“I can’t believe you still live here.”
He says this, maybe for the third or fourth time, before taking another slow sip of bourbon. It’s not a real declaration, but a soft mutter into his glass, a repetitive thought hitting the bottom of his drink. He rolls his upper lip under his teeth, and you look away.
And again, you don’t respond. You roll your glass slowly between your palms, watching the ice melt and mingle with the remaining half-glass of liquor. The condensation is cool in the strange September heat of the night.
“It’s a good house,” you say finally, staring down into bushes lining the porch. In your peripherals, he sets his glass on the banister. “It’s always been a good house.”
“Never said it wasn’t.”
He rests his arms on the banister, and you eye the flaking white paint. You pick at a loose bit with your nail absently.
“It’s convenient as hell for me, at least,” he continues. “Even though I’m kind of mad at myself for not checking here first. You were kind of a bitch to track down, Egbert.”
You think, well, maybe I didn’t want to be tracked down, but you swallow the thought. It’s a half-lie, anyway, so you go mum.
He looks out at the backyard, shades pushed up into his hair. You do much the same, eyeing the garden tinged only by the faint yellow of the porch light.
—don’t wanna close my eyes, I don’t wanna fall asleep—
—don’t wanna close my eyes, I don’t wanna fall asleep—
—don’t wanna close my eyes, I don’t wanna fall asleep—
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
With a huff, you reach over to silence your phone lying on the passenger seat. You haven’t even been on I-90 for two hours, and already you had regretted not packing your phone away with the bags in the trunk. Really, you hadn’t expected the calls and texts to come flooding so soon into your seven hour drive.
None of the calls are from your dad – you don’t have to look at your phone to be sure of that. He had already spent the past month lecturing your ear off, telling you that you can’t run away from your problems, cutting ties won’t make things better, blah blah, yadda yadda. His last piece of parting wisdom was to at least try finding a therapist in Missoula, at which you nodded without making any promises.
Your eyes glaze over the here-and-now of the interstate. Sometimes you glance at the cars parked on the shoulder, broken down or followed by police lights. In the westbound lanes near Vantage, a large plume of black smoke rises from an abandoned car sitting low in the bushes on the shoulder. You slow for just a moment to stare at the scene – dead-still traffic, the harsh wailing of sirens overlaying one another, the blue sky now murky – before your concern flatlines into disinterest and you continue your way east.
(Very briefly – just a touch of a moment, but enough to make you bite the inside of your cheek – you think of how Dave would have reacted to the smoke. He wouldn’t have liked it. He would have forced himself to look out the passenger window, and even then might have closed his eyes to keep the scene out of sight and out of mind.)
You arrive at a Motel 6 as the Montana sky starts to replace the colors of sunset with a uniform overlay of dark blue. Signing in and moving yourself to your room is a blur. For a long time, you sit in front of the window overlooking the parking lot, silenced phone in hand, too exhausted to wonder what messages and voicemails are waiting for you.
Eventually, you crawl into bed and breathe in the stale remnants of smoke woven into the sheets. You realize you had forgotten your cigarettes in the car.
When you wake, the room is dark. As you sit up, you wonder if you should call your dad to let him know you got into Montana safe. You squint down at the full-brightness of your phone, and find yourself met with fifteen unread texts from Dave.
You skim over most of the messages. One catches your eye (RECEIVED: jesus i wish there was something i could do), but you stare at the last few.
RECEIVED: i know youre on the road and youre not actually ignoring me
RECEIVED: but fuck dude
RECEIVED: i hope you change your mind
RECEIVED: just turn that dinky little toyota around and come home
You breathe a long, slow sigh from your nose. For some time, you tell yourself not to respond—that was the point of cutting things off, right?—but you feel as though you need some finality. More so than what you had given him back home, you guess.
SENT: i’m sorry dave...i’m not coming home. we talked about this.
SENT: i love you.
SENT: but i need to do this.
The red impatiens sway with a breeze rolling slow over the yard, disturbing the stillness of the dark. Dave huffs a small laugh beside you.
“Did Harley pass down her godly green thumb onto you or something?” He swirls the melting ice in his drink absently. “Like, did the Jesus Christ of gardening slap some seeds in your hand and tell you to go forth and reap what you sow or whatever?”
“Huh?” You turn to look at him, though he doesn’t take his eyes off the backyard. “Oh—I didn’t plant those. Casey did it for a Girl Scout badge.”
“Oh, damn, really?”
“Did she get first place?”
“What?” You grin, breathing out a laugh. “You still don’t understand how Scouts work, do you?”
“Not a fucking clue.”
He finally turns to look at you, bearing a grin as you turn away to laugh. You smooth a hand down your face. The warmth of your drink pools in your cheeks.
“Where is the kid, anyway?” he asks.
“At a friend’s. Big sleepover the moms put together to celebrate entering the fourth grade.”
“Damn. Are you not a part of this exclusive mom group or what?”
“Hah, god no, I don’t really get involved. They asked me to bake some stuff, and I was this close to telling them to fuck off.”
“But, then you remembered that you’re a nice guy.”
“Yeah, I guess. That, and Casey already chose which flavors and frosting colors she wanted, so I was already cornered into doing it.”
He smiles, though his eyes don’t seem to follow. You take a sip of your watered-down drink.
“Will I be able to meet her, or am I like, daddy’s cool little secret?”
“I think ‘cool’ is pushing it,” you start, at which he scoffs, “but you’re not really a secret to her. She already knows about you.”
“Cool, cool. I guess you told her that I was going to be around?”
“Mhm. That and, uh, she’s known about you for a while.”
He stares at you silently. The heat on your cheeks seems to transfer to the nape of your neck, the tips of your ears.
(Though you’ve missed some of the mystery behind his eyes, you’ve always been intimidated by his stare).
“She’s been wanting to meet you for a long time, actually.”
RECEIVED: hey man
RECEIVED: i know its been a while but
RECEIVED: rose and jade told me about your dad
RECEIVED: im sorry to hear
RECEIVED: he was a good guy
RECEIVED: if you wanna talk lmk
This is not how you wanted to wake up.
Sitting at your father’s kitchen table, feeling like a stranger in your childhood home, hearing the remnants of your father still making the walls and stairs creak. This is not how you wanted to wake up. Not for the fifth day in a row, not ever.
You stare at the string of texts with your hands in your lap. Phone calls keep coming in, but you don’t answer. Do you have anything to say?
He had passed quickly and quietly, you remind yourself. It was quick, quiet, painless.
(His spirit is hovering in the halls, you think.)
Casey prattles quietly to herself as the television mumbles in the living room. You find yourself envying her, too small to understand what’s happened. You wish you could drop yourself into an imaginary field and leave the present moment behind, fall back into some part of yourself that is unharmed, untouched by everything you’ve done and everything that’s happened. Fall back onto imaginary wheat grass and hushed breezes.
But you can’t. Your ever-ringing phone reminds you of that. Dave’s texts remind you of that.
You move to shut your phone off, but stop when the chair beside you scrapes against the linoleum floor.
“Daddy, up, please.”
Casey looks up at you, one foot secure on the chair’s stretcher, palms flat against the seat. You raise your brows at her before resting your cheek on your hand, giving her a small, not entirely true grin.
“You can do it yourself, Case. You’ve done it before.”
She huffs, then pushes herself up after some brief struggle with finding her footing. When you tell her that you told her so, she sticks her tongue out at you.
She plants her hands on the table, knees itching to crawl on top yet knowing better, and points down at your phone. She tilts her head to understand.
“Who’s this?” she asks.
“Ah—” You reach over to cover the messages, waving her off. “It’s no one, honey.”
Her cheeks turn some shade of red as she furrows her small brows. “That’s mean! You always tell me lying is mean.”
You make some noise to respond, but find yourself caught. Shit. Slowly, you uncover your phone, breathing slow from your nose.
“An old friend of mine,” you answer.
“What’s his name? What did he say?” she asks, trying to peer again at the messages. It occurs to you that she’s too young to read full sentences. She mumbles that she sees the word “dad”.
“His name is Dave.”
“What does he look like?” she asks. “Does he have a favorite color? Do his shoes, um, hm…”
She plants her feet on the chair again and stomps once, making the colors light up along the sole.
You answer her questions when she lets you, and though she looks thrilled to be learning about someone new, you can’t help but feel a little heavy at the conversation.
(Though, you admit, it’s a nice reprieve from thinking about your dad.)
After the quick round of twenty questions subsides, and after you’ve convinced her to sit in her seat, she lists the newly acquired information about Dave to herself. That he’s shorter than daddy, has blonde hair, likes the color red, can ride a bike…
You stand, deciding it’s about time to get some semblance of dinner going, when she directs another question at you.
“Can I meet him?”
“Uh—” You look at her, almost telling her no out of a brief burst of panic, but before you can finish your thought, she demands that she meet him. Her eyes soften when a look crosses your face, and she then says if she could please meet him, pretty please.
You run a hand through your hair.
“I dunno, sweetheart. Maybe someday.” Before turning to the stove, you grin at her lightly. “But only if you eat all your vegetables for a month.”
That sates her. She crinkles her nose, but smiles.
“So, when’s shooting going to be finished?”
“What, you trying to drive me out of the state already?”
“No, geez, no—I was just wondering.”
He laughs, fuller than you remember him ever laughing, and you look at him. He grins quietly into his empty glass.
“We’re not sure yet,” he says. “Depends on how well the shoots go. But we planned to bounce around the 30th.”
“Back to California?” you ask.
He shakes his head. “Nah. Next stop is in Colorado.”
You nod a little. You’ve both finished your drinks, and they lay dormant and sheened. The ice cracks softly as it melts into lozenges.
Dave leans against the banister, back facing the yard. You lean your side into the rail to face him and watch as he quietly surveys your back porch in the half-dark.
God, you think, he’s changed.
You swallow, feeling your pulse thrum under you jaw.
Things have changed. And yet…
“Not to get real all of a sudden,” he starts, “but, you know I forgive you, right?”
The question comes out of the calm silence. You feel your brows perk, and he looks at you, drumming his fingers slow against the banister.
“Um,” you say. You look away from him, craning your neck to look out at the garden again, and find yourself biting the inside of your lip. “I mean, I guess so. You’re here, aren’t you?”
“You never know, I could have come here to like, woo and murder you like some shitty Lifetime revenge plot. You ever seen Wives with Knives?”
You stare at him. He waves your non-response off with a hand, interjecting himself. “Probably not. You probably don’t get the privilege of zombie-ing out in hotel rooms stuck with like, ten channels.”
As he reaches a hand up to smooth his hair against his nape, he sighs. “I mean, shit’s changed, you know? Like, I was mad for a long time, but then…” He splays his hands emptily in front of him, pausing to think. “I guess I just sort of accepted it. That whatever was going on with you, and whatever was going on with me, was just life. Like we were just two exits that branched off from the same highway.”
You hum as he motions the metaphorical roadways with his hands before pressing them against the banister again.
“So then…why are you here?” you ask. You expect him to scoff in offense, but he shrugs quietly instead.
“Figured I’d visit since I was in the area. See how this place changed, see how my old best bro was doing.” He pauses before continuing, quieter, “Maybe even ask him nicely if we could, uh. Get a do-over.”
A small laugh escapes you, though you’re not sure why. “A do-over?”
“Yeah, you know, like we just kind of…figure each other out again and see where that goes.”
He reaches for his drink, probably to hide his nerves, but stops as he remembers the glass is empty. You take your glass in hand to smear your thumb through the condensation.
For a moment, you think about teasing him, asking him if he’s trying to ask you out, but the way he’s shifting so minutely – something very un-Strideresque, even in its small variations – quiets you. How long has he been thinking about this, you wonder?
The feeling of your stomach flipping over doesn’t pass you by. Maybe it’s the drink, or the heat, but you can’t help but want to ask him to come inside and have another. You want to hear where he’s been – you want to know how’s he grown.
He fidgets again, returning his hands to the banister to drum his fingers.
“It’s cool if that’s not something you’d want to do, though,” he says suddenly, seeming to interpret your silence as rejection. “I mean, we’ve changed, I get that—”
“Woah, Dave,” you say, holding a hand up to quiet him. “Relax. I wasn’t going to say no.”
“Oh.” You watch his shoulders drop visibly, and you smile, looking at your glass.
“Yeah. Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to come inside for another drink.”
He stares at you, maybe surprised that you didn’t reject him, before grinning. Maybe it’s just the light, but it seems almost shy. “Should I take this as a yes, then?”
You hum coyly, leading him to the back door and sliding it open. “I think so. But I’ll let the alcohol decide for me, I think.”
The kitchen is still dark when you both step inside, save for the dim porch light. In the quiet, a small clank rings out as Dave nudges his empty glass to yours.
“Good to meet you again, Egbert.”
A short, huffy snort escapes you.
“The feeling’s mutual, Strider.”
(“Hey, it’s Dave. Just letting you know I’ll be shooting in Washington soon—place in Des Moines, has the cast all buzzed. Or tired of movin’ around, I dunno. Anyway, uh, we’re gonna be up there for a few weeks, starting September 15th, and I was wondering if you…”)
You can’t believe you’re doing this.
Your chest felt tight up to the hour you were supposed to meet him. You fussed over your hair, your face, a persistent smudge on your glasses, despite feeling a slight numbness in your fingertips. You zoned out driving down Route 18 until you were somewhat startled back into reality, suddenly wondering why you were making the half hour trip to see your ex-boyfriend that you haven’t spoken to in twenty years.
You’re parked next to a little seafood place looking out on Poverty Bay. Though you’ve turned the car off already, you still clutch the wheel, watching the small spattering of cast and crew disperse for the day. A handful of sailboats are out making a last trip before sundown.
Your phone buzzes. You pick it up, hands quaking as your eyes still search for him among the crowd.
RECEIVED: hey were just about wrapping it up for the day
RECEIVED: we still on?
He hasn’t seen you yet, you think, you still have time to bail.
You respond somewhat against your senses, thumbs stiff and automatic.
SENT: i’m waiting in the parking lot next to the seafood place.
It takes some time for him to emerge from the crowd, but when he does, it’s obvious that it’s him. He stops some feet away, scanning the parking lot. You hold your breath and stare.
Really, he’s hardly changed. The realization makes you glance at yourself in the rearview mirror and note the small wisps of grey creeping in along your hairline.
He’s staring at you when you look back at him, paused on the sidewalk. You heartbeat drums in your ears.
Slowly, you suck in a breath and force yourself out of the car, clutching to the door to hide the wobbliness of your knees. He stops some steps away, brows perked behind his shades.
There’s silence, awkward and heavy. You stare, and he stares back, until he smirks and raises a hand in greeting.
Christ. You feel as though the wind’s been knocked out of you. Sucker-punched, dragged to the bottom of the bay.
He’s really here, isn’t he?
Though your hands still quake, you manage a smile. You raise a hand in greeting back.