Authors: John A. Heldt
A novel by
John A. Heldt
Copyright © 2012 by John A. Heldt
Edited by Aaron Yost
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
NOVELS BY JOHN A. HELDT
Northwest Passage Series
To Mom and Dad
We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance
. – Harrison Ford
Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies
. – Aristotle
CHAPTER 1: MICHELLE
Bellevue, Washington – Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Michelle stared at the marble memorial and saw dead things.
The dead husband went without saying. The man she had known more than half of her life was literally six feet beneath her designer flats. Or at least his body was. Where his enterprising mind was at the moment was anyone's guess.
But when she looked at the ornate gravestone, the handiwork of a celebrated local artisan and long-time friend, she also saw a dead marriage and dead dreams. She had expected as much. Gravesites, by nature, brought out memories and regret and this one, located atop a forested bluff, was no different. Once the site of many tears, it was now a place for deep reflection.
Scott Richardson hadn't been a bad husband. All things considered, he'd been a pretty good one. The founder of a wildly successful software company, he'd been a good companion and an even better provider for his wife of twenty-four years. But he hadn't been a good life
Michelle "Shelly" Preston Richardson thought about life choices as she stood before the final resting place of the only man, besides her long deceased father, who had ever mattered. She thought about the college she never attended, the career she never pursued, the children she never had. The missed opportunities took on new and greater relevance given the stark reality that now confronted her. She was forty-eight, unfulfilled, and alone.
Michelle thought about the road she had taken and the road she had not. Thirty years earlier Shelly Preston had been happy, healthy, and full of life, a young woman with dreams of becoming a best-selling novelist. Salutatorian of the Class of 1980 at Unionville High School, she had earned a partial scholarship to Yale and an opportunity to participate in its prestigious creative writing program. But Scott had argued that amassing debt to fulfill pie-in-the-sky dreams was not a smart move and Shelly matriculated instead to Oregon State.
Scott had been happy with that decision, very happy. Valedictorian, science whiz, and arguably the brightest kid ever to walk the halls of Unionville High, he had long set his sights on OSU and a career in the promising new field of computer science. In his memorable commencement speech, he had exuded the confidence of a man who knew who he was, what he wanted, and where he was going.
He had been ready for life's great journey. But it was not a journey he had wanted to make without the free-spirited gymnast and clarinet player he had dated for nearly a year. Well-meaning but controlling and insecure, he had feared the possible consequences of their attending different colleges. Even nearby Oregon, Shelly's second-choice school, forty miles down Highway 99 in Eugene, had been too distant for Scott. So he had pressured her to join him in Corvallis.
Shelly had acceded to his wishes without a fight. Shattered and lost following the tragic, senseless death of her best friend, she had sought comfort, security, and direction and had found all three in her boyfriend's reassuring arms.
Michelle let her eyes drift, took in the snow-capped monolith to the south, and winced. Scott had never met a mountain he couldn't climb, whether breaking sales records, winning over boardroom skeptics, or scaling dormant volcanoes. But even the bold couldn't evade the odds forever, and in June 2010 the odds caught up with Mr. Can Do. Leading a group of four business acquaintances up the east face of Mount Rainier, Scott had taken a wrong step and fallen five hundred feet to his death.
More than two hundred people had attended his funeral, including a U.S. senator, six dot-com CEOs, and nearly every employee of a company he had started in a garage. But no children mourned a man a news magazine hailed as one of America's fifty most important people. Sterile and stridently opposed to adoption, Scott Richardson had never made parenthood a priority.
Michelle yanked a crumpled tissue from her purse, wiped away a solitary blemish on the impressive marker, and then stuffed the wad between two undelivered letters and a postcard that had arrived the previous day.
She had considered tossing the card more than once since pulling it from her mailbox but each time refrained. An invitation, after all, was an opportunity. What was the harm of thinking it over? As a teacher, she did not have to report to work for another three weeks. And, as a widow, she now had no one else's needs to consider.
Michelle looked at the card and sighed. It had been a long time since she had seen most of them – twenty years, at least. Some of her classmates would be grandparents now. Some might be retired. A few, like Scott, would have more permanent situations. But those who attended would almost certainly be happy to see her. And why wouldn't they? Shelly Irene Preston hadn't been a stuck-up bitch in high school. She could be a drama queen at times and as prissy as a Jane Austen heroine, but she hadn't been stuck-up. She would have a good time. She
a good time. And for a lonely, directionless woman from Seattle, a thirtieth class reunion in a small eastern Oregon town was as good as it got.
CHAPTER 2: MICHELLE
Unionville, Oregon – Friday, August 13, 2010
Michelle sipped her Hefeweizen and gazed at the building beyond her umbrella-topped table for four. The red bricks had been scrubbed and the paned windows redone, but it was still the same place she had so often caught a westbound Amtrak to Portland.
"My Sharona" by the Knack blared through four speakers that had been strategically placed along the perimeter of the outside dining area. A short wrought iron fence separated patrons from a paved bike path and railroad tracks that ran along the Mission River.
"So when did the train station morph into a brewpub?" Michelle asked. She directed the question to the heavy-set classmate sitting directly across the table.
"Oh, Shelly," Cass Stevens said, eyes sparkling. "You
been gone a while. The pub has been here ten years. The new station is on the east end of town, near the drive-in. The entire downtown has been made over since the last reunion. There's even a new shoe store where your dad's barbershop used to be. I can show you tomorrow."
"I'd like that," Michelle said, returning her attention to her surroundings. About fifty 48-year-olds had crowded onto the patio of the Little Red Caboose, official meet-and-greet headquarters for the Unionville High School Class of 1980's thirtieth reunion.
Michelle gazed at Cass and smiled sadly. The rodeo queen, once the prettiest girl in school, had changed more than the train station. She bore the scars of three marriages, a poor diet, and an ongoing battle with diabetes. But Cass still had the same sunny disposition and salty sense of humor that Michelle had always admired.
Nancy Bailey Brooks, seated to Michelle's left, had gone in a different direction. The girl most likely to hide behind a book and sit at home on a Saturday night looked like a million bucks. She had traded her thick glasses for tinted contacts and found her slice of paradise in Palm Springs, where she ran a four-star resort.
"I'm so sorry to hear about Scott," Nancy said, putting a hand on Michelle's arm. "We all liked him. I can't tell you how many guests I've talked to in the past month who said his products saved their businesses. He mattered to people. He made a difference."
"Thank you," Michelle said.
"What about his company?" Heidi Harrison asked. "Are you going to run it?"
"Oh, Lord, no," Michelle said with a chuckle. "I wouldn't know how to run the copy machine. Scott's partner, Marty Weatherford, has already assumed control of the place. When I sell my stock later this year, the company will be his."
Michelle shielded her eyes from the setting sun with her hand, a hand that still sported a two-carat diamond solitaire wedding ring, and looked at Heidi more closely. She smiled.
"By the way, I like your outfit. Priscilla's?"
"The one and only," Heidi said, laughing.
Both women wore white blouses and blue cotton skirts they had purchased from a clothier on Second Avenue in Seattle. Friends since grade school, they had kept in touch over the years but not much more, even though they ran in the same circles and lived barely a mile apart on the west side of Bellevue. Single and driven, Heidi owned and operated the most successful art gallery in the Pacific Northwest.
Michelle allowed herself to relax. While her tablemates weren't her best friends, they provided immeasurable comfort. They brought her back to a happy place, a place that existed mostly in her mind but was real nonetheless. As she watched other classmates go from table to table, share stories, and try to beat the sweltering heat, she thought of those who weren't at this gathering – or any gathering. Scott would have liked this scene, she concluded. He would have liked meeting old friends and seeking new business. April would have liked it too. Michelle closed her eyes and tried to picture the beautiful girl with raven hair, a biting wit, and the voice of an angel.
I miss you.
"Are you OK?" Cass asked. She dipped two French fries into a pool of ketchup. "You seem a little lost there, missy."
"I'm all right," Michelle said. "I was just thinking about people I used to know. High school seems like a long time ago."
a long time ago!" Nancy said. "I found my first liver spot this week. How depressing is that?"
The women laughed.
"I've missed you guys," Michelle said. "I should have come to the other reunions. I don't know why I didn't. I guess there was always something seemingly better to do. But there wasn't. It feels good to be here. I feel like I'm home again."
home again," Heidi said. "We all are."
"One thing I don't miss, though, is that music," Michelle said. "I think I've heard 'My Sharona' three times tonight, maybe four. Who's in charge of the entertainment?"
"Why, that would be Mr. Matthew Wiley," Cass said. "Your ninth-grade love muffin. He insisted on being a committee of one when it came to the music. He's got something rigged up in one of the restaurant offices. I wouldn't be surprised if he were playing eight-tracks back there."
"Cass, you never cease to amaze. You're probably the only one in the world, besides my dear departed mother, who ever remembered that I went out with Matt. And she remembered only because she set up that date with his mom. It was one dance – one dumb, miserable dance."
"That's all it takes to make a memory, darlin'," Cass said. "I don't remember everything from those days, but I do remember that. You were a sight. Be glad you didn't marry him. You'd be listening to hits of the seventies twenty-four hours a day if you had. He manages the electronics store on Pennington Drive."
Michelle smiled, threw her brown ponytail over a shoulder, and took another sip of beer. The reunion was in full swing now. More than seventy people, about a third of the graduating class, sat or stood in the courtyard, which had been reserved until midnight. Michelle looked past Cass and several classmates to a Victorian mansion high on a hill on the other side of the river.
"Hey, Cass, did anyone ever move into the old Franklin house? It looks like it hasn't changed in thirty years."
"It hasn't. It's still as empty as a bubble blonde's head, which is why some want to tear it down."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, I am not. The mayor himself declared the house a nuisance a few years ago and even brought in some bulldozers, but historical preservationists persuaded a judge to stop him. His Honor said the place was a threat to public safety, with six-foot rats and other such nonsense, but I suspect he was motivated less by rodents than a chance to clear the lot for one of his apartment complexes. That's prime real estate up there."