I am Dorothy, yanked from that Technicolor land and dropped back in the middle of Kansas. Two highways intersect. With stop signs stolen and missing, it’s the most
danger this county has to offer. The old pickup truck pulls over, the crunch of gravel announcing its leave of the road.
“This is as far as I can take you, sweetheart. I’m headed west.” The man whose face looks like worn leather gives me a smile. It’s the most genuine thing I’ve seen in days. “Only a few miles to town,” he finishes, crooked fingers pointing straight ahead.
“Thanks. I remember. And if anyone asks, you never saw me.”
“Darlin’, I’m at the age where no one asks me anything anymore.”
I grab my bag and slide from the bench seat. He offers a wave through the back glass, turns left, and disappears. I stretch my hands above my head before bending over and hooking my fingers under the toes of my boots. The pull and stretch of dormant muscles summons a tingling feeling to my numb ass.
A breeze flies past, bringing that familiar Midwest perfume: wheat and cattle. It carries memories and feelings I’m not yet willing to process. I step to the middle of the intersection and spread my arms like a bird about to take flight. The wind whips around me while the sun warms my shoulders. My yellow brick road is black asphalt, but it holds the same promise. Good or bad, there’s no place like home.
When I get to town, I find a bench in the shade and take a seat in front of Doorman’s Drugstore. It’s so annoying how every business in this town is named after its owner. I guess it’s supposed to be endearing. Doorman’s Drugstore, Boone’s Grocery, Millie’s Diner, Tiny’s Used Car Lot—they all conform to the Small Town, USA demands of sameness and predictability. Crowley never changes, stagnant like an old sitcom’s Main Street.
I pull a bottle of water from my bag and suck the thing dry. Heavy hitting bass and guitar riffs continue to race my pulse as I cool down. There aren’t many people out and about. It’s late afternoon, so the old ladies are home watching their soaps, the men are away at work, and the housewives are fighting toddlers for nap time.
A middle-aged woman passes by. She does a double take before clutching her purse closer. I want to laugh at her “stranger danger” assumption. I can pinpoint the exact moment she recognizes me: the grip on her purse loosens, and she stops on the sidewalk. I ignore her leering, throw away my empty water bottle, and get moving. Word spreads fast around this town, and I want to surprise Bennie before she knows I’m coming.
Three blocks later, on the corner of Apple and Minor Street, I see it. The large neon sign displays vinyl, luring me in like a homing beacon. Not much has changed aside from the front window display. Adele, Steve Miller Band, Dolly Parton, and Metallica are all pressed against the glass, their price tags hidden.
There’s no ringing bell when I push the door open, only an electric chime from somewhere in the back. That’s new. I scan the front counter and find no one. The scent of old paper and vinyl hits me, and in this uncertain homecoming, it’s welcoming. I inhale deeply and make my way down the second aisle toward the back when a Van Morrison album catches my attention. Tupelo Honey. It is pristine, perfect, still shrink-wrapped. This should be in the case up front, not filed here in the general population between Morrissey and Motley Crew.
“Can I help you?” a deep voice asks from behind me.
I spin, the album clutched to my chest, and find a boy—no, a man—waiting for a reply. He’s got jet-black hair shaved short on the sides, longer and swept back up top. His fair skin looks flawless, like he’s never stepped foot in sunlight. Gray eyes appraise me from beneath thick black lashes. A couple of days’ worth of black stubble speckles the bottom half of his face and frames what looks like an anxious grin. He is a lot of man—wide shoulders and muscled, so tall I feel tinyin his shadow. I can tell he cares about his appearance. His clothes fit impeccably—hugging that body in all the right places. A chunky watch sits on his left wrist, and for some reason, I find it sexy as hell. My gaze is drawn down to his Jack Daniels belt buckle, but I work my way up each pearl snap on his plaid shirt to get back to those eyes.
“Did you want to buy that?” he asks, pointing to the record I hold, before his thick arms cross over his chest.
“You’re pretty,” I say. He frowns at me.
“No, I’m Preston. And that’s Bennie.” His head tips to my left.
I turn and spot Bennie wearing a smile brighter than the sun. She has that knowing look in her gaze, something she’ll never share. Abandoning the album into Preston’s waiting hands, I hurry around the aisle. Her eyes are glassy, but she’s not a crier. Her hand lifts and sweeps my short bangs to the side before resting on my shoulder.
“Been a long time.”
“Yeah,” I answer.
“You cut all your hair off. And what is that color?”
“You look good, Wren.”
“Thanks. You look thinner. Are you doing that green tea cleanse diet again?”
“No,” Bennie answers, barely a sound.
“I came to get my job back, but it looks like you’ve filled the position.”
“I couldn’t wait forever.”
I nod and drop my eyes to focus on a crack in the green linoleum floor. Guilt grabs hold of me, and suddenly, I am ashamed for abandoning my sister. Bennie was the one bright spot, and I left her here to fight off small-town assimilation on her own. Seeing her unnaturally red hair and patchwork peasant skirt, I guess she did okay.
“Bring it in, kid.”
I throw myself at her and wrap my arms around warm, soft, unconditional love and all that is Bennie. Essence oils and hemp shampoo dull my senses as I bury my face in her wild hair. One hand still holds my shoulder while the other cradles the back of my head. I feel that thickness in the back of my throat, the one that means to choke me unless I cry
it out. Squeezing my eyes shut, I swallow it back down and refuse to set it free. I can’t stop the one tear that escapes and soaks into her vintage cardigan.
It’s then that I remember Preston, a stranger, witnessing this reunion. I turn my face toward him, but all I find is an empty aisle and the Van Morrison album back in its place.
“Three years,” Bennie says. She pulls a Diet Coke from her private stash and opens it before sliding it across the counter to me.
“Three years,” I confirm. “Doesn’t look like much has changed in this town.”
She shrugs and stares out the storefront window. “Nothing much ever does. How long will you be staying?”
“I don’t know yet. I felt like I needed to be here, but there’s a big world waiting for me to explore. So who knows?”
Bennie frowns, but I can’t give her any more answers than that. I don’t know how long I’ll stay in Crowley, but I do know I won’t be staying. From my spot behind the counter, I watch Preston start with the A’s on the first aisle. He flips through albums, one by one. Every once in a while, he pulls one and places it somewhere else.
“What’s his story?” I ask, sipping my soda.
“Wren, you’ve been gone for three years. Our only communication has been random postcards sent along the way with no way to reply or check on you. And now you want to talk about my employee? Why did you come back?”
I turn to face her, shocked by the strange bite in her voice. “Am I not welcome here?”
“You’re always welcome here. You know that.” Bennie sighs and places her hand over mine. “I’m really happy to see you. I’m just reeling. I mean…” She stops and waves her hand across my body. “Look at you. All grown up. Purple pixie cut. That stud in your nose. And who knows what else.”
“You taught me to be myself. Does any of the rest of this matter?” I ask, combing my fingers through my short hair.
“Not at all. I just want you to be happy. Were you happy out there?”
My gaze flicks to Preston again, who seems to be stuck in the C’s. I watch him flip through the albums and notice his lips moving.
“Sometimes.” There is a beat of silence between us. It’s charged with unasked questions and unwanted answers. “What the hell is he doing?”
Bennie gives me a grin. “He’s very thorough.”
A late afternoon of dust mites and vinyl and then
She walks in
Not just a she as in the female form, but a she as in
There is nothing else
This girl stands in vibrant colors and sharp lines against
A blurred background
The afternoon sun pushes through glass just to
Seek her out
Short hair frames that face like lilac feathers
A pretty bird
One look and I have forgotten myself, my habitual habits
Dropped like baggage at my feet
She is all appraising eyes and anarchist clothes
Holding that vinyl
The delicate way she handles it, fingertips and edges, I know
She knows records
Her words say I am pretty, the fire in her gaze
Says something else
My body responds, every muscle pulled tight in its
Effort to stay put
Like a ghostly hallucination that I often dream of
She leaves me on aisle two
I am left holding Tupelo Honey and reeling
In her wake