An hour after Dan dropped Stacy off, her doorbell rang. Her heart flipped and she stood frozen on the stairs, unsure whether she dared answer the door. Hiding in the shadows, she had watched him sitting in his truck in the driveway, his expression a torment of pain and confusion, and she’d had to force herself to stay inside. When he’d finally left, she had wanted to run after him, take back every word she’d said, every fear she’d felt, but it only would have prolonged the inevitable. She didn’t have it in her to say goodbye to him again.
“Stacy?” Aria’s sweet voice drifted gently through the door. “Can I come in?”
Relieved it wasn’t Dan, Stacy exhaled the breath she’d been holding. She didn’t think she’d feel like talking to Aria either, but she found herself descending the stairs and opening the door. Immediately, Aria pulled Stacy into her arms and hugged her tight. The intensity of her concern threw Stacy off balance. It took a few, unsteady heartbeats to find her footing and return the embrace.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Stacy lied as she led Aria inside.
“What happened in Omaha? Dan just came over and he was a wreck. I’ve never seen him so upset.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“Did you break up with him?”
“I… I didn’t…” Stacy stuttered as she struggled to string words, piece together her emotions. Closing her eyes, she pressed her hand to her forehead, to her cheeks, hoping a fever would explain the fire burning inside her chest. “I’m sorry.”
“Because that’s what he thinks happened. He said you told him it was a mistake to be together.”
Desperate for a distraction, Stacy chirped, “Are you hungry? I could whip something up real quick.” Without waiting for an answer, she escaped to the sanctuary of her kitchen.
“Stacy, wait.” Aria hurried to catch up, then stood beside the counter and watched in awe as Stacy pushed around stacks of Tupperware and Saran-wrapped plates inside the crammed refrigerator. “Actually, that pie looks really good.”
Stacy pulled the blackberry pie from the refrigerator and set it on the counter. Blackberry had always been Dan’s favorite. She’d baked it early that morning before they’d left for Omaha, her way of apologizing for being so irritable the past few weeks. She’d thought their road trip would help clear her mind and ease her fears, bring a little clarity to their relationship. She didn’t know what she wanted, or what he wanted, but she had hoped they’d use the time to figure it out.
The drive down had been just like old times. They’d teased and laughed, snacked on Twizzlers and Cherry Cokes. She’d sat close, held his hand. Their conversation had come easy. Once they got to the Mart, the mood changed. She’d walked through the doors of the store with the belief she was there to help him pick out his furniture, for his house. But as he stood in the background, and left every single decision up to her, it became more and more obvious that his intention was for her to pick out their furniture, for their house—and it had scared the crap out of her.
“Could you grab the ice cream?” she asked Aria, hoping to distract her as she pulled out a knife to slice two big pieces of pie. With her hands trembling from her emotions, she didn’t want an audience if she accidentally sliced her fingers off.
Aria pried a frosty quart of vanilla ice cream out of the packed freezer as Stacy heated their slices in the microwave. Once their plates were loaded, they settled in the living room with the pie, two Mason jars for glasses, and a bottle of cheap wine Aria found in the back of the fridge. The blackberries were flavorless on Stacy’s numb taste buds and the crust stuck to the back of her throat, but the wine went down like water. She was on her third glass when Aria broke the silence and asked the question Stacy had hoped she could avoid answering.
“So, did you break up with Dan?”
“What we were doing was wrong, Aria,” Stacy answered. “It was my fault that we got together in the first place and I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t. All I can do is hope he finds a way to forgive me some day.”
“Forgive you for what?”
“For loving him.”
“Oh, Stace, why would you ever have to apologize for that?”
“Because it’s wrong. Everything about it is wrong.”
“Why is it wrong?”
“It just is,” Stacy said with a shake of her head. She set her half-eaten pie on the coffee table and leaned back on the sofa, cradling her cup of wine in both hands. “I know you don’t understand, but it is.”
“No, it’s not. Falling in love is a good thing—a really good thing. With everything that’s happened in the past few months I think you’re just confused and a little bit scared of your feelings for Dan, but it’s not wrong to love him. Why don’t you go see him and talk things over? He’s scared, too.”
“We can go see him together if that would help.”
“No, you don’t understand. I can’t be around him!” Stacy cried, sitting up straighter, her heart starting to beat in her chest like a frightened rabbit. “Everything I feel when I’m near him is wrong!”
“No it’s not, Stacy,” Aria protested.
“We’re friends. It’s all we were ever supposed to be. I screwed up and tried to make us something more, but it was the wrong thing to do.”
“You guys are so much more than friends. There’s no going back to that, and honestly, why in the world would you want to?” Aria asked softly. “I can see it in your heart that you’re in love with him, and I know without a doubt that he’s desperately in love with you.”
“No!” Stacy denied adamantly.
“Stacy—” Aria started, but Stacy cut her off.
“I don’t want to talk about this, Aria. Please, just let it go.”
Jumping up from the sofa, she grabbed their plates, busying herself with mindless chores so she wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. As naive as the young girl was about love, Aria was right. There was no way for Stacy and Dan to go back. She had destroyed everything they’d had, and everything they once were, the night they made love. It would always hang over them, an uncomfortable memory they could never forget and never move past.
Stacy hid in the kitchen, doing dishes, cleaning out the fridge, scrubbing the floor, hoping Aria would get the hint and go home. By the time she ran out of things to clean, her head pounded from the wine and the stress. She was dead on her feet and ready for bed. Stacy walked through the living room towards the stairs, and found Aria still curled up on the sofa, sipping the cheap wine and flipping through one of Stacy’s photo albums. Defeated, Stacy poured herself another cup and settled on the sofa next to her.
“Is this Millie?” Aria asked, holding the album up for Stacy to see. She pointed to a picture of Millie and Dan that Stacy had taken on one of their Christmas visits to Allman Falls.
“Yeah.” Stacy smiled at the memory. She pulled the book into her lap and scooted closer to Aria. “I think this was four years ago, maybe five. They used to come every Christmas Eve and stay until New Year’s Day. It was the only time of year they could get away from the store.”
“Oh, she was gorgeous.” Stacy tried to stifle a yawn and failed. “I wish you could have seen Dan and Millie together. They loved each other so much. You could actually feel it in the air; like it was something you could reach out and touch.”
She yawned again and Aria suggested, “I think I should go so you can get some sleep.”
“In a minute.”
Slowly, she turned the pages of the album, pausing occasionally to point out one picture or another and tell Aria the story behind it. They worked backwards in time, from Millie’s last days until her first one with Dan, the night Stacy introduced them at a party on Chelsea Lake. She had forgotten she had taken so many pictures over the years, and as they flipped from one page to the next, one album to the next, Stacy began to understand why Dan had locked all his away in boxes and pretended they didn’t exist.
It was excruciating to look back at Millie’s life, knowing she was gone forever. She would never grace Stacy with her smile again. She would never whisper in her ear or stick out her tongue and cross her eyes just to make Stacy laugh. Never again would she suddenly snap her fingers and shout out, “Hot, holy shit! I’ve got it!” when she finally solved a problem she’d been working through in her mind. All the little things that made Millie Mille were gone forever.
“Oh, those are really old ones. That was my Gram’s album,” Stacy said as Aria pulled the last photo album out of the stack and handed it to her.
She wiped the dust off the aged leather and listened to the binding crack as she opened the cover. The smell of history in Polaroid brought a smile to her face, and she took a deep breath for courage. These were the photos that took her back to some of her favorite memories, but they also drug up some of her absolute worst. She didn’t travel this road very often.
“If I let you look at these, you have to promise not to laugh at my hair.”
“I promise,” Aria assured with a smile. She tucked her long legs under as she snuggled closer to Stacy and looked at the pictures over her shoulder. Pointing to one of Stacy’s favorites, she asked, “Is that your Gram?”
“Yep. And that handsome man next to her is my Gramps.”
“Aw, what an adorable couple. They’re so tiny.”
“Gram was a bitty, little thing, not even five foot tall. But her heart was enormous.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Oh, off over here somewhere,” Stacy said, waving her hand at an imaginary place off to the side, out of the photo album. “Sleeping off the night before. Fighting. Pretending I didn’t exist.”
Aria turned a page, taking a cautious moment of thought before she asked, “Did they drink a lot?”
“Only all the time,” Stacy said, more to herself than to Aria. “They sucked at parenting, but I can’t blame them. My mom got pregnant with me when she was seventeen. Back then, a baby still meant marriage, no matter how young you were. They spent a lot of time hating each other and wishing I had never been born. Especially my mom. They got divorced when I was twelve and she disappeared. I haven’t seen her since. My dad stuck around for awhile, but he might as well of gone with her. He hardly ever came home.”
“I’m so sorry, Stacy.”
“Don’t feel bad. I didn’t want to see him anyway. He never said so, but I know he blamed me for her leaving. He was a jerk all the time. My poor Gram. She spent her life apologizing for him because he was her son, but I knew it wasn’t her fault he was an asshole. She didn’t raise him that way.” She turned the pages of the album slowly, without looking at the pictures. “Gram and Gramps both died when I was fourteen, practically on the same day, and my dad never once cried… I hated him for it.”
“Maybe he had a hard time showing his emotion. It sounds like it was tough for everyone.”
“It was,” Stacy agreed. “He was dating Cheryl at the time, and when they broke up I stayed with her. I’m very lucky she came into my life when she did. I don’t know where I’d be without her. She’s my mom…. She’s awesome.”
“She is,” Aria agreed and gave Stacy’s hand a squeeze.
With a bitter laugh, Stacy said, “My parents are back together, if you can believe that. He caught up to her in Utah, and that’s where they stayed.”
She leaned forward and poured another glassful of wine, drinking half of it in one swallow. She let out a sigh of defeat and said, “My dad sends me a birthday card every year with a hundred dollar bill and a letter inside. I read them, but I’ve never once written him back. Someday I will… I don’t hear from my mom. She’s kind of messed up. She still has a lot of hate in her heart for me. I don’t know what I ever did to her to make her so mad… besides being born… but that was enough, I guess.”
“Life’s full of mysteries that don’t make sense.” Aria’s hand rubbed a swirling, comforting pattern around Stacy’s back.
“I know. My Gram always told me we can ask all the questions we’d like, just don’t expect to get the answer you’re looking for. Sucks, but that’s life.” Stacy shrugged. “And that’s the story of me.”
“Not the whole story,” Aria said. Her smile was warm, her eyes soft. “It’s just a tiny part.”
She settled back against the sofa and they fell into silence while Aria turned the pages of the album. Stacy didn’t know why she unloaded it all on Aria. Maybe it was the cheap wine, maybe exhaustion. Either way, she felt better for doing so.
“Omigod! Is this Dan?” Aria asked in delight, pointing to another picture. “He’s adorable!”
Stacy glanced to where she pointed, and it was indeed Dan—his hair so blonde from the summer sun it was almost white, his face and arms a heavy tan, his smile so big it seemed to consume his entire face, revealing his mouthful of missing baby teeth.
He was holding up a frog in both hands, showing it off to the camera. Chelsea Lake was in the background, with his dad, Rich, slightly out of focus, holding a fishing pole in one giant hand, a beer in the other, glancing back over his shoulder at his son. Stacy was peeking up into the frame, just the corner of her face visible, her hair in sloppy pigtails and her skin just as tan as Dan’s.
“His mom took that picture,” Stacy explained. “They would take us out to the lake every weekend during the summer when we were kids. I don’t think we ever got out of the water, except to eat. Rich would fish from morning to night. Janice would lie on a blanket, tanning herself to a crisp, devouring stack after stack of library books. And Dan and I would swim.”
“Sounds like you guys have always been close.”
“You know how you have these dim memories of being two or three or four years old, and you don’t know for sure which one comes first? Which one is your true, first memory? But they all kind of feel like they’re special—like you remembered those specific memories for a reason?”
Aria nodded and turned toward her, truly listening like Millie used to do.
“I have three of them, and Dan is in every single one. Just Dan—no one else.” Stacy shrugged. “So, yeah, I’ve known him forever.”
“You should call him,” Aria suggested softly.
Stacy shook her head and turned the page of the album. Dan was on that page too, squinting into the sun, his face serious, slightly frowning. Stacy didn’t remember what was happening in the picture, but she knew he had been seven-years old that particular day. He had a Band-Aid on his cheek, just below his eye, covering the cut he got fighting Brad Ericson, the eleven-year-old boy who’d called her a name and pushed her down on the playground at recess. Dan had been on Brad in an instant, pinning the much bigger kid to the blacktop and pummeling him until Miss Spellman pulled him off.
He had come away from the fight without a scratch, but as he walked away, Brad had stuck his foot out and tripped Dan. His face hit the ground, and he had cried. Embarrassed by his tears, he refused talk to Stacy or anyone else for the rest of the day. The moment the bell rang, he ran home and climbed high into his favorite tree, hiding from everyone.
She’d followed him up and sat beside him on the thick branch. Stoic, his face burrowed in frown, he picked at the tree bark and ignored her, until she said, “Thank you, kochanie.” It was the first time she’d ever addressed him with the endearment. He’d turned to her, his cheeks blushing bright crimson, and told her to go away. But even back then she could read his eyes. He didn’t really want her to go, so she’d stayed until he was ready to climb out of the tree together.
“Dan’s always been protecting me, ever since we were little kids.” Stacy ran a light hand over his seven-year-old, brooding face. “But he’s never been able to handle his own emotions. He hides from them. It’s like he thinks if he stands real still and holds his breath long enough they’ll just… go away.”
“I think you’re both hiding this time, Stacy.”
“Maybe,” Stacy agreed with an exhausted shrug. “But it’s what we have to do. The pain goes away eventually, right?”
“Why do you have to hide? Why can’t you embrace what you feel for each other? Don’t you think Millie would have wanted you both to have the opportunity to experience the kind of love she did—especially if it was with each other?”
“I can’t betray her like that.”
“Falling in love with Dan is not a betrayal. It’s something beautiful that you should grab onto with your whole heart never let go of. If Millie could give you her blessing, I know she would.”
Stacy shook her head slowly and whispered to herself, “No.”
“You’re letting your grief make your decisions, sweetie. You should be listening to your heart.”
Stacy lifted her gaze to Aria, her eyes hot with tears she didn’t have the energy to cry. Aria hugged her for a long time, not talking, just holding her the way Millie used to do. Grateful Aria had stayed, Stacy held her tight.
After Aria said good-night, Stacy peeled back the protective sheet covering the faded picture of Dan and lifted it from the gummy page. This was her Dan, the one she had the right to, the one she belonged to. The little boy was hers. Grown-up Dan, the Dan he was today, never would be.
She hoped and prayed he would find love and happiness again someday, but she knew it would not be with her. No matter what Aria believed, Dan was Millie’s and would always be Millie’s. If she tried to change that, if she allowed herself to love him as though he were hers, the guilt would slowly consume her until one day it ate her alive.