Chapter 5 ~ A Break in the Monotony

In late summer, Mother Nature cranked the thermostat to “Hell,” torching the Nebraska countryside in sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. The noonday sun burned through Dan’s shirt and baked his skin as he rested in the bed of his truck with his hands behind his head and his jean clad legs hanging off the open tailgate. The bill of his cap shaded his face, but the rest of his body roasted, making him long for the crisp winds of winter. The summer had lasted too long as it was, every day the same as the one before, like a nightmare that never ended.

Building the house consumed his life. He did nothing else. In the heat of day, he worked alongside Jimmy and Brent. At night, he worked alone. Sleep didn’t come easy, so he didn’t force it. If it happened, it happened. If it didn’t, he kept working. Even eating was something he could do without. The flavor of everything was off somehow—not bad really, but not as good as he remembered. He took big bites to avoid the taste.

Eating fast gave him too much free time over lunch. Just like their father had, the Rogans took exactly thirty minutes for lunch every day. Not one minute more, and not one minute less. It was a trait Dan admired and despised at the same time. He’d rather work straight through, but it forced him to let his body rest for at least those thirty minutes a day.

Dolly, on the other hand, loved the noon break. It was the only peace she got all day. If she were a smarter dog, she would stay inside the cabin where it was always cool and quiet, or spend her day swimming in the lake, but she was loyal and stayed glued to his side. At noon she napped, sleeping in the shadow of the truck. Some days, the rhythm of her snores and the warmth of the sun gently lulled Dan into his own slumber.

That day, he felt his body mercifully slipping under when the dog suddenly jerked awake. She crawled out from under the truck and stood at alert ten feet down the driveway, shouting out single barks of warning. When a rusty orange mail Jeep with a yellow flashing light bolted onto the roof rattled up the drive, her barks became sharper. Dan whistled at her to stop. She sat, growling low in her throat and poised to strike, as the Jeep skidded to a stop inches from the toe of his boot.

The girl inside leaned out the window and gifted him with a brilliant smile.

“Hi there!”

As though suffering from sudden-onset heatstroke, he grunted in incoherent reply.

There was something about the girl’s clean, fresh features that he found both confounding and exceptionally attractive. She wore her hair, the color of creamed clover honey, pulled into a loose ponytail tied in place with a brightly colored scarf. The silk fabric fluttered in the sultry breeze, drawing attention to the light glisten of sweat trailing down her long, slender neck. Through her open shirt, he caught a glimpse of a butterfly tattoo peeking out of her thin cotton tank, the fabric taunt, skimming across full, gorgeous breasts that were young and firm, and perfect in every single way imaginable. They drew him in like the siren’s song.

As he leaned closer to the Jeep, a hint of warm cinnamon filled the air and wrapped around him like a Christmas memory. For a brief moment, he believed he was still in the bed of his truck, daydreaming, until he heard heavy boots crunching on gravel and Jimmy and Brent crashed his party.

“I’m looking for Daniel Handley. Are one of you boys him?”

Even her voice drew him in. Musical and sweet, he imagined it heavy in whisper. Suddenly, sensation returned to his numb body. It slammed into him in painful waves, sliced through his skin and stabbed his nerves like pins and needles dipped in fire. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming.

Jimmy shoved Dan from behind, pushing him closer to the Jeep. “He’s Dan.”

“You need to sign for this one.” Through the open window, she held out a clipboard with a certified letter attached. “By the ‘X,’ please.”

Another whiff of cinnamon assaulted him—spicy and invigorating—intoxicating him. He struggled to remember how to spell his name as he signed where she pointed. She released the letter to him and then handed him the rest of his mail. He fumbled with the envelopes. If she noticed his fluster, she didn’t let on. She smiled at Dan and he felt his heart flutter just a bit. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt in a very long time. He didn’t like it.

“What happened to Ernie?” Dan asked, trying to sound nonchalant, but failing.

Ernie Morgan, his regular mailman, was in his sixties, extremely overweight and smoked at least three packs a day. A faint odor of nicotine and tar hung lingered in the mailbox after each delivery, coating his bills with the essence of ashtray. Ernie did not make Dan’s heart, or anything else, flutter. He wanted Ernie back.

“He retired. This is my route now.”

She smiled again and Dan felt warm. He hoped it was another symptom of heatstroke, but he had a feeling he was blushing.

“Well, hello there,” Brent said, butting in front of Dan. He placed a hand above the open window and leaned in with all the pomp and swagger of a 1970s porn star. “Brent Rogan.”

She looked at Brent in pleasant surprise. “I remember you! We went to high school together.”

“We did?” Brent asked, his tone mortified, as though she’d suggested they’d done murderous things together.

“No. Not really, actually.” She laughed. “I went to South Juliette, not Allman Falls, but I used to cheer at all the football and basketball games guys played against us. So, it’s kind of like we went together.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. Sure,” Brent agreed, nodding as though it made perfect sense.

“You were really good.”

Brent grinned like a monkey. “Thanks.”

“I really liked watching you wrestle.”

A fiery blush raced up Brent’s neck. He opened his mouth and moved his jaw but he produced no sound as she opened the door to the Jeep and slipped out. Her shorts were fantastically short. They sat low on her waist, revealing a taunt, tanned stomach and the hint of another butterfly tattoo. Dan imagined all the amazing places a girl could hide those little butterflies and felt a hot rush in a place that made his stomach churn in guilt.

“I’m Aria Danes.” She grabbed Brent in a hug and squeezed him as though they had been best friends all their lives. When she turned and did the same to Jimmy, Dan made his escape.

Pissed at himself for reacting to Aria like a thirteen-year-old, hormone-crazed kid, he threw the stack of mail into the cab of his truck and went back to the house to work on the framing. He swung his hammer hard, smashing every nail with more force than was necessary, but it helped to displace his excess energy and curb his anger. By the time Aria drove off in her mail Jeep and Jimmy and Brent came up the driveway, Dan was as close to normal as was humanly possible.

“How the hell did I not notice her before, Jimmy? Have I been living under a fucking rock or something? Holy shit, she’s hot!” Brent hopped up the steps to the landing. “Did you see her, Dan?”

“Relax.” Jimmy laughed and slapped his brother on the back. “She’s just a girl.”

“Just a girl my ass! I just wanna…” Brent bounced around a bit, searching for a place to punch his excess energy. He settled for punching the palm of his own hand. “Uh! You know?”

“Oh, I know.” Jimmy laughed. “Believe me, I know. So does Dan.”

He knew, alright… He knew.

Brent grabbed his hammer and started taking swings at the air. “I should’ve got her number. Damn it, Dan! What was I thinking?”

“Calm down.” Jimmy snatched the hammer away from his brother before he hurt himself. “She’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow… right… okay. Tomorrow’s Friday, right? You get mail on Fridays, Dan?”

Dan whipped a scrap of wood at Brent to shut him up. They might have been annoying, but Brent’s antics made Dan feel better. At least he wasn’t the only one who fell under Aria’s charms. Even stone-cold Jimmy appeared to be a little enamored by the girl.

The Rogan boys had always been a lot like yin and yang—opposites, but the perfect balance, one incomplete without the other. Jimmy was older, serious. He chose his words carefully and tended to brood. His body was lean and tight, as tense as a stretched rubber band. He was quick to anger and hard to impress, but he was fiercely loyal to his family and friends. Brent, on the other hand, was shorter, stockier, smiled easy and laughed often. He never worried and never met a person he didn’t immediately like. Stacy used to say if she could mash the two of them together she would create the perfect man, and she was right. They were each one half of their father, James.

With the memory of Aria energizing and electrifying the air, the three of them pushed hard through the afternoon. When they decided to call it quits for the night, the boys packed up their tools and headed to Captain Jacks in Allman Falls to drink away the heat of the day. As always, Dan stayed at the lake. The second he was alone, his mind wandered to Aria’s fantastically-short shorts and got stuck there for a long moment. He cursed himself as he grabbed the mail, sorting it as he let Dolly into the cabin.

The letter he had to sign for was from the lawyer handling Millie’s affairs. He shuffled it to the back so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. The rest were mostly bills and junk mail. He still occasionally received forwarded mail from his old post office box in Hollings, and a bright orange envelope with the yellow postal forward sticker caught his eye. He threw the rest of the mail on top of the blueprints he had spread across the kitchen table and opened the envelope.

He pulled out a card that said, ‘Just a Note…’ followed by a trail of musical notes in a rainbow of colors. Inside was a folded piece of paper along with a handwritten note on the card that read:

‘Dear Mr. Handley,

We just wanted to say thank you for all you have done. Your customers and the community are amazing. They made us feel welcome from the moment we moved in. While we were cleaning out the back storeroom, we found some of your personal belongings. We left them with Hank, as we are not sure what your current address is.

We hope you are settled into your new home and are finding peace,

 Alan, Beth and Melissa Stephens.’

Millie crayonDan unfolded the enclosed paper and looked over a crayon drawing of a girl standing in front of the hardware store. In one hand, she held a yellow flower outlined in orange. In the other, a leash. At the end of the leash sat a black dog that was almost as big as the girl. On the girl’s feet were bright pink tennis shoes with neon green stripes and lemon yellow shoelaces.

His knees turned to liquid as the paper slipped out of his hand. Memories flooded in as he fought back tears. He knew those shoes. He knew them very well. He’d hated those goddamn shoes. They were the shoes Millie had worn every single day when she went walking with Dolly. He had teased her mercilessly about those shoes. She’d dug them out of a clearance bin and tried them on as a joke. As soon as they were on her feet, she fell in love with the hideous three-dollar footwear. His Millie, who took her fashion seriously and made him change clothes if she thought his blues didn’t match quite right, had gone off the deep-end over those stupid shoes.

But how the hell did that little girl know about those shoes? Was it possible that two different people of two different ages with two completely different shoe sizes could both happen to buy the exact same pair of god-awful, ugly shoes? The Stephens’ weren’t from Hollings. They didn’t know Millie. They’d never met her. They’d moved down from Minnesota to buy the store. There was no way they could know about her taste in footwear. Or that she wore them while walking Dolly. And the dog in the picture was definitely Dolly. It had to be. Which meant the girl holding the leash was Millie. Unless… Dan dug under the blueprints and pulled out his cell phone.

“Hank, it’s Dan,” he said as soon as Hank answered.

“About damn time you called me back.”

“Do the Stephens’ have a dog?”

“‘How are you Hank?’ Why, I’m fine, Dan. Thanks for asking. How have you been?”

Ignoring Hank’s tone, Dan repeated, “Do the Stephens’ have a goddamn dog?”

“No. Why?”

“What was in the box they gave you?”

“Just some seed company caps and old financial paperwork. I sent it with the truck that delivered your stuff last week.”

“Which box is it in?”

“Hell, I don’t know, Dan. Haven’t you unpacked them yet?”

“Haven’t had time,” Dan muttered and went over to the stack of boxes along the far wall.

The truck had shown up a week earlier, like Hank said, and dropped off boxes full of photo albums and scrapbooks, Millie’s CDs, cookbooks, letters and other memories. Before he moved, Dan had tried repeatedly to take the whole mess to the dump, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he’d carted the boxes to Hank’s auction building and asked him to hold onto them for awhile. Hank wasn’t supposed to send the boxes until Dan was ready, but Hank had sent them out anyway with a note saying, “Tired of tripping over your crap. Answer your damn phone.” Dan had shoved the boxes against the wall and ignored them. As soon as the new house was weather-tight, he intended to put them in the basement and never look at them again.

He scanned the boxes and one didn’t look familiar. He set his phone on top of the stack, grabbed the box, and ripped off the tape. Tossing the ball caps aside, he pulled the stack of papers from the bottom and started flipping through. Receipts, order forms, statements, an old calendar—none of it was anything he wanted or needed. He pitched the papers to the floor in frustration as he sorted. When he got to the bottom of the stack, he knelt and shook everything out again to double-check.

Nothing.

Dan picked up the phone to the sound of his father-in-law cursing him out. He interrupted him mid-tirade. “Did I leave any pictures behind?”

“I don’t think so. Gina and I went through all the drawers and cupboards in the apartment and the store before we handed the keys over. We made sure everything personal was out. Beth came across the box when she was cleaning up the storeroom. We must have overlooked it.”

“Shit.”

“What picture are you missing? Gina might be able to make you a copy if it’s one we have,” Hank offered.

“Never mind. It’s not important.”

“While I have you on the phone, Gina wants to know—”

“I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later,” Dan said and hung up before Hank could say anything else.

He shoved everything back into the box and threw it on top of the stack along the wall. He scooped the crayon drawing up off the floor, crumpled it into a tight ball and threw it in the trash. Then he tossed the card and envelope in with it. Pulling on his work gloves, Dan stormed outside with Dolly close on his heels, and they headed back over to the construction site.

Dolly curled up by the steps, keeping one wary eye on him while he buried himself in framing walls. He measured and cut, leveled and planed. He swung hard with his hammer, smashing nail after nail through studs of Douglas fir until his muscles burned and his back ached, but no matter how fast he worked or how hard he hit, he couldn’t erase the haunting crayon image of his beautiful wife.

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