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All Rhodes Lead Here(8)
Author: Mariana Zapata

And now, on the opposite end of town from where I was going to be staying, I’d ended up here.

From memory, I knew The Outdoor Experience was an “outdoor outfitter”—aka store—that sold and rented everything you might need for outdoor activities—fishing, camping, archery, and more. It depended on the season.

I didn’t know anything about… any of those things. Not anymore. I knew there were different types of fishing, fly-fishing, bottom fishing… other kinds… of fishing, but that was it. I knew about bows and… crossbows. I knew what a tent was, and many, many years ago, I’d been a pro at setting one up. But that was the extent of my knowledge of the outdoors. I’d lived in a city with people who weren’t outdoorsy for too long, apparently.

But none of that mattered because I was here for another reason. Not for a job or to buy anything. And honestly, I was just a little nervous.

I hadn’t reached out to Clara in almost a year, not since everything had gone to shit, and even then I had only messaged her to tell her happy birthday. She didn’t know I’d split up with Kaden.

Well, she probably knew now since apparently he was dating someone else and taking pictures with them.

Yeah, he was getting that shit pie eventually.

Deciding I’d thought enough about him for the week, I shoved Kaden out of my head and went in.

I’d looked up pictures of the store when I’d still been in Utah and had been bored one night. Back when I’d been younger and would go home with Clara after school, sometimes her dad would bring us back to work with him and we’d play in the store if there weren’t customers or would hide in the back and do homework. From the looks of it though, the store had gotten renovated sometime recently. The flooring was tile, and on top of that, now everything was new and modern. It looked great.

And very, very busy right then.

Moseying through the store, I zeroed in on the woman behind the counter. The same one I’d spotted through the window. She was helping another family out. Beside her, a teenage girl was helping a couple. I had no clue who she was, but the woman, I did recognize. We hadn’t seen each other in person in twenty years, but we’d kept up enough over time that we were friends on Facebook and I recognized her.

I smiled and figured I might as well wait. There was no rush getting back to the garage apartment. Sidestepping through racks of clothes, I wandered toward the back of the store where a big FISHING sign hung… and where there were a lot fewer people.

Tiny, clear bags with all kinds of feathers and beads hung from waist-height rows of hooks. Huh. I picked up one bag with what looked like some kind of fur in it.

That’s when I heard, “Can I help you with something?”

I didn’t recognize Clara’s voice, but I’d creeped through the windows enough to know the person speaking was either her or the teenage girl. And the person talking wasn’t a teenager.

So I was smiling already as I turned around and came face-to-face with a person I recognized from the Facebook and Picturegram posts she’d made over the years.

But I knew she didn’t recognize me when her mouth formed a pleasant, helpful smile of a person who owned a business. Clara had grown a few inches, and her curvy figure had hit voluptuous territory. She had inherited her Ute father’s rich brown skin and high cheekbones, and I could already tell she was as cute and sweet as she used to be.

“Clara,” I said, grinning so wide my cheeks hurt.

Her eyebrows went up just a little, and her voice was steady, “Hi. Do you…?” Her eyelids came down quickly, and I was pretty sure her head bobbed a little before her dark brown eyes moved over my face and slowly she said, “Do I know you?”

“You used to. We were best friends in elementary school and middle school.”

My old friend’s eyebrows knit together for a moment, these thin, dark arches, before suddenly her face fell, her mouth hung open, and she gasped, “Oh! You stopped dyeing your hair!”

A small reminder of the life I’d left behind. One where Mrs. Jones talked me into coloring it blonde “because you look so good that way.” But I let it go in one ear and out the other as I nodded. “It’s back to my natural color.” I’d hacked off the blonde that hadn’t finished growing out a couple months ago; it was why my hair was shorter than it had been in forever.

“I haven’t heard from you in a year, you jerk!” she hissed, poking me in the shoulder. “Aurora!”

And in the next blink of an eye, her arms were around me and my arms were around her and we were hugging.

“What happened? What are you doing here?” she gasped, pulling back after a moment. We were about the same height, and I caught a little glimpse of the small gap between her two front teeth. “I tried texting you a few months ago, but the message bounced back!”

Another reminder. But it was fine. “It’s kind of a long story, but I’m here. Visiting. Maybe staying.”

Her dark eyes moved over my shoulder, and she seemed to be thinking about what I hadn’t said. Only because she’d looked behind me for the person who should have been here with me… if he wasn’t an asshole. “Are you by yourself?” she asked.

And by that, she meant, Is Kaden with you? She was one of the few people who knew about him. “No, we’re not together anymore.” I smiled, thinking about that shit pie for a second.

Clara blinked, and it took her a second to nod, but she did, her own smile taking over her face. “Well, I hope you’ll tell me the long story eventually. What are you doing here?”

“I was in town; I just got here last night. I was walking around looking for a job, and I figured I might as well drop by and see you.” While we hadn’t been active-active in each other’s lives for a long time, we had managed to keep in touch. We’d texted each other Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday for two decades.

And since I’d split up with Kaden… I’d kind of fallen off the face of the planet. I hadn’t felt like talking about anything more than I already had.

“You’re really planning on staying?”

“Yeah. That’s my plan at least.”

Clara looked pretty damn surprised.

I knew how it seemed. No wonder she looked surprised.

But I’d have to explain that I hadn’t really had a choice, even if I saw that it had been the best thing that could have happened.

She blinked again and then smiled a little more brightly before gesturing toward the counter where the younger girl was, looking at us with a curious expression on her face. Her ponytail was lopsided, and she seemed just as tired as Clara. I knew she didn’t have kids, so maybe she was just an employee. They might have been going full speed all day. Based on the time, I’d bet all those rentals would be coming back pretty soon too. “Step into my office,” Clara suggested. “Let’s have a chat. I need to keep an eye out in case anyone else has any questions, and I want to hear about stuff.”

I cracked a smile at her office and nodded, going to stand across from where the teenager was leaning and watched as Clara went around the counter to face the store. “Aurora, this is my niece, Jackie. Jackie, this is Aurora. We were best friends a long time ago.”

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