At the end of the day, Brayden’s wish came true. He got to play with Willie Nelson.
After they left the Malek property, Jimmy and Brayden fished Chelsea Lake from the mouth of the creek for a while, but the mosquitoes were so thick in the tall grasses they moved over to the dock. Fishing wasn’t better there. Too hot for much of anything to bite in the shallow water, Brayden lost interest faster than usual. After only an hour, his voice started to take on the high-pitched whine of boredom at the end of every word, signaling it was time to call it a day.
If he had given up ten minutes earlier, Jimmy would have avoided Dan and Stacy altogether, but the timing was such they came down long driveway as he loaded the last pole into his truck. Jimmy did his best to decline, but Stacy insisted he and Brayden stay for supper. She stuffed him full of fried chicken, corn on the cob, baked beans and potato salad, until he was too heavy to move. All he could manage was to sit on the patio and watch as Brayden chased Willie, Stacy’s hyperactive terrier mix, in dizzying circles around the backyard.
Stacy sipped on a glass of sweet tea, contentment bright in her eyes as she ran a light hand around her pregnant stomach. “Are you sure you don’t want a piece of pie?”
“Positive, Stace.” A glass of the same sweet tea chilled Jimmy’s hand. It was good, but no matter how hard he wished it could, the tea didn’t turn into the beer Dan was drinking. Whiskey would have been even better, but wholly out of the question with Brayden around.
“It’s apple.” The setting sun illuminated Stacy’s chestnut curls in a brassy halo as they bounced around her face. “Your favorite.”
He smiled at her sweet tenacity. “Thanks, but no.”
“I have whipped cream,” she said, giving one last try. “Homemade.”
Jimmy laughed. “Seriously, Stace, I’m stuffed.”
“I’ll take a piece,” Dan said.
Instantly, Stacy shut down the charm and glared at him. “Get it yourself, dupek.”
“Oh, come on, Stace! I swear, I didn’t look!” Dan insisted for what had to be the twentieth time that evening. Jimmy bit back a laugh, hiding it in a cough.
Stacy snapped a retort entirely in Polish as she pushed up out of her chair and stormed into the house, slamming the door so hard the entire house shook. Jimmy got lost in the literal translation of what she had said, but not in the intention. She was pissed.
Dan cursed under his breath and took a swig of his beer.
Jimmy turned to make sure Stacy was out of earshot before he asked, “What did she say?”
“No clue. I’ve never heard that one before.”
“Uh oh,” Jimmy said, mimicking one of Brayden’s favorite sayings.
“I have a feeling my ass is sleeping in the cabin tonight.”
Jimmy nodded in agreement. “Tomorrow night, too.”
Dan was a big guy, only slightly taller than Jimmy at six-foot-three, but he was broad in the shoulders, solid in build, strong as hell, same as his father, Rich Handley, had been. He dwarfed Stacy’s tiny frame. But if Jimmy had to bet on who would win in a fight, he’d put his money on Stacy, every time. She had him whipped.
“Did you look?” Jimmy asked.
“No, I didn’t look,” Dan said. “And even if I had looked, I wouldn’t have known what the hell I was looking at.”
“Well, Dan, boys have a penis and girls have a—”
“I know that, you shit.” Dan laughed. “I mean I wouldn’t have known if I was looking at a penis or a placenta. I had no clue what I was looking at the entire time we were getting the ultrasound done. The tech lady pointed it all out, and Stace ooh-ed and ahh-ed like crazy, but it was all blurry, mumbo jumbo to me. All I know is he’s healthy, and that’s all I care about.”
“Or she,” Jimmy said.
“He,” Dan insisted.
“So, you did look.”
Dan turned in his chair and scanned the house, double-checking the coast was clear before he leaned into Jimmy and whispered, “Okay, so maybe I saw something, but like I say, I don’t know for sure if it was what I think it was, or if it wasn’t… but I’m going with was.”
“Sure,” Jimmy agreed with a shrug. “Or maybe she got your nose.”
“You’re an ass.”
Jimmy laughed. “So, I’ve been told.”
“Dad used to call you one all the time.”
“No, your dad called me ‘that scrawny, punk-ass kid.’ Get it right,” Jimmy said, smiling at the bittersweet memory.
It had been over ten years since Dan’s father had died of a sudden heart attack while on the job, but Rich Handley was the kind of man you never forgot. Big as a bear with a laugh that shook the rafters, Rich could pull a twenty-pound catfish out of muddy waters with a bare hook on a Barbie pole. Dan could do the same.
“He always did like you better than me,” Dan said.
“Can you blame him?”
James Rogan and Rich Handley had been the original Rogan-Handley construction team, working side-by-side for over twenty years, best friends and closer than brothers. They had shared the same passions, the same values, the same hope for the future. When Rich died, the dream had died with him. James lost his passion for the business. Construction became just a job to him—a job he desperately wanted to quit.
Jimmy had been sixteen-years old at the time, still in high school, but he had put in forty hours a week, sometimes more, trying to help fill at least part of the gaping hole Rich’s absence had left in James’s life. It hadn’t worked. Rich wasn’t a man who could be replaced. Not even by blood.
“When’s the baby due?” Jimmy asked.
“January, just after the New Year, but the doctor thinks she’ll go early.”
“How’s she feeling?”
“Better. The morning sickness still sucks, but at least it’s limited to just the mornings now. She finally has her appetite back.”
“She still planning a spring wedding?”
“Who knows? Some days she’s thinking spring, sometimes November.”
“November? She’s already starting to show and it’s only August. She’s going to be huge by Thanksgiving.”
“I know, but if she doesn’t care, why should I? I told Cheryl if Stace gets too big to walk she can just roll her down the aisle and I’ll try and catch her.”
“I played shortstop in high school. You can borrow my glove.”
“Hope it’s a big-ass glove.” Dan chuckled, and then immediately checked over his shoulder for movement from inside the house.
“I’m telling her you said that.” Jimmy took a drink of his tea. With every sip, the sugar content became more concentrated, sickeningly sweet as it settled in his stomach. “What’s so special about November?”
“None of your damn business. Why you asking all this anyway?”
“Ky won’t set a date for ours.” Jimmy shifted in his chair, watched in envy as Dan drank the last swallow of his beer. “She won’t even talk about it.”
“Give her time, Jim. It’s only been a week or two—”
“Three weeks,” Jimmy corrected.
“And they haven’t exactly been easy. She’s wearing your ring. Let that be enough for now.” Dan set his empty bottle under his chair and pulled a fresh one from the cooler beside him. “If you keep pushing her, you’re going to push her away.”
“I know,” Jimmy agreed, but when fate could steal your heart in the space of a single breath, it was a waste to put life on hold, waiting for the perfect moment.
His gaze drifted out in to the yard, his attention constantly focused on the little boy he loved as his own. As he watched Brayden dance and weave through the flowers in the garden, he couldn’t stop from torturing himself with the vision he had painted of the child he’d lost. The doctors had never said one way or the other, but he knew she would have been his daughter.
The night she died, she had been no bigger than a blip on the screen of the ultrasound machine in the emergency room, but he always pictured her as three-years old, giggling a sweet song, spitfire shining bright in eyes as blue as her mother’s. He had been as helpless to stop Missy’s tears that night in the hospital as he had been the day she whispered the words no teenage boy ever wanted to hear, “I’m pregnant…” His first reaction had been to put his fist through the wall. And then he’d cried right along with her. If he’d thought his heart had broken in that moment, it was nothing compared to how completely he had shattered when they lost her.
He would never survive another of the same blow. Losing Brayden would be his death.
“I can’t lose them, Dan. I need for us to be a real family, living under the same roof, building a future together.”
“You’ll get there,” Dan said in the easy way of a man who had everything he wanted.
Looking at him now, it was hard to remember him as the grey, haggard man who had returned to Chelsea Lake so buried in grief he had looked almost dead himself, but like anyone who had ever dared to love, Dan had lost.
“No one ever promised life was easy, Jim.”
The vibrant blend of yellow and orange hues gracing the petals of the roses in the garden embodied a living tribute to Dan’s first wife, Stacy’s best friend, Millie Handley. Jimmy hadn’t known Millie well, but she had been a beautiful woman. Graceful. Generous in spirit. Losing her to cancer had nearly destroyed Dan and Stacy both, but they had found the strength to survive in each other.
“I don’t need easy. I just want to marry her.”
“I know you do, and you will. Have a little faith.”
“Faith’s hard to come by these days.”
“It’s worth looking for.”
The roses Dan and Stacy had planted, the intense love they share, the new life they were bringing into the world, all of it was living proof beauty could emerge in the wake of great loss, but Jimmy was having a hell of a time finding any kind of hope for himself since his father’s funeral. Losing the man he’d convinced himself he could do without had sent him careening into the dark, grappling with regrets of the past, leaving him unsure about his future.
Kylie and her son were his only chance at salvation.
“Jimmy! Jimmy!” Brayden called out as he ran full-speed across the yard. “Look!”
Brayden didn’t stop running until he collided into Jimmy’s legs, practically bouncing up onto his lap. His chest huffing and puffing, his face alight in delight, he opened his balled-up fist to show Jimmy his treasure. A lightning bug rested in the center of his little palm, its incandescent green glow faint yet in the not-quite night sky.
“He light up!”
“Yeah, he does.” Jimmy smiled. “Pretty neat, huh?”
Brayden nodded vigorously. As he did, the lightning bug took flight. Brayden’s eyes grew wide and he tipped his head back, tracking the bug’s escape. “Uh-oh!”
“Uh-oh,” Jimmy repeated. The purity of innocence on Brayden’s face as he looked to the sky took Jimmy’s breath away. If he could only capture this moment, the euphoric feeling of his heart lifting in his chest, and carry it around with him like a talisman, he just might be okay.
“I catch more!” Brayden turned to chase after more lightning bugs, but Jimmy reached out to stop him.
“Hey, Bray, you want to see something really cool?”
Jimmy lifted Brayden onto his lap and pointed out across the yard, toward the creek, where the late-season lightning bugs emerged for their nightly dance. “You see all the bugs along the grass and bushes?”
“Close your eyes tight and listen real careful… Do you hear the frogs singing?”
Brayden was silent for a moment as he listened with his eyes closed, and then he nodded.
Jimmy whispered, “Keep listening to the frogs… and open your eyes real slow…”
After a moment’s pause, Brayden’s eyes fluttered open. Jimmy kept watch of Brayden’s expression to see if he noticed what Jimmy hoped he would. When Brayden’s eyes lit up, Jimmy smiled.
“They sing toget-her,” Brayden whispered in wonder.
“That’s right, Bray.” Jimmy placed a kiss on the top of his head. “They sing together.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Dan said with a grunt of surprise. “How’d you figure that out?”
“Dad played that trick on me and Brent once when we were camping—except it was with katydids instead of frogs.”
“So, it’s a trick?” Dan asked, unable to mask his disappointment.
“I don’t know… I kinda think it’s a mind game more than anything, but it’s still pretty cool,” Jimmy said. Brayden squirmed out of his lap, but before he could run off, Jimmy scooped him back up. “Time to get headed home, Little Man.”
Brayden let out a whine of disappointment and Dan asked, “So soon?”
“It’s way past this guy’s bedtime.” Jimmy stood and lifted Brayden up onto his shoulders. Brayden pulled off Jimmy’s ball cap and tossed it to the ground with a laugh. “Besides, I’ve got a couple’a jobs to work up so Marissa can start ordering.”
“She seems to be doing alright,” Dan said, sounding more impressed than he probably wanted to be.
“She’s doing fine.”
Dan picked up Jimmy’s hat and handed it to him. “Has she billed out any of Charlene’s job yet?”
“I told Missy to wait until next week, after we’re all done. I don’t want to argue with her twice.”
“That’ll be a nice paycheck.”
“More like a big headache. She’ll fight every charge, probably demand I itemize down to the number of nails we used. I’m sure she’s got a tally sheet somewhere.”
“Yeah, but when she finally writes the check it won’t bounce.”
“True,” Jimmy agreed. That was more than could be said about quite a few of their customers.
Yawning big, Brayden rested his cheek against the top of Jimmy’s head. His little hands came around to hold Jimmy under the chin. “When we go home?”
“Right now, Bray.”
“Take me with you,” Dan pleaded, his eyes shooting back to the house in mock-terror. “I’ll be so quiet you won’t even know I’m there.”
Jimmy laughed and then whispered to Dan, barely audible so little ears couldn’t overhear, “Chicken-shit.”
“Brock, brock,” Dan agreed.