It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another installment of short fiction. You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features (#FFFF), by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.
The Laci and Del Saga was an experiment in serial fiction, where I wrote 12 stories in 12 months throughout 2014. I hope you enjoyed reading the selections as much as I enjoyed writing them. This is part 12 of 12, when the saga comes to a close and we learn their fates. So, without further ado, I give you part 12.
Laci and Del: Oh, For A Wonderful Life
Laci trimmed her tree and decked her halls, shopped the sales and wrapped her gifts, baked her cookies and listened to carols. So she didn’t sing along this year. At least she didn’t brood in silence. She even attempted a Yule log. Sure, it looked more like a Yule lump, but she tried.
None of it mattered. The Christmas Spirit eluded her.
When Christmas day came, she went to church and prayed to God to take her pain away, but either her prayer went unheard or unanswered. Del was permanently gone from her life, and her heart wasn’t broken—it was shattered.
Usually she went to her parents’ right after church, but she wasn’t up for the festivities. Instead, she went home. And cried as she watched It’s a Wonderful Life over and over again. Clarence got his wings. George learned how important he was to everyone.
Laci got more depressed and learned how important alcohol would be to getting through the holidays.
Too bad she’d already finished all the liquor in her apartment. Maybe she’d overindulge at her folks’. She could always spend the night. Or call a cab.
She’d waited as long as she could, but before Clarence got his wings the third time, she could delay no longer. She bundled up and headed to Christmas dinner.
Two blocks from her parents’ home, she pulled her car over and stared at a Tudor home with a large yard. She’d always loved that house, ever since she was a little girl. It had been for sale for almost a year, and she had entertained the idea of buying it when she and Del were dating. Someone had beat her to it, though. Lights were on inside it, and the sign had been removed from the yard. Another dream out of her reach.
She sighed, put the car in drive, and went to Christmas dinner. It was every bit as dreadful as she’d expected. Her cousin Clara spent the whole meal fused to her fiancé. They looked like a two-headed monster. Laci waited for Clara to climb into Kyle’s lap, but thank God she stayed plastered to his side. Still…
It nauseated Laci.
Alcohol be damned. There wasn’t enough liquor in her dad’s entire bar to make her stay there any longer. While Clara cuddled with Kyle and her mother and Aunt Rose started getting cookies out, Laci slipped her coat on, grabbed a bottle of rum, tucked it under her jacket, and headed outside.
“Aren’t you even going to stay and open presents?”
She turned around to see her father had followed her out to the sidewalk. He had on slippers and no coat, and his face was already turning pink in the frigid air.
“Dad, what are you doing? You’re going to get sick, and Mom will blame me. Get back inside.”
“I will if you will.”
“I can’t, Dad. It’s all just too much.”
He closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her. Instead of the warmth she needed, she just felt chilled. Snow flurries fell and clung to his thinning hair and cable knit sweater. He felt smaller to her than the hero of her youth. He was no longer her knight in shining armor, able to slay her demons and save her day. She had found a new hero, and she’d lost him. Hell, she’d driven him away. Blinking back tears, she patted her father’s back and pulled out of his arms.
“You need to go in. And I just have to go.”
“What about leftovers? Or a dish of cookies? Take something home with you.”
She pulled out the rum she’d pilfered and wiggled the bottle at him. Then she kissed him on the cheek. “Goodbye, Dad.” She turned and headed for her car.
“Will we at least see you for your birthday?”
Pain was a hot poker searing through the center of her heart. Last year on her birthday, just after the clock chimed the new year, she and Del reconciled. Her future was promising, bright. Suffering through this birthday without him would be torturous. She didn’t know if she could bear it.
Instead of making a promise to her father that she couldn’t keep, she got in her car, waved at him, and drove away.
Back at her apartment, she curled up on her couch with the remote control, a box of tissues, and the bottle of rum. She didn’t even bother with a glass. Sometime during her George Bailey marathon, she fell asleep, surrounded by tear-soaked wadded up Kleenex and a half-empty bottle of Bacardi.
* * *
Laci’s company shut down the week between Christmas and New Year, and she always loved having that time off. Until this year.
This year, every day was an endless litany of phone calls and emails checking on her and inviting her out to cheer her up. By the second day, she’d buried her laptop under snail mail and turned her phone to silent. She’d allow herself a few more days of wallowing, but she’d be damned if she’d start the new year miserable. Determined to get out of her funk and attend the annual New Year’s Eve party at Kelly’s house, she dug a scarlet sequined cocktail dress out of the back of her closet. It still had the tags on it; she’d never been daring enough to wear it before. She hung it on her closet door and stared at it every day, trying to get the courage to go through with it.
On the thirty-first, she got up, downed a huge steaming mug of black coffee, and headed out. A manicure, pedicure, and hair appointment later, she was back at her apartment, staring at her dress.
She still had eight hours to talk herself out of going.
Or into going.
She tried reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music. Nothing relaxed her. She tried catching up on emails. She deleted several from Del—unopened. Finally, she opted to soak in the tub, making sure to keep her hair well above water level.
Not even lavender-scented bubbles settled her nerves.
At eight o’clock, the time when the party officially started, she got out of the tub.
At nine o’clock, she applied her makeup.
At ten o’clock, when even the late-comers had shown up at the party, she started to get dressed.
At eleven o’clock, she stood in her bedroom, dressed to kill. And sick to her stomach.
“I’ll never get a cab this late,” she said to the empty room. “No point in even trying.”
She glanced in the mirror and had to acknowledge she was the world’s worst liar. Her poker face consisted of trembling lips and watery eyes. She turned away from the mirror and took a deep breath.
Her gaze landed on her jewelry box, and she crossed the room to it. Pulling open the top drawer, she took out a stunning diamond necklace. The one Del had given her so long ago.
The one he’d recognized on her last year when he found her on Kelly’s patio.
It was exactly what she needed to complete the outfit. In fact, when she bought the dress, she said that very thing in the dressing room.
She always thought she’d have a ring to match, but it wasn’t to be.
She blinked back tears, fastened the diamond strand around her neck, and walked back to the mirror.
It looked perfect.
And felt terrible.
She stood in front of her mirror, staring at her reflection. Memories flooded back to her, crushing, debilitating. Her breath came in shallow gasps and her heart drummed a staccato beat in her ears. Every blink, every breath, every heart beat… Del. His smile, his laugh. His arms around her, his lips on hers. Holidays and vacations. Games and movies. Everywhere she looked, every sound she heard… Delany.
The buzz of her doorbell broke into her thoughts. She tried to ignore it, but her uninvited guest was persistent. It was probably her parents, making sure she was okay. Resigned to a tedious conversation, she stomped to the door and flung it open.
Del stood there, leaning against her door frame.
Words failed her.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
She shook her head, blinked hard, and swallowed. “What are you doing here?”
“You weren’t at Kelly’s.”
“I wasn’t at Kelly’s because I didn’t feel like a party tonight.”
“Then why are you dressed for one?”
She sighed. “I was in the mood earlier. Now I’m not.” She faked a cough. “I’m not feeling well.”
He raised an eyebrow and his lips twitched like he was suppressing a smile. “I see.” He pushed her door open and entered her apartment. “Well, I guess I’ll stay here and take care of you.”
She closed the door and followed him into the living room. “That’s not necessary.”
She sighed. “Shouldn’t you be out west somewhere?”
“Why?” He sat down.
“Why?” Her voice raised in both pitch and decibel. “Why? Because you live there!”
“Delany.” She fisted her hands, put one against her forehead and rested the other on her hip. “I don’t have the energy for this.”
“So sit. I told you I’d take care of you.”
She lowered her arms and stared at him. “What do you want?”
He patted the couch cushion beside him. “Please come here. I need to talk to you.”
Sighing, she gave up and crossed to him. She stared down at him before finally sitting… on the opposite side of the sofa.
He got up and moved over to sit beside her. Taking her hand in his—and taking a deep breath—he stared into her eyes.
His proximity was more than she could stand, and she started to rise. But he held on to her, and she was forced to remain seated.
“Lace, I’ve practiced this I don’t know how many times. But the words seem inadequate now. So let me just tell you, I don’t accept what you said to me in October. I tried, because I thought it was what you wanted, but I can’t. I love you.”
“It doesn’t matter, Del. It’s not enough.”
“It does matter.” He rubbed his thumb across her knuckles, and she felt the all-too-familiar tingles shoot up her arm.
“Laci, I tried it before. I tried it again the last two months. I can’t do it. I can’t live without you in my life.”
The words she always wanted to hear. From the man she wanted to hear it from. And it wasn’t enough.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry, Del. Two months is a long time. I’ve moved on.”
“That’s why you’re home alone on New Year’s Eve dressed for a party and wearing the necklace I gave you.”
She blinked, but didn’t answer him. Couldn’t.
“You’re missing something, though.” He scrutinized her from head to toe.
Laci squirmed under his gaze. She patted her hair and smoothed her dress.
“No. It’s not your hair or your dress. Those are stunning. It’s your fingers.”
“I just had a manicure!” She held out her hands and stared at her fingernails. None was rough or chipped. When she looked back up at him, he was on one knee in front of her.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a tiny black box and opened it. A brilliant diamond sat nestled in the satin interior of the box. Intricate facets reflected the soft light in the room.
“Marry me, Laci.”
Those were the words she’d always wanted to hear. From the man she wanted to hear it from. And she wanted it to be enough, but knew it wasn’t. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Del, why are you doing this?”
“Because I love you.”
She sobbed, tried to compose herself. But it was no use. “I’m sorry. I can’t. I don’t want to be in a long-distance relationship, and I simply can’t uproot my life and move across the country.”
He took her hand. “Who asked you to?”
“You did. You are. Again.”
He shook his head. “No, Laci. No, I’m not.”
“Then how will we make this work?”
“The same way we have been.”
She sniffled. “Don’t lie to me.”
He sat back on his heel. “I’m not. Why would you think that?”
“I saw you. On Thanksgiving. Getting into a cab with all your stuff.”
Again he shook his head. “You know, you jump to conclusions more than anyone I know. I’ve been calling you for weeks, but you never answered or returned my calls.”
Her breath caught in her throat. She hardly dared ask, but she had to know. She whispered, “Didn’t the new job work out?”
“My new job is great. I have more free time and more money.”
“Oh.” She looked away.
She looked back at him. “What?”
“I told you. You just assume things when you don’t know the facts. I never took the west coast job. I took a job right here, in town.”
“But I saw you…”
“You did see me. But you jumped to the wrong conclusion. Again. I moved. I wanted a house. In the suburbs. For us.”
“You know that two-story Tudor two blocks from your folks? The one you love? I bought it.”
She raised trembling fingers to her lips. Could it be true? “What?”
“I couldn’t leave, not without you. I spent the first month away from you packing and the second fixing up the house. But I called you every day.”
“I deleted your messages. I couldn’t stand to hear your voice knowing you were gone.”
“But I’m right here. And I’m asking… was it all for nothing? Do you not want me anymore? Or will you marry me?”
She smiled, then laughed through the tears. “Yes. Yes!”
He took her hand and slid the ring on her finger. “There. Now your outfit’s complete.”
She threw her arms around him, and he hugged her tight. “I love you, Laci.”
Pulling back, she rested her forehead against his. “I love you, too, Del.”
“One more thing.”
She looked at him. “What?”
He nodded to the clock. It was five after twelve.
She looked at her ring, a glinting promise of a long future with the man she loved.
It was indeed a happy birthday. It was going to be a wonderful life.