CLOSING NOTE: BEST OF 2016:
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo and World Fantasy Award winning writer with a romance writer’s heart. Whatever she writes, she has an ability to bring her characters to life on the page.
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Gabriella stood in front of the wall of windows at her gate, staring at the snow-covered runways, thumbs hooked on the back pockets of her favorite jeans. The grounded planes looked like the kinds of snow mounds she would have called mountains when she was a kid. If she was still ten, she would have led the charge to build a snow fort, whipping winds and thunder snow be damned.
Although, the occasional green lightning would have given her pause, even at ten.
The actual snowfall had lightened up in the last hour, but the weather app on her power-starved phone told her that condition was only temporary. Even more snow was blowing this way, from one of the worst blizzards to hit the Upper Midwest in decades.
Years of no snow over Thanksgiving had made her complacent. Hell, years of no snow over much of the winter had made her a believer in global warming. That wasn’t changing despite the snowstorm from hell; she was still a believer, but only because she had read the science behind it all.
More storms. More intense storms. And a lot more violent weather.
Yay, warming planet! Yay, the future! Yay, being stuck at O’Hare when she should have been home by now, debating whether or not to make an apple pie. Apple, you see, was the extra pie. Mom had declared long before Gabriella was born that Thanksgiving was not complete without mincemeat and pumpkin. Everything else was extra.
Mom had also declared that Thanksgiving would not be complete without Gabriella. She’d managed to spend twenty-seven of her twenty-eight Thanksgivings celebrating with her nuclear family and every waif they thought of bringing to the table. The only year she missed had been the misguided year she spent with The Creature That Shall Not Be Named, as her best friend Trinity had dubbed him.
Gabriella shivered and told herself that the shiver had come from the chill emanating from the gigantic panes of glass in front of her. They were rattling in the wind—which, considering the entire wall was glass, was somewhat unnerving—but that didn’t change the fact that she shivered whenever she thought of The Creature. Trinity had asked Gabriella what the hell she’d been thinking getting involved with him, and she had mumbled a decisive Dunno. But she did know, and she didn’t want to admit it. The man had had looks, money, and charm to spare, until the charm vanished and the looks and money simply did not make up for his surly mean temperament.
She turned away from the winter wonderland and faced the nightmare behind her. Disgruntled would-be passengers sprawled on every available space. Some had bogarted the blankets that the airport staff had handed out, and a few had unpacked some items to use as cushions on the hard floors.
But nothing really changed the impression she got five hours into this never-ending saga: every person here had enough resources to fly, but not enough to escape. Those with actual space on their credit cards had flooded to the hotels nearby the moment the airport declared the storm so dangerous that everything would shut down.
Not that O’Hare ever really shut down. It “canceled flights.” It “discouraged people from arriving.” It “delayed departure.”
It also had some place for employees to spend the night, because a bunch had. Most of the chain restaurants and fast-food joints remained open, thank heavens. Otherwise, Gabriella wouldn’t have eaten for hours.
At least she had the foresight to bring cash, because her credit cards were maxed. She wasn’t going to tell her mom that. In fact, Gabriella hadn’t planned on telling her mom she was sleeping in the airport, until her mom woke her up at 7a.m., worried sick. Gabriella had confessed before she had woken up all the way, and then Mom spent the next ten minutes trying to figure out how her dad could drive down and rescue her from all that.
Fortunately (unfortunately?), all the roads had closed. The news had coverage of Lake Shore Drive, which looked like a longer version of the runways, with smaller mound/mountains. Those, apparently, were cars and, thanks to heroic snowmobilers rescuing trapped drivers, no one had yet died on the roads (that anyone knew of).
Day One of the Winter Wonderland had been a slightly annoying adventure. It was mid-morning on Day Two with no real end in sight, and slightly annoying had moved to holy crap, I only have eighty dollars left, how long is this going to last? combined with can my back take one more night on the floor?
At least she had traveled through O’Hare enough to know to go to the attached hotel and pay $20 bucks for a 24-hour pass to the exercise room. The exercise room, complete with shower.
She had bought herself a new sweatshirt to go with the extra pairs of underwear she always kept in her carry-on. The way things were going, she would have to make the sweatshirt stretch for a couple of days. But she kept telling herself that she had underwear and a toothbrush. She was good.
Until cell service and wireless died, about an hour ago.
Rumors—and everyone trapped in O’Hare was living on rumors—floated that there was cell service and wireless in the international terminal, but a handful of scouts had gone there and returned. Apparently, some remnant of the TSA remained, and they wouldn’t let anyone into the international terminal without a passport and a kind-of valid ticket.
So she was left wandering the halls, thinking of eating, and looking at the books. Because she was a masochist, every three hours or so she walked to the gate that had been hers, back when flights actually flew out of O’Hare. She walked down into the connecting tunnel between the B and C gates with its lovely light show and soothing female voice over the moving walkway. Only the lights went out when the back-up generator kicked on, and the moving walkway became just a walkway, like the very long escalators had become immobile staircases. She was getting a workout if nothing else.
Every time she ended up at her gate—which still listed her flight, yesterday’s date, and the final hopeful departure time—a different group of people huddled in the chairs, trying to keep themselves occupied. A family had staked out territory behind the desk, and another family had taken over the long bench seats against the far wall. She had taken to waving at them, and they waved back.
She was about to start back through the land of the frozen walkways when she thought she heard someone call her name. She turned, but didn’t see anyone. Great. She was so tired now, she was hallucinating.
Ree. No one had called her Ree since high school, except her family. Ree had been her childhood nickname because she couldn’t say her own name. She had been one of those little kids who had trouble with both the “g” sound and the “br” sound.
She tilted her head, wondering if she had imagined it.
Then she saw a hand, waving at her from behind a pillar down the corridor. A head leaned out, but she couldn’t quite tell who it belonged to. Clearly someone who had known her ten years or more ago.
Had it been any other time, she would have fled a chance encounter with someone from her past. She hated pretending interest in the life of someone she hadn’t even cared about back when they’d been forced to walk the same halls every day.
But anything for a distraction in this chilly dystopian environment.
She wandered toward the waving hand and the crown of dark hair. As she got closer, the hand’s owner stepped away from the pillar. He was grinning.
He was also Pembrook O’Brien aka Pembro aka the most famous guy in high school her sophomore year. Handsome, shy, lettering in five sports, and a straight A student, he was two years older, twenty years grander, and so far out of her league that when he asked her on a date, she had said no.
She had no idea why he had been interested or why he persisted in asking her. After she had turned him down three more times, he had reverted to smiling at her in the halls, and occasionally winking when they ended up next to each other at some event.
Her heart had always pounded hard when she saw him, and she had always felt incompetent, stupid, and clumsy in his presence.
Great. Now she encountered him after sleeping on the floor, and spending three days in the same pair of (comfy) jeans. At least she’d managed a shower. At least she had decided against Cheetos for breakfast.
“At last,” he said, “a familiar face.”
She had no idea how her face was still familiar to him. How many other girls had he smiled at in the past ten-plus years? Surely enough to shove her out of his memory.
She felt a familiar nervousness gather in her stomach. She had never been worthy of this guy. She had been a backstage drama geek, running sound and lights rather than onstage and declaiming, doing the occasional poster and in her last year, some set design. Straight As, yeah, but mostly she was silent and invisible in high school.
“Hey,” she said as she reached him. When she stopped, she realized she had walked over with her thumbs still hanging on her back pockets. Unintentional cool. Or rudeness. Or whatever. She wasn’t sure which. But that posture did make it easier for her to avoid shaking his hand.
“You heading home for Thanksgiving?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, glancing at the windows, still rattling away, “I was before Stormaggeddon hit.”
He laughed. She had forgotten that sound. Rich and deep and movie-star perfect. “Is that what they’re calling it?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “That’s what I’m calling it.”
His eyes were a warm shade of brown, and they looked the same. The rest of him was different, not quite as large. Maybe it was the lack of the letter jacket. Maybe it was the fact that his hair was a little too long. His shoulders were still broad, making his torso taper into his jeans, but he seemed thinner. Not quite as smiley.
“You heading home?” she asked.
“I was…” he said, mimicking her tone. Then his smile faded. “First time in years. I think the snow’s my fault.”
He glanced at the windows too, only he looked wistful.
“How can it be your fault?” she asked.
“I don’t want to go,” he said. “I think the weather picked up on my mood, and guaranteed I would stay here.”
“You have that much power?” she asked, keeping her tone light. She hoped he really wasn’t the kind of self-involved guy who believed everything was about him. But given how successful he had been in high school, he probably was that self-involved.
She’d seen an awful lot of people over the years who had no true challenges in their lives, so they had no idea what adversity was. All they learned was that everything was about them.
To her surprise, he turned toward her with a grin. His brown eyes twinkled.
“Oh, don’t I wish I had that much power,” he said. “If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten stuck here. I would have made it snow at home, so I never had to leave the house.”
“Where do you live?” she asked, startled to find she was curious.
“Tempe,” he said.
Now he was messing with her. She lived in Tempe. Or rather, she ended up there, after the dream job moved her and then dumped her after only a year.
“Seriously?” she asked. “Where?”
His smile faded. “Near the university.”
“Do you teach there?” She recognized that she was finally doing it—asking someone she barely knew, someone who had shared the air in her high school, chirpy questions about his life. But she was interested—and stunned.
She lived in Tempe. She hadn’t ever run into him there.
Of course, she and 150,000-plus other people. It wasn’t like Tempe was a high school of 1500 students.
“Yeah,” he said. “Actually, I’m in the graduate program.”
“Really?” she said. “For what?”
His smile was only a half smile. “I started in psych, went back for history.”
“People go back for history?” she asked. Apparently, the question was a bridge too far, because his half smile faded into a no-smile.
“I did.” His tone slammed the door shut on any more questions like that one. She recognized the tone: she had used it a million times herself.
“Sorry,” she said—and she was. She usually wasn’t this nosy with anyone. “It’s just...you surprised me.”
He frowned. “I did?”
She nodded. “I live in Tempe too.” Somehow, she managed to avoid the totally stupid statement that had gone through her head, the one about never seeing him there.
“You in school too?” he asked.
“Oh, hell, no,” she said, then felt her cheeks warm. That sounded like a condemnation of school, not of herself. “I moved for a job that then moved away from me.”
“Oh,” he said. “Any place I know?”
“Doubt it,” she said. “A tech start-up that got successful, then got eaten by another start-up, which got eaten by a tech giant, which bought it all and shut it down.”
“Oh,” he said, and now he was frowning at her. “Why do that?”
“Because,” she said, “apparently, we were developing a better mousetrap than the giant. So it bought us for our patents, then shut us down.”
“You’d think they’d keep the people who knew how to run it onboard,” he said, glancing back at the snow. Apparently, he wasn’t that interested. Exactly what she had expected when he first asked her out at fifteen. A few minutes of conversation and then the discovery that she was not worth his time.
“They did,” she said. “It was the rest of us who had to leave.”
Somehow that got his attention again. He looked at her, then tilted his head. “What did you do for them?”
What didn’t she do? Her title had been some vague marketing thing, but it included software testing, coming up with guerilla marketing campaigns, making small videos, doing product launches….
“A lot,” she said. “That was the problem. Most of us who got terminated—” (she hated that word. It sounded like she had been murdered, euphemistically, of course) “—had no clear job description.”
“And all had been with the company from the beginning, I’ll wager,” he said.
“Ding-ding-ding-ding,” she said. “Give the man a gold star.”
His grin was back. One final glance at the snow, then he leaned over and picked up a rather slim carryon bag.
“You wanna get some food?” he asked.
She did, but she had to be careful about it. No clue how long this layover—or whatever they called it—would last. And she had to watch her cash.
But she didn’t want to tell him that, or tell him about her maxed credit cards. Just admitting that she had been laid off stung.
“Sure,” she said as cheerfully as she could.
He nodded once, then headed off in a direction she hadn’t gone since that first afternoon, which seemed like months ago, but was really less than twenty-four hours before.
She had to struggle to keep up. He had very long legs, plus he walked fast to begin with.
They reached the end of this part of the terminal before she had to ask him to slow down. Then he headed into a diner she hadn’t even realized was there.
The smell of bacon, eggs, and coffee lifted her spirits. The place wasn’t full. The bar across the wide hall had customers two deep though, and so did the Starbucks knockoff just a few yards down.
Pembro waved at the woman behind the checkout desk as if they were old friends, grabbed some menus, and said, “You mind if we seat ourselves?”
The woman looked tired, but she managed a smile at him. “Go ahead,” she said.
He seemed to have a familiarity with the place. “Come here often?” Gabriella asked.
“Just recently,” he said with a grin. “It’s amazing what a bit of cheer can do.”
That comment made her blink. He was right; he was the only cheerful person she had seen all day. He smiled at everyone, nodded, and seemed really pleasant. Everyone else was surly or sad or panicked. Many were pacing while on their cell phones, trying to find another way out of this hell on earth, even though there was no way out until Mother Nature decided otherwise.
“You can charge your phone here,” he said as he slipped into a booth in the corner. Most of the booths were near the windows, which were still rattling from the incredible winds. She could see the windows directly across from her spot, but there was no view from this distance. Only a vaguely menacing white mass that seemed to lurch in a single direction, occasionally spitting ice against the window.
He had already pulled his phone from the carryon and plugged it into an outlet. She did the same with hers. Her carryon was larger than his, but still fit under the table.
After the only waitress showed up with waters and took their orders, Gabriella leaned back into the booth. Sitting here felt just a little more normal, despite the white show going on outside.
Feeling normal made her decide she had had enough of the we barely know each other but we’re determined to talk conversation that old schoolmates usually had.
She wrapped her hand around the water glass, feeling its chill against her palm.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” she said. “I’m kinda surprised you remember me.”
Pembro raised his eyebrows. “Seriously? I asked you out like a dozen times.”
“Three,” she said.
“I’m sure it was a dozen,” he said, with that half-smile again. “You kept turning me down. No one forgets the one who got away.”
Got away? She hadn’t thought of herself as the one who got away. Ever. Not with anyone.
She let out a small laugh. “Just one, huh?” she asked, then felt her cheeks heat again. That was rude.
His smile had turned wistful. “Just one important one,” he said, and he was serious.
She wasn’t sure why he was serious. They hadn’t had a lot of interactions. Just a few conversations in the hall, shared lunches with common friends, and those smiles, those winks.
The waitress set down two coffees and some ersatz creamers, the kind that always drove Gabriella’s mother crazy. She would always ask for milk, so much so that Gabriella learned to drink her coffee without it to save herself the embarrassment.
She pulled the coffee mug toward her, using it for her cold hands now instead of making things worse with the water.
“We…we…we….” Oh, this wasn’t going well. “We were in different worlds. I mean, I was two years younger.”
“And so confident,” he said. “So sure of yourself.”
“Me?” she squeaked. She had never been sure of herself in her life. She wasn’t even sure of herself right now.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’d never seen anyone quite like you. And you were so smart. I helped Mr. Rodriguez that fall, remember?”
She blinked. She had forgotten that. Mr. Rodriguez taught American Government, American History, and good old Social Studies. She had tested out of the Social Studies class, and into junior honors. In fact, she’d been Mr. Rodriguez’s student assistant her senior year, long after Pembro was gone.
“You weren’t in class much,” she said.
“Oh, I was,” Pembro said. “I stood in the back, listening, watching. Not for the whole class. I got the quizzes and did the first run-through for answers. I always listened for a little while so that I could figure out who needed tutoring or extra help.”
Help among the juniors. The handful of sophomores had been so scared to be in the class that they worked together to make sure none of them was ever too far behind.
“You never spoke up unless you were called on,” he said. “But every time—every time—Mr. Rodriguez called on you, you had an answer. And you’d often slip the answer to someone near you if they needed help.”
“You saw that?” she asked, surprised. She hadn’t wanted any of her friends to be tossed out of the class, so she helped, maybe a little too much.
“Yeah,” Pembro said with a smile. “And so did Mr. R, but he didn’t say anything.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because of the quizzes. If they couldn’t handle the quizzes, they were gone.”
She nodded. She remembered that.
The waitress stopped by again, this time with a steaming plate of scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon for Gabriella, and some waffles for Pembro.
“I never realized,” she said, looking down at the eggs.
“You never realized what?” he asked.
Honesty time. What did she have to lose, after all? They were stranded together, and then they’d head back to their lives, and never talk again.
“I never realized that you saw me.” She raised her head after saying that.
“Why would I ask you out otherwise?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Because….”
She had no answer even now. She had noticed that he hadn’t been the kind of guy who worked his way through each class, but she had also noticed that every girl he dated—at least that year—had been fifty times more beautiful than she was and a thousand times more put together.
“I don’t know,” she repeated. “That’s why I said no. Because I had no idea what you wanted with me.”
He frowned. “I wanted to spend more time with you.”
“But I didn’t know why,” she said. “I figured you were making some kind of mistake. So rather than letting you realize it on the date, which would have been humiliating, I decided to avoid the date altogether.”
The story of her life, really. Avoidance instead of humiliation. Until The Creature That Shall Not Be Named. Who, come to think of it, looked an awful lot like Pembro.
Had that been the attraction?
Pembro was staring at her as if she had grown a third head. He hadn’t even bothered to butter his waffle or pour syrup on it.
She gave him a goofy smile, then dug into the eggs. She was hungrier than she had realized.
The waitress came by with toast, which made Gabriella look up again. He was still staring at her, as if he was trying to figure her out.
No, this wasn’t humiliating. This wasn’t her nightmare made flesh. No. Not at all. He wasn’t wondering why the hell he was sitting across from her.
Of course he was. Just like she had always imagined.
“It’s just,” she said, unable to stay quiet, “you were so perfect. I mean, you had it all. Handsome and good grades and lettering in five sports and getting asked to help the teachers and everybody liked you. Whatever would a guy like you want with someone like me?”
A small frown had formed between his eyes. “That’s what you thought about me?”
He made it sound bad. It wasn’t bad.
“Everybody thought that,” she said. “Scratch that. Everybody knew that.”
“Everybody was full of shit,” he said with an intensity she hadn’t expected.
She froze, a forkful of eggs halfway to her mouth.
“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. That’s what happens when you take too many psych classes for all the wrong reasons.”
“The wrong reasons?” she asked.
“Oh,” he said, “there’s a joke in probably every psych department in the country that the only reason students take the classes there are to find out for free what’s really wrong with them.”
“Only college isn’t free,” Gabriella said, feeling a little confused.
“Hence, joke,” he said, not smiling.
Then she realized what he had said. “Wrong? Why would you think anything was wrong with you?”
He finally started buttering the waffles. Then he slathered them in syrup. In fact, he poured too much syrup on them, almost as if the syrup bottle was out of control.
He put it down, though, before the syrup spilled off the lip of the plate and onto the table.
“You have a choice when your parents are raging alcoholics,” he said, then licked off his thumb. He grabbed a napkin and wiped away at the rest of his hand. “Choice one: You can become just like them. Choice two: You can give up entirely and skip school or act out or whatever. Or, choice three, you can pretend like nothing is wrong and just never go home, except to sleep. If you’re the perfect student, no one ever calls you out. And no one sees what’s going on behind the curtain.”
Her breath caught. “That’s what was going on?”
“Oh, yeah. All three,” he said. “My family was textbook. My oldest brother, he just decided drinking was the way to go. He sloshed his way through life, then went for the harder stuff. My middle brother, he acted out. Got arrested a dozen times before he turned eighteen. Turned eighteen, in fact, in juvie.”
Gabriella hadn’t known that. She didn’t think anyone in her class had known that. Maybe kids in his class had known it. Or maybe not. The school had been big enough that kids often didn’t know who was related to who—especially if one of the who(s) was in a different grade.
Pembro placed a bunch of napkins around the lip of his plate, making a production out of the waffles. Or maybe making a production out of not looking at her.
“I figured it was better to be the perfect son, no question asked,” he said to the waffles. She had to strain to hear him. “And that became the perfect student and the perfect athlete and the perfect TA, so you were right. I was perfect.”
That was when he looked up. The crooked half-smile was sad. She hadn’t realized that before.
“Only I wasn’t perfect,” he said quietly. “It was all a ruse.”
“But….” She had nothing she could really say. The but just sort of slipped out. “You got scholarships.”
“Oh, yeah,” Pembro said. “Perfect student, all the way through until my junior year in college.”
“Junior year,” she repeated.
“Yep,” he said. “Brother number two ended up in real prison for assault. And brother number one, well, he wasn’t cut out to be an alcoholic.”
How could you not be cut out to be an alcoholic? She had no idea what Pembro meant.
“He got better?” she asked.
“He killed himself,” Pembro said, his tone so dry that had she not been paying attention, she would have thought he was unaffected by it all. “And I came home and buried him because Mom and Dad weren’t capable of dealing with it.”
She was shocked down to her core. “And you were?”
“Nooo,” he said. “But I pretended real good.”
She wasn’t breathing. She made herself exhale, and then inhale. She had no idea what to say. It was as if he had taken everything she had known and turned it on its head.
She had been so certain of Pembro. Pembrook O’Brien, the most perfect person she had ever met. She had even mentally compared other boyfriends to him, and The Creature That Shall Not Be Named—she had screamed at him once that he wasn’t perfect. She had screamed, I know someone who is perfect, and you’re not him!
She had meant Pembro. She had been thinking of Pembro.
“Sorry.” Pembro leaned back in the booth. He had clearly given up on the waffles. “I didn’t mean to go all serious on you.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said. “I started it.”
And she wasn’t sure what to do next. Yes, she lived in Tempe, but she had been raised in the Midwest. Hell, she had been raised in the Upper Midwest, which made the rest of the Midwest seem garrulous.
No one was supposed to talk about their feelings, not in places like this, because it might be embarrassing. Or reveal secrets.
She reached toward him with her right hand. “I had no idea.”
He looked at her fingers as if they were alien things. “Clearly.”
She had a vision of what it might have been like that senior year, if she had said yes. Her parents were great. A lot of her friends came to the house and spent too much time there. In fact, Trinity said that she would rather have Gabriella’s parents than her own.
And other friends of Gabriella had said the same thing.
Pembro would have had an intact family to spend time with, maybe gotten a bit more support than he had when he had to deal with his family.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” she said.
His gaze met hers. Then he smiled. “You’ve had psych classes too,” he said softly.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t. Why—?”
He took her hand, then played with her fingers. His were chilled. “There are trained responses. I’ve had enough psych classes to know what they are. And you just used one.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You used one without the training. Sincerely used it.” He squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”
She loved the feel of his fingers against hers. Maybe she had said no to him all those years ago because she had been attracted to him and uncertain how to behave.
Because she was uncertain now too.
“You’re welcome,” she said, falling back on Midwestern politeness. And then, because she couldn’t help it, she added, “Why are you going back this time?”
He let out a small sigh. “Booth and I are doing the final walk-through. I’m closing up the house, prepping it for sale.”
His parents’ house. He wasn’t going back for Thanksgiving. He was going back to close the door on his family.
“Booth?” she asked.
“My remaining brother. He turned his life around, enough, anyway, that I don’t want him to do this by himself.”
She didn’t want to ask this last question either, but she did. She mentally braced herself, hoping the tension she felt wouldn’t make its way to her fingers.
“And your parents?”
“Mom died years ago. Car accident—single car, thank God, because I was terrified my folks would take someone out. Last month, Booth had to….” Pembro shook his head as he let his voice trail off. “I missed the party on this one. Booth didn’t contact me until after, protecting the baby brother, I guess.”
“Booth had to what?” Gabriella asked.
“My dad has alcoholic dementia. Booth had to put him in a home,” Pembro said.
“And that’s why you’re selling the house,” she said, understanding.
“Actually, no. Mom had a huge insurance policy. We’re selling the house because neither of us ever wants to deal with it again. And I’m taking point because Booth already did the hard job.”
Her heart hurt. She had no idea. And she couldn’t quite imagine what Pembro was going through. Because her parents were still in love. Her parents were still active. Her parents and her siblings were the kind of family everyone wanted to be.
Messy. In each other’s lives a little too much. And, in their own way, perfect.
“So it’s just the two of you on Thanksgiving,” she said.
Pembro let out a small laugh. “Booth and I haven’t discussed Thanksgiving. It’s not a holiday our family celebrated. We just chose this week because we had extra time off. I hadn’t counted on this.”
He nodded toward the swirling mass of white in the windows.
“Come spend it with us,” she said. “Both of you.”
He shook his head, and looked away. “It’s family time. You don’t need us, with all our baggage.”
“My parents always invite people who have no other place to celebrate. They’d love having two more at the table,” she said.
Then he looked back to her, his sharp brown eyes even more intense than they had been before.
“I should have said yes years ago,” she said. “I had built you up in my head as this unattainable guy, and when you were interested, I ran. I would love to have you come. Me, and my high school self. My high school self is giddy, in fact, at the very idea.”
The half smile became a full smile. Gentle, quizzical, surprised. He looked so approachable now, she wondered how he could have ever seemed beyond her.
His fingers still held hers tightly.
“My high school self is giddy, too,” he said.
She grinned at him like the fifteen-year-old she had once been. Goofy and a bit awkward.
At that moment, his phone pinged.
“Looks like they’re ready to reschedule flights,” he said. “Guess we’re going to get out of here after all.”
Her phone pinged too. She looked at the text. The airline had already rescheduled her, but wanted a confirmation. She could do that.
If she was willing to let go of his hand.
Which she wasn’t.
He hadn’t let go of hers either.
He looked down at their entwined fingers.
“I’m nervous,” he said, sounding a tiny bit shocked. “I don’t want to screw anything up.”
She put her other hand over his. “I learned—just today—that by not doing something, you can screw up worse than if you try.”
His gaze met hers. She could get lost in those eyes—if she gave herself the chance.
“You’re right,” he said. “Should we see if we can find seats together, since we’re going in the same direction?”
She grinned. “I’m all for making things harder for the airlines after the last few days.”
He smiled too. “Thank you,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“The second chance,” he said.
“Technically, it’s a first chance,” she said. “The first real opportunity to get to know each other. And frankly, I suspect we’re better equipped to handle it now than we would have been in high school.”
“Good point,” he said. “I love how your brain works. I always have.”
“Now that’s unusual, especially in high school. Brains were the last things boys noticed.”
“I noticed other things, too. You had the sweetest smile. And it’s only improved with a few years on it.”
She favored him with a prime example. “Flatterer.”
“Not in the least. I’m looking forward to proving it—on Thanksgiving day and beyond.”
“Keep talking to me like that,” she said, “and I’m going to think I died and went straight to heaven.”
He looked around the diner, then at the snow still slapping the windows.
“Oh, I hope this isn’t heaven,” he said. “I’d have to file a complaint.”
She laughed. She had forgotten about his wry sense of humor—and how much she loved it.
“Although,” he said, “I’ve heard that what makes heaven beautiful is the company you keep there. I think I’ve finally found the right company.”
“Me, too,” she said. Her phone pinged again, followed by his.
The world awaited. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave this booth, this protected space, this perfect moment of discovery.
But they had to, and they both knew it.
She sighed, slipped out of the booth, and stretched out a hand to him. “Let’s go see what’s in store for us. Together.”
He took her outstretched hand, and kissed the back of it, sending a little shiver through her.
Then his gaze met hers, and warmed her.
“Together,” he promised. “Always.”
Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn
Heart's Kiss Magazine: Issue 1: February 2017
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor