My parents had not been pleased about my decision to stay in Tomahawk Hill for Christmas, but my mother was having a wonderful time helping me make it up to them.
“Hm…” she’d said, and I could practically see the way her lips would pucker in contemplation. “I’m thinking Bali or Dubai in January. I’ll just book it with your credit card, shall I?”
“I think seven or eight days is good,” I’d said, grinning. “Let’s invite Parker and Emma too.”
“I saw Parker at the office last week,” my mother had paused, then said quietly. “I think it’s a good thing he and Emma are moving to Tomahawk Hill in the New Year. It hardly seems possible but I think he’s more depressed now than he was this summer.”
I’d frowned. What would it be like to be stripped of the love of your life during the holidays? Enduring family gatherings where the absence of one was louder than the presence of many? “I’ve found the perfect house for him and Emma just outside of town,” I’d told her. “An old farmhouse that is pleading for a new lease on life. And I’ve put the word out on finding a good live-in nanny for Em.”
“So, is there anyone else to invite to Bali?” My mother had asked in the leading way that said she was in possession of information.
“No, mother,” I’d said.
“That’s not what Cesar told me.”
“Cesar has a big mouth.”
That had been the gist of my conversation with my mother this morning.
It’s now been three days since my talk with Olivia at the diner—three days of non-stop work at the hotel.
There was the Christmas party prep but that was all part of getting the Sundance ready to open.
The rest of my attention centered on solidifying the construction schedule for the permanent Sundance Saloon location, plans for the new diner, the malt shop and extended stay that Therese and I were building that would initially house the contractors working on the builds.
I’m standing near the front door of the hotel, observing the contractors as they install the finishing touches to the floating ceiling above the bar when the hotel doors burst open, the effect so dramatic I imagine snow swirling like tumbleweeds in the street.
“Honey, I’m home,” Cesar says, dropping his suitcase with a flourish and opening his arms.
“Hey brother,” I say, giving him a big hug. “Welcome to Tomahawk Hill.”
Cesar steps back and squeezes a low whistle out between his lips as he surveys the temporary Sundance Saloon. “I see what you’re doing El Jefe. I’m digging it.”
“It’s good to see you, man.”
“If I wouldn’t have come, you know it would have been the first Christmas we’ve spent apart in years? Although,” he says, flashing his dimples. “Mama Hurst invited me to Bali in January.”
I grin. “So, she decided on Bali. That was fast.”
Cesar slaps me on the back. “You know she’s taking it pretty well, you not coming home for Christmas. I guess I am her favorite.”
“I think planning every detail of our trip to Bali has done quite a lot to assuage the pain,” I say wryly. I walk toward my office. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Eli and Maverick before I take you over to see Dana.”
I’d asked Rich to meet us at the hotel because I was running late, but he’d insisted I come to pick him up. “I’d like us to arrive together,” he’d said. “And it’s too cold to walk.”
I hug myself in an effort to warm up as well as to quell the anxious feeling starting to pool in the pit of my stomach. In under twenty minutes, Rich, Jake, and I would be in the same room together.
Therese is in the back of Audrey’s rental and I’m in the front. “Why didn’t we warm up the car before we got in?” I say, as we roll down the driveway and then toward town. “You’d think we’d know better by now.”
“Tex on Channel 9 said it’ll get down to -13 tonight,” Therese says. “Coldest night so far this year.”
Audrey cautiously taps her brakes, and the road gives us a fair warning as the tires glide for a second above the ice. “We’ll just have to take it slow.”
The snow that had fallen in November never melted during warmer days so, inches of hardened old snow rise alongside the road, glimmers under the headlights and leaves everything else in the dark. Out of instinct, I look toward Jake’s house as we pass, smiling at the Christmas lights twinkling out greetings, laughing at the inflatable Grinch and his dog Max, peeking out mischievously from his driveway.
“So Jake found the Christmas lights,” Therese says.
“Inflatable decorations though, Halmoni?” Audrey says, not masking her horror.
“Now that is all Jake,” she says.
“He said he could make inflatables ‘cool’,” I say, grinning. “As a kid, his mother let him decorate their backyard at Christmas. It got to be a joke with them over the years.”
“Uh-huh,” Audrey says. “So even classy Jake Hurst has a dark side.”
At five o’clock on a Friday night, with kids and parents on holiday until after the New Year, Main Street has the feel of a small-town festival.
People wander up and down the street admiring Christmas lights and decorations, pop in and out of the diner, congregate in front of Bud’s theater. Even the palm is busier than usual with out-of-town guests willing to sacrifice the comfort of Nebraska City accommodations for the convenience of proximity to family and friends.
“Look, Livy!” Audrey says, pointing to two kids dragging a stained twin-sized mattress around to the back of the theater. “Do you remember taking that old mattress out of your grandfather’s warehouse that one year?”
I laugh. “How could I forget? You complained the whole time that the mattress was probably infested with bugs and disease! Let’s swing back there on the way to the Palm and see what’s going on.”
There is a side street behind Bud’s theater perfect for sledding—the gentle slope of the road emptying into the friendly territory of Sam’s backyard. And this is where all the kids seem to congregate tonight, whizzing downhill in either store-bought or home-fashioned sleds, screaming with glee.
Where are you? My phone dings.
I message Rich to meet us in front of the motel, and two minutes later he’s sliding into the car.
“How’s the leg?” he says to Therese.
“Happy to have just two legs again,” Therese says.
She’d gotten the “all clear” from her doctor today and I’d had to deny her insistence on throwing her crutch into the next dumpster we drove by on the way back to town.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“While you ladies were running around, I found a decent cafe in Nebraska City to work out of. I even got a little shopping done for my parents.”
“Very good,” Therese says. I hear her patting him on the arm. “I’ve packed some homemade chocolate chip cookies for you to take back to the motel.”
Last night after dinner, he’d mentioned slyly that he wasn’t sure what he was missing more by staying at the palm: A good night’s sleep, or 24/7 access to her baking.
“Thank you, Therese.”
We have to park across the street because of the construction vehicles and trucks lining the block around the hotel. The sight of the new banner running across the top gives me a sharp thrill. “Future Home of The Hurst Grand Hotel,” it says, in elegant old-timey cursive.
As we exit the car, Audrey asks if we’d ever identified the person who’d vandalized Jake’s building and set fire to Marty’s bar.
“Still no idea,” I say. “Jake thinks the security cameras have scared off whoever it was, but he’s got an agreement with the Sheriff’s office to have a nightly patrol drive by now that there are valuable installations in place.”
“Hey,” Rich says, grabbing my hand and pulling me aside so Therese and Audrey can walk ahead of us. “Can we talk for a second?”
Audrey shoots me a questioning look and I wave her on—motioning for her to take my grandmother’s arm. Therese is so excited to be unhindered I know she’ll sprint across the street if she gets the chance.
Rich stops me in front of the hotel windows still hooded by heavy drapes.
Jake was determined to give the town a grand reveal at the party and not a moment before.
“So…” Rich says, pulling me close, a teasing light in his eyes. “When are you going to stop punishing me for last month?”
I shake my head, “I’m not punishing you.”
“Really?” He leans toward me then, his eyes on my lips.
I hate seeing the look creeping into Rich’s eyes as I feel my face tense. Hurt. Doubt.
“What’s going on, Liv? You say you want things to go back to normal but over the past few days, nothing has.”
“I know…” I say, wondering if we would have this conversation now. “It feels like too much has happened right? Like everything has changed.”
Rich lets out a big, noisy sigh. “No, that’s not how I feel.” He stares down at me with a frown. “Too much has changed? Is it the thing with Piper? Is that it? Do you not trust me anymore?”
“No,” I say, “It’s not about Piper.” And I know it’s true as soon as I hear the words leave my lips.
“It’s about Tomahawk Hill, isn’t it? You really want me to sign off on dumping all of our future investments into the diner. Forget about how I want us to prepare for our future right? Just accept the fact that our lives will be dividedbetween Tomahawk Hill and LA forever.”
Looking into the face of the man I’ve loved, hearing him talk begrudgingly about giving up the future he’d envisioned for us, the answer to every question I’d had over the last month is so deafening in my head that I might have said it aloud.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “That’s not what I want.”
Relief glazes his eyes which makes me feel even more terrible and anxious over what I’m about to say, but I swallow the lump in my throat and state as firmly as I can manage, “I want us to have the lives we’ve prepared for all this time.”
“Yes!” Rich says, taking my hands. “We’ve prepared for this ever since we moved to LA!”
“No Rich, please, let me finish.”
He frowns. “No…?”
“No. Your future isn’t here. But mine is.” I laugh a little, feeling less fear, less burden with every word that tumbles out of my mouth.
“I mean, I can’t seem to escape this town even when I want to! And…” I look pleadingly into Rich’s face. “I don’t want to. Tomahawk Hill is my past and my present and my future. I want to be here for every success to come. Every disappointment.
You pointed out that the money my grandmother invests in the diner will be mine someday—so we should invest our money in LA. And you were right about that! But what I didn’t fully realize at that time was how this was never a statement about our future. It was about having the joy of being involved here. It was me choosing Tomahawk Hill as my home, choosing time with my grandmother and this community. I love LA. I love you. I wouldn’t be me, without you—without having pursued a life away from here. But now, I choose this,” and I spread my arms toward the whole of Main Street, the heart of the town. “This is my home now, these people are my family.”
I’d seen Rich’s expression fluctuate as I processed my feelings aloud. He’d smiled when I said I couldn’t seem to escape Tomahawk Hill, when I said he was right. But now he just looks incredulous. Disbelieving.
“Wow… this is not how I thought this conversation would go.”
I take off my mittens so he can feel me when I place my hands on his face. “I’m sorry Rich.” And then, my eye-catching the remaining weight as it shimmers beneath the streetlight, I slip off the last bit of indecision and place it in the palm of his hand.
He stares down at the ring, then back at me, perplexed, then suddenly, alarmingly, angry. “If you walk away now Olivia, this is it.”
I know he’s speaking out of hurt, but it was another ultimatum. His pleasure or displeasure dictated entirely by my actions. No.
No to a lifetime of that kind of language.
“I know,” I say quietly. “This is it.”
I take an involuntary step back when Rich barks out a laugh. “I should have known this would happen,” he says. He looks jumpy like he’s drunk too much coffee and I wish I could close my ears to what he feels he must say.
“You’re spoiled Olivia. And selfish. Throwing away what we have? You’ll regret it. You’ll realize that no one will look out for you and take care of you the way I always have.” His eyes narrow suddenly, as though he can’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before. “Your grandmother told you, didn’t she?”
“What?” I say, startled. “What did she tell me?”
He throws his head back like he’s known it all along, his tone quietly patronizing. “You’ve always let other people tell you what to do. She has too much influence over you Liv. You should know that before you destroy your next relationship. I can’t believe she told you about the ring!”
Before I can process what he’s said, before I can say anything else, Rich turns around, his back an impenetrable and receding wall.
“Should I check on Olivia?” Eli says, opening the curtains on the front door so he can peer outside. “I don’t see her anymore and it’s been thirty minutes. She has to be an icicle by now. Think she’s okay?”
I grin, knowing if she were with anyone else, Eli wouldn’t be so worried. After meeting Rich that first night at the diner, Eli had burst into the office declaring. “He’s a dud! And I thought Olivia was a smart girl!”
“Eli,” I’d said, laughing. “Hearing you talk, I’d say you hang out with your mother too much.”
He hadn’t looked remotely offended, only pensive. “Isn’t there something you can do?”
Before Eli can start to form a search committee, the hotel doors open. Olivia walks inside looking neither frozen nor worried, accompanied by Dana and Cesar, each of them carrying paper bags of food.
No Rich in sight.
“Time to eat!” Olivia calls, making me wonder if she’s been at the diner all this time.
Amidst Cesar greeting Audrey with a, “Get over here! Why haven’t I seen you in LA since Jake’s goodbye party?” Cesar meeting Frank, and then Don—Dana organizing the food—I reach for Olivia with my eyes but her glance is everywhere but on me.
Therese and Marty emerge from my office where they’d been busy making final touches to the drink menu.
Mav, happy to be let out, makes circles around my legs.
Marty squeezes my shoulder as he walks toward the bar tables now heavy with open food containers, his step perpetually spritely these days. “I’ve got a surprise for you tomorrow night,” he says.
“As long as it’s not a dress to match my feather boa,” I warn.
He chuckles. “Oh, It’ll be a treat for the eyes, but that’s all I’ll say about it.”
The rest of the night is a blur.
Eli is a whirligig, his fingers in everything, checking items off his list, flitting from Therese to me and then to Olivia, who seems to do everything with a single-minded focus, her eyes rarely leaving the task at hand. I get the uneasy feeling that she’s made up her mindabout me.
Near ten, everything checked off the list, we all stand back and take in what we’ve created. It’s a place out of time, festooned for Christmas, a breathtaking vignette of what the future might hold.
Olivia stands a few feet away, her arms circling Therese’s waist, her grandmother’s head on her shoulder. They whisper to each other and although I can’t hear what they’re saying, their faces speak of a lifetime of shared memories and hopes.