When she’d left, she’d left him without a choice. Not that Cassie had ever given Brian much of a choice in anything. Her beauty in high school had made him pay attention to her. Her ability to meet any witty jab with one of her own, her fearlessness, and her independence had made him fall in love with her. Her guilt-inducing remarks and threats of their children’s unhappiness had made him stay. And her complete disregard for the well-being of anyone but herself made him happy she was gone.
But Cassie had also spent as much money as she could before she’d walked out, leaving him with a mountain of debt and two young kids to take care of. He’d had no choice but to sell some of their more valuable items. One of the TVs, the camera, the video game console.
And now, his truck. The truck he’d finally been able to afford last year, when he’d been promoted to site manager. The truck he’d bought before Cassie had started applying for credit cards in his name and going on spending sprees they couldn’t afford.
As much as Brian loved that truck, he’d have to sell it. Joey and Jess didn’t deserve to have less in life so that he could have more. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t damned sad to see it go.
At least he’d be able to sell it fairly quickly. He’d put up an ad online three days ago, and he already had four people calling about it.
Brian ran one hand across the side of the truck bed. It sparkled in the sunlight, still glistening from yesterday’s run through the car wash.
“I’m going to miss you, buddy,” Brian said. He patted the truck before opening the back door of the cab. His cell phone rang as he pulled out one of the bags of groceries.
He accepted the call after glancing at the name that appeared. “Hello?”
“Hi. Is this Brian?”
He didn’t recognize the woman’s voice. “Yes, it is.”
“Great. I’m Wanda, Dustin’s wife. He’s supposed to come see your truck today?”
Brian pulled another bag of groceries toward him, nodding. “That’s right. Is he still able to make it?” Dustin was supposed to arrive around noon, an hour before Joey and Jess would be getting home from a friend’s house.
“Yes, of course. He just wanted me to let you know he’s running a bit late. He’s out fishing this weekend, and he forgot to take your number with him.”
“Fishing? With that storm coming in?”
The woman laughed. “I know, he’s crazy. But he insisted on it. He said he’d leave before the storm set in.”
“All the power to him, then. What time’s he supposed to get here?” Brian pulled the last bag of groceries out of the truck, then closed the door with his elbow.
“About 1, I think. He said he’s having a bit of trouble with his boat.”
Sighing, Brian let himself into the house. He’d timed everything specifically so the kids wouldn’t be home when Dustin arrived. But they probably wouldn’t mind some extra time at Dion’s house. “Alright. I guess that’ll be fine.”
“Thank you! You have no idea how much Dustin wants to see this truck. He’s been talking about it non-stop since he saw the ad.”
“It is a pretty great truck,” Brian said. It sounded lame even to him. Unsure of what else to say, he let an awkward silence reign for a moment.
“Well, I should let you go,” Wanda said. “I’m sure you’re busy.”
“Yeah. Thanks for letting me know he’s running late.”
When he finished on the phone with Wanda, Brian called to make sure it wasn’t a problem for Joey and Jess to stay at Dion’s place for an extra hour. It was fine, of course, and both kids were as happy to stay as he’d thought they’d be.
He spent the morning in the backyard, catching up on a few of the chores he’d been slacking on. By the time he’d finished, at around 11:30, he was glad he’d taken the time to do the yard work in the morning instead of the afternoon. The wind had picked up, and the sky to the north had darkened significantly. He could almost smell the rain in the air, even though it would be at least a couple of hours before it fell.
His cell phone rang again as he locked the shed. He glanced at the number, vaguely recognizing it. He swiped to accept the call. “Hello?”
Nobody answered him. Not exactly, anyway. An odd gurgling noise came from the phone’s speaker.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The gurgling was louder now, but stopped suddenly when the phone beeped. Frowning, Brian pulled it away from his ear and studied the screen. There were no hints there, of course. But something about the call just didn’t sit right with him.
The gusting wind picked up again, and Brian shivered as he returned to the house. It wasn’t a cold day, but that wind cut right through him.
He paused just inside the back door. Something felt… off. It may have been because of the phone call, but Brian didn’t think that was it. He crept through each of the rooms, his eyes searching. Nothing was out of place, and there was nobody else in the house. He double checked the front door. It was still locked, and he definitely would’ve noticed if someone had slipped in through the back.
And yet, he couldn’t shake the chill that tingled along his spine.
Shrugging, he returned to the kitchen. He was probably just cold from being out in the wind. He made himself a bowl of soup for lunch, then got started on the indoor cleaning he needed to do.
He kept half an eye on the clock, his work slowing down when it reached 12:45. He didn’t want to be knee-deep in something when Dustin showed up.
His work stopped completely by 1:30. There was still no sign of Dustin, and Brian’s kids would be home soon. Maggie, Dion’s mother, had agreed to drop them off between 1:45 and 2.
“Where the hell is he?” Brian muttered. He checked his phone—no missed calls. Same with the house phone, though he didn’t expect to find any there.
Thunder boomed outside, jerking Brian’s thoughts away from the phones. Maybe it was better that Dustin hadn’t shown up yet. Brian certainly didn’t want to be out in this weather. The truck wouldn’t even look its best.
Without thinking, Brian picked up his cell phone. He tapped the number Wanda had called from, then waited for her to pick up.
“Hello?” She answered on the third ring, sounding a little out of breath.
“Hi, Wanda? This is Brian.”
“Oh, hi, Brian. Is Dustin on his way back now?”
Brian frowned. “No, he hasn’t shown up yet. I was calling to see if you wanted to reschedule.”
“He hasn’t shown up? That’s weird. He would have told me if he was running this late.”
A streak of lightning flashed by, thunder soon following. Brian shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you about that. But with this weather, it doesn’t make much sense for him to come now.”
“True,” Wanda said. “I’ll try calling him and see what’s going on. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
When he set the phone down on the table, Brian settled himself into one of the kitchen chairs. He rubbed his eyes. He had a headache coming on. And he still hadn’t managed to shake that damn chill.
Car doors slammed in the driveway, making Brian jump. The wind had covered the sound of the car’s approach. He thought for a moment that it might be Dustin, but disregarded the idea. He’d heard at least three car doors.
Someone jiggled the doorknob, then pounded on the door. Brian got up and, after peeking through the peephole, opened it for them. Jess and Joey rushed in, a quick “Hi, Daddy,” escaping each of them as they flung off their shoes. They were running to the living room before he had a chance to respond.
Brian chuckled and turned to Maggie, who had stepped just inside the door. “Thank you for dropping them off. I hope they were good.”
Maggie waved off the concern. “Of course they were.”
Nodding, Brian motioned toward the kitchen. “Would you like some coffee?”
“No, thanks. I should get home. Elroy is helping Dion with a science experiment. I need to get back before they start a fire or something.”
She walked back outside as Brian laughed. They waved good-bye when she was back in her car, then Brian closed and latched the front door.
He spent the next hour playing with Jess and Joey in the living room before his cell phone tore him away. It was the same number that had accompanied the odd gurgling noise. Part of him thought it was stupid to answer, but he did it anyway as he walked back to the kitchen.
“Brian, this is Dustin.”
The phone crackled with Dustin’s voice. Brian held it closer to his ear, hoping to hear him better. “Hi. Did Wanda get a hold of you? I—”
“I still really want to look at your truck. I’m just having some trouble getting away from this damn boat.”
“You can still look at it, but we need to reschedule. This weather—”
“I just need to get away from the boat.”
Brian rolled his eyes. He didn’t remember Dustin being this rude the first time they’d talked. “That’s fine,” he said. “But don’t worry about coming today. You can come see the truck tomorrow.”
The phone beeped, then went silent. “Hello?” Brian brought the phone down to check the screen. The call had disconnected.
Shaking his head, he slid his phone back into his pocket and returned to the living room.
He didn’t hear from either Dustin or Wanda again that night. It kind of surprised him; he’d thought one of them would call to set up a time for Dustin to check out the truck tomorrow.
He followed his usual Sunday routine when he got up the next morning. Shower, dress, quick breakfast for himself before getting something ready for Joey and Jess. He had the radio on while he prepared their eggs, Joey and Jess sitting half asleep at the table.
“Daddy, can we go to the park today?” Joey raised his head from the table, the hope in his voice upping its volume.
“We’ll see,” Brian said, shuffling the eggs in the pan. A part of him was hoping to hear from Dustin or Wanda, though he was tempted to give up on them.
“I think it’s supposed to be nice today. No more rain,” Joey continued. He perked up enough to drop out of his chair and scurry across the kitchen to the radio. “Is the weather on soon?” He turned the radio up, staring at the speaker.
Brian chuckled to himself, but sobered as the anchor continued the news report. Someone had died in the storm yesterday.
“A man’s boat flipped on Candle Lake, around eleven,” the anchor was saying. “The boat was found later that afternoon. Its driver, identified as Dustin Goodlem, was found drowned beneath the boat. Authorities believe a rope that had caught around his leg prevented him from swimming out.”
Brian nearly dropped the frying pan. He set it back on the stove, his hands shaking. Dustin’s boat had flipped almost four hours before Brian had talked to him.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” Jess asked.
Without looking up, Brian nodded. “I’m fine, honey.”