The bag of Cheetos rode prominently in the upper basket of the grocery cart, in the small space usually reserved for a toddler.
But Paige’s two-year-old wasn’t with her. Not today.
On a pass through the chip aisle, she added a box of whole wheat crackers for good measure. They would balance the lack of nutrients in the Cheetos.
This was what Paige’s life had become—one of extremes and trying to find balance.
She sighed as she navigated her cart around an endcap to see what else she absolutely couldn’t do without. She glanced at her watch, calculating there was a little over an hour remaining before she had to pick up Nathan from day care. She fought the urge to run to him immediately after the court hearing, scoop him up, and hold him tight because she knew better than to interrupt his nap. It was best to let him sleep, have his snack, and then pick him up at his regularly scheduled time. Even though nothing in her own life felt normal, she wanted Nathan’s schedule to remain as uninterrupted as possible.
So here she was killing time at the grocery store since the hearing at the courthouse didn’t take as long as she had planned. It didn’t even last close to the time her divorce attorney warned her it might, if her husband had actually shown.
But he hadn’t.
His lawyer was his voice for the uncontested divorce. So she didn’t even see him.
“It’s better that way,” her attorney whispered in her ear as she saw Paige scanning the seats at two p.m. Paige just nodded, letting the lawyer take the lead because she had guided clients through the process more times than Paige cared to count. Was it better? Was any of it really better?
She returned her hand to the cart, resolving not to dwell on the afternoon. As of today at 2:27 p.m., she was a divorced woman.
And a single mom.
Her naked left ring finger was the physical reminder. That outward change was the easy part. The inward changes—the constant feeling of absence in the pit of her stomach and the looming fear of being less than enough as a single parent to Nathan—weren’t something she could simply remove with the same ease as slipping off a diamond band.
But in the short term, a few comfort foods were going to help her get through her first weekend of this new normal.
She tugged the edge of the bag staring back at her. Cheetos are normal, right? They’d have to do.
She clicked her kitten heels against each perfectly square tile on the grocery store floor, looking down as she walked. If she timed it right, she could place a shoe completely inside the boundaries of one, taking them in single file through each aisle. It was a simple movement, one foot in front of the other. That was her divorce attorney’s advice when Paige had asked her “Now what?” as she shuffled her feet in the courthouse hallway after the anticlimactic end to her divorce proceedings.
“Now you’re single,” her attorney answered. “So move forward from this. One foot in front of the other, Paige.” That was all she said before she waved, turned, and called back, “Final bill next month.” As if Paige needed a reminder of the attorney’s two hundred and fifty dollar an hour fee that was sucking her own modest paycheck dry each week.
After becoming accustomed to those hefty fees, the cost of today’s grocery store run was going to pale in comparison. And because of that, Paige felt completely entitled to Cheetos.
And that bag of powdered donuts.
And ready-to-eat chocolate swirl pudding.
As much as she planned on drowning her miseries this weekend with empty calories and the bottle of ibuprofen she tossed in, Nathan’s needs were always on her mind. She steered the cart toward the far end of the store, heading to an aisle to get his foods. She picked up the pace as she strode, no longer paying attention to her foot placement.
As her focus shifted from the floor to eye level, she noticed how many shoppers were walking in raincoats or pushing wet umbrellas in their carts. Gray skies had held for most of the afternoon, the symbolism of ominous weather not lost on Paige. It represented the type of day she was having—soggy and bitter, with just enough annoyance to ruin.
But from the looks of the crowd forming in the store now, the skies were emptying. Clothes were wet. Carts were damp. Floors were splotchy. And Paige’s Dry Clean Only dress and tan kitten heels were going to be no match for Mother Nature when she stepped outside.
“Great,” she muttered, already mentally debating whether she’d need to buy a disposable poncho just to make it to her car without completely ruining her outfit. She didn’t know why she had even dressed up for the proceedings. Maybe just to show Barry Van Soyt what he was letting go after their four-year marriage . . .
Suck it up, buttercup. She willed herself to remember this piece of advice using her daddy’s nickname for her. Paige couldn’t let herself go to that dark place in her life during the divorce.
Fruit snacks and the cinnamon oatmeal Nathan loved so much.
That was where her head needed to be now.
Paige pushed the cart with the same force she used on Nathan’s jogging stroller, ignoring more displays of tempting cookies, candy, and junk food as she went. She’d get what she needed, then would make her way through the checkout. She’d still have plenty of time for a trip to the bank and maybe some drive-through coffee before picking up Nathan.
A crash of thunder reverberated the industrial roof, echoing through the aisles and alarming customers as they brought their carts to screeching halts. Drastic weather changes in the south—sun to clouds, wind to stillness, clear to threatening—were just part of the package living in Texas. The big sky she loved so much could morph faster than a burning candle.
Another loud thunderclap shook the ceiling above, momentarily outing the streaming music from overhead speakers that entertained shoppers. Maybe she had been wandering the store aisles longer than she realized. Perhaps the weather was getting dangerous out there.
Paige stopped her cart, adding what she needed even as another aisle nearby called her name. “That’s right. Mommy might need a little wine,” she mumbled.
Paige wasn’t much of a drinker, not even before Nathan was born. But her life was different now. A cheap bottle of something in a blush variety might pair well with the powdered donuts . . .
Paige turned her cart around in the aisle and told herself it wouldn’t hurt to browse the alcohol selections when a third thunderclap did more than interrupt the store’s music. In a single, terrifying instant, the store went dark. No overhead bulbs, no attractive display lighting, no single source of electricity glowed to illuminate the space in front of her. Paige gasped, then froze.
And, from the sounds of it, every other patron in the store reacted the same way. A wave of auditory surprise rippled across the darkened interior. Usually, when her lights flicked off at home during a storm, they didn’t stay that way for long. Surely, the electricity would cut back on any second.
But moments passed, and Paige realized this was more than a flicker. A store employee yelled something about a generator. She took a few gingered steps in the same direction she had been heading across the tile, her eyes adjusting to the absence of light just enough to see shadows and outlines.
She fished her cell phone from her purse and swiped with her thumb to the flashlight icon. But before she could tap it, secondary lighting flicked to life overhead with minimal intensity. The renewed illumination was just enough glow for her to see in front of her while a firm hum replaced the echo from the thunder.
When she was a kid, she imagined what it would be like to be stuck in a grocery store during a storm. It wouldn’t be such a bad place to get stranded. She’d head to the checkout aisle and read all the forbidden magazines on display. After she finished there, she’d treat herself to a melted popsicle or ice cream that surely the employees wouldn’t want to go to waste. Maybe she’d be able to use some scented lotion or try out a nail polish. So much was waiting to be explored in the expanse of a store. Or so she thought as a kid. But now, as an adult, being stuck in a grocery store during a blackout was the last place Paige wanted to be.
“Patience, please!” An employee yelled over the din of muttered “What happened?” and “Check your phone” instructions shifting from shopper to shopper.
She looked down at her phone. A National Weather Service announcement was issued from nearby San Antonio. She slid her thumb over the teaser to read the full message.
Guadalupe County was included, and her town of Seguin as the county seat was in the path of rapidly moving showers. The message warned of possible flash flooding in low-lying areas due to the amount of rain possible in such a short time, but it didn’t warn of hail, high winds, or anything else more severe.
Lightening probably just knocked out a city transformer, or maybe a dead limb from one of the town’s mighty oaks had downed a line. Either way, disruption in electricity was probably the worst of it.
Paige clicked her phone off and dropped it back into the side pocket of her purse. With the generator powering part of the store, surely she’d be able to pay for her groceries and put the whole afternoon behind her. She rounded the corner to head into the checkout area when she nearly steamrolled another shopper.
“Woah, there!” A man arched his back like a shocked cat and sidestepped her cart, narrowly missing being plowed in the stomach.
“Oh!” Paige brought one hand to her mouth in reaction. “I’m so sorry about that.” She snapped her mouth shut, stunned by the stranger’s words and their surprise eye contact.
He squinted. “Paige?”
She recognized his squared jaw and granite-like face, a classically handsome profile. This was no stranger. But she asked anyway. “Everett?”
In a flash, he maneuvered to the front of her cart and wrapped her in an embrace before she could make a move one way or another. “It’s so good to see you.”
Paige melted into his arms. Her attorney had been so distant in the courtroom and aside from Nathan this morning, she hadn’t had anyone come close to her. To feel the arms of another human being around her was the mark of humanity she had longed for all day. It felt good to be held.
And by Everett. With those arms.
And his broad chest.
Even through his clothes, she could tell he had maintained just as fit a physique as she remembered from high school.
She could barely manage a decent reply. “Wow, it’s been something like—”
“Over a decade!” he answered for her, releasing his grip and dropping into a rhythm of conversation that made it seem like they had never lost touch. “We should be having a reunion or something. Was there one at ten years?” He leaned back on one foot, balancing a red hand basket in his grip to take her in. “You look fantastic.”
Heat rose to her cheeks at the compliment. “Thanks.” She wanted to add “If you only knew.” Could Everett see the tension of the day and the stress with which she had been living on her face? She certainly hoped not.
In spite of her embarrassingly short replies and her attempt to masque her insecurities, he continued the conversation. “Some blackout, isn’t it?”
“I’ll say.” Paige wished she could say more, but two words were now all her mouth would articulate.
“I just rushed in for some cough syrup.” He pointed to two bottles in his hand basket. “My mom’s chemo has really dried out her throat. I told her she should ask the doctor about taking this stuff, but she insists it makes her feel better and she’s already asked the good doctor enough questions.” Everett rattled off the words with an ease that nearly camouflaged the seriousness of the content.
“Chemo?” Paige managed to squeak.
“Four weeks in.” He nodded. “Breast cancer.” Paige’s heart broke any time she heard someone else was diagnosed with a disease as serious as cancer. She knew of Everett’s parents, though she didn’t keep up with them. Still, she was surprised she hadn’t heard about the diagnosis through the grapevine. At the land and title office where she worked, gossip was as plentiful as the paperwork.
Everett shifted his weight. “I’ve been driving her to San Antonio for some appointments. That’s actually why I’m back here.” He balanced his basket with one hand so he could gesture around the store. “Well, not here, exactly. Grocery stores are not my idea of a fun place to spend free time.”
Though he probably didn’t mean it as such, Paige took his comment as a bit of a cut to her own use of the grocery store today. Killing time and buying junk food was how she was spending her free time. She wished she could hide the contents of the garbage filling her cart. How could she explain away those Cheetos . . .
Everett continued before she could try. “But even I’ll admit a grocery store during a blackout has a certain charm about it.”
If this were a pickup line and Paige were a teenager, she might have bitten. But she wasn’t in high school anymore. And this wasn’t a pickup line.
More heat flushed her cheeks. How would she even know flirting if it bit her on the ankle? Her mind was a mess, and thoughts raced in confusing circles.
Paige cleared her throat, finding her voice. “A grocery store blackout is a first for me.” So was today’s courtroom hearing.
And signing the divorce paperwork.
And remembering to use her maiden name of “Fredrick” instead of married “Van Soyt” again.
But she didn’t share any of that with Everett.
He just smiled, a dimple visible in his left cheek as he volleyed back to her, “And me.” He grinned again, though Paige couldn’t be sure for what reason he was really smiling. “So, um . . .” A conversation was proving more challenging than buying healthy foods today.
“Paige.” Everett filled the absence, his rich contralto voice dominating the space. “What’s been new with you? I mean since, I don’t know, the last time we saw each other at Seguin High School? Are you married? Have kiddos?” It was an honest enough set of questions. Banter, really, more than anything substantial. Two people getting reacquainted with small talk.
Until Paige blurted a lie she couldn’t take back. “I’m widowed.”
End of Excerpt