An odd thing happened to Cooper Moon during his fortieth year. He stumbled upon God—in a single, drunken, life-altering moment. No one was more skeptical about this abrupt conversion than his long-suffering and often cheated-upon wife, Sally. Perhaps Sally would have been more inclined to believe Cooper during that seminal moment if he had not reeked of urine and beer. It is difficult to give much credence to someone’s sudden declaration of faith when they have clearly pissed their pants.
It was late April, but the Michigan winter refused to release its icy grip. Outside, the ground was unforgiving and the trees surrounding Cooper and Sally’s mobile home were full of baby buds that kept their heads ducked and pulled in tight against the chill. Inside, heat radiated from the dusty woodstove in the living room into the kitchen. Sally had just stirred the embers from last night, opened the damper a little, and loaded it with fresh wood. It was part of her morning routine. As the wood caught fire, it sizzled and cracked, a familiar sound that Sally had come to love. Soon, their small home would be so warm she might have to open a window.
Cooper stumbled through the front door, bringing with him a gasp of crisp air.
“Where the hell were you last night?” Sally demanded.
“I believe in God now!”
Turning her attention back to the woodstove, Sally closed the door and secured the handle. Ignoring Cooper, she walked into the kitchen and started to gather the greasy food-covered dishes scattered about the room.
Cooper followed, his snowy work boots clomping against the scratched linoleum floor. Once golden-yellow, the floor was closer to tan now, and in need of cleaning. Cooper waited for Sally to deposit the dirty dishes in the sink and then spun her around to face him. Clutching both of Sally’s elbows to anchor her to him, he tried to hold her gaze. “Sally.” His breath smelled of stale beer and was warm against her face. She looked away from him as he spoke. “Did you hear what I said?” he asked.
“You still weren’t home at four. I heard a noise and got up to check.”
“Did you look in the driveway?”
“No. I looked in the garage.”
“I might have been in the driveway,” Cooper said.
“You don’t know if you were in the driveway or not?” Sally looked back into his eyes, a dangerous move.
“I woke up in the driveway. So I was there at some point.”
“When you say in the driveway, does that mean that you were in the car in the driveway, or that you were just lying out there in the middle of the driveway?”
“In the car, Sally. In the car, in the driveway. Did you even hear what I said?”
“You said you were in the driveway.” Snow began to melt from his boots, wetting the toes of her socks.
“No! Before that!”
“You said you believe in God now.”
“Yes! I believe in God now!” Cooper’s dark blue eyes brimmed with tears and his words were urgent.
Sally turned from Cooper and looked out the window above the sink. A white five-gallon bucket had blown into their yard. She concentrated on the bucket as a determined wind rocked it against the frosted grass, the handle preventing the bucket from rolling over. “Yeah. That’s what you said. Where the hell were you last night? Before the driveway.”
“Bass Turds.” The oddly named establishment sported a huge fiberglass fish over the entrance. The fish was actually a replica of a salmon, not a bass, but no patron had ever complained about the discrepancy, for the beer was ice cold and the wings were hot. “Cecil Braden was there. We were talking about heaven and hell, and he started telling me about his cousin Dan who went to this church six months ago.”
Sally pulled from Cooper’s grip, moved the short distance to the kitchen table, and continued gathering up the dirty dishes that had been collecting there for the past three days. The white vinyl-covered paneling on the wall behind her was decorated with pale-brown images of fruit. The French word for each was positioned below every image. Citron. Cerise. Poire. Pomme. A homemade dark-brown macramé owl hung on the wall, clutching a gnarled piece of wood Sally had found in the woods. It watched her with plastic bead eyes as she moved about the small room.
“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to wash a dish every now and then.” Sally was a beautiful woman, although sometimes she had a hard time remembering that. And most of the time it wasn’t worth the effort required to pull it off. It felt like a talent she had once possessed but lost from lack of use. Life was easier if she wasn’t beautiful, if she didn’t appear to be trying.
“Cecil says his cousin Dan went to this church and the preacher told everyone if they said this prayer God would come right into them. Of course, I didn’t believe that. So I told Braden that he was full of S, H, I, T and he says no he isn’t and that if I don’t believe him I can just talk to his cousin, Dan. He says Dan quit drinking and he’s giving most of his money to this church now. So I ask Cecil, ‘What kind of prayer can change a man like that?’ And he says that it’s almost like a magic prayer. That all you gotta do is say these words in a prayer and God will come right into you.”
Sally moved to the sink, ran hot water over the stack of dishes, and squirted a generous amount of lemon-scented generic dish soap directly under the stream of water. Picking up a sponge from the white Formica counter, she plunged her hands into the fragrant suds and began washing the dishes.
Cooper moved to her side and talked to her profile. “So I tell him no D, A, M, magic prayer is gonna make God come into me, and I dared him to tell me the prayer. So, right there, in the middle of Bass Turds, Cecil said this prayer and I closed my eyes and bowed my head and repeated it right after him—just to show him that there ain’t no such prayer. And you’ll never guess what happened!”
“The magic prayer worked and you believed in God.” Sally flipped the sponge over to the scratchy side and scrubbed at a piece of dried egg yolk. She resisted the urge to tell him he forgot the “n” in damn.
“Yes! It did. I opened my eyes and I felt like a new man. Kind of warm and soft inside. Sorta like if you squished love and joy and peace all up into a ball and swallowed it. And I haven’t even said one curse word since it happened, with the exception of the two that I just spelled out to you, and they don’t count. Sally! Did you hear me? I’m a new man. I believe in God. Because I said that prayer.”
“Was that before or after you pissed yourself?”
Cooper pulled at Sally’s arm until she was facing him and looking into his eyes. They both knew this was when she was the weakest. Even in his current condition, Cooper Moon was not without charm. He could not be described as gorgeous, but perhaps right next door to gorgeous, which made him even more dangerous, because such a man seemed within reach.
Dressed only in an oversized knee-length tee shirt she often wore as pajamas, Sally wished she had pulled on a pair of jeans this morning. She needed more of a barrier between her skin and his. “Sally.” His voice was lowered now, all throaty and whispery and beyond her ability to resist. Sally looked into his eyes and was helpless. The wet sponge in her hand dripped between the two of them, and her knees felt weak. Cooper’s long arms, tanned brown and ropy with muscle, wrapped around her. One of his hands sank into her hair and cradled the back of her head; the other rested on the small of her back. “Baby, I’m telling you. I’m a changed man. My heart is … full. I’ll never cheat on you again. I’m giving up drinking. I’ll be home every night. I’m finally the man you always wanted me to be.”
Sally leaned into him and found his mouth, devouring his words with hungry kisses.
“I’m going to build a church, Sally,” he said between her lips and tongue. But she did not hear him. Soon after, when she cried out, “Oh God,” in the tiny bedroom of their mobile home, Cooper heard it as a prayer.
Always near the front of the line, Libby Cartwright punched out at the time clock, dropped her card into the vertical steel rack, and bolted in the direction of the door. She wanted to run, but she had been warned twice about that already. Hurrying between the yellow painted lines of the factory aisles, she tossed a couple of half-hearted waves to the new shift of familiar faces standing at the die-cast machines but took no time to speak. She rushed past more machines, the heavy presses thumping a familiar rhythm as she made her escape. Smoke hung high in the metal framework ceiling, and the acrid aroma of molten metal filled the air. It was a scent Libby despised. It invaded her clothes, her hair, and sometimes her dreams. Reaching the heavy grey metal door, she slammed the heel of her hand against it to swing it open, and broke free into the sunlit parking lot. She felt almost giddy, as if new possibilities had just been revealed to her for the very first time. It felt like this every morning—like an escape, as if another life might be possible.
If she had been born to parents who were not suicidal, Libby might have been a model. As a child, she had dreamed of walking a runway, but by the time she was fifteen, Libby learned dreams were only interruptions to sleep, and they often came in the form of nightmares full of blood and the jolt of gunshots. Perhaps life would have been easier, afterward, if she had not been the one to find them.
Libby was strikingly beautiful, but she concealed that beauty like a jewelry box hidden under a pile of rumbled clothes in the bottom of a closet. She never wore makeup, dressed in baggy grey clothes, and walked with her head down, seldom making eye contact. She went unnoticed, like a thief in the night. Except that she was not out to steal anything. Libby only wanted to be left alone. She did not want to be noticed at all. Being noticed always brought problems.
In the six years since she had moved to Timber Lake, only one person had ever really noticed her—noticed everything about her, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. She had not planned on letting him in, but there was no warning, like a sudden summer storm that catches you unaware and leaves you drenched. She’d had no time to batten down the hatches. He had caught her off guard. He was unavoidable. Inescapable. Like gravity.
Libby reached her pickup, the once-red Chevy faded from the sun and blotched with rust. She pulled the ponytail holder from her hair, unleashing an unruly wave of auburn locks that fell loose about her shoulders. Bending over, she shook her head and ran a hand through her hair to remove the metal shavings. Her mind was on him. He would be kissing her soon. She thought about the way he first placed his hands on either side of her face before he kissed her that first time. Standing in the parking lot, she could feel those hands tangled in her hair, and she ached for his touch. Soon, she told herself. Soon. Balanced against the truck with one hand, Libby untied her steel-toed work boots and pulled the boots off with the other. Pulling her damp socks off with her fingertips, she stuffed each sock into a boot, and then dropped the boots into the bed of the truck.
The paved parking lot felt cold against her shriveled, damp feet, and the loose gravel dug into her heels. After unlocking the truck, she sat on the edge of the ripped seat and wiped the gravel from her feet. A pair of bright-pink flip-flops awaited her on the seat. Swinging her legs into the truck, she then slid the flip-flops on, slammed the truck door, and started the engine. She turned on the heater and then the stereo, backed from her parking space, and pulled from the parking lot, listening to Bon Jovi singing about living on a prayer. If she drove straight home, she could be there before the song was over, but she turned in the opposite direction, taking the long way home. Again.
It was silly, really. She’d be seeing him in less than two hours. But there was no reason not to drive past his house. No one would know. What would it hurt? And it wasn’t as if anyone was waiting on her at home. Her double-wide had three bedrooms, but hers was the only one with a bed. What difference did it make?
She stopped at the gas station for a bag of Cheetos and a Mountain Dew.
“Hey, Libby,” Willie Hallock said as he rang up her purchases at the counter.
“Hey, Willie.” She hoped he wouldn’t ask her out again. She didn’t feel like dealing with him this morning. “Thanks. See ya.” She stuffed the change into the pocket of her jeans and hurried toward the door.
“Have a good one, Libby!” Willie called after her, the screen door snapping shut to punctuate his last word.
Back in the truck, Libby took a long drink from the cold bottle and opened up the bag. As she drove in the opposite direction from her home, she ate breakfast.
Libby loved this time of the day. The morning grass was damp with remnants of frost, people were beginning to move about, and the new sun, still fresh and low in the sky, seemed full of promise. It was the only time of day she let herself believe that hope was not just a salve for the weak-minded. She drove along, munching and drinking, and in that exact second, felt content. The smell of the factory clung to her clothes, but she wasn’t there now. And if Libby Cartwright had learned anything in life, it was the ability to enjoy now. All too often, yesterday and tomorrow were unbearable. She lived in the moment. One moment after another, and before you knew it you had gotten through your whole week. Your whole life.
It wasn’t until she turned down his road, just a short time later, that her body went on full alert. Libby could feel that familiar clutching in her stomach, her heart beating against her throat, her hands shaking slightly, the eager anticipation as she scanned for any sight of him long before she reached his house. It was a dead-end dirt road, and her truck was kicking up a trail of dust. She slowed down a bit, hoping to escape notice. His truck was there, in the driveway. Just the sight of it made her happy. The garage door was open, and when she crept past she could see Sally’s car parked inside. Her heart sank a little. As she turned around near the railroad tracks, just a short distance past Cooper’s house, she felt ashamed. But that shame did not prevent her from looking toward the mobile home again when she drove back past, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
She did not.
Oh well, she told herself. She’d be in his arms soon enough. Before nine, he had told her.
Libby had met Cooper a little over two years before. The roof of her double-wide had been leaking and she’d needed someone to fix it. A coworker at the factory had given her Cooper’s number, and he was at her house the next day. The roof was fixed by noon. Libby had hardly noticed he was there and was surprised when he finished the repair so quickly. Cooper had knocked on her door and she let him in while she made out the check. It was a hot day.
“Want some water?” She’d offered him a bottle.
He sat in a chair by the door and she on the couch across the room, balancing the checkbook on her knee.
“How much?” Libby had looked over at Cooper, waiting on his answer. She’d barely noticed him until that moment.
His eyes locked on hers as he brought the water bottle to his lips. He drank from it. He drank from her.
Unable to look away, Libby watched. Stunned. Transfixed. Suddenly weak with desire.
Placing the bottle on a nearby table, Cooper stood, walked across the room, and dropped to his knees before her. He had cradled her head in his hands, sinking his fingers into her hair and pulling her mouth to his. The moat broached by surprise, her barricaded castle wall crumbled. Libby surrendered to his touch, to his mouth, and then to his silent suggestion as he pulled her to the floor.
Afterward, both of them satiated and soaked in sweat, without a word he had scooped her from the floor and carried her to bed. They had fallen asleep like two spoons in a drawer, her back to his chest, his arm draped over her hip. Hours later, when Libby woke to the touch of his tongue upon the back of her neck, she had kept her eyes closed, afraid she might be dreaming. She was not. They made love again. Slowly and gently. Cooper so tender with her, just the opposite of how he’d been on the floor. And she had loved it all: the tenderness of his touch, his hands rough upon her as he changed their position, not knowing what to expect next. Like a roller coaster he brought her, over and over again, up to the top of the hill, only to rush back down—the excitement and tension building and building until the last slow climb to the top of an impossibly steep summit, and then the wild ride down, with her crying out in pleasure, his lips upon her mouth muffling the sound. And then more sleep. When she had awoken that first morning, Cooper was gone.
Libby hadn’t found out he was married until the next day. She was furious. As a child, she’d seen the results of infidelity in her parents’ marriage, and it was one thing she swore she’d never be part of. But by day’s end, as she stood in the factory, loading parts, pushing buttons, unloading parts, Libby convinced herself Cooper’s wife did not understand him, did not love him. They were probably even close to divorcing. By the end of the week, she discovered none of that was true. His wife did love him. She did understand him. And they were not on the verge of divorce. But, by then, it was too late for Libby to pull away. By that time, she didn’t care. All she cared about was having Cooper’s hands on her body again, feeling his mouth against hers, and falling asleep in his arms one more night. That’s all that mattered. The only time she felt alive was in Cooper’s arms.
Libby stood on the small piece of vinyl flooring just inside the door of her double-wide, stripped off her jeans and tee shirt, and dropped them into a cardboard box behind the door. It was the only way to keep metal shavings from spreading all over the house. Clad in bra and panties, she rushed toward the bathroom and turned on the shower. Removing her undergarments, she then tossed them into the hamper and stepped into the shower. Cold water splashed against her shins. Libby adjusted the water until it was so hot she could barely stand it. Her skin turned red and the stall filled with steam. First she washed her hair and rinsed it, and then covered it with conditioner. While the conditioner worked its magic, she lathered her body with soap and then stepped back under the showerhead. She closed her eyes and raised her face. The spraying water made it difficult to breathe. Libby opened her mouth and took in a mouthful of water, hot against her teeth. She spat it against the shower wall and then placed a hand against the wall to steady herself. She stood there for a moment, head bowed, while the conditioner rinsed from her hair and the water ran down her back and over her legs. Slightly aroused, Libby thought of Cooper. Soon. He will be here soon, she reminded herself. She smiled as she reached up and turned off the water.
She toweled off quickly, wrapped the damp towel around her body, and wrapped a fresh towel around her hair. Then she rushed to the living room, water dripping from her body, and withdrew her cell phone from her dirty jeans. No missed calls. But that was not a surprise. Cooper rarely called. He did not have a cell phone; he couldn’t afford one. He and Sally did have a house phone, but he seldom used it. Libby checked the front door to make sure it was unlocked. It was. She sighed. Maybe she’d take a quick nap before he arrived. She relished the thought of him waking her from sleep and smiled in anticipation as she walked back down the hall toward the bedroom.
Cooper woke hours later, long after Sally had left to work the lunch shift at Annie’s Diner. He rolled over, stretched against the nubby, pale-blue sheets, and scratched at his crotch. His tongue felt as if it was wrapped in cotton and he found it difficult to swallow. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, trying to remember what was special about this day. It was something good. Something … exciting. And then he remembered.
He believed in God now.
And he was going to build a church. The realization was enough to propel him from the bed and into the shower, even if his first couple of steps were sideways.
Standing under the showerhead, he lathered his entire body with Zest twice, and washed his hair twice too. Cooper felt the need to be extra clean today.
He toweled off, pulled on a pair of black boxer shorts from the dresser drawer, and then returned to the bathroom and picked his pissy pants up off the floor, hunting in the pockets for his wallet. It was not there. Nor was it in any of the three remaining pockets. Checking all four pockets again, he tried to remember where he went after he left Bass Turds. A lot of the night was fuzzy, like a television show with bad reception. The last thing he remembered was asking Violet if he could pray for her. He couldn’t even remember her response.
With a frown, he turned and walked out the front door, down the steps, and to his truck. As soon as the cold air hit him, he realized this might not have been the wisest decision. The thirty-year-old mobile home sat on eighty-four acres on a dead-end road, and the closest house was nearly a mile away. But even if there had been another house across the road, Cooper would not have bothered to put pants on before going outside; he never was hindered by modesty. Moving barefoot across the cold gravel driveway, he grimaced, his arms jerking outward with every step. At the truck, he climbed up into the cab to give his tender feet a break while he searched the glove compartment, the seat crack, behind the seat, and under the seat. The search turned up a couple of quarters and a pair of black lace panties. He held the panties in his hand for a moment and tried to remember where he had seen them last. Or who had been wearing them. He could not.
An odd feeling washed over him. Initially, he could not identify it. Then he realized what it was—remorse. Remorse and anxiety. He had never felt either. It took him a few minutes to connect the feeling with his recent conversion. Cooper stared at the panties and pondered the immensity of the moment. He was a changed man. God was inside him. He could feel it. He would have to give that some more thought.
But now, he had to find a way to get rid of these panties before Sally found them. And find his wallet. And one more thing—find a Bible. He couldn’t start a church without a Bible, and he didn’t own one. Since he still had not found his wallet, he couldn’t even buy one. He knew where he could get one, though.
Libby Cartwright owned a Bible. In the summer, when the windows of her mobile home were open, the suction often pulled the lightweight bedroom door shut. Libby used a Bible to prop the door open. It was the only book on her shelf big enough to do the job. On more than one sweaty summer night, Cooper Moon had reached over his head, pulled the Bible from the headboard bookshelf and tossed the book against the foot of the door.
He walked through the sharp gravel back to the trailer, wondering if Libby was home. Probably. And probably sleeping. As he walked up the steps, he tried to remember what day it was. Was it Monday or Tuesday? “Crap!” he said as soon as he realized it was neither. It was Wednesday. It had to be. Last night’s Tuesday night special at Bass Turds was Long Island Iced Teas. He’d had four. “Crap!” he said again as he hurried inside and looked toward the kitchen and at the clock on the oven. Earlier in the week he told Libby he’d stop by on Wednesday, before nine. It was almost 4:30 in the afternoon.
Cooper dressed quickly and drove his ’84 Chevy Silverado the short distance to Libby’s house. The truck was actually a variety of trucks. The bed was dark primer grey, the body was red, and the hood and doors were two-tone blue and white. Rust pitted every color, forming at least some sort of consistency. It had a lift kit on it for clearing underbrush in the woods, and a winch in the front in case Cooper buried it in the mud, which happened more than he liked to admit, especially during the spring. Water flooded through the floorboard if he drove through a deep mud puddle, but in the dry summer months, that wasn’t much of a problem.
As he drove, he tried to think of a plausible lie to tell Libby. Then he remembered that he believed in God now and couldn’t lie anymore. How in the world was he going to do that? Libby would never believe the truth. The truth was: he’d simply forgotten. No woman in the world wanted to be told that she’d been forgotten. How was he going to pull this off? He pulled up in front of Libby’s double-wide and left the keys in the ignition; one of the benefits of living in the small town of Timber Lake, Michigan. Everyone knew Cooper’s truck so why bother stealing it?
Libby met Cooper at the door. “What do you want?” She struggled to hide her excitement and tried to look angry, forcing him to stand on the portable concrete steps and look up at her.
“Hey, Libby. How are ya?”
“It’s almost five. You said you’d be here before nine.”
This was not going well. Cooper thought he might as well give it a shot and try something else. He pulled the black lace panties from the back pocket of his jeans and held them out to her. “I found your underwear in my truck.”
Libby looked at the panties and then looked back at Cooper. “Those aren’t mine.”
“Oh…” Cooper looked at the panties for a moment and then wadded them up and stuffed them back into his pocket. “I’m sorry I’m late. I … the truth is … I forgot. I’ve been sleeping.”
“No, really. I got home late last night, I guess, and I fell back asleep this morning. Just woke up less than half an hour ago. Could I come in? I need to talk to you.”
Libby tried to look angry, but it was difficult. Her heart was beating wildly. Here he was, on her doorstep again, wanting in. She must have looked at her cell phone fifty times today, looked out the window a hundred, waiting. She had paced back and forth, cussed him aloud, worried he might have been killed in an accident, and then worried that he might have just changed his mind. But here he was. And, in that moment, it was the only thing that mattered. Within minutes, she’d be in his arms. But first she had to act angry.
“Libby. Give me a chance here. I want to talk to you.”
Libby turned from him and walked inside, leaving the door hanging open.
Cooper walked up the three concrete steps and into the double-wide mobile home. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. All of the curtains were drawn and the only light in the room came from a television in the corner.
Taking a seat on one end of the couch, Libby picked up the remote and flipped it end over end against the arm of the couch. She needed something to do with her hands. A black-and-white movie played on the TV; Libby stared straight at it, still trying to look angry. Gregory Peck filled the screen, but Libby could not see him. Cooper was so close that she could smell him. Her hand shook slightly as she flipped the remote again and took in his scent.
“Libby, the damnedest thing happened to me last night.”
“What was her name?” Libby’s voice trembled; she hoped he didn’t notice.
“No. Really! Something happened to me that I never saw coming, and if anyone else were to tell me this same story I’d flat-out call them a bald-faced liar.”
Libby reached down with her left hand and pushed the plastic button that reclined the couch. She was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, and reclining caused her long legs to stretch out before Cooper like a carefully arranged display in a storefront window. She crossed one leg over the other and pointed her toes slightly. She wondered if he noticed.
He did. Clearing his throat, Cooper tried again. “I was at Bass Turds last night with Cecil Braden. He was telling me about his cousin Dan, who all of a sudden got religion. And I told him that…”
“Cooper, what are you talking about?” Why didn’t he just take her in his arms? Why did he keep talking?
“Libby, I’m trying to tell you. This is huge! Downright life altering, you might say. I want to tell you about it. And I need to borrow something.”
“I knew it!” Libby’s legs collapsed the recliner and it quickly recoiled. She turned to Cooper, pointed a finger at him. “I knew you wanted something! You got a lot of nerve coming here and asking me for money when you’ve probably been out running around with Violet Colette.” She’d heard the rumors about Cooper and Violet, but until this moment she had always acted as if she hadn’t. She wished she had not let the words slip out; they somehow made her more vulnerable. Fighting the urge to cry, Libby clenched her teeth and looked at his face, hoping to discover some sort of flaw, something to make him less appealing, less desirable. She could find no such flaw. In her eyes, he was perfect. Her heart ached a little at the sight of his mouth, his full lips. The lock of hair that always fell forward over his forehead. Libby clenched her fist to keep from brushing the hair from his eyes.
“No! No, Libby. You got it all wrong. I’m not here to borrow money.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I want to borrow a book.”
“A book? You want to borrow a book?”
Cooper thought about explaining, but the explanation seemed ridiculous, even to him, so he just nodded instead.
“Cooper, you don’t even read.”
“I read. Sometimes.”
Libby knew he wasn’t telling the truth. Not completely. There was more to this story. But she had become used to that. With Cooper, the less she knew the better. “What book?”
“It’s in your bedroom.” He pointed down the hall.
Libby wondered what he was up to. Maybe it was some sort of surprise for her. “Okay. Go get it.”
“Thanks, Libby.” Cooper got to his feet and walked down the familiar hall. This was not going as planned. It seemed it should be easier, now that God was on his side. It was the simplest of things, borrowing a Bible, but it sure didn’t seem simple at that moment.
Once in the bedroom, he quickly found the book in the bookshelf that served as the headboard to Libby’s bed. He smiled. Royal blue leather with the words Holy Bible printed in gold on its spine. Cooper reached out slowly and pulled the book from the shelf. A Danielle Steele novel leaned into its former spot.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he placed the Bible on his lap and ran his hands over the cover. There it was: his future. A little thrill went through him and he smiled. Noticing the scuffed edges, he hoped he had not been the one to put them there when the book had slid to a stop against the door.
“Did you find it?” Libby called from the living room.
Cooper stood. How was he going to explain all of this to Libby? How could he tell her about last night and what had happened at Bass Turds? Worse yet, how could he tell her he wouldn’t be stopping by anymore because he was going to be faithful to Sally now?
Cooper ran to the other side of the room, placed the Bible on the bed, and moved to the window. He quickly removed the clips that held the screens in place, popped the screen out, leaned it against the wall, and slid the window open. Scooping up the Bible, he dropped from the window and landed in a bed of dead chrysanthemums next to an old dog house.
As he moved through the yard toward his truck, he realized stealing Libby’s Bible and jumping out the window might not have been the wisest decision, but it sure seemed a lot easier than telling her the truth.
Libby walked down the hall toward her bedroom, wondering what Cooper was up to. Maybe he was waiting for her in bed. “Cooper?” She smiled, and the fingertips of her right hand brushed along the wall as she walked. Stepping into the room at the end of the hall, it took her a moment to realize he was not there. As she stared at the open window, Libby wondered if it was a prank, but then she heard his truck start in the driveway. She reached the window just in time to see Cooper’s truck pulling away.
Libby stood there listening to the fading sound of Cooper shifting gears. She didn’t cry. She hadn’t cried in years. She wasn’t even sure if she could anymore. At that moment, Libby Cartwright decided she had to get out of this town, and she needed money to make her escape. Even if it meant getting a second job, she was going to get out of Timber Lake. And she was going to take Cooper Moon with her.
Walking into Bass Turds always required an adjustment. There were windows along the front of the building, but the wooden blinds were usually pulled, and the patrons seemed to prefer it that way. Newcomers often stood in the doorway, blinking against the darkness before proceeding to one of the booths or the bar. Regulars simply strode in with false confidence and took a seat. As a result, there were often collisions, or near collisions, by the front door.
From the door, a long bar ran along the left side of the building and a row of booths on the right. Beyond the bar and booths was a pool table that no one ever played on, a couple of old video arcade games, and a few seldom-used tables. The bathrooms were located at the very rear of the building, as was the kitchen; both were well-lit, but the rest of the bar always seemed like a cave.
Cooper walked in without hesitation. Not only did he know his way to the bar in the dark, but he was on a mission: perhaps his wallet was here. The bar was warm and smelled slightly like shrimp, last night’s special.
“Hey, Coop,” Pete, the owner, greeted him. Pete lived in an apartment upstairs, and his presence was a given. If Bass Turds was open, Pete was there. A tall man of nearly six foot four, his once jet-black hair now graying, Pete would have been one of Timber Lake’s most desirable bachelors if he hadn’t given his heart to the bar years ago.
Pete’s father died at the age of fifty-two of cirrhosis of the liver. He was an alcoholic, something Pete did not fully realize or admit until long after his father was gone. Pete’s mother left both of them when Pete was barely seven. After she left, Pete’s dad took Pete along with him when he went to the neighborhood bar every night. Pete had nothing but happy memories of the place. Even though it was against the law for him to be there, everyone looked the other way and the patrons all took turns buying Pete ice cream shakes or anything else he wanted from the bar’s extensive menu. He became the center of attention and a mascot of sorts. One night, as they walked home from the bar, little Pete had told his father, “I like going there. Everybody is nice to me.”
Pete’s father had laughed, a big booming laugh that echoed through the still streets. “Yeah, I like going there too. I love those bastards.”
Little Pete had heard bass turds, and it was many years before he realized he had heard incorrectly. But, by then, it was too late. He had already resolved to own a bar when he grew up, and to name that bar Bass Turds. Unlike his father, however, he would never become an alcoholic; Pete hated the taste of the stuff.
“Hey, Pete. You seen my wallet?”
Pete set down the glass he had been drying with a white linen dish towel, walked over to the bar, and pulled out the cardboard box that served as the lost and found. He didn’t move as quickly as he once had, but he was still a formidable presence at the age of fifty-four. Leaning over, he peered inside. “Nope. Nothing here.”
Cooper sank heavily into the barstool. “Shit.” He wanted to ask Pete if he knew who had driven him home last night, but was embarrassed to admit he didn’t remember. It had happened to him a couple of times: waking up with no memory of the night before. It was unsettling, as if a piece of his life had been stolen, or erased. Like one of those weird sci-fi movies where the guy wakes up with no memory and then finds out aliens have abducted him and experimented on his body all night long. “Some night last night, huh?” Cooper ventured.
“Yeah.” Pete returned the glass to the long horizontal shelf that ran behind the bar. “Violet get you home okay? Or did you just spend the night there? I heard Frank is out of town.”
Shit! That wasn’t what Cooper wanted to hear. How could that be? How could he have gone home with Violet right after he believed in God? It wasn’t possible. Was it?
“I got home,” he said.
“You want a beer?”
“No. Give me a coffee.”
“Yeah. Coffee. I’ve given up drinking.”
Pete laughed and turned to retrieve a cup of coffee for Cooper.
TJ Barnes walked in, slid his skateboard behind the brass foot rail, leaned it against his knees, and took a seat in the barstool next to Cooper. Pete looked over the bar and down at TJ’s legs. “It’s resting against my knees, not the bar,” TJ said.
Pete raised an eyebrow. “It better be.” He wiped invisible dust from the top of the bar with a small yellow cloth. Pete’s bar was a thing of beauty: dark mahogany with fluted corners and a gleaming brass rail. Every drink had a coaster, a heavy tan square with Bass Turds on it in crimson lettering. Regulars knew better than to set a drink on the bar, and new customers learned quickly. Pete was not a violent man, but he had once picked up Willie Hallock and tossed him into the street after Willie repeatedly put a wet beer glass on the bar.
“Coffee?” TJ asked Cooper as Pete placed a large white coffee cup down on a coaster in front of Cooper and then walked away.
“I’m done with drinking.” Cooper reached for the sugar and cream and poured a generous amount of both into his cup.
“Sally on your ass after last night?”
“That’s right! You were here last night, weren’t you?” Cooper asked.
“For a while,” TJ said.
Cooper remained silent and waited for Pete to leave. He didn’t want Pete to overhear him talking to TJ. Pete sat a coaster and a tall glass of water with lemon in front of TJ. Quickly picking up the glass, TJ drained it and placed it back on the coaster. Pete refilled it immediately and then moved to the other end of the bar to refill the drinks of a couple in their mid-twenties, who were whispering back and forth in an urgent manner. The woman wrapped both of her hands around her glass; as if afraid someone might take it from her. Cooper glanced in their direction and noticed a small red tattoo of a heart on her wrist. He wondered who she was. Most of the patrons of Bass Turds were familiar by now, but he did not recognize her. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes were puffy, as if she had not slept all night. The man’s back was to Cooper. He was leaning in her direction, as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear what he was saying.
“TJ, I need to ask you something.” Cooper turned away from the couple at the end of the bar and leaned closer to the younger man. TJ’s shirt was damp, his tanned forearms were moist, and he smelled of sweat, but not offensively so. Cooper lowered his voice and focused on the rows of bottles and the mirrored wall behind the bar. “How long were you here last night? I mean, were you here when I left? Who’d I go home with? Do you know?”
“Sorry, Cooper. I wasn’t here that long. When I left, you were sitting with Cecil and Violet.”
“How drunk was Cecil?”
“Tanked. But not as bad as you.”
“No. You were praying for people. You don’t remember?” TJ stared at him.
Cooper shook his head, took a sip of coffee, and added some more sugar. “I remember daring Cecil to tell me that prayer. And I remember saying it and believing in God. I remember how I felt afterward—as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. But I can’t remember much after that. I woke up this morning in my truck, in my driveway.” Cooper didn’t mention the part about pissing his pants.
“Sounds like you just drove home and fell asleep in the truck.”
Cooper shook his head. “I don’t think so. I was sitting on the passenger side of the truck, leaning against the window, when I woke up. And the keys were on the dash.”
“Hmmm. Must have been Cecil or Violet. I’m betting on Violet.”
“Yeah. I sure hope not.” Cooper remembered the panties in his back pocket.
“So, you believe in God now?” TJ asked.
“Yep. Sure as sh— sure as … sure enough.”
“Ain’t that something? How does it feel?”
“It feels good. But kind of peculiar, too. Like I just joined this club sight unseen and I don’t know anything about the benefits or requirements. Ya know?” Cooper looked at the mirror and the reflection of two women who were seated behind him in a booth. He resisted the urge to swivel his barstool and give them a smile.
“Yeah. I heard about this guy who went to join a gym because he heard that the first year of membership was free. But when he started signing the papers they told him he had to pay for three more years to get the free year. ”
Cooper nodded. “Yeah. Kind of like that. And I can’t find my wallet. I’m flat broke.”
Hearing this, Pete walked back over to their end of the bar. “Then how you gonna pay for this coffee?”
Cooper set the cup down and looked questioningly at the bartender. “You charge for coffee? It ain’t free?”
“Hell no, it ain’t free. Some places charge four, five bucks for a cup of coffee.”
“How much do you charge?”
“Two-fifty? No shit?” The last word was out before he could catch it. He wondered if Dan Braden had been able to quit cussing all at once, or if it had been more of a gradual thing?
“You got two-fifty, TJ?” Cooper asked, already knowing the answer. More than anything, he’d asked TJ just to be polite.
TJ shook his head.
“Well, don’t ask for any more coffee,” Pete said. “You ain’t getting any.”
“To be honest with you, Pete, I don’t even want this. This might be the worst coffee I ever had.”
“It’s instant,” Pete replied. “This is a bar. Nobody orders coffee.”
“I can’t believe people pay that much for coffee.”
“If you didn’t eat for free at the diner, you’d know about paying for coffee.”
Cooper shrugged and stood, leaving his half-full cup on the bar. “Take it easy, TJ. I’m heading home to look for my wallet again. Maybe it’s in the driveway. Or somewhere in the yard.”
“Later, Cooper.” TJ tipped his glass and drank the last drop. He was still thirsty, but he knew he would be pushing his luck to ask Pete for another refill, especially after Cooper just stiffed him on the coffee. “Thanks, Pete,” TJ said as he retrieved his skateboard from behind the foot rail and stood to leave.
“Yep,” Pete said, his head tilted up so he could watch the televised poker game on the TV behind the bar. He did not bother turning to watch TJ walk out.
Blinking a couple of times against the sunlight, TJ dropped his skateboard to the sidewalk, zipped up his hooded sweatshirt, stepped on the skateboard, and pushed off.
If anyone were to ask TJ his occupation, he would tell them he was a professional free runner. Of course, no one in Timber Lake knew what a free runner was, and no one cared enough to ask. His designation as a professional was suspect. Professional implied payment. TJ thought it implied dedication.
Almost everyone in town knew TJ—most even by name if he was pointed out in a crowd. Mostly, though, they ignored him. When TJ had first started hanging from billboards and climbing the big oak trees in the courtyard lawn, people had been amused. They became less amused when he began running across their rooftops and frequenting the local playgrounds. Eventually, they started shaking their heads and feeling sorry for his parents, Ted and Clara Barnes. When Ted died of a heart attack last year, somehow it seemed even worse—poor Clara was now the one stuck with the crazy kid.
But at least his parents had another son. A spare. And the spare was much better. Jake Barnes, the older brother, was a county cop, which was a good thing for a couple of reasons. First, it kept Clara from being ostracized by the community since she had at least one decent son. Second, it prevented TJ from spending most of his time in jail. Initially, the citizens of Timber Lake called the police when they found TJ running across their roofs or swinging from their trees. Eventually, however, they realized TJ would not be arrested and they were only adding to Clara’s humiliation. After a while, they just began calling Jake, who would usually show up and give his younger brother a ride to someplace else. It wasn’t as if TJ was being destructive; he was not. Mostly, he was just annoying, and people wanted him off of their property and away from their children’s playgrounds.
TJ had always been a restless child—squirmy and bouncy and lacking in direction. In junior high he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He took the meds long enough to placate his parents. Eventually, though, he refused to take them. By that time, he was sixteen—old enough to drop out of school with his parents’ consent. It was the easiest solution for all involved.
While other kids studied algebra and biology, TJ improved his skateboarding skills, took free martial arts classes at the YMCA, and took up long-distance running. He pursued these activities aggressively until he excelled at them. Then he moved on to the next pursuit. Nothing held his attention for longer than the amount of time required to master it.
TJ’s lack of focus changed one fateful day five years ago when he stopped into Bass Turds to use the bathroom. As he exited the bathroom, he passed the television behind the bar and saw a muscular young man battling the strangest and most wonderful obstacle course he had ever seen. Mesmerized, TJ watched as the man swung between overhead bars, ran up an impossibly steep ramp, and climbed a rope.
“What’s that?” TJ asked.
“World Wide Warrior,” Pete answered. “Ain’t that some shit?” Pete only owned one television and it was in the bar instead of his apartment. He liked to watch his favorite shows while working. He wasn’t very obliging if someone wanted to change the channel, especially if the person asked him to change to a sports program. Pete hated televised sports. World Wide Warrior was different, though. It was a competition: men striving against a course that seemed near impossible. Pete liked that.
TJ stood at the bar, transfixed. He watched as a competitor leaped to grab a swinging overhead bar and then fell short and splashed into the water below. At that moment, he knew his life would never be the same. He had found his purpose.
The next day, TJ started training. Ever since that day he had trained nearly every waking hour. Even while he slept his body worked out difficult maneuvers in dreams. TJ read somewhere that the male body peaks at twenty-five, so he decided that would be the year he would compete. There would only be one chance for him; he needed to make the most of it. He had no money, no job, and no car. The competition was held in Denver, a long way from Timber Lake.
Now twenty-five years old, TJ navigated the sidewalks on his skateboard, with the number 126 in his head. One hundred and twenty-six more days until the World Wide Warrior competition.
He was terrified.