“Are you all settled in at Chelsea?” Stacy asked Dan as she passed him a bowl overflowing with buttery mashed potatoes.
“I suppose.” Awkwardly, Dan held onto the bowl, unsure where to add more food to his plate already piled high with fried chicken, coleslaw, sweet corn, and baked beans. He had no idea how he was going to eat it all. The very thought of eating any of it made his stomach roil, but he didn’t want to hurt Stacy’s feelings. He’d find a way to choke something down.
“Do you need any dishes or towels or anything?” she asked.
“Are you keeping warm enough?”
“The lake gets pretty cold at night.”
“He said he’s fine,” Chase said.
“I have plenty of extra quilts if you need them.”
“Christ,” Chase grumbled under his breath.
“I’m fine, Stace,” Dan repeated. He gave up trying to fit the potatoes on his plate and instead tried to figure out where to put the bowl. Every square inch of the table was already covered in serving dishes and cookbooks, potted plants and piles of paper. When he tried to make just a little room in her hoarders nest, he set off an avalanche of bills and scrapbooking supplies onto the floor. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” Stacy laughed it off as she bent to pick up his mess. “I do it all the time.”
Dan closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose in attempt to stave off the throbbing headache he felt coming. The last place he wanted to be was wedged between Stacy and Chase in their hot, cramped dining room, but he only had himself to blame. He’d been doing a fine job avoiding Stacy, ignoring her calls and hiding out in the dark shadows of the cabin whenever he caught sight of her bright yellow MINI bumping down the gravel road, but then she’d sent Chase to do her dirty work. He got caught off guard.
The sad thing was she had warned him what was coming. If he had been listening to his messages, he would have known better than to be lying on Chelsea’s bank, out in the open sunshine, without even a fishing pole in hand to defend himself with when Chase’s truck rolled up the drive. If he had been paying attention, he could have avoided dinner and forced conversation, and the pain in Stacy’s eyes as she pretended everything was okay.
“I hear you have the Rogan boys working their butts off out there,” she said.
“They do that to themselves.”
“Seems like just yesterday I was babysitting those two. Well, Brent mostly. Jimmy didn’t think he needed a babysitter. He did say I’d make him a fine girlfriend, though.” She laughed. “I was sixteen, seventeen at the time, so he couldn’t have been more than twelve—”
“Did they do the concrete work, too?” Chase asked around a mouthful of chicken, interrupting Stacy.
“Yeah.” Dan pushed his food around with his fork and forced himself to make conversation. “We should be framing here pretty quick. Hope to get the roof on before winter.”
“Remind me to make up a plate of leftovers for Dolly. I always make too many potatoes, and I’m pretty sure there’s some roast in the fridge from the other day. I tell Chase all the time that we need a dog to take care of our scraps. I hate throwing everything out.”
“No dogs,” Chase said. “They just shit on the carpet.”
Stacy rolled her eyes and turned to Dan. “Chase and some of the guys are going on a poker run this weekend. You should go with them.”
“I don’t think so.” He drew in a shallow breath and exhaled slowly as he fought back a wave of nausea from Stacy’s constant change of topic. He knew it was a nervous habit, but he wished she would just stop talking.
“Deuce has an extra bike you could borrow. Doesn’t he, Chase?”
“Back off, Stacy. He doesn’t want to go.” Chase got up from the table and asked Dan, “You want a beer?”
God, yes, he thought, but tried to sound a little less desperate when he answered, “Sure.”
“I shouldn’t have suggested it. I don’t even really know Deuce. I’ve only met him a few times, but he seems like an okay guy. Bit of an ass, like all of Chase’s friends, but he’s okay.” She leaned back in her chair and called out to Chase in the kitchen, “Does Dan know anyone who’s going?”
“How the hell would I know who he knows?”
“Oh, hey!” Stacy whipped around to Dan as she changed course yet again. “I talked to Gina the other day. She says the people who bought your store are real nice. And I guess their little girl is just a doll. Gina’s totally in love. Did you get to talk to them much before you left Hollings?”
“Not really.” Dan sighed in deep irritation. He grabbed the beer Chase held out for him, twisted off the cap, and downed half the bottle before setting it down next to his plate.
It didn’t help.
Stacy lowered her eyes and ate quietly for awhile. Dan felt bad, but she didn’t need him. She needed Millie. Dan was a poor substitute.
“Hey, if you’ve got some free time, you should come down to the shop. I got a job going on a Camaro that’s sweet. Some little-dick prick out of Lincoln brought it up. Guy bought it at an auction and he has no clue about anything. He just wants to look good, so we’re doing everything to that car.” Chase grabbed another piece of chicken and added, “I’m pulling numbers out of my ass on what to charge him and he doesn’t even blink. I’ll probably double it when I send him the bill. He won’t know no different.”
“Dupek,” Stacy muttered under her breath.
“Guy’s a total asshole,” Chase agreed. “But he’s got good taste in cars.”
Chase missed that the Polish insult was intended for him, but Dan got it. He winked at Stacy as she hid a smile behind her napkin. Stacy’s grandmother had been first-generation Polish, her grandfather second-generation Czech. Gram had cursed out Gramps in Polish on a daily basis. On the surface, they got along worse than vinegar and oil, but deep down—where it really counted—theirs was a love that was true.
As a child, Dan had picked up quite a few Polish words and phrases from living next door to Stacy’s grandparents. None of it was anything he would have dared to repeat in front of his mother. Stacy was fairly fluent in the language, both the good and the bad, but she saved most of her Polish slips for special occasions.
Dinner ended in relative silence. While Stacy cleaned up, Dan and Chase took a few more beers outside. Dan leaned back in one of the molded plastic, Adirondack-style chairs that ringed the empty fire pit, while Chase perched on the retaining wall. Neither of them talked. Chase took a long pull of beer and stared off at something unseen. Dan closed his eyes and tried to block out the sounds of lives being lived.
Dogs barked. A child cried. Canned laughter blared from a television through an open window. The smell of a neighbor’s barbeque consumed him. The longer he listened to the normalcy of other people’s lives, the more it pushed on him like a leaden weight, suffocating him. He didn’t have to deal with sights or sounds or smells at the cabin. There, he was alone. The only life he heard was the one he’d quit living.
In his mind he could imagine the night how it was supposed to be—Millie in the kitchen with Stacy, both of them talking a mile a minute, gossiping as Millie washed and Stacy dried. Stacy would try to shove the clean dishes into her overflowing cabinets and both of them would laugh as she set off a cascade of Tupperware lids. Chase would have disappeared by then, either into the garage or parked in front of the television, if he was even still at the house at all, but Dan never could stay away from the girls for long. He always found himself wandering back into the kitchen, back to Millie.
He never tired of watching her. She was fluid in movement, graceful as a dancer, making even everyday household chores seem erotic. His dinner rolled in his stomach as he remembered the way she would stand at the sink with one foot tucked slightly behind the other, the way she would brush her hair away from her eyes with the back of a soapy hand, the slight flush to her cheeks from the steam rising off the water, how she would look back and smile at him over her shoulder, the little wink she would give him as a proposal for later in the night, the heat of her skin under his lips when he came up behind her and kissed along her neck. She would lean back into him and he would whisper in her ear—
“Hank called today,” Chase said, crashing into Dan’s memories.
“Oh?” Dan opened his eyes and took a drink from his bottle. “What’s going on with him?”
“Not much. He just wanted to see if you made it here okay. Said you weren’t answering your phone.”
“The reception’s not great out at Chelsea. I miss a lot of calls.”
“I’m sure.” Chase nodded. “But, still.”
“Yeah.” He’d officially had enough. Dan finished his beer and set the empty bottle on the arm of the chair then stood and slapped Chase on the leg. “Think you could give me a lift home?”
“Stacy’s got a pie, or something.”
“Next time. I’m beat.”
“Whatever you want, man, but you better go say goodbye. I don’t want to have to deal with her if you just disappear.” Chase pulled his keys from his pocket and started around the house toward the driveway.
Dan slid open the patio door and stepped into the kitchen. Stacy was distracted at the sink and didn’t hear him come in. For a split second, he considered just ducking back out the door, but he couldn’t do that to her. Instead he called out, “See you later, Stace.”
He picked up Dolly’s doggy bag off the counter and took long strides toward the front door.
“Hey!” Stacy ran after him, drying her hands on a towel. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Chelsea. Thanks for dinner.”
He turned to look at her, and immediately knew it was a mistake. The pain on her face was too much for him to bear. The lump in his throat grew by the second, choking him. The pressure in his body was so intense, so excruciating, he prayed for death.
“Don’t,” he pleaded. To her, or himself, he didn’t know.
“You look like shit,” Stacy whispered, pulling Dan down into her arms.
At 5’3”, she barely came to his shoulder, but her embrace was strong, relieving him of just a bit of his heavy emotional weight. She lifted onto her tiptoes and held him tight, curling her fingers into his hair at the nape of his neck in comfort. He wished she would let go. Or hold onto him forever.
“What are we going to do with you, kochanie?” She sighed when she finally let him go.
With a gentle touch, Dan lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. She was trying desperately to hide the pain in her heart, but her eyes couldn’t lie. He knew her too well. She was hurting, pleading for relief, begging him to help, but there was nothing he could do for her. He couldn’t even help himself.
He stroked her cheek with his thumb, kissed her lightly on the lips in apology, and then left without a goodbye.
* * *
Stacy watched Dan walk down the driveway. As soon as he climbed into Chase’s truck, she let go of the burning tears that had been threatening all evening. He did look like shit. It had only been two months since the funeral, but he had lost at least another ten pounds, probably more. He had lost so much weight while Millie was sick she didn’t think it was possible for him to lose anymore, but he had. His clothes just hung on him. He was pale, almost grey in tone, and he had lost all the fire in his eyes. He needed a haircut. He needed so much, and she didn’t know what to do.
If Millie could see him now she would have a fit. Millie had asked Stacy to take care of Dan, make sure he was taking care of himself, after she died. He had looked so strong when Stacy left Hollings after the funeral that she hadn’t worried. He was her mighty oak that never swayed, while she had always been the ivy clinging to him for dear life. It had been that way since they were little, but she should have known that this time he was only pretending. Millie was more than his wife. She had been his entire world. And Stacy had left him all alone, to fend for himself against the force of his grief. It was destroying him.
She dried her eyes on the dishtowel in her hands and went upstairs, leaving the dishes half done in the kitchen. They would have to wait until morning. Right now she needed a minute with her friend. She sat on the edge of her bed, picked up the picture frame on her nightstand and ran her finger along Millie’s face behind the glass. She was as beautiful in the photo as she had been in real life, so much promise shining in her eyes it was hard to look at her.
Stacy’s phone rang. She didn’t need to look at the caller ID to know who was calling. They always seemed to be thinking about Millie at the same time of night. The days were hard, but the nights were so much worse.
“Dan came over for dinner tonight…if you could really even call it that. He didn’t eat.”
“Give him time,” Gina answered, her voice revealing her own heavy sadness and doubt.
Time wasn’t healing any of them. If anything, it was making it worse. Stacy’s throat started to burn and her chest tightened, choking off her air. For Gina’s sake she held it back, but as soon as Gina wished her goodnight, Stacy let the pain in her chest release in heavy sobs.
* * *
When Dan returned to the cabin, he fed Dolly her leftovers and took her out for a swim in the lake. He sat on the bank with another beer and watched her paddle back and forth like a beaver, with just her head above water. As he drank, he tried to figure out what to do about Stacy. He loved her dearly, but he needed to cut her out of his life completely. Just the thought of Stacy brought too many painful memories to the surface, the ones he was trying desperately to avoid.
There would have never been a Millie without Stacy. The girls had met in college. Stacy had called Dan all those years ago, bubbling with excitement, to tell him she’d just met his future wife. He’d laughed her off. Barely twenty-one at the time, marriage had been the furthest thing from his mind. But when Stacy brought Millie home with her to Allman Falls for Christmas, he changed his mind.
The whole world seemed to shift the first time he looked into Millie’s beautiful, baby-blue eyes. He was in love before she ever said a word. When she did speak, he knew he could listen to her voice forever. At the end of the night, when he finally got up the nerve to kiss her, and he tasted her breath for the first time, he knew she was the only woman he would make love to for the rest of his life. It was as simple as that.
The love he felt for Millie was the kind of love he imagined his parents felt for each other. Pure. Honest. There were no secrets or lies, no deep down regrets or longings for something better. He felt no less desire for her after ten years of marriage than he’d had from that very first day. He was a simple man, with one simple truth—he loved his wife. She made him complete.
When Dan was in his second year of college, a sudden heart attack struck his father while he was up on a ladder installing a picture window in the Daugherty’s two-story entryway. When he crashed to the floor, the weight of his body broke his arm in two places, but he never felt the pain. He was literally alive one second, gone the next.
The only person with Rich when he’d died had been James Rogan. He’d called Dan’s mother before he called the ambulance. She was at home, only a block away, and she ran to him, but it was too late to say goodbye. She carried that pain with her every day for five, long years until a late-spring cold turned into pneumonia and she decided it was easier to join him than continue living alone.
One day she had a cough and the next she spiked a raging fever and slipped into a coma. The doctors stood around and scratched their heads. They didn’t understand how a seemingly healthy woman could go downhill so far so fast, but they had never watched Rich and Janice Handley sit on the porch swing together after sunset. They had never listened to them banter in the car, or seen the look in Rich’s eyes whenever she walked into a room—any room, on any day. It was always the same look—God, I’ve missed you.
At 2:54 on a grey, rainy afternoon, as Dan sat in a chair beside her hospital bed and held her hand, his mother drew a deep breath and smiled. It was the smile of a newborn—that involuntary reflex that only comes in deep sleep, a smile of such pure joy it originates from deep inside the soul, formed by a memory of another life. At that moment, Dan knew with certainty his parents were together again.
He kissed her hand and kissed her cheek. He brushed her hair from her forehead and kissed her again. The machine beside him set off the alarm belatedly, bringing in a rush of nurses and doctors to revive her. As they pushed him out of the way, he took one last, long look at her, and then he left the room and sat in the hall with Millie to wait for the doctor to tell him his mother had died.
That night, as Millie and Dan lay in bed, he’d asked her to promise him the impossible. “If you go before me, don’t leave before I can kiss you goodbye.”
Looking back, he wished he’d made her to promise to live forever—or just kept his mouth shut altogether. Kissing Millie goodbye did not bring him the closure his mother felt she had been robbed of. It did not bring comfort or ease suffering as he had romanticized it would. Feeling Millie’s body exhale her final breath had been the most excruciatingly painful experience of his entire life. Two months later, the aftershocks were still as violent as the initial assault.
The pain was never ending. He spent every day looking for that bus to step in front of, the cliff to dive off of. It had taken his mother five long years to find a hole she could slip through unnoticed and end her pain. Stacy’s Gramps had only needed two days. Gram died on a Saturday, Gramps on a Monday. They were buried side by side on a Thursday. If Dan hadn’t held her back, Stacy would have climbed right in with them.
They were fourteen that summer, but she looked a hundred and four standing in the cemetery under the burning sun, her tiny body draped in a dark purple dress, her eyes dull and dry. She didn’t have any tears left to cry. They had flowed from her in rivers and he’d been wearing them on his shirt and his cheeks since Saturday night. They hung around his neck in a chain of crystal pearls. He’d collected them in his heart and held onto them all, afraid to let them go.
After the funeral, she stole the keys to her father’s Mustang, he stole two beers from the fridge, and he drove them to Chelsea Lake. As soon as they got there, she dove into the water fully dressed, and disappeared. Stacy could hold her breath longer than anyone he knew, but she stayed under so long he dove in after her. He found her sitting on the bottom, clutching the weeds, her hair billowing in a halo around her.
He settled into the sand in front of her, knee to knee, and they locked eyes. Hers dared him to stay with her and exhale. His dared her to let go and float. In the cool depths of Chelsea’s clear waters, with his lungs burning hotter and hotter by the second, he tied his life to hers. He’d either die alongside her at the bottom of the lake, or they’d break the surface together. The decision was hers to make.
That day she chose life, but after looking into her eyes at dinner tonight, he knew without a doubt if the two of them were sitting on that sandy bottom, clutching those weeds right now, they would both exhale.