The scent of lemon oil that had been perpetually scrubbed into the wooden fixtures and peach cobbler so sweet cavities were forming in the back of Rose’s mouth already, invaded her senses even before she could fully open the creaky screen door.
Her grandma’s house, so old that it had its own soul and nestled in the dense woods fifty miles outside of Charlotte, had always smelled the same. Or it could have been that Rose’s grandma had cooked her favorite dessert and got up from her rocking chair long enough to wipe down the wood only on those seldom occasions Rose came to visit.
The corners of her eyes beaded with tears as she took in the den’s familiar layout.
She rejected the thought immediately. North Carolina had stopped being her home a long time ago. But, even as she resolved to this, Rose explored the den with a warm sense of nostalgia. Raising her nose toward the kitchen, she hunted for the source of the tooth-aching smell of baked peaches. Nobody made peach cobbler like her grandma.
“Well, I’ll be! Is that little ole Rosemary I see?”
Rose half-grinned when her Aunt Helen came into view, throwing her arms out and shaking her bosom as if it were the 1990s and she was back on a late-night Las Vegas stage. She puckered her lips against Rose’s cheek, encasing her in a smothering embrace.
For the briefest moment, Rose reverted to a little girl again, her cheeks burning the same shade as her auntie’s cherry-painted mouth at the unwanted attention.
“Hey, Helen,” she wheezed. It was hard to breathe when a pair of watermelon breasts were crushing her lungs. Oh, Christ. Isn’t this bad for them? What if they pop?
A hint of laughter bubbled up Rose’s throat as she imagined her auntie’s boobies deflating like tires blown out. A consequence of moving back home, the friendly, if not a little unnecessary, reception would be practice for what was to come. Not bones crushed by bags of silicone, Rose hoped that wasn’t in her future, but hugging, lots of hugging. Too acquainted with Houston’s mind-your-own mentality, Rose preferred it over North Carolina’s boisterous hospitality, so she was thankful when Helen loosened her arms.
“Oh, bless my heart! The last time I saw you, Rosey, you were about knee-high.” Catching Rose’s cheeks in a pinch, Helen squealed. “Aren’t you as pretty as a peach?”
She nodded her reply, watching with horror as the room flooded with family members she’d not seen in forever, some whose names she didn’t recall.
* * * *
Later that day, Rose sat on her grandma’s back porch, taking in the outdoors. She was drunk on sweet tea, cobbler, and compliments of how she’d changed into an attractive young woman.
But the crickets, making their music, had her recalling the time she’d gone camping with Simon. Then Rose remembered why she was in Ellenboro to begin with. Her ego, ballooned from her family’s praise, deflated. The reality check smacked into her as the scenic mountains changed from majestic to foreboding. The sky, spotted with fall colors like melted crayons, wasn’t magnificent but melancholy. A leaf spinning loose from its dying branch was the same vibrant hue as the hair Simon had tangled his fingers in the day she came back early from her business trip to surprise him.
“How you figure Simon’s gonna like being all by himself in that big ole house?”
Rose craned her neck. Her momma’s arms were folded in their I-got-something-serious-to-say manner. This talk had been bound to come sooner or later. Her momma’s favor of Simon was no secret. Rose sat up, wishing her sweet iced tea would evolve into something with a little more kick because her gut was churning with the kind of nervousness she couldn’t will away. Rose despised lying to her family, especially her momma. The woman had a built-in lie detector that sniffed out untruths better than police dogs uncovered hidden drugs.
“Simon and I talked.” Rose looked off into the woods, unable to face her mom as she spun the fabrication she’d practiced on the plane ride. “He’ll be all right. He knows my move is temporary. This directorship is good for my career.”
“Rosemary Louise Berkowitz.”
She cringed, smart enough to know full names meant trouble.
“Why do I get the feeling that you’re hiding something from me?”
“I think that’s the peach cobbler you ate making your stomach feel funny.” Rose gave her mother a look of sympathy. “I ate too much, too, but I swear Grandma has gotten better at making it. Is she using new sugar or something?”
“You wouldn’t be tryin’ to avoid your momma’s question, now, would you?”
“Did your accent get worse while I was away?” Rose asked.
Her momma’s expression turned sour like she was sucking on a Warhead.
“I’m joking, Momma.” Rose shuffled her way into her mother’s arms, having missed the way they draped around her back. “I missed you and your accent,” she said, chin wobbling and her eyes filling with watery affection. Rose had missed her momma in general, but never enough to come back to this place.
“Don’t know why. All you have to do is speak and you’ll hear it.”
“Don’t worry about me. Simon and I are fine.”
She pulled away to give Rose a once-over. “Where’s your engagement ring?”
Shit. “I left it in my luggage.” It didn’t even convince her. “You can’t wear jewelry through TSA nowadays.”
Rose exhaled, relieved when she heard her best friend’s voice.
“Rose the Queen has arrived. Where are you?” the familiar voice called.
She clapped her hands together, rejoicing. “Olive is here.”
Leaving her mother’s inquisitive eyes behind, Rose raced indoors.
The second Olive’s and her gazes connected, she nudged her head toward the front entrance, praying her best friend could decipher the plea.
Holton’s voice permeated the kitchen. “Well, ain’t that just a sight for sore eyes? Ms. Olive Wayward has found her way to my doorstep.”
Before Rose could question where her brother’s voice had come from, he zoomed past her in a gust of wind. Two strides later, Olive’s feet were off the ground and her chest was mashing to Holton’s. Olive giggled and slapped his shoulders, asking to be put down, but she wasn’t asking that hard.
Rose rested her hand on her hipbone, her suspicions rising like the Holy Ghost himself.
It was no secret that Holton had harbored a crush on Olive for about as long as their friendship had been, but she’d never thought he’d act on it. Rose and Holton had had that talk—the talk in which she’d told her brother it was a bad idea for him to pursue Olive because if anything went wrong between them, an almost life-long friendship might be ruined.
He kept his word, right?
The enthusiastic squeeze he smothered her best friend with made Rose reconsider.
He was hugging Olive like he wanted to seal their bodies permanently, and she seemed cozier than normal. Setting her back on her feet, Holton smiled all shy-like. Rose scoffed. She didn’t know what he was acting timid for. That boy didn’t have a shy bone in his body.
“Sorry. I got carried away, but it’s hard not to when you’re the sexiest thing I’ve seen on this side of town since—”
She cut off her brother’s flirtatious talk. “Can I have my best friend back now?”
On cue, Olive ducked past Holton and found Rose, looping an arm with hers. “Let’s get our happy asses to Charlotte. We’ve got plans tonight. Drunk plans.” Olive always knew what to say.
“You have no clue how good that sounds,” Rose said.
Everyone hugged and waved their goodbyes, and afterward, the three of them walked down the driveway to Olive’s red Mini Cooper—bright red, like Jessica’s hair. Rose’s stomach flip-flopped as the images of Simon and her co-worker slammed into her.
Holton’s voice pulled her out of her Houston bedroom. “See you later, Olive.”
Did he just wink at her friend? Holton nodded and smiled Rose’s way, answering her question. It was a weird twin-telepathy thing they had. He almost always knew what she was thinking and vice versa. She didn’t like what was on his mind one bit as he mapped out her best friend’s tank top like the pervert had never seen breasts in his life.
“How about, ‘See you later, sister, who I haven’t seen in forever, and whom I’ve missed more than anything in the world’?’”
Holton smiled and encircled her in his Hulk arms, nudging Rose against his chest. Grinning, she sniffed Old Spice. He still used the same wash that he had since he’d been a boy. Some things never changed.
“Bye to you, too, Cookie Monster. I’m glad you’re back. ‘Bout damn time. Remember, I’m coming to visit you tomorrow to help set up your furniture. Eight a.m., sharp.”
Rose groaned, a brooding and irritated sound. “Why so early?”
Tomorrow was Saturday. She started work Monday. Rose wanted all the leisure time she could get. She was still tired from traveling, for crying out loud.
“No can do. I got work at eleven.”
How her brother had become a law-abiding policeman was beyond her comprehension. This was the same guy who’d smoked a joint before every final during his senior year of high school.
“Love you, Holt.”
“Love you, too, Rosey. Have fun tonight, ladies.” He straddled his police motorbike. “No drinking and driving, ya’ hear? Don’t wanna have to handcuff you.”
“Yes, Officer Berkowitz,” Olive yelled back.
Rose rolled her eyes but grinned.
She didn’t realize how much she had missed her brother until he’d cranked up his motorcycle and pulled away, leaving nothing but dust and dirt at his tail.
“Since when did you start flirting with my brother?” She yanked the seat belt over her body, eyeing Olive as her friend did the same.
“Since when did he become hotter than Hades? Did you see those muscles? Had me sweating like a whore in church.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Her friend’s smile was too generous for her to be angry with. “I’m kidding. You know, Holton is… He…” Olive raised her chin, concentrating on swerving out of her parking space. Clearing her throat, she changed the conversation. “Wanna talk about Simon?”
The sound of his name sent pain zigzagging down her chest. She’d forgotten Olive was the only one who knew the truth about her abrupt relocation.
As they began to drive, Rose stared out of the window, mesmerized by the giant trees smearing into one as the car flew past them. At this speed, the forest had no definition. It was nothing but a dark, never-ending shadow at Rose’s side.
Houston didn’t have this type of nature, at least not where she used to live, smack dab in the middle of a flat-bedded ranch. The air, filtered with pine cones and acorns, smelled fresher and somehow crisper as she inhaled. This was it, the beginning of her new life. Did she want to start it by reminiscing about her past?
“Let’s not spoil the night,” Rose said, her tone as resigned as the final look Simon had given her before pulling off his ring.