Angela's Christmas Storybyhoney28©
An overheard conversation at the office had caused tears to well up in the corners of her eyes, and she had fought valiantly to hold them at bay. Grateful that she had a private office, she had sagged against the closed door and her vision blurred as she lost the battle. Sobs wracked her body, her nose ran, and her breath came in shuddered gasps. After work, she had been so desperate to numb her raw nerves with alcohol that she hadn't realized she was being watched while she sat at the bar, lost in the murky recesses of her mind.
Her nostrils were rosy from too many tissues and her eyes were puffy, affording her privacy as she sipped from her glass, oblivious to the fact that the usual advances were hindered by her unbalanced appearance. The liquor eased the burning in her eyes and the pain in her chest, and a quiet calm took over, her mind blissfully empty once she reached a decision.
The usual grace of her long limbs was compromised by the Jack Daniels coursing through her veins, and she appeared to wander aimlessly from street to street. In her inebriated state, she was not aware of the man who walked quietly a distance behind her.
Long shadows stretched toward her in the moonlight, darkness belying the hour. The chill breeze made the early December evening particularly bitter. Involuntarily, she shivered as she reached her destination, coming to a stop as the bridge crested over the river. She rested her bare hands on the metal railing and peered down at the inky blackness.
At this hour, if it had been August, she would have walked here surrounded by happy, chattering people, enjoying a walk after dinner. The crowd would have lifted her from the dark place she had settled into so easily, rambling under stark, bare-branched maples in winter's early dusk. The people that she passed had their faces and hands buried in their coats as they rushed to their destinations, eager to be out of the frigid night air.
Trembling from the cold, she focused on the churning water below.
Craig would never forget the first time he saw her.
Most afternoons were spent at the park with his camera. As a free-lance photographer, the income was not always steady, but an inheritance allowed him to live comfortably regardless. He was able to do what he loved without concern for the financial unknown.
Capturing a mother's proud smile as she watched her son help a little girl who fell, the expression on a young man's face when he gazed at his lover when she wasn't looking, the joy on a child's face after gliding down the slide, provided a welcome distraction from his own vacant life. Sharing in their happiness temporarily made him feel a little less alone.
He could not recall what the lens had been focused on the moment before their meeting because all thoughts fled when he saw her face. She had been strolling along the sidewalk at his back, and stopped suddenly when a tennis ball shot across her path, followed by an enthusiastic pit bull mix. The dog executed an abrupt 90 degree turn to snatch the ball as it landed near the photographer's feet, and the back half of his solidly muscled 80 pound body connected with the back of Craig's left knee, causing him to lose his balance.
Having quick reflexes, the woman had stepped up and caught Craig's elbow, helping him to stay upright and avoid damaging his camera. The pet owner apologized, but his words barely registered as Craig looked into the woman's eyes, the green of clear ocean waters.
Her smile was warm and genuine. "You okay?"
His lips twitched into a small smile as he murmured his thanks, and they stared at each other for the span of several heartbeats before she gave a short nod and went on her way. He felt an eternity pass in that moment: flashes of a first kiss; the soft curves of her body beneath him as they made love; sitting on the couch with her feet in his lap while they read novels; cooking dinner together; saying "I do." A lifetime of possibilities, wrested from his hopeful heart as he watched her walk away, the late summer sun bringing out the coppery highlights in her long auburn hair.
He needed to see her again.
"Angie? Come on, pick up, Ang. I know you're there, probably watching Fringe. Paul just called us because you didn't show and your cell seems to be off. I just want to know if-"
With a growl, Angela picked up the phone, and tried not to sound exasperated. "I'm fine, Tiff. Tell him I'm sorry I didn't call, I just..." her words trailed off with a sigh.
Tiffany had been her best friend since she was six years old. Without needing to hear Angela say it, she responded, "I'm sorry, honey. I know you just aren't feeling it, and I don't mean to push you into these things, I just want you to enjoy life a little. You're never going to meet anyone if all you do is go to work, go home, or come to our house. I know that my news bothered you-"
"Tiff, I'm so happy for you!" she protested, feeling guilty.
"I know that, I know, but I also know that this can't be easy." There was a pause. "You deserve to be happy. I don't want you to be alone."
"I love you, Tiff. Don't worry about me, okay?" Angela took a deep breath, hoping that she was keeping the sadness from her voice. "Tell him I'm sorry. He doesn't want a wreck like me anyway. Now if you'll excuse me, Joshua Jackson is waiting for me." She heard her friend's laughter.
"I promise, unless Rich becomes friends with Joshua, we won't try to hook you up with one of his buddies again."
Placing the phone in its cradle, Angela took a deep breath. She knew how hard it must have been for her friend to tell her that she was pregnant. Of course, Angela was genuinely thrilled for them to have such a blessing, but she couldn't help being reminded that she would never be so fortunate. Her marriage had not survived after she and her husband found out she was unable to bear children.
In the three years since the divorce, she had dated, but wasn't able to have a serious relationship. She did not want to tell someone that she cared for that she would never be able to give him a child, and risk reliving the rejection.
She had thought it was easier to be alone, but lately, it hadn't been so easy.
A week after Craig was nearly taken out by the playful mutt at the park, he was still unable to get that red-head out of his brain. Desperately, he had gone back to the park daily around the same hour, hopeful that a walk was part of her daily routine and he would have a chance to see her again. He didn't know what else to do. She plagued his every thought.
He told himself that he would strike up a conversation with her, ask her to dinner, make some kind of attempt at forming a relationship like a normal human being. By the end of the following week, when he was giving up hope of finding her, suddenly, there she was.
He focused his camera on the figure standing on the footbridge, hands resting on the stone parapet, her haunted gaze unfocused. Her back was turned to the small waterfall responsible for the park's popularity. Reflexively, he snapped a couple of shots of his unknowing subject, then lowered the lens, watching her. Wanting to know what went on behind those eyes, but lacking the courage to move close enough to find out.
Weeks passed, and he would find her on the bridge a couple of times a week, presumably on her lunch break. Joggers, giggling children, dog walkers milled past, their lives passing before him while he remained stuck on her.
He lacked confidence around the opposite sex; too many times, his advances had been dismissed with a "You're so cute!" and they went in search of some tall-dark-and-handsome to buy them another drink. It wasn't that he was bad-looking, though of late he had neglected to shave, his goatee turning into a full, scruffy beard, and he was in dire need of a haircut. Craig had inherited his father's money, not his height. He had topped out at barely 5'5" and this had lowered the self-esteem of an already introverted young man.
One afternoon, he watched her from a comfortable distance while she sat on a bench, hands folded in her lap, watching children playing in a sandbox. His heart soared when she suddenly laughed at something they had done, and he realized he had never seen her smile since that first day when she caught his arm. The pleasant sensations he felt gave way to a tightness in his chest, wishing that she would smile for him again one day, despairing that she may never be his.
As she checked her phone for the time and stood to leave, he found himself getting up from where he had sat, leaning against a tree. He was unable to control a sudden urge to see where she would go. Heart pounding, he tried to appear casual while struggling to keep up with her purposeful stride and at the same time, remain far enough behind to avoid detection. After a brief walk, he watched her enter an office building, confirming his suspicion that she went to the park on her lunch hour.
Looking around, he ran his fingers through his dark hair, which promptly fell back across his eyes as soon as his hand fell back to his side. There was a coffee house across the street. As he took a seat at a table next to the large storefront window, his gaze fixed on the office building. He sipped his coffee absently, then cursed softly when it burned his tongue.
"What the hell are you doing, man?" he muttered. He had always been a "people watcher," but this was strange, even for him. A chair scraped across the floor, and he glanced over to see a man rise from the table next to his, leaving a newspaper behind. He grabbed the paper to help pass the time, not exactly sure what he was waiting for.
As the leaves began changing color, enough time had passed that Angela's well-meaning friend began nosing into her romantic life again. Deciding to be pro-active before things progressed to awkward first dates, she enrolled in an art class every other Tuesday evening. Tiffany seemed placated by this new development, hoping that her friend was finally making an effort to meet new people.
The instructor's "inspirational theme" this week was, "something that brings you peace." Angela had merely hoped for a nice distraction, but found that she was truly enjoying herself. When she laid brush to canvas, she entered a meditative state, thoughts consumed by brush strokes and color choices instead of pain and regret.
In her mind's eye, she could see the little bridge at the park clearly, and her vision took form on the canvas. Soon, there was a large tree in the foreground, its leaves yellow and orange and starting to litter the ground. When it came time to recreate the shallow waters frothing around the rocks below the bridge, she wasn't sure how to begin.
Losing her momentum, she raised her gaze, searching the room for the instructor so she could ask for help. As she perused the row behind her, one of the men caught her eye. Had he been looking in her direction? She paused, eyes passing over his youthful, clean-shaven face and dark, disheveled hair. She thought she had imagined the turn of his head when she had turned to face him, but then he raised his eyes, looking right at her. Before he nervously redirected his attention to his own work, she had a vague sense of deja-vu, like she had seen him before.
"This is very nice." The voice of Anna, the instructor, pulled her back, and she quickly dismissed her strange feeling. With some tips from Anna, she continued her painting, and soon it was time to go. As she walked home, she was mildly surprised to see some storefronts lit up with strands of lights. It was the week before Thanksgiving and, as usual, she was feeling apathetic. She knew that within a couple of weeks her indifference would turn into grinchiness with the approach of Christmas.
Her father had left her mother when she was very young, and she never remarried. Angela was an only child, very close to her mother, so when she passed away unexpectedly two years ago, she felt like she was burying her entire family.
Since her divorce, Tiffany had welcomed Angela and her mother to join her family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but now Angela felt like an outsider at holiday meals without her mom. Being around her friend's parents and siblings made her not only miss her mother, but miss the large, extended family that she lost when Eddie left her.
By the time she returned to her empty apartment, she had forgotten all about the man from her class. As she crawled under the cool sheets, wishing that she had a warm body to curl up against, she saw the stranger's deep brown eyes as her lids closed, wondering his name before she drifted into a fitful sleep.
On her way to the supply closet for printer paper, Angela passed by the main reception desk, where an old friend, Joel, had stopped to speak to Agnes. Everyone jokingly called her Grandma, not just because she was near retirement age but because of her maternal, doting nature and the fact that she always brought in home-made baked goods. Angela did not speak with Joel often anymore. He was a close friend of Eddie's, and in past years, she had often accompanied the two of them to the bar for a drink after work. Eddie had applied for a transfer before the divorce was final, which solved the awkward problem of them sharing a workplace.
As she drew closer, she couldn't help but overhear Joel, who had his back to her.
"I was talking to Eddie the other night."
Angela felt her heart flutter, and her step faltered before she continued on her path to the supply closet.
"Oh, it's been ages, how is he doing?" Agnes gushed.
"He and his wife are expecting a baby in May."
She felt like someone slammed a medicine ball into her chest. She couldn't breathe. She didn't even know how her legs carried her past the desk to her destination. Once she was over the inital shock of the news, she forced back the tears threatening to give her away, managing to bite back the sobs until after she was shielded behind the door to her office.
The weight of everything that had plagued her for the past few years came crashing down, and she knew she wasn't strong enough. She missed her husband, her mother, mourned for the child that would never grow within her, felt abandonment and heartache knowing that her only friend was starting a family and leaving her behind.
She realized that what she wanted more than anything in the world was for a man to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be alright. She hadn't been intimate with a man in over a year, maybe even two, and it had been even longer since she had felt loved.
Sitting on the carpet in her quiet office, watching the colors of the sky changing as the sun set, she had never felt more alone.
Craig sat at his usual table in the coffee shop, arriving at about quarter to six, waiting patiently for his obsession to descend the concrete steps across the street. He idly rubbed the sandpaper stubble on his jaw, thinking about the last time she had seen him.
When her head turned, his heart had started pounding, and he thought for sure the woman standing next to him could hear the frantic drum beating in his chest. He had immediately directed his gaze to his painting, little more than a few lines on paper due to his lack of concentration.
He couldn't keep his eyes from sneaking a peek in her direction, just as he couldn't resist watching her throughout her day. He felt like a boat caught in an eddy, drawn inexorably by a force of nature. He knew what he was doing was not right, but he felt like he had no control where she was concerned.
When their eyes met, he felt connected to her. He wanted to be close to her, to touch her hair, taste her lips, hear her moan his name. He could have smiled at her, let her know that yes, he had been watching her, and he was interested in getting to know her. He should have approached her after class and asked her to get a cup of coffee.
Instead, he panicked, turned away, and never returned to the art class. He wondered if she had recognized him, thinking that it was unlikely since he had started shaving on a regular basis, foolishly thinking he would have the guts to actually speak with her and not wanting to look like some crazy homeless person.
He straightened in his chair when he saw a familiar form exit the building opposite the cafe. She turned towards home, and he dropped his half-full paper cup into the trash bin before striding out the door.
She shocked him by ducking into a bar a couple of blocks away. He had never seen her do this before. He paused, hands shoved into the pockets of his dark wool peacoat, then hurried across the street at the next crosswalk.
The place was busy with happy hour patrons. He immediately spotted her red ponytail where she sat perched on a bar stool, staring down into her glass. He crossed the room and took a seat at the bar around the corner from where she was, so he had a clear view of her. As he had approached the counter, he thought he may just stay here and lose himself in a bottle, knowing this night would be like every other, and he wasn't going to speak to her.
He had waited so long, that he was afraid he had built things up too much in his mind, and the reality of the situation would pale in comparison to who he fancied her to be. He thought that it might be better to love her from afar, where no one would get hurt. The hundreds of hours that he had spent waiting and watching these past few months had given him too much time to think. And over-analyze.
"I'm my own worst enemy," he muttered under his breath before taking a long swallow of his beer, planning to make this the first of many.
For the first time that evening, he took a close look at her face. When he was near her in the art studio, he had noticed that her face was much thinner than it had been when he met her in August. He could see that her jacket seemed ill-fitting, loose around her hunched shoulders, like she had dropped a couple of dress sizes. He could tell she had been crying, and his gut wrenched. He felt genuine concern for this woman, and he didn't even know her.
After she had a couple of refills, she paid her tab and stood on unsteady legs. Worried about her walking the remaining few blocks home, in the dark, senses compromised, he paid for the single beer he had nursed the entire hour and followed her out a minute later.
He made a left out of the bar but she wasn't there, so he turned around, and spied her going in the opposite direction.
"What the hell," he murmured, following.
She made several turns, and he couldn't figure out where she was headed. When she crossed a street, she barely glanced to check traffic and would have been hit if the driver hadn't hit his brakes. His heart was hammering in its cage. He became even more confused when the bridge came in sight and she kept going, then stopped to look over the side.
She slowly turned her head to glance at a car passing behind her. He continued his slow approach until he saw her raise a foot to climb the railing. His feet pounded into the pavement as he sprinted towards her, and he felt like time slowed to a crawl.
He saw her foot slip, slowing her progress, giving him precious extra seconds to catch up to her. He had a ridiculous thought, thanking God that she was wearing pumps. Not designed for traction on metal bars.
Angela gasped when she felt arms cinch around her waist and yank her away from the side, the force throwing both of them backwards onto the ground.
She heard a grunt as Craig's tailbone hit pavement, and she fell back onto him, his arms still holding her tight. "What the fuck are you doing," he panted. He had thought that he was the crazy one.
He felt tremors through her small body, and thought she was laughing. When she laid her head back against his shoulder, he could see the tears streaming down her face, and realized that she was sobbing.