I peer at the neon sign through my snow-spattered windshield, and hope like hell there is room at the inn. It will have to be a really cheap room as I lost my purse running from a crazed attacker. That’s why I’m counting on the proprietor, whom I used to date, to take pity on me.
As I continue to stare at the neon light, part of me realizes the ruby-colored, gas-filled tubes should appear stationary. During the last half hour, my vision has become so jacked up the letters are drunkenly undulating. They twist and turn into ever-elongating lines until they’re blurring together like a blob of water-spotted ink.
Will has to help. Even if he has a mean streak—he did break up with me on Christmas Eve. Once he sees my condition, though, I’m sure he won’t leave me out in the cold. He will, however, demand to know what happened. Am I prepared to give him the explanation?
The truth makes me sound deranged.
After an assault like the one I’d just experienced, most victims would seek medical attention. I plan to steer clear of all hospitals and law enforcement. The very idea makes my gut clench. It’s my body's method of warning me against something. And the message is loud and clear. Do not try to explain these weird bite marks to skeptical medical staff. For sure, I'd end up spending Christmas restrained to a gurney and shoved into some long-forgotten corner of the psych ward.
My life has been marred by bad luck and setbacks. Case in point? William Whitfield broke up with me on Christmas Eve. Of course, it was ten years ago. Ten years ago, in fact, to the very day.
Stuff like that only happens to someone like me.
Despite my mother’s claim to the contrary, I’ve long suspected some erstwhile ancestor polluted the family gene pool. Dooming me to walk hand-in-hand with rotten karma under my very own dark cloud. When angels handed out blessings, I got that tiny, stuck-on speck at the bottom of the fortune barrel.
If someone is there to witness my stupidity, I always push when the sign says pull. I run into glass doors and trip over air. If I go to a restaurant with a large group of friends, only my chair makes a farting noise when I sit. Runaway grocery carts will race past a thousand cars just to hit mine.
And just the other day, I greeted an old acquaintance by enthusiastically slapping them on the back only to learn they were recovering from spine surgery. Then there's my mouth. My worst enemy. What trouble hasn't it gotten me into? Like telling Will I loved him and wanted to have his babies right before he dumped me in front of a hundred onlookers.
Fleeing Amber Heights, Missouri with a broken heart, I married on the rebound. Not an immediate bounce as it was almost two years later but my heart was still hurting.
Over the last eight years, the mishaps came like clockwork. I lost a promotion to a slimeball co-worker. I fell for an IRS phone scam and had my identity stolen. My Facebook page got hacked, and the perp (I suspect same slimeball co-worker) posted a dick pic to my page landing me in FB jail.
While these things stung, I find that with time I can laugh. At least, I can find the humor in most of it. However, I did experience four real tragedies in the last four years that hurt too much to talk about. I suffered two miscarriages and lost both parents within a year of each other.
Ten months ago, I got divorced.
For this first Christmas Eve alone, I decided to go back to Amber Heights. Like sadistically pressing down on a bruise, I planned to skulk down a bittersweet memory lane. I say skulk because I'd intended to get in and out with none the wiser.
Nothing goes as planned, and that’s why I’m sitting outside Will’s place too weak to drive back to my lonely house.
Thousands of muggings occur every day, and this number only increases over the holidays. I'm not sure getting mugged would have even phased me. But this madman hadn’t wanted the money in my purse. He hadn’t groped or sexually violated me in any way. No, what he’d wanted was—even more deviant and disgusting. Something that horrified me so badly, I’m having trouble putting it into words.
My train of thought shatters as another shiver racks my spine. I’ve never felt this cold before. My head reels in a way that suggests something vital inside me, some internal gyroscope, has broken. Or, perhaps, I’ve lost too much blood to keep the inner-balancing gizmo pumping. Without it, my brain has gone to mush and the view outside the windshield has taken on the otherworldly cast of an overexposed photograph.
With a little start, I realize my car is still idling right smack in the middle of the damned highway. Like a complete fool, I haven’t given a thought to other travelers. A quick check, reassures me the highway is dark in either direction. It’s official. No one in Southwestern Missouri is stupid enough to drive in such conditions. Just me. One desperate woman.
Turning the wheel, I inadvertently hit the gas with too much force and go into a slide across the parking lot. I wind up stuck in a small mountain of plowed snow. Longingly, I stare at the long, white building, and then my last brain cell fires in sudden warning. I can’t go in there. I’ll be trapped inside a small boxy motel room. Having my car parked right outside is tantamount to a flashing arrow saying, Here I am.
If I’m going to conveniently box myself up like a Christmas gift, I might as well put a big bow on the door.
If I’m going to conveniently box myself up like a Christmas gift, I might as well put a big bow on the door.
Thing is, I can’t go any further. I’m on the verge of losing it when the car door abruptly opens, and I shriek in fear. The cold blast of air brings me back to my senses as does Will’s deep voice, “Hollis?”
Time falls away as I look into Will’s deep brown eyes and search his face. He hasn’t aged. I have. Under these circumstances it’s stupid to get hung up on looks, but he’s every bit as devastatingly handsome. The expression he wears is equally familiar. How many times did he scrutinize me as if I was a puzzle to be solved?
Gently, he touches my cheek. “What happened? Are you hurt?”
I try to answer, but only manage something inarticulate. I suspect my face is stark and my eyes haunted when he says, “Something got you running scared.” Raising his head, he looks around and then back down at me. “Let’s get you inside.”
I’m afraid I’m not much help as he lifts me out of the car and carries me to the guestroom next to the motel office. Once inside, I'm lowered onto an upholstered chair and he goes to pull back the bed linens. Hazily, I take note of the updated decor. I like the new soft blues and muted greens. They're warm and inviting.
The pet name that hasn’t crossed my lips in a decade comes out automatically, “Wills?” I croak.
It makes him smile. “That’s right.”
“Llock,” I stutter, “th-the door.”
This garners a sharp look, but he doesn’t pepper me with questions. Quietly, he crosses to the single window, next to the door, and pushes back the edge of the curtain. As he peers out, I catch the reflection of festive, multi-colored twinkle lights hung around the glass.
After a few moments, he relaxes and drops the panel back into place. "Nothing but snow," he reassures me. Still, he turns the deadbolt with an audible click and flicks the security bar into place.
“Do—do you have a gun?”
That has his brows snapping back together. Again, I feel the full force of that laser stare. “Gun?” Coming back to the chair, he squats in front of me and removes my boots. “What kind of trouble are you in?”
With snowy footwear set aside, he reaches for the zipper of my coat, and I suddenly discover I don’t want him to see the bite marks. Rationally, I know the assault wasn’t my fault. It’s stupid to feel dirty and ashamed. But I do.
Childishly, like a toddler that believes the world disappears when their eyes are shut, I try to hide the injury by clapping my palms around my neck. I must look like I’m trying to choke myself because Will snorts.
“What’s this?” Gently, he works my fingers loose. “Look, Holly, I don’t know what’s going on here. If you’re sporting a hickey from some boyfriend, that’s one thing. If someone has hurt you, I need to know.”
With that, he brings my hands down and bares my throat. I can’t breathe waiting for Will to comment on the bloody holes decorating my neck. The hard questions I fear, however, don’t come. Instead of shock, his face hardens with anger.
But all he says is, “You need to get out of those wet clothes. Can you do it?”
“Sure,” I say, but make no move to do so. I’m shaking so hard I don’t think I can lift my arms. He seems to realize this.
“Think of me as your doctor.” He blows out a hard breath. Then, before I can think to be embarrassed, he has me stripped and tucked into the bed beneath a pile of welcoming blankets. Then with a, “I’ll be right back,” he’s out the door.
I’m grateful he’s back before I can stress over being left alone. He’s scrounged up a long sleeved tee shirt in black cotton and a pair of plaid flannel pajama pants that look soft and well worn. As good as those look, I’m more intrigued by whatever he’s got wrapped in a white bath towel. It makes a mysterious thunk when he sets it down.
With the same efficiency he used to undress me, he helps me dress. A few pillows get stacked behind my head, covers are drawn up to my chin, and I know what he’s doing. He’s getting me ready for the inquisition.
Sure enough, Will sits on the side of the mattress and pins me with an expectant look. “Start talking, Holls.”
“I was at the courthouse…”
I can't help but falter when his eyes flare. The last time I went to see the town’s holiday display, we were together, and he knows it.
Like a lot of small towns, Amber Heights was built on the classic square. At its epicenter is a stately, gray-stone, domed courthouse surrounded by well-manicured lawns. Since the end of WWII, the chamber of commerce seasonally fills the public space with Christmas trees and colorfully lit decorations.
The night Will and I last wandered, hand-in-hand among the illuminations and live-action dioramas, snow had been falling softly in big, fat flakes. Naturally, I was enchanted by the winter wonderland. Enraptured to the point I became overwhelmed by thoughts of romance. That’s my excuse for kissing Will under an arch of white twinkle lights, and infamously stating I wanted to have his babies.
He tried to be nice about it. Regret shimmered around him as he did his best to let me down gently. But all I heard of his little speech was that we were over.
A sad little sound brings me back to the present, and I'm mortified to realize it came from me. I find Will watching with a thoughtful expression, and I think his eyes seem sad. Then again, I’ve always been good at deluding myself. I shake it off. The only thing I’m certain of is that he knows exactly where my mental side trip has taken me.
Dammed if I’m going to rehash this now.
Come back tomorrow to find out if Will believes Holly's outrageous tale.