Steering her SUV onto the gravel road from another three-hour highway commute, Lena turned down the stereo as dusk approached the horizon.
"Home, sweet home," she whispered to herself. Upon turning the air conditioning off and rolling her windows down to breathe in the coastal air, Huxley, her loyal Cane Corso, began his routine dance of acknowledging their arrival.
“I know, I know,” Lena said, petting his side, “You love this place as much as I do.”
Habitually a city girl, Lena would only escape to the edge of the world when reality became too consuming. This mid summer road trip came not a moment too soon. Just last week Lena earned herself the promotion of a lifetime and her boss not only suggested a vacation rather demanded it as a condition of accepting the promotion. Although she understood the sincerity behind the condition, Lena begrudgingly put in for two whole weeks worth of time off. After all, there was no better place to recharge the soul than a town called Bath.
Defying the odds of social expectations, Lena’s relentless work ethic was nothing shy of admirable. Shortly after graduating from a public university, Lena received a phone call from one of Boston’s most prestigious marketing firms. Shocked at how they found her - since her only career experience came from local firms that put limitations on what actual work she could participate in - Lena jumped at the opportunity of obtaining her dream life.
Shutting off the engine and stretching her arms out wide, her first check-in was nothing short of ritual. Shoving her hands in the front pockets of her jeans with her shoulders hunched, Lena was unsure whether the brisk evening breeze caused her trembles or the incessant rambling within the confines of her psyche.
Approaching the water’s edge, she felt the ebb and flow of memories flooding her heart, bringing a soft smile to her face. Despite the lake’s meditative calmness, the sense of impending dramatics wasn’t lost.
Releasing a sigh, she hadn't realized she was holding, she slowly turned back to observe the silhouette of the sun setting over the houses. A shrill shout brought her out of reverie, forcing her grin to morph into a broad smile.
"Well, it's about damn time you showed up!" shouted the long-time, family friend and neighbor, Linda Hargrove.
"Hey, Linda," Lena replied with a laugh, "You know I can’t avoid this place if my life depended on it."
“Yeah, yeah. Get your butt over here,” demanded Linda, “Marv’s about to grill some burgers, and don’t you dare think about telling me you’re not hungry, Lena Horvath! I know you you haven’t eaten anything all day!”
“Yes, mom. I'll be right there,” snarked Lena, knowing that her life did in fact depend on yet another unplanned visit. Shuffling off towards her SUV, Lena began conjuring quips and excuses for yet another, unannounced visit to Topsham.
Though her own parents had divorced early on, leaving the deed to Ellie, Lena’s mother, she was compelled to frequent the family cottage at least once each season. Ellie moved to sell the cottage, though, after Lena graduated from college, but rather than see her sanctuary be sold to strangers, Lena convinced her mother to keep it around, so long as Lena took on the upkeep. This weekend’s visit marked the fourth since Memorial Day weekend – days that she’d rather forget ever happened.
Making her way back towards the Hargrove’s, Lena squatted down, whispering to Huxley, “I can’t keep hiding from everything. I can’t keep shutting everyone out.”
Her smile faded quickly, knowing that she would soon have to explain her unusual and frequent presence, Lena decided that the truth would be served at tonight’s backyard barbecue.
“I swear, you and that dog are attached at the hip,” said Linda. “Does he ever leave your side?” hollered Linda.
“Huxley just knows where he can find love. That’s all,” chortled Lena.
“I’ll tell you who is unloved around here!” Marv snapped jokingly.
“Oh, don’t you even start, Marvin Hargrove!” Linda snipped back, playfully smacking him on the arm with her oven mitt. Leaning in to kiss his cheek, she added, “How else do you think we’ve managed to keep from killing each other these past fifty years?”
Smiling at their banter, Lena loved the Hargrove’s as her, though they were her own parents. Ellie and Linda had been friends since grade school, so it was only fitting that Lena would grow to love her just the same. For the second time that evening, Lena quivered at the thought of her mother, knowing and almost hearing, Ellie’s voice telling her to help set the table or otherwise be a gracious guest, even though she was far from it.
“She would be so proud of you, Lena. You know that, right?” Linda interrupted with a sad smile, side-hugging Lena.
“Ellie would be proud of you, because we’re proud of you. I know how busy you are with work most of the time, but I’m so glad you’ve been coming up here more often. This place gets too quiet anymore.”
Forcing her emotions down into the pit of her gut, Lena refused to falter in her resolve just yet.
“Speaking of too quiet, where’s Mackenzie? Or should I ask what tour is she on this week?” she inquired genuinely.
“For once, that girl caught a short gig,” Linda replied excitedly. “Some boy the two of you went to grade school with contacted her about setting up a show in Boston. I’m surprised she didn’t beat you up here, what with this being the last week of the run and all.”
“Really? Did she say who he was?” Lena inquired out of genuine curiosity.
After all, it was uncharacteristic of Mackenzie to not share such a simple detail.
“What was it again, Marv?” Linda asked. "Something like James or Jason, I think,” Marv offered in recourse.
“Huh. I’m sure we’ll meet him soon enough, knowing our girl,” came Lena’s reply.
Doing her best to keep the annoyance out of her inflection, Lena inwardly scoffed at the idea that Mackenzie had finally caught back up with Jordan. The two had such a blow out when all they headed their separate ways. Though Mackenzie was never one to be tied down or carry a torch for anybody, the fact that she turned down Jordan’s offer of traveling cross-country after high school shocked everybody who knew them.
Huxley sauntered next to Lena, sensing her uneasiness, whereupon she smiled while scratching his ears, “I knew there had to be a reason, Hux, I just didn’t expect it to be this reason.”
Pushing the memories of melodramatics to the wayside, Lena returned her focus to the smell of a home cooked meal. It wasn’t a matter of why, but when, Mackenzie would eventually show up with Jordan by her side, and Lena knew she had better be ready when they did.
“Thank you, Boston! You’ll be happy to know that we’ve already scored a slot in next year’s line up for Hopefest!” Jordan shouted as he stared into the crowd of screaming fans. “But before we play our last song, I’d like to thank Broken Record’s Mackenzie Hargrove for fitting us in last minute. Cheers to great friends and cherished memories! Here’s our summer hit and last song of the night, Retired Hearts!”
Strumming the first few chords of the song as the crowd erupted in cheer, Jordan glanced to the backstage section where Mackenzie sneered, flipping him off. Twelve years had passed since they had last seen one another, but their chemistry still remained.
Elbowing Mackenzie in the ribs, the stage director smirked, “Sounds like somebody’s got some history with our encore?”
“First, because it’s none of your business, that ship sailed years ago,” Mackenzie shouted back with a smile. “Second, Jordan might be a rock star, but he’ll never grow up.”
Pulling her headset down around her neck, Mackenzie glanced at her clipboard.
Sighing at the long list in her hands, she started making notes about tear down. Everything else was typical routine; a feat she was grateful to have since she was two-days late getting back home. She would leave the stage to Jordan and his band mates to clean up, purely out of spite for his uninvited appearance.
There was nothing but irony about Jordan showing up to Hopefest. In fact, it seemed almost karmic that he would since the festival itself was focused on the love of life and the people in it.
Almost seven years to the day, Mackenzie and Jordan had shared their last words, none of which dared whisper the mere thought of love. They shared a history the likes of which love-torn teens had never seen. Busying herself with tear-down, Mackenzie began reminiscing with their childhood antics.
The trio lived in separate counties, but their families were generations-long residents of Topsham. Henceforth, it seemed only fitting that they would become the best of friends. From the beginning of junior high, all the way through their senior year of high school, Mackenzie, Lena, and Jordan spent each summer basking in the sun, roughing the trails in hopes of finding a new hideout, or bustling about town on their bikes.
Within minutes of losing herself in years past, Mackenzie abruptly stopped working and whispered in shock, “Oh, shit. Lena!”
Knowing she was in for some serious attitude and silent treatment, Mackenzie’s heart sank to the pit of her gut when she realized that she had yet to contact her friend in the wake of the summer’s accident.
“She’s going to kill me, unless my parents beat her to it,” Mackenzie exasperated, not realizing the show had ended and Jordan was now standing behind her.
“Hey, I didn’t come back home just to end up at a funeral,” he joked.
Turning around with a look of pure shock, Mackenzie shouted, “It’s all your fault, too! If you had just stayed away like you said you would, this wouldn’t have happened!”
“Hey, Cheese! I don’t know what happened in these last fifteen minutes, but you can sure as hell bet I didn’t do a damn thing wrong.”
“That’s right, Jordan. You never do anything wrong, nor do you ever even think about the consequences! And don’t you dare call me Cheese! You lost that privilege years ago!” Mackenzie shrieked, slamming her clipboard on the nearest table before storming off to her trailer.
All too aware that the crew had witnessed their scuffle, Jordan shouted in spite,
“You’re welcome! And what are you lot looking at? Get this place shut down already!”
Meanwhile, out back in the trailer yard, Mackenzie was pacing, anxiously rambling, “How the hell am I going to explain this to Lena? I knew I shouldn’t have told my parents about Jordan. I know they’ll have told her. Lena’s going to be pissed.”
Noticing a shift in the shadows behind her, Mackenzie glanced up only to see Jordan leaning against her trailer. Sighing in defeat, Mackenzie knew this was one reunion that wasn’t going to be happy. “Hopefest, indeed. That’s all we’ve got, Cheese,” retorted Jordan as he pushed off back to towards the amphitheater.
After being shooed away from helping clear the dinner table, Lena said goodnight. Seemingly on cue, a lull of thunder rolled in the distance.
“Thanks, again, Linda,” she said, leaning in to hug her surrogate mother.
“Oh, shush. When have we ever refused you?” Linda replied humbly. “Go get settled in, and we’ll see you in the morning for breakfast?”
“Of course you will. Come on, Huxley, let’s go.”
“Good, and let this rain we’re about to get wash it away. You need it, sweetheart.”
At the command, Huxley bound off towards their house, barking all the way. Lena had been a creature of habit most of her life, but this particular summer had pruned her in a manner of mystery even she had trouble keeping up with. The emotional turmoil that came with the absence of Ellie was not quite scabbed over for Lena. The two were more than just mother and daughter; they were best friends.
When Ellie rejected Lena’s want to move east, Lena couldn’t stop the ensuing guilt that perhaps she was being selfish. Despite being devastated and broken at Ellie’s stance, she did the only thing she could to survive – pursue her dream and ultimately bury herself into her work. In doing so, the only escape Lena allowed for herself were the sporadic visits to the Topsham cottage. Unloading her bags and Huxley’s belongings, Lena stopped for a moment, closing her eyes as she took a deep breath.
“Let’s do this,” she whispered.
Mackenzie was so focused on getting herself packed up for the trip home that she didn’t even notice the knock on her trailer.
“Uh, boss?” came a loud inquiry from the side door.
“What?!” Mackenzie snapped in reply.
Taken aback by her reaction, Ronny, the amphitheater director, threw his hands up as if being held at gunpoint. “I’m sorry! I just wanted to know what you wanted to do about closing up shop tonight?”
“Ronny, you know my routine. Just get it done, OK? I know this needs my oversight with being the last show of the tour, but I have to get home. Tonight.”
“And to think that I forgot who was in charge of this place,” he sassed.
“Obviously there’s a bug up your ass, and I’m going to guess that his name is -”
“Don’t start with me. I know I owe you about a dozen favors this month alone, but please just do this for me?” whined Mackenzie.
Giving her a look of disdain, Ronny waved his hand at her as he turned to leave. “Fine, but you better bring me a lumberjack the next time you’re in town.”
Shocked at his feigned attitude, she glared at him with a smile, “Cute, Ronny, and thanks a million.”
“Anything for you, doll. Go save your sorry ass from whatever you forgot to do back home,” he shouted from outside her trailer. Shaking her head once more, Mackenzie still couldn’t believe how careless she had been. This wasn’t just another forgotten appointment or even a wine-and-dine client flop. She had forgotten to check in with her best friend after a holiday weekend from hell.
Getting home in one piece wasn’t going to be the problem. It was surviving her mother’s, albeit merited, guilt trip and Lena’s apathetic facade. Grabbing her keys and duffle bags, Mackenzie ran from the trailer to her car just a few feet away. Not paying attention to her surroundings, she jumped in surprise as Jordan blocked her path.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked, charm drooling from his words.
“Nothing I’ll lament getting rid of. Move!”
“You know I’m going home, too. Why not kill two birds with one stone and just give me a lift?”
“Because I’m already in deep shit without your help. Now move!”
As Mackenzie opened her trunk to dump in her bags, she stopped, wide-eyed, and shouted, “Ugh! Jordan! You ass! Get in the car!”
Laughing at his antic of having already put his own bags in the trunk of her car, Jordan plopped down in the front passenger seat.
“Thanks, Cheese!” he graciously smiled.
“Oh, shut up, and if you so much as think about talking to me on the way home, I’m dumping you!”
“Didn’t you already do that, about seven years ago?”
Having already started the engine, but knowing the argument wasn’t going to end any time soon, she turned to face him.
“Look, Jordan,” she snapped, “I’m sure the rest of the town will be swooning over their rock star the minute we get home, but I’m warning you. There is some serious shit about to go down between me and my parents and Lena. Stay away from my parents’ place until I say otherwise. And stop calling me Cheese.”
“Oh, that’s why you’re being so dramatic? Talk about an ego-bruiser. I’ll go so far as to bet you haven’t even thought about Lena since before the tour.”
“You knew?” came Mackenzie’s shocked outrage. “How the hell did you know? You’ve been overseas since March!”
Chuckling at her ignorance, Jordan waved her off, lowering his voice, “I might have broken your heart, Cheese, but the three of us are bound for life. Just drive.”