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If her hands hadn't been covered in double chocolate chip cookie dough, Melanie Weaver would have slapped duct tape over her mouth to stop herself from doing it again.
Saying yes when she really meant no. Even when she had the best intentions of refusing, that slithery yes word slipped out instead. "Do you want a slice of Great- Grandma's fruitcake?" "Can you call Bingo for the Ladies' Auxiliary?" "Don't you just love this orange sweater?"
She hated fruitcake, had grown tired of the "B-4 and After" jokes, and never wore orange. Yet every year, Great Grandma brought a rock-hard fruitcake to Christmas dinner and Melanie choked down a slice, praising the wrinkled dates and dried cherries. On Tuesday nights, she dutifully showed up at the Presbyterian Church and called out letters and numbers in a smoky room filled with frantic red-dotters. And in Melanie's closet, there were three orange sweaters, birthday presents from her aunt Cornelia, who took Melanie's compliment of a mango-colored afghan as sure evidence of love for the color.
So it stood to reason, based on her history of always saying the wrong word at the wrong time, that on a bright spring Friday morning she would accept an invitation to her twenty-year class reunion when her life was as jumbled as a ten thousand-piece puzzle.
"It'll be wonderful to have you!" Jeannie Jenkins, former cheerleader, blasted Melanie out of her reverie with a voice that hit unnatural decibels on the phone. "Everyone is, like, so looking forward to seeing you. I just knew, when I saw your name on the list, that you'd want to go. I mean, you must have just forgotten to RSVP or something ." "Or something," Melaniesaid. She hadn't returned the card because she hadn't intended to go, nor to answer all those questions about where Cade was.
Or, worse, see Cade there with another woman on his arm. She may be ending her marriage, but she wasn't quite ready to imagine him with someone else.
"The reunion is only, like, a week away. We'll all be together again, in just a few days. Isn't that so exciting?"
"Absolutely." Melanie tried to work some enthusiasm into her voice. She wanted to see her old friends, to catch up on their lives, but the thought of running into Cade, surrounded by memories of happier days, was unbearable. Her resolve would falter, and all those maybes would pop up, the same maybes that had stalled her leaving over and over again because she'd thought things might change. Go back to the way they were.
Either way, there was no return to those days. Melanie had changed, and Cade hadn't accepted those changes. She now had her shop, her new life. A life that no longer included Cade.
It was early afternoon and Cuppa Life was empty, save for Cooter Reynolds, who was sipping his daily mocha latte while reading the Lawford News and tapping his foot along with the soft jazz on the sound system. She had an hour until the college student flood poured into her coffee shop on the west side of Lawford, Indiana. And hopefully, only about five seconds until her daughter, Emmie, who worked part-time in the shop, was here for her Thursday shift. Melanie had started the cookies, sure Emmie would be in any second, but twenty minutes had passed since Emmie's shift was due to start and she still wasn't here.
"Did you like, go to college?" Jeannie didn't wait for an answer. "Me, I totally couldn't go. I was so done with school when it was over. The last thing I wanted was more." She let out a dramatic sigh, as if Westvale High had been the equivalent of a stint in San Quentin.
Jeannie continued chattering on about how hard high school had been, how much she'd hated sophomore grammar, how the guidance counselor had tried to talk her into at least a two-year degree.
The words struck a note of pain in Melanie's chest. Ever since she'd been a kid, Melanie had dreamed of owning her own business. She'd spent her summers here in Indiana, working in this very space, helping her grandparents run what had then been a very successful antiques shop. Her grandfather, who'd seen that spark of entrepreneurial spirit, had encouraged Melanie to go to school and get a degree in business.
Melanie had had a scholarship to Notre Damea free ride to the college of her choiceand then been sidetracked by marriage, a child. Always, Cade had said, there would be time for Melanieuntil her chance came up and he'd dismissed it faster than a perpetually tardy employee.
But Melanie refused to be put off. When Emmie was grown, Melanie had started taking night classes in business, working part-time at the Indianapolis university's coffee shop.
There, she had found her calling. In the camaraderie and coffee, she'd laughed more, looked forward to her days, and started thinking of that future she'd put on hold.
After leaving Cade, she'd moved to Lawford and opened her own coffeehouse, to create that community atmosphere in the city's busy business district. She'd gotten her certification as a barista at a conference for coffee shop owners and put those business classes to work.
It may not have been the dorm life and college experience she'd dreamed of during high school, but that didn't matter. She wouldn't have traded those years of raising Emmie for credit hours and a degree.
Emmie had been worth every sacrifice, ten times over. Her giggles, her first day of preschool, her scraped knees and bicycle riding attempts. Even the early years with Cade had been wonderful, filled with laughter and meals eaten while sitting on the floor of their sparse apartment living room, with candlelight providing the mood and pillows serving as furniture.
Melanie shook off the thoughts and concentrated on stirring chocolate chips into the already chocolate dough, while Jeannie chattered on about how cool the reunion would be, how awesome it would be to reconnect with the other Westvale Highers. Jeannie was clearly a woman who didn't need much oxygen.
"So whatcha been doing all these years?" Jeannie asked when she came up for air, her voice interrupted by a blank sound in the phone line. "Oh, damn. Can you hold on a sec? I have another call, probably from ex number-two." Jeannie clicked off to retrieve Call Waiting.
Melanie pictured her personal resume: thirty-seven-year-old woman, almost divorced, running a coffee shop that had finally started showing a profit three months ago. Experience included nineteen years of running a vacuum and a dishwasher. Hey, but she could Calgon with the best of them.
It had been a conscious decisionthe only decision she could imagine making once she saw those two pink lines three weeks after prom night. She remembered being excited and scared, all at the same time. But Cadeand, oh, how she missed that old Cade sometimesCade had held her and told her it would all be okay. They'd work through this life twist together.
So she'd married him, had Emmie and then stayed home while Cade worked and went to law school. Later, she'd hosted the dinner parties, sent the thank-you notes and held down the home fort while Cade worked his way up the Fitzsimmons, Matthews and Lloyd ladder.
"Melanie?" Jeannie again, back from her other call. "You still there?"
"Yep." Finished with the cookie batter, Melanie stepped to the right and peeked around the corner of the shop and chuckled. Cooter had fallen asleep on one of the sofas, the paper across his chest, his snores providing an undertow of rhythm to the soft sounds of the stereo system.