As the Rogans led Dan on a final walk-through of his house, Brent let out a low whistle. “Damn, Dan. When you sent us the blueprints back in June, I was sure we would be here at least until March. Who knew you would be such a slave driver?”
With Christmas a week away, the house was near completion. Odds and ends and finish work would keep Dan busy through the winter, but he didn’t need the Rogans’ help anymore. They promised to stop back in the spring to build a deck and finish some concrete work, and do the final yard grading, but for now they were free to move on to other projects.
They were moving forward, but Dan felt as though he had fallen backward in time, back to the place he never wanted to be at again.
Aria graced Dan with a soft smile as she personally handed him his mail for the final time. “Are you ever going to move into this gorgeous masterpiece, or are you going to keep wasting away in that little cabin forever?”
“Oh, I’ll move in as soon as I finish painting. I need to go buy some furniture first, though. Maybe I should hire a decorator.”
“How hard can it be?” Brent asked. “Bed, chair, flat screen. Done.”
Aria rolled her eyes. “If you need help, just give me a call. I’d love to go to the Mart with you.”
Dan groaned, “The Mart? I was thinking more along the lines of the Salvation Army.”
“Seriously, Dan—call me!” Aria begged. “There is no way I’m letting you fill this gorgeous house with stinky, plaid castoffs.”
“It did turn out pretty nice, didn’t it?” Dan asked, pausing to soak in the view he had created.
In the main room, the windows overlooking the hills and Chelsea Lake let in a brilliant light. A stone fireplace anchored the living area. Around the corner, the kitchen was layered in the warmth of cherry, the rich gleam of granite and stainless steel. The bedrooms, big and open, were bathed in sunlight, their windows positioned to frame the best views. The bathrooms contained Millie’s every desire; deep tubs, heated floors, massive rain shower heads in a shower stall big enough for two. How he wished she could have seen their dreams come true. Without her, it didn’t feel complete.
As the boys finished loading their truck, Aria pulled Dan aside and asked, “Have you talked to Stacy lately?”
“Not for a couple of days. She started teaching an art class in the evenings at the Rec Center and she says it’s wearing her out… She hasn’t really been herself since she was sick.”
Dan didn’t want to admit, but he felt she had been almost cold to him the few times they got together. They didn’t touch, they didn’t kiss, and they most definitely did not make love. They were back to being nothing more than two friends hanging out, and they were quickly becoming two friends who didn’t know how to talk to each other.
“That probably explains it.” Aria shrugged. “The last few days she hasn’t sounded like herself when I talked to her. I ran into her at the grocery store yesterday and she just looked… sad. I’m worried, Dan. I know Chase has been bothering her a bit so I was hoping it didn’t have to do with him.”
“I didn’t know he was bothering her. Stace never said a word about it.”
“Well, you can’t blame her. You don’t have the best track record for keeping your temper in check when it comes to Chase. She probably didn’t want to see you end up in jail for Christmas.”
“Probably not,” Dan agreed, but he wondered if there was more to it.
“You ready to go?” Brent asked Aria.
She nodded and said to Dan, “Maybe I should take Stacy for a girl’s night out.”
“She definitely needs someone better than me to talk to.”
“I’ll call and invite her.” Aria went to leave, but turned back and added, “And you better not forget to call me when you’re ready to go shopping.”
He laughed. “I will.”
The fact that Aria was concerned about Stacy had him worried. It wasn’t just his imagination—something was going on. As soon as she left, Dan pulled out his cell phone and dialed Stacy’s number. She didn’t answer. Hoping she was busy and not simply avoiding his call, he left her a message and starting sorting his mail.
Tucked in the middle of the bundle he found another orange envelope with a yellow forward sticker on it from Melissa. In her drawing, Millie stood beside a green, triangle Christmas tree. She held a present in one hand and a yellow and orange flower in the other. Above the tree floated an oversized, lopsided star. Below the tree, in letters that started out big and became smaller as they scrolled across the page, she had written ‘Merry Christmas!’
Dan carried the picture to the cabin and tacked it to the wall with the others. As with Thanksgiving, Dolly wasn’t in attendance for the Christmas holiday. He thought he would be spooked by her absence, but it just made him miss her all the more, a heavy sadness that settled around his heart. The mood of the entire cabin felt sad without her. Even Millie’s rosebush was feeling the effects of her absence.
The new leaves and stems it had worked so hard to grow were wilting. The soil had started to smell like rot. He had no clue what happened to it or how to fix it. His mother-in-law would, but he still couldn’t bring himself to call Gina—especially now. He could only imagine how hurt Gina would be to know what he had been up to recently.
With a twinge of guilt rolling through his gut, he turned his back on the rose and looked over Melissa’s pictures again. It seemed insane, but he considered her to be one of his best friends these days, and he’d never once written her back. Resolving to be a better pen pal, he sat at the table with a pen and paper and wrote:
Dear Melissa, Thank you for all of your pictures. I hang them on the wall of my kitchen. You are a very good artist. Keep up the good work. I hope you have a Merry Christmas. Sincerely, Dan Handley.
It was the first real letter he’d ever written, and he knew it probably sounded stupid, but she was only six. Hopefully, she’d cut him a little slack. Folding it carefully, he tucked the letter into an envelope and addressed it to the hardware store, using his current address as the return address. As he affixed the stamp, his phone rang.
“Hi,” Stacy said when he answered. “I got your message.”
“Are you busy tomorrow?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. What’s up?”
“You want to go furniture shopping?”
“Absolutely. But I can’t imagine you do.”
“I really don’t.”
Through her giggle, he could feel her smile. “This is going to be fun.”
Feet sore and tempers short, the day was anything but fun as Dan and Stacy made their seventh circuit around Nebraska Furniture Mart, still undecided on living room furniture. Their salesman remained chipper, tirelessly offering suggestions as he mixed and matched end tables with easy chairs. Dedicated, he had not left their side since they first walked through the doors of the showroom, five hours earlier, not even a restroom break. Stacy had taken two already. Though his smile never wavered, the guy had to be kicking himself for not realizing Stacy was an indecisive perfectionist and Dan was there only in body, incapable of contributing anything to the experience, aside from an occasional grunt.
The dining room set had been easy. They’d picked one out in the first ten minutes. The salesman probably thought he’d picked up the golden customers; the ones who fly through the massive seventy-seven acre complex and furnish their entire house in an hour flat. But those people come prepared. Dan and Stacy had come with nothing more than a moderate hope of success and a pack of gum, both of which had long since disappeared.
With a grunt of despair, Stacy flopped down on a sofa that she loved the color of, but hated everything else about. “I can’t decide.”
Pointing to the set beside it, Dan asked, “What’s wrong with that one?”
She didn’t need to look at it before she declared, ‘Ewww’. She had seen it before. They had seen them all before. Multiple times. She didn’t like any of them. It wasn’t like her.
Dan pulled her to her feet. “Why don’t we get something to eat and come back to the sofas once we’re refueled?”
For a split second, immense relief flashed across the salesman’s face before he caught himself and slapped his happy-face back on. He gave Dan the paperwork for the dining room furniture and another copy of his card, pointed them toward customer service and then moved on to the next dazed and confused-looking family.
Dan and Stacy ate in silence, both looking off at their own, separate unseeable daydreams, before diving into it once again. First, they focused on easy choices: flat screen TVs, sound systems, office furniture, kitchen appliances, a washer and dryer, a movie Stacy had been dying to see, and then they went back to the daunting task of furniture. Concentrating on the master bedroom this time, their new salesperson was an impeccably dressed, grey-haired woman who drifted around the department on a heady cloud of perfume that tortured Dan’s gag reflex.
Unlike before, Stacy hung back, forcing Dan to select a suite of headboard, dressers and nightstands by himself. Overwhelmed, he walked from one design room to the next, unable to differentiate one set from another, uncertain what he even liked, until he caught Stacy running a light touch over an intricate leaf design hand-carved into the rich wood on one of the headboards. Instantly, he knew. It was perfect. He nodded to the saleswoman and she added the entire set to his order.
Dan stepped close to Stacy and lightly bumped her side. “Penny for your thoughts.”
“Oh,” she startled. “Sorry. I must’ve been daydreaming or something. What do you want to look at now?”
“Honestly? The outside of this store.”
She visibly sighed in relief. “That sounds really good to me.”
They went to customer service, finished up the paperwork and scheduled delivery. As he pulled out of the parking lot and merged his truck into holiday traffic, he shot a glance to Stacy, huddled in the passenger seat, shivering as the heater warmed, and asked, “What’s going on, Stace?”
“Nothing.” She turned her attention out the window.
“Don’t play that with me. I can see you’re upset about something. What’s wrong?”
She made a face Dan didn’t understand and didn’t answer him.
“Did I do something wrong?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Well, something’s bothering you. I can’t read your mind, so you’re going to have to help me out here,” Dan said.
“I’m just tired.”
“It’s more than that. You haven’t been yourself today.”
She still didn’t answer, so he pushed.
“Talk to me, Stace.”
“Just drop it,” Stacy insisted.
He reached across the seat for her hand and she pulled away. Dan took the hint. He turned on the radio and let the music fill the silence. When he pulled into a gas station to fill up before they hit the highway, Stacy swung open the door and hopped from truck before it came to a complete stop. He let her be and pulled his coat tighter against the frigid North wind swirling around the lot as he pumped gas.
Stacy stayed inside the store for so long Dan started to worry. Just as he was about to go looking got her, she finally came out. Her eyes appeared red, damp, as though she had been crying, but she still wouldn’t look at him so he couldn’t be sure. Silently, she handed him a soda and bag of chips then returned to staring out the window.
“You really should talk to me, Stacy,” Dan said as he pulled back out onto the highway.
“I feel like I don’t know where to begin,” she said quietly.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Dolly?” she asked. “Why did I have to hear about her from Aria?”
Dumbfounded, he replayed the days since Thanksgiving in his mind. He could have sworn they’d talked about it, but when he thought back, he realized they hadn’t.
“I really don’t know. I think it’s because I wanted to tell you in person, and then you were sick and it just kind of slipped my mind,” he said. It sounded weak even to him, but it was the truth.
“Dolly’s death slipped your mind?” she asked with a bit of a nasty tone.
“Don’t you dare insinuate Dolly meant nothing to me,” Dan snapped back. “Everything’s been all messed up between us since Thanksgiving. I’m sure there’s lots of things we haven’t talked about.”
“Like the fact that you told Chase we slept together?” Stacy demanded. “How could you do that to me? I didn’t want him to know.”
“I swear I didn’t mean to tell him,” Dan said, cursing himself for his stupidity. “He’s been accusing me of it since that night I took you home from Gimp’s, months ago. I honestly thought he believed it even when it wasn’t true, so what difference does it make for him to know that it happened? I’m sorry, Stace. I never should have answered your phone when he called.”
“When did you answer my phone?” she asked, growing more upset by the minute.
“The night I brought over the movie. Your phone rang really late and I didn’t want it to wake you up. I was just going to silence it, I swear. But when I saw Chase’s number, I snapped.”
“And did that just slip your mind too?” Stacy demanded.
“No,” Dan said. “I didn’t think you needed to be bothered by it, so I didn’t tell you.”
Stacy’s cheeked flushed in anger. “You have no right to decide what I need to know, especially when it comes to Chase! I’m not a child, Dan. You can’t filter my life like that!”
A string of Polish shot from her mouth, but this time he didn’t want to know what she said. It wasn’t sexy. It just made him angry. Stacy turned her back to him, her nose to the glass. He cranked the radio.
With every mile they traveled, the distance between Dan and Stacy grew. She curled away from him, staring out the window. He pressed against his door, the air between them cold and solid. Every twenty miles or so, Dan glanced over at her, but she remained a statue.
Night fell long before they reached Allman Falls, the cold winter air sending everyone to seek warmth inside with the sunset. Not a single car passed. No brave soul walked a dog or checked the driveway for their evening paper. If not for the glow of lights in windows, the smoke rising from chimneys, Dan would have believed their little town had turned into a ghost town while they were gone.
When he pulled into Stacy’s driveway, Dan was desperate for Stacy’s touch. He reached for her hand again. This time, she let him take it.
“Stace?” Dan asked.
“Yeah?” she answered, not looking at him.
She let go of his hand and started gathering her purse and shopping bag. Dan would have preferred to work up his nerve to ask her what he wanted to know, but she was in a hurry, and he had already wasted too much time.
“What happened between us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are we fighting? We never fight,” Dan explained. “Why can’t we just hang out? Be us, the way we used to be?”
“We’re hanging out today.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’ve been busy. I’m sorry I don’t have a lot of free time right now.”
“I’m sorry if I caused problems with Chase. I wasn’t thinking, and I’m truly sorry for that.”
“Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t anything that I couldn’t fix.” She reached for the door handle. “We’re working through it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’re talking.” Stacy sighed. “I don’t feel like going into this right now. I’ll call you.”
“Why are you guys talking?” He could feel the panic growing in his voice, but he couldn’t stop it from happening. “What could you possibly have to talk about?”
She rolled her eyes in irritation. “Good night, Dan.”
“Don’t leave me, Stace. Stay and talk.” He grabbed her hand again, desperate to keep her in the truck with him.
She looked down at his hand on hers, not saying anything, letting the silence in the chilly air surround them, until she asked in a very small voice, “Do you regret what happened Thanksgiving night?”
“What do you mean?”
She didn’t answer him.
“Do you?” Dan asked.
She nodded. “What we did… what happened that night… was wrong.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“It was no better than what Chase did to me.”
“It’s not the same thing. Not even close.”
“Yes, it was. I was cheating on him every time I kissed you… every time I wanted to kiss you.”
“There’s a huge difference, Stace. You know that.”
“No, I don’t know that. The only thing I do know is that I don’t know how to be around you anymore, and it scares me.”
“We can figure it out,” Dan said, tightening his grip on her hand.
“What are we even doing here, Dan? Why are we together like this? Doesn’t it feel wrong to you?”
“No,” Dan said, his voice coming out on a pained whisper.
“This isn’t us,” she said, shaking her head. “This isn’t who we are…”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“Don’t do this, Stace… Please, Stace…” Sensing what was coming, his stomach churned, but the rest of his body became paralyzed, unable to do anything about it. “Don’t…”
“You were meant for Millie, Dan.” She finally looked at him. “We were never supposed to be anything more than friends.”
The air ripped from his lungs, he opened and closed his mouth, desperate to say something, anything, but he couldn’t find the right words. Stacy slid over to him across the seat and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
There was no mistaking—it was a final good-bye.
He watched her walk inside, close the door without even a glance back to him. He waited ten minutes, maybe a lifetime, praying she would come back outside, say she’d changed her mind, say she’d made a mistake and didn’t mean what she’d said. He’d have given his life to see her peek out the window, show a hint of doubt, but she didn’t. The lights came on in the living room, and then a long time later in her bedroom, and she never once pulled back the curtains or lifted the blinds.
With no sense of what to do or where to go, he drove around Allman Falls, hoping for some sort of inspiration to smack him in the face. He passed the brick apartment complex Jimmy and Brent lived in and almost kept going, until he saw Aria’s Jeep in one of the parking spaces. Slamming the brakes, he whipped his truck around and slid into the spot next to hers. She answered the door before he was ready, before he knew why he was there.
“What’s wrong, Dan?” she asked the moment she saw his panic.
The words stuck in his throat. His mind couldn’t form sentences. He froze.
“Nothing, don’t worry about it. It was stupid,” he said, embarrassed to be there. He turned to leave.
“Hey, don’t run off. Come here,” she said, and pulled him by his jacket into the apartment. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know… everything,” he said.
“Is it Stacy?” she guessed.
“Yes… No. I don’t know.”
“We went to Omaha, and we fought. She’s not talking to me right now.” Dan started to pace.
“What did you argue about?”
Dan didn’t answer her question. Instead he said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, Aria. Things are all messed up.”
“Love isn’t easy, Dan,” Aria said softly, stepping closer to him until he picked up her faint scent of vanilla. He backed away and turned from her gaze.
“I thought it was love, but now I don’t know. Maybe Stacy was right. Maybe it was all a big mistake. Maybe I was lonely and selfish and confused friendship for love.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No,” he answered, pacing again. “Maybe. Either way she thinks it was a mistake.”
“What happened tonight?” Aria asked again.
“I don’t know.”
Aria grabbed his arms, forcing him to stand still. “What did she say to you?”
Everything Stacy said kept replaying in his mind, but his anxiety overtook reason, making it impossible to repeat her words to Aria. “I don’t know.”
“Dan, I can’t help you if you don’t let me in.”
“I’m not keeping you out, Aria!” Dan said, his voice rising. “I don’t know what happened!”
“Hey, shhh,” she replied, rubbing his arm. “Relax. Why don’t you come and sit down and we can figure this out.”
“No. I gotta go.”
“Don’t leave. Let me call Brent and Jimmy home and we can all sit down together.”
“No,” Dan said, pulling his arm away. Breaking down in front of those guys was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.
“What do you want to do, then?”
“I don’t know. I can’t think right now.” He started for the door then stopped, uncertain if he wanted to go or stay. He couldn’t make a single decision. “It was never like this with Millie. With her it was easy. She made everything easy.”
“Don’t you dare compare them, Dan. Stacy’s not Millie and she never will be. Stacy is her own person and deserves to be loved for her unique soul, not because being with her is easy, or convenient, or stirs up fond memories of your childhood. You’re not the same person you were ten years ago, Dan, and neither is she. You’ve both lived a lifetime since then. Nothing will ever be that easy again.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this, Aria. I think I made a mistake.”
Aria crossed her arms and said, “Maybe you should figure yourself out before you hurt Stacy anymore than she already is. Don’t fight for her if you don’t want her.”
“I don’t know if she’s even mine to fight for anymore.”
She had no answer for him, so he left.