Sample chapters from
“To Finish the Dance”

Prologue

September 1972

The classroom smelled like chalk, polished wood, and the intoxicating odor of new books. Twenty-four desks stood in formation on the uneven hardwood floor, which had been buffed to a dull gleam. Lucy sat at the third desk from the front, near a window, biting her nails. Her mom had brought her in early so they could talk to the teacher together.

She was relieved when Mrs. Phillips returned before the kids started coming in. A few were already milling about in the hall.

“Lucy, dear, if there’s anything you need or if you can’t find your way around, just let me or one of the other teachers know, okay?” Mrs. Phillips smiled. Lucy smiled back but her eyes darted to the classroom door again.

What she both looked forward to and feared was now happening: the rest of the fourth-graders started pouring in. Many of them gave her curious looks before jostling each other for the most desirable seats near the back of the room. A group of boys swarmed toward her, staring as they boisterously occupied all the other seats in her row and the next, desks scraping and screeching against the floor. A whisper here, a giggle there told her that they were talking about her.

She tried to ignore them and make eye contact with some of the girls, who had gravitated to the other side of the room. A few looked her way, but most stood around in little groups buzzing about their summer activities, gesturing and bubbling.

“Hey, Joey, someone’s in your seat!” snickered the heavy red-haired kid who had claimed the seat in front of her. Suddenly the classroom quieted a little, and she could feel all eyes on her, even as she desperately hoped they were talking about someone else. Then one of the kids behind her said in a stage-whisper, “The guys always get the window side; everybody knows that.”

“Joey, what are you gonna do—sit on her lap?” All the boys laughed as well as some of the girls who were now watching.

Which one was this Joey who was going to embarrass her in front of the whole class? She hoped it wasn’t the one with the light brown hair who was coming straight toward her. She had seen him out in the hallway wrestling with another kid. He was going to make fun of her for sure. Where did Mrs. Phillips go? she thought.

She wondered for a moment if she should just move to another desk and get it over with. No, I’m not moving. Mrs. Phillips said there were no assigned seats. She wasn’t going to let a bunch of smelly boys push her around. Of course, she didn’t really want to sit among them either.

There was a kid across the aisle from her who looked kind of like Donny Osmond except with messy hair. He punched the brown-haired boy in the arm. “See, Joey? What are you gonna do?”

Lucy’s heart fell. It was him. She met his eyes, stuck out her chin, and directed what she hoped was a defiant look at him, daring him to ridicule her. As he loomed over her desk and her courage wavered, she decided to ignore him by returning to her notebook and tracing over her initials again and again, neatly written on the front, pressing hard with the pencil to make an impression on the thick blue cover. She waited for the inevitable showdown.

But he had turned around and was pushing Donny Osmond. “Aw, shut up, Freddie. I didn’t wanna sit behind Ricky anyway.”

When she looked back, she saw that he had taken the seat behind Donny/Freddie, kitty-corner to her, and was regarding her half coolly, half curiously. He didn’t look like a bully, and he wasn’t being rowdy now. She gave him a tentative half-smile.

“Awww, she likes you!” said the tall boy behind him.

Joey turned around and cuffed him. “Shut up, Will.”

Lucy turned back toward the front, embarrassed, and resumed her engraving. She was grateful when Mrs. Phillips walked in again, clapping her hands to get their attention. “Okay, class, time to settle down! I hate to tell you, but summer’s over. Take your seats, please!”

It was a relief to finally open her textbook at the teacher’s direction and begin; this was much easier. She was good at schoolwork. She wanted to sneak another look at this Joey but didn’t want to set off the snickering again.

Her stomach sank when she felt a wad of paper land on her shoulder, held in place there by her hair. She picked it off and turned around. All the boys had their faces down close to their books, trying not to attract the teacher’s attention with their suppressed laughter, except for Joey. He quickly glanced around and then mouthed open it, motioning with his hands.

Yeah, she thought. There’ll be a disgusting piece of chewed gum in it or something. She looked back again with a frown. He nodded slightly and mouthed the words again. There was a sincerity in his eyes that made her do it. She carefully opened it, keeping one eye on Mrs. Phillips. It wouldn’t do to get in trouble on the first day. When she had flattened it out in her lap, she tried to make out the scribbled words.

There a bunch of morons. Joey Anton.

She quickly hid a smile. He obviously wasn’t much of a speller. She looked again at Mrs. Phillips while she opened her notebook to the first page. She wrote LUCY TRAYNOR on the ruled paper. She put down her pencil and set her notebook vertically on the desk, angled toward him but so the other boys behind her couldn’t see it. After a few seconds, she put it back down. Maybe this school wouldn’t be so bad.

Chapter One

“This isn’t working, Joe.”

Joe angled his head toward Shannon, but his eyes remained on the TV. “What isn’t working?”

When she didn’t answer, he dragged his eyes to her and saw the threat of tears. She was studying her folded hands. With a sense of foreboding, he reached for the remote and turned the TV off. He asked again, apprehensively this time.

“What is it—what’s wrong?”

“Joe, I don’t know how to do this, but…I’m ending this…us.”

He went completely still. Even as he heard the words, he knew he had been expecting them on some level, but not consciously enough to plan his response.

“What…why?” But this, too, he already knew. They’d been together for two years. There was no ring. There were no promises, no plans.

She was still looking down. “I want a family, Joe. I’m thirty-four. I want a typical suburban life. To drive our kids to baseball practice and ballet, go to PTA meetings, have backyard barbecues and family reunions—stuff like that. Some people call that boring, but I don’t.” She turned and faced him. “But that’s not what you want. At least not with me.”

Joe studied her face, and for a split second, her blond curly hair was straight and the color of dark caramel; her green eyes, brown. He averted his gaze, ashamed of himself for immediately proving her point with his thoughts. And yet he didn’t want her to leave. He put his hand on hers.

“I do want those things…with you. I think I just need more time.”

She pulled her hands out from under his and tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have a lot of time. It’s been two years. If it takes longer than that to decide you want to be with someone, it’s not going to work out.”

“Where is that written?”

She looked at him seriously and tapped her chest. “In here. You aren’t ready, and I don’t think you’ll ever be ready. For me.” She reached out as if to touch his arm but then withdrew. “This is not an ultimatum or anything. It simply isn’t meant to be.”

“What do you mean, ‘not meant to be’? You don’t really believe all that ‘destiny’ hooey, do you?”

Now the tears were real. “It was a figure of speech, Joe.” She swiped hurriedly at her eyes with the back of her hands and stood up.

“No—don’t go.” He caught her fingers.

She bit her lip. “You don’t even know I’m around half the time.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you—”

“It’s not just that.” She pulled away. “I can’t be the one you settle for.”

“It’s not like that!”

“Yes, it is, and you know it.” In spite of her words, her voice was calm. She looked at him appraisingly. “You know, I should probably be really angry, but I’m just sad.” They were words he’d heard before.

After a beat or two, she bent and kissed him softly on the cheek. “I’ll never forget you, Joe, or the last two years. I wish you happiness, I really do.” She slipped out of his grasp, grabbed her coat from the back of the armchair, and left.

He sat without moving for a long time, staring at the black TV screen. He knew he should go after her, beg her to stay, but he found he couldn’t. I’m an idiot, he thought.

Two years. Other than Shannon, the longest relationship he’d had since he moved to Philadelphia had lasted four months before it met its bitter end in the form of her serious drug and alcohol problem. He didn’t need that. He’d been sober since the move, except for one short relapse, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t sometimes tempted.

The rest of his relationships had lasted anywhere from one evening—a disastrous blind date Will had talked him into—to two months. He met one of the women while at the hobby store when, thinking he worked there, she asked for help choosing a model car kit for her young son. Another was a co-worker at the GM plant. One he met at Lowe’s when she helped him choose new carpeting for his bedroom. There had been a few others; most were friendly, attractive.

But none of them made him want to think about “the future,” not even Shannon. She was nice, pretty in sort of a childlike way, and honest. She had class. So why was he letting her drift away while he clung to some fuzzy memory like a drowning man to a piece of floating wreckage? It’s not like I’m still in love with…her…after twenty-one years, he thought. I love Shannon. He tried it out loud. “I love Shannon.”

He got up with a groan and went into the kitchen to rummage halfheartedly through the cupboards. Nothing looked good, not that there was much to choose from. He yanked the refrigerator open and pulled out a soda just as the phone rang from where he’d left it on the couch. When he saw that it wasn’t Shannon calling with a change of heart, he answered with a resigned “Hello.”

“Hey, buddy, I need to know if you can cover half a shift for me next Friday. Caitlyn’s got a spelling bee over in Morton, so we’re making a weekend out of it.”

Joe rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, Chuck, no problem.”

“I’ve got someone from the next shift covering the other half, so you’ll only have twelve hours.”

“Only twelve, huh?” He made his way back to the kitchen.

“Thanks, Joe. Lynette really appreciates it too. We haven’t gone anywhere as a family for a while, and she’s looking forward to it.”

“Anytime, you know that,” Joe said wearily.

“You don’t sound so great.”

He sighed and fell into a chair, trying to decide whether he wanted to talk about it. He didn’t, but why delay the inevitable. “Well…that’s because Shannon just left me.”

Chuck let out a long, low whistle. “Oh, man. That’s rough. You okay?”

Joe paused to think about this. “Yeah. I don’t know. I’ll be fine. I guess I knew it was coming. She deserves better anyway.” He traced the patterns on the small birdseye maple table he’d made in high school shop class. He was using it as a kitchen table.

“Don’t let Lynette hear you talking like that. She’d beat you up and then make you sit through one of her self-esteem lectures.”

“I’m sure she would.” Chuck’s wife was like a cheerleader to her family and friends, a pep talk always at the ready. Anxious to divert the conversation before it got too deep, Joe got up and checked the calendar on the wall. It took him a moment to realize it was still showing January. He flipped the page to February. “So Friday the…twenty-fifth?” Great, the twenty-fifth.

“Yup. Spelling bee’s Saturday night.”

“Well, tell Caitlyn I said good luck.”

“I will, thanks. You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m not going to hurl myself off the Ben Franklin Bridge, if that’s what you mean. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“All right. But you holler if you need anything, I mean it.”

“I will.”

Joe stared dully at the calendar. February 25. Twenty-one years ago: 1984. Every year he told himself that it was just another day. It never worked.

The old movie he’d seen a thousand times would play all day long in his mind—a movie he would have dismissed as a “chick flick” if it hadn’t happened to him. He’d pull her picture out of his wallet a dozen times and smooth the battered corners. He’d come home from work and play his Cars CDs a couple times just to torture himself. Then when he finally went to sleep, maybe, if he were lucky, he would dream a rewrite. Sometimes that day hadn’t happened at all. Sometimes the setting was now—somehow she would realize she had made a mistake and he’d open his door one day to find her standing there…

Only his family and Will knew what had happened. He liked to keep it that way. Some of his friends guessed he’d had his heart broken, including Chuck and Lynette, but they didn’t pry.

He flicked the edge of the calendar, and it swung back and forth on its hook. He addressed the black lab sitting at his feet. “Did you see Groundhog Day, Rock? That’s my life. What do you think I should do?” Rocky’s ears twitched, and he gave a short whine. Joe patted him on the head. “Yeah, you’re right, but I don’t know a good shrink.” The dog whined again. Joe sighed. “I’m having a conversation with my dog. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Right?”

Rocky, now certain that this problem was beyond his realm of expertise, moved to the door, so Joe let him out and flipped on the outside light. He stood on the threshold for a moment and filled his lungs with the cold air. When he exhaled, his breath rose in wisps like smoke and disappeared. I sure could use a cigarette, he thought.

His nine-hundred-square-foot one-story home was situated next to a four-lane highway, living as he did in a mostly industrial part of town, where home prices were cheap because few wanted to live there. His front door was perpendicular to the road. A rail yard lay beyond the highway.

There were no houses in view as he looked out his front door, just a couple of abandoned buildings with signs that said Monty’s Radiator Repair and Highway 95 Marine Supply, but out his back door lay a row of small homes much like his, with neighbors who kept to themselves, which was fine with him. He considered himself lucky to have gotten the one on the end.

He looked to his right where, past the traffic and the freight yard, thousands of city lights were spread out like a blanket of diamonds. No, rhinestones. It felt so artificial here sometimes. He missed the open spaces, the quiet, the dark—the “realness” of the U.P., Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But it was just too hard there with the reminders of Lucy everywhere he went. He’d stuck it out for over two years after the day she ended it, but on the morning that he saw her smiling happily up at him from the local newspaper’s “Weddings and Engagements” section, he realized he had to get away. Now. And far. Will had found work in Philadelphia and had been relentlessly encouraging him to follow, so he did, nineteen years ago now. He got an apartment, started working at the plant, and made a new life. He had to. He knew he couldn’t survive long the way he had been going, not if he wanted to live. And he did want to live, even though life never again held quite the excitement it had before.

Now he took another deep breath of wintry air to clear his head. Rocky had accomplished his purpose, and he clambered up the front steps and into the house. Joe shut the door, hit the lights, and headed for the bedroom.

“Well, Rock, it’s you and me now. Let me know if you you have any bright ideas, hey?” Rocky settled on the floor as Joe extinguished the last light. He usually slept in his dog bed, but it seemed he knew his presence was needed.

Joe took stock as he lay in the dark. Still single at forty-two, leading a relatively simple life, not exactly happy, not exactly unhappy. He went fishing, played basketball after work with the guys, jogged with Rocky, and kept in touch with his parents back in Michigan by e-mail and phone. He visited them once or twice a year, helped them out with things around the house, saw a couple of old friends.

There were certainly a lot of people worse off than he was. He had a small but perfectly adequate house now and a decent job that paid well enough that he could drive a new truck and even save a little. He had a four-footed companion, who asked only to be fed and let out once in a while, and a few friends. He wasn’t disabled or in poor health. What more could a guy like Joe Anton really ask for?

Chapter Two

The countdown to Monday, March 7 was finally near its end. As darkness fell Sunday evening, Lucy stood in the middle of her new gallery and did a 360-degree turn to assess the overall effect. Her photographs lined the walls and covered several freestanding displays, portraiture on one side of the studio, nature photos on the other. Hers and Callie’s desks were near the back of the room but forward-facing, with a small pathway between them leading to a storage area and a small office. She decided it looked good. Professional but not stuffy.

Callie put the finishing touches on an exhibit that showcased their retouching services and stepped back to admire it.

“What do you think?” she asked. “I figured you could put the sign right there when you’re done with it.” She pointed to an empty space.

“Looks great, Cal; you did an awesome job.” Lucy looked at her friend. “You’re dead tired. Go home and get some rest for tomorrow.”

“Are you sure there isn’t any more I can do?”

“Not a thing. I just have to finish the sign and then I’m done. It’s not like people are going to pour in here tomorrow like it’s a new Wal-Mart or something. This is Pine Bay, after all. We’ll have time to take care of some of the minor details once we’re open.”

They had spent the weekend tying up a thousand loose ends. The desks, computers, and displays were in place and had been for a couple of weeks, but it seemed every time she turned around, Lucy thought of something else she wanted to do before the doors opened, and that would set them off on another frenzy of activity, usually involving a trip to the hardware store for tape or brackets or extra lighting or some such thing.

Callie joined her in the middle of the room. “It really is beautiful, Lucy. Can you believe, after eight years, you finally have your own studio?”

Lucy shook her head in wonder. “No, I don’t think I believe it yet.” She spun around again.

When she had come full circle, Callie was looking at her thoughtfully. “You’re thinking about Ken, aren’t you?”

Lucy nodded. “He would probably be more excited about it than I am.”

Callie gave her a hug. “He would be very proud, and he’d be telling everybody he knew.”

Lucy smiled. “I sure couldn’t have done it without you.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Callie replied with a grin as she gathered up her things. “Don’t forget now: I’m indispensable. Say it with me: In-dis-pen-sa-ble.”

“I’ll give you that; I do believe you are. Thank you so much.”

Callie dug in her purse for her keys. “Well, I guess I’ll go then. Mark would probably like to see me for at least a couple hours before the weekend is over.”

“Yeah, you newlyweds. I’m sorry I’ve kept you so busy.”

Callie dismissed the apology with a wave of her hand. “It’s been a lot of fun. Besides, I got to see him when he and Brian put up those shelves yesterday.”

“That’s right. Thank him again for me. And relax this evening! Take a hot bath—you deserve it.”

“I just might,” Callie said. She straightened a photo on her way out. “See you tomorrow, new gallery-slash-studio owner lady.”

“See ya,” Lucy replied to the closing door. Then she went out herself and walked back in, trying to view the place as a customer would for the first time. She nodded, satisfied.

She liked to think she didn’t have any unrealistic expectations about her new business. In this small Upper Michigan town on the shore of Lake Superior, there wasn’t much room in people’s meager budgets to buy scenic photography, especially when all they had to do was walk out their back door and see it in real life. But there was always a need for graduation and children’s photos as well as wedding and engagement shots, and she just had to hope it was enough to be self-sustaining plus give her enough to live on.

So the dream, although on the back burner for years, never faded away. After eight years of working out of her home office, she had finally taken the plunge, renting a restored historic building on a corner lot downtown. Turn-of-the-century architecture and a colorful paint job made it stand out as the kind of place you’d want to explore. Decorative tin tiles on the high ceiling were original to the building, and Lucy’s favorite aspect of the room.

It was so nice to finally have the space to display her photographs and her other work—sometimes people needed to see something before they knew how much they wanted it.

She sat down at her computer and stared at the sign she was working on. But rather than finishing it, she got back up and walked slowly to one of the large front display windows. She put her forehead against the cold glass and watched the procession of headlights up and down the snow-covered main street. It was mostly teenagers cruising. Even winter didn’t stop them. Snowbanks were high, and road crews were out removing the huge piles on the corners.

She was exhausted, excited, and for the most part happy…but there was a streak of melancholy running through her that surprised her with its strength. What was there to feel so blue about now?

She was used to bouts of sadness in varying degrees since her husband’s death—at first they had threatened to engulf her in a deep depression, but she had eventually regained her emotional footing. She was moving on. She made a list under the heading “Positives” in her mind: She was dating again, had good friends, loved her work, and loved living in Pine Bay. Under “Negatives”…well, what could she really put? There was nothing major…at least not anymore.

So why she walked back to her computer and inserted her Cars CD, she couldn’t quite say.

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