Strangers are not a common sight in Dwyer’s Hollow–unless they’re passing through or attending one of the Hollow’s historic festivals. Once people leave the Hollow, they rarely come back to visit, much less to stay. Read the beginning of Dwyer’s Hollow here.
Bryony nursed her beer, tracing patterns in the condensation on the chipped Formica counter. She was one of the few people in MacNally’s; the dinner crowd cleared out early. People looking for a real drink usually went to O’Neil’s—the pool hall outside town that sat just off the interstate. Bryony preferred MacNally’s. Since she was eight, she always ordered a burger smothered in ketchup and a side of Mac’s homemade fries. Bryony lingered, not ready to return home. The little bell above the door chimed and someone slid into a seat at the counter a few stools down.
“What can I getcha?” Mac asked, his voice warming the air.
“Got anything harder than beer?” he asked and, at Mac’s nod, ordered, “Vodka, straight. No ice.”
Bryony arched an eyebrow at her beer and took a sip, sneaking a glance at the stranger. It was the man she saw walking that morning—still wearing his plaid shirt. His dark hair was thick, tumbling over his forehead as he stared down at the counter top. Mac brought the glass of vodka and slid it across the counter. The stranger handed over his card and sipped the chilled liquor. Bryony suppressed a shudder.
“You want to leave this open, Mister…Thorsen?”
Bryony heard the tremor in Mac’s voice and sat up.
“Aleksander Thorsen?” Mac asked again. “Unusual name.”
Bryony stared at the dark-haired man, searching for something familiar. His nose was slightly crooked and his dark eyebrows were thick and sat low over his eyes. She was almost sure it was him. His eyelashes were longer than she remembered–a cause for envy even at age ten–but the eyes were the same grayish green and the skinny face was an older version of one she remembered vividly. He met her eyes for a long moment and she looked back, frozen. His thin lips gave a little twitch and he turned to Mac.
“You can close it,” he said.
Bryony turned back to her beer, hoping the color didn’t rise in her cheeks.
“Hey,” his greeting surprised her in the act of gnawing her bottom lip. His voice was deeper than she remembered, but she knew it all the same.
“Hey,” she said back.
The way she mimicked his tone brought an almost-smile to his face. Bryony finally took a good look at him. He didn’t look well. His skin had always been fair–thanks to his Swedish heritage–and he had always been on the small side, but the way his shirt hung off his shoulders didn’t look healthy. She could see the bones in his wrists.
“How are you, Zander? It’s been…a while. Sorry, do you still go by Zander?” Bryony cursed her lack of tact; she hadn’t seen him for almost fifteen years.
“Zander’s fine,” he shrugged, fiddling with a silver ring on his thumb. “You know we moved to Sweden, when we left, I mean.”
“I remember. How was being back?” Bryony asked, leaning forwards slightly.
She barely remembered living in England with her parents, although she retained the accent. They lived there for five years before moving to the Hollow. Her parents knew the Thorsens in England—their fathers worked together
“It was fine; my parents really enjoyed being near family.” His lips twisted. “I don’t know if you’ve heard—they passed last year. A boating accident.”
“I hadn’t heard, I’m so sorry, Zander,” Bryony almost reached out to touch his hand.
“Thank you. I know our parents lost touch, but my mother spoke to yours sometimes,” he said, taking another swig of vodka.
“After Mom moved out she went to Oregon—about as far away from here as she could,” Bryony wrapped her fingers around her beer.
“My mother mentioned something about that. I’m sorry,” he said.
When her mom finally broke under the strain of small town living and moved to Oregon to live with her boyfriend, Bryony’s dad seemed more determined than ever to stay in the Hollow. Sometimes Bryony wondered if that was why she just couldn’t leave—if he passed that genetically on with his fair hair and eyes.
“So, you’re back for good?” she broke the silence.
“Yeah, I just started moving into the Estate,” he stared into his glass.
“Know of another Estate around here?” a flash of the smile she remembered so well before the shutters came back down.
“Well, no, but…”
“You remember it was the Thorsen family home?”
Bryony nodded, trying to keep her jaw from dropping open. Again.
“We never lived there before because it wasn’t Mother’s taste. But the old house sold years ago and I don’t fancy living in what there is to offer these days.”
She briefly pictured her tiny apartment with a bathroom the size of a broom cupboard and no closet to speak of—above Emmaline’s garage and blushed.
“It certainly is…roomy,” she fumbled with her warming beer.
“It is that,” a hint of white teeth again. “Besides, it’s been long enough that the ghosts will have gone to their eternal rest, don’t you think?”
The clatter as the glass Mac was cleaning slipped from his hands and ricocheted off the side of the sink made them both jump. Mac hurriedly wiped his hands on his greasy apron.
“Either of you want another? Fixing to close up,” he said.
Bryony glanced at her watch. It was barely nine o’clock. She drained the rest of her beer and slid the cup across.
Zander raised a thick, black eyebrow at her before tossing back the rest of his vodka without so much as the flicker of an eyelid.
“Thanks,” he said, waiting until Mac met his eyes.
“Goodnight, Mac,” Bryony said, shrugging into her coat as Zander held open the door, setting the bell ringing again.
She couldn’t help but wonder, as they walked out of the diner and into the clear, crisp night why Mac stood and watched them until they turned the corner and disappeared out of his sight.