Educating Holden by Melanie Shawn

 

Chapter 1

Holden

“Don’t cheat on your future with your past. It’s over.”

~ Maggie Calhoun

Welcome to WishingWell. Population 6,445.

The headlights of my FI50 shone on a sign that I’d only driven past a handful of times in the last fourteen years. This time seeing it felt different. This time, seeing it was like a physical punch to my gut. The reason for the emotional blow was simple. Every other time I’d driven past it since I left when I was sixteen, it had been for a short visit, forty-eight hours at the most. This time I had no clue how long I’d be staying.

As I drove through my small hometown, I felt like I was stepping, or I guess driving, into a time capsule. My window was down, and it even smelled the same. The country air held unique scents that wafted into the cab of my truck. It was a combination of the dirt backroads, the fresh water from the river and Emerald Cove Lake, with a woodchip base from the lumberyard that was the main employer of the town.

To the casual observer, everything would appear the same as it had been during my childhood and teen years. But I noticed subtle differences. The two businesses that sat on opposite ends of the main strip, anchoring the small downtown area, had both been given face-lifts. The Best Little Hairhouse in Texas had a fresh coat of yellow paint and The Flower Pot now had a paved parking lot off to the side, replacing the gravel that had always been there. The wishing well, which inspired the town’s name, was still sitting proudly in the center of the town square, but was now lit up with twinkle lights that had not been there during my youth.

But one thing was still the same. The “a” on The Greasy Spoon diner sign that sat on the main strip still blinked. I wondered if Bud, who owned the diner, had left it that way for nostalgia.

As I pulled into the community center, I recognized half the vehicles in the lot. Unlike Los Angeles, where I’d lived for the past few years, people in Wishing Well didn’t trade up for new cars and trucks every year for the newest model. They drove their vehicles until they couldn’t anymore. I didn’t think my parents had ever traded in a car with under two hundred and fifty thousand miles on it.

I found a spot, parked, and shut off my engine. I stared at the doors with a sense of foreboding. For some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to go inside, so I did what any millennial would do to procrastinate: I checked my phone.

There were seven missed calls, three voice messages, and four texts. I played the first voicemail and heard my manager Kurt Stanton’s voice.

“You were a no show for your PT this morning. Again. I stopped by your place and the doorman said that he hasn’t seen you in a few days. I’m getting worried. We need to talk. Call me.”

I pressed delete. We didn’t need to talk. My career was over. He knew it and I knew it. What was there to talk about?

The next message was from my PT, trying to reschedule my missed appointments. And the final message was from the pharmacy letting me know I had a prescription ready. A prescription of pain killers that I had no plans on picking up.

Laughter drifted in through my open window as a group of teenagers walked by, followed by another very familiar scent that I’d grown up with. When I was younger, I would have attributed it to a skunk. Now I knew it was good old Mary Jane—aka marijuana.

I didn’t judge the teens for getting high. I knew the pain of growing up in a town with nothing to do. There was no mall. No bowling alley. No skate park. We didn’t even have a movie theater. The town’s answer to that was putting on Movie Nights in the Park, where they projected movies onto the side of the only three-story building in town, which my family had attended almost as religiously as church on Sunday mornings.

I’d always felt trapped in this small town. I couldn’t count the number of pennies I’d tossed into that damn wishing well, hoping that I could get the hell out of this town.

I was only back now because one of my closest friends, Jackson Briggs, had called me a couple of weeks ago to tell me that he was going to be popping the question at the premier of the documentary he’d been worked on, which was being held at the community center. I never thought that day would come. In school, we’d bonded over our mutual desire to get the hell out of Wishing Well and part of our “plan” had been to not date any hometown girls.

It had been an easy task for me, since the only girl I’d ever loved or had any interest in had been off-limits to me. Not only was she my best friend Bentley’s little sister, she was also walking sunshine and an angel on earth. Whereas my mom had nicknamed me her dark prince because I’d tended toward the melancholy and I was more of a sinner than a saint.

Both Jackson and I had stuck to our pact and escaped the trappings of small-town life. Strangely, our lives had taken similar trajectories. He’d traveled the world as an award-winning cinematographer, and I’d done the same as a world champion bull rider.

And most recently, we’d both reached the pinnacles in our professional lives before they came to an abrupt stop. Jackson decided to walk away from his globe-trotting after meeting the woman of his dreams and realizing that there was more to life than his career. I’d been forced to retire after a career-ending injury.

As I sat in my truck, the same sense of claustrophobia and feeling like a caged animal I’d felt in my youth returned to me now. My thumb tapped rapidly on the steering wheel as I contemplated turning my truck around, driving out of the parking lot, getting the hell out of Wishing Well, and going…

That was the problem. I had nowhere to go. I sure as hell wasn’t going back to California, where a team of world-class doctors and specialists had given me less than a five percent chance of walking again without assistance.

I’d beaten the odds, in that respect. I’d taken my first step forty-eight hours after my last spinal fusion surgery. The word miracle had even been thrown around. But what kind of miracle would rob me of the only thing in my life that I was proud of, that I loved, that I’d sacrificed everything else for? What sort of “miracle” was that?

My rodeo days were over. The career that I’d built and sacrificed everything for since my first professional competition at five years old was finished. Two months ago, I’d gotten on the back of a bull, aptly named Punisher, and it had ended in a bad wreck that would change my life forever.

After weeks of rehabilitation and surgeries, I’d woken up three days ago and finally faced reality. I still wasn’t sure what had made me face the truth that particular morning or why it had taken fifty-eight days after my wreck for the epiphany to occur, but for whatever reason, it had.

Without speaking to anyone, I’d put my overpriced downtown L.A. condo on the market, packed up everything I owned, which fit in three storage bins, put them in the back of my truck, and left. My plan had been to drive straight through to my hometown. But after eight hours on the road, the searing pain in my back had forced me to stop in Phoenix.

Kurt, who’d been my manager since I was fourteen, had called me that first day after I’d missed my PT appointment to see what was going on. I’d planned on calling him back, but I’d just felt too tired. He’d called again yesterday during a stretch of the drive where I hadn’t had any service. I’d told myself I had to return his call. But last night, after another eight hours in the car, the pain in my back had forced me to get a room in El Paso. I’d fallen into bed, both emotionally and mentally drained, and just hadn’t had the energy to face the conversation I knew I’d need to have.

Now, after a third consecutive eight-hour day of driving, as I sat in the parking lot of the community center, I still wasn’t ready to face the conversation.

I checked my texts and saw that one was a link to a YouTube video. I pressed it and saw a face that sucker punched me ten times harder than when I’d passed the town welcome sign. Grayson Locke filled the screen, which was easy to do since he had such a big head, both metaphorically and literally. His hat size was seven and three quarters and his ego was the size of Texas.

Grayson was the newest rock star on the rodeo scene, and reporters and fans had dubbed him “The next Holden Reed,” which neither of us appreciated. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to like what I saw, I pressed play.

“Grayson, is it true that you want Punisher’s next ride to be yours after Holden Reed’s career ending wreck?” A reporter asked from off screen.

“Hell yeah, I do! Reed was an old man that stayed in the saddle too long. He was washed up. I’m going to show—”

I closed out the screen. The last thing I needed right now was to hear that jackass’s opinion of me. I shouldn’t care what a kid that wasn’t even old enough to have a beer and had only gotten hair on his balls a few years ago had to say about me.

Still, as I sat in my truck listening to the crickets serenading me, I couldn’t help but face the facts. I’d found several grey hairs in my beard and my thirtieth birthday was just three months away. I’d never been a fan of birthdays, even when I was a kid.

When I was younger, I’d never liked the attention on me, and once I got older, I’d hated them because it had always felt like a countdown to the end of my career. There weren’t any cowboys competing at my level in their forties and fifties, and not many in their thirties.

I was contemplating the reality that I wasn’t going to be competing in my thirties when the screen on my phone lit up the darkened cabin of my truck and it vibrated with a new text message. I looked down and saw that it was from Luciana, the woman that I’d been seeing for the past two years. It wasn’t serious. We didn’t have any labels or commitment. She was a model, so she travelled a lot. I was on the road forty plus weeks a year. We enjoyed each other’s company when we saw each other and didn’t ask questions when we didn’t. It had basically been the perfect relationship. But just like my career, it was over.

She’d come to the hospital once to see me, but I’d asked her not to come back. She hadn’t. This was the first time I’d heard from her since then.

Luci:Call me. We need to talk.

That seemed to be a running theme in my life. Everyone wanted to talk. Unfortunately, talking was the last thing I wanted to do.

Which brought me back to wanting to drive out the way I came in. If I walked through the doors of the community center, I’d have to do the one thing I didn’t want to do. Talk.

I might be able to dodge people in Los Angeles. Doctors. Management. Friends. Luciana. But here, in Wishing Well, there was no avoiding anyone. Everyone knew everyone’s business.

My mind raced trying to figure out what my next move should be. I could go somewhere no one knew me. I had enough money that I didn’t need to worry about work for at least a couple of years, depending on how frugal I was.

I could find a cabin in the mountains somewhere. Away from everyone. I wouldn’t have to see the pitying looks on people’s faces. Or hear their words of encouragement. Sympathy and platitudes might help some people, but not me. I didn’t want to hear anything about riding not being who I was, or that this was going to open up a new chapter for me.

All my life, my identity had been the rodeo. From my first competition as a Little Wrangler at five years old, where I’d started off mutton busting, or riding sheep, it had been all I lived for. And now I’d never get on the back of a bull again. I may never get on the back of a horse again. The person I’d been was gone.

I wasn’t sure what all the stages of grief were, but I was pretty sure I’d been experiencing them. And I’d be damned if I wanted anyone to witness it. Coming home had been a bad idea. I needed to get out of here. I put my finger on the ignition button when something stopped me before I pushed it.

It was an angel. Or at least the closest thing to an angel on earth I’d ever seen.

Olivia Calhoun walked out of the double doors. Her long golden hair shimmered under the moonlight. She held one finger up to her ear as she talked on the phone. I watched her full lips move as she spoke animatedly into the phone. She was wearing a light blue dress that hugged her hourglass shape.

My heart pounded in my chest and I found it difficult to inhale or exhale. It happened a lot around that girl. For some reason, breathing became a difficulty.

I hadn’t seen her in years and hadn’t spoken to her in close to a decade. On the rare occasions that I did return home, I’d done my damnedest to avoid her. She was the only thing I’d ever loved as much as the rodeo. But I’d stayed the hell away from her because she was perfect, in every way, and she deserved a hell of a lot better than me.

I watched, mesmerized, as she disconnected the call and put her phone in her purse. Then she inhaled slowly as she tipped her chin up and waved her hands in front of her face. As soon as she did, I had a sense of déjà vu. I’d seen her do the same thing when she was eight and her dog, Brutus, got hit by a car.

I’d been at her house playing Street Fighter with Bentley when her mom got the call that Brutus had been hit by a car and was being rushed to the vet by a neighbor.

All the kids had wanted to go to the vet with Mrs. Calhoun, but only Brady, the eldest Calhoun, was allowed to. Bentley had to stay home to watch the girls, his twin sisters Molly and Olivia.

Molly had broken down in tears, but Olivia had just walked stoically out into their backyard. I’d followed her outside and found her doing the same thing that she was doing now. When I asked if she was okay, she’d sniffed back her emotion and told me she was fine.

I found out later that she had a thing about people seeing her cry. If I had to guess, her issue with it probably stemmed from her oldest brother Brady calling her and Molly crybabies. He was such an asshat.

My eyes were still glued to her as she lowered her chin, took in a deep breath, ran her hands down the sides of her dress, turned on her heels, and walked back inside.

Without thinking about it, I grabbed my wallet and phone from the console, and got out of the truck.

It looked like I was coming home after all.