A Notion of Love
kindly. He’d asked me if I still had teeth and when I’d stared up at him in an uncomprehending fog, he’d said, “You haven’t smiled in so long I couldn’t remember, tomboy.” And I’d actually giggled.
    â€œHi, Justin!” my son said brightly, on his knees in the third row of seats, which were vinyl and hot as hell under the broiling summer sun.
    Justin ducked to peer into the wagon and said, “Hey there, buddy. You make a mess on the carpet, or what?”
    Clinty laughed, his blue eyes sparkling. He said, “No, Grandma’s dogs are potty training.”
    I laughed a little, adding, “You know those pups Eddie had for sale? Mom took two.”
    â€œThe retrievers? God, they were cute as hell,” Justin said, loading the cumbersome machine swiftly and easily. He’d grown a goatee this summer, making him seem almost like a stranger. The tall, dark and handsome one that a fortune teller might warn you about. I mentally rolled my eyes at myself. Justin went on, “He had them in a cardboard box in the bar for a couple of nights.”
    â€œYeah, that’s where Mom and Ellen spied them,” I confirmed, shading my eyes, the better to see him.
    He grinned, bracing one wrist on the edge of the open hatchback. He speculated, “Those two out on the town?”
    I smiled in return, replying, “They wanted to hear the music last Friday. So they said, anyway. They drove the golf cart and came back a little tipsy, actually.”
    Justin laughed and shook his head.
    â€œAnd Elaine’s house is on the market,” I told him, feeling a momentary shadow over my heart. “I told her I’d get in there and clean the carpets this week.”
    Justin’s black eyebrows knitted together as he regarded me solemnly for a moment, his smile gone. He asked, “She moved up to International Falls to live with her cousin, right? I thought Dad had said that.”
    I nodded and at that moment a horn honked from somewhere behind us.
    He said, “Guess that’s my cue to get my ass moving.”
    I still had trouble disguising my dislike for his wife, and commented, “She can’t just come over and say hello, too?”
    Justin lifted his eyebrows this time, perhaps amused at my tone, but only said, “Nah, we’re heading over to Bemidji tonight, and she wants to get going.”
    Oh , I mouthed, then gathered myself together. It was none of my business. I added, “Well, thanks, Justin.”
    â€œAnytime,” he said easily and jogged back in the direction of Aubrey the bitch. I drew in a breath and then turned to my kiddo, forcing a bright smile.

    July, 1998
    Dodge was running across the parking lot.
    I noticed this from my vantage point on the porch, where I was in the middle of taking orders from a six-top. Not only was it unusual for him, but he’d just been mowing the lawn, and now suddenly his every movement suggested panic. I dropped my order pad on the table, to the surprise of my customers, and darted into the café, calling, “Mom!”
    Mom met me halfway across the floor and caught me in a hug; for a moment bile rose up the back of my throat and I was unwittingly pitched back to that horrible February night more than seven years ago. Shaking, I pulled away and asked, “What?”
    â€œIt’s Justin,” she said, and her throat was raw-sounding. “I don’t know…”
    My heart banged hard, then harder. He’d just been in here a few hours ago for coffee with Dodge, and I focused on that image of him, hale and whole. What in the hell could have happened in the intervening hours?
    In a voice I barely recognized I asked, “What do you mean?”
    She shook her head and I turned to watch as Dodge’s car burned rubber getting out of the parking lot; the Charger roared away and left us standing in shock. This time I demanded, “What’s going on?”
    Mom said,

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