Dan awoke to the sound of silence. He stretched, reached for the warmth of his wife, but found only cold sheets on her side of the bed. He opened his eyes to a sun-drenched bedroom and experienced instant panic, certain he had horrifically overslept and missed his consultation with Bennie and Bernice Sock to discuss pricing on a four-car garage addition to the back of their 1950’s style ranch. A moment later, his groggy brain joined the party, and he remembered it was Sunday.
A glance at the clock confirmed he had missed church. A deep inhale while he stretched his sore muscles assured he had not missed Sunday dinner. He could smell the ham baking in the oven, caught a heavenly whiff of cinnamon and spice. Apple pie for dessert, he thought. Or, even better, a mountain of sweet potatoes bubbling in a brown sugar glaze, a thick cap of mini marshmallows toasting on top.
With his stomach growling, he reached for the t-shirt and Levi’s he’d hastily cast aside the night before, moments before he’d crashed into bed, too exhausted even to snore. He desperately needed a shower, to stand in a steady stream of scalding hot water until the ache melted away from his body and his tight back loosened. First, he needed strong coffee, and a soul-soothing kiss from his beautiful wife.
He found Stacy settled on the sofa with their infant daughter, snuggling as Emily nursed. Their fat pup, Willie Nelson, lay sound asleep on the cushion beside her. A fire crackled. Michael Bublé crooned softly from the stereo in the corner. A fresh pot of coffee brewed in the kitchen.
“Good morning.” Dan bent to place a soft kiss on Emily’s downy head. He followed with a kiss to Stacy’s lips before joining them on the sofa.
“Good afternoon,” Stacy said, correcting him with a smile.
“I’m sorry I slept so late.”
“You needed the rest. When Emily started fussing long before the alarm went off for church, I figured it was a sign to let you sleep and have a Mommy-Daughter day with my baby girl.”
“How was it?”
“Very nice. We snuggled in the rocker for a bit, then had a warm bath and some breakfast before putting on a little fashion show for Willie. We went to church early and showed off our fancy manicures.” She lifted Emily’s little hand with her finger to show Dan the delicate pink polish they had selected.
“Pretty,” Dan said.
“Willie wanted his done, too.”
Dan reached over and lifted the dog’s paw. A rainbow of colors decorated his toes.
“He couldn’t decide on a color.” Stacy smiled that beautiful smile Dan loved, the one where her eyes sparkled, and her nose crinkled the slightest bit.
Dan stroked her cheek, kissed her lips. “How was church?”
“Good, but sad. Pastor Tom officially announced his retirement.”
“We knew it was going to happen.”
“Yeah, but it was always ‘someday,’ some arbitrary day, far into the future.” She shifted Emily in her arms, removing her from her breast and lifting her to her shoulder to burp. “Now, it’s the end of the month.”
“That is soon,” Dan said, surprised to feel a sense of loss gradually blossom.
Other than his years in Hollings, he’d never known church without Pastor Tom. Pastor Tom had baptized him, confirmed him. He had blessed both of Dan’s marriages. He had been there for every birth, every death; every joy and every sorrow, guiding Dan through life and through faith. The thought of him being replaced by some stranger felt overwhelming.
“Who have the elders chosen to take his place?” he asked.
“No one, yet, but they have an interim.”
“Pastor Frank?” Dan asked, the obvious choice. For years, the minister from Juliette had filled in whenever Pastor Tom had been unable to lead services. He was just as well-known and loved by the congregation as Pastor Tom, but he was close to retirement age himself. He wouldn’t be a long-term solution.
“Pastor Frank would be perfect, but no.” She sighed. “It’s Tyler Tomek.”
“The name sounds familiar.” Dan thought back through unreliable childhood memories of a boy named Tyler who was always causing trouble, picking fights, harassing the girls, throwing parties, dealing drugs. “That boy from Sycamore Street?”
“Yep,” Stacy said, her disappointment evident. “John and Cathy Tomek’s son.”
“Tomek Investments,” Dan said with dawning understanding. “Big money.”
“And big donors.”
“Meaning the interim will likely become permanent.” Dan bit back a grunt of displeasure. “How the hell did that kid find religion?”
“I’m not sure, but he’s not a kid anymore. He’s married, with two little boys of his own, and has a Masters of Divinity.”
“Did he buy it online.”
“People change, kochanie,” Stacy said, her tone chastising.
“Not that much.” The first hint of a headache pulsed behind Dan’s eyes and he stood to go in search of coffee. “At least it’s going to make Chief and Nessa’s wedding interesting.”
“A criminal presiding over the chief of police’s wedding ceremony? We could sell tickets.”
“Tyler’s not a criminal,” Stacy said, her eyes twinkling in amusement. “Just misguided youth.”
“Are you sure about that?” Dan asked with an arch of an eyebrow.
She shrugged. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. Pastor Tom’s promised to perform the ceremony.”
“Well, that’s no fun.” Dan bent and placed a kiss on Stacy’s lips.
“Do you want to hear the rest of my news?”
“Later,” he promised. “I need coffee and a shower, first.”
That stopped Dan in his tracks. “Did you see him?”
“No, Mike came to church with Kitty Vasek. He said Jimmy texted him late last night and asked him to come to his house at sunrise Monday morning to start work again.”
“How is he?”
She shrugged. “Mike didn’t know much else. You and Brent should stop out there later today. Maybe take him a plate of supper.”
“Yeah, we will.” Dan allowed himself to feel a hint of relief without getting too optimistic. He turned toward the kitchen, but Stacy reached out and grabbed the hem of his t-shirt, holding him back.
“What’s this stain on your shirt?” she asked.
“Where?” Dan looked down at the old t-shirt he wore, one he’d had for years and had relegated to work clothes. The screen-printing had cracked and faded; the fabric thinned. With so many old stains seeped into the cotton, it would be impossible to identify a new one. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“It’s something.” Stacy pulled him closer. She scratched at the suspicious spot with her fingernail. “What is this? Glue?”
As Dan looked down and saw the dried and crusty, cream colored stain, his heart plummeted. His breath caught. The sweet memory of that first bite of Vivian’s delectable cream puffs flashed across his taste buds, slipped down his throat in a suffocating gasp, and landed in his stomach with a sickening thud.
He’d been careless with Vivian’s treats, and he was about to be caught. Shit.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said quickly, the lie flaming his cheeks with a guilty flush. He tried to pull away from Stacy’s grasp, but she only held on tighter.
“It’s not glue… It looks like…” She gasped, her eyes widening in disbelief. “Daniel Joseph!”
“What? Wait! I—I can explain,” he stuttered in shame.
Anger flashed in her eyes, but as she leaned in to sniff the fabric, her expression changed to one of amusement. She let out a hearty laugh.
“Is that vanilla pudding?”
“Of course, it is. What did you think it was?” Dan asked, confused by her reaction. What could possibly be worse than eating another woman’s cream… Oh! “Seriously, Stace! What kind of husband do you think I am?”
“I’m sorry.” She blushed. “Overactive imagination, I guess, or these stupid hormones.”
He tried to huff in indignation, but the guilt flamed his cheeks hotter yet. He scraped at the stain with his thumbnail, desperate to erase the evidence of his illicit food affair.
“It’ll come out in the wash, Dan. Don’t worry about it.”
“But it’s my favorite shirt,” he said, a lie, and scrubbed harder.
“Where did you get pudding from?”
“Uh…” He grasped at the first thought that crossed his mind. “Little Debbie.”
“Mm hmm.” Stacy narrowed her eyes in disbelief, but she said nothing more, not teasing him or cursing him, in English or in Polish, her silence more unsettling than her accusations.
Damn you, Vivian!
* * *
Marissa Vasek awoke on Sunday morning with a tequila hangover and fuzzy memories of awkward, regrettable sex with a fat man named Sam in the men’s restroom of Captain Jack’s. The combination kept her holed up her drapery-darkened bedroom long into the afternoon. She emerged around suppertime, beckoned by the enticing aroma of her mother’s spicy pan-fried chicken and cheesy potatoes. Immediately upon stepping foot into the kitchen, she regretted the decision to abandon her solitary sanctuary and immerse herself in the land of fools.
“Hey, Mike,” she said to her mother’s B.F.F. and quasi-permanent house guest, who sat in his usual spot, slouched on one of the mismatched chairs at the kitchen table.
He pulled his eyes away from the video on his cellphone, tipped his chin in a half-ass greeting. “’Sup?”
Marissa gathered the sash of her silk kimono robe and loosely tied it around her waist to conceal her thin tank and panties. Mike spent so much time lurking in the shadows of her house she was certain he had already seen any goodie she may have to offer, but she still preferred the pretense of modesty. “How’s it hanging.”
“Dunno.” He shrugged. “Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Not much to think about, though, is there?”
Marissa waited, but Mike didn’t react to her jab. Disappointed, she filled a glass with tap water and eyed him over the rim as she sipped. The guy always carried a bit of a hangdog expression, but he seemed a little more ragged, a little more pathetic than usual. His pup, Bella, lay at his feet, chin on paws, eyes droopy, ears down, parroting her master’s emotion.
“Why so glum, chum.”
“Ashley’s flight left early this morning,” Marissa’s mother, Kitty, answered for Mike. “She’s on her way to Germany.”
“Well, that sucks hairy donkey dong,” Marissa said, though she truly couldn’t care less what Ashley did or did not do, or where she went. It wasn’t like Mike and Ashley were married for real, anyway. It was just insurance fraud. She moved over to the stove, poked at the chicken with a fork. “How much longer?”
“Not long,” Kitty said. “Toss a salad for me.”
While Marissa gathered vegetables from the refrigerator, washed, peeled, seeded and chopped, Kitty talked, and talked. And gossiped some more.
Marissa marveled at the recent changes in her mother; the brightness of her eyes, the joy in her voice, the pep in her step. For years, Kitty had cowered in her dank and darkened house, barricaded by her hoard of crap. But now, she explored the world freely, eager to meet as many new people as she could find. She collected the lost souls, often bringing them home for a meal, a warm shower or bed.
Kitty hoarded friends in much the same way as she had once hoarded scrap wood and porcelain dolls, but Marissa figured it was a healthier addiction than the one she had before. At least, until Kitty accidentally collected an arsonist or serial killer, or a hoard of feral cats, at which time, Marissa would be forced to step in again. Until then, she enjoyed listening to her mother laugh.
She wasn’t much listening to the words her mother spoke, however, until she heard the name Tyler Tomek. Startled from her reprieve, Marissa dropped the knife. “What did you just say?”
“I said Tyler Tomek is the elders’ choice,” Kitty repeated.
“Choice for what?”
“Interim pastor,” Mike said, his tone defeated, a perfect match for how Marissa suddenly felt.
“Oh, yes!” Kitty nodded in excitement. “I think it’ll be nice to have someone we already know replace Pastor Tom. It should make the transition that much easier. And I hear Tyler has turned into a fine young man. If I’m remembering right, Marissa, didn’t you use to date him?”
“We went out one time…” Marissa corrected, forcing her tone to remain light while her heart raced in terror from the memory, too chickenshit to speak the truth aloud; …and he raped me.