Her name was Dottie, her age was somewhere north of ninety, and she was what we at the sheriff’s department called a “frequent flyer.”
It was nearly seven P.M. on Friday night as I pulled up in front of her house. It had been a slow shift so far, mostly routine traffic stops and a few non-emergency calls, but in a small town like Hadley Harbor, that was the norm.
Dottie was definitely a non-emergency.
She’d called 911—this time—because she was positive someone had broken into her home this afternoon while she was grocery shopping, and while the intruder hadn’t stolen anything, he had switched her living room furniture around. I hadn’t even bothered with the lights on my vehicle.
“Be right back, Renzo.” Leaving my faithful Belgian Malinois in the back of the Explorer—and the expression on his face told me he wasn’t happy about that—I got out from behind the wheel and headed up the walk. From the window, Renzo watched me like a hawk, as he always did, but there was nothing dangerous about this call.
Still, it was good to know he had my back, no matter what.
I knocked on the front door of the traditional, two-story brick home, and less than ten seconds later, Dottie Jensen opened it and beamed at me, her dentures on full display. She’d probably been peeking out the window. “Oh, hello, Deputy McCormick. I was hoping it would be you.”
“Hello, Mrs. Jensen. It’s me.”
She looked over my shoulder toward the street, where my K-9 unit was parked. “Didn’t you bring your doggy with you?”
The same questions every time. I took a breath for patience and answered them. Again. “Yes, he’s always with me. But he’s in the car.”
“Won’t it be too warm for him in the car?”
“It’s a cool evening, and we have temperature control in the unit.”
“Wouldn’t he like to come inside?”
“Why don’t I come in and look around, and then once you’ve told me what happened and I have all the info, I’ll let him out so you can say hello.”
“That sounds lovely,” she said eagerly. “Please come in.”
She pulled the door open wider and stood aside as I entered the front hallway. The house was silent and smelled like a combination of furniture polish and whatever she’d made for dinner.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked. “A lemonade? Some cookies? Or how about dinner? I got some beautiful pork chops at the butcher this afternoon and fried them up for supper. Do you like them with applesauce?”
“No thank you, ma’am.” Although hunger was gnawing at my belly, I had to stick to routine. Lonely old Mrs. Jensen would keep me here for hours if I let her. I felt sorry for her—her husband of sixty-plus years had died only a few months ago—and I always gave her a little extra time if I could, but I was off duty in about twenty minutes and wanted to get home in time to watch game three of the World Series.
From the front entryway, I glanced into the living room on my right, then the dining room on my left. Each room looked exactly the same as it had the last time I’d been there. “I understand you believe someone broke in?”
“Oh, yes. I’m just sure of it.” Mrs. Jensen clasped her gnarled fingers together and opened her eyes wide. Her forehead wrinkles multiplied.
“Want to tell me what happened?”
She nodded and smiled as if I’d just crowned her Queen of England. “Yes. You see, I was in town shopping for groceries—I was picking up a roast because my son George is coming to visit, and his wife, Sue, never did learn to cook a pot roast like I taught her, but Sue was one of those career girls, you know, and I don’t think she cared much about what sort of meals she put on the table at night.” She lowered her voice and spoke conspiratorially behind the back of one hand. “Sue wasn’t much of a housekeeper either, truth be told, but there isn’t much we can do about the people our children choose. Do you have children, dear?”
“No, ma’am.” I braced myself for the inevitable follow-up.
“Why not? Doesn’t your wife want any?”
“I don’t have a wife, either, Mrs. Jensen.” Which I’d told her at least fifty times, and every single time, she reacted the same way.
“No wife?” She recoiled. “Why, you must be close to thirty already, Deputy McCormick.”
“Thirty-three! Mr. Jensen and I had already been married twelve years by the time he was thirty-three. And had four children. We had six altogether, you know.”
“I know.” I thought about the cold beer waiting in my fridge and fought the urge to look at my watch.
“And we were married sixty-seven years before he passed. He died last spring. April ninth.”
I knew that too, because that’s when her calls to the dispatcher had started, with her “emergencies.”
Sometimes she heard noises and thought someone was in her house. Sometimes an item was missing that turned up once an officer arrived and helped her find it. Twice, she’d claimed to have fallen and asked for help getting up, but on both occasions, she’d righted herself and answered the door when the officers knocked. On every occasion, she did anything she could to keep the responders in her house as long as possible, which usually involved offering food, telling her life story, nosing into their personal lives, and giving unsolicited advice.
She was a nonagenarian pain in the ass, and I already had a mother around to give me shit about being a perpetual bachelor—and she gave plenty—but I never much minded coming here and making sure everything was okay, even if it was just to make her feel less lonely. It was part of the job. It was what my dad would have done, and he’d been the most beloved sheriff this county ever had. He understood there was more to serve and protect than making arrests or preventing crime.
“Yes, ma’am, I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Jensen several times. All of us at the sheriff’s office liked him a lot.”
She smiled happily. “He was a dear. And so handsome. All the girls were always trying to catch his eye. Now, isn’t there anyone who catches yours?”
“Not at the moment, ma’am.”
“But don’t you want a family?”
“I’ve got a family. I think you know my mom, Carol McCormick. She’s a nurse over at Harbor Family Practice.”
“Oh, of course.” Mrs. Jensen nodded. “Carol is just lovely. I knew your father too. We just loved Sheriff McCormick. Both Mr. Jensen and I were so sorry when he passed.”
“Thank you. I’ve also got a twin brother, a sister and brother-in-law, two nephews and a niece, and Renzo. Plenty of family around.” I smiled at her and tried to move things along. “So when you came home from town, was your door open? Or unlocked?”
She looked confused for a moment. “Why would I leave the door unlocked?” Then she remembered, snapping her fingers. “Oh! Oh, yes. The front door was open just a hair, but I know I closed and locked it before I left. I’m all alone here, and even though it’s a small town, you can never be too careful.”
I nodded. “But the house was empty when you came in?”
“Yes. The rascal must have left after he rearranged the furniture.”
“But nothing is missing?”
“Not that I can tell,” she said, almost regretfully, twisting her hands together as she glanced over her shoulder toward the room in question, as if she was sort of bummed the family silver wasn’t gone.
“Mind if I take a look around anyway?”
She looked happy at the suggestion and patted my arm. “Of course not. You go right ahead. Take as long as you want. And while you do that, I’ll fix you a nice snack. Mr. Jensen always liked a snack about this time of night.”
Rather than argue with her, I said okay and moved into the living room while she went in the opposite direction toward the kitchen. She moved slowly, her steps the cautious shuffling of a little old lady, but she hummed a tune as she went, and I knew I’d given her what she wanted—time and attention.
In the living room, there was no sign any furniture had been moved around. But in case my memory was faulty, I picked up one end of the sofa. The deep indentations the feet had left in the carpet told me it had been resting in this spot for quite some time. Possibly since 1951, which was, I’d been told several times, when the newly wedded Jensens had moved in.
It was a nice house on a quiet street in a peaceful town, the perfect place to raise a family. I glanced at all the framed photos crowded on the fireplace mantel, standing in rows on bookshelves, and clustered on end tables. A room-sized shrine to an entire century’s worth of one family’s life. A black-and-white wedding photo from the 1920s. Another from the fifties. Babies at christenings. Family pictures showcasing five generations of holidays and weddings and birthdays and anniversaries gone by. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I thought of my mother’s house, also full of family photos. But much to her eternal woe, there were only two wedding photos—her own and my sister Nina’s. She did have three grandchildren and one more on the way, courtesy of Nina and my best friend Chris, who’d gotten married right after our first stint in the Army. Despite the fact that we both signed on for four more years after that and did two additional combat tours apiece, he still managed to knock her up twice during that time and twice more since we’d come home.
I didn’t much like thinking about the logistics of that, but I did love being an uncle to their kids, eight-year-old Harrison, six-year-old Violet, and fourteen-month-old Ethan. Any day now they’d add that fourth to their brood, and my mother was constantly pestering me about catching up, as if we were in some kind of reproductive race.
In fact, she kept one section on her mantel purposefully empty, and she claimed she was waiting for me to get married and have kids so she could put something there. Every so often when I’m at her place, she’ll find a moment to stare at it and sigh longingly, or dust it off with a rag. Last Christmas, I gave her a framed photo of Renzo and me and told her that was as good as it was going to get. She harrumphed, but she kept the photo on proud display. She loved that dog almost as much as I did.
“Yoohoo, Deputy McCormick, your snack is ready!” Mrs. Jensen called.
Exhaling heavily, I retraced my steps and headed through the dining room and back to the kitchen. Mrs. Jensen had set out a plate with a sandwich, some potato chips, and a pickle slice on it. Next to the plate was a glass of milk, and she’d pulled out the chair for me.
“It’s a BLT on toasted bread, just like Mr. Jensen used to eat.” She laughed and shook her head. “God forbid I ever forgot to toast the bread!”
“Thank you so much, ma’am, but I really can’t stay. My shift is about to end, and I need to get back to the station and do some paperwork before I take Renzo home for the night.” And you’re cutting in to my baseball time, lady.
“Oh.” She looked crestfallen. “Can you come back when you’re through?”
Smiling, I shook my head. “I’m afraid not.”
“Well, why don’t you let me pack this up for you? No sense in letting it go to waste, is there?”
I thought for a moment. “I guess not.”
“Wonderful.” The smile was back on her face. “You just give me a minute to put everything in a lunch sack for you, and then you can be on your way.”
“Thank you. I looked around the living room, but I didn’t see anything out of order. However, if something turns up missing, you just let us know.”
“Oh, I will,” she said, pulling a brown paper bag from a drawer. “I always call the sheriff when I have an emergency.”
And when you don’t, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t bring myself to be angry about it. I knew what it was like to miss somebody. It got to you sometimes.
A few minutes later, I had the lunch sack in my hand and she was following me down the front walk toward my car. Through the window, I could see Renzo’s tail wagging in anticipation. I opened the door, and he hopped onto the grass where we stood, excited and happy. He wore a collar that said K-9 Unit, complete with a sheriff’s badge.
“Sit,” I told him, and he obeyed. “Good boy.”
“May I pet him?” asked Mrs. Jensen.
She patted him on the head a few times. “How old is he again?”
“My, such a big dog for only five. He must weigh a hundred pounds!”
“He’s about eighty pounds, which is average.”
“He seems very sweet.”
“He can be.” Off-duty, Renzo was energetic and high-spirited and just wanted to play all the time, but when he was working, he was a well-trained, badass machine—fast, agile, aggressive, vicious if necessary, and loyal to me beyond comprehension. I sometimes felt like I had two sides to me as well, so we were a good match. He’d been at my side every day for three years.
“Can he have a little snack?” Mrs. Jensen asked brightly. “I don’t have any dog treats, but maybe a cookie? For being so good?”
I shook my head. “Thanks, but working dogs shouldn’t be rewarded with food.”
“Well, we often encounter food items during searches and we don’t want him to be distracted by wanting to eat instead of wanting to perform.”
“Oh, I see.” She sighed wistfully. “I suppose I’ll say goodnight, then, Deputy McCormick. Thank you very much for coming.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Jensen. Thanks for the sandwich.” I held up the bag as Renzo jumped back into the car.
“You’re welcome. I put a treat in there for you, too, dear. It’s not homemade, but my little grandkids always used to love them, and even though they’re mostly grown now and don’t come around as much, I can’t seem to stop buying them. Silly of me, isn’t it?”
“I understand.” I still talked to my dad during ball games, as if he was sitting in the recliner just a few feet away instead of buried in the Catholic cemetery up the road.
“You’re such a dear.” She smiled, as if inspiration just struck her. “You know what? I have a granddaughter almost your age that I think would be perfect for you. Why don’t I—”
“Bye, Mrs. Jensen.” Cutting her off, I went around the Explorer and got into the driver’s seat. The last thing I wanted was to suffer yet another one of this town’s wanna-be matchmakers. Seemed like every busybody within fifty miles of here was convinced she had “the perfect girl” for me to “settle down” with. No matter how many times I said I wasn’t looking, it never seemed to sink in.
“Aren’t you lonely?” they’d ask.
“Not at all,” I’d reply, and it was mostly true. There were times when I missed female company, a sympathetic smile at the end of a hard day. A soft, sexy body at night, somebody to please and play with. But my last breakup had soured me for good on relationships, and the few dates I’d gone on with “perfect” girls had only shown me how well some people could hide their crazy. My sex life was a bit depressing, but nobody ever said, Hey, Noah, I know this completely sane girl with a killer smile and a rockin’ bod just passing through town for a night. Can she come over and blow you?
Until that day, I’d have to deal with a dry spell here and there.
I entered a few notes about the call on my laptop, and then pulled away from the curb. On the road again, I dug out the sandwich and took a bite as I headed for the station. I hadn’t had a BLT in forever, and actually, it tasted pretty fucking good.
“She’s not so bad, is she?” I asked Renzo. “A little off her rocker, maybe, but I guess she’s earned it.”
By the time I pulled into the parking lot behind the sheriff’s department, I’d finished the sandwich, the chips, and the pickle. I remembered what she’d said about the little extra treat, and I dug around in the bag with my free hand.
I pulled out a Twinkie and laughed.
It reminded me of someone.
For as long as I can remember, I have dealt with extreme stress by eating Twinkies.
Like, a ridiculous amount of Twinkies.
It is totally juvenile and absurdly unhealthy and my arteries are probably already clogged beyond repair with delicious golden sponge cake and fluffy sweet cream filling, but I can’t help it—there’s just something so comforting about them.
However, not even my favorite Hostess snack cakes were going to take the edge off coming home on a Friday night to find my boyfriend of three years packing his bags.
“What do you mean, you’re leaving?” I stared at Brooks in disbelief, watching from the bedroom doorway as he methodically stacked neatly folded, pristinely white undershirts in his suitcase.
“I took the job at that firm in Manhattan. My train leaves tonight.”
“Tonight!” I moved into the room, my stomach lurching. “You’re moving to Manhattan tonight?”
“Yes,” he said calmly.
“But . . . but what about us?”
“Come on, Meg. You know there’s no us anymore.” His voice held no emotion whatsoever.
Usually I appreciated his unflappable demeanor—it was a good, calm yin to my more excitable yang—but I couldn’t help feeling blindsided by this turn of events and a little annoyed he wasn’t displaying any feeling at all. Three years was a long time, even if the last one hadn’t been very good. “Can’t we talk about this?”
“We have talked about this, Meg.” Next to the undershirts, he added a pile of navy blue and hunter green boxer briefs—in all the time we’d been together, I’d only ever seen Brooks were underwear in those two colors. “We talked about it during the holidays, we talked about it over the summer, and we talked about it last month, before I interviewed in New York.”
“I know, but . . . I guess I didn’t think it was a real thing.” The panic rose from my stomach to my chest. If Brooks really was leaving, this would be my third failed relationship in a row. That wasn’t just bad luck. That was a pattern. A cycle. Maybe even a curse.
Brooks stopped halfway between his closet and the bed with a garment bag in his hands and looked at me, a serious expression on his handsome face. “You chose not to think of it as a real thing. I told you it was.”
I chewed my thumbnail, knowing he was right.
“We’ve barely even seen each other for weeks.” He laid the garment bag out on the bed and went back to the closet.
“Well . . .” I searched frantically for a line of defense. “You’re a night owl, and I’m an early bird. I go to bed before you get home, and I’m always up and out in the morning before you. It’s hard.”
“That is all true.” He returned to the bed with an armful of shirts on identical wooden hangers. “But that is not how a relationship should be.”
“We’ve both been really busy with work too.” Brooks and I were both attorneys, although he worked for the Department of Justice—last I knew, anyway—and I’d traded practicing law to work as a campaign strategist. Our jobs were demanding and important. There were late night meetings and early morning conference calls, tight deadlines and high stakes. “It’s been hard to connect.”
“It’s more than that.” Brooks started slipping shirts into the bag. “There’s nothing between us anymore, Meg. We haven’t had sex in months.”
“That’s not entirely true. We tried that one night, but you fell asleep. That wasn’t my fault.” Although it had sort of felt like my fault—Brooks had given it some effort, but had been unable to, ahem, rise to the occasion. Secretly, I’d been kind of relieved, but another part of me wondered why I didn’t do it for him anymore.
“I’m not blaming you. I’m just stating the facts,” he said. Brooks was always just stating the facts. “And be honest. Have you missed it?”
I bit my lip. I hadn’t missed sex with Brooks, and he probably hadn’t missed it with me. Things in the bedroom had grown staid. Boring. Predictable.
For a while I’d been telling myself to put more effort into it—buy some lingerie, talk dirty, offer to give him a blowjob . . . but I hadn’t done anything to turn up the heat. “Maybe we could try harder,” I suggested without much feeling.
“No, Meg. We shouldn’t have to try so hard. We both deserve a relationship that doesn’t feel like another job.”
I stared at his shoes, expensive brown leather cap-toe oxfords, perfectly polished, an excellent complement to his navy blue suit. My eyes roamed up the tailored legs of his pants to his starched white dress shirt and tightly knotted striped tie. At six o’clock, his shave was still close, and his dark blond hair looked freshly trimmed—he had a standing appointment every three weeks. He was tall, toned, and handsome—straight out of a men’s cologne ad in a magazine.
But looking at him, I felt no stir of physical attraction, no heat pooling inside me, no desire to rip that expensive suit off him and pounce. Nor, it was clear, did he feel the urge to pounce on me.
“I’ll continue to pay half the rent until the end of the year,” he went on. “That gives you time to decide whether you’d like to take over the whole lease, move to a smaller place, or get a roommate.”
As the reality of being left alone again sank in, I lowered myself to the bed. “Oh, God.”
Brooks finally stopped packing and sat beside me. “I’m not doing this to hurt you.”
I took a deep breath and let it out, trying to sift through my complicated feelings. “I’m not hurt, exactly . . . I’m—I don’t know what I am. Disappointed. Embarrassed. Angry. And maybe a little hurt. Were you just going to leave without even saying goodbye?”
He shrugged. “You know how I am. I didn’t want a scene. I assumed you’d be working late as usual, and I could be in and out of here before you got home. I was planning to email you.”
“Email me!”I gaped at him. “To end a three-year relationship?”
“Or call you,” he added quickly. “I hadn’t quite decided yet. But to be fair, Meg, our relationship ended a long time ago. We were both just too stubborn—or too busy—to deal with a breakup.”
I closed my eyes, fighting tears.
“The last few months only made it clearer to me,” he said. “We didn’t love each other enough to fight for it.”
Deep down, I knew he was right, but even though he’d said we, what I heard was I didn’t love you enough to fight for you.
Maybe it was unfair to twist his words like that, but I couldn’t help it. Especially since all my relationships tended to end like this—they just fizzled out. No real drama. No huge scene. No fight.
“How come I’m so bad at this?” I heard myself asking.
“Bad at what?”
“Relationships. I mean, I’m thirty-three already. Why can’t I get it right?”
“Do you want the truth?”
“I don’t know. Do I?”
“It’s because you never put your relationships first. You don’t even put yourself first. It’s always your job. And I’m not saying that to attack you—I’m just stating the facts.”
I would not miss Brooks just stating the facts.
Not that he was wrong. I’d always been somewhat of a workaholic. A perfectionist. Even as a kid, I did all the extra credit problems. Volunteered to lead the group projects. Read ahead in the book. I stayed up late making sure my homework assignments were perfectly correct and I obsessed over my penmanship. It made me feel good. Teachers praised me. My parents bragged about my grades and self-motivation. I won prizes and scholarships and essay contests.
Working hard and being successful was what I did best—and hadn’t it gotten me what I had now? A law degree? A great job? A name for myself in a fiercely competitive field?
Of course it had, and I was proud of everything I had accomplished.
But I was beginning to see that it had come with a price.
* * *
As soon as Brooks was gone, I traded my work suit and sensible pumps for sweats and fuzzy socks, threw my hair in a messy knot on the top of my head, and headed straight for the pantry, where I kept an emergency stash of booze and Twinkies. Then I made myself a margarita, plunked myself on the living floor, and proceeded to consume a stupid amount of sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol while binge-watching Law & Order and trying not to think about the sad state of my personal life.
But two drinks and four Twinkies in, I thought I might need an intervention.
Desperate for someone to tell me I wasn’t going to die sad and alone, surrounded by Hostess wrappers, I picked up my cell and tried calling my sister April. I had four sisters, but April was the one I’d been closest to growing up. My sister Chloe was actually nearest to me in age (only fourteen months younger), but she’d been such a handful as a kid, April had often ended up in charge of me. Even though she was only two years older, she was always the caretaker.
Plus, now that Frannie, the baby of the family at twenty-seven, was getting married, and Chloe was recently engaged, that left April and me as the last two single Sawyer sisters. (The oldest, Sylvia, had gotten married right after college.)
We hadn’t talked about it much, but I felt like April might be the only one who’d understand me right now. Or at least help me make some sense of what I was feeling—otherwise I saw myself consuming a potentially lethal amount of golden sponge cake and fluffy sweet cream filling tonight.
When April didn’t answer my call, I texted my friend Noah, a sheriff’s deputy in my hometown and one of my closest friends from high school. We hadn’t spoken in a couple months, and I hadn’t actually seen him in a few years, but that’s how it was with us. We’d go for long periods of time without talking, but once one of us bothered to pick up the phone or get on a plane, it was like no time had gone by.
Plus, he’d saved my life once. I figured he was kind of responsible for me after that.
Noah: Hey. I was just thinking about you.
Me: Have you ever responded to a 911 call that involved death by Twinkies?
Noah: Not specifically.
Noah: Do you require emergency assistance, Sawyer?
Me: Not yet.
Noah: Ok. If you do, I recommend 911 and not my cell phone. I’m at least 700 miles away. And while Death by Twinkie is likely a slow way to go, I may not arrive in time.
Me: Would you at least try?
Noah: For you, always.
That made me smile.
Noah: But maybe you should lay off the Twinkies.
Me: FUCK YOU I HAVE TRIED.
Noah: Can’t you take up some other bad habit?
Me: Like what?
Noah: I don’t know. Something that will do you in faster. How about cliff diving?
Me: No way.
Noah: Playing with matches?
Me: Not interested.
Noah: Sword swallowing?
Me: You wish.
Noah: Hahaha. I was not referring to my sword. Although it could potentially do some damage, I assure you.
Me: You’re a pig. I don’t know why I texted you. GOODBYE FOREVER.
Noah: That’s it? I’m never going to hear from you again?
Me: Would you even care?
It was a childish response, but I was not feeling the love from any direction tonight. I wanted to hear that I mattered to someone.
Noah: Don’t be a dickhead, Sawyer. You know I would.
Immediately, I felt better. And a little silly.
Me: Sorry. I had a really bad day.
My phone began buzzing a moment later. Noah McCormick calling. “Hello?”
“Are you at work?” I pictured him in his uniform, sitting in his black and white Explorer. Short dark hair. Soft brown eyes with thick lashes. Neatly groomed scruff covering a solid jaw. And big strong arms. I’d always liked his arms.
“I’m home now,” he said. “So what’s up?”
“My cholesterol. My blood pressure. Possibly my time on earth.”
His laughter was deep and resonant. “What’s the matter?”
I eyed a fifth golden snack cake. “I’m stress eating Twinkies. But I also have margaritas,” I added in an effort to sound more adult.
“Twinkies and tequila. Classy.”
I took a big swallow and set the glass down. “I try.”
“So what happened?”
“I failed at another relationship.”
“With the boyfriend? What the hell was his name again, River?”
“Brooks.” I took another sip. “But he’s not my boyfriend anymore. He left me.”
“Oh yeah? When?”
“Tonight. I came home from work to find him packing his bags.” The memory had me grabbing that fifth Twinkie and taking a bite.
“Huh. Out of nowhere?”
“Not really. Things weren’t great with us.” I chewed and swallowed. “But it’s so humiliating. I keep getting dumped. What’s wrong with me, Noah?”
“Nothing, other than the fact that you’re making me miss the start of the game.”
“Maybe that’s it. I’m selfish.”
He sighed. “Sawyer, you spent all your college summers building houses for Habitat for Humanity. You’re not selfish.”
Tossing the rest of the uneaten Twinkie aside, I jumped up and began pacing back and forth in front of the couch. “Am I too picky?”
“You should be picky. There’s a lot of assholes out there.”
“Maybe I’m a terrible fuck.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
“But you can’t say for sure!”
“That’s true,” he said, laughing, “so maybe you should come home and let me take you for a test drive. Assess your steering and handling.”
That made me smile. “Very funny.”
For all his dirty jokes, Noah had never once tried anything with me. I used to wonder why, but eventually assumed I just wasn’t his type. He went for hot blondes with at least a C cup. Back then I was a brunette whose bra size matched her math grade: solid A. (Although these days, I am at least a B plus, possibly even a C minus.)
There was one time when I was in grad school and he’d come to see me in DC that I’d thought he was about to kiss me. He was in the Army back then, and about to ship out for his second deployment, so our goodbye had felt kind of intense. But the moment lasted for a fraction of a second, and afterward I was sure I’d imagined it.
“Listen, Sawyer. Forget that guy. He’s a jackass.”
“How do you know? You never even met him.”
“I don’t need to meet him. He had a chance to be with you and he blew it? Fuck him. He’s a jackass.”
“Thanks.” It made me feel a little better, even if it wasn’t true.
“You’re welcome. Can I watch the game now?”
“In a minute.” I flopped onto the couch and stared at the ceiling. “Do you think I’m destined to be alone because I keep prioritizing my work over my relationships?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
I frowned. “That’s not the right answer.”
“What’s the right answer?”
“The right answer is, ‘When you meet the one perfect love of your life, you’ll want to put that person first. You won’t even have to think about it. You just do it—like a gut instinct.”
“There you go.”
“But what if it never happens, Noah? What if the guy never shows up? Or,” I continued, getting more panicky by the second, “or, what if he does show up but I’m too busy and distracted to notice him? What if I’m . . . looking down at my fucking phone when he walks by?”
He exhaled heavily. “I think if you truly believe there is one perfect love of your life, your gut is gonna tell you to look up.”
I closed my eyes. “You really believe that?”
He hesitated. “At least part of it. I believe in trusting your gut.”
“But not one perfect love of your life?”
“That’s a fairy tale, Sawyer. But if it makes you happy to believe in it, knock yourself out.”
I sighed. That was a good question, actually. Did it make me happy to believe in that lightning-bolt kind of love, the once-in-a-lifetime kind that came out of nowhere and knocked you off your feet? Or was I just making an excuse for myself? Maybe I’d been expecting cupid to do all the work, when in reality love required more effort on my part. More lingerie and blowjobs.
I had no idea.
“You still there?” Noah asked.
“Yeah.” I sat up, swinging my feet to the floor. “Hey, don’t forget I’m coming home for Frannie’s wedding next week. Let’s hang out, grab a beer.”
“I’m around. And I’m always up for a beer.”
“Good. I’m actually off this Thursday.”
“OK, I’ll call you when I get in. And thanks for listening to me tonight. Sorry I kind of monopolized the conversation.”
“I’ve known you a long time, Sawyer. I’m used to it.”
I grinned, realizing how much I missed him. “Asshole. Enjoy the game. See you next week.”
“Sounds good. Safe trip home.”
We hung up, and I set my phone aside, thinking that it was funny how I still thought of northern Michigan as home when I hadn’t lived there for fifteen years. I pictured it—Cloverleigh Farms, where I’d grown up; the small nearby town of Hadley Harbor, where Noah lived; the Leelenau peninsula—the pinky finger of Michigan—with its beautiful beaches and deep blue waters and gorgeous rolling hills covered with vineyards and orchards and woods. It had been such an idyllic place to grow up, and yet I’d been desperate to leave it, to get out in the world where important things happened. I couldn’t even think of the last time I’d visited for more than a day or so at Christmas or Easter. Maybe Noah’s dad’s funeral? That had been three years ago.
Guilt tightened my throat.
Work would always be there, but no one lived forever.
Suddenly I was feeling completely homesick, missing everyone I loved. The ticket I’d booked to go home for the wedding had me leaving DC on Thursday morning and returning Sunday, the day after the wedding. But now I wanted more than three days there.
Would taking a full week off anger my boss? Would I miss important meetings and the opportunity to weigh in on critical decisions? We were coming up on an election year, and—
Suddenly I heard Brooks’s voice in my head: You never put your relationships first. You don’t even put yourself first. It’s always your job.
He was right. And I could do better.
As for myself, maybe a little downtime was what I needed. A chance to escape the high-pressure hustle of the political world and just relax. Stop trying to do everything and just have fun. The world wasn’t going to implode if I took a vacation.
Jumping up from the couch, I grabbed my laptop from my shoulder bag, emailed my boss I’d be out of the office longer than originally planned but could work remotely if necessary, and changed my departure to tomorrow morning. I had to pay a hefty fee to the airline, but I didn’t care.
Happy with my decision, I went into the bedroom to start packing.
I watched the rest of the game distracted by thoughts of Meg Sawyer. (It wasn’t really my fault. The hitting sucked, the pitching was even worse. And Renzo could’ve fielded better, for fuck’s sake.)
Plus, Meg had always been distracting to me.
Although we hadn’t gone to the same school—she’d gone to public schools while my parents had insisted on Catholic—I’d known who she was. Everybody pretty much knew everybody around here. But we weren’t close until the day I pulled her out of the bay at the public beach, barely conscious and white as a sheet, her body frighteningly limp in my arms as I set her on the sand.
Turning off the television, I took Renzo out to the yard one final time and looked up at the stars as I remembered the panic I’d experienced that day.
I was sixteen, barely old enough to be a lifeguard, but I was watching her closely as she tried to swim out to a friend’s boat anchored offshore. The current was strong that day, and she hadn’t been wearing a life jacket.
I knew instinctively the moment she started struggling—my chest went tight, my adrenaline spiked—and I jumped from the chair and took off running.
To this day, my stomach churns when I think about what might have happened if I hadn’t had my eye on her. Granted, my reasons for watching her go into the water might have included the tiny blue bikini she was wearing, but I also believed in gut instincts, and mine were strong that day.
When it was clear she was okay and able to stand, she threw her arms around me and sobbed. At that point, I just hoped I wouldn’t spring a boner with her bare, sandy skin on mine. I didn’t hug her back, but she didn’t care. That girl must have clung to me like ivy on bricks for five solid minutes, blubbering her head off.
From that moment on, I felt protective of her. I liked the feeling it gave me when I thought about how I’d kept her safe. I’d even call it a turning point in my life—after that, I knew what I wanted to do. Plus, my dad was a cop and I idolized him. So it was no surprise to anyone when I joined the Army right out of high school and later became a police officer myself.
“Come on, boy. Let’s go in.” I let Renzo back into the house, said goodnight several times before he believed me that more playtime was not happening this evening, and watched him curl up on his bed in the spare downstairs bedroom. My house wasn’t big, but it was plenty of space for Renzo and me. Downstairs it had two small bedrooms, a full bath, kitchen and living room. Upstairs was the master bedroom and bath.
Ten minutes later, I lay back in the middle of a bed big enough for two, but in which I’d slept alone for the last couple years.
She was still in my head.
I hadn’t seen her in a while, but she never seemed to change much. Long brown hair with some gold streaks in it during the summer. Gray-blue eyes that could change color depending on the light. Lean, athletic body with long, muscular legs.
I couldn’t believe she’d been dumped by yet another DC douchebag—what the fuck was wrong with these guys? At least I’d been able to make her laugh a little. The sound always took me back to the early days of our friendship.
We’d watch TV at my house or hers (she loved true crime and police shows, which I kind of dug at that age too), or we’d call each other late at night and talk for hours. It was crazy, because I was always awkward and tongue-tied around girls, but conversations with Meg were easy—even easier than talking to my guy friends a lot of the time. I knew exactly how to tease her, and she made me laugh without even trying. I could even talk to Meg about girls, and she’d listen and give me advice. Then I’d listen to her complain about all the stupid, immature boys at her school who were only interested in girls who put out.
Of course, I was interested in girls who put out too, but I didn’t say so, because I didn’t want her to think that’s the kind of thing she had to do to get a guy’s attention. Because in addition to being beautiful, Meg was fucking amazing at everything she did. Straight-A student. Student council president. Varsity athlete. Sure, she was wound tight and Type A as fuck, but she had the biggest heart of anyone I knew. She was always volunteering for things and dedicating herself to one good cause or another. And it wasn’t just for show—she cared.
She’d come over to my house and sit with my brother Asher, who has cerebral palsy and some sensory issues, and talk to him like he was just another one of her friends.
It might not sound like a big deal, but for Asher—and for me—it was huge. My brother was a smart, funny, brave, and interesting kid, but it was the rare person who looked beyond his disability to discover those qualities. And I understood why.
His speech was mostly incomprehensible to anyone outside the family. He used a walker or a wheelchair to get around, and he made a lot of involuntary movements. Sometimes he drooled. Occasionally he had seizures. Add to all this his oversensitivity to light, sounds, and textures, and his inability to express himself, and kids were wary. He was frustrated and anxious a lot, which often resulted in behavioral problems like tantrums or extreme reclusiveness. Needless to say, he struggled to make friends of his own at school and was often bullied and misunderstood. People would call him dumb, which drove him crazy—he wasn’t dumb at all. He was perfectly smart. He just couldn’t communicate the way people at school expected. And all those stupid IQ tests are geared for kids who can.
I’d been ferociously protective of him.
When kids made fun of Asher—and they’d been brutal—I’d snap like a wire in me had been cut. There were countless fights on the playground, in the halls, on the street. The elementary school principal probably had my parents’ number on speed dial, I got sent down there so often (she and I have since laughed about my career path in law enforcement). But I just wanted him to be treated like anyone else.
So seeing him interacting at home with Meg, making her laugh, showing her a project he was doing on the computer, talking about a TV show he liked (he shared her interest in true crime) filled me with the best feeling imaginable.
She was way too good for any asshole who just wanted to get a hand down her pants, including me. Not that I ever thought of her that way.
Sure, there were times when I couldn’t stop myself from jerking off to the idea of ripping that bikini off and fucking her expertly as she told me over and over again that I was her hero. Sometimes we were in the shower together. Or the back of my truck. Once, I even imagined us in the barn on her parents’ farm. But who can control his fantasies at sixteen?
Or thirty-three, I thought, as my hand wandered down my stomach and slid beneath the waistband of my boxer briefs.
My conscience made a brief but valiant effort to speak up.
Stop it. Think about somebody else this time. The woman at Whole Foods who wears the tight yoga pants. Or the cute librarian with the freckles on her nose. Or, better yet, someone you don’t even know—the model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue!
But it was no use.
Meg was always the best fantasy, because she was both familiar and untouchable. I would never let myself touch her. She had no big brother to look out for her, so she needed me to be that guy. Someone she could trust not to hurt her. Someone she could count on to be a good man in a world full of assholes. Someone she could turn to. I always wanted to be that for her.
She’d certainly been there for me during the tough times in my life. The day after my first dog died, she dragged my sad ass out of the house and took me to the movies. The day before I left for boot camp, she brought me cookies and a letter that she made me promise not to read until I was gone. Of course, I read it that night after she left, and in it she thanked me for saving her life and being such a good friend to her. She told me she loved me like a brother. She called me her hero. It put a lump in my throat the size of a baseball.
And I’d never forget how quickly she jumped on a plane when we lost my Dad. Just dropped everything to come home and be there for me. I even had a girlfriend at the time, but it was Meg’s shoulder I cried on the day after the funeral. I’d held my shit together all throughout his illness and the long, agonizing days of hospice, and even during the final, wrenching goodbye. I’d let my mother and sister weep in my arms. I’d stayed solid and strong and took care of everyone and everything, because I knew that’s what my dad would have wanted, and because I’d promised him I would.
The next day I’d told everyone, including my girlfriend Holly, that I just wanted to be alone. But when Meg showed up at my door with lasagna, a six-pack of my favorite beer, and open arms, I’d lost it. I wouldn’t have dared to let anyone else see my tears, but I held onto Meg and sobbed like a fucking baby for a solid ten minutes.
Best part was, she never made me talk about it. She just let me cry, and after I stopped, we ate lasagna, drank beer, and binge-watched Law & Order. She loved that stupid show, no matter how many times I told her that it was totally unrealistic and predictable.
“I don’t care,” she’d insist. “I like the predictability. They always get the bad guy.”
I was glad she’d reached out tonight, and even more glad that she was coming home for a visit. We had a rare and unique friendship that I cherished, and I’d never do anything to jeopardize it.
But if you think that stopped me from getting myself off to the thought of her licking Twinkie filling off my rock-hard cock, you’re fucking crazy.
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