“I’m sorry. I don’t have any kind of picture ID,” Billy said with a sigh, “but I’ll pay in cash—in advance,” he offered. “For the entire week.” He watched the look on the desk clerk’s face, her suspicious eyes, lighting up a bit at the sight of the cash on the dingy countertop.
“That’s for the whole week upfront?”
“Yeah, the whole week, upfront and the security deposit.” He glanced around the small front office. The fact that this place had a security deposit was a bit laughable, but he didn’t have the luxury of being particular. Not too many hotels in the city would rent to someone with no ID and no valid credit card.
“Alright,” she said gruffly, snatching the money and handing him a key. “We don’t do the key cards,” she smiled. “We’re not too fancy around here.”
Billy sighed. “No problem. Neither am I.” He shoved the key into his pocket as he trudged out the door onto the sidewalk. It was only a few steps to his new front door. The key slipped into the lock easily and he pushed open the door and leaned his bag against the wall. “She wasn’t kidding,” he mumbled out loud, “Nothing fancy about this.” He closed the door, and flipped the lock. It had been an exhausting day and a long bus ride. After kicking off his shoes and removing his jacket, he stretched out across the bed. Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, he pulled out the photo, pulling it down to his chest. He didn’t know who they were or what they meant to him, but Ashley had been right—they meant something and in a world where nothing seemed to make any connection, something was a hell of a lot. He closed his eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep.
“Hi.” Ronan stood up, pulling out the chair and waiting for Phyllis to sit before sliding it back under the table. He leaned in to lightly kiss her cheek before bending down to speak to Grace. “And good morning to you too,” he smiled, reaching into the stroller and stroking her tiny hand.
“You better watch out,” Phyllis whispered, leaning in towards him and speaking through gritted teeth.
“Word’s gonna get out that you’re nothing but a big ol’ softie,” she hissed. “Pulling out chairs, playing with babies…pretty soon you’ll be drinking light beer and getting facials…” She grinned mischievously as he took a seat across from her.
“That’s really good to see.” Ronan pushed a cup of coffee across to her, his eyes softening as he watched her blink in confusion.
“What is?” she asked.
“That smile….it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those real genuine Phyllis smiles. I’ve missed them.”
“Oh,” She was serious for a moment and he worried he might have said too much. He nearly sighed aloud in relief as he watched the smile spread across her face again. “You know what, I’ve missed them too. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like smiling like that and you know what? You’re the reason why…”
“Me?” He leaned back, feigning shock. “What did I do?”
“You did what you always do. You reminded me of what it’s like to just be…not to be worried about a million things…not to be so serious all the time. You reminded me that it’s okay to just enjoy life every once in a while…and you’re good with my kid. That always helps.”
“Well, she happens to be a great kid. That helps too.” Ronan glanced down at Grace who worked furiously to pull her foot into her mouth. He grinned, “And working on being as flexible as her Mama I see….” He stopped. “I’m sorry..I was joking..I didn’t mean anything by that…”
“Ronan,…Ronan…” She laughed, reaching across the table and lightly touching his hand. “It’s alright, honestly. I’m really enjoying spending time with you and I don’t know where things are going but I’d like to see and if you’re willing to be a little patient. I mean, I’m not quite ready for that yet, but…”
“I can be patient. You’re worth waiting for.” The words came out of his mouth more quickly than he intended and he cleared his throat, feeling his cheeks burn with embarrassment as he brought his coffee cup to his lips to take a sip, “So,” he said, with a deep breath, “What are the two of you up to today?”
Phyllis smiled, appreciating his attempt to lighten the mood. “Well, actually we need to get going. We’re going to head to the park and take a walk and I’m meeting a real estate agent there a little later.”
She saw his face fall immediately.
“Oh,” he breathed. “I didn’t realize you weren’t planning on staying in town. I just thought earlier when you said…” He shook his head. “Never mind. I mean you certainly don’t own me any explanation..”
“No..No..I’m talking to an agent about trying to find a place here…so that I can stay here permanently. Initially it was always the plan to go back to Chicago, but I realized that I’ve really missed it here and there’s some things that I’d like to pursue here.” She let her eyes drift up to find his again and she smiled.
Ronan stood, “Well, in that case, maybe I could walk you out.”
“Thanks so much for meeting me here.” Phyllis smiled as she passed the bag and stroller over to the sitter, “I shouldn’t be very long.”
“No problem. I’ll just walk her over near the pond. She likes to see the ducks.”
Phyllis stood, glancing around the crowded park as the sitter pushed Grace over by the pond. She glanced down at her cell phone. There were no missed calls, so she expected the meeting was still on as planned. She’d never been very good at waiting. Forcing a smile, she paced back and forth passed groups of people picnicking and talking, scanning the crowds to look for a familiar face. The agent had her number. Surely she’d call if she’d arrived and couldn’t find her.
With a frustrated sigh, Phyllis collapsed onto a bench. This is what she’d always told her children. If you were lost, stay in one place—that way you’re easier to find. She moved her head slowly from left to right, scanning each section of the park with precision. Her eyes fell on a tree in the far corner. In an instant her heart began to race. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. She stood, her legs already trembling. Logic and rational thought were quickly overwhelmed by the simple idea of it being true and she bolted across the grass, babbling apologies to people as she pushed them aside. The closer she got the more certain she was. He was the same height, the same build. He had his skin, his hair….
She reached the tree, grabbing onto it and struggling for breath. Her chest burned as she gasped frantically, her sides ached and she found herself struggling to keep from falling.
“Miss? Miss? Are you alright?” A voice behind her called to her and all she could do was whisper.
He knocked on the door, resisting the urge to kick it down. He’d barely been able to understand her on the phone, her message was so garbled and almost incoherent. When he’d finally managed to calm her somewhat, he’d managed to understand that she was in her room and that she needed him to come… ‘now’. If there was one thing he knew for certain, Phyllis Summers didn’t ask for help. The fact that she’d called was a sure sign that something was terribly wrong. “Phyllis?” he called, leaning in close to the door, desperate to hear something, anything to let him know she was okay. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard footsteps.
“Hey,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around her as she nearly collapsed into his arms. He stepped inside the room, pushing the door closed behind him as he walked her back into the living area and gently sat her down on the bed. He sat down beside her as he pushed the hair away from her face. One look at her eyes and he could tell she’d been crying for hours. “Is Grace alright?” Grace was the only thing he could think of that might put her in such a state.
Phyllis nodded. “She’s with the sitter,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t let her see me like this…not like this.”
“Phyllis,” he sighed. “What’s wrong? What on earth happened?”
She seemed to calm for a minute, her hands shaking a bit as she clasped his tightly in hers. “Ronan,” she began, “I need your help. You’ve always been honest with me and I need you to tell me the truth..no matter what, okay?”
He shook his head, cupping her face in his hands, desperate to help her in any way he could. “Of course…of course I will.”
“I know you’ve only been around for a little while and you only know what I’ve told you, but you’ve seen me recently and….” Her voice broke and he watched painfully as she struggled to regain what little composure she had left. “I need to know…Do you think…Do you think it’s possible that I could be losing my mind?”
“What?” He stared at her for a moment, stroking her face again, brushing the hair that stuck to her face in the tear stained tracks away. “Why would you say that? No…No…You’re not losing your mind. You’re grieving. That’s okay. You’re allowed to be sad. You’re allowed to have bad days.”
“It’s not a bad day,” she sobbed. She looked up at him, hesitating, fearful.
“Phyllis,” he breathed, “It’s okay…just tell me. Whatever it is…just say it.”
“I know how it sounds…ok? And I know it can’t be true, so I’m not so far gone, right?” She forced a small smile before the tears came again. “Oh God, Ronan,” she sobbed, “I swear I saw him today. I saw Billy.”