Chapter 1 - Noah
Chasing Infinity — Part I — Now
I love her, and that is the beginning and end of everything.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Thunder rattles outside, making the frame of my car shake. The rain bombards the windows. I groan, pulling the edges of my flimsy pillow across my ears to drown it out. Shifting around in the backseat of the pathetic run-down car, I try to get comfortable. It takes great effort not to let the circumstances of my situation weigh me down too far.
My life is a shit show. Nothing about where I am right now would have been on my plan for my life. I never imagined the catalyst to bring me back to this godforsaken town would be my mother’s funeral. But here we are. Life has a funny way of turning the tables around on you.
Almost ten years have passed since the last time I’ve set foot in this town. While the threat of knowing I’d have to return at some point lingered in my mind like a foul odor. Though, I generally did a fair job of keeping myself distracted. I was living in a happy little fantasy outside this picturesque place. Unfortunately, now that I’m back, the bubble has burst.
Willow Heights is where I was born, where I grew up, and where I crashed and burned. The residents of this town probably still walk around whispering my name like a legend. This place elicits too many memories for me to be comfortable hanging around for too long. But it’s home. This is why I begrudgingly parked in front of Monty’s Market & Pharmacy when I rolled up to the city limits last night. As I slowed to a stop, I attempted to deter myself from recalling when old Monty caught me buying a pack of condoms at fourteen. I was mortified.
Throughout the rest of the night, the memories of growing up in this town flood my brain as I attempt to get some sleep. I keep tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable, but it’s pointless. There is nothing left for me in this town, and reliving all those years here is a stark reminder.
I sit up in the car with a groan and lean my head against the window. Rain is pelting down on the frame of my vehicle. The clatter of the raindrops on the metal soothes me. Usually, it would lull me to sleep, but I’ve concluded that it likely won’t be happening at this point. I peer out the window at the giant clock tower looming like a beacon on the Main Street square. I squint my eyes in an attempt to read the hands. Six-thirty. The heavy clouds hanging over the town give the morning an ominous air.
I weigh my options in my head: I could stay in my car and hope that sleep comes to me for another few hours, or I could leave my car and brave the rain. I’m camped out a few storefronts down from a cozy-looking café. The lights are on, and I see people walking in and out holding coffees and bagels. They’re all much too cheery for it being six-thirty on a Thursday. I can’t blame them; their world hasn’t tilted on its axis like mine.
I sigh and reach for my wallet, throwing the worn leather open and peering inside. I have fifty bucks sitting in there. A coffee and a muffin would be what, seven? I would estimate no more than ten dollars. It’s not all I have to my name, but the idea of my contributing to the economy of Willow Heights makes me want to barf. But my stomach growls in a pathetic pleading noise, and I concede. I need to get something to eat.
With a low groan at my aching back, I open the door of my car and clamber out into the rain. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up to cover my head. My feet slosh in the puddles on the street, and I grimace. The puddle water will seep through the holes of my boots and ruin my entire day.
I schlep down the sidewalk to the diner, keeping my head low and hoping no one will recognize me. The last time I was here I was a teenager, now I’m a man. I hope the maturity is considerable enough that identification won’t be too quick.
In such a small town as Willow Heights, it’s impossible not to know everything and everyone. Not to mention, my father’s been the mayor since I was fifteen. Makes me kind of a small town name, despite my utter reluctance. It wasn’t much later when I realized that having a name associated with the mayor of Willow Heights wasn’t all it cracked up to be.
I pull open the door to the diner and step in. Immediately the warmth from the little restaurant seeps inside of me. My muscles relax as the atmosphere warms me to the bones. The scent of fresh omelets and greasy bacon hits my nose. My stomach rumbles again, begging me for something to eat. I peruse the layout, looking for the best place to sit but the diner is packed. I finally settle on the last seat at the bar. It’s off to the side, so hopefully, I’ll manage to stay out of everyone’s way.
As I head towards my targeted seat, a flash of red and brown flies into my line of drive. Her toe catches on the tip of my boot, and she stumbles. My arms reach out instinctively to steady her.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” She exclaims, looking down and trying to straighten the food she has on her tray. It doesn’t take much to put together that she works here and was mid-stride to delivering someone’s breakfast when she tripped.
I let her go, frowning at the now-occupied seat I was aiming for. Someone else snagged right from under me during the fiasco. I exhale, frustrated, “All good, sorry for getting in your way. I was trying to find a seat.”
“I think there’s one over in that corner if you want,” the woman says, finally satisfied with the tray. “I’ll be over to take your order in just a moment—” her sentence cuts off with a gasp. I drag my glare from the douche who took my seat. My own breath catches in my throat when I glance down at her.
“Noah,” She gasps, now gazing directly at me, her plump lips falling open on my name. Her eyes flutter across my face as she appraises me standing in front of her. She studies me as if she’s re-committing me to memory. Or upgrading her old memory of me to the newer version, filling in the pieces that have changed.
“Parks,” I say back with an edge of surprise. Her name on my tongue recalls the memories of her I’ve held at bay for so long. They come rushing into my brain like a tsunami, triggered by the familiarity of her hazel eyes on me once more. Those hazel eyes have haunted my dreams all these years. Always hazel, with flecks of gold flaring from the pupil and a dark freckle on the left iris. So familiar after all this time, but yet unfamiliar.
“Long time no see.” I recompose myself as best as possible. I slide my hands into my pocket and grip my fingers into tight fists, my eyes never leaving her.
Parks stares at me, shell-shocked. Her silence draws out the moment before she shakes herself out of it and shifts the tray around to settle on her hip. “You’re back.”
“So it would seem,” I mutter, my eyes still roving her. Out of all the people I figured I would run into here, she was not one of them. She is supposed to be far, far away from here. She should have left and never looked back. “As are you.”
Parks has the decency to blush a little bit at my blunt statement. “Yeah, I am. Um,” she looks back at the table in the corner, taking her bottom lip between her teeth and worrying at it. “If you want to go grab that seat, I’ll bring you a coffee or something in just a minute.”
The corners of my lips pull up into a smirk, and I dip my chin at her. “Sure thing, Parks.”
Parks inhales, her chest rising with a deep breath, and nods her head. Her eyes peek at me for a second longer before she hurries off to deliver the food, so it doesn’t get cold.
My eyes follow after her for a second too long, then I saunter over to the lonely table in the corner. I pull out the chair and make myself comfortable, flipping through the menu sitting in front of me. I only manage to peruse the menu’s first page before she comes over. She’s holding a pot of coffee and an empty white ceramic mug.
“Cream and sugar are on the table. Have you had a chance to look at the menu?” She asks, giving me a tight smile as she pours a cup of coffee for me. Parks’ expression develops into a more professional demeanor. She can pretend it’s not just her and me, but I don’t know how long that will work.
“Yeah, I’ll have the French toast with a side of sausage,” I tell her, folding up the plastic menu and sliding it away from me.
A smile plays on her lips as she sets the now full mug of coffee in front of me. The steam swirling from it hits my chin, and the aroma of the coffee is enough to make up for my missing hours of sleep. My brain is already re-energizing from the scent of it.
“I’ll get that right in for you,” she says briskly. She spins on her heel and heads to the back. With her exit, she leaves me to my own devices. I watch her go, a familiar constriction forming around my heart as she walks away from me. My hand unconsciously rubs on my sternum to ease some of the ache.
Addison Parks was the greatest thing to happen and not happen to me. We could have had it all together, but it wasn’t the right time. I ended up leaving Willow Heights, and she was supposed to pursue her dreams elsewhere. Yet here she is, standing in front of me.
My eyes roam around the quaint little diner, and as I look around, my memory jogs. I remember that this was the exact storefront that used to be Parks’ parents’ café once upon a time. My deductive skills fill in the blanks, and I determine she must have bought out the space and made it her own.
It’s not an enormous place, but there are enough tables to keep the staff busy. It has that classy, hometown atmosphere. The employees look energetic and happy to be there. They greet every customer by name as they walk through the door.
One of the other workers delivers my breakfast a few minutes later. I thank them before digging in, not remembering when I last had a serving of French Toast this delicious. Addison comes over again as I finish up, bracing a black square bucket on her hip that’s half full of dirty dishes. I raise an eyebrow at her as she stares at me.
“I was sorry to hear about your mom,” Addison says carefully after an awkward moment of ogling at me as if she can’t believe I’m truly right in front of her. I can tell she’s uncomfortable at how distant we are, not sure how to approach the conversation. Well, that makes two of us, sweetheart. “I didn’t even realize that she was….”
“Suicidal?” I fill in for her, chuckling humorlessly under my breath. “Me neither, but I can’t really say I’m surprised given who she was married to.”
Addison’s dark eyebrows pull in at the middle as she frowns, unsure how to respond. “But even so, I know your mom meant a lot to you.”
“Charlie told me,” she tells me. “He was the one who got called onto the scene first. He said he tried everything to resuscitate her but—”
“Yeah,” I reply and shift in my seat, the wooden chair putting uncomfortable pressure on my low back.
Jesus H. Christ, get me out of this conversation.
I glance around the diner, searching for something to comment on to move off this topic. I clear my throat when I find nothing worth talking about. “Well, this has been… I’m not sure. But I need to go. Maybe we can catch up another time.”
I don’t mean to brush her off, but I know it is likely how my brusque tone translates for her. God, that’s the last thing I’d ever want to do, but distance is my friend now. I have to keep my mind on my reason for being here. I can’t let myself fall back into old habits. If I did, I’d never leave this diner again—or her.
“Oh,” Addison says, the brightness in her eyes dimming slightly.
“I have a meeting with Sullivan to talk about—you know,” I inform her, surveying her.
The brightness slowly returns when she pieces together that I’m not trying to jump ship on her again. “Are you going to be staying long?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet.” I sigh and rub the back of my neck, meeting her eyes and shrugging a shoulder.
“Okay,” she responds, clearly unsure what else to say, her eyes tracking my every movement as I ball up my napkin and drop it on the empty plate. “Can I get you anything else before you go?”
“I’m good, Parks. Thank you, though.” I stand up and brush off my jeans, reaching into my back pocket for my wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
Parks is still staring at me with her wide hazel eyes as she waves her hand in a blow-off manner. “It’s fine. It’s on me today.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I argue.
“We’re friends, Noah. And this is my diner. I can do what I want.”
“Thank you,” I shoot her a grin as I head towards the door. I raise my hand in her direction before I leave. “I’ll see you around, yeah?”
Addison presses her lips together, narrowing her eyes and tilting her head at me. “Yeah, I’ll see you around. Bye, Noah.”
“Sully!” I shout as I throw open the front door to the Sheriff’s department. “Get your ass out here.”
I hear a scuffle in the other room. Charlie fucking Sullivan walks out holding—and I’m not even making this shit up—a glazed chocolate doughnut and a to-go cup of what I’m assuming was coffee. The coffee has the Sunny Side Up Diner logo pasted on the side, and I realize he got it from Addison’s diner. I try to school my features as best as possible, remaining impassive. Still, despite my best efforts, I’m sure my upper lip curls into the signature sneer I reserve just for Charlie Sullivan.
Sullivan raises his eyebrows in surprise and struggles to gulp down his massive bite of doughnut. “Lockwood, you’re here.”
I hold up the folded business card in my hand. “You rang?”
Sully sets his coffee down on a neighboring desk and gently places his doughnut on top. “Yeah, but I didn’t think you’d be here that quickly.”
I roll my eyes and take a few steps towards him, noticing the shiny new badge under his nameplate: Sheriff. “Whoa, man, congrats on the promotion. Dear old Dad, finally hand over the reins?”
Charlie grimaces and shakes his head. “Ah, no. He passed away last year heart attack.”
I press my lips together and freeze for a brief second before regaining my mojo. “Well shit, man. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It was pretty sudden like someone just pointed their finger at him and muttered a curse or something. One second he was here, and then he was gone. Kind of like what happened with your mom, I guess,” He says sheepishly, looking up at me like he’s afraid I’m going to punch him in the throat. “I’m sorry, by the way.”
I cross my arms over my chest and hold his gaze. “Thanks, it was a bit of a shock.”
“Understandable. I was the one who arrived on the scene first, you know?”
I know, I say to myself, my mind darting back to Addison this morning. “Well, I’m glad you were there.”
“Me too,” He says, his eyes locked on mine.
“I’m not really sure how to do this.” As I stare at my old schoolmate, I stay quiet for another moment. I clear my throat, and he glances back at me with an eyebrow raised.
Charlie laughs humorlessly. “It’s okay. I’m not looking for a hug or anything.”
“Okay, good,” I say with a sigh of relief. “Now, can we get to business?”
“By all means, my office is this way.”
He leads us back past all the desks belonging to his deputies into an office. His workspace is spotless, of course. I follow him in, and he shuts the door behind me, reaching over to pull the blinds closed.
“First things first, thanks for the note; you know I love a cryptic message,” I shoot at him. He opens his mouth to retort, but I hold up a hand, not finished. “Second, would you care to explain to me why I ran into Parks? Here in Willow Heights, of all places?”
Charlie grimaces again and moves around to sit in his chair, taking a moment to answer me. “I was hoping to talk to you before you ran into her.”
“So this is a thing then,” I speculate. “She’s actually still here. After you told me you’d convince her to leave?”
“Noah, listen, it’s not that—”
“You gave me your word, Charlie,” I growl back at him. “How the fuck are we supposed to do this when she’s still here, still at risk? My dad knows about her and isn’t too afraid to risk her life again to prove a point. Especially with me being back here.”
“She wouldn’t leave.”
“Well, then you did a shitty job of convincing her.”
“It’s more complicated than that. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I could have done more, but she wouldn’t leave. Not after she saw you in New York a few years back. She was set to go, but I dunno, man, that gave her hope or something.”
“Is that it? That’s the story you’re sticking to?”
He hesitates a moment too long. “Yep.”
“I can tell you’re hiding something, Sullivan. You’re a shit liar, and you always have been. What, has she found someone else?”
By his expression, I already know the answer. That’s fine. I told her not to wait for me. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have another man. Parks is a catch. “Who is it?”
“Don’t ask me that.”
“Okay, you’ve just narrowed it down to about five people. Go ahead and just rip the bandaid off.”
He holds up a single finger. “I want to make it known for the record that I didn’t want to tell you this, but you basically forced it out of me.” I roll my eyes, and he continues, “It’s Eli.”
I bark out a laugh and grip the back of my neck. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. This guy again?”
“Things are a little more complicated than that.”
“This is a small town, Charlie. Of course, things are complicated. Spill it, then we can get to the real reason I’m here,” I order. I choose to ignore that we resemble a pair of two old ladies gossiping about the town’s juicy business right now.
He sighs loudly, as if this is the last thing he wants to do, but concedes, “They’re not dating per se, but just seeing each other. They both have different ideas of how they want their relationship to progress. You know Eli, he’s been in love with her since he first saw her.”
“I’m aware,” I say through gritted teeth.
“But Addie is more just looking for a friends-with-benefits deal, I think. Something to take the edge off when she has a bad day.” I grit my teeth at his phrasing, not liking the mental image that gives me. “I can’t imagine she sees herself settling down with him. She’s always had eyes for someone else, you know? And as history has shown, Eli doesn’t live up to that for her.”
I scrub my hand over my face, trying not to dwell too hard on the fact that I want to throw up at this recent development. “Okay.”
“That’s it? Okay?”
I scowl at my not-so-much-friend. “I don’t know what else you want me to do. Your bestie and his incessant puppy-love isn’t my problem.”
“What about Addie?”
“Parks is a grown woman.” And a fucking beautiful woman at that. The image of her plump lips falling open when she ran into me this morning pops into my brain, and I shake my head, trying to clear it, focusing on where I am. “She can handle herself.”
I’ve spent way too long daydreaming about Addison Parks, and I know that despite it all, I’ll spend much more time continuing to do just that. Later tonight, when I’m alone, I’ll break apart every second of our interaction today, analyzing all aspects of what we said to each other. But, for now, I shove it to the back of my mind so I can focus on the task at hand.
“So, about this nice card you sent me,” I begin. About a week and a half ago I received a plain white envelope with my name and address written on it. I found a Willow Heights City Hall business card when I opened it. Nothing was written on the card. It was enough to send a message and confirm that my coming back for my mother’s funeral was not the only reason I was supposed to be back here.
Sullivan steeples his fingers and looks at me, his green eyes turning severe. I realize I’m now talking to the Sheriff of Willow Heights, the Charlie I grew up with, now pushed to the sidelines. “I think I have him.”
“You think? What does that mean?” I ask him, praying to whatever God is up there that I didn’t come back to this godforsaken town for a hunch.
“I had someone undercover at the right place at the right time, and I think we have a lead.”
“Again, with the ‘you think’ bit. Charlie, drop the façade and just tell me what the hell you got.”
“My guy heard Mayor McCoy talking about delivery to someone named Walter Pinkmann. I haven’t heard of anyone in that town, but I’m looking into it. We’ll check databases for neighboring towns and go larger if we have to. I think this might be our way in.”
I frown. I guess there might be something here. It’s not much to go on, but something, at least. “Did he allude to anything illegal? Or literally, anything else that could get us a warrant?”
Charlie looks contrite as he shakes his head. “Unfortunately, no, but I’m hoping that now you’re back in town, we’ll be able to smoke him out a little. Hopefully, he’ll think we’re onto him—which we are—and he’ll trip himself up.”
I fall into the chair in front of his desk. My hand rubs at the back of my neck to soothe the tension. “He’ll definitely know we’re onto something.”
“Because I basically said as much,” I mutter, looking out the window at a squirrel climbing a tree. I try to dampen the white-hot fiery anger that boils in my chest whenever my father crosses my mind, but it’s no use. “He might believe that my mother’s death gives him a free pass, which, sure. I’ll give him that one. But I told him he’d be in cuffs the next time he’d see me.”
“Well, that might be a little extreme. We still have a long way before we get there. We don’t have any solid proof yet.”
“So, what’s the plan then, Chief?” I say, turning back to him.
“Just lie low for now. I have my guys out there with their ears peeled, just in case he slips up again. I want you to re-acclimatize yourself here in town, maybe rattle him up a bit, but don’t pursue anything. Then he’ll let his guard down, and we’ll get him.”
“Do you want me to—” I shrug my shoulders, unsure, “Make him think I’m not after him or what? That I’ve given up?”
Charlie’s eyebrows pull in. “No, I don’t think that would be the best course of action. You two have always been at each other’s throats. If you pulled a full one-eighty on him, he would know something was up. I think you should just go back to how it was before.”
“Before?” I scoff. “Sorry, man, all due respect, but that’s a bullshit plan. Not only am I a completely different man than I was then, but now my mother’s gone. Before is nonexistent.”
“That’s all I got right now, Noah. Don’t make it obvious that we’re trying to nab him, and we’ll be fine.”
“And not to mention if I go back to ‘before’ as you say,” I twitch my fingers into quotations, still on a roll, “I’m knowingly putting Addison back in danger. Or have you forgotten what happened to her parents when my father thought I was onto him the last time?”
He narrows his eyes at me. “I haven’t forgotten.”
I lean back into the chair. “My point. I don’t want anything to happen to her. She’s suffered enough because of me.”
“We’ll just have to play it a certain way. Like I told you, Addie is in some sort of weird arrangement with Eli. Let’s just let that come to a head, so you don’t have to worry about that. Just stay away from her. If your father doesn’t think she means anything to you anymore, there won’t be a problem.”
My chest squeezes tightly. Visuals of wide hazel eyes come to mind, and I frown. “I’m not sure if I can promise that.”
“You can’t just stay away from her for a little longer? I thought that wouldn’t be much to ask of you.” I glare at him at his unspoken words, and his eyebrows heighten.
“It’s asking a lot for me to pretend that she’s not everything to me, Charlie,” I growl.
“You’re hung up on her still, then?” I remain silent, which is answer enough. “Okay, whatever. Just try,” He pleads with me. “I don’t want to see Addie hurt any more than you do. She’s my best friend.”
“Why do I feel like I’m just a pawn in your game here?”
“Because that’s what I need you to be right now,” Charlie says bluntly, holding my eyes with a heavy stare. “We’ll get him, Noah. We will. I promise you that.”