IF youd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am, or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
Thanks to Linda Eder for her incredible song.
Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman
Part 14/15 combined
It was Saturday night, and Haleys turn to feed me. We had started having dinner at our houses Saturday nights, switching every other week. I held my gifts under my arm; a bottle of white, a homemade pumpkin cheesecake in honor of Thanksgiving, coming up in just over two weeks, plus a bouquet of her favorite flowers- African violets.
As I headed up the walkway to Haleys townhouse, I sniffed the air, loving the smell of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. The air was frigid, but the snow had yet to start falling, which was odd for us this time of year.
I balanced all my goodies, and raised my hand to knock when I stopped, brows drawn as I listened; a smile spread across my lips when I realized that what I was hearing was piano music. Haley was playing. I missed hearing her play.
With a contented sigh, I knocked. The music stopped suddenly, and I heard footsteps coming to the door, when suddenly it was opened.
"Hi." Haley met me with a huge grin, I smiled back.
"Howdy. These are for you." I held out the flowers to her, and Haley put a hand to her chest.
"Oh, Andi. Thank you. God, you are so sweet." She headed back into the house, which was filled with delicious odors, and I followed, happily. I set the wine and dessert on the breakfast bar, then headed to the piano to see what the music was that Haley had been playing.
There was sheet music open on it.
"Whats this?" I asked, leaning in to read the title, written in pencil, as the whole thing was. "Outcome. Hmm."
"Oh, uh, its just something Ive been working on."
"Its yours?" I turned to see Haley standing in the archway of the kitchen, smiling shyly. She nodded. "Would you play for me?"
"Its not finished yet."
"I dont care. Id like to hear what youve got."
She hesitated. "Okay." She walked over to the piano, lifting the lid, and sat down on the smooth, wood piano bench.
"Wait, before you start, what is this, exactly? What is Outcome?"
"Well," Haley took a deep breath, then turned around on the bench to face me. "Its actually about ... us." I looked at her, surprised, and beyond curious. "Tell me if you can recognize the parts of it, okay?" She looked shyly up at me, which was so strange coming from her. She was always so confident about everything she did. This intrigued me even more.
"Okay. Ill do my best."
She turned on the bench, stretching her fingers a few times, for what seemed like nervousness to me, and then placed them on the keys, and began to play.
The song started out slow, the notes low and staccato. As I listened, my mind began to reel back, and I saw those first days when I had just been Haleys physics tutor, and distant admirer. Then the music began to get a little louder, a little faster, and suddenly had the feeling of fun. I felt light, a smile coming to my face as I remembered us being crazy and nutty in the middle of the night, our midnight Wal-Mart raid on Haleys eighteenth birthday.
I reached out, putting my hand on Haleys shoulder, needing that contact with her as the memories rushed me. Our midnight phone calls and IM sessions.
I was torn from my thoughts and memories when the melody changed again. Suddenly the notes became long, deeper, almost ... what was the word? Yeah, sensual. The feeling of Haleys body against mine, the heat of the fire next to us as we kissed in my mothers basement. The sound of our sighs, the nervousness and arousal, all mixing together to create one of the most intense moments of my life.
I closed my eyes as I let the music flow through me, fill me, and make me feel.
My eyes opened when I heard the notes tumbling over each other, falling quietly from the higher notes and getting louder as she progressed down the scale until the last one, low, full, final, was banged on the piano, and held. Just one note, loud, deep, melancholy, and full of pain. I knew what that was. After the note faded, the song began again in another key, which caught my heart, turning it into a lump in my throat.
Haleys fingers slowed on the keys, her body gently swaying as she played. Looking down, I could see her eyes were closed.
I wondered if this represented how she had felt after that weekend, or was this the time between then and now? The time when we were not even much of a thought in the others life, except as just maybe a friend we both once knew.
The song began to almost start over again, but in the same, lower key as the previous long stretch, until finally, suddenly, Haley stopped playing.
I looked down at her, wondering why.
"Thats it," she said, her voice low, quiet, her back still to me as she rested her hands on the keyboard. "What did you see as I played?" Still, Haley kept her back to me.
I took a deep breath, trying to get myself together after being so abruptly taken from my world of the past; the lack of music deafening.
"Well, at first, when it was slow, almost unsure, I felt the beginning, you know, when I was just tutoring you?" She nodded. "Then it got going a bit, faster, fun. I guess thats the word that immediately came to mind; fun." I smiled at the memory. "I saw us bumming around town, or at the mall, just being nutty. That was when we were friends." Again the nod. "Then," I stopped.
"Then?" Haley slowly closed the lid on the keyboard, and stood, facing me, the piano bench between us.
"Then Spring Break weekend. Intense, heavy, sensual. Then you stopped, suddenly, abruptly, powerfully. That was when you left for school, Im guessing. Or after that weekend." I ran a hand through my hair, still shaky after the memories. "Then there was a long, almost sad, stretch, a different key for a different time. I took that for either how you felt after the weekend, or the stretch of time between then and now. And finally, the song came full circle. You began to play the first part over again, but still in that different key, as it is a very different time."
Haley smiled, nodding. "Yes. You got it." My stomach suddenly was filled with butterflies, flapping their wings to tickle my insides.
"How does it end? What is the outcome?" I asked, my voice low as I stared into Haleys eyes. She stared back, steadfast and strong.
"It hasnt been written yet. I told you it was unfinished." Her voice was equally low, yet the sound sent the butterflies on hyper drive.
As I stared at her, the remnants of "Outcome" still lingering in my head, I felt myself begin to lean just a bit, like a magnet, pulled toward Haley, drawn. My mind and my body, or was that my heart? raged a battled against each other. My eyes darted from hers down to her mouth, then back up again. Closer, closer-
"Ill get that." Haley nearly ran into the kitchen to get the oven, the timer going off.
I took a deep breath, trying to get my racing heart and breathing under control. Oh my god. What did I just almost allow myself to do? Never, ever again.
I literally shook myself to clear my head, running an extremely nervous hand through my hair. Nervous, hell, it was shaking. So was I.
Taking one final breath, I headed toward the kitchen, where Haley was placing a pan on the counter, pan-holder mittens on either hand.
"Need some help?" I asked, grateful that my voice sounded normal. She glanced up briefly from starting to cut up the chicken breast.
"Yeah. Pop the cork in the wine, will you?"
"Sure." She pointed toward a drawer to her left, so I walked over to it, finding the corkscrew, and carrying it, and the wine, over to the table.
Maybe wine hadnt been such a good idea after all.
Haley began to bring different dishes to the table as I poured our wine. Neither of us said a word. I think we had both needed the distance from each other. I know I did.
"Hungry?" Haley asked, taking a seat opposite mine.
"Yeah." I said enthusiastically as I scooted myself in closer to the table. "This looks so good, Haley." She had made one of my favorite chicken dishes; stuffed chicken, with her own special bread dressing inside. My mouth watered just thinking about it.
As we ate, I thought back to the song again.
"That was truly beautiful, Haley." She looked up at me, bite halfway to her mouth. "Outcome." She smiled.
"When did you write that? Well, start it, anyway."
"Twelve years ago. After I left for college, I was sitting in my dorm one night, the electric keyboard my parents had bought for me sitting beside me on the bed. The tune popped into my mind, so I grabbed the keyboard, some paper and a pencil, and I began to write." She sipped from her wine. "I only got to the end of the first part, and I put it away. At that time, thats as far as the story had gotten."
"And the rest?"
"Once I came back. I saw you, and I thought about it. I peck at it after work, sometimes writing things down while Im at work, then coming home to see if theyll fit into the existing piece." I grinned.
"Gee, and all this time I thought you were the consummate professional." She glared at me good-naturedly.
"Ha ha." She ate another bite of chicken, followed by a forkful of green beans. We both fell silent as we continued to eat. I wondered where Haleys thoughts were, because I sure knew where mine were.
I had no idea that our friendship, and the ultimate deterioration of it when we were kids, meant that much to her. I guess Id always figured shed seen it as just one of those things. Pretty much how Id seen it, for the most part. I mean, regardless if Haley would have come back into my life, she would have had a special place in my heart, whether I had realized it or not. She had begun the journey of self-understanding for an ill-equipped, young kid who was trying to walk on wobbly, inexperienced legs.
Through Haley, I had begun to question my true direction in life. Perhaps not my professional direction, but certainly that of my heart.
"So, are you enjoying your breast meat?"
I nodded with a grin. "Ive always enjoyed breast meat." Haley looked at me, bite halfway to her mouth.
"Oh? Have you had breast meat often?"
"Eh, now and then, sure." Haley grinned, getting into the game.
"Do prefer white meat, or dark meat?"
"White meat, generally." I answered, sipping from my wine.
"Have you ever had dark meat?"
"I have." She looked at me, surprised.
"Really? And how is it different?"
I shrugged, cutting my chicken into smaller pieces.
"Different background, texture, and a different taste." I popped a bite into my mouth.
"Is that so?" I nodded.
"And you? Have you ever had dark meat?"
"No. I prefer white meat."
I looked at Haley for a moment, brows drawn, head low. "Haley, are you dark meat prejudiced?" she chuckled, shaking her head.
"Not at all. Everyone has their preference, right?" I grinned, nodding.
"Indeed." She began to butter a dinner roll, watching the progress of her knife. "So, Andi, who was your first piece of meat?"
I chuckled, cutting some more chicken.
"Well, it was the middle of my sophomore year in undergrad. Her name was Alecia. Alecia Haskell. She was a bit older than I was, and had already graduated from Carlton."
"How did you meet?"
"I used to go to this little whole-in-the-wall diner to study, and she was a half-owner of it. They were short on help one night so she had to cover, and we got to talking." I shrugged. "The rest is history."
"How long did it last?"
"Hmm," I sighed as I ate some green beans, thinking back. "I guess six months?"
"Well, she got tired of me studying all the time. See, she was already past that part in her life, and had no patience for someone else who was trying to make their mark at school and in life."
"Ah, I see."
"Plus, I think she really just wanted someone who she could play like a puppet; you know, tell what to do, when, where and why." Haley looked at me strangely, her nose wrinkled in distaste.
"How on earth did you end up with someone like that?"
"Hey, I was just trying this whole woman thing out. I was impressed with her knowledge at first."
"Okay. Understandable. Then who?"
"Well, lets see. Alecia, then I think it was Nina. But that was just a fling. There was no way I was interested in getting sucked into another relationship."
"What, were you two like fuck buddies, or something?" Haley grinned, finishing off the rest of her wine, and sitting back in her chair, an empty plate in front of her. I nodded.
"Off and on for about a year. It just made things easy with school. No worries, no pressures, just fun when I wanted it. I think we actually only went out on three real dates. We both realized that we liked each other in bed far more than during the day." I chuckled at the thought. "Im not real proud of that situation, and it definitely wouldnt be something Id tell Kendall about." We both smiled.
"Here honey, this is whats called a fuck buddy." Haley teased, I laughed.
"Her mother would have my ass."
"Okay. So, after that year. And why did it end, anyway?"
"Then there was Cassandra. The dark meat." I grinned, Haley nodded understanding while pouring herself, and me, some more wine. "She was probably one of the sweetest women I had ever met. We tried a relationship, but her parents hated me because I was white. It was a real mess, and didnt last long at all. It was also her dog who killed Suki."
"Well, damn her." I chuckled.
"Yeah. After that it was Erin." I put my fork down, finished. I stood, grabbing my plate, and gathering up Haleys dishes, walking to the kitchen. "How about you?" As I loaded the dishwasher, Haley began to tell her tale.
"Well, I didnt date much at all for the first little bit that I was in school, actually, I had my first date at the beginning of my junior year."
"Why so long?" I asked as I cut us slices of my cheesecake.
"I dont know. I think I had had enough of guys from high school, and sex, and the whole nine yards. I wanted to just concentrate on school, my friends and my family."
"Thats honorable." I headed back to the table with our dessert. "Here you go, madam."
"Thank you." I sat down, and glanced over at her. She was looking at the cheesecake, then looked up at me. "So, did you and Sara Lee have fun with this?"
"Ill have you know, that is homemade from scratch." She pointed her fork at me.
"You made this? All by your lonesome?"
"Just me and Bunsen."
"Well, Im not so sure I want to eat anything that has Bunsens seal of approval on it."
"Yeah, well his only contribution was licking the crumbs off the floor." She chuckled, and bent down to sniff the cheesecake. I watched, fascinated.
"Cyanide doesnt have a smell,"
"Would you just eat the damn thing?"
Haley grinned, and cut a bite with her fork. With one last sniff, she stuck it in her mouth, her jaw moving as she swished it around in her mouth, as if she were tasting a fine wine. Then, without a breath, she lunged at the cheesecake.
Shaking my head in amusement, I began to eat my own dessert.
"Oh, yeah. This is excellent, by the way, Andi. Generally Im not a huge fan of pumpkin anything, but you can make this for me anytime." I laughed.
"Great. Ill be your personal dessert maker."
"Hey, works for me." She took another bite, chewing slowly before continuing with her list. "So, in my junior year I met Kevin."
"How did that go?"
"It didnt. I mean, we dated for a while, Id say maybe a year, but he was really just an ass. I was his token girlfriend, you know? Just some eye candy for his friends to be jealous of. Certainly not a meaningful relationship."
Having finished the cheesecake, Haley licked her finger and began to pick up all the little crumbs left on the plate.
"Um, Haley? There is more cheesecake, you know?" She looked up at me, a smile immediately coming to her face. "Want more?" She nodded, grinning like an adorable little idiot as she did. Chuckling at her antics, I grabbed her plate, and headed to the kitchen.
"Then after graduation, I had no intention of dating for a little while. I think Kevin had ruined that for me. Maybe thats why I had been so drawn to Lonnie." I set the plate in front of her.
"What do you mean? His pureness of heart?" She nodded.
"Yeah. He was just so nice and sweet, and so completely opposite of Kevin. I really think I had to get the last bit of high school out of my system with him, you know? He was so much like Brad it was scary."
"Tell me about it. Anyway, you know the story behind Lonnie. After that whole fiasco, I met Isaac, who I actually still see from time to time. Well, when I was in California, anyway. Neither of us were looking for anyone to date, but if something comes up and we need a date, like the holidays, or something, wed give each other a buzz."
I sat back in my chair, completely stuffed now, and wondering how on earth Haley was eating that second piece of dessert.
We talked more about our lives through the years, and then I helped her clean things up. It was late, and I was stuffed and tired.
It was nearly midnight by time I got home. I unlocked the door, a smile of contentment on my face. How was it that I enjoyed my time with Haley no matter what it was that we did? We could sit on the couch, neither of us saying a word, watching TV or a movie or something, and I felt at peace, and happy. Never in my life had I experienced that.
Except with her.
I headed toward Bunsens room, opening the door to let him out so I could take him out to go to the bathroom outside.
"Hello, boy. How are you?" I picked up his excited, wiggling body, trying to hug him as he snorted in excitement. "Come on, big guy. You need to poop." I carried him over to the backdoor, and let him out.
As I headed toward my bedroom to get ready for bed, I passed the stereo, seeing a Linda Eder CD laying on top. I turned the power on, and loaded the disk, standing there as her voice came through the speakers, loud and clear, full of beauty and talent. Without a thought, my hand went to the track button, and I pushed it until I got to song number twelve.
The slow, sensual tones of "Unusual Way" began, Linda humming with it.
In a very unusual way, one time I needed you.
In a very unusual way, you were my friend.
Maybe it lasted a day,
Maybe it lasted an hour.
But somehow it will never end.
In a very unusual way, I think Im in love with you.
In a very unusual way, I want to cry.
Something inside me goes weak,
Something inside me surrenders.
Youre the reason why,
Youre the reason why.
You dont know what you do to me,
You dont have a clue.
You cant tell what its like to be me,
Looking at you.
It scares me so,
That I can hardly speak.
In a very unusual way, I owe what I am to you.
When at times it appears I wont stay,
Id never go.
Special to me in my life,
Since the first day that I met you.
How could I ever forget you,
Once you had touched my soul.
In a very unusual way,
You made me whole.
My eyes closed, I listened to those words, felt them to my very soul, and for just a moment, I thought I might cry.
Turning the stereo off, I let the dog in, turned out all the lights, and went to bed.
I pulled on my long leather jacket, knowing Id need it tonight. It was early December, and winter was upon us with a vengeance. We had thirty-six inches of the white stuff fall within the last week, and I was loving every minute of it.
Pulling my gloves on, I closed the door to my house, and headed toward my Jeep to go pick Haley up.
It was her thirty-first birthday, and I really hoped shed like what I had planned for her. It wasnt a big party like shed done for me, but then this wasnt a milestone birthday for her, either. Plus, I had to admit selfishly, I wanted tonight just to be us.
The last few weeks had gone so quickly, as holidays tend to do. I had gone to my moms house for Thanksgiving, and Haley and her family had had their own dinner that I had helped Haley prepare, at her house. She didnt want her mother to have to take on that burden when she had so much to go already with her fathers failing health. Tim Corregan was getting worse, but I kept telling Haley to keep hope.
Everyday I was at work I was getting closer and closer to something that could possibly be useful to MS sufferers everywhere. I just hoped it would work out.
I looked at the clock in the dashboard, relieved to see that I was on time. Work had gone over today, and I had only thirty minutes to get ready once I got home. My hair was still slightly damp, but I knew it would dry at the restaurant. I was taking her to her favorite place in the world to eat, Landlocked Sea. According to Haley they had the best crab cakes anywhere this side of Maine.
I slowly made my way down the driveway. I hadnt shoveled off yet, and nearly had to put the Jeep in 4-wheel drive. But, finally I was on my way, and feeling good about what I had planned.
The drive to her place took a bit longer than usual, so I tried to hurry as fast as I could. I had a schedule to keep.
I reached my hand out, knocked on the door, which was opened immediately.
"Damn. Were you waiting by the door?" I asked with a grin. Haley smiled.
"Well, you know."
"So, anyway. Hi!" My smile was huge, pretty much from ear to ear.
"Hello. Arent you the happy clam?" Haley asked, a matching smile on her face. I nodded.
"Yup." I looked at her, noting the thick sweater, black khakis and peacoat. "You look nice and warm."
"I am. Per your orders. So, whats on your mind, Miss Andi?"
I shook my head. "Not yet. Come on."
Haley pulled her door shut, and followed me to the Jeep. As we drove, we were both silent, but when Haley got the notion of where we were headed, she began to perk up.
"Wait, wait, are we, is it," I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. "It is!" I smiled over at her.
"Well, it is your favorite place to eat."
"Oh, yeah? And how do you know that?"
"A little birdie told me." I parked and pulled the emergency break.
"And what was this little birdies name?" Haley put her hand on my back as we walked to the building, our breath coming out in white puffs.
"Um, Tweety?" She grinned at me, her hand rubbing small circles in my back. The contact felt good. I never saw myself as much for affection, but like so many things, that had changed.
I opened the door to the restaurant, and we were met with a lobby loaded with people waiting for tables on a Friday night.
"Oh my god." Haley muttered.
"No worries." I headed up to the hostess, told her my name, and with a bright smile, she called for the waitress that had been put aside especially for us. The young girl led us toward the back of the place to a more isolated, quiet table. I smiled as I saw the balloons that had been put up all around it, tied to the chairs and the table leg.
"Oh, Andi." I heard chuckled behind me. "No one knows its a birthday or anything." I grinned back at her.
We were seated, and our waitress smiled as us both. "What can I get you ladies to drink?"
"Well," Haley glanced at me. "Since Im not the one driving, Ill have a glass of white."
"Okay. And for you, maam?"
"A virgin strawberry daiquiri."
"Good choices. Ill be right back." I watched her hurry through the maze of tables toward the kitchen, then turned to Haley, who was already looking at me.
"This is really nice, Andi." I sat back in the comfortable chair, and grinned.
"Im glad you like it."
We sat in silence for a moment. I stared at the candle that was lit in the center of our table, watching as the flame bounced around from the unfelt movement of air currents.
"You do know what they say, dont you?" I looked up at Haley, her voice surprising me.
"The way to a womans heart is her stomach?"
"I thought that was a mans heart?"
She shrugged, sitting back in her chair, arms crossed over her chest.
"Well, true, but Im known as quite the food slut." I chuckled.
"Is that so?"
"That is so."
"Here you are, ladies." The waitress sat a huge frozen drink in front of me, and a glass of wine in front of Haley. "Are you ready to order yet?" I looked at Haley.
"Id like the crab cakes, please."
"Alright. What kind of vegetable did you want with that?"
"New potatoes, please."
"Maam?" She turned to me.
"The smoked salmon, please."
"Okay. Coming right up." She smiled sweetly, and left us again.
"Nice girl." Haley said, watching her as she hurried away.
"Yes." I agreed. "I would never want to a waitress. Hard work."
"No, kidding. I did it very briefly in college." I looked at Haley.
"Oh, yeah. It sucked."
"I bet you were good at it, though." I grabbed my drink, thankful that I didnt get one with alcohol in it. With the sheer size of this thing, I would have been under the table halfway through it.
"Eh, I did okay." She shrugged. "Tips were always decent." Haley sipped from her wine.
"Why did you only do it briefly?"
"Because it sucked." I laughed. "And because my scholarship came through, you know, the living expenses."
"Oh, I see how it is. You try to make this seem so pitiful, when you only needed to do it briefly." I stirred my drink with the straw, taking the little plastic sword out of it, biting the pieces of fruit off of it.
"Yeah, but is sounds better the pitiful way."
I shook my head, chuckling. "You, my friend, are a nut."
"Here you are, ladies." The waitress brought our salads, covered with the yummy house dressing.
There was silence as we both dug into the food. I, for one, hadnt eaten all day, save for the bagel Id grabbed earlier in the morning. And as for Haley, who I knew had eaten a well-balanced breakfast, as well as lunch, she was just a food slut.
"I love their salad." Haley hummed, happily munching on her greens.
I glanced at my watch. Must keep on schedule.
"What time is it?"
Haley finished her food, and pushed the plate away, smiling at me. I looked at her.
"Okay. Im ready for more." I chuckled, pushing my own salad away. She looked at it, the bit Id left. "Youre not going to finish that? How dare you leave such a great salad to go to waste."
"Well, if I finish my salad, theres no way I can finish my salmon."
"Wuss." She grabbed the plate, and began to chow down. I shook my head, astounded.
"Are you pregnant, or something?" she laughed.
"Yeah, right. Arent there certain physical conditions that need to be met for that?"
"Oh yes, virginal one." She grinned.
"Salmon?" The waitress, who seemed to just appear, placed my dinner in front of me. "Careful. The plate is hot. And crab cakes." Haley was grins from ear to ear.
"Thank you." She smiled at us.
"Can I get you anything else?" The waitress looked from one of us to the other.
"Nope. I think were good to go." I said. With one last smile, she left.
"Wow. Does this ever look excellent." Haley smiled at her meal, then at me. "Thanks, Andi." She picked off the little sprig of mint leaf.
Not another word was spoken as we both dug into our meals, swapping bites, and closing our eyes in utter delight. The service was superb, the food divine, and the night perfect. I couldnt have written it better myself.
Finally, empty plates sat before us both. The waitress was back in a flash, almost as if shed been watching us to see when wed finish.
"Dessert, ladies?" Haley looked at me with hope in her eyes. I nodded at her.
"Chocolate-raspberry mousse, please?" she asked, the excitement of a child shining in her eyes. God, she was so adorable.
"Maam?" Blinking rapidly, I looked up at the waitresss expectant face.
"Oh, sorry. Ill have the banana gelato, please." With a smile, she was gone, only to return with a few friends moments later.
I heard the clapping from the other side of the restaurant, and grinned as I knew what was coming. I glanced down at my watch, happy to see they were right on time, then up at Haley. She look confused as she tried to look around the place to see where the noise was coming from. It got louder and louder until ten waiters and waitresses stood around our table, clapping their hands, our waitress standing in front with Haleys mousse in her hands, a single lit candle in it.
Haley shook her head, for the first time turning completely red.
"No," I smiled, loving her embarrassment at such direct attention. The wait staff began to sing Happy Birthday in harmony with each other. I was impressed; it actually sounded great. Even though Haley looked like she wanted to hide under the table, I could tell she was enjoying it.
They finished their song, all the guys giving her a kiss on the cheek as they walked by, wishing her a happy birthday. I just about died laughing at that. I had no idea theyd do that, but Haley didnt seem to mind.
When everyone le
ft, she grabbed her spoon, pointing it at me accusingly. I just laughed and began to eat my gelato.
We ate our dessert, and I glanced at my watch again.
"Oh, we have to go. Are you done?" I asked, looking up just in time to see Haley trying to get every single last drop of mousse with her spoon.
I grinned. "Why dont you lick it?" She looked at me, then around, then back at the dessert dish. With an evil look, she stuck her finger into the glass dish, and ran it all over the inside, catching all those stubborn bits that her spoon just couldnt catch. Closing her eyes in pleasure as she stuck the finger in her mouth, the smiling at me.
"Yum." I shook my head.
"You are an absolute nut, you know that, Haley?" She nodded.
"That I do."
Our waitress had put our ticket on the table in the little leather binder. Haley swiped it off the table. I just stared at her.
"Ha! I am not about to let you pay for this." She opened the binder to see a piece of paper that simply said, "Thank you, and please come again." She looked at me, confused.
"Why dont you put that down, and let me give you your present?"
"You mean this wasnt enough of one? And whats up with this?" She flashed the paper at me.
"Ah, the wonders of the credit card numbers." She glared at me. "Its all taken care of, Haley, so get over it."
"Youre welcome. Happy birthday." I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, and took out the long envelope I had stashed in there. "Here." I put it on the table in front of her. "Youve got to make this snappy."
"Okay." She grabbed it, ripping into the paper, and pulling the humorous card out. Reading it, she laughed. "Ha ha. Youre an old hag, too, I hope you know." I smiled. A smaller envelope was inside, and she took it, setting the card down. With a drawn brow, she opened it, and pulled the two tickets out. As she read them, her eyes got huge, and her mouth fell.
"Shes having a Fourth of July concert?" she whispered, looking back at the tickets. "And, oh my god! How did you get backstage passes for Linda? I had no idea she even did that!" She stood from her chair, grabbing me from mine, and tugging me to her. Nearly having the breath knocked, then squeezed out of me, I hugged her back, so happy she liked it.
"I got you two so you could take someone with you." She pulled back from me staring down at them again.
"Third row back, center," It hit her what I had said. "Take someone with me? Are you kidding me? Andi, there is no someone. Its you or no one." I had hoped shed say that. I wanted so badly to experience that concert with her.
"Well, the option is there, okay?" She nodded, then grabbed me in another bone-crushing hug.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"Youre welcome. Come on, woman. We have to get out of here."
We hurried through the restaurant, and to my glee, the customers were telling her happy birthday as we passed. She took all in stride, being her usual gracious, charming self. At the door, she turned and gave them all a huge bow.
In the car, I turned to her.
"Okay, turn away from me." She did as told, and I took the sleep mask from my jacket pocket, tying the black, satin ties behind her head.
"Oh, Andi. I had no idea you were into the kinky." I grinned.
"You have no idea. Can you see?"
"No. Not really."
"Good. Now just sit back and relax."
"Is this going to hurt?" she asked.
"Maybe. Especially if you peek."
I got the car started, and the heat going strong, as it was really cold in the car, and outside, and I figured it would be best to get her warmed up now.
As I drove, I glanced over at her, and saw that she was resting her head against the back of the seat, the slightest bit of a smile on her face. She looked so relaxed and peaceful, and utterly beautiful. As we had eaten dinner, I had watched her, the way she moved, the way she spoke and her expressions. How was it fair that one woman could be so beautiful and kind, yet intelligent and talented all at the same time? It wasnt fair.
I cleared my thoughts as I knew Id start going into dangerous territory, and concentrated on the road. We had just had another storm this morning, so the streets were slick. I was so glad it wasnt snowing now.
Just up ahead I saw all the lights, as well as our mode of transport, and began to get excited.
I pulled the Jeep up next to the carriage, always in awe at the sheer size of the Clydesdales. Turning to Haley, I quickly untied her blindfold, and shoved it back into the inside pocket of my coat. She opened her eyes, pushing some hair out of her face, her eyes stopping when she saw the horses. In fact, they grew huge.
"Wow," she breathed.
"Come on." I opened my door, and hurried around to the carriage. The driver was waiting for us. He was in a tuxedo, but you could barely see that beneath the layers he wore.
"Good evening, Haley." He smiled at my friend. "Happy birthday, and watch your step." He helped her into the convertible carriage, and then me. I sat in the seat next to her, where we were shoulder to shoulder in the narrow space.
"Where are we?" she asked, looking around.
"Crowsbend," I said, reaching beneath the seat. Bingo. I brought out the thermos. "Hot chocolate?" She grinned, her breath coming out in white puffs.
"My, you do think of everything. Please." I pulled off the top cap that served as a cup, as well as the lid underneath. "Crowsbend? This is a hugely wealthy area."
"Yes it is." The driver urged the horses on, and we began to move. Haley looked like shed burst when we started going, the little sled-like bottom on the carriage making a soothing swishing sound on the packed snow. I looked behind us to see the tracks they made. Turning back, I saw that Haleys eyes were everywhere. All the houses were lit up with Christmas lights and scenes in the massive front yards.
"Wow. Look at that. There must be a million little lights in that display. Hey, look!" She pointed to a house we were passing. "Santa is sticking out of one of their five chimneys."
"Yeah." I smiled. "Hes waving at us." I reached my arm up. "Hey, Santa!" I called. Haley giggled, waving, too.
"My god! How many bedrooms do you think that place has?" she asked, pointing to one coming up at the end of the block.
"Jeez, seven? Eight, maybe."
"Wow. I bet my entire condo is the size of just their foyer."
"I hear you. When I was looking to buy a house, I actually looked at a place over here. I could have done it if I never wanted to go out again,"
"Or buy boots."
"Hey, you have to have priorities." She laughed, scooting in closer to me, sharing our body heat as we sipped the hot cocoa.
It was an extraordinary night, being taken throughout the neighborhood, seeing incredible setups in houses and Christmas lights. There was even an obviously Jewish family, as the entire house was lit up with decorations of the Jewish faith. A huge Star of David on the roof, and an outline of a menorah on the lawn, complete with yellow lights to represent the flames. There was even a Santa who was losing his pants as he tried to climb out of a chimney.
We laughed and talked, and pointed, and giggled. I felt like I was ten years old again, yet very much a woman as I felt Haley link her arm with mine, tugging on me to point something out, or leaning her head on my shoulder as we stared at a beautiful house.
"This is magical," she whispered against my neck. I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath, trying to memorize every aspect of this for my mental photo album that I could flip through later. I wanted to be able to recall the smell of Haleys shampoo, the smell of all the fireplaces that were lit in the houses around us, the smoke pouring out into the night, mingling to tickle my nose. I wanted to be able to recall the way the snow looked, the street lights making it look like an orange wonderland as we passed under them. The magnificent beasts that pulled us along, and the driver that talked to them ever so gently, prodding them along to obey his commands.
I leaned my head against Haleys head, remembering what she had said.
"Yeah." I agreed. "Magical."
Eventually the ride came to an end, and it was time to leave the fairytale, and head back into reality. I gave the driver an extra large tip, which he acknowledged with a smile, and the tip of his hat. Haley and I got back into the Jeep, me turning the heat on full blast, rubbing my gloved hands together. After being out in that for thirty minutes, I was pretty much an Andisicle.
I turned to my passenger to see that peaceful smile from earlier still on her lips.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" She leaned her head back against the head rest, and looked over at me, nodding.
"Definitely. This is truly the best birthday Ive ever had, Andi. Thank you." I was thrilled.
"Youre very welcome, Haley. And, you, too are worth it." I smiled, she smiled back.
* * *
I smiled when I saw Kendall run out of the house, her purse in her hand. Shed be eleven soon. Where does the time go?
"You know, Andi, I dont know how I didnt see it before." Haley said from the passenger seat next to me.
"See what?" I asked her, not taking my eyes off the girl.
"That shes your daughter. You two have the exact same eyes." I smiled.
"Yeah. I was always so glad she got something of mine."
"Oh, its more than just that. She got your mouth, too." She stopped herself short as the door was thrown open, and a little bundle of energy was whisked into the backseat.
"Hi!" she exclaimed, hugging me from behind, wrapping her arms around the head rest to my neck. I squeezed her forearm.
"Hey, you." Then to my surprise, she did the same to Haley. I smiled over at her as Haley was grins from ear to ear. She grabbed my daughters arms in return.
"Hows my favorite ten year old?" Haley asked.
"Good." I got the Jeep in gear, and we were on our way to the Mall of America.
"Are you ready for a full day of shopping, kiddo?"
"Yeah! Christmas!" Haley and I both grinned.
"Thats right." Haley turned as far as her seatbelt would allow, and looked back at the girl.
"Honey, is your seatbelt on?" I asked, looking at her through the rearview mirror.
"Yep." Came the enthusiastic reply as she snapped the belt that went over her narrow chest. Soon that chest would be developing. God, where did the time go?
"So, hows school, Kendall?" Haley asked.
"Ick. I dont wanna talk about that." I watched the conversation through the mirror, my brows narrowing.
"Why? Whats wrong with school?"
"Stupid boys." She pouted. Thats my girl. I chuckled to myself.
"Oh, yeah? Want to talk about it?" Haley asked, putting her hand on Kendalls leg. The girl shook her head. "Okay. We dont have to."
"Can we play a CD?" I glanced over at Haley to see she was already looking at me.
"Uh, sure. Give it to Haley."
She unzipped the small bag she had with her, and handed over a jewel case. Haley took it, sitting in her seat, facing the front.
"Tempo Toys," she read, and glanced at me again. I rolled my eyes. God, I hate boy bands. I glanced over at the cover to see five young guys standing in various poses on the front.
"Theyre the coolest!" Kendall gushed, a huge grin on her face.
"Yeah? Which one is your favorite?" Haley showed the case to the girl, and without hesitation, Kendall grinned, showing the hole where one of her front teeth was supposed to be.
"Adam," she said shyly.
"Which one is that?" Kendall pointed to the boy standing in the middle, his feet spread wide apart in a tough-guy stance, one arm outstretched as he pointed a finger at the onlooker.
"He looks like he barely shaves," I muttered. Haley smacked me on the thigh then slid the CD into the player. Immediately I regretted my decision to let this rubbish be played in my car. But, such is the way it goes when you have a ten year old.
"Do you think those sideburns are real?" Haley asked quietly as Kendall began to really jam with the music, singing along. To my amazement, she actually had a great voice for a little turkey. Thank god she didnt get mine.
I glanced over at the boy Haley indicated, sideburns down to his jawbone.
"No, I think theyre painted on, personally." She grinned.
"Do you remember those god-awful boy bands from when we were young?" she asked quietly. I chuckled.
"Yeah. NSYNC and Backstreet Boys."
"Oh, and do you remember that skank Britney Spears?"
"Whats skank mean?"
"Oops." Haley grinned.
"Um, its not a nice word, Kendall." I called back to her. The damndest things they hear.
The drive to the mall was long, but luckily Michelle Torrini had had the foresight to send Kendall with a Gameboy and some books. But, finally we got there, and none too soon for a certain ten year olds bladder.
The day was split up into basically three shopping trips. All three of us together buying for Kendalls parents, and Haley and I shopping for our families, and then Kendall went with Haley so I could get some extras for her, and then Kendall was with me so Haley could shop for me and Kendall.
I had already decided, and had talked with the Torrinis about, getting Kendall a computer. She was getting to the age where she needed one, especially when they had started using them in school from just about day one. Kendalls parents didnt have the money to buy her one, so why not me? They had been thrilled at the idea.
I knew Haley had planned to get her some software for it, and I was picking up a joystick and game for stocking stuffers. I wouldnt be seeing Kendall this Christmas, which was a week and a half away. That hurt, but it wasnt my choice, and I had no say. The family was heading out west to spend the holidays with Michelles parents in Colorado. I would be having my Christmas with Kendall when they got back.
I pushed those thoughts out of my head as I wanted to have a fun day, and boy did we ever! It was like I was with two ten year olds instead of one. Man, Haley was born to be a mother. She said otherwise, but shed make a great mom. Funny; she said the same about me.
We ate, we laughed, we shopped until we nearly dropped. Kendall had to be back early today as they were leaving for Colorado tomorrow morning. So, the shopping trip had to be cut a little short.
The girl conked in the car as we drove back to her house. She clutched her Gameboy in one hand, game long forgotten as sleep took over. Haley reached back, turning the power off so the batteries wouldnt die.
Haley got comfortable in her seat, sighing contentedly.
"Did you hear about the New Years party the hospital is putting on?" I asked, my voice quiet so as not to wake Kendall. Haley rolled her head toward me, and nodded. "Are you going?"
"Oh, I dont know. Ive thought about it. You?"
"I doubt it. Date required." I grinned.
"Oh, come on, Andi. I cant imagine that would be a problem for you. Im sure there are plenty of lonely women running around that hospital." I shook my head.
"Nah. Im not real fond of flaunting my personal life around."
"Ah. Well, then we could always find you a male to escort you for one night." I laughed.
"Yeah. That would be interesting."
"Um," Haley looked down at her hands, which were fidgeting with each other. "Speaking of dates," She looked out the passenger-side window. "I was asked out on one." Slowly she looked over at me, as if shed be in trouble, or something.
In truth my stomach had fallen to my knees, but there was no way I could tell her that. She had every right in the world to be happy, and to date.
"Whos the lucky guy?" I concentrated all my attention on the road. I didnt want her to know that I was bothered in the least. Somehow, wrongly, I felt betrayed.
"His name is Craig. Hes actually a phlebotomist at the hospital."
"I see. A legal vampire." She chuckled.
"How did this come about? When do you go out?"
"A lady I work with, Cheryl. Shes kind of the old school, and doesnt think a woman should be alone. That sort of thing." I grimaced.
"What century is she living in?"
"Yeah, I know. I humor her because shes almost seventy, and thinks shes my mother or something."
"More like grandmother."
"So, when do you go?" I glanced over at her, surprised to find myself looking right into blue eyes. I turned away, watching the road. Its slick, you know.
My stomach fell for the second time. That was our night together. Yeah, I was not such a fan of this Craig guy.
"Oh. What do you plan to do?" She sighed, running a hand through her hair, taking it out of its ponytail, and combing her fingers through the dark strands.
"I have no idea. What on earth do you do on a date? Its been way too long." I smiled.
"Movies? Dinner? Bowling?"
"Bowling sounds like fun. I havent done that in forever."
I continue to drive, and Haley continued to talk about this Craig asshole. I didnt want to think about her going out with someone.
The car filled with silence for a moment, then Haley began to talk about something else. Thank god.
"Have you ever been to California, Andi?" I looked at her, a bit surprised at her choice in subject.
"Have you ever wanted to? I mean, does it hold any interest for you?"
"Sure. It seems like a different planet compared to Minnesota."
"Oh, god, yeah. It was really a shock to come back here," she said, laughing.
"Really?" I glanced over at her.
"Sure. We never saw days like this." She indicated the white wonderland outside the windows. "Its so beautiful there."
"It always looked it whenever I saw pictures of it, and so many movies take place there. Ive always wanted to see the Pacific, too."
* * *
I got a fire started, the temperatures dropping even more, glancing at the clock on the mantle, for about the fiftieth time, before I sat down in my arm chair, book in hand. Bunsen was curled up in his little doggy bed Id set by the fire to warm up his little Pug body.
With a sigh, I opened the paperback to my marked place, and began to read. Sort of.
I didnt get it. I used to love these nights where I could sit quietly, drinking water, or hot tea, or even the occasional glass of wine, and just enjoy a book or a good movie, hell, even a good crossword puzzle. Tonight Id tried them all. The movie had seemed boring and dull, I couldnt concentrate on the crossword puzzle to get the answers, and the book was quickly losing my interest, though I was trying valiantly, again, to keep going.
I glanced at the clock again. It was just ten after nine, and the world around me had faded to black as night fell, and now the only light now was the flames dancing in the fireplace, and a small wall sconce near my chair to read by. Curling my feet up a little tighter under me, I cleared my throat, and began to read chapter 14.
Never in my life had I had a problem with entertaining myself, and I sure as hell didnt like the fact that it seemed to be a problem now. I had never needed someone around to make me smile or happy. My books, and research, and games of Literati had all done that for me.
But now? Not so much. It was disturbing, and completely disconcerting.
I looked up, toward the door, the blackness beyond the etched glass telling me nothing.
I set the book on my chair, and walked toward it, flipping the porch light on as I went. Who would possibly coming around my place at 9:25 p.m. on a Saturday night?
Unlocking and opening the door, I was stunned to see Haley standing there, smiling at me. I stood back, trying to overcome my shock, and suppress my joy. Then I got worried.
"Are you okay?" I asked, taking a step forward, my hand on the door.
"I will be if I can come in. Its freezing out here."
"Yeah, you know better than that." I stepped back, and she quickly came in, me slamming the door shut behind her. "What are you doing here?"
"What? Dont you want me here?" she asked with a grin as she unwound the scarf from around her neck, then started on the buttons of her coat.
"Well, sure, but I mean you had your date."
"Oh, yeah." She said, hanging the coat up on the coat tree, and stuffing her discarded gloves in the pockets. "Craig was a real treat." I headed toward the living room, she followed, nearly running me over to sit on the hearth of the fireplace, wrapping her arms around herself. "God, I bet its below zero already."
"Ill get you some hot tea."
"Oh, that sounds nice." She smiled, her teeth still chattering. I quickly poured her a cup from the kettle on the stove, adding just a tad of sugar and honey to it, just how she liked it, and hurried over to her with it.
"Drink." Wrapping her hands around it, she slowly sipped. I pulled the ottoman from my arm chair, and rolled it so I could sit in front of her. "Give me." I grabbed a leg, setting her ankle on my thigh, and taking off snow-caked tennis shoe. "Did you go this casual on your date?" She shook her head.
"No. Went home and changed first."
"Oh." Untying the laces, I took the shoe off, and began to rub her foot, getting some blood and warmth back into it. "So tell me about it."
"Well," she said, taking another sip before setting the cup aside in order to grab the excited Pug who had woken up, and was now demanding her attention. "Craig was nice enough, I guess. But, quite full of himself. He has designs on heading off to medical school and becoming one of the greatest doctors who ever lived." She chuckled at the thought as she held my dog close to her chest, kissing the top of his head, and petting his back.
"Real winner, eh?"
"And then some. This guy had the balls to try and correct me on the amount of schooling I had! Really a prick. I dont think I got one word in edgewise once he got started on himself. I dont think he asked me one thing except to pass the salt at dinner. Truly horrible." She grabbed Bunsens face, looking into his eyes. "Dont you ever treat a lady Pug like that, little guy, or youll be in big trouble. Got me?"
"I think he understands." She grinned, putting him down so he could go back and curl up in his bed. "I have a confession to make, too," she said shyly, glancing at me briefly.
"I missed you, missed our Saturday night."
I smiled at her, saying nothing, but beaming inside.
Haley sighed as I put that foot back on the floor, and grabbed the other leg, doing the same to the other foot. She closed her eyes. "That feels so good, Andi."
"Are you warming up any?"
"Mmhmm. You could say that."
I smiled, continuing my ministrations
"When are we going to have our Christmas?" I looked at her to see she was looking at me through half-closed lids.
"Well, I dont know."
"Its just that Christmas is four days away, and Ill be in New York with my family at my brothers place, and wont be back until the twenty-seventh. I dont want to have an after-Christmas."
"Well, how about tonight?" She sat up straight as an arrow.
"Really?" I nodded.
"Sure. Why not?" Pulling her leg away from me, she began to quickly put her shoes back on.
"Ill go get your stuff and bring it all over." I smiled, loving the way she was the biggest kid I knew.
"Okay. Me and Bunsen will be waiting."
Haley smiled, and hurried toward the door, throwing all her winter gear on, and bursting back out into the cold night. I sat there for a moment, listening to the sound of her car starting up, then it hit me.
I ran to the spare bedroom, Bunsen running after me, barking his little gray and black head off as I grabbed my little four-foot tree with the lights already built into it, and a few boxes of decorations. I hadnt planned to even bother this year, only have a tree because I had Kendall for Christmas Eve last year.
We ran back out to the living room where I pushed the lamp off the side table by the couch, and set the tree up on it, plugging it in so the lights would start blinking, and doing their business, and I could start throwing colorful balls and tinsel on it. Bunsen had fun, too.
Next I had to get all of Haleys gifts, arranging them just so. I really hoped shed like them. I had an envelope, which held her big gift, a huge three by three box, and one smaller gift.
I sat in the chair again, grabbing my book again. Nonchalant was not my strong suit at times, but I was going to do my best. The house was completely dark now, save for the fireplace and the Christmas tree lights, bouncing colorful patterns on the surrounding walls.
I heard Haley knocking.
The knob turned, and the door opened, with Haley being blown in, quickly closing the door behind her, leaning against it.
"Whew. Its just not pleasant out there." She stopped, and turned to look toward the light I imagine she saw out of the corner of her eye. A smile quickly spread across her face, and she turned, walked into the living room. "Well, youve been busy." She said, walking up to the tree, fingering a few decorations. She turned to me a grinned, nodding her head. "I approve."
"Well, Im so glad." I smiled, standing. "Whos going to go first?"
"Why dont you?"
"Okay." I grinned like a little kid, rubbing my hands together. Haley set down her offerings; two envelopes, one thick, an extremely odd-looking thing that was round, but not, and a small oval box.
"Here." She handed me the odd-looking thing. It wasnt heavy, per se, but it wasnt real light, either. I carefully took the wrapping paper off of it, wondering why Haley had bothered wrapping it at all. Finally a little, limp spine came flopping out. I looked up at Haley with a grin on my face. Getting the rest of the paper off, I saw that I held a rainbow colored Koosh that was huge; nearly twice the size of a softball.
"That is one big Koosh." I laughed. "Love the rainbow, too."
"Well, I figured I could help your budding Koosh collection that Kendall started, along."
"Yeah, it got started thanks to you." I laughed. She placed her hand on her chest.
"I remain innocent of all charges."
"Right. Thank you. I think Ill take this to work and put it on my desk." I threw it up into the air, catching it, then walked over to the tree where I grabbed the small box, handed it to Haley. With the glee of a child, she took it, examining it, feeling its weight, and trying to determine its size. "Would you just open the damn thing?"
Finally she began to carefully peel back the paper until she came to a white box. Slicing the tape with her nails, the box was opened, and she pulled out what was inside. She smiled as she looked a the Beanie Baby, but looked slightly confused.
"Look at the tag." She did, and grinned.
"Siggy Bear, huh?"
"Yes, maam. He is one in the new career collection that Beanie has put out."
"So this is their little shrink bear?" I nodded. She hugged me. "Thank you, Andi."
As we proceeded, my next gift was a little booklet that she had put together herself with little coupons for things such as: Good for one pair of boots from Eddie Bauer; Good for one dinner at Landlocked Sea; Good for a free movie night with dinner, and so on.
"Oh, this is nice. So, through this I could have you as my very own personal entertainment slave?" I asked, looking at the booklet.
"In so many words, yes." I grinned.
"I like that idea."
Next Haley opened the big box that sat on the floor. She looked curiously at the slightly smaller white box inside. With a grunt, she lifted it, setting it on the floor in front of the fire. Again, using her handy dandy nails, she got the tape cut, and pulled the flaps of the box open. She looked up at me.
"What is it?"
"Pull it out." She did, flopping it onto the floor. It was large, orange, and had limp string/spine-like things handing off of it. It dawned on her.
"Is it?" I grinned, nodding. "This is like the worlds biggest Koosh!" she looked at it with utter excitement.
"Sit on it."
"No, it isnt."
"It is." With absolute vigor, she plopped herself down on the bean-Koosh, falling into the softness.
"This is the best. Where did you find this?"
"It took awhile, but when I saw it, I knew you had to have it. Whoa!" I found myself sitting half on the beanbag chair, and half on my friend.
"Isnt this nice?"
"Yeah." I sighed, reclining back against both. Haley wrapped her arms around me, hugging me tightly.
"This is so great, Andi. Thank you." I leaned my head against the side of hers.
"Youre welcome. Come on, we have more to do."
We grunted like old women as we pulled our bodies out of the comfort of the chair.
Next I was handed the little oval box. I took the bow off the top, and lifted the lid, taking out Styrofoam to see a little, crystal Pug sitting at the bottom of the box.
Sucking in a breath, I carefully lifted it out, knowing it was Swarovsky crystal. I set the little guy on my palm, and looked toward the firelight.
"Its a little see-through Bunsen," I marveled. Haley chuckled, looking at me with expectant eyes. "Thank you." I carefully put the piece back in the box, and grabbed her for a tight hug.
Now it was time for my big one to her. I handed her the envelope, and she opened it quickly, reading the card, which told her in all the words that I didnt have, how much she meant to me, and how lucky and happy I was that she was in my life.
Haley lowered the card, looked at me.
"Ditto," was all she said, then turned back to the card, and the small envelope that was inside. Once she opened it, and saw the tickets to the Chicago Culinary Institutes graduation, where you could go, for a hefty fee, and have a huge, gourmet meal prepared for you by the chefs trained at one of the greatest culinary schools in the world.
Haley looked at me, her eyes narrowing.
"Ohhh, you are bad, arent you?" she asked, her voice low, sending chills up and down my spine.
"Well, you did say you are a food slut."
"I did, and I am." She walked over to me, taking me in a huge hug, our bodies pressed together as we both just breathed each other in, then I felt her lips on my cheek. "Thank you, Andi," she whispered into my ear. I tried to suppress the shiver that ran through me.
We parted, and she held on to my hand for a moment longer, looking into my eyes before she let go, and turned away, grabbing her final gift from the coffee table, also an envelope.
"Us and our envelopes, huh?" I smiled. So did she as she handed it to me.
"I really hope you like this. I kind of took a gamble, and a sort of liberty, I guess." Haley stood, watching me, her hands behind her back, rocking nervously on her feet.
Intrigued, I carefully opened the card to find a naked Santa looking at me with his traditional red hat covering his gift to Mrs. Claus. I looked up at her.
"Ha ha." She grinned.
"There just arent that many naked Mrs. Claus out there."
Smiling, I read the card, which of course had a funny message, but what caught me was what Haley had written inside.
Thank you for being you, and for letting me be in your life. You have changed me in so many ways over the last fourteen years, and for that I thank you. I hope youll always be willing to be in my life.
I looked up at her, feeling the slightest bit of a lump in my throat. Without a word, I grabbed her to me, giving her a hug, my eyes closed as I squeezed.
"Always," I whispered.
"Always," she whispered back.
Pulling away from her, I looked at what else was in the card. Having a feeling of what it was, I opened the small paper folder that held two plane tickets. Attached to them on a yellow sticky note read: For when you decide to go to California.
I looked up at her.
"Haley, this is too much."
"Not at all. I hope you dont think this is presumptuous of me, but you had said you wanted to see the Pacific. You can take whoever you want, see the state together. Those are good for a year."
"You know Id take you." Again, we stepped into another hug, but this one wasnt about to let go anytime soon. I sighed, feeling complete for the first time in my life.
"Merry Christmas, Andi."
"Merry Christmas, Haley."
* * *
Christmas was a lonely affair for me this year, like so many before it. I went to my moms house the day of, and of course Chris and his wife were there, and Clive and his family. I enjoyed myself, but truth be told, I wanted to be alone. The worst feeling in the world was to be lonely when in a crowd.
I got home, and went to bed.
* * *
It was New Years Eve, and I had a party to go to. When Haley had gotten back from New York, she had come right over to my house, and within the hour she had managed to talk me into going. She said she had the perfect date lined up for me.
Not possible. My perfect date was going on her date with a neurosurgeon named John Severaux.
I couldnt think about that now. The plan was to have a great time, and I knew I would. Id rock in the new year, and make it a New Years to remember.
Staring at myself in the mirror, I was shocked at what I saw. When wed been 17, Haley had once told me shed do anything to see me in a dress. Start thinking of something to do, my friend.
The dress was made of a dull satin, black. The straps were thin, though not spaghetti, the gown reaching near to the floor, covering the two-inch black heels I wore, The plunging neckline showed ample cleavage without looking in poor taste. I turned around, looking over my shoulder at the back, which exposed about half of my back. The gown was very fitted through the bust and waist, but flowing out more through the skirt for easy mobility.
Clasping my silver hoop earrings on, I gave myself one last look. My hair was gelled, giving it more volume and body than usual, the back curling up behind my ears.
Oh, yeah. I was looking good.
I had gone into work today, even though we had decided to close it down for the holiday, because our experiments that we had going were extremely touch and go right now. We were literally on the verge of a breakthrough, and no one wanted to risk that toppling into the abyss.
The party had started a half hour ago, and I had to hurry.
The parking lot of the Hilton was packed with Mercedes, Beamers, even limos. I closed and locked my Jeep, holding my dress as I hurried toward the building. I could hear the music playing as soon as I opened the doors to the lobby of the beautiful hotel.
I found the ballroom quickly, and stood at the door, looking for Haley. I had no idea what her date looked like, nor mine, for that matter.
Conversation around me stopped as heads turned, eyes on me. I could hear the whispers as I walked through the room. I looked damn good, and I knew it. I felt a pride race through me, and a confidence that eluded me on a daily basis. Tonight was different, and they all knew it.
"Andi." I turned to my left, and my eyeballs nearly fell out of my head. Haley stood with two men, though they didnt even register with me. Her dress was red, just one shade below bright red. Her shoulders were bare as the straps from the dress made their way up around her neck. I knew that dress was backless. Her breasts were well defined, and a bit of cleavage teased at the apex of the v-neckline. My eyes flowed down the length that stopped just shy of the floor, the slit along the left leg reaching to just above her knee.
Finally my eyes managed to find the face of the owner, and I saw that she wore a bit of make-up, a touch of dark on her lids to pronounce those electric eyes. Her hair was pulled up, loose tendrils falling around in a few places. Diamonds dangled from her ears, a matching necklace teasing to head between her breasts.
Finally shaking myself back into reality, I headed over to her. I watched her face as I walked toward her, surprised when her eyes were meeting mine. No, she was looking at me, taking in my dress, my hair, the small bit of jewelry I wore, all the way down to my shoes.
"Damn," I muttered to myself. Again, its just not legal to be as gorgeous as she was. At least it should be a crime. I know my thoughts could get me in a whole heap of trouble.
"Look at you." I looked up, seeing Haley smiling at me, but her eyes, dare I think they held a different message? I knew mine were hungry, though I was trying to hide it.
"Yes, look at me. I promised you some day." I smiled, indicating the dress.
"Yes, you did. It was well worth the wait." She whispered, then turned to the man she was standing with. "Andi, this is John, John, Andi."
"Yes, Ive seen you around before. You certainly werent looking like this, however," he said. He was handsome enough; dark hair, nice, squared jaw with tanned skin. The kind of guy whose vanity could outlast any womans.
"Hello." I smiled politely.
"Andi, meet your date." I turned, my eyes bulging.
"You remember my old friend, Tommy?" He looked at me, a wide smile on his face. God, he hadnt changed a bit.
"Uh, of course. Hi, Tommy. How are you?" I extended my hand, and he took it, kissing my knuckles. I glanced at Haley, who had a smirk on her face. What was going on?
"Tommy will be your date for a few hours. His loved one had to work tonight." I looked at him. Did she mean what I thought she meant?
"Your loved one?" I asked.
"Yes. You know how those doctors can be. Always on call, or at the hospital. Can be murder on a relationship."
"Indeed." I smiled.
"Would you care to dance?" I looked at Haley. She smiled, turning to John Severaux.
"Lets all dance," he suggested.
Soon we were all on the dance floor, John and Haley next to us as we made our way around the crowded floor.
"So, what do you do now?" Tommy asked.
"Im a researcher."
"Ah. I should have figured. Im in pharmaceutical sales. Thats how Carl and I met."
"Yes. My loved one." I grinned, then chuckled.
"I always knew it about you, Tommy." He grinned.
"I wasnt so off about you, either, I hear. Haley filled me in on your predicament tonight, and since Carl will be out until later, why not help out an old friend."
He twirled me around twice. As I turned, I saw Haley and John, and I saw Haleys eyes on me. I turned to face Tommy again.
"Well, Im not one to expose my business to everyone, so I didnt really bother looking for a woman."
"Is that why?" he asked, a knowing smile on his face." My brows drew.
"Thirteen years couldnt diminish it, I guess." Twirl, twirl. "You two still look at each other the way you did all the way back in high school."
"Me and who?" He laughed.
"Oh, come on, Andi. Youre not fooling anyone. Well, except maybe yourself. Or should I say, yourselves?"
"Haley and me?"
"Haley and you. I saw the sparks that were flying back and forth between you when you walked in. Poor John doesnt have a chance."
"Well, I think theres one small thing youre missing, Tommy."
"Whats that?" He pulled me closer as the song ended, and a slow waltz started.
"Yes. You know that whole rule number one crap."
"Never fall for a straight person? Yes, I know. But what if theyre not so straight? I had my doubts about Haley back in high school. She and I were very good friends. Still are."
"I think youre wrong."
"Im sorry to hear that."
The song came to an end, and we stopped dancing, applauding the small, twelve-piece orchestra set up near the back of the room.
"Come on. Lets sit."
Dinner was served, and the four of us actually had a good time. Tommy was hilarious, and the three of us lost ourselves in stories of high school, and the people we knew, and Tommy regaling us with stories of what this person and that person is doing now. How on earth he knew all this, or why he cared, was beyond me.
While we had been dancing, I had seen Erin sitting at a table with a woman, obviously her girlfriend.
"Ill be right back."
I left our table, where four other people were also sat. Haley and Tommy talked while Haleys date talked with the woman sitting next to him.
Making my way through the busy room, I quickly found Erin and her lady friend. I watched for a moment, and smiled. She looked utterly radiant.
"Happy New Year," I said, stepping up beside their table. Both women looked up at me, and Erin smiled.
"Happy New Year, Andi. Are you here alone?"
"No, my tables over there. I just thought Id say hi." I looked at the other woman who I didnt recognize from the hospital. She was eyeing me, boy. I had to laugh inside. Honey, I am no threat, believe me. "Hello," I finally said.
"Oh, honey, this is Andi Littman. Andi, Susan Stein."
"Nice to meet you," I said with a smile. She just smiled back. "Well, I dont want to interrupt your dinner. You two crazy gals have fun." I grinned, and walked away, feeling good about it. Erin was happy. That was all I ever wanted for her.
The night passed quickly, and I was really ready to get out of there. Tommys cell phone rang at eleven-thirty, and he told us he had to go. Carl had gotten off work, and they wanted to see the new year in together.
I walked him to the door, glad to meet up with him again. I think I had found a friend.
"Listen, Andi," he said, turning to me at the door. "You need to stop thinking with this," he tapped my forehead with his finger. "And start using this." He tapped where my heart would be. Surprising me with a kiss to the forehead, he left. I turned, nearly running smack into Haley.
"Want to get out of here, too?" she asked.
"Lets go. John decided he wanted to stay and talk to that woman hes been chatting it up with all night." We both chuckled. "Saves me the time of dropping his ass."
We grabbed our coats and headed out.
"Man, you think Craig was a narcissist? This guy puts him to sad shame. I feel sorry for her." Haley indicated the ballroom with her thumb.
"Maybe shes into that sort of thing." She grinned.
The drive home took about twenty minutes, but finally we reached Haleys house. I parked in the driveway, turning the car off. We sat in silence for a moment, then she turned to me.
"Tired?" she asked. I shook my head.
"Me, neither." She glanced down at the small, white gold watch she wore, her eyes getting huge. "Oh, Andi! The balls going to drop in less than a minute!"
We threw the doors of the Jeep open, and ran toward the house, Haley finally getting the lock undone, and we ran to the living room, flicking the TV on to NBC. Dick Clark was on the screen, talking about the massive crowds behind him in New York, a clock at the bottom right corner of the screen ticking away the seconds.
We stood there in front of the TV, watching.
"I wonder if Holden is there," she said.
"I think it would be kind of fun." She glanced at me.
We were standing shoulder to shoulder, watching as the year slipped away.
I became very aware of Haley bare skin next to me...
The body heat, matching my own...
I could smell her perfume, the smell of her shampoo, and the spray shed used to keep her hair in place...
I squeezed my eyes shut, my body reacting to the closeness, the smell, the sensations running through me...
God, did she feel it to?...
My stomach was filled with butterflies, each one beating its wings in a different path, trying to get out...
I could feel my body temperature rise, my palms getting sweaty. God, could she smell my nervousness? What was I so nervous about? It was only Haley. God, it was Haley...
I felt, more than saw, Haley turn toward me, and I felt my body betray me, and turn, too. She was looking into my face...
Her hand raised, coming up to my forehead, using the softest of touches to brush a stray piece of hair off my forehead. My hand came up to rest on her arm.
Time stopped, my breath stopped, my heart stopped. Slowly she came toward me, and I felt myself falling toward her, my eyes closing of their own accord as I felt the softness against my lips, could taste the lipstick she wore, our lips parting just enough so that our lips fit perfectly together.
Somewhere in my mind I heard Dick Clark yell "Happy New Year!", but it didnt matter. The world could end right now, and it wouldnt matter.
We stayed as we were, locked for what felt like all time, frozen.
Finally I could hear the blood pounding in my head as I came alive again, my heart pounding, my breathing slow but sure. I slowly pulled away from her, my eyes opening to see that hers were still closed, her lips still slightly parted, her lipstick smudged just the tiniest bit near the corner.
Blue eyes opened, and met mine.
"Happy New Year," I whispered. She stared at me for a moment, as if the words hadnt quiet penetrated.
"Happy New Year, Andi," she said, her voice low, breathy. She dropped her hand from my face, but didnt take a step back. "I dont understand," she finally said. I said nothing, letting her talk, though I think I knew what she meant. "Its never been like that for me. I," she took a breath, and it quickly became apparent she would say no more.
"I think we need to talk," I said. She nodded. "But, not in a gown." She gave me a weak smile.
"Ill get you something to wear." She took a shaky breath, and stepped back, closing her eyes for a moment, then headed up the stairs. I watched her for a moment, then turned away. I heard the squeaking of the stairs stop, and felt eyes on me. I turned, looked up to see her halfway up, looking at me. We just looked for a moment, trying to read the others mind. She gave me the sweetest smile, and smiled back. Quickly, she hurried up the rest of the stairs.
Within moments, a changed Haley came back downstairs, tossing a pair of sweats and a sweat shirt my way. Happily I ran to the bathroom on the main level, and changed, washing my face free of the small bit of makeup I had worn, and removing my jewelry.
When I came out, Haley sat on the couch, feet tucked under her, with a glass of orange juice in her hand, and a can of Dr Pepper on the table waiting for me. I smiled, and joined her.
She looked at me when I sat on the couch, a cushion away.
"Come here." She patted the cushion that was between us, so I scooted over, grateful for the invitation. She took a deep breath, setting her juice on the table. "I guess we have a lot to talk about. Past and present."
"I guess we do." I smiled, grabbing the can of soda, and popping the top, taking a nervous drink, then setting the can next to her glass.
"Where do we start?"
"How about thirteen years ago," I offered. She nodded agreement. "What happened to us, Haley?" She took a deep breath, shaking her head.
"I dont know."
"What did you think of that weekend?" She looked down at her hands the were fidgeting in her lap, then finally looked up at me.
"Well, to be honest, at the time I thought I was seeing it as some sort of an experiment. It wasnt until later that I realized it was more than that. Why didnt you talk to me after, Andi?" I could see the pain from so long ago in her eyes.
"I thought youd reject me, Haley. I guess I still didnt trust you completely. You were one of them, still. The enemy. I really thought, hell, I dont know. I guess I thought that you had had your time of slumming, for lack of a better term, and was done with it. With me."
"How can you say that? Never did I once give you that vibe. At least I never meant to. I never thought that, Andi. Not for a second."
"I was seventeen. Thats the best answer I can give you."
"Do you know how many times I tried to talk to you? Up until the last day before my graduation. Remember that? We were all being fitted in the gym one last time?" I nodded, remembering it well.
"I blew you off."
"Yes, you did. I never understood that. God, that haunted me. I thought you hated me, hated what we had done."
"Did you know that I had had a crush on you since the ninth grade?" She looked at me, taken aback.
"I had no idea."
"Of course not. Neither did I. I didnt have a word for it, but I knew I wanted to be around you, see you, hear you speak. Oh, I loved your voice." I smiled at he memories. "Still do, really." She put her hand on my knee. "I remember when I saw you that first day, when I was waiting in the library, and saw that it was you, the Haley, shit, I almost freaked! I was so damn intimidated by you."
"You? By me?" She put her hand on her chest, shocked. "God, Andi, you were like this cute, scarily smart girl, who was a complete mystery to everybody. I mean, no one knew a thing about you, except that when you entered into any sort of brain bowl, everyone headed for the hills." I laughed, so did she. "You scared the hell out of me."
"I got to know you, the real you, and not that crap persona that you gave to the rest of the world. Soon I became addicted to it, to you, your personality. You were so different than anyone I had ever met. Before or since. I mean, I was about to be tutored by the future Valedictorian."
I smiled, the memories flooding in.
"Did you ever think about me, after you left Winston?" I began to play with a string that was hanging off the sweats I wore.
"I really liked your speech at your graduation."
I looked up, my eyes instantly stinging as the words penetrated, and the lump that seemed to be there at the drop of a hat lately, was right on cue.
"What? You were there?" I asked, my voice a whisper. She nodded.
"I saw the whole thing. I was so proud of you up there, finally getting the recognition you deserved." She smiled, her hand squeezing my knee. "I was so proud, Andi."
I looked down, trying to get my emotions under control, taking several deep breaths, I could finally speak without fear of my voice cracking.
"Why didnt you call?" I looked at her, feeing so much pain, all that I had held in for so long.
"I didnt think you wanted me to."
"You know, I allowed myself to think about you, to think about what we had done, that weekend, for that last year in Winston, then I promised myself that after that, once I left, I left it all behind." She nodded understanding.
"That bad, huh?" She looked down, her voice quiet.
"Haley, I was a young girl who was so confused, anyway. Theres no blame, here. We both played our parts, and handled it the best way we could at the time. I chose not to deal with it. Did you know that I had completely allowed myself to throw everything out of my mind for over a decade? It wasnt until last summer, when youd already come back, that I had a dream. It woke me up in a serious sweat." I chuckled. "Then I realized it was no dream. That had been you and me back in my mothers bedroom. It all came back to me."
"What do we do?" she asked quietly. "I know that Ive never felt about anyone the way I did about you. Hell, who am I kidding, do. I feel so lost, Andi."
"I understand. We dont have to do anything, Haley. Were doing what should have been done so many years ago. This needed to get out."
"You made me doubt myself. Thats why I dated so little in college. I didnt know what was going on, and didnt want to stick myself in someones camp that I didnt belong in, but I tell you," She pointed a finger at me. "You were a hard act to follow."
I smiled. "So were you. I was trying to find someone who could see me like you did, in all those women I was with." I shook my head. "Not a one."
She sighed, ran a hand through her hair, then she reached out to me, bringing me toward her in a tight embrace.
"Thank you," she said in my ear.
"For being here."
"Well, you invited me in." She chuckled, and squeezed me tighter.
"What say you we get some sleep?" She pulled away. I nodded.
"Yeah. Im beat."
"Got any blankets?"
"Yeah. Ill get them."
* * *
I walked down the hall from my office Monday, feeling like I was walking on air. We had had the most wonderful weekend, though nothing more had happened. I just felt a closeness with Haley that I had never felt with another living soul. I felt like someone truly saw what I was made of for the first time, well, for a second chance. I felt incredibly vulnerable, but for some reason that didnt matter.
I headed to Haleys office, curious to why she didnt come get me to get out of here like she usually does, I thought about the following day, yesterday.
We had spent the entire day in Haleys townhouse, talking, laughing, reliving so many old memories, and creating new ones.
God, thank you so much for this second time around. I actually glanced up toward the ceiling, feeling silly for doing it. I was not a religious person by any means, but I felt like there was a hand in this somewhere, helping us out.
I pulled open the door that would take me to the offices of the psych people. Haleys office was just inside, to the right.
I stopped short when I saw she was on the phone.
"Yeah, I know. Im not sure what to do." She sat in her chair, staring out the window, her back to me, a hand on her forehead. "Yeah, I start the summer class session at UCLA in late May. I report back to work on the twentieth. Yeah, I guess Im looking forward to getting back to Los Angeles. Yeah, five months to go."
My stomach fell, my breath caught as realization dawned on me.
I turned, tears blinding my way as I reached for the door handle that would take me back to the hall, slamming out of there. I needed to get out of there.
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