Little wisps of dust clouds skittered down the dirt road as the spring breeze picked up, and then relented. Every once in a while the dust clouds drew in bits and pieces of dried leaves laying in their wake, and then deposited them further down the road when the breeze died down. The air was becoming warmer as the day wore on – not too cool, not too hot, just comfortable and perfect for early spring.
Tom sat in his car at the side of the road just before the turn in the road. He let his classic Mustang idle while trying to make up his mind. Did he really want to go back? Did he really want to go around the bend towards a life he once cherished, and then learned to hate? So much time had passed since he last stepped foot in Tracey Square, the small town of his youth. Man, he had loved growing up surrounded by fields and streams, and the occasional farmland. He and his friends – Frankie, Jimmy and Chuck – did everything together, from exploring abandoned farms and fishing every weekend, to racing bikes through the small town, down through the valley and back. As they got older, they played baseball together and led their team to the playoffs every year. They all had plans for the future, just like every other kid their age. Frankie planned to join the air force right after graduation. Jimmy was heading off to college an hour away, while Chuck planned to join the local volunteer firefighters, something he had wanted to do since he was ten years old. Tom looked forward to a future in law enforcement, a career passed down from his grandfather to his father, uncles and a few older cousins.
Tom turned off the ignition of his car and got out to stretch his legs. He needed more time to think. He leaned against the side of the car with arms crossed in front of himself and closed his eyes. Tom’s last month in Tracey Square seemed no different from any other of his short life. He and his friends had graduated from high school earlier that summer, and then took full advantage of enjoying their final summer together before going off on their own life paths. Each had dated throughout high school and after graduation, but none of them was serious enough to be engaged or married. However, in that last month, the Putnam family – specifically nineteen-year-old Josh and his sister seventeen-year-old Jenn – moved to Tracey Square. While Josh was tall, lanky and kept to himself, Jenn was cute and petite with a bubbly personality. Frankie and Chuck fell hard for Jenn, although they did not reveal their feelings to anyone except her. They didn’t know she was playing them, that she had set her sights on Tom. When Jenn realized Tom just was not interested in starting a relationship, she set in motion a chain of events that led to one unexpected death and the end of four childhood relationships.
By the end of that summer so many years ago, wild rumors ran rampant and blame and guilt had taken over the innocence of youth. Frankie did end up joining the air force and never came back to Tracey Square, not even with the death of his father. Chuck never became a firefighter. He was buried in the family plot in Hickory Cemetery next to his grandfather. He had jumped to his death from the water tower outside town limits, believing he was solely responsible for Jenn’s happiness. If he took himself out of the picture, she could be with Tom. Frankie, Jimmy and Tom were together one last time, as pallbearers for Chuck’s funeral. Frankie left the next week for the air force, while Jimmy packed for college and left two days after the funeral. He did return to Tracey Square to work at the local newspaper and lives there now with his wife and three children.
Tom never joined law enforcement. He left Tracey Square after Chuck’s funeral. His family knew he had not encouraged Jenn, and they knew the tremendous amount of guilt he carried over Chuck’s death. Although they were disappointed that he did not enter law enforcement, they understood his need to distance himself from the tragedy that occurred because of him. Tom moved around the country, working construction jobs and taking night classes to get a degree. Within six years, he was working as a freelance security consultant. He could travel anywhere, wasn’t tied down to a desk job. He kept in contact with his family, sometimes having them come to visit wherever he was living at the time. Nevertheless, he had never returned to Tracey Square until now. He dated over the years – sometimes getting close to getting married, but he never could make that final commitment.
So, here he was, standing on the dirt road that led to his childhood, his family and the memories he had tried to forget for so long. He opened his eyes and looked up at the blue, cloudless sky above. He was here. He may as well complete the venture. Tom got back in the Mustang, started the engine and slowly drove around the bend in the road. He was surprised that not much had changed since he left. The town had not added very many new businesses, although there were a few new housing developments branching off from the town square. He turned right at the square and headed towards his childhood home. He pulled into the driveway, parking behind his father’s Jeep. His parents, sisters, brother and their families welcomed him with his favorite home-cooked dinner as they regaled him with updates of their lives.
Afterward, just as they were starting to clear the table, there was a knock on the front door. Marty, Tom’s father, answered the door and led the new guest into the dining room. “Look who’s here to join us for dessert”, Marty said. All eyes turned towards the guest – a tall, lanky man Tom recognized right away – Josh Putnam. But Josh had changed somehow over the years. He no longer seemed melancholy or secretive. He smiled easily and seemed comfortable in his own skin. Dinner dishes had been cleared away and dessert had taken their place. Josh sat across the table from Tom, looking him directly in the eye. “I’m glad you have finally returned to Tracey Square, Tom.” Josh said. “I’ve needed to talk to you for so long, to explain some things to you. I approached your folks to find out how I could get in touch with you, but they felt it was all in timing. It took quite a bit of time for your family to get to know me – I understood how difficult it would be to trust a “brooding soul”, especially after what happened with my sister. So, if it is agreeable to you, I’d like to have a private talk after dessert.” Tom hesitantly agreed, and they enjoyed a casual conversation before leaving the table.
As Tom and Josh walked down the slope of the backyard towards the chairs on the deck, Josh informed Tom of Jenn’s life. He told Tom of Jenn’s diagnosis of a sociopath with bipolar disease. His family had tried everything to bring her under control. They had moved to Tracey Square, hoping the open spaces and small town appeal would be better suited to Jenn’s disposition. She was working with several doctors in the next town, so Tracey Square was also convenient. Jenn had been institutionalized a few times before this last move. Each time she came out, they thought she was cured. Josh told Tom he and his parents sometimes lived in fear of what Jenn was capable of doing. Once Chuck committed suicide because of Jenn, they knew they could no longer keep her home for any length of time. She had been institutionalized in a hospital in another state a week after Chuck’s death, where she remained until her death five years ago. Josh said, “I just wanted you to know that no one – not my family, not the townspeople, not the authorities, ever felt you were responsible for what occurred. My family tried to quell the rumors as best we could, but because we were new in town, some folks chose to believe what they wanted to believe. I am truly sorry for the course of events in your life. Tom said, “I would never blame you – or even your folks. I can understand you wanted to protect your sister and hoped that she could live a normal life. I think I’ve been able to work through most of the guilt I’ve carried around all these years. I know I can’t get back those lost years, but then again, being away helped me grow to whom I am now. This is my destiny. Thanks for sharing your family history. I know it’s not easy to talk about, even now.”
After more casual conversation, they stood, shook hands and Tom walked Josh back to his car. The next day, Tom drove to the local newspaper office and invited Jimmy for coffee at the local diner. Jimmy was shocked, to say the least, yet happy to see his old buddy back in town. They talked about what they had done over the past years, and eventually got to the topic of Frankie and Chuck. They commiserated about their special memories of Chuck, how they still missed him. Then Jimmy told Tom that he was still in touch with Frankie several times each year. He was a commercial pilot now, based in Atlanta, married with two daughters. Jimmy pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. “You’ll never guess who I’m sitting across from, Frank. Just take a guess.,” he said. He waited a few seconds, then said “No, no one famous. Just our buddy,Tom” . Frank was on vacation and invited both Jimmy and his family and Tom to meet at lodge he was renting for a small reunion. With plans confirmed, Tom returned to his folks’ home. As he sat on the deck behind the house, he knew he had made the right decision to come home at the right time. Any other time would have been wrong. He had no expectations and was not disappointed. He knew he could never regain those lost years, those cherished friendships, but he also knew it was the right time to reconnect and reclaim a portion of his life.