Energized by her time with her friends, Gabby headed over to the Safety Harbor Hardware Store to visit Harold, her father. She loved stopping by. It was a piece of home and smelled like wood, paint, cardboard, and metal all mixed together—like a potent cologne.
Before entering, Gabby stopped outside and stared at the small, two-store strip mall with its bland, beige exterior and blocky architecture. The hardware store occupied the left side of the building and above it hung a large, white sign with thick, red letters displaying the word HARDWARE. It flickered to life, and the once-plain sign illuminated to brilliant effect.
Adjacent was the town convenience store and was home to the only pharmacy within city limits. Gabby was no stranger to the aisles in either store, spending hours wandering through them as a kid. She’d stare at candy, toys, tools, and all sorts of neat things that sparked her imagination. She gave a friendly wave to Derrick, the night clerk behind the convenience counter, and bounced into her father’s hardware store. The bells above the door announced her entrance.
Her father’s strong voice lifted above the aisles in the back. “Be with you in a minute,” he said.
The shop had a little bit of everything and a lot of some other things. Most importantly, it had plenty of door lock samples for Gabby to practice on. The aisles were thin to accommodate as many shelves as possible and from the ceiling hung everything from wash bins to bungee cords. They didn’t waste an inch of space.
As she entered the long aisles, she imagined what it must have been like when her dad started working there in middle school. Grampa Wells taught her dad the ropes, just as Great Grampa Wells did for him. Owning a small store in a small town was becoming much more of a challenge than it was for his predecessors. National chains continued to poach their customers, and Gabby could see the stress on her father’s face when he came home from a quiet, unprofitable day at the store. Her dad never talked about their money problems, but she got the feeling they were a lot closer to shutting their doors for good than he would ever admit. As difficult as things might be from day to day, her dad seemed invigorated by the challenge. He was a math nerd at heart. For him, it was all about the numbers.
In many ways, Hamilton was a lot like him. Maybe that was why she found him so comfortable to be around. Like Hamilton, they bullied Harold growing up. Unlike Hamilton, he was able to use his quick wit and sharp mind to rise above the fray. Despite Scott’s attempts to protect Hamilton, he has had his share of scuffles with school thugs, where Gabby’s dad had the unique ability to talk his way out of it. Sixth grade was the closest her dad ever came to a fistfight, and it was one of Gabby’s favorite stories.
Behind the school gym, some guy named Ted Maas, a large, slow, and angry kid, rolled up his sleeves in preparation for taking out some unknown aggression on her dad’s face.
Not looking forward to the impending pain and public humiliation, her dad stepped forward. “Ted, do you think I’m a jerk?”
“Yes,” Ted said.
“Good, because I think you’re a jerk, too.”
Ted did a double take. “You think I’m a jerk?”
“Everybody does, Ted. But that’s not the point.” Her dad had placed his hand on Ted’s oversized shoulder. “So, here’s our problem. You’re going to beat me up, and I’m going to take it. But, when you’re done, I’m still going to think you’re a jerk and you’re going to think the same of me. So, what are we really accomplishing? You’ll get in trouble, and I’ll spend a couple days at home trying to avoid my friends while my face heals. What’s gained? Nothing. So, instead of beating me to a pulp, what do you say we forgo the planned pummeling and just agree that we don’t like each other? It’s the right thing to do, Ted. You know it. And I know it. How about it? Truce?”
Confused, Ted looked at the kids surrounding them who came to watch a fight. Her dad’s words appeared to have changed their minds and Ted followed their lead, deciding a truce would be a good idea. “Don’t let it happen again,” he blustered.
Her dad didn’t know what he meant by that, but it afforded Ted an exit line, which he took, puffing his feathers like an insecure peacock. And that was that.
The best part was that a cute girl named Carolyn attended the fight that never happened. She was so impressed by him that she secretly started following him around. She eventually got up enough nerve to talk to him at a dodgeball game. A few weeks later, she started sitting next to him in the lunchroom. Years later, she found herself standing next to him, in front of a priest, getting married.
Gabby’s mother was stunning. She had soft, olive skin and piercing eyes. Her dad would joke about the looks they got when they went for a walk, holding hands. People couldn’t figure out how he landed such a beautiful girl. Gabby’s dad wasn’t bad looking, he was just, well, average. Strangers asked him questions about his portfolio and future investments, assuming he had to be incredibly rich or successful. But his vast mind and kind soul was what attracted Gabby’s mom. She thought he was clever, inventive, funny, and faithful. She never shut up about it.
She and Harold both wanted a large family, and they started almost immediately. Ten months after saying, “I do,” they welcomed Gabrielle Catherine Wells into the world.
Her dad told Gabby about their grand plans. It seemed her mom didn’t come from the most loving of families, and she wanted to create one for her husband and children.
All that changed when Gabby’s mom went to run errands during a heavy rain, lost control, careened off the road, and crashed into the swollen Tocobaga River. A recent tropical storm had raised the river to near-flood stage, and the currents were swift and dangerous. The water pushed the car twenty yards downstream, and her body was never recovered. The police determined she had drowned and been swept into the wilderness. History told them the hungry wildlife would make finding the body nearly impossible. Eventually, the case went cold.
For Gabby, it was hard to find closure. How could she, when they buried an empty casket? What could you say to a tombstone affixed on top of grass with nothing but dirt underneath?
Gabby was too young when her mother died to understand it all. All she knew was that one day, her mother was there, and the next, she wasn’t. Her mother’s crucifix was the only tangible connection she had left. Found tangled on the rocks on the river’s shore, it now never left Gabby’s neck.
Lucky enough to have her father’s mind and her mother’s looks, Gabby tried to move forward. Often driven by compulsion more than wisdom, she attempted to move passed that one moment on that one day. Sometimes she did, too many times, she couldn’t.
People called her many things, most times behind her back and sometimes, to her face. Some of them call her a sleuth. Others, a thief. And a few jackasses called her a jerk. They were all right.
A select few, The Gang, could call her a friend.
Her classmates came to her when they ended up in a situation they never foresaw, facing circumstances they couldn’t escape. She was never their first choice and often their last, but they always called.
Gabby’s eyes refocused on the present and the neatly stacked rows of electrical cords displayed in front of her. She inhaled deeply, taking in the store’s comforting scent, and happily bopped her way to her dad in the paint section, checking inventory.
“Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven…” Harold mumbled.
Gabby greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. “Hola, Papasito.”
He smiled. “Hey, sweetheart. Did you hear about Regina?”
“Yes, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay. I just figured it may bring back bad memories and—”
“And that’s why I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Father Peters and I covered that ground already.”
“Oh. And what was the outcome?” he asked.
“I’m still screwed up, but undeniably adorable.”
“Are those his words or yours?”
“My interpretation. He used a lot of words like faith, patience, and stuff like that.”
“I like his version better.”
“Busy day or slow?” she asked.
“Slow, but steady.”
“Speaking of steady—”
“No, you cannot get a car.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m suggesting—”
“No, you cannot drive my car,” he said.
“But, Dad! Why? You won’t even let me get my driver’s permit.”
“Once you get that little piece of plastic, my insurance rates double and we can’t afford it. We’ve been through this, Gabby.”
“You and your facts. It’s all math and accuracy with you. Where’s your adventurous side, Dad?”
“All that math and accuracy keeps the lights on, your stomach full, and a roof over your head.”
“Can I at least get a new bike?”
“That may be a possibility.”
“Awesome,” she said. “I saw one for sale by our house. It has four wheels, a two-hundred and-twenty-five horsepower V8 engine and a wicked, white stripe painted down the middle.”
“I’m not buying Mr. Rob’s sixty-five Ford Mustang.”
“Dad, you have no vision.”
“My vision is fine. It’s my checking account that has the problem.” He rescanned his inventory sheet. “Okay, where was I?”
“Twenty-seven,” Gabby said.
He continued counting.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll succumb to your evil logic. Then what am I going to do all summer with a bike and no money?”
He sported a large and cheesy smile.
“Besides help you out at the store,” she said.
“I’m sure you and your friends will figure some way to get into trouble.”
“We don’t make trouble, Dad.”
“I know, trouble finds you.”
“What can I say? I’m a magnet?”
“Can you magnetize straight As and a detention-free school year?” he asked.
“I’ll work on it.” Gabby moved behind him and looked over his shoulder. “So, what’re we making for dinner?”
He chuckled. “You can make it.”
“Yes!” Gabby loved to cook; she was just bad at it. Her meals frequently tasted like burnt wood and soggy socks. She bounded toward the exit, eager to leave before he changed his mind.
“No, wait!” He popped his head out from behind the shelves. “I’ll make pork roast, noodles, and… you can cook the veggies.”
“You know what? I’ll show you. This summer, I’m going to learn how to cook.”
“That would be a miracle.”
“Just for that, I’m making broccoli.”
“Just for that, I’m making liver.”
Gabby stewed. “Fine. I’ll make green beans.”
He smiled. “And I’ll make pork roast.”
“You’re a hard negotiator, Dad.”
“Remember, you can’t win a negotiation if you don’t have the most leverage.”
“Did Mom teach you that?”
“Yup,” he said. “How do you think she got the back patio?”
“Interesting. What did she hold over you?” Gabby asked.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“So, sex. From what I’ve read, that works like a charm.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said.
Harold disappeared back behind the shelves. “Now, what number was I on?”
Before the door closed, she yelled, “Thirty-two!”
* * *
That night, Gabby and Harold sat down to their peaceful routine of eating dinner at the kitchen table. Even though their house was small and every square foot was used to its fullest potential, one room remained idle—the dining room. It was her mom’s favorite room, and they abandoned it after her death. It was too painful to use, so Gabby and her dad moved their nightly dinners to the kitchen.
For most people, eating dinner at ten at night would be odd, but it was the only time Gabby and her dad could sit down together. Gabby loved hearing her father’s thoughts. In a single meal, their conversations could range from gaseous anomalies in the solar system to the gaseous anomalies that escaped her dad as he got older. Or from the damaging effects of sin to why pink was never the correct color for a football uniform. She never knew where their discussions were going to lead, but Gabby always enjoyed the ride.
Harold wiped his plate clean with a piece of bread and plopped it in his mouth. “And the next thing I knew, I had tomato sauce on my back.”
Gabby laughed. “How is that possible?”
“I have no idea. It was a miracle of physics. My father-in-law was not amused. He had never seen ravioli explode like that.”
“What was he like?” she asked.
“He was a hard man. Nothing like your mother’s grandfather. I only met Grampa once. He was a quiet man. Gentle man. He lived most of his life in Italy. Worked in a small town called San Giovanni Rotondo. He didn’t speak English very well, but he always had a smile on his face.”
“Then what happened to Mom’s father?”
“I don’t know. He was a bitter guy. A pessimist. Never believed in much.”
“If she grew up with a grumpy man like that, where did her faith come from?”
“Well, Gabby, when you grow up, you have two choices—embrace the life you have or rise above it. She could have turned into her father. Most children would have, in a situation like that. But, she chose another path. She believed life served a purpose, and it was our job to figure out what that was.”
“What was her purpose?”
“To be a mom and a wife and go to church. That’s all she ever wanted.”
“Then I’m glad she got that, at least for a little while. What about you? You were born to own a hardware store?”
“You have to think beyond one’s profession. Owning a store is my job. It doesn’t mean it’s what I’m here to do.”
“Then what are you here to do?” she asked.
“Raise a pain-in-the-ass kid who uses her immense talents for everything but schoolwork.”
“Then I’m glad I could make your life so fulfilling.” Gabby looked down at her plate, spinning a leftover green bean with her fork. “What do you think my purpose is, Dad?”
“I think you’re going to do something great with your life, Gabby. Not good. Great. I don’t know what it is or if I’ll still be around to see it, but it’ll be something for the ages.”
She smirked with embarrassment. “No pressure, Dad.”
“Or, you’ll own a hardware store.”
“If it’s good enough for three generations of Wells, it’s good enough for me.”
He stood with a yawn. “It may be good enough, but it’s not great. You’ll do better than that.”
“You’ve done a great job, Dad. And not just with the store.”
“Thanks, kiddo.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Do you need any help with the dishes?”
“Nope. I got this.”
Gabby earned her keep by taking care of the house and doing the dishes after dinner. She didn’t mind. It was probably what her mom would have done if she were still alive. Putting the plates into the cabinet or folding the laundry made her feel close to her, churning up vague memories of helping her as a child. She was certain she got in the way more than she helped, but her mom always accepted her assistance with a smile.
She missed that smile.
Gabby ended the night as she always did, in the living room, looking at the pictures on the wall of her mom holding her as a baby.
“Hi, Mom, it’s Gabby,” she started, sitting on the arm of the couch. “Today was the last day of school. I’m no longer a freshman! How cool is that? I bet you never thought that day would come. I know I didn’t.” Gabby lowered her eyes and softened her voice. “Oh, you may have someone joining you up there. Regina. Stacy’s mom. She died today. It was tragic and beautiful at the same time. When I saw her body covered on the side of the tracks, I wondered what her last thoughts were. Did she wake up that day with any hint this would be her last? Did you? Does God give you any sort of clue? You know, to get your soul in order? Say your good-byes? That morning, you dropped me off at school, kissed me, told me you loved me, and waved to me as I left the car. Did you know that was going to be the last time you spoke to me? I sure wish I did. I would have stayed in the front seat, held your hand, and never let you go. I wish I had been with you in that car, Mom. That way you wouldn’t have had to die alone. And I wouldn’t have to live alone.”
Gabby wiped away the tears forming in her eyes. “Damn. When does this get easier?” She stood up and kissed her fingers, then pressed them against her mom’s picture.
“Good night, Mom. I’ll see you tomorrow. Show Regina around the place. And tell her I’ll keep an eye on Stacy. Tell her not to worry. I’ll make sure she didn’t die in vain.”
Tomorrow – Chapter Six