I glanced at the screen on my phone to double-check that I hadn't been stupid enough to answer a call from my ex.
"Slade, honey? Are you there?" he asked in that sweet, deep voice he thought still worked for me. It had, once upon a time, many times over.
"What do you want, Mike?" I tried to keep my voice flat. I knew he'd pick on up the slightest hint of emotion and latch onto it.
"Now, now, baby. That's no way to greet your husband—"
"Ex-husband, Mike. Ex. Husband," I said, failing to take the bite out of my voice.
"That's why I'm calling," he said.
"What do you mean? And make it quick, I have work to get to."
"It's our anniversary."
"I'm hanging up."
"Wait," he said. "Please…" His voice changed, and I knew I was going to regret it, but I waited until the silence became too heavy, even for me.
"I just…do you remember that day? Can you believe it was twenty-five years ago? It was so hot and sticky. The hottest day in Atlanta that summer. I was running late for work, but when I saw you, leaning against your bike wearing that leather jacket as if you were too cool to feel the heat…" he chuckled.
How could I not remember? It was the day my life changed forever, and not just for the reason he liked to remember.
"It was a good day," I confessed.
Mike's memory of the guy across the road from where he worked in his uncle's garage couldn't be further from reality.
I'd been scared and unsure. I'd wanted to cross the road and trust that the promises I'd been given weren't as empty as the tank on my trusted Harley.
Instead, I was given a job, and I'd met the man that taught me my life could be good, or at least better than it had been until then. That is until he broke my heart and my trust.
"You were always a mystery, Slade. It was exciting at first, but then…"
I sighed. "Why are we having this conversation? You were the one who left, and not before you took everything you wanted and more."
"Look, I don't know what you want from this trip down memory lane, but I've moved on. I live on Reality Avenue, where I have a business to run. I suggest you go back to whatever twink you're fucking this week and leave me alone."
I ended the call before he could say anything else.
These days, the only person I kept my mouth shut for was my bank manager, so it was definitely a good idea to end the call.
It was the hottest day of the summer so far, making the glass walls of my office feel like a fishbowl under a UV light, but Mike's interruption only delayed the work I needed to do today, so I grabbed a bottle of water from my small office fridge and drank it all in one go.
The satisfaction of closing my spreadsheets one hour later was only matched by the information they contained within. My business was doing well. So well, in fact, that maybe I could offer Liam a few more hours and consider finally taking the time to work on my bike restoration.
I stepped outside the office. Liam was in the garage working under a car and whistling a tune I didn't recognize.
The familiar smell of oil, grease, paint, and sweat calmed me down, and since there were no customers in the shop, I allowed myself the moment to enjoy the feeling of rightness whenever I was in my workspace. The garage, not the office. That was merely a necessary part of running a business.
When I'd seen this building only around the corner from the Chester Falls main square, I knew I'd found my perfect place.
The vintage bike shop with the adjacent garage had direct access from the main street, attracting curious passersby as well as my loyal customers.
Cars weren’t really my thing, so when Liam had walked in asking for a job, just a couple of months after I’d opened the shop, I hadn’t cared that I had no clue how to pay him.
As it turned out, he’d worked for the previous owners, and since there was no other garage in town, we had a captive audience. As much as I’d wanted to run an exclusive vintage bike repair and restoration shop, I knew it was smart to diversify.
I’d been dumb too many times in my life to not know when to smarten up.
The shop was exactly how I'd always wanted. Paved flooring, a few display cabinets, a leather couch, and several blown-up photos of vintage bikes on the walls.
It was big enough to have a good range of bikes on display, mostly Harleys, but it still felt cozy and personable. Most of all, the long glass wall behind the bikes gave my customers a direct view of the garage.
"Hey, boss," Liam said, sliding out from under the car. "I've put the new alternator in Mrs. Mason's car. I'll just give it a quick once over and it'll be good to go."
"That's great. Thanks, Liam. You can head home when you finish."
"Are you sure? I can hang around," he said, wiping his greasy hands on a rag.
"You know Maggie will bring you coffee whether or not you let me off early."
Liam was a good ten years younger than me, and after losing his first wife at a young age, he’d found love again in the girl that seemed to come by a little too often for someone who didn’t own a car, bike, or even had a driver’s license.
Maggie was a sweet girl in her mid-twenties, and as long as she kept bringing us coffee from Spilled Beans, she could pop by to visit Liam any time. Or have him home early as the case may be.
"I have no ulterior motive. Just being nice," I said, raising my hands.
I wasn't kidding anyone. Indy's coffee was the best and, on most days, we were so busy that Maggie's treat was a lifesaver.
"All right, then. Will we see you at the book fair later?" he asked.
I'd almost forgotten about the fair. These days, reading was my only form of relaxation, usually before I fell asleep after a long day at the shop.
"Maybe," I said. "I want to catch up on some things, but I'll drop by."
I went over to the main shop while Liam finished up. Working with cars and bikes was a messy and smelly business. Just because the scent of oil got my engine running, it didn't mean the general public agreed with it, so I'd made sure that my staff facilities had a locker room with a shower and the best oil removing soap available.
Liam was my only employee, but the way things were going, I could see myself hiring a couple more people in the next year or so. Especially if it meant I wouldn’t need to get anywhere near a car.
I glanced at the corner of the garage where my passion project stood covered up and waiting for me to get my head out of my ass and start working on it.
"All right, boss. I'll see you later," Liam said, coming into the shop area looking fresh as a daisy.
I waved him off.
"Hey, Liam," I said, just as he reached the front door. "I don't suppose you'd want to pick up a few more hours?"
He grinned widely. "You serious, boss?"
"Hell yeah, I'll do it. I'm saving to get Maggie a nice ring. I know we haven't been going out long, but when you know, you know. Right?"
"You can't let a girl like Maggie get away, that's for sure."
He nodded and left with the biggest smile on his face.
My mind went back to the call from Mike. I once thought we had forever too.
Saying life after my parents died wasn't easy was the understatement of the century, so when I met him, he was the ray of sunshine I craved. If he was a flower, I was a bee drunk on his sweet nectar.
Except I carried secrets I had never been able to share and, in the end, that broke us. Yes, he'd cheated, but when you hide who you really are from the person you love, aren't you as much of a cheater?
We normally didn't get many customers in the shop on Saturday mornings, so I busied myself putting things away in the garage and closing it before heading back to close the shop.
I stole another glance at the old Harley and then pulled out the list of parts I needed to order for it. I reckoned I could have it ready by the end of the summer, when I usually closed the shop for a week to get out on the open road.
The thought alone caused my skin to erupt in excited goosebumps. I'd missed out on the trip last year, when I'd come down with an unexpected flu, so I wanted to make this year count.
I pulled out my phone and blocked the number Mike had called me from. I wasn't interested in living in the past.
The man that had saved my life said to me once, “Slade, son, nothing good comes from looking back. Put the good memories in a safe box and move forward. Only when you're miles away from the past, can you afford to look back inside the box and pick a memory to revisit. Don't do it too early, or you'll be tempted to turn around. Make sure you're far away enough that you can't.”
Those words had carried me from Seattle to Atlanta and then to Chester Falls.
When I'd arrived in the small town six years ago, I thought I'd stepped into a place that wasn't made for people like me. It was too nice, too perfect.
Time showed me that people here were as flawed as anywhere else, and so, a day at a time, I carved out my little spot in the community.
After locking everything up, I went around the building to the outside stairs that lead up to my apartment above the store. I liked that there was a separation. My apartment was my sanctuary. There, I didn't have any secrets. I could open my memory box and bring back the good ones any time I liked.
One scan of my bookshelf reminded me that I'd recently donated some books to Goodwill, so what a perfect day to fill it up with new ones.
Maybe I'd bump into Liam and Maggie at the book fair. Maybe I'd buy her an iced coffee.
Now those were memories I wanted to make.
Do you want to know more about where Slade comes from? How he meets Aiden? How to Catch a Biker releases on March 12 and will be available on Kindle Unlimited.