Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 3 months
Hillary enjoyed working. She enjoyed it so much, she regretted not getting a job years ago. Previously, she viewed work as something that would cramp her lifestyle and would eventually have to do. Now, it was empowering. As much as she enjoyed the safety and comfort of her home, she loved having somewhere else to go and something to do. Apart from being on her feet for hours on end, and needing to pee a lot, she found the work to be simple: fold clothes, stock shelves, dress mannequins, sell merchandise.
One night, as she was finishing up a display, the manager called her over to the checkout area for what looked like a brief team meeting.
“Hello, girls,” she said.
Payton Gunter was her name, and she was such an animated character. Her arms flailed, head bobbled, and hips swayed every time she opened her mouth. Hillary thought she sounded like those women with the funny accents in the black and white films her father watched.
“Hillary, you’ve been here one month, and you’re doing a great job! The store practically glows when you’re on the schedule.”
She felt a little heat in her cheeks. “Thank you, Miss Gunter.”
“If everyone was as particular as you, why this place would be unstoppable!” Her fist was in the air like she was trying to incite a crowd.
Hillary thought she was a little crazy, but she enjoyed working for her.
“And you, Janet, you trained her! I knew you had it in you. I’ll put in a good word for you with the man upstairs!”
“Thanks, Miss Gunter!”
Being in a place where praise and recognition was commonplace was like a dream to Hillary. The last time she was in an environment full of respect and positivity was back in her girl scout days. If she ever did anything wrong, Janet and Payton would begin to correct her by finding something positive to say about it first and then pointing out how it could be improved.
There was an odd influx of customers that night, and Janet left Hillary and Payton to go greet everyone. One customer in particular spotted Hillary and walked across the store toward her. She saw him too and was caught off guard by his smile and neat appearance. He was tanned and had beautiful green eyes, a head full of hair that was neat and combed back, and a slim waist. His lips were thin, but they were cute and a little bit pouty. And his cheeks. They looked like some old woman might want to pinch them. He was quite handsome, and she liked him.
“Excuse me,” he said. His voice was deep and rich. It sent shivers down her spine. “Could I get some help?”
“Certainly,” Hillary said before Payton could open her mouth. “What can I help you find?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. My niece…she’s turning 13. I don’t know what to get her. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with clothes.”
“You’re right about that! Follow me.”
She loved helping clueless men. They headed toward the discount section. Being conscious of the gorgeous man behind her, she concentrated on not waddling like a duck.
“Teenage girls are quite fickle. They change their tastes like dirty underwear!”
A hearty laugh erupted from behind her.
“You don’t want to go spending a bunch of money, but you don’t want to get something that looks cheap either. Unless you have money to waste, stick with the basics. Girls never have enough shirts. They need all the colors.”
He snorted. “You know your stuff, huh?”
She shrugged. “Well, it comes with the territory. And, I was quite the fashionista in my day,” she bragged. “I remember the drill.”
He was checking her out. He didn’t even hide it like he wanted her to see. It was nice to have a man’s attention again. It had been so long.
“Your kid’s gonna be camera ready, huh?”
It was an innocent comment, still, it planted butterflies in her stomach. She feigned offense with her hands on her hips. “Of course! What else am I gonna use my employee discount on?”
“Ha! Cute and witty. Lucky man.”
There was a smirk on his face, and his eyes… They sent a message. It took everything she had not to say she was single. She smiled professionally and told him to let her know if he needed further assistance and walked away.
She had been thinking about her daughter a lot lately. Although she wasn’t born yet, Hillary felt like she needed to begin setting the proper example for her. She began by going on a self-imposed dating hiatus. Her life was already complicated without adding another layer of chaos to it. But, every now and then she considered the possibilities especially when she learned what her coworker, Janet, had gone through. She was a new mother; her son was just 10 months old. She was also newly married, but her son was not his. She and Sergio lived in the same building and were casually acquainted with each other. They saw each other at the mailboxes, trash chute, and in passing entering and exiting the building. She didn’t know he had a crush on her. One night, as he was returning home, he heard her wailing all the way down the hall. He ran to her rescue and found her sprawled on the floor naked and hysterical. Her date who had escaped left the door ajar. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and weaseled his way into her apartment to take advantage of her. Sergio was a life saver. He called the police and comforted her. He never left her side through the entire ordeal. He stayed with her that night for she was terribly afraid and didn’t want to be alone. He stayed many nights after that; she still wasn’t ready to be alone.
She needed him even more when she discovered she was pregnant. All of her friends told her to get rid of the baby. “No one will blame you,” they said. Sergio said he would support whatever decision she made. The last thing she wanted to do was raise a child who would be a life long reminder of that terrible night. But, the baby was innocent, and she couldn’t hurt him. She felt like aborting it would be like making the baby pay for his father’s sins; she couldn’t do it. All throughout the pregnancy her mind was settled on adoption. Sergio said he would help her raise the baby if she kept it, but her mind was made up.
They got really close during those nine months. He confessed how he felt about her and what made it so easy for him to drop everything and take care of her. He proposed, and she accepted. Her girlfriends told her she was crazy. “You barely know this guy,” they said. She understood. In different circumstances, she would say the same thing to any of them. But, they didn’t understand it how she understood it. There was no way they could. “I don’t think I’m going to find another man who will stand by me like he has,” she said. “He’s been willing to go through all of this with me. I may not be in love with him right now, but he’s the kind of person I want to love.” Her girlfriends couldn’t argue with that.
When the baby was born, she the mistake of wanting to see him before she let him go. He was so beautiful and looked like her even though he had his father’s dark skin. She couldn’t get him out of her head. How could she give him away knowing what he looked like, knowing that he belonged to her? There was no way she could ever forget him. She didn’t go through with the adoption, and Sergio gave him his last name. It hasn’t been easy for the Romeo family in the past 10 months, but they were making it work.
Every now and then, Hillary thought of that story. It was so tragic, but it had such a beautiful ending. Almost fairytale like. It was encouraging to know that even through a horrible situation, Janet still found someone who loved her in spite of the baggage. Hillary hoped a scenario like that existed in her own future. Each time this story came to mind, she thought of Jase. She still had a flame for him. But, each time she thought of story, she gained an ounce of courage. He needed to know how she felt whether he was available or not.
Across the store, she spotted her coworker, Eddie, in the men’s department. It was always slower over there, and she could tell he was bored. He slowly paced the same three square foot area with his hands behind his back. She really should have helped Janet with the rush, but she was in her thoughts and didn’t feel like engaging the customers.
“What’s up?” He asked.
She just shook her head.
“Mmm hmm.” He sounded doubtful, but he didn’t press her.
That was another thing she enjoyed about working. Her coworkers were awesome, and she loved them. They were all on the same page when it came to getting to know each other. If they didn’t ask, she didn’t tell, and that was ok with everyone. She appreciated their lack of persistence. But as they slowly got closer, she understood why. They had their own problems they didn’t want to talk about. Eddie, Janet, and Payton were godsends. Hearing about other people’s problems taught her that she was not alone. She knew she wasn’t but often felt like it. People wore smiles and nice looking clothes to make it appear like everything was fine. But, the fact was everyone’s life to a certain extent was complicated. Life was complicated and would never stop being complicated. On the surface, that probably should have scared and discouraged her, but it was comforting for it made her feel less like a screw up and more like a person.