As one overcast, miserable winter day blended into the next, Dan tried calling and texting Stacy again and again, but she never once returned his call. Feeling like a heartbroken, teenaged stalker, he’d slowly drive by her house, try to catch sight of her through the windows, imagine her snuggled up warm, baking or sewing, curled on the sofa, eagerly reading. Desperately, he searched for the magic words to text or say that would convince Stacy to talk to him again, words that would set her world right again, but he couldn’t get his brain to settle on one train of thought long enough to form sentences, let alone a convincing argument.
Christmas came and went as though it was any other day, and Dan spent it alone. The reclaimed wood bookcase he’d designed and built for Stacy sat in the corner of the cabin, undelivered and mocking him with its jaunty, red and green festive bow. The next morning, without ceremony, Millie’s rosebush dropped its last, wilted leaf onto the windowsill below. Dan carried the withered plant outside and flung it across the frozen lake. The plastic pot skipped across the crusty ice before it wedged into a drift on the opposite shore. The coffee-stained soil spilled out, bleeding into the snow.
He spent New Year’s Eve by himself, sitting on the floor in the middle of the master bedroom of his and Millie’s dream house, a can of gasoline beside him, a book of matches in his hand, praying for the courage to finish what he’d started. He never found it. Instead, he remembered the previous New Year’s Eve, the final one he would ever have with Millie.
They had traveled to Nebraska to spend the holidays with Stacy and Chase, driving up right after Millie recovered from one of her treatments and staying until she was scheduled for the next. Even more than usual, Stacy had gone overboard with everything—from the decorations to the presents to the food—and Millie had adored it all. It was a very good week for her. She’d had more energy and felt healthier than she had in a long time. She had eaten well, and had slept better. She had asked Dan to make love to her.
When the clock struck midnight, ushering in the New Year that was now leaving him, Dan and Millie had braved the cold night air for a moment alone on the patio. Millie wrapped up in the quilt Stacy had made her for Christmas and Dan had held her tight, using his heat to keep her warm as they watched the stars. Confident that the treatment was working, Dan had whispered promises of many more years under the night sky together.
She had kissed him and said, “Promise me that no matter what happens, you’ll look up at the stars and begin each New Year with the same hope for the future as you have tonight, Danny-Boy, and I’ll know you’re doing okay.”
When midnight struck, ringing in his first New Year without her, he couldn’t go outside and look up at the stars with any kind of hope for the future like he’d promised, but he did put the matches away. He figured it was a fair compromise.
The next morning, determined to try again to honor Millie’s faith in him, Dan drove to Allman Falls and knocked on Stacy’s door. Her car sat parked in the driveway and Trace Adkins blasted from the radio inside, drowning out the hum of a vacuum cleaner. She didn’t answer, so he knocked louder. The vacuum shut off, but she didn’t come to the door. He pounded with his fist and kicked at the door in frustration, the deafening booms echoing around the porch and rattling the windows. Stacy ripped the door open, her eyes terrified, her face a sheet of white.
“What’s wrong, Dan? What happened?”
“You tell me.”
“What?” she asked, fear slipping, replaced by confusion.
Just being close to her made him flush. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes bright, her hair a wild tangle, tied in a loose knot. Her t-shirt was thin, too light for the frigid January morning. She crossed her arms over her chest as she started to shiver. Dan had to fight the urge to reach for her and rub her arms warm with his hands.
“Why won’t you talk to me? Why did you shut me out?”
“I didn’t shut you out,” she denied as her eyes drifted away from him.
“See? Right there! That’s you shutting me out.”
“I’m not!” she insisted.
He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “Talk to me, Stace. Please.”
Her eyes started to tear. She begged in whisper, “Let me go.”
Dan didn’t know if she meant to let go of her chin or her heart, but he didn’t want to let go of either one. Instead, he stepped closer to her, his hand softening as he caressed her skin, sliding along her jaw until he cupped the back of her neck. Her face tipped up toward his. A white cloud of vapor filled the space between them as she exhaled the breath she’d been holding into the frozen air.
“I love you, Stace,” Dan whispered.
Gingerly, he brushed his lips against hers as his heart pounded in his chest, begging her to return the words. Her arms remained crossed, but she seemed to melt into him as she returned his kiss for the briefest of moments, a slight whimper coming from deep inside when her tongue touched his. She tasted of sweet cream and coffee, cinnamon and spice—like a perfect Sunday morning.
Her body warmed and his responded. Her arms uncrossed, and her hands splayed across his chest before gripping his jacket tight as she pulled him closer and kissed him with the same consuming hunger she had possessed the first time he’d kissed her, months earlier, on Chelsea Lake. Then, as though a door slammed shut on her heart, she stiffened in his arms and pushed him away.
“Stace!” he cried, grabbing after her, but the front door closed in his face and the lock clicked solidly in place. Desperately, he pounded, but he knew it was useless. She wasn’t going to answer again.
Unsure what to do or where to go, he drove aimlessly around town until he found himself parked in front of Jimmy and Brent’s apartment. Once again, Aria answered. She took one look at his face and pulled him inside by his coat sleeve. Sticking a beer in his hand, she pointed him to the crowded sofa. He sat mashed between Jimmy and Brent for the rest of the day and most of the night, drinking their beer, eating their chili, and staring blankly at the endless football games that played out across the television screen.
Jimmy and Brent’s apartment was alive with activity, overflowing with vigor and youth, but even surrounded by people, Dan felt more alone than he ever had in his life. Sensing he wasn’t in the mood to be messed with, they left him alone to stew in his own self-pity—everyone except Brayden. When the toddler decided it was naptime, he curled up in Dan’s lap instead of Jimmy’s, clutching his well-loved Boo Bear tight in his little fist.
As Brayden slept, his body temperature rose, warming Dan’s chest. His sweet, sweaty head left a damp circle on Dan’s shirt where he rested. His time spend holding Brayden were the best two hours of Dan’s entire holiday weekend, but he was left feeling even more hollow when they were over.
A few days into January, a green and white truck pulled into the driveway of Chelsea Lake, bringing a cruel reminder of what could have been along with the furniture Dan didn’t need and absolutely did not want anymore. After the delivery men left, the house felt emptier than it ever had and looked oddly unsettling, almost haunted in its half-furnished state. Dan found himself overtaken by panic attacks whenever he was in the house for more than five minutes at a time, so he stopped going.
There was no way he would ever be able to live in the house alone, surrounded by unfulfilled dreams, bereft of love or hope, breathing the stagnant air of loneliness. Despondent, he picked up the phone and called the only person in Allman Falls who could help him. She showed up almost instantaneously—her obsidian Lexus swooping into his driveway like a starving vulture on a one-legged rabbit.
“You’ve built yourself a beautiful home, Dan,” Bev Belafonte whistled in admiration, despite Dan’s lackluster, whirlwind tour. The fiftyish, expertly-made-up realtor took another lustful look around the gourmet kitchen then set her slim-line briefcase on the granite countertop. She pulled out a thick stack of forms and started clicking her pen. “We should be able to take this off your hands fairly quickly.”
Standing defensively, with his arms crossed and muscles clinched tight, Dan watched as she filled in the information about his property on the listing form. A tiny, bird-like woman with a shrill voice, bathed in a heavy rose perfume that made his nose itch, Bev was not someone Dan particularly liked. But she could sell over-priced ice to a frozen Eskimo and he wanted the house sold quickly. Hell, he’d pay double her already outrageous commission if she could close on the house by the end of the week. The faster he was out of Allman Falls, the better.
“The cabin isn’t really worth anything, but it’s a nice selling feature. How many acres is the lake itself?” the realtor asked, clicking away on her pen after every question.
“Right around eight,” he answered.
“And has it been recently stocked?” Click, click.
“How many acres of land is the entire property?” Click
“Are there any survey stakes?”
“I have no idea.”
“When does the CRP contract end?” Click, click.
“All of the paperwork is in the file I gave you.”
“Is it public access?” Click…Click, click, click.
She asked a thousand more questions, clicking her pen after all of them. Dan was two seconds away from ripping the pen from her hand and stabbing himself with it when she clicked it for the final time and handed it over. He signed his name more times than he could count and she gave him copies of his rights, her rights, the buyer’s rights, their contract and other paperwork he had no interest in. As she pulled out a digital camera and wandered off to take pictures for the listing, he stayed behind, hoping to avoid any more ludicrous questions.
Absentmindedly, he reached down and opened the drawer of the cabinet closest to the refrigerator, and then let it go. After a slight pause, without even a hint of a push from his hand, the drawer slid silently back into place. The cabinet doors closed themselves, as well.
The cabinet doors and drawers were a last-minute change to the plans, one he’d made with Stacy in mind. A creative tornado in the kitchen, she didn’t have the time or attention for silly things like closing drawers, no matter how many times she slammed her hip into one. Trying to get her to slow down and use caution would be like asking the wind not to blow or the sun not to rise. It went against nature. Instead, he’d ordered the new hinges and sliders to help protect her from herself.
He’d changed the cabinets in the laundry room, as well. Millie would have been able to reach them just fine, but for Stacy, they’d have been a stretch. He lowered them six inches from their original height so she wouldn’t have to. He’d also changed the color palate in the master bathroom to favor Stacy’s taste and laid a thick carpet in the bedroom to warm her cold toes in the mornings.
He’d added more shelves to the built-in cabinets in the living room to hold all of her books and the collection of tchotchkes she loved so much. He added a potting bench in the garage and had started work on a canning closet in the basement, but he’d lost the heart to finish. If he looked out the kitchen window to the snow-covered yard, he could see where he had imagined her vegetable garden, an abundant plot of rich soil and vigorous growth, surrounded by a white picket fence heavy with flowering vines, just like her Gram’s.
Everything he did, every little change he made, he had done specifically for her. Somehow, since long before Thanksgiving—probably since the night he’d had to fight for control of his hands and his heart in her kitchen—he’d had it in the back of his mind that this was no longer his house, or Millie’s house. It had become Stacy’s. She was the only one who could transform his rough construction into the warm, vibrant home he had seen reflecting in Millie’s eyes the day she had made him promise to return to Chelsea Lake. He knew it with absolute certainty now, but the knowledge had come too late.
“Would you consider furnishing the rest of the rooms?” Bev asked when she returned to the kitchen, her shrill voice breaking into Dan’s thoughts. “The house will show better if it looks finished.”
“Or you could remove all of the furniture and we could show it empty,” she suggested.
“The furniture goes with the house.” It wasn’t his anyway. It was Stacy’s.
“Okay, then. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Dan.” She held out her hand for him to shake. He kept his arms crossed. It didn’t faze her. “I have everything I need to get this listed by the end of the day. I have a sign in the trunk of my car and I’ll just pop that in at the end of the driveway and be on my way.”
Dan watched her leave the house then went around to shut off all of the lights she’d left on. When he made his way around the side of the lake to the cabin, he saw her car parked at the end of the driveway. Standing next to a knee-high, muddy snow drift, wearing a designer skirt and heels, she tried to force the realty sign into the hard-packed, frozen ground. Figuring she’d need help, he started down the drive, but stopped when she grabbed a sledge hammer from the trunk. With two, solid whacks, the sign went right it.
Tossing the hammer in the car, she slammed the door and drove off with a little wave. She didn’t get even a speck of road dirt on herself or her car. She was good. He hoped she was just as fast.