Stacy wandered from one silent room to the next, trying to settle her mind. Her throat was on fire, her head throbbed. Her eyes burned from fever. She wanted to cry until they cooled, but she was afraid if she started crying she’d never be able to stop again. With Chase’s words running through her mind, she wandered into the first bedroom at the top of the stairs and sat on the edge of the bed.
The room was decorated in cool shades of violet and blue—designed to be calming, relaxing, inviting. Stacy had spent more time decorating this room than any other room in the house. The sheets were of the finest thread count, smooth as silk under the skin. The quilt was one she had made herself, a double wedding ring pattern she had poured her heart into over six long months. Every pillow, every vase, every picture frame, every little bit of anything in the room had been collected with Millie in her heart.
The first time she saw the house, before she even owned it, she had picked this room for Millie and Dan. It had the best views. It had the best light. It was the one bathed in the sunrise every morning. She had given this room to them, wanting her two best friends to have the very best whenever they visited. It was the room Millie and Dan had slept in, dreamt in, bickered in, and comforted each other in. It was the room they had made love in. And it was the room Dan had carried Stacy into on Thanksgiving night.
Slowly, her eyes drifted to the photographs hanging on the wall, across from the bed. Dan and Millie smiled out at her from inside their assorted wooden and metal frames. They held each other close as they posed, as they laughed, as they kissed. As her eyes drifted from one memory to the next, Stacy quit fighting the tears and let them pour as she gazed upon her dearest friend, her beautiful sister.
Frozen in time, Millie’s eyes twinkled with life, yet her expression seemed sadder, as though she knew what Stacy had done. Disappointment flushed her cheeks, betrayal dulled her smiles. Stacy’s heart fluttered and panic settled into her chest. Looking away in shame, she lay down on the bed and prayed to heaven Millie could find it in her heart to forgive her of her weakness.
“You look like shit,” Dan said when Stacy opened the door and he saw her pale face, her watery eyes and raw, red nose. Laid up sick all week, she had told him not to worry, but he’d worried. He had to see her face-to-face and make sure she was okay before he would feel better. Now that he was looking at her, he was even more concerned. She looked worse than shit.
“Thanks a lot,” she said.
“You want to veg out on the sofa with me awhile?” he asked and held up a bag of takeout cheeseburgers and a movie, hoping to see a smile.
“I’m still contagious.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
She let him in and Dan had to push past the boxes that still lined the entryway. As he followed her into the living room, he made a mental note to move them into the garage before he left for the evening. Stacy collapsed back onto the sofa. Piles of used Kleenex, empty juice glasses, extra blankets and precariously stacked books ringed the nest she had made in the pillows.
Plucking a fresh tissue from the box, Stacy asked, “What did you rent?”
“Which movie did you force me to watch twenty-seven times the summer we were thirteen, the one that made you wish you lived in the bayou?” Dan asked, holding the movie to his chest.
Stacy’s eyes grew wide and she slowly smiled. “You found a Tammy movie?”
“Please tell me you got the Debbie Reynolds one—Tammy and the Bachelor!”
He turned the case around so she could see. If she could have squealed she would have. Instead, she let out a squeak and threw herself at him, kissing him repeatedly on the cheeks. Dan laughed and started the movie.
“If I let you sing the song, do you promise not to quote the whole movie?”
She just smiled and settled into the corner of the sofa, not promising anything.
“You’re going to quote the entire movie aren’t you?” Dan asked with a sigh as he pulled a blanket around her and handed her a cheeseburger.
“Probably not the whole thing, my throat hurts too bad,” she said, taking a small bite of the cheeseburger.
“What did the doctor say?”
“Strep, sinus infection and respiratory infection.”
“Are you taking your antibiotics?” Dan asked, shaking a small carton of her favorite apple juice and handing it to her.
“Yes, sir,” she teased.
Dan pulled her feet onto his lap and gently rubbed them as they watched Debbie Reynolds work movie magic. Old movies had always been Stacy’s favorite ones to watch. She loved the romance of the classics, dreamed of living the life of Gidget or owning Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Whenever she wasn’t feeling well, the fastest way to cheer her up was to take her to a gentler, Technicolor era.
This time, the idea of the movie worked better than the movie itself. She only took a few bites of her dinner, and fell asleep long before Tammy fell in love. Dan turned off the DVD player and flipped through channels until he found reruns of an old crime drama. While he watched one episode and then the next, Stacy slept.
Just before ten o’clock, her cell phone rang. Dan grabbed it quick to shut it off before it woke her. As he went to silence the phone, he saw Chase’s number on the screen. Unable to control himself, he answered it.
“What do you want?” Dan hissed into the phone, hurrying out of the room so he wouldn’t wake Stacy.
“Who is this?” Chase demanded, immediately taking the offensive. “Dan?”
“What do you want?” Dan repeated.
“Why the hell are you answering Stacy’s phone? Put her on!”
“She’s sleeping,” Dan said. “Call her back tomorrow.”
“Why are you there if she’s asleep?”
“She’s sick. I came over to bring her dinner and a movie, and she fell asleep.”
“You’re so full of shit! Why do you two keep lying about this? Why won’t you just admit you’re together?”
“It’s none of your business whether we are or not.”
“Are you sleeping with her?” Chase asked, his voice demanding.
“Why do you care? You didn’t want her when you had her!”
“Are you sleeping together?” Chase repeated, screaming into the phone.
“Every change we get!”
The silence coming from the other end was so sharp, so ominous Dan had to pull the phone away from his ear.
“You’re dead to me, asshole,” Chase said, and then hung up.
Immediately regretting what he’d done, Dan returned Stacy’s phone to the coffee table and turned off the television. Placing a gentle kiss of apology to her warm cheek, he tucked the blanket around Stacy and turned down the lights, then left before he could do any more damage. He got halfway to Chelsea before he remembered the boxes he’d planned to move for her. He would have to do better the next day.
Chase tossed the last box into the back of his truck and slammed the tailgate closed. With a heavy sigh, he dusted his hands on his jeans and pulled his keys out of his pocket. He still had a brace on the one he broke in his fight with Dan, a blatant reminder of his betrayal and all the pain that followed.
As he bounced his keys in his hand, he looked up at Stacy standing on the porch. Normally brazen, he looked nervous and unsure. Humble. It was a side of Chase she hadn’t seen in a very long time, and it confused her.
“Well,” he started slowly. “I guess I’ll get out of your hair. You’ve probably got a million things to do today.”
“Not really.” Stacy shook her head, tried to understand the heavy sadness in her heart.
She had been anxious to get him out of her life, to close that chapter and start anew, but now that he’d extracted every little bit of himself from their house, she felt as though she was losing part of herself as well. It was a part she wasn’t sure she didn’t still need.
“See you around,” Chase sighed and turned towards the driver’s door.
“Wait,” Stacy called after him and stepped off the porch.
He turned back to her and waited.
She stopped on the walkway, keeping safe space between them. “Where are you staying?”
“With Deuce.” He paused, as though waiting for her to say something else. When she didn’t, he moved for the door again.
“You want something to eat before you go?” she asked, surprising them both. She had no idea why she couldn’t let him go. She wanted him to go. She needed him to go. But she couldn’t let him leave until she understood why it hurt so bad to watch him walk away.
Slipping into their usual roles, he sat at the kitchen table as she prepared his meal. She threw together a quick sandwich, added a slice of pie and a glass of tea, and then sat across from him and watched him while he ate.
He looked tired, slightly beat down. She felt the familiar urge to reach for him and offer him comfort. She had always been his comforter, the one he reached for when life got to be too much. She would hold him, make love to him, whisper words of support as he struggled to find his way. It was impossible for him to reciprocate, often shutting down and hiding when she needed him most, but she had always believed deep in his heart he had wanted to reach out and hold her.
“I heard you were sick,” Chase said around a mouthful of his sandwich. “Are you feeling better?”
“What did the doctor say?”
“That I’ll live.” She stole a forkful of his pie. “How long will Deuce let you stay?”
Chase shrugged. “Awhile.”
Stacy nodded. She wanted to ask him about Jill, find out who she was and what made her so special that he threw their life away for her, but she didn’t want to argue. If this was going to be the last meal Chase ate in their kitchen, she wanted it to be a peaceful one, if not for him then at least for herself.
As he finished his last bite, he pushed his plate away. “I decided to put the shop up for sale. Roger’s talking to the bank to see if he can buy it.”
Surprised, she asked, “What are you going to do?” The shop was his life.
“I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, but I’ll let someone else worry about the money. That way you won’t have to worry about it either.”
“I could just take my name off of it,” Stacy offered. “It was never mine anyway.”
“If we do it this way we could split whatever’s left and maybe you could use the money to fix up the house,” Chase suggested. “It should be enough to do the roof at least.”
“You keep it all. You’re going to need it for the baby.”
“You put just as much time into that place as I did. You should get something for it.”
“Okay,” she whispered, averting her eyes from his as her heart broke. Everything that defined her for the past fourteen years was washing away in huge chunks, dissolving into grains of nothing, and she didn’t want him to see how much it hurt.
Chase sat up straighter in his chair and looked down at his hands. He rubbed the thumb of the broken one against the palm of the other, as if he were trying to erase the stains he knew would never come off.
“Listen,” he started in a low voice full of apology. “I know I messed everything up and you hate me, but I just want you to know I’m sorry.”
He looked as though he wanted to say more, but he left it at that.
Stacy watched as he slowly stood and walked out of the kitchen. He was taking fourteen years of her life, fourteen years of her love, and her entire sense of self with him. Suddenly, she couldn’t let him leave until she knew if it was worth it.
She rushed after him and asked, “Do you love her?”
Chase stopped, but he didn’t turn around. “No.”
“Did you ever?”
He shook his head slowly. “No.”
“Then why did you do it?” she cried.
“I honestly don’t know.”
“How could you have a baby with her?”
“It was an accident,” he answered, finally turning to face her. His expression revealed just how much of a mistake he truly thought it was. There was absolutely no joy in his eyes, only misery.
“I feel sorry for your baby,” Stacy stated and moved to push past him and go up the stairs, but he stopped her.
“When did you start sleeping with Dan?”
“I’m not,” Stacy denied.
“Stop lying to me,” Chase cried out, a mixture of anger and pain on his face as he grabbed her arm. “Damn it, Stacy, I know you are. Dan told me.”
“He told you?” Stacy cried in disbelief as anger started bubbling up deep inside, anger that was directed at Dan for betraying her and herself for caring whether Chase knew or not. It boiled in her stomach and mixed with guilt, confusing her, making her feel as though she was the one who had cheated on Chase and caused the destruction of their relationship.
“I want to hear it from you. Tell me the truth,” Chase insisted.
“It was only one time,” Stacy answered, her voice barely a whisper as she avoided his eyes. “It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
“Do you love him?” he asked quietly.
“No,” she lied.
“You do. I can see it in your eyes.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she dismissed as she pulled her arm from Chase’s grasp. “Like you said, he’ll always be in love with Millie.”
“And I’ll always be in love with you,” Chase said, finding his confidence and standing a little straighter.
As she looked into his eyes, at the desire that darkened his pupils even in his fear, images of Chase making love to another woman flooded her mind. She could see it as clear as if she had been in the room with them. She could see him kissing her, holding her, caressing her. From the first kiss to the climax, she knew exactly how his eyes had sparked and the gamete of expressions that had crossed his face in each tiny moment throughout the course of making love to Jill.
She had seen them all so many times they were a part of her, a part of her sexuality, and he gave those secrets away to someone else, as though they were meaningless.
“You don’t love me,” she said. “You never have.”
“I do love you,” Chase insisted. “Everything was just so messed up then. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“No,” Stacy countered with a shake of her head and a bitter laugh. “You knew exactly what you were doing. This wasn’t a drunken, one-night stand. You had a relationship with her.”
“You’re right,” he agreed quickly. “I did. And it was wrong. And I swear it will never happen again if you take me back.”
“Why would I take you back?”
“Because we belong together.”
“No, we don’t.”
“We do,” he insisted. “Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago, the first night we made love? You said, ‘We’re two fucked up people in a fucked up world but for some reason when we’re together the world just seems right.’ Do you remember that?”
Stacy shook her head in denial, but she remembered it clearly. Seventeen years old, homecoming night, she’d been high on her love for him. It had been the first time they’d made love, her first time ever, and it had felt right. It had felt perfect. It had felt as though the future she’d always dreamed of was finally in her grasp. Despite all of Dan’s warnings, all Cheryl’s concerns, she’d tied all of her hopes, all of her dreams, to the man standing before her now.
And now all those dreams were unraveling at her feet.
“Help me set the world right again,” Chase pleaded. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, Stacy. You’re the only one who can help me. You’ve always been the only one who could help me. I need you.”
“I’m tired of helping you,” Stacy said and moved for the stairs again.
“Then let me help you. Let me give you everything you’ve always wanted,” Chase offered. “I’ll marry you. I’ll give you all the babies you want. I’ll stop drinking and staying out all night and I’ll be here—for you. I’ll be the man you always said I could be.”
“It’s too late, Chase,” Stacy said with a sad shake of her head.
“It’s never too late.”
Stacy didn’t answer him. She just kept walking.
“I’ll come over tomorrow. I’ll bring you dinner and we can talk some more,” he offered as she reached the top of the stairs.
She turned and looked down on him with every intention of declining his offer. But when she looked into his eyes she couldn’t bring herself to say no. Fourteen years of memories flooded her, the good and the bad. She couldn’t say no, but she couldn’t say yes either. Not knowing what she wanted, she just turned away and left him standing in the entryway, without an answer.
“Do you want to split an order or do you want your own?” Dan asked. Staring off over his shoulder, Stacy didn’t reply. He tapped her foot with his under the table. “Stace?”
“Huh?” She looked at him. Her eyes were clear of fever, but her nose was still a little red from her cold, and she still looked exhausted. Dan had wanted to stay in for dinner, but she had insisted on seeing Cheryl, so they were sitting at Gimp’s.
“Are you sure you feel up to being here tonight?” Dan asked, concerned.
“Yeah,” she answered and turned the laminated menu over in her hands.
Cheryl came over to the table, bringing Dan a beer and Stacy a Coke. “Did you kids decide what you want?”
Stacy shook her head. “I’ll just eat off of Dan’s plate.”
“You need to eat more than that, hun,” Cheryl said. “I’ll bring you a big bowl of my chicken noodle.”
“I’ll have the same,” Dan said.
Cheryl patted Stacy’s arm and went through the doors to the kitchen. Stacy’s eyes fixed over Dan’s shoulder again and Dan watched her, trying to figure out what she was thinking. She was shutting down on him and it made him nervous. The past few days she had been holding him at arm’s length, claiming she was contagious and didn’t want to get him sick, but he wondered if it was only an excuse.
“What?” Stacy asked.
“I didn’t say anything,” Dan said. At least he didn’t think he had.
“You’re staring at me.”
“Sorry. I was just thinking.”
“You.” He reached for her hand and laced his fingers with hers. “Wondering what you’re thinking. You’re hard to read.”
“There’s nothing to read. I wasn’t thinking anything,” she said and pulled her hand away as Cheryl came back with their bowls.
“You’re not allowed to leave the table until you eat it all,” Cheryl informed Stacy. She set the soup in front of them and pulled a handful of wrapped cracker packets from her apron pocket.
“Yes, Mama,” Stacy said and smiled at her.
It was the first real smile Dan had seen from Stacy in almost a week. He felt a twinge of jealousy that it wasn’t directed at him. They were quiet while they ate, Stacy picking around the carrots like she’d always done. When she pushed her bowl aside, Dan was happy to see she ate most of it.
“I have something for you,” she said and dug around in her purse. She pulled out a folded piece of paper and slid it across the table to him.
Dan unfolded a check made out to him in the amount of two thousand dollars, written from Stacy and Chase’s personal bank account, not from the shop, her bubbly signature scribbled at the bottom. He refolded it and slid it back across the table.
“I’m not taking that from you,” Dan said, irritated that she thought he would.
“Why not?” she asked, her voice sharp, as though insulted.
“Because I never expected to get it back from Chase, and I’m absolutely not taking it from you.”
He reached for her hand. She pulled away and busied herself by returning the check to her purse, then picked up their bowls and carried them across the room to Cheryl. She perched on a stool at the bar and Dan watched her from the booth. Ever since Thanksgiving, he didn’t know what to say to her, or how to act around her. He had no idea how to define their relationship anymore. He got the feeling she had the same problem, so he let Stacy have her space and talk to Cheryl for awhile, and then picked up their coats and took her home.
When he followed her to the porch, she stepped between him and the door. “Do you think we could call it a night? I’m still kind of tired.”
“Of course,” Dan agreed, even though the last thing he wanted was an early night. He wanted to stay awake until he knew for sure they were going to get through whatever it was they were going through and then wake up to a new day with her sleeping in his arms.
She held him close as she said goodnight, but when he kissed her, she became reserved. He left, pulling slow out of the driveway, and she watched him from the porch. The expression on her face left him to wonder if he had been supposed to stay after all, but then she disappeared inside, and it was too late to change his mind.