The first month of Ashley’s nursing career flew by in a blur of early mornings, rushed meals, long corridors and hot tears, but she survived. Her boss had eased up, her coworkers had opened up, and her shoes survived most days vomit-free. Her fear started to dissipate, allowing her education to take control of her decision-making, boosting her confidence. As each day passed, she felt less like a moron, and more like a competent human being.
By the first Friday of May, she was riding high on adrenalized exhaustion, looking forward to a night out in Juliette with Oscar and some of the girls to celebrate her own awesomeness over beer, hot wings and, hopefully, some casual sex. But then, late Friday afternoon, her first patient died, shattering her illusion of control.
Stanley Gordon was not the first person who had died during her month working at the hospital, but he was the first patient who had wormed his way into her heart. From the moment he had puked on her shoes her first day on the job, she had felt a connection the cranky old goat in Room 204, the one who talked too loud and laughed too hard at his own dirty jokes, the one whose eyes lit up every time she stirred grape jelly into his cottage cheese. Unaware she could feel such sorrow for a relative stranger, she wept uncontrollably in the back stairwell until the end of her shift, and then stumbled bleary-eyed through the blinding afternoon sunshine, to her car. She kicked off her shoes, slipped on her sunglasses and drove barefoot out of town, toward the highway, desperate to go home.
Construction on the highway between Juliette and Allman Falls had stopped and started all month, held up by heavy rains and a late cold snap. The last time she had driven through, it had appeared to be near completion, the last of the concrete patches poured and leveled, the crew packing up. When she rounded the Highland curves, she was disheartened to find even more heavy equipment had been unloaded and the highway ripped apart as though in a war zone.
The first car in line approaching the construction, she pulled to an easy stop twenty feet in front of the flagman. It was the same guy she’d nearly run over a month earlier, the one who flipped her off every single time she’d passed since. That afternoon, since she was stuck staring at him, he left his middle finger suspended in the air between them much longer than was necessary.
She stuck out her tongue, flashed a quick, double flip, then fished her cell phone from her purse. She sent a quick text to Jill, and one to Trevor, telling both about her loss that afternoon. Jill texted back a string of heart and love emojis, which didn’t help at all. Trevor didn’t reply, but he was halfway across the world in Iraq, probably sleeping. Or dead. She hated that her mind immediately went there whenever he didn’t answer, but it did. Every single time. Especially on a day already discolored by loss.
Desperate to unload her heavy heart onto someone, Ashley rolled her window down and hollered out to the flagman, “Hey!”
He stepped in closer to her, leaning against the pole of his stop/slow paddle. “What?”
“Stanley died today.”
Feeling foolish instead of relieved, she dismissed the outburst. “Never mind.”
He took a step back, confused, and she looked to her hands, pretending to text to hide her embarrassment. Not that she cared what he thought of her. He was an okay-looking guy, rail thin and scruffy, sunburned and road-dirty, but not gross. He looked younger than she’d originally thought, close to her own age, his features aged by hunger and the streets instead of time, like a lot of the kids she grew up with. His voice was rough, like gravel, and his ice blue eyes held a dangerous twinkle, one she sensed could get her into trouble. Her gut told her to roll up her window and end the temptation. Instead, she motioned toward the new equipment.
“What’s with the machines? I thought you guys were done.”
“They’re done patching. Now, they resurface.”
“How long’s that going to take?”
He looked off down the highway, as though calculating. “A couple months?”
“Seriously?” she groaned.
She sighed in frustration. “Awesome.”
With his eyes along the horizon, watching traffic approach, he said, “I’m sorry about Stanley.”
“Yeah, me too. But he was old. He had cancer. And heart disease.”
“Was he your dad?”
“I don’t know my dad,” she huffed out on a laugh. “Stanley was a patient.”
“You a nurse?” he guessed.
She motioned down to her turquoise scrubs. “You think I want to dress like this?”
With a shrug, he looked behind him, toward the oncoming pilot car. “My mom’s a nurse.”
“So is mine,” she replied in whisper, overwhelmed by a sudden, desperate desire to be wrapped in a warm hug, comforted by a soothing word. She longed to be pestered and nagged about her whereabouts, to be worried over and endlessly lectured.
She was tired of running, tired of hating. She missed her sister.
More than anything, she craved her mom.
With the pilot car as her guide through the destruction surrounding her, she finally found her way home.
Chase kept an eye on his temperature gauge as he sat in his idling truck, waiting for the pilot car to return and lead them through the highway construction between Allman Falls and Juliette. He’d planned to pull his truck into one of the garage bays at Roger’s and replace the faulty thermostat over lunch, but then Stacy had called, asking him to meet her to sign paperwork. When he’d turned down their old street, he’d barely recognized his own house. With a new roof, fresh paint and neatly mowed yard, their once-tired little bungalow gleamed with new life in the afternoon sunshine.
Inside, the wood floors had been refinished, the walls painted, the windows replaced. The clunking heater had been repaired, the fireplace cleaned. The appliances in the kitchen had been upgraded, the torn linoleum replaced with hardwood. The bathrooms boasted new fixtures, upgraded plumbing, and heated tile floors. His every memory had been replaced or upgraded, his entire life with Stacy erased, swept clean away as though a dusty cobweb in the corner.
As he’d walked from room to room with Stacy, searching for that lost connection to what once was, the overeager realtor chirped about contracts and open houses. He didn’t listen, and left with a handful of papers he didn’t remember signing. Sitting in the line of traffic, he flipped through the paperwork. The stack wasn’t nearly as thick as those he’d signed to purchase the house, but the weight of them felt even more daunting.
There had been no joy in this transaction, no thrill in the walk-through. Stacy didn’t bounce from room to room. Her cheeks weren’t flushed, her hair wasn’t wild. She didn’t jabber a mile a minute, from one desire to the next. She didn’t clutch onto his arm and pop up onto her toes to kiss his cheek. She’d been subdued, her hair braided and her voice quiet, carrying a deflated tone his voice echoed.
The moment they finished the paperwork, she’d left. He stood in the driveway, watching her car slowly disappear down the road. She hadn’t asked about Jill, or his son. He hadn’t asked about Dan. He should have. He honestly did want to know how they were doing, if they were happy. Just as he hoped she cared the same about him.
The temperature of his truck’s engine increased gradually and he strained to look past the line of traffic, relieved to see the pilot car approach. The first car in line was Ashley’s. He lifted a finger from the steering wheel in wave, expecting her to flip him off or ignore him completely. She surprised him with a wave of reply. It was a small gesture, but one he needed.
Bumper to bumper, the line of cars and trucks inched through construction, scattering like rats the moment the pilot car pulled off and they hit open highway. Chase hung back, allowing those with hot tempers to blow past as his truck sucked in cooler air. The gauge hovered just below the red line, but did not cross, so he risked a trip to the grocery store before heading to Jill’s trailer.
With a fresh paycheck in the bank, he stocked up on beer and diapers, splurged on steaks, and grabbed a package of condoms, just in case. Since that night in the living room, she’d rebuffed his every advance, but she’d made a habit of sneaking into his shower in the mornings. Sometimes they made love in the steamy spray, sometimes she only wanted to wash her hair. It was confusing, and incredibly frustrating, but he wasn’t about to complain.
On his way to the registers, he spotted a display of cards, flowers and other assorted ‘Gifts for Mom,’ and kicked himself for nearly forgetting. Sunday would be Jill’s first Mother’s Day. It had to be special. He circled the display, debating flowers or candy, and decided on a bottle of her favorite red wine. His gift to her would be the one thing she’d craved since before Nolan was born—a solid night of sleep.
Jill wasn’t as thrilled with his gift as he’d hoped. “I can’t drink while I’m breastfeeding,” she said, handing the bottle back to him.
“It’s just one night,” he argued, but she refused.
Angry for no reason, he took the bottle outside and drank half of it while he grilled the steaks. He burned one, under-cooked the other, but they still tasted alright. Jill put together a quick salad and they ate together in the living room, Jill on the sofa beside him and Nolan kicking his legs and waving his arms, playing on a blanket on the floor.
Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the time spent in his old house, but as he sat with his stitched together family, he was overwhelmed by a sense of loss, a feeling of nostalgia for the life he could have had with Stacy, if only he’d allowed her to be happy.
He wanted to try it again. Do it right this time. Prove to himself he was a good man.
Turning to Jill, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. He slipped his house key off the ring and held it out to her. “This is what I really wanted to give you for Mother’s Day.”
She looked at him, confused. “A key?”
“No, a house. My house,” he struggled to explain. “Mine and Stacy’s. I want to buy it from her and live in it with you and Nolan, as a family.”
“Chase… No.” She brought a hand to her mouth and let out sigh of dismay. “No.”
“It’s okay. I have it all figured out,” he rushed. “I can offer to pay Stacy for the equity and assume the loan.”
“No. Chase.” She placed a hand on his arm to silence him. “I can’t live in her house. Please, don’t ask me to do that.”
“It’s not her house anymore,” he argued. “It’ll be our house. Yours and mine, together. And it’s all been redone. It’s like it’s brand new.”
“It’s still her house. It will always be her house.” She plucked the key from his hand and carelessly tossed it onto the end table, out of sight. “This trailer is my home. I know it’s not much, but it’s mine. It’s where I feel comfortable and it’s where I want to raise my son, at least for now.”
“Fine,” he conceded and snatched up his beer, drinking away his disappointment.
She looked away from him, down to her hands clasped in her lap. “And this is where I want you to stay. With us. If you’d like.”
“Really?” he asked in whisper, as the sense of loss dissipated and hope rose to take its place.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“I’d like that.” Moving closer, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, brushed a thumb against her cheek. When he’d met her a year earlier, she had been so young, so very naïve. And he had recklessly taken advantage. He didn’t deserve her trust. His final gift to her, and to Nolan, for Mother’s Day was his sincere promise to earn it. “I’d like that a lot.”