Henry's midlife crisis happened when he was twenty-six.
His mother would have said it was just like him to be ahead of his peers, not that he ever revealed to her this particular milestone. In 2001, he was appointed the youngest executive in KinderCare history. In truth, he'd been a little disappointed – it had been his goal to reach it by 25 – but the first year of the new millennium was, he had to admit, auspicious timing.
(And no, lest anyone even begin to think it, 2000 was not the start of the new millennium. That was a mistake so frequently made, Henry didn't even expend the energy to correct people any more.)
The point was, he should have been feeling at the top of his game, heady with his own accomplishments and power, but instead he – didn't. It wasn't that his achievement felt hollow, exactly; Henry himself admitted he'd never been given to flights of existential angst. But there was a sense of is this all there is, will it always be more of the same, that left him with several sleepless nights.
With his first bonus check (he was quite proud of the symbolism at the time), he bought a clapped-out old VW bus to use touring the country on his vacations. But by the time he'd had it inspected, tuned up and repaired to a high enough standard that he no longer considered it a death trap, the urge for the recklessly bohemian lifestyle – or rather, a temporary sampling of it – had passed. He subsequently sold it to a graduate student with white boy dreadlocks at a loss, and declared it a valuable lesson on impulse control.
At any rate, he was, in retrospect, pleased to have gotten that traumatic period of his life over with, because it meant that he could look ahead to actual midlife (and Henry did, perhaps with far more relish than was healthy) without the nagging worry that he would suddenly develop an urge to date women half his age, get botox or attend Burning Man. Turning forty, he was certain, would not be the low point dreaded by so many men; instead, it would be a harbinger of even greater heights and achievements.
Which is why it was a bit of a shock to find himself spending his fortieth birthday trapped in a luxurious ski lodge owned by a multi-millionaire, snowed in with the most beautiful young woman he'd ever known, stoned completely off his head.
What a fucking cliché, he thought. I'm severely disappointed in you, Henry Higgs.
Eliza waved the spliff at him. “Another one?”
He took it from her after a couple of missed attempts. “Don't mind if I do.”
But perhaps it would be best to set the stage.
Only the day before, Saperstein had called Henry in to his office.
“I have a mission for you,” he said without preamble, but then Saperstein never had any preamble to speak of.
“Should I choose to accept it?” Henry said, attempting levity. When Saperstein only stared at him, he cleared his throat. “Sorry, sir. Pray continue.”
“What do you know about Deep Powder Herbals, son?”
Henry's eyebrows quirked: challenge accepted. “Started in 2012 out of the back of a van by Dirk Charcas, is a former snowboarding instructor. Now one of the fastest-growing naturopathic remedy companies in America, and the hottest thing in pharmaceuticals since Viagra.”
“Well, you have done your homework,” Saperstein said, sounding duly impressed. “But then, I don't expect anything less from you. That's why I'm sending you to Colorado to meet Charcas and feel him out in advance of a possible – collaboration.”
“Collaboration?” Henry said, shocked. “Do you mean a merger?”
Saperstein made a face. “I wouldn't go that far. Herbal is the wave of the future, I know that. But I'm an old-fashioned girl. I want to try some heavy petting before I go all the way. Because you know, what if I don't like it? What if he's no good at foreplay?”
“Yes, I understand perfectly, sir,” Henry said quickly, hoping to forestall any further expansion of the metaphor. “I'll be happy to – feel him up. Out! I mean out.”
“Wonderful,” Saperstein said, clapping him amiably on the shoulder. “I've already spoken to Eliza; she'll meet you at the airport tomorrow afternoon. Flight's at two-fifteen.”
“Got it,” Henry said, then blinked as the sentence sank in. “Um, Eliza? Tomorrow?”
“That's what I said. I want my marketing star and my sales star in on this. There are no two people in my company better qualified to find out if Deep Powder is a good fit for KinderCare.”
“Yes, of course,” Henry said again, trying to sound more than half-hearted and probably failing. He and Eliza had been – well, not exactly estranged – but since she'd finally broken up with Freddy for good over a month ago, he'd been careful to keep their relationship cordial without being overly warm. He'd told himself he was doing it for her – he didn't want to seem to be pressuring her to start a new relationship, because that was the last thing she needed – but in truth his motives were more selfish. There was nothing now standing in the way of a romance between them, and romance was – utterly terrifying.
Over the course of their association, Eliza had taught him far more than he'd ever hoped to teach her. As a friend, she had challenged many of his own habits and beliefs; if they were ever to become more intimately involved, Henry feared that he might actually come to question everything he thought he knew about himself. And Henry liked to think he knew a great deal about himself.
And tomorrow was his fortieth birthday. Not that he'd had any plans, but spending it in the company of a woman he'd been trying to hide from definitely wouldn't have been his first choice. Or his hundredth.
Saperstein clapped him on the back this time, catapulting him from his self-pitying wallow. Henry correctly recognized it as a dismissal clap, reiterated his enthusiasm for the assignment as best he could and got the hell out of there with the tattered remnants of his dignity.
“I just want you to know I hate you. It is like, butt o'clock,” Eliza informed him as she opened the door and peered at him grumpily through the crack. “No, it's worse! It's butthole o'clock.”
“It's six forty-five,” Henry said. “The sun has – almost – risen.”
“You suck,” Eliza said, opening the door wider and turning to walk away.
“And you're still wearing pajamas. Why are you still wearing pajamas?”
“See my earlier comment about butt. Hole. O'clock,” Eliza called over her shoulder as she disappeared into the bedroom.
“We have to be at the airport in an hour!” he yelled, swallowing around his mounting panic.
“You told me you'd be here at seven! I'll be ready at seven! Now sit down and chill your tits before I knock you unconscious with my carryon.”
“I'll have you know my tits are perfectly – chilled,” he muttered, throwing himself down on her couch. There were two packed suitcases, at least, sitting near the door. One was approximately the size of the couch.
“You do know we're only going for two and a half days,” he said.
Eliza emerged from her bedroom wearing nothing but a bra and panties, a toothbrush stuck in her mouth. Henry's own mouth promptly lost all of its natural moisture. “Do not start with me,” she snapped, gesturing at him with the toothbrush.
“I won't say another word,” Henry croaked.
Eliza lifted her chin in triumph and turned on her heel. Henry whacked the back of his head against the couch a couple of times and closed his eyes.
True to her word, Eliza was ready to go at precisely seven o'clock. Henry had re-booked them on an earlier flight after checking the weather report in Colorado and discovering a snowstorm was due to hit the state in the evening. Granted, they would touch down by late afternoon, but time estimates in weather reports in the Rockies were notoriously inaccurate, and there would be a two-hour drive from the airport up to the cabin.
By the time they landed, the snow was just beginning to fall, which gave Henry a powerful sense of vindication.
“I can practically hear the smug oozing out of you,” Eliza said as they followed the driver taking them to the SUV that Deep Powder had booked for them. “Quit it.”
“My smug is not oozing. It's fairly singing with overwhelming pride in its smugness.”
“Oh my god, please don't talk to me the whole way there. I need to sleep away these canyons under my eyes.”
“You don't have canyons,” Henry said. “You look gorgeous, just as you always do.”
Eliza blinked at him. Henry blinked back.
“Well, maybe you can talk occasionally,” Eliza told him, smiling at the driver as he opened the door for her.
As they reached the top of the mountain, the weather turned to utter, utter shit.
Eliza awoke from her nap when the driver honked at an oncoming car that clearly did not have proper snow tires and was skidding dangerously close to the center line, God, how could anyone in Colorado have all-seasons in February?
“Wha's goin' on?” Eliza slurred, straightening her neck from the awkward position it had gotten into.
“I'm going into a moderate panic attack over the lack of preparedness of Colorado drivers,” Henry admitted.
“Nothing to worry about,” the driver called. “We're almost there.”
“Great, thank you,” Eliza answered. “And please ignore the anxious man in the back.” She patted Henry's knee.
“Don't do that,” Henry hissed.
“What are you so worked up about? It's just a little bit of snow.”
“A little bit – it's a raging blizzard!” Henry exclaimed, gesturing at the frozen hell outside.
Eliza looked out the window for a few moments, then shrugged.
“You're shrugging? I can't believe you're shrugging.”
“I thought you went to the University of Michigan. Didn't you get used to snow up there?”
“I wouldn't say I got used to it. I tolerated it. It was a price I grudgingly paid for attending their fine business school. And there are no mountains in Michigan that I could have gone careering off of to my death.”
“He's just kidding, Dale,” Eliza said. “We both have total faith that you will not drive us off a cliff.”
“Uh. Thanks,” the driver said.
Eliza whacked Henry on the arm. “Snap out of it,” she commanded.
“Ow!” Henry said, even though it hadn't hurt. Then, more quietly, “How do you know his name is Dale?”
“Because I used this thing called the internet to research the company website before we left, and that website includes a staff page?” Eliza said. “Also, he introduced himself at the airport, not that you could hear him over the sound of your singing smugness?”
“Oh,” Henry said, chastened.
“What's wrong with you? And don't tell me it's the weather. Is it because it's your birthday and it sucks ass to work on your birthday?”
“What? No. I mean, I didn't have anything planned, so it wasn't a big deal.”
“Well, I thought about organizing another party, but strangely I couldn't get anyone to come this time.”
“Yes, thank you for reminding me of my past social disasters,” Henry sighed. “Look, maybe I am a bit off. It's not just any birthday. It's my fortieth.”
Eliza raised her eyebrows. “Really? Huh.”
“That's all you have to say? 'Huh'?”
“Yeah. It explains why you've been so distant lately, I guess. I thought it was something I'd done. But it's only you overthinking the meaning of some arbitrary number that doesn't mean anything. Which is so you.”
“Now wait just a –”
“We're here!” Dale called, too brightly.
“And oh look,” Eliza said, smirking at Henry, “we're not dead.”
“Joy,” Henry said, which caused Eliza to stick her tongue out at him before she opened the door and left him behind.
Dale showed them briefly around the empty cabin before strapping chains to the SUV's tires and tearing off back down the mountain.
“I can't believe he abandoned us in the middle of a blizzard,” Henry said.
“Yeah, what a surprise he didn't want to stick around,” Eliza drawled. “I mean, you two were really hitting it off.”
“But –” Henry began, spluttering to a stop when Eliza held up a hand.
“No, really, please stop talking. You've been non-stop annoying since before the sun came up, and I have been travelling for hours, and I'm tired. The first thing I want to do is take off my shoes, the second thing I want to do is unpack my ski lodge outfit – I have this supercute sweater I've been dying to have an occasion to wear for ages – and the third thing I want to do is soak in that hugeass tub Dale showed us. I will bet you ten bucks that this place has some way-out herbal bath bombs, and I am ready to get bombed. Which reminds me, did I see prosecco in the fridge?”
“You're taking this far too calmly. Where is everyone? Surely they should be here by now.”
Eliza rolled her eyes. “Maybe they don't love the Weather Network as much as you do and they didn't bother to catch an early flight.”
“I'm going to check my email,” Henry said. The signal up the mountain had been poor to nonexistent, but Dale assured them the cabin had a state-of-the-art wifi connection.
“You do that. I'm going to read TMZ on my phone and soak until my toes go all pruney.”
Which, of course, was the exact moment the power went off.
“Well, damn,” Eliza's voice said from somewhere in the darkness. “I guess I won't be keeping up with the Kardashians.”
By the time Henry had finished wringing his hands and imagining a slow, painful death from hypothermia, Eliza had located a flashlight and was shining it in his eyes.
“Get your coat back on,” she ordered. “You're coming outside with me.”
Henry's eyes widened. “So we can freeze more quickly?”
“Because there's probably a generator in that shed I saw earlier.”
“I don't know the first thing about generators!” Henry protested.
“I figured as much. I mainly need you to hold a flashlight.”
“You – what?” Henry stared at her. “Are you saying you know how to work one?”
Eliza nodded. “My dad's family is from Oregon, and his brother is this doomsday prepper type who lives up in the mountains. I don't think he really believes the apocalypse is coming, he just doesn't like people much. He liked me, though, and I liked him, even though everybody else in my family thought he was weird. He taught me some cool stuff.”
Henry took the flashlight from her. “I'll be happy to do whatever you want me to do.”
Eliza smiled archly. “I like the sound of that,” she said, and Henry was glad it was too dark for her to see his blush.
Henry was perfectly willing to admit – in the privacy of his own head – that Eliza's display of mechanical prowess had made her even more attractive to him. He'd always found competence sexy, and Eliza expertly starting a diesel generator had been sexy as hell.
God, as though he needed more illicit fantasies about Eliza Dooley, now that he could picture her with a smudge of engine oil on her nose. Which of course she'd immediately disappeared into the bathroom to scrub off. Still, Henry was beginning to feel more than a little doomed.
This feeling was only heightened after checking his emails. Charcas had sent him two – one about an hour ago to welcome them, just before the power had gone out, and one a few minutes ago confirming that unfortunately, he hadn't been able to fly in from his meeting in New York before his flight had been cancelled, and he wouldn't be able to get another one until the morning. In the meantime, he apologized to them for the inconvenience, but encouraged them to make use of anything they found in the cabin.
Sighing, Henry dashed off a quick thanks, then went poking around in the kitchen. He'd seen some steaks in there that would make a decent meal. Within a few minutes, he was chopping vegetables for a salad and heating the oven for baked potatoes.
Eliza emerged just as he was preparing a vinaigrette. Her hair was damp, and she was wearing what Henry assumed to be her supercute sweater.
As she approached, Henry realized she wasn't wearing any makeup.
He must have been staring, because her cheeks pinkened. “I had to work hella hard with the astringent to get that gunk off, and if I have to take another layer of makeup off in a few hours, my nose will be glowing brighter than Rudolph's.”
“You have freckles,” Henry blurted. “I mean, I'm aware that most redheads have them, it's only that I've – ah, never seen them. On you.”
“Yeah, don't remind me. Corynn and her gang used to call me 'poxface.'”
Unable to help himself, Henry took a step forward and raised his hand to trace over her cheek with a gentle sweep of his thumb. “I thought we'd already established that Corynn and her gang were fucking idiots,” he murmured.
Eliza's eyes widened. “Henry –”
Suddenly realizing what he was doing, he took a step back, his hand falling away. “Uh, I heard from Charcas. He's not going to be here until tomorrow.”
“I figured,” Eliza said. Nodding at the vegetables, she asked, “So what's for dinner?”
“Steak, baked potatoes, salad?”
“Sounds great,” Eliza said. “Can I help?”
Henry shook his head. “You kept us from freezing to death; the least I can do is take care of dinner.”
“Oh, that reminds me, I'd better start a fire,” Eliza said, turning toward the living room and its massive hearth.
“You can do that too,” Henry said hollowly.
Eliza turned back to him, frowning. “Is that a problem?”
“No, God, no, it's all – uh, great, wonderful. Please carry on – making fire,” Henry babbled, closing his eyes and praying for the strength to make it through the night.
Dinner was as unromantic as Henry could make a dinner for two in a luxurious, well-appointed mountain cabin with a roaring log fire. There were no candles lit, and he placed them at opposite ends of the large table. In contrast to his standoffishness, Eliza complimented him profusely on the meal and engaged him in lively conversation despite the fact she had to be dying to look at her phone. Henry felt like twenty kinds of asshole.
Afterward, she insisted on washing up, and then after stoking the fire (dear God), came to sit beside him on the couch. “Guess what I found,” she said.
“I can't even begin to guess,” Henry said weakly.
Grinning, Eliza held out a small, clear plastic bag containing –
“Are those –”
“Pretty sure, yeah.”
“Marijuana cigarettes.” Two of them. Not particularly large, but certainly large enough.
“I've never smoked weed before. I tried e a couple of times, but I didn't like it. Alcohol is definitely my drug of choice. Still, when in Rome, right?”
Henry frowned. “What are you saying?”
“I'm saying, let's spark up."
Henry stared at her.
Eliza frowned. “That's right, isn't it? I thought that was what people from the Seventies said.”
“Eliza, I was five when the Seventies ended,” Henry said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Eliza flapped a hand at him. “That's no excuse. I was born in 1987 and I know all about the Eighties. Go on, ask me any question about Duran Duran.”
“Not here it's not.”
“We're – on company business.”
Eliza spread her arms. “There's nobody here to do business with.”
“He'll notice it's missing.”
“Henry, he cc'd me on that email. He was all mi casa es su casa, and I don't think that only applied to the steaks.”
At that point, Henry gave up his last vestige of control over the night; it was strangely exhilarating, though he was sure the terror would come rushing back soon enough.
“Then yes, by all means. Let's spark up.”
“This is kind of nice,” Eliza said. “Don't you think this is nice?”
Henry took another hit before handing the second cigarette back to Eliza. “It's very nice,” he agreed, and it was the truth. He was stoned, lying with his head in her lap in a cabin far from everything he was supposed to give a shit about. It was very, very nice.
“You're feeling less anxious, aren't you?”
Henry looked up at the underside of Eliza's chin as she drew in the smoke, then held it before letting it out. She had choked her way through half of the first cigarette, but she was a quick study. “Definitely.”
“Good,” she said. “I wonder if they have any chips.”
“Real chips, you know, not those kale things. I can't stand kale chips.” She looked down at him with undisguised glee. “Oh! Is this the munchies?”
“Probably,” Henry said, lifting his head and sitting up.
“Where are you going?”
“To see if there are any chips.”
Eliza waved the hand not holding the joint. “It's okay. It's not urgent – yet.” She patted her lap, and Henry graciously obliged her.
“So this isn't so bad as birthdays go, huh?” she asked after they had smoked the second one down to the last embers, her fingers idly stroking through his hair.
“No,” Henry allowed, arching like a petted cat.
“I'm going to be thirty the April after next,” Eliza said conversationally. “I'm not really all that worked up about it.”
“It wasn't really about turning forty,” Henry heard himself say.
“Oh yeah? What was it about, then?”
“About me being chickenshit,” Henry said. Wow, this was some good stuff; he couldn't even summon up a small bit of fear.
“About telling you how much I love you.”
Eliza's hand froze in his hair. Henry made a small noise of protest, and she started stroking again.
“Go to sleep, Henry,” she whispered, and he did.
Henry woke to a soft sound of crunching. Blinking against the early morning light, he realized he was lying on the couch with a blanket covering him; Eliza was sitting on the floor with her back to the couch, absorbed in her phone while her other hand was conveying cheesies to her mouth.
“Breakfast of champions,” Henry said rustily. Eliza started and dropped the cheesies on the rug.
“Busted,” she said. “I slept off the cravings, but I decided I couldn't pass up the full experience.”
Henry slowly levered himself to a sitting position. “God, it tastes like something died in my mouth.”
“Yeah, I was pretty stank, too.” She gestured at the bag. “Want a few?”
“Thanks, I think I'll pass. I've had that experience.”
“More for me,” Eliza said brightly, as Henry fled to the bathroom.
Once there, he thoroughly brushed his teeth and tried to remember what had transpired last night. Had he actually said what he vaguely remembered saying? Had he revealed everything? It was all rather hazy, not to mention smoky.
When he finally emerged, Eliza had made coffee and offered him a cup, which he guzzled with grateful desperation. “Want breakfast?” she asked.
“Maybe in a bit,” Henry answered. Now that the effects of the marijuana were gone, he was beginning to feel anxious again. A glance at the window helped lift his spirits. “Looks like the storm has passed.”
“Yeah,” Eliza said, a bit wistfully, he thought. “Too bad we have to tell old Dirk we're not interested.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the weed is kind of a dealbreaker.”
“I don't know. As you said, it's legal here, and if it's only for recreational use –”
“It's not. Take a look at this,” Eliza said, handing him her phone. There was an article about a Richard Sack, a marijuana entrepreneur in Colorado.
“This is the real Dirk Charcas,” Eliza told him.
Eliza took a deep breath. “Okay. I told you I checked out the company webpage, right? I read all the bios, including Charcas'. Only there was something – off about it. So I did some research into his background – he's only 35, so he should have a big online presence going back years. But Charcas doesn't appear anywhere – FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram – until 2012 or later.”
“The year Deep Powder was established.”
“Right. And then I started looking into Richard Sack.” She waved the baggie at him; on the outside, the label Natural High was attached. “He's a snowboarder slash weed dealer who's been working out of Boulder for ten years, and this is the startup he began in 2014 after it was legalized in Colorado.”
“That's nice,” Henry prompted.
“Henry, Richard Sack. Dirk Charcas. They're – oh, what's the word? When the letters are rearranged.”
Henry frowned. “You mean Sack is an anagram for Charcas?”
“No, Charcas is an anagram for Sack. Because a: who would want to name themselves 'Dick Sack' if they didn't have to, and b: I read in this article that Sack speaks fluent Quechua after he spent a couple of years in South America. He's nuts about Bolivia in particular.” She wiggled her eyebrows meaningfully.
Henry shook his head slowly. “Still not getting it, sorry.”
“Charcas is a province in Bolivia,” Eliza explained, as if to a small child.
“How do you know that?”
Eliza squirmed slightly before blurting, “I won a Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego competition in the eighth grade.”
Henry was struck completely speechless.
“I have obscure geographical facts tattooed on my brain. That shit will never leave me.”
“Okay,” Henry said slowly, his tongue gone thick with possibly the most adorable display of competence he'd ever seen. “That's actually – too strange to be a coincidence. I would in fact say that's proof positive they're one and the same person.”
“I know, right?” Eliza said, brightening. “But that means KinderCare isn't going to be doing any business with Deep Powder. I don't think Dick Sack is Saperstein's idea of a good time.”
They both stared at one another for a full five seconds before collapsing in laughter.
“No, you're right about that,” Henry said, clutching his sides. As he caught his breath, he noticed that Eliza was standing quite close to him.
“So,” Eliza said, her voice a little hoarse from laughing, “looks like we're not on official company business any more.”
“Y-yes, it appears that way,” Henry managed.
“And it's not your birthday any more, either,” she added. “Happy belated birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Henry said. “I'm forty.”
“I think you mentioned that already,” Eliza said. “Am I supposed to tell you you don't look a day over thirty-eight?”
“No,” Henry said. He couldn't seem to stop looking at her mouth, but then Eliza seemed to be having a similar difficulty. “I just want to point out the difference in our ages.”
“Eleven years, two months, seventeen days,” Eliza said. “I know you're old, Henry. I've always known.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Time to quit being chickenshit,” Eliza said, brushing her mouth against his.
And because she was right, Henry grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her.
Later, when Henry was feeling – well, wrecked, but in a good way – and they were both ravenous, they returned to the kitchen. Eliza sat on the counter while he prepared his variation on a Denver omelet (appropriate, he felt), and no well-reasoned arguments concerning the hygiene of food preparation areas would dislodge her from her perch.
(“I didn't hear you complaining about my hoochie being unhygienic earlier when you were screaming my name,” Eliza said, and Henry had to concede she had a point.)
As a result, Henry was uncharacteristically acquiescent when Eliza insisted on eating breakfast in bed. Perhaps he was loosening up, though more likely it was because he knew he'd be laundering the sheets before they left.
“You're, like, a jillion times better at cooking than I am,” she said as she vacuumed up the last bite. “If I were rich like Oprah, I'd hire you to be my personal chef.”
“Actually, my services are very reasonably priced,” Henry said.
“Oh, yeah?” Eliza said, a small smile curving her lips. “Could I afford you?”
Henry pretended to think about it. “I'm confident we can arrange a fair barter system.”
Eliza leaned in and bit gently along his jawline. “What skills do you want me to offer in exchange?”
Henry swallowed. “I didn't mean sex. I was hoping to exchange sex for – well, sex. No, I – um, the thing is have a fireplace at home, but I've never used it.”
Eliza pulled back, her eyes gleaming in triumph. “I knew it! You were getting all hot and bothered over me starting that fire.”
“If I'm being honest, the generator was pretty exciting, too,” Henry admitted.
Eliza arched an eyebrow. “Really,” she drawled. She set down her now-empty plate beside the bed, then took his from his unresisting hands.
“Eliza, we should probably –” Eliza shoved him flat on his back and straddled him. “Um.”
Leaning in, Eliza purred, “I can field-strip an M16 and build a weather-resistant shelter from materials commonly found in the boreal forest in under twenty minutes.”
“You’re a terrible person,” Henry said, laughing.
“You love it,” Eliza said, grinning down at him.
Henry stroked a hand through her hair, and slowly her grin faded.
“Yeah,” he murmured, “I do.”
“Henry,” Eliza whispered, and that was all that needed to be said.