by C. L. Wilkinson
Enjoy this never before published New Year’s Eve short story, that has a bit of a mysterious twist.
His headlights picked up the pendular sway of her long blonde hair; otherwise he might not have seen her at all. And even as he braked hard and swerved, he had the sinking feeling he would hit her. Throughout, she remained motionless, watching as he skidded toward her as if waiting for the blow, expecting it even.
Shaken, Logan Mills slid out from behind the wheel of his sedan and walked over to where she stood. “I’m so sorry,” he said, thinking as he said it that actually it was more her fault than his. “I must have scared you half to death. Are you okay?”
She tilted her head down and slightly away from him. “Fine.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “You should be more careful. You were driving rather fast.”
Logan peered at her closely. From head to toe, she was dressed in black. No wonder he hadn’t seen her right away. “And you were walking in the middle of the road,” he retorted.
With that, she turned and looked directly at him. Logan tried to keep his face composed, tried not register the shock he felt at the sight of her badly bruised face. The swelling on her cheek caused one eye to appear smaller than the other, giving her a slightly lopsided look, and her lower lip had been split. So much for being fine, he thought. What to do? She was right to say he’d been driving too fast. Had he struck her, surely he would have been to blame. He was running late – nothing new about that – and Courtney would be furious with him. Nothing new about that, either. But Logan felt he could not abandon this woman on one of Ohio’s dark country roads. It was New Year’s Eve, after all.
“May I give you a lift somewhere?” If she was walking, her destination couldn’t be that far away, could it?
“That’s very kind, but you’re obviously in a hurry. I’d hate to take you out of your way.” Her protest didn’t sound very convincing.
“Where are you going?”
“To my brother’s. It’s near town.”
Near town? The nearest town was at least two miles away. He looked down at her high heeled shoes. “Get in,” he urged. “You’re not dressed to walk any where. It’s freezing out here. Besides, it could start snowing any minute.”
Logan introduced himself. “And you?” he prompted. “Do you have a name?
“Well, Catherine.” Logan buckled his seat belt and turned up the heat. “Where to?”
She gave concise directions and Logan continued in the direction he’d been traveling. He’d always liked this road and frequently used it as a shortcut home because there was seldom any traffic. Houses were well-spaced and sat at the end of long, winding driveways that threaded their way through heavily wooded lots. This time of year, the houses were dressed for the season, and their colorful holiday lights glowed eerily through the trees.
Logan stole a glance at Catherine. “I could take you to the hospital,” he offered. “That bruise looks pretty serious.”
“No need. I’m sure it looks much worse than it is and I heal very quickly.”
“It’s none of my business, and you can tell me so, but how did this happen? And don’t tell me you ran into a doorknob. I’ve heard that one before. Who did this to you?”
“Chap I know,” she said. “We fought about some silly thing and this is how he won the argument. So much for a romantic New Year’s Eve.” She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“First home to change clothes and then to a party with my girlfriend. As usual, I’ll be late picking her up.”
“Why?” It was a simple, direct question.
“Why am I usually late?”
“I’m a lawyer, or trying to be, so I work long hours. Like tonight. When you’re starting out, building a career, you have to sometimes.”
“Yes, I see how that could be.” She hesitated. “But if it’s a party, does it really matter if you’re late?”
“Well, Courtney – that’s my girlfriend – would say that it does. I can see her pacing the hallway, all dressed in velvet and glitter, with smoke coming out of her otherwise pretty ears.” He grimaced. “We argue whenever I work late or go in on weekends. She didn’t used to mind. I don’t know what changed.”
Catherine pointed down the road in front of them. “At the stop sign, turn left and go up the hill.”
Logan did as he was directed. It was a steep hill, with a sharp curve, and he couldn’t imagine she had hoped to walk it in those shoes.
“Maybe nothing,” she said.
“You asked what changed,” Catherine said patiently. “And I’m suggesting that maybe nothing changed. Maybe she thought your hours wouldn’t bother her, but over time she grew resentful.”
“I suppose.” Logan shrugged. “But I think she saw me as a good catch and figured she could put up with anything.”
“Relationships are funny like that, aren’t they? It often seems that the qualities you’re attracted to in the first place become exactly those you end up despising. Do you find that to be true?”
Logan considered. “I never really thought about it,” he admitted. “You may be onto something. When I met Courtney, I found her glamorous and exciting. For a while, I thought we might even get engaged this Christmas.”
“And you didn’t?”
Logan shook his head. “Parties and fancy dinners are frankly exhausting. And every time she nagged me about work, I found myself pulling back. I’ve been trying to build a future for us. Why can’t she see that?”
“It’s about control,” said Catherine. “About getting the upper hand in a relationship.”
“And I can see who had the upper hand in yours.” He stopped short of saying more. “Sorry, that wasn’t fair.”
“No, but it’s true enough. Brad had been drinking, you see. We were supposed to have a nice dinner together, but he couldn’t have held a fork. I told him I was disappointed in him.” She gave a short laugh. “That was so the wrong thing to say.”
“But you were disappointed, and should have had a right to say so without getting clobbered. I hope you’re not planning to get back together with him.”
They were entering a residential area now, having crested the hill and started down the other side. Century-old homes lined both sides of the street. Sparkling lights danced from rooflines, Christmas trees glowed from windows and diminutive Santas and reindeer posed on front porches. Lights from downtown Jefferson Lake could be seen in the distance.
“No, this evening put things in perspective,” Catherine was saying. “It’s been over for a long time, to tell the truth. Sometimes we just can’t let go, can we? We think it will change or that we can change. Neither happens, though.”
Logan nodded. “It comes down to choosing the right person and I’ve never known how to figure that out. I’ve always gone after someone I liked the look of and figured the rest would fall into place.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Catherine. “You have to really like someone first. Then, as your love grows, they become more beautiful to you.”
“Like this guy you’ve been seeing? What’s his name? Brad?”
“No,” said Catherine, lowering her head. “Like Jimmy, the guy I used to see.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was killed,” she replied, “in a car accident five years ago. I guess I’ve been trying to replace him ever since.” She chuckled. “Not doing a very good job of it, either.”
Logan was speechless. He turned to look at her. Now that streetlights offered some illumination, he noticed how pretty his passenger was. Her hair was long and shiny, her face oval with perfectly curved brows framing aquamarine eyes. How could anyone harm such a lovely person? “I’m sorry,” he said. “Just so very sorry. I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose someone you love.”
“It feels like you’ve lost the other half of your heart. There’s an emptiness that just doesn’t go away. It dulls with time, but it doesn’t really go away.”
Logan felt vastly uncomfortable. They both fell silent until Catherine said, “My brother’s house is coming up, third on the right, just after the next side street. A little brown bungalow with a big tree in the front yard.”
“And you were going to walk all this way?”
“I really had no choice,” she replied. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to stay where I was. I hope he’s home.”
“Do you need to call?” he asked. “You can use my cell phone.”
“No, no. I’ve got mine.”
Where, he wondered. For the first time, he noticed she wasn’t carrying a purse.
Logan felt relief. What would he have done had no one been home? Left her sitting on the steps in this weather?
He slowed as he approached the house.
“You can let me out here,” she said. “No need to pull in the driveway.
Surprised, he did as she asked. “Looks like someone’s home,” he observed. “Lights are on upstairs. That’s good, isn’t it?”
Catherine made no comment as she opened the car door. She stepped out into the night, only turning back to say, “Logan, thank you for giving me a ride. If you hadn’t stopped, I’d still be out there walking in the snow.”
Snow? Logan wondered at that remark. It wasn’t snowing at all. Hadn’t, in fact, since before Christmas. He let it go.
“My pleasure.” He held up his hand, his fingers curled around the stem of an imaginary champagne glass. “Here’s to a happier New Year.”
She lifted her own hand, mimicking his. “Happy New Year, Logan.”
Before he could say another word, she closed the door. Logan made a mental note of the house number: 7514. He would come back, he decided. He’d try to be her friend, for it seemed she needed one as much as he did. Maybe ask her out for coffee.
He started to wave goodbye, but she had disappeared, vanished into the darkness just as swiftly as she had appeared on the road before him. Astonished, he got out of the car and looked around. There was simply no sign of her. Surely she couldn’t have entered the house that quickly. Catherine. Where had she gone?
And as he crawled back into the warmth of his car, it began to snow.
He awoke to Courtney’s voice. “Logan? Time to get showered and dressed.”
Reluctantly, Logan rose from the couch to look out the window. It was snowing. Of course it was. Catherine had loved snow. She should be here now, he thought. Would be if Brad hadn’t killed her. Since her death on New Year’s Eve two years ago, his sister had haunted his dreams, always coming back to him as a different version of herself and always with a message to impart. This time it had been about relationships and she’d had a lot to say.
Logan raised his hand to toast her. “Happy New Year, little sister. I’d give anything to say that to you in person.”
He wiped a tear from his face, and turned from the window.
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