In the dim light from the nightlight, Riley crossed her old bedroom floor and dropped to her knees in front of the closet where she began rummaging through all the stuff she’d brought home with her deemed too essential to be stuck in storage. Finally, her fingers brushed the cardboard box she was searching for. Back in Atlanta, where she’d lived until two days ago, it was a quarter to six. Here in Missouri, it was an hour earlier, and not at all a desirable time to get out of bed. Especially for a girl with nowhere to go.
Thanks to Hercules, a big orange tabby cat with a long, spindly tail and the newest addition to her mom’s cat menagerie, she was wide awake after several back-to-back pounce attacks. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten the memo that cats in the Leighton household weren’t allowed to disturb the sleeping.
On the bright side, there was no better time to head out for the jog she’d promised herself she’d get to today. With the heatwave hanging over two-thirds of the country, this was the coolest it would be today, and with as many breakups as she’d had over the last decade, Riley knew good and well she was nearing the end of her bounce-back window, the one at the end of which it became clear that pushing herself just a little harder wasn’t going to fix all her broken and imperfect parts.
Box in hand, she sank to the floor and pulled out the brand-new, top-of-the-line running shoes that had nearly broke the bank. Some people went on benders after breakups. Some moped. Others hopped right back into the fray. Riley nearly always treated herself to a new pair of running shoes.
One of these days, her body would believe her ‘There’s no better time like the present’ pep talks. She’d reconnect with the cross-country runner she’d been in high school, the one who could, a bit begrudgingly, complete a 5K on a Saturday morning and still make it to her volunteer job to walk dogs.
After tying on the shoes—walking in them really did feel like floating—Riley made her way downstairs. She spotted the soft glow of the light over the kitchen sink as she neared the landing and half-expected to spy Tommy, her younger brother, who still lived at home. He had apartment-style digs in the basement and was a night owl. Instead, the coffee pot was brewing, and her mom was wiping down the counters as her other two cats circled her feet. She did a doubletake to spy Riley walking in fully dressed. “Where on earth are you going so early?”
“Jogging.” Riley recognized the irony in her single-word answer as she crossed to the sink for a drink of water. She was just over four weeks from turning thirty and could count the miles she’d managed to jog since track ended on both hands, but her mom didn’t know that.
Brenda looked as if she were trying to bite back a comment, but temptation won. “Not to play mother to a girl who fled the nest at eighteen and hardly looked back, but it’s dark out there. Careful not to trip on those uneven slabs of sidewalk."
“I will.” While her mom was still in her pajamas, she didn’t appear to have just rolled out of bed. “I didn’t expect to see you up this early. Did Hercules wake you, too?” Not that Brenda didn’t have enough reason to be awake in the early morning hours even without a cat waking her up.
“No, I just couldn’t sleep, and seeing as you’re up, I’m guessing he had plenty to entertain him.”
“For the record, he’s my least favorite of your cats.”
“He’s half feral. Give him time; he’ll be a sweetie soon enough.”
Riley didn’t agree but also didn’t feel the need to argue the point. “So, what’re you doing up? You feeling okay?” Maybe Riley had fled Atlanta on the heels of a breakup, but it was her mom’s cancer diagnosis that had her heading home with the assuredness of a homing pigeon. If only for a little while.
Brenda smiled in that ‘I’m a mom and have everything under control’ way of hers. “My sleepless early mornings started with menopause, not breast cancer, dear.”
After drinking half the glass of water she’d poured, Riley set the glass on the back of the sink and nodded. “It’s just that with radiation starting next week, no one would fault you if you were.”
“It’s stage one, Riley. Well, it was stage one. Now that the lumpectomy’s out of the way, it’s probably not even that.”
Riley knew better than to argue with her. Brenda Leighton was a go getter who outpaced most go getters. “They’re getting really good at fighting breast cancer. At least, that’s what I keep hearing. But I’m here if you want to talk about it.” The declaration had her lips feeling a bit like rubber. Riley and her mom never talked about things. Not about anything real. Not anymore. Riley wondered if her mom missed their old talks as much as a part of her did—the part sheworked hard to ignore.
Brenda’s expression softened. “You know, I was thinking how it’d be nice to go get mani-pedis sometime. Like we used to.”
You’re going to have to get over all this sometime. You might as well start with your mom. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”
“Great. It’s a date.”
Riley jutted her thumb toward the door. “Well, I’d better get out there before the sun comes up, seeing as it’s going to be another scorcher.” As she headed for the door, the cats followed, hoping for the chance to sneak outside. Riley shooed them off before stepping out into the silver-grey morning. Ever since she was little, her mom had been known around town for her dedication to the school PTO board, her award-winning Christmas cookies, and for the stray cats who found their way here.
Forgoing a calf stretch that would only give her more time to change her mind, Riley pushed off into a jog that was slow paced enough a speed walker could pass her. Her new shoes clapped monotonously against the asphalt as her body acclimated to the early morning strain. With the streetlights and hint of brightening sky in the east, she could make out the uneven slabs of sidewalk well enough not to worry about proving her mom right and tripping.
Two blocks in, her body announced it was time for a break, but she pushed on, weaving alongside streets ingrained in memory even though she’d all but avoided her hometown of Webster Groves since leaving for college. Quick trips in and out a couple times a year at holidays, that was it.
As Riley passed a quaint house on Portland Terrace, one with a delicate-looking concrete bench under a stately weeping willow, she remembered daydreaming of sitting there and reading a book every time she’d ridden past on her bike. After that, she jogged past two stately brick homes that were mirror images of one another, all the way down to the landscaping, matching rocking chairs, and ornate urns lining their porches, looking like matching rooks in a chess competition. They hadn’t changed one bit.
At the end of block six, her legs protested their way to a walk, completely disregarding the mental pep talk they were being given.
Considering how hard she’d worked to get over him, Riley wished it wasn’t Levi Duncan popping into mind again on this trip down memory lane. Ever since she’d decided to come home, he’d been a prominent fixture in her thoughts. Not that he’d ever been out of them for too long of a stretch at that. The part of her that didn’t want to admit the truth knew that all the running away she’d been doing, hopping from job to job, city to city, guy to guy, had started with him.
“Nobody falls in love in their senior year of high school.” Tightening her ponytail, she glanced around, half expecting someone out grabbing their morning paper to be witness to this outburst of doubt, but the stately yards she was walking past were empty, save a foraging bird or two.
Levi, with his amber brown eyes that were mocking and playful and covering up a mess of hurt he didn’t want anyone to see. Levi, with his athlete’s physique and smooth as silk grin who’d had close to half the senior class wishing they could call him theirs even though pinning him down had proven to be as impossible as carrying fistfuls of sand.
Just thinking of him filled her limbs with enough tension that she pushed off into a jog again. “We’d never have made it anyway.” Yeah, that’s it, talk yourself down from that ledge of regret.
Riley faltered a step even though the slabs of concrete underfoot were perfectly even. She might as well be standing at a stove, thinking of peeking under the lid of a boiling pot and knowing she’d be blasted in steam if she dared do so. She and Levi could never have made it—not with what they’d had going against them. End of story. Coming home didn’t change that. Nor did pining about all the things she’d do differently if she could do them over again.