Our banter halted when a statuesque twenty-something with a red bob and jade green eyes appeared at the table to take my order.
"Just a cup of coffee, please," I said.
"You're Shannon?" Nick said, his eyes on the name tag pinned just north of her right breast. His friend looked up at her and slid his phone into his back pocket. "Shannon, can you fill me up?" Nick said. He raised his coffee mug to his mouth and gave the rim an almost imperceptible lick.
"I think I can do that." She flashed a smile, her face pink, and she turned to take another table's order.
The friend muttered something like "Tasty."
Nick looked back at me. "So Allie, I read the chapters you sent. It was wild. It's like I got cloned and my clone wrote this incredible book about me. It turned me on how much you got into my head. I got a boner just thinking about it."
"Great!" I said, my eyes on the table as I reached for my notebook.
He made a few minor suggestions: he wanted me to cut the bit about his bully neighbor when he was a kid, as well as his pet rabbit, Buttercup. He did not think I needed to use the name of the bougie town outside Chicago where he had grown up. "No one wants to hear about all that boring shit."
I took notes as he spoke.
We got to talking about the next season of Ranch, his python, his sister's new twins. The day before, I had started writing a scene between him and his mother. She had struggled a lot since being laid off, and Nick was about to tell her that he was going to buy her a condo.
"How's your mom's lupus?" I asked.
"She had a flare-up last week and sacked out on my couch for a couple of days. I hired my massage therapist for her. Maurice does all the older ladies on set. He's my birthday gift to them." Then he asked me about Cass's separation anxiety and whether I had yet tried avocado toast with cilantro and fried egg.
His friend said, "Felly, I've got to split. I'll be at the booth with Jim and Jim." They fist-pumped and a moment later, Nick and I were alone.
He explained that Curtis and the two Jims were here to promote Honor Code: Execution Time, the sixth installment in the series. "I do so little for my game these days," Nick said with the regret of a divorced father toward his child. "Life gets mad busy. Hey, I brought you something." He opened a leather folder on the table. "I got Fufu Muhammad's autograph for Cass. She's the actor who does the voice of Doc McStuffins." He handed me a slip of paper on which she had handwritten, "Dear Cass, Don't forget to stretch and flex! Your friend, Doc."
"Oh my God."
"It's no big thing."
My son ingested on average three episodes of Doc McStuffins every day. He sang the theme song constantly. Cass saw few characters on TV who looked anything like him, although I suspected the stuffed animals had a lot to do with his love for the show, too. "Nick! He. Will. Die. You have no idea."
"This is fucking dope," I said.
"You sound like me again!" He beamed.
"I'm kind of a sponge, I guess. It's my job."
Two months after I went to Albany, I stood watching Cass ride his new balance bike around an empty school parking lot. We had just come from visiting a renovated two-bedroom, two-bath bungalow for rent in Stockbridge. It had a screened-in front porch, an attic that could be used as a playroom or an office, and was located just a block away from Beartown State Forest. It even had a sweet little pergola on the side that was frizzy with clematis. "I'm in love," I told the real estate agent, and she said she would go get started on the lease.
"You got this! Don't keep leaning to the side!" Kurt called out to Cass, and took my hand. Kurt and I had been together-ish for about four months. He had his faults—ambition and money were not currently his things—but he was great with Cass, a kid who liked to draw and listen to music rather than wrestle with friends or play catch. Kurt was also easy on the eyes and, to be frank, gifted in bed, all reasons I had agreed to let him move into my basement. At the moment, Kurt worked part-time at his friend Pete's hardware store and was trying his hand as a sculptor.
"Not so fast!" I hollered, just as Cass tipped over onto a bike rack.
We rushed to help him, and then my cell phone rang. It was Colin's number, so I answered, and Kurt gestured for me to take the call, that he would tend to Cass.
"You might want to sit down," Colin told me in a funny voice. "I've got some news."
"Okay." I glanced around, but there was nowhere to sit.
"Nick Felles is in a bit of trouble."
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition.
Monday, August 10th we begin the book The Book of Hidden Wonders by Polly Crosby.