Copyright © 2016 by Beth Labonte
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
First Edition (November 2016)
There are worse things, I suppose, than being on a bachelorette trip to Las Vegas when you’ve given up alcohol. Things like, being on death row for a murder you did not commit. Or, perhaps, winning the Powerball jackpot only to accidentally drop your ticket into a raging fire.
When you think about it that way, things are not going so terribly for me. We’re all here for my sister, Anna, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if I’m having any fun—this is her day. She’s getting married next month. I suppose that will be her day too. Come to think of it, how many days does the woman need? Add in the engagement party, the nine-hour event that was picking out her wedding gown, the cake testing, the bridal shower, and the half-day spent wandering around Macy’s zapping things with a little gun—and I think she’s had just about enough special days for one person.
Jealous? Absolutely not. Having a younger sister who is getting married because she doesn’t struggle from the Tourette-like urge to blurt out quotes from The Lord of the Rings in the presence of handsome young men, does not a jealous sister make. I swear it. If a man doesn’t know who Gandalf is by this point in his life, then a) he’s hopeless, and b) he’s simply not the one for me.
I just wish we could have done a spa day back home, that’s all. Maybe gone to see Chippendales and called it a night. Not that going to see Chippendales without having a cocktail or two would have been much fun either. But at least after a couple of hours we’d have been done with the whole affair and I could have gone to sleep. But, I know my sister, and I know that she has always wanted a bachelorette party in Las Vegas with the feather boas and the tiaras and the crowd of friends showering her with penis-shaped confetti.
That’s just her thing.
It used to be my thing too. Until—
Well, I don’t like to talk about it. Let’s just say that I found myself in a situation that needed to never, ever happen again, and I haven’t touched the stuff in ten years. Lauren Oswald does not half-ass anything. They can put that on my grave. Possibly next to the words died alone.
But I digress.
Just because I have a problem, doesn’t mean that my sister should have to suffer. Especially when her fiancé decided that he too wanted a bachelor party in Vegas, and I knew how badly she wanted to keep tabs on him. So I went ahead and booked us a long weekend at Caesar’s Palace. As I clicked away at the Internet, making reservations at places called Fizz and the Bourbon Room, and ordering enough penis-shaped items to earn myself top billing on the sex offender registry, I convinced myself that everything would turn out just fine. Las Vegas is only a city, after all. We may as well be going to London or Boston or Orlando.
Only, when we got here, the group of relatively normal women that I had stepped off of the plane with, morphed into the cast of Girls Gone Wild. Suddenly it was margaritas-by-the-yard and tequila shots and wine glasses the size of fish bowls. Don’t get me wrong—Anna’s friends are all lovely, intelligent women with oodles of self-respect and higher education. They’re just doing what people do when they’re in Las Vegas, whereas I am doing the complete opposite.
“Lauren!” screams Amelia. Back home, Amelia and the rest of the women on this trip are attorneys and paralegals at a law firm in Boston. In Las Vegas, Amelia is standing on the couch, swinging her purse in giant, lasso-like, circles above her head. The clasp gives, and all of its contents rain down around her.
She flops down onto the couch, picks up handfuls of lipsticks, credit cards, and loose change, and throws them at me, laughing hysterically.
“Yes?” I repeat, annoyed. Granted, it was better than the barrage of tampons she hit me with earlier, but I’m quickly finding myself too tired for this kind of thing.
“Lauren,” she repeats, more seriously this time, but with less enthusiasm. “This is very important. I need you to find us some donuts.”
“Yes!” shrieks Julie, looking up from her laptop. Attorney by day, searcher of sexy cowboy photos by night. Or so it would seem. “We need donuts. Right now. Can we call room service?”
“Room service doesn’t have donuts!” says Anna. My sister is upside down on the bed, with her head dangling over the edge. She is definitely going to throw up. Actually, I’m pretty sure they all are.
“Of course they have donuts,” says Julie, pausing for a moment as she hovers her mouse around the nether regions of a well-endowed ranch hand. “They just have stale, hotel donuts. We want good ones. Like from Dunks.”
“You want me to find you a Dunkin Donuts?” I ask. “Right now? It’s pretty late.”
“We’re in Vegas, Lauren,” says Anna. “Everything is open twenty-four hours.”
“Then why don’t you go and get them.”
“Because you’re the only of us that’s sober,” says Amelia. “You’re so good, Lauren. Isn’t she good?” Now everybody is nodding along in agreement of what a good, sober person I am. Apparently my prize is going on a wild goose chase.
I’m about to respond bitterly, when I notice that Melanie—the unconscious paralegal over there on the loveseat—is now awake and looking rather ill. Maybe I should shut up and seize the opportunity to get out of here before I’m forced to clean up worse things than the contents of Amelia’s purse. I could use the break.
“You know what?” I say, jumping to my feet. “I am going to go out and find you guys some donuts. Dozens of them. Chocolate frosted, jelly, maybe a few French crullers. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff they come up with in Sin City. Maybe they go-nuts on their donuts. Am I right?”
“Okay. Good. I’m going to go now. You guys enjoy your naked cowboys and the mini bar, and if you’re going to throw up please try to do it in the bathroom. And by in the bathroom, I mean the sink or the toilet, not the tub or the trash can. Julie, I’m looking at you. Although, the trash can is preferable to anything outside of the bathroom. We learned that yesterday. Right, Anna? Also, don’t go anywhere near my bed or my clothes or my laptop, and if anybody orders another twenty dollar dirty movie I will drag you down to the front desk and make you beg for a refund. I’ll see you guys later. Don’t wait up.”
I kick off my heels and slip into a pair of pink running sneakers. They look nice with my black, strapless mini-dress. I glance in the mirror. Total fashionista. At least my mascara isn’t smeared all around my eyes, like some who shall remain nameless. I snap a quick photo of Anna, upside down on the bed, before grabbing my purse and heading out of the suite. As I make my way down the hall toward the elevators, I post the photo to Instagram.
Being sober does have its perks.
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. And then—
I suppose I should mention that there is one thing worse than being on a bachelorette trip to Vegas when you’ve given up alcohol, and that is when the love of your life—the one that got away because you used to be a big, fat, drunken idiot—shows up to the party as a cousin of the groom. When I saw him in the hotel lobby two days ago, I damn near hyperventilated.
So, there he is. Jamie Mullins. Leaning against the back wall of the elevator, looking characteristically rumpled and uncharacteristically buzzed. As his eyes lock onto mine, I realize that I haven’t seen him in the same amount of years as I haven’t had a drink.
I could run. I could turn and run back to my suite—I’m certainly wearing the shoes for it—and continue avoiding him in the same manner that I’ve been doing all weekend. That plan of attack had been working fine up until now.
Only, he’s already seen me. And he’s giving me that crooked smile of his that hasn’t changed a smidge in ten years, so it’s probably too late to jet.
I hesitate for a moment. Then I step into the elevator.
Thirteen Years Earlier
The elevator was about to close, when a sneakered foot shot through the doors, forcing them open. Toby, from across the hall, poked his head in.
“Do you mind holding the door?” he asked. “We’re moving a few things in.”
As I stood there, holding the door open, Toby’s foot and head were followed by another boy, whom I didn’t recognize, plus several cardboard boxes, a computer, a television, a guitar, several garbage bags full of clothes, a pillow, a Star Wars bedspread, a bean bag chair, and two cases of Mountain Dew.
I waited patiently for them to finish, then stepped over a box in order to hide in the back corner.
“Sorry,” said Toby. “We didn’t want to make a second trip.”
“No problem.” I glanced at the other boy. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed to have his Star Wars bedding on display. “New roommate?”
“Yeah, this is Jamie Mullins. He’s in some of my classes. Jamie, Lauren. My old roommate moved across campus, didn’t you know?”
This was actually the most interaction I’d ever had with Toby. He was a computer science major with his own unique set of friends and activities—one of which involved dressing as a medieval knight and walking, in broad daylight, toward the Campus Center. I didn’t ask questions that day.
I, on the other hand, was an English major, and had more important ways to spend my weekends. For instance, I had recently discovered that alcohol could wipe away my social anxiety, as well as my inability to make small talk with not only boys, but with all members of the human species. I made it a point to test that theory on a weekly basis.
Which would explain why, on that Sunday morning, I was dressed in a white sequined halter-top, skintight jeans, and heels. I hadn’t exactly made it home the night before. Don’t get me wrong, I spent the night on the floor of my friend Kelly’s dorm room across campus. But, as far as these boys in the elevator were concerned, I’d just completed a big, fat walk of shame.
“Nice to meet you,” said Jamie, holding out his hand. I shook it, forgetting for a moment the embarrassing outfit I was wearing, and focusing only on his eyes. They immediately struck me as the kindest I had ever seen. They were dark and crinkled at the sides when he smiled—which he seemed to do a lot. Unlike Toby, who liked to scowl and tell me to turn down my TV. I can’t say that I was surprised his roommate had moved out.
“You too. So, um, nice blanket,” I said, gesturing toward R2D2. Or was it C3PO?
“Thanks,” said Jamie. “I’ve had it since I was eight. That reminds me. Toby, we didn’t finish our conversation. Vader versus Gandalf. I say Vader. One swipe of his lightsaber and he’d slice Gandalf’s staff in two. Then what’s he gonna do? Send a butterfly to Radagast? Please. Vader would take him out in a second.”
Impressive, I thought. This boy speaks an entirely different language. Who was this Gandalf, anyway? And why did he want to fight the guy from Star Trek? Or was it Star Wars? I glanced down at Jamie’s blanket for confirmation. Oh yes, there he was—Darth Vader. With his black costume and his glow stick, ready to slice this poor Gandalf’s inferior wooden one to bits. By this point, Toby had chimed in and was staunchly defending the opposing view. I held back a laugh as he started to get red in the face.
When the elevator reached our floor, I grabbed a few of Jamie’s belongings and helped to carry them down the hall. Toby continued his argument the entire time. When I glanced back at Jamie, he smiled and rolled his eyes. I smiled back and shook my head. Then I said goodbye and went into my room for a nap.
I was blasted out of bed a few hours later by the sound of a horn coming from across the hall. The horn was followed by galloping, yelling, and a disturbing amount of clanging. If it wasn’t Toby and Jamie’s television, then the dorms were under attack by Vikings. Either way, I supposed I ought to get up. Besides, it was a rare treat to be able to tell Toby to turn his TV down.
“Come on in,” said Jamie. He was sitting in a beanbag chair with a box of Cheez-Its on his lap and a can of Mountain Dew in his hand. Unpacked boxes were scattered around the room. Toby sat at his desk in front of the computer. “We’re watching The Lord of the Rings. Seen it?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“Gandalf’s in it.”
Again with the Gandalf.
“Tempting, but no. It’d be great if you could turn it down though.” Toby flipped me a middle finger over his head, without turning around.
“Ignore him,” said Jamie, waving the box of Cheez-Its around. “We’ve also got Cherry Coke, if that sweetens the deal.”
Oddly enough, it did.
“Okay, fine. I’ll stay. But just for a little while.” I settled into the unoccupied beanbag chair. “So, who is this Gandalf?”
“He’s a wizard,” answered Jamie, handing me a can of soda.
“Of course.” I nodded. “Who’s that kid?”
Toby let out an exaggerated sigh.
“That’s not a kid,” said Jamie, smiling. “That’s Frodo. He’s a hobbit. He and Sam have to walk the ring to Mordor.”
“The One Ring.”
“Not helpful. Who’s Mordor?”
“It’s not a who it’s a what. It’s a really bad place, full of orcs.”
“What are orcs?”
“Those are orcs.” He pointed at the screen to the most hideous creature I’d ever seen. It looked like a deformed troll in a loincloth and body armor.
“So, wait. Those little bobbits—”
“Hobbits!” shouted Toby.
I rolled my eyes. “Those little hobbits are going to sneak a ring past all those horrible orcs? Then what?”
“Then they have to throw it into the fires of Mount Doom, before Sauron sees them.”
I sighed. “And who’s Sauron?”
Jamie picked the DVD case up off the floor and pointed to what looked like a big eyeball made out of flames.
“That means nothing to me,” I said. “But fine. Why do they have to walk to Mordor? Can’t they fly in on a large bird or something? They could just drop the ring straight down into the fire. Done. Movie over.”
Toby swiveled around and gave me a dirty look. “It doesn’t work that way, Lauren. You can’t just fly into Mordor on a bird, you would be seen in a second. Everybody knows that.”
He swiveled around again and I made a face behind his back. Jamie laughed.
“She makes a good point,” he said. “One that’s often been debated. You sure you’ve never seen this movie?”
“Never seen it,” I said, a bit of pride in my voice. I grabbed a handful of Cheez-Its.
“Oh, please,” said Toby. “She doesn’t even—”
“Shh!” I said. “We’re trying to watch the movie.”
Jamie looked over at me and smiled. Then he held out a fist and I bumped it.
As it turned out, I didn’t leave that room for two and a half hours. I was hooked. Those two little hobbits were going to attempt to save the world—and to the English major and the storyteller in me, that was amazing. Here was an entire genre that I never knew existed. Okay, fine. I knew it existed. I’d just never given it a chance because I’d always brushed it off as geeky and lame. But on that day, not even Toby’s continuous stream of sighs and dirty looks was enough to turn me off.
Jamie Mullins—the new guy from across the hall—had worked his wizardly magic, and irrevocably opened the floodgates.
He’s pushed all of the elevator buttons.
The second I stepped inside, he made a big show of running his hands over every single button until they were all lit up.
Now, every time the elevator stops and the doors open and shut, he looks at me out of the corner of his eye. People keep getting on, noticing the lit buttons, and then getting right back off. Not only is this the longest elevator ride of my life—but I’ve been guaranteed a solo trip with the one person I’ve been actively trying to avoid.
“So, are you going to ignore me all the way down or what?” asks Jamie, after the fifth person tells us to piss off before stepping back off the elevator.
“I’m not trying to ignore you,” I lie.
“That’s true,” says Jamie. “You’ve been avoiding me, not ignoring me. I’ve barely seen you since check-in. You’re pretty impressive at it, actually. Our two groups haven’t even had a dinner together.”
I take a deep breath and turn to face him, looking at him up close for the first time all weekend. For the first time in ten years. My heart rate picks up. He doesn’t look much different. Slightly older. Different haircut. No wedding ring. Same eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I know that I’ve been rude. It’s just…I wasn’t expecting to ever see you again, Jamie. And then, bam. There you were in the lobby, standing next to the potted plants. I haven’t known what to say. I wasn’t ready to explain why—”
“I wasn’t expecting to ever see you again either,” he interrupts. “Not until I found out that my cousin was marrying an Anna Oswald. After that, I wasn’t able to think about much else.”
“At least you had some warning,” I say, my cheeks warming. “It’s not fair that your cousin’s last name isn’t Mullins.”
“If you’d had some warning,” says Jamie, “I have a feeling you wouldn’t have come on this trip.”
“That’s not true,” I say. “I just would have had more time to figure out how to explain—“
“Lauren, I’m not looking for any explanations,” he says, shaking his head. “Honest. It’s just really good to see you again. Nice outfit, by the way.”
Oh, God. After all this time, here I am in an elevator again, dressed like a party girl. At least from the ankles up.
“I don’t drink anymore,” I blurt out.
Jamie raises his eyebrows and nods.
“I’ve noticed,” he says. “Pregnant?”
“No!” I snap. I know I shouldn’t be offended by the question. It’s a legit question. None of his business, but still legit. I just don’t want him to think that I was forced into my decision. I turned my life around of my own accord. At the same time, I’ve always kind of wished that he knew how much of a positive influence he’d been on me. The way I felt when we were together was the first indication that something was wrong in my life—even if I did ignore it.
“No,” I say, in a gentler tone. “I actually haven’t had a drink since the last time you saw me.”
“Oh,” says Jamie. “Wow. That’s good news. I, on the other hand, have picked up the habit.”
“Oh,” I say, my heart sinking a bit. “Not too much, I hope. I mean, you’re welcome to it. It was just kind of your thing to only drink Mountain Dew on the weekends.”
Jamie laughs. “I still do the Dew. But I’ve made up for some lost time these past ten years. I found out what I’d been missing out on. You’re no longer the only one who knows the joy of hanging over a toilet bowl on a Sunday morning.”
I cringe. That was not the flattering memory of me I had hoped he carried with him all these years. We had been in California once, and I literally stood by the ocean in a flowery dress right before sunset. I very clearly remember smiling at him over my shoulder. Totally perfect memory material. But no. He has to go and remember all of the times that I yacked in the dormitory restroom.
“So, um, where are you going?” I ask, changing the subject. “It’s late.”
“Still late. Where to?”
“The guys sent me out for beer. You?”
“The girls sent me out for donuts.”
“Beer and donuts,” says Jamie. “Maybe we should track down Homer Simpson. He’d know where to go.”
“Mmm…donuts,” I mumble, as the doors open and close on the last floor before casino level. Finally.
The doors slide open and we step out into a sea of flashing lights and bleeping slot machines—the last place that I want to venture back into.
“Well, I guess this is where we part ways,” says Jamie. “I delayed it for as long as I could.”
“I appreciate that. As did the other guests.”
We’re lingering now, in front of the elevators. It’s obvious that we should just continue on our separate ways, but neither of us makes the first move.
“Would it be considered poor form to invite a non-drinker to come to the liquor store with me?” asks Jamie, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Probably,” I say. “That’s like the third last place I want to be right now. The second being this casino, and the first being back upstairs with my sister’s friends.”
“I thought so,” he says, stuffing his hands into his pockets and looking down at the carpet. “But I thought it was worth a try.”
I look at him, my face the epitome of seriousness.
“Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Jamie looks up at me and laughs. “You little nerd. After all this time?”
“And straight into a Harry Potter quote! Yes!” He fist pumps the air. “You’ve still got it.”
As we stand there goofily beaming at each other, my heart hammering away in my chest, I realize that I don’t want him to go yet. Not only because I don’t want to wander alone around Las Vegas, wearing a mini dress and looking for donuts, but because I’m suddenly very sorry for ignoring him all weekend. Not only because it was rude, but because after ten minutes in an elevator I realize how incredibly much I’ve missed him. I realize that I may have thrown away my only opportunity to make things right.
And, if we’re being honest, I’m curious as to what he’s been up to all these years. Did he ever get married? I glance at his hand. Still no ring, same as when I checked five minutes ago in the elevator. Of course, in Vegas, that doesn’t mean much. Is he engaged? Even more impossible to tell, unfortunately. Does he still drive that old Hyundai Sonata with the zippered cases full of CD’s all over the backseat? Probably not. But God, I miss that car. I miss looking at him from the passenger seat. I’ve missed everything about him since the second that I let him go.
I suddenly feel a bit drunk.
Sheepishly, I stick out my hand. Possible wife or fiancée be damned. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas is in full effect, starting now.
“You know what?” I say. “I would love to accompany you to the liquor store. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been surrounded by booze all weekend. I can handle it.”
“Okay,” says Jamie, accepting my hand. He runs his thumb over my bare ring finger. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I sure noticed. “We’re not going to the liquor store, though.”
“No,” he says, a mischievous crinkle to his eyes. “I have a better idea.”
Twelve Years Earlier
I made my way across campus, avoiding the looks of other students—the ones who were properly dressed for ten o’clock on a Sunday morning. I was getting quite good at it, actually. Head down. Don’t look up. One foot in front of the other. I wasn’t proud of myself, but I had no right to complain. I’d never exactly put any effort into avoiding this type of situation. When Saturday nights rolled around, I existed only in the moment. Any logistical plans I may have concocted for getting home went straight out the window as soon as I was handed my first cup.
Michael…Matthew…Mark? A conga line of frat boys danced through my head. Mark. That was his name. That’s whose room I’d woken up in. I hated myself for forgetting his name.
I dragged myself up the steps to my dormitory and fumbled for my student I.D., swiping it several times through the card reader. No dice. With one last yank, and a few choice words, I nearly fell over backwards as the door buzzed and unlocked. I made a pit stop in the ladies room to vomit.
Leaning against the tiled wall—just me and the porcelain goddess holding court there on the floor—I wondered if it had really been worth it. I didn’t consider myself a one-night-stand type of girl, so I didn’t take what had happened lightly. Mark had been sweet, but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t hear from him again. Back he goes into the increasingly shallow, communal pool of frat boys that existed on-campus. I could only hope that the pool was well chlorinated. It had been fun, at least. No regrets.
I pulled myself up and headed for the elevator. The doors were just about to close when a figure bounded through, book bag swinging from his shoulder. More awake and energetic than I could stomach on a Sunday morning.
“Oh. Hey, Jamie.” My face warmed when I realized who it was, and I wished desperately for an oversized sweater or coat to throw on. “Where are you coming from so early?”
“I had a study group at eight.” Jamie made great effort to look anywhere but at my outfit. “How about yourself?”
I looked down at what I was wearing—black stilettos, sequined tank top, body glitter.
“Yeah, me too. Studying.” I shifted uncomfortably. A gold sequin fluttered to the floor.
“Good times last night?” he asked, apparently bored with the charade of pretending I’d just come from bible study. Jamie knew me. He didn’t judge me, but he knew me. The elevator doors slid open and we walked down the hallway together.
“It was okay,” I shrugged, wobbling slightly in my heels. “It was no World of Warcraft tournament.”
He laughed. “Last night was Call of Duty and you know it.”
“There aren’t any dragons in that one, are there?” I asked, crinkling my nose. Playing dumb.
Jamie stopped in front of his room, and I stopped in front of mine. He gave me his crooked, knowing smile. Despite the revealing outfit I had on, he kept his eyes fixed firmly on my face. I held his gaze for several seconds, before looking away.
“No dragons,” he said. “Just guns and tanks and stuff.”
“You know,” said Jamie, unlocking his door. “One of these days I’m going to out you to your friends. You’ll be at a frat party in your little tube top and your mini skirt, and I’ll be outside holding up a banner that says Lauren Oswald is a Closet Nerd.”
I laughed, but his joke sent a wave of shame through my body. Tube top, mini skirt, frat party. Those were the words that he used to describe me. And why shouldn’t he? That was me in a nutshell. To most of the world, at least. Ironically, the words Closet Nerd had no ill effect.
“Careful, pal,” I said, unlocking my door. “Dune’s on tonight, and I know you don’t want to be watching those sandworms all alone.”
Jamie smiled. “I’ll see you at seven.”
Smiling, I slinked into my room. It was funny, I thought, how the night before, when I picked this outfit from my closet, I felt like a million bucks. Yet now, in front of Jamie, I felt like I should be standing on a street corner. As I bent down to pick a pair of sweatpants up off the floor, I was hit by another wave of nausea. I flopped down on the bed. My feeble attempt at pushing the door shut, resulted in my being able to see a sliver of Jamie across the hall, bringing various pieces of computer equipment to life with a touch of his hand. With only a few yards of worn dormitory carpet between us, I could hear him mumbling quietly as he moved about the room. I closed my eyes. Jamie’s computer sounds were oddly comforting. The whirring and the blipping and the bleeping.
I awoke a short time later to a gentle knocking on my partially open door. I sat up.
“Sorry to wake you,” said Jamie. He was standing in the doorway holding a steaming bowl. “But I made some ramen noodles.”
“God, you’re the best,” I said, rolling out of bed and onto the floor. “Get in here.”
Jamie handed me the bowl, then went back into his room to get another. Then he kicked my door shut and joined me on the floor.
“This is exactly what I needed,” I said, slurping up the noodles and burning the roof of my mouth. “They could have cured the Plague if only they’d thought to give the sick people ramen.”
“Seriously. If I’m ever in a coma, I want you to bring me ramen. Put it in the IV if you have to. Not just the liquid either, throw the noodles in there too. They’re skinny, they’ll fit through the tube.”
I shrugged. “I’ve given this a lot of thought.”
We ate in silence for a few minutes.
“So, what did you really do last night?” asked Jamie.
“What do you mean?” My heart shimmied up into my throat. Could he tell just by looking at me?
“Oh. Yeah, you know. The usual.”
“You stayed at Kelly’s?”
I stared into my ramen bowl. “Um, no. Not last night. No.” Jamie could tell when I was lying, so there was no point in trying.
I looked over at him. “What do you mean, oh?”
“It’s not like I do that sort of thing all the time. I mean, usually I do sleep at Kelly’s or Sarah’s. But once in a while—”
“Yeah. No. Don’t need to know. Forget I asked.”
“Sure.” I looked over at him as he nervously picked fibers out of my carpet. Not sure what else to say, I stood up and leaned against my desk. “You know, I don’t question you about every girl you hook up with.”
“How many girls do you think I’ve hooked up with?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I don’t know. What about that Callie? She used to stop by your room all the time.”
“To borrow my notes.”
Oh, thank God, I thought. That girl looked like she didn’t know her way around a bottle of shampoo.
“Well there must have been at least one,” I said. “We’ve known each other for a while now.”
“Yeah,” he said. “There was one.”
“Okay, good. So, we’re even.”
I smiled and picked my bowl of ramen up off the floor, my mind racing. Who had it been? I suddenly wished it had been Callie—the devil I knew, and all that. A thousand images passed through my head of what that one girl may have looked like. I didn’t know why I felt so unnerved. I mean, I knew from living in the dorms and seeing Jamie freshly out of the shower—nothing but a towel around his waist and a shower caddy in hand—that he had a decent body hidden away under those flannel shirts and jeans. He was bound to meet somebody. Of course he was. Just like I had.
Still, instead of feeling vindicated, I felt like I’d been hit with a shovel.
“Where are we going?”
Jamie’s led me out of the hotel and onto The Strip, where we’ve turned right and are now heading briskly down the sidewalk in the direction of The Bellagio. Most of the attractions are closed at this hour, and I assume that he knows I don’t want anything more to do with bars and clubs. I’m at a bit of a loss.
“You’ll see,” he says, looking over at me with a smile.
We come up to The Bellagio fountains, which are also shut off at this time of night, and continue up the driveway and into the hotel.
“Are we going to rob the casino or something?” I ask. “Because I’m really tired.”
“The guys and I already did that yesterday. Come on.” He takes me through the hotel lobby and towards a doorway to the right of the check-in desk.
“The Conservatory!” I say, when I realize where we are. The Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens—an oasis in the desert.
“You haven’t been here yet, have you?”
“No! But it’s on my list. You know, my list of things that I was never going to get to do. How did you know?”
Jamie shrugs. “Something told me that visiting a flower garden wasn’t high on your sister’s agenda.”
I laugh. “God, no. Not while Thunder From Down Under is in town. Anna would die of boredom in this place. Ironically, Mom’s spending about thirty grand on flowers for her wedding.”
“It’s not just any flower garden though, Miss Lauren. Brace yourself.”
He pulls me along past the thousands of gorgeous red, yellow, and orange flowers making up the fall harvest display, and around the back of a large, twisted tree. As we come around to the front, I see it. And I gasp.
“It’s an Ent!” I clamp a hand over my mouth. Then I remove it to whack Jamie in the chest. “You found me an Ent. In Las Vegas.” I put my hand over my mouth again, because I feel like I’m going to cry.
What the hell is an Ent, you’re probably asking yourself. Do not fret; I too was once like you. An Ent is a mythical creature from Middle Earth. This particular one is ten feet tall and looks like a twisted old tree with arms, legs, and a grandfatherly face. He’s sitting amongst the flowers with a lapful of pumpkins and gourds. He’s absolutely beautiful, and a sight for sore eyes after the glitz of my Vegas weekend.
“I thought you’d like him,” says Jamie, taking my hand and leading me to a bench. “I saw this same display when I was here a few years ago. I couldn’t help but think of you.”
“So, you think of me when you’re throwing up, and when you see Ents? I must have been quite a woman.”
Jamie smirks and rests his elbows on his knees, his hands under his chin. He looks down at the floor, slowly shaking his head. Then he looks over at me, sideways. “Those weren’t the only times. Not by a long shot.”
I feel my face crumple a bit. “I did look you up a few times. But, for a computer guy, you don’t have much of an Internet presence. Your Facebook profile picture is of a golden retriever, and it says you live in Gotham City.”
Jamie laughs. “I like to maintain an air of mystery.”
“It’s annoying,” I say, glad the tension has momentarily lifted. “So, you have a dog. But are you married?”
“Baxter and I are just friends.”
I laugh. “To a woman, you dolt.”
“You know the answer to that question because I’ve seen you check out my finger, multiple times.”
I feign shock. “Well, some guys take their rings off when they’re in Vegas.”
“Not me. How about you?”
“Not a one. Girlfriend?”
“Interesting,” I say. “Where do you work?”
“Google. I got a job there after college, and I’ve been there ever since.”
“No kidding!” I reach over and whack him in the chest again. “That’s amazing! That’s—”
“In California,” says Jamie, reading my mind. “So, you’re a writer?”
I look at him in surprise. “How did you know that?”
“Well, there’s this thing called Google…”
“Right,” I laugh. “You’ve Googled me.”
“It’s my job. The last time I checked, it looked like you were working on a series of time travel books?”
“Yup. Middle grade science fiction. For girls in particular.”
“I want to get them interested when they’re young, you know?” I take out my phone and open the Amazon app. “Here, look.”
“The Red Elevator Chronicles,” reads Jamie. “Yeah, that’s the one. What’s it about?”
“Well, it starts off on the first day of school, and Jenna Bixby—she’s my main character—she’s embarrassed because she broke her leg over the summer and has to come to school in a cast. She gets lost looking for the elevator, and manages to end up at this strange tiny one with a red door that only the custodians use. While she’s waiting for it, the doors slide open and one of the custodians walks out. Only, he looks a little strange—kind of sunburned and sweaty, and he has a bit of straw in his hair. He winks at Jenna as she gets in. The elevator creeks the whole way up, and it’s super slow, and it smells like gym socks. But that’s what makes it so special.”
“Because it smells like gym socks?”
“No, silly. Because it’s different. The elevator is really a time machine. When those doors open, Jenna finds herself in sixteen ninety-two during the Salem Witch Trials. She has a hell of a first day, let me tell you. It turns out that if you get into the red elevator, and you wish your hardest that you were somewhere else, it transports you to another time and place. Jenna’s seen the Civil War, ancient Egypt, old Hollywood. My girl’s living the life.”
“You’re brilliant,” says Jamie. “Do you sell millions of these things?”
“I’ve sold a few.”
“A few million?”
I smile. “Last year I had my own booth at Comic Con.”
“Whoa,” says Jamie. “You really are a big deal.”
“I signed so many books and met so many girls that are into sci-fi and fantasy because of me. And I only got into it because of you. Do you want to know an embarrassing secret?”
“I dedicated the first book in the series to you.”
“Yes way.” I open the Amazon preview and scroll down to the first page. “See.” I cringe as he reads to himself.
For Jamie, if only time machines were real.
He smiles and puts a hand to his mouth.
“If only,” he says. “You know, I’d always hoped that you’d turned out okay. I really wasn’t sure which way you’d go. But then I searched for you and saw the books, and then I knew. Well, at least I knew you’d become a success. I didn’t know if you’d gone all Hunter S. Thompson.”
I snort. “To be honest, that’s how I started the books—with a bottle of vodka by my side. But then, I got better.”
“You know, you could have tried to contact me sooner,” I say, gently.
“I could say the exact same thing to you.”
I open my mouth to respond, but realize that I don’t have the words. We just sit there in silence, looking at the Ent, time continuing to tick by.
Eleven Years Earlier
“I can’t believe you actually dressed up,” said Jamie, taking a step back to get a better look at me. “I mean, I’m still getting over the fact that you agreed to come here at all. But I never thought you’d put on a costume.”
I spun around in front of the mirror. I was wearing a floor length, white, wispy dress complete with prosthetic elf ears and hair extensions. Jamie was wearing the male version of an elf costume, complete with long, blonde wig, and a bow and arrow set—a total bitch to get on the airplane, by the way. I don’t know what he was so surprised about. Lauren Oswald didn’t half-ass anything and he knew it. If I was going to fly all the way to California to attend Comic Con, I was going to do it right. Besides, I needed to be in disguise in case I ended up in any photographs.
It was the summer after sophomore year, and Jamie and I were home on break. Comic Con was a mere four days out of my summer, so there was no reason my other friends would ever find out about it. That pretty much summed up my relationship with Jamie over the past two years. Everyone knew that we were friends, but they didn’t know the extent of it. Most of them thought he was tutoring me in physics. I was still too embarrassed to admit, publicly, that my idea of a good time—not a drink-until-you-puke kind of a good time, but a legit good time—was sitting in Jamie’s room, learning to play Magic the Gathering. I was a geek at heart, but I wasn’t ready to fully commit.
“Would you have still worn that—” I gestured toward his getup, “if I hadn’t?”
“Of course,” said Jamie. “I’m at Comic Con, what else was I going to wear? Khakis?”
I smiled. “At least you look good in tights.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”
Jamie raised his eyebrows. “In that case, I didn’t know you’d been looking at my tights region.”
I shrugged and turned back to adjusting my costume in the mirror. I hadn’t seen Jamie in over a month when we met at the airport to fly out to San Diego. I wasn’t expecting to be hit with the emotions that I felt when I saw him waiting there for me, all crinkly-eyed, at the gate. But there they were—the butterflies and the sweaty palms, and the fear that I sounded like a complete idiot every time I opened my mouth. Every clichéd crush symptom trampled me in a riotous, pitchfork-wielding mob, leaving me dumbstruck on the ground. Absence had made the heart grow fonder.
Sitting in close proximity on the airplane only made things worse. As did the fact that we were going to be alone at a hotel for four whole days—the thought of which put my flip-flopping stomach into overdrive. Especially with all the turbulence. Every time we bumped elbows I felt like pulling down the oxygen mask and inhaling deeply. A gin and tonic over Illinois, and another over Colorado, served as adequate tranquilizers.
“Well, I’m ready,” I said. “What’s up first?”
Jamie picked a computer printout up off the bed—our itinerary. “We’ve got the Doctor Who Q&A panel at ten, then we’ll do lunch, then we have a preview of Alien vs. Predator at two.”
“You’re such a dreamboat. Ah, crap.” I suddenly realized that I had no place to put my wallet. I had no pockets, and I couldn’t exactly bring my Coach bag. Talk about an anachronism.
“Give me,” said Jamie, holding out his hand. He tucked my wallet into the small brown pouch around his waist.
“You’ve got room in there? With all the Lembas bread?”
“Lembas is small, but filling. Plenty of room for you, Lauren. Let’s go.”
The San Diego Convention Center was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with people. I hadn’t been expecting such a huge crowd. I mean, this was supposed to be a comic book convention. I was expecting fifty people. I didn’t think there was a need to tell Jamie that without a couple of drinks I had agoraphobic tendencies. But there was no backing out now. Instead, I linked my arm through his and stayed close. Jamie didn’t seem to mind. In fact, as we wound our way around the booths, his hand eventually made its way into mine. As we walked around, hand-in-hand, I assured myself that it was simply his way of not losing me, while giving his elbow a rest. But the occasional squeeze of my hand, and the occasional stroke of his thumb, suggested that the handholding was slightly more than utilitarian. I had become so preoccupied by this development that I didn’t even notice the Wookie come up alongside me.
“Ahh!” I jumped about a foot in the air as a huge, furry paw touched me on the shoulder.
“UrrrRAAAHHH!” said the Wookie.
“It’s okay,” said Jamie. “It’s just Chewbacca. Here, I’ll take your picture.” He fished his digital camera out of his elven fanny pack, and waved me over next to Chewie.
And so concluded the handholding portion of our trip. Thank you, Fuzzball. Fortunately, it wasn’t permanent.
Spending so much time together over the next few days seemed to push our friendship into a blurry sort of gray area—with both of us too chicken to broach the subject outright. There was discreet handholding when we were in crowds, a subtle increase in arm-around-the-shoulder-time when evening temps got chilly, and an awkward lingering outside each other’s hotel rooms at the end of each night. After we said goodnight, I would lay alone in bed replaying every interaction that we’d had that day, and concocting some late night scenarios of my own. I had an inkling that I was falling for my best friend, and a longing to do something about it before I went out of my mind.
All too soon, it was our final night in San Diego, and we stood in the lobby of the hotel debating where to go for dinner.
“You look nice,” said Jamie, gesturing toward my sundress. “I haven’t seen you dressed as a human in quite some time.”
“And you, as well,” I said. He was only wearing shorts and a polo shirt, but his skin had a nice, sun-kissed glow to it—a look I’d never seen on him back in the Northeast. “I hardly recognized you without your wig.”
“I could get it out again later, if you’d like.”
I knew that was a bizarre thing for a man to say, but still. My stomach did a little flip at the allusion to me, Jamie, and a later.
“Maybe we should go somewhere nice for dinner,” I said.
“In-and-Out Burger isn’t nice?” he asked, referring to two of our last three dinners.
I tilted my head from side-to-side. “We could do better.”
The hotel concierge directed us to a sushi restaurant right on the beach. As we settled into our seats with two glasses of champagne, I felt more content than I could ever remember.
“Cheers,” I said, holding out my glass. Jamie clinked with me.
“I have to say,” said Jamie, “None of my friends are going to believe that I took you to Comic Con. Toby will probably have a stroke. Good thing I brought my camera.”
The look on my face must have spoken volumes.
“Not that I’m going to spread it around or anything,” he added.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “You can tell your friends.”
“But not yours.”
I squirmed a bit in my seat, clearly uncomfortable with the statement. In no way did my discomfort prevent Jamie from continuing.
“Can I ask you something?”
“What would happen if you decided that you didn’t want to go to parties every weekend?”
“Um, let me think. I would have to find all new friends.” Just the thought of it gave me anxiety. I took a sip of champagne to calm my nerves.
“Would that be so bad? I mean, they don’t even really know you. Not the real you.”
“Hey,” I said, getting defensive. “I was lucky that those girls befriended me freshman year. Because I was shy, and I was nervous, and if Sarah hadn’t let me tag along to parties with her, I would have ended up just like—”
“Me?” said Jamie. He was smiling, so I knew he wasn’t seriously offended. But still.
“That’s not what I meant.” I reached across the table and took his hand.
“Look, Lauren,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you who to be friends with. But I worry about you. The nights that I don’t hear you come back to the dorm—those are nights that I don’t sleep.”
My chest suddenly felt very tight, and I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I always knew that Jamie had no love for my lifestyle, but I never knew that he had actual concerns for my safety.
“I’m fine,” I said. “You don’t have to worry. Sarah, Kelly, we all look out for each other.”
Jamie shook his head. “I wouldn’t trust Sarah and Kelly to watch my dog, never mind you.”
“Hey,” I said, pushing his hand back across the table. “Those are my friends you’re talking about.”
Jamie shrugged. “I never said you shouldn’t be friends with them. You guys just make poor choices when you’re drinking, which is pretty much all the time.”
“We don’t make that many poor choices.”
“Oh, really?” Jamie leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “How about last semester when I bailed the three of you out of a New Hampshire jail, at two o’clock in the morning, because you thought it would be a smart idea to spray paint a—what was it again?”
Oh, God. Not that.
“A penis,” I mumbled.
“Yes, that’s right. Because you and your friends thought it would be funny to spray paint a giant penis across the Welcome to Keene sign. How old are you?”
“That was Kelly’s idea, not mine. I literally stood there and held her jacket while she sprayed. You know I’m no vandal.”
Jamie sighed. “Like I said, I worry about you.”
Poor Jamie. He really was our hero that night, posting bail, and then driving us an hour home. We never even paid him for the gas.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “You’re right. Sometimes I do get in over my head. But I’ll tell you one thing. I love the way that I feel when I’ve had a few drinks and the night is full of possibilities. I love that I’m not shy and I’m not nervous and I’m not obsessing over what people are thinking about me. I love it, and I’m not giving it up. And if that means living some sort of a double life, so be it. You’ve taught me all about orcs and elves and hobbits, mister Jamie Mullins, but maybe it’s time you learned a little something from me.”
I slid the bottle of champagne dramatically across the table. Jamie caught it before it went over the other side. He looked at me seriously for a few seconds, and then poured himself another glass.
We didn’t say another word for a long time. We just sipped champagne and looked out at the ocean, until the waiter arrived with our food. Jamie and I had never before been at a loss for words in each other’s company—but this trip had steered us into uncharted territory. Pleasant, for the most part, but uncharted.
We finished dinner just before sunset, and headed down to the beach for a walk. Jamie stopped to take some pictures, as I walked on ahead to the edge of the water.
“Lauren!” he called.
I turned and looked at him over my shoulder, the wind gently blowing my hair, the sun a fierce, orange ball on the horizon.
“Beautiful,” he said, looking at the tiny screen on the back of his camera. I rolled my eyes and stuck out my hand.
We walked along the beach for what felt like a mile, before Jamie came to an abrupt stop. He pulled me back and wrapped his arms around my waist. The champagne had worked its magic. Or maybe it had been the elf costumes. Or the meet and greet with Sir Ian McKellen. Maybe it was a combination of everything. As we stood there on the beach, pressed up against each other at last, I realized that it didn’t actually matter what had brought us to this point.
“Hey,” I said, weakly, looking up into his face.
“Hey,” he said, looking down into mine. “Laur?”
“Do you think it would cut some of this tension, if I kissed you right now?”
My stomach was so full of butterflies that I felt as if I might throw up. As long as it remained a feeling, and not an action, we were in business. Oh boy, were we in business. I nodded.
I closed my eyes as he brought his lips down to meet mine—warm, with a hint of Prosecco—and I placed one hand on each of his shoulders. Except for the sounds of the ocean, time seemed to stand still. I ran a hand down the back of his head, partly to keep him from pulling away, and partly to confirm that it was really Jamie standing there with me. I felt his hair between my fingers, and the stubble on his chin. I smelled his familiar, woodsy scent. There was no doubt. I had memorized every feature of the man over the past four days, and they were all present and accounted for underneath my fingertips.
Time lurched back into motion as I became aware of the crunching of sand beneath the feet of people passing by.
“Someone’s going to tell us to get a room,” I murmured, pulling away just a little.
“That’s fine,” said Jamie, pulling me back in. “We have two of them.”
“Come on,” I say, standing up. “There’s one more thing I’ve been wanting to do before we leave tomorrow. But the girls have never seemed quite sober enough for it.”
I lead the way out of The Bellagio, down the driveway, and across the street to The Paris hotel. Its half scale replica of the Eiffel Tower looms overhead. I glance at the time. We should be able to make it. I locate the gift shop and plunk my credit card down on the counter.
“Two, please.” I look over at Jamie. “My treat.”
“You two will be the last trip up tonight,” says the woman behind the counter.
“Perfect.” I sign the receipt and we head toward the elevator. “Have you ever been to the real one?”
“I have. I actually went to Europe with Toby after graduation.”
“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that,” I laugh. “Whatever happened to Toby?”
“He co-founded an Internet dating site and used it to meet an extremely hot woman who, for reasons unknown, felt the need to use an Internet dating site. Then he sold the site to Facebook and hasn’t worked since.”
“Wish I was. How about you? Ever been to Paris?”
“Once,” I say, still recovering from the news about Toby as we step onto the elevator. “For a book tour. I was alone though, so it wasn’t as romantic as the time you and Toby went.”
I make a few kissy noises until Jamie gives me a shove. I’m still giggling as the elevator starts its ascent. It’s then that a very sexual, breathy woman comes over the loudspeaker reminding us that this is an attraction best enjoyed with someone special. I immediately stop giggling and stiffen up. They must have switched on a special recording for the late night crowd. Oh good, now it’s repeating. Don’t they realize people might come up here with their parents? Or their children? Or their ex-boyfriend to whom they are trying to appear casually detached? My palms are starting to sweat. Maybe it was a bad idea to bring him here. I mean, I just wanted to see the view, and now he probably thinks I’m trying—
As the elevator comes to a stop, Jamie puts his arm around my shoulders and guides me onto the observation deck. Let me rephrase that. It was a fantastic idea bringing him up here. We walk right up to the railing and look out over the city. The view, especially at night, is incredible.
“This is amazing,” I say. “All those lights and people and noise. We’re above it all up here.”
Jamie nods in agreement and points across the street to Caesar’s. “Which room do you think is yours?”
“Did you have to point out the one place that I was trying to get away from?”
“Sorry. I can point to something else if you’d like. I think that’s Britney Spears down there, getting into a cab.”
“It’s fine,” I laugh. “Our room is on the twenty-third floor. Just look for four women jumping on the beds with lampshades on their heads.”
“You’ve been having quite a weekend, huh?”
“The best.” I roll my eyes. “But my sister is having fun. That’s why we came. How about you?”
“It’s been awesome. And exhausting. And, to be honest, I’m looking forward to waking up next week without a crippling hangover, and maybe without a bunch of dudes trashing my room. Did I mention that I’m exhausted?”
I smile. “You know, after all these years, I think we might finally might be on the same page.”
“At least you did this stuff when you were younger,” he says, hooking his fingers through the fencing. “You don’t bounce back as easily in your thirties.”
“Poor thing,” I say, rubbing his back. “You’ll be okay. So, tell me. With all these crazy nights you’ve been having, has your cousin done anything Anna needs to know about?”
“Nothing but drinking and making an ass of himself,” says Jamie. “You know I’d never let him do anything to hurt your sister.”
‘That’s sweet. Thank you.”
“No problem. So, let’s talk about something else for a second. My cousin is marrying your sister. Doesn’t that make us related?”
“I hadn’t thought about that.” I crinkle my nose. “I don’t think so. Probably about as related as I am to Barack Obama. But what about holidays? Are we going to start seeing each other on Christmas and Thanksgiving?”
Jamie shrugs. “I hadn’t thought about that. My family and my cousin’s family aren’t all that close.”
“Why? Were you looking forward to seeing me on Christmas and Thanksgiving?” Jamie gives me a nudge with his shoulder.
“No,” I say. “It’s just that here we are, not having seen each other in a decade, and suddenly our relatives are marrying each other. It’s an interesting twist of fate, that’s all.”
“Fate, huh? If you’d wanted to see me again, you could have made it happen. There was no need to leave things up to fate.”
“I could say the exact same thing to you.”
“Didn’t we already have this conversation?” asks Jamie. He steps away from the railing, pulling me along with him. He leans against the inner wall, squeezing both of my hands in his.
“I’m sorry you had to Google me,” I say, tears suddenly stinging my eyes. “It should have been up to me to find you. I wanted to. I did. I just never knew what to say. I felt like I had made my choice, and was supposed to live with it. I didn’t want to be the one to dredge up the past when you had already moved on.”
Tears start streaming freely down my face as Jamie wraps his arms around me and pulls me into his chest. I can feel his lips in my hair.
“Who says I’ve moved on?”
The butterflies in my stomach—the ones that haven’t seen much action lately—are drowsily beginning to stir. Hey guys, wake up! He’s back! And he hasn’t forgotten us!
Three nights in Vegas, and I’ve yet to feel more alive than I do right now, sobbing atop the Eiffel Tower.
Ten Years Earlier
“Why don’t you just come with me?” I asked, standing in the doorway to my room and looking at Jamie across the hall. It was a Friday night and he was sitting at his computer, where, to my irritation, he intended to stay.
“It’s not my thing, Laur. You know this about me.” Jamie looked across the hall, exasperation in his eyes. We’ve had similar arguments almost weekly since fall semester started two months ago. Weekdays, we were amazing together. Thursday through Sunday, not so much.
“Is it so wrong that I want my boyfriend to be friends with my friends? Is that not a normal request?”
“It would be a normal request if your friends wanted to grab dinner and a beer at TGI Friday’s. But with them, it’s who can do the most shots and still remember where they live. With them, it’s guzzling beer out of a funnel. A funnel, Lauren. That is not normal.”
“It’s normal for college.”
“It’s not normal for me. It’s exhausting. I don’t know what you were expecting.”
I didn’t know what I was expecting either. It was becoming clearer and clearer with every passing day, that Jamie and I were from completely different worlds. What had worked for us as friends, and what had worked for us in San Diego, was completely failing us upon arrival in the real world.
“Fine,” I snapped, stepping back into my room and grabbing my keys. “I’ll see you later, then. Or tomorrow. Don’t wait up.”
“Do you really have to wear that?” he asked, rolling his chair closer to the doorway, staring at my legs. “Can’t you put on some pants or something?”
“If you’re so concerned about what I’m wearing, then maybe you shouldn’t make me go out alone.” I locked the door and marched defiantly down the hall to meet my friends.
It hadn’t always been like this. Jamie and I were inseparable at the beginning of the semester. He’d made a real effort to spend time with my friends—even letting me drag him to a frat party. But after several weekends of escorting his drunken girlfriend, and the drunken girlfriends of his drunken girlfriend, back to their respective dorm rooms, the excuses started to flow. Too much homework. Headache. Early morning. Before I knew it, I was heading out alone.
“Lauren, wait!” he called down the hall. I swiveled around on my heel.
Reluctantly, I walked back into his room. He closed the door behind me.
“I’m not trying to ruin your good time. You know that, right?”
“I want you to have your own friends and your own life. But I also want you to slow down once in a while. Stay in and watch a movie with me on something other than a Tuesday night. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
The pleading look in his eyes broke my heart. It wasn’t too much to ask. Not at all. But he didn’t understand. This lifestyle was all I’d known since freshman year. These friends—the ones I’d managed to make thanks to the inhibition lowering properties of a shot of tequila—were the only ones I had. Slowing down would mean starting over from scratch.
Besides, it was more acceptable to consume alcohol in a social setting than it was to drink alone in my room—which was where I was headed if I cut out the partying. Because, let’s face it, I was already stirring Kahlua into my morning coffee. I was already downing a rum and Coke before presenting in front of my journalism class. Lauren Oswald didn’t half-ass anything, and that included her drinking habit. I loved Jamie. I could be myself around him. But he wasn’t enough. Not when I still had to face the rest of the world.
By the end of the semester, I sat crying in the passenger seat of Jamie’s car. Snow was coming down, and Darius Rucker was on the radio, singing to us about time.
“We could go back to being friends,” suggested Jamie. “We were good at that.”
I shook my head. “I can’t just turn off my feelings.”
“No, me neither.” Jamie drummed his hands on the steering wheel. “Then we try again to stay together. We try harder to make it work.”
“It’s not supposed to feel like work, Jame.”
“It never used to. Something’s changed.”
“What’s changed is that we’re back here in reality. When we first got together, we were at Comic Con dressed like elves. Then it was a month of long distance, pining away for each other, before we came back to school. That’s when it stopped working. If we can’t make it work in reality, then what’s the point?”
“We can change reality,” said Jamie. “We can adapt to it. We can fix it. We just need to know where to start. And if you ask me, the place to start is by getting you some help. I’m not stupid, Lauren. I know what’s going on, whether you want to admit to it or not. And I think that if we start there, then maybe we still have a chance.”
The car was silent, except for Darius.
“I don’t need any help,” I muttered, watching the snowflakes hit the windshield.
Jamie sighed. “So, this is it then?”
I shrugged. I nodded. I made a thousand tiny, affirmative gestures to avoid having to say the words. I didn’t want to speak my shameful choice aloud to the universe.
Then he drove me home.
In the spring, Sarah, Kelly, and I moved into an off-campus apartment. I still saw Jamie on occasion, when walking to class, and we would sometimes stop to chat. And then, one day, I saw him walking hand-in-hand with another girl. Not Callie the shampoo-less horror, but an actual cute girl. I watched them from afar, noting her clothes, her hair, and the way she laughed at everything he said. I wondered if maybe she had taken my vacant dorm room across the hall. I wondered if he was taking her to Comic Con this summer.
Of all things, it was that final thought that broke my heart on the spot. I spent the next half hour sobbing in the ladies room of the Campus Center, paralyzed by the realization that Jamie had moved on.
“Let’s go out,” I said to my roommates, that night. “There’s a party at Pi Kappa.”
They looked at me like I had suggested we all sit down and watch the extended version of Lincoln. By spring of junior year, my fun-time girlfriends were starting to slow down. It seemed that the closer they got to the legal drinking age, the less they wanted to drink. And the fewer blurry nights we had to reminisce about, the more I realized how little we had in common. I spent an increasing number of nights alone in my room with a vodka and Sprite, typing notes into my computer about a girl who time travels in an elevator.
But that night, I was in no mood to be alone.
“Come on,” I pleaded. “I had a really bad day. Next weekend we’ll stay in and watch The Bachelor all day. And all night. We can even dream about it, if you’d like.”
That did the trick, and off we went.
The last thing I remembered about that night was the cute guy in the Red Sox hat handing me a drink. I awoke the next morning on a mattress on the floor, feeling like I’d been hit by a bus. There was somebody next to me. I propped myself up to get a look at his face, expecting to find the owner of the Red Sox hat. I couldn’t think of his name, but I had at least expected to recognize the face. I had at least expected some sort of connection to the night before. Instead, I found a totally different guy. Someone that I didn’t recognize—not even a little. I rolled over and stared across the room, noticing my clothes on the floor in the corner. Thrown there in the heat of the moment. A moment that I couldn’t remember—not even a little. That’s when the tears came. And the panic. And—
Well, like I said, I don’t really like to talk about it.
Let’s just say that was the last time I had a drink. In the fall, I transferred to the University of Maine, finished up my degree, and never looked back.
Except for the times that I thought about Jamie. So, pretty much every day for the next ten years.
“Right after we broke up,” I say, the memory coming back to me with a fresh wave of pain. “I saw you with a girl.” Just as quickly, come the memories of the events that followed that moment. The drinking. The writing. Hitting rock bottom before turning myself around. And then, all of my successes. The books. The autographs. All the girls that look up to me. Left to its own devices, my life had worked itself out. Even without Jamie.
“It’s been ten years,” he says. “There were bound to be a few girls. There have probably been some guys, right?”
“A few,” I say, gently kicking the toe of his sneaker.
“Doesn’t mean I’ve moved on,” he says, quietly. He wraps his arms around me and draws me in closer. “Now, Lauren, I’ve got something very important to ask you.”
“Yes?” My heart is pounding.
“What was Comic Con like without me?”
I laugh with relief. “Not even close to the same. I didn’t even get to wear a costume. Just boring jeans and a shirt. Have you been back?”
“Nope. But maybe I should have. I might have seen you there.”
“That would have been something.”
We stand in silence for a while—Jamie looking out at the lights, me snuggled into his chest.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve even asked you where you live,” says Jamie.
“Maine,” I say glumly, lifting my head. “I transferred to school there senior year. And once you move to Maine, they don’t let you out.”
Jamie whistles. “California and Maine. We certainly got as far away from each other as possible.”
I notice, with interest, that we’re the only two people currently occupying the observation deck. Security will probably be along soon to usher us out. I take a deep breath.
“Hey, Jame?” I ask, quietly.
“I haven’t moved on either.”
“So, um. Since we both seem to be on the same page, do you think that, maybe, it would cut some of the tension if I kissed you right now?”
His soft laugh tells me that he hasn’t forgotten the first time those words were spoken. I move back a bit, and look up into his face. He places a hand on either side of mine and leans in close—eyes crinkling, crooked smile mere inches away.
Then he kisses me, and it’s like I never left.
There are worse things in life than being on a bachelorette trip to Vegas when you’ve given up alcohol. Things like, being ready to have relations with the long lost love of your life, only to realize that both of your hotel rooms are already filled to capacity. Or, perhaps—actually, no, at the moment that is the worst of our problems.
We’re heading haphazardly in the direction of Caesar’s, making frequent stops against the sides of buildings, behind construction barriers, and at one point, in the middle of the pedestrian overpass.
“Remember that time in San Diego when we had two empty hotel rooms?” I say. We’re pressed up against the wall of a relatively secluded little alcove beside some restaurants and shops. My hands have found their way underneath Jamie’s shirt and are tracing their way around the waistband of his jeans. One of his hands is on the back of my neck. The other keeps half-heartedly swatting my hand away from the waistband of his jeans.
“You’re going to get us arrested,” he mumbles.
“We’re in Vegas. This kind of thing is totally acceptable.”
The sound of a police siren, most likely a mile down The Strip, makes the both of us jump apart.
“You’re such a goody-goody,” I laugh, pulling him towards me by the waist, and giving his backside a squeeze. He leans his forehead against mine.
“So are you,” he says. “At heart. A goody-goody and a geek. That’s what I’ve always loved about you.”
“You know what I’ve always loved about you?”
“Your butt in those elf tights.”
Jamie laughs as he turns and slumps against the wall next to me.
“What? Did I kill the moment?”
“By bringing up the fact that you’ve seen me in tights? Of course not.”
“So what do we do now?” I ask, my breathing slowly returning to normal. The rest of my body, however, remains on fire.
“We get another room at Caesar’s?”
Jamie grabs my hand and pulls me out of the alcove.
“Hey, look,” he says. “Donuts.”
He’s right. Our alcove is directly outside of a coffee shop with a display case full of colorful donuts. The word Open flashes in the window.
“One more stop?”
The last thing I want is another stop. But, seeing as how I’m about to ditch my sister and her friends to spend the rest of the night with Jamie, the least I can do is drop them off some donuts.
“They might be a bit stale,” says the clerk, as she starts loading up a box. “I’ll be putting out some fresh ones in a few hours if you’d rather come back.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say. “They’re for a bunch of drunk attorneys. Just give me everything you’ve got.”
As we stand there, impatiently waiting to pay, I start to feel a bit panicky. Once we go back to the hotel, that’s it. The beginning of the end. Jamie and I live on opposite sides of the country. Running into each other like this may have given us closure on our college years, and—what I imagine will be—one incredible night together, but is that it? I mean, we’ll see each other again at Anna’s wedding, of course. But will he bring a date? Will I bring a date? The thought is completely revolting, on both ends.
As we walk back to the hotel, I continue to obsess over whether or not I should mention any of these things to Jamie, or if I should just let it ride. We’re in Vegas, after all. That’s what people do. I continue walking for a few paces before I realize that Jamie is no longer beside me. I turn around and find him standing a few yards back on the sidewalk.
“I have a proposition,” he calls out.
“Oh, Jamie. I know we’re in Vegas, but I can’t get married at my sister’s bachelorette party. It wouldn’t be polite.”
Jamie doesn’t laugh. He just walks up to me, and looks me firmly in the eye.
“Come back to California with me.”
“What?” I know perfectly well what he just said. But all of the lights of Vegas are suddenly a bit blurry and swirly, and I just need to make sure that I heard him correctly.
“Don’t fly home tomorrow,” he says. “Come to California. For a week, or whatever. You’re a writer, so you must have your laptop with you. You can work from my house. Or take the week off. It’s up to you. Either way, please. Come with me. I don’t want this to end tonight.”
So, I did hear him correctly.
“It’s been a long time,” I say, slowly. “How do I know you haven’t turned into some sort of serial killer?”
Jamie shrugs. “I’ve got Cheez-Its, Cherry Coke, and all of the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings. If that sweetens the deal.”
Oddly enough, it did.
“Sold,” I say, my heart pounding. My head nodding. “I mean, yes.”
“Yes?” His face lights up.
“Yes. Of course. I don’t want this to end tonight either.” I put the box of donuts down on the sidewalk and throw my arms around his neck.
Back at the hotel, it’s a very different trip up the elevator than it was on the way down. There’s a different type of tension in the air as the floors tick by, ever so slowly. We finally arrive at the twenty-third, and the doors slide open.
“I’ll get us a room, and meet you in the lobby in twenty?” asks Jamie.
I just have to drop off the donuts and grab my toothbrush. Of course, if they’re awake, the girls are going to want an explanation. That could take a while. No. All I need to do is say the name Jamie, and Anna will understand. She can fill them in. Me, I’ve got no more time to waste.
“Better make it ten,” I say.
Then the doors slide shut, and I’m off.
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What Stays in Vegas
Summer at Sea
Summer at Sunset
Lauren Oswald doesn’t expect to ever see her college love again. She certainly doesn’t expect to see him ten years later at her sister’s bachelorette party in Vegas. But there he is, Jamie Mullins—the first person to love her for the Lord of the Rings watching, Comic Con attending, closet nerd that she is—leaning against the back of a hotel elevator. Slightly older. Different haircut. No wedding ring. Same eyes. As the pair embark on a late night errand around the Vegas Strip, Lauren is flooded with memories of how Jamie became the one that got away—and the realization that this one night could be their last chance at making things right.