Adidas shoes, Victoria's Secret lingerie, and a Wii Now in Stock sign lined the various store windows of Dannersby Shopping Center, but all that drew his attention was the approaching woman, her dark, hip-length hair rippling back from her shoulders with every step. It wasn't Pantine commercial, and it wasn't love at first sight. It was fear at seeing her for the first time in nearly five years.
Mick gripped his FYE bag, fingers crinkling the Earbudz package within it. He hadn't expected to see her here. That is why he'd come. She hated malls. But she was there, and part of him hoped she'd see him. Part of him wanted to run. The rest of him just stood there, and she continued to advance, scowling at a small slip of paper. He wanted to smile or frown, maybe call out to her, but his face, like his feet, was cast in lead. She kept coming, staring a slip of paper in her hand.
A scar curved from one eye like a semicolon, faint and white. She must have gotten it after her first year at Kent State, perhaps around the same time she got that second eyebrow piercing. The woman was so close to him he could touch her, but Mick's arms dangled by his sides and she walked into him, staggering backwards and tripping onto the floor. He had wanted to catch her. Instead he offered her a hand.
"Are you alright," he asked softly.
Her dark green eyes, initially wide, narrowed and sliced through his own as one might slice a blueberry. She waved his hand aside and rose without aid.
He didn't want a confrontation, but he expected one. A snipped "I'm fine," some biting remark about new exhibits in the middle of the walkway, possibly a threat to his well-being. But she collected her Thank You bag and headed towards the nearest exit without a glance over her shoulder. He thought about calling after her, but his eyes fell to the slip of paper on the ground. It was a receipt, Suntrust purchase for $8.63. He stuck it in the back pocket of his jeans and glanced at the exit across from him.
Mick had entered the kitchen that morning, still drying his blond-streaked hair with a hand towel. His grandmother, Gran as he called her, tapped a photograph in the newspaper. "Didn't you used to know this girl?" she had said. "Maybe you should give her a call, get your mind off things." He glanced at the photo. His throat tightened.
"She's not a girl anymore," Mick said more coldly than he should have.
His grandfather, sitting at the table, did not look up from the Business section. "Don't you talk to your Gran that way."
Mick normally didn't. He allowed her rambles and nonsense suggestions, especially now that she'd just buried a daughter. Sometimes he even found them endearing. But he missed his mother, too, and after what Vicki had done, he wasn't prepared to deal with Gran's matchmaking, which was all his mother's family did.
He concealed a glare at his grandfather.
"A man in his mid-twenties needs to start settling down," said his grandfather. "I already had two kids at your age." He folded the newspaper and set it on the table.
You think I chose for this to happen? That's what he wanted to say. But he ignored what he wanted, sat down at the table, and waited for his grandparents to go about their morning routines—his grandfather in the backyard raking the leaves that had fallen the night before, Gran dry mopping the hardwood floors in the hallway. Once he was alone, Mick pulled the ad to which Gran had pointedtoward him.
Canine Obedience School. Call Joselyn today to reserve your dog's place in the fall session and begin a less stressful life for you and your pet.
It wasn't her parents' number, nor the cell number she had five years ago.
Joselyn had always dreamed of starting her own training service. She used to talk to him about it before they left for Kent State, before everything fell apart.
"And you'll be my supportive secretary," she would tease. "When you aren't out loafing with your soccer ball."
She joked, but she appreciated soccer. They first met during one of his home games, she in the stands, he the star player. He bumped into her after the game, just enough so that he'd have to steady her, and asked her if she could forgive his clumsiness. She said that such a disgrace was unbecoming to one who was so graceful on the field. "Unbecoming." Joselyn used words like that. He replied that grace was for ballerinas, precision was for athletes, and the conversation continued until her mother called to remind her that she was out past her curfew. After a few weeks of dating, Mick convinced her to learn the sport, and unless it was raining, he spent every Saturday with her on the soccer field. That was the spring of their junior year of high school, back when he still had charisma, a firm grip on life. Back when his mother was still healthy and the friendship between her and Vicki's mother was broken.
The picture beside the ad was "becoming." Her long hair draped around her neck and over Beowulf, the wolfhound she loved so much. Smile professional. No make-up. Just those dark green eyes. He traced a finger down her jaw line.
"Hello again, Josy," he said.
The sky melted into streaks of pink and red as Mick followed the sidewalk around JcPenny's and Entrance 3 to his '91 Mustang, the once-blue paint faded by the Kentucky sun. He unlocked the door and dropped into the driver's seat. Joselyn had left by the time he had scrambled outside. She didn't want him to see her. That much Mick knew. And he didn't think he wanted to see her again, either. But now that he had, her eyes too vivid to be reproduced, ears too big for her head, hair too long to be tamed, he couldn't get her out of his head.
Was this his brain's means of guidance?
But Joselyn wanted nothing to do with him. He couldn't blame her. Not really. He hadn't wanted to choose Vicki over Joselyn. But he couldn't choose Joselyn over his mother, either. How do you tell a woman dying of Leukemia no? The last thing he had said to his father, the day before the latter entered the burning house on Elm Street and the roof collapsed on him, killing him in spite of the supposedly protective gear, was "no." Mick couldn't remember what he said no to, probably something about fishing, but when he closed his eyes, he could still see the disappointment on his father's face.
If he could get Joselyn to talk to him, he could explain. Maybe she would forgive him, and everything would be okay. He needed everything to be okay.
Her phone number was listed in the newspaper ad at home. But if she recognized his cell or his grandparents' number, neither of which had changed since he lived there in high school, she wouldn't answer. That's why he didn't call her five years ago. She didn't answer blocked calls, either.
But she'd need the receipt back to know the amount when she balanced her account. He could wait for her to come to him. She'd probably trust her bank statement over searching him out. He'd have to see her again. He wanted to see her again. He wanted to ask her how she got that scar by her eye, if she still had the one running across the palm of her right hand, the one she got when she fell on a Jack Daniel's bottle shard crushed into the soccer field. He wanted to re-experience the upside-down pear curves of her hips, the silk of her hair wrapped around his arm, the coldness of her nose under his chin. To hear her laugh again. To glue the bond they shared back together. Wanted to say something besides "Are you alright?"
Mick didn't have a destination in mind when he pulled out of the mall parking lot and onto Quimby. She was too far gone to follow, and he had no idea where she would have driven to. Home. Grocery store. Wal-Mart. Where was "home?" She must have been too stubborn to live with her parents after graduation, so where did she move to? An apartment? Condo? House? She'd need a house just for her wolfhound.
He turned onto 5th and headed toward Main. A Yellow Pages billboard loomed to his left. He smiled as he dialed Gran. She answered on the second ring. "Look up Joselyn Audet in the phone book," he said.
"Is that the girl in the ad?" she asked.
"Just do it. Please."
His fingers drummed the steering wheel, stopped when the phone clicked. He pictured her readjusting the cordless between her hunched shoulder and wrinkly face.
"There's no Joselyn Audet mentioned," she said.
"What? Are you looking in the A's?"
"How's it spelled?"
Mick spelled it for her. On his right, he passed Harley's Pub, and going into it was a face he recognized. She wasn't Joselyn, fuchsia hair cut short and uneven, but she was his second chance: her best friend.
"Nope, no Joselyn," Gran said. "There's a Clemment and--"
Mick hung up. He flipped an illegal U and cut off a white pick-up to enter the parking lot. Sera Wallace was tying a wrinkled green apron around her front as he entered the pub. Her hands stopped tying as he approached the bar.
"Last I heard, you were teaching soccer in Lexington and feeling up strange women."
"Nice to see you, too," he said.
Sera finished the knot and futilely smoothed at the wrinkles. "So what brought you back to Dannersby? Run out of women?"
He frowned and sat down on a barstool. "Mom died. The house seemed too big without her."
"Mick, I'm sorry, but I can't exactly be friendly to you." She picked up a wet glass and rubbed it with an equally wet towel.
"I'm not here for your friendship. I just need to know where Josy lives."
"It's a little late to beg for her forgiveness. She's--"
"No, I need to give her this receipt." And an explanation.
Sera cocked a brow.
"She dropped it in the mall," he said. "When she ran into me."
"She ran into you?"
"I was standing still."
"I'm not going to ask." Sera set the still wet glass on the counter and threw the towel into the sink. She picked up the top of a pineapple. "Give me the receipt, and I'll make sure she gets it."
"You'd lose it in your car."
She shook the pineapple top at him and tossed it into the garbage can by her feet. "I told you five years ago and I'm telling you now, your soccer ball was never in my car. Besides, my car's clean now. Mostly."
Sera paused as a woman, curvy in all the wrong places, walked from the back room. She waved as she walked out the door.
"I wish Becka could leave more of a mess," Sera said, frowning at the countertop.
"Sounds like you're two of a kind," Mick said. "If it's all the same, I'd like to give it to her personally."
"The receipt? Do you have some sort of strange attachment to it? Look, Joselyn's moved on. Leave her be. She's happy. She got--"
"Her obedience school running, I know. I saw the ad."
"Please, just tell me where she lives. You're the only one I can ask."
"You're right. Her mom would probably shoot you and her dad would help hide your body."
Mick scowled at her. "Look, if she says she never wants to see me again after today, I'll leave her alone. I promise." He wasn't sure whether or not he could keep that promise. Most of him hoped he wouldn't have to.
Sera scrunched her mouth, then held up a whole pineapple. "Do you swear on this fruit?"
Mick leaned back. "I think I'd feel more comfortable swearing on the Bible," he said, poking at one of the spines.
"You can pretend."
He rolled his eyes. Only Sera. "I swear on the tropical Bible, okay. Just tell me her address."
She shrugged and pulled a napkin off the bar, patting her apron. Withdrawing a pen, she scribbled down a 12 before the pen ran out of ink.
"How do you feel about cherry juice?" she said, dipping the back of the pen in a jar of cherries.
"Only you would think it was ink."
"Do you want this or not?"
Sera handed him the napkin. "It's the last house on the right before the curve. White with dark shutters. Square mailbox."
"I can't miss it, right?" He folded the address and put it in his back pocket.
"As bright as you are, I'm sure you'll have no trouble at all."
"If she asks," Sera continued, "I didn't give that to you"
"What am I supposed to tell her, then?"
"Tell her you were stalking her. Tell her you sniffed her out with your houndish nose. I don't care, but won't be held responsible. And remember." She pulled a spine off the pineapple and stuck it in his hand. He whined, but she closed his fist around it. "You swore on the fruit. The next spine's going in your eye."
He backed away from bar, yanked out the spine, and headed out the door. Sera yelled something, but he didn't hear it, and he didn't want to risk going back and receiving that second spine.
The fragrance of the rose bouquet in his front seat was nearly suffocating. Mick cracked a window. He was parked in Joselyn's driveway. The house was white like Sera said, shutters a dark grey. It had a built-in front porch with a wooden swing and a pot of petunias. Reddish-green shrubbery separated a stone path from the foundation of the house. He mulled over several conversation starters, something that wouldn't get the door slammed in his face.
Hey, Josy, I wanted to return the receipt you dropped.
Hey, Josy, I thought you might like some flowers since everything is dying outside.
Hey, Josy, I need you back in my life. Please don't shut the door.
He decided to stick with "Hey, Josy." Mick grabbed the bouquet and stepped onto the porch. The door opened before he could knock, and a man ducked his head to peer out the door. The man half-smiled as he joined Mick on the porch, blue button-down and khakis almost glowing against his dark skin in the disappearing sunlight.
Mick stared. It was Tad Lucas, a grad student and assistant librarian when he and Joselyn started at Kent State. What was he doing here? Surely she didn't…He stopped breathing. He exhaled when he noticed something green in Tad's hand. Celery?
"Macauley Arthur," Tad said, frowning. "Are those for me?" He pointed to the roses.
Mick frowned back. "Is Josy here?"
Maybe he got the wrong house. Sera probably did this on purpose. He glanced at the pin-size hole in his palm.
"Joselyn doesn't like flowers," said Tad, emphasizing her name.
Mick rolled his eyes and dangled the roses by his side. He'd just remembered that himself. "Look, I need to talk to her. Is she here?"
"Does she even live here?"
Tad leaned against the doorway. "Yep. With me."
Mick felt his diaphragm clench. "She married you?"
Tad tapped his silver band. "Is that a problem?"
It was a problem. It ruined everything. He closed his fist around the pierced palm. Why didn't he look at her left hand in the mall? He was too caught up in her face.
Mick shook his head. "We bumped into each other earlier. She dropped her receipt. I thought I'd bring it by."
"And that required roses?"
A lime green Volkswagen pulled into the driveway. Mick smiled slightly. She was still driving the same car. But his smile faded as Joselyn approached, eyes locked on him. Her oval face was taut, eyes unblinking, mouth unmoving. It was same expression, the one he saw five years ago from a different front porch the December after he had moved back to care for his mother. He had his arm around Vicki's waist because he was grateful for her sympathy, for her presence, that she was willing to quit her job just to be with him and help with his mother. He didn't think about Joselyn being on break, about her having time to come see him. But he thought about it a long time after she peeled out of the driveway only moments after pulling in. She'd been there for him on the phone. She'd done what she could. But he was broken and foolish and didn't want to say no anymore, didn't want to hurt anyone. But he had hurt himself.
Joselyn stepped onto the porch, key ring hooping her index finger. Mick studied her hands, small and slender. He remembered they way entwined with his, and he wanted to reach out. To touch them again, bur her left ring finger bore two silver bands, one inset with a small black stone, probably onyx. She had never liked diamonds. He stuck his hand in his pocket.
Tad touched her back. "Do you want me to run him off?"
"I'll deal with him," she said, recapturing Mick's eyes.
"Good luck," Tad said, disappearing inside the house.
Mick wasn't sure who he meant.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Him. Tad was talking to him. How could he have forgotten her temper?
"Did you think you could just waltz in here five years later with roses and think everything's going to be okay?" She snatched the bouquet from his hand and held it near his head. "See this?"
He tried not to imagine what a collection of stems would feel like in his eye. He should have left the roses in the car.
"This represents male chauvinism and stereotyping. This says, 'You're a girl, and your emotions are easily swayed by gifts from men, especially flowers, so take this and forget whatever it was I did that was wrong because chances are I'm not going to fix it by changing my attitude, actions, etc, and I shouldn't have to, but this is me apologizing in theory so this should fix the problem.'"
"And I thought flowers couldn't talk."
Joselyn moved her arm, and Mick winced. He opened one eye. Her arm hadn't moved.
"I used to make you laugh when you were pissed," he said.
She threw the flowers in the yard and sat down on the swing. "You used to do a lot of things," she said more softly.
He sat down beside her.
"How's your mom?" she asked.
"Dead. How's Beowulf?"
She stared at him, pinching her elbow. "Wulf's fine. She's probably under the table. Look, I'm sorry about your Mom. Are you staying with your grandparents?"
She leaned back in the seat. "And how's your mistress?"
He leaned into the corner of the swing. "Doing quite well with her new boyfriend from what I hear."
"She break up with you?"
"After Mom died."
"How cruel." She pulled one knee to her chin. "Why are you here, Mick?"
Shadows grew longer in the front yard as the sun sank behind the house. He thought about slinking into them, driving away, hoping that both of them could forget this day ever happened.
"I wasn't expecting to see you earlier. You hate malls."
"I wanted to replace my jeans. The back pocket tore off. But I couldn't find any, and I was guilted into buying a pair of socks."
"You were always a sucker for socks," he said.
She eyed him. "Tell me about it."
He frowned. "I can't change the past," he said. "But I am sorry."
She looked up. "You're sorry? For being here? For never calling? For cheating on me?"
"All of the above." He touched her arm, but she jerked away. He wanted so desperately to hold her, bury his face in her hair.
"Don't worry about it," she said, laying her cheek on her knee. Her long hair slipped over her shoulders like dark water over a ledge.
"What?" He straightened his back.
"It's not a problem anymore. None of it's a problem. If you hadn't relied on me to call you, if you hadn't cheated on me, I would have missed out on a great relationship. A good husband."
Mick leaned forward, about six inches from her eyes. "Do you really believe that?"
She smiled without faltering. "I do."
She did. He had thought he could change back into the soccer star, the hero who swept her off her feet. The receipt seemed to burn through his pocket, and he wanted to change back. But his life wasn't a chameleon, adapting to its environment. His life was a burn victim, like those his father had pulled from flaming houses. Once a person, now a victim, accepting whatever plastic surgery he could get as long as it made everything normal again.
But nothing could be normal again. His dad was gone. His mom was gone. His pretense of a future with Vicki was gone. And Joselyn had moved on. He could explain it to her, about his mother, about Vicki, but it wouldn't make a difference now. Maybe five years ago, but not now.
He dug the receipt out of his back pocket, the napkin drifting unnoticed to the porch floor. "This is yours," he said. "You dropped it this morning."
She took it, folded it in her hands. "Thanks, but I don't need it. I have that other receipt they give you in the bag. I don't why they do that."
Mick smiled and nodded. She'd never needed anything, and he wouldn't find what he needed here. "I guess that's my cue to leave," he said, rising from the swing.
"Wait." She held up a hand as if to touch his arm, but retracted it.
He sat back down.
"I've got something for you," she said.
"Whatever it is, keep it. I don't need it." He pressed against the cushion to stand up again.
She looked at him and smiled. "You've never known what you needed. I'll be right back."
The street lamps glowed orange against the twilight sky. Mick relaxed and rocked, moving the swing a couple inches with the toes of his Nikes. He could still feel the wooden seat through the cushion. Joselyn's voice answered Tad's deep one somewhere inside the house, but the conversation was muffled. He couldn't imagine what she would give him. She'd probably thrown away the eyebrow piercing he bought her, the silver dog bone having taken its place, along with the stuffed elephant and the miniature tire swing he'd made into a necklace. He didn't want any of that anyway. It would just remind him of what he threw away.
She emerged again after several minutes holding something behind her back.
"Catch," she said, tossing him a deflated soccer ball.
"I don't remember buying you this," he said.
"You didn't. But I haven't used it in five years. I don't even know why I brought it with me. It deserves more than my cluttered closet."
"Closet? You should never treat a soccer ball that way."
She shrugged. "So treat it better."
He looked at the ground and smiled. "I will. Thanks, Josy."
Mick shifted the ball to one hand, raising the other to her face. It was softer than he remembered. He leaned in to kiss her but stopped, looked at the door, and forced a smile.
"Take care of her, Tad."
Tad nodded, slipping his hand around Joselyn's waist. "Not a problem."
Mick dropped off the porch, clutching the deflated soccer ball under his arm. He walked around the tattered roses and climbed back into his Mustang. Joselyn stooped to pick up something white off the porch floor and squinted at it. He grimaced and closed his punctured hand. Then he shifted into reverse, backing out of the driveway and onto the street. Maybe Joselyn would be as calm with Sera as she was with him, but he would avoid Harley's and pineapples for a while, just to be safe.
He rubbed the dust off the deflated ball and smiled. And that was all he really needed.