“Honey, did you hear me?” Brian’s raised voice made Kayla think it wasn’t the first time he’d asked, but his tone wasn’t impatient.
She flinched, and the plastic plate she had been rinsing slid from her hands and crashed into the silverware in the sink. Her gaze, moments ago directed at a distant spot through the window, refocused on the glass. I really should wash the windows.
She had listened initially while her husband read the online article out loud. But the topic—a tech billionaire building some kind of memory machine—sparked visions from long ago that surprised her with their immediacy.
Brian’s voice and the white noise of the water running from the kitchen faucet faded into the background, and she drifted back to the road trip she and Jeff had taken down south from Pennsylvania. The endless rows of cotton, stretching out from either side of the road, enthralled Kayla, and she made Jeff pull the car over so she could see them up close. Back in the passenger seat, she tenderly picked the seeds from the puffy, dirty-white bolls nestled in a napkin on her lap.
When that scene faded, another appeared—the time she convinced Jeff they should learn German for a future vacation. They botched the pronunciations so badly they laughed until their sides ached and tears streamed down their faces.
“Sorry, yes,” Kayla said. “Something about the latest idea from a self-proclaimed Silicon Valley savior, none of whom ever seem to deliver on their promise to change society for the better.”
Brian smiled. After twenty-three years and two kids, Brian’s dimples still made Kayla swoon. Showing no doubt about his feelings, they’d made the most of their time alone since the kids left to be camp counselors for the summer.
“This one from Nathan Stotfold could be for real. He wants to help people overcome PTSD and other painful experiences, and he thinks having a database of memories is the key. Apparently, you forget the memory as soon as it’s uploaded to their system, so I guess it has its appeal.”
He paused as if assessing the implications, then asked, “What memory would you get paid one hundred dollars to forget?”
Still standing at the sink, Kayla turned around. “None,” she said. “Good or bad, they all make up who I am. What about you?”
“I think I’d forget the one where you turned me down the first time I proposed.”
She balled up the hand towel she still held and lobbed it at him. “That wasn’t a serious proposal. You used a Coke can pop top for a ring.”
They teased about this regularly, but they both knew there was more to it. Kayla hadn’t divulged all the details to Brian, but before they met, she had been through a bad breakup. It took a few years to convince her that Brian wasn’t just going to wake up one day and decide to leave.
“On that note, I better get going,” Brian said as he scooped up his keys from the kitchen counter and tossed the towel back to her. He kissed her in a way that made her want to tell him to go into work late.
Instead, she said, “Love you. Have a good day.”
After Brian left, Kayla poured another cup of coffee and took it into the living room. She sat on the sofa and curled her feet under her. She should have been mentally ticking down her to-do list, but her reverie at the kitchen sink lingered. Maybe there was one memory she’d sign up to forget.
Kayla grabbed her laptop from the side table and looked up the article Brian was reading. Stotfold’s company had set up hundreds of “Memory Lane” booths the previous week at the convention center ten miles from their house and would be there for another week. To help keep each person’s identity confidential, there was no sign up or registration. You just showed up during the posted hours and exchanged a memory for cash.
She hadn’t seen Jeff since their early twenties when they broke up. If he had married, was he happy? Did he have kids? She hoped he hadn’t ended up marrying her, who didn’t seem like the marrying type, but stranger things have happened.
Kayla moved not long afterward and made friends with a group of other twenty-somethings, one of whom was Brian. Still hurting, she didn’t allow him to get close to her until her heart mended nearly a year later. Over time, her and Brian’s love muted the hurt and heartache, but every once in a while something would trigger the question she never had an answer for: Why had Jeff turned his back on their love so suddenly?
As curious as she’d been, Kayla never felt the urge that many others did to connect over social media with long-lost friends and people they dated, so she had no idea what he had been up to since they broke it off. Before thinking about it too hard, Kayla opened a new search window and typed in Jeff’s name. She discovered he was a regionally successful writer living in Oregon. The second link in the results was the audio for an interview that he had done with a radio station in Washington state two years ago.
She clicked on the link labeled Andrew Shipley Interview with Jeff Reynolds, November 9, 2020.
Andrew Shipley: We’re here with Jeff Reynolds, author of Over the Moon, which came out last month. It’s his latest under the pseudonym Jack Roberts. Thanks for joining us, Jeff. You write your books under a pen name but don’t try to hide that you’re Jack Roberts. Why?
Jeff Reynolds: When I started writing, I still had my day job as a software engineer. I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t want anyone to know in case I failed. Plus, people expect Jeff Reynolds to be a certain way, so taking on the persona of Jack Roberts gave me room to explore a variety of topics from different angles.
Before Kayla had hit play, she’d wondered if Jeff’s voice would provoke melancholy or even bitterness, but neither materialized. All she felt was an odd disconnect at hearing him without seeing his face.
AS: Let’s talk about that for a minute. Over the Moon is your fourth novel, and like your others, there’s a human and emotional element to your writing that seems to really resonate with your readers, judging by how many copies you’ve sold. Where does that depth come from?
JR: I write for myself and to figure out life and what makes people tick. If that resonates with others, then I’m happy, but it’s not my main reason for writing.
AS: You’ve had a fan base in the Pacific Northwest since your first novel, You Knew Me When, came out in 2010. Over the Moon is the first of your novels to break onto the national scene, and it’s easy to see why. When I read the book, I sensed it was more personal than your earlier novels. Do you think that has something to do with its national success? Is it, as some are saying, based on a specific instance in your life?
JR: Some might say Moon has gained national attention because I’ve gotten better at writing.
JR: Seriously, though, people are a little voyeuristic, so knowing this is a fictionalized version of something that happened probably drove sales. Unfortunately, the ending didn’t quite work out for me the way it did for my protagonist, Max.
AS: Without giving away too much, can you tell us more about the theme of the story and what event in your life it’s based on?
Kayla heard what sounded like someone shifting in a chair, followed by a long pause.
JR: The theme is one of the oldest tales in relationships. [chuckle] The one that got away. In my case, Kelly—the character’s name in the book and not her real name, by the way—and I were both fresh out of college. New employees in a new city who were great friends before we started dating. With her, I was the happiest I’d ever been.
Kayla flinched at hearing this. If he had been so happy with her, then why did he hurt her?
JR: But I was scared, too. I’d lived my entire life in a small town in Vermont, where I always felt a little penned in. I was trying to figure out life as an adult and who I was. Unfortunately, I fell in love before that happened. And then I screwed it all up.
AS: In the novel, there’s a scene where Kelly comes in to the office when Max is working late. Was that pretty true to your own experience?
Kayla envisioned the dusky sunset that had filled the horizon that evening when she pulled her car into an office building parking lot. She could almost feel the same warm breeze on her face as when she stepped out of the car nearly twenty years ago and walked to the entrance. Her head felt like it was floating as every detail rushed forward.
Still singing along to the last song that was playing on her CD, Third Eye Blind’s new hit, “Semi-Charmed Life,” Kayla reached the entrance, swiped her key card, and pulled the metal door handle.
Through the entryway and down the hall, Kayla be-bopped to the rhythm playing in her head. At the end of the hall, she turned into a cubicle area, stopping a few feet from Jeff’s desk. She watched him typing into a computer, stopping occasionally to write on a notepad, and thought for the hundredth time how lucky she was to be with him.
“Hey, Jeff,” Kayla said, stepping forward.
JR: Yes. In the novel’s scene, Susan, who works with Max and Kelly, asks Max if he wants to go to a party that night after he’s done working, and Max impulsively says yes. Susan goes back to her desk to get her purse and keys and says she’ll meet Max back at his.
“Lauren!” Kayla snapped at the laptop screen. “The other woman’s name was Lauren.” Although nobody was in the house with her, the overreaction embarrassed her. Why didn’t she react as harshly when she heard him use Kelly for her name in the book?
JR: Max convinces himself that it’s no big deal. Even if Kelly finds out, it’s just a party, right? But he’s sweating bullets when Kelly shows up out of the blue to bring him a deli sandwich since he was working late. When Susan comes back and asks if Max is ready to go, he sees the hurt and betrayal on Kelly’s face. They both know Susan has a reputation for going after men even if they’re seeing someone else, so that adds a layer of tension to Kelly seeing Max make plans with Susan. He can try to rationalize it, but if he’s honest, he was a little thrilled when Susan asked him.
There was a long pause in the recording, and Kayla wasn’t sure if that was the end of the interview. Since that morning, she had been unsuccessful in recalling more details of that evening, but Jeff’s recollections prompted their return.
For instance, the droplets beading at Jeff’s temples when he had looked over her shoulder as if expecting someone and how her smile froze before she asked, “Plans?” trying to comprehend his words and actions.
“It’s just a party,” he said. “George and his friends are going to be there, and I didn’t think you’d want to come.” Jeff rushed out his sentences as if the slightest hesitation would impede his actions.
Before Kayla responded, Lauren walked in from the hall. She glanced at Kayla then asked, “Ready to go, Jeff?”
Jeff’s eyes darted from Lauren to Kayla and back to Lauren. He opened his mouth, but nothing emerged. Kayla spun on her heel and hurried away, slumped shoulders replacing the peppy bounce that carried her in.
There was a shuffling noise on the recording before the interviewer’s voice came back.
AS: Sorry about the brief pause, listeners. We’re still here. Let’s get back on track, Jeff. Earlier in the interview, you said that things worked out differently for Max than for you. Is the scene you just told us about one that’s different from your own experience?
JR: That scene is pretty much how it happened in real life. From there it differs because at that moment I lost the girl and we never spoke again, but in my novel, Max gets a chance to redeem himself later.
Redeem himself? Was that what Jeff had hoped for when he asked to talk to her the next day and she refused? He continued to make an effort for the next week, but Kayla went out of her way to avoid him. She requested a transfer to their company’s New York City office a few weeks later.
Looking back, it seemed like something they could have worked out. But back then she had been hurt, confused, and angry. Although she had dated, this was the first time she could say she’d fallen in love. It was better to cut her losses with Jeff instead of giving him another chance to cause her pain. At least that was her rationale.
When Brian had proposed the first time, she knew he was serious, even with the pull-top ring, and she loved him, but the word “yes” caught in her throat. If Jeff, who she thought loved her with all his heart, could abandon her, then anyone could.
AS: Since I’ve read the book, I know if Max gets the girl or not. I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns for those who haven’t, but trust me, listeners, you will want to find out what happens next. Back to you, though, Jeff. Did you ever think of looking the real-life Kelly up and apologizing?
JR: A couple of times, but it seemed selfish to insert myself, uninvited, back in her life. I spoke to a friend about it a few years after the break-up. He said it sounded like I wanted to apologize just to alleviate my own guilt rather than genuinely take accountability or acknowledge Kayl—I mean, Kelly’s pain.
AS: Do you think that was a fair assessment?
JR: [chuckle] Yeah, I think it was at the time. I was still so immature.
Kayla nodded. Looked like her instincts not to give him a new chance back then were right.
JR: Then a few years into my first marriage, my wife had an affair with someone and left me. I finally understood what it must have been like for Kelly to be dismissed so carelessly by someone she loved. Around that time, one of her friends emailed to tell me Kelly had gotten married, so I knew to leave it all in the past.
That would have been March 2003. Kayla had accepted Brian’s second proposal, this time with a diamond ring, but drew out the engagement for another year and a half. They had a small wedding with their closest friends and family. Waiting at the back of the church for the bridal march that day, Kayla’s eyes never left the face of the dimpled man, always patient but persistent, standing next to his best man.
AS: If she were sitting right here in front of you, what would you say to her?
Kayla jerked. He felt so close, she almost forgot she was in her living room and that this had been recorded two years ago.
JR: I would tell her I was sorry I hurt her and that I was too much of a coward to be honest about how deeply I’d fallen for her and how much it scared me, that I’d never felt so free as when I was with her, but my insecurities convinced me she could never be as into me as I was into her. I mean, it was a long time ago, but it just sticks with you when things are left hanging and you know there was so much more to say.
Kayla shifted on the couch, and her face flushed at hearing him talk about her like this. She spoke out loud to the screen, “I did know how much you loved me. You never had to say it. That’s what made what you did so painful. I thought we were going to be together forever. And you just threw it away.”
Even as she said it, though, there was no animosity, hurt, or anger, just facts. Like she was telling someone else’s story.
AS: Wow. You really bared your soul for us today. Thank you for being so real with us. Listeners, you can’t see this, of course, but Jeff’s face is one of just raw emotion. I won’t keep you much longer, Jeff. Just one more question. Why now? It’s been, what? Twenty-plus years since all of that happened. What made you want to tell this story now?
JR: I actually started writing a different story, but about thirty pages in, this one came pouring out of me. My second divorce had just been finalized, and my oldest son was heading to college. Those are the sorts of things that get you reevaluating your life. The way things ended with Kelly had always been on my mind. I was a jerk, and I guess it was my way of making things right, even if it’s just in a book.
The noises of shuffling and throat clearing on the audio brought Kayla’s thoughts back to her living room. Somehow, as he was talking, she had gravitated closer to the laptop as if she were trying to climb in and sit close while he described why he wrote about them now.
JR: I suppose I wrote Over the Moon to try to make sense of what I did to quote “my” Kelly and why. To this day, I can remember each sensation as if it happened only minutes ago. The rustle of the sandwich wrapper, the dryness of my mouth, the plastic of the pen against my fingers. I guess I want people who read the book to walk away with one thought: in the seconds it takes to make a decision, you can’t foresee the long-term cost.
The last time I saw her, she was walking down the hall, eyes forward, a box labeled “office stuff” in her arms.
Kayla had to strain to hear that last line. Almost like he had stopped talking to the interviewer.
AS: Ah, well, thank you, Jeff, for sharing your thoughts with us today. Folks, if you want to buy Jeff’s latest book, Over the Moon by Jack Roberts, check your local library or favorite bookstore. It’s also available from the major online book retailers.
Kayla closed the audio file and sat back. She was surprised to hear how much their break-up had affected Jeff so many years later. It had weighed on her, too—not feeling worthy of love and difficulty trusting others. When she had met Brian, though, whatever happened with Jeff hadn’t mattered anymore.
For the number of years the question about why Jeff acted the way he did that night had occasionally crossed her mind, she expected more fulfillment from the answer. But listening to this interview brought unexpected emotions, and more questions, that would be difficult to talk about with anyone other than the other person involved—Jeff.
She gathered her purse and keys and stepped out into the hot, dry air, hesitating on the porch.
Later that evening, as Kayla and Brian were fixing dinner, she told him what she had done. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. “How’d it go?” he asked.
It had been easy. She had sat in a reclining chair while the “Memory Lane” technicians placed electrodes on her head. She then told them an outline of the event she wished to forget, and they put her into a hypnotic state during which she thought of the event in as much detail as possible while the machine did its thing.
After the memory was uploaded into the system and excised from her neocortex, they roused her. She had been halfway off the chair when she paused and sat back down. “I’d like to surrender a second memory.”
While Kayla stood at the counter chopping tomatoes and cucumbers, Brian came up next to her. He put the lettuce on the counter and picked up a book lying a few inches to his right. He turned it over and studied the back cover. “Over the Moon?” he asked. “I didn’t think you were into, what do you call them, Lifetime TV kind of books.”
Kayla stopped chopping and glanced in his direction. “I don’t know why I picked it up. For some reason, it popped into my head when I drove by the bookstore on the way home, and I had this urge to read it.”
She stopped as if trying to recall something on the edge of her thoughts, then shook her head. “I must’ve heard about it from somewhere, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where.”
Save Me a Dance – the prequel that tells the love story of Jean Beck and Allen Brantley in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Paint Me A Story – follows Jean and Allen’s daughter Sarah. After her obsession with financial security has cost her nearly everything, she finds herself in a small Virginia town trying to rebuild trust and relationships.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
All rights reserved. Copyright © 2021 by Miranda Schell.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
My husband, Rob, deserves my biggest thank you. You have brought joy and happiness into my life for nearly thirty years, and I couldn’t ask for a better husband, friend, and cheerleader. And to my son, who never hesitates to ask me about my writing. Your belief in me keeps me going on the days the words struggle to come.
To Jessica Meigs from Edits By Jessica, for the final proofreading. I’m forever putting commas where they don’t belong, and don’t add them where they should be—Jess made sure they were all in order.
I’m grateful to my fellow writers and critiquers at Scribophile. Receiving and giving feedback has improved my writing and made the solo journey of being a writer more fun.
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