Remind me again. I left a shop full of chocolates behind, why?
Okay, that’s lame. I mean, as a chocolatier I’m surrounded by chocolates every day. Truffles, caramel pecan patties, cherry cordials, chocolate-covered pretzels, mints. A myriad of textures and tastes. One would think I’d be sick of the rich, decadent scent that greets me every morning and causes me to drool like an old lady after a George Clooney sighting. Truth be told, I could use a break. Besides, friends mean more than chocolate.
And why is that again?
When I see Lydia Brady running out of her house dressed in jean shorts and a plain pink pullover, the breeze blowing her wavy, shoulder-length hair away from her green eyes and flour-speckled face, I remember.
Chocolate comforts me for a moment, but friends encourage me for a lifetime. Close friends. Friends like Lydia Brady and Millie Carter.
We’ve stayed in touch since our camp days over thirty-some years ago. It’s true that at one point we dwindled down to a Christmas card, but we reconnected at the camp reunion six years ago and have stayed in touch through phone calls and e-mail ever since.
Since Lydia’s husband, Greg, died last November, our bond has been even tighter. We’re determined to see one another through the worst and the best of life. In the last six years, our friendship has seen us through divorce, job changes, kids, and now death. Nothing can separate us.
Well, except maybe this RV thing.
After paying the cabdriver, I push open the taxi door, causing it to squawk in protest. Lydia rushes to my side and hugs me fiercely.
“Oh, sorry,” she says with a laugh, “I got flour on your pretty silk blouse.”
“No problem,” I say, brushing it off.
“Silver looks great on you, DeDe, makes your dark eyes stand out. Looks nice with those black pants too.” Lydia looks down at her own top, then touches her hair. “I should have dressed better to meet you girls.”
“You look wonderful,” I say, giving her one more hug.
In spite of all she’s been through, Lydia does look good. She’s put on a little weight since the last time we were together, but then, haven’t we all? It surprises me to see that she’s let her hair go gray, but she still looks pretty. Older, but pretty.
’Course, who am I to talk? I have a few more wrinkles—er, uh, laugh lines—than I did in November. But, hey, I laugh a lot.
My luggage rollers squeak as I pull them over a sidewalk bumpy with age and littered with stubborn weeds that have pushed through the cracks.
“Millie should be here shortly,” Lydia says, her words coming out in short bursts of air. “I can hardly believe it’s been a month already since we talked about this, and here we are.”
“Speaking of which, are we sure we want to do this? Could I entice you with a little gourmet chocolate, perhaps, to give up the idea?” Our gazes collide. “I’m teasing here, but then again, maybe not. You, me, Millie, packed in an RV. For endless days?”
Picture sardines in a can. Speaking of which, I’ve never appreciated sardines. Yet here I am feeling sorry for them. All crammed together in those little metal cans.
“You don’t mind, do you, DeDe? I mean, you want to do this, right?” We step inside Lydia’s home, and I set the luggage aside. The wrinkles between her eyebrows deepen at the question.
My heart constricts. Lydia, ever the peacemaker. “Of course I want to do this. Would I miss the chance to get together with my best friends?” Well, maybe I considered it, but she doesn’t need to know that. And just for the record, David, Tony, Ralph, and George had nothing to do with it. Well, okay, maybe Tony, but only a little.
Her face softens. “I was afraid, you know, because of the RV and all.”
“What? Just because my idea of roughing it consists of a hotel room without a view?”
Lydia laughs and leads the way toward the kitchen. “That would be it.”
When we step close to the room, we are greeted by a glorious aroma. “Something smells delicious and vaguely familiar.”
“I’m not surprised. There’s chocolate in the air,” Lydia says with a chuckle. “Cappuccino cheesecake with fudge sauce. We’ll have some after dinner.”
My mouth waters. Closing my eyes, I lift my nose in the air, take a deep breath, then practically start to purr. It’s my natural Pavlovian response to chocolate. “I owe you my firstborn,” I say.
“You don’t have a firstborn,” she says with a laugh.
“Well, if I ever get one, you’re down for first dibs.”
“No, wait. At my age if I ever get one, medical science will want first dibs.”
“Oh, you!” Lydia playfully hits my arm. “That’s why you’re so good at running your business, you know. You’re passionate about chocolate.”
“How pathetic is that, Lydia? I mean, some people are passionate about world peace, some want to rid the world of poverty, others strive to wipe out disease. Me? My life is devoted to chocolate.”
Lydia grabs some glasses from the cupboard, fills them with ice cubes and tea. “There’s a place in this world for chocolate connoisseurs.”
“Yeah, it’s called a kitchen.” The wooden chair at the table scrapes against the ceramic-tiled floor as I pull it out and sit down.
Lydia laughs and shakes her head.
“All kidding aside, chocolate is a serious business,” I say in defense of my profession. “Why, did you know that the Aztecs and Mayans were the first to discover the value of the cocoa plant? That’s only because I wasn’t born yet, mind you, but still.”
Lydia chuckles, and I hurry on.
“It was brought into the United States in the 1700s. So it’s been around for a while. Lucky for me, or I’d be out of a job.” I’m totally enjoying my little wealth of knowledge until I notice that Lydia isn’t really paying attention to me. With a glance out her kitchen window, she points.
“You can see Waldo from here,” she says.
I walk over to the window to see my new home for the next few weeks. One glance and I suddenly understand that “bucket of bolts” concept. Her RV looks tired. It could spring a leak. It needs assisted living. The tan-colored motor home has taupe and blue horizontal stripes around its midsection. Can we say stretch marks?
Maybe I’ll just visit a day or two and go home.
“I know he doesn’t look like much,” Lydia says, seeming to read my mind. “He is, after all, fifteen years old, but, hey, I’m no spring chicken and I do okay,” she says with a laugh. We both look out the window once more.
It surprises me to see Lydia’s RV sitting in a pile of weeds. Her lawn would normally qualify for a magazine photo shoot.
“I need to work on the lawn,” she says. “Just haven’t had the time.”
I’m wondering what she does with all her time now that the boys are out of the house and her husband is gone.
Lydia picks up a glass and hands it to me. Then she grabs one for herself. “Let’s sit down at the table.”
The wooden chairs creak as we settle into them at the bare oak dining room table that used to be laden with tablecloths and candles.
“You doing okay, Lydia?”
Her eyes lock with mine. “I’m fine, really. Greg has provided well for me. My church activities and friends keep me busy. Oh, and did I tell you I joined the Red Hat Society?”
“Is that one of those groups where the ladies are fifty and up and they wear red hats?” I ask.
“That’s the one.” Lydia laughs. “I’m telling you, those girls know how to party! They even go on cruises together.”
“Sounds enticing, but since I’m only forty-nine, I’m not eligible,” I say with a wink.
Lydia’s left eyebrow arches. “Not a problem. They accept women younger than fifty, but instead of red hats, they wear pink ones.”
“Well, there you are,” I say, thumping back against my seat. “Won’t happen. Pink washes me out.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Lydia says the words like a jingle for a commercial.
“Actually, there is a group near my area that I’ve been thinking of joining. They buy a lot of chocolate from my store. That tells me they’re a fun group with good taste. By the time I get back, I’ll be fifty, and I can wear a red hat.”
“That’s right. You were always the birthday girl at camp.”
I nod, and we grow quiet, each sipping our iced tea, remembering. The ticking clock on the wall echoes through the room. Lydia studies the cuticle on her index finger. “I still miss him, you know.” She lifts a hesitant smile. “Things are so different now.”
“I’m sure that’s something one never gets over. I mean, losing the one you love.”
She waits a moment, as though she’s had to mentally pull herself up by the bootstraps. “Well, one thing I know for sure—Greg would want me to do this trip. He always wanted me to go out with my girlfriends.” Her eyes take on a faraway look. “Sometimes I wonder if he knew I would have to go on without him one day.” She glances toward me, eyes shining again. “You remember Greg. He continually fussed over me. Like he thought I was too fragile or something.” She goes to the refrigerator for the pitcher and adds more tea to her almost-full glass.
My heart aches for Lydia. She and Greg had a wonderful marriage, a model family. Now she’s alone. True, I live alone, but then, that’s all I’ve ever known. You don’t miss what you’ve never had. Oh, there was the dream of that once . . .
The doorbell rings.
“It’s Millie!” Lydia says, barely sitting down before she hops up again. We both rush for the front door. Once it opens, a bright flash greets us.
We’re stunned with blindness for a moment.
“Sorry, but I wanted to get your expressions on our first meeting of this trip,” Millie says, clicking off the camera that’s dangling from her neck.
The door frame helps me maintain my balance. Lydia steps aside and lets Millie stagger through the door with her luggage.
“Wow, you look great!” Lydia says, hugging her sideways to steer clear of the camera.
“How can you tell? All I can see is a blaze of light.” My fingers continue to grip the door frame for support.
“Same old DeDe,” Millie says, laughing and pulling me into a hug.
The light dissipates, and I see that Millie does look great. In fact, there’s something different about her. I know what it is. She’s not dressed in her usual beige polyester. Woo-hoo, the old Millie is back! She’s smiling. Millie hasn’t smiled since—well, for a very long time, that I can remember.
“Oh my goodness, it’s true! You really do have teeth!” I say.
She laughs in spite of herself. “Well, don’t get used to seeing them. I show them sparingly.”
She chuckles again and reaches up to touch the blonde fringe at the base of her neck, running her fingers through the hair at the side of her face. Wispy bangs fall just above shapely eyebrows that top wide blue eyes. With a handkerchief, she blots her forehead, revealing faint lines where smooth skin used to be. Dark-framed eyeglasses are perched upon her head the way some people wear sunglasses.
Millie sees us looking at them, and her fingers reach up to pull them off her head. “I always forget I have these things up there. But it sure comes in handy to have them when I need to read something.” She pulls an eyeglass case from her handbag and stuffs the spectacles inside. “Plus, you know how I’m always losing them. If I stick them on my head, I can usually find them.”
Though Millie is one of the most organized people I know, she has a flaw that just doesn’t match up. She has a problem with losing glasses the way most people misplace pens. When non- prescription glasses appeared on the scene, she thought she’d died and gone to heaven. Cheap glasses have relieved her of the heavy guilt she once carried for losing prescription glasses. Now if she forgets where she put her glasses, she can afford to go out and buy a new pair—especially if she finds a sale where they go for a dollar a pair. She says she keeps a pair in every room of her house.
“So good to see you, Millie. You’ve lost weight,” I say, stepping back to look at her.
She takes a minute to catch her breath. “It’s easy to drop forty pounds after a divorce.” She shrugs.
“I’m glad we have God to help us through these things,” Lydia says, placing her arm around Millie and ushering her into the next room.
I haven’t talked to God in years. Wouldn’t know His voice if I heard it—though I’m pretty sure I would suspect something was amiss if He sounded like George Burns.
“Oh my, that smells good, Lydia,” Millie says once we arrive in the warm and delicious-smelling kitchen.
“It is good, if I do say so myself. But you have to eat your dinner first,” she admonishes like the mother she is.
“No problem there. I’m starved,” says Millie. “Those peanuts on the airplane just don’t cut it for me anymore.”
Lydia says a prayer for our food, then Millie gets up and snaps a picture. “Just wanted to record our first meal together.”
We laugh and settle into light conversation over a dinner of grilled chicken, potatoes, broccoli sautéed in butter and spices, homemade dinner rolls, and crisp salad heavy with tomatoes, cheese, and all the fixings.
“Have you girls entered the hot flashes and cold-cream phase yet?” Millie asks, wiping her face again with the handkerchief.
“I’ve got the cold cream down but haven’t had the hot flashes. What are they exactly?” I ask, buttering another roll.
“It’s where your head heats up pretty much the same as a block of charcoal in a grill,” Millie says, continuing to pat her face. “What about you, Lydia—do you get them?” she asks.
“Yes, I get them. My internal temperature seems to always be running several degrees hotter than everyone else’s.”
“That would explain why I’ve been freezing since I arrived. Of course, being from Florida, I just figured it was a climate adjustment—that whole going from south to north thing.”
“I also struggle with sleeping at night and sometimes concentrating on things. I’m so forgetful,” Lydia adds.
No doubt losing Greg has something to do with the sleeping and concentration problems. “Maybe you should try some chocolate. Chocolate can get you through anything, you know. Especially the smooth, rich Belgian chocolate we buy.” I’ve never been one to linger on heavy issues.
“You always did think chocolate was a cure-all.” Millie digs through her handbag, pulls out her glasses, and places them on the bridge of her nose to look at the recipe card for Lydia’s dessert. She stops a moment and looks at me. “You don’t make the chocolate at your place, do you?”
“See, the thing is, we don’t have cacao trees where I live. You know, those tall plants out in the yard that produce cocoa beans? Those would be the ones. Don’t have any. Zero. Zip. Nada. The best my tree can do is produce leaves.”
Millie stares at me. “That’s a shame. You’d have been so good at it, sorting the beans and all,” she says with eyes twinkling.
“Could you, by any chance, be referring to my punishment at the camp where Tony and I had to sort through the mounds of green beans simply because Tony put a pine beetle in the green bean tray and I laughed?”
“That would be the one.” Millie winks at Lydia.
“To this day I hate green beans.”
We all laugh. Only they laugh harder than I do.
“Hey, I brought you both a box of my signature truffles.”
“Oh, you’re a doll,” Lydia says. “Mocha?”
“Of course. Would I bring you anything else?”
Lydia grins. “My emotions thank you. I won’t tell you what my hips say.”
“It’s better that way.” I stop and enjoy another bite of Lydia’s homemade dinner rolls. “These are absolutely fabulous, Lydia.”
“Don’t forget to save room for dessert.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Millie says. “Like she would ever pass up chocolate?” She puts the card aside, shoves her glasses back into the case, and drops it into her handbag.
With a shrug I say, “It’s good for the hormones.”
“But of course, since you’re younger than us, you wouldn’t really have a problem with that, right?” Millie teases.
“Hey, won’t you celebrate a birthday while we’re at camp?” Millie asks.
“I’m not doing birthdays this year.”
“Can’t say that I blame you. Fifty isn’t fun.”
“Thanks for the encouragement, Millie.”
“Fifty is great!” Lydia says. “We should have a party!”
“No party,” I say emphatically, cutting off Martha Stewart before the invitations can be addressed and sent.
“My party self will be bingeing that day. If anything, it should be declared a day of mourning.” Millie nods her head in agreement—which I’m not sure I like—while Lydia gapes at me.
“You’re no fun.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, Lydia. I’m just not into the attention this year, okay?”
She struggles to agree. It goes against everything in her nature to ignore a birthday event, but her aversion to arguments wins out. She finally nods.
“Well, now that that’s settled,” Millie says, as if brushing her hands of the matter, “I’ve told you, Beverly says they received a great response with donations from alumni for the camp restoration.” Her eyes spark with excitement. “This is going to be so awesome. I can hardly wait.”
“To tell the truth, girls, if I didn’t feel such loyalty to Aspen Creek, I would be afraid to try this trip,” Lydia says.
Millie and I pause to look at her.
“It makes me a little nervous to take Waldo out. I’m not comfortable with that. Greg always managed Waldo. I just went along for the ride.”
Millie pats her hand. “We’ll help you, Lydia. This will be an adventure, you’ll see.”
I try not to gape here. Lydia’s staring at her too.
“Have you been sucking on helium balloons again?” I ask, referring to the time I coerced her into doing that with my birthday balloons at camp. The director had walked into our room and asked us why we weren’t at the afternoon session, and Millie said—in her Mickey Mouse voice—“I’m not feeling very well.” With her mouth dangling, Mrs. Woodriff just stared at Millie. If she hadn’t spotted the balloon, I’m sure she would have whisked Millie off to the hospital in a heartbeat.
“No helium.” She grins. “Just rediscovering who I really am.” Before we can say anything, she goes on. “Oh my goodness, I forgot to tell you girls. Guess who Beverly said is coming to help at the camp?”
Lydia and I stop our forks midair. “Who?”
“Eric Melton!” Millie’s eyes are wide, and she’s smiling as she thumps back into her chair.
“Really?” Lydia’s right hand reaches up to straighten her hair.
“Eric Melton, aka Mr. Egomaniac? That Eric Melton?” I ask.
“As I live and breathe.” Millie wipes her mouth with a napkin. “I couldn’t believe it when Beverly told me. Wonder what he looks like after all these years.”
“Oh, that’s right. He didn’t make it to the reunion,” I say, noticing that Lydia’s face has turned a curious shade of pink.
“He’s probably still a jerk,” Millie says with a grunt. “Remember how he always used to run the palms of his hands along the sides of his head to smooth his hair when girls were looking? It’s a wonder he didn’t rub his head bald.”
Millie has a way of saying things.
“Hopefully his ego has toned down a bit,” she continues before finishing off the last of her broccoli. She turns to Lydia. “Didn’t you date him a couple of times?”
Lydia lifts her glass of tea and without looking at us says, “Yes, I did.” Ice clinks against the side of the glass before she takes a drink. “If you hadn’t been going steady with Tony, he would have asked you out, Dee.”
“He was pretty cute,” I say. “But I did have it bad for Tony,” I add in a dreamy voice.
“Yeah, lasted for all of, what, two weeks?” Millie laughs.
“Don’t knock it. That was a record for me back then.” ’Course, I beat that record when Rob came along. Rob, the guy I thought might finally be the one . . .
“Eric really liked you, Lydia; I remember that,” Millie says, pulling me back from my memories.
Lydia says nothing. She gathers dessert dishes and teacups, then serves us cheesecake and coffee.
I fill my glass with a swallow of warm water from the tap to clear my palate, then sip it until it’s gone. Once I’m seated, I take a small bite of the cheesecake, close my eyes, and move it slowly over my tongue, savoring the moment. When I open my eyes, Lydia and Millie are staring at me.
“What? Don’t you know there is a correct way to experience chocolate?”
Lydia and Millie shake their heads.
“Oh my, yes.” I sit up in my seat. “You should eat it at room temperature. Don’t drink something cold before tasting it, because a warm mouth is important for the chocolate to melt quickly.”
Lydia and Millie continue to stare, their mouths wide open, resembling baby birds at mealtime. I’m enjoying this immensely.
“A glossy surface is a must if it’s a well-made bar,” I continue like a professor at a French cooking school. “You will notice that all my chocolates qualify.” Getting up from the table, I say, “Be right back.” My luggage is by the door, so I rush to it and pull out a couple of boxes, then run back to the kitchen and take my seat. “Mocha for you, Millie. Lydia, since you don’t seem to have a preference, I brought a good mixture of praline, peanut butter, raspberry, and mocha.”
They each grab a truffle and lift it to their noses. I do the same. “See, you break the chocolate into pieces so you can smell the aroma.” Once I break off a piece, we each take turns smelling it.
“Oh yeah, then when I take a bite, I allow the aroma to fill the nasal passage at the back of my mouth, engaging my senses of smell and taste.” Taking a bite, I pause. “Bliss, sheer bliss.”
Millie and Lydia exchange glances.
“Wow, chocolate is serious business,” Lydia says with utmost reverence.
Raising my eyebrows and my chin, I pull my hand to my chest (picture Napoléon Bonaparte here). “A chocolate connoisseur has trained senses to discover the very best chocolate.” My head tips in a slight bow. Then I grin.
Millie doesn’t look all that impressed. She shrugs and goes back to her cheesecake.
I put my chocolate away—well, not the broken pieces. Those go on my plate with my cheesecake, and I take another bite. “Didn’t you say this was cappuccino cheesecake?”
“For some reason, I don’t taste the coffee part. ’Course, I like my coffee a little strong, so maybe that’s why I can’t taste it.” Lifting my napkin, I wipe my mouth.
Lydia blinks. “Oh dear.” She rises and walks over to the counter.
“What’s wrong?” Millie asks.
Lydia turns to look at us. “I forgot to add the coffee.”
“It’s still delicious,” I say with a shrug.
Lydia rejoins us at the table and shakes her head. “See, I forget everything.”
Millie shrugs. “It happens. Now what were we talking about?”
“Let’s see, we were talking about you dating Eric, I think,” I say to Lydia.
“Eric liked me, but he liked himself even more,” she says. “He wasn’t the type to stick with one girl.”
“Besides, if I remember right, Greg showed up at camp and swept you off your feet about that time, didn’t he?” Millie asks, innocently enough, but suddenly everything gets quiet.
Lydia stares at her with a sort of dazed look. “Yeah, he did.” Her voice is upbeat, but she stares in the distance to a place I suspect she visits often.
Things suddenly feel very awkward.
“Remember how we called Mrs. Woodriff ‘The Warden’?” Lydia asks, changing the subject.
“Ethel Belle Woodriff, The Warden,” Millie and I echo together with a laugh.
“Oh boy, we were so in trouble for breaking curfew with her around,” I say.
“Because she knew we were always up to something.” Millie turns to me. “Especially you. How I let you talk me into such things, I’ll never know. I’m telling you, books are safer than friends.”
“Oh, come on, it’s much more fun doing something than just reading about it. Besides, it’s not like you didn’t want any part of spraying her bed with sugar water. If I remember correctly, you were all too eager to participate.”
Millie brightens with the memory. Just as quickly a frown appears. “Well, how were we to know it would attract every mosquito and ant within a twenty-mile radius?”
We burst into laughter.
“For putting up with us, the woman probably is wearing a huge crown in heaven as we speak,” I say.
Hand over her chest, Lydia says, “She was a saint.”
“Amen,” Millie and I say together.
We talk awhile longer, reminiscing about our camp days. Lydia lets us know her motor home has had a recent checkup and should be as good as new when we start our trip. That makes me feel better—slightly—but I still don’t understand why we can’t all pitch in for Hiltons along the way. At least they leave chocolate mints on your pillows.
Finally, we all grow tired and climb the stairs to our rooms.
“Now, I want one of you to stay in my room.” Lydia raises her hand before anyone can protest. “Don’t argue with me about it, because it will do you no good. When someone visits, I give up my bed. It’s the most comfortable bed in the house.”
Millie and I both fudge here. We’re a bit uncomfortable with the idea of taking Lydia’s bed. It just doesn’t seem right. Besides, we know there isn’t a bed in her house that is uncomfortable.
“Where will you sleep?” I ask.
“In one of the boys’ rooms. One of you will be in the guest room.”
No one says anything.
Lydia pulls a coin from her pants pocket. “Heads or tails,” she says, flipping it in the air and catching it. She turns to me. “DeDe?”
“Heads it is,” she announces.
Just then my cell phone rings. Slipping the phone from my purse, I see Rob’s name on the screen. I toss Lydia and Millie a smile, then tuck my ringing phone back into my purse.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Millie asks.
“I’ll call them back,” I say.
“Okay, well, put your things in there,” Lydia says, pointing.
Once we settle into our respective rooms, I pull out my phone. Why does he keep calling me? Can’t he get it through his head that it’s over? With a deep breath, I shove the unwanted feelings away from my heart like a mess of clothes behind a closet door.
I glance around Lydia’s bedroom. While the rest of her house and yard looks a bit unkempt, this room appears immaculate. Books, magazines, and forgotten projects clutter my bedroom back home. To make matters worse, I’m almost sure every disease known to humankind lurks beneath my bed.
The funny thing is, this room smells a little musty. Not like Lydia at all. Maybe she hasn’t opened her windows in a while. Hauling my squeaky luggage across the hardwood floor, I heave it onto a chair, pull out my pajamas, then put them on. I plop on the bed and stretch out. It is heavenly, but how can I sleep without a book? The one in my suitcase is too emotionally draining right now. Glancing at the nightstand, I figure Lydia might have some reading material, so I open the drawer. It’s empty. How odd.
Shame on me for being so nosy, but I walk over to the dresser and peek inside. Sweaters line the drawers. Clothes for the fall and winter. It suddenly occurs to me.
Lydia doesn’t sleep in here.
She appears as upbeat as always, but now I’m wondering if it’s all a front. We’ll have to help her through this. Walking over to the bed, I climb between the satin sheets. My thoughts drift from Lydia’s grief to her RV sitting in a pile of weeds.
I’ll turn fifty on this trip. Fortunately, I haven’t slowed down long enough to think about that. But here in this house, seeing my friends, seeing the RV, well, things are changing, that’s all.
Scrambling out of bed, I pull the cold cream from my suitcase and smear it on.
Unfortunately, there are some things even chocolate can’t fix.