4 posts in this topic

As stated in the tags, this fic is inspired by the WoB explaining Fortuity's weakness—public rejection by a woman to whom he is attracted—and hinting it stems from a time that happened in the worst possible way. I found that to be an intriguing deepest-darkest-fear, and this idea began percolating. Will probably be a three-parter, but I'm not making any promises. 

 

Part One

Spoiler

 

Your sister once predicted where you would meet your soulmate. 

She didn't predict it, technically. It was one of those online quizzes you tended to ignore. And you didn't take it. She read off multiple-choice questions from the family computer while you pored over your homework at the kitchen table. It was the first semester of your second year of college, and perhaps you should have been out on your own by then, but your dad didn't charge you rent and a year at the nearest community college cost less than a semester's tuition at a university, so there you were at the table you'd dined at since you were small, absently answering questions about your favorite foods and what type of paisley you'd use to wallpaper your apartment. 

"Would you rather have a kind that's brown and tan with some blueish spots along the curvy arm-y things, or a green and yellow one that's all swirly, or—" 

You turned in your chair. "Sis, you want me to just look at it?" 

She covered the screen with both hands. "No! Just tell me what you'd go with." 

"What is this quiz about, anyway?" 

"I'll tell you after you finish it." 

Your eyes narrowed, prompting a smile. 

"It'll be worth it, I promise. Now. Do you want the ugly brown paisley, the ugly yellow, the ugly green, or the ugly blue?" 

You contemplated brushing her off, going back to your homework—you were still deep in prerequisite courses, and what they lacked in prestige they made up in homework—but it was too late. You were already intrigued. "Ugly yellow, I guess." 

She clicked it after you turned away, and moved on to the next question, which you answered without looking up from your work. The same went for the next, and the next. 

"So, according to this quiz…." 

You turned, and saw she had twisted in her seat—not quite facing you, but not facing the computer, either. Her legs dangled over the side of the chair, her hands clasped melodramatically. She wore the sort of grin she reserved for moments when she was about to get away with something—moments that come far more often for younger siblings than for elder ones. 

"You, Steven, will meet your soulmate, the love and light of your life—" 

"You have got to be kidding me." 

"—in an Arby's parking lot in El Paso, Texas." 

Silence settled over the living area like snow. 

"It does not say that."

"No! It really does—see?" She scooted aside, allowing you to read the result for yourself: You will meet your soulmate in an Arby's parking lot in El Paso, Texas. 

"What kind of sites are you going to?" 

She elbowed your side. "I think you should be asking which Arby's you should go to." 

*************************

Two years later and three months into your senior year at a university nowhere near El Paso, you can't shake the gnawing sensation that there may have been some truth to that stupid quiz after all. 

You're in one of several dining halls—all of which are a good deal nicer than the cafeteria at the community college—back framed by a wooden chair. Across from you in an identical chair is a tall girl, her blonde waves loose save for a handful of narrow braids scattered throughout. Round-rimmed glasses rest on her nose; shortened imitation peacock feathers dangle from her ears. Her olive green jacket isn't quite covered in patches, but there are enough of them announcing various bands and causes and random slogans to call more attention to themselves than the jacket itself ever could. Her name is Lacy. She's pretty—anyone with eyes can see that. She's made you laugh—bad news, considering the sandwich lodged in your throat at the time. 

And she's mentioned living in the desert. 

You've never been to El Paso. You've never even been to Texas, unless you count a layover in Houston on the way to your grandmother's funeral in Florida. But you've seen maps and photos and you know the sort of topography surrounding that city on the border. 

You like her. Even if you were inclined to look for flaws to give yourself an excuse to stop talking to her, you're certain any you'd find would be trivial. You're not going to go on your way and use the campus' massive sprawl to avoid her. But if your sister is right, even just a little, even only about the state your supposed future soulmate will hail from, you'll never hear the end of it. 

"So, uh."

She looks up, from her carton of chocolate milk, her slight smile hinting at a joke on her mind. Too late to take your question back. 

"Where you from?" Not El Paso, you silently plead. Not Texas. New Mexico, maybe; Arizona would be fine. But not Texas.

"Vegas." 

Ha. 

"That's a ways away." You'd kick yourself if you could. Of all the things you could have said…. "How's it different from Wisconsin?" 

She sniffs. "How isn't it different? Over there, it's in the sixties right now. And I'm over here, in this vast frozen wasteland." 

You try a smile. "C'mon, Wisconsin's not a wasteland." 

"Okay, sure. I mean, it's not Iowa." 

"Watch it. I'm from Iowa." 

Like most of what you've said since she asked if the spare seat was taken, you said it with a smile, but you didn't expect her to burst out in a laugh. "Iowa? Seriously? You're from Iowa?" 

This isn't the first time you've been ribbed about your home state. Most of it came from other Midwesterners, or people who hadn't been but knew how much of Iowa is small towns and cornfields. But this feels different. You don't know, can't know what she'll say next, but you suspect it's not a good-natured question about the Hobo Convention Britt holds every year. "Yeah. Algona." 

"God, I flew over that state on my way here. Even from 8,000 feet it looked so boring.

That was a complaint of yours, while you lived in Algona. It was a complaint of almost everyone in your graduating class and beyond. But there's a difference between hearing it from someone who's lived in a town that loses its luster the moment a walk down the street for ice cream loses its novelty, and hearing it from someone who's spent her whole life—or at least a substantial portion of it—in a city that's half flashing lights and half slot machines. "It's not that bad. Actually pretty nice, being in a place that—" 

"Did you grow up on a farm?" 

"What?" 

"What I said. Did you grow up on a farm? Bet you did." 

"Uh, no. My dad works for the—" 

"Did you ever go cow-tipping?" 

"What?" 

"Cow-tipping. Going up to cows and knocking them over. You ever do that?" 

"That's actually really dangerous for the cows." 

She slaps the table in triumph. "Ha! You are a farmboy!" 

You blink, trying to trace her reasoning from what you said to what she said. Even a brief glance at her logic tells you a few leaps were involved. "I mean, there were farms around, but I didn't grow up on any of them so I—" 

"Oh, come on. You've never been cow-tipping because it's bad for cows? Name one person, who isn't a farmboy, who would know that." 

You want to refute her, but you think of the school busses back home, the ones that run for hours before school even starts so the drivers can pick up children from outlying areas. Outlying farms. You were friends with some of those kids, even if your dad's schedule and the distance between your house and theirs made meeting up at each other's homes a challenge. You didn't grow up on a farm, but you were close enough to make knowledge of farm life seem common. 

"Fine," you say, more to end this line of talk than anything. "I'm a farmboy by proxy, how about that?" 

She grins. The victorious light behind it irks you, but you tell yourself she doesn't mean anything by it. "I knew it." 

*********************

Past experience has taught you that when it comes to girls, you're like a movie that hinges its entire appeal on a twist ending. They'll talk to you once. They'll strike up a conversation in the hall after class or in one of the school's dining halls, and they'll laugh and nod and lean forward when you talk and seem pleased that you do the same, but encounters afterward are limited to perfunctory exchanges over practical matters—can I borrow a pencil, do you have an extra essay booklet, mind if we trade seats so I can see over that guy's head? You once thought the pattern was changing when a girl you'd spoken to asked if the seats beside you were taken, but proved otherwise when she waved to her boyfriend. 

And honestly, you can't blame them. You joined DECA in high school, but that's a club for kids with an eye toward establishing careers, and it's not much of a conversation starter now. Your community college was small enough to make joining a club unfeasible, and your off-campus job eats up much of your spare time, so you haven't joined any clubs here. Regrettably, it's occurred to you that you could earn some lasting sympathy by talking about your mom, but the icy roads took her when you were six and the thought of using her story to buy pity repulses you. If the girls around you aren't interested, it's because you aren't interesting. You won't use guilt to convince them otherwise. 

So when Lacy approaches your table in the dining hall a few days later, you think she must be going to meet someone else, until she takes the seat across from you. She doesn't ask. You couldn't care less. 

She gives an exaggerated sort of wave, moving her hand in a semicircle across her face from shoulder to shoulder. "Hello, Steven." 

"Hi." You close your textbook and slide it into your backpack. Unsure of what else to say, you fall back on the old standby. "What's up?" 

She looks like she's about to tell you exactly what's up, but she catches sight of the Tupperware you've brought with you and your fork poised above it. "Where'd you get that?" 

"This? Brought it." 

"You made that?" 

You look down. It's a simple dish, fried rice with an egg, some peanuts, a little leftover chicken, and a frozen vegetable mix, but it might as well be a four-course meal of Beef Wellington and creamed spinach from the way she says it. "Yeah." 

"You can cook. That is sexy.

You didn't choose to learn cooking, not consciously. You simply began lingering near the kitchen as your dad prepared meals, hoping to gain as much time with him as possible. At first you simply watched, but when he began asking your help, guiding you through simple tasks until you could perform them unaided, you didn't object. Before long, the Donahue household had two cooks who could make something ahead and stick it in the oven after school, or whip up something quick on a weeknight. Lacy isn't the only one who sees cooking as something beautiful and mysterious (your roommate, to your shame, once forgot to add sugar to a batch of brownies) but you can't understand her perspective. 

But that isn't what gives you pause. This is only the second time you've spoken with Lacy, and she's already using words like sexy. Part of you says to stop being dumb and take the compliment. Another part thinks it might be too soon for those kinds of words, wonders what it means to hear them so far ahead of schedule. 

You smile, doing your best to brush your unease aside. Your last "date" was high school prom, and even then you were too nervous to tell your friend you'd like to go as a couple. Maybe this is how flirting is, out in the real world. Or maybe people just tend to be more forward in Las Vegas. You don't want to assume otherwise and be proven wrong, especially not in front of anyone else. Especially not in front of Lacy. 

Still, there's nothing wrong with turning the conversation elsewhere. 

"So what brings you to Madison? I mean, it's not like there aren't closer schools." 

She shrugs. Her smile has fallen, and a hint of defensiveness has crept into her tone. "Just wanted a change." 

"That's fair." You try to think of some lighthearted remark that might clear the clouds you can practically see gathering around her, but she plunges ahead. 

"I mean, I've always lived in Vegas. But I've been other places—Seattle, Vancouver, San Diego, Phoenix—terrible place, don't ever go there—Toronto, Cancun, London…" 

There are more cities, cities whose names you know, and they wash over you like a wave, pushing you further beneath the tide. She's been everywhere worth seeing. You've been to Miami and Niagara Falls. And Madison now, but it's for school and it's only a five-hour drive from Algona, so you're not sure that counts. She's seen the world and walked away knowing which parts are worth a second trip. You once thought highly of yourself for standing within sight of the Canadian border. 

No wonder she laughed when you said you were from Iowa. 

***********************

You see her again. 

She doesn't duck her head and hurry to the refuge of the nearest building. Nor does she raise her hand in a wave both friendly and dismissive before continuing on her way. She catches sight of you, breaks into a smile, and changes her course to meet you where you stand. 

Getting a call that class was cancelled due to snow would have been less of a shock. 

You watch her walk your way, trying to figure what could have caused her to seek you out. Not you, certainly. She must have left something at your table, or close to it, something she's assumed you brought along for safekeeping. She might have realized you're as uninteresting as the Iowa countryside, but at least she assumes you're honest. That's something, even if it'll evaporate when you tell her you lack whatever she's lost. 

"Hi!" It sounds a little too enthusiastic to be a preamble to an I-lost-this-and-thought-you-might-have-seen-it speech. 

"Hi."

"So what's up?" 

"Not much. Just finished for the day, about to head to work." 

The usual question would be about where you work, but Lacy, you are learning, bears no fondness for the usual way of things. She bites her lip. 

"You're not mad at me, are you?" 

She might as well have asked if you liked her second head. You know the stare you give her reflects what you feel, but you can't arrange your expression into something more neutral, more befitting what she really asked. "Why would I be mad?" 

Lacy shrugs, looking toward grass dusted with snow, toward the toe of her Chucks scuffing it. "I dunno. You just seemed kind of upset yesterday." 

Incredulity edges toward panic. "I—" No, there's no point in asking whether you did or not. She saw it and so it happened. "When?" 

"Last time we talked, when I was telling you all the places I've been. You—you seemed mad. Like you wanted me to—" 

"No! No, I…" You run a hand through your hair. Maybe interrupting her wasn't the smartest idea, but if a misunderstanding upset her this much, you can't lose a single moment before setting the record straight. "Look, I was…I wasn't mad. I was impressed.

"Really?" 

There's something in her tone, and you can't tell what it is. Hope, maybe, or apprehension. "Yes! You—you've been everywhere, and I…" I don't know why you're still talking to me rests on your tongue, but it feels like too much. Too precious a statement to give away. "I wasn't sure what I could say to that, is all." 

She bites her lip again. You wish she would meet your gaze, give you some sort of a clue toward her thoughts. You want to know what she'll say next, or have a guess at it, so you can prepare an answer, but all you have is guesses. All you have is the moment between now and when she speaks to formulate a response to a question you can't anticipate.

"Well, okay." She doesn't sound certain—quite the opposite, in fact. It makes you want to pull her close and assure her you're not angry, but it's too early for that. 

But there's still something you can do. One thing. One terrifying thing. 

"Do you want to go get coffee sometime?" 

Her apprehension doesn't vanish; rather, it melts into a smile, quickly enough to catch you off guard, slowly enough to lay the process bare. In less than a minute the Lacy who looked hurt and confused and—if you aren't mistaken—betrayed is gone; the Lacy who grinned and waved to you is back. "Yeah," she says. "I'd like that." 

The unease you felt the day before resurfaces, and all attempts to pinpoint its source fail. You're just nervous, you tell yourself. You're not good at this. Mathematics, numbers and statistics—those are things that come naturally to you. Dating and flirtation might as well be an encyclopedia written in Russian. 

But maybe, you think, that's how it feels for everyone. Maybe that's how it's supposed to feel—like poetry written in a language you can't understand, read aloud by a woman whose expression never changes and whose tone remains the same. Maybe you're not meant to know what's going on until your date throws an arm around you and rests her head on your shoulder. 

You glance toward the bus stop, resisting the urge to look at your watch. You always make it with at least ten minutes to spare and this conversation won't have set you back that much. "When's your first class?" 

"Nine." 

"Want to meet at eight tomorrow?" 

She grimaces. "That's kind of early, don't you think?" 

You're always on campus by then anyway, what with the bus schedule being what it is, but you want her to be happy, so you acquiesce. "We seem to have the same lunch break. How about we meet up then?" 

"That works." 

You agree on a place, she promises to wear a headband with cat ears so as to be more recognizable, and you hurry toward your bus stop. You've scarcely reached its shelter before snow begins to fall—tiny flakes, the sort that won't easily pack into ice and that might not stick around long. 

The bus pulls up, and you lift your backpack onto one shoulder; you'll be setting it on the floor in a minute anyway. The cold pit in your stomach hasn't gone away, but there's a smile to accompany it. You want to get off your bus and chase her down to tell her you can't make it; but then the sensation passes, and you simply want to spill every detail to your seatmate. 

You never thought this was how you'd feel, after working up the courage to ask a girl out. 

Maybe that's okay. Maybe it's okay to go over every word you spoke, to feel as if you're one step from disaster and one step from delight. Maybe it's okay to feel as though you've made a terrible mistake one moment and the best decision of your life the next. 

Maybe fear is part of the fun. 

 

 

10

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Part Two

Spoiler

 

One planned lunch together becomes two, and two becomes three. By the time winter break is on the horizon, you've exchanged numbers so as to coordinate where to meet, but it's not limited to that. You come to expect a text first thing in the morning—Good morning or Rise and shine like the star you are! accompanied by some sort of smiley face. The second one is a bit cheesy, sure, but sweet and made sweeter by the fact it's something of a quirky greeting in her family, and it almost always prompts a smile.

And those aren't the end of it, not by far. She texts you throughout the day. At first you wondered exactly when she went to class, because the constant stream of communication hinted at a more relaxed schedule than the one she's described; and the realization that she was sneaking her phone out to text you during class sent you into a mild tailspin as you wondered how you became so important to her in a matter of days. Lacy's midmorning texts usually contain the seed of that day's conversation—some interesting or irritating interaction with a professor or fellow student. Her courses are a mine from which she frequently extracts stories. 

"So then my prof starts talking about BATNAs—Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement—and she goes into how you need a strong BATNA so you can take risks and stuff. So she starts talking about how if you're buying a car, and your BATNA is riding the bus, then that's not a strong BATNA and you might wind up taking a crappy deal. And then—no joke—she goes, 'However, if your BATNA is to rob a bank, then that is a much stronger BATNA. You will do better in negotiations with that as your BATNA.'" 

"So she wants you to seriously consider robbing a bank." 

"If I'm trying to buy a car, yeah. Not sure how much the bank would like that." 

"Eh, the money's all backed by the FDIC anyway. If you're gonna commit a crime, you could do a lot worse." It's a good deal more complicated—and dangerous—than that, but you're willing to let things like federal crimes slide for humor's sake. 

She stabs her fork in your direction. "I knew keeping an accounting major around would come in handy." 

You grin. The first time you mentioned your major, she stared. "Wow," she said, "I cannot think of a more boring thing to major in." You told her her how the numbers on a company's spreadsheets tell a story with as many twists and turns as the best movie you've seen, but all she had to say to that was "Huh."

But at least you've earned her approval. Not everything you say does, but this has. 

"So you going home for Christmas?" she asks. 

"Yeah. Not for the whole break, though. I was only able to take a week off work, and I've gotta be back before New Year's. How 'bout you?" 

"Yep. Flying back to Vegas the second the semester's over. Couldn't find a direct flight, so I'll be stuck in New Orleans for a couple hours. And I won't even be in the cool part of the city. Just their cruddy airport." 

"Do they really have a mini liquor mart in the baggage claim?" 

"Yeah."

Her mood isn't quite sour, but it's not sweet, either. You think it best to try and tease her out of it. "I'd head to New Orleans just for that." 

Her scowl becomes a smile, if a lofty one. "You'd go to see the airport baggage claim when the French Quarter exists? God, you're boring." 

The final word stings like a dash of cold water carried toward your cheek by a winter wind, but you return her smile. It's just friendly teasing. "I'd go see the French Quarter after the baggage claim. I mean, you got all that booze right there." 

"There are way better bars in the city." 

Part of you hopes she'll expound on the bars bit, drop enough details about the Crescent City to sate your freshly sharpened curiosity; part of you hopes she'll steer the subject toward something aside from your complete lack of culture. You could steer the conversation elsewhere, of course, but that's not a guarantee she'll follow you down the new path you've found. Roughly sixty percent of your attempts to change the subject are met with her wandering back to the old one anyway, and that number seems to be climbing. 

Not that you mind too terribly much. Her bored looks when you go into detail about classes you find fascinating are a warning. She's the better conversationalist. Just follow her lead. 

"So do you know what you're gonna do after you graduate?" 

Her question is nothing you haven't fielded before. You think there must be something about adults over forty that makes it impossible for them to resist asking college students about what they're going to do once classes are over and loans come due. But coming from her, it feels as if it means more. Maybe it's the constant stream of flirtatious communication that has become a welcome part of your routine. Maybe it's the slight, expectant smile she wears. Whatever the case, you're inclined to give more details than you usually hand out to family friends back in Algona. 

"Just apply around. Kinda want to stay closer to home, but I know I'll have to go where the jobs are and I'm probably not going to get a really great job in Algona. Sioux City's an option, but I'd probably get better pay, better healthcare, all that jazz in a bigger city." 

"Like Vegas?" 

You look up sharply from your leftover soup. Half a dozen questions run through your mind, and you seize on the first one you're able to catch. "You—are you going back to Vegas once—after school?" 

"Probably. Depends on what's there waiting for me." 

That sense of unease rises again. It's an echo of what it was weeks before, but it's still present, still with you whenever she says things like this. This relationship has been chugging along for a month; the destination shouldn't yet be visible. You should still be wondering whether or not she sees you as more than a schoolmate, but here she is spouting a line that wouldn't be out of place in a movie where the heroine hints at the love she's about to profess. 

It's…not a bad thing, you reason. It's unusual, sure, but hardly cause for alarm. Some people like to move things along at a faster pace, and you happened to find one who's interested in you. 

For whatever reason. 

"I've looked at Vegas, yeah." It's not a perfect recovery, but her eyes light up regardless. "And at some cities around there. San Diego, Phoenix, Fresno—" 

"Any jobs in Vegas?" 

"Nothing really open right now." It's true enough—for Las Vegas, anyway. There are openings for accountants, but most positions demand three to five years' experience you won't have for another three to five years. California has more than a few positions available—with large cities come jobs and with California wealth comes a need for professionals to manage finances—but you've seen its average cost of living exactly once. That one glance made you close the browser window and suck in a few deep breaths, which did little to erase those terrible numbers from your memory. Phoenix too had numbers that drove you elsewhere, but in that city's case it was the temperature that instilled panic. 

Not that Nevada was any better.

Still, Las Vegas has a cost of living comparable to some Midwestern cities you've perused. It's more expensive than all of them, but in degrees ranging from slightly to somewhat. It's certainly not California, but it's not Madison, either. 

"Hm," Lacy says after a minute. "Well, I might not be staying in Vegas, either. Depends on where I want to go." 

"Any ideas so far?" 

She shrugs. "Guess I'll just see what's open when I graduate. Kinda want to stay close to the Southwest, though. I miss the sun." 

You nod, trying to picture yourself somewhere like Las Vegas or Phoenix. You imagine walking beneath the millions of neon lights that make up the Vegas Strip, or down a street surrounded by sun-bleached earth and cacti, hot sunshine on your back and bottomless blue sky above. 

It's easier to imagine yourself walking the streets of Madison forever. 

*******************************

Christmas has always been a time for family, but Lacy calls you then. 

You don't mind—or at least, you think you don't, especially since she calls on the twenty-third of December and your dad and sister don't have any standing plans for that day. Christmas and Christmas Eve, though, are special. Your family has never been religious, but those two days are sacred. Your rituals involve opening presents by the tree, drinking hot cider, and wearing pajamas as late into the day as you all can manage. Two days a year are set aside for these customs, and while the twenty-third is cutting it close, it's still within an acceptable range. 

You wonder if you ought to opt for a cutesy greeting, but choose the standard one instead. "Hello?" 

"Hey." She draws out the word, making you smile. "What's up?" 

"Not much. Just home visiting." You're not sure how many details she wants, so you offer the minimum. 

"Oh, cool. Well, we just got back from lunch, and let me tell you…" 

She does tell you. She tells you about their lunch spot, a restaurant with dishes that sound like they cost more than you paid for what you're wearing (although that might not be saying much, as Walmart clothes aren't known to break the bank); about everyone in her family; about their annual holiday trips and how she wishes they were still a tradition, but with her siblings working in different states, her parents have decided it's no longer fair to everyone. 

"I just miss it, you know? I miss going somewhere, seeing someplace new. Or even just someplace different. I'd even be happy to go see the Grand Canyon again." 

"Yeah," you say, as if you understand. As if you've seen the Grand Canyon in anything but photographs. 

The conversation turns, thankfully, to other things. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it turns to all things. Food. Weather differences between Nevada and Iowa. Music. Christmas music. You've always liked the song "Silver Bells"; her favorite holiday jingle is "Christmas at Ground Zero." 

"Don't think I've heard that one," you say. 

"Seriously? It's Weird Al. You've never heard Weird Al?" 

"Of course I have. I'm not a barbarian." 

She laughs. "Could've fooled me." 

There's that sensation again, like she's slapped you while wearing a smile she expects you to mirror. You cast about for some witty remark to convince her it's all still friendly, but your sister Sarah knocks on your door before poking her head inside. 

"Hey, Lace, I've got to go." 

"Why?" 

"Sister's here." You glance at the digital alarm clock on your nightstand. "It's about time for dinner." 

"It—oh, yeah. Forgot about the time difference. Talk to you later." 

"Talk to you later." You hang up as quickly as you can, slipping the phone into your pocket as you follow your sister toward the kitchen. 

"You were on the phone a while." Her teasing smile makes her thoughts clear. 

"It wasn't that long." 

"Oh, yeah, everyone's on the phone for three hours straight." 

You restrain yourself from an expression of surprise—barely. You knew you were on the phone for a good long while; you just didn't keep track of how long. 

Sarah elbows you. That impish grin has not left her lips. "You got a girlfriend.

You allow yourself a small laugh. "Maybe I do." 

*******************************

She calls on Christmas Day. 

Your phone is on silent—it has been since you decided no ringtone at all was less stressful than choosing one that perfectly captured your personality—but it's in your pocket when the call comes through. You know who it is, you know what she's calling to say, and for an instant you nearly answer. But your dad is dishing up the French toast casserole you prepared the night before and your sister is shuffling through the bits of torn wrapping paper none of you are motivated enough to clean, and you let the call go to voicemail. 

When you finally feel you have a chance to listen, there isn't a voicemail. There are five. 

You go to your inbox immediately. The first is a cheerful Merry Christmas—nothing unusual, though your pounding heart blurs some of the words. The second is more of the same, but with a tinge of worry clouding her tone. 

The third is where your apprehension works its way toward panic. 

"Hey, Steven. Not sure if you'll pick up, but I thought I'd say Merry Christmas anyway. I mean, I guess you're probably pretty busy, if you can't take a call, but I just wanted to leave this for whenever you hear it." 

The fourth might as well be a continuation of the third. 

"Look, all I wanted to do was say Merry Christmas and hear you say it back. That's it. But if you can't take a single call, that's fine, I guess." 

The fifth….dear God, the fifth. 

"I don't know what I did to make you so mad at me, but it must've been pretty bad if you won't even talk to me on Christmas. So. Bye, I guess." 

You don't pause to think about what you're doing or what, exactly, you did wrong or how to explain it. You just call her. 

She picks up on the third ring. "Hey, Steven." She sounds tired—exasperated, maybe? 

"Hey. Sorry I didn't pick up when you called, we were just doing all the usual Christmas stuff." 

You expect a surprised sort of Oh, or maybe a laugh as she shakes off the nerves and the misconception that wound them tight. Instead, she remains silent for a long moment. 

"I thought you were mad at me." 

"No! I—why would I be mad at you?" 

"You didn't answer. I was just calling to say Merry Christmas, and you didn't even pick up." 

It isn't a pang of guilt you feel. It's far past that. "Look, I'm sorry. I just got…caught up in things, that's all." 

Silence. 

"Lacy?" 

"We'll talk later." 

And with that, she ends the call. 

********************************

You see her after classes start back up, seated outside your usual lunch spot. She responded to a few of your texts with single words that sounded terse even without a voice to convey as much. She leans over a textbook flat on the table before her, a few blonde locks spilling over her shoulder and brushing against the page, glasses reflecting the light. 

You've seen some beautiful girls in your time, but at that moment, Lacy beats them all. 

You draw a breath and hold it before letting it out. It's done nothing for the cold, sick feeling in your stomach, but if you talk to her now, there's a chance she'll take you back. Run now, and she never will. 

You close the gap sooner than you'd like, slide into a seat across from her. She looks up and does not smile. 

"It was Christmas morning," you say when the silence grows uncomfortable. "We don't really take calls then. My family, I mean. We…we usually spend it together." 

She nods, looking away. "I get that. It's just….if one of my friends called then, I'd at least pick up. It's Christmas." 

Friend. Not boyfriend. She's never said the word outright, but the way she treated you—it felt like flirting, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe that's how she is with everyone. 

Or maybe the call was a test you failed. 

You consider telling her that you'd left your phone on your nightstand, but you all but admitted to ignoring her call on the day in question. All you have in your defense is an apology. 

"I'm sorry, Lace. I really am." 

She still doesn't look your way. Dimly, you wonder why she's so upset about missing a single phone call, if all this is really necessary for what you did; but you dismiss the thought. She seems hurt, genuinely so. Maybe Christmas isn't a big family day for her. It's different things to different people, after all, and from what she's told you of her family, she's had more leisure time to spend with her parents and siblings than you ever got with your dad. Maybe for her, it's more a day to celebrate friends and fill them in on all that's happened that day. Maybe for her, having one of those friends turn her down is enough to ruin the holiday. 

You're so new to this. 

You wish you knew what to say. You wish you could reach across the table and take her hand in yours, speak a few words that would help her see you've heard her and listened. If there were a specific smile you could give, or a tone you could take, or some gift you could buy, you'd do it all and more if it would only show her you meant no harm and wish you'd never caused it. But you don't know any of that, and even if you did, chances are you'd bungle it somehow. You can only wait to see if your words take root. 

It feels like she avoids your gaze for hours, but finally she looks your way, a small smile on her lips. It's a sad smile, a wistful one, but it's a smile. 

"It's okay." 

Okay. 

It's okay. 

She said it's okay and so it's okay. You weren't holding your breath, but you let it out anyhow. You're smiling, but you don't try to hide it. She's happy now, or working toward it, and you know in that moment that you will do whatever it takes to keep things that way. 

 

 

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You, sir, should write a book.  

I really love your story so far, and I identify with it a lot too (let’s just say I haven’t had the best luck with dating).  And you get that 2nd person narrative to work, which is really impressive.  It’s hard to draw readers in using unconventional narrative devices like that.

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3 hours ago, ILuvHats said:

You, sir, should write a book.  

I really love your story so far, and I identify with it a lot too (let’s just say I haven’t had the best luck with dating).  And you get that 2nd person narrative to work, which is really impressive.  It’s hard to draw readers in using unconventional narrative devices like that.

Thank you! ^_^ (I'm actually working on an original fiction story, so fingers crossed for that. :ph34r:

I'm glad he's relatable here—Fortuity isn't exactly the most sympathetic character when we meet him in Steelheart; that, combined with how little we know about him, made his origin story a bit of a challenge. And I'm glad the second person narration works; I tried third person at first, but couldn't quite get it to gel, and first person narration has never been my favorite. (I'll read it, but I don't normally write it.) 

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