One Hundred Goodbyes
Eden Webster sat at her desk looking through the stack of mail. She’d sorted it no less than a dozen times this week. There was the due last week pile, the due this week pile, and the long overdue pile she was certain would send her to debtor’s prison any day.
Suzanne said she’d take care of it all, but Suzanne was missing in action. After placing a call each day for the last week to her sister, she’d about given up on connecting.
Her stomach growled and her belly rippled as the baby moved inside her.
She laid her hand on the tight skin of her rounded stomach and waited for the little foot to push against her palm. It seemed to be their game. Her stomach would growl, and the baby would kick as if telling her to keep it quiet in there.
“Hey little one,” she crooned. “How about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”
She rolled slowly to her feet. At nearly eight months pregnant, she moved like a sloth. Getting to her feet from a seated position seemed to be almost as challenging as getting out of bed. Though she’d only gained twenty-five pounds, she felt as big as a house.
Porkchop did a figure eight around her ankles, swishing his long tail back and forth as Eden moved to the counter and pulled out the bread and peanut butter.
“It’s a good thing you like peanut butter.” She stared down at the cat, who sat more like a dog ready to beg. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
Porkchop had belonged to her elderly neighbor Grace. When her children moved her into a long-term care home, they’d asked Eden to take the cat.
Sucker must have been written all over her face. If there was a word that wasn’t in Eden’s vocabulary, it was no.
She glanced down at the cotton stretching over her belly. Her inability to say no had gotten her into this situation in the first place.
She slathered the peanut butter on two slices of white bread and scraped the grape jelly jar clean.
Looking down at Porkchop, she didn’t have the heart not to share, so she tore a corner of her sandwich free and put it on a plate.
She knew the feline well enough to know she’d lift her nose now, but as soon as Eden turned her back, the cat would gobble it down. Porkchop was the opposite of Eden. She always said no initially.
A glance at the clock told Eden it was time to go. She’d been lucky to keep her job at Rocco’s Bar and Grill. The work was tough, but the check was helpful when her sister forgot about the promises she’d made, which had happened quite frequently over the last couple months.
Eden was the pregnant one, but it seemed as if her sister suffered from baby brain.
The cat followed her to the door like she did every afternoon. She reached down to stroke Porkchop’s fur. At five, she was still a kitten at heart and flopped to her back to swat at Eden’s hand.
“There’s no time to play. I have to get to work or you won’t be getting any treats this week.” At the mention of treats, Porkchop dashed into the kitchen where they were stored. It was the perfect opportunity for Eden to slip on her jacket and leave.
In the hallway, old man Shubert shuffled toward the elevator. “Hold the car will ya, Eden?”
She wanted to groan because holding the car for Mr. Shubert meant she’d have to wait five minutes for him to close the twenty-foot distance.
Instead she smiled. “No problem.” She leaned against the open doors that tried to close constantly. The thumping against her back eased the pinch she felt at her tailbone. “Take your time.”
The old man laughed. “Time is all I’ve got.” When he finally arrived, he looked down at her belly. “You look like you’re ready to pop.”
She shouldered her purse and moved aside so he could enter the elevator. “I’ve got about six weeks left.” Her hands lovingly stroked her stomach.
“Boy or girl?”
He asked her that each time he saw her. The answer was always the same. “It’s got to be one or the other, but I don’t know which.” The sex of the baby was a mystery.
“Where’s the father?”
That was always the second question. Eden didn’t have a man in her life. She hadn’t for quite some time. “He’s somewhere out there.”
“Better track him down.”
She pressed the button for the lobby, and when the doors opened, she wished Mr. Shubert a good day and walked into the sunshine.
Late summer and fall were her favorite times of the year. The trees in the Rockies would turn into a cornucopia of colors. It wasn’t too hot, and the ugly grip of winter was still months away from Denver.
She hopped on the bus and took it downtown. It would have been easier to drive but her doctor wasn’t fond of her getting behind the wheel, given that her entire pregnancy was in front of her. Many women gained their weight all around, but Eden was one of those that grew forward. From the back no one would know she was so far along. It was the basketball up front that gave it all away.
At 16th Street, she exited and walked by her favorite candy store. She had one constant craving. Good & Plenty were certainly good but not always plenty, as few stores carried the pink and white coated candies. Black licorice was a taste at her late stages of pregnancy she required regularly.
Digging through her purse, she found the sixty-three cents she’d need to buy a package.
Sharma smiled as she walked inside. The clerk pulled a pink and white box from under the counter. “I saved this for you.”
“You’re a saint.” She set her change on the counter, picking out the piece of purse lint that had gotten mixed into the coins.
“No, I’m Punjabi, which is close to being a saint.”
Eden raised the box to her lips and kissed it. “Thank you. I’ll be able to get through the night with these.”
She made her way down the outside mall and walked into work.
One look around told everyone that Rocco’s taste in waitresses went to curvy blondes but not pregnant curvy. Rocco looked at her from behind the bar and shook his head. He’d hired her long before she’d decided to have a baby. His look was as dark as the paneling that covered the walls.
An apron sailed through the air toward her and he pointed toward the back of the restaurant. Her evening assignment was no surprise. As soon as she started to show, he hid her.
Eden hung up her coat and grabbed a handful of candies before she went to her station. She had two tables seated with what looked like another on the way. Things would pick up once the dinner crowd hit.
Three hours and sixteen pizzas later, she looked up to find her ex Matt in her corner booth canoodling his girlfriend—a doppelganger of herself. Blonde hair and blue eyed, she was the spitting image of Eden minus the baby.
Everyone always said people had a type. Matt sure did. By the looks of the new one, he liked them blonde, petite and enamored. Eden had been his type for two years. When things became comfortable, he found himself another. This was number three if her count was correct.
“Welcome to Rocco’s.” She smiled like she did for everyone, although with Matt it was harder to pin the corners of her lips up. “Can I start you with something to drink?” She looked at Matt, knowing his girlfriend would never get to choose.
“Hey, Eden.” His eyes skimmed her body, stopping on her stomach. “You’re looking—”
“Oh, my God,” Blondie said. “You’re huge. How does a person have sex like that?”
Eden smiled and caressed her belly. “Sex?” She stared at Matt. “Never had it. Or at least it wasn’t memorable. How about a bottle of Chianti?”
It was almost comical to watch Matt’s arrogance wilt. “Chianti sounds great.” His eyes never lifted from her stomach. “Who’s the father?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s hard to tell.” Eden turned and walked away.
Matt and his new toy didn’t bother her the rest of the night. It was a regular named Dave Mason that was the problem. Each time she leaned over the bar he caressed her backside. There was no point in talking to Rocco because Dave was his best buddy. Served in the army for years together. Eden was smart enough to know that Rocco’s motto was bro’s before ho’s and a ho was anything that didn’t have a penis.
She hefted a tray of beers to her shoulders and turned, but not before Dave slid his hand between her legs.
She lost her balance.
She had a choice.
She could save the beers and fall into Dave’s lap or she could drop the tray and step aside. She chose option two and the tray of mugs went crashing to the ground.
“Dammit, Eden. What the hell happened?”
Eden looked around to make sure no one was hurt. Except for a sprinkling of lager on a shirt or two, all the glass had hit the floor in front of Dave, trapping him in his chair.
She pointed at him. “He’s what happened. He won’t keep his hands to himself.”
Rocco looked at Dave and then at her and doubled over with laughter.
“Sorry, doll, but I know him and knocked up ain’t his thing.” He looked down at the mess on the floor. “I’ll take it out of tonight’s tips.”
She could barely afford the bus fare back home much less afford to pay for six pints of beer, glasses and all. “No.” The word felt odd on her lips. “This is his fault. He’s constantly touching me.”
Rocco looked at her like she’d grown a hairy tooth from her chin. “He means no harm.”
Eden rarely cussed but something inside her heated up. She pressed her hands to her stomach as if she were covering her baby's ears.
“Dammit, Rocco!” The bar got quiet and all eyes turned toward her. “The only thing he’s missing is the stirrups. The man practically gives me a pap smear each time I pass him.”
Dave lifted his hands in the air. “Dude, she’s crazy. I never touched her.”
Rocco looked between his friend and Eden. She knew what was coming before the words ever came out.
She was halfway to untying her apron when he said, “I can’t have you accusing the customers of misconduct. You’re fired.”
She pulled a handful of Good & Plenty from her pocket and shoved them into her mouth. It would be the only good thing about her day.
Thomas Cross stood back and looked at his kitchen. It was a damn work of art. Thankfully Doc Parker had waived his realtor fees. The extra money gave him the funds to retile and upgrade the appliances.
Hard to believe now that he’d dragged his feet on the purchase of the property just because it was on Pansy Lane. No way did the name of a street reflect the masculinity of the man living there. That was evident by the slate gray tile on the floors and black granite countertops that screamed understated but manly.
While he hated to admit it, the Coopers were right. Quality was in the details. The brothers had developed a house that was environmentally friendly and easy to build. In the time it took Thomas to tile his floor, the brothers from Frazier Falls had nearly completed the build of Luke’s house.
He slid his hand across the smooth stone surface of the counter. Quality was in the details, but so was integrity. Each time he thought about that word his blood boiled.
A tap at his front door saved him from going down memory lane. His boots thunked across the slate tiles of the kitchen to the wooden floors of his living room. It was boys’ night out and the first of them had arrived.
He opened the door to Luke, who carried a six-pack and a take-and-bake pizza from Dalton’s culinary school. If not for his ready-made meals, Thomas was certain half the town would starve. Cannon certainly would because his wife Sage couldn’t even microwave with skill.
“Welcome. You can put that in the kitchen.” He pointed over his shoulder past the living room decorated with black leather sofas and a big-screen television hung from the wall that could rival a theater.
Generally, all the guys gathered at the Brewhouse, but the girls were there having a bridal shower for Marina, who was weeks away from popping. That only reminded him that he needed to get into her shop for a haircut before the baby was born. No telling how long she’d shutter the doors of Cove Cuts after the birth of her and Aiden’s son.
Another rap at the door had him turning around to answer it again. This time it was Bowie and Cannon standing on the porch. Bowie held a tray of baked goods, no doubt made that day by his wife Katie. Cannon stood with his hands empty. It was always better for everyone if Cannon just brought himself.
As he went to close the door, a boot stuck inside stopped the progress. The big buckled leather monstrosity belonged to Dalton. The man always looked like he’d just climbed off his Harley or escaped from prison, but he was one of those gentle giants.
“I’ve got wings and stuffed tater skins. Is the game on already?”
Thomas checked his watch. It was pre-season football, so the games didn’t count, but it was a game nonetheless and real men watched football.
“Should start soon.” He picked up the remote from the coffee table and pressed the power to light up eighty-four inches of awesomeness.
“Damn, man, yours is huge.” Cannon stood directly in front of the big screen.
Thomas laughed. “So I’ve been told.”
“Your television, asshole.”
“Oh … right.” Thomas knew exactly what he meant but couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bust his balls. Cannon Bishop was just one of the many in town who’d succumbed to marriage.
“Where’s Aiden?” Dalton asked as he flopped onto the sofa, his weight pushing it back at least a foot.
“He’s watching Kellyn tonight, but Mark should be here soon. Poppy gave him a kitchen pass,” Bowie said.
“You guys.” Thomas shook his head. “You feel lighter now that your balls are in your wives’ pockets?”
It was Luke who chimed in. “I’m not married, but I wouldn’t turn her down if she asked me.” He looked toward the oven. “Care if I fire it up?”
The door creaked open with Mark Bancroft peeking his head inside. “Is this where the party is?” He waved a bag of chips in front of him.
“Come on in. There’s beer in the kitchen.”
“Hope you don’t mind, but I invited Tilden to join us. He looked a bit lost when the girls kicked him out of the bar.”
Everyone turned to stare at him, but it was Dalton who spoke first. “What’s his story? He seemed to just show up a few years ago and disappear into the woods with Ray Bradley and Zachariah Tucker. Is the old man a relative?”
Mark shrugged. “Not sure what his story is, but he’s a nice guy, if a bit quiet. He’s unassuming.”
Cannon chuckled. “Always better to remain on the down low if you’re a bootlegger.”
“That’s the thing. He’s not really a bootlegger. I’m sure he can make a good batch of shine if he wanted to, given he’s around the stuff all the time, but he only helps old man Tucker with the wood deliveries.”
“No shit,” Thomas blurted. “You never know what you’re going to get in this town. No one is ever what they seem.” He picked up a beer and twisted off the cap.
“How so?” Luke asked.
Thomas gave him a do-you-have-to-ask look. “Look at Riley. She’s granola and grain and born thirty years too late for Woodstock. You thought she was dangerous, and it turned out it was Meg we should have been watching all along.”
Luke whistled. “That one there was trouble from the minute she rolled into town.”
“Right?” Thomas took a long drink and continued. “And you”—he nodded toward Bowie—“you fall in love with a poor baker who turns out to have more money than God.” He didn’t stop. “Dalton over here thought his little honey was an arsonist when in truth she was America’s pop goddess.”
“And me?” Mark asked.
Thomas laughed. “You’re about the only one who knew what they were getting. But you don’t count because you knew her all her life.”
Thomas turned to Cannon. “You.” He laughed. “You’ve got a woman who could mend you, kill you and comfort you, but I’ll be damned if she can feed you.”
The door opened and Wes Covington walked in. “Am I late?”
“Only for the relationship roasting.” Luke turned to Thomas. “You got anything to say about Lydia?”
He shook his head. “Nope. She has to do my physical soon. Lydia is a saint.” He smiled and plopped onto the other end of the couch.
Dalton opened his tray of wings and the guys moved in like vultures over roadkill. Luke pulled the pizza from the oven and it was half gone before the game began.
“Hey, man.” Wes sat on the corner of the sofa, the only place besides the floor that was left. “Who was she?”
“Who?” Thomas knew exactly who Wes asked about. He wanted to know who had pissed in his Wheaties and turned romance rancid for him.
“Who broke your heart?”
Thomas laughed. “That’s assuming I have a heart.” He tipped back the beer and turned the volume of the television up.
While his friends focused on who would win the pregame, Thomas resigned himself to having lost the long game.
Sarah Blankenship had burned a hole so deep inside his chest that there was no hope of recovering. He didn’t take her misdeeds out on other women. He simply didn’t engage. Sure, there was a roll in the sheets from time to time. He was a fireman and therefore needed to use his hose, but he never stayed. He was too afraid of the backdraft that a hot woman could cause. Once burned twice shy, they said.
The first touchdown split the room in two. They divided like oil and water with Bronco fans on one couch and Steelers fans on the other.
Thomas could care less, so he took a seat on the floor right next to the bag of chips and watched his friends argue.
Just as halftime came so did a knock on the door. He dragged himself to his feet and answered.
Tilden stood on his porch, hands in his pockets, shuffling back and forth.
“I was told I could hang out with the guys.”
His voice was deep, like Darth Vader deep, which was a surprise. While Thomas had never heard him speak, hearing James Earl Jones’ voice come out of the maybe six-foot-tall man was a shock.
“Come on in.” Thomas moved to the side to let him pass. “I’m Thomas.” He pointed to the guys in the room. “You probably know the rest.”
“I’ve seen you all around.”
“There are beers in the kitchen, but I’m afraid the vultures have pretty much picked the bones of the meal clean. I think there’s some leftover chicken in the fridge though.”
He didn’t consider himself a culinary wizard like Dalton, but Thomas could put together a decent meal. It was probably why he was the one that always cooked for the crew at the station.
“Nah, I’m good. I had the blue plate special at Maisey’s.”
“Right on.” Thomas loved Maisey’s specials too, and Thursday night was meatloaf and mashed potato night.
Tilden popped the top off a beer and came into the living room. He took a seat on the floor and seemed to blend into the woodwork.
After the next touchdown, which put the Broncos twenty-eight points up, the guys got restless.
“Do we get a tour?” Bowie asked.
Thomas stood and showed them around.
His master bedroom was a work in progress. It had the same deep tones that blended in with the rest of the house. Was it dark because of his mood or mostly black and gray because a guy couldn’t go wrong staying monochromatic?
“I’ve got a second bathroom here.” He pointed to the door off his bedroom. “I just installed a new tub and shower.”
“Damn,” Wes said. “Maybe you should work for me. That’s good work in there.” Wes was the resident builder. His family went way back in the town’s history. There seemed to be a hierarchy of founding families. To Thomas’ best recollection, there were the Parkers, the Bennetts and the Bishops. Records he pulled up on his computer about the town’s history also mentioned the Coolidges and the Carvers but there was some kind of land dispute between them and the Coolidges seemed to disappear sometime in the early 1880s.
He led them down the hallway to the first empty room on his right. “This will be my office when I have time to patch the holes and paint it.” The house had been vacant for far too long before he’d bought it. Turned out some of the kids from the next town over were into remodeling as well, and several of the walls were sporting foot-sized holes.
“Who owned this property?” Bowie asked.
Thomas shrugged. “Some investor who came in and bought up all the vacant homes as soon as word got out the Guild Creative Center was going up. His name is Mauri or Melton or something like that.”
“Mason,” Wes said with less enthusiasm than a cow at the slaughterhouse.
“You know him?” He moved through the Jack and Jill bathroom into the next room.
“Yep, he’s the son of my father’s best friend. Raleigh Van der Veen.”
The quiet Tilden added, “Veen is Dutch for swamp.”
Mark laughed. “So now you’re a translator. Aren’t you a surprise?”
Tilden melted back into the wall and took up his place at the end of the line.
“This, my friends, will be the man-cave within the next few days. Furniture is coming this week.” He pointed to the long narrow room that was perfect for a pool table or ping pong. Hell, he could probably put a one-lane bowling alley in there if he wanted.
“What do you need with a man-cave?” Cannon asked. “The whole place is a cavern.”
“You’re just jealous.” He leaned against the wall. “Try to put a he-room in the bed and breakfast and see how that goes.”
“True.” Cannon walked the length of the room. “The space is great, but it won’t warm your bed, microwave your lasagna, or rub your back when it hurts.”
Deep inside, Thomas knew he was trying to compensate for what would no doubt be more of a loss than a gain. He’d wanted all of the things these men had. In fact, he’d once had what they had and somehow his life had gone up in flames.
Thomas pushed the thought away. “You’re right,” he said. “But it won’t bitch when I leave the toilet seat up. Won’t care if I stick my clothes in the hamper, and it won’t tell me what time to come to bed.”