Late-morning sunshine reflected off the hardwood floors, washing the interior of the cabin in a brilliant, orange glow. Dan should have been at the construction site hours earlier, but he had yet to drag his ass out of bed. Drained from the night before, his emotions were a complete mess. He didn’t know what he felt exactly; hollow, yet not quite as empty. Every time he closed his eyes, his equilibrium would shift, as though poised on the cusp of waking from a dream, where everything becomes frantic, yet he felt oddly calm. He’d been trying to define it for hours, but understanding eluded him. It only frustrated him more.
He gave up and pushed himself out of bed. Dolly rolled into the warm spot he left behind, stretching out to take up the whole bed. Hoping a caffeine boost would help clear his mind, he lifted the used filter out of the maker. Just as he was about to toss the grinds into the trash, the bright orange envelope he’d thrown away the night before caught his eye. He picked up the crumpled crayon drawing of Millie and Dolly standing in front of the hardware store, smoothed the wrinkles, and set it on the counter.
With a critical eye, he studied the little girl’s artwork. Her perspective lacked the third dimension, leaving the drawing flat, the objects slightly skewed. She’d shaded haphazardly, scribbled lines unnecessarily bold where a lighter touch would have sufficed. Distorting size, she’d drawn doors smaller than windows, turned the dog into a mutant horse. An orange and yellow flower floated from Millie’s stick figure hand like an overinflated balloon tethered to a thorny string. A vision of his nightmares, the entire drawing caused him concern, but only the shoes sent a phantom chill down his spine.
“How did she know?” he wondered aloud.
Dolly opened one eye. If she knew, she wasn’t telling.
He decided to hang onto the picture a little longer, at least until he solved the mystery. With two pushpins he found in the junk drawer, he tacked it onto the wall and smoothed out the wrinkles. As though mocking him, Dolly huffed.
“Oh hush,” Dan grumbled.
Suddenly ravenous, he abandoned the idea of coffee and made himself a sandwich for lunch instead. Dolly perked up and slowly inched closer across the bed, watching with a keen eye as he layered deli ham, Swiss cheese, onion, lettuce and tomato on wheat bread. She tipped her head to the side and licked her chops as he slathered mustard on the second piece of bread. When he centered it on top and gently smashed the sandwich into a manageable size, she whimpered.
“You make fun of me and still expect me to share?” he asked the dog.
She pawed the air and whimpered again in reply.
A sucker for her puppy eyes, he tossed her a bite of cheese. She missed, but quickly sniffed it out of the blankets and implored him for more. As he lifted the sandwich to take the first bite, his phone rang and Stacy’s number flashed on the screen. He debated letting it go to voicemail, but answered at the last second. “What’s going on?”
“Not much.” She paused a few heartbeats before asking, “How are you today?”
“Doing fine,” he assured her. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m good.”
Once again, she fell into silence. As he waited her out, Dan took a bite of his sandwich. Dolly whimpered again. He tossed her a slice of ham, which she snatched out of the air and swallowed without tasting. Dan tossed her a second piece to savor.
Finally, Stacy asked, “Do you want to do something tonight?”
“Oh,” she said, her disappointment palpable.
With a sigh, he caved. “What did you have in mind?”
Instantly, he could feel her smile. “It’s Friday night, and you know what that means!”
“I have no idea.”
“Twilight bowling at Newman’s!”
Dan groaned. “I hate bowling.”
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. It’s their anniversary weekend so colored pins pay double tonight.”
“How about a movie then? Something funny. We can pig out on popcorn and Junior Mints.”
“Maybe some other time.”
Not one to give up, she rushed on, “I’ll let you kick my butt at mini golf. It’s quiet, easy, won’t take too long. You’ll be home before you know it. I’ll even let you keep score.”
“Of course I’d keep score. You cheat.”
“I do not.”
“And apparently you lie now, too.”
She laughed. “So, is it a date?”
“Fine.” She sighed the heavy sigh of defeat that she always sighed whenever she let him win. “We’ll just do boring burgers and beers at Gimp’s.”
“Now, that I can handle,” Dan agreed. They decided to meet at eight. It wasn’t until after he had hung up the phone that he realized she’d tricked him. Groaning at his stupidity, he split the rest of his sandwich with Dolly, and then headed out to the construction site.
Energized by the ham and cheese, Dolly had a little giddy-up in her arthritic step as they rounded the bend. When she saw an orange mail Jeep parked in the middle of the dirt drive, and Aria standing off to the side talking to Brent, her tail started to helicopter in happiness. He hung back as Dolly bounded over to the girl and nearly bowled her over with an exuberant Labrador hug.
“Well, hello, Beautiful!” Aria laughed in greeting as she steadied herself and proceeded to pamper Dolly with love. Even more beautiful than Dan remembered, she had traded the previous day’s shorts for a pale yellow sundress. A stack of bracelets jangled on her wrist and a thin, gold cross nestled in her cleavage. Barefoot and free of makeup, she wore her hair in windblown waves. For a brief second, Dan wished rural carriers were forced to wear the standard, drab uniform of the U.S. Postal Service, but he knew it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Worried he would have the same reaction to her as he had the previous day, he approached with caution. She smelled of invigorating peppermint and sunshine, but Dan didn’t sweat and his heart didn’t flutter. He didn’t feel anything for her at all. It made him happier than he had been in a very long time.
Aria tilted her head and looked at him curiously. “You look like the cat that just swallowed the canary. I’m intrigued.”
“I’m not that interesting. Believe me. Do I have to sign something again today?”
So quick he almost missed it, Aria’s eyes flicked to Brent and back again. “No, I just needed to stretch my legs. I thought I’d stop and say hi.”
“Well, hi,” Dan said. He looked over at Brent who was sending him not so subtle hints to leave, which he ignored. “So…Aria…that’s a pretty name.”
“Thanks. I like it.”
“It sounds mysterious.”
“Not really. My dad says when I was born, I came out singing, so that’s what they named me.”
“What made you decide to deliver mail for a living instead of follow your passion for opera?”
She laughed. “Stage fright, I guess.”
Brent shot Dan a look of daggers, so Dan took the hint and left them alone. He headed over to where Jimmy sat on the steps, spinning an empty Gatorade bottle in his hand and bouncing his knee in agitation, waiting.
“I think if I’d have stayed over there any longer he would’ve shot my eye out with his nail gun.”
“Yeah, but it would’ve been worth it.” Jimmy grinned as he watched his brother. “What got into you last night? You did a whole day’s work by yourself.”
“Couldn’t sleep.” Dan shrugged it off. “Where are we at today?”
“Finishing up the supports. Should be done today now that you’re here.”
“Are we working the weekend?” Jimmy asked.
“What do you guys want to do?”
“I don’t know. Dad keeps calling me about installing some windows for some friend of his, and I can probably knock it out this weekend, but there’s rain coming and it’s supposed to stick around a good part of the week. It might set us back on the roof, so we should probably keep at it. But I’d really like to get my dad off my back.”
“How is James doing?” Dan asked belatedly. He’d been so wrapped up in himself he’d forgotten everyone else had their own troubles.
“Doing great,” Jimmy said with a sharp bite of sarcasm. “It’s almost like he’s in charge again, you know?”
Dan laughed. “Oh, I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
A strong man with strong opinions, James Rogan commanded his life and everyone around him. A simple stroke wasn’t going to take that away from him.
“I know he’s bored out of his mind with physical therapy, and messing with my business gives him something to do, but it’s frustrating as hell, especially because none of these jobs pay shit. They’re all favors for his friends or donations to the church.”
“Take the weekend. Get your dad off your back. If it rains, it rains. Nothing we can do about it.” Dan pulled on his work gloves. “What does your schedule look like after this? Are you available to stay on and help with the rest?”
“Definitely. We have a few little jobs that I put bids on and might need some days off for here and there, but other than that we’re available. We kind of kept it open, just in case you needed us.”
“Good.” Dan returned his attention to Brent and Aria. They stood facing each other, both of them standing a little awkwardly. She had her hips pointed slightly forward and he slouched a bit, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. She touched his arm as she spoke. After a bit, he pulled his cell phone from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. She typed quickly on the screen, handed it back, then checked her own phone and smiled softly.
“I think he got her number,” Dan said.
Jimmy huffed out a laugh. “I don’t know how he does it. She’s hot, Dan, and I mean fucking hot, and look at him. He’s a total goofball, standing there nervous as hell. But she’s all over him.”
“He’s not a bad-looking kid,” Dan said in Brent’s defense, not that Brent needed it.
“No, I know, he’s good-looking enough. He’s a Rogan after all,” Jimmy said with a cocky grin. “What I mean is he’s blind to how hot she is. Last night, he wouldn’t shut up about her. Damn near drove me crazy with his jabbering. And it wasn’t about those sexy, little shorts she wore, or her boobs, or anything normal like that. All he could talk about was her smile, and her eyes, and how he liked the way she laughed.”
“She does have nice boobs,” Dan mused.
“I’m more about the ass. Give me a girl with a nice ass in some of those tight, low-rise jeans…” Jimmy trailed off, his gaze inward as though he had one particular ass in mind. After a moment, he sighed and said, “You know, Brent was real shy when we were kids, wouldn’t talk to anyone, so the girls would come to me, asking about him, and I’d try and hook ‘em up, or I’d tell him which ones put out, and he was always like, ‘Yeah, but is she nice, Jimmy? Will she make me laugh? I don’t want to waste my time if she’s not funny.’ Drove me crazy. I was just trying to get the poor kid laid, but even then he was thinking long-term. He wants what our parents have.”
“And you don’t?” Dan asked.
“I don’t know.” Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe. Someday.”
“Then you haven’t met the right girl yet,” Dan said. “Once you do, you won’t be able to imagine living one single second without her.”
Jimmy didn’t answer, which was fine with Dan. He had just snuck up on himself and re-opened his own broken heart. He needed a minute to react to the pain.
* * *
“Damn it, Chase, it’s just one night!”
Panic crept in as Stacy rushed around the house looking for her shoes. They were going to be late and once again her Nikes had pulled a disappearing act. She hated her house. Cramped and cluttered, she could never find what she needed when she needed it. And now Chase was trying to pull the same disappearing act as her shoes and skip out on their plans with Dan. She was so beyond irritated with him it wasn’t funny.
“Dan’s your friend!” she snapped. “Show a little respect.”
“He’s your friend, not mine. We haven’t been friends since we were kids.” Chase slumped onto the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest. “Besides, I already have plans. If you want to take him out, then go by yourself.”
“What plans?” she asked, knowing damn well his ‘plans’ were to hang out at Captain Jack’s and drink himself under the table.
She bent to look under the coffee table. “So just cancel them.”
“You keep bending over in front of me like that and I’ll cancel everything except stripping you naked.” Chase grabbed her by the hips and pulled her into his lap, holding her tight. He slid his hand between her legs and whispered hot against her neck, “Let’s go upstairs.”
“Not now. We don’t have time.” Stacy struggled out of his grasp and back onto her feet, continuing her hunt for her shoes.
“So make time.” He pushed off the sofa and grabbed her by the wrist. “Seriously, Stacy. It’s been months.”
“Chase…” she started but couldn’t argue his point. It had been months, but damn it he should have a little compassion. Sex was the last thing on her mind since Millie died. She had a hard enough time finding the desire to get out of bed and take a shower every morning. And then there were the bills that kept piling up, and the leaky roof, and the cracked foundation, and the fact that he was always drunk and never home. He never came home anymore. “Please, just get ready to go.”
“I’m not going.”
“Yes, you are.”
“If you really want me to go, then give me what I want for once.”
“Tell me you seriously did not just say that,” she demanded.
“I’m not serious,” he sighed. “I’m just frustrated as hell.”
“So go jerk off,” she snapped. “And then get ready because we’re leaving in five minutes.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“We don’t have time for this argument.”
“So make the time, because you’re starting to piss me off.”
“You think I’m real happy with you right now?” she shot back.
“I could make you happy if you’d just let me,” he said and grabbed her arm again.
“Not like this you won’t.”
Stacy tried to pull away but Chase clamped down tighter.
“Stop for just one minute,” he said, his voice low and demanding. Holding her captive, he moved in closer, until his nose almost touched hers. “Spend just one minute with me. Please.”
“I’ve always been the one with the time, Chase.” She laughed bitterly. “You’re the one who can’t be bothered to make time for me.”
“That’s not true.” His grip softened and he rested his forehead against hers.
“I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about just spending time together.”
“We spend plenty of time together. We’re together right now.”
“You don’t get it.” She could feel tears burning in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She would not cry over Chase. Not again. She’d done it too many times before.
“Then explain it to me.”
“I miss us, the way we used to be.” She paused, unsure how to express to him exactly how she felt. For the past fourteen years, he had held her heart in the palm of his hand. Sometimes, he’d cradled it gently. Sometimes, he’d squeezed it so hard it felt like it would burst. Lately, he’d been holding it with this look on his face like he didn’t know why he was holding it at all, and it terrified her to think one day he would just let go. But she couldn’t tell him that. Instead, she kept it simple, “Sometimes, I feel like there’s a ‘me’ and a ‘you,’ but no ‘us.’ It’s like we’re just two people living in a house together.”
“I know. I’m sorry for that.”
He wrapped her in his arms, holding her for real, giving comfort for the first time in a long time, and she cursed silently as a single tear escaped and traced a hot trail down her cheek.
“Do you still love me?”
“Of course,” he answered quickly.
“Then marry me,” she whispered into his neck.
He stiffened in her arms and didn’t answer, but his reaction screamed the truth louder than words. He would never marry her. But she asked him again anyway.
“I’m tired of waiting. I love you and I want to marry you.”
“Can’t we talk about this later?”
“No. Tell me right now if we’re ever getting married.”
“Why the sudden rush?” he asked, pushing her back so he could look at her.
“It’s not sudden. I’ve been feeling this way for a long time now, and then Millie died and I realized life is short, and I want so much more from mine than what I’m getting right now. I want to be married. I want babies. I want a family, Chase. If you’re not on the same page as me, if you don’t want to be part of my family, I need to move on.”
“And just who are you planning on moving on with?” he demanded.
“No one!” she insisted, but the truth fell on deaf ears. It was always the same fight, every time. He was the one who cheated. He was the one who lied. She had never done anything to break his trust in her, but he was always suspicious. His suspicions would sit and fester in the back of his mind, building and boiling, until he exploded in anger and jealousy and slammed out of the house. He’d leave her for a night, or for a few days, however long someone else would have him. When he did come home, she was always the one who apologized.
“Tell me the truth, Stacy. Is there someone else?”
“No,” she said firmly. She kissed him solidly for emphasis. “There is no one else. I want you. But you have to want me, too. And anymore I feel like you don’t.”
“I want you, Stacy.”
“Then marry me.”
His head shake was almost unperceivable, but she felt it as if he’d screamed it.
“You know why.”
“I have no idea why! We’ve been together forever! Neither one of us is going anywhere. If we were we would have gone long ago. We act like we’re married, everyone thinks we’re married, so what are you waiting for?”
“You just said you doubt us as a couple,” he reminded her. “That’s why I’m waiting.”
“I’m doubting us because you’re not committing,” she countered.
“I’m committed to you. I don’t need a piece of paper to prove it.” Chase pulled out of her arms and headed for the stairs. “Find your shoes. We’re going to be late.”
“So that’s the end of our conversation?” she cried out in frustration.
“What more do you want me to say? You know how I feel about this.”
“I don’t need a big wedding. I don’t even want one. We could just go to Vegas,” she offered even though she knew it wouldn’t matter.
“Damn it, Stacy, if you want to get married, if marriage is the only thing that can make you happy, then find someone else to do it with, because it sure as hell’s not going to be me,” he stated, then turned his back on her and stomped up the stairs.
“Dupek,” she muttered under her breath. If he heard her, he didn’t give any indication. Hurt and angry, she stormed from one room to the next as she continued her hunt for her shoes.
He had proposed to her once, on Chelsea Lake of all places, the night of their high school graduation. Eighteen years old, drunk and foolish, they’d thought they owned the world. Chase wanted to get married right then, right there, under the stars, in the reflection of the moon shining bright on the lake. He’d held his beer high, recited a drunken vow to honor, cherish and make passionate love to her for the rest of his life, and then he’d passed out face down in the sand.
The next morning, sober, he’d promised her they’d get married before college started. Once August rolled around, he decided to wait until after college. Then, he promised to marry her as soon as he got his auto repair shop off and running. They’d worked hard on that goal together, but even after they started turning a small profit, he never did buy her a ring.
She’d watched Dan and Millie fall in love and marry in the blink of an eye. She’d attended the weddings of most of her graduating class, and then comforted a handful of them through their divorces. She’d been the first to be proposed to, but she was still waiting for her turn to walk down the aisle.
Her search for her shoes took her upstairs, into the bedroom where Chase was changing his clothes. She stood in the doorway and watched him flex and pose as he checked himself out in the mirror. He did look good, he always had, but she almost felt as though she watched a stranger instead of the Chase she had known since she was a little girl. He’d always come across as a little too cocky, a little too selfish, but he wore it like armor to protect himself from the world. Lately, he wore a harder edge, as though he also fought to prove his value to himself.
Growing up, his parents had been as incapable of love as hers, and it had hardened him. His father had spent more time in jail than at home. Trying to fill the void, his mother had rolled one man after another through the door. When that didn’t work, she’d turned to drugs. He never talked about it, but Stacy had seen first-hand what they had done to him. She knew he feared he would turn out the same way. Her entire life seemed to be devoted to proving to him that he was different, that he was better than them—that they were better than all of them put together—but he seldom seemed to listen.
His eye caught hers in the mirror and he winked. “Pretty hot, huh?” he joked.
“Smokin’,” she said, her voice revealing her sadness.
“Aw, come here.”
Standing behind him, she slowly ran her hands across his bare back and around to his chest. She rested her cheek against his warm skin and he flexed his muscles so they danced under her hands. She couldn’t help but laugh.
“See, I can still make you smile.”
“Yeah,” she whispered, but though she was smiling she felt like crying.
He turned around in her arms and captured her face in his hands. “Let me make love to you,” he asked. It was a request, not a demand, but his kiss was rough and claiming instead of tender and loving. He was kissing her for himself.
“We don’t have time,” she protested, but as his lips moved down her neck, she felt her resolve weaken.
“We have all the time in the world.” With his hands on her hips, he pressed against her. He looked her straight in the eye and added, “He’s probably not going to show up anyway.”
“He’ll show up.”
“And if he does, we’ll be there,” he promised.
“Tonight,” she finally agreed as she looked into the eyes of the man she didn’t recognize anymore. Her Chase was in there somewhere, and she agreed for him, for who he used to be.
“Tonight’s not good enough.”
He kissed her hard, his tongue forcing her lips apart. He tasted of beer and cigarettes and wasted life, and she had to resist the urge to pull away. She could say no and even though he would be upset and abandon her for the night, he would respect her wishes. He would let her go and just leave. All she had to do was refuse to kiss him back. But she didn’t.
She unbuttoned her jeans. “You have two minutes.”
He smiled in victory and walked her backwards towards the bed, stripping her of her clothes as he did. She closed her eyes and when he pushed inside her she did what she had been doing for the past few years—she had sex with Chase, but made love to the man she fell in love with years earlier, back when they were young and stupid and full of hope for the future. She made love to who they once were and who she wished they could someday be again. She kept her eyes closed tight to ward off the tears, and made love to a memory.