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Steady as the Snow Falls(8)

By:Lindy Zart

She tried to smile. "Right. You … you either." Beth's tongue stumbled over  the words. Was that the proper response? Was it misleading? She wasn't  sure what to say, how to act. She hesitated with her hand on the door  handle. Should she say more?

"It's okay."

Beth twisted to face Ozzy, taking in his fractured smile. "What?"

He looked at his hand, opened and closed it. "It's awkward … this … you and  me … but it's okay. I mean, I understand. Or I'm-I'm trying to. I'll give  you space. I just-I really do miss you. I meant that."

She met his gaze, her throat tight with unsaid words. Beth wanted to  tell him she didn't want space-that she wanted an end, but that would  hurt him. And she also wanted to tell him things would be okay, but she  didn't know that they would. Ozzy with his bright eyes, selfish heart,  and too much charm.

She said nothing.

"I didn't want to let you go," he whispered.

Beth blinked, pressing her lips together hard to keep from saying  something she shouldn't. It would be so easy to tell him it was okay. It  would be so easy to give in. Her teeth dug into the tissue, causing  pain to ripple through her mouth. Don't forget. You can't forget. Don't  forget, Beth. A single sentence, a certain look, and all the bad could  be forgotten. Some days she had to fight to remember.

Ozzy nodded at her silence, his eyes hidden from her. "Anyway, have a good night."

She mimicked the farewell, her steps slow as she heard the engine roar  and fade away. Her heart squeezed at the thought of him hooking up with  someone, maybe even Kelly Burbach. It wasn't painful, it wasn't  debilitating. But it stung, just a bit. Not your business. Beth took a  deep breath, hurrying for the front door as the cold slithered up and  down her body.

Once inside, she stood for a moment in the dark, collecting her courage  as, not for the first time, she patched up the pieces of her frayed  heart. Already she felt better, more confident of her choices. Just from  removing herself from Ozzy's presence.

Beth locked the door, reminding herself that however long she and Ozzy  had been a couple, it didn't mean they should have been. It wasn't  always an accomplishment to count the years spent with someone-it could  be something to grieve as well. Lost opportunities and dragging  something on that should have ended long ago.

She removed her coat, hat, and gloves, setting them on the small table  located beneath the key hook. She turned on the lights and made her way  through the living room with its cream walls and carpet, took a left  down a short, dark hallway, and entered her bedroom.

When Beth had first come to look at the house with hopes of renting it  some months ago, she'd been overjoyed to see that the bedroom walls were  painted gray with hints of lavender. It was a pretty, soothing color.  She'd kept the decorating minimal-pink mini-lights strewn along the top  of the walls, an eight by ten canvas of her with her mom, dad, and two  brothers above the dresser.

A chest painted black with white and teal stars rested at the foot of  her bed, and situated near the door, there was a wooden desk and lime  green chair meant to be used for her writing. Most days she was either  on the comfortable plum-toned chair in the living room or propped up in  bed with her laptop.         



The bed beckoned her forth, and she turned her back on it. Feeling  fidgety, she paced a small path before the desk, needing something to  focus on so she didn't focus on the past. Finding out more about her  employer would fill the space from consciousness to slumber.

Clothes removed and tossed in the hamper inside her closet, Beth tugged  on a pair of soft hot pink lounge pants and a yellow long-sleeved shirt.  Hair in a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck, she made her way to  the tiny kitchen with its sunshine yellow walls, smiling at the striking  color. It was eye catching and demanded notice. She felt like that  sometimes-insignificant but noteworthy, if anyone chose to really look  at her and realize it. Overlooked, that was Beth.

Fighting to be seen without knowing how to shine.

Within minutes, she had a bowl of air-popped popcorn tucked in the crook  of her arm and a large glass of chocolate milk in her other hand. Beth  turned on the television, the low hum of it making her feel like she  wasn't alone. After living with Ozzy for two years, living on her own  was strange. Not exactly lonely, but different. It took some getting  used to, the sounds of another person living beside her taken for  granted until it was gone. She didn't miss him, but she missed the space  he'd filled.

And more than that-more than that-Beth missed herself. That was  something she hadn't realized until recently, and she was stumbling in  her trek, but she was getting there. Learning about who she was and who  she wanted to be. Slowly. Painfully. Beautifully. Like a caterpillar  finding it had wings, and could fly.

Beth smiled with self-derision, wondering if she should have designated herself a poet instead of a novelist.

She paused with the remote control in her hand, her thoughts turning to  Harrison with his mysteries and black-fire eyes. Beth took in the  solitude, the realization that she was a party of one, like him. What  was it like for Harrison without a television, without anything but the  sound of his voice to give him comfort? Maybe there was a radio. He  hadn't said there wasn't that. She turned off the television, the  silence instantly consuming her. So quiet it was loud. Beth closed her  eyes and tipped back her head, trying to put herself in his place,  trying to figure out his brain.

Beth shook her head and opened her eyes, her lips lifted in the merest  of ways. Did she want to know how his brain worked? Yes, and no. It  seemed to be a dark, endless corridor. Beth opened the laptop, braced it  on her legs, and waited, her pulse jumping around inside her veins.  Once the screen was up and she was on the internet, she froze with her  fingers posed over the keys. Whatever she found, she couldn't go back  and unlearn it, she couldn't unread the words.

He knew she was going to look him up. He'd told her whatever she  learned, she was obligated to remain in his employ. That sounded  ominous. What was left unsaid was what would happen if she tried to  break the contract. She would be sued. It was plainly written on the  paper she'd signed. Maybe she should have thought everything out in a  more detailed manner before taking the job, but she didn't want to be  stuck bartending in Crystal Lake, Minnesota the rest of her life, and  especially not with her ex-boyfriend. She wanted to use her passion for  words in a creative way. She wanted to write.

Beth's fingers shook and she swallowed, sweaty with indecision, her  flesh clammy with foreboding. She chugged the chocolate milk like its  cold goodness was going to give her a boost of fortitude, gnawing on a  handful of popcorn when the glass was empty. She methodically chewed the  buttered and salted popcorn, talking herself into Googling Harrison  Caldwell as she did so. Wiping her greasy fingers on a napkin, Beth took  a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and typed his name in the  search engine.

HUNGOVER WAS AN apt description of how Beth felt, never mind that she  hadn't had any alcohol the previous night. Her eyes felt heavy and  gritty, and when she opened them, she quickly shut them, the sliver of  light finding its way in around the window blind directed straight at  her eyeballs. She'd spent hours late into the night reading articles,  studying pictures, getting a fragmented tale of Harrison Caldwell.

She slapped her palms against her closed eyelids and groaned, her  stomach churning in protestation of the information she now knew. Beth  pressed hard against her face, a hitched breath all she could form as  she tried to shove the knowledge she'd learned through the back of her  head and out of her mind. She felt sick. And sad. Hopeless. All for a  man she didn't know, and after last night, wished she'd never met.

Beth turned to her side, one arm hugging her midsection, and pointlessly  tried to erase him from her brain. She thought of flowers, their silky  petals, their scent, and somehow, her brain tripped to an image of him,  lying in a meadow of sunflowers. Eyes closed, skin reflecting the  sunshine. Still and somber. Dead or alive, Beth didn't know.         



She counted instead, but only made it to thirty-one. Beth swallowed, her  breath catching at the number. When her attempts to drive him from her  thoughts did nothing but pull her further into despair, made him an even  brighter beacon for her to dwell on, she went over facts in her head,  something she did to calm herself. Some of them were already written  down on paper, paper she'd stared at in disbelief as the night grew and  turned into dawn.

Beth tucked herself into a ball as her heart pounded faster. He was only  thirty-one years old. She took a breath, her body shaking, and took  another. You barely know him. Get ahold of yourself. It didn't seem to  matter that she'd physically known Harrison Caldwell all of one day. All  Beth could focus on was that she did know him, and that made him  matter. He was a person. She tried to swallow and couldn't. He was a  person and that made him important.