It had been four days, fifteen hours, and ten minutes since the pie-maker had last laid eyes on the girl named Chuck and his assistant, Olive Snook. He tried to convince himself he wasn’t lonely for them, that this was an exciting vacation, or an amazing life experience, or even an interesting case, or even a fairly good day. He failed.
Finally, the pie-maker picked up his phone and dialed the girl named Chuck.
“How’s Paris?” she asked.
“A little lonely,” he admitted. “But . . . I’m okay. How are you?”
“Frustrated, lonely, and sneezy. I have allergies,” Chuck told him. “Isn’t that kind of funny? I thought when you died, you’d stop having things like allergies. And boyfriends.”
“Heh,” Ned replied. He tried again to convince himself that he did not miss her; did not miss Olive, that he was very happy just the way he was. He reached for some rationalization that would help him through the night, and smiled a little. “In a way, this is . . . kind of nice, don’t you think?” Ned looked up at the ceiling. The plaster was cracked and crumbling and somehow, almost comforting in a way the bright, shining Eiffel Tower had not been. “I mean, not because you’re not here, because obviously I’d like to have you here, but it’s sort of nice . . . it feels almost normal. Even though I can’t touch you, well, ever, right now I couldn’t touch you anyway. So now we’re like any other couple . . . separated by an ocean. You know? Not touching is . . . normal and expected. That’s kind of nice. Right?”
Chuck laughed. The facts were these: she, at the insistence of Emerson Cod, was in a romantic and tropical, yet lonely, cottage in Costa Rica. She and the pie-maker had been sent to their respective parts of the world looking for a clue in a case that Emerson assured them was worth at least one million dollars. This amount of money was not currently a comfort to the girl named Chuck. “I have to disagree. I’d rather be near you, now, sitting across the dinner table or getting honey from the beehives together or even solving a case, as long as we could do it side by side and I could still see your face and not just hear your voice.”
“Yes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love your voice, but I miss your smile and your eyes and the way your whole body clenches up when you feel nervous, which is always, and the way your breath feels on my ear when you hug me.”
Ned blinked. “We could try Skyping,” he said slowly. “You could still get all those things on Skype,” he suggested.
“No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel your breath, Ned. I couldn’t get saran wrap kisses or mittened hand-holding or even a view of the back of your head.” Chuck’s voice quavered. “I really miss the back of your head, Ned.”
Ned smiled. “Just think how I feel,” he whispered. “I never get to see the back of my head at all.” He tried not to sound as sad as he felt. No matter what he said, he missed the girl named Chuck, and wished he did not have to be thousands of miles away from her. He wished he did not have to be even inches away from her.
He heard Chuck sigh. “Do you ever look at the stars, Ned?”
Ned blinked. “Do you mean, do I happen to look up when it’s night and I’m outside? Or are you talking about some kind of metaphor?”
He could hear the smile in her voice. “When you look up at a constellation, you see all these stars and they look like they’re so close together. Like, inches away at most. And in reality, they’re trillions of miles apart. I can’t even wrap my head around it. And you, Ned, you and I, we can stand right next to each other. We can be . . . a millimeter away.” Chuck sighed. “You’d think that’d be enough, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah.” Ned was quiet. He knew what Chuck meant; maybe it didn’t even matter how far apart they were . . . they could never touch. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should give her up—it up, the whole crazy idea, the whole possibility of . . . love. But he was crazy about her. He was crazy about so many little things, skimming the very tips of his fingers over her hair; watching her eyes fly open wide as she pretended not to be doing something she was very much doing; the warmth of her body, which was warm all the same whether he could actually touch it or not. And at that moment, he ached for her, and yearned to tell her all the things in his heart.
“Chuck?” he said.
“I don’t really think it’s better to be separated from you by thousands of miles and I don’t actually feel normal with an ocean between us,” he confessed. “I’d rather be not normal and right beside you than be half across the world and average in every way.”
And the girl named Chuck understood completely. “I’m glad we’re not stars, Ned. I’m glad we’re not trillions of miles away.” Despite her best efforts, her nose was beginning to run, her eyes to tear. This evoked a similar reaction in Ned, who could not bear to hear the one he loved cry—not when he was not there to comfort her.
If only things were different. If only he could take her hand, or kiss her cheek. He would settle for nearly anything, no matter how base or mundane, if it would take Chuck’s pain away. If it could take his pain away. He would do anything, if it meant that he could hold her, even for the briefest moment.
“Hold on a second,” Chuck said in a voice tight with tears. “I’ve got another call.”
Ned’s phone beeped and he looked at it, perplexed. “I’ve got a call. too.”
Olive’s voice came on the line. “Look, I’m conferencing the both of you in because I don’t know which one to ask, and I kind of wanted to mention that it really stinks that you both go gallivanting off on amazing adventures and just leave me behind to watch the Pie Hole, but the real issue is that I’m almost completely out of apple because we had a real run on apple today, so do you think I could sneak some pear into the apple crumble with salted caramel?”
“Oh, Olive,” Chuck said, and Ned heard an inflection in her voice; it was not, ‘Oh, Olive, what a stupid thing to call about,’ or ‘Oh, Olive, you have the worst timing,” but rather, ‘Oh, Olive, thank you for breaking us out of our funk and reminding us of the important things in life, like pie.’
It was a sentiment with which the pie-maker whole-heartedly agreed. “I’m glad you called, Olive,” he choked.
“Always,” Chuck assured her.
“For real?” Olive said, sounding touched and flattered and happy.
“You’re kind of the most important ingredient in the sandwich, Olive,” Chuck pointed out. And so she was. It was only through Olive that Ned and Chuck could touch. Their other option—Emerson Cod—had declined with his usual but rather more emphatic than necessary, “Oh, hell no!”
“We love you, Olive,” Chuck told her.
“Awwww. Well, that makes me a little feel better about being stuck in an empty restaurant drinking coffee and being bored,” Olive said.
Ned smiled. His mind drifted back to a month before, when a slow night at the Pie Hole had turned into something else completely.
“It doesn’t have to be boring. Ned isn’t there,” Chuck pointed out.
“Hey!” Ned protested.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant—you could even experiment. Try a new kind of pie. Switch it up. Change the menu. Ned wouldn’t even know.”
“Ned doesn’t approve of those sort of shenanigans,” Ned interrupted.
“Ned needs to learn to loosen up,” Chuck told him dryly.
Olive giggled. “Ned wasn’t nearly so uptight last month when we accidentally got that extra shipment of whipped cream,” she pointed out.
“That’s . . . neither here nor there,” Ned said breathlessly. He wanted to say he didn’t remember, but that would be a lie. He remembered the whipped cream very clearly. He remembered Olive’s nude body, and Chuck’s nude body, and his—“Is anyone else feeling hot? I think Paris is suffering some kind of heat wave,” he said.
“Really? Seriously? At Christmastime?” Olive said. “Wow, that’d have to be a heck of an unseasonal heat-wave.”
“Mmmph. Probably more like an unseasonal wave of sexual desire,” Chuck teased. “I think Ned is picturing you naked,” she whispered, ostensibly to Olive.
“Really?” Olive squeaked with happiness.
“Ned wasn’t doing that. Ned was . . . all right, maybe he—I—might have been doing a little innocent fantasizing. Or remembering. But it wasn’t just Olive,” he added quickly. Ned grimaced. “Does that make me sound dirty?”
“Only in a good way,” Chuck assured him.
Ned shut his eyes. He remembered the way Olive drew Chuck’s zipper down. He’d followed her fingers with his eyes, wishing they were his fingers. And when Olive drew his zip down, he knew Chuck’s fingers moved them as well as Olive’s. “I’m not a dirty person, by and large,” he said.
Olive snorted. “You mean you’re an uptight nervous Nelly, is what you are.”
“That’s what I like about him,” Chuck said with a sigh. “He’s so shy.”
“It is sort of cute,” Olive agreed.
Ned’s face felt warm. He remembered stroking Olive’s back, a touch he could not give to Chuck, as Olive knelt, her mouth on Chuck’s flesh, tongue flicking, caressing Chuck where Ned could only dream of. And Chuck sighed; Ned would always remember that—the way Chuck’s head fell back, the flush on her cheeks, her open mouth, hair falling over her face, and Ned drew his hand down Olive’s spine, putting all his love and longing and very being into that touch, until—
“That was a good night,” Ned murmured.
“We should do that again soon,” Chuck agreed quickly. Ned could not help but notice she sounded a little out of breath.
“Sure,” Olive said. “Any time.” To the pie-maker, Olive sounded shy, which surprised Ned, because she had been anything but shy that night, especially when she had dipped her finger in the whipped cream and knelt before him. And although he had been, as Olive put it, quite skittish, he’d found the subsequent encounter enormously . . . satisfying. Touch upon touch, tongue to tongue, Chuck’s hand on Olive’s head, Olive’s lips wrapped around Ned . . . he had not known that one person could love him so deeply, let alone two.
“Um, I think I need to use the restroom,” Ned said.
“Me, too,” Chuck added.
“Oh. Oh, sure,” Olive said. “Let’s talk again tomorrow. Man, isn’t it great? We’re thousands of miles apart and yet I can hear you guys just like you were standing right next to me. Isn’t technology wonderful?”
“You know what, Olive? You’re absolutely right,” Chuck said.
Ned had to smile. When you looked at the world that way, a trillion miles was no worse than a few millimeters, and none of it mattered, because you could reach out, just reach out with your voice, and if you were lucky, they’d feel your breath against their ear.
“Can I call you guys tomorrow?” Ned whispered.
“Sure,” Olive said.
“You’d better,” Chuck said.
“Sweet dreams,” Olive told them.
“Sweet dreams,” Ned and Chuck echoed.
And for just a moment, it did not matter that the pie-maker and Olive and the girl named Chuck were oceans apart, and it would not have mattered even if they were light-years apart, because at that moment, they were together in all the important ways, and they all knew that no one else could make them feel the way they did now . . .
Warm, and safe and loved.