We left off yesterday with…Maggie piped into the conversation, “And to think he’s all alone on New Year’s Eve.”
“He isn’t alone.” Liz frowned to convey her disapproval of the blatant setup. “The Pied Piper of Three Creeks has his underage army to keep him company.”
“Too much,” Maggie grimaced.
“Just a bit.” Liz held up her hand with her finger and thumb showing a small gap.
The loud chatter of Dirk accompanied by kids trailed into the room. Cameron was on his back. Vivan and Easton had wrapped themselves around his leg. With every step, the squealed, “He’s going to dump us in the lava.”
Dirk pretended to tumble over the arm of the couch, and the kids giggled. Tom hustled to avoid the avalanche but didn’t get away in time. Cameron slid off Dirk’s back and grabbed his uncle by the waist. He bellowed, “Save me from the lava.”
When they were younger, Tom and Liz played the floor is the lava game all the time. Another pang of loss hit Liz. Tom probably played it all the time with Easton and Vivian. It was yet another father and son moment Cameron wouldn’t have.
New Year’s Eve was supposed to be a time of celebration, yet Liz found herself remorseful of what she couldn’t nor probably would ever be able to provide her son. She could only hope her love would compensate for what he lacked.
Liz and Maggie jumped away from the impromptu wrestling match between the men and the boys. Vivian, who had joined Liz and Maggie, pressed her body into her mother’s leg. The men groaned their pretend struggle against the boys. Dirk could have pinned Cameron, who had just turned ten with hand. Tom’s son was seven. Still, the boys fought with a zeal that showed they believed they had a chance at winning.
In with the laughter at their antics, an epiphany struck Liz. Perhaps, she felt the lack more that Cameron. Her son was happy. He giggled as much as his cousin. When one of the boys seemed to lose the battle, the other pulled away from his fight in an attempt to help. They never made it because their opponent said something to the effect of, “You cannot escape that easily.”
Maggie ended the ruckus with one announcement. “I’m making ice cream sundaes upstairs. If anyone wants one, they better get in the kitchen quick.”
All the wrestlers froze as they processed the information. Smiles that declared truces punctuated their ragged breathing. They had had fun.
And that is how the night progressed. They transitioned from one activity to the next. It was a burst of energy to a period of quiet brought on by snacking. The attraction Liz felt toward Dirk waned to a warm companionship. He told her about his job on the oil field in eastern Montana. She filled him in on the gossip in Three Creeks.
The kids, who insisted they wanted to stay awake until midnight, fell asleep in front of a movie at 11:15, leaving the adults to live the remaining forty-five minutes of the year in the upstairs section of the house. Tom and Maggie sat together on the couch. Dirk sat in an armchair with his feet stretched out on the ottoman. Maggie sat on the floor with her back leaned against the side of Dirk’s chair. It was like old times. The times before they had kids and jobs and responsibilities. Times when they parked around Tom and Liz’s parent’s living room waiting to usher in the New Year.
Josh looked at his watch then wagged his brow at his wife. “We have five minutes until the countdown.”
An acute awareness of their surroundings struck Liz. She was the only single person in the group. Everyone else was married or had brought a date. She struggled to get up. “I should go get a drink for a toast.”
Dirk offered his hand. “I’ll join you.”
Liz was stuck. What could she say? “I don’t want to be with you in the kitchen at midnight.” She accepted Dirk’s help. When she was standing she asked if anyone wanted a refresh on their drink. Through smiles that hinted an awareness that Liz didn’t want to confront, they declined.
They barely made it to the kitchen when Dirk said, “I cannot tell you how long I’ve been waiting for this moment.”
“What do you mean?” Liz asked.
“C’mon, you had to have known I liked you. A man can eat so much sugared cereal. Seriously who eats Captain Crunch after they turn twenty-one.”
Confusion flooded Liz. It was as though the picture she had seen of the past wasn’t real, but she didn’t have another one to replace it.
Dirk glanced away briefly. His eyes seemed to be someplace else. As quickly as he had left to the imaginary place, he returned. “I got the job on the oil field to prove I could make money. But I didn’t think it all the way through. The entire time I was gone, I worried that somebody else would snatch you up.”
A new picture filled Liz’s mind. Every Monday for years, Dirk showed up to say hello. He’d ask her how her day was, or he’d tell her a story about something that happened on the ranch where he worked. They’d chat for a couple of minutes. For the entire time, nobody disrupted their conversation. This time she recalled the gleam in his eye. The one that said he liked her. Liz’s heart pounded in her chest. How had she not seen it before? Then a pain struck her. She hadn’t seen it because she was older than Dirk. He was just a kid. But the twenty-nine-year-old man standing so close she could feel his heartbeat contradicted her impression. Her voice went hoarse, “I’m an old lady. The men around here are looking for someone younger.”
“Is that so?” Dirk used the tip of his finger to tilt Liz’s chin toward him.
“Maybe they knew they couldn’t compete with your Sugar Daddy.”
Cries of “Happy New Year” erupted in the living room. Dirk pressed his lips into Liz’s. The kiss lasted less than a second, but the impact continued long after Dirk pulled away and regarded Liz with a new tenderness in his eyes. The warmth pushed away the argument Liz had used to resist the attraction she felt toward Dirk. With the permission to entertain a relationship, a slow grin slid across Liz’s lips. She whispered, “Happy New Year.”
To which Dirk replied, “I’m glad I had the time off to come home.”
Confession…this was supposed to be a short story. Then Dirk and Liz spoke up. They were not happy with this ending. They were like “What about…” So, this will be a serial. In two weeks, I’ll have another short story. Spoiler, it will have something to do with a holiday.