Makenna Rye Conroy was naked again. The cool cotton sheets of her familiar bed tangled around her bare legs as she opened her eyes to the morning sunlight peeking through the shutters. She could smell bacon and hear giggles and the low rumbling of his laughter from the kitchen. The room was soft as her eyes traveled past framed pictures perched on the large teak dresser opposite the bed. The walls were white—they were always white—which was strange because the walls of her bedroom were actually light blue, but every time she had this dream, the walls were white.
The alarm clock was going off in her light blue reality, but she willed it away, stayed in the dream as she wrapped herself in a large white robe at the foot of the bed. More white. She padded barefoot to the bathroom and brushed her teeth, never looking into the mirror above the sink. As she walked out of the bathroom, she ran her hand along the back of a gray Persian cat lounging on the arm of a red upholstered chair. “You don’t own a cat,” her brain always reminded her at this point in the dream, as if it was trying to prepare her heart for what was about to happen.
Kenna touched the cool glass doorknob and the laughter grew louder as she walked down the hall. She could hear Paige, an older Paige that he would never know, explaining in animated conversation why Peppermint Patty was her favorite Peanuts character. Makenna put her hand on the wall as she turned into the kitchen. Their daughter was sitting crisscross on the counter with Fritters, the stuffed pig, in her lap. She got Fritters on her second birthday, something else he would never see. Paige smiled at her with a front tooth just now starting to grow in. Their daughter aged with each incarnation of the dream, but he stayed the same. Of course he did; that made sense. Paige was giggling and he stood by the stove holding a wooden spoon: one of the spoons they bought during the trip to northern California Adam had surprised her with when she was feeling huge and pregnant. It was made of redwood, like their salad tongs.
Makenna kissed Paige on her soft cheek and reached overhead for a cup as she had done a hundred times before in this dream. Instead of a cup, she pulled down the bouquet of flowers— wild flowers she’d carried at her wedding in one of those frilly chapels along the strip in Las Vegas. The bouquet, a last-ditch effort by her subconscious, a reminder before she faced him, that this was all a dream. Once she turned, her heart would race and she would reach out for him. He always looked so real, clad in nothing but pajama bottoms, and she’d touch his face as she did every time. Her head wanted her heart to know that it would be all right and she would wake up soon. She put the flowers into a vase of water, tickled Paige, and turned to face…Holy shit!
Makenna sat bolt upright in her light blue bedroom and threw the covers off her legs. She was sweating and gasping for a full breath. She’d had the dream before, in the first few months after Adam was gone. It had been an odd combination of heartbreak and comfort. There were mornings she would awaken crying because all she wanted to do was slip back into the dream and stay with him for a moment longer. But as the years went on, the dream became less frequent and the ache less paralyzing. She was at the point now that she could follow the dream, visit with him, touch his face, and then say good-bye. She’d made peace with it, but this was not the same dream. This was some kind of cruel joke.
His sloppy bleached blond hair was not falling into his face as he stood at the stove making his famous hotdogs and eggs. He was supposed to wrap his arm around her waist after she put the flowers in water, kiss her, and say, “Good morning.” That was how it always played. She would kiss him back, hold his face, and then just as Paige asked if they could go to the park, his face would fade into a soft light and Makenna would wake up. That was the dream, the same dream for over five years since Adam died. He was immortalized in that dream, the only place they were all together. It was a snippet of a normal she would never have.
Makenna glanced through the dark blue morning of her bedroom to the clock that read 5:07. If this had been a normal morning, she would grab a Coke from the refrigerator, turn on CNN, and check her e-mails for a few minutes before waking Paige to get ready for school. On typical mornings that was the ritual, but the dream had changed and nothing felt typical.
She turned on the shower and, standing in the bathroom, tried to play that part of the dream through her awake mind. The turn into the kitchen, the flowers, and then the shirtless man in the kitchen was—dear God. She squeezed her eyes shut hoping to erase the image, but nothing worked. Slipping out of her pajamas, she stepped into the warm spray of the water.
She should probably be taking a cold shower because something was terribly off. Maybe it was her hormones or maybe she needed to have sex more desperately than she realized. Turning her face to the spray, she closed her eyes, lathered her hair, and desperately searched for some explanation. There had to be a logical reason why when she turned to find her dead husband, hewas standing shirtless in her kitchen instead. He was making her daughter breakfast.
How did her mind even know what that looked like? How did it know that he wasn’t model perfect or that his abs weren’t cut in that way Kenna always thought of as too much gym and not enough sunshine. Instead, he was big, rolling shoulders, flat lovely abs, and a chest dusted with hair. How could she know him in such detail, right down to the way his narrow hips barely held up his—
Makenna quickly rinsed the shampoo from her hair and rubbed her eyes open. This stopped right now, she thought. There was no way in hell she was going to start her day thinking about him or picturing him in her shower. He made her crazy; that was a real-world fact.
Maybe it was something I ate last night, she thought, trying to take her mind in a different direction.
Makenna stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a towel, and looked at her nightstand. She’d fallen asleep reading Girl on a Train. That could be it. She had propped and re-propped her pillows, struggling to get in a few more pages because she had to know if the guy in the book, the one who seemed like a bastard, really was one. That was the last thing she remembered thinking before she slid down the stack of pillows and into sleep.
Sure, that was it. She was lost in a twisted fictional world and it had messed up her mind, her sleep pattern, or whatever. That’s why he was there. It made no sense and didn’t even come close to explaining . . . him, but she got dressed and decide she would accept it as her truth for now. Brushing her teeth and quickly pulling her wet hair into a bun, Kenna walked into the kitchen to pop waffles in the toaster for Paige. It was time to get up, time to start their day in the real world. One of Paige’s bedtime books read that “dreams are wishes come to life.” Kenna sure as hell hoped not because her life was just fine and she no longer had half-naked wishes.
When Travis McNulty’s face hit the mat for the second time that morning, he was seriously questioning why the hell he took up boxing. It was a great workout, no question, but beating the shit out of himself or rather letting his sparring partner, Brick, beat the shit out of him was getting old. The man’s name was Brick for Christ’s sake. Why would anyone get in a boxing ring with Brick?
“You all right, bro?”
In his mind, Travis answered, “Oh yeah, bro! Never better. Nice shot!” but it came out more like the mumble he gave his dentist when he had his teeth cleaned.
Brick offered his hand and Travis took it because it was either that or remain plastered to the mat for at least another five minutes.
Rolling his neck and relieved it still worked, Travis took out his mouth guard and loosened his padded helmet. “Thanks.”
David, his walking motivational poster of a trainer, nodded to Brick that he was free to go and put his arm around Travis. “That was good. Your core is getting stronger.”
David was a middleweight something-or-other in his day. There were plaques and belts framed near the entrance of The Square, his gym, that stood as proof he was a badass. Travis had never been one for trophies or plaques. They’d been extremely important when he was growing up, a clear indicator of value in the McNulty house, despite the fact that they were usually plastic or crappy metal. Trophies were the reason he and his two brothers scraped and clawed at each other through their childhood. Whoever brought home the most, went the fastest, it all translated to average, better, and best in their father’s eyes. There were three of them, so that system worked out, and even though Travis had spent some time in the better category during his sophomore and junior years of high school, he eventually fell from grace and settled right where he belonged on the family tree. He was average: an easy target for his brothers and a disappointment to his father.
David was different, though, because beneath all his accomplishments, he was a nice guy. An athlete and a good person, not something Travis had a lot of exposure to in his life. David had come into The Yard a few times for lunch when they first opened. He and Travis struck up some conversations and then one day he invited Travis down to his gym. That was a few months ago, and now Travis came three days a week for an hour.
“My core? Yeah, tell that to my face.” Travis tossed his stuff into his gym bag and began unwrapping his hands.
“That’ll come. You’re getting stronger from the ground up. None of this sissy football flashy muscles bullshit.”
Yet another reason Travis loved him. Never in all his years growing up on Team McNulty had anyone used the words “sissy” and “football” in the same sentence. It was refreshing.
“Think of it like building a brick house, no reference to your ass kicker back there intended, versus a straw house.”
“Is this a Three Little Pigs reference? That’s all you got?”
David laughed and patted him on the back. “Good work out there today. I’ll see you Wednesday.”
“Not unless I see you first. The dinner special is a pork chop on that polenta you love, just sayin’.”
“Serious? Shit, man you’re going to fatten me up.” David patted his envious abs as if he were Santa Claus.
Travis grinned. “That’s the plan. Maybe if I feed Brick too, he’ll go easy on me.”
“I think he’s probiotic.”
“Of course he is. The man’s a machine.”
“You know, Cheryl’s been wanting a date night for a while, so I just might send the kids to her mother and stop by tonight.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for you.” Travis dropped the towel over his shoulder and pushed on the door of the locker room.
“Wait, I’ve got a better one,” David said and Travis hesitated at the door. “It’s like cooking. You use fresh ingredients, good meat, that’s how you build a meal, right?”
“Same thing with your body. Good ingredients.”
“You know we usually pound the shit out of our cutlets. Kind of like that?”
Both men laughed.
“I’ll keep at it. Thanks for the workout.”
Travis showered and by the time he set his foot down at the light on Sixth Street, the beep of his earpiece indicated he had a voicemail. Two actually. Shit!
His phone was in his backpack, but he already knew who’d left the messages. Pulling his bike back into traffic, he had to admit there’d been a glimpse of “call me” in Trixie’s eyes when he’d thrown on his jeans and made all the right excuses last night. There had been some good times with Trix, but a few . . . nights were his limit. Anything more was too much work and often led to complications.
Occasionally, he’d hook up with a woman and, despite his honesty, she wanted to persuade him otherwise or be the woman to change his ways. He was always up front and made it clear what he was looking for. He never shared numbers or an actual limit with them, but any woman who ended up in his bed knew she would not be putting him in a sweater vest and bringing him home to meet the parents.
Travis parked his bike in front of Nick’s, home of his favorite huevos rancheros, took off his helmet, and grabbed his phone. Shortly after he had finished the last delicious bite, his phone vibrated. He ignored it, but it vibrated again, this time with an incoming call. Travis let out a sigh, tapped the answer button, and like his father had always instructed, he “took it like a man.”