Here’s a little unedited taste of a special romance novel I’m working on. Enjoy!
The Real Bad Day, as Lauren thought of it later, came in early October.
Once upon a time, she loved the fall. Loved the leaves as they slipped into their golden moments, then falling like soft rain, caressing and tickling her skin under the arms of old and wise silent things.
She loved Halloween as a teenager and the joy of giving treats to wildly exuberant kids, She loved dressing up, loved costumes and being someone other than her own awkward self for a day. She loved that no one could see her face, even if they still knew who she was.
She loved the promise of winter in the air, the crisp stillness that could come with a windless morning, that first bite from the air before the ice and snow made winter a miserable pain, the wood smoke from chimneys.
She loved curling up with a cup of apple cider and a throw on her parents’ patio, listening to the rain. She loved pumpkin spice, the scent of raw pumpkin when it was carved, baking the seeds and salting them so much her mouth hurt. She loved rolling in the leaves with Hot Sauce, their Labrador, now long gone. She loved knowing Thanksgiving and Christmas were just around the corner, seeing the Halloween decorations slowly come out.
Now her love for the fall came with a bitter remembrance of all the things she enjoyed, just out of her reach. True, her experience hanging out at Delaney and Adrian’s during Halloween the year before had been a big step forward, but it was just a taste of a life gone by.
The morning of the Really Bad Day, she headed for the gas station to fill up. Lauren was determined to try and get to Polson to shop for Halloween candy. She was going to… well, maybe not give it out herself, but she could set it out in a little bowl, maybe. Shopping in Polson wasn’t so bad for her, for some reason. Delaney mused sometimes that it was because when Lauren was completely surrounded by strangers, everybody looked, as opposed to just furtive glances and whispers from the people she knew. Maybe, she’d said, it’s easier because you know you’re never going to see those people again. “Besides,” Delaney added, “at the big box stores, there are a lot weirder people to stare at than you, sweetheart.” That hadn’t really been a comfort, but it made Lauren giggle to think about it.
At the pump, she thought about maybe getting some decorations too. Just a few small things for the windows. Maybe a little ceramic pumpkin and some window clings. Buoyed, she smiled happily and decided after the gas was done pumping, she’d run inside and treat herself to a pumpkin spice cappuccino. She hadn’t had one of those in years and years.
But the little SUV pulling up to the pump next to her changed that. Three kids were inside, monkeying around as their mom first stopped, then pulled down her rear view mirror to check her makeup. Before she got out, she rolled down her kids’ windows and pulled the keys, just being a good mom, especially given the unusually warm fall weather.
The boy closest to Lauren shushed his brother and his sister, and whispered something quietly enough that she couldn’t hear. Lauren knew, just knew, the kids were talking about her, and her good mood crumbled. Just a little bit, but the edges were coming down. Then the kid, a spiky-haired boy with thick glasses, leaned out the window and asked, “What’s the matter with your neck?”
“Damian!” his mom scolded, but from inside the car was the tittering of the other children.
Lauren willed the gas to pump quicker. “It’s okay,” she whispered, more to herself than the mom.
“It looks like someone ran over your back,” the boy said.
Lauren gave up on the gas, stopped the nozzle, and replaced it. She hurried around to her side of the car as the mom called out an apology, but Lauren was already getting in her car.
That would have been bad enough to send her into a funk, but maybe not bad enough that she couldn’t get to Polson and redeem the day. But her passenger side window was cracked just a hair, and as she dug out her keys from her pocket, the mom giggled too. Just ever so faintly, and she tried to cover it up with a cough, but there it was.
One of the great horrible truths of the universe was that adults wanted to laugh just as much as children. They were only held back by the thinnest veneer of fear that they’d be laughed at too, and when that was scraped away, all that was left was the raw dark amusement of pissing in someone’s face when they could get away with it. Lauren lived with that cold realization every waking moment of her life.
Tears burned a hot path down her cheeks, and she jerked out of the parking lot, almost nicking a Bronco as it reversed at the same time. The guy hammered on his horn and that made her feel even shittier. Still the day wasn’t done being awful.
When she should have stopped at the town’s lone traffic light, she rolled through, and like the universe wanted to just slap her silly, a Highway Patrol sedan eased around the corner, settling in behind her gamely and following her home.
Still crying, she swung her legs out of the car in time for JB, the town’s overweight, blustering sheriff, to lean out. “Y’all blasted right through that red, Ms. Olmstead.”
Her mouth worked, but all she could do was whisper a muffled apology.
JB gave her a long once over, sucked on his teeth, and said, “Need me to call someone?”
No, she wanted to shout. Adrian and Delaney were working a project in Twin Bear, one of their first in a week or two. Don’t bother them, please don’t bother them.
“Well,” JB said lamely, “if you’re getting’ the weepies, just pull it on over next time, okay?”
She nodded, got out, and jogged for the door, hoping she didn’t slam the door too hard when she came in. She did, though, and JB stayed another minute, watching after her, still making that teeth-sucking sound now and then. After a minute, he got out, walked over to her Buick, checked to see if the keys were still in the ignition, and locked her door before shutting it. In her haste, she’d left it open.
Half an hour later, Lauren lay on the floor, looking up at the ceiling and sobbing silently so hard her whole body was shaking-
Just a party.
You’ll love it.
Would you do one thing for me?
Make that sound again.
It turns me on.
Look at her, she loves it.
Don’t you know how much I care about you?
Don’t you love me?
-but she didn’t whimper, wouldn’t whimper like those earliest days, wouldn’t let herself go all the way back down the hill. But she couldn’t move either, and just willed herself to breathe, to push away the pain little by little until she could think straight again.
A car door thumped outside, and she heard Aubrey thank someone before the engine revved back up and slowly faded. Home from work, she thought, then Dudley flooded her mind again, laughing, laughing, laughing.
A knock, first soft, then harder. “Lauren?” Aubrey asked, then louder, again. “Lauren, hey, it’s me, Delaney called me because the sheriff called her. Are you okay?”
Her eyes felt hot and dry even as she still wept. Her throat was raw but she didn’t remember screaming. In her mind was a wisp of a man hundreds of miles away, someone she would never see again in her lifetime, never speak to, never hear from, but who tormented her every single minute of every single day if she wasn’t careful and today she hadn’t been.
No, she was not okay.