It was the last one of the night – Shane Daniels was out of money.
He tilted his head back, draining the lukewarm dregs from the bottom of his glass. It clanged loudly when dropped to the sticky wood table and he glanced around to see if the noise had startled anyone. To his surprise the saloon was alive with chatter and laughter, as distant to Shane as he was to it.
It was spring in the valley but the nights were still long, and the air bit with unexpected teeth when he exited the stuffy bar. Tugging his hood higher and shoving his hands in his pockets, he slouched away from the muffled laughter and headed home. When he arrived the lights were off, and pausing at the door he could hear no noise – his aunt was probably already in her room. Those three beers at Gus’s hadn’t been nearly enough, but if he was quiet he could grab the bottle from his sock drawer and sneak back out without having to deal with her.
Sneaking out of the house at twenty-nine years old. Son of a bitch, he thought, tucking it in his pocket with shame.
Twenty-nine going on forty-five, that was. The bags below his eyes, tinted ruby. The five o’clock shadow that darkened his jaw no matter how close the shave. The way if he swept back the hair from his forehead several gray hairs poked through the nearly black ones, and the way, in the last few years, that his face had bloated from drinking. On busy nights the bar swarmed with both the early-twenties crowd and the middle-aged regulars, and while he was closer in age to the former, the latter was closer in spirit.
Weary, cynical spirit.
He reentered the darkness and started along the well-worn path from the ranch to Cindersap forest, and from there to the lake and the dock that had long been his brooding spot.
Son of a bitch, he thought again, seeing the silhouette near the shore.
Should he head back? There was no such thing as welcome company in this piss-water little hamlet, where everyone knew where you worked, where you slept, what groceries you bought or that you’d just seen the town doctor for that rash on your stomach. Shane closed his eyes, wishing it’d disappear into the forest like some shadow creature – somehow that’d be less terrifying. But when he opened them again not only was the figure still there, its upper half was turned toward him.
His eyes adjusted to the dark and he could make out a girl with light blond hair, who, like Shane, was hunched against the cold in a hoodie.
“Thought I heard someone,” she said.
“Yeah, well, not staying,” Shane replied gruffly, already facing to leave.
“Hey, do you know what time it is?”
Time for me to get the fuck out of here.
He pulled up his sleeve to check the watch on his inner wrist, and without turning around called back, “10:45.”
He took out the bottle, unscrewing the cap and taking a long swig above his head before walking away again. He’d barely taken his first step when he heard, “Wait!” and turned to see the girl take a few steps toward him.
“What do you want now?” he demanded, patience short.
“You – this is pretty forward of me, but you don’t have a smoke I could bum, do you?”
So she’d seen him drinking straight from the neck and assumed he was a smoker. Natural thing to assume, he guessed, but he wasn’t – not enough money to go around for more than one vice. And who the hell was this chick anyway?
“Probably for the best,” she murmured, more to herself than Shane. “Thanks anyway.”
The way she scratched the back of her neck while looking around, then turned and anxiously rubbed her arms as she walked away – he could tell she was jonesing. He hesitated, knowing the feeling. For a moment some of his old compassion returned, overriding even his hatred of strangers and idle pleasantries; he heaved a frustrated sigh and walked over to where she stood.
She stared at the bottle of Jack he'd shoved at her, debating, then pushed out a hand that was hiding in her hoodie sleeve and took it. Bottle paused before her lips, she raised an eyebrow. “You know this only makes it worse, right?”
He shrugged. “Don’t have to.”
Closing her eyes she took a rather heroic swig, spine shivering as it hit her. “Thanks,” she said, capping it and offering it back.
“No, that’s enough.” She handed it to him and put her hands in her pockets. “I’m glad you didn’t have a cigarette. I’m supposed to be quitting. And if that’s not hard enough on its own, try being plastered and craving one.”
Shane looked at her curiously; he didn’t often look at people curiously, but that’s because after a few months of living in Pelican Town – total population less than his old middle school – he thought he’d already seen everyone there was to see. Especially this far out, as the ranch skirted the edge of town and the lake went out of it completely. He had no idea where this girl had come from. Maybe she was from the city, visiting a friend or relative. She didn’t look rural, what with her high blonde ponytail, and the little stud on one side of her nose that kept catching the moonlight, shimmering like a small star.
“Oh well." She smiled at Shane with one corner of her mouth. “At least there’s no 24/7 convenience store here, right? Forced to ride it out.”
“Right." He wished he could leave again. Was it wrong to just turn and walk away? He could go by the river instead; it wasn’t as private, the ranch being well within sight, but at least he’d be by himself.
The girl was sharp though. She took one glance at Shane and said, “I’m imposing, aren’t I?”
“This was supposed to be your dock. Well, not your dock, but you came out here to be alone, right?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.
She shrugged. “I’ll go. Thanks for not having a smoke, mystery man. Saved me from going back to day zero.”
Then she walked away, and Shane couldn’t remember meeting anyone else in this town who’d offered to leave him alone without having to be told to fuck off first. They learned quickly after that, but still – no one else ever got it right on the first try.
All things considered the taste of unexpected small talk wasn’t as bitter as usual.
Pelican Town was snug deep in the heart of Stardew Valley, miles from the city where Shane had spent his whole life. He’d only been living there a few months – he and Jas, his seven-year-old goddaughter, moved in with Aunt Marnie on her ranch just before winter. The valley was familiar to him: the ranch and its animals, the river and lake, this very dock where he’d started coming as a boy when his parents dropped him off for a few weeks every summer. It was different as an adult and life in the valley didn’t suit him at all, but he’d run out of choices and if he had to be stuck in some hellish small town at least it was one that had places like the lake, places that carried some of his few good memories.
Marnie had always been good to him. In fact, she seemed to like him better than his own parents ever did. When Marnie got tipsy she liked to giggle and fall over herself like a twenty-year-old girl, rather than, say, make Shane dodge projectile beer bottles aimed at his head. She was chattier than he liked in a roommate, and far too interested in his life and goings-on, but she meant well. She never yelled or threw shit at him, and what more could he ask?
It was the same cloistered valley he'd known as a boy, the same too-empty/too-exposed feeling when walking around town, nothing to do and yet feeling like he was under the microscope of every bored housewife and nosy shopkeeper. A few things had changed, though – he'd never been here in spring before, and miserable as the town made him the cherry blossoms were rather pretty. The lake was a few inches lower, the water murkier than it used to be, and there was a wooden sign in front of the dock now, one that hadn’t been there before:
In loving memory of Emmet Wakeshire
Emmet Wakeshire once owned a great expanse of farmland just north of the ranch. Shane had never met the man, who’d died some years ago, but he knew that Emmet built the dock with his own two hands – when he wasn’t much older than Shane, as Marnie told it. The farm was one of the ranch’s closest neighbors and Marnie had been good friends with the old man, speaking of him often and fondly, erecting the sign as a memorial after he passed.
Shane walked to the edge of the dock and sat with his legs dangling, opening the whiskey and drawing out his pocketknife. He absentmindedly opened and closed it while staring at the hushed surface of the water.
Not much older than Shane, she’d said. He tried to think if he’d ever built anything in his whole life. A pyramid of beer cans in his room once, when he was sixteen. Sometimes they asked him to assemble cardboard display cases for holiday chocolate at JojaMart – once even entrusted him with snapping together an extra shelf when they’d ordered too much spaghetti sauce.
A regular architect, really.
A cloud drifted over the moon, Shane drank, and the lake was quiet but for small, pretty sounds: leaves rustling against other leaves, cicadas like cymbal brushes, hissing in the grass. The foam on the water stretched its white fingers out to shore, slinking back when they could stretch no further. He took a long swallow. Once upon a time it burned, like it had for the girl, but those days were gone and these days it went down like tea: warm, smooth, soothing. He laid down with his arms stretched behind his neck, his body heavy.
The stars were so much brighter here than the city. He felt thirteen again, lying on the same dock, staring at the same sky, feeling the same melancholy detachment from everything around him. Wishing just once he could look at the sky and feel wonder or awe instead. One star shone brighter than the rest and he stared at it, until the rest of the stars faded in the background and the bright one was the only thing he could see, pulsing like a beacon.
He felt lonely. Lonely at home, in town, at work, at the bar. Lonely out here too of course, but here it was different – here he was supposed to feel lonely. Insignificant, like everything else in this world. A cluster of atoms, huddled together in the shape of a human as if that meant something.
The universe wasn’t cold and uncaring. Quite the opposite; it was telling him that if he didn’t want to be here, it was okay. It would continue to rustle and foam and pulse without him. It was okay if he didn’t want to stay much longer.
On Monday Shane awoke to the shrill sound of his alarm.
As much as he loathed his job, it at least got him out of bed in the morning – more than he could say for anything else. Without the looming threat of joblessness (and not being able to afford Marnie’s rent, on top of his nights at the saloon) the siren call of those sheets was too strong. Not that he’d never caved, but JojaMart did keep it from becoming a routine.
The bright smell of coffee was the only other incentive to get up. He poured himself some, thankful Marnie was on the phone and couldn’t do more than nod good morning, and headed to the bathroom to shower.
At least there’s hot water, he thought as the steam from it filled the room, fogging the mirror and glass doors. He turned his face to the showerhead, the scorching water pounding his eyelids.
The town had a runty suburbia that Shane had to pass through on his way to work, and that morning he saw Emily, the assistant barkeep, tending to the flowerbeds beneath her window. Scant rays of sun shone on her blue pixie-cut hair, and she smiled kindly when she saw him. Emily smiled kindly at everybody.
“Morning, Shane!” she said. He nodded at her.
Emily was okay. A little out there perhaps, a little too hippie-eccentric for Shane’s tastes, but she wasn’t annoying about it – one of those live and let live types. She and Gus were the only people who'd warmed to Shane since he arrived, though he supposed it worked both ways – they were among the only people he hadn’t told to get bent. Possibly because they saw each other five or six nights a week at the saloon, and miserable as he was he didn’t actually seek to make things awkward. That they were naturally kind and patient people who put up with his moodiness? That was just another enabler.
He passed Dr. Harvey’s clinic next. Harvey was decent as far as the villagers went, nerdy and quiet and with a greater respect for privacy than most of them. But he was also only in his mid-thirties and an MD with his own private practice – a conspicuous reminder each day of Shane’s own stupidity. The doctor sat at his front desk, scribbling notes with his tongue protruding from under his handlebar moustache.
What a fucking moustache too. Shane could’ve ridden it to town.
His head hurt like hell; he’d stayed at the dock far too long, until over half the bottle was gone. May have even passed out for awhile when he was laying down, because it was after two in the morning when he stumbled home for a shitty four hours of sleep.
Next he passed the large front window of Pierre’s General Store, Pierre himself straightening the sign on a bin of potatoes. He avoided Pierre’s if he could help it. Though it was closer to the ranch than JojaMart, the few times he’d swung by on the weekend for a six-pack (or twelve-pack, or twenty-four, depending on his mood and wallet), the shopkeeper’s judgmental eyes said it all – Shane’s habits at the saloon weren’t exactly a secret.
And so, hands in pockets and head down as he tried to quickly pass the little grocer, he didn’t notice the front door swing open until he was almost hit squarely in the face.
“Shit! I’m sorry!” cried a voice, and Shane, trying to still his beating heart, realized with annoyance that it was the same girl as the previous night.
Must be on a morning cigarette run, he thought crudely.
He’d been several beers in when they met last night, and apparently in a bizarrely social mood because seeing her today – with throbbing head and bloodshot eyes – he wanted to snap his fingers and make her fucking disappear. This. This was what he hated about small towns. No anonymity, anywhere. Not even with strangers.
She wore the same hoodie as the evening before, along with jeans dusted with dirt, and for the few seconds before opening the door she’d been as deeply lost in her own thoughts as Shane had been in his.
“I didn’t see you!” she said quickly. “I’m sorry if – oh.” Her face shifted in recognition. “It’s you. Hi.”
“Yeah,” he grunted, trying to sidestep her, but she stepped back in front of him with eyes searching his face.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Like it’s any of her business. Probably thinks we’re friends now or something.
“I’m late,” he said angrily.
“I didn’t hit you with the door, did I?”
“Just fuck off.”
This time he successfully stepped around her, leaving the stunned girl staring after him on the sidewalk. She didn’t know who he was yet. Perhaps she’d just think him bipolar.
He really didn’t care.