Joel Shepard got home late. He pulled his beat-up Chevy pick-up into the driveway and turned off the engine. He sat for a moment, exhausted, under a full moon in the dead of a Texas night. He pulled the keys from the ignition and looked at the dark house before him. A two-story tract home on a half-acre lot with wood-siding. A rocking chair sat on the narrow porch by the front door. He grunted, opened the truck door and climbed out. Another red-letter day at the job site, he thought to himself. The crew was now down to five and was six weeks behind. And the client, now at the end of his rope, was threatening lawsuits.
As he walked heavily to the front door, his cell phone rang. He looked down, saw the number and veered away from the door. He lifted his head toward the heavens and shook his head. He answered it and said, "For chrissake. What now?"
It was his brother, Tommy.
"Just got off the phone with Lance," his brother's voice said. "Whatever's going around, apparently he's got it too."
"So," said Joel. He could feel his blood pressure rising. "No tile guy."
"No tile guy," his brother confirmed.
"That's just..." he was on the verge of swearing, but just didn't have the energy. He turned back toward the door, fumbling with the keys in his hand. "This whole job's going south, Tommy. And the goddamn contractor is nowhere to be found."
"If he's sick, he's sick," Tommy said. "Not much you can do --"
Joel opened the door to his house and stepped inside. "Tommy. Tommy," he interrupted. "He is the contractor." He caught his temperature rising and lowered his voice. "He is the contractor, okay? I can't lose this job."
"What is it about 'sick' you don't understand?"
Joel caught a glimpse of the ten year-old asleep on the sofa and his mood softened. "I understand."
"Look. I'll call around, find someone."
"Lets talk about this in the morning, okay?" he said. He flipped the switch by the door. The girl stirred as a soft glow of light filled the den.
"Hell, maybe I'll do it. How far along was he?"
"We'll talk about it in the morning."
"All right," Joel said. "Goodnight." He flipped the phone off and tossed the keys on the coffee table.
Yawning, the young girl sat up on one elbow. "Hey," she said, squinting up at him.
"Scoot," was all he could muster. She made room for him and he let his body collapse into the leather cushions.
"Fun day at work?"
Joel looked at her. She was in her plaid, thread-bare pajama bottoms and had one tee-shirt over another. Leather bracelets encircled her wrist and she wore a choker with beads around her neck. Her name was Sarah and she had a style all her own. Wheat-colored hair like her mother's - which she preferred to keep short - an aversion to make-up, to boys, and especially dresses.
Oh, and that Texas drawl of hers... That was all Joel.
Her father gave her a sideways glance. "What are you still doing up?" he asked, propping his head upright with tired fingers. "It's late."
"Oh crud what time is it?" She spun around and looked at the clock on the wall above the sofa.
Joel knew what time it was without lifting a muscle. "It's way past your bedtime," he said.
"But it's still today," she stated as an indisputable fact.
She always had a way of spinning things to her advantage, thought Joel, a trait she definitely didn't pick up from him.
With a burst of ten year-old energy, she scrambled to the far end of the sofa and began reaching for something hidden in the shadows.
Joel had a vague idea what was coming. He said, "Honey, please not right now. I do not have the energy for this."
Ignoring his plea, Sarah popped up and confronted him with an outstretched arm. "Here."
In her hand was a square gray box.
"What's this?" Joel asked, reaching for it.
"Your birthday," Sarah replied, again stating the obvious.
Joel glanced at her and opened the box. An overwhelming sense of appreciation swept over him at what he saw. He fought hard to contain it.
"You kept complaining about your broken watch," Sarah said. "So I figured, you know..."
He removed the watch and sat the box down on the coffee table. He was too exhausted to handle the emotion that threatened to consume him, and so to avoid it, he focused on fastening the watch to his wrist.
"You like it?"
The truth was he loved it. But life had taught Joel to keep his emotions at arm's length, and so the protective shield came up. He tapped the watch face and - making a face - said, "Honey, this is nice, but..."
"What?" asked Sarah. There was a trace of panic in her voice.
He held the watch up to his ear. "It's nice but, I think it's stuck. It's..." He made a helpless shrug.
Instantly Sarah panicked. "No, no, no..." she said. She grabbed his wrist as her face went pale. A second passed... a second she noted by the ticking of the hand on Joel's watch, and her color returned.
"Oh ha ha," she said, pushing his arm away. She stretched out on the sofa away from him.
"Where'd you get the money for this?" he asked his daughter.
"Drugs," Sarah responded over her shoulder. "I sell hardcore drugs."
"Oh good," Joel said, settling in and grabbing the remote. "You can start helping out with the mortgage then."
"You wish," Sarah replied with a snort.