Wilson woke up late, his clothes on, music playing somewhere; he was sprawled across the bed with only a dog ear of blanket covering his foot. He hadn’t slept much, and the last thing he remembered before passing out was drafting a sentimental note to the community, thanking his loyal customers for supporting him and his family through the years. He’d planned to tape it to the front door of the shop, but spying it now hanging off the corner of his nightstand, he felt all the previous night’s anxieties return.
He rolled out of bed, pocketing the note, and followed the music out of his room and down the hall. He stopped at Ally’s door, which still had the decoupage A she and Jen had made, and felt his heart pound: she had as much a stake in the store as he did; she deserved a say in the matter. But as he raised his knuckles to knock, he heard her humming along to the music, a diary-entry song familiar from shuttling her back-and-forth from the mall. He lowered his hand and padded down the stairs to his car.
As he turned onto Main Street, Wilson noticed smoke feathering up in the distance. He supposed a family was having a grill-out in the park, some big start-of-summer hoopla that again reminded him that Ally would soon be gone. He was formulating a proper sendoff when an EMT truck sounded its horn behind him and whipped past, joining a caravan of fire trucks and police cars blocking off the road ahead. It wasn’t until he cleared the little league field that he saw the burnt-out husk of Washburn’s Pharmacy.
Wilson stopped and got out. A small crowd had formed along the police partition. He pushed to the front and asked what had happened. “Don’t know,” said a woman he recognized as a waitress at Red’s. “Place went up in the middle of the night. No one’s said anything else yet.”
Wilson ran his eyes over the smoldering site. The picture window, with its beautiful cursive lettering, was blown out, the roof caved in. The rows of aisles he’d browsed a hundred times for soap and aspirin and toothpaste were warped like discarded chicken bones. A lone tissue box, half-spared by the fire, bloomed like a black rose. He imagined his own shop going up, one rogue spark igniting the freezing coolant and boom: flames licking across the floor and up the walls, smoke billowing through the open storefront, the giant cow sign above the door turning to charcoal and collapsing onto the street. Seven years of hard work erased in an instant, and nothing he could do to stop it.
The thought made his head hurt. He leaned forward against the roadblock, and felt a sense of helplessness, sickly familiar to him. When Jen had told him she was leaving, he’d had no say in the matter. She had shut him out of the long campaign of her secret struggle and signed the treaty without ever asking his help. He didn’t want to do the same. He owed that to Ally.
Then Wilson spotted Mr. Washburn with a policeman in the sectioned-off area, haggard and nervous, and it occurred to him that Mr. Washburn might have set his own store ablaze. Had it come to that? He felt sorry for the old man, for the stubbornness that had kept him holding on for so long.
Wilson walked back to his car and drove away from the fire, falling into the groove of his usual route home. As he put the chaos behind him, he felt his skin cool, the lining of his veins contract. Elle’s blue pickup was parked in the garage.
They were sitting at the kitchen table when he came in, huddled over a pair of mugs.
“What are you doing home?” Ally asked.
“I live here,” Wilson said. He tried for a smile. “What are you two doing?”
“None of your business,” Ally said, and flashed Elle a knowing look.
“Yeah,” Elle said. “None of your business.”
She was wearing sneakers, paint-spattered shorts, and a wrinkled rugby shirt. He could smell the chrysanthemum tea she brewed at her apartment. Wilson guessed they met like this regularly and wondered when Ally had come to trust her, when their alliance had been formed. He realized that their relationship had been forged from the start, that they had shared a kinship, a sisterhood, apart from him.
“Ally,” Wilson said, finally.
“I need to tell you something.” He took a deep breath and sat. “I wanted you to know that I’m thinking about closing the shop. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier.”
Ally circled the rim of her mug with her finger. “It’s OK,” she said. “I kind of had the feeling.”
He smoothed the front of his jeans; the outline of the folded note cut a rectangle in the blue fabric.
“What are we going to do now?” Ally asked.
Wilson looked at Elle. He’d ask her to move in, maybe borrow a small loan until he planned his next move.
“I don’t know,” he said. He felt a wave of relief so strange and exhilarating he had to savor it for a moment.
—Photo by geishaboy500/Flickr