“YOU WANT me to go where? For how long?” Lyle Powers asked a little more loudly than he should have, but he could hardly believe his ears.
“The warehouse is in Kansas, outside Wamego—they need someone with your skills,” his supervisor, Marie Deremer, said levelly. She was an amazing person, and Lyle thought very highly of her.
Lyle calmed down and smiled. “You’re kidding, right?” His heart stopped racing for a second as he waited for her to return his smile. She didn’t. “You’re not kidding,” he said softly, sinking into one of the office chairs. For a moment he thought he might be ill. “How could you do this to me?”
“We’re not doing anything to you,” she told him. “They desperately need your help. They’re working to replace their warehouse system, and the project is a mess. You’ve said you’re looking for a challenge, and this most certainly will be one.” She paused. “You don’t have to take the position. I haven’t said anything to anyone officially, but you were the first of my managers I thought of. They have a project manager running the project, but the entire team is floundering. You’ve been working on these systems for a long time and would serve as the technical lead on the project.” She removed her glasses, set them on the desk, and leaned forward. “This is a real opportunity for you to make a name for yourself.” Marie paused again. “I don’t want to be negative, but though you’ve done good work, it’s not stellar work. You have the ability, and I think you haven’t been given the opportunity to excel. I’m offering you that now.”
Lyle took a deep breath. “But why can’t I have that opportunity and stay here?” Other people certainly had. Many people had been promoted without ever leaving the Harrisburg office. Shoebox was a worldwide retailer of mostly athletic shoes. Their main warehouse in the US was located in Kansas. They had offices throughout the world, but many people spent their entire careers in one location.
“You know opportunities appear when they appear,” Marie told him. “I can offer this to someone else, but I think you’d be a good fit for what they need. So think about it before you say no. If this works out, you could most likely stay at the warehouse or come back to work here.”
“Am I being transferred?” Lyle asked.
“You would be transferred temporarily, yes. The project is expected to take another year, so we would transfer you there for that time period. You would report to Rebecca Rafferty, the director of operations at the facility. I’ve never met her, but she has a great reputation.” Marie’s phone rang. She glanced at the display and pressed a button on the phone. It immediately stopped ringing, and she turned back to him. “As I said, I think this would be a good opportunity for you.” She coughed and looked away.
“What is it?” Lyle asked.
“Look, I’ve had the talk with you as your boss, but as your friend I’d tell you to go as well. You’re free and have been for a while. You went through that breakup last year, and it really threw you. You tried not to let it affect your work, but you were miserable. This would give you a change of scenery, and I think you could use it.” She checked her screen and stood up. “I really need to go to a meeting, but please think about it.”
Lyle stood as well and left the office. He went back to his desk, thankful it was back against the wall. He figured he could go back to work and hide for a while. He needed a chance to think, and some system changes needed to be finalized. He got busy with the task at hand and tried to push thoughts of going to Kansas from his mind. He was sure Kansas was nice and all, but Harrisburg was his home. His friends were here. It was true that he wasn’t leaving much behind in the way of family. His parents were dead, and while he had cousins, he wasn’t close to them any longer. God, as he thought about it, he realized he’d grown quite alone.
He pushed those thoughts away and returned to his work. He needed to worry about that less and concentrate on his work. When the workday was finally over, Lyle left the office and walked across the parking lot to his car. He drove home to his condo, where he parked in his assigned spot. He grabbed his bag from the backseat and slammed the car door closed. Then he walked up to the door and went inside the building.
In the condo, he set his bag on one of the kitchen chairs and looked around, thinking about what he wanted for dinner, as he did every night. Lyle arrived at the same answer he always did and picked up the phone to place a take-out order.
His phone rang, and Lyle pulled it out of his pocket.
“Hey, bud! How’s it hanging?” his friend Chuck said when he answered the phone.
“Not good, Chuck,” Lyle answered softly. “They want me to go to the warehouse in Kansas for a project.”
“What’s so bad about that?” Chuck asked. “It’s just a business trip.”
“No. They want me to go for a year,” Lyle said with a slight whine.
“Oh,” Chuck said. “Have you decided whether to go?”
“I don’t want to, but I can’t figure out how to say no without sounding like I’m a dick and not being a team player,” Lyle said. “I know this is an opportunity, but I don’t want to drop everything and put my life on hold for a year.”
Chuck scoffed. “What life? You’ve been around, but you haven’t really been living.”
“Yes, I have,” Lyle protested.
“You have not,” Chuck told him forcefully. “You order in every night, eat in front of the television, fall asleep on the couch, and eventually go to bed. Some nights you don’t even make it to the bedroom and just stay on the couch. That’s not living, it’s existing, and that’s all you’ve been doing since before Gerald left. You need to get yourself out of this rut, and maybe moving will help.” Chuck laughed. “I wouldn’t have picked Kansas, but who knows.”
“Yeah,” Lyle groused.
“When will you be leaving?”
“Probably in the next week or so,” Lyle answered.
“Then go and do the best job you can. There will be new people and a new location. Maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for,” Chuck told him. “If nothing else, you’ll get away from here for a while. Don and I will visit you, and the three of us can scare the locals.” He laughed at his own joke. His partner, Don, was always telling him not to scare the straight people. “But you should think of this as a fresh start.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Lyle asked, feeling hurt that his closest friends were encouraging him to leave. He’d been expecting some support and for Chuck to tell him not to go.
“Of course not. Don and I love you. But you need something different, and maybe this is the universe making this happen. So go. Will you sell your condo? If you want to rent it, our niece is looking for a place to stay. She’d take good care of your place while you’re gone, and we’d help keep an eye on it for you.” Leave it up to Chuck to manage everything for me. “Give it some thought. This could be good for you.”
Lyle rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue. It wouldn’t have done him any good. In all the years he’d known Chuck, going back to high school, Lyle had never won an argument with him. Chuck was the king of logic—damned lawyers—and he could twist anything to make his point. “Okay, I’ll think about it.” Chuck put Don on the phone, and he commiserated with Lyle for a few minutes before agreeing with Chuck. Damn him. “Fine, I’ll move to Kansas.”
“You’ll be fine. Midwesterners are good folks. You’ll see. How far from Kansas City will you be?”
“A couple hours, I guess.” Lyle shivered. He was going to end up in the middle of nowhere.
“You’ll be fine. We’ll visit, and I bet there will be plenty of space for you to have a dog or something.”
Lyle chuckled. “I bet there will be enough space for a horse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get one.” Chuck and Don had a menagerie and always felt that a life without cats, dogs, birds, and rabbits simply wasn’t worth living.
“If you’re determined to be miserable, you will be. But if you’re willing to give the place a fair shake, it might just surprise you,” Don told him. Lyle paused and thought for a few seconds before swearing under his breath. “This is an opportunity and a challenge, so grab it with both hands.”
“I’ll try,” Lyle said. He and Don talked for a few minutes more, and then the doorbell sounded. Lyle said good-bye and answered the door to get his dinner.
Once he’d paid and tipped the delivery guy, Lyle carried the bag of food into his living room, turned on the television, and sat down to eat. Without thinking about it, he did exactly what Chuck had said he always did. It wasn’t until he’d finished eating and sat back on the sofa, ready to get comfortable, that he realized it—he was in a rut. He didn’t go out much except when one of his friends invited him somewhere, and he realized that had been happening less and less lately. He really did need to make a change. “Damn it,” he said under his breath and stood up.
The first thing he did was go through the apartment and begin picking up things. It wasn’t that he was messy; he just didn’t pick up as often as he should. He got a trash bag and began throwing things away. He then cleaned up the kitchen and did all the dishes. Then he pulled out the vacuum cleaner and went at the living room. Finally, he moved on to his bedroom, where he picked up his clothes and got everything together to do laundry the following day. He was in a rut, and he did need something new in his life. He was almost forty years old, and other than the condo and a string of bad relationships, he had nothing to show for it. Well, it was time that ended. He’d spent his life doing what he needed to do to get by. But that only meant he had a mediocre job, lived in a mediocre place, and had dated guys who were uninteresting, but ended up leaving him because Lyle was even more boring than they were. God, Chuck was right. He had been merely existing for a very long time, and that needed to stop.
By the time he was finished, it was getting late, but the condo sparkled like it hadn’t in months. Before going to bed, he stripped the mattress, put on fresh sheets, and then cleaned up and showered. He was clean, the condo was clean, and it was time he made a clean break. When he turned out the lights and slipped between the covers, Lyle had made up his mind. It was only for a year—he’d go to Kansas and see if he could make his mark there. People in the company would be watching him, and if he did a good job, he could come out of this with a promotion, a raise, and maybe, just maybe, he could shake up his life. Lord knew it couldn’t be any more predictable and boring. In the morning, he’d look up the town on the Internet and find out all he could about what would become his new temporary home. He made a note to speak to Marie first thing in the morning and get the ball rolling.
The following morning, Lyle told Marie his decision. She definitely seemed pleased, and told him everything she thought he could expect. Of course, Lyle knew she’d never actually been there, but she was happy for him, and that said a lot.
“I don’t want you to think I want to get rid of you, because I don’t, but I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks, Marie,” Lyle said.
She nodded and her smile faded slightly. “I think it’s only fair to tell you that your position here will be filled.”
Lyle began to shake. “So I can’t come back. This is permanent.” His stomach flip-flopped.
“Not if you don’t want it to be. They are planning to use contractors initially. I’ve been assured they will not permanently fill your position without speaking to you first,” Marie explained calmly. “No one is out to screw you in any way. Herb and Dan both appreciate you doing this.” Herb was the head of information systems, and Dan was the vice president of development. Their appreciation meant they would be watching him. Lyle’s heart pounded a little faster. This really was an opportunity for him. They tended to say everything was an opportunity whenever they wanted someone to do something, but that level of scrutiny helped settle it for Lyle.
“When do they want me there?”
“As soon as possible,” Marie told him. “What Dan would like is for you to finish up what you can of your current work, and what you can’t finish we’ll turn over to other members of the team. He’d like you to complete that in the next few days and take a long weekend. We’ll plan to have you travel on Sunday. Work with Louise in travel to make the arrangements.” She paused. “I know you’re nearly done with the sales report changes, so finish those up, and I’ll tell you this afternoon who will take over the rest of your work. Once that’s done, you’re done for the week.” She smiled. Her phone rang, and she glanced at the display. “I have to take this.”
Lyle stood up and left the office, closed the door after him, and walked back to his desk.
“How’d it go?” his coworker Eileen asked from the workstation across from his.
“I’m going to Kansas,” he whispered.
“Congratulations, I guess,” Eileen said. “I know I wouldn’t go. John would kill me.” Eileen had been raised in the area, and both her family and her husband’s family still lived nearby, so that didn’t really surprise him.
“I think they picked me because I don’t have a family or kids,” he told her. Moving an entire family would be a lot more difficult than simply moving him. “It should be okay.”
“Yeah, it will. We’ll still talk.” Eileen smiled at him. “Don’t think you can get rid of me simply by moving halfway across the country.” She grinned, then turned back to her computer and typed like a madwoman for a few minutes before she added, “I’ll ask Marie to turn over your stuff to me.” She turned toward him for a few seconds and then went back to her computer.
Lyle went back to work as well. He finished up the work on the sales-report program and turned it over for review and implementation. Then he spent much of the day documenting where he was at with his other projects and getting them ready to turn over. In the afternoon, he met with Marie and Eileen, as well as Rodney, another member of the team. The following day he was to turn over the last of his work, and then he’d have the rest of the week off to prepare for his temporary relocation.
By the time the day was over, Lyle was exhausted and feeling remarkably free. His work would be off his plate the following day, so he’d have two extra days off that week, mainly because he’d be traveling most of the day Sunday. The travel people had gotten him a temporary place to stay in Wamego, nine miles from the distribution center. He’d be staying at a small inn rather than a chain hotel. Apparently people used this place on a regular basis, but he wondered what he was getting into.
He stopped at the grocery store on the way home. If he was serious about changing his routine, he needed to start now. He bought simple food for the next few days and made himself dinner. He hadn’t cooked in a while. Not that heating things up could really be considered cooking, but it was as close as he’d come in a long time.
Once he’d cleaned up and done the dishes, he sat down to make some phone calls. It took all of half an hour for him to tell all the people he was close to about his upcoming move. That was a real eye-opener for him, and he wondered how his world had gotten so small. As he thought about it, he realized when he’d been with Gerald, most of their friends had been Gerald’s friends, and when they’d split, most of the people he’d spent time with had gone with him. Chuck was right—he hadn’t been living.
THE FOLLOWING Sunday, Lyle got up early, showered, and dressed before the sun was up. Chuck had said he’d give him a ride to the airport, so Lyle carried his suitcases and carry-on bag out to the edge of the parking lot. He returned and made sure everything was closed up and turned off before locking the door. When he came out, he saw Chuck loading his bags into the trunk. He helped with the last ones, adding his laptop case, and then went to sit in the passenger seat of Chuck’s Mercedes.
“Are you excited?” Chuck asked as he pulled out of the parking space.
“Scared to death is more like it,” Lyle admitted. “The distribution center is literally in the middle of nowhere. I think they picked the location because it’s near a freeway and the land was cheap. The nearest town is nine miles away.”
“You drive nine miles to work here and don’t think anything of it,” Chuck reminded him. “If you want to be miserable and unhappy, you will be, and going to Kansas or anywhere else isn’t going to change that. It’s pretty there, with lots of farmland and sky that goes on forever. So make the most of it. Don and I are already planning to trip out to see you in a few months.” Chuck turned onto the freeway and picked up speed. “He’s a huge Kansas State fan. I have no idea why, but he’s thrilled you’ll be right close by. That man never stops surprising me.”
When he smiled, Lyle wished he had what those two did. He had dated lots of guys in the past twenty years, and each one was more and more of a disappointment. He always went into each relationship hopeful but came out with his heart trampled underfoot. At least that was how it felt.
“Half of having fun is the attitude, and the other half is what you’re doing and who you’re with,” Chuck said.
“I’ll try to remember that,” Lyle said. By the time they reached the airport, the sun was rising. Chuck parked at the curb of Harrisburg International and helped Lyle with his bags. Then he pulled him into a rib-crushing hug.
“You make the most of all this. We’ll call you soon and arrange to come for a visit.” Chuck hugged him again, and then Lyle walked toward the revolving doors. When he turned back around, he watched the taillights of Chuck’s car disappear before entering the airport.
SIX HOURS later, after two flights and a layover in Chicago, Lyle got off a tiny plane at the airport in Manhattan, Kansas. He walked into the miniscule terminal and up to the only rental car counter. He gave the lady his name and looked around for baggage claim. It was literally right behind him. As he waited for the woman to fill out the forms, his bags came down the single-loop conveyor. He took two steps, got his bags, and then returned to the counter, where the woman had his paperwork ready. He signed the forms, got the keys, and followed her instructions out to the lot. There were eight rental car slots, and his car was in the second one. Lyle unlocked the small car and muscled his bags into the trunk before unintentionally slamming the trunk lid.
The interior blazed, and heat rolled out of the car when he opened the door. Lyle started the engine and then waited a minute before getting inside. The dashboard thermometer read ninety-nine degrees. Thank God the air conditioner worked. He programmed the address of the inn in Wamego into his phone and followed the computer voice’s directions out of the airport and onto the highway. Chuck had been right; it was pretty and green, with field after field, some with corn, others dotted with cattle. Lyle passed the occasional farmhouse, but they were sometimes a mile or more apart. Mostly he saw rolling hills covered with hay.
He drove east for about fifteen miles and then turned south in to the town of Wamego, where he pulled to a stop at a red light. Looking ahead, he realized it might be the only light in town. Lyle stared as the light turned green, and then he slowly drove down the main street. The town looked like something straight out of the thirties or forties. The business district was only two blocks long and made up of storefronts with small businesses, and Lyle slowed and gawked as he passed the Oz Winery and then the Oz Museum. He felt almost like he’d been transported to Oz, just like Dorothy. He passed a small bakery and a bar and grill. He also saw a yarn store and what looked like a mercantile.
The GPS pulled him out of his wonder, and Lyle turned right and went around the block, following the directions. He pulled up a few moments later in front of what had obviously once been a large home across the street from a small, but beautiful park. Maybe this wasn’t Oz—he was starting to think he’d died and gone to heaven. He parked in the small lot and grabbed his computer bag before walking up to the front door and going inside.
Like the rest of the town, the inn looked like it had been trapped in a time warp. The furniture reminded him of his grandmother’s. He rang the bell at the desk, and an older man came out to greet him.
“Morning, young fella,” he said jovially. “You must be Mr. Powers. We’ve been expecting you.” He grinned and placed a registration sheet on the counter. “We get folks from Shoebox sometimes,” he said as Lyle filled in his information and handed the man his corporate American Express.
His host took the card and ran it through the imprinter. “We put you in one of the front rooms. You’ll have a great view of the park and can even see the windmill. Your reservation is for two weeks, and we’ll do our best to be sure to treat you well.” He handed Lyle a credit-card slip to sign. “If you’re hungry, the Friendly House just next door makes an amazing breakfast.” He checked his watch. “They close in half an hour, but you won’t want to miss the chance.”
“Thanks,” Lyle said. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until the man mentioned food.
“I’m Marv, by the way. If you need anything, just knock on the door right there.” He pointed to the closed door off to the side. “You need help with your bags?”
“No, thank you, I can get them,” Lyle said.
“Okay. You’re in room two.”
Lyle took the key Marv handed him and went out to the car to get his bags and carried them up the stairs. He unlocked the door to room two and stepped into what could have been a New England bed and breakfast, furnished with antiques. His mother had been a collector, so he knew the furniture wasn’t of the highest quality, but it was warm, comfortable, and reminded him of the home he’d lived in with his parents long ago. Lyle set down his bags with a small sigh and checked his watch. The restaurant next door would be closing in twenty minutes. He hoped they wouldn’t mind him walking in at the last minute.
He left his room, walked through the empty reception area, and went outside. The heat hit him instantly, and he was sweating slightly as he walked down the sunny sidewalk and up to the front door of the restaurant, where the shade under the overhead awning instantly cooled him. He pulled the door open and once again felt like he was stepping back in time.
Tables filled what had once been the living and dining rooms of the converted house, each with a white tablecloth and a vase of flowers. A few other customers lingered, and Lyle seated himself at one of the tables. One of the waitresses greeted him and brought him a menu.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. After Lyle asked for a diet soda, she added apologetically, “We’re out of our brunch special for the day.”
“That’s all right,” Lyle said as he looked over the menu. “Can you tell me what a bierock is?” He pointed to one of the items listed at the bottom of the menu.
“It’s white-bread dough with egg filling. We only have the three-meat one left,” she told him with a smile.
“I’ll try that and a cinnamon roll, please.” Lyle handed her back the menu.
“Would you like the cinnamon roll warm?”
Lyle’s stomach rumbled. “Please.”
The waitress left the table, and Lyle looked around the room. It was meticulously clean, with freshly painted walls, spotless floors, and nice curtains that weren’t too fussy. But what really captured his attention were the scents that wafted from the kitchen. Lyle closed his eyes, and he could almost imagine he was a small child sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen. Memories wafted over him, things he hadn’t thought about in years—like her baking and the way she’d always had a kind word and never raised her voice. He smiled as he remembered her tucking him in one of the big beds she’d had upstairs.
Lyle opened his eyes, still smiling. His mother’s mother had passed away when he was seven, and he hadn’t thought about her in years. He sighed as he realized he missed her.
The scent of cinnamon intensified, and the server placed a plate in front of him. “Enjoy.”
“I’m sure I will,” Lyle told her and tucked right in. The frosting flowed over the roll as he cut into it, and Lyle took a bite, closing his eyes to enjoy the savory combination of flavors.
“That’s what every cook likes to see—someone loving their food,” a rich voice said. Lyle opened his eyes and saw a man about his own age with black hair, a touch of gray at the temples.
“It’s delicious,” Lyle said after swallowing. He wiped his mouth and smiled. “Did you make these?”
“Yes. I do almost all of our baking,” the man told him. “I’m Roger Kyper, the owner and baker.” He extended his hand.
“Lyle,” he said, shaking it. “I’m staying at the inn next door for a couple of weeks.” Roger held his hand a few seconds longer than necessary and then released it, not breaking eye contact. “I’ll be working at the Shoebox warehouse near the highway,” Lyle continued. He figured being friendly was the way things were done here, and he wanted to fit in. “Sorry I got here so close to closing.”
“It’s no problem,” Roger said, moving out of the way when the server returned with Lyle’s bierock. “I’ll let you finish your brunch.” He moved away, and Lyle watched him go out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to be seen watching another guy, not in a small town like this, but he couldn’t help it. Roger was hot, and he moved like a dancer. Lyle swallowed hard as his mouth went dry. He turned away and went back to his cinnamon roll. As he ate, the restaurant employees wiped down the chairs, swept the floor, and gathered the flower vases from the tables.
When he finished the cinnamon roll, he ate the bierock, humming softly to himself at the savory taste of bacon, sausage, egg, and ham all mixed together, combined with the bread. Dang—it had to be a local delicacy, and it was amazing. Lyle finished eating and sat back. He realized he was the only person in the room. The servers had finished their work, and he now sat alone.
“I see you liked it,” Roger said as he came back in.
“It was great,” Lyle said with a smile. “Am I keeping you from going home?” He stood up and looked for his check, then picked it up off the corner of the table.
“Not really. It’s Sunday afternoon, so take your time.” Roger didn’t leave right away, and Lyle stared at him for a few seconds. Then Lyle moved to the side and walked toward the back of the house. He stepped into a tiny bakery with a single case, now empty, but delicious scents lingered in the air. Roger went to stand at the register, and Lyle handed him the check and money.
“Please give the change to the server,” Lyle said.
“She’ll appreciate that,” Roger told him.
Lyle said good-bye and left by the back door, stepping out into the heat. He looked around and walked up toward the street, deciding he’d take a walk through the park. As he headed to the sidewalk, he saw Roger lock the door before jogging down the stairs. Lyle waved and continued across the street into the park.
It was gorgeous, with shade trees, paths, and playgrounds, like most parks. He also passed a fountain, and a cannon set in concrete, continuing his stroll down a footpath that led over to a bridge where a small pond narrowed. People fished off the bank, and Lyle saw a small wooden model boat landing near shore where a father and son operated a remote-controlled boat. Lyle stood on the bridge, leaning against the rail, just watching.
“Nice, isn’t it?” a familiar voice said.
Lyle turned as Roger joined him on the bridge.
“It is,” Lyle agreed. “What is it about this town?”
“What do you mean?” Roger asked.
“It seems so perfect,” Lyle said, and Roger chuckled lightly.
“Most folks who live here grew up here. And we believe in taking care of what we have. Everyone pitches in to take care of the park and keep the town clean. There isn’t a lot, but we do okay. A lot of people in town work either at the feed mill or at Caterpillar. Some work at the Shoebox warehouse too. And there are lots of farmers and farm support.”
“It’s like stepping back in time,” Lyle told him.
“That it is. Since we don’t have a lot, we want to preserve what we have. Years ago, when folks started tearing down the old buildings to create new, some folks got together to try to rescue what was still around,” he explained, motioning toward a cluster of small buildings. “So we started the Wamego museum. We moved the old buildings to one location, just like we moved the windmill into the park. Folks here are proud of their town.”
“That’s obvious,” Lyle said. “Do you get a lot of visitors?”
“The Oz stuff brings in a few tourists and curiosity seekers, but mostly it’s just us. Except for during Oztoberfest—then the town fills up with people wearing green everything. It’s a real emerald city, and the characters come out all over the place. People dress as their favorite c