Chapter 1 ~ August

One Year Later…

The lace curtains danced softly in the breeze blowing through the air conditioner vents as sunlight filtered through and played across the oak floors, an occasional fleck of dust illuminating in the rays. The bed was made—the handmade quilt smooth, crisp and freshly washed, the pillows fluffed and arranged the way Millie liked them. Everything else that had made the room their room was gone. The pictures, the books, the clothes, the vase that Millie had filled with fresh flowers every other morning, her hairbrush, his haphazard stack of ball caps on the top closet shelf—all of it had been stripped from the room, except for the quilt. That Dan left behind, but he had no idea why.

The living room sat similarly empty­—nothing personal, just furniture. The kitchen cupboards were bare, the drawers emptied, the pantry hollow. The stove had been scrubbed to a brilliant, stark shine. The barren refrigerator hummed quietly in the corner—naked, cold—foreign without the colorful scraps of paper decorated in Millie’s handwriting stuck to it with plastic fruit magnets. Grocery lists and honey-do’s, reminders of appointments or birthdays, jokes she had heard, lyrics of songs that inspired her, little bits and pieces of Millie and her gorgeous mind—all of them removed, and never to be replaced.

Dan he shifted the strap of the duffle bag higher onto his shoulder and whistled for Dolly. The black Labrador, who had been watching him studiously from where she lay in a warm patch of sunlight on the living room rug, struggled to her feet. Rapidly approaching old age, grey covered her snout. Arthritis had begun to settle in her hips. Her first few steps were accentuated with a heavy limp from her stiff joints, but it gradually worked itself out as she fell into step alongside Dan and followed him out of the apartment for the final time.

Dan did not allow himself to look back as they made their way down the stairs that hugged the outside of the building that housed not only their apartment but also the hardware store that had been their home for seven years. But Dolly did. As though a mother keeping eye on her children, she glanced over her shoulder. When she turned back around, her head hung a little lower.

“You got everything?” Dan’s father-in-law, Hank Meyers, asked from the curb as Dan and Dolly approached.

At the sound of Hank’s voice, Dolly’s tail began to wag so hard her entire body rocked. She pushed past Dan, knocking the heavy red toolbox he was carrying against his leg. Hank knelt down to give Dolly some love, stroking her upturned face and kissing her on the head. She licked his chin then licked her chops as Hank pulled her beloved bacon scrap out of his shirt pocket and held it out for her. Gingerly, with the soft mouth of an experienced retriever, she accepted the bacon from his hand then headed for the open truck door. Hank lifted her heavy weight onto the worn, vinyl bench seat and she scooted over to the passenger-side to wait for Dan.

“Well…” Hank started, but didn’t know how to finish.

The word hung between the men like an unfortunate mistake.

“Yeah,” Dan finally said as he threw the duffle and the toolbox into the bed of the truck, close to the cab. He looked to the sky for a long moment before turning to face his father-in-law. “I suppose.”

Similar in temperament and interest, Hank and Dan also mirrored each other physically. They both stood just over six-feet tall, built for hard work with broad shoulders and strong hands. Square in the jaw, deep in voice, they looked uncomfortable in anything other than well-worn Levis and dusty cowboy boots. And for the past two months, they’d both worn the same lost expression, unsure why they were alive now that their girl, Millie, was gone.

“The Stephens are still here, finishing up paperwork with the title company if you want to meet them before you go,” Hank said.

“Not interested.”

“They’re real nice people, Dan. Millie would’ve liked them.”

Dan turned to look at the hardware store that had been his home for the past seven years. Immediately, the burn of tears threatened in his eyes and his throat closed tight. A little girl of five or six peeked out at him over the sill of the big display window Dan had installed not even a year earlier, Hollings Hardware etched in the thick glass.

Her eyes, bright blue and round as saucers, were partially hidden behind a thick mass of dirty-blonde bangs. She looked so much like Millie Dan’s heart clinched tightly in his chest. If life were fair, that would have been his and Millie’s little girl peeking out the window. But life was not fair. Life was a greedy, selfish bitch, and Dan hated her.

Hank clamped a reassuring hand on Dan’s shoulder and Dan tensed. He cleared his throat to push back the hot gorge he felt rising and stepped away from his father-in-law.

“I should get going,” Dan said as he turned from the old building and the little girl’s inquisitive, brilliant blue eyes.

“Not before you give me a proper hug,” Millie’s mother, Gina, said from behind Dan.

He watched as she placed a freshly-potted rosebush into the back of the pickup next to his duffle bag. She dusted her dirty hands on her jeans and pulled Dan tight into her arms.

The rose had come from the backyard and it was the only item he refused to sell with the property. It had never thrived, never bloomed, and had driven Mille nearly to insanity as she tried to get it to grow. It wilted with normal care, shriveled when it was babied, and only seemed to come to life with aggressive, intentional abuse. Dan would classify it more a thorny, noxious weed than a rosebush, but it was Millie’s rose, and she had loved it, certain one day it would love her in return and grace her with even a single, delicate blossom.

It never did.

Dan tried, and he really wanted to, but he just couldn’t leave it behind. It was the only part of Millie that was still alive.

Gina hugged Dan tighter. “I love you, Dan,” she whispered in his ear and placed a kiss on his cheek. “You call me when you get to Allman Falls so I know you made it, okay?”

“Yeah,” he promised and let her go.

Her hands slowly slid down his arms, holding him just a bit longer. She patted his cheek and looked him over long and hard, as though afraid she would never see him again. Her fears were not without merit. Dan had a feeling he would never set foot in Hollings, Iowa again. It wasn’t his home anymore—not without Millie.

“Dan.” Hank slapped Dan’s back in goodbye and stepped aside so Dan could get in the truck.

“Stacy called this morning,” Gina said. “She’s anxious to see you.”

“Yeah,” Dan agreed. He knew she was. He also knew she was feeling just as empty inside as his own hollow heart did, but there was nothing he could do for her. He slid onto the seat and Dolly leaned against him. Hank closed the door firmly and reached through the open window to scratch the dog’s ears one last time. Dan’s eyes drifted back to the hardware store and to the little girl peeking at him through the window.

Seven years. It sounded like a long time, a lifetime even, but it wasn’t long enough. Not even close. He had walked through those doors seven years earlier and heard the little bell tinkle for the first time, followed closely by a faint gasp of delight coming from the beautiful woman by his side. Three steps in, Dan’s foot had pressed on a loose board. The creak was all it took to fall in love. It was not his love, he was indifferent. To him it was just a crumbling building full of junk that was scheduled for auction, but to Millie, that hardware store was her destiny.

In the blink of an eye, Millie had fallen in love with the dusty old store and its entire inventory. She was head over heels for the little two bedroom apartment stuffed to the ceiling with garbage and mice. She went crazy over the bins of nuts and bolts and washers in every size. She skipped up and down the aisles and had smiled in joy as she ran her hand over the chipped and paint-stained counter. She had gushed over the ancient cash register and its sticky buttons. She loved the smell of the air coming from the cooling vents, the dust that filtered in the sunlight, and the faded and tattered, blue aprons hanging on the hooks in the storeroom. She had loved it all, every little nook and cranny, and Dan loved Millie, so the hardware store and all its treasures had become their home.

For seven years they had lived and worked at Hollings Hardware. It became their entire world, for and as much as he had complained in the beginning, he had fallen under the same spell as Millie. For seven years, they had helped the residents of Hollings, Iowa build their dream houses and repair their broken toilets. They had mixed gallon after gallon of paint. They had joined the Chamber of Commerce and had become Hollings High Football Boosters. They had employed high school kids looking for spending money and recently-widowed farmers’ wives with suddenly too much time on their hands. Dan and Millie Handley had become an integral part of Hollings, and Hollings had become an integral part of them. They had loved the town and every resident in it, and they had been loved in return.

When Millie died, the entire town mourned, reaching out to Dan, offering comfort, trying to help heal his pain. But it was too much—too much love, too much concern—too many memories of his beautiful wife and everything he had lost. She was everywhere in the store, everywhere in the town, and it was just too damn hard and hurt too damn much to see her in the eyes of everyone who had been their customers, everyone who had been her friend, everyone whom she had loved, and everyone who had loved her in return.

“Dan?” Gina asked in concern. She reached through the window and ran a gentle hand across his shoulder. “Why don’t you stay? Just a little bit longer? You can live with us for awhile, until you get your feet again. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

Dan pulled his gaze from the hardware store and the little girl in the window, and looked into Gina’s sad, brown eyes. Millie was in there as well, staring back at him, her worry overwhelming. He looked away in shame. He opened his mouth to say good-bye, but the words got stuck behind the lump. All he could do was throw the truck into drive.

He left his life, and his love, and everything that made him who he was in the rearview mirror, and didn’t look back.

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