Fan favorite Stephanie Writt has sold multiple stories to Fiction River Anthology Magazine, Pulphouse Magazine, and is a founding member of Uncollected Anthology: a quarterly urban fantasy bundle that publishes a romance collection every February. Her newest novel Love & Jinx just released in April 2017. A professional writer since 2011, Steph uses the love she feels all around her as the foundation for all of her characters and their stories. This is Steph’s first sale to Heart’s Kiss and she is over the moon about it.
BEFORE SHE LEFT AND AFTER SHE RETURNED
by Stephanie Writt
Fate andfire had pulled us apart 15 years ago. Fate, fire and hormones.
I had slept late that morning. Well, late for a kid on Christmas morning. My aunt Lynn arrived with a bang and a shout, “I’ve got stubbies and seafood. Merry Chrissy, you lovely bunch of wankers!” Which meant she had woken with a drip or two of whiskey in her coffee. Again.
Almost everyone sounded up or had already arrived, because the response was loud and muffled.
I had slept in my boardies. I now look back and chuckle at my own wankerdom. I had so wanted to be like my older brothers and sister. They all surfed like mad and had jobs up on Bondi Beach in Sydney teaching visiting tourist groups and backpackers to surf, then had a beach party afterwards. Every day. That sounded like the best thing ever to me. A birth surprise to my parents, my siblings were 9-12 years older than me and, with me at twelve, I was barely a blip on their radar. They were part of a family club I could never join no matter how hard I tried. No matter how the mesh in the board shorts chaffed or ma complained. Thank god for chlorine in the pool. At twelve, the best shower started with a cannonball.
Shirtless and shoeless, I scuttled through the house, out the back door and was airborne within a minute of Aunt Lynn’s shout. I noticed the rattle and flap of the palm tree fronds around our pool just before my body submerged into the water. I loved that shock. The cool engulfing me like silk. The sound of my family suppressed by thousands of gallons of water holding me in a private cocoon. My own world. All mine. I was light and free. But I couldn’t stay under forever.
Plus, I had plans.
I came up with a gasp and flicked the water out of my eyes. Dad was at the Barbie. Cooking up Christmas bangers and drinking one of the beers Lynn brought. The wind that blew the slapping palm fronds blew meaty smoke over the pool and into my face. Shirtless himself, he just grinned at me shook his head, and pointed his stubbie to the sliding glass door. “You eventually have to go in there if you want your presents.”
“I have something I need to do first,” I said as I pulled myself up out of the pool and slipped on a pair of thongs tucked under one of the wooden patio chairs. I didn’t bother with a towel. I’d dry off in the warming morning before too long. I opened the wooden gate (an aging deterrent from animals drinking and drowning in our pool) and stepped out onto the grass around the house before it turned to wild brush. Dad stopped me with, “Come back here and take one of these. One for Anabelle too, right?”
I turned back, my stomach a traitor as it growled for the sausage. He winked when I snagged the napkin with two bangers in it, still hot, and ran out of the yard.
“Not too long!” he yelled, the hot wind stronger past the break of patio edge foliage. “It’s Christmas.”
I tossed the bangers back and forth in my hands as I ran through the tall yellow grass. It slapped my knees and was slippery under my thongs. But after years of running in it I was a pro. I took a short cut over the white three-rail fence that corralled our horses, through the pasture pocked with dirt patches where the summer dryness and hooves had worn the grass down to nothing. The fence ran to the tree-line. I dove between the slats, easier than climbing in thongs, and broke into the trees.
Our little patch of forest separated our two farms. The trees canopied above us with skinny pale legs and fine fingers that spread out with a dull green leaf array. The lankiness of their design swayed freely in the gusts and shivered as their equally long slim leaves rubbed together. Light side to dark side, they shimmered as if they caught the light. Past them, the sky looked like another pool I could jump in. Light blue and deceptively cool.
I pushed through a clump of bushes, as chubby and prickly as the trees were not, to my hiding place of precious things. A stray ball had found the hidden flat stone, near white and brittle. I had widened a small clearing of pale brown earth beneath it and lo—a hiding place known only to me. Not even Annabelle knew of it. Which was why I had stashed her present there.
I learned long ago never to stick my hand into any dark place without looking first. The internet had an interesting way of saying things, but this one feels true when you have been stung by a scorpion, heard about someone getting bit by a funnel web spider (and if they lived), seen a cobra: everything in Australia wants to kill you.
I had a stick set aside special. I grabbed it, wrenched up the stone (all clear), then pulled the gift out.
I was twelve, so money wasn’t an option. I had an allowance when I did chores, but I was also twelve and chores were abhorred. So, my gift was something I had found and was very proud of.
We had been friends since we could walk. Our families were not friends, but there was no Romeo and Juliet familial conflict between them. Just didn’t get on. But they supported our friendship in so much as they let us play together. Which meant running about in the brush for most of the days without school. We were rarely invited to each other’s house for events. It was like they allowed the comradery but weren’t going to go out of their way to encourage it. On my family side, it felt like they had their life and I had mine. They didn’t bother me much. Like we were more roommates than family. That club feeling again, that I wasn’t a part of.
Annabelle was my club. And I treasured it. Her.
And that was the day I lost her.
She waited for me in our meeting place.
Dirt floor that never grew back under our years of trodding it clear. Cast out pink plastic chair faced a woven lawn chair, half unwoven, and could only handle the weight of a child. Its poking bits of wicker kept me from leaning back when I sat in it. My legs no longer dangled from its edge. My first attempt at carpentry made up our table of scrap wood with a bouquet of nail heads at each corner. A cast off crate housed equally cast off or pilfered cups and plates, utensils. More for show than use. We didn’t play house anymore. I didn’t know why then, but it felt more real and with my body changes my feelings had changed. Toward her. It was why the gift was so important that Christmas.
I held it behind my back, wrapped in a cloth napkin. Red with golden bells on it. I’d have to return it back to the Christmas drawer when I got home, before ma noticed it tonight. Christmas day was bbq-ing and a pool party with immediate and extended family. But tonight we had a tradition of Christmas dessert. Just the immediate family and a finely set table. Shirt and shoes required. And an actual bath. By candle light we ate special sweets and pies and candy. All homemade. We all told funny stories and laughed. And my mother glowed.
I had asked for Annabelle to come for every year since I thought of it. The answer was always no.
But Annabelle understood. She always understood.
She smiled when she saw me and jumped up from the pink chair and skipped to me. She too had something hidden behind her back. She stopped up close to me, so close my heart thumped fast and hard in my chest. I didn’t understand then why her face had seemed to change overnight. Something golden now shone out of it. Her eyes larger. Her smile brighter. Like a ray of sunshine straight into my belly. I tingled with her so close.
“Hi,” she said and darted in, up to my cheek and kissed it. A peck. And pulled away, “A Christmas kiss.” Then giggled.
I just stood there. I know I turned red. I felt it between my toes. The back of my ears itched with it. My jaw froze with it.
She laughed more and hit me in the shoulder. A punch. Not as light as it used to be. It knocked a little sense into me.
“Hi. Thanks.” I managed to stammer out.
“For the kiss or the punch?” she asked.
“Uh,” I floundered then landed on, “the Merry Christmas.”
“Nice recovery, Noah,” she said then got solemn, “you have earned your present. For you.” She pulled her hand out from behind her back and hung from her fingers was a necklace.
Anabelle was not above doing chores for money.
The chain was actually leather and plain with a silver colored clasp. It was the pendant that was the gift. A little shield, black with silver edging. In the center an outline of a diamond shape in silver, but the lines curved in at the top like someone had pinched it. By the pinched parts, two little curly bits curved from the top.
It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
With her hand still out to me offering the hanging necklace she pulled out a necklace from under her own shirt and showed the pendant to me. “See, we’ll match.” It was the same necklace and pendant.
I must have stood there and stared at her for a while because her face changed, worried, smile gone. “You don’t like it.”
“NO!” I shouted so loud and so sudden she staggered back. I might have lunged at her too. I dropped the bangers I had in the napkin to the ground to free a hand to snatch the necklace from her, then stopped. “Uh, sorry. I uh,” it just swung there in my hand like a clock ticking out the hours of my embarrassment, second by second.
She took pity on me, laughed and took it back. “You are acting really weird today. Is it that present for me you have behind your back or is it the rest of breakfast?” She smiled a curving smile, that sly look women gain about that age. It was as new to her as these feelings in me, so I really don’t think she knew what she was doing.
Especially when, with that sideways look and smile, she unclasped the necklace and moved into me. Wrapped her arms around my neck.
Oh god, I stood ridged and still. Everything pulsed through me as her ear grazed mine, up on her tippy toes to look behind my neck at the clasp. She had showered with shampoo that morning. Fruity. Her soap something herbal and homemade by her mother. It matched the smell of grass at the hottest part of day. When it seemed to steam then crunch underfoot. Thick and fragile.
My heart pounded so hard I thought it might it might strike her. That she must have felt it. Must have known. But when she pulled back, relaxed and at ease, she must not have. She straightened the pendant out on my bare chest, set it just below my throat. Her fingertips brushed there. Lingered.
“There,” she had whispered. “Now we match.” She just kept looking at the pendant, her face inches from mine. Did she clear her throat first? There was a sound, but my head was ringing. “This set is a set. I mean, a pendant set. Called Crest, like a family crest. Bound together by the same shield. Protected together. By each other. Like shield mates, or something.”
She looked up at me then.
“Do you like it?” I know she whispered then. Her voice quiet. Fragile, like her smell. So unlike the shouting, boisterous girl I knew. That tackled me when she thought I was wrong. We’d wrestle out our differences with shoulder punches and arm holds (she was fast and wiry), then talk out our hearts about nothing at all or everything. Pretend the families we wished we lived with. Neither of us were beaten or wanted for anything except attention. A show of our worth in time spent with us. And we were kids, we didn’t know what we had been doing or why. Why we clung to the other so fiercely. Why it devastated me so completely when she left.
And god did I like it. The necklace. Her so close. In that moment I wanted to do things with her I didn’t understand. That scared me. Completely. My body and mind were screaming in a new language at me and I had no idea what to do.
So I shoved my gift at her.
Hard, in desperation. Right into her budding chest. And it cracked. And smashed.
I held my hands there, on her chest. The red Christmas napkin draped over my hands like wilted flower petals. Or blood. And dripping between the napkin and Anabelle’s t-shirt was a softball size amount of egg yolk.
Clear and deep yellow oozed down her shirt, caught in the edge of her shorts and pooled above the button. Dripped down onto her toes. Minute dust puffs bloomed where the drips hit the dried earth.
We stood and stared at each other. I am still not sure who was in more shock.
Finally I stammered out in a freakish line of blubbering, “It’s brushturkey egg you said you wanted to see one so I’ve been searching cause they are laying now and I found a hill and dug this out and was going to show it to you as part of the present if you still want to go—”
I don’t know what she would have said after that.
If we would have gone. If she’d have just punched me and laughed about it and all would be ok again. Or if that moment, before the egg, had changed something irrevocably for us. Between us. Some bridges burn behind you once they are crossed.
But I will never know. Because the air turned yellow. And the winds whipped up hard, slapping the trees together above our heads with a snap. And I smelled smoke.
Then I heard the gun shots.
Emergency. Come home now.
It was her papa’s call.
She turned without a word and raced out of our fort. Our area. The bushes grabbing at her as she went. They didn’t stop her or even slow her down. I don’t know if I wish they had.
I picked up the napkin on the ground where it had fallen from her chest when she ran away. Caked with dirt and egg, I bunched the napkin into a crunchy ball and shoved it into the pocket of my boardies. Then ran away myself, back toward my family’s Christmas pool party they were having without me.
But they were not partying when I got there.
Everyone had hoses out and were watering the green lawn and the roof of the house. The walls. The bushes lining the yard itself. The shed where papa kept his riding lawnmower. The barn and the fences.
The yellowing air had depended, though the sky over the house as I ran toward it was still pool blue. Not a cloud.
Everyone was shouting and pointing. My father the director of it all. No beer in hand now.
My mother screamed when she saw me. High, like a death wail—and ran to me. Thought she was going to squeeze my head right off me. I saw fury in her face and her yelling after the hug that I know now to be fear. She pointed me to the pool and asked me to find every bucket I could find, to fill them and line them up along the edge of the pool. That was when the fire engines showed up with a swirl of lights and a whine of sound. That was when I turned around.
The sky was on fire.
Past the fenced pasture, beyond the forest pocket that held Annabelle’s and my fort, above the green waving trees, the sky radiated oranges and reds. Yellows. And smoke. No flames. But the sky from tree top to heavens blazed.
Christmas time brush fires in Australia were common. Volunteer firefighters came out in droves during the summer months to put down small brush fires caused by arsonists or lightning strikes. Power poles sparking or something of the like. It happened. What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that the year 2001 was one of the driest on record. And we were facing what was to be called the Black Christmas Bushfires, among many other titles. Hundreds of people lost their homes. Livestock killed. Farms lost. It broke records on the time it ran (3 weeks), damage, area consumed.
A wall of flames ran up twenty, forty, a hundred feet up into the air. Well above the tree-line that lifted it up into the sky. And I saw it. Fought it, beside my family. Large and loud and united.
If they had not all been there for Christmas, traveled from Sydney and towns all over New South Wales, there was no way we could have saved the house. Kept the embers from taking hold. Laid down enough of a break to keep the biggest flames away. Kept everything moist enough that it didn’t catch fire just from the intense heat that burned the eyes and cracked the skin.
We lost the shed and the tractor, the fence and the pasture. A palm had caught fire that spread to the patio trellis and then the side of the house. My arms screamed from bucket after bucket of pool water I dished out. I stood in the shallow end that got lower and lower as buckets were tossed in and I handed full ones out. My older sister beside me. The splashing water was still not enough to keep me from sweating under the scorching heat at the height of the fire’s passing.
But then it was past.
The firefighters moved with it, down to the next set of houses threatened and that might be saved.
Ours was a lucky one.
Annabelle’s was not.
Just her and her parents (they were to travel to her grandmother’s that afternoon for the family gathering). Even with the firefighters, there were not enough hands and water to keep the fire at bay. Ma told me later they had bundled up the few belongings they could gather, got in their car and drove away to safety. And had kept on driving.
They never came back. Annabelle did not return to school after break. And I never heard from her again.
I heard her voice.
I heard her voice over a song on a radio that was blaring from somewhere. She was singing, loudly and slightly off key to some bawdy Australian Christmas parody, filled with Santas in boardies, gingerbread surf boards and snowmen made of sand.
It had been one of her favorites and she had tortured me with it.
I turned from hanging a wreath of red flowering Christmas Bush on the door of “Firelight,” a fine dining restaurant I had opened in the bustling heart of downtown Helensburgh. With the restaurant pallet ranging from 3 Thai restaurants, 2 pizzerias, a Chinese restaurant and a bakery, when I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Australia in Sydney I already knew my place. Back home. The little town had grown on me, in my blood and I loved it. And a quiet voice in my head occasionally whispered, “and so she can always find you.”
I had popped over to my parent’s house that morning for obligatory booze, BBQ, and a dip in the pool. Same pool. Same barbie. Same loud, laughing family club that I had a guest pass to on holidays and important events.
The brush had long since grown back. The shed and fences rebuilt. The siding on the house replaced. There had been brush fires since, but nothing that ranged that far and that ferociously. But buckets were stacked in surreptitious places around the pool, placed there as soon as the summer started and stayed until well into the rainy season.
I had never gone back to where our fort had stood. Nor to my rock. It had been our bridge to each other. And with her gone, I did not want to stand on my half and look into the void of her absence on the other side. I had found other friends (eventually), joined random sport teams in school, then discovered the quiet solitude and comfort of cooking.
I partly blame my ma and her late night Christmas desserts. There was a fancy intimacy about the event that even included me. It was important. It shined. Past memories wash and fade with time, but I can remember the perfectness of each of those gatherings. The golden candlelight reflecting off crystal. The juicy scents drizzled in candied sweetness. The delicate dusting of powdered sugar. The clinks and tinkles. The laughter was quieter then. The voices hushed.
I wanted that and have worked hard to create that in my restaurant. The brilliance coupled with the subdued. Elegance, simplicity. Peace.
Sometimes I’d place a wine glass and think of a chipped cup in the forest.
I’d slide in a chair and remember wicker stabbing my bare back.
Toss down a towel and see egg yolk run. And her run away.
The sky on fire.
I missed her. And I knew I always would.
I’d had girlfriends, but they didn’t last. Mostly because we were young, but I knew I was waiting. Until when, I didn’t know. Just waiting.
I dropped the damn wreath and spun around.
The creak of an emergency break sounded over the catchy jingle and her shout-singing. She had parked across the street in the parking lot, in front of the pizzeria. A little two-door sedan. Sporty and newer. But not flashy. She was never flashy.
Her light brown hair brushed the tops of her shoulders as she bopped, then threw her head back on the final note. The car turned off. The door opened.
Sandals and shorts. A short-sleeved top. All pale colors, pinks or yellows or something. I still couldn’t tell you. I was stunned by her. She looked the same, but just a bit more flushed out. Grown-up. And real.
She was really there.
She froze and our eyes locked from across the street. She as still as I. Then she smiled and waved. A small gesture and leaned back into her car.
She had surely filled out. And nicely.
She stood up with her purse in hand and something behind her back.
She did a little hop and a skip over the curb onto the street and then across to my sidewalk. Her tan legs glowed in the sunshine. She had the sly smile on her face, but this time she knew what she was doing. I could see it. And I didn’t mind one bit.
Before she reached me I pinched myself. Seriously, dug my fingers into my arm and drew blood. I wanted this to be real. I had wanted it for too long. To see her. Talk to her. Be near her. Touch her.
I was either awake or just wanted to stay in this dream-come-true that bad.
She walked right up to me and swooped in a peck on my cheek before I could react.
“Merry Christmas, Noah.”
I was a grown man, fifteen years later, and I felt a kid again. Her name was all I could say.
Her face, her eyes, her smile. That damn sly look.
And then I saw it. The necklace around her neck. A chain now, but dangling from it the shield pendant. A match to the one that still hung around my neck. That rested just below my throat at the collar line of the button-up shirt I never buttoned all the way. My protective shield and my connection to her.
Her slyness and her ease vanished with an intake of breath. My eyes traced back to her face and hers were trained on my throat. A spot just below my throat.
“You kept it.” I heard my childhood friend in that voice, her words. And a hint at the same agony I had suffered at her loss.
“Yes, I did,” I said and heard the deep change in my own voice over the years. “Of course I did.”
She looked up at me. Her eyes full of pain that dulled the glow. Her chin quivered in a way that would have freaked me out as a young boy, but as a man I could understand and would not shy away from.
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed out then swallowed. An ache filled my own throat. “They wouldn’t go back. They wouldn’t let me and we had nothing. We ranged for a while from family to family.” She stopped herself and breathed again. Closed her eyes. Opened them again. Took a deep breath, “I have no excuse. And I’ve known you were here for the past two years. But I was just—I have no excuse.”
There had been a time when I was mad at her. Angry for being helpless and unable to make the first move. But I had found her three years ago. Only because I decided to start looking then. And I had done nothing. But waited.
She had always been the brave one of us.
“Say something,” she said and punched me on the shoulder. So familiar. And I realize I had just been standing there looking at her. Like a wanker. So familiar.
But I had also thought about this moment for a very, very long time. And knew what I always wanted to do. And breathed fiery hope into myself that I would be brave enough to take the step between us.
She had her grumpy face on, slimmed down to the angles of adulthood over her cheek bones that I reached out and stroked with my thumb. She stepped back, but I did not deter. I was on a mission.
I stepped forward, back into her space, slid my hand back and into her hair, thick and soft. I reached a hand to her waist, thick and soft. I moved slow and determined. She waited. And quivered in my hands. Her eyes wide, nervous. But not innocent. We had both grown up.
Once our lips met everything became a blur. Something broke between us and we stepped into each other. To a different place together than we had been, but together with hands held in a way that was fresh but ultimately still us. I felt it in the way she responded. Instant and complete. The thousands of kisses I had given and taken before with others had been to practice for this moment. All relationships had been a dress rehearsal for this event. Appetizers until the meal could be served.
“I missed you,” I said when we parted to embrace, the intimacy of kissing too intense for the flood of feelings that swamped us.
“You’re just the same,” she cried happily into my chest, “if maybe a bit taller.”
We chuckled together, our breathlessness apparent as we clutched each other.
“And I missed you,” she whispered like a confession. And we pulled each other tighter so it hurt. But we couldn’t do it any less. Until I heard a crunch, felt a wetness on my back, and Annabelle said, “Oh, Noah. I am so sorry.”
We pulled apart, though it ached to do so.
From the hand around my back, Annabelle pulled away to reveal it was full of egg, shell and all. Broken and dripping. A very large egg. A very familiar egg.
“It was supposed to be a joke,” Annabelle explained, her face stricken, “I’ve been in town the past two days roaming the brush for one. It took forever and a lot of scratches and a run-in with a mongoose to find one. I wasn’t going to smash it on you. I don’t know what I was going to do with it, but give it to you.”
We both stared at her hand, dumbly. Then she got that sly look on her face. “But I guess we are even, then. Yes?”
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I unbuttoned my shirt, pulled it out of my pants and took it off. I reached for her hand and began to wipe it clean of the mess as she assessed my half-dressed form.
I had filled out too.
I glance up as I cleaned and saw Jerry and Maude plastered against the pizzeria’s window in open mouth attention. I looked around and noticed that my other restaurant neighbors and their smattering of Christmas patrons had stepped out onto the sidewalk to gawk at the quiet restaurant owner who had politely kept to himself until today. They had a real-life soap opera playing out for them, complete with shirtless male and leggy female embracing in a kiss of a lifetime, right before their very eyes.
Let them look. I had everything I wanted. I didn’t care who saw.
And in a town of 5500 people, there were no secrets. Most probably knew who she was and our story. Making the play all the more juicy.
I chuckled while I wiped her clean until her other hand snaked around my waist, feeling its way, bare skin across bare skin, and she tucked her head up under my chin to rest on my shoulder. We both faced her eggy hand, setting our backs to the street. She had never been a dummy.
“The town seems happy to see me.”
“Not as much as I am.” I finished the cleaning and dropped the soiled shirt on the sidewalk.
“So, now what?” she asked, all teasing aside.
I looked down into her eyes. Completely content to do that forever. Immeasurably glad I could do it again. And she looked back. Just as content and connected. It was better than I hoped it could be. But just to be sure…
I winked at her, then crouched down and swept forward into her, catching her around the waist with my shoulder. In one swift lift, her butt was up in the air in a fireman’s drape over my shoulder.
She didn’t kick or slap, but just laughed. “What’s this all about?”
“You are wrong,” I explained as I marched into the restaurant, locking the door behind me. “We are not even.”
She got it and laughed, then played along. “You smashed egg on me, I smashed egg on you, that evenness is mathematically sound.”
“I am a simple cook, miss. I was never good at maths,” I said, then pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen. Darnell and Candice worked on the spiced delights to be served that night at our special Christmas dessert faire. They both peeked up from spun sugar and dipping chocolate, and their eyes went wide. Never had they seen their boss enter the kitchen with a woman slung over his shoulder. Particularly, shirtless.
“I’m going to be a bit late to the dinner. The servers will be here at seven to finalize set up and memorize the dishes. I trust you to handle everything until then?” It was a question but not a question. I was already heading toward the stairs that led to my apartment above the restaurant.
“It was nice to meet you,” Annabelle waved at them from her hovering spot over my backside. When I glanced back neither Darnell nor Candice bothered to hide their grins.
“We’ve got this, Noah,” Darnell called.
“Have fun,” Candice giggled under the clomp of my shoes on the wooden stairs.
Then I closed the door on them. Then walked to my bedroom and threw her onto the bed.
Annabelle landed with a gusty chortle. Then righted herself, kicked off her sandals and took position. Set-up. Same wrestling starting stance she had fifteen years ago.
“Same rules apply?” she asked and I welcomed that sly look.
“Sure,” I said and pulled off my shoes, one by one, and tossed them aside. Then took my stance.
“No cheating, now,” she said and I saw the ready excitement in her eyes. It matched my own.
“None at all,” I agreed and lunged at her. Because no matter what happened, there would be no losers that night.
My Annabelle had come home.
Copyright © 2017 by Stephanie Writt.
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