Authors: Heather Diemer
We Were Us
Copyright © 2014 Heather Diemer
All rights reserved.
Cover Design by Cover to Cover Designs
For putting up with my crazy. I love you
For your initial and continued encouragement. I never would have done this without you.
Thank you for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I believe in you.
Thank you for your amazing ability to always stay positive and keep me going when I didn’t think I could.
It hadn’t changed. The town. It had been almost a year and a half and the same sleepy sky stretched over the low, flat-roofed buildings that made up the main street of Riverview, Kansas. The sun blazed hot, keeping shoppers in the stores for as long as possible before they dashed out to their next errand, or to their car to race home and out of the summer heat.
I had passed my old house on my way into town. Memories flooded my mind and not the good ones. My mother was known as the town harlot and drug dealer who sold them for sex more often than money, so one can only imagine what I saw and heard as a child living there. Growing up I heard men call me cute, then pretty, then beautiful, and then said “just wait until you’re eighteen…” My mother also tried to get me to do her business for her. She’d make me answer the door when she was too strung out to do it herself, and make the exchanges. As a kid, I didn’t know I had a choice in the matter.
Eventually, I stopped doing her bidding and just left the house whenever the doorbell rang. I’d slip out through the back door and escape through the neighbor’s yard. At first I would wander around town or down to the playground. But when I got older, I’d head down to the river and just sit, listening to the rippling sound as the current splashed over the river stones. The river became my solace, my hiding place, the one constant in my life that never let me down, even when I was forced to leave it.
One day, fifteen months ago, my mother was found in bed with the Mayor. Both of them were passed out, high on something and naked. You’d think it would be a major thing to have something like that happen in such a small town, but it wasn’t. The police were called, my mother was sent to jail, the Mayor got off with just a slap on the wrist, and I was sent to live with my father and his wife five hours away in Brookhaven because I was technically still a minor. Three months from eighteen meant nothing in the eyes of the court system.
There I was, three months from my eighteenth birthday and three months from my high school graduation. I would be stuck living with my dad and his wife Linda, who hated me. To Linda, I was a reminder of my dad’s unfaithfulness. I was the result of a one night stand between my parents while he was passing through Riverview. Paternity tests proved I was his. Of course my dad knew about what my mother did for a living, if you could call it that, and he tried to get custody of me, but Linda didn’t want me, and my mom didn’t want to give me up.
I sighed heavily and pushed all the bad memories as far back in my mind as they would go. I hadn’t liked them the first time they’d happened and I didn’t want to relive them over and over again in my head. I knew stepping into that house would bring forth more vivid memories, so why think about them before I actually had to face the reality of them in person.
I pulled into the parking lot of the tiny grocery store and shut off the car. It took less than thirty seconds for the midday heat to infiltrate the car after the air conditioner quit. I looked into the rear view mirror. I’d packed my car so tight with stuff I couldn’t even see out that back window. Linda wouldn’t allow me to store my stuff there for the summer--too much clutter--so I was forced to bring it all with me. I wasn’t even completely sure anything else would fit, but I needed food, probably laundry soap at least, and there was no way I was setting foot inside the local diner. News of my arrival would flash through town before the waitress could get me a glass of water. I was hoping to sneak in and out of Miller’s Market undetected.
I took a deep breath and opened the car door into the blazing heat and hurried across the black top parking lot. The bell tinkled and a blast of refreshingly cool air hit me when I opened the door.
“Good Lord Jesus, it’s hot,” I muttered to myself.
I’d barely taken two steps into the store when I heard my name. “Jenna? Jenna Mitchell? Is that you?” I turned to see who it was but I knew before I laid eyes on her who it was.
Lauren Marlow sat behind the checkout counter snapping her gum and twirling her long curly blonde hair around her fingers. She had a Cosmopolitan magazine open in front of her and her face was scrunched up questioningly, accentuating her stubby pig like nose even more. Lauren was a nice person, she just didn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.
“Hey Lauren,” I said warily. She sat up straight on the stool she was leaning against and adjusted the ugly blue employee vest she wore.
Lauren’s mother, Cindy was the town gossip. She usually parked herself up at the Town and Country Diner and people watched all day. Nothing went on in this town that Cindy didn’t know about. I’m sure Lauren had followed in her footsteps being as she was the gossip of our high school, which meant everyone would know I was back in town.
“Well what are you doing back here?” Lauren eyed me suspiciously.
I didn’t feel like I needed to explain myself to Lauren, but I did. “I just came back for the summer. You know, break from school and all.” I continued.
“Are you still in high school?” She feigned curiosity, but I knew what she was really asking. One of the rumors about me back then was that I was sleeping with my teachers to get good grades. Not true. I worked hard and earned my A’s. I wasn’t like my mother and I wanted out of this town to prove that.
“No. I just finished my freshman year in college.” I punched back. I was getting annoyed with her questions. I hadn’t just driven five hours to be interrogated within the first five minutes of being here.
“Is that right? Well, I’ll be darned.” She sat back on her stool and looked off behind me like she was contemplating something. I waited for her to say something more, and when she didn’t look back to me, I took it to mean that we were done talking. Thank God.
“Yeah, well I need to get some things so,” I trailed off and turned to go find food.
“Ooofff,” I exclaimed as I ran into someone. I lost my balance and was about to hit the floor when a huge arm snaked around my waist to steady me. He pulled me into him so I was pressed up close to his chest. My left hand was pinned to my side and touching his jeaned leg, and my right hand was pressed into his toned chest. He smelled sweet and woody, a little sweaty and of the outdoors. I attempted to unpin my arm so I could free myself from this random guy and be on my way, but I stopped short when I heard him say my name.
“Jenna,” came a smooth deep voice I recognized immediately.
Of all the people in this town, I could have run into on my first day here, Josh Riley was the one I wanted to avoid the most. Even more so than Lauren or her mom. I heard Lauren flip a page of her magazine but I was pretty sure she wasn’t reading it. In fact, I could feel her eyes boring holes into the back of my head.
Josh and I had a twelve year history of friendship that turned into a relationship, but ended abruptly and left my heart shattered. I’d shared with him my whole life, he’d been my rock when things were bad with my mom, and we just had this connection that I thought was unbreakable, but one day he just decided I wasn’t worth his time, and ended it. I thought I was in love with him, and I thought he loved me, but I was wrong.
I did not want to look at Josh, I wasn’t ready to see him yet, but here I was not five minutes had passed since I’d arrived and I was already wrapped up in his arms. Being in his arms brought back all the memories I’d tried so hard to forget over this past year. Karma was not on my side today. Could I not just be in town for a day before I saw everyone?
“Um. You can let go of me now,” I said when I’d come to my senses.
I glanced up at him. His stormy blue eyes were exactly as I remember them, cool but inviting. I searched his familiar face and found that a year and a half had changed him. He seemed taller than I remembered and more rugged. He’d lost the baby face I remembered and now sported rough stubble on his square jaw. His blond hair was shaggy around his ears and bleached by the sun that told me he worked outside. Probably at the Miller’s farm.
“Josh,” I said when he still hadn’t let go, although I wasn’t going to complain. Being back in his arms, even accidently made me feel like I was sixteen again. I’d practically been in love with him my entire life and the last year and a half had not damaged my memory of him. I couldn’t say I wasn’t sad when he finally did release me. He stepped back from me and allowed me to straighten my shirt and hair.
“What are you doing here?” I asked stupidly.
“Milk,” he said simply raising his arm up to show off the two gallons he held in one hand. He didn’t take his eyes off me though, I didn’t take mine off him.
“You look good.” I said stupidly again. What was wrong with me?
“How’s your mom, Jenna?” Shut up Lauren, I wanted to scream.
Josh continued to stare at me until I became self-conscious. Did I have something on my face? I probably smelled bad after the long drive. Even with my air conditioning on full blast, it was hot in my tiny car. I probably looked like crap anyway. I had driven from my dad’s in cut off jean shorts and a light blue tank top. I’d tossed my long hair into a messy bun to keep it off my neck.
“Umm, I don’t know Lauren. She’s still in jail,” I shot back to her and gave her a mean sideways glance.
“Oh well, I just figured I’d ask,” she said more to herself than to me.
Lauren went back to pretending to read her Cosmo, and I looked back at Josh.
“It’s good to see you again Jenna.” Josh finally spoke.
“Yeah, um, you too. See you around.” Josh’s eyes widened at my statement.
“You’re staying?” he sounded all panicky.
“Yes, for the summer. I’m off from school. College.”
“Where are you staying?”
“At my old house.”
“Oh. When do you go back?” He sounded hesitant and worried at the same time.
Really, I’d just gotten here and he was already asking when I was leaving?
“Uh, at the end of August.”
We stood facing each other for a second longer than necessary.
“Ok then. Enjoy your milk, and I’ll see you around.” With that, I snuck around him and headed down the closest aisle. I quickly found laundry soap, peanut butter and jelly and some bread and Ramen noodles. I decided to come back later for the cleaning supplies I knew I needed because I just wanted to get out of the store. By the time I got what I needed and was back at the counter, Josh was gone.
I quickly paid Lauren and left before she could ask any more questions. I sat in my car and relived everything that had just happened. Lauren knew I was here, which meant that the whole town would soon know. Josh knew I was here. I didn’t know what that meant. It just felt good to be close to him again, but I couldn’t let old feelings like that in again. Josh and I were done a long time ago. He was with Michelle now, at least I thought he still was. They could have broken up at some point. I guess I’d find out if I saw Michelle.
I threw the car in reverse and pulled slowly out onto Main Street. I can’t remember if this was actually Main Street or if it was just called that because it was the main street through town. I looked for a street sign, but they were all missing. Not surprising. The kids in this town had nothing better to do than to be vandals.
Instead of going to the house, I headed down Main Street and out of town to my sanctuary, the river. A place I went when things were bad at my house with my mother. I usually walked there so I’d cut across the fields, winding my way through the corn stalks creating my own personal maze. It felt like a secret mission only I knew how to complete.
I pulled off on the side of the road and looked out over the fields. The corn was only knee high and nowhere near tall enough for a secret mission. I sighed and turned back onto the road. I didn’t feel like walking across a field in one hundred degree weather so I turned right at the next dirt road and took the easy way. I crossed Crystal Springs Bridge and parked on the side of the road. A wide, flat, muddy piece of land stretched before me and faded into the waters of the river.
During the summer, locals would host parties out here. They’d back their trucks up to the water and sit on the tailgates and drink, smoke, or whatever all night. Usually there was a bonfire on the other side of the river. I’d gone to a couple the last summer I was here but I never stayed long. Drinking and smoking weren’t really my thing and neither were crowds.
I stepped out of my car into the heat again and made my way across the muddy embankment. I slipped off my flip flops and walked right into the cool water. I wished I wasn’t wearing jean shorts right now, because it would feel good on this hot day to slip beneath the surface. Instead I waded out until the water was about mid-thigh and just stood there, taking in the scenery.
On my side of the river, the water met the bank evenly so you could easily wade into the water, but on the other side, the flat embankment dropped off into six feet of water. Willow trees jutted out from the mud, clinging to the bank, digging the roots deep into the ground. One willow tree seemed to rise up out of the water, it’s thin, wispy branches fell like an umbrella over the water. There was a small flat piece of ground that had been cleared a long time ago that held the bonfires during the summer. Blackened pieces of wood and sticks littered the ground, evidence that there had been a party recently, probably the seniors after graduation.
I skimmed the water with my fingertips and glanced to my left. If you followed the river from Riverside, you’d eventually end up in Brookhaven where my dad lived, and where I attended college. There, the river was deep and wide. Ferries took you across it, and fisherman fished on boats, not just off the banks. At night, the lights of the small city reflected of the dark waters and the amusement park lit up the Pier. A far cry from the humble trickle I stood in now.