I told myself I wouldn’t do this.
Rebecca Anne Stollen, you’re 29 years old—you will not hide out from the Christmas party at your desk this year. I meant it at the time, which was approximately five hours ago when Charlene the Office Mom cornered me in the break room while I was getting my chai latte from the Keurig. She said in a voice that channeled my Aunt Mable from Topeka, “We all hope you’ll be able to make it.” Complete with the undertone of we know you’re not quite right in the head, dear, but we’re praying for you. And no doubt gossiping about me afterward. I was so determined to show her—to show all of them, everyone in the office—that I was better. That I could finally put the past behind me… or at least show up and act like everything was okay.
Yet, here I am, nine o’clock at night on a Friday, staring at a screen full of spreadsheets and hiding in my cubicle while Jingle Bells floats up from the floor below. My employer, Harper Jones, is one of the largest advertising firms in Seattle, and everyone on the org chart is partying downstairs. I’m just a data-entry employee in accounting, but they expect everyone to show. They even invited the janitorial staff, which Harper doesn’t even pay for, the building owners do—I know because I see the numbers. I should be there. Instead, I’m a ghost in an empty field of cubicles, my face lit up by the screen’s glow. Just the washed-out version of a real person.
I take a deep breath. Then another. This is how I survive, one breath to the next. I think for a moment that maybe courage is welling up from somewhere deep in my still-damaged heart… but then the song comes to a rousing finish, and the laughter just bangs on my chest, crushing out the air. Daniel knew how to make me laugh, even when I was down—my husband was a hot-shot lawyer with a smirk that could slay women from twenty yards, but he always saved that humor for me. Now all that is buried with him. My laughter and his both died on Christmas Eve three years ago, killed by a drunk driver on the Interstate. Daniel’s laughter had a funeral; I’m still waiting for mine to rise from the dead.
But the dead don’t rise. That’s not a thing that happens. Not in real life.
So I’m still breathing—I stubbornly keep taking the breaths he can’t—but I’m not living. Especially this time of year, it’s like I’m still standing at the edge of that rain-drenched grave. Christmas Eve. It’s tomorrow, but its shadow lives with me all year round.
I sigh and scrub my face and start shutting down the spreadsheets, then the computer.
I know I’m not going to the party—no sense in pretending any longer.
In the afterglow of the screen, I can see well enough to grab my purse and swipe my Van Gogh Starry Night mug off the desk to return it to the break room. The maze of cubicles is made treacherous by the lack of light, just the soft glow of the EXIT sign near the front and a sliver of light from under the break room door in back. I use that as my beacon, but as I get closer, I realize… someone’s in there. Beating on the door. The soft, rhythmic thump, thump competes with a new round of carols from downstairs, but now that I’m standing in front of the door, I can see it move. Slow, melodic. Like a heartbeat as the door jolts against the doorjamb. I stare at it, my mind drawing a blank. Is someone trapped in there? Then a grunt and a groan and a chorus of yes, yes, yes’s, and heat runs to my face. Has it been so long that I don’t even recognize when someone’s having sex up against a door?
I turn and flee, mug still in hand, trying to get out before they finish… but I trip over some unseen hazard in the industrial carpeting and go down, my mug bouncing away into the dark. Then suddenly, it’s not so dark anymore, as the break room door swings open and lights up the office. I scrabble on hands and knees, my office-ready skirt hiking up as I hustle around the corner and hide in the nearest cubicle. The breathy laughter and whispers head my way… and pass by. Curiosity gets the best of me, so I crawl out of my hidey hole just in time to see them slip out the front door to the reception area. Rick—one of the junior VPs—is apparently banging one of the new interns. I think her name is Sarah. She’s all flushed smiles, and he looks like he just got his Christmas bonus early. I probably should report them—or at least him because what the hell is he doing having sex with interns?—but all I can manage is a horrible jealousy. Not of getting banged by Rick—that guy’s such a jerk he purposely delays payments to vendors who haven’t sufficiently kissed his butt. But there’s an ache in my chest for the life-filled energy they both seem to have. They were literally shaking the walls with it.
Whereas my life’s an endless search for how to dull the pain.
I drag myself to my feet, spot my Starry Night mug next to the fake potted plant, then decide to just leave it there. I scoop up my purse instead and smooth out my skirt. My blouse glows neon-white with the light from the break room. I take slow steps toward the EXIT sign, but I’m pretty sure Rick and Sarah are already back down at the party. More life-living I won’t have, can never have, won’t ever want again.
I take a breath and drop into my Leaving Work routine. The one where I wait until I can take the elevator to the basement parking garage alone. Then I find my empty car and drive it to my empty house. It’s still Daniel’s home—the custom blinds he picked, the furnishings he brought in from New York—so I keep the lights off. If I eat, it will be by the glow of the refrigerator bulb, standing up. Then I’ll sit on my empty bed for a while and stare out the window and drink today’s bottle of wine.
Once I step into the elevator, I feel the release of it. No more pretending—even as badly as I do it—for the rest of the night. If I stare dully at nothing for an hour, no one’s going to notice. If I fall asleep in my clothes, no one will poke me awake. Just me and the memories, the echo of the life I used to have until I “fall asleep” which is usually passing out, either from the wine, emotional exhaustion or both.
On a really bad night, I’ll get out the home movies.
This feels like a bad night.
The sound of the holiday party quickly fades as the elevator drops. It’s only twelve stories, and when the doors open, there’s no one in the parking garage. Everyone’s still at the party or long since cleared out for the holiday weekend. My black flats make a slap-slap sound on the concrete floor as I trudge to my car. It’s probably not smart to bring my Tesla into the middle of downtown Seattle, but it arrived the day after Daniel’s death—hand-delivered with a giant pink bow. It was so surreal… as if he were still alive. I can’t part with it. Besides, it hasn’t been stolen in the three years I’ve been bringing it to work.
To a job I don’t actually need.
Daniel made partner quickly, and his work always paid more than we ever needed—and all I ever wanted were my husband and my art supplies. Then there’s the life insurance, which I can’t even bring myself to touch. Either way, money will never be an issue and there’s no need for me to work. But within a few weeks after the funeral, it quickly became clear—I had to get out of that house, or I would drink myself to death. And Plan A—the plan before Daniel swept into my life with all his brilliance and love—was to use my degree in accounting to support my art. Now there’s no art, just spreadsheets. But it’s better than being home all day, every day… those early days were like being stuck in a time loop where I thought, each morning, I might wake up and find the nightmare had ended.
It never did.
The job keeps me occupied and around other people, even if I seldom talk to them. And possibly avoid them. But if I stayed home, staring out that window… I wouldn’t have made it this far.
As I get close, the car automatically unlocks. I’m reaching for the handle when something moves in the corner of my eye. I jerk to look, but there’s nothing in the shadowy corner next to my car. My heart’s still pumped up from the almost-encounter with Rick and Sarah, so maybe—
Someone grabs me from behind.
A tall man with thin, cold fingers clamps them on my face and spins me around. His eyes. They’re nothing but pupil and a red rim around the edge. He slams me up against the car, shoving the air out of my lungs. I try to kick, clawing at his face, but he’s strong—he grabs hold of my hair and wrenches my head to the side, baring my neck. As I struggle against him, he crushes me into the car and goes after my neck with his teeth. Twin pricks pierce my skin. Holy shit, what is he—
The panic mutes. A wave of pleasure gushes through my body. He’s sucking away at my neck like he wants to give me the world’s biggest hicky. Which seems thoroughly gross, but somehow my body is reacting like it’s the biggest turn-on of my life. My struggles are to pull him closer now as I grasp at him with desperate fingers. He slides a hand up my leg, lifting my skirt. A long-absent heat is suddenly gushing between my legs, but he doesn’t go there. He just hikes my leg over his hip and presses me further into the car, still feasting on my neck. I’m grinding against him, my body having a mind of its own, while my thoughts bounce around like grasshoppers in a field. I should scream. Why aren’t I screaming? My skirt will rip. Why won’t he just touch me there… My shoe dangles off my foot… and falls… the clattering sound jolts me, but nothing breaks the spell—
Suddenly, the man yanks free.
I blink, my mind still hazed.
Another man is holding the first man by the neck. His feet dangle above the concrete. No, this new guy’s not a man… he’s an angel. A literal angel. His bright white wings spread over the Tesla, and they’re so close I can almost touch them. He’s wearing a white toga, like the ancient Greeks, and he has a short sword raised in his other hand. He plunges it into the man who attacked me, and he screams. I cover my ears with both hands and thump back against the car. It’s the only thing holding me up. The angel tosses the man to the ground where he skids… and skids… like ten yards down the parking garage. Then the man just lies there. He’s dead. He has to be dead.
The angel comes for me.
I try to scream, but I have no air left.
He puts his hand to my neck, right where the other man attacked. This close, I finally see how impossibly beautiful he is. Bright blue eyes on fire. High chiseled cheeks. Thick, full lips that are moving, saying something.
“Fear not. I mean you no harm. And the vampire can no longer hurt you.”
I just gape, mouth moving but no words in it. No words in my brain. Then everything starts to swim, like the air is made of soup and some giant has decided to stir. I’m sliding down the car, my legs finally saying fuck this to whatever this is. The angel catches me, hauls me up, and I’m face-to-face with his terrifying beauty once again.
Then he kisses me.
My body jolts so badly, I know he must be holding me up, or I’d be on the concrete by now. His mouth is clamped to mine, but he’s not actually kissing me… just breathing a long, steady breath into my mouth. It’s a rush that's not just filling my lungs but my entire body. The heady surge of pleasure from before comes screaming back, and I’m grasping at his bare chest and arms, just like the first man. Only this time, it’s different. I’m light as a balloon. I’m soaring on a pure energy bliss. I’m filled with life in a way I haven’t felt since… since…
The angel jerks back, taking the surge of life with him.
In its place, the normal shadows of my life rush back… although not as dark as before.
He’s still holding me, peering into my eyes with concern. “You’ll be all right.”
He props me against the car and steps back. He seems as… affected as I am. Chest heaving. Cheeks flushed. He swallows. “You’ll be all right,” he repeats like he’s not sure I’ve heard him. “I took care of the venom. My life kiss should hold you for a while.”
Life kiss? What? I slowly nod, just to let him know I’ve heard him.
Then he disappears.
I blink. A moment later, when I remember to look, the first man’s body is also gone.
My hand trembles as I feel for the spot on my neck. My skin’s clammy and cold, but there are no puncture wounds. The buzzing, heart-thrilling feeling from the angel’s kiss is still bouncing around inside my body. But other than my shoe lying on its side on the concrete floor, there’s no sign of any of it. No evidence of anything.
What the hell just happened?