to be King of this school. I used to have it all: the popularity, the prestigious internship, the beautiful girlfriend.
Now that’s all gone, and I’m left wondering if I have anything left at all.