Eleanor knew she was screwed as soon as she walked into the grocery store.
But she still tried to fight it. She darted into the produce section and cowered behind the mountain of citrus—oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit. The golden-brown color of Hayley’s hair was still visible, just past the cheese stand. It looked like she was heading into the frozen food section.
Maybe Eleanor could get through this shopping trip without seeing Hayley Jaynes, although she doubted it. She’d heard Hayley and Jackson were back in Huntwood, building new homes on their family’s property. She’d even spied Hayley across the crowded bar of The A-Hole on open mic night. That disaster had been averted; maybe this one could be, too.
Nah, she wasn’t that lucky. She turned on her heel and went to walk out of the grocery store. She could get take-out tonight and save grocery shopping for tomorrow.
Except she needed cat food, too, dammit. Fido couldn’t eat take-out and he was completely out of food.
Cats could eat french fries, right?
No. And Eleanor was too cold to sit in her car waiting for Hayley to leave the store, and she was too environmentally conscious to drive around needlessly and waste gas. She made herself turn around. She’d do her freaking grocery shopping like a freaking adult.
She marched through the produce section, tossing random items in her basket. She’d never had Romanesco before, but the spirally fractals looked appealing. She didn’t even like bananas, but she threw a bunch into her basket as well. She grabbed a pre-made container of sushi from the little counter between the deli and the fish counter.
If she was careful, she might get all the way to the pet food aisle without seeing a Jaynes. It was a small store, but the aisles reached past head-height. She inched around the corner of the frozen food section and saw Hayley, who was bent over with her head in the freezer, cursing to herself.
The curses were mostly muffled by the sound of the whirring freezers, but Eleanor caught enough to make sense of it. “Those dickwhistles better not discontinue Phish Food or I swear I’ll kidnap their cows and make my own damn ice cream…”
Eleanor laughed to herself, remembering how Will used to be both baffled and amused by Hayley’s colorful language. She could picture him even now, the side of his mouth quirked in a half-smile, his dark blue eyes dancing. As soon as she thought of it, though, the pain came—a stab of longing and bitterness—and she hurried across the path to the next aisle. Two aisles to go, and she’d be safe in pet food.
Hayley’s head snapped up as soon as Eleanor scooted past, but Eleanor didn’t think Hayley could have seen her.
Eleanor’s heart skipped a beat. Two beats. It felt funny in her chest, like a squiggly fish flopping around. What did that mean? As soon as she got to the pet food aisle, she pulled out her phone. The Ask Dr. Bridges symptom checker was already saved to her browser, so she tapped it and typed in her symptom. Heart skipping beats.
A series of follow-up questions popped up on the screen. Dizziness? She closed her eyes. Was she swaying on her feet? She didn’t think so. She checked No. Shortness of breath? No. Palpitations coming in groups of three or more? No. Did she have high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure? She didn’t think so, unless something had changed since her check-up a few months ago. No. She clicked submit answers, and then waited for the page to load. It took forever because the grocery store’s wifi was terrible. At least they offered it, thanks to their little cafe by the bakery.
Finally, the big blue and white box popped up.
Dr. Bridges’s thoughts: too much caffeine, too much adrenaline due to stress, premature ventricular contractions, atrial fibrillation. Contact your doctor if you think you have premature ventricular contractions or atrial fibrillation.
Eleanor sighed. Stress. The palpitations were probably due to the stress of nearly running into her ex’s sister. But she’d be monitoring her heart over the next few days, just in case. She grabbed a bag of cat food from the shelf and carried it under her arm, then made her way to the check-out counters. Hayley Jaynes was nowhere in sight. Bullet dodged.
The grocery store wasn’t usually busy this early in the afternoon, so they only had one checker. Two people were in line ahead of Eleanor, one of them with a cart full of goods. Eleanor looked sadly down at her basket of bananas, Romanesco, and sushi. She set the basket at her feet, and set the bag of cat food next to it. Then she got out her phone again. Her little toe had been hurting lately, after she’d stubbed it on her piano bench. Was it broken? She pulled up the Dr. Bridges site again and typed sore toe into the symptom checker.
A long list of toe ailments popped up, and Eleanor’s jaw dropped. Some of the problems sounded more like shark names than toe problems—hammertoe, mallet toe, claw toe. She just wanted to know whether her toe was broken or not.
The low, smoky-sounding voice was familiar. And it belonged to the one person in this town that Eleanor had been trying to avoid. She turned, slowly, wondering if she could instead jump over to the magazine stand and climb into the pages of O Magazine and be embraced by Oprah herself.
She pasted a smile on her face. “Hi…Hayley, right?”
Hayley’s light blue eyes crinkled up. “You remember me! I thought I saw you at The A-Hole a couple of weeks ago, but it was super crowded. How have you been?”
Eleanor thought of Dr. Bridges and hammertoe problems. She thought of Oprah. She thought longingly of the graphic novel series waiting for her at home, Interstellar Love Connection, and how she would curl up in a pile of blankets with her unagi roll and the entire collection, and read through them again. She thought of what Hayley must think of her, standing here with her cat food and sushi-for-one.
“I’m great,” she finally said.
“So, I guess you’re seeing someone?” Hayley asked. “There was that guy, at The A-Hole?”
“Oh.” Eleanor fought to keep her expression even. “Nathan. Yeah, we’re seeing each other.”
The lie sat uneasily on her tongue, but maybe it would get back to Will. Nathan and Will had loathed each other throughout high school and beyond.
She wanted him to hear about it, but she wished she didn’t care.
“And what else are you up to?” Hayley asked.
This was more comfortable ground. “I’m a piano teacher,” Eleanor said.
“Really? You always were really good. I remember we went to one of your recitals once. Or, no…was it the talent show at the high school? And you played an arrangement of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ that made my mother cry.”
Eleanor took a deep breath. She’d been so preoccupied with herself, she hadn’t thought about what Hayley had been through. “I’m really sorry. About your parents, the fire, all of it.”
“Thanks,” Hayley said, her low voice growing darker. She shrugged. “It was a long time ago, now. I’m just glad we’re back.”
“Um…we?” The heart palpitations returned. Eleanor took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.
“Me and Jackson.” Hayley frowned. “Will’s staying away, but I’ll get him here eventually. Jackson’s getting married, so Will might come back then. Or, he better, before I have to drag his sorry jizzpickle here myself….”
“Wow, Jackson’s getting married?” Eleanor asked. He’d always seemed so carefree and wild. Not as wild as Hayley, but still—Jackson settling down was one of the last things Eleanor could imagine.
“Yep. You should come—you were always such a good friend, to all three of us. Jackson would love to see you there.”
A good friend. That was all Eleanor had been to them. “Yeah, um, we’ll see,” she said.
The line had moved forward while she and Hayley talked. It was Eleanor’s turn at the register. A display of dark chocolate bars in a wide variety of flavors faced her. Eleanor reached past Hayley and grabbed four bars of the salted almond flavor. She was going to need them later.
“All right, gotta run,” Hayley said. “I was on my way out when I saw you.”
“It was good to chat with you,” Eleanor said. She meant it, even though the “good” was accompanied by a lot of heartache she really didn’t need.
“You, too.” Hayley waved and made her way to the door, moving on long, powerful legs that reminded Eleanor of Will’s leonine grace.
And that was the problem—everything in the universe seemed to remind Eleanor of Will, especially now that Hayley and Jackson were back in town.
Interstellar Love Connection was waiting for Eleanor at home. Along with a fuzzy cat and a pile of blankets. Eleanor focused on those things. She’d get lost in the ILC story and characters, snuggle with Fido, and cozy up for the night, and everything else—heart palpitations, bruised toe, and thoughts of Will—would fade into the background.