Chase’s cell phone danced across the coffee table, vibrating as it rang on silent. After four rings, the vibrations stopped, paused for a blessed moment, and then started again in earnest. Stacy snatched up the phone and threw it across the room, where it bounced off the recliner then the area rug before skittering across the hardwood floor.
From the sofa, Chase moaned in his sleep, and Stacy fought a sudden urge to pummel him. Like never before, she hated him with every fiber of her core. If she could strangle him and get away with it, she would. It wouldn’t be hard. With all the pain killers and alcohol coursing through his veins, he was weak. A few seconds with a pillow pressed into his face would solve every single one of her problems.
Incessantly, the cell phone thrummed as it vibrated across the floor. As soon as it stopped, it started again. Stacy muffled a scream into the pillow in her hands and prayed for Deuce to stop calling. The idiot had been psycho-calling for the past hour, and it didn’t make sense. Nothing about the day made sense.
At the hospital, Chase told her the fight with Dan had been about money—all the violence and heartbreak and broken bones over a measly two thousand dollars. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t like Dan. He was generous. He was kind. He was their friend.
And he had snapped over money?
Stacy chewed on a hangnail and watched as the phone danced across the floor again. It didn’t make sense. She had believed Chase in the hospital when he had told her what happened. It had made sense at the time. She had allowed it to make sense as she desperately tried to make the whole messed up day make sense. But now she wasn’t so sure. Dan had developed a temper lately, but he wouldn’t flip out over money. Chase would. Hell, she would. But Dan? Knowing him, he would write the check and forget about it.
As the phone vibrated again, she shot a glance at Chase. He was lying. She was sure of it. He had to be. But then what had they fought about? And why the hell was Deuce calling over and over and over again? She jumped from her chair and snatched the phone up off the floor.
“What the hell do you want?” she demanded.
An almost unperceivable gasp came over the line and then it went dead. It was Deuce’s name on the caller id, but it most definitely was not his voice. Stacy stared at the phone and reality started filtering in, filling in the gaps in logic.
“You son of a bitch,” Stacy muttered as she swiped across the screen and re-dialed the number. As it rang, her heart pounded and she felt the universe tilt.
“Chase?” a very timid, very confused, very female voice whispered into Stacy’s ear.
Stacy willed her breathing to stay calm as she asked, “Who is this?”
The quiet on the other end lasted so long Stacy thought the other person had hung up again. She was about to do the same herself when suddenly the girl answered, “Jill. Who is this?”
Jill stayed silent.
“Why are you calling?” Stacy demanded.
Stacy heard a heavy sigh that turned into a sob.
“What do you want?” Stacy asked again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he had a wife until today.”
“We’re not married,” Stacy said, her voice bordering on hysterical as she spit out a laugh, waking Chase. He opened his eyes, and looked straight at her, but made no other movement. “You can have the bastard.”
“Oh… Okay?” she stuttered through the tears in her voice.
“Six and a half months,” Jill answered between sniffs. “The baby’s due in February.”
“Baby?” Stacy whispered as her world shattered around her and the room started to spin.
“I thought—oh my god, I’m sorry. I thought you knew…”
Stacy choked back a scream as her stomach lurched violently. Covering her mouth with her hand, she barely made it to the bathroom before she heaved—every deep-down fear and doubt that she had tried so hard to ignore for fourteen years exploding to the surface.
“No, no, no, no, no.” It came out as sobs as she rocked on her knees and clutched at her contracting stomach.
He more breathed her name than said it—maybe he only thought it—but she heard him, and him having the audacity to say her name sparked an explosion of fury. She sprung to her feet, gripped his shoulders tight, and drove her knee into his groin so hard she made his teeth knock together.
He went down.
Every muscle in Chase’s body was rigid, his hands clutching his crotch, his face a deep purple, his veins bulging in his neck, his entire body frozen for an instant as he struggled to draw that first breath after impact.
Once he did—gasping one huge lungful that he wouldn’t remember how to exhale for just as long—she left.
Strangling in his sleep, Dan woke from his nightmare covered in sweat, a scream building in the back of his throat. He choked it back and shot upright, desperate to have his feet planted firmly on the ground. The details of the nightmare instantly started to fade from his reality, but Dan couldn’t shake the feeling of terror from the wolf that had been chasing him, chasing Stacy, Millie’s voice calling him to come to bed. It had felt so real.
He picked up his cell phone to call Stacy to check on her, but he couldn’t bring himself to dial her number. He needed to talk to her face-to-face, to be able to see her and touch her, make sure she was really okay. He stood up and tested his ribs with an easy stretch. They still hurt, but the pain had settled into a stiff, sore ache that allowed him to move without screaming.
Even after he added more wood to the fire and set his coffee to brew Dan couldn’t get warm, so he soaked in the hot shower until his muscles loosened up and the horror of the night melted away. He stepped out of the bathroom with his towel wrapped around his waist and started for the dresser, when a presence in the room startled him. Memories of the wolf hit him in waves. In a split-second he recognized the intruder as Stacy, but his heart had already started pounding, adrenaline flooding through his veins.
She sat silent at his kitchen table, with Dolly resting her head on her leg. Her snow boots were still on her feet, a puddle of melting snow forming on the floor beneath them. Dressed in flannel pajama pants and a faded t-shirt, goose bumps covered her bare arms, though her coat hung from the back of the chair, discarded. She wore her hair tied in a haphazard braid and her face had been scrubbed clean of make-up, her complexion fresh and shining vibrant youth, in contrast to the weary age haunting her eyes.
Dan stood motionless and waited for her to make the first move.
“Hi,” she finally said, her voice flat.
“Hey,” Dan replied.
“I knocked, but you didn’t answer. Your door was unlocked. I hope this is okay.”
Feeling exposed, vulnerable in his towel, he quickly ducked into the bathroom, dug his dirty, bloody jeans out of the hamper and slipped them on. He returned to the main room and poured two cups of coffee, setting one in front of Stacy before carefully sitting in the chair across from her.
“How did you get out here?” he asked.
“I saw the snowplow turn down your road and I followed him.” She nodded at the huge bruise along his ribcage. “Does it hurt?”
“Not bad.” He watched her finger slowly trace the rim of her coffee mug. One time around. Two times. “What are you doing here, Stace?”
“I’m sorry.” Instant tears pooled in her eyes. “I’ll leave.”
Dan squeezed her hand. “No.”
She pulled her hand away, but didn’t get up. She looked toward the window and Dan could see the dark circles under her eyes. She was exhausted.
“You look tired.”
She shrugged and said, “I couldn’t sleep.”
Not knowing what else to do, he stood and went around the table to her. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks as he knelt and carefully slipped her boots off her feet. Taking her hand, he led her over to the bed and lifted her in, then slid in beside her. She fell asleep with a sigh as he held her to his heart, curling his body around hers, and closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, it was early afternoon, and his arm was tingling and numb. Still asleep, with her head on his arm, Stacy gripped a fistful of his shirt, holding him in place. Careful not to wake her, he loosened her hand, lifted her head and slipped from underneath her. His sore, stiff muscles protested and he stretched to loosen them as he walked to the window.
In his mind it was always summer on Chelsea Lake—the horizon stretching for miles, the hills blanketed in green prairie grasses and spotted with groves of red cedar trees and pockets of wildflowers. It didn’t seem possible that he was looking out on the same land. The world out the window was cold and frozen, barren of life. The sun from the morning was gone, replaced with low hanging clouds and pockets of fog that washed everything in shades of grey so deep they appeared bottomless and empty.
Dan knew he was not equipped to help Stacy. She needed more than he could offer her. He could hold her in his arms and shield her with his body, but that was it. He could promise to stay at the bottom of the lake with his childhood friend until she was ready to rise, but he didn’t know the words to say to make her want to come to the surface, the ones that would help her find hope again.
This was one for Millie. She would have swept Stacy away to the river or the park or just to a private room and together they would have set the world right again. She would have prevented the situation from spiraling so far out of control. Dan couldn’t roll back time, he couldn’t undo what had been done, and he couldn’t give Stacy Millie, so he gave her the next best thing. He called Cheryl.