Dirk pulled into the packed library parking log and released a whistle. You’d never guess people are gathered here for hot cocoa and board games. The Cocoa Catch-up kicked off festival season in Three Creeks. Every month an event attracted tourists to the otherwise serene town.
There was an even deeper purpose to the festivals. People knew they’d have a reason to go out and get dressed up. When Dirk worked odd jobs around Three Creeks, he usually wore a t-shirt and jeans. In the colder months, he wore a hooded sweatshirt over his clothes. Dirk used some of the money from his first paycheck to buy some jeans and button-down shirts.
Liz opened the door for Cameron before Dirk had a chance to get to it. When Cameron popped out onto the step to get out of the pickup, Dirk couldn’t help noticing that Liz and her son looked like something out of a coat catalog. Liz wore a short black goose down jacket. Cameron had a miniature version of the same coat. Dirk’s Carhart jacket kept him warm, but it revealed the divide between Liz and himself. He was a hard laborer. She spent half her time in a medical office and the other half at the store with her brother.
Liz studied Dirk. Her lip quirked to the right. Dirk held in his grin. She couldn’t read him. She leaned into the back seat to retrieve the games Cameron left behind. “If you want to go out afterward, I can always ride home with Tom.” Because she wasn’t facing him, Dirk couldn’t tell if the dismissal was cautionary or disinterest.
Dirk had been with other women before. None of them had his heart working so hard. He wanted Liz more than anything in the world. The want added an ache to the thought that she might not want him. He reminded himself, This isn’t the time to be negative.
“How about this,” he caught her by the waist and helped her step out of the truck. “I’ll play you a game of gin rummy in there. Loser has to take the winner out for breakfast.”
“You already planning on losing?” she sassed. The Liz he remembered emerged.
“Why would you say that?” Dirk closed the door behind her. He pressed the lock on the remote and took the stack of games out of her hands.
“You cannot cook. So you would have to take me out. I know how to cook. If you thought you were winning you’d say, Loser has to make breakfast.”
“Or, I want to take you out on a date, but didn’t want you to say no.”
Liz jerked back but quickly recovered. “I’ll take the bet with one change. If I win, you stop by the house for breakfast.”
It didn’t matter to Dirk if it was in her kitchen making pancakes or at the cafe eating waffles. Time with Liz was all he wanted. “Deal.”
Liz replied with a subtle head shake that ended with a grin. The one she used when she couldn’t believe what was in front of her. It emerged shortly after her parents had passed. Liz and her brother, Tom, had always worked in the general store with their parents. Despite the years of assisting their parents with the duties, neither was prepared for the unexpected thrust into the managerial duties.
Tom had his wife, Maggie, to help him through the grief of losing his parents and the sudden changes in his responsibilities. He mourned but was able to do it privately. Liz withdrew into herself. She wore the serious expression of someone who was trying to see the clue before the next event happened.
Dirk, who hadn’t gone away to college, held the intelligence that comes from negotiating with life. He knew it simultaneously threw problems and the wherewithal to solve them. He also knew there was no point in trying to predict them. Life like the weather brought changes when you least expected it.
Then one day Dirk stopped by the store on the way home from work. Liz was where she was every Monday before and every Monday since. Something within Dirk told him to pick up a box of Captain Crunch. He hadn’t eaten the cereal for years. Granted the cereal was good. But a man his size couldn’t eat enough of the stuff to satisfy his appetite. He would have developed some sort of illness from sugar consumption.
But it was the right thing to do. Liz rewarded him with the smile. It was the first one he’d seen since her parents passed, and he was the one to make it happen. That was the day Dirk promised life he would do whatever it took to make her smile like that again and again and again.
A posterboard sign rested against an easel pointed them to the right. Not that they needed it. They could have used dull cacophony of voices in the distance to guide them toward their friend’s location. The sound of friends created an air of anticipation that had Cameron bouncing. “Can I carry my game to the table?”
What table it was, was yet to be determined. Still, the boy’s excitement was warranted. Dirk pulled the game off of the top of his stack and passed it off to Cameron.
“I bet I’ll win. I’ve practiced a lot.”
In addition to matching clothes, Cameron’s work ethic mirrored that of his mother. Pride swelled in Dirk’s chest. “I should have you play against your mother.” He held the back of his hand against his cheek a pretended to whisper. “Then we get to go out for breakfast.”
Cameron’s eyes widened. “I hope you win.”
“Me too buddy.”
Bryce appeared from around the corner. His eyes brightened with recognition. “Just the guy I was looking for. We need a fourth in Pinochle. Are you in?”
Liz spoke out the side of her mouth. “Can I say I told you so, now? Or do I have to wait until you prove me right?”