New Year, Old Loves
Copyright © Emmi Lawrence
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author.
Short Story (Approx. 3200)
The apartment building had a ragged, yellowing appearance, as if it’d seen too many smokers sitting in its covered stoop and weathered far too many evictions. Not the place Pete had envisioned he would find Gwennie, but then his imagination had run wild in the past couple of years. Pictures of perfection. Of white picket fences, hanging plants and baby blue curtains. And, of course, a plethora of men who she might have chosen after him.
He glanced at the address on the slip of paper her brother had given him. Apartment 3B. So, not the door to the left or the door to the right, but the one smack-dab in the middle. The one with the two metal chairs and circular table sitting out front. The one with the wreath visible behind the clearish screen door. The one with the welcome mat with the bright spring colors and cheerful yellow birds on it.
Pete crunched through the muddy snow, knocked his sneakers against the single step and strode across the length of the concrete entrance connecting the three apartments until he reached Gwennie’s door. The welcome mat didn’t say “Welcome”. It said “My Favorite Season” with an extra exclamation point to slam home the mind-fuck of confusion. He wiped his feet on it anyway and knocked on the screen door. It rattled loudly, for a Saturday morning at least.
No one answered. He didn’t even feel the vibrations of someone’s feet pattering away to hide. He glanced behind him at the car he’d presumed was Gwennie’s. The used Optima sat sedately, covered with salt and icicles, but she hadn’t suddenly materialized in the driver’s seat.
He knocked against the screen door again, the sound of the glass shaking in the metal jarring in the crisp quiet. When there was still no response, he opened the screen door and went to knock against the thick wood. As his knuckles grazed the edge of the wreath, a tinny, high-pitched version of Jingle Bells rang out.
Pete jerked his hand back and glanced around the entrance, expecting to see some gaudy Christmas decoration belting out the recorded tune, but neither of Gwennie’s neighbors had anything like that by their doors. The carol continued to play painfully loud. As the chorus ran down, the music stopped abruptly, leaving Pete in a silence so profound it seemed to echo.
With a shake of his head, he knocked on the door. This time, as the wood cracked under his knuckles, the chorus of Fa-la-la-la’s that split the morning didn’t startle so much as irritate him. He frowned at the wreath, wondering what in God’s name Gwennie had bought.
As he lifted his hand to knock again, the doorknob jostled as if someone was unlocking it and then turned. Deck the Halls faded as Gwennie opened the door.
She wore a shirt a size too big over a pair of black sweatpants. Her feet were bare, the red paint on her toenails mostly flaked off, and her blonde hair was a mess. An adorable mess, but a mess. She blinked owlish eyes and glanced behind him before crossing one arm over her chest in an obvious attempt to ward off the chill, though all the action did was accentuate her hardened nipples.
Pete jerked his eyes to her face. “Hey Gwennie.”
“Hi…” She let go of the doorknob and shifted, the action brushing her arm against the wreath, which promptly broke into song again, this time a horrible rendition of Silent Night. She blanched.
“Can you turn that off?” He had to raise his voice to be sure she could hear him.
Gwennie shook her head, though he couldn’t tell whether the irritation wrinkling her forehead was for him or for the wreath. “It’s defective,” she said, practically shouting. “I asked Chase to do something about it, but he didn’t have time on Christmas and ever since he’s been sick.”
Pete flashed a grin he wasn’t feeling. “Holiday blessings.”
She rolled her eyes. “All the merriest of germs. What are you doing here?”
He motioned to the wreath, which made it switch gears and begin singing Hark, the Herald Angels Sing more energetically than he’d ever thought possible. “Can I come in? Can’t think out here.”
He didn’t hold his breath, but only because he reminded himself to breathe as he watched her consider. Her gaze became hooded, her shoulders tense and she sucked her lower lip between her teeth. He knew the moment she decided—her shoulders relaxed and her expression cleared. Even before she opened her mouth or stepped back, Pete felt something loosen in his gut. His grin became a little more real.
“Okay. It’s cold out there anyway.” Gwennie balanced on one leg, scratching her calf with her foot as he stepped inside. “So…”
Pete shut the door behind him, the wreath still bleating as if a single caroler stood outside screaming Christmas cheer. Instead of responding to Gwennie’s trailed off prompt, he looked around the room. It was a living room, of sorts, with a television, a couch and a chair that had probably once been a brighter color but now seemed stained brown with years worth of dirt. All looked secondhand. A much newer blanket lay across the back of the couch. Against the far wall were pictures, all of them in matching black frames and hung on the wall in an up-down pattern that extended into the hall.
“Oh, wow, did Jessica get married?” He walked across the room to examine the photo before Gwennie could answer. “Were you the maid of honor?”
“Uh, no,” said Gwennie. “Just a bridesmaid.”
He snorted. “Who’d she pick? Marybeth?”
“No, one of her friends from college. I don’t think you ever met her.”
Gwennie stepped closer and leaned far enough to see which face he pointed at. Her shirt grazed his jacket sleeve, the contact making him suck in a breath despite the lack of skin. She nodded.
“Where were you and your sisters in this one?” he asked as he sidestepped to look at the next set of photos.
“It was a graduation party for my cousin. We all went.”
“Getting along better with Marybeth? Or is she still the stuck-up bitch she was when you were growing up?” He glanced sideways to catch her expression, but didn’t meet her gaze.
Gwennie sighed, but it was an admission rather than in annoyance. “Yes to both. I just ignore it better now.”
“Yeah, I know how that goes.”
“Yeah,” she said quietly.
An awkward silence threatened to descend so Pete quickly moved to the next photo. “Your dad looks good here. How’d the treatments go?”
“Good,” she said. “He’s in remission.”
“I’m glad to hear it. And the rest of your family?”
“Mom’s good too, as is Chase. He’s getting better at the spell casting, the wreath notwithstanding.”
Pete crinkled his nose. The wreath had ceased its horrible crooning, but the memory echoed in his ears. “Why haven’t you taken it down?”
“It was his Christmas gift to me. I’d feel guilty if I take it down before he gets back over here. Don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Pete clamped down on the first response that popped into his head. Mostly because it was a childish reaction and he knew it. That didn’t stop him from feeling the punch in his gut, wondering whether she’d felt guilty before she’d sent that awful letter, the one he had torn open in excitement only to feel his heart sink into his boots at the words.
“How’ve you been?” asked Gwennie. The words came piecemeal, as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to say them.
“Got out,” he said. “Two tours was enough for me. Have a job here now. Vet benefits came in handy on the resume.”
He smiled faintly at a photo of Gwennie and one of their friends from high school. “Yeah,” he murmured.
“Did you paint that?” interrupted Pete.
He hadn’t exactly meant to stall the hesitant dismissal and the imminent kick out, but his eye had caught on the slightly open door at the end of the hall with its beautiful sign. It looked like scrollwork from a distance. Up close, he could see the cracked lines she’d painted to give the impression of old vellum. The words had been painted on calligraphy style.
“Be warned,” he read, “all who enter will be painted.”
“Yeah.” Gwennie gave a self-conscious laugh and brushed her fingers through her tangled hair. “It was something Chase used to say. About how I—”
“Always managed to accidently splatter anyone watching you,” finished Pete. “I remember. You still do that?” He turned to look at her.
Gwennie’s self-conscious smile faded somewhat. “I guess. I usually work alone though now that I have my own space.”
He hesitated, then put a hand on the doorknob. The hinge creaked. “Can I see?”
Fear flashed in her eyes. Her gaze flickered to the door, then back to him. He could practically hear her mind working, the self-conscious worry whittling away at her confidence as it always had. Probably what had inspired her to write that letter in the first place despite how easy things had always been between them.
Pete let his hand slip from the doorknob to prove he’d respect her decision. “If you don’t want me to, it’s really all right, but I swear I’d never made fun of you. If you don’t remember anything about me, remember that.”
Gwennie let out a shuddering breath and tucked her hair behind her ear. For the second time, tension bled out of her frame and her gaze lost some of its worry. And again, something loosened in Pete’s gut.
“I know. You were the only person who never did. You can, if you want. Some of them were just practice pieces though so…”
He nudged her arm with his own. Years ago he would have hugged her, kissed her, nuzzled her neck and told her that she was awesome. That was before the letter.
Instead, he flashed her a grin meant to show her she could still trust him and then pushed open the door. The little room beyond was dimly lit from its single window. The back wall had a bookshelf filled with acrylics and oils. A roll of paper towels was balanced precariously on its side, only a nudge away from spilling onto the floor. An empty easel sat in the middle of the room. Another one leaned against the side wall next to the window.
A blue tarp had been spread across the floor, only the edges of the off-white carpet showing. Along the wall to his immediate left a whole bunch of paintings had been stacked against one another. Sketch books lay in an undignified heap in the corner, one of them spread open as if Gwennie had given up mid-drawing. A laptop computer, plugged into the wall, sat beside them.
The tarp crinkled under his feet as he examined the paintings. They were mostly people, usually familiar people. He recognized Marybeth’s supercilious expression in one, Jessica’s dimply smile in another, Chase’s smirk in a third. Gwennie had painted a couple of pictures of her father as well, most of them of when he was younger, probably copied from photographs her mother hoarded.
There were people he didn’t recognize as well. Scrapes of magazines folded and thrown nearby that had obviously been used as inspiration. A few near the end had landscapes added to their backgrounds. One even looked as if it could have been him. A soldier, facing away, staring down a stopped convoy, the wheel ruts and the poofing sand in the foreground painstakingly detailed. Could have been him. Could have been any generic young man in desert camo, surrounded, yet alone, half a world away.
He let the paintings clack against the wall. Gwennie wasn’t looking at him, her gaze glued to where she’d hung an old paint frock.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “It was horribly lonely without you and…”
“I was alone too,” he said, sharper than he intended.
She didn’t flinch, her stare remaining unblinking. She shook her head, obviously not a negation, more as if she was trying to clear her thoughts. “I worried that it wouldn’t end.”
“It was only four years.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Pete narrowed his eyes, then widened them as he realized what she’d been trying to say. “You were worried I’d die?” No, even after he said it he knew there was more to it. With Gwennie, there had always been more to it.
“That and I needed you here and I worried… I told you long-distance was hard and I wasn’t sure I could do it. And then… I thought things would be easier to deal with if we just weren’t together.” She paused, then added, “I was happy to hear you made it back safe, but I didn’t feel as if I had the right to tell you that.”
He wanted to throw statistics in her face, of suicides and letters and what sort of things were worth living for, but that would have put the blame on her for something that ultimately wouldn’t have been her fault even if it had happened. Which it hadn’t, because he wasn’t the sort of man to give up. Hell, wasn’t that the reason he was here now? Because he was too damn stubborn to believe things were over until he heard it from her own lips, saw it on her face.
That wasn’t what he was seeing though. He saw regret and concern and more than a little guilt. It was the regret that gave him hope.
“I would have been happy to see you,” he said.
She turned to look at him, quiet surprise registering in her expression. A section of her hair stuck out by her temple and she had curled her hands inside the bottom of her T-shirt, stretching it so that the collar dipped down. Her toes pressed into the tarp. Her scent, whatever lotion she’d most recently used mixed with her own sleepy self, tickled his nose, reminding him of mornings he’d woken with her wrapped in his arms.
He could almost imagine how her thought process had gone after he’d left. How she’d slowly convinced herself that he didn’t want her, or wouldn’t want her, or would be gone, eventually leaving her alone no matter what way she looked at the future. She’d always had trouble with positive thoughts. They’d had a running joke…
“I would have been happy enough for the both of us.”
Gwennie gave him a flicker of a smile. “You shouldn’t have to be.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind cheering you up and cheering you on”—he swept a hand around the room at her paintings—“as long as you’re doing the same for me. Everyone says you’ve been anti-social since I’ve left.”
Her face squinched up. “Who’s everyone?”
He shrugged. “Chase and your mom—”
“You’ve been talking to Chase and my mom?”
Pete shrugged again, unable to keep the self-satisfied smirk from curling his lips. “I had to make sure you were okay. The tone of that letter was abysmal.” He paused, then admitted, “And I wanted to be sure you hadn’t dumped me for someone else.”
She shook her head, her watery gaze looking everywhere but at him.
“I know you, Gwennie. You hole up and forget about the world and when you think about it again you assume either everyone hates you or everyone’s going to hate you. And once I got over the shock of that letter, I figured that’s probably what you started thinking about me. But I don’t hate you and I’m not leaving and I certainly hope I’m not going to die anytime soon.”
“What do you mean?” she asked in a small voice.
He stepped toward her, his sneakers making the tarp snap and pop under his weight. “I mean I want to start over now that I’m back for good and neither of us will have to worry about all that distance between us.”
He still had his jacket on and she was wearing her pajamas, but he opened up his arms, offering, but not demanding. She wavered, her body leaning toward him, but not committing.
“It’s not a joke, Gwennie. Either you let me hold you like I’ve wanted to for the past two years or I’m going to throw you over my shoulder caveman style and drag you back to my apartment. And I’ll warn you, I’m sharing with two other guys and we aren’t the cleanest.”
Then he waited, his heart sitting out there for her to stomp all over once more if she really meant everything she’d written in that jumbled, agonized letter that, after the hundredth read-through had sounded more like a desperate plea for him to return than any sort of breakup.
She exhaled roughly and stumbled into him, her weight familiar and right in his arms and the kiss she pressed against his neck forcing all the leftover tightness in his gut to dissolve. He bent his head and buried his nose in her hair, his mind calming of all the doubt that had plagued him. His cock already stirring with desire now that he knew she was his and probably had never truly ever not been.
“Just so you know, I’m extremely angry with you,” he said.
She nodded against his shoulder, her motions jerky.
“And I expect lots of those cheese ball things that you make.”
Gwennie laughed into his jacket and her arms came up to encircle his waist. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, I really missed those cookies you made, the ones with the chocolate inside them that you would give me every time I asked for a kiss.” That had been a running joke too, one he hadn’t realized how much he would miss.
She sighed contentedly and for a long moment they stood there, just enjoying an embrace that had been a long time in both the wanting and the waiting. Into the quiet, that stupid wreath began to sing again, faintly belting out the lyrics to We Three Kings. Then it stopped mid-song. It started up again with Jingle Bells but only managed three words before cutting out again. When Deck the Halls started, it was accompanied with a couple of hard knocks against the door.
“Gwen? Gwen, I can’t find anything wrong with the wreath,” came Chase’s muffled shout. “What did you want me to fix?”
“Nothing, Chase,” she muttered into Pete’s neck. “Nothing needs fixing.”
Pete tightened his grip and chuckled into her hair. “He has the worst timing. I say we make him stand out there and suffer.”
“Gwen?” came Chase’s call again in between the constant song-changing singing wreath.
“We could say we didn’t hear him over the wreath he gave you,” Pete added.
Gwen laughed quietly, then sighed in contentment. “I’m glad you’re braver than I am.”
He shrugged. “I can be brave enough for the both of us.”