Remnants of You © Kyra Fox Author
“Can you take the mash, please?” My dad hands me the bowl without waiting for an answer, turning back to his salad dressing.
“It smells great, Dad,” I call over my shoulder, walking to the table and inhaling the familiar scent of buttery potatoes.
Andy loved Dad’s mash. The unexpected thought brings me to a screeching halt, my heart picking up in speed. This has been happening more and more lately, Andy popping up in my head at random times, everything reminding me of him, the way it used to during that first year after he left.
As if I hadn’t trained myself to push him back. Trying to erase him entirely from my brain didn’t work, but after a while, I got pretty darn good at ignoring the memory of those turquoise eyes and that boyish grin. And then Miles, my ex-fiancé, had to go and get engaged and now I can’t seem to shove goddamn Andy Atkins back into the Pandora box he belongs in.
Mom rests her hand on my shoulder, causing me to jump.
“You okay, Nugget?” Her dark brown eyes scan me with worry. “You look like you’re going to cry into the mash.”
I’m about to answer, tell her about thoughts of Andy plaguing me, when my phone pings with an incoming message, my parent’s phones follow immediately after. We all break into broad smiles when we see the photo that came through on our extended family chat group: The words THANK YOU in all caps, and a selfie of my brother Brian and my BFF Trista kissing with the Beijing Capital International Airport sign in the background, their smiles evident even though their lips are pressed together.
“You did good, Nugget.” My mom kisses my crown, and I squeeze her hand.
“We all did this together,” I correct her.
“We were just minions in your devious grand-plan,” Dad pops his head out of the kitchen with a broad smile and a wink, and I snort. “Seriously, though, did it occur to you Brian came to you because he knew you’d figure out how to fix it?”
I just shrug and he rolls those gray eyes that are identical to mine, and I wonder if our eye roll is identical too, because that could be kind of funny when we do it together.
Just as I’m about to suggest we try and as if to verify what my parents are saying, I receive a private message from Brian and my dad’s already back in the kitchen.
This has one of your crazy ideas written all over it.
You mean strokes of genius.
I mean, I love you and your insane plans. And thank you.
Love you too, send lots of pictures.
I set my phone back down, and my smile falters. My mind wanders to the conversation I had with Brian when he came to visit me in New York, the one that set the plan to get him and Trista together in motion.
“Oh no, you got that look again, baby girl.” Mom comes to stand next to me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“It’s just…” I sigh, turning to look at her and seeing understanding in her eyes. Yeah, while I may have gotten some features from my dad, I am 100% Beatrice Jenkins, especially on the inside.
“Andy?” she asks, and I nod, suddenly not so enthusiastic to share the jumble in my head. “It’s hard, loving someone like that and having them walk away, knowing they love you too.” I look up at her, and she seems to understand that I’m not ready to continue this conversation. “You take all the time you need to sort it out and I’m here to listen when you’re ready, okay Nugget?”
“Thank you.” I kiss her on the cheek and return to my task of setting the table, my mind still on Andy, wondering where he is and what he’s doing. If he’s still somewhere across the globe in the desert, maybe he’s back stateside for leave or training.
For all I know, he could be two doors down cuddling on the couch with his girlfriend or back in Glassmont Grove sporting two-point-five kids and a chocolate Labrador with his small-town wife.
That last one hits me hard. Not that small town was ever on the table, but Andy was always the man I was supposed to have kids with. Until he wasn’t.
I keep fixing everybody else’s love life while I leave mine frozen in limbo, reluctant to move on from a past that has moved on from me.
This has to change; it’s been over five years since the man I once thought was The One closed the door on any possible future we could have had together. And here I am, still thinking about him when I should be out living my life to the fullest, loving, and being loved back.
I decide at that moment that once I’m back in the city, I’ll start opening myself up to new people.
No more letting memories of Andy Atkins haunt me.
“Claire was a good woman; she made each and every person in The Grove her family, whether they lived here their entire life or were just passing through.” I take a deep breath and look at the deceivingly frail old lady lying in a coffin next to me on the church’s podium, part of me still sure she’s about to jump out and yell, “Punked!” any minute.
At the age of eighty-four, Claire was a spitfire of a woman with more life in her pinky finger than most people have in their entire body, right up to the moment she went to sleep a few nights ago and never woke up. “You’ll be missed, Aunt Claire. We promise to keep your legacy alive and welcome anyone who finds themselves in Glassmont Grove with a smile and some cobbler.”
The large crowd murmurs in agreement. Most of the town-folk have graced the funeral with their presence, seeing Claire had no immediate family, she considered every soul of the 2,921… 2,920 residents in The Grove her kin, and they all returned her sentiment.
I manage to make it through the rest of the funeral without slipping into a deep state of melancholy. It’s been a tough few months, and I’m starting to feel it all weigh heavy on me. The tension in my shoulders is almost a constant now, too often climbing up my neck and giving me a blinding migraine.
“Atkins,” a familiar voice calls, and I shake the hand of the pastor before turning to see Gabriel Walsh stride in my direction.
Gabe has been my only real friend in Glassmont Grove since I was discharged. He’s a few years older than me, but he’s the only one in town remotely close to my age who doesn’t treat me like some broken war hero. Since I got back, everyone else seems to make me uncomfortable, especially the small-town people.
“What’s going, Gabe?” One look at his face and my shoulder blades tense up. I feel the rigidness spread through my spine, and up to the base of my skull. Something’s off. Gabe has his hands shoved in his pockets and won’t meet my gaze.
“We should probably head to my office,” he offers, clearing his throat and finally lifting his eyes to mine, seeming to be almost begging for my forgiveness. I was always good at reading people, but I honed the skill to perfection during my time in Afghanistan. Someone’s discomfort or determination, their fear, the ability to read intentions saved me more times than I’d like to recall, and all my systems are on DEFCON 1 right now.
“Okay,” I reply slowly, willing my body to uncoil from its battle stance. It’s not as if I’ve never been wrong before, only once, but that was all it took. Though, even if my hunch is spot on, whatever’s got Gabe on edge probably won’t require my SEAL training. I hope.
“Okay.” Gabe seems relieved. “Need a ride?”
“Sure.” I inspect him closely, trying to gauge his response to my less than overt suspicion at his behavior. “I’ll just go check on my mom first.”
“Right.” Gabe seems to have snapped out of his unusual daze. “I’ll be waiting in the car, then.”
The entire drive is made in extremely awkward silence, Gabe sneaking glances at me and me staring him down with growing annoyance until, finally, I’m fed up.
“If you’re going to confess your undying love or something, I’ll warn you in advance that I’m more into blondes.” Gabe seems to appreciate my breaking the silence as he bursts out into relieved laughter.
“Damn! I was so hoping!” He shakes his head, full of dark, dense hair with gray sprinkled through it, cut only a little longer than my buzz. “Though we both know that’s a lie. The only reason blonde is your current flavor is because it’s as far away from Phoebe Jenkins as you could come by without becoming a hermit.”
“My current flavor is shut-the-hell-up-before-I-make-you,” I grumble, though we both know I don’t mean it. And we both also know that Gabe is right. We make the rest of the short drive to Gabe’s office in silence, my head bouncing between Claire and everyone she’s left behind to the girl I left behind, wondering where she is and what she’s doing, who she’s doing it with.
A girl like Phoebe, she’s got men lined up at her door, I’m the lucky schmuck she wanted and then gave up the one opportunity I had. Yeah, a girl like Phoebe doesn’t give second chances, especially not to schmucks who broke her heart.
The door to Gabe’s office is locked, and the place is dark, probably shut down for the service.
“You gave June the day off?” I ask, recalling his assistant sobbing all during the funeral. Like I said in my eulogy, everyone was close to Claire, but some have more than just her kind graces to thank her for.
“Poor kid is beyond herself with grief.” Gabe sighs as he turns the lights on in his small law practice.
“She’s nineteen, really just a kid. And she owes Claire more than most,” I remind him and go to fix us coffee at the small kitchenette, a run of the mill milk and one sugar for Gabe, and cinnamon hazelnut ground coffee he keeps in the office just for me. It’s the only indulgence I allowed myself to rekindle after coming back. Five years of black brew in the field were enough to last me a lifetime.
“I know. She’s had a tough run, and she’s younger than Nate.” Gabe smiles at the mention of his younger brother. The two are polar opposites, but since their dad died of cancer a few years back, they grew close. “He told me to let you know the invite to join him at the fire department in Chicago is an open one, his chief would love to have you onboard.”
“I don’t want to wander too far away from my mom,” I justify. “Plus, Jonah will never forgive me if I take a high-risk job with someone else.”
“Sounds legit.” Gabe takes the coffee I hand him and gestures at his office. “Let’s go sit.”
“So?” I ask and take a sip, waiting for Gabe to tell me why he’s being so weird.
“Claire named you her estate manager.” I choke mid-sip, coffee flying everywhere as I splutter. Gabe jumps back and grabs a tissue, frantically dabbing at the stained papers on his desk while I just gawk at him. “I know this is surprising, but all things considered, you were probably the closest thing she had to a family, and I think she felt you would best represent her.”
“That’s bullshit, Gabe!” I grab some tissue, jabbing at the coffee that landed closer to my side of the desk with more force than called for. “You’re the town lawyer, and you were just as close to her as I was!”
“Andrew…” He tries to speak, but I’m reeling at the news. I’m carrying too much weight on me as it is and having to get tangled up in legal bullshit will just be more burden to carry.
“No, Gabriel, that old lady is trying to meddle from the grave, and I can damn well see she had a sneaky motive to do this, so spill!”
“She was worried you’d get lost now that she’s gone.” Gabe doesn’t look me in the eyes as he talks. “Claire felt that helping her maintain The Lantern Lodge was helping you find balance and a sense of belonging, and she didn’t want her death to take that away from you. I guess she’s just trying to look out for you.”
All the fight leaves me at his words. They’re a bitter reminder of how hard I’ve been struggling just to keep going, keep pushing forward, or at least not roll backward.
My only lifeline is those memories I hold on to of a life long gone, of a love I no longer deserve.
We finish cleaning up in silence, both of us leaning back with our mugs and finishing our brews as I ponder.
Finally, I decide that respecting Claire’s wishes is enough reason to carry the extra weight on my shoulders. “What do I have to do?”
“Well, that’s the tricky part.” Gabe exhales. “Claire left the inn to Hammond Zane, a distant nephew and her last remaining blood relative. He’s also some hotshot real-estate mogul and refuses to take time off his schedule to come here, so you’re going to have to go to New York, and I’m not entirely sure what’ll be waiting for you once you land there.”
I nod my understanding. Whatever it is can’t be any worse than what I’ve already been through. I mentally groan at my own famous last words, hoping the place I’m at really is rock bottom. Otherwise, I’ll be buried too deep to be able to climb out.