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Love in Smoke by Holly Hall (1)

Three Months Earlier

 

 

“Listen, Raven . . . God, I don’t know how to say this. You know James and I love you, right? We would have done anything for you and Jenson.”

“Yeah, I know,” I say after a moment, shifting uncomfortably. I’ve never been great with other people’s emotions—I envision them floating through the air like germs—and right now, emotion I’ve never before witnessed from Caroline thickens her voice.

“So you understand how hard this is for me to say. I think it would be best if we maybe put some space between us for a while. You know, until things cool off . . .”

I wasn’t sure it was possible after everything else I’ve been through in the past year, but my heart somehow finds some extra room to plummet further in my chest. I’ve always been good at keeping my feelings on lockdown, but that was before my best friend of five years said things like that.

“Space? Between us?”

Caroline sighs, but even that sounds forced. “Yes. I know it’s kind of an awkward situation between all of us, so James and I both think it would be for the best.”

“You’re dropping me as a friend? Just like that?” Now, shock resonates in my voice. My cool exterior is slipping, and I remind myself to get it together.

“I’m really sorry, Rae. It’s just that . . . we knew Jenson first. We would never consciously choose between you two, so we had to use that factor to decide.”

Tears I haven’t shed since my divorce sting my eyes. The strangest part is, I’m not even sure it’s sadness that’s provoking this reaction. Anger feels most prevalent.

“You’ve been my friend for the past five years, Caro. I would never put you guys in the position to choose.”

A brief silence. “I know, but Jenson needs James right now. And we just can’t do both.”

“You can’t do what, be my friend?” I am in total disbelief, unsure of how half a decade of friendship can dissolve in a matter of minutes.

“I’m sorry, Raven,” is all she says. She sounds a little regretful, maybe sad, but that doesn’t change what this is. No amount of remorse from her can ease the fact that even though my marriage has just reached its brutal ending, my best friend is divorcing me, too.

“Okay, Caroline.” I shove down the urge to tell her to kiss my ass, knowing I’ll regret saying something so childish later. “I wish you the best. Bye.” I hang up before she can respond.

I’ve never wanted to throw my phone at the nearest hard surface more—a television-worthy tantrum. Instead, I walk over to the kitchen and set it firmly on the cheap laminate countertop. Then I look around at the barren house I’ve just moved into, in the middle of a town I know nothing about. The cardboard boxes stacked in the middle of the living room and the dust bunnies in the corner are my only welcoming party.

 

 

Before the saga of packing and moving and unloading, one of the first orders of business in my new, not-so-improved life was reacquiring my maiden name. With a moniker like Raven King, I realized pretty quickly how hard it was to shake the image that came with it. Anyone who follows Jenson King’s career knows who I am, or at least who I was portrayed to be. They saw me on his arm at award shows, as a figure in the corner of his artfully-posed photos on Instagram, as an afterthought mentioned in the articles of country music magazines. I was the specter behind the songs; the ghost in the lyrics. Some women loved that. Some hated it. But all of them remembered it. So, once our divorce was finalized, I flew back to the name Sutter and embraced it like an old friend.

After all that, kicking off some semblance of normal life should be a piece of cake. Instead, it’s a little daunting. I realize this as I’m standing barefoot and misplaced in the middle of a kitchen—my kitchen—glaring at the empty cabinets. My stomach growls demandingly, and I shuffle over to the box I think houses my shoes. I was in too much of a hurry to label them. One thing about me is that when I’m done, I’m done. When I do things, or end things, I commit one hundred percent. Or at least, that’s what I put off on the outside. It's easier that way, for everyone involved.

Once I pull the cardboard flaps open, I root through my meager belongings, searching for any trace of footwear. I come up with a worn chambray shirt and freeze in place, the fabric clutched in my hand. How did that get in there? A second later it’s across the room, lying in a heap where I threw it the way I wanted to throw the phone. That will be my burn pile.

I finally locate a pair of Toms and pull them onto my feet. Then I lock up and climb into my car, bound for town. The warmth of the sun penetrates my windows, and something like freedom slips beneath my skin. There’s an odd feeling of exhilaration that accompanies moving to a place where you know no one, leaving the house makeup-free because who’s going to judge and why should I even care?

It’s only a few short miles into “downtown,” bordered by Virginia pines and green pasture, but it’s enough to remind me why I left Nashville. A year like the one I’ve had can kind of anesthetize you for other life experiences. I was unshaken and unimpressed by most things in Nashville, and I felt the need to be really and truly stunned by something. I don’t know if I’ll find that in Heronwood, but I’m desperate enough to try.

For much of the past five years—the span of my and Jenson’s entire relationship—the most interesting thing about me was that I was dating, and later married to, a musician. I’ve since vowed to change that, if not for any other reason than to preserve my remaining dignity. I’m too much of a chicken to take off and discover myself in the middle of the wilderness, so here I am. I bought a house on first sight in a sleepy town with a mostly vacant main street and a poor excuse for a grocery store. Super adventurous.

Within thirty seconds of entering Kirkwood’s General Store, I know I’ll have to do my grocery shopping elsewhere. There is an endless supply of canned goods and boxes of starch, but I can’t locate anything that’s actually grown from the earth. I’m about to make my exit when the gentleman behind the counter intercepts me.

“Find what you were looking for?”

I shift uneasily, flexing my noticeably-empty fingers. I suspect people in towns like these are easily offended, and I don’t want to ruffle feathers on my first day. Call me a stereotyper, but at least I’m sensitive to people’s feelings.

“I need some fruit. Apples. Know where I can find some?”

When the older man smiles, he uses his whole face. It’s the kind of smile that’s hard not to return with one of your own.

“We’ve got dried apples on the snack aisle. And applesauce.” He appears proud to have volunteered this information.

“Great. I’ll just . . . grab some applesauce.” I’ve turned to the rear of the store when I suddenly remember I’m supposed to be charging head-on into a new chapter of my life, not letting myself get bullied into buying applesauce by an old man.

I spin around and walk back toward him. “You know, I might try using this homemade recipe I found on Pinterest. Where would you recommend I find some?”

“Pinterest? I have no earthly idea,” he says, scratching the three hairs remaining on his head.

I bite back a smile. He is kind of adorable. “Apples. For applesauce.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. Usually folks just buy it around here. How do you go about making it on this Pinterest?”

I tap my fingers against my legs in agitation. I can see right out the front window, and having my freedom within eyesight, so close yet so far away, is just making me anxious.

“I don’t have the recipe with me, unfortunately. But hey, I’ll make a copy and bring it by! Fresh produce?” I ask again with forced kindness.

“You’re welcome to come by, I’m here from seven to four every day. Now, whereabouts do you live? I don’t want to send you on a wild goose chase to the opposite side of town for nothin’.”

I fight the urge to slap my forehead with my palm. “West. I live west of town. Few miles down the highway.”

“Well, I’m afraid there’s not a whole lot on the west side. Sorry ‘bout that. There’s a big superstore out east, in Clarksville.”

“East! Thanks! Have a great day, Mr. . . .”

“Kirkwood. But you can call me Raymond.”

“Great, thank you, Mr. Kirkwood. Raymond.” I go to push through the door when he’s calling for me again.

“What did you say your name was?” he hollers, and I’m positive every other customer in the store can hear our entire conversation. I measure out my exhale. Why did I think laying low in a town this small would be easy? Sure there are less people to talk and speculate, but less people means that everybody treats everybody like family and marries their best friend’s cousin, and everyone somehow ends up related and familiar. It’s only my first full day and I’ve given someone the impression that I’m interested in making applesauce, along with the general vicinity of where I live. Good going, Raven.

“Rae,” I say with a smile, then I speed-walk to my car.

Clarksville is another fifteen miles away, a larger town that boasts a Starbucks and my future place of employment, though I don’t start for another few days. I thought I’d need time to settle in, but I don’t foresee my schedule being as full as I anticipated. After squeezing my car into a slot between two humongous trucks that look like they have no business parking in regular spaces, I finally make it inside. To my relief, it’s a real grocery store that has buggies and more food choices than just powdered donuts and boxes of potatoes au-gratin.

As with every major life change, there’s an adjustment period—it hasn’t been ten minutes into my grocery trip for one, and I’m already detesting this one because meandering down the aisles has reminded me how tedious starting over truly is. I have none of the bare necessities required for living. But staying in Nashville wasn’t an option. People outside of Nash view it as this big, bustling city of dreams where people go and fight to make a name for themselves. In reality, it’s a place filled with Jenson, and Jenson’s friends, and Jenson’s admirers, and there’s no room for Raven in a place that’s so Jenson.

You would think I was chased out of town by the haste with which I left, but really, I ran. As soon as everything was finalized, I got the hell out of there. Away from my ex and his demons, away from the burnt shell of our former home, away from my traitorous friends. It would’ve been more difficult to leave had I had some family there, maybe a distant relative, but I moved there for Jenson. Most of my family is in southern Indiana, and there’s no way in hell I’m going back there.

The cashier clears her throat and I hastily start piling things onto the belt. Thankfully, she’s a teenager with too much eyeliner on who doesn’t seem to care about anything but the cellphone she keeps tucked under the cash drawer. No Mr. Kirkwoods here. I make it out in record time, and nobody stops to chat, or to ask me about Pinterest, or where I live. Maybe this town would’ve been the better option, but the general accessibility of Clarksville turned me off. There’s something about that little place in the woods that called to me.

I unload my groceries and am so worn out from kicking off my new life that I open a box of white-cheddar Cheez-Its and go to town. I still have a surprising amount of unpacking to do for what little I brought with me. I hardly even have any furniture aside from the flimsy bedroom set I purchased for my temporary apartment back in Nashville. Everything else was either lost in the fire or had too many memories attached to it to bring along. It’ll be next on the agenda, but the agenda will have to wait until tomorrow.

After emptying and flattening the last cardboard box, I toss it in the corner with the others and sit back with a sigh. This is weary work, and the memories just seem to pour out of each box to poke and prod me, an insistent reminder of what I’ve lost. What I’ve left behind. I open a bottle of wine and make it through half a glass, or half a jar in my case, alarmingly fast. I’m not sure yet if I should be concerned about that.

I look around at the new niche I’m making for myself and decide I don’t miss him at all. After I finish the glass and pour another, I fish his shirt out of the junk pile I’ve made. It no longer looks so menacing. In fact, it’s almost . . . homey. I pull it on over my tank top and smell the collar inconspicuously, then check over my shoulder to make sure nobody noticed. But the house is just how it’s always been and will always be: empty. I am more alone than I have ever been.

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