Before I understood that people didn't necessarily go to bars to get drunk, that the purpose of drinking in public was a statement to the world that you wanted to connect with it, not run from it, I'd often thought how lonely Marty's bar looked at the end of the block. It had been dilapidated for as long as I could remember, and it was sadder still with the same vehicles sitting in front of it, night after night.
I'd seen my grandparents and parents drink of course, but with company and music and food. When I was old enough to drink and went regularly to hang out with my friends, it wasn't a sad place anymore. It felt more like a checkpoint in the wilderness stocked with supplies—life— in the middle of an otherwise too still Main Street.
Now, with only supporting beams left standing, the harsh light of the firetrucks pointing out all its deficits, Marty's bar looks like a soundstage built for a scary movie.
When Marty had shouted the news from Jake's yard, we’d run for our cars. By the time we arrived, the fire was out, but so was the town. I worry as I notice people casting pitying glances at Marty.
Jake has been talking to the fire chief, shoulders slightly slumped, hands in his jacket pockets, nodding. But I notice that as he walks toward us, his frame straightens the creases in his forehead disappear, and he shares a faint but reassuring smile: A smile that says this is unforeseen but not the end of the world.
"Thanks for hanging around," he says to us. "Where's Marty?"
"He went over to talk to some people, see what they know," Dana says, gesturing to where Marty seems to be in earnest conversation with a couple of men I recognise as regulars.
Jake tells us what the fire chief just finished telling him.
It would take time to get the official report, but they thought the fire started with the banner we'd stretched across the temporary fence separating the construction work from the sidewalk. If there hadn't been flammable material nearby, the fire would most likely have stopped after the sign crumbled to the street. But there had been mounds of dead wood, ready to be taken away and there had been a breeze.
"He says it's most likely arson," Jake says grimly.
"How can he say that so soon?" I say.
"There is no 'viable source of ignition,' as the chief put it. There's no electric because it's been turned off. No gas. No way it could have started inside the building itself. And then, of course, there's the sign, just ashes now, and nothing nearby that could have caught it on fire."
"If it started with the sign, what about a cigarette?" Therese says, sounding hopeful, "Someone could have been smoking in front of Marty's and thought they put it out? Someone may have..."
Jake shakes his head slowly. "Maybe it was unintentional; we'll have to wait and see.”
Marty walks up, and I think that he's gained back those previously shed years.
"A couple of my regulars said it wouldn't surprise 'em if it were one of my old customers. I knew some were upset about me closing down for a few months, but I can't say I’d accuse any of ‘em of vandalizing the place."
I nod, watching the firemen prepare to roll away, taste a sliver of the old bitterness on my tongue. "Even if it's true that whoever started the fire didn't intend for it to spread to the whole building; that's a pretty hateful thing to do," I say.
Jake's brows scrunch together looking down at me. "I think if they wanted to do us some real harm, they would have waited until all our materials arrived or we began to rebuild, don't you think?"
"That, or they're stupidly short-sited, as evidenced by their resistance to progress," I say.
Jake grins and gives me a hug. When I pull away, Frank is watching, and I'm uncomfortably aware that he seems displeased. I give him a quizzical look, but he turns away when Marty quips, "well, guess that wraps up all of the demolition work."
Jake lets out a long exhale, and I remember that he's been travelling since early this morning. "This is going to push us back a bit in terms of re-opening part of the bar while the rest is under construction." He turns to Marty. "The chief says the investigation and the cleanup alone might take up to three weeks. I'm sorry."
Marty's shoulders slump a little, but he continues to joke. "Guess I'll be making a pest of myself at home, give Judith a taste of what retirement looks like."
"So, this is just an elaborate plan to make her welcome those long hours once your new business opens, huh Marty?" I tease.
He taps the side of his head. "All the brains in the outfit, right here."
When Rich calls me later, I'm in bed but unable to sleep. I've been trying to imagine the scenes in the chapters I want to write tomorrow, but my mind keeps skittering back to the fire and Marty's devastated expression and Jake's grim one.
"What's going on?" Rich says. I imagine him at his apartment, the TV on but silent as he sits on the sofa, legs stretched on the ottoman before him.
I tell him about the fire at Marty's.
"Arson? Huh. Was there much left to burn?"
"No, that's the thing. Jake says if whoever did this truly intended to hurt us, they'd have set the fire after construction began, or at least waited until supplies arrived."
"Maybe they're just stupid," Rich says.
I laugh. "That's what I said too."
Rich doesn't respond, but I hear cabinet doors opening and closing, a faucet running. I feel a sharp twist in my gut, unresolved misgivings making their presence known. There has been a lot of these weighty silences between us lately. I want to ask Rich what he's thinking, when he says, "Maybe it's too late at night to be talking to you about this—I know it's nearly midnight there and you're probably exhausted, but I heard something around the office about Jake Hurst that I think you should know, and maybe the sooner, the better."
I cross my ankles under the comforter and sigh. "Oh?"
I already knew all about Jake's nights out while he was in NYC and then in LA. Audrey had called me last week about the news blitz Jake's father had planned. It was a publicity stunt to get people talking about their project in Tomahawk Hill. So far, it hadn't portrayed Jake in the best light, but Audrey told me the story needed room to grow and that as the project progressed, so would Jake's "maturity" and the critical part he would play in the resort's success. I felt reasonably sure that this was the news Rich wanted to drop on me, a discussion about whether it was smart or not to trust all my hopes and dreams in the hands of a playboy.
"I'm still processing the night," I say. "What did you want to tell me?"
"I heard Jake's father is taking over the resort build, that Jake wasn't able to swing interest from anyone outside of his family company to invest in the project. Did you know that?"
"That's technically true," I said, trying not to sound defensive.
"Oh, so you did know? Then I guess you already know that Hurst doesn't intend to include the diner in the hotel?"
"Yes," I say, feeling slightly taken aback by Rich's eager tone. It was the way he got when he knew someone else's disaster might land a new listing in his lap. I'd always attributed it to ambition, but now, as he talks about the diner, I wonder. "But Jake’s going to do everything he can for us."
"I wouldn't be so sure he's working that hard on plan 'A' Liv," he says. "I think Jake's already begun talking to Cesar about moving to Tomahawk Hill..."
"Cesar might move here?" The thought of Cesar in Tomahawk Hill makes me simultaneously excited and worried. I imagine Cesar would feel like a desert plant locked in a hothouse. He might lose his will to live.
"One of the agents at my office is Cesar's ex-girlfriend, and they still talk." He pauses. "Didn't Jake promise all of you that you'd do better once the resort us running? How's that going to happen if Dana, for instance, is out of a job?"
I think back to tonight's conversation with Jake over dinner. When he had said nothing bad would happen to us, I'd assumed that meant no matter what, the resort wouldn't be putting the diner out of business, but what did I know at this point? What promises did Jake genuinely have the power to keep now that his father was involved?
I bite my lower lip. "If Jake doesn't add the diner to the resort, we'll keep operating as we are, apart from it. The people in town still need a place to eat, and tourism can only draw more guests to us. Not everyone has a champagne budget."
"Your naiveté can be precious Liv, but sometimes, it isn't."
"What do you mean?" I snap, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
"These guys are all about the money. You act like you're dealing with one person here, but you're not. Hurst is a money-making machine, and they'll swallow up everything in its path. Don't you think they'll add a restaurant similar to the diner within their resort? How do you think they've become such a profitable company? Do you think they did that by giving a shit about the little people? They have a history of buying off businesses Liv. They'll want to streamline everything into what they already know and save money."
"Jake's not like that," I nearly whisper, my throat feeling tight. "He cares about this town. He's not going to make the diner obsolete to save a few dollars."
Something like a snort escapes Rich's mouth, a scoff, though it hurts me to think it. When he speaks, his tone is flat. "Yeah...think what you want. Do what you want, like you always do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Going off to Tomahawk Hill for two months? Not bidding for any more freelance jobs to 'work full time' as a novelist? Are you even close to finishing your first draft? And then unilaterally deciding that you're going to put money into the diner rather than a house for us? I mean..."
"You agreed to all of that!" I hiss into the phone, not wanting to wake my grandmother by yelling. "You supported my coming here! You told me to start writing my novel! And investing the money into the diner is about our future!"
"Do you think I could have objected to any of it once you made up your mind?" His tone is so intense he may as well have been yelling at me. "You never once asked if I thought you should do any of those things! You announced these decisions to me." I hear something fall to the ground. His TV remote maybe, a coaster.
That thick silence again.
"What are you saying?"
"I think we need a break."
A sound somewhere between a laugh and a cry escapes. Had I heard him correctly? "We only talk to each other a few times a week, how much more of a break do we need?"
He sighs again, and I can imagine him throwing his head back on the couch, eyes closed, thinking it over. "Until I see you at Christmas."
"But... that's nearly a month away."
"Yeah, it is. You need to miss me, Liv. And miss the life we have together in LA. You might as well realise now that you're going to have to choose your life there, or here. You can't have both."
I feel like I've been on my way to the dentist for the last thirty minutes only to find upon exiting the car that I've been dropped off at the hospital to have my arm sawed off.
"Are you serious?"
"I don't think we should talk or text--maybe stay clear from each other's social media too." His tone of voice is so calm I want to scream, accuse him of picking a fight expressly for this preplanned purpose.
"And seeing other people?" I blurt that out with a desire to hurt, knowing Rich would find that unthinkable, but like so much of this conversation, I am wrong.
"Yeah, sure," he says. "Nothing serious, obviously. Drinks, a meal."
"Fine," I say swiftly, immediately thinking about the girls who hung around Rich at his office, the single (and sometimes married), clients who asked him to take them out for drinks. "I resent you bullying me into a decision."
"I'm not bullying you," he says, in a tone I've heard him use to talk clients down from contractual skyscrapers.
"Sure," I say.
"You know I'm right about you needing to make a choice," he says grimly. "I hope you choose me..."
But by the way he trails off, I can practically hear the words, "but maybe you won't."
"See you at Christmas." He says. "I love you."
Even though it feels like someone's pried my mouth open and I can't move my lips to make the words, I push them out, knowing if I don't, I'll regret it. "Love you too."
And then it's just the dial tone, and I know sleep is a distant dream.
I slip out of bed, grab my phone and my laptop and pad toward the kitchen to start a pot of hot water. I desperately desired coffee, but Therese was apt to smell it and wake and even though I wanted to tell her about my conversation with Rich, I knew I'd be robbing her of what little sleep she was getting as of late, so I reach for the tin of Earl Gray instead.
I jump when my foot lands on one of Maverick's chew toys, the wheezy "squeak!" sounding abnormally loud in the quiet house. When I bend down to pick it up, something wet falls onto its rubbery red top and then another drop and another.