It’s hard to sleep.
After getting back to the cabin, Noah immediately left to go out on his boat, and he didn’t offer to take the two of us with him. Gwen and my father bring back some steaks from town, which Gwen attempts to cook on the grill. Noah comes back soon after they’ve charred two of the steaks into hockey pucks, and saves the rest of them from suffering similar fates.
He doesn’t say one word to me through the whole meal.
I thought that I’d drop off right to sleep after all the fresh air today and food and no TV to keep me awake. But instead, I’m now lying in bed, staring at the cracks on the ceiling. They’re not even interesting cracks. They don’t look like faces or horses and airplanes. They just look like cracks.
Part of the problem is that Lily is in bed next to me, tossing and turning in her sleep. She’s already started to rotate—she’s currently about thirty degrees counter-clockwise. Soon her feet will be in prime position to kick me in the gut.
Ugh, I’m never going to fall asleep.
I struggle to sit up in bed. I rub my eyes, wondering if I should read in bed or surf the web on my phone with the sparse signal we get out here. Or maybe I’ll steal some food from the fridge. It’s such a luxury to be in a house where there’s something in the fridge besides ketchup and a carton of milk.
I stumble into the hallway, which is very dark. After living in an urban area, it’s strange to see how dark it is out in the country. It’s practically black outside my room until I get out to the kitchen, where I notice that someone has turned on the dim light over the oven. It turns out I have company in my late-night kitchen raid.
Noah is here.
Except now he’s sitting in that same wheelchair I saw in the bathroom. He’s wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts, and I can see the tips of his stumps poking out from the ends of the shorts. I thought he used his prosthetics all the time so I’m surprised to see him using the wheelchair around the house.
“Um, hi,” I say.
Noah’s eyes widen at the sight of me. That’s when I look down and notice I forgot to put my own shorts on—I’m wearing a tiny tank top and my bikini-cut panties. Well, at least I don’t have a thong on.
“Oh,” I murmur. “Shit, let me… cover up.”
“Don’t bother,” he says before I can run off. “It’s not like it’s anything I haven’t seen before.”
I shoot him a dirty look, then race back to my bedroom to grab my shorts. Maybe he’s seen it all before, but he saw a younger, tighter version of it. Once I’m in the bedroom, I consider not coming out again, but I figure that will just give Noah more ammunition to hate me.
When I get back in the kitchen, Noah is fiddling around with his phone at the table. He looks up when I come in and his handsome features are outlined in the glow of light from his screen. “I told you I didn’t care,” he says.
“Well, I did.”
He glances down at his legs. “Does that mean you want me to cover up too? Am I making you sick here?”
I turn away from him so he can’t see how my face is getting pink. “Stop it.”
Noah glares at me for a good minute before he looks away too. He grabs the wheels of his chair and pushes himself over to the fridge. “You want ice cream?”
“Is there some kind you wouldn’t want?”
He’s right. I’d kill for any brand, variety, or flavor of ice cream right now.
Noah pulls a container of Neapolitan ice cream out of the freezer, reaching with his right arm while he hangs onto the wheel of his chair with his left. I see his stumps tremble slightly as he stretches, even though I’m trying my best not to stare. He gets the ice cream down and then just stops, looking frustrated.
“The bowls are up on top,” he says. He shrugs apologetically. “Usually if I’m alone, I just eat right out of the container.”
“I don’t mind doing that,” I say.
He narrows his eyes at me. “Maybe I mind.”
Fine. If that’s how he wants to be, I’ll play his game. He wheels back to give me room to retrieve the bowls from the cupboard. While I’m doing it, he finds an ice cream scoop and spoons in one of the drawers. He portions out the ice cream, giving me only vanilla and strawberry. My two favorites—I’ve never been a fan of chocolate. I’m sure it won’t be as good as the ice cream on the farm, but it looks pretty damn good right now.
“This cabin could be a little more accessible,” he says, shaking his head. “I only bought it last year and I don’t have the money to make any changes right now.”
“But you…” I bite my lip, wanting to ask but being afraid of angering him again. “You’re usually not in the wheelchair… right?”
He’s quiet for a moment, eating a bite of chocolate ice cream. “I’m not really supposed to be on the prosthetics more than nine or ten hours a day. Any more than that and I’m in pain. So usually I use the chair in the evening.”
“Oh.” Aside from now and that time I busted in on him in the bathroom, I haven’t seen Noah once without his prosthetics. He’s got to have spent over fourteen hours in them today.
“I’m using the prosthetics more now, obviously,” he says. “Mostly because I don’t want to freak out your kid.”
“Lily?” I frown. “What are you talking about? She won’t get freaked out.”
Noah snorts. “Won’t she? Her mother sure as hell did.”
I take a large bite of ice cream. Too large—it’s agonizing as it melts in my mouth. But I’m grateful for the pain right now.
“You know,” I say quietly, “you’re the one who invited me here, Noah. It’s not like I forced my way in. I’m trying my best to be civil to you, but you get in every possible jab you can. What do you want me to say? That I feel awful about what happened? I do. I feel awful.” I take a shaky breath. “But there’s nothing I can do about it except apologize. I’m trying my best. And you are being an asshole.”
I’m certain he’s going to hurl another insult at me, but instead, his shoulders sag. “You’re right,” he says quietly. “I’m being an asshole.” He runs his hand through his dark blond hair, which emphasizes how short it is compared to how he wore it in college. “I thought I’d be okay seeing you, Bailey, I really did. I have a good life—I’m happy. And I thought it was that whole thing about how living well is the best revenge, you know? But now that I’m actually seeing you, it’s like… the last ten years never happened. And everything just came rushing back…”
“I know what you mean,” I murmur.
To my surprise, Noah holds out his hand to me. “Truce?”
I reach out to shake his hand. Despite the fact that he was just eating ice cream, his hand feels warm and large in mine—the way it always did. “Truce,” I say. “And I promise you, Lily won’t freak out if she sees you in a wheelchair. She’s not like that. She’s not like… me.”
Noah looks down into his bowl of ice cream. “I have to disagree. She seems a lot like you.”
I laugh. “You’re the first person to ever say that. Everyone thinks she looks just like my ex-husband.”
He shakes his head. “She has your eyes.”
“Um, no. Hers are blue and mine are brown.”
“It’s not the color.” He looks thoughtful. “It’s the intensity. The way she looks at things. It reminds me of you. And when she was drawing last night, she did the thing with her tongue you always do.”
“The thing with my tongue?”
“Yeah.” He nods. “You stick your tongue out when you’re drawing.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yeah, you do.” He grins. “Just a little bit. Like this.”
He sticks his tongue about two millimeters out of the side of his mouth. I roll my eyes.
“She’ll probably be an artist,” he continues, “like you wanted to be before you gave up, for some reason.” He cocks his head. “Why did you give up anyway, since we’re asking the uncomfortable questions?”
I look down at my ice cream bowl. The vanilla and strawberry have melted to make a pinkish soup. I stir it with my spoon. “It’s a long story.”
He looks around and shrugs. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to be right now.”
I bite my lip. This isn’t a story I tell very many people. I never imagined it would be one I’d tell him.
“After I… after we broke up,” I begin, “after that, I just couldn’t…”
I lift my eyes and see he’s looking at me intently. There’s no anger in his eyes anymore—only concern.
“I couldn’t draw anymore after that,” I say in a gush of words. “Not for a long time. Every time I picked up a pencil, I just felt… I kept thinking about you and I couldn’t focus. Drawing made me happy, and I felt like I didn’t deserve to be happy anymore after that.”
His eyebrows bunch together. “Bailey…”
“I thought maybe as a social worker, I could do some good.” I look back down at my pink soup. “Penance, you know?”
He’s quiet for a moment. “Well,” he finally says, “at least you didn’t become a nun.”
Despite everything, I laugh. I can’t say becoming a nun was ever on my radar. I felt bad, but not that bad.
“Anyway, how come you didn’t become a surgeon?” I ask him. “Wasn’t that your dream?”
He looks at me like I’ve completely lost my mind. “Didn’t I just tell you that I can’t be on my prosthetics more than ten hours? How do you think I would manage to get through a surgical residency?”
I remember the first time Noah met my father, Dad grilled him about his future career. Noah was usually fairly confident about himself, and I’d never seen him so nervous as when he was trying to impress my parents.
“So you want to be a surgeon, do you, Noah?”
“Yes, I do. I always have.”
“It’s a hard life. You know that, don’t you?”
“Lots of hours. Physically demanding. You have to be on your feet for the whole day.”
“I’m in good shape.”
“But you might not always be. What about when you’re an old man like me?”
Noah had laughed and so did I. He was twenty years old, played basketball three times a week, and swam five times a week. He was in perfect physical condition. Neither of us could envision that ever not being the case. We had no idea that only two years later, everything would change.
“Oh, right,” I mumble. “I’m sorry.”
“Just…” Noah shakes his head. “Could you please stop saying you’re sorry? Okay? You’re making me feel like I’m some kind of charity case you’re doing social work for.”
I nod. “Okay, I’m sor… er, I’ll try not to say it anymore.”
He lets out a long sigh. “I think I’m going to head to bed, Bailey. It’s been a long day.”
He pulls away from the table, and wheels himself in the direction of his bedroom. His biceps tighten with each push of the wheels and he pauses only briefly to smooth out his boxers over his stumps. They’re just barely long enough that I can see the ends of them through the shorts—the surgeon told Noah he’d leave him enough of his limbs so that he’d be able to use prosthetics. That was what was important at the time.
I keep staring after Noah as he wheels himself down the hall, the muscles of his back tightening under his T-shirt. I watch him the whole way, and after he’s gone, I think about him. I think about his handsome face, his short but tousled dark blond hair, his blue eyes, his lean and muscular upper body, and even his pale white stumps.
God, it’s been a long time since I’ve lusted after Noah Walsh.
Gwen calls us in the morning to tell us that she’s purchased five tickets for the afternoon showing of Dogcat. I distinctly remember stating that we had already seen Dogcat and that we were never, ever going to see it again. But it’s hard to get too angry when I see how excited Lily is.
“Dogcat is my favorite movie in the whole world,” she tells Noah while we’re eating cold cut sandwiches for lunch.
Lily’s favorite movie is the last movie she’s seen. Every time she sees anything, it’s suddenly the greatest movie ever. But I’m worried. If she sees Dogcat a second time, will that cement the movie as her favorite movie of all time forever?
“What is this movie about, anyway?” Noah asks me as he bites into his turkey sandwich on wheat bread.
“It’s about a cat,” Lily explains to him. “But then the cat becomes a dog. Except he wants to be a cat again. And also? He fights crime.”
“Does he?” Noah looks like he’s suppressing a laugh.
“Yes, he does,” Lily says. “Like he saves a whole family of frogs from a burning building.”
Noah frowns. “Why is there a family of frogs living in a building?”
Lily frowns back. “Where else would they live?”
“It’s an alternative universe,” I explain to Noah. “Where instead of people, animals are essentially in charge of the planet.” I think there was also some sort of lesson in the movie about taking good care of the planet, but the message was lost in the awfulness that was Dogcat.
Noah is smirking. “I can’t wait.”
We drive over to the theater to meet Gwen and my father. Gwen is holding another shopping bag and this time she pulls out a dress that she bought for Lily. It’s bright pink with a lacy skirt—beautiful but completely impractical. I can’t even imagine an occasion where Lily will be able to wear this dress. But of course, Lily loves it. She loves it so much that I have to promise her to take her to the bathroom as soon as we get into the movie theater so she can put it on.
“I’m so happy you like it, sweetie,” Gwen says. “You should have at least one nice thing.”
My face burns. Lily has nice things. Well, some nice things. I mean, it’s not like I can afford to buy her tons of frilly, impractical dress just because.
Noah notices the look on my face. He frowns at his mother and says, “Actually, I think Lily has on a really nice outfit right now.”
Lily glances down at the outfit she’s wearing, clearly skeptical. It’s a short-sleeved rainbow-colored shirt with black stars on it that she paired with pink shorts. It’s a completely unremarkable outfit I threw into the duffel bag when I was randomly shoving in clothes for our trip. I wouldn’t call it “really nice.” It’s acceptable. It’s clean, at least.
“Of course she does!” Gwen says quickly. “Lily always is dressed in nice outfits. And of course, we’re all so excited to see this Dogcat movie.”
Gwen might hate me, but at least she’s sucking up to my daughter.
However, Noah sticking up for me—that’s a new development.
“I’ll buy the popcorn,” Noah offers. He looks at me. “What do you guys want?”
Lily nearly explodes from happiness. “Popcorn! Mommy never lets me get popcorn! It’s too ‘spensive.”
Here we go again. My daughter knows the words “too expensive” all too well, even if she can’t quite pronounce them.
Noah grins. “Well, this is a special occasion because your grandpa just got engaged. So you get to have popcorn.”
Lily runs around in a happy circle. Literally.
Noah looks at me again and furrows his brow. “So to drink… she wouldn’t have soda, right?”
I snort. “Why? You think she needs more sugar? Water is fine, thanks.”
Gwen takes Lily to the bathroom to help her put on her new dress and I’m left alone with my father, while Noah gets in line to buy the popcorn. I notice the girl at the counter immediately starts flirting with him. And I can tell he’s flirting back. Not that there’s any reason he shouldn’t.
“So it looks like you and Noah are getting along okay,” Dad says.
“We had a truce,” I say, and wince at how dumb that sounds.
Dad smiles. “That’s good to hear. I knew it would be okay, once we were all settled in.”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
“Gwen was surprised at how upset he seemed when you showed up,” Dad adds. “She said that he… well, obviously he’s done well for himself, in spite of everything. She said he never even talked about you. Not since right after.”
“Oh.” I don’t know why that comment leaves me feeling cold. It’s not like I wish Noah had been obsessing over me for the last ten years. But at the same time, I feel sad that he never even thought about me. I sure thought about him. I always wondered what he was doing. If he became a surgeon. If he was married. If he had a little girl of his own.
But I never checked on Facebook to find out if it was true. I knew how painful it would have been to find out Noah was really taken.
Noah comes off the line carrying three bags of popcorn and three empty cups for drinks. He’s limping more than usual due to the strain of everything he’s holding, and he looks like he’s about to drop everything. “Little help here?” he calls.
Dad comes over to take their popcorn and drink, while I grab Lily’s smaller bag of popcorn and the cup I’ll probably fill with water (or lemonade, if she really insists). With impeccable timing, Lily emerges from the bathroom with her impractical new dress on. It’s so frilly that she looks more like she’s going to a wedding than seeing Dogcat for the second time. She runs right up to Noah to show him.
“Do you like it?” she asks.
“I love it,” he says very seriously. “Just be careful not to spill anything on it.”
Lily nods soberly, her blue eyes wide.
We all fight over who’s going to sit next to Lily. Well, I don’t fight too hard, considering I got to sit next to her the first time we saw Dogcat. Lily wants to sit next to Noah, and her choice is to sit between him and me, but Gwen wants to sit next to Lily as well. After some intense negotiations, Lily ends up between Noah and Gwen, with me on the end next to Noah.
“Be careful,” I whisper to Noah. “Lily may make a move when the lights are down.”
Noah laughs. “Don’t worry. I’ve got lots of experience fending off female advances. Even six-year-olds.”
I’ll just bet he does.
As the lights dim though, it’s not Lily I’m thinking about. It’s Noah, inches away from me, in this dark theater. I can just barely smell his aftershave and it’s making me want to rest my head on his shoulder to get closer. After all, the last time Noah and I were in a dark theater like this together, his arm was around my shoulders, keeping me close to him. And if the movie was boring, we’d start making out. Or maybe just because we felt like it. Every activity was an excuse to make out with each other.
It was never like that with any other guys. Not even with Theo.
“Hey,” I hear Noah whisper as the opening credits to Dogcat start rolling on the screen. “I didn’t know Robert DeNiro was in this movie.”
“Yeah,” I whisper back. “He does the voice of some mob boss parakeet that Dogcat has to take down.”
I can make out Noah smiling in the dark of the theater. “Wow, all-star cast.”
“Yeah, I wish they’d spent the money making the movie not suck.”
Noah stifles a laugh. He shakes his bag of popcorn in my direction. “You want some popcorn?”
“You sure? I got a large.”
I shake my head. “It will make me too thirsty.”
He raises his eyebrows at me. “I also got a large drink.”
I just stare at him in the dark.
“I don’t have cooties, Bailey,” he whispers.
He’s looking at me in a way that makes my heart speed up. This is definitely the most excited an adult has ever been during a viewing of Dogcat.
“Fine,” I whisper back as I take a handful of popcorn.
He’s just sharing his food with me. There’s no reason to make more of this than it deserves.
To be continued.....