Ashley sat overlooking the river at the top of the levee. Her gaze shifted when a giant circle of red exploded and illuminated the sky, immediately followed by smaller white and blue circles. She sighed. It wasn’t until Tessa nudged her shoulder and shook her out of her daze that she realized her eyes were filling up with tears.
“I know we’re not suitable replacements, Ash. But at least you got to see fireworks; that always makes you feel better. And at least you’re not alone.” Ashley wiped her eyes and forced herself to shoot Tessa a half-hearted smile; she was trying. In fact, all of her friends had been trying — albeit a little unsuccessfully — to cheer her up all day.
“You’re right, T. I’m sorry to be such a downer. I don’t know why I’m so blah; I knew what I signed up for. I probably shouldn’t have come tonight.” Another flash in the sky. “I’m sorry,” she said again, at a loss for words.
“Oh, yea. It’s a much better plan to sit alone in your apartment and wallow in self-pity than to come out with your girlfriends and celebrate the 4th of July. We all get it; you miss him. We just wish there was something we could do to make you feel better.” As if on cue, Jessica shoved a bottle of beer in Ashley’s face just barely missing her nose. Ashley cringed; she hated the taste — and smell — of beer.
“Drink up; it’ll make everything…happier!” Ashley could tell that Jessica had already had one too many. Her words were slurred and her volume had somehow surpassed the booming of the fireworks. Tessa rolled her eyes and laughed.
“Thanks Jess, but I’m all set. Also, you probably shouldn’t have open containers out here. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law.” Jessica guzzled the beer, undeterred.
“Oh look, the next one is the finale!” Jessica exclaimed as she half-walked half-stumbled down the levee towards the water, waving her beer in the air. Just then, Ashley’s cell phone buzzed and lit up on the grass beside her. She picked it up and read the message:
I’M OUTSIDE UR APARTMENT. WHERE R U?
Her heart began to race just as Tessa yelled for Jessica to return to higher ground. “I’m serious, Jess, get back here! You’re gonna get us arrested!” Jessica glanced up at Tessa but kept heading for the river. Tessa stood and wiped the grass off her shorts. She started to head down the levee after Jessica when she noticed Ashley was standing up. “Where are you going? You’ll miss the end!”
Ashley was already headed towards home. She turned and called out to Tessa, “I’m sorry! There’s a…uh…situation at home! I’ll call you later!” She wasn’t sure whether Tessa even heard her over the sounds of the thunderous firework finale.
With a quick wave over her shoulder, she quickened her pace. Had Cole lost his mind? What the hell was he doing outside of her apartment? What if someone saw him? She’d already given him the “we’re from a small town and people talk” lecture.
He sat on her doorstep with a bottle of Riesling sitting on the ground between his feet. As he watched her approach, that wide slow grin spread across his face. When he smiled it stretched all the way to his squinting green eyes. He was gorgeous, damn him. “I’m a little hurt that you went to see the fireworks without me, but I figured we could have our own little after party here,” he said as he lifted the bottle of wine to demonstrate. His voice was slow, deep, and soothing. It was almost enough to make her melt. She squared her shoulders.
She shoved past him so she could unlock the front door. “Cole, I told you not to come here anymore. Someone is going to see you and you know how people talk in this town.” She caught a whiff of his cologne; why did he always smell so delicious? It was cruel, really.
“So let them talk!” his voice rose slightly, “A man and a woman can’t be friends?” He followed her inside and closed the door behind him.
“No, they can’t. Especially not when they have ‘history’ and one of them is engaged to be married.” He walked past her in the living room to the kitchen and put the wine in the freezer. A puzzled look crossed her face as she moved to the kitchen doorway.
“It’ll chill quicker that way. Anyway, engaged is not married. Married is married. Legally, you’re still single and free to do what you want.” He stepped toward her and attempted to place his hands on her hips; she quickly stepped sideways to end up just beyond his reach.
“I am doing what I want, Cole. And it doesn’t involve having you dropping by all the time trying to stir up trouble. You know, having been cheated on while deployed before, I would think you would have more respect for a fellow soldier…and his fianc.” She moved forward and attempted to reach for the freezer door, but he blocked her passage.
“I have a lot of respect for his fianc, but a man can’t help how he feels. And neither can you. You may be able to say no, which seems to be your new favorite word by the way, but you’re completely transparent. Look at you, you’re trembling.” She looked down at her hands. He was right, damn it. She quickly hid them behind her back. He took another step forward.
“Why don’t you just give in and make this easier on everyone? Your feelings can’t have changed that much so soon. There’s gotta be something left in there for me.”
She took a step back. “Not so fast, Romeo. You had your chance and you blew it. Someone else came along and showed me what I deserved. Frankly, it’s arrogant as hell for you to think that you can waltz in here with your wine and your southern charm and try to convince me otherwise. You think my panties are just going to fall off because I haven’t been laid in months and you show up with your booze and your smile? Give me some credit, Cole. I made a commitment.” She held up her left hand for emphasis.
“Rings come off. Promises can be broken.” He attempted to touch her again.
She smacked his hand away. “You would know that better than most.” She reached around him, opened the freezer, and removed the bottle of wine. “Take this with you when you leave,” she said, shoving the bottle under his arm.
“Where am I going?” A confused look swept across his face.
“Home. Or at least away from here. And stop showing up here unannounced.” He was standing too close to her. Her resolve was wavering. He was standing too close to her. She took another step back. He looked into her eyes and took her hand. She felt like he was looking through her. He smiled sweetly and lightly kissed her fingers. A shiver ran down her spine. She certainly couldn’t deny the crazy chemistry between them. She only hoped he wouldn’t make this any harder than it already was.
He leaned in; his lips so close to hers that she could feel his breath on her face. She removed her hand from his grasp and placed it on his chest. She felt his muscles flex beneath it. She couldn’t deny she wanted him. It had been months since she had been touched. It seemed like ages since someone had made her feel wanted without having to say a word, since someone had seduced her with a single look. She could feel the desire exuding from him and it took every ounce of self control she had not to lean in to meet his lips. Suddenly, she felt feverish.
She considered for one brief moment giving in and putting an end to the longing that had become a brutal fire burning inside her. She could easily have a couple of glasses of wine, cultivate a nice warm buzz, and let him have his way with her. She closed her eyes and forced herself to picture Jared’s face. She imagined the hurt she would see in his eyes if she ever surrendered to this kind of temptation. She used it as momentum to take a few more steps back.
“Cole, I have been impatiently waiting for a little over ten months. Do you have any idea what that entails? That is approximately 300 days. That is TEN lonely holidays, if you count birthdays. I have a little over a month to go. What the hell makes you think that I’m going to break now, when I’m so close to the end of my wait?”
“That’s easy. The possibility that you’ll have to wait longer. Or wait again. You know there are no promises in the army. You can’t say for certain that he’ll be back next month and you can’t say for certain he’ll never leave again. Is that how you want to spend your life, never knowing? You want to always be alone and waiting? Is that the kind of relationship you really want?”
Tears burned in her eyes. Part of her knew he was right. Most people thought she was crazy. Hell, even she thought she was most of the time. She felt defeated. She grabbed him by the wrist and led him to the front door. She blinked back the tears and turned to face him.
“You’re right, I’m not sure. But who ever really is? When you and I were together, I had you here all the time and look how that turned out. The truth is relationships are uncertain no matter the circumstances. If being with someone who loves me and appreciates me means having to wait while other people get to spend their holidays as a couple, then so be it. It’s worth the wait.” With that, she opened the door and he reluctantly stepped outside. He turned to face her and opened his mouth to speak. “Don’t come back,” she said before he could get a word in, “I mean it.” She slammed and locked the door. Through the peephole, she watched him turn to walk back to his truck, looking utterly deflated.
She was infuriated. The truth was his words had wounded her. What was she doing? Did she want to spend her life waiting, sometimes for weeks on end without a word, for a phone call that may or may not even come? As the end of the deployment drew nearer, it only became harder. The long summer days stretched out ahead of her and the nights were sleepless. She felt like she had come to the end of her rope. She looked at the clock. A little after 9:30. Jared was probably asleep. Or out on a mission. Who knew? She changed for bed and prepared for another lonely night of fitful sleep.
As she lay in bed awake, she wondered how she was going to get through this. She wondered how so many women did this and what they would say to her now that she wanted to give up. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for the military lifestyle. Maybe she should just be with Cole. He was so much…simpler.
The phone beside her bed rang. She jumped and scrambled to answer it.
“Hey baby, were you asleep?”
She smiled. Her heart lifted. That voice.
“Almost, just dozing off,” she lied. He worried about her not getting enough sleep.
“I’m sorry to wake you, babe. We just got back in and I needed to hear your voice. How were the fireworks with the girls?”
Guilt washed over her.
“Oh, they were okay. I missed you; I wish you could’ve been there to watch them with me.”
“Me too, baby. Soon.“
Not soon enough, she thought. She glanced at his picture on her nightstand. Somehow hearing his voice while looking at his smiling face made it all seem just a little more possible. Maybe she could hold on for just a little bit longer. She still wondered how she would make it through the remainder of the wait and, as he told her he loved her more than life itself, she finally realized how she could manage that. She exhaled. “I love you, too.”
The only way she could get through it: one breath at a time.
Read more short stories by this author:
Bare Walls and Cardboard Boxes