You have the choice now.
It was what Candice had said to me after the pronouncement I’d made during our makeshift dinner. It was also an invitation—I knew it was, and yet I hadn’t been able to move, or speak after she’d made it. It was just too much all at once and I couldn’t properly process the mixture of feelings that fought within me, vying for dominance. One was a feeling of desire; another, fear; and the last, inexplicably so, was guilt. Perhaps Candice sensed the turmoil within me though, because she didn’t push me. Not even a little.
Instead, she smiled a little, and reminded me that I didn’t have to make the choice that night and the choice could, understandably, be no. I wanted to tell Candice that I didn’t want to say no. I wanted to tell her that her showing up, no matter how angry I’d been at first that she had, was like a flash of lightning bolting across the pitch black sky of my existence, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t because such radiance did not belong to someone like me. I couldn’t because I didn’t deserve a light that shone that brightly.
I couldn’t because I didn’t know how to hold on to a light like that.
So I had whispered, “okay” and she had said “good night” with a dazzling smile before kissing me on the head, and leaving.
Alone, I polished off the bottle I had opened.
I never did make it to my bed that night.
When I woke up the following morning, the sun barely peeking over the horizon, I again peeled my aching body off of the hard wood floor and then became violently ill. I threw up so many times that by the end, all I was doing was retching bile.
I was still trembling and covered in a cold sweat when I heard Jo stirring. By the time I got to her room, all I could get myself to do was feed her and then shakily set her down with her blocks. I knew that she would have to play on her own today.
My remedy was yet another drink.
It was around lunchtime when I heard a knock at my door again, but this time, I had a feeling I knew who it was.
And just like that, Candice was back.
Candice came back a lot actually. The first few days were a bit awkward, filled with many empty expanses of silence during which we’d pretend to be really into eating our food, but after a while, I could feel the tension between us begin to dissolve.
We began to watch movies together, or play video games, or even mess around with our phones, watching funny cat videos or snapping ridiculous photos of ourselves. Some days, if Candice was around when Jo was awake, we’d all play together building castles with blocks, or even regaling Jo with stories told in Candice’s many silly voices.
Candice and Jo got along well, which is why I invited her over for Jo’s birthday not long afterward.
I started that morning out early, downing a couple drinks before Candice arrived. My nerves were frayed, unease settling into my very bones at the prospect of my daughter getting old enough to finally attend school. At barely 21 years old now, having a daughter in elementary school sounded impossible, and yet, here I was.
At the sound of a knock on the door, I hastily hid away any evidence of my drinking, shoving the glasses into the dishwasher and stowing the bottle away in a cabinet. I didn’t want Candice to know about my drinking. Not that it was that bad or anything—I had only had a couple drinks this morning, but still…she wouldn’t have understood.
“Look who it is, it’s the birthday girl!” Candice sang out happily, holding an ecstatic and carefully primped up Jo. “You’re such a cutie!” she squealed, subjecting Jo to a fit of giggles as she began to tickle her sides.
“Please don’t make her puke. I want that dress to at least last through the cake,” I groaned, watching the two uneasily.
Candice looked at me in surprise and then laughed, shaking her head. “Yeah okay, Mom,” she said with amusement.
“Daddy!” Jo called out excitedly then, turning her attention toward me. Her bright jade eyes gazed up at me, a smile on her face as she reached an arm out to me. I tried to ignore the pang I felt when I looked into her eyes, instead smiling and holding out my arms for her.
“C’mere, birthday girl. Let’s go get some cake!”
“Birfdaye cake!” she shouted in glee.
Candice passed Jo over to me with a smile, but frowned slightly as she got near me. “Have you been drinking?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at me.
“I only had one,” I mumbled, pulling Jo gently into my arms. Candice continued to look at me, a funny look on her face all of a sudden, so I laughed, trying to break the tension. “Come on, I’m barely 21 and my daughter is going to be in elementary school now, cut me some slack!”
Candice smiled, but there was still something in her eyes when I took Jo to her cake.
By the time I’d lit the candles though, Candice seemed to have dropped the matter, getting into the birthday spirit instead by pulling out a multicolored noisemaker and spinning it through the air.
“Happy birthday, Jo!” she shouted.
“Happy birthday!” I agreed.
“Now make a wish and then blow out the candles, like this!” I instructed, pursing my lips together and exhaling. Jo imitated me and I blew out at the same time, the candles on the cake flickering out quickly.
Jo clapped, Candice cheered, and I stared at the tiny wisps of smoke, a brief reminder of what had just been.
“Hmm?” I asked, snapped out of my reverie.
“I think we need something,” Candice said, turning toward me with a mischievous smile on her face.
“What’s that?” I asked, turning toward her and raising an eyebrow.
“A MAKEOVER!” Candice squealed, clapping her hands together excitedly. “OH MY GOSH WE COULD EVEN GET YOU A HAIRCUT, JAMES!”
“What? No, god, why, WHAT?” I asked, sudden panic in my eyes.
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. Jo wants to go, don’t you?”
“YES! MAKEOVER!” Jo responded with an enthusiastic shout. “Makeover, makeover, makeover, makeover,” she began to chant. Candice took up the chant as well and then the two continued it together by circling me while doing a strange dance.
“OKAY, okay!” I cried, putting my hands up in a mock surrender. “Just stop doing that!”
“MAKEOVER, MAKEOVER, MAKEOVER!”
When we got to the boutique, Candice and Jo immediately burst out of the car, racing inside and starting an elaborate role-play in which Candice was a Hollywood stylist and Jo was a prissy starlet.
“Oh, darling, are you next? Please, have a seat and I’ll be with you next,” Candice told me as soon as I walked in, gesturing to a chair nearby with a grin.
“Or not,” I mumbled as I took a seat, but neither Candice, nor Jo, paid me any mind.
“Girl, I am going to make you look fabulous!”
“Pfft, I already am fabulous,” Jo scoffed, propping her hand up on her hip.
“Did I say fabulous? I meant even more fabulous!”
“That’s much more like it!”
I pursed my lips, reluctant, at first, to get sucked into their role-play madness, but as Candice ran around the store picking out items and fixing Jo’s hair, much to her delight, I couldn’t help but smile at least a little. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen my daughter have that much fun.
“Don’t look now, but I am f-a-b-u-LOUS right now!”
“OW YEAH! You tell ‘em girl!”
“Just kidding! DO look at me! I am simply gorgeous!”
“WORK IT, HONEY! STRUT THAT B-”
“Candice!” I cut in, suddenly horrified at the thought of my daughter “strutting” anything.
She looked at me, smiling sheepishly before holding her hands up and gesturing me forward. “Come, come! It’s your turn next, darling!”
“No, no, I think I’m gonna sit this o-“”
“I SAID IT’S YOUR TURN!”
“Okay! Okay!” I exclaimed in a panic, much to the joy of my giggling daughter. I glanced at Joanne, who was simply beaming now, and sighed, finally giving in. I just hoped that I wouldn’t somehow come out of this tattooed and bald…..
“Okay, so that greasy hairdo has GOT to go!”
“Hey! It isn’t greasy. I do shower…with like, shampoo and everything!”
“It has GOT to go!” Candice repeated, grabbing a lock of it and then making an exaggerative disgusted face. Jo broke out into renewed giggles. Wasn’t she supposed to be on my side!?
“The outfit is fabulous though, darling, that we don’t have to change a bit.”
“I do look pretty sexy in this, don’t I?” I asked, waggling my eyebrows playfully at her. Candice flushed, but Joanne gave an audible groan.
“Daddddddy! That’s gross!”
I didn’t end up tattooed, or bald. In the end, she had simply styled my hair, only giving it a bit of a trim and insisting on at least getting rid of my soul-patch.
“Thank you,” I murmured once she was done, pulling her into my arms and kissing her softly on the cheek.
The gesture had been an impulse, and I almost pulled away embarrassedly, but one look at the radiant smile on Candice’s face was all it took to reassure me that my actions had not been a mistake.
It was then that I began to wonder if maybe it was possible for me to hold onto a little bit of this light.
And if you’re wondering about Jo’s reaction to this display, well, I can safely say….
…. that she looked just as happy.
I began to wonder if Candice was catching onto my drinking habits when she arrived bright and early on Monday morning, just as Jo was getting ready for school and I had just filled up my first glass of the day.
She didn’t say anything about the drink, but I saw her eyes glancing at it as she helped Jo get ready for school, the latter of whom was distraught because she couldn’t get her hair right.
“I’m going to be picked on!” Jo cried, reaching up anxiously to mess with her hair again.
“Pfft, a cool girl like you? Yeah right. Here, let me help you,” Candice said, untangling Jo’s headband from her hair and smoothing it down before replacing it. “See? You look awesome,” she assured her.
When the school bus arrived, I downed the rest of my drink and then went to the door, giving Jo a hug before she left.
“Just be yourself and I’m sure everything will be fine,” I said, kissing the top of her head.
“That’s what Candice said, but I don’t know,” Jo said, biting her lip and looking uncertain.
“Well, Candice is pretty brilliant so, I’d trust her,” I said with a wink, then poking Jo in the side. She giggled and jumped out of my reach.
“Okay. Bye you guys!” she called before racing out the door.
As soon as Joanne left, I found an overwhelming desire to have more than just a few more drinks, but Candice seemed to have predicted this, because she was immediately in front of me, smiling brightly and definitely blocking me from access to any bottle.
I felt a twinge of anger and opened my mouth to tell her to move, but Candice quickly cut in before I could get even a single word out.
“Let’s go to the beach,” she said, in a manner that kind of told me that if I didn’t agree, then she’d be dragging my ass to the beach.
“The beach?” I asked uneasily, glancing at the bottles on the kitchen counter before looking back at Candice again. She was standing really close to me, her brown eyes shining more than usual. My heart skipped a beat.
“Yes. It’ll be fun,” she said with a soft smile, taking my hands. “Come on, say yes.”
I looked down at Candice, hesitating for only a moment longer before agreeing. “Okay,” I finally said, and then jumped as Candice gave me a quick kiss. I held onto her hand, ready to pull her in for another, deeper kiss, but she slid out of my grasp, laughing.
“Get your bathing suit and let’s go!”
“What about you?”
“I’m already wearing it underneath my clothes! Now let’s go!”
Evidently, Candice had had this planned out from the start.
When we arrived at the beach, the first thing Candice did was take off her dress, sliding it up and over her head before tossing it on the ground and running a hand over her hair.
“Come on,” she giggled, seeing the shocked look on my face. I couldn’t help but rake my eyes over Candice’s body once more before I slowly exhaled, trying to calm myself.
“You’re so gorgeous,” I found myself saying. Candice looked embarrassed and at a loss for words as I finally removed my jeans, and my shirt, pulling it up over my head and tossing it on the ground with her clothes. I flushed as I caught those shining eyes of her look over me. It’s not like I had an incredible body or anything—I was a writer after all, but a soft smile appeared on Candice’s face, as if she had never seen anyone better. It made me feel like a million bucks.
“Last one in the water is a smelly llama!” Candice suddenly shouted, making a break for the waterline.
“What? Hey! Well, the first one has to kiss it!” I called out, laughing as we both crashed into the waves. We both got soaked and I screamed, shocked by how cold the water was.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed, goose bumps popping up all over my body as the frigid water assaulted me.
“Oh, don’t be a baby, the water feels great,” Candice laughed, floating on its surface and tilting her head back.
“My balls are now completely nonexistent,” I said seriously, shivering in the icy depths. Any other complaint I might have had would have been lost at that point though, because Candice erupted into a fit of giggles. Laughing so hard made her sink, but she popped back up quickly, gasping and coughing, and yet still laughing.
“Meanie!” I said childishly, splashing her with water.
“Hey!! You ass!” she laughed, splashing me back.
It was the most fun that I ever remembered having since arriving in Starlight Shores. We swam that whole morning, our bodies eventually getting used to the chilly waters. When the wind picked up though, we got out, shivering and cursing our idiocy since we had somehow forgotten towels.
“This is how we die,” I shivered, hugging myself as we were assaulted by another gust of wind.
Candice laughed, coming up to me and wrapping her arms around me. “I’ll keep you warm,” she said, cuddling into me.
I couldn’t help but smile, pulling Candice into my arms and holding her tightly. “Isn’t it traditionally the boyfriend who keeps the girlfriend warm?” I quipped.
“Girlfriend?” Candice asked, looking up at me in surprise.
I flushed, biting my lip before I responded. “Only if you want to be,” I said quietly.
“I’ve always wanted to be,” Candice whispered, and then drew my mouth towards hers in a passionate kiss.
Suddenly, it didn’t feel so cold.
That night, we all had dinner together, Jo talking excitedly throughout the entire thing about her first day of school. Apparently she had made lots of friends, in particular a little girl named Hannah, who she said had the coolest pencil box she’d ever seen AND scented erasers. She also talked about how they had played a bunch of introduction games, and how she had even won the first one, which had earned her a glittery sticker.
Never had I heard a child so excited about cherry erasers and glitter.
I don’t think any of us stopped smiling.
Candice stayed over that night.
The plan had actually just been for her to stay over and just, you know sleep, but it didn’t stay that way.
In fact, it was pretty safe to say that the plan never even had a chance to survive because as soon as we were lying in bed together, Candice’s mouth was on mine, and then I was pinning her down to the bed, kissing her as if I’d never felt those ridiculously soft lips before.
She tasted like cinnamon again, and I felt like I was going to explode as her hands raked over my skin and mine on hers, the lightning bolts crackling throughout my body again. This time, when my fingers slid beneath her dress and Candice made that breathy gasp, I didn’t pull away, holding her closer to me as she lifted her hips.
“Make love to me?” Candice asked in a whisper, pulling away slightly to see the look on my face.
I didn’t need to be asked twice.
We didn’t sleep for very long that night, but when we finally had decided to sleep, we were exhausted, our bodies covered in sweat and our lungs struggling for breath.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of that,” Candice had whispered between gasps.
“Me either,” I admitted, already lamenting how exhausted we were.
“Tomorrow,” she said. I laughed as she held me tightly to her, kissing my shoulder before I closed my eyes.
“Tomorrow,” I affirmed, and then fell asleep with her body pressed up against mine.
When I woke up that morning, it was to find that Candice had already gotten up. I might have been alarmed at that fact until I remembered that she had to work, having been assigned to a project here in Starlight Shores, which was how she had managed to come here in the first place.
I rolled out of bed and made my way toward the kitchen, but I stopped in my tracks as I saw Candice there, having an intense conversation with someone on the phone.
“I can’t go back yet,” she said in a low hiss. “I’ve…I’ve got some things I’m still working on.” I watched as she listened for the response, her face going from angry, to concerned, to downright defeated.
“Yes, I know. I know but-…..okay. Yes, okay, I’ll go back to Neverglade, Christ! But I-…okay. Okay, bye.”
“Good morning, Daddy!” Jo suddenly cried out then, racing out of her room toward me and pulling me into a hug. I hugged her back as if in a daze, my heart pounding unnaturally hard.
“Oh! I didn’t see you there,” Candice said, turning around in surprise.
I forced a smile onto my face as I pulled away from Jo and looked at Candice. “Just got up!” I announced, hoping that it didn’t sound forced.
Candice smiled though and then glanced at the clock on the wall before looking back at me. “Hey, I’ve got to run, but I’ll be back later, okay? I promise!”
“Okay,” I said, dread leaking into my veins.
Candice rushed over to me to give me a kiss on the cheek and then dashed out the door.
I was barely aware of Jo getting ready for school, only half-listening to her as I sipped at a glass of whiskey.
I was barely aware of anything else that day actually—just the whiskey and my shuddering breaths in this body full of glass.
Candice had appeared in my life like a bolt of lightning and was, just as suddenly, fading out, only to leave my world even darker than it had been before.
I had been right after all—I couldn’t hold on to such brilliant light.