“It’s getting late, Stacy. Are you coming to bed?”
Stacy Ruzicka turned her attention away from the sleeping neighborhood outside her living room window and watched as Chase Conner stumbled his way down the stairs. His thick hair was mussed from sleep, his wrinkled boxers sat askew on his hips. Absentmindedly, he scratched across his bare chest and down his arm as he yawned big enough to swallow the living room. When he caught her watching him, he immediately sucked in his gut. At thirty-two, he still sported the squat, muscular frame he had acquired wrestling in high school, but he’d long since moved up in weight class. The paunch messed with his vanity and kept him in the gym, but it didn’t prevent him from polishing off a twelve-pack on Saturday nights.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Midnight, maybe later. Come to bed. You know I can’t sleep without you.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Stacy said and returned to the window. The street was dark, the neighbors’ lights all turned off. Even the occasional passing car had stopped an hour earlier. She knew Dan wasn’t coming, but she couldn’t stop waiting for him. “He said he’d stop by when he got to town.”
“Jimmy already called,” Chase reminded her. “Dan’s here. He has been for hours.”
“I know, but…” Once again, Stacy checked her cell phone for the call that would never come. “I promised Millie.”
“I know you did, but you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Just let him be for awhile.” Chase crossed their tiny, cluttered living room with its mismatched furniture and overflowing bookshelves, and pulled her away from the window. “He’s probably sound asleep and not going anywhere until morning. I’m exhausted, you’re exhausted. Come to bed.”
“You did your job, Stacy. Come to bed.”
Defeated, she brushed the constant, burning tears from her eyes. It was foolish to sit and wait any longer. It had been foolish to sit and wait at all. Dan had promised he would stop on his way to Chelsea Lake, but even as he said the words she’d known in her heart he wouldn’t show. Ever since Millie’s funeral, he had locked himself away in his solitary world, accompanied solely by his grief. It wasn’t healthy, and she wasn’t going to stand for it a moment more.
“I’ll just have to go out there myself.”
She grabbed her purse and started for the door but Chase clamped onto her arm and jerked her back around.
“Damn it, Stacy! Leave the poor guy alone.”
He was beyond tired, and he was angry. She knew it wasn’t only about her stubbornness tonight. He didn’t share Stacy’s grief. Millie had been gone for two months. He was ready to put her death behind them and move on with their lives. With every passing day, he was having a harder and harder time accepting that Stacy wasn’t.
But how do you move on when half of your heart dies? Millie was more than her best friend. She defined Stacy’s life. She was the first person Stacy talked to almost every day, and the last text she received every night. She knew Stacy’s every joy, her every fear. She knew every song Stacy’s heart contained. And she was the only person who could find Stacy’s smile when it felt lost forever. They weren’t sisters, just two souls randomly intertwined by fate, but Stacy couldn’t remember how to draw breath without her.
“Come to bed,” Chase repeated, pleading with her.
“Fine,” she agreed, for Chase’s sake, but she couldn’t stop the fresh round of tears from cascading down her cheeks.
“Aw, hell,” Chase sighed in frustration. He pulled her roughly into his arms and kissed her through the wild mess of chestnut curls on her head. “I tell you what, if he doesn’t come see you by the end of the week, I’ll drag his sorry ass over here myself. But you have got to stop sitting by the window, waiting for him. Deal?”
Stacy wrapped her arms around his waist and held onto him as tight as she could. Together since high school, their relationship had survived more than its fair share of ups and downs, and more than one bout of his infidelity. Through it all, no matter how much she passionately loved him or vehemently hated him in the moment, her body always sought to find comfort against his. A blessing as much as a curse, he was her only addiction. In that moment, as she clung to him, his heart beat strong against her breast, anchoring her to the living, and she whispered in surrender, “Deal.”
* * *
Dan lay in bed on his stomach and watched the clock on the nightstand slowly move through the minutes of the night. He stretched his arm out and watched as his hand slid across the cool sheet beside him, rippling up the thin, flowered fabric. The emptiness beside him felt as though it stretched for miles. Dolly lay across the foot of the bed with her head on his leg. She was heavy and warm, but her weight was no comfort to him. It was the wrong kind of weight on the wrong part of the bed.
He needed Millie’s weight. And her warmth. And the rhythm of her heart.
It was crazy, but he hadn’t given up hope that one morning he would wake up from this horrid dream, and she would be beside him, her silky, blonde hair spilling over her bare, freckled shoulder as she slept. Countless mornings, he had brushed her hair away and kissed her warm skin. Every time, she had smiled in her sleep, her hand lazily coming up to reach for him. He would linger a few moments longer before he got up for the day, watching her as she dreamt, desperate to know what her beautiful mind created behind her closed lids.
The clock face changed as another minute passed, and Dan rolled onto his back. Moonlight broke through the branches and leaves on the trees and in through the windows, casting long shadows along the ceiling. Cracks ran in jagged lines through the old plaster. Entire chunks were missing in places, revealing the wood lathe underneath, and he wondered if that was what his heart looked like now.
Dolly shifted in her sleep, pulling her head off his leg, and curled into a ball. She nuzzled in tighter and tucked her snout under a paw, letting out a heavy sigh as she did. Dan envied the ease in which she did everything. She ate, she slept. She could lay peacefully on the floor in the sun for hours without even a hint of worry hovering over her. Sometimes she would jump at shadows, or she occasionally got cranky for no reason, so he knew she missed Millie. She was just a hell of a lot better at coping than he was.
He reached for his phone and scrolled through his missed calls. One from Gina, two from Hank. All the others were from Stacy. He dialed his voicemail and skipped past the messages where she tried to sound happy, past the ones where she was worried and the ones where she was angry. He only listened to the last one she left.
Her voice was small, defeated. He closed his eyes and listened to it again.
His heart lurched at the endearment. She had been calling him kochanie, ‘my love’ in Polish, ever since they were kids, long before either of them really knew what love was. He hated lying to her, hated pushing her away, but he didn’t know how to let her in—or even if he wanted to.
He replayed the message for the third time, just to hear her say it again, “Goodnight, kochanie.”