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IMG_0351 copy 2.jpegToni stared at the invitation in her hand. Adams High School Class of 1973 50th Reunion.

She’d been seventeen in 1973. The year the U.S. left Vietnam. Roe v. Wade. Watergate. She hadn’t had a clue about any of it back then. High school had been her whole world. Dancing to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and watching Sonny and Cher on TV. With long brown hair, long legs, and a miniskirt, she had looked a little like Cher.

This was her first trip back to Adams in years, and it was bittersweet. Her father was gone now, and her mom was in assisted living. Toni, their only child, was putting the family home up for sale. That the timing coincided with her high school reunion felt providential.

She drove out to the now vacant home in the country. Sitting in the driveway, she soaked in the scene around her. The white three-bedroom house was nothing special, and time had taken its toll. But, oh, the land.

A low stone wall separated their field from the next property. A huge old oak tree, devoid of leaves in late November, stood sentry at the border. She could hear the birds. She remembered wildflowers in the summer. Deer passing through. But at seventeen, she hadn’t been looking for serenity. Her ambitions were too big for a small New England town. She left for college and never looked back.

After college, she worked in Boston and New York. She made enough money to travel. She became a gourmet cook. In her mid-thirties, she married an architect. They talked about kids, but it never happened. The last twenty years had been harder. She turned fifty. Then sixty. Friends had children and now, grandchildren. She and the architect divorced. Then, the pandemic.

Still, Toni considered herself lucky; she was healthy and financially secure enough to retire. She could do anything, go anywhere, anytime. She just needed a purpose, a direction.

The reunion was held at a nice nearby hotel. She’d faced scarier bosses and clients in the corporate world, but she was surprised by her nerves as she approached the venue. She smiled at the greeter, picked up her name tag, and took the one open seat at the bar. She was sipping on her gin and tonic, scoping out the crowd with as nonchalant an eye as she could muster, when a tap on her shoulder made her jump.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I wanted to say hello.”

Toni’s eyes met the face of the woman on the next bar stool. Marianne Farrell. Her hair was lighter and she was decades older than the Marianne of 1973. They hadn’t been close, but Toni would have recognized her anywhere. The man with her must be her husband. “Hello, it’s Marianne, right? Long time, no see, as they say. How have you been?”

Marianne leaned over and hugged her like they were old friends. Marianne’s enthusiasm overflowed. “I’m great! Still here in Adams. I never left, except for college. I’m a realtor. How about you?”

“I just retired. I haven’t decided what comes next, but I’m actually looking for a realtor.”

“If you want an endorsement, Marianne’s my realtor, and she’s great!” The man reached his arm across Marianne and shook Toni’s hand. He, too, exuded positive energy as he pumped her hand.

Toni’s face must have registered her confusion. Marianne was a realtor. This friendly man was her client, not her husband?

Marianne interceded. “You remember Don, don’t you? Don Crawford. He’s a veterinarian, part time now.”

A faint memory crept into Toni’s mind. Donald Crawford. A husky outdoorsy guy who moved to Adams midway through high school.

“So are you moving back to Adams?” Marianne asked. She was bouncing around on her barstool like a kid.

Toni was about to respond when the reunion chairperson announced it was time to be seated for dinner. Marianne asked Toni to join them. Toni sat to her right, Don to her left. Over their meal, Toni explained she was selling her parents’ home. Don leaned in, listening intently to the conversation. The discussion shifted to Toni’s career in business and her uncertainty about life after retirement. Don spoke of his veterinary work. He was one of the few vets in the area who treated farm animals, but he was scaling back his practice.

As they finished dessert, Marianne pulled Toni and Don aside. “Toni, I think something magical is happening here.”

Don burst in. “I do too!” He grinned at Toni. “You won’t believe what she’s going to tell you!”

“Toni, Don has been looking for a place to open an animal sanctuary,” Marianne said. “I know your place. I drove by just the other day. I think it could be the perfect property. The acreage, the zoning. I can see it already.”

Speechless, Toni looked at Don and back at Marianne. An animal sanctuary at her old home.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” Don said. “It will be a safe place and a forever home for abused or elderly animals. And, not to complicate things, but if you are looking for something meaningful to do with your business background, I could use your help. I know animals, but there’s a lot of paperwork and financial and managerial stuff at the outset. This could provide the answer we’ve both been looking for.”

“For me, too!” Marianne laughed. She leaned over and whispered in Toni’s ear, “He’s single, by the way.”

The evening’s entertainment, a 70’s cover band, was about to perform. The lead singer stepped to the microphone. “Good evening, Class of 1973. Our first number tonight was the number one song for the year 1973. You’ll all remember ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ by Tony Orlando and Dawn.”

“That’s it!” Don said.

Toni nodded. “The Old Oak Sanctuary.”
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This is an interesting piece. The reunion seems like the perfect situation. The characters are believable.

The opening ten (or so) paragraphs are all background. I'd cut them all and start with Toni sitting down at the bar and ordering her favorite drink. Perhaps, to show her nervousness, she spills some on the counter. Now she notices Marianne and Don. The reunion is mentioned and off the story goes. Even in short fiction, you have to grab the reader's attention.

To add tension (a must for any story), perhaps Toni has other plans for the property.

I'd also take look at the verb tenses to get rid of 'was'. Instead of was about to respond, use started to respond.
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I liked that the potential romance took second place to the idea of building a sanctury, particularly as the opening focused on the land. It was good foreshadowing that Toni needed a project to give her direction, but I'd perhaps have preferred to experience the actual moment when she decided to stay, to watch the change happen rather than have it assumed that 'a bit of paperwork at the outset' was enough to clinch the deal followed by a nod of agreement to the machinations of Marianne and Don. Nonetheless, very nicely written. Good job!
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I agree that you want to hook readers with your opening, and want to avoid back-story, but I enjoyed the glimpse into Toni's youth with the information about the era she graduated in. This resonated with me. As a suggestion, changing to first-person might be a great way to make it more immediate but keep some of your lovely rich development. I.E. I was seventeen the year the US left Vietnam... --you get the idea. :) This way the character can be reminiscing as they hold the invitation, and yet we're actively looped in. Lovely way to tie the past to the future in having her family's farm become a sanctuary for animals. Have you ever watched Barn Sanctuary? This reminded me of that, so if you ever get to see it, definitely do. :)
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