The Empty Box

By: Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow

Chapter One

Last November

Dave tugged the zipper on his jacket higher and tucked his hands into his pockets before he crossed the street. November was always cold, but he felt it more as he aged. Not that he was old. Okay, yeah, he was probably officially old at this point, a few years from fifty. His nephew, born a week before Dave’s thirtieth birthday, had gotten his driver’s license, for God’s sake.

The farmer’s market was tiny at this time of year, half a dozen vendors at most. One of them sold nothing but pumpkins. She had a scarf wrapped around her neck and the lower half of her face and stood outside the small barn with the pumpkins lined up on a series of shelves made with rough boards propped on cinder blocks. Her sign said, LAST DAY! HALF OFF.

“They’ll be fine for weeks,” Dave told her by way of greeting.

“I know, but I won’t be. This is the end of the year for me. My blood’s too thin for this weather.”

“Can’t say I blame you. It was freezing when I got up yesterday.” There’d been frost on the windshield of his little blue Civic, for sure. What could he do with a bunch of cheap pumpkins at the Peg? Soup? With some crumbled bacon on top, it would go great with the harvest ales they were featuring. He’d have to find a recipe and see if he could sneak the addition to the menu past Shane’s watchful eye. Shane was of the firm opinion that pumpkin didn’t belong in any food group and definitely not in a pie served with whipped cream. Dave chalked it up to being English and didn’t take Shane’s rejection of his menu suggestions personally.

Baby steps. Compared to the basic bar food the Peg had offered in the past, the current selection was a huge improvement. Stuck in the kitchen, Dave didn’t see the reaction to his food, but any positive comments were passed on by the bar staff, and there were enough of them to make him confident he was on the right track.

After purchasing four pumpkins and stowing them in his car, he went back to the stalls, moving quickly to stave off the chill. The honey man was in his usual corner, and Dave saved him until last. Locke, as everyone called him, was a giant of a man, a bushy gray beard cascading down his wide chest. He smiled at everyone but didn’t say much. The sign over his stall told the world that his name was MICHAEL LOCKE, BEEKEEPER, and a small painting of a bee decorated the bottom corner, a vibrant splash of gold and brown.

Locke sold more than honey and honeycombs. Beeswax candles and honey soap, lotions and creams, salad dressings and more covered the sturdy table. The candles fascinated Dave. They were handmade, odd, irregular shapes that, like clouds, could be interpreted in different ways. He smiled at Locke and picked up a squat, heavy candle tinted rich amber, enjoying the weight of it in his hand and the smooth texture.

“The flames of these always seem brighter than with a regular candle.”

“Beeswax burns cleaner than most commercial waxes,” Locke said. “Lasts longer too.”

“It’s been such a long time since I burned a regular candle that I’ll have to take your word for it.” He had one at home on a little plate, never lit. It probably had a nice thick coat of dust on it by now.

“I wouldn’t mind regular candles so much if they didn’t smell like perfume.” Locke wrinkled his nose. “Makes my stomach turn. My wife loved them. I’d put up with them again if it meant having her back, that’s for sure.”

It wasn’t the first time Locke had mentioned his dead wife, but he did it so naturally that it didn’t make Dave squirm. “It’s easier to deal with something you’re not crazy about if someone you love likes it.” He swapped the candle for a jar of honey. “I’d better have an extra jar this week. I bought some pumpkins from the woman outside.”

“Hmm. Soup? Or are you going to roast it?” Locke reached for a paper bag, then filled it with the jars of honey.

“Not sure yet. Soup, definitely, and honey goes well with that, but I might do mini muffins too. A double dose of pumpkin.” He breathed in, imagining smelling not the crisp air of the market, redolent of vegetables, but the hot curl of steam rising from a fresh muffin, split in half and waiting for a knob of butter. In the kitchen, ideas sparked in ways they never did at home, browsing recipes online. He’d thought about setting up a blog to share some of his recipes, but there were so many sites out there offering food ideas it didn’t seem worth it. “You’re inspiring me.”

Locke nodded, pleasure lighting his brown eyes. “The bees do that for me. They’re clustering now, you know—forming a layer, heating the hive with their bodies. Some will die doing it, but they do it anyway.”

Uncomfortable with the idea of that level of self-sacrifice, sure he’d never measure up if he were faced with a comparable situation, Dave pasted an intelligent look on his face and took out his wallet. “They’re fascinating creatures. Could I get a receipt, please?”

Ben, co-owner of the Peg and Shane’s partner, was also an accountant. Requests for reimbursement with no receipt to back them up led to lectures in Ben’s patient voice, punctuated by Shane muttering, “Give him the fucking money and get back behind the bar.” Which led to Ben pinning Shane with a stern stare holding enough heat to toast bread. Shane never minded what amounted to PDA, but Dave did. He was fifteen or so years older than them, but not too old to want what they had—a committed relationship with passion spicing the day-to-day contentment. Seeing them happy made him envious, not jealous, but it sometimes hurt to contrast his loneliness with their easy companionship.

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