The blue sky above Chelsea Lake became awash with hazy shades of orange and dark shadows spread like ink across the horizon as a low bank of clouds swallowed the setting sun and absorbed the final rays of the day. Dan paid no attention to the encroaching night other than to adjust his halogen work lights before unstrapping a fresh bundle of wall studs. As he started staging the next room, Dolly huffed in discontent, but she did not abandon him for the comfort of the cabin. Instead, she swept sawdust with her tail and watched with droopy eyes as a slow-moving car bounced over the washboards etched into the gravel road leading to the lake. As it approached the property, it slowed to a crawl. Dolly held her growl of concern until the car turned into the driveway and started inching toward the worksite, its headlights on high beam.
Over the past few weeks, they had grown accustomed to cars slowly passing or plain stopping in the middle of the road as the drivers peered up the driveway. Many were regular visitors who swung by on their way home from work to check on the day’s progress. Others made Chelsea a detour on their Sunday drive. The house wasn’t special, just something new to look at. It garnered the same attention as a newly erected grain bin or pole shed would. The intrusion irritated Dan, but he tolerated it. Dolly usually paid no mind, but her guardian soul got nervous whenever one of them was nosy enough to pull up the long driveway to get a closer look.
That night, Dan wasn’t in the mood to make small talk. When Dolly’s growls became audible and her hackles rose, he didn’t call her off as he normally would. He held his hammer tighter and was gearing up to tell the driver exactly where he could go when the door opened and he saw Stacy climb from the driver’s seat. Dolly recognized her a heartbeat later. Her snarl became a smile as she bounded over, instantly interested in what Stacy had brought with her.
“Knock, knock!” Stacy called out as she climbed the temporary, wooden steps leading up to what would be the front porch. The small cooler she carried teetered in her hand as Dolly tried to stuff her nose into it.
“Over here, Stace,” he hollered back from where he was working on the walls of the future kitchen. Of anyone who could have pulled into the driveway, she was the last person in the world he wanted to see. Not tonight.
“Wow, Dan!” She looked around with a keen eye as she carefully navigated her way through piles of lumber, extension cords and sawdust. Dolly trotted close on her heels, her nose never more than an inch away from the cooler. “This is amazing.”
“Jimmy and Brent deserve most of the credit. Most days, I just try to stay out of their way.”
She scoffed. “Humble doesn’t suit you.”
“I’m being serious.”
“Are you hungry?” She lifted the cooler to him. As though pulled by an invisible string, Dolly’s nose lifted in synch with it. “Chase didn’t want dinner tonight and I already had meatloaf in the oven by the time he told me. I thought you might want it.”
“You really didn’t need to do that.”
“I’d hate for it to go to waste. I added some roasted potatoes and green beans, and a dozen or so of those trail mix cookies you like. Should keep you fed for a night or two, at least.”
She implored him with her warm, doe eyes, and Dan surrendered. He took the cooler and set it on the floor next to his toolbox. Dolly lay down beside it and stared intently, trying to will the lid open with her mind.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” Stacy said as she stooped to scratch Dolly, who rolled onto her back, more than happy to have her belly rubbed. She let out a long, low hum of pleasure as her back leg involuntarily kicked.
“I don’t get very good reception out here,” Dan lied.
“Chase had the same problem when he used to come out here for the weekend. I could never get a hold of him.”
“Did he come out often?” Dan asked, wondering if she was just humoring him. He actually got really good reception at the lake. There was a tower on top of the hill the next section over.
“Sometimes.” She shrugged. “If he had the fishing bug he’d come out every weekend for a month or two, then not come back for a long time. Sometimes he’d hunt, but he sucks at it. He never comes home with anything.”
“Why didn’t you come out with him?” Dan asked. Stacy had always loved the lake in the summertime. That was why he had given her the keys to the cabin in the first place.
“I thought about it, but Chase and I seem to work better if we have our own hobbies. Too much togetherness is not always a good thing.” She smiled, but it did not reach her eyes. She tried to hide it with a more animated expression as she tickled Dolly’s belly and talked in a higher, sing-song pitch. “Besides, then I had an excuse to come visit this beautiful girl right here, didn’t I? Yes, I did! I sure did!”
Dan watched Stacy dote over Dolly and remembered how Millie’s eyes would light up whenever the bell above the door tinkled and Stacy walked into the hardware store. A lot of Stacy’s visits were surprises, as though she had hopped in her car and driven to Iowa on a whim. Sometimes she would stay a night, sometimes a week. No matter when she showed up or how long she stayed, Stacy blended into their daily lives as though she was supposed to be there all along, and Millie never wanted her to go home.
“So, do I get the grand tour, or what?” Stacy asked, and hopped to her feet. Dolly rolled over to follow and immediately sneezed, stirring up a whirlwind of sawdust. “Achoo!” Stacy echoed and then laughed.
“You’ve seen the plans a hundred times, Stace.”
“Humor me then.”
“Maybe later, when it’s further along.”
She looked disappointed but didn’t push him. “When do you think it will be done?”
“Six months, maybe a little longer.” Dan started turning off the work lights and wrapping up the extension cords. He hoped she would get the hint and head home.
“What are you going to do when it’s all done?”
Burn it down and leave this hell, he thought to himself, but out loud he said, “I’m sure I’ll think of something. Jimmy said they could always use help in the spring and summer. Maybe I’ll just do that.”
Stacy smiled wistfully. “Kind of reminds me of your dad working for James.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He hadn’t realized he was following his father’s path until she mentioned it. Not quite though. His father had a wife and a son. He had nothing.
“Is that what you want to do? Would it make you happy?”
“What does it matter if I’m happy?” he asked.
“It matters.” As she slowly walked around the room, she crossed her arms over her chest, rubbing them as though to warm herself even though the night air still held the heat of the day.
“It’s getting late, Stace, maybe you should start heading home,” Dan suggested, watching her circuit.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “I mean really okay?”
“You don’t look fine, kochanie,” Stacy countered.
“What do you want from me?”
“I wish you would come over for dinner again. You left so fast last time we didn’t have a chance to talk.”
“It was a long day.”
“I know. All of the days are too long for me, too. It helps if you keep yourself busy.”
“What the hell do you think I’m doing here?” Dan snapped before he could stop himself.
“Maybe taking on this big of a big project wasn’t a good idea,” she said.
“You can’t have it both ways.”
“Hank called me earlier…,” she began.
“I knew it!” Dan exploded as he threw the extension cord into the corner of the room. Stacy jumped at his sudden fury. “And just what exactly did Hank say that made you drop everything and rush all the way out here with a fucking meatloaf?”
“He said you finally called, and that you didn’t sound like yourself. He’s worried about you.” She crossed the room toward him. “We’re all worried about you.”
“Back off,” he warned and held out his hand to keep her at bay.
“You can’t shut yourself off from the world, kochanie. You can’t keep hiding here and ignore everyone.”
“Yes, I can.”
“It’s not healthy. You need to accept that people love you and understand what you’re going through. You need to talk about Millie. Talk to me,” Stacy pleaded.
“Why do I have to talk about her? What good is it going to do me to talk?”
“It helps. You can’t keep it all bottled up,” she said, her voice starting to rise in volume.
“But what good is it going happen if I talk about her?” Dan snatched up another extension cord and started wrapping it violently. “It won’t bring her back.”
“I know it won’t bring her back, but if you talk about her she won’t seem so far away.”
“She’s not on fucking vacation, Stacy! She’s dead!”
“Dan,” Stacy pleaded.
“She’s gone! Nothing I say or do will ever bring her back!”
“I need to talk about her,” she begged, her eyes swimming in tears. “Please.”
“Find someone else to do it with.”
“Why can’t you just try? For me. Talk with me, kochanie.”
“I can’t!” Caged, he paced the room, his anger boiling and his throat burning with bile. “Every time someone mentions her name it feels like a knife ripping me apart. And every time someone tells me how sorry they are, or looks at me with pity all over their face, like they have a goddamn clue what it feels like, I want to kill them.”
“I have a clue!” she screamed back, jamming her finger into her chest for emphasis. “I know exactly what it feels like!”
“You think I don’t know that? But it doesn’t matter! Don’t you get it? I can’t look at you, Stacy! It fucking kills me to look at you! I wish I could rip your stupid face off and never look at it again!”
Tears poured down her cheeks and she turned her back to him. He kicked his heavy, metal toolbox and let out a string of agonized curses. Dolly ran to the bushes and cowered in the shadows, hiding from any more sudden movements.
His heart hammered against his breastbone and his emotions thrashed around, from anger to frustration then guilt. He was bone-tired and weary, and he wished desperately he could undo the last year of his life, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even undo the last minute and take back what he’d said.
Stacy’s shoulders hitched up and down as she silently cried. With her back to him, she looked so small, so lost and alone, so much like the little girl he had grown up with that his heart broke for her and he felt like a complete ass. He went to her and tentatively placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Please don’t cry, Stace,” he whispered.
“I’m not crying,” she said in a small voice through her tears. Dan turned her around and she rested her forehead against his chest.
“You’re a horrible liar,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. “You always have been.”
“And you’re an asshole.” She slipped her arms around his waist. They held still for a long, silent moment while Stacy’s tears slowed and Dan’s heartbeat calmed as his temper ebbed. “I miss her so much, kochanie.”
“So do I,” he whispered. He stroked her hair and held her tighter. It felt good to be in her arms, good to be held, but the desire to run still burned hot, deep in his muscles.
“She was too good for us.”
“I miss her smell. Isn’t that stupid?”
Dan missed it, too. After her funeral, when everyone left and finally allowed him a minute alone, he had wandered into the closet and sat on the floor, surrounded by her clothes, letting Millie’s scent fill his senses. Light and airy, slightly floral, her fragrance was made up of a combination of her shampoo, her soap, lotions, and her skin, blended together into an essence that was uniquely Millie. If he closed his eyes it was as though he could almost feel her there in the closet with him—almost, but not quite. When she died, she took the essential ingredient with her. It could never be recreated.
Stacy shifted in his arms and ran her hands along his back. “I’m so sorry you were there all alone when she died.”
“It’s okay.” He closed his eyes and let her comfort him.
“I should have come a day sooner. I should have known… I let her down.”
“No, you didn’t, Stace. She loved you,” Dan assured her.
“I should have been there for you.”
“She never should’ve asked you to do what she did. I’m so sorry you had to do it alone.”
Her words sliced a knife of horror through his soul and every muscle in his body stiffened instantaneously. He grabbed her arms to shove her away, but she held tight to him like a vise and looked up at him. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, couldn’t look at her. He had no idea she knew what Millie had asked of him in the end. But of course Millie would have told her. The girls had shared everything.
Stacy grabbed his chin with her hand and commanded, “Look at me, Dan.”
Not wanting her to see what was in his eyes, he kept his gaze over her shoulder. He didn’t want her to know him—to know the person he had become.
“Dan.” She stroked his cheek gently. “Look at me, kochanie.”
He closed his eyes and let out a deep, long, frustrated sigh. She continued to stroke his cheek and he felt his resolve weaken. She knew, and yet she still came to see him. She was all he had left. Without her, he was lost forever. If he lost her too, he truly would be nothing. He kept his head facing forward, but looked down with his eyes to meet hers. One tear spilled over and ran down his cheek.
“I failed her,” he said it so quietly he couldn’t be sure he’d said anything at all.
She brushed the tear away and shook her head. “No. You didn’t. The cancer did.”
The tears flowed freely then and Dan let go. He needed to be far away from her, but his legs wouldn’t work. All he could do was crumple. He sat on his toolbox, buried his face in his hands. Stacy knelt in front of him and pulled his hands away. She gently kissed his cheek then stroked with her thumb where her lips had been.
Dan held her hand to his face and said, “I couldn’t do it. I promised her I would help her when she said she was ready to go and I couldn’t do it. She only ever asked for that one thing from me, Stace, and I couldn’t give it to her. She had to do it for herself… I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t ever be sorry for loving her too much to let her go,” she whispered.
He brought her hand to his lips, and kissed her palm. And then, with his face buried tight into her neck, he finally let himself cry.