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Wilfred Larson buttoned his shirt and glanced up at his doctor. “So? What’s the verdict, Dill?”
Dr. Bob Dillon, Dill to his friends, wrote a few notes on Willie’s chart and said, “Clean bill of health. As always. Should have plenty of fishing in your future.”
“Wanna take the boat out tonight?” If there was one activity Willie loved most, it was fishing. Trout, bass, walleye, smelt – he loved them all. He and Dill had been fishing together since they were just out of diapers. He had the photo evidence to prove it.
“Let me ask the boss and I’ll text you.”
Willie nodded. He and Dill were quite proud of their texting skills these days. Not many of their retired friends had gotten on board with that particular method of communication, but Willie found that his nieces all stayed in touch more frequently if he texted them rather than called or emailed. No one wrote letters anymore since his wife, Velma, died.
Dill laid the chart down and leaned back against the counter in the small examination room at Loon Lake Hospital. “How’s Cassie these days? I haven’t seen her much.”
Willie slid off the exam table and tucked his shirt into his trousers. “She’s busy with her final papers and exams. Graduation’s coming up in a month or so and she wants to have perfect scores. You know how she is.”
Dill ran a hand through his snowy white hair. “Oh, yeah. Beth’s the same.”
Willie’s youngest niece, Cassie, had been driving back and forth to Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, about forty miles away, often carpooling with Dill’s granddaughter, Beth.
“How’s Cassie doing with, uh, you know.” Dill waved his hand vaguely through the air.
Willie shook his head. “Single and determined to stay that way, I guess. I wouldn’t say that Fletcher fella broke her heart as much as he humiliated her. Makin’ like you’re gonna ask a woman to marry you, and then high-tailing it outta town soon as the grass gets greener…that’s no kind of man for my Cassie.”
“If this were the Wild West, we could chase after him with shotguns.”
“If we’re chasing after folks with shotguns, seems like we shoulda started with Danny. But that ship’s sailed and I haven’t been able to turn it around for anything.”
Danny Kessler was like a son to Willie, just like Cassie was like a daughter. The two kids had grown up together in Loon Lake, had been all but joined at the hip since kindergarten. He’d thought for sure they’d wind up together. But just about the time the two of them had started noticing that their best friend was a little more interesting, a new girl had sailed into town and ruined everything. Danny had fallen hard for Bright Shiny, the not-so-secret nickname his friend Jax had given Lily.
“He still downstate doing construction?”
Willie nodded. “He’s been working his way up in that big construction company near Lansing. Getting promoted, doing more than they ask, getting noticed.” He didn’t try to keep the pride out of his voice. He’d been the one to give Danny his first hammer.
“Maybe you should drop a hint that Cassie’s available.”
Willie snorted. “Oh, he knows. He pretends he doesn’t care, but he’s been asking about her more since I mentioned it a few months ago. But if I can’t get the boy to come up and visit for anything but holidays, I don’t see how I can get them together again. Too bad I’m not dying,” he said as an afterthought. “That would put a fire under his behind for a visit.”
Dill chuckled. “Yeah, well, we’re all dying, aren’t we?”
“Sooner or later,” Willie agreed. Sooner or later…hmm. “You know,” he said slowly, his brow furrowing in thought, “it wouldn’t be a lie. You just said it yourself.”
Dill took a step toward the door and held up his hands as if warding off Willie’s words. He was used to Willie’s crazy ideas after sixty-odd years of friendship, but he didn’t like to hear them at first. “Hold on, where you going with this?”
Willie feigned an innocent expression. “I’m just repeating what my doctor told me. I’m dying. The kids should know so they can help me make my final plans. I’ll need both of them to help get my affairs in order. Right?”
Willie waited and was soon rewarded. Dill grinned and dropped his hands to his hips. His friend couldn’t resist the cockamamie plans they cooked up together.
“It just might work,” Dill said.
“We can make our plans tonight on the lake. Bring a notebook.”
Dill waggled his phone in the air. “We can use the notes app on our phones, remember?”
“Right, right,” Willie agreed. The two men were determined to be the most tech-savvy senior citizens in Loon Lake. Willie walked to the door and slapped Dill on the shoulder. “This’ll be fun. I’ve always liked Christmas weddings.”
* * *
Cassie walked as fast as she could to the administration building at Northwestern Michigan College. She needed to pick up her cap and gown before the office closed. Two more weeks and she’d be free of school. Finally.
She enjoyed taking classes, but she’d been working on her associate’s degree in hospitality management, and then her bachelor’s degree in business administration for seven long years. Thank goodness NMC had the University Center. She could get her bachelor’s degree from Ferris State University without having to move away from home. She’d thanked God for that innumerable times over the years.
While most of her classmates were locals, hardly anyone lived as far away from Traverse City as she did. And none of them planned on living in a town the size of little Loon Lake after graduation. She didn’t care what other people thought, though. She loved her hometown and planned to stay there. It had character.
And characters. Life was never dull, even on days she wanted it to be.
She turned in her paperwork a few minutes before five o’clock, breathed a sigh of relief, and headed for her car. During the forty-five minute drive back to Loon Lake, she thought of all the things she could do this summer since she wasn’t taking classes. She could relax. Go to the beach more. Go fishing with Uncle Willie more. Hang out with Tabitha and her kids more. Maybe she’d even get a dog.
On impulse, she pulled into Sonny’s Restaurant a mile from home to see what kind of pie they had today. The fruit pies were made with canned or frozen fruit this early in the year, but they had a banana cream, Uncle Willie’s favorite, and a chocolate silk, her Achilles heel.
Pulling into her parking space at the Loon Lake Fluff and Fold, she gathered her backpack, her purse, and the bag with the two pieces of pie, and headed upstairs to the apartment she’d shared with Uncle Willie since her mom died when she was fifteen.
Now that she was graduating, she’d need to decide the rest of her future. Like maybe getting her own place to live. Her uncle had been adamant about not taking out student loans, which was why it had taken forever to get her degrees. Earning the money to pay cash made college a part-time pursuit. But now she would start this next phase of her life debt-free. The pie was too small a thank-you for everything Uncle Willie had done for her, but he knew how much she loved and appreciated him. She really was blessed.
Which was something she needed to remind herself of now and then. Her mom was dead, she hadn’t seen her dad in years, her almost-fiancé had dumped her, her once-best-friend wouldn’t talk to her, and she was twenty-five years old still living at home. But that was the empty quarter of a very full glass.
Upstairs, she dropped her bags in her room, found a place for the pie in the fridge, set out some ground beef to thaw, and wandered across the street to see if her uncle was in The Laughing Loon.
Uncle Willie was quite the businessman, and he’d taught her at least as much as she’d learned in college. He owned three businesses on this corner of Loon Lake – the Loon Lake Fluff and Fold, The Laughing Loon convenience store and gas station, and the Idle-Awhile Cabins. He’d sold the Cup and Cone Ice Cream Parlor before her mom died to help pay for Cassie’s and her sisters’ college tuition.
Since then, he’d worked with the Alexanders, local goat farmers, to sell small containers of goat’s milk ice cream and goat’s milk cheese at The Laughing Loon. It was a big hit with tourists and locals alike, and Uncle Willie got to continue feeding his ice cream habit.
A bell tinkled overhead as she walked into the store. She waved to a few customers she knew and stepped behind the counter to bag groceries while Uncle Willie rang up the items.
“Hello, darlin’,” he said with a smile in her direction. He pulled things out of the hand basket in front of him. “Oh, Nancy, I see you’re trying the new coconut passion fruit ice cream from Crooked Creek. This is a good one. Just came in yesterday.”
“You’ve tried it? I just love passion fruit.” Nancy Franklin was the history teacher at Loon Lake High, one of Cassie’s former teachers. She traveled every summer and brought back pictures and videos to show the kids what the rest of the world looked like. Cassie had loved that class. None of her college teachers had made learning as fun as wacky Mrs. Franklin.
“He thinks it’s his job to try all the ice cream before he sells it,” Cassie said, grinning at her uncle.
“It’s good business to make sure you’re selling quality products,” Uncle Willie insisted. “Kids these days.” He shook his head at Mrs. Franklin, who laughed with him.
Cassie helped him with two more customers, then gave him a hug hello in the lull.
“How was school today?”
“Good. Organizational Management is still kicking my butt. I’ll be glad when I never have to think about that again. Everything else is good.”
“I can’t tell you how proud I am. Graduating with honors. Your mother would be thrilled, but not surprised.”
Cassie leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Willie. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Well, that’s true,” he said, making Cassie giggle. “Kevin will be here in a few minutes, then we can go have supper together. Pick out a movie. You don’t mind staying in with an old man, do you?”
Cassie rolled her eyes. “Old Mrs. G is old. You’re just…”
Her uncle raised his eyebrows.
“Old-fashioned?” Cassie asked.
Uncle Willie grunted. But his eyes twinkled in fun.
Looking through the DVD rentals, Cassie picked an oldie-but-goodie that they both loved, RED, a spy comedy with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren. She checked it out behind the counter, told her uncle she’d meet him at home, and left to make dinner.
Before heading upstairs, she walked through the laundromat to make sure nothing needed attention. She’d been working for her uncle since she was ten, along with her once-best-friend, Danny Kessler, and she’d learned that providing good service in a clean and friendly atmosphere was key to bringing customers back time and again. She tended to check things anytime she passed to make sure their customers were getting what they deserved.
As it turned out, one of the washers was half full of dirty water. A handwritten note from CW Emerson, the town dog catcher and an EMT, explained “I swear I didn’t do anything to break it.”
Cassie laughed. This was the third time in six months that CW had a problem with a machine. She pulled out her phone and called Edge, Jax Edgerly’s older brother — no one called him Leroy. The leather-clad biker was a mechanical wizard who could fix anything with a motor. He promised to stop by the next day.
Sitting on the couch later, watching the movie with her uncle and eating her yummy pie, she thought about her very full glass of life. She still had plenty of friends from high school, and she’d become better friends with some, like Edge, now that they were adults. She and Tabitha had grown even closer as Danny drifted away. Even CW wasn’t the turd he was as a high school football quarterback. Of course, that new teacher, Lena Hart, had brought out CW’s best qualities lately.
Six months ago, Cassie thought she’d found a man who brought out her best qualities, a man she might fall in love with, maybe marry. But he hadn’t understood that when she said Loon Lake was her home, for now and always, she’d meant she wasn’t leaving. He’d taken a job in Grand Rapids in January and she hadn’t heard from him since.
Not exactly true love.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t be happy. Like right this minute. She glanced at her uncle out of the corner of her eye. He’d been a major influence as long as she could remember. When her parents were fighting, he and Aunt Velma brought her and her sisters down to The Cup and Cone, made them laugh, and fed them ice cream.
When Danny’s dad drank too much and lost his temper, Uncle Willie and Aunt Velma kissed his bruises and fed him ice cream.
When both of their dads left their families within a year of each other, Uncle Willie and Aunt Velma smothered them in love and gave them stability. And ice cream.
From the time they were ten, Cassie and Danny had swept the Fluff and Fold’s floors, emptied the lint traps, run across to The Laughing Loon to buy quarters for customers, and counted out the money they earned together, imagining all the things they’d do when they got older.
Uncle Willie taught them both how to run a business, how to treat customers, how to level a two-by-four, and how to catch and clean and cook many a fish.
Cassie smiled at the TV. She may not have a husband and kids and a big life in the big city like her two older sisters, but she was genuinely happy.
When the movie ended, Uncle Willie turned to her and laid his hand on her arm. “I need to tell you something.”
Cassie felt a tiny frisson of alarm. His voice and expression were more serious than she’d seen in a long time. “Sure,” she said, trying to infuse the word with a calm that was quickly waning.
“I went to see Dill today for my annual checkup.”
Cassie felt a tremor in her stomach. Please, nothing bad. She’d lost too many people she loved.
“And?” she prompted when he didn’t say anything.
“Well…” He dropped his gaze as if he couldn’t tell her whatever it was if he were looking in her eyes. “I’m…I might be dying, honey. So there are some things we need to do.”
Cassie felt herself gasp, her hands suddenly covering her mouth. No, not this. Not yet.
Her uncle finally raised his gaze to hers, looking determined. “I need you and Danny to help me get my affairs in order. Can you do that? Will you work together and do what needs to be done? For me?”
“Of course!” Cassie threw her arms around his neck, trying to hide her tears from him. “Whatever you need. Anything at all. I promise.”
Uncle Willie held her tight for a moment, then pushed her away. “I called Danny earlier today. He’ll be here in the morning. Then I’ll explain what I know to both of you. Okay?”
Cassie nodded. She had a hundred questions, and she wanted to press Willie with questions now, not wait. But he rose from the couch and moved toward his room.
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning, darlin’, okay?”
Cassie nodded again, not trusting her voice to work properly. He didn’t look well, couldn’t meet her eyes. Just how bad was it?
Lord, please don’t take him yet. I’m not ready.
* * *
Danny Kessler tried not to think as he shoved clothes in a suitcase. What did he need? How long would he be gone? He threw in T-shirts and jeans, a couple rougher pieces in case Uncle Willie needed some work done on one of the buildings, a couple nice shirts and khaki pants just in case of…
He shut down that line of thinking. He wasn’t going to die this week. They wouldn’t be planning a funeral. They just wouldn’t. But if he went to church with Cassie and Uncle Willie, he didn’t want to wear torn jeans and a T-shirt. He wasn’t in high school anymore.
He packed his computer bag with his laptop, a Wi-Fi device, his backup hard drive, and shoved his Kindle and a couple paperbacks into the space that was left.
He wanted to call Cassie. He desperately wanted to call Cassie. But Uncle Willie had said not to because he hadn’t told her yet.
His poor girl. She’d be all alone in the world. Well, she had her sisters, but she’d be all alone in Loon Lake. Who would look out for her?
Once again, a pain sliced through his gut. He used to be her hero, her knight, her best friend. He used to be the one who looked out for her, brought her wildflowers, shared her favorite pizza on the hood of his car while they watched the stars move across the sky.
And then he’d ruined everything.
Which was why coming home was so painful. The people he loved most were in Loon Lake. The ones he hadn’t hurt whispered behind his back. They must. That’s what small town folk do. And then there were the people who were just disgusted and disappointed in him, like his mother and his ex-wife’s family. Going home was simply not an option for him.
But if Uncle Willie needed him, he’d face the dragons for as long as necessary. When the crisis was over, of course, he’d flee back to Lansing where he’d tried to make a life for himself.
He looked around his one-bedroom apartment, trying to think of what else he might need. He threw in a load of laundry, putting everything he wanted to take in one load, hearing Cassie’s voice, as he always did, about separating whites and darks. Then he washed all his dishes, dumped a quart of milk down the sink, and pulled out his Igloo cooler to take the other perishables with him in the morning.
Working with his hands eased his mind. For a whole forty minutes, he didn’t have to think about what he would hear when Uncle Willie told him and Cassie what was wrong with his health — he wouldn’t say over the phone. When Danny was done, nothing else he could think of to do, he sat on the couch and let his mind wander.
Cancer? It was probably cancer. That’s what everyone died of nowadays. Would it be slow or fast? Would he suffer? Danny squeezed his eyes shut and tried to think of something else.
Maybe it was his heart. That would be better, right? Less pain? But death would come suddenly. Maybe he shouldn’t wait until tomorrow morning to drive up. If he left now, he could be there by midnight.
Danny pulled out his phone and texted Jax Edgerly, his best friend. Can I sleep on your couch tomorrow night? Don’t know for how long. A week or two?
A minute later, Jax replied. Sure. What’s up?
I’ll explain tomorrow. Thanks, brother.
He leaned his head back against the couch. God, please don’t let him die. Not yet. I’m not ready.
His phone rang, startling him. He felt his heart stumble in his chest when he saw the name on the screen. Sunshine. It was Cassie.
He should’ve changed the name in his phone’s address book. She hadn’t called him in two years, but the effect of seeing her nickname hadn’t dimmed. His chest squeezed just the same. Uncle Willie must’ve told her his news.
He held his phone tight, immobile with regrets. He’d messed up, then messed up again. Trying to minimize future damage, he’d said something stupid to hurt her so she wouldn’t contact him again. Unfortunately, it had worked. Three strikes.
But he couldn’t leave her hanging, alone, not when she must be hurting. He slid his thumb over the screen to answer.
“Hey,” he said, hearing the catch in his voice and hoping she hadn’t.
“Oh, Danny.” She cried into the phone without speaking for a minute. He squeezed the bridge of his nose and felt tears slipping out. Whether they were for her or for Willie, he wasn’t sure.
Finally, she spoke. “What are we going to do?”
He shook his head. He used to pride himself on having all the answers to her questions. But he’d been lost and without answers himself lately. Today in particular. “I’ll be there in the morning. We’ll figure it out.”
She didn’t say anything and he imagined she was trying to stop crying. “I wish you were here now,” she whispered.
Danny leaned forward over his knees, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to keep everything inside. He didn’t say anything. He wanted her, needed her, felt desperate to find comfort in her arms. But he was bad news, a disappointment, a screwup. She deserved far more.
“Will you be here for breakfast? I’ll make pancakes. I’ll go to the store and get some strawberries and Redi-Whip.”
His favorite. He felt a tug on his lips that would’ve been a smile if things weren’t so grim. “Maybe,” he finally said.
The silence grew, but it was the peaceful silence they used to share. There was a measure of comfort in the quiet.
Finally, she said, “Be safe, don’t drive too fast. I’ll have breakfast ready at eight, or whenever you get here. Be careful, Danny.”
“I will,” he managed.
Then she was gone.
How would he sleep now? He’d pushed her out of his head as best he could, tried to at least lock that door in his heart. He’d never be rid of her, but now he’d have to share her space, breath the air she breathed, feel the sunshine of her presence.
It just might kill him…if Uncle Willie didn’t die first.
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