Every time Jimmy opened the bright red door of Tiny Hearts Daycare and Preschool, he found himself overwhelmed by the scent of poster paint. Screaming kids, mass confusion, and a blinding rainbow of primary colors attacked his senses all at once, but it was the smell that momentarily halted his step, freezing him in the entryway. Pungent in its intensity, it carried a heavy-handed smack of déjà vu, taking him back in time to his own childhood. He had yet to decide whether he liked the feeling.
“Well, hello, Jimmy,” Teresa Carter, the daycare’s administrator, called out in greeting. “I was expecting Martha to come for Brayden today.”
“Change of plans,” Jimmy said.
Kylie had called in a panic, apologizing before she even asked for his help. A patient at the nursing home had suddenly passed, leaving behind a shattered husband whose adult children were still in transit. Kylie’s mother, Martha, had been her nurse for many years. She knew the family well, and wanted to stay on until they arrived, which would be long past the time daycare closed.
When Kylie couldn’t get ahold of Ashley, she apologetically called Jimmy. “I hate asking when you’re so busy, but Sarah can’t come in until seven, and we still haven’t replaced Marissa yet. I’m here by myself. I can’t just take off, and I really don’t want to bring him here.”
He assured her there was nothing to apologize for. It was his fault they were shorthanded at Jack’s. He’s the one who gave Marissa the job working in the office at Rogan-Handley. Kylie had found out about it before he could tell her; through Brent, he was sure. She asked Jimmy if it was true, he said it was. She clinched her jaw so tight he feared she’d shatter a tooth, but she never said a single word about it again. Somehow, that felt worse than her screaming at him.
“Remind Kylie she needs to call and notify us whenever her pick-up plans change.” Teresa removed her glasses and waved them with an air of authority. “We can’t have just anyone walking in off the street.”
“Right,” Jimmy said, wondering when he had been downgraded to ‘just anyone.’
“I have half a mind to ask you to wait outside until I can get in contact with her and ensure you’re even supposed to be here.”
Pushing back a hot flush of anger, he reminded her, “I’m on Ky’s list.”
She gave him a curt nod and replaced her glasses to their perch on her nose. “I suppose we can let it go, this one time.”
Generally, a warm and gracious woman, Teresa had always been a horrible stickler for the rules, which Jimmy had learned the hard way. When she had been his Sunday school teacher, her restrictions had stirred up a mischievous rebellion he couldn’t resist. As punishment for every infraction he’d committed, she’d had him stay after class and read aloud from the Bible. He could still recite a few passages word for word because of her, especially Psalm 1, the one she’d requested he recite most often, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take…”
The way she scrutinized him, he half expected her to demand he recite it again, for old times’ sake.
“I apologize if you feel I’m being harsh, but you haven’t been in to pick up Brayden for quite some time. We can’t be too careful.”
“It has been awhile,” he conceded. His father’s funeral and multiple setbacks at Charlene’s had pushed them weeks behind schedule. Some nights, they didn’t quit work until ten or eleven, and then started right back up at four the next morning. He barely had time to take a leak, let alone do the things he wanted to do, like waste away a sunny afternoon fishing with Brayden.
But today, that was exactly what he planned to do. He was going to toss in a line and wait for a bite, sit in the cool shade of a gnarled cottonwood and listen to Brayden’s sweet chatter. And later, once he had Brayden tucked into bed and Kylie came home from work, he planned to kiss along her stomach, taste the skin of her thighs, and listen to the rapid beating of her heart as they danced skin-on-skin in the moonlight. Tonight, he planned to forget everything, except how to breathe.
He looked in Brayden’s cubbyhole for his backpack. “Is he in his classroom?”
“No, no. They’re out on the playground.” She waved over one of the assistants to collect Brayden. While they waited, her demeanor softened and she stepped closer to him. “Tell me, dear, how have you been holding up since your father’s passing?”
A heavy shadow crept into his peripheral and he felt his body sway. “Fine.”
She laid her hand on his forearm, trapping him. “Pastor Tom had that prayer chain going strong, right up to the very end, but sometimes the Lord has other plans.”
He looked down at her hand on his arm, and wished she would remove it.
“Were you and Brent able to be with him when he went?”
“We were.” He shifted away from her, but she continued to hold onto him. The shadow darkened, deepened, filling his vision.
She squeezed his arm in reassurance, causing a phantom band to tighten around his chest, restricting his lungs. “I’m sure it meant the world to him you boys were there.”
Jimmy gave her a tight nod of agreement, but he knew better.
His father had not wanted them there.
The one thing James Rogan had hated more than anything was to appear weak, especially in front of his sons. Six strokes in three years and James had insisted he was fine—healthy as a raging bull, goddamn it! —right up until the very end. He’d known he was dying. They all had. But they’d sat in his hospital room for two long days and three even longer nights pretending he wasn’t.
Rogan men didn’t get sick. They didn’t get tired. They didn’t whine or complain about anything. Ever. Rogan men shut the hell up, squared their shoulders, and turned to face head-on whatever shit life threw at them. They pushed through the pain, drank away their anger, fucked away their loneliness, and when all was said and done, they thanked God for the experience, and asked Him for more. It was a bullshit way to live, but it was how they were raised. They didn’t know any other way.
“Has your mother given any thought to moving back to Nebraska?”
He shifted his gaze toward the windows overlooking the playground and prayed for the assistant to hurry up with Brayden. “Not that I know of.”
“It would be nice to have her home.”
He agreed. It would be nice. It would ease some of his worry over her. If she would come back home, where she belonged, he would be able to check on her every day. If he could see her face, look her in the eyes, hold her hand, he would know if she spoke the truth when she said, I’m fine, Jimmy. It was too easy for her to lie to him over the phone. She’d been doing it for years.
“Be sure to let her know we’re all praying for her,” Teresa said.
“Sure.” He lifted his arm to scratch at an imaginary itch on his neck, forcing her to release her hold on him.
“I don’t suppose we’ll see you in church one of these Sundays?” she hinted.
Jimmy let her question hang in the air. He hadn’t been to church in so long he wouldn’t know how to go back—or if they even wanted him there. He sent money in his place. So far, no one had called to complain he wasn’t sitting in a pew on Sunday morning. It seemed to be the best arrangement for all involved.
After a moment of silence, she asked, “Maybe after things settle down?”
He looked to the floor, to the scuffed and dirty work boots on his feet, the leather stained with paint and crusted in drywall mud, splattered with grout.
Maybe he’d go back. Someday.
A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, two-year-old ray of sunshine ran full-speed across the playroom and jumped into the air, flying on blind faith. Jimmy caught him with ease, his heart and mood lightened the instant Brayden landed in his arms. The little boy wrapped his arms around Jimmy’s neck, hanging on with everything he had as Jimmy kissed his sweet, applesauce-flavored cheeks. Brayden’s baby-fine hair was scented with the same smell of poster paint that lived in the air. Another, stronger, wave of déjà vu washed over him.
“Were you good for Miss Teresa today?”
Brayden nodded vigorously, but snuck a glance to Teresa, as though to double check.
“He’s always a good boy,” she assured Brayden with a pat on his back. “You could learn a thing or two from him, Jimmy.”
Jimmy laughed, despite himself. “I probably could.”
Brayden was three months shy of his third birthday. In that short amount of life, he had already grown into an amazing person. He was funny and curious, compassionate, courageous. He was still selfish in the way children are, from the inborn instinct for self-preservation, but as he became more independent and aware of the world around him, that selfishness was slowly disappearing, empathy sneaking in to take its place. If Jimmy could take credit for Brayden’s character he would, but that was all Kylie’s doing, her moral compass gently guiding him, influencing him to always do right.
“You ready to go?” Jimmy asked him.
Brayden wiggled to free himself from Jimmy’s arms, and then slipped on the backpack Jimmy held out for him. “We go fishin’?”
“Absolutely,” Jimmy agreed and took his hand.
“Bye, Miss Teesa,” Brayden said with a wave.
“Bye for now, Brayden. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Another look of sympathy crossed Teresa’s face, but Jimmy closed the red door between them before she had a chance to offer more prayers. He was sick and tired of listening to condolences.
Brayden galloped across the church parking lot toward Jimmy’s truck. “Where we gonna fish?”
“I was thinking maybe Chelsea today.” Jimmy opened the back door of the crew cab and lifted Brayden up into his booster seat.
“We play with Will-Wee, too?” he asked of Stacy’s pup, Willie Nelson.
“We can if he’s out, but no pulling on his ears this time, okay? It hurts him when you pull on his ears,” Jimmy reminded Brayden as he buckled the seat belt.
“I’s sorry.” His brow furrowed and his bottom lip slid out in a pout, emphasizing his remorse for pulling on the little dog’s ears.
“I know you are. It’s okay.”
“Oh!” Brayden suddenly cried out and struggled against the straps, trying to get out of his seat. “Get Boo?”
“I got Boo.” Jimmy unzipped Brayden’s backpack and pulled out a well-loved and worn, stuffed teddy bear. “He’s right here, safe and sound.”
Boo Bear was missing an ear and its fur had been rubbed off in places, but Brayden didn’t care. He carried it with him everywhere he went. Jimmy had brought the teddy bear to the hospital the day Brayden was born, and Brayden had slept with it every single night since. He had a hard time falling asleep without its soft fur pressed to his cheek.
Jimmy made sure both Brayden and Boo were buckled in secure before shutting the door tight and going around to the driver’s side. The cab of the truck had turned into a Dutch oven in the few minutes it had taken to collect Brayden, and he cranked the air conditioner on high to try and cut through the worst of the summer afternoon heat.
“You know what, Jimmy?” Brayden asked from the backseat.
“Nope, I don’t know. You tell me.”
“I has gwill ch-weese for lunch.”
“Grilled cheese?” Jimmy pulled out of the parking lot and headed out of town. “That sounds good.”
“And I has applesauce, an milk, an a cake.”
“You ate all that, huh?” Jimmy asked, not fully believing him. The boy ate like a bird, pecking and pulling apart everything on his plate, but never really putting anything in his mouth. How Brayden managed to grow at all, let alone so incredibly fast, amazed him.
“Uh huh.” His little legs swinging back and forth, Brayden tipped his head back and looked up at the ceiling of the truck cab. “And I’s swing! I’s swing, an I’s swing, an I’s swing.”
“That sounds like fun.” He wasn’t quite sure if Brayden meant swing or sing. It could have been either. He loved to do both. “What else did you do today?”
As they drove out of town and down the gravel roads slicing through the flats and hills of the Nebraska countryside, Brayden kept up a steady stream of chatter from the backseat, telling Jimmy even the smallest details of his day. With every word the boy said, and every mile of gravel dust they kicked up, the tension in his body eased and the fear in his mind silenced.
Allman Falls was a small town of less than three thousand people, not much more than a mile or two wide in any direction. But some days it was too much for him—too many people, too much gossip, too many questions, too many memories.
Sometimes, the tree-lined streets seemed to come to life, surrounding him, swallowing him, consuming his breath. His vision blurred. His chest tightened. The muscles in his shoulders and neck tensed, knotting tighter and tighter, constricting him in on himself, suffocating him until he felt like ripping away the houses, and the cars, and the people, the noise and the confusion, with his bare hands. Once he was out of the city limits, with nothing but open air and Mother Nature’s clutter between him and the horizon, he could breathe again.
He had lived in Allman Falls for his entire life, yet he still had a hard time remembering which street the florist was on, where the laundromat was. He didn’t pay enough attention to lock those details into his memory. But the countryside was a different story. He knew every tree, every thicket of wild plum, every patch of switch grass, every creek, every lake—hell, every puddle of water with the possibility of a fish swimming in it—for twenty miles in any direction. He knew every inch of gravel road that led out of Allman Falls better than the back of his own hand, especially the one leading to Chelsea Lake.
Dan had long ago given Jimmy free access to Chelsea. He never needed to call ahead for permission to hunt or fish, no matter when he came out, and he came out often. That day, instead of pulling into the driveway, he passed by the house and drove the gravel road around to the backside of the section, where the creek fed into the lake.
Fishing with Brayden would have been easier on the dock side of the lake, but he didn’t want to be seen from the house. If Stacy caught sight of him, she would drag him inside for one of her never-ending, seven course suppers. He wasn’t in the mood to socialize, and she didn’t know how to take no for an answer.
As he approached the access gate leading to the lake, something in the opposite ditch caught his eye, causing him to slam on his brakes and fishtail to a dead stop in the middle of the road.
“Whoa!” Brayden called out from the backseat, his chatter stopped mid-stream.
“Sorry about that, Little Man.” Jimmy whipped around in his seat and looked back over his shoulder toward the ditch. The sun danced off a flash of metal buried in the overgrown weeds and tangle of windblown grasses.
“We go boom?” Brayden asked.
“No, we don’t go boom. We’re okay.” He reversed down the gravel, keeping his eye to the ditch. Barely visible, a rusted, green and white Ross Realty and Auction sign peeked through the grass. But it had to be a mistake. The Malek property would never go on the market. He wanted it too bad for there to ever be a possibility it could be his.
“Why we stop?” Brayden asked.
“I don’t know yet.” Jimmy turned the wheel and slowly pulled into the narrow, washed-out driveway. Feral cats skittered out from the underbrush as the truck tires bumped over deep ruts and crushed long-fallen, decayed tree branches. Twenty yards in, he came to a stop.
Brayden strained against the straps of his booster seat, his neck craning in his effort to look out the windows. “Why we here?”
“I don’t know yet…”
Jimmy threw the truck into park and leaned into the steering wheel, taking a good look around through the windshield. His mind reeled in disbelief, but the longer he sat there, the more it felt right.
“Hang tight, Little Man. I’m going to go look at something.”
“I go, too?”
“No, you wait here.”
Brayden let out a whine of disappointment, but he didn’t argue.
Jimmy left the engine on, the air conditioner running, the door open so he could listen for Brayden, and walked deeper into the property. If he had to guess, he’d say the land was twenty acres, but it was so thick with mulberry and Siberian elm trees it was hard to see the boundaries of the farmland surrounding it. Rusting cars and farm implements littered the woods, decades of discarded trash filled the low lands. Eastern red cedars of varying sizes sprouted in odd places throughout the tangled landscaping, planted haphazardly by the birds, the seeds allowed to sprout and grow wherever they landed for at least the past ten years.
An abandoned, five-bedroom, Queen Anne Victorian with a steeply-peaked roof and intricate trim that had seen better days sat solid and prominent in the center of the property. At one time, a curved, wraparound porch had hugged the south and west-facing sides of the house, but it had collapsed in on itself, detached from the main structure in a rotting mess along the foundation. Massive cottonwoods, spruce and silver maples ringed the house, planted by man to provide shade and protection, but through years of free-will they had engulfed the structure, consuming it with their heavy branches.
He had dreamed of living in the Malek house for over twenty years, since the day his father had brought him along to do an estimate on porch repairs for Old Lady Malek. Her lazy eye and raspy voice had scared the crap out of him, as had the rotten porch that swayed in the wind and cracked under his feet, but the house itself had left him feeling something entirely different.
To his six-year-old mind, it had been pure magic.
James had given Jimmy strict instructions to stay beside the truck and out of trouble, but the more Jimmy had stared at the house, the more it had called to him. As he stood in the driveway studying her lines and intricacies, the yellowed, lace curtains in the attic windows shifted in the breeze, beckoning him to step inside. Keeping one eye on his father, he feigned interest in the rocks in the gravel drive, cautiously inching his way closer and closer to the house. Once James became fully engaged in price haggling with the old woman, Jimmy made a break for it, diving through a gap in the honeysuckle hedge into the backyard.
The heavy, wooden door on the backside of the house had creaked on its hinges as he pushed his way into the thick, stagnant air of the ancient Victorian. Jimmy had never been one to consider consequences, but two steps in he thought better about what he was doing. The fear of retribution for disobeying his father, combined with the pungent, ammonia fog of cat urine, loosened his bowels so fast he about lost his Happy Meal lunch right there on the landing. He clutched his stomach and turned to run, but as he did, his foot stepped on a loose board. The weary moan the house let out sounded like a whisper of welcome relief, spoken just for him. Plugging his nose to the worst of the stench, he forgot everything except exploring every inch of mystery the old house promised.
In every room, the leaded glass windows had been papered over and draped in thick fabrics, darkening every corner of the house in deep, bottomless shadows. Occasionally, a ray of sunlight broke through a tear or a seam. Wherever it had, the sun illuminated the heavy dust hanging in the stagnant air, the bands of light seeming to shimmer like diamonds. In the dining room, a single ray played through the crystal teardrops on the chandelier, casting broken rainbows of color on the opposite wall.
There were secret doors between the bedrooms, alcoves in the attic, a dumbwaiter in the kitchen, and two separate staircases. The one in the back of the kitchen was steep and narrow, minimally lit by a bare bulb high in the ceiling, but the one off the entryway was curving and grand, with a rail made for sliding down. Without hesitation, he tried it out, and immediately ran back up the stairs to do it again.
When the crazy lady caught him snooping around, she had dragged him outside by his ear, and shoved him off the porch into the dirt yard where his father steamed in fury waiting for him. James’s face had turned a terrifying shade of crimson as words flew from his mouth in sharp bursts of curses, all of them words Jimmy had heard James say a million times, but never directed at him.
Jimmy’s excitement over what he had discovered overpowered his primal fear of the punishment he knew he would receive when they returned home. As they flew down the gravel back to town, Jimmy had begged his father to ask the crazy lady if they could live in the house, but James had only glared stone-faced at Jimmy through the rearview mirror.
For the rest of the day, and the months that had followed, Jimmy couldn’t get the smell of cat piss out of his nose or the image of the house out of his mind. Recreating it became his obsession. He drew it repeatedly in his sketchbook, trying again and again until he had even the smallest detail down to perfection. Then he filled the rest of the book with sketches of its restoration. His mother had held onto his sketchbook for years before eventually tossing it away, the fate of all saved childhood mementos that lost significance over time, but he didn’t need it. He had that house memorized.
“Jimm-eee!” Brayden called out in sing-song boredom. “When we go fishin’?”
Jimmy returned to the truck and climbed inside. “Right now, Bray.”
He took one last look at the house through the windshield, mentally calculating time and cost as he threw the truck into reverse. It would be un-godly expensive, and it would rape him of every free minute he had for at least a year, but it was definitely doable.
The only question remaining was whether or not he still wanted it.