THE DAY I'VE been dreading for the past four years is finally here. I'm heading off to college in New York and leaving everything behind. A part of me is excited to experience city life and escape the small town of Willowbrook, Alabama, but a much bigger part is absolutely terrified.
Pushing the last of my bags into the car, I let out a squeal when a pair of arms wrap around me, dragging me backwards. "You wouldn't leave without sayin' goodbye now, would you, Penny Lane?" Colton asks, as he nuzzles his stubbled jaw against my neck.
He turns me around to face him. The hot summer sun is beating down on us, and I stare up at him, squinting and taking in every feature of his face, as if committing it to memory. His strong arms are wrapped around my waist as he looks down at me with his signature smirk, and I wish I could just pause this moment and soak it all in. I miss him already, and I haven't even left yet.
Colton James Crawford.
Just thinking of my boyfriend makes butterflies erupt in my stomach. With his dark, shaggy hair, chocolate eyes and all-American good looks, he causes my heart to pitter-patter whenever he's near…along with any female within a five-mile radius. However, Colton only has eyes for me, and it's been that way faithfully since we were too young to even know what love was.
"I would never leave without sayin' goodbye to you," I murmur.
Our love story started out innocently enough. He was the one that, at five years old, made me swear off all boys until the end of time when he put earthworms and dirt in my hair during recess. I got him back, however, the next week by putting glue and glitter in his hair. His mother was not happy when she had to shave his head, and I was grounded for over a month because of that incident.
The back and forth teasing between us slowly eased its way into friendship, and the friendship eventually blossomed into a love that was deeper than any love I have ever seen before. Our love bloomed over the years, growing strong and vibrant like a beautiful and rare flower. It was the kind of love you read about in romance novels, and I was lucky enough to experience it firsthand.
From the little boy who had made me hate him in kindergarten, Colton had grown into a brawny teenager with a heart of gold and who could make everything as right as rain with just a smile. Yes, I was in love with that boy so deeply that I knew I would never reach the surface again no matter how hard I tried. He definitely ruined me for anyone else. No one would ever be able to take his place in my heart.
Colton sweeps me into his arms and swings me around until I cry out for mercy. Laughing, he stops us abruptly and holds me tight. "I love you, Penny Lane Preston," he says, while gazing down into my eyes.
"And I love you, Colton James Crawford."
He closes his eyes for a moment as he inhales and then sighs deeply. "I can't believe you're leavin' today. I knew this day was comin', but it just came too soon, you know?"
I nod in agreement. I knew all too well how fast this day had come and how much I had been dreading it ever since high school graduation. As we part ways for the next four years, my heart wants to split in two --- leaving one half in Alabama and the other half still beating in my chest while I'm in New York for college.
"Come with me," I suggest, repeating the same phrase I've been saying for the past several weeks.
And, of course, Colton's response is the same. "I can't, Penny." His dark brows draw tight. "I wish I could go with you, but you know my dad needs me to help run the bar."
Colton's plan is to stay in Alabama and help his dad out with the family business. His dad has been running Crawford's Bar by himself since Colton's mama died from cancer years ago, and I know he could use an extra hand in keeping the business afloat.
His forehead touches mine, and he bites his lower lip in thought. "New York City is a hell of a long way from Bama, Penny." He sighs sadly. "What am I gonna do without you?"
I place my hands on his cheeks and meet his stare. "I think you'll survive, Colt. Besides, we're gonna call, text, email and visit as often as we can. That's the agreement, right?"
He nods once, and I can see his tough exterior start to crack. "I'm gonna miss you so damn bad. I feel like a piece of my heart is gettin' ripped out of my chest."
I know the feeling. Gently, I touch my palm to his chest over his heart and make a motion like I'm grabbing a part of it, and then I hold my cupped hand over my chest. "I'll keep it safe for you until I'm back."
He grins a crooked grin, and my resolve starts to fracture. I'm going to miss that grin. Hell, I'm going to miss everything there is when it comes to Colton James. The thing that kills me the most is that I'm having second thoughts about New York. What if I don't even like it once I get up there? I've never been that far away from home, and I'm scared that everything will change once I leave.
But just like my mama told me the other day, there is no room for second thoughts when it comes to New York. My apartment and tuition have been paid for, and I'm already enrolled in all of my classes. It's too late to back out.
I can do this, I tell myself. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. And after I'm done with school, I can come home and marry Colton just like I always wanted. It's only a few years, and I'll come home during summer break. We'll make it work. We have to.
While I'm lost in deep thought, Colton pulls me impossibly closer to him, breathing in my scent and sighing softly against my neck. His brows are furrowed, and he looks like he has a lot on his mind. Seeing Colt have his doubts about all of this makes me all the more nervous. I know deep down that we'll get through this. We have survived everything in the past together, and that's just how it's going to be in the future. I can't imagine my life without him. He truly is my soul mate, and I believe that wholeheartedly.
"Are you gonna forget about me when you start makin' all your new college friends?" he asks, and I can hear the apprehension in his voice.
I pull back to stare into his eyes; and in all seriousness, I tell him, "I could never forget you, Colt."
He smiles that familiar smile and leans in to place a sweet kiss on my lips. A dull ache forms in the middle of my chest, and I fight back my emotions. I think I'm going to miss his kisses most of all.
"Remember me?" He whispers the question against my lips.
"Always," I whisper back.
FIVE YEARS LATER…
FIVE YEARS AGO I had my life mapped out even if it wasn't exactly the plan I wanted. I was going to finish college, get my degree and then come home to Alabama and marry Colton James Crawford. But somewhere along the way, my train, which was on a one-way trip to happily ever after, somehow got derailed. And my life as it is now is not how I would have ever pictured it.
I graduated college with a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science much to the delight of my parents. Then, as per the plan, I went on to do a graduate internship with the New York State Assembly. What my parents don't know is that I dropped out of the internship after a few months and enrolled in a baking and pastry arts program at a culinary arts school. I realized pretty early on that I was going to college solely to please my parents, and I wasn't doing what I felt was right for me. I was following in my parents' footsteps in an attempt to live out their dream and to make them happy.
Thinking back on it, I don't know when it started not mattering what I want. Sadly, I think it all began in my childhood. It was instilled upon me at an early age that I would be expected to go to the same college as my father, get the same degree and choose the same life path as he did. But what about what I wanted? What about my hopes and my dreams?
After finally realizing I need to do what makes me happy, I now have two accomplishments under my belt --- one for the career my parents want for me and one that I want for myself.
I never returned to Alabama in those five years, focusing solely on working and studying hard. But it wasn't just school that kept me away, unfortunately. It was Colton James Crawford.
The first few semesters of college went great. Colton and I called, texted and emailed each other just like we had agreed to do before I left. We just weren't able to visit each other because of the price of the airline tickets, but we were both trying to save up money to make that happen. Colt was helping his dad with the bar and wrangling up as much extra cash as he could. He promised to be there for Christmas. We planned on spending the holiday together in New York, just the two of us.
And then all of a sudden, his calls, texts and emails just stopped. I tried calling him, but the number was disconnected. After reaching out to my parents, my mom broke the news that Colton had moved on, found someone new. To say I was devastated would be the understatement of the year. I spent days in bed sobbing over the heartbreak. And then, after the first week or so, I picked myself back up and threw myself into a routine of studying hard and getting the best possible grades I could get. I graduated early with honors, the highest in the class. I should have been happy at such an accomplishment, but I had never been more miserable in my life.
In the span of a few months, I had lost my best friend, my true love and my confidant with no plausible explanation other than he had found someone else. I had secluded myself so much in my schoolwork that I hadn't made a single friend while in New York. I even think my roommate secretly hated me, but that was probably because I cried at the drop of a hat, like when a sad song played on the radio…or any song, for that matter.
When I finished up my culinary arts certification after ditching the political science route, I was at a crossroads. I was attempting to figure out what to do with my life, but there was one thing that kept stopping me like an immovable roadblock --- Colton James Crawford. Suddenly, I decided to come back home to Alabama and demand answers. I wanted to know how Colton could throw away almost a lifetime of love, trust and total devotion for some random girl. Even more than that, I wanted him to know how much he devastated my life in the process. I'm still broken, still hurt. And only he can make things right again.
I need closure.
My fingers tap nervously against my jean-clad legs. It's been five years since I've seen Colton, and I'm trying to steel my nerves before I walk in for our long-awaited reunion. I have so many questions swirling around in my head. I still to this day don't have the answers I'm looking for, and I'm determined to get them tonight. He owes me an explanation, if nothing else.
My trembling hand reaches for the doorknob. It's now or never. It's time to learn the truth.
I slowly open the door and enter the bar. The place looks pretty much the same as it always did. It's a large open room with dark wood paneling and fishing memorabilia on every wall. Colton's dad loved to fish, and he taught both of his sons, and even me, at an early age his favorite pastime. There's a large horseshoe bar to the left with a doorway behind it that leads to a big storage area in the back with an office.
The bar is not crowded for a Friday night, which is very unusual. I remember when Crawford's Bar was the place to be on the weekend --- hell, even every day during the week. Colton's dad ran the bar smoothly, bringing in customers and making money hand over fist. However, tonight, I'm thankful for the lack of a big crowd, because I am able to spot Colton sitting at the bar right away.
Feeling all the anger and sorrow reaching a boiling point and threatening to spill over, I quickly clench my hands into fists at my sides and storm to the bar. My steps slow as I approach him, and my emotions begin to fade as I stop a few feet away from him. His back is to me, and for a brief moment I'm not sure if this is really the Colton I left behind five years ago. The boy I had left back home morphed into a man.
I take in all of his features from a distance. His muscular forearms are straining against the fabric of his t-shirt, and my mouth involuntarily falls open as I take in his new physique. Colton had always been wiry and lean, but now he's broad and buff. My eyes quickly skim over the tribal tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve on his right arm and wrapping the whole way down his forearm and wrist. Colton had never expressed a desire to get tattoos when we were together. In fact, he pretty much despised them.
I notice movement on the other end of the bar, and I see Buddy Lawson bartending. His eyes widen when he sees me, and then his gaze shifts nervously between Colton and me. Buddy and Colton were always close, and all three of us spent a lot of time together when we were younger. We were practically inseparable.
I give Buddy a puzzled look before turning my attention back to Colton. His brown eyes are glued to the television high above the bar, and he looks mad or troubled or somewhere in between. I suddenly want to make his night better, and I hope he's happy to see me at least. After everything we've been through, I want to be his friend, if nothing more. But, oh, how I want more. I want things the way they used to be before we let each other go…even if I am mad as hell at him.
"Colton," I say, and his name sounds foreign on my tongue. For so long I had refused to say his name and desperately tried not to think about him over the years, but those efforts proved to be futile. I couldn't not think about Colton. He was always part of me --- body and soul.
Colton turns to me, and the pissed off expression on his face doesn't fade or get any better. "Yeah?" he answers coolly.
"Hi," I say nervously, biting my lower lip. My fingers knot into themselves as I stand there like an idiot, wondering what I'm supposed to say to the guy who broke my heart and dumped me five years ago. "How…How are you?" I ask, testing the waters.
He shrugs nonchalantly and says, "Fine", before turning his attention back to the game on the television.
Perplexed by his reaction and starting to feel downright pissed off again, I tap on his shoulder until he slowly turns his attention back to me. "Do I know you?" he asks, arching a brow in confusion.
I glance to the bottle of beer in his hand. "How much have you had to drink tonight?" I ask quickly. That can be the only explanation for his aloof demeanor. Even though my hair is a little blonder and a little longer, I haven't changed much over the past few years. He's acting like I'm a completely different person, like he doesn't recognize me at all.
"Are you a cop or something? What business is it of yours?" he asks, visibly annoyed. He regards me with an intensity that makes my heart beat in double time.
Clearly he's obliterated, and I try to take note of his actions and voice. Are his words slurred? I don't think so. His eyes aren't bloodshot either. Maybe he's just really good at hiding it. Maybe he's become somewhat of a heavy drinker since I've been gone.
I put my hands on my hips and stare him down. "It's only been five years, Colton. Are you saying you don't remember me?"
He opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it. A darkness forms in his eyes as he concentrates on me. "Five years," he repeats softly. "Did we go to school together or something?" he asks.
I stare at him in disbelief. Is he really going to play these games with me and pretend he doesn't know who I am? If anyone has a right to be pissed off in this situation, it's me. He's the one who broke my heart. Not the other way around. And I'm going to tell him exactly how it is. How dare he play this off as if I'm nothing to him. After all that we shared together, there's no way I would treat him like that. He has no right to make me feel insignificant. And if he thinks I'm going to allow him once again to smash my barely mended broken heart from the first time he broke it, he's sadly mistaken. I won't let him. No, this time I'm going to be the one to stand up to him and tell him how I really feel. "You're…You're an asshole!" I yell, not caring who hears it.
His whole body trembles with anger as he slowly stands up and menacingly towers over me. Now that he's standing, I can really see how much muscle mass he has put on since the last time I saw him. His broad shoulders and burly arms are tense as he stares me down. He leans down to my eye level before he asks, "Did I fuck and dump you back in high school, and now you want some kind of payback? Is that it, sweetheart?"
If I didn't know him, I would be afraid. But I know Colton would never hurt me. We've had our fair share of fights in the past, but he never hurt me, not even once. Our relationship was sometimes like a tornado, ripping up everything and everyone around us by the roots and not giving a shit in the world about what or whom we destroyed. But the peace and calm always returned after we were done. And then we did our best to fix what we had almost ruined in the moment. There was never a dull moment when it came to the two of us. And I wouldn't have ever changed a thing.
"No," I answer, while wrapping my arms protectively around myself. His words cut through me like a knife. As far as I know, I was the only one Colton ever slept with and vice versa. Was he cheating on me the entire time? Was I that blind?
He scoffs and runs a hand through his dark hair, which is longer than I remember. "Then maybe you have the wrong guy. Are you sure you weren't whorin' around with someone else in this bar?" he asks, straight-faced.
I try my best to keep my voice steady as I square my shoulders and take a step towards him. "You. Are. An. Asshole," I say, enunciating each word clearly.
"Yeah, well, you're a bitch," he snaps.
I'm taken aback by his words. Colton never swore, and he most certainly never called me or any woman, for that matter, a bitch. He was a mama's boy by heart, and he respected all women. That's the way he was raised and brought up. I stand there shocked at his sudden personality change. "What has gotten into you? It's like you're a different person!"
"Maybe you never knew me very well."
"I guess I didn't know you at all!" I turn to leave, but he roughly grabs me and twists me around to face him. My body crushes up against his hard chest, and my lungs intake a sharp breath in surprise. I think for a split second that maybe the game he is playing is over, but I still see the uncertainty and anger swirling in his gaze. He's not done playing games. He's just getting started. Well, I'm not going to let him win. "Let me go," I hiss at him.
"Where ya goin'? We were just startin' to get to know each other." His eyes trail down to my cleavage peeking out of the low scoop neck of my shirt and back up to my face.
"I'd rather forget I ever knew you at all, to be quite honest. And I certainly don't want to start getting to know this new you!"
He entraps both my wrists in his hands and holds me tightly. A small sense of fear begins to seep its way into my bones. The Old Colton would never hurt me, but I don't know this New Colton. And that scares me. "Let go," I say, my voice wavering a bit.
His face suddenly grows serious, a crease appearing in his brow. "No. Tell me who you are. Tell me how you know me."
"Let me go!" I scream, trying to tug out of his tight grasp to no avail. I stare up at the boy I used to love, the boy I would do anything for, the boy I wanted to marry. But that boy sadly is gone, and standing before me now is a stranger, and I don't know why. Nothing makes sense right now, and it tears me up inside. What the hell happened in the time that I was gone? Tears suddenly fill my eyes, and I blink them away.
A crowd of people has gathered around us, and the music suddenly cuts off. Colton's dark eyes dart around the bar and then focus on me again. He looks menacing, and I no longer wonder if he could hurt me. I know the answer is he can…and he will.
"Let go of me, Colton James!" I cry, my voice barely above a whisper.
His eyes narrow and a pained expression appears on his face before he finally releases his grip. I stumble backwards into a girl I recognize as Daisy Arnold, and she helps me to steady myself. All eyes are on me, but the only eyes I focus on are Colt's. He sits back down on the barstool, but doesn't turn away. His eyes dart around the room at everyone staring at him. He looks visibly upset, and I suddenly feel bad that I yelled. But he scared the hell out of me. Colton has never scared me like that in my entire life. I always felt safe with him. Always.
Buddy Lawson rushes out from behind the bar and over to Colt. Buddy's been best friends with Colton and me since grade school, and I always thought of Buddy like a brother. He puts an arm around Colton's shoulders and says, "Let's calm down and get another beer, Colt. That's enough excitement for one night."
"Are you okay, Penny?" Daisy asks.
I nod even though I'm anything but okay.
"Stay for a couple rounds," she offers. "I haven't seen you since high school graduation."
"I'm sorry. I have to go," I whisper, my voice breaking. "I…I need to go." Turning, I run out of the bar, not stopping until I'm safely inside of my car. Tears flow freely down my cheeks as I slam the palms of my hands against the steering wheel over and over again. Curses fly from my mouth as I take my anger out on the inanimate object.
I thought it would hurt me to see Colton. But the worst pain of all came from the fact that he acted like he didn't even know me. How could he pretend not to remember me?
* * * * *
I TAKE A swig of the lukewarm beer and set it down hard on the bar, the bottle threatenin' to burst from the force. My best friend Buddy is talkin' to me, but I'm blockin' him out. It's easy for me to withdraw into myself and block out the entire world. And I've been doin' it for so long now that it just comes second nature to me now.
Fumin', I grab a fistful of peanuts from the bowl in front of me and pop one at a time into my mouth. My teeth crunch down hard. Every pore in my body is oozin' with anger. That girl didn't deserve what I did to her, but she pissed me off. Everyone knows better than to piss me off. I can't control my anger. Not ever since the accident. Everyone tells me I was a gentle giant, a mama's boy. Yeah, well, not anymore. A lot has changed since the accident, and that girl is better off seein' the real me before she got any further into her delusion of who I was back in high school.
I can still hear her voice in my head. Colton James. The way she said my first and middle names together sparked something inside of me. A fragmented memory from deep within the recesses of my brain pierced its way through. A flashback of her sayin' my name sliced through my brain, and then it was gone in an instant. It had to have been a memory, because I've never seen this girl before --- even though she seemed so damn familiar. Petite and gorgeous with long, blonde hair that I could lose my hands in. But her eyes are what had me almost crumblin' to my knees. Those stormy gray eyes reminded me of the girl in my dreams. The girl who I'm always tryin' to chase after but can never quite catch.
"Want to talk about what just happened?" Buddy asks, bringin' me out of my thoughts.
"No," I quickly answer. My fingers curl around the bottle, and I chug the rest of its contents. "I'm out," I tell Buddy before gettin' up in a hurry.
"All right, Colt. I'll see you tomorrow," Buddy calls after me.
I walk outside, around the back of the bar and towards the big, old house sittin' a hundred yards away on a hill. It was my parents' place, but now I own it along with their bar. Everything was given to me when they died. And I'd give it all away to have them back again.
As I walk, my mind is foggy with alcohol as it attempts to focus on one thing and one thing only --- the girl from the bar.
She evidently knows me, but I can't remember her. I don't even know her damn name. Maybe I'll ask Buddy about her tomorrow. I'm not sure if I had any jealous ex-girlfriends back in high school or not. That piece of my memory is wiped clean, and I refuse to live in the past by rememberin' shit that doesn't matter. I only have my very lonely future to look forward to. I faced that fact a long time ago.
Pushin' on my temples to try to ward off a throbbin' headache, I growl as I climb the front porch steps. My old bloodhound Mack lets out a long howl and wags his tail in greetin' before followin' me into the house. Once he's safely inside, I slam the front door.
My hands clench into fists at my sides as I try desperately to get the girl out of my head. I close my eyes, but all I can see is her beautiful and stormy gray eyes. They looked so familiar, but I couldn't possibly remember her. I don't remember anything before five years ago.
The doctors told my friends and family not to push me; that when I was ready I would come around on my own. Well, I haven't reached that point of bein' ready, and I don't think I ever will. I just want to live in the now and say screw the past. I don't want to live in a past I can't remember when I can barely stand livin' in the present.
I run up the stairs, takin' two at a time to one of the spare bedrooms. I pause and take a deep breath before goin' in. Most of the bedrooms I haven't been in for months. It's too hard for me to see their empty beds that they'll never sleep in again.
My eyes scan the small room before finally landin' on a box of memorabilia that my parents had collected over the years. My fingertips trace my mom's delicate handwritin' on the lid before I open the box. Mom's been gone for eight years, and dad only one. My dad made sure I remembered a lot about my mother, no matter how painful it was. I lost my little brother Connor in the accident, but I only remember bits and pieces about him. I'm sure I could remember more if I allowed myself to let the memories in, but I'm too chicken shit to do that. Rememberin' the past is too painful, and I've been through enough pain in the past few years to last me a lifetime.
When my dad was still alive, I begged him to keep the past in the past; but he insisted on makin' me remember some of the more important things. In the end, I was thankful for what he did; because once he passed, I had no one left to talk to. I block out a lot of my life before the accident only because it's easier to cope. I've lost more than most people my age have, and it's a tough thing to face on a daily basis. I cope the best I can, probably better than the majority ever would. Some days I don't even feel like gettin' out of bed, but I do it anyway. I keep on livin' because that's what they would have wanted. But sometimes it doesn't feel much like livin'. The fact of the matter is that they're all gone, and I'm still here. Alone.
Sighin' heavily, I dig through the box's contents until I find what I'm lookin' for. It's a small picture of me kissin' a pretty girl. I look to be about seventeen or eighteen in the picture. I can only see the side view of her face, but I know instantly that it's the girl from the bar. On the bottom in black marker are the words I will love you forever, Colton James.
Colton James. That's what she called me in the bar. Those are the words that made me rein in my temper. Sometimes I get so mad about what happened that I can't concentrate or control myself. One of my doctors had told me that's just one of the side effects of havin' massive head trauma and swellin' on the brain. But it all comes down to the fact that life isn't very fair when everyone you love is dead…especially when you're the cause of your little brother dyin'.
I was drivin' that night. I don't even remember where we were goin', but Connor was with me. We were probably goin' on a late-night food run. He always loved to do that. That much I remember. He was tryin' to bulk up for the football team, and I was helpin' him. He was eatin' us out of house and home, but dad never breathed a word about the grocery bill. Dad always wanted what was best for us, and he knew Connor was excited to join the team.