Chapter One -Brandon Returns
There it is. The one stoplight I thought I’d never see again, still
blinking its irregular red pattern that no one ever paid attention to.
As most of the shops are centrally located, few people drive in town.
Their cars are used for driving to neighboring cities when what they
want isn’t available here, so there is no real need for the stop
light, but the people had decided the town needed at least one stoplight
to be called a proper town, and so it had been erected.
There had been a huge ceremony the day it was christened; the whole town
had shown up. The mayor had had to stand on a ladder to cut the red
ribbon as someone had placed it too high. Once he was up the ladder,
another member of the city board had handed him a giant pair of silver
scissors. Then it had become a balancing act as the mayor tried to open
the giant scissors without losing his balance – that had been comical
– and we had watched in awe as it blinked, blinked, long pause,
blinked, blinked. The awe had faded quickly, and a squabble had broken
out among the adults about the broken light. The whole affair had been
rather disappointing to a sixteen-year-old, who had been looking forward
to getting his driver’s license, and I remembered that day as the nail
in the coffin solidifying my idea of leaving this tiny backwards town
and returning to normalcy.
Then I met Presley, and my life changed.
“Are we there yet, Daddy?”
I glance in the rearview mirror at my daughter, Joy, strapped in her car
seat. Her dark curls came from me, but her blue-grey eyes are her
mother’s. Joy is the one good thing that came out of this town.
She resumes her stare out the window as we continue down Main Street.
The Diner still sits on the corner, probably still run by Max, the same
uninspired owner who wore a ball cap and plaid flannel shirt to work
every day. His choice of attire left a lot to be desired, but he was a
good cook. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve had a better burger.
Next to the diner is the small Post Office. I never spent much time in
it growing up, but I knew the man who worked there, Bert. He was an odd
man to say the least – always trying out new ideas that never seemed
to work. One year, he had tried raising chickens to supply eggs for the
general store, but he had become attached to one of the chickens, naming
her Stella and carrying her from place to place in a little bag like
wealthy old women do with tiny dogs. The chicken had escaped the bag one
day in the middle of The Diner and wreaked havoc, incensing Max. Stella
disappeared after that, and I was fairly certain she ended up on Max’s
menu, but I could never prove it.
The general store appears next. It carries groceries and a small
selection of clothing and household goods. I had been shocked by the
meager selection when I first arrived, but the town wears on you and has
a way of making you forget the outside world moving on around it. By the
time I graduated high school, I had been accustomed to the small
offerings until I arrived in Dallas and felt like a total hick, at least
three years behind the times.
“Daddy, look, cupcakes. Can we get one?”
Twisting in the black leather seat, I follow her finger pointing out the
opposite window. There had been no cupcake shop six years ago, but there
is indeed a shop there now, where the laundromat had been, sporting a
colorful cupcake sign and logo on the window. Sweet Treats. It’s not a
highly original name, but neither are most of the stores in this town.
“We’ll come back by later.” I am curious about the owner. Who
would choose to put up a new shop in this sleepy little town?
Her bottom lip turns out in an adorable pout, but she does not continue
to fight me. For her, this trip is like a vacation to a new and unusual
place. We rarely venture from Dallas, mainly because my work keeps me
too busy for vacations. For me, it’s a return to a past I want to
forget. There’s too much pain, too much sadness here in this little
I make a right down Cooper Street, the road that leads to my parent’s
house. Though it has been years since I have been back here, I could
drive the route blindfolded, partly because it is a simple route, and
partly because I walked it so many times as a teenager.
The two-story yellow house looks exactly as I remember it, though the
paint is chipping in a few more places and faded in others. The gravel
of the driveway crunches under the tires as I pull in. I park the car
and take a deep breath.
“Let me out Daddy,” Joy calls from the back seat.
Sighing, I open my door and then reach in to unbuckle her. Though five,
she is still too small to qualify for a booster seat, and I feel safer
having her in the bigger car seat anyway. No one ever told me that when
I became a parent, I would have crazy nightmares about all the ways I
could lose my daughter. The car accident is always the worst.
Joy scurries out of the car, her faded pink bunny clutched in one petite
hand. On the day she was born, my mother had given her a soft pink
cuddle bunny. Joy had latched onto it, sleeping with it every night.
When she began crawling, she would often pick up the bunny in her mouth,
dragging it across the floors. Even after she began walking, the bunny
would go outside with her to play in the dirt or be flung around the
room. The bunny has seen better days, but she refuses to part with it
for any longer than an occasional trip in the washing machine, and of
course, no one sells this bunny any longer. I dread the day when it
falls apart and I can’t replace it.
As she scrambles up the wooden porch, I pop the trunk and grab the two
suitcases I packed the night before. My hope is that we’ll only be
here a week, but I have no guarantee and therefore packed for at least
Joy is banging on the door when I reach her side. She hasn’t been
around my parents much, as we left shortly after her first birthday, but
they did visit a few times and Joy always clung to them when they did as
if she knew the time wouldn’t be for very long. Now, she has created
this idea in her head of what they’ll be like while she’s here and
regaled me with it the last few days. I hope she won’t be
disappointed, but I’m afraid she might. My mother probably won’t be
able to spend much time with her as she will be taking care of my
father, at least when he gets released from the hospital.
My mother opens the door and breaks into a smile. She looks older than I
remember her looking last time. There are more lines in her face and
more grey streaks coloring her hair, but her eyes still twinkle the way
they always have.
“Joy,” she says and bends down with her arms out.
“Nana.” Joy runs into her arms, squeezing the woman tightly about
the neck. “You smell like cookies.”
A smile plays across my lips. My mother always smelled of vanilla and
sugar, and while she did often have a plate of cookies waiting for me
when I arrived home from school, she didn’t every day, and I often
wondered how she still smelled of cookies on those days.
“That’s because I have some in the kitchen.” She taps the end of
Joy’s nose, earning a giggle. “Now, come in, and let’s get you
“Then can we have cookies?” Joy asks. She is bouncing up and down,
sending the lights in her pink sneakers into overdrive. Mother nods,
smiling at her enthusiasm.
I pull the two suitcases into the homey entrance and shut the door
The house hasn’t changed a bit. A wooden coatrack still sits just to
the right of the front door, holding Dad’s derby cap and a few coats,
and the sign, announcing “As for me and my house, we will serve the
Lord,” still hangs prominently on the wall. I shed my coat, adding it
to the rack and then remove Joy’s as well.
“Let me show you to your room.” My mother grabs Joy’s free hand
and leads her down the beige carpeted hallway. Pictures of Anna and I
line the walls. My mother never let an opportunity to take a picture go
by, and I’m almost certain she bought every school picture we ever had
so she could display them all on the walls. I tried to remove one once
and replace it with something else, but she noticed right away and
forced me to rehang that picture.
Mother opens the door to what was the guest room. Though it is still the
guest room, she has added some decorations for a younger child to enjoy.
The daybed has been covered with a flowery pink and purple bedspread and
a blond doll is propped on top. An old dollhouse sits near the dresser
along with a faded toy box filled with toys.
“This is all for me?” Joy’s eyes are wide as she looks up at my
The lines around my mother’s eyes are more visible as she smiles.
“Yep, all for you. A girl needs proper toys.”
“Especially in this town,” I say under my breath. Not quietly enough
though as my mother shoots a look full of daggers my direction. How
quickly she can change from sugar to fire. I hold my hand up in silent
“Where is Daddy staying?”
“Right across the hall,” my mother says, opening the door. My old
room stares back at me, looking very much like it did in high school. My
football awards still line the shelf, though they are coated in a fine
layer of dust, and the tattered posters of my favorite bands cover the
“Didn’t feel like updating this one?” I ask.
My mother shrugs. “Maybe I would have if you came around more
I want to reply, but I don’t want to start a fight, so I bite my
tongue and carry the suitcase inside. After dropping off Joy’s
suitcase as well, we follow my mother back towards the open living room
and into the country-themed kitchen. I’ve always hated the flowered
wallpaper trim that circles the kitchen, but my mother hung it herself
and has always loved it.
A plate of chocolate chip cookies sits in the middle of the scratched
kitchen table. The usual wild flower display has been pushed to the
side. Joy turns eager eyes on me.
“You may have one,” I say, holding up a finger. “I don’t want
you to spoil your dinner.”
She climbs up in a chair and snatches a cookie off the top of the pile,
shoving most of it in her mouth.
I shake my head at her. “You could chew more slowly.”
Her ravenous munching changes to a thoughtful chewing, and I join her at
the table, plucking a cookie for myself off the pile.
“How is Dad?” I ask before taking a bite. My father is the whole
reason I am here. He is in the hospital after falling off a ladder and
fracturing his skull. Though my mother said I didn’t need to come, I
couldn’t very well stay in Dallas if there was a chance this was life
threatening, and brain bleeds often can be. Plus, she might need some
help with him when he gets released. I doubt he’ll be as active as he
was before the accident. However, I am in the middle of a big
presentation, one that could set me up for life with an even bigger
company, so I left strict instructions with my assistant to keep me in
A flicker of doubt erases her twinkling for a moment before she
recovers. “He is doing better today. The nurses say he only had a few
instances of confusion yesterday, but they want to run another CT
“Any idea on when he’ll be released?” I take a bite of the cookie,
enjoying the warm chocolate goodness. I have missed my mom’s cooking.
“Probably another few days, but it depends on what the scan shows. He
has a pretty big brain bleed.”
“Your brain can bleed?” Joy’s head pops up, her eyes as wide as
My mother shoots me an apologetic look and without saying it, we agree
to finish this discussion later when little ears are not present.
“Don’t worry,” I say, patting her arm. “The brain is amazing and
can heal itself. When does Anna get in?” Anna, my younger sister, has
been away at college studying to become a nurse.
“She has finals this week, so she’s coming as soon as she finishes
the last one. Oh, and guess who else is back in town?”
I raise my eyebrow at her; I’ve never been a fan of the guessing game.
Presley Hays. The name knocks the wind out of me like a sucker punch. I
haven’t thought of her in years. In high school, Presley had been my
best friend – the one person who had made this town bearable – but
for some reason we had grown apart when Morgan entered the picture, and
then one-day Presley had come over to tell me she was going to France to
attend Le Cordon Bleu.
“The cupcake shop?” I say the words for myself, but my mother smiles
“Who’s Presley?” Joy asks, looking from my mother to me.
“Just an old friend,” I say. Just an old friend.
Excerpted from "When Love Returns (Star Lake)" by Lorana Hoopes. Copyright © 2017 by Lorana Hoopes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.