“You have to try again, Stacy,” Hank insisted. “I’m telling you he doesn’t sound right.”
“Fine. I’ll go out there.” Stacy slid the meatloaf she was making for dinner into the oven and set the timer. “But I’m telling you he won’t talk to me. I’ve tried, Hank. I’ve called. I’ve driven out there a hundred times. He’s avoiding me.”
“You’re not trying hard enough.”
She sighed in frustration, but Hank was right. She wasn’t trying hard enough. The last few times she had driven out to Chelsea she hadn’t even pulled into the driveway. She’d just parked on the side of the road and cried in her car. It was too hard to look at him. He wasn’t the same Dan anymore. It terrified her to know he never would be again.
“I ran into Jimmy the other day and he said Dan’s doing better,” Stacy offered. “He said he’s eating again and starting to joke around a little bit.”
“Something must’ve happened then,” Hank said.
“I’ll find out and call you back.”
“Do that,” Hank said and hung up.
Stacy perched on a kitchen chair and twisted the dishtowel in her hands as she tried to calm the uneasy feeling in her stomach. Hank never called her. She and Gina called each other almost every day, but it would take a catastrophe for Hank to call. He’d tried Chase once or twice—not that Chase was any help. Stacy had asked him to check on Dan, take him out for a drink and a game of pool. They’d been friends for twenty years and Dan needed him, but Chase couldn’t be bothered.
Chase couldn’t be bothered to do anything lately, except hang out with his friends and come home drunk at all hours of the night. He was really good at making promises to do better and be supportive, but he never came through when she truly needed him. She dialed his number, but didn’t get her hopes up as she listened to the line ring.
“Hey,” she said when Chase finally answered. “Dinner’s in an hour or so.”
“I already ate,” he said, his voice distracted.
“Where at?” she asked. Laughter, music and a dull hum came through the phone. He was at a bar, but she couldn’t tell which one.
“That new Mexican place in Juliette.”
“I wish you would’ve told me.” Stacy sighed. “I just put a meatloaf in.”
No answer came from his end of the line. He was talking to whoever he was with and ignoring her. She wasn’t in the mood to feel second rate or argue, so she hung up. At some point Chase would realize she was no longer on the line, but she knew from experience that even when he did he wouldn’t bother to call her back.
She rested her chin on her hand and absentmindedly spun her phone on the table. If only she could dial that familiar number and hear Millie’s voice just one more time. She knew exactly what Millie would say about Chase. She’d said it a million times before; “I know you love him, Stacy, but you’re chasing a dream he’s not ready to share with you. I honestly don’t know that he ever will.” Stacy needed to hear it again anyway.
Advice was always easier to listen to when it came from Millie. She didn’t judge, but she didn’t mince words either, especially about Chase. Stacy had been in love with the idiot ever since the night of their senior-year homecoming. There had never been anyone else for her. Everyone told her it was foolish to hold onto someone for so long, especially when he seemed to be begging to be let go, but she truly believed they were meant to be together. One day he would propose, and they would be married, and he would finally give her the only thing she’s ever asked him for – a baby.
He wasn’t perfect, but he tried. Sometimes. This wasn’t one of those times. She started to send him a text, but deleted it. If she made a big deal out of him being out with his friends, he wouldn’t come home until the bars closed. She had to suck it up and go see Dan anyway—really see him this time. She was going to make him talk to her if it killed her. She hadn’t been making good on her promise to Millie, but that was all going to change as of right now.
* * *
Deuce punched Chase in the arm and tipped his chin toward the window behind him. “Head’s up. They’re here.”
“Where?” Chase twisted in his chair and nearly smacked his face into the ass of the waitress behind him. “Jesus.”
Deuce laughed loud and hard, but the noise of the restaurant absorbed his braying. Happy hour had the place packed beyond capacity. Half-drunk office drones and construction workers bitched about their day at high volume while scarfing down half-price margaritas and free nachos in the overheated bar. Even with the windows covered in thick, tinted plastic, the setting summer sun penetrated the dark room, turning it into a brick oven that reeked of workday body odor, red pepper, and spice.
“Stacy, I gotta let you go,” Chase said into the phone. He covered his other ear to block out the Mariachi music, but only heard silence on the line. She’d already hung up. She was pissed, but she was always pissed. There wasn’t anything he could do about it now. He had bigger problems. He stood to look out the window. “Where is she?”
“The parking lot.”
Chase scanned the cars until he spotted Jill near his truck, waving her hands and pacing in agitation as she argued with her friend. She’d changed her hair. It was darker, longer than he remembered. It made her look older. He liked it better the way she used to wear it. “Why would she text after all these months, invite me all the way out here, and then spend the entire time talking with that little bitch in the parking lot?”
“You don’t like Ashley?”
“She’s fucking hot.”
“No, she’s not.” Chase texted Jill to come inside. “Not when she’s butting her big fat face into my business.”
“I’d do her.”
“You did do her.”
Chase glanced over at Deuce. Red-headed, hot tempered, and pushing forty, the guy had a few years and at least a hundred pounds on Chase. He was built like a brick shit house, with muscle layered over fat, layered over muscle from inconsistent dedication to the gym. He also carried around the weight of three kids, two ex-wives, and a restraining order. Ashley would have to be desperate or blind to find that mess attractive. At twenty-two, she was both. “Yeah, you did.”
Deuce shrugged. “They all look alike anymore.”
Chase turned his attention back to the parking lot and watched as Jill read his text then pocketed her phone without replying. “What the fuck?”
“Forget ‘em. Have another drink.” He caught the waitress’s attention and signaled for another round.
“I’m going out there.”
Instead of offering to join him, Deuce settled back in his chair. “Your funeral, man.”
Chase downed the rest of his beer, and elbowed his way through the crowd. He didn’t know a lot of people in Juliette, but he did a quick double check to ensure he didn’t recognize anyone before he crossed the parking lot to the girls. They were young. Too young. A lot younger than he’d ever dared mess around with before. But they’d been persistent, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Jill lived down the lane from Deuce in the trailer park in South Juliette. Chase had spent a lot of time out there in May and June, avoiding Stacy’s drama and helping Deuce restore a piece of shit ’74 Barracuda that had barely survived a fire. Jill and Ashley were always around, stealing their beers, hanging out, having fun. They’d partied mostly in Juliette, but Chase and Deuce had the girls out to Chelsea Lake a few times when Stacy was out of town, taking care of Millie. Ashley was a high-maintenance, needy piece of work, typical for her age. He’d tired of her right away. But there was something about Jill that was different.
Like Ashley, she was twenty-two, but she still had the slender hips and high, tight breasts of a much younger girl. At first, he’d simply gotten off on the fantasy. But the more he got to know her, the more he’d craved her attention. She listened when he talked, and acted like he was interesting and funny. She didn’t ignore him, or boss him around, or constantly fret about money like Stacy did. Jill gave him every bit of her attention and asked for nothing in return. He knew that was all a fantasy, too, and he had ended it before reality crept in, but she had been the distraction he’d needed during the whole Millie thing.
He didn’t do death or dying or bedside vigils. He didn’t understand why anyone would want to spend their final days surrounded by a pity party. Knowing Millie, he doubted she had wanted her life to end that way. But Stacy loved a good tragedy. Even more, she loved to be needed. Once the doctors diagnosed Millie’s cancer as terminal, Stacy had practically moved into that house of death and despair. He knew she thought he was an asshole for not going with her, but he would rather live life the way it was meant to be lived, in a bounty of ever-loving youth, and that’s exactly what he’d done. He was surely going to hell for it, but he had no regrets.
Even now, he didn’t understand Stacy and Dan and their all-consuming grief. He existed in the moment. Leave the tears at the funeral and move on. That was what he had liked about Jill. She didn’t worry about anything. She was all about living life and making love, but not in the stupid, stoned out, hippy kind of way. She had her shit together. Usually. As he crossed the parking lot, it became apparent she had completely come unglued at the seams.
“What’s going on?” Chase asked when he reached the girls.
Jill whipped around at the sound of his voice and rushed to say, “It’s nothing.”
But Ashley shot him a death glare. “You piece of shit.”
“What did I do?”
“Seriously, it’s nothing. I didn’t text you. Ashley did. I had no idea you were here until I saw your truck. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry.” Jill grabbed Ashley’s arm and tugged her toward her car. “Let’s go.”
“Hey!” Chase stepped in front of her. “I didn’t come all the way out here to play stupid high school games. What the fuck’s your problem?”
“Her problem?” Ashley snapped as she ripped her arm from Jill’s grasp and got up in his face. “Her problem is she’s four months pregnant, you mother –”
“Ashley!” Jill shrieked and punched her in the arm. “Thanks a lot!”
Chase choked on fast rising bile. “Pregnant?”
“I’m sorry. I just…” Ashley sputtered. “It just popped out, but somebody had to tell him.”
“I was going to tell him! But not like that!” Jill paced in an angry, directionless circle. “What the heck is wrong with you?”
As the girls argued, Chase did rapid math and counted backward four months. August, July, June, May… Fuuuuuuck.
But they’d used protection, every time… except that first time… when it just happened, and he wasn’t thinking, and he didn’t ask if she was on birth control until after they’d already started. But he’d made sure he was capped before they’d finished. Apparently, that wasn’t soon enough.
Unless it wasn’t his.
Ashley planted her fists against her hips and cocked her head to the side as she glared Chase down. “And what are you going to do about it?”
“Do about what?”
Jill stared at him waiting.
“And you’re sure it’s mine?” he asked, in all seriousness.
Ashley practically spat on him. “I told you he’s a piece of shit.”
“Screw you, Chase,” Jill choked through her tears as she started across the parking lot.
He was a piece of shit, but he couldn’t let her leave like that. “Jill! Wait!”
Somehow, in the blazing heat of the restaurant parking lot, he managed to wrangle Jill from a snapping, snarling Ashley, away from the prying eyes of gossipy onlookers, and into the cab of his truck. He started the engine, cranked on the air conditioning, and handed her a somewhat clean wad of fast-food napkins from the floor.
She blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes with the corner of the napkin. “I didn’t plan this,” she said through sniffs and snuffles. “Any of this. Not the pregnancy, or the way you found out.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“Oh my god,” she said around a heavy exhale and flopped back against the seat. Shredding the napkins into damp bits of confetti that fell to her lap, she worried, “My mom’s going to kill me.”
Her fear reflected her youth. Chase felt hot bile start to rise again. He picked up the little white stick Ashley had thrown at him in the struggle. As he stared through it, his hand trembled, and the two pink lines wavered. “You don’t have to tell her.”
“I can’t exactly keep it a secret.”
“You can if you don’t keep the baby.”
Jill shot him a nasty look.
“I didn’t mean that,” he said as he tossed the pregnancy test onto the dash. But maybe he did mean it. If Jill kept the baby, and it was his, and Stacy found out, she really would kill him this time. Furiously scrubbing his face with his hands, he bit back a groan of frustration. “I don’t know what the fuck to do.”
“And you think I do?!”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t know anything except he’d woke up that morning with the mother of all headaches, and Stacy nagging him about every fucking thing, and then he’d worked a long, shitty day at the garage that got better only because Jill had texted him. He’d come to Juliette, finally excited about something, planning to drink some beer, eat some Mexican food, and maybe get laid. Not to have his life fucking destroyed. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Well, you better figure something out because I can’t do this by myself.”
“You don’t need me.”
She whipped around to fully face him. “Let me rephrase that. I won’t do this by myself.”
“Jesus! Alright! I’ll help you,” Chase surrendered. He’d never seen Jill pissed off before. She wasn’t cute, like Stacy got. She turned ugly. Like his mother used to before she’d beat the living hell out of him. “I just don’t know what you want from me.”
“I don’t know, either, Chase. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I need. I don’t know how to do any of this.” Tears started to pour down her cheeks. She turned her face toward the roof of the car and sucked in a sharp breath of air. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay for diapers or formula or everything else a baby needs. I can barely support myself. I don’t even have health insurance.”
“You could go on welfare,” he suggested, again in all seriousness, but she shot him a look of utter disgust, so he backpedaled. “It was just a suggestion. You kinda blindsided me with this whole thing, Jill. I haven’t had a chance to think it through. Cut me a little slack.”
“Just take me home.” She turned her back on him and stared off down the highway.
“Jill…” he started, but he was exhausted. He didn’t have the energy, or the desire, to try to find a way to comfort her. So, he kept his mouth shut, took the girl back to her side of the tracks, and went home to Allman Falls, where he belonged.