Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Three

Staring blankly down at her computer, Christina felt her right cheek twitch a little with feeling. Her eyes scanned over the information displayed on the bluish screen, her finger hovering over the print button—there it was, in black and white, a plane ticket to South Carolina.

A plane ticket to go back home.

“This is stupid,” she muttered to herself, her words slurring a little. Beside her, on the kitchen table, was the same bottle of whiskey she’d been drinking that fateful night when Jason had showed up outside her door. It seemed she was doomed to drink it in his honor. “You’ve already purchased the ticket. Just print the damn thing.” On the words, her finger did as commanded.

Tipping back another long swig of alcohol, she listened as her printer sputtered and coughed into life, the zip-zip of it as it slowly stained the paper with the airline company’s logo…

Technically, it was Sunday morning. 12:42 a.m. to be precise; which meant she would be boarding a plane to go back to a place she’d always sworn never to set foot in again, in less than twenty-four hours.

She giggled. Actually, she’d be leaving in less than fifteen hours. Thirteen hours and eighteen minutes. “Christ,” she muttered, rubbing her wrist over her mouth. “I should probably get some sleep.” But she didn’t move. Her thoughts just kept playing on repeat—those terrible moments echoing around her skull as she’d heard Mary’s concerns, the feel of Jason’s lips followed by the desperate cling of her own.

She hadn’t meant to buy a ticket. At least, not really. Well, kind of. The thing is, she’d considered the idea as she’d driven herself home, laughing a little hysterically over the mere notion, but then, as soon as she’d returned home, she found herself booting up her laptop, and then, well…

Jason was right. Mary was right. Christina knew it. She’d never really denied it, either. She was recreating her past, deliberately or otherwise. And she was doing it to protect herself, however twisted and demented that sounded. If she chose to keep people at a safe distance, they couldn’t hurt her. If she chose to keep a part of herself hidden, she could never feel lonely.

But she did feel lonely. And she was still hurt.

Snatching the ticket off the printer tray, Christina folded it carefully before placing the piece of paper in her purse. Just thinking about going home made her stomach churn (though, she supposed the alcohol may have had something do with that, as well).

She’d promised herself she’d never allow her mother the pleasure of kicking her off the premises again, of dismissing her daughter as though she didn’t exist, as though she wasn’t a scared kid who’d desperately needed a little grace. She’d promised she’d never put herself in a position to watch the triumph glint off those cold eyes when she watched her child crawl back home—

“You must really love him,” she whispered to herself, her eyes half-closed in her stupor, her hand reaching lazily for the bottle. “Or you’re an undiagnosed masochist.”

 

 

 

The next morning, her head buzzing somewhere between a hangover and a jangle of tense nerves, Christina carefully packed her suitcase. She made more than most private receptionists at Mr. Gordman’s, and with it she’d purchased herself a beautiful wardrobe. If there was one thing Christina never skimped on it was personal appearance. Her makeup was top of the line, and her clothing designer labels. Now, spreading them out across her bed, she deliberated: she wouldn’t be showing up on her mother’s porch in anything less than couture.

Finishing that task, she sat down at her computer and opened up a blank document. Her fingers trembled, but then what was that saying—in for a penny, in for a pound? So, sitting there, her back ramrod straight, she wrote one of the most difficult letters she’d ever forced her mind to conjure—and then she called Jackie.

It was on the third ring that the other girl answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey Jacks,” Christina said, using the nickname with a forced casualness that wasn’t lost on the younger woman.

“Hey—”

“I hope I didn’t catch you in the middle of something?”
“No. I was just sitting here…” which was exactly what Christina had been hoping to hear.

“Good. Actually, I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”

“Yeah?”

“Can you come over here?” Christina asked. She checked the wall clock hanging on an otherwise empty wall in her livingroom. “Like right now?”

“Uh, yeah,” Jackie said, her voice betraying confusion and more than a hint of hesitation. “Everything okay?”

“Five minutes?”
“Five? Jesus, you know I’m almost on the other side of the cities from you?”

“Ten then?”

A long sigh. “Ten it is.”And somehow, in between the Sunday morning traffic, Jackie managed to slip her car into park outside Christina’s home just shy of twelve. Christina had left the front door unlocked and slightly ajar. “Just come inside,” she’d to Jackie as that girl had been making her way gingerly up the walkway.

“All right. That’s it.” Stumbling just inside the long, narrow hallway at the entrance to Christina’s apartment, Jackie slipped off her shoes. Talking as she walked, she placed her hands on her hips as she called out: “What the hell’s going on?”

But when she advanced onto the living room and saw the stuffed suitcase sitting tidily off to one side, the humor lacing those words died instantly. Her eyes darted to where Christina could just be seen through the open doorway, carefully rearranging the chaos of clothes littering her bedroom.

Without bothering to ask, Jackie walked inside the room. “Christina?”

At the warning note in her voice, Christina dropped a now impossibly wrinkled shirt back onto her unmade bed. Her eyes were blot shot, her usually groomed hair sticking up in static patches, her skin almost translucent.

“I need you do to me a favor.”

“You already said that,” Jackie reminded her. Her eyes skipped over the bed. Shirts and skirts and whatnot swirled dizzyingly before her. It was so unlike the Christina she knew—ordered, precise—she could hardly take her eyes off the mess.

“I’m taking a trip.”

The left side of Jackie’s lip twitched. “Uh, yeah. I can see that.”

Christina moved restlessly. “Unfortunately, the trip came sort of…unexpectedly.”

“Okay.”

“And I didn’t have time to tell Mr. Gordman about it.”

Jackie’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Christina sounded guilty. “What do you mea—?”

“Typically, Mr. Gordman requires my vacation requests in advance,” Christina continued ruthlessly,  her hands picking up accessories only to drop them back on the bed. Her eyes stared somewhere above a sparkly belt and a corduroy hat.

Jackie nodded slowly. That was pretty common practice in every department at the company. “Okay,” she repeated.

“But as I said…there’s not been time.”

Jackie’s confusion on grew. “You can’t just call him?” Like she’d done with her? As close as Jackie and Christina were, it was nowhere near the level of familiarity that Christina shared with their boss. Both women knew it.

Christina absolutely would not meet that probing gaze. She flapped a hand dismissively. “Oh, you know how he is. I’d be grilled all day and night—” she laughed woodenly. “Force to check in every couple of minutes. I don’t have time for that.”

Jackie had the distinct feeling that Christina was lying to her. “Right.”

“Look, I wouldn’t normally ask you to do this, but it’s kind of an emergency.” If Christina didn’t do this now, she’d never have to courage again. Thrusting forward a slip of paper, she pressed it into Jackie’s hands. “I need you to give my request to Mr. Gordman tomorrow. Please apologize on my behalf. Explain the situation.”

“I don’t know the situation.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Christian said nonsensically. “He does.”

Jackie nodded. This was getting weirder and weirder. Christina could have easily emailed this to him. She could have just as easily called him as Jackie. She could have…

“And if he won’t accept that,” Christina said, her voice interrupting Jackie’s private thoughts. “Then please hand him this.” Holding out her hand, she held out a sealed envelope.

“What’s this?” Jackie asked, but she had a feeling she knew.

Christina shrugged. “My resignation.”

“Christina?”

The blonde didn’t answer, her hands going to fold up another article of clothing.

“Listen, you said this is an emergency,” Jackie reminded Christina, her voice coming too quickly. This was definitely off. Something was wrong. “He’s not going to require your—”

Christina head bobbed up sharply. “Just in case, okay?”

“In case what?” Jackie’s voice was elevated now, her arms reaching out to the sides. “Christina, what the hell is going on?”

“Nothing. Just…”

“Why didn’t you call Matthew?” Jackie asked. “The real answer this time. Why did you call me?”

Christina blinked down at her bed, her fingers robotically working on another shirt. “It’s not that kind of emergency.”

“What?” Jackie’s face contorted. “You’re not making any sense.”

“It doesn’t matter. Matthew will know.”

“So why give me this?” Jackie asked, waving the envelope between them.

“Because he might demand it.”

 

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