Dan sat in his pickup and polished off three of Vivian’s massive blueberry crumble muffins while Brent paced the Wheeler’s driveway and argued with Jimmy over his cellphone. They were behind schedule and needed to hustle, but Dan was having a hard time finding the motivation to get the day started. There was a bit of demo to do, which he loved, but they’d be stringing electrical wire by lunch. He hated stringing wire. But he did love blueberry muffins. Unfortunately, there was only one left.
Brent shouted a stream of angry curses into his phone, then climbed into the truck, slamming the door behind him.
Not hopeful, Dan asked, “Is he coming in today?”
“He says he’s never coming back.”
“Nope.” Brent tossed his cellphone onto the dash. “He says he quit.”
“He can’t quit. He owns the business.”
“That’s what I told him. He said he’s giving us his share.”
“And then what?”
“Hell if I know.” Brent tipped his head back against the headrest and let out a heavy sigh of frustration. “Drink himself to death, probably.”
“How’d he look the last time you went over there?” Dan had stopped by Jimmy’s house the past few nights after work. His truck was usually in the driveway, but the house was always locked up tight, the lights turned low. No matter how long Dan stood out in the cold, Jimmy refused to open the door to him.
“Like complete shit. I don’t know what to do. Mike’s got himself camped out over there, babysitting him, making sure he doesn’t do anything stupid, but he’s not talking to anyone, not even to Missy this time. I’m seriously thinking about calling Mom and having her fly up and straighten him out.”
“How much does she know about all this?”
“Just the bullshit story Jimmy fed her back in August. I let her believe it because Dad had just died and she didn’t need to be worried about anything but herself back then, but now I’m thinking it’s time to tell her what’s really going on. She might be able to help.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Dan agreed, but if he knew Jimmy like he thought he did, the last thing he would want was for his mother to see him a broken, drunken mess. “But maybe you should wait, at least until after the holidays. Let’s keep trying.”
Brent clenched his jaw and scrubbed at his stubble. “I don’t see this getting better any time soon.”
Dan didn’t see it getting any better, either. “You know what? Fuck it. If he wants to quit, let him. I’m tired of this shit. First thing in the morning, I’m putting an ad in The Monitor for a couple of permanent guys. We’re behind enough as it is, and we’ve still got to start Charlene’s kitchen after the New Year.”
“Fuck,” Brent hissed out. “You sure know how to destroy a guy’s already crappy mood.”
Dan pulled the last muffin out of Vivian’s goodie bag. “Wanna split it?”
“Yeah.” Brent took his half and said, “Hold off on the ad until I can get a hold of a couple of my regular guys and see if they’re interested. I want to call Jason back, for sure.”
“If you call him now, we could make him string all the wire on this one,” Dan said with a tip of his head toward the Wheeler’s house.
Brent slowly nodded as he chewed. “And hang all the insulation.”
“Yeah, insulation sucks, too.” Dan licked the brown sugar crumble from his fingers. “You know, if we hire a whole crew of people, we could kick back and just supervise.”
“And eat Vivian’s goodies all day long.” Brent grinned. “She’s making donuts tomorrow.”
Dan groaned in longing. “I hope she puts powdered sugar on them again.”
“Or chocolate glaze.”
“Ooh, chocolate would be real good.”
They sighed in unison, lost in daydreams of melt-in-your-mouth, deep-fat-fried heaven. Dan’s jeans grew tighter just thinking about it.
Maybe he should’ve stopped at two muffins.
California’s eternally optimistic sunshine reflected off the windshields of the cars driving by the café, blinding Kylie as she wiped down the long counter and stared out the wall of windows. The beauty of the day mocked her, dragging her mood down to an abysmal low. It had been almost a week since she’d left Nebraska for good, but she still felt cold from the winter chill she’d left behind, the freeze seeming to originate from deep inside her chest.
Whistling an annoyingly cheery tune, Frog Man came through the swinging door from the kitchen into the temporarily empty dining area. “You’re wearing a hole in my counter, girlie.”
“What?” Through a fog of confusion, she looked down at the rag in her hand.
He lightly bumped into the back of her leg with his wheelchair. “Move down a couple inches and start polishing another spot.”
With a shake of her head to clear it, she picked up a salt shaker and wiped away the greasy fingerprints the lunch crowd had left behind. “Sorry, Frog Man.”
“Are you gonna tell me what’s goin’ on, or do I have to play Twenty Questions?”
“Nothing’s going on.” She shrugged, feigning ignorance and moved onto the next set of shakers.
“Don’t lie to the Frog Man. We’ve got a connection, me and you, and I can tell you’re hurtin’.” He followed her as she moved even farther down the counter. “The only way you’re gonna feel better is to let it all out. Lay it on me.”
Kylie sighed and said, “I’m a horrible person and a horrible mother and I totally suck at the whole love thing.”
“Ah, I see…” He nodded solemnly. “Come and sit with me a minute.”
He started for one of the red and white striped booths under the windows, and she had no choice but to follow. She sat on the edge of the bench seat with her legs in the aisle. Frog Man positioned himself in front of her, sitting knee-to-knee, and held both of her hands in his.
“First of all, you’re a good person and a great mom, so just stop with all that.”
She gave him a weak smile. “Sorry.”
“And second, everyone sucks at the whole ‘love’ thing. Even the Frog Man’s been known to screw it up a time or two.”
“Well, no, not really. I just said that to make you feel better.” He winked, and she found a smile. “So, you finally figured out David’s a putz. No big deal. Put your dancing shoes on and get back out there again.”
“You didn’t like David?”
“No, and neither did you.”
“You’re right,” she admitted.
“I’m always right.”
“I know you are.” She squeezed his hand, pulling strength from him before admitting, “I wasn’t talking about David, though. It’s someone else.”
Frog Man leaned into her and said, “This ‘someone,’ he’s the reason you came out here in the first place, right?”
“And this someone drives you crazy when you’re with him, but you feel like you’ve lost your mind when he’s gone.”
She nodded again.
“And you want to be with him, but you refuse to admit it… even to yourself?”
“I don’t want to be with him,” Kylie corrected with emphasis.
“Because you think he’s no good for you.”
Her throat tightened as tears threatened. “I know he’s no good for me.”
“And his name is Jimmy.”
Kylie let out a gasp of surprise. “How did you know?”
“I told you, we’ve got a connection, me and you.”
“Mm hm,” Kylie grunted in skepticism.
Frog Man laughed, his eyes twinkling.
“Who do you think Little Man talks about when he helps me in the kitchen? All day long, all I hear is, Jimmy this, and Jimmy that; Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.” He winked and added, “Thought I was psychic for a second, though, didn’t ya?”
“I thought something,” Kylie said, trying not to smile.
“So, why you are sitting here with old Frog Man instead of makin’ sweet Nebraska love with Jimbo?”
She pulled her hands away from Frog Man and reached over to straighten the napkin dispenser on the table. “Because he cheated on me and I’m having a hard time forgiving him.”
“Ah.” Frog Man nodded. “The ultimate betrayal.”
“I guess,” Kylie said with a shrug, making light of her emotions.
“Well, anyone who cheats on my girl deserves to be strung up a flag pole by his balls and beat black and blue with a big stick.”
An involuntary laugh rose up in her chest and a smile followed.
“But you wouldn’t be so tore up about it if you weren’t still in love with him.” He tipped his head and squinted his eyes, scrutinizing her. “And maybe thinking about giving him another shot?”
She set her jaw and shook her head. “Absolutely not.”
“I refuse to let him hurt Brayden again.”
“Ah…” Frog Man nodded and sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers together across his chest. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”
Kylie felt her face flush as her anger pushed to the surface. “I have to protect my son.”
“But, you see, Ky, that’s where you’re wrong. Jimmy didn’t cheat on Brayden. He cheated on you. You’re not taking Jimmy back because your heart is broken. You’re protecting yourself.”
“What he did hurt Brayden,” Kylie insisted.
“What he did destroyed the family you thought you had,” Frog Man corrected. “If you’d stayed in Nebraska, Jimmy and Brayden would still have a relationship. Maybe not like they’d had before, but it would’ve been something. Brayden would’ve adjusted to its limitations. You’re here because Jimmy betrayed you, and you’re hurt, and you want to focus on hating him. You’re here because you think distance will prevent you from loving him.”
Her throat clamped closed, her chin quivering uncontrollably, and Frog Man grabbed her hands.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry. Crying gets you nowhere. It’s time to be honest with yourself and make some decisions. Decide what you want. Decide what your heart can handle.” Frog Man’s expression softened. “What’s your biggest fear?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. Her mind was all over the place. She could barely remember her own name, let alone pinpoint one single fear as her biggest. She was afraid of so many things, so much of the time, that sometimes it felt as though she feared her own shadow.
“Are you afraid he’ll do it again?”
“Cheat on me? Of course, I’m afraid he will. It’s like, I know he will, but I don’t… It’s not that I don’t care…”
“Or are you afraid he’s going to leave you?”
Her heart clutched tight, preventing her answer.
“I see.” Frog Man gave her a weak smile as he listened to her silence. “Only life will reveal that answer. So, the big question is, are you willing to risk your heart to find out?”
“No—I don’t know…”
“Take your time. Think it over. It’s a big decision to make. You don’t have to decide today or tomorrow. The answer will come to you when it’s right.” He touched her cheek, caught her tear. “But it’s a decision you have to make, Sweet Ky. Either take a leap of faith and go for it all, or let him go, completely. Continuing to pine over what you lost will only destroy you—and your son—in the end.”
“I know.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out slow as she wiped at the mascara running down her cheek. “I’m a mess.”
“Ah, but you’re a beautiful mess.” He pulled a handful of napkins from the dispenser and handed them to her. “You know, you could always take the easy way out, and marry me.”
She let out a laugh as she dabbed at her eyes with the harsh napkins. “Maybe I will.”
“Of course, I’m kinda upset with you right now, so you’ll have to do a whole lotta sweet talkin’ to get me to propose.”
“Why are you upset with me?” she asked in confusion. “What did I do?”
“It’s not what you did. It’s what you didn’t do.”
“What didn’t I do?” she asked, even more confused.
“Notice anything missing from this picture?” He backed up from the table and tipped his head side-to-side, modeling as he spun his wheelchair in a slow circle.
“Umm…” She looked him over carefully as he spun, but he looked fine to her. “No.”
“Doesn’t my head look a little naked?”
“Your hat!” she cried out as hands flew up to her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Frog Man! I ran out of there so fast I forgot it!”
“I see how you are,” he said with a pretend sniff. “Everyone always forgets the Frog Man.”
“I’ll get you one for Christmas,” she promised.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Promises, promises,” he dismissed with a wave of his hand. He returned to her and said, “I don’t need the stinkin’ hat for Christmas. All I really need is to see my girl stand in the sunshine and smile.”
“I’m trying, Frog Man.”
“I know you are, girl.” He pulled her into his lap and she rested her head on his shoulder. “I know you are.”
With his arms wrapped around her in the comfort of a father’s embrace, she felt loved and cherished and incredibly safe, secure in a way she hadn’t felt since Charlie left. Once more, the tears flowed.