Memories cover every surface of this place. Driving back into Willow Creek for the first time in three years, it’s like I haven’t been gone at all.
The Barton boys and I grew up here, running through sprinklers as kids, then riding inner tubes down the creek as tweens, and as teenagers we rolled down the main street in Chris’ shitty car, the music blaring, our hearts full of hope. Of possibility.
At least mine was.
I’m guessing Luke and his older brother Chris were thinking about the hot piece of ass they planned on finding at whichever party we showed up at with cheap beer and nothing but time.
Back then I was the quintessential girl-next-door, even though Gram’s house was technically a whole three doors down from the Barton’s.
The Barton boys looked out for me, like I was their other little sister … except as we got older there wasn’t much "little" about me. My hips curved, my waist narrowed, and my breasts got full.
Still, the boys never made a move on me.
They were players, the quarterback and the wide-receiver, among other positions—both on and off the field.
But around the same time that I stopped being little, they stopped being the golden boys they’d always been.
Somewhere along the line they became the big men on campus, and that appealed to a lot of girls, including me. But I didn’t just want any Barton. Chris was overly confident. Luke. Luke was effortless.
Luke with his bright eyes and easy laugh. He always made me feel comfortable in my own skin, which is saying something when you’re a girl in high school, longing to be accepted.
Luke was a year older, but I always knew he had my back.
And I was always on the lookout for him. My body pulsed with desire every time Luke came close.
Just once he gave me what I’d craved for so long. He thought it was only about having fun when he came home for the weekend, during his sophomore year of college. I’d graduated high school, but still hadn’t left for my culinary program in NYC.
It felt like the perfect time, thought I was old enough to know that this wasn’t the start of something.
But since I’d always wanted a chance to give him more—give him everything—I did.
Then I left and never came back.
It’s been three years since I’ve seen those boys, or anyone from this place, really.
It’s time to come back home.
Gram’s place—well, my place now—is full of the past. As I walk through the old farmhouse, it’s like walking through a dilapidated ghost house.
My ghost house.
Gram died a month ago. She’d been in a care facility the last few years of her life, in a much bigger city. I’d visit her there of course, but Willow Creek was a long drive and I’d lost touch with everyone here. There was no one to come back for.
When the lawyer called telling me Gram had left the house to me, along with enough money to start the business I’d always dreamed of opening, it felt like a fresh start.
The fresh start I needed. Especially since the moment I told Nick the news about the inheritance, he’d rolled his eyes and said he’d rather die than live in a town like Willow Creek, which is as far across the country as you can possibly get from where we lived in NYC.
"Really, you’d rather die? Do you even get how insensitive that is? My gram actually did just die, Nick."
Ignoring my feelings, he continued, "I’m not moving there, I’m starting my practice in New York. I can’t just leave."
Nick’s in grad school to be a therapist, and good for him. He can keep trying to fix people so long as it isn’t me.
"Gram’s place is the closest thing I have to a family."
Nick looked at me with pity in his eyes, like I had it all wrong.
"A crappy house on the edge of a shitty town is your family?" When I didn’t reply, he narrowed his eyes with a confidence I’d come to hate, and said, "Don’t be ridiculous. Stay. Marry me. I can be your family."
I knew we were through when he said that. I had only ever imagined myself marrying one man anyway.
I’d restrained myself from ever googling Luke, ever searching his name on Facebook.
Over the past three years I tried to ignore the fact that he never came looking for me. But I’ve never been the sort of girl who needed a man to be happy.
That’s why I gave Nick a flippant peace sign as I drove away with a U-Haul trailer hitched to the back of the van I bought once Gram’s money was deposited. I didn’t need him, just like I hadn't needed to hunt Luke down and ask for more.
The thing is, I may not have needed Luke, but damn, I’ve always wanted him.
I swallow that desire as I walk through the near-empty house where I grew up. In the kitchen, I run my hand over Gram’s counter. There isn’t anything left in this house that should make me cry, but I brush back tears anyway. It’s the end of October and looking out the window over the sink, the leaves on the trees are orange and deep red, scattered in the empty yard.
And all I remember is how much Gram loved this time of year.
I can still picture her wiry hands peeling dozens of apples, the ones from her orchard, and slicing them to put into her apple pies. She’d roll out the crust, reciting the recipe to me every time. Ice cold butter, sifted flour. She’d raise her finger as she reminded me to take it slow. "All good things are worth the wait. You can’t rush love, Hayley."
I’d laugh, of course. "Gram, you’re making a pie for the Halloween Festival. What does love have to do with it?"
She’d shake her head, the one that got muddled more often than either of us liked to admit. "Sweet thing," she’d said. "Love has to do with everything."
Her words were lost on me then, but as Gram’s life gave way to dementia, I began to understand. Too much of life is rushed. Now, if I can slow down, I will.
Which is exactly what I plan on doing here in Willow Creek. I’m going to open a bakery and help people fall slowly in love, one pie at a time.
It takes hours to unload the U-Haul, which I do with about as much grace as a cow. I may have all my worldly possessions scattered in boxes on this hardwood floor, but I can’t for the life of me find the garbage bags. Or the light bulbs. Which I really need, considering every single one is dead and it’s getting dark.