Ava saw the Welcome to Petal sign and sighed. Home. No matter what, it always called to her. She’d left, promising herself to never look back, and for the most part, she hadn’t. Built a good life for herself in Los Angeles.
Ten years and she’d grown comfortable in her skin. It had taken a long time to wash the stench of that three-room shack from her life. A long time before she didn’t cast her eyes downward every time she entered a store or restaurant.
A long time before she could give herself permission not to come back for holiday dinners soaked in too much alcohol and loathing. She’d choked on it her entire life. It had become second nature to feel inferior and ashamed.
And now it was over. Or so she hoped. Her father dead five years and her mother now gone just a few days before. The funeral would be in two days, which is what had brought her back to a place filled with too many memories and a place her heart had always thought of as home despite the bad ones.
She wasn’t close to her mother. Hadn’t spoken to her for longer than a five-minute phone call a few times a year. In truth, Ava had pretty much considered herself as having no parents for most of her life. Just adults who she tried to avoid as much as she could.
Her assistant had asked her why she was traveling all the way to Petal for a woman who’d never lifted a finger to stop the beatings, and Ava hadn’t really had an answer for it other than it was what she was supposed to do. She had no idea why it mattered.
It just did.
And a not so very small part of her had come back to see the few people in town who’d mattered to her. Who she mattered to.
She needed to drop off some papers at the funeral home and check in to the small hotel at the southeast corner of town, near the cutoff to the highway.
Begley’s Funeral Home was on Main Street, just down from the courthouse. The door was set back from the street, behind a lush garden that separated it from the noise and traffic. She sat in her car, hands on her keys.
The shame was there, as always a slick sort of second skin. She knew it wasn’t hers to own. Logically, she understood her father’s violence and addictions to anything that made him a worse human being had nothing to do with her. Just as her mother’s public scene making, addiction to other people’s husbands and alcohol were not hers to be responsible for. And yet, she would always be The Rand Girl to a lot of people in town.
So, she thought as she pulled the keys from the ignition of her rental car, she would do the right thing for herself. The memorial service wasn’t for Marlene Rand, horrible, abusive woman who died after she wrapped her car around a tree trunk while driving drunk. It was for The Rand Girl.
She needed to close the door without slamming it and she needed to stop letting her memories get the better of her. So she put her keys in her bag, checked her lipstick and hair and reached for the door.
The blast of heat that hit her when she opened the door to step out served a sharp reminder that it was summertime in Georgia.
Despite the heat, it smelled strongly of roses. Roses from the planters all up and down Main Street. She smiled as she stood on the sidewalk, taking in the street and blocks of colorful flowers. Not every memory of Petal was a bad one, she thought as her gaze took in The Honey Bear at the other end of the street.
First things first.
The entry of the funeral home was suitably quiet. Classic and subtle, though the rug at her feet showed some wear. She’d never been inside. Seeing all the velvet and leather would have sent the younger version of herself into sensory delight.
On her way toward the door marked Office, Ava allowed herself the luxury of a caress of the deep green velvet on the back of a chair, the burnished wood on the corner of a table and the nap of a lampshade to the right of the door.
An owlish man she figured had to be the junior Begley came out into the entry. “You must be Ms. Rand. I’m sorry about your mother.” He held out a hand for her to take, which she did.
He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, but he had the same calm air his father had when she’d spoken with him on the phone two days prior.
“Yes, thank you.” She pulled an envelope from her bag and handed it to him. “This is everything you said you’d need.”
He placed the envelope in the pocket of a file marked RAND. “We have your mother here. If you’d like to see her, I can arrange for that.”
“No. Thank you.” She forced it back into the box. She would not show them any weakness. She’d last seen Marlene five years before on a brief visit to the hospital in Shackleton, some thirty miles away. That had been enough.
He bent to look at the papers on his desk. “Everything for her service is set up. You said sunflowers, yes?”
She nodded, wondering if her accent had ever been as thick as his. Probably worse. She’d ironed it from her voice as much as she could. Ruthlessly destroying her connections, even something as simple as an accent, to this past.
“Yes. Sunflowers. Coffee. Tea both hot and cold. I can’t imagine that more than three people are going to bother to show up, but please be sure to have enough food on hand. Can the excess be donated anywhere?”
“We have an agreement with the three local churches. It goes on a rotating basis.”
She’d probably benefited from leftover memorial-service food in her childhood.
“All right then. Three p.m. on Wednesday. The obituary you provided ran in the paper today. I did receive some calls about a service.”
“You did?” She couldn’t quite disguise her surprise.
“Polly Chase. She’s sort of the town matriarch.” He frowned a moment. “I suppose you’d likely know that if you grew up round here. Mrs. Chase called for details. Asked about flowers and that sort of thing.”
“I do know her. Yes.” Polly Chase had never shown her pity, never looked at her with suspicion in her eyes. She’d come to Ava’s classroom once or twice to talk about town history. Freshly pressed, big giant hair, sharp, pretty eyes. She’d smelled of Chanel No. 5. What a fine thing it would be to have a mother who smelled of something as feminine and fancy as Chanel No. 5.
He blushed, meeting her eyes. “Nice lady.”
“Yes, very much so.” Ava held her bag close to her side. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll be back shortly before the day after tomorrow. I’m at the Petal Inn if you need anything.” She shook his hand again and made for the door. “Thank you.”
The heat slapped her back into place when she walked out onto the porch and down the front steps.
On autopilot, she managed to get down to the hotel and check in. The place was clean and kept up well. Not luxurious. Not modern, but the bed was very comfortable and they had breakfast and free internet.
She called work to check in and was assured for the millionth time that things were just fine and to forget about work and deal with the funeral.
She thought about a nap but rejected it. She needed some food and to go see Jasper and Maryellen. It occurred to her she could walk back into town. Then she remembered how hot it was and went back to change into something cooler, pulling her hair up into a ponytail while she was at it.
Late afternoon had settled in, casting shadows on perfect squares of green lawn as she walked down Miller Lane to cut over Sycamore to Main. Weeping willows shaded her every once in a while. Insects chattered and hummed. The air was thick with moisture and the heady, cloying scent of magnolias and . . . ah, star jasmine.
People looked up from porches and gardens as she passed. She’d had very few friends in town. Mainly the other kids who lived out near the railroad tracks in the strip of crappy little houses where she grew up.
She’d had friends there. One or two. Angelo lived a few hours away in Atlanta. In a big house she’d only seen pictures of, though he had invited her to stay several times. Some of the Murphy kids who lived in a trailer across the way from her house on Riverbend.
A few of the daughters had been close to her age and Ava had had a mighty big crush on Nathan, one of the older brothers, as they were growing up.
And Luca . . . it was complicated, but one thing was totally, utterly certain. She counted him as a friend and someone she cared deeply for.
The Honey Bear CafÃ© and Bakery loomed ahead, the familiar bear wood carving on the sidewalk just outside. Memories tightened her throat.
The place looked pretty much exactly the same as it had when she left a decade before. The linoleum on the floor had seen better days, but it was clean. The tabletops were new. Shiny red to go with the red-and-white-striped chairs and booths. Lost-dog fliers still shared space with garage-sale announcements on the corkboard at the entrance. The bells rang as the door closed behind her.
She hesitated as past and present swam in her vision, disorienting her with a wave of memory so very strong and sweet. Her first days there when Maryellen had ever so gently tapped her shoulder each time she found her looking at the floor.
She’d said, “The good Lord did not mean for you to be ashamed of yourself on account of what other people do. You are not your parents, Ava Rand. Hold your head up and be proud.”
It’d been a difficult habit to break, one she never fully let go of until she’d lived in LA for a few years, but Maryellen Proffit had been the beginning and Ava had never forgotten that.
The customers already inside looked up, most looking back down, but a few were wondering if they recognized her.
A few did, including Luca Proffit, who’d just walked in from the back, where he’d been visiting with his parents. He’d been surprised to hear Ava was on her way and had only had time to make a quick call to Angelo to relay the news.