Two days after Dan called Cheryl, Cheryl called Dan.
“I’m worried, Dan. You need to come and talk to her.”
When he got there, he stood frozen in the doorway, unsure what to do.
“Are you going to stand there and stare at me all day?” Stacy asked, her voice small and muffled, coming from under the mountain of quilts she had piled on top of herself.
“Are you going to keep hiding from the world?” Dan asked softly as he made his way over to her.
She covered her head with her pillow. “That’s the plan.”
“Tonight’s Ladies Night at Newman’s, and you know what that means…”
She ignored him.
“Half-price drinks and ladies bowl for free!” he sang. “What do you say we get you dressed and go bowl a game or two?”
She still didn’t answer him. He hadn’t expected her to. It was lame when she tried to use it on him, but it was worth a shot. He kicked his shoes off, pulled the covers back and sat down next to her. She rolled onto her side, turning her back to him, and scooted away.
“Can I crash your party?” he asked, poking her shoulder with his finger.
“I don’t care,” she grumbled. “But be warned, I haven’t showered in three days.”
“Duly noted.” He lay down alongside her and pulled the covers over his head. She turned to face him, and even in the low light under the quilt he could see her eyes were red from crying. “You smell okay to me.”
“How’s my breath?” he asked and huffed a puff of air in her direction.
“Fine.” She didn’t even crack a smile.
“The last time we did this you complained about it, so I thought I’d better ask,” he said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, last time it was your feet that smelled like butt, not your breath.”
“Maybe my butt smelled like butt.”
“Maybe.” She almost smiled, but not quite. When they were kids, it was easier to make her giggle, but even back then it took more than a butt joke to coerce her out of her blanket sanctuary.
At age ten or eleven, Stacy began to develop. She had been the first in their class to have any kind of curve at all, and maybe it was her small frame making her look more well-endowed than she really was, but she’d seemed to sprout mountains on her chest overnight.
She hated them. The other girls in their class, all of them as flat-chested as a plank of wood, were jealous, and that jealousy came out mean and spiteful. They called her fat. They called her a slut. They snapped her bra, played awful pranks on her and made up lies. They punished her for becoming a woman before them. The boys had been no better.
She’d spent a lot of time that fall and winter hiding under the covers while she grew yet another layer of toughness. Dan hadn’t known what to say back then either, but he got really good at keeping her company while she metamorphosed.
“Have you talked to Chase?” he asked.
She shook her head. Her hair was a wild knot and her face was red and blotchy. She had a pimple on her cheek and another on her nose. She did smell a little less than fresh, like she’d warned, but Dan didn’t mind. Somehow it all made her even more beautiful.
“What are we going to do with you?” With a sigh, he tucked a stand of hair behind her ear.
She shrugged and scooted closer to him, settling into his arms and weaving their legs together. He wished again, for the millionth time, that he could make her safe just by holding her. If he could, he would hold her forever and never let her go. He let out a slow breath and closed his eyes, trying to ignore the fluttering in his heart as it opened up to her.
“Would it help to know that I think you are the prettiest teacher in the whole wide world?” he whispered in her ear.
She started shaking a little and Dan thought he’d brought on a fresh round of tears until a giggle escaped her lips. He opened his eyes and looked into hers.
“I knew it.” She smiled.
“Don’t get all cocky now,” he warned as he smiled back. His eyes drifted to her lips. “Cheryl thinks you should get out of bed.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You want me to help you?” Dan offered, bringing his eyes back to hers.
She shook her head just a little bit. “I want you to stay here with me awhile.”
“If I stay for a little bit, will you promise to leave this bed and talk to Cheryl when I leave?”
“I promise,” she whispered.
“Cross your heart?”
She nodded and Dan kissed her lightly on the lips and held her to his chest, hoping she didn’t notice the hammering of his heart. He wanted to keep kissing her, kiss her all day and into the night, kiss her until the pain she was feeling disappeared completely and all she felt was his love for her.
After a long silence, she asked, “How could I have been so stupid not to see what he was doing?”
“You’re not stupid. Don’t ever say that again.”
“He was never home and I never questioned his story as to where he was.”
“It’s not your fault. No one blames you for trusting him.”
“Why did he do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did I do wrong?”
He could feel her fresh tears soaking into his shirt. “Don’t think like that, Stace. It had nothing to do with you. It was all about him hating himself and being selfish.”
“This isn’t the first time he did this to me,” she whispered. “He’s cheated before.”
Dan stopped breathing. He’d suspected, but he didn’t know for sure. He didn’t know what to say, so he just held her tighter and rubbed the small of her back as she cried.
“Did he ever love me?”
Dan didn’t know the answer to that one. The only one who did was Chase. “I’m sure he did. He probably still does. I don’t think this has anything to do with whether or not he loves you. It has more to do with the fact that he doesn’t love himself.”
“How could he have a baby with her, though?” Her tears started coming out hot and fast, her voice breaking into a sob. “He can screw whoever he wants—I really don’t care—but how could he give her the only thing I’ve ever wanted from him, Dan? How could he deny me over and over, and then just give it away?”
“I don’t know.”
Dan could think of nothing to say to heal her pain. If he could, he’d give her a million babies. She had so much love in her heart she would be the best mother in the world. She was just like her Gram.
“I hate her. I don’t even know her and I hate her.”
“You’re allowed to.”
She pulled closer to him. “This sucks.”
“I wish Millie were here for you,” he whispered in her ear.
“You know, if Millie were here she would tell you she loved you and then she would make you get out of this bed.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Can I wallow in my own self-pity for just a little bit longer though?”
“One more minute,” Dan chuckled. He pulled back a little and added, “You know, I’ll always love you, too.”
“You promise?” she asked, playing with the buttons on his shirt.
“I promise. It’s impossible not to love you, Baby Bear.”
She looked up at him with a small frown. “Are you really going to keep calling me that?”
She tried to keep the frown on her face, but Dan could see a smile trying to break through. He wiped the tears from her cheek and kissed the tip of her nose.
“Eww,” she said with a laugh as she wiped her nose.
“Too slobbery?” Dan asked.
“A little.” She nodded and wiped at her nose again.
“Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad.”
“Yeah, it was.” She laughed.
“Here, let me try it again.” He grabbed for her and she squealed as she pushed him away. He was faster and pulled her back, but she was strong and rolled out of his grasp. The quilt slipped away, and the sun in the room was so bright it blinded them both for an instant.
“Ow!” Stacy gasped as she squinted her eyes and covered them with her hands.
“Oh my god, you look like shit,” Dan teased.
He gasped in surprise. “Did you seriously just tell me to fuck off?”
“Who me?” Stacy asked innocently. She peeked at him from between her fingers as her eyes lit up. “I would never do that.”
“Liar.” He lifted her hands from her face and revealed her smile.
“You love me anyways.”
“Always have, always will.”
“Will you still love me after I whoop your ass in bowling?”
“It’s Ladies Night… remember?” She grinned.
Stacy inserted the key into the lock and turned the knob. Slowly, she pushed the front door open and stepped inside. She didn’t know what she thought would happen, or why it would feel weird, but she was almost disappointed when returning home felt exactly the same as it always had. The house smelled a little stale, and there was an extra layer of dust on everything, but everything was exactly the same as it had always been—except Chase wasn’t coming home again. This time, he was gone forever.
She slipped off her coat and tossed her purse in the corner. The little noise it made did nothing to void the empty house of silence. She walked down the hall, past the stairs and into the living room. The area rug under her feet muffled her footsteps. It amazed her how loud silence could be, screaming louder than even a roomful of kindergarteners.
She looked to the left, and then to the right, taking in the mismatched sofa and love seat that she loved paired together, the stack of books she couldn’t fit onto the shelves, the almost-finished quilt she had been procrastinating stitching. She glanced at the pictures on the walls—Millie, Dan, her Gram and Gramps, Cheryl and even Dolly—all of them her family. The DVDs of the movies she loved filled the entertainment center. Her Gram’s Hummel figurines lined the shelves, tucked between African violets, porcelain angels and random pottery pieces she had picked up here and there, over the years, at little shops in little towns along the highway between Allman Falls and Hollings. Nothing was missing from the room, and everything in it was hers.
Eight years earlier, she and Chase had put a thousand dollar down payment on the little two-bedroom, one and a half story house on Chestnut Street. Eight years ago, she had moved in with a heart full of dreams and had slowly turned it into a home. Just now, for the first time in eight years, she realized Chase had never moved in at all. A pair of his tennis shoes sat by the door, he had some tools in the garage, and she would be willing to bet his dirty clothes were still in a pile behind the bathroom door, but Chase was nowhere in the house.
Trying to prove herself wrong, she went to the kitchen. All of the notes on the fridge were hers—her grocery list, her doctor’s appointment, her reminder to order more checks. The good china in the back of the cupboard was the set her Gram had painstakingly collected a piece at a time, with the filled, stamp cards the grocery store used to give out to shoppers back when Stacy was a little girl. Even the juice in the fridge was the kind Stacy liked to drink in the morning—apple, not orange. Chase had some junk in the junk drawer, but everything that made the kitchen the heart of the home was hers.
She started for the stairs to check the bedrooms, but stopped mid-step as a smile spread across her face and a laugh snuck out behind it. She didn’t need to go upstairs; she knew exactly what was up there. This house had never been their house. It had always been her house. Chase had just been taking up space, breathing her air, eating her food. For eight years, he had been nothing more than a houseguest, and he had overstayed his welcome. She’d be willing to bet everything he owned would fit into four boxes, five tops, and she could have it packed in under an hour.
She glanced at the clock, timing herself, and got started.