Dan tore at the skin around his thumb nail, his attention tight on his watch. It had been ten minutes since he’d last looked directly at Nina, ten minutes since he’d told her he was leaving. She stood in the space behind the sofa with her back against the wall and her head turned toward the dark window, gin and tonic in hand. Weeks ago, before this, they’d made a date to stand together at the window and watch whatever they could see of the city’s New Year’s Eve fireworks, shot off every year from a park about a mile away. They had thirty-three minutes and eighteen seconds until midnight.
“You can’t come over here and comfort me?” she said. “Why won’t you even look at me?”
He stared at his hands and stayed seated on the fireplace hearth. The cold stone bit through his pants. He stopped picking at his skin when a narrow line of blood traced a path along the nail bed.
She said, “I know people sometimes say things they think they can’t take back, but—”
“I said it, Nina. Not ‘they.’” He looked at her, finally. Strain and tears had reddened and shined her nose and stamped pink blots on her cheeks. Her hazel eyes, usually a dull olive, had brightened to a distracting green. “I won’t be taking it back.”
“—but I’m giving you the chance. Please take it. Before everything changes. Sometimes people s—”
“Not ‘people.’ Me. I. And you.”
“But you’re saying there is no ‘I and you.’ Right? That’s what you’re saying. You have to go. To her.”
She nodded. “Yes. Yes.” She slid down along the wall, her rough sweater catching behind her and exposing her sides as it collected under her armpits. When she’d fallen all the way to the floor and was seated beside their change jar, she leaned forward and pulled at the knit until she was covered.
Dan wanted another drink, but he would have to pass by her to get to the kitchen and he didn’t want to seem dismissive. “I don’t want you to think I’m not taking your—this—everything that’s happening, here, seriously,” he said, standing, “but I need a refill. That okay? You want one?”
Without looking at him, she held up her own glass.
He crossed the room, the backs of his thighs numb with cold, and took it from her. She reached out and wrapped her arms around his knees. It was the first time they’d touched since he’d told her, and the first of what he imagined would be a series of goodbye embraces. “I’m sorry, Neen,” he said. She was warm, her arms and chest a snug cocoon encircling him, but her curled fingers dug deep, painfully, into his calves. When he moved his legs to signal to her that it was time to let go, she clutched tighter. She slid her body close and trapped his ankles—the whole bottom half of his legs—in her web of limbs. “Nina.”
“This is why you love me, because I’m crazy, remember?” She pressed her face against his knees and whispered into his pants, “Don’t leave me, Dan. Please don’t leave me. If she loved you she never would have left.”
He moved to touch her, but his hands were full. He used the bottom edge of his pinkie to stroke the top of her head. She looked up at him. Fine strands of hair clung to her cheeks where the tears had slid down. She said, “Let’s—Let’s listen to music and get silly drunk. Let’s have sex we won’t even remember in the morning.”
He wanted to say yes. He didn’t dislike her (he was sure he still loved her, if maybe not enough), and the sex they had was a small, but not insignificant, part of what had kept him with her the last two times he’d considered breaking away. He wanted to say yes. But if he did, she would make him feel silly for wanting to leave, crazy for believing in crazy things. Not because she would say so, but because her body and the quiet moments afterward would bring him to complacency, pull him back when he was finally halfway gone. For years he had known that as good as it was, as treasured as she made him feel, something wasn’t right. Even so, had it not been for the story he’d heard on NPR’s “Science Friday,” he might have stayed forever.
“Never mind,” she said, but without loosening her grip. “I forgot. What morning?”
Dan could see that she’d taken obvious care to not break or bend anything while placing it all in a neat heap between the coffee table and the fireplace. Her hand shook when she pushed her hair away from her eyes. “You can pack your own clothes. You left some of them in the washing machine, so I put them in the dryer.”
A steady, clicking rhythm sounded from behind the accordion closet doors in the living room. Nina had hated basements since her childhood confrontation in her grandmother’s cellar with what she insisted were ghosts and refused to do laundry, or anything else, in a dark, downstairs room. Dan was the only one who had been down there since the day they moved in.
He said, “You want me to go right now?”
“I said you could stay until you talked to her. You talked to her.”
Her attention wasn’t on him, but on something over his head. He looked up. It was the crack in the molding they’d tried to hide with caulk the previous spring.
He said, “She hung up on me.”
“I don’t want sympathy. That’s not why I told you. But I—What I mean is that our agreement, I thought, was that I would leave when I had somewhere … . None of this is coming out right.”
“There are hotels.”
A rumble built over the house. He stiffened and his sinuses cleared, a sudden and almost painful thing, and a cold whirling erupted under his ribs. An airplane, his rational self knew, but he ignored logic and conjured vivid flashes of everything he would never have the chance to do and see if he died this instant.
The images that came to him weren’t his own, but April’s. Places he remembered April wanting to go, landmarks April had wanted to see. And then there was April herself, sitting at the kitchen table in their old apartment with her hair in a ball on top of her head while she drank coffee and watched the news in a long, red bathrobe.
“Dan?” Nina said.
He rubbed his hands together and felt the deep grooves where the joints bent, the firm softness of his finger pads, the unevenness of his nails. He laced his fingers together, and it felt strange, holding his own hand. It was something he’d never noticed before, the way his hand felt inside another hand. It was oddly intimate, like talking to himself in the mirror, looking himself in the eye. This was the hand Nina felt when he would put it on her narrow waist. April had had more of a curve, there. More flesh. Dan remembered her wearing faded jeans that rested at that curve. He used to like running his fingers just above the waistline.
“My name is Nina. It’s always been Nina,” she said.
He opened his eyes. She was sitting on the counter with her bent knees tucked in her arms.
“You said ‘April,’” she said.
The sound in the sky was gone. A draft from the heating vent played with the thin hairs on her big toe. She caught him looking and used one foot to cover the other.
“It’s cute,” he said.
She rested her chin on a knee. “I think you have to go, now.”
Dan Palace has always played it safe. He chose the safe job. Married a safe woman. Rarely travels far from home. But something is missing – until a man named Tucker Farling delivers a doomsday prediction that changes his life.
In the final minutes before the New Year, Dan musters the courage he desperately needs to embark on a quest to find that missing “something,” along with the love of his ex-wife, who has hated him since their wedding night nine years before. When things don’t go as planned, Dan finds himself on an unexpected road trip with a young hotel worker and her possessive boyfriend. Together, they experience some of the surprising consequences of living life to its passionate fullest – as do the people they love.
PRAISE FOR THE YEAR OF DAN PALACE.
“Honest, original, and impossible to put down. With a wholly distinctive narrative voice, Chris Jane is a 21st Century Bukowski.” – Joseph Dilworth Jr., Pop Culture Zoo
“At turns funny, smart, painful, and most of all, honest as it follows one man’s choices in the face of the possibility that the world will end. This is a writer who doesn’t pull punches, who shows us sides of a character it might be easier to turn away from.” – Reggie Lutz, author of Haunted
“From the opening pages to the completely unexpected ending, this book really is amazing. This is not a book for a quick read despite the ever changing plot. It’s a book to savour and enjoy the beautiful clarity of the writing. I thought The Year of Dan Palace was stunningly good.” – Indie Bookworm