Veronica stared up at the bright red signal on the only traffic light in Myersville. There was no cross traffic at the intersection, nor any across the road. She sighed and looked at the time. She had not missed this about her hometown.
Myersville was the type of town that turned a blind eye to teen drinking but turned their noses up at sex ed. “My kids are smarter than that,” parents would say, assuming their teens had the inherent knowledge that condoms prevented pregnancy, assuming their teens would never cross that line to begin with.
Veronica’s parents were no different. All of their other children understood the unspoken rules, and Veronica didn’t know how. Was there a secret handbook to a successful high school career that she wasn’t given? Were the youngest children of the family always excluded from town secrets?
When she found out she was pregnant, she knew one thing for sure: she did not want to raise her baby in Myersville. She wanted there to be more than football, cheap beer, and judgment in life. She left home when Emilie was two and moved them into a small apartment in Washington. She said she’d never go back to Myersville except on the holidays.
Veronica sighed again, wishing she’d stuck to that decision. She could feel Jason watching her from the passenger seat as Emilie babbled about the cows she saw out the window. In the two years they’d been together, she’d never let him visit her hometown with her. When a teaching position opened up at Myersville Middle School, he insisted on applying. She knew he thought she was exaggerating about how awful the town was or that, if she wasn’t exaggerating, that he could save the town from themselves with his zeal for education.
“Stop staring at me,” Veronica said.
“I’m not staring. Just gazing upon your beauty.”
Veronica couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re ridiculous.” The light finally turned green, and she turned towards the narrow road that led to Main Street. “Jason, are you sure you want to do this? I don’t think you’ll like it here. They’ll probably think your shoulder tattoo is some sort of gang sign.”
Jason smirked. “I can never tell when you’re being sarcastic or serious.”
She looked over at him. “A little bit of both. Always.”
“Besides,” he said, brushing past her comment, “it’s not like they’re going to see the tattoo during my interview. Or professionally.”
“Yet you’re wearing an athletic tank top. They’re going to see it when we stop to eat.” Veronica parked a block down from the diner and stepped outside. The sun was bright, and she could see the smoke from the plant a few miles out. She grabbed Emilie’s hand and they all walked to the diner, choosing a booth by the window at Emilie’s insistence. They ordered brunch, and then it happened. It was what Veronica was dreading since the moment Jason told her he wanted to visit the town.
“Veronica? Surely that’s not you. You look fantastic!” Veronica cringed at the familiar voice. Alaina Simpson, former high school gossip enthusiast. Exactly the type of person she wanted to avoid running into.
“Alaina, hi. Nice seeing you again.”
Alaina slid into the booth next to her. Emilie ran to the table for more quarters.
“No running, please. Here, have fun. Stay in my sight.” Veronica said softly.
“Is that your daughter? She is absolutely a doll!” Emilie was already gone to the pinball machine, and Alaina zeroed in on Jason. “Hello, Alaina Simpson. Vee and I went to school together.”
“Jason, Veronica’s partner.”
“Partner. What a sophisticated choice of words. Tell me, what brings you guys to town? Paying a visit to your folks, Vee?”
“Actually, Jason is applying for the teaching position at the middle school.”
“Well isn’t this a coincidence. I work there now. I’m the nurse there,” Alaina said, beaming.
“Wow, congratulations, Alaina. I didn’t know you were interested in that field,” Veronica replied.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t, living in the big city now, dating handsome West Coast men.” Alaina lowered her voice. “Is it true about the wild parties there?”
“We’ve never really been into the party scene, so it’s hard to say,” Jason said. Veronica was mentally screaming. Alaina pursed her lips doubtfully and eyed the small tattoo on Jason’s shoulder.
“I hope you know if you decide to move here that there are no tattoo parlors around here. We don’t encourage young people to permanently and intentionally ruin their skin.”
“Oh, this? I got it while I was high on Janice. You know, I’d bopped a couple bunches of it and lost my senses.”
Alaina’s eyes widened. “You let a drug addict around your child?” she hissed at Veronica.
Veronica snapped. It had only taken a few minutes for the ridiculous accusations to start. “He’s joking. That’s not even real drug slang. You know, as someone who is interested in both education and nursing, you might want to learn drug lingo. It could be helpful. Aren’t the substance abuse numbers up in this county?”
Alaina stiffened and avoided meeting Veronica’s eyes. She turned to Jason and mumbled, “It was lovely meeting you. You seem like a funny guy.” As she walked away, Veronica turned towards Jason and shot him a withering look.
“You aren't getting that job now. You can’t say stuff like that to these people. They will literally believe anything you tell them about city life.”
“C’mon, Ron. I’m just messing around. I didn’t think they’d be this insanely naïve.”
“Well, they are. That’s why I don’t come around anymore.”
“I don’t know, love. It feels like we should stay. Help educate these poor kids so they don’t mess up their lives. They’re going to experiment with drugs or get knocked up and…” he trailed off awkwardly. “I didn’t mean it like that—”
“That’s exactly what you meant.” Veronica looked out the window at the small-town bustle of Main Street. People walking into the Post Office, sitting at the diner’s outdoor tables, the older women playing cards like they did every Thursday morning. It was picture-perfect, the seemingly ideal life, its dark secrets shoved far down beneath the surface. It would take years, decades, to create any substantial change.
“I just meant that your life has been harder because of the ignorance of the people who were supposed to help guide you and support you. I love you, and I love Emilie, and you’re an amazing mother. It’s just made things hard on you is all.”
Veronica nodded. She felt too drained to respond, too drained to eat the omelet the waitress set in front of her. Myersville took every last bit of energy she had to spare. They sat in silence awhile before she finally spoke.
“You’re right in that this town needs change, and someone needs to step up and do it.”
Veronica cut him off, and he knew by the intensity in her eyes that she meant every word she was about to say.
“Someone has to do it. But that someone can’t be me.”
Two years later
MYERSVILLE WEEKLY GAZETTE
BREAKING NEWS: SCHOOL NURSE BUSTS LOCAL TEEN DRUG CARTEL.
“It’s all about knowing the lingo,” Nurse Alaina Simpson said. Simpson has worked for the Myersville school district for four years…