I didn’t have any close neighbors, nor anyone who came to the house on a regular basis (unless I called them to come), so when I finally came to on that cold, hardwood floor, all I saw was Jo, screaming and shaking my leg with her tiny hands. I had no idea how long I’d been out.
“I’m okay,” I groaned, my head pulsing and my body aching all over. I sat up faster than I should have, holding back a sudden wave of nausea. Once I felt stable, I grabbed Jo in my arms. “It’s okay, I’m okay,” I kept repeating over and over, but it took hours to calm Joanne down.
After that incident, Jo refused to go anywhere without me, even following me into the bathroom when I showered and sleeping by my side at night. If I ever did try to leave her alone, she’d start to scream shrilly, so eventually, I stopped trying.
She did relax at least a little after I didn’t have any more accidents like that, but she was still much clingier than usual, growing stressed if I ever wasn’t there.
I felt so guilty about the whole thing though that it didn’t even matter. If Jo wanted me to be by her side all the time, then that was the least I could do after putting her through all that.
I wish I could say that I stopped drinking after that incident, but I didn’t.
I did, however, drink a little bit less, and I made sure now that I was eating healthier, home-cooked meals and not pieces of toast and cold noodles.
My publishers had been right about the book though—it had soared to the top of every Best Sellers list, from Starlight Shores, all the way to Al Simhara. The news was a bit overwhelming, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about going bankrupt now—I had that publishing company wrapped around my finger.
For now, at least.
I went back to painting a little more after that news. I still wrote, but only when I felt like it, taking time to relax whenever I felt stuck.
I even dipped back into sculpting, something I hadn’t done since my early days of high school. I found it therapeutic to knead and chisel the clay into remarkable shapes and designs.
Life went on like this for quite some time, until one fateful night.
I’d been drinking a glass of nectar and trying to think of what I could get Jo for her birthday, which was right around the corner, when there was a knock at the door.
I frowned, wondering who it could be. Now that Jo hated to be out of my sight (she was sleeping at the moment), I rarely called the babysitter, and I certainly hadn’t called her tonight.
Better not be the fucking paparazzi, I thought to myself bitterly as I walked toward the door. I’d seen a few from the road, trying to snap some opportune photos of the “up and rising writer who lived on the outskirts of town,” but as I typically stayed indoors all day, they hadn’t seen shit.
Maybe they were trying to get me outside then.
Whoever it was, they took that moment to knock again, this time more loudly.
“Coming!” I shouted as I approached the door.
Hold your damn horses….jeez.
No word existed in the English dictionary that could have described my reaction when I opened my front door. I wanted to say that the closest representation of my feelings might have been “shock,” but even that word felt like it lacked something essential.
What I can accurately describe was my physical reaction. It was as if all of my internal organs had squished together all at once, my heart strangled and my lungs unable to process any oxygen. As a result, I’d even felt myself get a bit light-headed, having to grab the door frame as my eyes took in the features of the woman before me.
“Candice?” I heard myself ask, even though I had no recollection of even having the intention to speak. It was as if my brain had needed to confirm what my heart had known as soon as I’d seen her shining brown eyes gazing at me.
“Who else would I be?” Candice asked with a laugh, shaking her head. “I can’t have changed that much!”
My eyes raked over her form unbidden, processing each tiny part at a time in order to form a more accurate picture. Gone were the tight braids and spiraling eye-liner she’d worn at the corners of her eyes. Gone was the plaid and the dark red converse shoes. Gone were the long, knobby legs and straight hips. And in their places….
I held onto the door frame tighter. If I had seen this woman at the bar, I would jumped through a burning hoop of fire and into a tub of gasoline just to get in her pants, but this was Candice Price and now I didn’t know what to do. The more I looked at her, the more it hurt, and I just couldn’t explain why.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” she asked with a bit of a smirk.
A large part of me didn’t want to, but I stepped back and held the door open nonetheless. My heart was racing.
“Finally,” Candice said with a light laugh, hopping into my house and then immediately turning on her heels so that she was facing me again. “God….it’s so good seeing you again,” she breathed, her eyes glittering.
“Well, you did somehow find my house, didn’t you? Did you somehow not expect to see me?” I asked. The words were out of my mouth before I had even processed them. Why was I sounding so cold?
Candice’s face fell for a brief moment, but then she hastily recovered, rolling her eyes and smiling. “Ever the sarcastic asshole, James Winters.” She let her tongue linger on my name, as if she’d had to hear it in order to convince herself that I was really there. It made me want to say her name again too…and it made me want to reach out and touch her, just to confirm that she was really here.
“Sorry,” I finally said with a sigh, rubbing my neck. “Would you uh, like some coffee, or something?” Not that she needed any. The woman looked full of energy…just as I had always remembered her.
“Sure,” she said, and then glanced at the coffee table. “It looks like you were on a different choice of drink though…am I wrong?”
I followed her eyes and then flushed, seeing the open bottle of nectar and the glasses next to it. “Sorry,” I mumbled again.
“Pfft, why apologize?” Candice asked with a shrug of her shoulders. “We’re all adults here, right? Hell, I’ll have what you’d been drinking, and then we can discuss why the hell you took off without telling anyone. Or better yet, maybe you can explain why, after leaving, you never even bothered to send one letter or make one phone call to just assure us all that you were alright. Or actually, best yet, maybe you could just tell me why you tried to make yourself untraceable so that no one could even try to find out how you’re doing.”
I stared at Candice, glowering for a long moment before I walked over to the nectar bottle. “Well,” I began carefully, “clearly, I failed in that final regard, considering you’ve not only found me, but are now affirming that my decisions were the right ones to make.” God, why was I being so hostile?
Candice rolled her eyes again, refusing to be dissuaded. “I’m a reporter. It’s kind of my job to find people who don’t want to be found, and to discover information that isn’t easily accessible. And besides, it wasn’t that hard after that last book of yours hit every major AND minor Best Sellers lists,” she pointed out.
I said nothing, grabbing a few glasses and filling them up to the brim. I took a large gulp of one before topping it off again.
“I see why, by the way,” she continued. “That book is incredible. I don’t think a book has ever made me hurt like that…but in a good way, if that makes sense. Anyway, congratulations! It’s so awesome….especially awesome because it finally enabled us to find you.”
“Us?” I asked, looking up from my glass uneasily. “There are more people here?”
Candice opened her mouth and then closed it, hesitating. “Well…no,” she finally said. She gave a small smile and then walked over to me, picking up the other drink.
Her face scrunched up so much when she took a sip that I almost laughed. Almost. “Fuck, James, you drink this stuff all the time?” she asked, her face incredulous.
“Not all the time,” I muttered, grabbing the nectar bottle and taking it with me to the couch, where I took a careful seat. Candice followed me with her own drink, taking a seat as well. Even a cushion away I was highly aware of her proximity. She smelled like cinnamon branches. It made me think of falling leaves and warm mugs of cider. That scent was new though; she used to smell like cookies all the time. Why did I know that?
“So, why did you come when no one else did?” I finally asked, wanting to get my mind off her scent and the vague wonder I’d had in my head of whether she tasted like cinnamon too. God, James, come off it. What is wrong with you?
Candice paused for a moment before she finally answered slowly. “Well…everyone wanted to ‘respect your space’ and decided that if you had really wanted to talk to us, you would have,” she said, followed by an uncomfortable cough.
“Well, that sounds like a very intelligent assumption,” I said mildly. I noticed then that was my drink was already almost empty and my heart beat faster. I needed to slow down.
“I know,” Candice admitted, grimacing. She looked down at her drink. “I was worried,” she said in a low voice, as if embarrassed to admit it.
“Worried?” I asked, kicking myself silently when I realized my speech wasn’t as clear as I’d have liked it to have been.
“Yeah. That something bad had happened to you, I don’t know. You were pretty fucked up when you left, you know?” Candice paused again, looking from my now-empty (fuck, when had that happened?) drink, to my bloodshot eyes, to my unshaven face and messy hair and sighed. “Still seem pretty fucked up, actually.”
“It’s not as bad,” I responded quietly, looking down at my glass and wondering vaguely when I had filled it again.
“Where’s Jo?” Candice suddenly asked, looking around wildly for some sign of her.
I rolled my eyes. What the hell did she think I’d done with her?
“Sleeping, obviously. It’s 9 PM.”
“Oh. …is she okay?”
“Yes,” I answered with gritted teeth, and this time I was aware when I brought my glass to my lips again. “Look, I’m flattered you were worried and all, I guess, but I’m fine, and so is Jo, and neither of us need your veiled judgment.” I put my empty glass on the coffee table, trying to ignore how the room was beginning to come in and out of focus.
“Yeah, you really look fine!” Candice finally snapped, standing up angrily. “I’m so glad that no one ever tried to look for you before this point, because obviously you’ve got it all under control!”
I laughed a little at her ridiculousness, standing up as well, although it took me some effort. “I do have it under control, but I don’t need to prove anything to you. I don’t owe you anything in fact, so if you only came here to criticize me you can get the hell out right now because I really don’t need this bullshit.”
“That is NOT why I came here,” Candice hissed, her eyes narrowed angrily at me. “I just…I told you, I just wanted to make sure that you were okay, and if you weren’t I wanted to…I don’t know, help you out or something! I don’t know!”
I laughed bitterly and shook my head in disbelief. “Candice, you didn’t help me after you found out that Maddie was pregnant, you didn’t help me when Jo was born, and you certainly didn’t help me after Maddie drove her fucking car off a goddamn cliff so why the FUCK would you suddenly be compelled to help now!?” I shouted, every pent up frustration I had concerning Candice spilling out of me all at once.
I felt awful for saying the words, but they came out anyway, fueling my anger. I realized then that I had felt completely betrayed by her, and that was why I was being so hostile.
“I-I wanted to help then!” she cried out, startled at my reaction. To my surprise, her eyes began to fill up with tears. I didn’t think I’d ever seen Candice cry before.
“Well, then why didn’t you?” I retorted acidly, although my volume did come down a notch.
Candice pressed her lips together and shook her head slowly, more tears falling from her eyes. I had a headache now and all I wanted to do was lie down—not deal with this bull.
“I couldn’t,” she whispered. She covered her mouth, trying to stifle a sudden sob.
I looked up at the ceiling, losing patience. “Look, whatever, I don’t care, Candice. Just leave, please. I’m fine. Jo is fine. Just go.”
“I did NOT come all this way just to be kicked out of your house, James!” she finally snapped, her cheeks wet and her eyes overly bright.
“Then what did you come for, huh? A friendly reunion? To laugh at me? To gloat? Why the FUCK did you come, Candice?” I shouted, losing my cool all over again. My head throbbed from the exertion.
“I already told you!” she shrieked. Her body was trembling—from fear, anger, or her own sobs, I didn’t know.
I laughed again. “Well then I must have fucking missed it, Candice, because I still have no fucking clue why-”
The rest of my words were stifled by the feeling of warm, moist lips crushed against my own.
I was so shocked that for a moment I couldn’t even move, my hands up at my sides and my eyes squeezed tight. My next thought, as she pressed her body against mine, was that she did taste like cinnamon. Every system in my body went crazy, sparking and pulsing and exploding in my bloodstream. I gave into the kiss, my arms wrapped tightly around her as my lips moved against hers. My mind felt both drunken and alive, lightning bolts in dark swaths of clouds.
Her tongue gained access to my mouth and I groaned softly as she explored, my tongue running along hers and my hands holding tightly to her hips, up her sides, to her breasts as she gasped.
I was thinking that I needed to stop, because I didn’t want her to be treated like the other women. I didn’t want her to be treated like the other women because they didn’t make me feel like lightning was crackling through my body. They didn’t taste like cinnamon. And they weren’t something I had always kept myself restrained from…until just now.
Even as I thought it though, I couldn’t stop. I pushed her forward, both of us stumbling over our feet as we tried to get even closer to each other. She renewed our briefly broken kiss and then let out a high, breathy cry as I slipped one hand underneath her dress.
This sound knocked me back into my senses though and suddenly I pulled away, breathing heavily and turning away from her. I was highly aware of my pounding heart beneath my palm and the blood pulsing through my body. I couldn’t even think straight.
“I’m sorry,” I heard Candice suddenly whisper from behind me.
“Don’t be,” I said quickly, still trying to catch my breath. I turned toward her, my heart skipping a beat as I took in her worried doe eyes and her swollen lips. “Do you…do you want some dinner, maybe? So we can, you know, talk?” I asked in a rush. I winced then, realizing how stupid that sounded after what had just transpired.
“I…I’d like that,” Candice said, and then smiled at me with all the radiance of a rising sun. God, I had missed her.
Although I told Candice to sit down and relax, she insisted on helping me prepare dinner, whereupon it became obvious that both of us were painfully woebegone at cooking.
After a few failed attempts at making something nice, we finally just settled on mac and cheese, sitting down at the dining room table awkwardly.
We were silent for a long while, just eating our substandard macaroni and cheese until I couldn’t take it anymore. My mind was buzzing with questions that demanded to be answered.
“So, you came back…for that?” I asked, my voice strained and my eyes averted.
“No. Yes? I don’t know,” she said quietly, staring down at her food. “I guess…more than anything, I missed you.”
I chanced a glance at Candice. My heart skipped a bit even as I watched her do something as simple as bring a spoonful of mac and cheese to her mouth. “I missed you too,” I said just as quietly. She looked up then too; our eyes locked before I couldn’t take it anymore and looked away. I didn’t know if I wanted any of this right now. It was too much, too fast.
I tried to relax my mind, but all I could think of was that night, back in high school, when I’d been upset and ran to Candice’s house. I thought of the conversation we had had, but mostly, I thought of what hadn’t been said.
“Do…do you remember that night when I came to your house? In high school?” I asked, unable to help myself. Candice looked at me for a long moment before slowly nodding her head. She seemed to already know what I was going to say, but I plowed forward anyway. “You…you were saying something before my dad called. Is…is that what you had been about to say? That you…liked me?” I asked, my face burning.
Candice swallowed her mouthful of food, taking a deep breath and a drink of her nectar before she finally answered. “Sort of.”
I stared, waiting for her to continue.
“I was actually going to tell you that we couldn’t talk to each other anymore.”
“What?! Why?” I asked, my head snapping up. I hadn’t been expecting that response.
“Because like you said….I liked you,” she said. She looked down at her food in embarrassment, looking like she wanted to avoid this conversation at all costs, but instead she continued to explain herself. “Look…it’s like this. I knew that you liked Maddie, and most of all, I knew that she really liked you. You guys were going out and having fun, and that was fine, so I didn’t…well, I didn’t want to get in the middle of that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked softly, vaguely wondering if I could be heard over the sound of my racing heart.
Candice bit her lip and then finally rushed through the rest of her story, as if it were a band aid to be ripped off the tender skin of your forearm. “James…and seriously, please forgive me and forget I said any of this if it isn’t true, but—at some point, I kind of started getting the feeling that maybe you kind of liked me too. But I knew you liked Maddie more, of course! And you know, that was fine, but I knew then…I knew that we just shouldn’t talk anymore,” she finally finished with a whisper. She looked ashamed.
I didn’t deny anything she said. I could have, but thinking back, I realized that I would have been lying. I had noticed those brief moments of tension between us: the funny feeling that would plague my stomach whenever I was with her, the horrible guilt I felt when I’d started hanging out with Maddie more than her, and finally, the fact that when I’d been upset, it’d been to Candice that I went.
I never really had much time to think about it though, because it wasn’t long after I started feeling these things that my family and I all went to France and I came back discovering that I was going to be a father.
That revelation had left little time for introspection.
“James?” Candice asked uneasily, her plate finished and her eyes worried.
I closed my eyes and let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. When I opened them, Candice looked like she was about ready to crawl underneath the table.
“I loved Maddie,” I finally found myself saying, a little more harshly than I’d originally intended.
“I know,” Candice said, looking startled. Her deep brown eyes were opened wide. “I know—that’s why I stayed out of it. That’s why I just let you, you know, just, be with her.”
“That wasn’t fair though,” I continued, staring her down. Candice met my gaze, looking too anxious to dare tear it away.
“How…how was that not fair?” she finally asked when I’d been silent for far too long.
I laughed a little, shaking my head slowly. I felt like I was losing it.
“Because Candice,” I managed to say, my eyes locked once more with hers.
“I never even got the choice.”