Return to Blue River
Darius had been traveling for months on end. That’s what had attracted him to the job in the first place, what had lured him away from the quiet, small town he felt he’d outgrown. He’d been fascinated by the idea of seeing places he’d never visited before, and doing it on his new employer’s dime seemed like a brilliant way to do it.
The first few trips hadn’t gone smoothly. Being in the middle of the chaos and the bustle of seasoned travelers had been intimidating in the beginning. It had also been exhilarating. He didn’t worry too much when, during the first half dozen trips, he saw nothing more than a glimpse of each new city while in a cab going from the airport and back again. Everything required a bit of practice, he surmised. As soon as he’d figured out the logistics of getting to and from each new place, he was sure he’d find some time that wasn’t taken up by work responsibilities in which to enjoy his destination.
This was good in theory. Reality turned out to be altogether different.
Packing, transportation, security and boarding were all things that Darius mastered. No matter how skilled he became with the process, however, he still couldn’t find a way to eke out any time for personal exploration. His time was scheduled by an efficient secretary who made sure that Darius was in each of his destinations only long enough to check into a hotel, eat a questionable meal and attend whatever meeting he’d flown in for before making his way back to the airport again. She was paid to keep Darius on a strict budget, both with his time and the company’s money, and she was good at her job. A little too good in his opinion. He had nothing to prove that he’d been in nearly forty different cities in the past year except for a shelf full of overpriced paperback novels and a collection of refrigerator magnets that took up space in an apartment he rarely slept in.
He’d gone to St. Louis, but never saw the Gateway Arch. He’d had a meeting in Manhattan, but he and Lady Liberty never exchanged so much as a hello. He thought he might get a peek at the Space Needle, but he hadn’t gotten a window seat on that flight. It didn’t matter much anyway. His seat mate informed him that there was nothing to look at but fog.
The trip to D.C. had excited him, especially the thought of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, but the only thing he’d gotten to see was the Washington Monument, and that at a distance. The barbecue he’d tasted in North Carolina had not been nearly as amazing as he’d always heard it was, but then again, the pulled pork sandwich he’d ordered had been eaten in an airport restaurant and washed down with a flat beer. As far as meals on the run went, though, it hadn’t been the worst one he’d forced down.
Darius had become a nationwide traveler, but he hadn’t gotten to see or experience a single damn thing.
The panel on the door switched from red to green and Darius heard a tell-tale click that let him know the lock had been disengaged. He pushed the door open and walked into a room that resembled all the others he’d spent nights in over the past year. He put his bag down on the bed and reached up, rubbing his weary face with his palms.
How had it come to this? How had his life become this nomadic but unadventurous existence filled with wrinkled suit jackets steaming in hotel bathrooms and club sandwiches with cold fries delivered by room service?
Oh, yes, he sighed, sinking next to his bag on the mattress. He’d chosen it, right after he’d decided he was done living a small life in a small town. And right after he’d broken the heart of the one girl he loved the most in all the world.
More time passed. Darius navigated more airports, bought more magnets and ate more mediocre hotel meals. Spring turned to summer, and summer into fall. That tall pile of reasons he’d stacked up for leaving home seemed to shorten as the days, the weeks, and the months passed. He was starting to second guess many of the decisions he’d made in the past year.
When he got the first message from his little sister, Mallory, telling him she was coming home in a few weeks for Thanksgiving, he smiled, thinking it would be great to see her again.
The second, third and fourth calls all came while he was either in meetings or taking off on another business trip and unable to answer his phone. He smiled a little less as he listened to Mallory’s voice in each of the messages.
“All of us would love to see you for the holiday.”
“I’m dating someone. He’s not coming with me to dinner, but I’d love to tell you about him.”
“I miss you, big brother.”
Mallory talked about a great many things in her messages. The one thing she never mentioned was Madalyn.
Blue River, Colorado was only five miles south, and about a ten-minute drive, from downtown Breckenridge. That is if the weather was clear. The day Darius came back home, it wasn’t.
On average, about 130 inches of snow fell on the town of Blue River each year. That was a good thing since it was located so closely to one of Colorado’s most popular ski resorts. As Darius maneuvered his rented Explorer along state highway 9, he figured at least twenty-four of that 130 inches were already covering the ground.
He’d sent a brief text to Mallory. He didn’t want to ignore his sister, but he was intentionally vague in his response. If he didn’t tell her he’d be there for Thanksgiving, he could still back out of it without breaking a promise to her. He’d already broken enough promises. He was done with that.
The house on Mountain View Drive had been built back in 1998. Before then, the Palmer family lived in Breckenridge proper where Will worked at the hospital and his wife, Jess, taught second grade. When the oldest Palmer child, Darius, was six, the family moved into the custom-built house that sat adjacent to the river. Four years after that, Mallory was born. Darius hadn’t seen his childhood home in nearly twelve months. When he pulled the Explorer up and into the drive, he was surprised by how much he’d missed it.
Darius listened to the engine ping as it cooled. The sky was filled with gray clouds that spit snowflakes out at him as he sat inside the truck. There were two other vehicles parked in the wide drive. He recognized Mallory’s red pickup. The other one, a white Blazer, didn’t look at all familiar. He could tell there was writing on the door, but Darius couldn’t read what it said from where he sat. There were only about 900 people living in Blue River. That had been one of the biggest issues for him before he left. He was almost sure he’d known, or at least met, all of them.
He didn’t hear her at first, but he saw her as she stepped out onto the covered porch. She wore a fleece lined coat, unzipped, and her copper colored hair was lifted by the frigid air that swirled more snow around her smiling face.
Darius grabbed his bag and slid from the truck. “Hey, Mal,” he called to her with a wave of his hand. His booted feet crunched through the snow and caught her up in a tight embrace when she nearly jumped off the porch and into his arms.
“Mom and Dad didn’t say a word about you being here,” she said into the warm crook of his neck.
“That’s because Mom and Dad didn’t know I was coming.”
Mallory squeezed him even tighter. “Tell me you’re staying for a while.”
Darius moved his eyes around the front of the house. Time was a strange thing. A year had passed, but now that he was back, it felt as though he’d been here just yesterday. Everything about his family home looked the same. He remembered feeling trapped here, restless. The last time he’d been standing on this porch he’d wanted nothing more than to run away from it and never come back. He couldn’t be sure, but what he felt now standing there with Mallory seemed like something completely different.
“I don’t know,” he told his sister with a sigh. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
He hadn’t even gotten his coat off before Mallory was announcing his arrival.
“Look who I found wandering around outside?”
“Not another bear I hope,” Jess’s voice filtered in from the kitchen.
“There have been bears?” Darius asked, his eyebrow cocked.
Mallory brushed him off. “Not big ones.”
“Oh,” Jess said as she walked into the foyer, her mouth opened in surprise. “Darius!” Tears suddenly brightened her eyes. “I had no idea … I thought you were … well, my goodness … get yourself over here!” She laughed and hurried toward her son with her arms outstretched.
“Hey, Mom,” he said, returning her enthusiastic hug.
From over his mother’s shoulder he saw someone else come into the entry. Her head was down and a phone was pressed to her ear. She was speaking but Darius couldn’t hear what she was saying. The tone of her voice indicated something urgent was going on, and it looked like she was in a hurry. She grabbed a coat hanging near the entrance to Will’s office and pushed her arms inside, holding the phone between her shoulder and her cheek as she zipped it up.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said before dropping the phone into her coat pocket and pulling a pair of thick mittens onto her hands. She stepped into a pair of boots, then looked up just as Jess was pulling away from her son. She caught Darius’s glance and stopped moving for a moment, her eyes blinking rapidly.
Madalyn regained her composure and quickly covered her blonde head with a cap that matched her mittens.
“Buttercup’s in labor,” she said walking past him. She opened the door and slipped out into the bitterly cold afternoon, the door settling back into the frame with a solid thunk. Darius watched her from one of the front windows, his eyes glued to the red bootlaces that trailed behind her in the snow as she hurried toward the blazer parked in front of the house.
“Buttercup?” he inquired.
“One of the Jamison’s cows,” Jess filled in.
A few seconds later the door jiggled, then opened again. Darius expected to see Madalyn walk in. Instead it was a large man in a heavy parka who stepped inside the house.
Will looked at his son and his face split into a wide grin. “Well,” he said stomping the snow from his boots onto the thick rug. “Glad to see you still know your way home, son.” He pulled his coat off and hung it up before reaching down to untie his Sorel’s. “And I’m sure glad it’s you on the property instead of that damn bear again.”
Hours later, Darius sat in the kitchen with Mallory. The day had been a pleasant one, filled with an amazing amount of food, football and conversation. It was nearly eleven now, and both Jess and Will had gone up to bed. The younger Palmers were raiding the fridge and sharing an almost midnight snack when they heard a knock on the back door.
“Got any mashed potatoes left?” Madalyn asked as Mallory pulled the door open.
“Of course we do. Come on in. Damn, it’s cold out there,” Mallory shivered as she threw the deadbolt back in place.
“Twelve degrees last time I checked. Snow’s moving in again, too. We’ll have another foot out there by morning I’ll bet.”
“I hope no more of Jamison’s cows are ready to deliver.”
“Nope,” Madalyn shook her head. “Buttercup was the only rebel in the herd. She saw a striking young bull and just couldn’t help herself.”
“Speaking of which …” Mallory turned and Madalyn’s gaze followed to where Darius sat at the island in the center of the kitchen, a knife in his hand and sandwich fixings scattered over the granite counter top.
“Sure took you a long time to deliver that calf,” he said, licking a smear of mustard from his knuckle.
“Not quite as long as it took you to get your ass back home again,” Madalyn volleyed back.
“Yeah,” he agreed with a nod. “I guess it takes as long as it takes.” They watched each other for a moment. “Everything come out okay?”
“For Buttercup it did. We’ll have to wait to see how the rest of it plays out.”
She unlaced her boots and kicked them off. Her hair was down and dotted with snowflakes. She was wearing a different sweater than she’d had on when she left, and her cheeks were pink with the cold.
“The Blazer belongs to you,” Darius mused, layering thick slices of tomato on top of an already heaping sandwich.
“Summit County Veterinarian Clinic, actually, but yeah, I drive it more than anyone else does.”
He cut the sandwich in half and slid the plate toward her. She hadn’t moved from her place at the door yet, her eyes still on his face.
“Mustard, no mayo,” he told her. “Just how you like it.”
She looked at the open jar of mayonnaise sitting on the counter in front of him. “That one’s yours,” she replied. “I’ll make my own.”
“Come eat. You’ve been working all day.”
“Not all day,” she admitted walking slowly across the room. “The calf dropped pretty quickly.”
“You’ve been gone for almost nine hours.”
“I had some thinking to do.” She climbed up onto the bar stool next to his and glanced up at Mallory. The two girls held each other’s gaze for a few seconds before Mallory turned and retrieved some bowls covered with plastic wrap from the fridge. Madalyn looked back over at Darius. “You know all about that, right? Thinking about things?”
Darius studied Madalyn’s face. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. He wasn’t sure how that was possible, but he knew it to be true. This was the girl. The girl he’d fallen in love with all those years ago, the girl he’d planned to spend the rest of his life with. The girl he’d left with a broken heart. He pulled a deep breath into his lungs then pushed it back out again. “I do know something about that, yes.”
“It takes as long as it takes.”
Darius dipped his chin in silent agreement but kept his eyes on her face.
The microwave dinged and Madalyn blinked. She hooked a finger around the edge of the plate and pulled it closer to where she sat. “You have a beer or two in there, Mal?”
Madalyn bit into one half of the sandwich and chewed while Darius watched her. Mallory brought four bottles of beer to the island and popped the tops off them one at a time. She slid two of them toward Madalyn and gave one to her brother. The fourth she took for herself.
Darius began making a second sandwich, this time with mayo, while Madalyn ate. Neither one of them said anything, and the only sounds in the kitchen were the soft clang of dishes as Mallory prepared a small bowl of potatoes which she placed on the island alongside a small pitcher of gravy.
Finally, Madalyn finished the last bite of her sandwich and grabbed a napkin from the holder that sat on the counter. After a while, she reached over and began spooning some of the potatoes onto her plate. She made a valley in the center of the mound before pouring a hefty puddle of gravy into it.
“Two things that should always go together,” she said, almost to herself.
Mallory smiled before finishing off her beer. She set the bottle down and leaned against the counter. “Potatoes and gravy aren’t the only two things that should always go together. You both came back,” she said, first looking at her brother, then moving her gaze over to Madalyn. “That makes me think I’m not the only one who knows it.”