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The Homecoming

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Molly thought she had it all figured out.  Start college, finish... Land her dream job, and live happily ever after.  When taking a year off became a reality, Due to financial constraints, Molly knew she was going to be the talk of the town. That lil’ ole town that gossips so much. But wait, It will be the event of the year known as "Molly's Homecoming" Will everyone get their digs in or will Molly have the last word?

Chapter 1

It’s bright and sunny when Molly gets out of the car. She has no clue where the idea of weather-matching mood comes from. As far as she can tell, it’s a hoax. From a cursory, sweeping glance, Oak Park looks pretty much the same as when she left it behind. A few of the shops have shut down and been replaced, some walls have been repainted, and Sammy’s Café has been remodeled and renamed “Beans” but other than that, it looks the same. Nothing is the same as before. But that’s the whole reason she’s come back, isn’t it?

She spots Courtney quickly; she’s waiting in a pair of jeans that look completely alien on her, and she pushes her sunglasses to the top of her head when she sees Molly. Molly raises her hand in acknowledgment, and Courtney waves, crossing the road to get to her.

“Hi honey,” she says, her arms fluttering vaguely around in the air as if she can’t decide whether or not to move in for a hug.

“Hey,” Molly turns away, stooping into her car to retrieve her bags from the backseat.

“How are you doing?” Courtney asks, and Molly must swallow an irritated sigh because Courtney uses the voice. It’s that voice that says, “you know you’re doing terrible, and I know you’re doing terrible, everyone knows you’re doing terrible because that is why you’re here after all, but I want to condescend to you so that I can feel like I’m being somehow nurturing.”

Molly just shrugs. “Can we take these in?” she asks, hefting one of her duffel bags up a little. Courtney looks relieved at the distraction and starts ushering her towards the house, offering to take one of the bags, rambling about having a room cleaned out and how the en suite was redone last year.

The inside of Courtney’s house is modern, by Oak Parkian standards, with big airy windows and an open-plan floor. It makes Molly feel exposed and antsy. Part of the appeal of Oak Park had been the vague memories of nooks and crannies, dark corners to fold yourself away into. Still, Molly’s room is far enough from Courtney’s that it maintains some semblance of privacy, and it faces the garden rather than the street.

“I just put some little stuff in there,” Courtney says, gesturing broadly at the cream carpet, the powder blue curtains, and the bedspread, “I figured you could pick out your decorations and things now you’re here.”

“Sure.”

“Well…” Courtney looks like she wants to say more but decides not to. “I’ll leave you to get unpacked, settle in. I’ll call your mom to let her know you’ve arrived safely.”

Molly slumps on the bed after the door swings shut, the familiar wave of weary, soul-deep tiredness washing slowly over her. She shouldn’t sleep right now - there was unpacking to do, she needs to find a garage to check out the strange flashing light on her dashboard, and she hasn’t eaten since the half-full packet of Skittles she scarfed down as she passed through the Bay Gas Station a couple of hours back - but she’s awake, she’s thinking, and thinking hasn’t led to anything good lately, so she closes her eyes and lets the exhaustion envelop her.

When Molly wakes up, she stares at the ceiling for a moment, trying to remember what day it is. A glance at her phone tells her she’s only been out for thirty minutes, and she heaves herself upright with a groan.

Courtney’s laying dinner out when Molly makes her way downstairs, and she braces herself for the inevitable conversation she knows is ahead. She twirls spaghetti around her fork without moving to eat it until Courtney clears her throat.

“I know how difficult this all is for you,” she says, “and that you’ve been…you’ve taken it hard.”

She drops her knife and fork with such force that they clatter. “Sorry, should I not have?” Molly snaps, cocking an eyebrow.

“Of course, you - that’s not what I-” Courtney coughs and readjusts her seat. “I just want you to know that we all want you to feel better. To take all the time you need.”

There’s no point in explaining how futile that will be, so Molly takes a long sip of water. “Is it okay if I finish this later?” she asks, pointing at her plate with the fork. “I’m not feeling very hungry.” She gets up without waiting for an answer.

Two months ago, Molly would still have been in the phase where she would have just given in to the constant urge to scream at someone and ended up saying something undeserved to Courtney. Now though, she just disappears with a mumbled “goodnight” called over her shoulder and starts changing for bed. She rubs her hips where her jeans have dug in, leaving red marks pressed into the soft flesh, crisscrossed like scars. But the imprints start to fade slowly, and she pulls her sleep shorts over them. There’s stuff she has to do tomorrow, and she’ll have to psych herself up to wander openly around Oak Park after this long. But right now, she just wants to sleep.

* * *

Molly would, in all honesty, have probably been okay procrastinating on her car problems for a few more weeks, but Courtney starts fretting when she finds out, offering to give Molly rides wherever she needs to go.

“It’s fine,” Molly says, “I was going to get it looked at today anyway.”

It isn’t hard to find a mechanic - there’s only one in Oak Park, and it hasn’t changed locations - or had a paint job - since the last time she saw it.

The guy behind the desk, whose name tag identifies him as Danny, smiles when she walks in, nodding as she explains that a light on her dashboard wouldn’t stop flashing her whole ride over.

“How long was the drive?” he asks.

She gives a one-shouldered shrug. “I came over from Boston.”

Danny lets out a whistle. “I’m not surprised a cross-country drive took its toll on your ride. What brought you so far?”

“I’m visiting a family friend.”

He eyes her a moment longer but doesn’t ask any more questions. “I’ll get my apprentice to have a look at it just now, bring it over to the garage.”

Molly nods, then immediately stiffens when she opens the door to what looks like a break room and says, “Hey Ray, get out here!”

For one wild moment, Molly wonders if she can slip out of the door and hurry away before she’s spotted, but before she even has time to dismiss the idea, the door swings open and Stacey appears.

“Stacey, I was just telling…”

“Molly,” she supplies when Danny looks at her, trying not to let her voice squeak.

“I was just telling Molly that you could take a look at her car.”

Stacey’s gaze is hard and unmoving but doesn’t betray any recognition. “Sure.”

“Okay,” Danny moves for the break room, “I’ll leave you to it.”

Molly lets herself look at Stacey properly. There’s nothing dramatically different about her appearance that Molly can put a finger on, but her face is older, all angles and edges, and she wears a tight high ponytail instead of a braid now. Her leather jacket is beaten and covered in grease stains.

“So,” Stacey asks, “what are you doing here?”

“There was this flashing light on my dashboard. I think it’s an alert or something, I wanted to get it checked out.”

“Okay,” Stacey says, pressing a button that opens the garage door, “I’ll take a look. But McKenzie, I think you and I both know I meant what are you doing back?” She walks over to where Molly’s car is standing, retrieves the keys, and opens the door.

“You know Courtney Baker? My mom’s friend? I’m staying with her for a while.”

Stacey turns on the ignition, barely giving the dash a cursory glance before announcing “You need an oil change,” and sliding out to get a canister. “You staying until college starts?”

Molly feels her fingernails digging crescents into the heel of her palm. “Oh. I’m taking a gap year.”

She snorts. “I always figured pre-med couldn’t come to you fast enough. You always seemed one of those I’ll rest when I’m dead types.”

The edges of her vision blur and she feels bile surge up her throat. Molly tries to breathe in and out through her nose quietly. Not here, she tells herself, not in front of Stacey. “Yeah, well. My priorities have changed.”

“They’re not the only thing.”

There’s a tense silence as Stacey changes the oil, and Molly can only bring herself to speak by the time Stacey’s wiping her hands down on her jeans.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and her voice comes out rasping.

Stacey turns to look at her. “Are you?”

“Yes,” she swallows, “yes. I am.”

“It wasn’t hard, you get that right? We weren’t expecting you to visit or anything, but it wouldn’t have been hard to pretend you cared and answer our messages.”

“I did care!” she protests “I just…”

Stacey sighs. “You can stop squirming, Molly, I’m not trying to fight you.”

“That seems out of character.” Molly feels the tightness in her chest unclenches slightly when Stacey cracks a grin at that.

“For the record,” she says, “I still think you’re an asshole. But it’s good to see you again.”

“Yeah,” Molly nods, “you too.”

Stacey watches her for another long moment as if she’s waiting for something. She catches Molly’s eye and then shakes her head. “Whatever. Come on, I’ll ring you up at the front desk.”

She pays up and takes her keys from Stacey. Neither one of them moves in for a hug, but Molly raises her hand in an awkward half-wave. “So. I’ll see you round?”

Stacey arches an eyebrow. “That’s kind of up to you, isn’t it?” But she shakes her head again and waves off the jibe. “I’ll catch you later, McKenzie. And welcome home.”

“Thanks.”

Molly doesn’t let herself heave a sigh of relief until she’s back in the car. She’d felt somewhat ambushed seeing Stacey unexpectedly, but it hadn’t been too bad. It wasn’t exactly easy, and not comfortable. But it was fine. It had gone about as well as she’d have hoped for. But then again, Stacey isn’t the one she’s most worried about running into.

Chapter 2

Tyler is having a stressful enough day before Stacey walks in. It’s not that he considers Stacey a harbinger of bad news or anything, it’s just they don’t have a close enough friendship that she wanders in to just hang out or have a chat. She always has a good reason for dropping by, and Tyler has had enough of those for today. Mrs. Sanders had a good reason for suspending Bridgette immediately and making him pick her up from school, and Bridgette meanwhile claims that she had a good reason for getting into the fistfight, to begin with, and all of this means he hasn’t had time to process his breakup, which Amy had a good reason for initiating. So yeah, he’s not exactly jumping for joy to see Stacey marching into the bookshop with such purpose. Although to be fair, she hardly looks thrilled either.

“Today’s not been a great day,” he says before she can speak, taking a new stack of books out of the donations box and starting to move through the shelves with them, “so before you

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