Without You Here

By: Carter Ashby

CHAPTER ONE



I guess that phrase "looking for trouble" applied to me that night. I'd just fought with my boyfriend. I was fed up with him, in fact. He was a fantastic friend, but whenever we tried to date he turned into...my grandmother. You never met such a prude in all your days. Not that I was a wild child or anything. I just liked to relax and be myself. Which apparently wasn't up to his standards.

Anyway, I was driving from his home in Apple Creek, Missouri where I'd met him at a small diner. And about twenty minutes down the road, past a little town called Hadley, I saw this bar, quaint and warm looking. It was a cool, March evening and I thought how nice it would be to warm my insides with a whiskey-laced drink. I imagined inside this small, out-of-town tavern there were probably some characters. Like the thatch-roofed taverns in Disney princess movies where the men were all gruff and wild looking until you started singing a song and they suddenly became lovable bears. That's what I figured I'd find in this bar.

The first thing I saw, going in, was a man sitting alone at the bar. He had on a blue flannel shirt stretched across his big, broad shoulders. He cast a quick glance at me over his shoulder—a dismissive glance. Just seeing who was opening the door and letting the cool air in. Then he hunkered back over his whiskey glass. He could have just been tired from a hard week of work. Could have been the town drunk for all I knew. But my heart immediately went out to him. His posture, the deadness in his eyes, the way he cradled that whiskey glass...he just seemed so sad.

I'd worn this real professional outfit. A black pencil skirt with a pale pink blouse tucked in, my hair pulled back in a tight bun. Just to show my boyfriend the version of myself that he wanted to see. To show him how ridiculous it was. He didn't even get it. He thought I looked nice. It was so not anything I would ever wear, but it was just what he wanted from me. It was a look that said dependability and stability. Reality. Eternity. Because to Blake, that's what true love would be. Forever. He was just that kind of guy and shame on me for not appreciating it.

After I left the diner I'd shaken out my blond hair so that it fell around my face, loose and wild. I'd untucked the stupid blouse and dashed my wrist across my face to get rid of the tears. But there was nothing I could do to make that skirt comfortable. And it was quite an effort maneuvering up onto the barstool next to that nice looking man.

Now that I was close enough to notice his face, I thought he was much more than nice looking. He had strong features. And stubble, like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days. He was graying just a bit. Older than I'd initially thought. But that didn't bother me any.

He didn't show any interest in me, but I figured that was just 'cause he didn't know me yet. I hesitated only a moment; then asked, "Buy me a drink?"

He looked at me like he'd never seen me before. Then he nodded to the bar tender.

"Jack and Coke," I said. The man, Chuck, nodded and brought me my drink a moment later. Chuck was everything I'd hoped for in a Disney tavern keeper. Big and bulgy with ripped off sleeves that revealed a heart-shaped tattoo with the word MOM underneath. "Thanks," I said, leaning my head down to try and catch this handsome man's attention.

"No problem," he said, staring down into his whiskey glass. I guess whatever he wanted was somewhere at the bottom of that glass. "Your mascara's running," he said.

"Well I've been crying. That's what happens." I dug in my purse for a compact and a towelette. I fixed my face up some so I looked a little less like a character in a Tim Burton film. Then I smiled up at him. "Better?"

He looked at me, then, and I thought he might actually smile. "Better," he said. Eyes back down to his whiskey.

I scooted in a little closer. "Don't you want to know why I've been crying?" I asked.

"Why would I want to know a thing like that?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Well, you bought me a drink. That's sort of like an investment."

"And in return I get to hear why you've been crying?" He swirled the whiskey around in his glass.

"Aren't you the least bit curious?"

He took a drink. "I reckon you got in a fight with your boyfriend."

"How did you know?" I asked, truly stunned. Okay, so it doesn't take much to impress me. I lived a sheltered life.

"Alcoholic's intuition."

"Are you an alcoholic?"

"No. I just drink a lot." He downed the last of his whiskey and signaled Chuck for another.

"Are you married?" I asked. He was wearing a ring after all.

He didn't answer.

"Divorced?"

Still no answer.

"Widowed?"

He froze, his glass in midair, just a moment. Then took another sip.

Poor man, I thought. "Well anyway, you're right," I said. "I just got done fighting with my boyfriend. He doesn't like the way I dress."

He glanced at me. Gave me a fairly thorough once over. "Look fine to me."

"Well, this isn't how I normally dress. I wore this because it's what he likes. I prefer thrift shopping...finding old clothes with personality leftover from their previous owners. Or making my own. Sometimes I like to sew on spangles or patches or whatever to make my jeans more colorful. My boyfriend thinks it's childish, but I don't care." I just kept rambling on and on, figuring he wasn't really paying attention. But then I realized he was. He was watching me, his head angled slightly my direction, but not all the way. Like he wasn't quite ready to fully commit to this conversation. So I asked, "How long has your wife been dead?"