Home > The Life We Almost Had

The Life We Almost Had
Author: Laura Miller




My mother always said that a memory can get you through the rest of your life. So, that’s why I don’t know where to begin. Do I start at the beginning of my life or at the memory—where I believe my life might have actually begun?

It’s been years, but I still think of him—just like I still think of that sleepy, little ghost town we both call home. But just like a memory, I guess, both that little town and that boy are now really more like a dream—one that disappears as soon as the morning sun comes slithering through the blinds. But true to a dream, I suppose, it always leaves something behind. And this dream always leaves behind a longing—for Sweet Home, but mostly, for him.

I grew up in Sweet Home, Missouri. I don’t know if I’d call it sweet, necessarily, but it is home, to me. Today, it looks different than it used to. Today, grass grows up out of the cracks in the brittle sidewalks that line Market Street. A short twelve years ago, I used to wheel a roller dog my grandpa gave me down those same concrete walks with ease. And it’s not just the sidewalks. Tall water hemp covers the bases on the baseball diamond in the park. And now, nearly all the storefront windows have plywood boards covering up dark and dusty, empty rooms. And if that’s not enough, where there once were people from birth to ninety-nine spilling out of the old United Church of Christ every Sunday morning, now there’s a no trespassing sign on God’s big, wooden door.

But back in its namesake years, Sweet Home was pretty sweet, I think. I’ve seen old pictures. And people lived in Sweet Home at one time. Happy people. Proud people. There were cars at the filling station and women buying yards of fabric in the general store. There were men along the street, laughing next to big cars and holding wide-eyed toddlers. Every little front yard had bright green grass that was meticulously cut. And all that green grass was fenced in with wrought iron, all the way down the street, each yard just like the last. And every little home along Market had an American flag that jutted out from some part of the house. And every other house had a rocking chair on a little front porch. And in every rocking chair on Sunday, just when the sun was sinking back into the earth, there would be an old man smoking a corncob pipe or a young woman rocking a baby.

But I’m not too familiar with the Sweet Home of then or the one of today, really. The Sweet Home I knew wasn’t booming, but it wasn’t abandoned quite yet, either. The Sweet Home I knew was about the size of a tire valve cap, and all the people who lived inside that cap could be counted on three sets of fingers and toes. But people were happy, and the buildings still held some life.

When I lived there, there was a bar and a post office and a fire station that we’d take cookies to every Christmas Eve. And there were still lights that lined the streets. Some perpetually flickered, but there were lights, all the same. Nearly every summer night we would dance on the asphalt under their light shows and pretend we were rich Hollywood stars.

There weren’t many babies or kids, though. And except for me and the girl who lived across the street, there was no one else my age. The girl’s parents owned the only watering hole in town. She was quiet, and she mostly kept to herself, but we got along just fine. Her name was Angel. And I always thought it was a funny name. Angels glowed and wore halos. Angel did neither. But then there came a day when I changed my mind about that. Angel really was an angel—sent straight down from heaven above to save me—not once, but twice.

The first time was around the year that we both turned eleven. Angel and I were playing hopscotch outside her parents’ bar, and a dirty old Nova pulled up to us and asked for directions to the nearest grocery store. Angel was her usual self and didn’t say a word, so I decided I’d have to tell him myself. He had long, scraggly hair and a crooked nose, but his eyes were kind. I told him how to get to the IGA, but he craned his neck and said he couldn’t hear a word I was saying. He said I’d have to come closer. So, I took a step toward his car, and that’s when Angel grabbed my arm and screamed louder than I’ve ever heard anybody scream before. I flinched, and my ears cracked. Angel had never spoken more than maybe ten soft words at a time in front of me, and here she was screaming loud enough to shatter that old bar’s glass windows. Within seconds, her momma came running out, and the car with the man in it sped away. And all that remained from that quick moment was the red imprint of Angel’s fingers on my forearm.

Two days later, we heard through the grapevine that a guy in a dirty old Nova had tried to pull a young girl into his car in the next town over. She had managed to slink out of his grip—just about the same time that the man had slipped into the grip of the girl’s daddy. And that’s where that story ended—although, there are quite a few rumors that circulated, none of which ended too well for the man ... or his Nova.

I never thanked Angel for saving me. I never really had the chance. The bar closed down the next day, and Angel and her family moved somewhere far away from Sweet Home.

And that was not too long before the rest of the town left, too. Some said it was just time—time for everybody to go. But most said it was because the old hat factory had closed in Holstein, just east of town. It employed most of the people who were left in Sweet Home—those who didn’t make a living plowing dirt, like my daddy did.

As for me and my momma and daddy, we stayed, though. We stayed in our little ghost town, where daddy drove back and forth all day in the fields, planting money, as he called it. And momma kept working part-time collecting antiques and selling them in a little booth down the road.

And life was quiet—just like Angel had been—until the day that he showed up. And that’s actually the second time that Angel saved me. She moved out of that little house across the street, and he moved in. So, the way I see it, Angel gave me him.

From that day and for a while after that, you couldn’t hear the sound of the water dripping in the kitchen sink or the branches scraping across the tin roof above my room anymore. Those sounds were all drowned out by the crack of Clearly Canadian caps hitting the concrete and his laugh and the high-pitched hum of an engine, as his dirt bike made little circles in the bottom land.

That was all I heard, anyway.

But eventually, he left, too. Everyone always left. And we—we just stayed. And in time, it got quiet again—just like Angel. But I still remember that little piece of moonlight he brought into my life. And that’s where I really feel as if my story begins. It begins with that boy I fell in love with, nearly seven years ago, back in Sweet Home, Missouri.



Chapter One



Just Promise Me





“Berlin, remember you’re picking up Oliver from basketball practice tonight.”

I nod my head and push in the chair so she doesn’t plow into it on her way to the door.

“That’s still all right, right?” she asks, turning back to look at me.

“Yeah, I’ve got him,” I say, my mouth full of buttered toast.

“Good. And tomorrow, if you still can, Madeline needs help with her tornado project. And for some reason, no one can help her but you.”

Still chewing, I lean back against the kitchen counter and fold my arms against my chest. “Because no one can make tornados like Uncle Berlin.”

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