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Steady as the Snow Falls(7)

By:Lindy Zart

"What's wrong with hot chocolate?"

His mouth slid to the side. "Nothing, if you're twelve."

Boisterous laughter and conversation vied for attention with the country  song playing on the jukebox inside The Lucky Coin. With its walls  painted pumpkin orange and antique and country décor, the bar and grill  was a welcoming atmosphere that was family friendly and tame during the  days and became rowdier as night approached. It smelled like fried food  and buttered popcorn, reminding Beth's stomach that she hadn't eaten  anything since lunch that day. Being a Monday night and with the town  covered in snow, Beth was surprised by how busy the place was.

"Would it make you feel better if I told you your mom put a shot of  peppermint schnapps in the hot chocolate?" Beth held the mug between her  fingers, letting the hot liquid warm them. She lowered her nose to the  cup to better inhale the sweetly chocolate scent.

He perked up. "Did she?"

"No. But would it make you feel better?"

Ozzy gave her a look, smiling faintly. "Funny girl."

His parents, Dan and Deb Peck, owned The Lucky Coin. Their hope was that  Ozzy would eventually take over the place, but he wasn't one to commit  to anything for too long. He was content working there until he found  something he'd rather do. Ozzy was an untethered being, prone to  restlessness and wandering. A dreamer who was always finding a new  dream.

Beth shrugged, looking over Ozzy's shoulder. Kelly Burbach, a fellow  classmate of theirs, was watching them again. Her expression was  guarded, as if she was fighting hard to keep what she was feeling and  thinking from her face. Blonde and petite, she had the kind of looks  Ozzy preferred. Beth didn't want to bring it up, sure she could guess at  the woman's interest in the attention Ozzy was giving Beth.

She shifted her gaze to Ozzy, swallowing hard. Just because they weren't  together anymore did not mean it didn't hurt to know what he did, and  with whom, especially when he acted like that wasn't the case.  Everywhere she went, she had to be reminded of all the women Ozzy had  been involved with at some point, a few even while they were together.  He denied it, of course, but Beth's gut told her the truth. She was  surrounded by his actions, no matter where she went.

"Why did you ask me here?" Her voice was quiet, unstable.

Ozzy's eyes softened and he reached across the table for her hand. His  touch was familiar-once coveted, then hated. Now unwelcome. "I miss you.  We hardly ever see each other anymore-I know you've been purposely  scheduling yourself to work when you know I won't be. I was surprised  you even came tonight." His countenance was calm, but there was hardness  in his eyes.         



"It's easier this way."

"Maybe for you," he shot back. Ozzy took his hand away to rub it across his mouth. "It's not easier for me."

"I know." Beth's disposition cooled, an icy layer of self-protection  forming over her. "It's always been about you and what's best for you,  not me."

Ozzy sighed and looked at the ceiling. "Are we doing this again? It  would be nice to have just one conversation without bringing that up. It  happened, it's over." He dropped his head forward to aim his gaze at  her. There was anger in the thinness of his mouth, blame in the dark  golden flecks of his eyes.

"What happened, and what is over? What exactly are you referencing?" Which time you broke my heart are you talking about?

His jaw shifted, the mask of calm and humor wiped from his expression  like it had never been there. "You know I didn't mean to hurt you."

"That makes it okay, right?"

They weren't talking about breakups and infidelity anymore. They were  talking about something else, something darker. Something neither could  entirely block from their minds. They were talking about the end, their  last night as a couple before Ozzy destroyed the last of her love for  him. Sometimes she forgot, just for a moment, just enough to seriously  mess with her head when she remembered, like now. She knew Ozzy was  better at forgetting.

Rainbows of black and gray fell over him. Pain slipped into his countenance; regret broke through his shield of light.

"It was wrong to come here." Beth scooted off the barstool. "I need to-I should go."

"Run away like you always do, Beth. That'll make things better," he quietly mocked from behind.

Beth marched toward the exit with a stiff spine and lifted chin, knowing  most eyes were on her, knowing most ears picked up on their  conversation. There would be talk, there was always talk, most of it  making her the villain and Ozzy the victim. She was the heartless one  who refused to give him another chance, even though she'd already given  him too many.

Her jaw ached from clenching it as hard as she was and she relaxed her  mouth as she stepped out the door. The arctic temperature stabbed  through her coat and attacked her skin. She paused, allowing herself  deep breaths of frigid air. It wasn't about running away. It was about  realizing some things would never change, never be the way she needed  them to be, and choosing her dreams over someone else's dreams that  included her.

But Ozzy wouldn't understand that.

She didn't get one block before he was there, grabbing her arm and  pulling her around to face him. When she looked pointedly at his hand on  her arm, he dropped it. She'd known he would come after her. She'd  wished he wouldn't. He'd always fought the hardest for her when it was  too late.

"You can't walk home." He bounced on the heels of his boots, either to  stay warm or from restlessness. "It's too cold out. I'll give you a  ride."

"It's not far." Beth shivered, hugging herself.

White Christmas lights adorned the straggly tree behind Ozzy, forming  shadows and tiny stars across his face, making it look like the lights  shone from his skin. His smooth jaw tightened. "It's twenty degrees out.  You're not walking."

"I'll walk if I want to walk. I'd rather walk in the cold than sit in  your truck anyway." She tried to sound firm, but the chattering of her  teeth ruined it.

"Oh, really? Why is that?" He tilted his head and crossed his arms. "What's made my truck so abhorrent since the drive here?"

"You." Beth scowled, annoyed with Ozzy, but more so with herself. It was  her fault for coming, for thinking for one ignorant instant that they  could be friends. There was no friendship between them. There was old  love and new bitterness. Shattered dreams and broken vows.

He laughed softly, dropping his arms to his sides. "I'm sorry for what  happened at the bar, all right? I don't want to fight with you, but it  seems like it's the only way we know how to talk anymore. I just wanted  to hang out with you and act like everything was okay for a little  while. I know it's not," he added, his throat bobbing as he swallowed.

Beth exhaled. "I'm sorry too. I should have just … I don't know." She  should have said no to the drink, to the idea of them hanging out as if  they could forget everything. She shook her head, not wanting to say any  more. She wasn't able to pretend like Ozzy.

"You don't have to like me right now, but at least let me give you a  ride home. I don't want you to get sick. We all know how miserable you  make everyone else when that happens." A teasing grin accompanied his  words. Beth resented that he knew that tidbit about her behavior while  ill, that he knew anything at all significant about her.         



"All right, Ozzy. I'll take that ride home." She was tired, and cold,  and hungry. And there was the call to find out about her employer-that  one was the loudest. "Thank you."

Sitting in his truck was the same as submerging herself in flashes of  the past. The smell of cologne and leather, the feeling of love swirled  with infatuation. Two bodies pressed side by side but not close enough.  Promises. Lies. Anger and passion. Their first kiss as a couple. Prom.  How he knew her body as well as she did. Laughter. Dreams that were  theirs, dreams that didn't happen. The disillusionment. The pain.  Realizing some pieces of a person had to be let go, that even some  people had to be.

And the final breakup over four months ago.

She fisted her gloves in her lap and stared straight ahead. The ride was  quiet, Beth focusing on the sound of the classic rock song playing on  the radio instead of attempting any conversation. Ozzy was the same, his  eyes trained forward, his mouth closed. He absently drummed his  fingertips on the steering wheel in time with the drums of the song.

She wanted to ask if he was as haunted by the two of them as she was.

"Don't be a stranger," he said when the truck rolled up to her house.

Her eyes flew to him, took in his blank expression. It was such a  deficient goodbye. Short, dismissive. It minimized anything they'd ever  been to one another, but Beth supposed it was necessary for them to move  on from one another. She should be grateful.