Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty
Monday morning saw Christina back at work. She’d kept her doors locked, her windows drawn and her phone on silent for the duration of Sunday. Snuggled deeply under the blankets, she’d done little more than lounge on the couch watching one romantic comedy after another. The irony of the situation had not been lost on her, either.
Which was probably why, under her perfectly applied makeup, and pounding underneath her shiny blonde head of hair, Christina was nursing something of a hangover.
With both eyes glued to her computer screen, she reached blindly for her third cup of coffee. The mug was halfway to her mouth when her phone, pressed up against the side of her keyboard, started buzzing with an incoming call. Distracted, Christina glanced down absently to see who was calling.
Her fingers scattered clumsily across the keyboard when she saw Mary’s name flash across the screen. Swearing softly under her breath, Christina froze, her eyes watching her phone vibrate madly against her desk, but she didn’t reach to answer the call. Holding her breath she just watched it, waiting…
Her heart was beating too quickly inside her chest, and the swig of coffee she’d just swallowed seemed to be recoiling up her throat. Thankfully, her phone couldn’t ring forever and soon enough the possessed thing went still and silent.
Christina took a deep breath. Okay. Dragging her eyes determinedly back up to her computer screen, she stretched her shoulder blades, trying to regain a feeling of calm, of confidence. Her fingers were busy deleting the last few lines of gibberish she’d accidentally typed. She was still scrambling, trying to pull her thoughts back into focus when her phone vibrated again. Just once this time. Feeling her face flush, Christina looked down to confirm that yes, indeed, Mary had left her a voicemail.
All pretense of working gone, Christina’s fingers clenched together convulsively as she stared down at her darkened phone. Good Christ, she’d just screened a call from Mary. She’d never done that before, would have never thought to do that before.
Not to Mary.
Worse, she didn’t want to call her back.
Her fingers itched as she stared uncomprehendingly at the word Voicemail, which was splashed across her screen. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to listen or delete it. Mary could have said anything.
Tentatively, she felt her left hand reach forward but whatever it was she meant to do with her cell phone would remain a mystery because at that precise moment she became aware of the sound of approaching footsteps outside the hall separating her desk from the main office. The automatic smile on her face faulted just slightly, however, when she spotted Jackie rounding the corner.
“Jackie?” Christina said, her eyebrows crinkling pointedly. “What are you doing up here?”
Jackie made a face. “You know, I am allowed to see the daylight sometimes,” she joked. Jackie, who worked in graphic design, was one of only a handful of employees who did not work on the main floor of the building. Instead, her office was stationed down a short flight of stairs in a rather gloomy basement.
Christina hitched up one corner of her mouth. “Be careful you don’t burn.”
“All right, all right,” Christina conceded. “What’s up?”
For a moment, Jackie looked almost uncomfortable. “I heard you went home sick last Friday.”
Christina waited for her say more, but when Jackie didn’t expand on this, she nodded. “Yeah?”
“You’re never sick.”
“Okay.” Christina tried to sound uninterested. Her heart was still beating too quickly.
Jackie’s eyes narrowed as she canvassed Christina across the desk. “In almost four years of work, you’ve never gone home in the middle of the day.”
Christina made a dismissive gesture. “I’m not sure what you want me to say—”
Jackie cocked her head to one side. “You don’t look like you.”
“What?” Christina couldn’t quite keep the frustration out of her voice. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
“And you weren’t sick on Friday.”
Christina made a big production of sighing. “Oh yeah? What, is Dr. Sam teaching you medicine on the side, now?”
But if Jackie was offended, she didn’t look it. In fact, she smiled. “God Christina, even your insults are off-key.”
Christina surrendered. She was too tired to fight anyway. “Yeah. I guess,” she sighed in agreement.
Jackie pursed her lips. “I heard Jason came to take Mr. Gorman out to lunch on Friday,” she said conversationally.
Christina’s back stiffened. She didn’t like that tone of voice. “What of it?”
Jackie tried not to smile. “That wouldn’t have had anything to do with your sudden defection, now would it?”
Pinching her lips, Christina only stared her down. But Jackie was braver than she looked. Jutting one hip against the side of her desk, she nodded. “Yeah. I thought so.”
“Take your thoughts somewhere else, if you please.” With a wave of her hands, Christina motioned for Jackie to get off her desk.
Jackie didn’t budge. “Want to talk about it?” All pretense of teasing was gone now, replaced with genuine concern.
Christina rolled her eyes. “What is with everyone and wanting to talk about every damn feeling they come across…”
Jackie made a face. “Look,” she said, her eyes shifting to the wall beside Christina. “A few months ago you said this thing to me, that you’d spent the last few years sitting at home, alone, in your pajamas with a glass of wine and a romance novel…” Spitting the words out quickly, Jackie stopped then to take a stabilizing breath.
Christina heard those words with something of a shock. Honestly, she didn’t remember saying them to Jackie, but she couldn’t deny that they were true. Too true.
“Okay?” The edge in Christina’s voice was not to be ignored.
“You called yourself pathetic.” Jackie’s face blushed a little over the words.
Jackie shrugged. “Look, I’m just saying, maybe you aren’t pathetic, maybe you’re just hiding out.” She gave Christina a perceptive look. “If you could have seen your face the day after he kissed you…”
Christina cleared her throat, her eyes instinctively traveling to her bosses door, but it was firmly shut. Her hands fiddled with a stack of papers on her desk. “Well, that’s rather the point, isn’t it? At home, alone with my books, I get to fall in love from the safety of my own couch.”
“To a man who isn’t real.”
“Oh come on!” Jackie exclaimed. “Do you really believe that?”
“Yes. No.” Christina closed her eyes. When she opened them again, her voice went down an octave. “It’s just, it’s easier that way. There’s no chance of getting hurt. Nothing has to change.”
“I really have to get back to work, Jackie,” Christina said, cutting her off with a too-bright voice. Rising up a hand pointedly, she looked forceful. “Thanks for checking in on me, but I’m feeling much better.”
“I doubt that.”
“Don’t trip heading back downstairs,” Christina said cheerfully, and with a half wave.
Jackie snorted. “Coward.”
It wasn’t until late that evening, curled up in her bed, that Christina heard the recording of Mary’s voice echoing off her walls. It had taken her half an hour, her finger hovering over the voicemail before she’d opened the mailbox—
Christina, it’s Mary. I just, um, I just wanted to tell you that, well, I love you. Nothing that you told me yesterday has changed that. I think you probably need to hear that most of all. I meant what I said, you will never lose me. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That you lost so much at such a young age, that you can’t seem to forgive yourself…
There was a long pause and then—
And listen, I don’t think I have any right to say this but well, dammit I’m going to anyway, because…well, please let me assure you that you don’t need Matthew or my permission to date Jason but if you did, you’d have it. Unequivocally. What I’m trying to say is…well, if you want to date Jason, that’s between you and him and no one else.
There was another slight pause and then a sigh.
Okay. I love you. Talk to you soon.
Listening to the message, Christina cried.