When Friday rolled around, Dan felt dead on his feet. He’d worked thirteen days straight and hadn’t slept well at night. Every time he fell asleep, vivid dreams turned into nightmares, preventing him from true rest. His shoulders ached and his back screamed for a break, but the day drug on, seeming to never end. Brent was also a wreck, dropping tools and mismarking everything he took a tape measure to. It forced Dan to work harder, which made the day last even longer.
According to Jimmy, the younger Rogan’s condition stemmed from his plans to take his relationship with Aria to the next level, starting with prime rib dinner at Charlene’s and ending ‘wherever the night takes them.’ Dan had been out of the dating game for so long he couldn’t be certain which level Brent was aiming for, but judging from the relentless ribbing Jimmy gave him, it was a big one. By the end of the day, Dan was sick of both of them.
When the sun finally set, and their taillights disappeared off along the horizon, Dan released a sigh of relief. The boys had possession of their father’s Husker season tickets. With the home game, they wouldn’t be around all weekend, gifting Dan two glorious days alone. His big plans involved absolutely nothing but sleep, which he intended to get started on ASAP—just as soon as he found something to eat.
Unfortunately, the fridge stood nearly empty. As Dan stared into its cavernous depths, debating the questionable week-old lunchmeat or making a run to town for take-out, he heard a soft rap upon the door. Dolly’s ears perked and she padded along with Dan as he answered. She barked in delight to find Stacy standing in the moonlight, a smile on her face and two large, steaming boxes of pizza in her hands.
“I hope you’re hungry,” she said, holding the boxes high, careful to keep her feet as Dolly danced circles around her.
“Famished.” The rich aroma of Italian seasoning and spicy pepperoni set his mouth watering, his stomach growling in anticipation. Suddenly, his plans to sleep didn’t seem quite so important anymore.
As he grabbed two beers, she dished the pizza, sneaking a small piece to Dolly before sitting at the table with her feet tucked up underneath her. Around a mouthful of pizza, she asked, “What’ve you been up to?”
“Not much. Just working on the house. How ‘bout you?”
In the overhead light of the kitchen, she looked as tired as he felt, but her eyes sparkled when she answered, “Teaching sixth grade. Tina Mosby blew out her knee in a charity mud run over the weekend and had to have surgery.”
“I know. Poor thing. I’ve been subbing for her all week.” She shook her head and added, “I don’t know how she does it. Those kids wore me out. I’ve had kindergarteners who were easier to teach.”
“It’s the age. We thought we knew it all when we were twelve.”
“And they’re so big. I swear half those kids are taller than me. I don’t know what their parents are feeding them.” She sighed and said, “Sometimes, I feel like I’m not cut out for this whole teaching thing, like maybe I should find something else to do.”
“Hey.” It was natural for Dan to reach for her, to hold her hand in comfort, but fear of crossing the line stopped him. Instead, he grabbed another slice of pizza. “Don’t give up. They’re just testing you because they know they can’t act like idiots around their regular teacher.”
“I know, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
She fell silent, and the air between them became uncomfortable. Unable to meet her eyes, he watched her hands as she slowly picked apart her crust. He knew what thoughts rolled around in her mind, causing her to eat in nervous nibbles, and he hated knowing he’d caused her to feel that way.
“I’m sorry about the other night. I was out of line and I promise it will never happen again,” he rushed. “I’m just so messed up right now… Please, don’t hold it against me.”
“I don’t,” she assured him. Before he could react, she grabbed his hand. “I’m sorry, too. I don’t know what came over me. It was wrong, and weird, and I don’t want to lose you. You’re my best friend in this whole stupid world.”
Looking at her tiny hand on his, he felt a sudden urge to lace his fingers with hers. Instead, he let out the breath he’d been holding. “So, we’re good?”
She nodded. “We’re good.”
The word seemed to echo through the room as they fell into another long, awkward silence. Dan tried to ignore the electricity coming from Stacy’s hand on his.
“Well, this is tense.” Nervously, she laughed and pulled her hand away.
Dan fumbled for a change of subject, and grabbed at the only thing he could think of. “Remember how I asked you about Kylie?”
She frowned in confusion. “Who?”
“Remember, Brent told me about her and Jimmy?”
“Maybe?” She shrugged.
“The whole situation’s messed up.”
“Apparently, if you can’t even find the words to talk about it.” She laughed. “I thought Jimmy was with Ashley.”
“He is. Kind of.”
Interest piqued, she perked up. “What does ‘kind of’ mean?”
“They’re not dating. They’re just having sex.”
She laughed. “That happens sometimes, kochanie. It’s not a big deal.”
“I know it’s not, but it is a big deal when it keeps two people who want to be together from being together.”
“Who wants to be together?”
“The way that Brent explained it to me, Jimmy’s with Ashley but he really wants to be with Kylie. Kylie wants to be with Jimmy, but she won’t, because of Ashley.”
Stacy shrugged. “So, he should break up with Ashley.”
“But he won’t. According to Brent.”
“Well, that’s just stupid.” Stacy selected a small slice of pizza from the box and added, “But what do I know?”
“It is stupid, but they’re just kids, so what do they know?”
“Are you planning on playing matchmaker?” Stacy teased.
“I’m not. You are,” Dan said, dead serious.
“Me? I don’t even know these people.”
“You know Jimmy, and you know ‘people.’ What we need is a new boyfriend for Ashley.”
Stacy stared at him as though he’d lost his mind. “You think I can just snap my fingers and conjure up the perfect man?”
“Sure,” Dan said with an easy shrug as he finished his beer and stood to get another.
“And where exactly am I supposed to find this guy?”
“How the hell should I know? I figured you’d call up your woman friends and find out who all’s single.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“You don’t need to find the perfect man, Stace.” Dan handed her a fresh beer as he returned to the table. “Just a man. A decent one. Someone who will take her out and remind her what it’s like to be with a guy who’s actually interested in her.”
It sounded easy enough to him.
“Did you ever stop to think maybe she doesn’t want a relationship? Maybe she’s perfectly happy using Jimmy the same way he’s using her.”
“I don’t think so,” Dan said. “I think she’s taking what she can get because that’s all she thinks she’s worth.”
“Have you asked her what she wants?”
“I’ve never even met her.”
“Then why the heck are you sticking your nose in her business?” Stacy demanded.
“I don’t know! Because I’m bored and I don’t have any other hobbies?” he suggested. “All I know is I saw the two of them together, Jimmy and Kylie, and there’s something there between them. Something real. And they’re just letting it slip away.”
“Maybe they don’t want it.”
“I don’t know, Dan.” Stacy let out a weary sigh before starting to clean the table. “Let me think about it.”
“What’s to think about?”
“I don’t think I’m the right person to help other people find love.”
“Why not?” Dan relieved her of the plates and carried them to the sink.
“I’m just not.” As she folded the empty pizza box and set it beside the trash can, her gaze landed upon Melissa’s crayon drawings tacked to the wall. “Who drew the pictures of Millie?”
“The little girl of the couple who bought the hardware store.” He stood behind her. “They kind of creep me out, but I can’t seem to throw them away.”
“You were a little mean to this one,” she said, smoothing the wrinkled paper with her hand.
“It scared the crap out of me.”
“Why?” she asked, her eyes twinkling as though she silently laughed at him.
“It’s the shoes, I think. I’ve never met these people. The day I sold them the store, this little girl kept peeking out the window at me. She would have seen Dolly with me, and that’s probably why she’s in the pictures, but she’s never met Millie. There’s no way she could have known about her stupid shoes.”
“Maybe someone told her about them.”
“Not in that much detail. She’s captured them perfectly.”
Thinking it over, Stacy suggested, “Maybe Gina told her about them?”
“Why would she?”
“I don’t know. You probably just left some pictures behind, in a drawer somewhere.”
“That’s exactly what I thought, but I’m pretty sure I got them all.” Without thinking, he pointed to the boxes along the wall. “Everything’s there.”
“You have pictures? Dan! How fun!” Excited, she rushed to the stack, grabbed the top box, and sat cross-legged on the floor.
He panicked. “Don’t open that!”
“Why in the world not?”
“Because I don’t want to look at them.”
He tried to pull the box from her hands, but she jerked it away.
“Oh, get over yourself,” she said and ripped off the tape.
He tried to take the box again, but she slid it out of his reach and pulled out a random picture.
“Oh! Look! Here’s you and Millie that time we went tanking down the Cedar River.” She held the picture closer, her expressions softening as she slipped into the memory. “Oh my goodness, look how young you are. You’re like a little kid, and Millie… She sure was gorgeous, wasn’t she?”
She offered the picture for him to see. Furious, Dan slammed out of the cabin. Stacy scrambled to her feet and followed quickly on his heels.
“What’s your problem?”
“I told you I don’t want to look at them!”
“Because that’s all I have left of her!” he screamed, pointing toward the cabin. “Just those stupid pictures! Little fucking snapshots of memories that don’t mean shit anymore because she’s dead!”
Caged by the fury and despair that overwhelmed him, he paced. Rising gorge scorched the back of his throat. He wished he had torched the pictures, that he had never pointed them out to her. She was so goddamn oblivious. How could she not feel death in every single one of those pictures? Why did she even need to look at them? How did she not have every single second with Millie already burned into her memory?
In his mind, he clearly saw the day Stacy had selected—the memory bright and clear as the midday sun, so real it pierced through the nighttime chill and heated the air. They had been twenty-four that summer, the sky that particular shade of blue you only saw on days so hot the blacktop melted. In the picture, they sat on top of a weathered picnic table centered in a metal stock tank, lazily floating down the river. Millie wore her yellow bikini and a pair of cut-off jean shorts he’d unbuttoned earlier in the day while they were fooling around. That summer she’d worn her blond hair cut into a little bob. Sun bleached and tussled by the wind and river water, she looked like sex, like youth and vitality. The smile she wore—pure Millie. Stacy was right. She was gorgeous that day.
“Your memories are everything, kochanie,” Stacy said. “Those pictures are treasures.”
“Treasures?” Dan laughed bitterly. “They’re not treasures. Those pictures are time stopping. They’re reminders of everything that will never happen. I can’t look at them and say, ‘Oh, wow, look how fucking happy we were that one day,’ because you know what? We were so fucking happy every day that I can’t get her out of my head. I don’t need to look at pictures of her, Stace. I need to forget she ever existed.”
“You don’t need to forget her, dupek,” Stacy spat out. “You need to grieve.”
Dan stopped pacing. “What the hell do you think I’ve been doing?”
“You’ve been hiding.”
“You’ve shut down and refuse to talk about her with anyone, especially me! Don’t you realize how much I need you at two in the morning when I’ve been missing her so bad in my dreams that I wake up with my pillow soaked in tears? Or how many times I’ve wanted to text you to turn on the radio when they’re playing a song that she loved? Or invite you over on a Thursday night because Grey’s Anatomy is on and it’s not the same watching it alone, without her on Skype and you in the background, making fun of our show, even though we all know how pissed you got when the plane crashed?”
“That was just fucking stupid,” he grumbled.
“I know it was. And you’re being stupid, kochanie.” Stacy took a step toward Dan, forcing him to take a defensive step back. “We’ve both been dealing with her death alone, but you’re alone by choice. I’m alone because you refuse to let me in.”
She took another step toward him and he started pacing again.
He knew she was alone. He knew she needed him, but it hurt too much to let her in. She made the pain too real.
“Yes, you can,” she said.
“No,” Dan insisted.
Stacy grabbed his arms, forcing him to stop pacing and stand still.
“Do you know what I do every night before I go to sleep?” she asked. “I look at this picture of her and me decorating all those cakes for the library fundraiser. Do you remember that? We have those ridiculous aprons on, frosting and flour and sprinkles all over the damn place. She has a streak of pink along her cheek and her hair tied up in that crazy purple bandana. Do you remember?”
“No,” he lied, but he did remember. He remembered them all.
“I loved that moment of my life, and every time I look at that picture I can remember exactly how I felt at exactly that second. I felt loved by Millie. I miss her too, Dan. Probably more that you’ll ever realize. Just like you, I will never have another Millie in my life. She was my one in a million. If I lost any one of those little moments, it would be like losing a little bit of myself.”
“That’s the difference between you and me, Stacy. I’ve already lost myself. I am nothing without her.”
“You’re not nothing, kochanie. You’re just too scared to be something without her.”
He pulled his arms from her tight grasp and left her standing outside, alone. She didn’t try to follow.
On Saturday morning, Dan sat at the kitchen table, turning his cell phone over and over in his hand. Once again, he faced the task of calling Stacy to apologize, and once again, he didn’t know how to do it. He had stared at the ceiling most of the night, racked with guilt for taking out on her what he had been struggling with himself about since Millie’s funeral.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to look at the pictures. He did. He wanted to dive right in and roll around in ignorant bliss. He wanted to shuffle them up and spread them out, pull out random snapshots and piece them together until he rebuilt himself into fairy tale perfection. But his heart knew what pictures couldn’t reveal. Real life wasn’t in photographs. It was in everything that came before and everything that happened after the flash.
Just like her first thirty-one years, the last year of Millie’s life was chronicled in photographs. And every single one of them was a lie. The pictures were staged, their smiles plastered on, their eyes void of emotion. Dan had no clue who they’d been trying to fool with their mannequin poses. They’d all known the truth.
But those weren’t the pictures that scared him. He could look at those knowing the pain they would bring. The emotions behind the lens were raw, they were absolute, and they would remain that way until the day he died. He could brace himself against the pain. It was the previous nine years that haunted him from the boxes.
As much as he wished otherwise, he’d lied to Stacy when he said he and Millie were happy every single day. They weren’t happy every day. Not even close. Too many times, he had said or done something so wholly stupid he’d made her mad, or made her cry. Even worse, he’d made her doubt herself. No one ever took pictures of the tears, but the heart remembered every single one. They lurked in the shadows, haunting barbeques and baptisms, sunsets and the Amana Colonies, lying in wait, poised to strike the moment he ripped off that tape.
He’d screwed up a lot in their first years of marriage. He thought he’d have more time to gloss over his mistakes with days where he got it right. He needed fifty more Christmases, a thousand more Sunday mornings, but he wasn’t going to get them. Four cardboard boxes contained the entirety of Dan and Millie Handley, and it scared the shit out of him to open them up and tally the score.
Turning his phone over one more time, he took a deep breath for courage before he opened his contacts. It’s wasn’t Stacy’s number his thumb dialed.
“Well, holy shit,” Hank Meyers said instead of hello when he answered. “Did I forget my birthday again?”
“I don’t know. When’s your birthday?” Dan asked his father-in-law.
“I think it’s in May.”
“Hell, I don’t remember. That’s what Gina’s for.” Hank’s hearty laugh traveled across the miles. “How you been, Dan?”
“Alright,” Dan answered. “You?”
“Fine, I suppose.”
“House comin’ along alright?”
“About like I expected it would.”
“Weather’s been good for you.”
“Won’t for much longer.”
“No, it won’t.”
“Oh, yeah. Has been.”
“That’s good.” Hank’s voice turned smug when he asked, “Rough game last week, huh?”
“Rub it in, old man.” Dan laughed again. “Rub it in.”
From the warmth of her blanket beside the fire, Dolly lifted her head. A moment later, Dan heard a truck pull into the driveway. He stood and looked out the window, surprised to see it belonged to the Rogans.
“Looks like I’ve got some guys here to do some work,” Dan said, grateful for an easy end to the conversation.
“You comin’ out for Christmas?”
“Alright then. Call Gina and let her know.”
“Will do,” Dan agreed, knowing Hank could easily tell Gina himself, but he wouldn’t. Dan hung up, feeling a little lighter than he had in a long time.
Before heading outside, he stopped by the coffeepot to refill his mug. A flash of green from the windowsill caught his eye. “What the hell?” he muttered to himself as he stepped closer for a better look.
Millie’s dead rosebush had new, reddish growth at the tips of two fresh, green stems sprouting out of the base of the plant. He hadn’t bothered to look at it in over a month, much less water it. Apparently, it was the rose of eternal life, or a minor miracle in the making. Either way, he gave it a splash of coffee before refilling his own mug.
As he headed outside, he whistled for Dolly, but she didn’t get up. More and more, she’d been staying behind, her mood as cloudy as the skies sometimes. Whether her sad eyes were due to the change in weather or the unending days without Millie, Dan didn’t know, but he did understand her desire to be alone, so he let her be.
Juggling his mug, Dan zipped his jacket against the wind as he walked up the hill. As he rounded the corner of the house, he heard a tailgate slam shut much harder than it needed to. He had seen Jimmy angry plenty of times over the years, so there was no mistaking the kid’s mood—he was pissed. It seemed everyone’s barometer was a little off lately. It made Dan feel better to know he wasn’t the only one.
Jimmy grunted in reply.
“Aren’t you supposed to be tailgating right about now?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy huffed. Toolbox in hand, he started toward the house at a quick clip. Dan followed close behind.
“Change of plans?”
“Apparently,” Jimmy snapped in short reply. Jaw set tight, Jimmy unlocked the house, set down his toolbox, and started digging through his tools, throwing them around.
“In Lincoln.” Finally, he found whatever the hell he was looking for, and slammed the lid shut. Pulling on gloves, he grabbed a roll of insulation.
“Why aren’t you in Lincoln with him?”
“Because he gave my ticket to Aria.” Stomping up the stairs, Jimmy threw the insulation roll into one of the bedrooms. He came back down for another.
“I take it their date went well,” Dan said, trying not to laugh at Jimmy’s tantrum.
“Yeah, it went great! Just fuckin’ great!”
He carried the next roll up and heaved it into the room.
Coming back down, he added, “Don’t get me wrong, Dan, I’m happy for him. Really—I am. But come on!”
Back up the stairs he went.
“It was my fucking ticket!”
Another roll of insulation went flying.
“She doesn’t even like football!”
And another roll.
Dan stood in front of the stack of insulation rolls, blocking Jimmy from grabbing the next one. “You want help hanging the insulation?”
“Whatever,” Jimmy barked in agreement.
“It’ll be okay.” Dan clamped a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder.
“It’s Wisconsin,” Jimmy said in disagreement. “And we’re coming off a loss, Dan.”
“I know, but it will be okay.”
“It will be once I kill Brent,” Jimmy grumbled. “I hope that kid got laid real good last night because it just cost him his life. You know, he didn’t even have the balls to ask me if he could have the ticket. The chickenshit snuck into my room in the middle of the night and stole it.”
Dan couldn’t help but be impressed. Brent might not have had the balls to ask his brother for the ticket, but he definitely had balls for stealing it. Big ones. Nothing got between Jimmy and his seat on the fifty yard line at Memorial Stadium on game day, especially a girl.
Jimmy had brought a case of beer and a radio with him. While they worked, they drank and ate Stacy’s leftover pizza, and listened to the game. It was a good game, until the closing seconds, and then it was bad. Really bad. It was so bad the announcers were speechless. Silence filled the airways. As soon as the final second ticked, a blanket suicide watch was issued for all of Husker Nation. It was that bad. And Jimmy had missed it, which made it even worse.
Dan turned off the radio commentary and spent the rest of the afternoon distracting Jimmy from plotting Brent’s disembowelment. They discussed rifles and bows, deer and geese, Fords and Springsteen while hanging an entire houseful of insulation. By the time the sun set, Jimmy’s anger had cooled just enough that Dan felt fairly confident Brent would survive the night—as long as he stayed out of sight. Beyond that, the kid was on his own.
As they cleaned up, Jimmy shot Dan a sideways glance and asked without preamble, “Why didn’t you and Millie ever have any kids?”
Dan stopped mid-stride as his breath caught in his chest. He’d never been hit with a sledgehammer before, but in that instant he learned exactly what it would feel like.
“Oh, hey, I’m sorry,” Jimmy rushed when he saw Dan’s expression. “That was a stupid thing to ask. Just forget I mentioned it, okay?”
“No… It’s okay…” He fought through memories and searched for simple words that were easy to speak. “We tried, Jimmy. We tried for a very long time, and it just never happened. Millie had cancer once before, when she was a child. The doctors thought it might be why she couldn’t get pregnant.”
Sincerely, Jimmy said, “Man, I’m really sorry I asked.”
“It’s fine. You just caught me by surprise.”
“Did you ever think of adopting?” Jimmy paused before asking, “I mean, do you think you could raise someone else’s kid?”
“Absolutely. We even talked about just being foster parents, but we decided to try in vitro first. That’s how they discovered her cancer had returned, but by then it was too late.”
“If it means anything, I think you would’ve been a good dad.”
“Thanks.” Usually reserved, Jimmy didn’t waste conversation. He’d brought the subject up for a reason. If Dan had to guess, it had more to do with Kylie’s little boy and his own doubts than insight about Dan, so he made sure to add, “I’m sure you will someday, too.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Jimmy dismissed. “I’m not cut out for it. Now Brent? He’ll be great someday. But not me.”
“Why do you say that?”
He shrugged. “I’m just not the right type of guy to have kids.”
“What type are you, then?”
“A thirsty one,” Jimmy joked, slamming the lid on his toolbox and the conversation. “You wanna go to Jack’s and grab a beer?”
“Not a chance in hell,” Dan answered and Jimmy laughed. Captain Jack’s on a Saturday night was traditionally packed with drunken twenty-somethings and even drunker forty-somethings who wished they were still twenty. It was the last place on earth Dan wanted to be. But he did want to go somewhere.
Usually for Dan, Saturday night was Wishy Wash night, but with the moon rising, he felt hungry for something more. He headed to the shower to wash off the insulation fibers and debate his dinner options.