At midnight, from her third-story window, Autumn surveilled the parking lot in front of her apartment complex. Rows of cars sat in quiet darkness. Located three blocks from the University of Tennessee campus, cheap, and filled with students the apartments were never this quiet. She did not see the black Camry, nor did she see anyone lurking around the lot. He may have borrowed a car to throw her off. Her every move from here on out would be crucial. As soon as the coast was clear, she snuck down the stairs and backed her car up to the breezeway and stuffed her belongings into the backseat, hangers and all. A thick layer of clouds covered the full moon and steeped the night in a dark haze. Using the cover to her advantage she worked quickly, shoving three boxes of clothes and a few other personal items into the trunk before checking around for any new cars or movement. Her phone was set to give a caller an automated “this number has been disconnected or no longer in service” message. She turned the key in the ignition, the engine roared to life, and she drove away, her apartment key and a portion of the next months’ rent left on the counter for her ex-roommate. At first, she pulled onto the highway, heading the wrong direction to avoid a tail; she needed to fill up the tank before heading out. Autumn drove a few miles before finding a station. Once she had enough gas, she got back in the car and headed north, but not before checking to make sure she wasn’t followed. With a sigh of relief, she exited the highway and turned southwest toward her parents’ home in White Oak, the small East Tennessee town she left four years ago.
Two days later, Autumn sat alone in her parents’ half-acre backyard among a sea of relatives. The McMillan’s spared no expense for her graduation party. More family members than should ever be allowed in one place filled the yard along with tables of food. It was beyond overwhelming. It wasn’t like she never came home for holidays. But this time, she was back with her college diploma in hand and no idea what she was going to do with it. Even temporarily returning home meant failure, especially after sneaking out of Knoxville like a criminal on the lamb. She had to let go of the thought and pretend to be happy. To appear ungrateful would not help her case. A few relatives surrounded her, endless hugs and congratulations all around; others waved from across the yard while the rest busied themselves with better conversations. She scanned every face to make sure he didn’t show up.
Autumn’s cousin, Dee, came over and plopped a toddler on the seat across from her. “Stay,” she ordered the girl before leaving her at the table.
Autumn stared at the toddler, who smiled back and proceeded to hit the tabletop as hard as she could for no discernable reason.
“So, I hear you’re moving back.” Dee returned with a paper plate full of food before sliding onto the picnic table bench next to her daughter. The child snatched a roll off of the plate and crammed it into her mouth. Half the roll disappeared while and she used her finger to keep pushing even though she could barely chew what was already in there. The girl might choke.
Autumn nodded, crunching on a potato chip eyes plastered on Dee’s child who devoured the roll like a snake. Then she reached for the other roll on her mom’s plate.
“What’cha got planned?” Dee asked.
“Looking for a job, I guess.”
“Well, you’ve got a fancy degree now, so it shouldn’t be too hard.” Dee popped a piece of fried okra in her mouth.
Autumn’s job prospects, or lack thereof, were not the conversation she wanted to have at the moment. “How are the kids?” she asked instead.
“Crazy,” Dee replied. “Connor’s seven and Mattie here just turned three.”
Dee shrugged. “Around here somewhere.” She offered Mattie a spoonful of mashed potatoes; the girl clamped her mouth shut and shook her head in an emphatic “no”.
“I thought all kids liked mashed potatoes,” Autumn said.
“This one doesn’t like anything but bread. Connor ate everything; this one, not so much.”
If Autumn slammed her head on the table hard enough, maybe it would render her unconscious. Dee was only a year older than Autumn and she already had two kids and a full-time job at a daycare. She’d skipped college after having Connor in high school. What would it be like having two kids and a job at twenty-four? At twenty-three, Autumn was unemployed and moving back in with her parents. Sure, many other people she knew were too, but most of her friends were getting jobs, being promoted, and getting married.
“What kind of job are you looking for?” Dee asked, snapping Autumn back to reality.
“One that’ll pay the bills and get me a place to live.”
“Wow, I don’t know how you’ll find one of those.”
“I guess I should narrow it down a bit.” Autumn studied the pile of chips on her plate.
“That might help. You could come work with me. We always need people to watch the kids in the afternoons. After the daytime teacher leaves, all you have to do is keep them alive until their parents get there.”
“That sounds difficult,” Autumn replied.
“Some days it is,” Dee admitted.
“Is that what you do?”
“Back when I started. I have my own room now, the three- and four-year-olds. Mattie’s in there with me.”
“I’ll consider it,” Autumn said, though she had no intention of working in a daycare. Kids were okay, at a distance. But being locked in a room with a group of them? No, thank you.
“Do you know where Jason is?” Dee asked.
Autumn shook her head. Her brother was in the army and somewhere in the desert, as far as she knew. “Deployed somewhere. He’s still got a couple of months before he’ll surface again.”
Dee continued talking about her kids, but Autumn tuned it out. She gave the occasional nod, to convince Dee she was listening. Autumn glanced around the backyard. Relatives from all over the region were eating, talking, and laughing. Time and distance had created a space between her and the rest of her family. She had changed, and most of them ignored her whenever she was around. It didn’t matter how much she tried to relate to them. Maybe being aware of the fact only made it worse. Autumn and Dee practically grew up together, inseparable from the ages of nine through fourteen. After that, Dee was busy with boys and now, she was practically a stranger. Autumn’s head throbbed and she was desperate to get away from the crowd surrounding her even if most of them didn’t pay her any attention.
Autumn was extricated from her conversation with Dee by her toddlers’ exhausted tantrum. Inside the kitchen, the air was cool and quiet. The commotion of the large family gathering remained outside. Autumn found the headache medicine and considered sneaking off to her room when Daniel appeared at the door. The last time she saw him, he was a skinny eighteen-year-old leaving for boot camp with her brother. The scruffy, military man in front of her was over six feet tall, an imposing figure even in shorts, a t-shirt, and a ball cap. “Hey, it’s the graduate,” Dan said. “I’ve been looking for you.” He closed the door behind him.
“Well, here I am,” she replied. Autumn had known Dan since childhood; he was her brother’s best friend. Jason and Dan had spent endless years torturing Autumn and her friends. When she was seven, they tied her up with a vine that turned out to be poison ivy. In the moment, she swore she would never forgive them. But time faded the anger along with the rash, and the incident became a footnote of a long-forgotten summer. They initially exchanged letters after he and Jason went to boot camp; she’d gotten to know Dan well through their correspondence. But she had been fifteen then, and he was cute but too old for her. Eventually, the letters slowed until they came to a stop. She hadn’t seen him in nine years.
“Hiding from your party?” he asked.
“Trying and failing.” Autumn shot him a sarcastic smile.
Dan smiled. “You want to go for a drive?”
The world passed by from the passenger window of Dan’s jeep. They rode down the old neighborhood roads that were vaguely familiar, something Autumn would have to get used to if she planned to stay. The mid-May evening was more temperate than usual, and there was even a slight chill in the air with the window down. He turned out of the subdivision onto Main Street where most of the town’s shops lined the road on the way to the town square with a courthouse in the center. On the other side of the square, the streets were narrow and wound through fields and farmland until the town nestled against the plateau.
She watched him in her periphery with one hand on the wheel and the other on the stick shift. He moved and drove with the confident air of a man comfortable in his skin. Sergeant Daniel Madera of the United States Special Forces, known as the Green Berets. He’d spent the first part of his military career with the 75th Ranger Regiment and had initially joined the Army like many other young men his age on the heels of the terrorist attack on 9/11. He’d been around the world and had served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. Nine years later, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life other than stomping out terrorists. Unfortunately, the MO of the bad guys had changed for the worse over the years and picking out who was friend or foe had become far more difficult.
“So, you’re still in the terrorist-stomping line of work?” she asked.
“You could say that.” He slowed to allow a car to cross the road in front of them.
“Is terrorist-stomping in the job description?”
He smiled. “Something like that.”
“Okay,” she said. “How long are you home?”
“I’m here until they tell me to come in for orders.”
“Where, Fort Campbell?”
He shook his head. “Fort Bragg.”
“But you don’t have a timetable to return?” She watched him drive, his dark eyes shielded by sunglasses.
“No, ma’am,” he replied. “What about you?”
She sighed at this change of subject. “What about me?”
He glanced at her. “You’re back?”
She rubbed her forehead. “Yeah. I graduated and with no job and no prospects. I’m here.” It was her turn to change the subject on him. “Heard from Jason lately?”
“I was in the field until a few days ago and haven’t had a chance to catch up.”
Autumn wondered. “So, do you know where he is?”
“I don’t.” He reached over and his large, warm hand rubbed hers. “I’m sure he’s fine. You don’t need to worry.” She hadn’t been worried until then.
Dan pulled up and parked in a space in front of the Dairy Stop. It was an old, run-down, white clapboard building that didn’t have inside dining. It only had two windows: one to order and one to pick up, and they had a section of covered picnic tables off to the side. “Ice cream,” he said.
“Is that a question?”
He smiled, and they walked up to the window.
“Think your mom will be mad at you for leaving your graduation party?” Dan asked. They sat across from each other at a picnic table, Dan with his ice cream cone and for Autumn, a milkshake.
Autumn sipped and thought for a moment. “It was your idea to leave.”
“That’s right, throw me under the bus.” He shot her a wicked smile over his cone.
Autumn shrugged. “She’ll never be angry with the great American hero. And maybe with enough people talking, she might not even realize I’m gone.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. You can’t mean that.”
She did mean it, but she wasn’t in the mood to explain it. “No, she thinks you’re a hero,” she replied, watching the cars pass by.
He sighed. “I’m not. But that’s not what I meant.”
“I just don’t like crowds,” she said with a smirk.
“You’re in the wrong family.”
The sun half dipped below the horizon as they walked back to the jeep, the sky pink with fluffy clouds hanging low. Autumn stood there, admiring the colors a moment before getting in. “I love it when the sky looks like this,” she said. “Like the clouds are painted.”
Dan nodded and smiled at her over the jeep; the heat in his dark brown eyes caught her off guard. He drove slowly back toward her parents’ house, taking his time meandering long and windy roads, down a long road next to a field of hay. The wind whipped Autumn’s hair as she exhaled and sank back into the seat, closing her eyes as she took in the feeling of peace. The worry of what she was going to do with her life, whether or not Mark would show up.... For the moment, all of those fears were gone. Then the car slowed and turned onto the driveway, the weight of the world returning. Most of the other cars were now gone, and her mom was probably mad that she’d left. The front door opened and her mom stepped out holding a dish towel.
Dan waved sheepishly and stepped out of the jeep. “Sorry, Mrs. Mac, I took Autumn out for a drive.”
And just like that, her mom was all smiles. “Daniel? Oh, my word. Look at you.” She came down the front steps, arms raised for a hug. “Come here and let me look at you.”
Dan embraced Autumn’s mom as she ran her hand up his pecs, shoulder, and down around his bicep. “You’re in such good shape,” she cooed as Dan blushed. “The military certainly made a man out of you.” It was humiliating having her mom feel up Jason’s best friend out in the yard, though Autumn had to admit she’d like to do the same thing. Her mom insisted that Dan come inside for a visit and he complied, removing his baseball hat and holding the door for the two women.
“I’m sorry,” Autumn mouthed as she followed her mom through the door.
Daniel smiled, shrugging as his deep brown eyes held hers until she looked away, and placed his hand on the small of her back when she passed him.
Shirley McMillan served Dan a mug of decaf coffee left over from the party, and he refused the offer of any cream or sugar. Conversely, Autumn poured herself a cup and dumped both into the black liquid. She took the seat across the round kitchen table from Dan while her mom recounted running into Dan’s mom at the grocery store the week before. He politely nodded along to Shirley’s story while taking sips of the coffee, until he caught Autumn looking at him, and she looked away. When Autumn glanced back, he was looking at her in a way that made her face flush. Shirley began asking him questions about being in Special Forces and whether Dan still spoke to Jason. Dan admitted that he hadn’t seen his friend much the past year, but they usually spoke every couple of months or so.
“He called me a couple of weeks ago from Iraq and said he might be coming home this fall,” Shirley said, smiling at the thought. “It’ll be great to have him back.”
“It will,” Dan agreed. He flashed Autumn another look that made her tingle. She didn’t want to tingle.
Autumn studied the inside of her mug to avoid his eyes. They grew up together; he was like a brother. They shouldn’t be eye flirting.
“How long are you home for?” Shirley asked.
“Don’t know. I’m just waiting for orders,” Dan replied.
“Are you staying with your parents while in town?”
“No, ma’am. I have a room over at the Budget Inn.” Dan took a drink. “My brother’s kids are staying at moms; it’s a bit crowded.”
“Isn’t that place gross?” Autumn asked.
“Better than the desert,” he shrugged. “I don’t need much. Besides, they work with me on extended stays and don’t mind if I have to bounce at a moment’s notice.” He shot another flirty smile.
“Will we see you in church tomorrow, Daniel?” Shirley asked.
Dan turned to Autumn. “You going?”
“Of course she is,” Shirley answered.
Shirley tied the top of a huge trash bag made full from the party in the middle of the floor.
Dan stood, putting on his hat, “Here, I’ll take that out for you, Mrs. Mac. I should be off anyway. I’ll see you at church.” Dan lifted the bag, and Shirley fawned all over him about how happy she was he came for a visit, and that he was so strong to lift the trash bag like it was nothing.
When she started touching his arm again, Autumn intervened. “Mom,” she admonished. “Dan needs to go.” She followed him out the back door, where her dad, Walter, sat next to the hanging bug zapper. “There you are.”
“Where’d you run off to?” he asked.
“I went for a ride with Dan.”
It was only then he seemed to notice the large man standing next to her. “Dan, it’s good to see you again.”
“Sir.” Dan extended his hand and they shook. The two small-talked for a minute before Dan and Autumn made it to the gate and Dan tossed the bag into the trashcan.
“I’m sorry for my mom back there,” she said.
Dan smiled and shook his head. “It’s fine.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “thanks for getting me out of here today.”
“Glad I was here.”
She nodded and bit back a smile. “Are you really going to church in the morning?”
“Yeah, It’ll make my mom happy,” he said with his own smile. “And I’ll get to see you again.”
Once he was gone and Autumn walked along the path back up to the house, she argued with herself on what to make of the apparent flirtation coming from Daniel. Was it her imagination? Or was he interested in her? She hadn’t been on a date or had a boyfriend in a while; maybe it was desperation reading too much into his friendliness.