The Friday after Thanksgiving started at sunrise with Dan burying his beloved Dolly in the frozen yard under the lilac bushes. It didn’t get any better from there. As Cheryl had promised, foot traffic at Gimp’s was slow throughout the day, which made it easy for Dan to keep up, but it also made time crawl.
For a very long, two-hour stretch late in the afternoon, his only customer was an elderly gentleman named Lloyd, a rail-thin man who wore the cracked-leather mask of a lifetime of hard drinking and heavy smoking. Lloyd firmly believed Dan was actually Dan’s late father, Rich. Nothing Dan said could convince him otherwise. After the first hour, Dan gave up trying and traveled down memory lane with the man, making most of it up as he went along.
When the dinner rush came in, the regulars were not happy with the shortened menu. Cheryl had refused to divulge her secret seasonings for her hamburgers, or her chili, or her soups, so they had to settle for what he could make in the fryers. A few crossed the street to eat at Charlene’s instead, but most stayed and grumbled. Another lull around eight made Dan wish he could close early and go home, but he stuck it out.
A large, rowdy bunch came in an hour before close, and Dan was busy handing out beers by the fistful. He wasn’t too busy, though, to notice Chase wander in and sit at the end of the bar, near the door. When his eyes met Dan’s, Chase’s body tensed, coiling as tight as a rattlesnake poised to strike.
“Where’s Cheryl?” he demanded.
“Obviously. Gimme a beer.”
“Go get it somewhere else.”
“You have to serve me.”
“No, I don’t,” Dan said and pointed to the sign above the bar that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
“I guess I’ll just sit here then.”
“Go for it.”
Chase’s eyes bored into the back of Dan’s head as he went out on the floor to wipe down the empty tables, his proximity alone fanning a slow-simmering burn of anger deep inside Dan. It seared his throat and cooked his blood, bringing it closer and closer to flash point with every beat of his heart. He wished like hell he could use his fists to relieve some of the pressure, but he wasn’t about to give Chase that satisfaction.
“Saw your truck at my house again last night,” Chase said when Dan returned to the bar. “Baking more cookies?”
Dan didn’t give him the courtesy of a response. He kept his face blank, revealing nothing, letting the doubt sit and fester in the back of Chase’s mind. It was childish and petty, but he didn’t care.
“How long you planning on playing house with my wife?”
“She’s not your wife.”
“She’s not yours either, you sack of shit. Yours died.”
It took every ounce of self-restraint that he possessed, but Dan did not slam Chase’s face into the bar. He wanted to. But he didn’t. He wanted to grab him by the throat and slowly strangle the smirk off his face, squeezing until he severed Chase’s head clean off of his body. If not for the fact that it would upset Stacy, he would have. He would have killed the bastard right where he sat, and then brought him back to life and killed him again. But it would have upset Stacy, so he didn’t. Instead, he walked away.
Chase sat rooted to the bar, wordlessly staring him down for the rest of the night. At last call, he left without incident. Dan spent all day Saturday looking over his shoulder, anticipating Chase’s return, but he never showed his face in Gimp’s again. Close to midnight, a truck idled in the parking lot with its high-beams burning bright through the nicotine-glazed windows, blinding the bleary-eyes patrons unlucky enough to be sitting close by. Dan would have bet his life it was Chase’s truck, but he refrained from looking outside, so he couldn’t be certain.
Sunday limped along and Dan spent more time watching the clock than waiting on customers. Every time the door opened he expected to see Stacy’s bright smile light up the room, but the air that blew in was always cold, empty of her warm spirit. When the grey skies darkened into night and she still wasn’t home, Dan started to worry something was wrong, and he found himself relentlessly turning his cell phone over and over in his hand, waiting for it to ring with bad news. Just before closing time, Cheryl finally came in, grumbling about the traffic and the road conditions. After she took one good look around, she grumbled about the mess he’d made of the fryers.
He offered to stay and help her clean up, but she shooed him away. Relieved of his duty, he hopped in his truck with a singular destination in mind, but his cell phone rang before he made it out of the parking lot. Her voice was a soothing balm on his frayed nerves and he longed to hold her in his arms and make slow love to her until night turned to morning, but she sounded as exhausted as Cheryl had looked. He pointed his truck toward Chelsea instead.
As he drove down the snow-packed gravel, he listened as she gushed between yawns about her weekend of bliss, full of pedicures and facials, shopping, musicals, and dining, all the girly-stuff he knew it would contain, and he was happy one of them had a good time. When she asked about his weekend, he lied and said it was fine, deciding to save the gory details for another day, and wished her sweet dreams.
Still smiling from the holiday weekend, Stacy turned into the parking lot of Allman Falls Elementary on Monday morning. With the sun shining, the sky brilliant blue, the day would be amazing. She could feel it in her heart.
Thanksgiving had been perfect—beyond perfect—and her road trip with Cheryl almost as good. The only bad thing about it was she got back to town later than she expected, way too late to go see Dan, but when she called to apologize he invited her to come out Chelsea Lake at the end of the day. He promised to cook her a dinner she’d never forget, and she blushed just thinking about what she had planned for dessert.
Cranking the radio, she sang along with Reba before going in to greet the marvelous munchkins in her class. Just as she was getting into the chorus, hitting the high notes and giving it all she got, the passenger door ripped open and Stacy about jumped out of her skin.
“Well, look who’s smiling like she just got laid,” Chase glowered as he slid into the seat next to her and slammed the door closed.
“Get out of my car,” Stacy demanded, her frightened heart beating wildly in her chest.
“I’m not going anywhere.” He snapped the radio off so hard she was sure the knob broke. “Not until you tell me what the hell’s going on between you and Dan.”
“Nothing,” Stacy answered, a hot flush instantly flaming her cheeks. She shut off the car and pulled the keys from the ignition. As she moved to get out, Chase clamped a hand tight around her wrist and pulled her roughly towards him.
“You’re a liar,” he hissed and held her tighter. “I saw his truck in the driveway.”
“Are you stalking me now?”
“It’s still my house. I can drive by it whenever I want.”
“Let go of me,” she demanded and jerked at her arm.
“Tell me you’re sleeping him.”
“No.” She looked him straight in the eye and stared him down with more courage than she felt.
“No, you’re not, or no, you won’t tell me?”
“Just no,” Stacy snapped back. “Let me go.”
He turned his gaze away from her, out the windshield, but he didn’t let go of her arm. If anything he squeezed tighter. She struggled to get free and he whipped his head back to her, his eyes panicked as he rushed out, “I love you, Stacy. I messed up. I know I did. But I want you back.”
“You can’t have me back.”
“Chase, just stop. It’s over.”
“Why are you doing this to us?”
“I’m not doing anything! You ruined us, Chase, not me!”
“Is it because of Dan?”
“Let go of my arm.”
“He doesn’t love you.”
“Damn it, Chase.”
“He’s just using you.”
“Oh my god! No, he’s not! You’re the user, Chase—a user and a liar and a sorry excuse for a human being! You got a child pregnant!”
“She’s not a child. She’s twenty-two.”
“And you’re thirty-three, you disgusting prick!”
“I’m disgusting? What are you then?” Chase demanded, his face contorting so ugly with hatred she didn’t recognize him. “You’re the one fucking your dead friend’s husband.”
Her free hand came up to slap him but he grabbed her by the wrist before she made contact and squeezed tight, his grip surprisingly strong considering his hand was still broken. The brace dug into her skin and she let out a cry of pain.
“I always knew you were jealous of Millie, but this is taking it a little too far, don’t you think?”
“Go to hell.”
He pulled her into him, getting right in her face, his anger enveloping the entire car and choking out all the air.
“Your little kochanie may be grieving and he may be a little bit confused right now, so he’s probably a pretty easy lay, but I can guarantee you every single time he closes his eyes, he’s thinking of her. Not you.”
She spit in his face and he shoved her back against her door, slamming her head into the window.
“We’re done,” he spat back then flew out of the car, slamming the door so hard the car rocked.
She sat where she was, frozen in place, trying to catch her breath as all the anger, the fear, the intense guilt that rushed through her body brewed hot in her stomach, boiling and churning, the bile rising higher and higher up the back of her throat, sending her body into chills and her hand frantically searching for the door handle, finding it just in time as her breakfast came back up in a painful rush.
Chase left the elementary school and crossed town to his repair shop where he struggled to find a rhythm at work. He dropped tools, spilled oil, undercharged for a brake job. By noon, his jaw ached from struggling to keep his temper in check. He left for a sandwich and picked up a six-pack instead. Making steady work of them, he headed down the highway, uncertain where to go.
She didn’t call him on Thanksgiving. He really thought she would. He’d left, to give her space, to let her breathe. To give her time to miss him, forgive him. She always had before. He’d waited, knowing she’d need him for the holiday. But she hadn’t needed him. She’d reached for Dan instead.
He wanted to be pissed about it. But he’d done it to himself. Again.
Four beers down, two to go when he pulled into the trailer park and stopped in front of Deuce’s piece of shit singlewide, where he’d been crashing. There wasn’t enough room for him there. The trailer was already overflowing with Deuce and his bullshit. If Stacy wasn’t going to take him back, he needed to find his own place. And soon.
He looked next door, to Jill’s trailer. A rental, it was out of date and in need of repair, but it didn’t exhibit the same sad surrender as so many others in the court. Instead, decorated with an explosion of fall mums and wreath of leaves in bright colors, her front porch radiated warmth, promise. Hope.
As he stared, the door opened, and Jill stepped outside. She pulled her thick sweater snug around her shoulders, her belly straining her thin, baby blue t-shirt underneath. He opened his truck door and an empty bottle rolled around the floorboards, falling to the ground, where it shattered in amber shards.
“Are you drunk?” she asked, though her voice lacked doubt.
“I think so.”
With a sigh she turned and looked up the lane, then back at him. “Let’s get you sobered up, then. You’re never going to win her back looking like that.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because one of us has to.”
“Then stop acting like you’re the victim here.”
He looked in the rearview mirror, trying to see himself in any other way, but he’d spent a lifetime with that singular vision. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay to be scared, Chase, but it’s not okay to quit.” Placing a protective hand on her stomach, she said, “You don’t get that luxury anymore.”
Jimmy and Brent felt bad about Dolly, but Aria was devastated. She hugged Dan for so long he almost started crying with her. She overwhelmed him with the scent of vanilla and lavender that seemed to radiate from her, hitting his senses in waves. She skipped her lunch date with Brent and went back to work early, saying she needed to drive when she was sad. Dan understood how she was feeling. Millie had been the same way.
Aria’s mood spread like wildfire. As the day wore on, they all grew grouchy and irritable. When they finished installing the hardwood floors, they called it a day instead of starting on the tiling. The boys headed for the bar, leaving Dan with nothing to do but wander and fidget until it was time to cook dinner for his date with Stacy. He could have put it off all night, though, because she never showed up. Long after the sun set and their plates went cold, he got worried and called her.
“Are you standing me up?” Dan asked when she answered the phone.
“What?” she asked, and then rushed on with, “Oh my gosh! I’m sorry, kochanie. I forgot. Can we do it another night?”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, I just don’t feel very good. I think I’m tired from the weekend still.”
“You want me to come over?”
“No, no,” she said, distracted. “I just want to sleep.”
“Okay… Well, call me if you need anything.”
“I will. Good bye, Dan.”
Still worried and now also disappointed, he scraped her plate into the trash. Dolly would have loved the steak and potatoes he had just wasted. He looked over Melissa’s pictures on the wall and his eyes lingered on her latest one—the Thanksgiving picture with the giant turkey. Millie and a turkey. No Dolly. She had been in all the other pictures, but not the last one.
A chill of fear went down his spine and he moved to rip them off the wall, but stopped at the last second. He was being stupid. The pictures weren’t ghosts or premonitions. They were just Crayola pictures drawn by a little girl with an active imagination. They meant nothing. He turned his back on them and cleaned the kitchen, scrubbing the frying pan vigorously as he tried to convince his suspicious mind of that reality.