Winter lasted longer than Dan imagined possible, each day more tedious than the one before, as Bev ushered a constant parade of potential buyers through Chelsea Lake. Of the seventeen times she showed the property, two submitted offers. He turned both down immediately. His lack of consideration infuriated Bev, but she kept her cool. The first week of February, she showed the house to the same couple several times. One showing lasted so long Dan began to wonder if they hadn’t moved in and forgot to tell him. When they finally left, and Bev had an offer to present to him, she had a hard time suppressing her glee.
Dan perused the paperwork for a few moments, barely skimming most of it, and pushed it back across the kitchen table to her. “No.”
“What?” she cried in disbelief.
“I said no.”
“It’s a beautiful offer, Dan! You’re never going to get one better than this.”
“I told you, my asking price is non-negotiable.”
“You have to be willing to give a little.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Selling a house is a lot like dancing,” she explained. “Both parties have to move their feet or it’s not going to work.”
“I don’t dance.”
“Your house has been on the market for almost a month. The listing’s going to start going stale real quick. Before you know it, you’ll be lucky to get an offer at all, and you can forget about getting another one as nice as this. It’s time to get out on that dance floor, Dan. Start shaking that hiney.”
“I just told you, I don’t dance.”
“Then you don’t want to sell your house,” she argued.
“Maybe you don’t want the commission bad enough,” he challenged, knowing that would light a fire under her.
It did. Not two days later, she showed up with a second offer from the same family, this one only slightly under his original asking price, and included a pre-approval letter from the bank. He turned that one down, as well.
“Now you’re just being spiteful,” she scolded, her bird-face pinching into a scowl. “I can’t sell your house if you remain unwilling to compromise.”
“So quit. The yellow pages are full of realtors. I’ll just pick a different one,” he said and slammed the door in her face. He was being a jerk, but he didn’t care. It was his house to sell, not hers. He made the rules in their relationship. It was the only thing in his life he could control, and he’d be damned if he was going to let her take that away from him.
He was angry all the time. He woke up with the anger eating away at his stomach lining and went to bed with it pounding against his skull. It fed on him all day long, spiraling hot and tight, making his heart race and his back hurt. He was angry, he was hurt, he was confused, but most of all he missed Stacy like hell.
It pissed him off that he loved her. He didn’t want to. He wanted to exorcize her from his heart and forget he’d ever let her in, but it was impossible. She was everywhere. She haunted his dreams, invaded his thoughts, and lived in every single country song that played on the radio. Every time he smelled fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies he felt like crying—or gouging someone’s eyes out with a spoon.
The only thing that kept the burning anger from destroying him was the fact that the Rogans were working him so hard he barely had time to think. When Brent said they were over-booked, he hadn’t been exaggerating. The three of them worked from well before sunrise to long after sunset and never seemed to get caught up. Every night, Dan collapsed into bed dead-tired, certain he could sleep for a week. Every morning, Jimmy made sure he didn’t by waking him with a phone call at exactly five o’clock, barking out the day’s orders like a short-tempered drill sergeant.
The more Dan worked for Jimmy, the more he saw James in the young man. He already knew the boy had inherited his father’s incredible skill, but he hadn’t realized he had also acquired his knack for business and his vision. One night, over beers and whiskey shooters at Captain Jack’s, Jimmy laid out his five-year plan for Dan. Since the boys had taken over their father’s business, Jimmy had managed to invest enough capital to expand the business in a big way, and he saw Dan and his architecture skills as the missing piece of his puzzle. Dan was impressed with Jimmy’s foresight, he was flattered by his praise, but he turned him down on the spot. He needed to move on.
The only thing he hated about working for Jimmy was the noon hour. Just like James, of the handful of places to eat in Allman Falls, Jimmy favored the lunch counter at the grocery store. Every day he ordered a plate piled high with rubbery Salisbury steak and lumpy mashed potatoes drowning in gravy. It was hot, it was fast, and it was cheap, but it was barely edible.
For some unknown reason, Dan always tagged along and ordered his own miserable lunch of greasy, fried chicken with coleslaw and a side order of heartburn. He hated it, but the more he ate there, the more he craved it. Every afternoon, as he was popping antacids like candy, he swore he’d never eat there again, but he always went back the next day, and the girl working the counter had his plate dished up and sitting ready for him, right beside Jimmy’s, before they even walked through the door.
The Thursday before Valentine’s Day, Aria delivered another picture from Melissa with Dan’s mail, arriving in a sunshine yellow envelope, addressed directly to him instead of forwarded through the store. Again, Dolly was missing from the picture, but this time so was Millie. Instead, Melissa had crafted a page full of hearts, drawn in every color Crayola had ever imagined. He tacked it up on the wall next to the others then stood back and studied it for a long time, debating what Millie was trying to tell him. The only answer he came up with was to send a Valentine to Melissa in return.
The next day, after he and Jimmy finished their lunch at the deli counter, Dan stopped by the aisle of greeting cards to find one for her. He was instantly overwhelmed by glitter and the color pink.
Popping a Tums, Dan asked Jimmy, “What kind of Valentine do you send to a little girl?”
“I don’t know. Aren’t they all the same? Just pick one so we can get back to work.”
Jimmy plucked a random card from the rack and handed it to Dan. On the front was a picture of an elderly couple, kissing on a porch swing, with a caption that read, ‘To My Darling Husband.’ Dan rolled his eyes and tossed it back on the rack.
“Who’s the kid?” Jimmy asked and selected another card. He looked it over and put it back, then wandered down the row.
“The daughter of the couple who bought the store. She’s like five or six, and she’s been sending me pictures since I moved out here.”
“That’s kind of weird.”
“The weird part is she keeps drawing Millie.”
“That’s not weird, that’s creepy.”
“Yeah, I know.” Dan spotted a card with a cutout puppy. “What about this one?”
Jimmy gave it a quick glance and shrugged. “I guess?”
“What are you and Kylie doing for Valentine’s Day?” Dan asked as he grabbed the matching envelope and headed for the checkouts.
“More sex.” Jimmy laughed.
“You should at least treat her to dinner first.”
“I’m sure we’ll stop to eat at some point.”
“Kylie’s a lucky girl,” Dan joked as he caught sight of a display of roses wrapped in cellophane. He changed course and wandered over to them.
Every year for Valentine’s Day, he would buy Millie a dozen red roses and add one white rose for every year they’d been married. This year, would she would have received twenty-two roses, a beautiful balance of red and white, love and friendship, the perfect representation of their relationship. Gently, he skimmed the petals of the purest white rose in the display, flawless velvet, like her skin.
Ever since New Year’s Eve, he’d found himself missing Millie more and more. He needed to talk to her. He needed to hear her laugh and see her smile. He needed to smell the skin of her neck, feel her body heat beneath his lips. He needed to confess his love for Stacy and relieve some of the guilt weighing heavy on his heart. He needed for her to tell him why things went so horribly wrong. Only she could explain it in a way that was so simple even he could understand it.
“Hey,” a small voice came from behind him.
“Oh, hey, Stace,” Jimmy said.
Dan whipped around, his heart instantly flipping over in his chest at the sight of her. She looked tired, and she had lost weight since he had seen her last, but she was gorgeous in the afternoon light. She stood waiting for him to say something, but his mind went blank.
“Not working today?” Jimmy asked her.
“No. It’s a snow day.”
“We only got a few inches.”
“I hear you’re moving,” Stacy said to Dan before Jimmy even finished his sentence, as though she didn’t hear him talking. She looked down as she said it, avoiding Dan’s gaze.
He still couldn’t form words. It was hard enough just to breathe.
“Where are you moving to?” she asked.
“Mena, Arkansas,” Dan managed to answer, deciding right that instant. He might as well.
Stacy looked at him, a puzzled expression on her face. “What’s in Mena?”
He just shrugged. Nothing was in Mena. Everything he wanted was standing right before him.
“He’s full of shit,” Jimmy said, shooting a glare at Dan. “He’s not going anywhere.”
“I thought you were coming right back, Stacy. Where’ve you been?” Chase came around the end of the aisle carrying an armload of groceries, stopping short when he caught sight of them. “Oh… hey, Dan.”
“Chase.” Dan tried to keep his voice even as his face grew hotter by the second.
Chase dumped the groceries in the cart then stood a little taller and stepped closer to Dan, challenging him. His hands were at his sides, but his right one flexed and curled into a fist. Stacy looked from one to the other and sighed in defeat.
“We should get going.” Stacy grabbed Chase by his shirt and pulled him over to her. “It was good to see you, Dan. Good luck in Arizona.”
His eyes drifted away from her face, landing on her hand resting on the cart push bar, and the thin band wrapped around her ring finger.
Fighting a sudden, overwhelming urge to cry, he choked out, “You’re engaged?”
“Oh, shit,” Jimmy cursed under his breath, barely audible.
Stacy’s eyes shot to her hand and she quickly turned the ring with her thumb, hiding the diamond chip from sight, as though the meaning of it could be erased.
“Stace?” Dan whispered in disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“I… I’m sorry,” she answered in a voice so low he could have imagined it. Fat, heavy tears slid down her cheeks and she turned away.
“Let’s go, Dan.”
Jimmy jerked on his arm, but Dan stood rooted in place, unable to move, unable to breathe, as he watched Stacy and Chase make their way over to the dairy section. She was too skinny. She was moving too slow. She was not happy. Somehow, even though she was the one who had said good-bye, it felt as though her misery was his fault. Even her engagement felt like his fault, like he’d somehow forced her hand.
Slowly, she turned, glancing back at him over her shoulder, her eyes locking with his for a split-second before she looked away. Overwhelmed with it all, Dan tossed Melissa’s Valentine on top of the flower display and shoved Jimmy out of his way as he headed for the exit.
“Wait up, Dan.”
Jimmy kept up with Dan’s angry pace through the store and across the parking lot, but as soon as they reached the truck he grabbed Dan by the arm, forcing him to stop.
Dan whipped around and demanded, “You knew they were engaged?”
“I did, yeah,” Jimmy admitted.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because the ring means nothing. She’s not going to marry him.”
“Sure as hell looks that way to me.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she’s in love with you, you stupid fuck.”
“Bullshit! If she loved me she wouldn’t have pushed me away.”
“She pushed you away because she’s in love with you! Open your eyes, Dan.”
“My eyes are open! She’s wearing his ring, Jimmy.”
“I’m telling you that ring doesn’t mean anything. She’s never going to marry Chase, just like you’re never going to sell your house and move!”
“Oh, you can bet your ass I’m moving.” He pulled his keys out of his pocket and brushed past Jimmy to open his truck door.
“No, you’re not,” Jimmy said and grabbed his arm to stop him.
He pushed Jimmy aside and climbed into his truck, slamming the door hard. There was no point in staying in Allman Falls and waiting for his house to sell. There was no hope that Stacy would wake up one morning and realize she’d made a mistake and come back to him. She didn’t love him, at least not more than she loved the toxicity of her relationship with Chase. She truly was a glutton for punishment, like she’d said. The ring on her finger proved it.
Frustrated, Jimmy rushed around to the passenger side and hopped in just before Dan backed out of the parking space.
“You’re such a prick sometimes,” Jimmy grumbled as he slammed the door.
“That’s what happens when life’s constantly taking a dump on you.”
“You know, you’re not the only person who lost someone the day Millie died.”
“So why don’t you quit thinking about yourself for once in your life and help Stacy?”
“Help her with what?” Dan snapped. “I’ve done nothing but help Stacy her entire life! She never fucking learns! She’s so desperate to be loved she keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over again. I’m sick and tired of saving her from herself! If she wants to go back to that cheating bastard, after everything he’s done to her, more power to her, but I refuse to watch it happen, and I refuse to be her shoulder to cry on ever again! I’m done feeling sorry for her. She can spend the rest of her life wallowing away in her self-pity for all I care. It’s what she does best!”
“If that’s seriously what you think of her, maybe she’s better off without you.”
“Maybe she is,” Dan muttered under his breath. He didn’t give a fuck what Jimmy or anyone else thought of him. Caring got him nowhere. Being the nice guy got him nothing except his heart ripped out, stomped on and shoved through a meat grinder.
Jimmy kept his mouth shut as Dan drove across Allman Falls. When he pulled up to the house they’d been working at, Jimmy got out of the truck, but Dan didn’t follow. He wasn’t in the mood to hang drywall in a cramped basement for the rest of the afternoon. He needed room to be able to think.
As soon as Jimmy closed the door, Dan threw the truck into reverse and backed back out of the driveway. Jimmy didn’t even glance in his direction before heading into the house, but Brent, who was just climbing out of Aria’s Jeep, waved him down with a look of confusion on his face.
Dan rolled his window down an inch and Brent asked, “Where are you going?”
“Are you sick?”
“No. I just need to get out of here for awhile.”
“Are you coming back tomorrow?”
“Don’t count on it,” he said and started toward Chelsea Lake.
Before he got all the way through town, he changed direction and headed for the spur that would lead to the highway. The cabin on Chelsea was just as claustrophobic as the basement would have been. He needed space and fresh air. He needed to get away from everything. Once he reached the highway he headed east and let his truck lead him home.
June – The Previous Year
She had wasted away to nothing, barely hanging on but unable to let go, still refusing to cry for herself. Dan cried freely for both of them.
“Dan…” Her voice a whisper, he had to lean in to hear her, but he knew what she was asking of him. The sedative was already in his hand.
“Stace is on her way, baby. Can you wait… just a little bit longer, until she gets here?” He stroked her arm, feeling the weak flutter of her pulse, faint but still there. “Or let me call your mom. She’ll be here in an instant.”
She looked through him, slipping out of consciousness again. Her hand let go, sliding down his arm onto the bed. He adjusted her blankets, smoothed her hair…stroked her face… ran his hands down her legs. He wanted to touch every bit of her, remember her every line, but it was too hard to look at her. Resting his head on the bed, he cried.
In constant pain, too weak to even hold her head up, she was ready to die but unable to go. Still, he could not do what she asked. He could not help her the way she wanted. Foolishly, he held onto the hope that his desperate prayers for a miracle would be answered. He was selfish and needed to keep her forever. He was supposed to die first, not her. He was supposed to be the one waiting to welcome her, so he wouldn’t have to bear the pain of being alone.
He called Hank and Gina, unable to speak, but they understood and rushed to her. Throughout the day, they came in and out of the room, holding their daughter and saying their good-byes, checking on Dan who never moved from his chair. The hospice nurse did what little she could. Dan sat and watched his wife—her chest barely rising and falling, the pauses between growing longer with each breath.
The hours faded unnoticed until the sun began to set, its dying rays casting an ethereal orange glow and lighting up her face, making her look more alive than she was. It was cruel how beautiful she looked in that moment, as beautiful as she was the day she had become his wife. He leaned in and kissed her forehead…her cheeks… placed his hand over her heart and his lips upon hers…lingering…his salty tears flavoring their kiss… and then she was gone.
She did for herself what he could not do for her.
He slowly straightened and watched as the light faded from the room, uncertain how he was supposed to move from this moment into the next. His heart stopped as his body waited to be told what to do. He wanted to lie down beside her on the bed, take her in his arms, and journey with her. Instead, he left, unable to stay in the room without her in it. He went out the door and down the stairs, out into the yard. He had to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep walking until he found the edge of the earth to take that final step off of.
Millie’s rosebush caught his blind eye as he passed. Aglow in the last of the sun’s rays, it mocked him with its rich, green, healthy growth. All spring, while the rosebush had thrived, Millie had slowly wasted away before his eyes. It had stolen her life from her. Anger flashed deep in his soul. He wanted it to die. He wanted Millie to live and it to die. In three quick strides, he was on top of the bush, reaching for it, bracing to pull it out of the ground.
And then he saw it—a single bud, just starting to open. The bud Millie had been waiting for. The bloom she would never see, the petals inside the impossible shade of orange she’d wished for. Before he could stop himself, he ripped the unfurling bud off the plant and crushed it in his fist. He broke every stem, stripped every leaf, stomped his heavy boot down the center of the plant, only stopping when Stacy’s car door slammed and she ran to him, pulling him away from his hell, and into her strong, steady, loving embrace.
Stacy sat in the living room, an open book in her lap, but her mind couldn’t focus on the individual words. The letters all strung together as one, waving around the page, the spaces between them blurred. Chase stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his shoulders slumped forward, watching her.
“You want me to grill some steaks for dinner?” Chase asked, finally breaking the silence between them. He crossed the room to her and lifted the book from her lap, glancing at the cover before he set it on the coffee table and sat beside her.
“I’m not hungry,” Stacy answered.
Chase slipped his arm around her and she settled into the familiar crook of his body. His lips brushed her forehead and her hand ran across his thigh.
“I should probably get going before too long. I have Nolan tonight. Jill’s starting that new job.”
“Yeah, you should go,” she agreed. “We can have the steaks tomorrow.”
He pulled her in a little closer as her hand traveled his leg. For the past month, he had been perfect, keeping every promise he’d made when he slipped the ring on her finger, but it wasn’t enough anymore. The love between them was long gone, and it was never coming back. They both knew it, but it was as though neither of them wanted to be the one who pulled the trigger.
“I think I was wrong about something, Stacy.”
“Oh? What’s that?” she asked.
His jeans were well-worn and faded, stained with grease and oil that would never wash out no matter what she tried, but they looked good on him. Perfect. She could feel the muscles of his leg through the fabric, tight and hard even when he was relaxed, always ready to jump up and run. She’d been trying so hard for so long to pin him down. All along, she should have just let him go.
“Dan does love you. For real. He’s not substituting you for Millie.”
“I know,” Stacy said. She looked up at Chase and shrugged. “But it doesn’t matter.”
“It’s all that matters.”
She just shook her head. He brushed her hair away from her face and tipped her chin so she would look him in the eyes. He didn’t say any words, but she knew what he was trying to tell her. He was saying good-bye.
“I love you, Chase.”
There should have been more fanfare to the moment, a funeral procession of sorts as they laid their life together to rest, but there was nothing, not even a tear. It was just… over.
“I love you, too, Stacy. I always have. I just wasn’t very good at it.”
“You were good enough for me.”
She brought her hand up to his face, lightly stroking his cheek as he moved into her and pressed his lips against hers one last time. He tasted bittersweet of her past, and she kissed him fiercely, struggling to force herself to let him go. Finally, she did.