WHEN my parents told me to come home and stay as long as I wanted, I was ecstatic, or at least as ecstatic as I could be considering my entire world had imploded. I didn’t have to beg, I didn’t have to explain why, and no questions I didn’t want to answer were asked. It was as perfect a response I could’ve ever hoped for.
After all, that’s what parents are for, right? Even when you’re an absentee son who’s as embarrassed of his rural roots as he was the life he tried to create outside of it.
Mine were the best in the world. I wondered during the whole cross-country drive whether they would’ve been as accommodating if they weren’t currently ensconced in their winter home in Tampa.
Bouncing over the frozen ruts in the driveway, my ancient Buick gave one last roar before I killed the engine. My fingers were numb. I didn’t own gloves, and my heater stopped working once I went over fifty. The car wasn’t exactly thrilled when I pushed the speedometer higher than that anyway, but I didn’t need to be warm in LA so I usually didn’t care. In Michigan, however, heat was mandatory.
It got cold in December. It might only be the first of the month, but I’d hit snow way before I crossed the southern border. I’d stopped after getting off the toll around Chicago to unpack every sweatshirt I owned to layer up, but short of putting socks on my hands, my fingers had to freeze until I got home. Dad always had gloves stashed around the house because Mom bought him a new pair every Christmas regardless of whether or not he needed them. I’d borrow a pair of his.
When I’d been little, our road had been dirt with our nearest neighbor a half-mile south of us. It got paved when I was in high school, but Dad never bothered with our drive. He got around in a pickup, a new version every three years, so he never had to worry about getting his transmission ripped out by a frozen rise of dirt. I couldn’t tell whether the Buick had survived parking, but the sun was going down. I’d go into Rosebush in the morning and have someone check it out then. Right now, I just wanted to get warm.
An envelope was taped to the front door. In it was the house key.
The darkened living room that greeted me held the lingering scent of Mom’s favorite potpourri, and my pace stuttered on the threshold. I moved away from Michigan the summer after I graduated from high school. Thirteen long years. I didn’t miss it. I never had.
But standing there, breathing in the smell of my childhood, I realized I did.
I swallowed down the swell of nostalgia and dropped my bag at the bottom of the stairs. The house was freezing. First order of business was to turn up the thermostat.
Second? Coffee. Black. Steaming.
They’d upgraded their coffee machine to a stainless steel model, but the rest of the kitchen remained the same. The utilitarian white refrigerator mostly hidden by the magnets my parents always got as a souvenir wherever they traveled. The gas stove with the shelf of spices mounted on the wall behind it. The microwave sitting at the edge of the counter that had three basic buttons—start, cancel, and popcorn.
As the water sizzled where it dripped into the waiting pot, I toyed with the arrangement of the magnets, moving the states around to form a broken map of the US. A pizza menu fluttered under a brightly colored Niagara Falls, while under a Grand Hotel from Mackinac Island was a half-sheet of paper with kittens along the side and a phone number written in handwriting I didn’t recognize.
The ghost of the potpourri prompted me to pull out my phone. On impulse, I’d deleted two-thirds of my contacts when I left California behind, which made Mom’s cell easier to find. She picked up right away.
“Connor? Did you make it to the house okay?”
My eyes pricked at the sound of her voice, and I leaned heavily against the fridge. Maryland and Chicago fell to the tiled floor. “Yeah, Mom. I’m here.”
“You made good time.”
“Is it snowing? The reports say it’s supposed to snow tonight.”
“No, not yet.” It was both trite and reassuring that we discussed the weather. When she’d call me in LA and babble on about rain or storms or heat, I tuned her out. How could the same conversation leave me longing for Dad’s dissent in the background? “Listen, there’s a number on the fridge I don’t know. Is it important?”
“I cleaned off the fridge before I left. Daryl!” she called to Dad. “Did you put anything back on the refrigerator after I cleaned it off?”
“Why would I do that?” his muffled voice replied.
I flicked the edge of the menu. “Then I guess you don’t want me living off pizza, either.”
“Oh, I’ll bet that’s Jerry’s number,” she said. “I told him you should be getting in today.”
“Jerry Dahl. That’s who we asked to look after the house this winter. He’s the one who left the key for you to get in, so he probably put his number there so you’d have a way to reach him. He’s a good guy. You’ll like him.”
The name wasn’t a local one, nor any I recognized. That didn’t mean a whole lot. My parents had lived in mid-Michigan all their lives and knew more people than God. This Jerry Dahl could’ve been someone from Mom’s sixth grade class or one of Dad’s buddies from the hospital. I probably wouldn’t say more than a dozen words to him all winter unless something went seriously wrong.
She launched into a rundown of where I’d find everything, the stores that had opened in the time I’d been gone, how I’d lose phone signal while it snowed. I got lost in the comforting familiarity of it, letting her go on long after I filled Dad’s chipped Dilbert mug to the rim with scorching coffee. I cradled the cup in both hands, letting the heat seep into my fingers, as my neck began to cramp from keeping the phone firm between my ear and shoulder.
“Listen, sweetie, I’ve gotta go. Dad and I have tickets for a show tonight, and he’s at the door, jingling his keys at me. Call us this weekend and tell us how it’s going, okay? Love you!”
That was it. She disconnected, and I was left alone again.
* * * *
It snowed overnight. Sunlight glinting off the fresh crust blinded me as it streamed through the curtains I’d failed to close, and I stumbled out of bed to go yank them shut. The dark was better, more fitting of my sour mood. Though the bed had clean sheets, the mattress was the same one I’d left behind, lumpy and too soft. I’d tossed and turned all night, unable to get comfortable. I yearned for my LA bed, but that was long gone.
The only way I’d wake up was coffee.
Too bad coffee couldn’t be the answer to everything.
As tired as I was, I spent the morning getting reacquainted with the house. I hadn’t lived in more than a thousand square feet since moving out, so having two other stories to wander around in was a novelty, even if it was just remembering that Dad never turned the heat on in the basement and Mom still put all the towels away in the linen closet using Roy G. Biv as a guideline. On a whim, I put the purple towels she used in the guest bathroom downstairs between the red and orange ones that I had never seen used anywhere, then stepped back to survey the new order.
A few seconds later, I switched it back. It was too weird to look at. I’d say I was my mother’s son, except I only ever bought black towels. No colors. Sean used to bitch about the lack of variety, ignoring my arguments that black never showed stains and went with everything. It made sense to me. I wondered now if it had been my silent protest against Mom’s color coding.
Scooping the stack of towels into my arms, I inverted the pile and shoved it back onto the shelf. I’d try living with Vib Gyor for a while instead.
It started snowing again around lunch, the sun vanishing behind thick, heavy clouds that smothered the horizon. I watched the flakes fall through the living room window, mildly fascinated by the way they took so long to find a surface to settle on. It wasn’t a storm. The winds were nonexistent. But the longer it snowed, the more isolated I felt, blanketed away from the rest of the world, forgotten.
What was Sean doing right now? Was he thinking about me? Did he wonder where I was, or if I was okay?
I feared the answers to most of those questions would make me even more miserable than I already was. I retreated to the kitchen where I didn’t have to see the world beyond the walls around me.
Though it would be easy to hide in the house all day, I really did need to get my car checked out. If I’d torn out the transmission, that would eat a chunk of my savings, which would lead to even more problems that I didn’t want to have to consider. Dad’s pickup would be better—where was Dad’s truck? It wasn’t in the driveway, and I couldn’t imagine Mom agreeing to drive all the way to Florida in it.
My gaze drifted to the number on the fridge. Jerry Dahl would have answers to all my questions.
He answered on the fourth ring, his breath huffing across the line. “H’lo?”
I hesitated. It sounded like a kid, not pre-pubescent or anything like that, but someone young and so full of energy even his voice crackled with it. “Uh…can I speak to Jerry, please?” Maybe his son had picked up the phone.
“This is Jerry.”
Now he sounded amused, which annoyed me. “This is Connor McClure. Daryl and Marlene’s son.”
“I know, they gave me your number when they said you were coming. I’m guessing you got in okay if you found mine.”
“I did, thanks. I got in yesterday. I was wondering if you knew where my dad’s pickup is. I think it’s safer to drive around here than my heap.”
“I’ve got it. He’s storing it in my barn while he’s gone, but I’m sure he won’t mind if you take it. Want me to bring it over?”
That would solve a lot of problems. My initial irritation at Jerry faded in the face of his accommodating nature. “That would be great. Can you drop it off today?”
“Sure. I can be there in five minutes.”
I thanked him and let him go. Five minutes meant he lived close by. Convenient if I had any other problems.
I’d just managed to find one of Dad’s jackets that didn’t make me feel like a kid playing dress-up when I heard the snow crunch in the drive. Hurriedly, I slipped on my tennis shoes and grabbed my wallet. I was going to hit Meijer’s and pick up new boots along with some real food. My toes would thank me in the long run.
“Thanks for coming so quick!” I called out when I stepped out on the porch.
The driver’s door slammed and a moment later, I discovered that Jerry Dahl wasn’t quite as young as I thought. Early twenties, most likely, with a shock of dark brown hair poking out beneath his hunter’s orange ski cap. He was tall and lanky, the fine angles of his wrists visible at the cuffs of his black coat, but he moved with an odd grace, like a gazelle about to bound away. As he got closer, I noticed his eyes were a curious shade of amber, too light to be brown, too clear to be duplicitous. His pale skin was mottled red with the cold, but he smiled at me as if he didn’t feel it.
“You look like your mom,” he said in lieu of greeting. “I didn’t expect that.”
My brows shot up. He was right, I did look like her for the most part. Same blond hair, same gray eyes, same long chin. I was surprised he’d never seen a recent picture of me, though. Mom had old ones all over the house. Had I changed that much over the years?
“I hate being such a bother—”
“You’re not. I’m home all day anyway, and it’s not that far.”
“Let me give you a ride home, then.”
Shaking his head, he pressed the truck’s keys into my hand and began to back off. “You don’t have to do that. I can just walk.”
“But it’s snowing.” The flakes were fat and slow, but they still qualified.
His smile widened. “This isn’t real snow.”
It felt real enough to me, but I’d lost my tolerance to winter years ago. “I’m not going to make you walk when I have to run into town anyway. Get in.”
He stopped arguing and clambered into the passenger seat. Since my legs were shorter than his, I had to adjust my seat, then turned the heat up higher before reversing out.
“I guess you’re not used to the cold yet.” Jerry pointed east. “Go up to Loomis and turn left. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
I followed his directions, concentrating on getting used to the pickup and the road rather than conversation. Three minutes later, I pulled into the gravel driveway in front of a familiar two-story farmhouse.
“This is the old Zielinski place,” I said. They’d been an older couple whose kids had all moved away, like a lot of us did who wanted something different from the quiet farm life so many of our parents had. I used to haul and split wood for them when I was in high school to earn extra money. “You related?”
Jerry shook his head. “My dad bought it when Mrs. Zielinski died.”
Now that he mentioned it, I vaguely remembered Mom mentioning her passing away. Sadness I hadn’t felt then washed over me. “So it’s you and your family now?”
Another shake. His smile was gone, too. “Nope, just me.” He hopped out of the truck. “Thanks for the ride.”
He was gone before I could add anything, loping along to the front door without looking back. I had the sudden urge to call after him and ask if he wanted to come with me, but he disappeared inside before I could act.
I left thinking maybe it was for the better anyway. I wasn’t exactly great company, and he deserved someone who wouldn’t spend all his time moping.