tagNon-EroticLong Haul

Long Haul

bySpencerfiction©

Alice was so beautiful she took my breath away every time I saw her. I asked her out a couple of times and she turned me down on both occasions. The second time was just after she split with Dougie Laughery and I thought I had a real chance this time. Dougie was an asshole, I had been competing with him toe-to-toe since junior high. I couldn't see what Alice saw in him even before he had been caught with his pants down in company with Sissy Hollins, whose reputation went before her almost as far as her chest measurements did.

When I asked Alice out we were both working for the same pharmaceutical company whose massive plant was sprawled on the edge of our home town. Alice agreed to come to lunch with me, on her terms, so we took sandwiches and sodas to the park and sat on a blanket. Alice was straight with me, she liked me, she said, liked me a lot but she was in love with someone else and only wanted to be fair to my feelings. She sensed that I more than just liked her but she made it crystal clear that we could only be friends.

"OK," I said, hiding my disappointment, "let's stay friends."

And we did. We met up for lunch regularly, since we spent most of the time at work in different parts of the building. She worked in accounts, while I was an engineer troubleshooting problems in production. We became best friends. She started dating again post-Dougie, with several different guys, but no-one seemed to stick. We even went on foursomes, with Alice trying to get me interested in one of her girlfriends but none of them stuck with me either. She used to pull my leg about it, even got angry a couple of times when some of her friends really seemed to like me but I couldn't get involved.

I was too full of love, infatuation, obsession, whatever it was, with Alice to begin any other meaningful relationship.

What was it about Alice? Well, I guess we would have made an odd couple. She was small and neat, say just an inch over five foot tall, her petite body sublimely in proportion. She looked plain, ordinary even, at very first glance and could easily be overlooked by the more discerning male. But when she moved, as gracefully as any cat, and she smiled to light up the room, she was in another class of woman entirely.

Alice was captivating, lively and funny. She knew everybody and everyone knew her. She would talk to anyone, not just at you but converse with you, encourage you to engage with her and always gave the impression that she hung off every word you uttered. Yet she was also aware of what else was going on around her and loved to talk about everyone, aware of who they were seeing and who everyone's cousin was. Alice never seemed to have a bad word to say about anyone, though, she just seemed genuinely interested in people.

She was the centre of everyone's attention but I don't think she knew that at all, she believed she was on the outside of the web, just networking, without realising she was the hub, the object of everyone's desire. I adored her, but to her I was just a friend, nothing more.

Me? I'm Carl Smith, by the way. Well, I was the opposite to Alice, at just over six foot high, with blonde curly hair, and built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Neither handsome, nor noteworthily ugly, just average, shy, perfect wallflower material I guess. While she was funny, engaging and outgoing, I was serious, quiet and dull.

My folks split up when I was young. Dad moved a thousand miles away, started a new family and forgot about us entirely. Meanwhile Mom found it hard to make ends meet. So I always had to get home from school to do my chores and any jobs around the neighborhood for spare change to put in my college fund. I won scholarships, but still had to work my butt off to get by. I was into all sports, played some football and basketball at college but wasn't one of the jocks. Outside school I played racket sports to keep fit as gym work didn't appeal to me. I was grateful that I had done some weight training in my early teens so I developed my body to its best advantages. I was quite smart and went all the way to a masters in engineering, that didn't give me much time for anything else, like socialising and dating.

I tried out for the school and college teams and got a few games in but there was always someone just enough better than me to keep me on the bench. Usually that was Dougie Loughery. We bounced into and off each other all the way through from eighth or ninth grade to state graduation.

Naturally, Alice was crowned home-coming queen all through high school and college and she was paired with Dougie every time. She seemed shocked every time she won, while Dougie thought his selection was a given. He boasted to everyone in the team that he had taken Alice's virginity on her high school graduation night but I doubted it. He probably did later but when Alice and I became best pals, I got the impression there was no way she had given it up to him so early and easily.

So that's where we were, Alice and I as best friends and bumping along, with me hoping to be there for when she was mature enough to recognise my qualities, whatever they were. I wondered if she thought I was gay, she treated me like a best girlfriend, at least she didn't go so far as to ask me to go lingerie shopping with her!

Then she told me she was going out with Dougie again and my world vaporised around my ears. She had actually been seeing him for a couple of weeks before she told me, one lunch time. She knew I would be hurt and had put it off. I donned a smiley face and asked if she was happy. I could recognise the dreamy look in her eyes when she said she was. She gripped my hand and said I needed to get myself fixed up, it was what I deserved. I almost lost my lunch.

I stumbled back to work for an hour or two that afternoon doing nothing on the shop floor, before locking myself in my office looking for jobs on the net. I found one in California, got myself an interview and flew out a couple of days later. After three interviews I was taken on board. I gave two weeks' notice and, without saying anything to anyone, took the two weeks' leave I was owed and disappeared. Just like that.

A clean break, it was the best thing for her, the only option for me. I mean, I was thinking of the long haul.

Two years later I was back home for a brief visit to Mom. I'm a poor son, really, I can only take so much of her, but there is only me for her nowadays.

So I sneaked out to a bar second night home and saw them together, Alice and Dougie. They had walked into the bar and met up with some friends, Alice kissing everyone and generally making everyone's day as usual. I was sat at the far end of the bar, the dark end, with a whiskey sour, feeling more and more sour every moment. I drank up and left. I stayed inside keeping Mom company every night after that until my visit ended.

Back home, I checked vacancies within the group and found they had an engineering opening in England with a good opportunity for local advancement. Nobody who was any good wanted to go to this dead-end place with run-down plant and the poorest performance record in the group. I was already concentrating hard on my career and making a good impression, so nobody understood what had piqued my interest. This job, after promotion would mean a big hike in pay and I'd be a big fish in a small pond, but the place was scheduled to be closed down in a couple of years max, pending results.

Well, as it turned out, the place was never shut down.

I really enjoyed my ten years in England. Back home I was considered too quiet, while to the Brits I was a big noisy, pushy Yank. The plant was small and quaint, the equipment almost medieval and held together by gaffer tape. The biggest department was research and development but were understaffed, underfunded and although absolutely brilliant, had been ignored too long and were virtually moribund. Some of the stuff they were working on though was revolutionary. Some stuff had been developed already and mothballed because no one at head office had recognised what they even had there.

My boss Jim was two years off retirement and looking forward to going back home to the States. The chemists lacked direction, so I got them enthused again. A young man, Nigel, who was about my age and stuck as a junior in the lab, seemed to have potential. With Jim's easy acquiescence, I got Nigel motivated by running the lab while I concentrated on updating the manufacturing plant and quality control.

They had been on the site for 75 years, during periods of boom and bust. They had plenty of room for expansion into the empty buildings and we used every inch of the place in my ten years. The scientists appreciated the recognition they were getting for their work and kept coming up with stuff they had offered up before but been forced to shelf. We had so much stuff which promised results that we had to ship some of the testing to other sites and I made sure the guys got the chance to go with the samples and nurse them through the trials. We had a happy ship and they brought in the goods.

Long story told short, in ten years, the England operation became the jewel in the business and I was local president with eight years of solid year-on-year achievement behind me. Then head office wanted me to come home and manage a much bigger plant. Yes, you got it. The company had expanded, due to all the new products produced in the English R&D, and had bought lock, stock and barrel the company that owned the plant in my home town. It was my dream job.

They accepted my recommendation to have Dr Nigel run the England end, the first Brit they had allowed to run the place since they had set it up in the 1930s. Nigel and the rest of the guys appeared to be sad at my parting and seemed genuinely insistent that I came back and visit. Great actors those Brits, Oscar winners all. I know I had ridden them hard but I had to concede, they had sure come up with the goods.

I hadn't been Stateside in two years. I learned my lesson from my previous home town visit and flew Mom down to Florida each summer and stayed with her there. No way was I gonna run into Alice and Dougie again during those ten years. Last year Mom came to stay with me across the pond, which was surprisingly enjoyable. I was looking forward to getting home again and planned on staying with Mom until I had scouted out a place of my own.

I toyed with the idea of renting out my English house, but I had bought it when the market was low and although still relatively low, it had done better than property had in the States over the same period, so I sold it for a very good price.

I was still single. I had courted some since leaving my home town, but without endangering my bachelor status. I came close with Caroline six or seven years ago. When I thought about taking it to another level, though, I discovered that although I was very fond of her, she was a lovely person, she just wasn't the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I introduced her to Nigel and I am now godfather to both their lovely children.

I read the dossier on the plant as I flew over the Atlantic, so I was primed for my meeting in Manhattan with the top dogs. I knew the senior VP, my second in command, was going to be Mrs Alice Loughery but I couldn't understand why she hadn't been promoted to president. The answer turned out that she simply didn't want it. According to the group president, she had the local finances screwed down tight but the problem with the plant was production. The plant was worn out, morale was low and the place needed a production man to put it right and she would do her best to pull the financial strings to make it work if the right person was running the show.

Alice now knew that I was the man they had appointed and she had told them she thought I was the best man for the job and she looked forward to working with me, once again.

Well, at least I knew where I stood. It seemed she was prepared to work with me and I hoped I'd had enough time to get over her so I could do the same. We were both 40, I just hoped she was fat and over-run with a houseful of brattish kids. I just had to psych myself up to be professional and impersonal in all my dealings with her. I could be restrained and aloof, impenetrably unemotional, if I wanted. Hell, I'd worked with the Brits long enough, I was practically one of 'em!

I had never told Mom about how I felt about Alice, so the subject never came up in any conversation. Mom gave up on having grandkids long ago. I know Alice had one kid though because another local guy I used to get emails from mentioned she was on maternity leave. That pain went straight to my heart. I soon found excuses for only replying sporadically and so that source eventually dried up. The company info sheet just had her married name, age, length of service and disclosed that she was a working mom.

It was mid-winter when I went back to the States. I had become accustomed to mild English winters where, if they had any snow at all, it was just a few inches. On the plane out of a freezing New York, they were talking about three or four feet of snow falling on my destination and we got rerouted to another city. It looked like we were stuck there for the night.

We were disembarked, without our luggage, and milling around waiting to be told where we were spending the night, when I heard the voice behind me.

"Hey Buddy, how'yer doin'?"

I turned and, the last person, well bar one, that I wanted to see right now when I wasn't really primed and ready, was Dougie Loughery.

Of course I knew the voice, but the man was barely recognisable, he was fat and bald, the last dozen years or so hadn't been kind to him. Maybe it was because he stuck to an American diet while I adhered to a more austere English one, where food was so much more expensive and portions in proportion.

We struck up a conversation which I kept steered well away from personal details.

Then he said, "Hey, you know whom I'm married to, don'cha?"

"Yes, I do," I said tersely, holding my hand up. "Look, I'm tired, stuck in limbo, and I don't want to talk about our happy families, OK?"

I didn't want him rubbing my nose in the fact that he had beaten me in our contest over Alice.

"Sure," Dougie grinned, "Look, I've been in this position before, Carl, I trade in sporting goods, and travel all over and now on my way home from a convention. I called ahead while we were in the air and booked a room for the night."

I must've stared at him blankly. He sighed.

"Look around you, the hotels can't cope with this number of people, so they're gonna have to double or even treble up the guests in the rooms. So we are in a bargaining position, instead of being forced to take in a stranger, we could be roomies."

It sounded like a good idea. Dougie really did know all the tricks of the hotel trade, got us into the restaurant with ease and persuaded the hotel to sponge down my suit and launder my shirt overnight for peanuts. He had planned ahead for this eventuality and had his own spare clothes and toothbrush in his carry-on.

We hit the bar, and boy, could he drink. It was like I was the boring married one and he was the footloose and fancy free bachelor, the way he put away the liquor.

Actually, I do the man an injustice. Although I hated him for being the first choice of the only woman I loved, he was surprisingly good company and I found myself enjoying our stop-over. I even let him show me photos he carried in his wallet of his three beautiful girls. The eldest was painfully close to the Alice I knew when she was 15, his girl Annie clearly had her eyes and smile. The other two girls were a lot younger, were darker haired and looked facially more like Dougie than Alice, but still feminine and kind of cute.

I had a bit of a hangover in the morning, while Dougie was fresh as a daisy. I blamed it on jet-lag, but I suppose it was down to clean living on my part; my body couldn't take that kind of hammering. At least I had a clean shirt and suit, thanks to my new companion. The weather had improved by the morning, the runway cleared of snow at both destinations, although it was still freezing cold.

The flight was uneventful. We sat together, Dougie having charmed the stewardess into making the adjustment to the seating plan. He had called ahead, he told me, so he would be met in the arrivals hall and he wanted the pleasure of introducing me to the four wonderful angels in his life. He gave me that lop-sided smirking grin and I started to dislike the son-of-a-bitch again, just for rubbing my nose in it.

I hung back behind Dougie after collecting our bags, I wasn't anxious to meet his family yet. I knew I couldn't put it off as long as I had originally hoped, by coming to town early. I would have liked to have sneaked off, leaving them to it, but that was the coward's way out. I just had to bite the bullet and hope my eyes didn't water too much at the pain I knew I was going to experience.

I saw the oldest girl first, she burst out of the crowd as a flash of bright yellow top and blue jeans, long flowing blonde hair all the way down her torso.

"Daddy!" she cried as she dived into her father's arms. He cried out "Annie!"

They hugged and I moved over to the side out of the line of sight, looking for Alice. I found her, looking on and smiling Mona Lisa-like at Annie embracing her father. Alice looked good. She had filled out a little, but hardly at all. She certainly wasn't fat like her husband, far from it, although she did hold Annie's waterproof coat in front of her, camouflaging her shape somewhat. Her face looked as luminous as I remembered her almost every night in my dreams.

She stepped forward when her daughter let him go, then she embraced him, too. I couldn't watch, it was too gut-wrenchingly painful. This is why I stopped coming here years ago, only the pain felt like it was just yesterday.

I looked away from the couple and my eyes settled on a young lady right in front of me, looking at me with her head to one side. Annie regarded me with interest mixed with amusement. She appeared even more like her mother than she had in her photo. She wore that same enigmatic smile, regarding me, working out the sum of me, while maintaining her independent confidence in her own self-worth.

"I saw you coming through with my Dad, are you his friend? I've not seen you before."

She was disarmingly forthright.

"Well, I don't know about friend," I said, trying to be honest, I've learned how to be around kids, well, my two godchildren anyways, "But I suppose I've known him since before you were born."

"Oh!" she said, nodding, "You talk funny."

"That's because I've lived in England for ten years, I suppose it was bound to affect the way I speak."

She nodded her agreement to the possibility.

"Do you know my Mom, too?"

"Yes." I could have said more but I felt under interrogation here and was reluctant to spill all the beans at once.

"So, are you a friend of my Mom?"

Oh boy, she was good, perhaps she watched a lot of cop shows.

"I was, once upon a time."

"And now you're not sure?"

"That's right."

She regarded me for a moment, then stuck her hand out,

"I'm Annie Loughery, pleased to meet you."

"I'm Carl Smith," I said, smiling.

She digested that information for a moment, still holding onto my hand.

"You're early," she said, then grinned, shaking her head slightly, sending waves down her blonde locks, looking even more incredibly like her mother, "You are in such trouble."

"I am?"

"You are," she confirmed, "You never said goodbye to Mom, Carl."

"At the time I thought it was for the best."

"It wasn't." She was as frank and honest as her Mom. I liked this little girl already.

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