By Brian Panowich
Those three “L” words are being used to describe my new novel, Hard Cash Valley, which should be on shelves as you read this, and my editor here at Augusta Magazine was kind enough to let me use this space to give y’all a peek behind the curtain of my return to the characters who populate McFalls County.
This time out you get to meet main protagonist Dane Kirby, and the excerpt below highlights the “love” aspect of the story. Enjoy.
Dane stared out across the rushing water of Bear Creek. His head was all over the place this morning, but still it remained stuffed full of ghosts. Soon enough he was talking to himself again. Or, rather, talking to her: “I love you, Mrs. Kirby.”
The wind answered him. It always did. After all these years, he’d still never forgotten the sound of her voice. “I love you back, Chief Kirby.”
Dane closed his eyes and let the rich smell of moist dirt and grass take him back to his favorite memory. “Whoa,” Dane said, this time in his mind. “Don’t jinx it. I’m not wearing the white helmet yet.”
Gwen smirked. He smiled wider. He knew he had the job. The commission had already told him so. He was just waiting on the vote to be ratified — a formality. Gwen knew it, too. That’s why she’d asked him to meet her out here at the same park where he’d proposed a few years back — to celebrate this new chapter in their life. He lay back on a huge chunk of rock and allowed himself to soak in the memory of his wife. The way she lay in the green, grassy ocean of Noble Park. The warm sunlight dancing off her skin and how she glowed. She wore a sleeveless yellow sundress with a paisley lace print on it that day. The one she wore at her sister’s wedding. Dane loved that dress, and she knew it. Dane Kirby felt like the luckiest man alive. He finally had the job he wanted. He had good friends. He lived in the place he’d grown up — the place he loved. But even without all that — he had the girl. Not just a girl, but the girl. Gwen was, at that moment, as she always had been to him, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He was in awe of her. He was even more in awe of the fact that she had chosen him to spend the rest of her life with.
Gwen had brought a picnic basket with her to the park, and it sat in the grass above their heads. When she reached up to open the wicker lid, Dane took his index finger and poked her lightly, right above the dimple in her hip.
“Stop,” she said with a coy smile, drawing her arm back. “That tickles.”
“I can’t help it. Your freckles are out today like crazy and they’re killing me.” Gwen’s shoulders and back were covered in light sunspots that Dane read his future in every night, like old mystics would do with tea leaves. Gwen loved astrology. Dane thought it was all a bunch of nonsense, but those freckles — those freckles were as close as he’d ever gotten to the stars. Those freckles were Dane’s own private constellations, and he couldn’t imagine his life without being able to see them — to touch them — so he did, every chance he could.
“Well, keep your hands to yourself for just a minute, please.” Gwen reached over to the basket for a second time and pulled out a bottle of wine and a corkscrew.
“Baby,” Dane said, and sat up abruptly. He looked around the park. There was no one in the field other than them. But it was midday, and although he wasn’t on duty, he was in his McFalls County Fire Department uniform. “I can’t drink that. I’m wearing my badge. Are you trying to get me fired before my first day as chief?”
She ignored him, pulled off the silver foil covering the cork, tossed it in the grass next to the basket, and then used the corkscrew to open the bottle. “Hand me those cups in the basket,” she said.
“I’m serious, Gwen. I’m not going to kill a bottle of vino with you in the middle of the day while I’m wearing my uniform.”
“Suit yourself.” She reached into the basket and pulled out two red Solo cups. She sat one in the grass next to the curl of foil and poured two fingers of red wine into the other. She recorked the bottle, took a long sip, and lay back down, careful not to spill. Dane had to laugh. This woman did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted to do it — and it drove him absolutely crazy. In fact, everything about his wife made him crazy. She lit him up like a firefly in a jar. Her hair — so brown it could be black if not for the highlights that spilled like streams of honey onto the grass — made him crazy. The way she smelled like honeysuckle and fresh-cut sugarcane at all times of day — made him crazy. The way she’d been setting his senses on fire since the first day they met — made him crazy. He had to physically force himself to break his lovestruck stare from the curves of her yellow dress so he could lay back down in the grass next to her and hope no one gave them any static about having an open bottle of wine in public. Truthfully, he didn’t care. It wasn’t a big deal. He reached over and felt for her hand. When he found it, she took it and squeezed. She spoke while they both looked straight up at the spun-cotton cloud formations. “You can’t see it right now, but we are lying directly under Orion, the hunter. We’ll be able to see it tonight. It’s supposed to be really clear.”
He turned his head to her. “Do you plan on lying here in the middle of this park long enough for the sun to go down?”
She turned to look at him now. Their faces were close enough for their noses to touch, their cheeks itchy from the grass. Dane didn’t look away. He could feel himself fall even deeper into her eyes. Eyes so dark he could never see her pupils. But he could today. Her irises seemed lighter. As if someone had added cream to black coffee. Maybe it was the sun. After all, it was a beautiful day.
“If you lie here with me, I will.”
“I’m not going anywhere, woman.”
“You better not.”
Dane remembered the way he kissed her that day. The way he just couldn’t help himself. Gwen closed her eyes and kissed him back — hard — and her tongue found the back of his throat as if the fate of the world depended on it. He could taste the wine on her lips, sweet and waxy like lip gloss. He found the courage to finally break away from her and reached for the empty cup beside him. It was what she wanted him to do — and she’d always been able to get him to do what she wanted — so he decided he didn’t care about the consequences of her little wine in the park scenario.
“Okay,” he said. “Pour me some. Just a sip.”
Gwen got giddy and sat up on her elbows. She took the bottle and poured a small nip of wine into Dane’s cup. They toasted to freckles they could see and stars they couldn’t. Dane lifted the cup to his lips, swirled the red wine around in his mouth, and almost spit it back out. “Gwen?” he said with a gag, then forced himself to swallow. “Um — I think this wine is corked or something. It’s horrible. How are you drinking that?”
She returned the bottle to the basket and then lay back down, flat in the grass. She stared directly into the sun through a break in the clouds. “It’s the best I could do — for something nonalcoholic, anyway.”
“What?” Dane perched himself on one arm and stared at her as she lay there, her eyes closed now, a sly smile on her thin lips. He’d never known his wife to drink anything nonalcoholic — ever. Something was off. And he hadn’t noticed until right then. Her sense of calm was palpable. “Gwen?” Dane spoke her name as a question.
She kept her eyes closed and said, “Did you know that right now is the Year of the Rooster, according to the Chinese zodiac?”
Dane didn’t care about the zodiac. He sat straight up and repeated her name with a little more intensity. His heart began to race. He stared at her, feeling completely confused. Gwen couldn’t look any more content or relaxed if she tried as she lay there in the thick blanket of grass of the most secluded park in town. The rush of what she wasn’t saying hit Dane like a wrecking ball. He felt winded. He was suddenly aware of the Georgia sun heating the back of his neck. The glow she had — her eyes — it wasn’t just the sunlight.
“The Chinese,” she said, “say that children born during the Year of the Rooster bring great intelligence and great joy to the world.”
“Gwen,” Dane said a third time, in a more subdued choke of a whisper.
She opened her eyes slowly and caught his stare. “Yes, Dane?”
“Are you — are we —” He stumbled over his words.
“Yes,” she said. “We are.” And she rubbed his free hand over the flat surface of her belly. “Does that make you happy?” She already knew the answer by the tears lining his cheeks and that ridiculous grin on his face that only she was capable of bringing out of him. They held each other for a long time. Her wine spilled onto the grass. Dane hoped she’d never let go.
“I love you, Mrs. Kirby.”
“I know,” she said. “And I love you right back.”
Hard Cash Valley, by Brian Panowich, is available everywhere May 5, 2020.
Appears in the May/June 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.