December 24, 2012
Was it her or were the numbers on the gas pump clicking over more slowly than usual? They were frozen, like the rest of Dusk Falls.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Trina muttered, stomping her feet to keep them warm.
Still slow. Forget this. She’d wait in the car.
The engine of a large truck thundered to a stop on the other side of the gas station out on the edge of Dusk Falls. She turned, catching sight of the driver before diving into the relative warmth of her car, and looked right into Dean’s startled eyes.
Her stomach crashed into her feet so fast she forgot about the cold.
She forgot about everything.
As if she were looking through a pair of binoculars the wrong way, she watched him put the truck in park and mutter something to himself.
She hadn’t seen him once in the last year. Granted, she spent a lot of the year in Fort McMurray, Alberta. But every time she was in town she braced herself for running into him like this. At the gas station, or the grocery store. Holly’s.
Somehow it never happened.
In her more paranoid moments, she imagined he’d been avoiding her.
But that was ridiculous. After last Christmas, he’d called her five times. Five.
She had each voice mail message still on her phone. Long rambling, chatty messages that when she was alone in Canada, living out of a suitcase and feeling like there was a world spinning on without her, she’d listen to.
They stopped at the end of summer. The last message from him had been September 2. He’d been busy. And his voice sounded tired, defeated. And when he hung up, she knew it was the last time he’d call her.
Finally, she called him in November. On his birthday. And the message she left was awkward and awful. She didn’t say anything about his messages, or last Christmas Eve. She’d sounded like a nervous stranger. He didn’t call her back, and she wasn’t even surprised.
The whole thing was shameful, she owned that. Cowardly, too.
Which made this moment incredibly awkward.
He stepped out of the car and tipped his hat to her. His lips moved but the wind was howling so loud through the pumps, over the open land, that she couldn’t hear him.
“What?” she yelled.
“I said, Hey Trina,” he yelled.
“Right!” Oh wow, she was such an idiot. She gave him her widest, brightest smile, perfected by the last year working with his family. “Good to see you.”
He pointed to his ears and shook his head before he took the gas pump and flipped the lever so hard she flinched.
This is ridiculous, she thought. We’re grownups. We were lovers and we’ve been friends our whole life.
She walked across the cement over to his truck.
He wore a shearling coat with the collar pulled up. He’d very recently shaved, and that skin on his cheeks, near his ears, was pink. She wanted to put her fingers against it, protect it from the cold. “Hi,” she said. “Seems ridiculous to yell.”
“I guess so.”
“It’s good to see you,” she told him.
“You too,” he said with about the most insincere smile she’d ever seen him smile.
“How have you been?” she asked.
“Cold night,” she said.
He just watched her. And part of her wanted to say goodbye and leave, but she’d done that already. Too many times. Not tonight. Tonight she wasn’t going to run.
“Are you heading out to the party?” she asked. Over the edge of his coat, she saw a flash of red. A tie.
“Mom asked, I couldn’t say no. I’m stopping out at your dad’s first.” He aimed the casual words right at her.
“Why?” An icicle slid down her spine. She sounded defensive to her own ears. Even when she didn’t mean to.
“Because it’s the holiday. Because that’s what you do. Because I haven’t seen much of him lately.”
“Don’t try and make me feel bad,” she snapped.
The implication was that she didn’t need his help. But she didn’t need to justify anything to him.
“You going to the party?” he asked into the snappy, crackly silence.
“No,” she said.
“Really? As an employee I would have figured attendance was mandatory.”
“I’m heading up to Fort McMurray, Alberta.”
“Well, I’m making some stops, along the proposed path of the pipeline, but–”
“It’s Christmas Eve.”
There was a hard stone in her throat. “It’s just another night, Dean.”
She made the mistake of looking up and meeting his eyes. And in the wide white and blustery world, his eyes were hot. Points of light, directed her way. The heat there–in him, in his face–cut through the cold. Cut through the past. Through the silence and all her prickly discomfort. It sliced right into her shame. Her guilt.
Only to reveal her longing for him stretched and threaded through nearly every moment in the last year.
I’ve missed you, she thought. So much.
“I’m sorry I waited so long to call you back.” The words flung themselves from her mouth, like convicts taking advantage of a sleeping guard and an unlocked door. And they were wrong. All wrong. Totally wrong. Not at all what she wanted to say, or how she wanted to say it. But the cold and the heat–the care in his eyes, no matter how much he didn’t want to show it to her–was making her short-circuit. “It’s just been so–”
“Come on,” he said, and he grabbed her elbow.
“Get in the truck. I’m not having this conversation out in the cold.”
He opened the driver side door of his truck, and she climbed in and slid across the bench seat to the passenger side. He got in behind her and shut the door. The silence was loud.
“I was saying I was sorry I waited so long to–”
Dean kissed her.
He leaned over the seat, grabbed her head and kissed her.
Yes! This! She’d missed this. Missed him.
In the cold his mouth was hot, so hot. And she melted against him. Wrapping her arms around his neck, opening herself up to him. Her mouth, her tongue, everything. She offered all of it with a low sigh, a happy groan. He held her so hard. Like he was trying to absorb her.
Trina began to shrug out of her jacket. Just so she could be closer.
Dean wrenched himself away, resting his head against hers. Their breath fogged in the cold air between them.
“I’m dating Rachel Smith,” he said, and she pulled back so fast her hair got pulled on his gloves.
“I’m dating Rachel. I have been for about a month.”
“Then why are you kissing me?”
He sat back, leaning against the driver side door, and she tried not to notice how handsome he was, how…real. How strong and virile and exciting. He was seeing someone else.
“Because you’re Trina Crawford,” he said. “And I always want to kiss you.”
“I waited the better part of year, Trina,” he said. “For you to call me back. And then I remembered the one thing I have always known about you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t forgive and you don’t forget.”
“That’s not true!” Except it was. It absolutely was.
“Remember who you’re talking to,” he said. “I’ve known you your whole life. Your mom, your dad. And me.”
“I called you back!” she cried.
“Right. And pretended like we were strangers. Like nothing happened between us. Ever.”
She heard the pump thump off, but she didn’t care. She could only stare at him blankly.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“You know, I just got to thinking that you were right. There is too much between us.”
“No, no, Dean, it’s not true. There isn’t.”
“Tell me,” he said, instead of answering. “Did you ever call your dad?”
“You’re so sure I didn’t?”
The look he gave her was as old as sand.
“Yeah, well, you’re wrong, Dean. I’ve called him three times. The first time we actually talked. I told him I was in town and working for your dad. He hung up on me. He didn’t call me names or ask me any questions, he just hung up on me, because that’s all I mean to him. The second time he was so drunk he didn’t remember we talked, and the third time he thought I was my mom and screamed at me. So tell me, what am I supposed to forgive and forget?”
Man, the pleasures of Christmas Eve just kept giving. All this bitterness and grief was way underground most days of the year, but tonight it all came to the surface, like a miserable crop.
“Trina.” He reached for her, just his hand toward her shoulder, and she flinched away.
Five minutes ago, this was just a night. A cold night with slow gas pumps and work, stretched out ahead of her. And now it was in tatters. Broken and awful, all her monsters running amok.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you back right away,” she told him. Wind blew her hair in her face and she shook it back, half of it stuck in her lip gloss. “But I’m tired of being hurt, Dean. And I haven’t figured out how to stop getting hurt.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “But I don’t know how not to.”
She felt like a landmine. And maybe she was. Maybe that’s all she was.
“I have to go.” She couldn’t sit there any longer. So close and impossibly far away. She couldn’t grab hold of her thoughts. She couldn’t line them up. They scattered like marbles every time she tried.
“I didn’t sleep with you that night to get back at my father.”
“I know,” she breathed with what felt like the last air in her lungs.
“I’m sorry, too,” he said. He wasn’t angry. He was sad. And his sadness broke her.
In answer, she did what she did best. She climbed out of his car, walked across the cement, and got into her car and left.
Merry Christmas, Dean, she thought, watching him in her rearview mirror get smaller and smaller. Until he just disappeared.
Dean stood at the gas station, watching Trina’s brake lights until the darkness swallowed them up.
I am an idiot.
I thought I was over her. I really did.
After she left that message as if it hadn’t been the better part of a year since they’d talked, he’d decided his lifelong obsession with Trina Crawford was officially done.
This thing he had with Rachel, it was easy, but it was halfhearted at best. On both their parts. She was getting over a bad breakup. He was getting over one amazing disaster of a night with his former best friend.
And somehow he’d convinced himself the job of giving a shit about Trina was done. Only it wasn’t. One random run-in at a gas station and he was all in again. Like he was twelve, watching her at that big grand piano, waiting for her to give the count to begin “Silent Night”.
Screw this, he thought. He wanted to check in on Roy, make sure the bastard was still alive, and then he’d go and make nice at the family party.
That was the plan. He would stick to it.
He started the truck, put it in gear and pointed it out to Trina’s old house.
It looked about like he expected. The walkway hadn’t been shoveled. Or the porch steps. There weren’t even footprints–nothing but fresh snow. He was surprised that there weren’t coyotes circling around the door. He knocked and rang the buzzer, but after a few minutes of waiting in the cold he just opened the front door, which he knew would be unlocked.
“Roy!” he yelled, and walked right into a wall of smell. Part old socks, part unwashed body. All bad. “Holy– Roy! It’s me, Dean!”
The mud room opened up into a small, dark kitchen, every inch of counter space filled with dirty dishes and open soup cans.
“Good God,” he muttered. The dining room wasn’t much better–the carpet was thick with fuzz and dust. Milton, the old dog, came up and barked once, then sniffed him and limped away.
The wind howling around the old house was his only answer. And it wasn’t like he believed wind could be anything other than wind. But that was a bad wind.
At the stairs, Dean headed toward the den. It was Roy’s drinking room, and the dirty-sock smell was coming strong from that area.
Please. Please don’t be dead.
He didn’t want to call her with this news. He didn’t want to hurt her anymore.
“Hey? Roy?” He knocked hard on the door.
There was a thump and a grunt, some rustling from the other side of the door. He braced a hand on the door frame and hung his head for a second.
Thank you, God.
The door was yanked open and Roy stood there, six feet of stubborn cuss in a stained shirt and unwashed hair. Dean stepped back, away from the foul smell of stale booze that rolled out with him.
“What?” Roy blinked into the relative light of the hallway. Behind him the den was dark, eerie in the light of the muted television.
“Roy? You okay?”
“I’m fine. Why are you here?” Roy’s hair used to be red, but now it was beige with silver. His jeans hung off his far-too-thin frame. Guilt gnawed at Dean. He knew the old man had no one looking in on him. He’d chased off anyone who might care. I should have stopped by earlier. Made sure the guy was eating at least.
“Everything all right?” Roy asked.
“That’s what I’m here to ask you.”
“This storm, we might have some wander–”
“The boys are on it.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
Why am I here? Excellent question.
“I haven’t seen you in about a week.”
“Chest cold. Knocked me out.”
“You can come up with something better than that.”
“And you can get the hell out of my house if you’re gonna call me a liar.”
Roy shuffled out into the hallway. Milton came from the kitchen to meet him, and Roy gave the old dog a scratch on the head. “Anyone feed you yet today?” he asked the old dog. “No? Let’s take care of that.”
Roy was better to that damn dog than he was to any person in his life. Including and especially his daughter.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Dean said.
“Well, then you must be Santa Claus.”
“That…that doesn’t mean anything to you?” Lowest damn point in your daughter’s life and you’re cracking jokes?
Roy rubbed a hand over his face, his eyes sharpening as they glanced over at Dean.
Yeah, he thought, you know I’m talking about Trina.
“Shouldn’t you be at your parents’ party?” Roy asked.
“I wanted to check on you first.”
“Check on me?” Roy blinked up at him, laughed in his throat. “I don’t need checking up on. Unless you got a case of beer in your truck.”
“Then go on to your party. Say hi to your father for me. Tell him he can go screw himself, that the land is mine. Will always be mine. And he can sic as many of his lawyers on me as he wants, but I ain’t selling. Not one rock. Not one mineral right. Merry Christmas to him from me.”
Roy shuffled off toward the kitchen.
“What about Trina?” Dean asked.
Her name spoken out loud in this house changed the air. The hair on his arms stood up. And he wondered how long it had been since Trina had been talked about inside these walls. Inside any of Roy’s walls for that matter. Since her mom left? Twelve years. Did people even say her name to him? Ask him about his daughter?
Dean hadn’t in the last year, because he had too much pride. Because he knew Roy wouldn’t know anything about her.
It was as if she’d been erased, and he felt sick that he’d been a part of it to some degree.
Roy stopped. He didn’t turn around, he just stopped. Like right there his battery died.
“What about her?” Roy’s voice was a wheeze. A gasp. The sound something made when it was dying.
“Did you know she was in town?”
The old man turned and had the grace to look guilty. “I talked to her some a while back.”
“You hung up on her.”
“She’s working for your old man. What have I got to say to her?” Ah, yes, that was truly enough justification.
“So what? She’s trying her damnedest to stop that pipeline. And she’s your daughter.”
Roy’s pale skin was paler. His shaking hands shakier.
“Is she going to that party?” he asked. “She always did like it. She was a fool for that yule log. And you…playing music with you. She liked that too. She never said that, but you could tell. She just kind of glowed at that piano.”
Something about this old dirty drunk talking about his daughter like that–like he knew her, like her feelings about the yule log and their playing music together was enough to fulfil the requirements of fatherhood–made him furious. Like… beyond furious. Like something actually broke inside of him.
“You know, Roy.” He walked into the den and smacked the light switch. Oh, man, the den was worse in the light. He grabbed the first empty beer case and started to shove empty cans into it. “I stayed out of it with you and your daughter. I watched her kill herself trying to make you notice. To make you care.”
“What are you doing?” Roy asked, coming back into the room.
“I’m cleaning up.”
Dean stared at him incredulously. “Are you kidding? Because you are one step away from being a show on TLC. Because I am running your ranch and I could be robbing you blind. I could be stealing your herd and you wouldn’t even notice.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“No. I wouldn’t. But you are going to die if you keep this up.”
Roy rubbed a hand over his face, the sound of his whiskers against his calloused hand audible in the hushed and closed room.
“Your daughter is here. Your daughter has been in town for a year and she’s called you three times–”
“She called once.”
“Three times, Roy. Three. You don’t remember because you’ve been too drunk.”
Roy didn’t say anything. He knew. Of course he knew. Guilt was a stench that just rolled off him.
“She grinds herself into dust for you and you don’t even notice. And you’re running out of time.” We are running out of time. “You are going to miss out on your amazing, smart and driven daughter, who, her entire life, has only wanted you to notice her. To love her.”
Dean picked up two empty bottles of rye and shoved them into the empty garbage can next to the threadbare recliner.
“I’ve always loved her.”
“Well, excuse me for saying but you got a crap way of showing it.”
“I don’t…I don’t know how to do that right. I never have.”
Dean stopped, gave Roy his attention.
“Her mom and I, we were so young when we had her. We barely knew each other.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“I know. I know. But she just had those eyes, you know. Those level eyes that saw everything. And every time I looked at her all I could see was how much I was failing her.”
“Well, you were. You did.”
“So, how do I make that right? Huh? You got all the big ideas, you tell me how I start to make this right with her. Because I got no idea. Not one.”
“Well, I imagine the first step is to stop drinking.”
“Stop?” Roy laughed, a dry rumbly broken sound.
“Stop. Or this is how you end. In this room all alone. And if that’s what you want, say the word and I’ll leave you to it.”
Roy was silent, his mouth open. But he was standing there.
Dean put another bottle in the garbage. A paper plate. Finally, the closer he go to the couch and the easy chair, the empty bottles turned into half-full bottles, and then mostly full bottles, and he grabbed as many of them as he could and shoved past Roy, who didn’t put up a fight.
In the kitchen he cleared a bunch of junk out of the sink, throwing stuff on the floor. Cereal boxes and empty jars of peanut butter.
Once the sink was clean, he began taking the caps off the booze and dumping it down the drain.
Roy stood in the corner and watched him.
“Then what?” Roy asked.
“And say what?”
“Say… let’s have lunch. Let’s have a coffee. Let’s go to church.”
“She won’t go.”
“Oh, you stupid son of a bitch, of course she’ll go.”
It took him twenty minutes to drain all the booze he found in the den.
“Is that all of it?” he asked. For a moment he felt bad for the man. Because he was a shell. Alone in a shitty, smelly house.
Roy nodded. He could be lying, but since the man was living here alone, Dean wasn’t sure why he’d feel compelled to hide alcohol.
“I’ve always liked you,” he said. “You are a mean, stubborn, blind son of a bitch. But I appreciate this job and the trust you’ve given me, running your land here. But–and I mean this, Roy, I really mean it–if you don’t stop drinking, I’m leaving.”
Roy swallowed and ran a hand, wrinkled and thin, over his face.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, his eyes–Trina’s eyes–runny and mournful. There were a lot of regrets in those eyes.
Because I love your daughter. I have always loved your daughter. And I’m never going to get a chance unless you start loving her too.
Roy swallowed, as if he heard Dean’s thoughts. Or maybe he knew. Dean’s mother figured it out when he was a teenager. He’d never been very good at hiding his feelings.
“Okay,” Roy said.
“Okay you’ll quit?”
“I’ll try. It will probably kill me.”
“You better get going if you want to make it to the party,” Roy said, sitting down at the kitchen table. Alone and lonely and surrounded by empty bottles and food containers.
Dean shrugged out of his coat, pulled loose his tie.
“I think I’ll stick around.”
He cleaned up the house. Got the old man in the shower. Made him a sandwich.
Looked up alcohol withdrawal on his phone and began to hunt down some supplies.
They watched A Christmas Story on his old TV, and Roy wept, silent, awful tears.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Roy said.
“Well, for your daughter, you’ve got to try.”
It wasn’t the best Christmas Eve. But it was far from the worst.