Five hours and three hundred miles after he left Hollings, Iowa, Dan turned off the highway, onto the Allman Falls spur. He had last made the turn at Christmastime, the previous year, but it felt as though it had been much longer. As he slowly rolled through the small Nebraska town, he passed familiar places, his old childhood hangouts, desperate to feel some sort of connection to his hometown. Instead, he simply felt lost.
The feeling became more pronounced as he drove closer to the center of town. The streets were still brick, the houses the eclectic mix of Colonial revival, Craftsman bungalow, and vernacular that he remembered. The trees stood a little taller, reached a little further than the last time he’d passed beneath their branches, but they remained firmly rooted where they had originally been planted. The bank clock still ran five minutes slow. Charlene’s Diner still advertised prime rib every Saturday night. It all looked exactly the same as it did in thirty years worth of memories, but it didn’t feel the same. It was as though someone had taken his hometown and tried to meticulously re-create it, but forgot something, some minor, seemingly insignificant detail that made all the difference in the world. It was still Allman Falls, but it wasn’t his Allman Falls. Not anymore.
Dan’s cell phone began to vibrate across the dash of the truck. He didn’t have to look to know who was calling him. Stacy Ruzicka had been burning up his phone since he’d left Hollings. The one time he had answered, just west of Des Moines, he had promised her he would stop by on his way to Chelsea Lake. But now that he was actually in Allman Falls, he couldn’t bring himself to turn his truck in the direction of her house.
Dan had known Stacy for literally his entire life. She knew him deeper and truer than anyone else ever could. He considered her to be his dearest friend in the world, but she was the last person on earth he wanted to see. Not only was Stacy Dan’s best friend, she had also been Millie’s. Stacy was Millie’s other half, the second pea in her pod. The idea of seeing Stacy alone in a room, without Millie attached to her side, was more than he could handle at the moment, so he headed out of town.
Fifteen miles of gravel roads separated Allman Falls from Chelsea Lake. As soon as he turned off the pavement, Dan felt as though he could finally start to draw breath again. Every mile that passed helped to ease the hot coil of tension burning between his shoulder blades. He had never lived on Chelsea Lake, but Chelsea was where he had grown up. She was where his favorite memories had been born, where he had always been the best version of himself. Unlike Allman Falls, Chelsea was his true home.
Sitting on an eighty-acre parcel of land that had been in his family since his great-grandfather bought it from the railroad in the thirties, Chelsea had been a modest, working farm at one time. It was where his grandfather had been born and where he had died, but all that remained of that way of life was the one-room log house that had been built with the intention of some day replacing it with something better.
That dream didn’t come true for Dan’s great-grandfather or his grandfather, and Dan’s father didn’t bother to try. As soon as the property had become his, Richard Handley had torn off the haphazard additions to the original house, leveled the ramshackle barns and chicken coops, tilled up the fields and enrolled the land in the Conservation Reserve Program. Rich’s passion had been hunting, not farming, and the land had served him extremely well, up until the day he died.
As he bumped up the uneven, rutted drive that wound around toward the lake, Dan slowed his truck to a crawl. Sitting on a rise, angled to have the best view of the sun setting across the lake, was the beginnings of the house Dan had pictured in his mind since he was a little boy. Seeing it in the light of day was surreal. He never imaged his dream – the one he’d had since he was barely waist-high to his father, tagging along after the formidable man in a bright orange hunting cap with a rifle in his hand – would ever come to fruition.
Dan’s best memories of his father and his boyhood were blowing in the tall grasses and taking root in the grove of cedar trees to the north. They lived with the deer and pheasant, turkey and quail that roamed the prairie, and with the catfish, crappie and bass that swam the deep, clear water of the lake. His memories rose with the sun in the morning as it silently lifted through the thick, knotted branches of the cottonwood trees, and set with it in the depths of the lake every night. He knew every inch of the land—every rise and every valley, every rock and every sapling, every blade of grass and every stubborn thistle that bloomed in the summer—as well as he knew the back of his own hand.
Knowing Chelsea would give him comfort, Millie had made him promise to come home and build his dream. He had held her hand as it pressed against his heart, and not knowing what else to do, he had promised. But, now, as he looked across the lake, at his solitary future taking shape, he knew there was no comfort to be had. He was stupid to leave Hollings, stupid for coming home, stupid for believing it would be easier here to forget. It wasn’t easier. If anything, seeing his dream that had become their dream finally coming true only made it worse. Millie was all over Hollings, but she was all over Allman Falls, and all over Chelsea, as well. Everywhere he went, she went with him. She was his heart. The only way to get rid of her was to stop its beating.
Dolly shifted on the bench seat and let out a faint whine as she looked out the window toward the water. Her hot breath fogged up the window, her nose smudged the glass. She quickly glanced over her shoulder at Dan then whipped her head back to the lake, whining again. He knew she wanted to jump in for a swim, as she always did whenever they came out to Chelsea. She’d run full-speed to the shore then jump in, feet first and grinning, happy to be home. Today was no exception. Her desire was just as strong. Dan pressed on the accelerator and continued the journey down the rutted drive, jealous that the dog could so easily slip into routine and forget that there was someone missing from their threesome.
A pair of concrete trucks turned into the drive and followed Dan as he slowly made his way around the lake to the construction site. Half a dozen pickup trucks were parked haphazardly on the edge of the fields that had been leveled and graded for the home site. Men in construction hats milled about, waiting for the concrete Dan was holding up. He pulled out of the way as Jimmy Rogan of Rogan and Sons Construction waved the first concrete truck around Dan and directed it where to park. Jimmy watched to make sure the second truck also went where he wanted it to go, and then approached Dan’s truck. Dan rolled down his window, causing Dolly to whine again.
“You made good time,” Jimmy said.
“Yeah,” Dan agreed.
“Yeah,” Jimmy echoed.
A man of even fewer words than Dan, Jimmy kept his head down and his eyes adverted, focused on his hands as he beat the excess dust out of his work gloves. At twenty-six, he was the older of the two sons of Rogan and Sons Construction. Jimmy’s brother, Brent, was the other. Their father, James Rogan, had started the company that still bore his name, but he was no longer running the business. A stroke had forced him into early retirement a year earlier, and he and his wife had left the harsh Nebraska winters behind to recuperate somewhere off the coast of southern Florida.
When Dan had first sent the plans for the house to Jimmy and Brent back in March, they’d turned it down, saying it was too big a job for just the two of them. But Dan had insisted. Besides himself, the Rogans were the only people Dan trusted to build the house the way he imagined it. Their father, James Rogan, and Dan’s father, Rich Handley, had worked side-by-side, six days a week, for twenty-two years, and they had taught all three of their boys everything they knew about quality and excellence in construction. It was in their blood.
“Looks like you’re ahead of schedule,” Dan commented.
“Weather’s been cooperating,” Jimmy agreed. He lifted his head and squinted against the sun as he looked toward the construction site, anxious to return to work.
“I’ll probably wait ’til tomorrow to start helping, unless you need me now.”
“Tomorrow’s fine. Whatever. Take as much time as you need.”
Dan threw the truck into reverse. “I don’t need any time.”
“Sure.” As Jimmy stepped back to give Dan room to back up, he rushed out in mumble, “Sorry ’bout Millie, man. She was a great girl.”
“Yeah,” Dan said, “Thanks.”
“You ever wanna grab a beer or anything…” he offered, his eyes still not meeting Dan’s.
The subject was making Jimmy uncomfortable, and Dan didn’t want to hear it anyway, so he just backed up. Visibly relieved, Jimmy went back to work. Dan turned his truck around and drove around the lake to the cabin. He wished all of the conversations people forced on him about Millie could be that short. Jimmy had said everything that needed to be said. A million well-thought-out words would never make Dan feel better, or bring his wife back. Talking in excess just prolonged the pain.
Dan parked beside the cabin and opened the door for Dolly. As she ran off through the tall weeds, straight to the lake, Dan stayed behind and unloaded their gear. There wasn’t much, only his travel mug, duffle bag, his old toolbox and the pot holding Millie’s rosebush. He carried everything inside in one trip, flipping on the light switch with his elbow as he walked in.
The cabin was one open room with the exception of a tiny bathroom tucked into the corner. The fireplace and hearth covered most of the far wall. The kitchen area was tight, the appliances ancient, but it was functional. Dan set the rosebush on the deep windowsill above the sink. Wind-beaten and dried out from its two-hundred mile ride in the bed of the truck, the last few remaining leaves fell off the blackening stems and fluttered into the caked soil below. Dan was tempted to chuck the whole mess in the trash. Instead, he watered it with the last dregs of his coffee from his travel mug. It was what Millie would have wanted him to do.
He squeezed past the small dining table with two mismatched chairs, and headed for the sleeping area. The double bed was freshly made. Clean towels and washcloths had been neatly stacked on top of the dresser that sat just outside the bathroom door. The cabin smelled fresh, cleaner than he could ever remember it being. He knew exactly who he should thank for it. There was only one person who would have gone out of her way to scrub the windowsills and clean the cobwebs from the corners of a hunting cabin—Stacy.
He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, but still couldn’t bring himself to call her. He could imagine her sitting with her phone in her hand, looking out the window, anxiously waiting for him to pull into her driveway. He could see her brow furrowed in worry as she chewed her bottom lip. He hated knowing he was causing her more pain by not showing up like he’d promised, but he couldn’t. Now he couldn’t even bring himself to call and say, “Thank-you.”
Instead, he unpacked. He stretched the chore out as long as possible, but he hadn’t brought much with him. Once he had his clothes in the dresser, his toothbrush by the sink, and the toolbox tucked into the corner, he was out of things to do. Panic began to take hold. Desperate to occupy his mind, he paced the cabin’s weathered pine floors, his anxiety growing by the second. His mind raced to think of something—anything—besides his beautiful wife, but he couldn’t.
All of his memories were tied to her. If he could cut Millie out of his head, he would have taken a buck knife to himself months earlier. It physically hurt to think about Millie. Every time someone mentioned her name, his heart felt like it was ripping in two. The air disappeared from his lungs. His stomach turned over and his legs felt as though they would buckle beneath him. As soon as the physical pain subsided, he was left with a hollow, aching emptiness deep in his core. Somehow, that hurt worse.
It was painful enough when people snuck up on him and inflicted the pain unknowingly. He sure as hell wasn’t about to do it to himself. So he did what he’d been doing since the morning of her funeral, whenever his hands were idle and his mind started to race.
He lay down on the bed and went to sleep.