The heater went out at exactly 6:45pm. In fact, Carissa could pinpoint the exact moment because she could hear the soft whir as it finally gave out and her cuckoo clock as it sang its lonesome song in that empty dark kitchen which used to rays of golden holiday joy. Tonight, gusts of wind blowing softly outside, predicting a shocking December cold front that teased the front range…
She had been making supper—spaghetti and meatballs. Ironically, Orion’s favorite. The water in her sink was still boiling hot and her mother’s white colander was still steaming. The glass casserole dish had grease pooling in the bottom from the meatballs. She had made nine, baked them in three perfect rows of three. Of course, she had added Orion’s favorite seasoned salt, Italian herbs, an egg to hold them together, and a bucket ton of Italian seasoned bread crumbs—the good kind, in the big, blue canister. She had taken her seat at her little kitchen table and was losing her mind pouring her third glass of red wine when she heard her HVAC system powering down.
After spending an hour pacing back and forth from her thermostat back to the kitchen, saying a few prayers down on her knees, and throwing on a sweater, Carissa decided it was time to give up as the cuckoo clock crooned two mournful calls signaling 8:30pm. This, she figured, would be the perfect excuse to finally have “The Conversation.” She had it in her brain that she would call Alex. Yes, she supposed it would be best to start with Alex so as not to seem too desperate. And if Fate or God or whoever brought Orion back to the door they once called “theirs”?
Then…so be it.
Carissa stared at her phone, thumb hovering over the little white telephone in Alex’s contact. She decided it would be best to wait until 9:45pm. Her heart was beating out of her chest. She took a huge gulp of wine and pressed the call button. It rang once…twice…three times…
“Hey, Carissa, what’s going on?” Alex asked.
“Um, not much, how are you?” said Carissa. She was attempting to keep it casual. And yet, her thumb nail flew to her bottom lip and her top teeth began chewing.
“Gooood,” Alex was cautious. “About to sit down to dinner,” he added; it was clearly an attempt to have an excuse to end the call in less than five minutes. She, however, found a smile spreading across her face because some things never change—dinner served at 10pm was a usual around her would-be in-laws’.
“My heat went out a couple of hours ago,” Carissa said. She pulled her right leg up so her barefoot could rest on the chair and her chin could rest on her knee. It flopped down like a dog’s at his master’s feet.
“That’s no good,” Alex said. She could hear the furrowed brow in his voice. She missed that furrowed brow, the gray hairs at his temple. Carissa realized that his dark curls must certainly now be full blown salt and pepper. Five years had just…flown by.
“I tried turning up the thermostat, I tried powering the heater off and on, I’ve been trying to wait it out…” she started
“We can’t have you hunkering down in this weather,” his voice came through unsteadily, interrupting her train of thought. She imagined him, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head with worry. She could practically see the deep worry lines in his forehead, etched in place after raising two boys into men and driven deeper by her—the girl he had thought would be his daughter.
“No, no we can’t,” she stuttered and listened to the sound of Piper, the family dog as she barked. The family dog that Carissa had never met, but had studied pictures of on social media. She had traced her thumb over Piper’s dark, black coat, imagining its warmth from the summer sun. “Do you think you might be able to help?” Her voice involuntarily raised an octave and she cleared her throat to course correct. Then, she grabbed at her wine glass.
“I don’t think I can tonight, but…” Alex trailed off. After a moment, he said, “Hey, get off, Piper!” Carissa could hear the sound of the electronic easy chair pulling its foot rest back in. “Piper! Down! I need to get up,” Alex said. Carissa switched the phone to her right hand so she could properly gnaw at the thumbnail on her left as the phone picked up rustling as Alex repositioned himself.
“Who is it? It’s dinner time, Alex!” called a voice that sounded far away on the phone. Carissa listened to the heavy footsteps of Mallory, Alex’s wife of 35 years.
“Hang on,” Alex said to Carissa. “Hang on!” he shouted to Mallory. Carissa breathed deeply and twirled some angel hair pasta longingly on her fork. She let it fall onto her bowl. “I’ll, uh, call you back,” Alex promised and the line beeped indicating he had disconnected the line.
Only the wine was left to keep her warm. Carissa reached for a new bottle, justifying that she technically only had two glasses from the first bottle.
Carissa stared at her red pasta. She listened to the wind which seemed to gust against her windows. She pressed her lips together. Carissa wrapped herself in a hug and ran her hands up and down her biceps. She turned her phone over so she could flick her SILENT setting off. She set it face up on the table and wandered to her living room.
She turned on her TV and chose a cop drama to watch with her dinner, which needed to be reheated twice, so that she could drown out her thoughts with literal gun shots. Carissa draped a familiar blanket over her legs, a gift from Mallory on her birthday nearly seven years ago. It was a red velvet blanket with a silk border, covered in golden lotuses. Carissa slurped down her pasta and was halfway through her second episode when her phone rang. But it wasn’t her standard ringtone. It was Orion’s.
Carissa leapt up, nearly knocking her bowl over onto her couch. However, Fate or God or whatever was on her side as she watched it teeter and totter before it corrected itself, standing perfectly up right on the middle cushion of her black couch. Carissa ran to the kitchen. It was a task completed in three steps. Her sweaty palms dropped her phone on the floor which elicited a curse before the device was collected. “Hello, hello, hello?” she said.
“I’ll be there in an hour and a half. I’m still in Fort Collins,” Orion said. The call ended.
The cuckoo called , “Nine PM!”
Carissa dropped the phone back onto her kitchen table. She stared at the mountain of dishes and began to feel like she was in a movie. She set a timer for twenty five minutes on her phone and got to work. The pot from the sink was filled with water. The remaining five meatballs were tossed back into the oven. She switched it back on, but chose the WARM setting so as not to overcook the meat. Carissa added a liberal amount of salt and angel hair pasta to the water. Then, she threw open her tiny apartment dishwasher, feeling lucky that she had unloaded it begrudgingly the night before. Her wine glass was placed in the top rack, her plate from the morning joined the pan that she used to cook scrambled eggs in the bottom rack. Carissa also added her silverware to the basket before she rinsed down the sink and closed up her dishwasher.
Her kitchen began to fill with warm steam as she dashed to her living room to clean up the random piles of work that had collected all around her home. Carissa was a photographer. A fact that crawled under Orion’s skin from day one. At their first date she had laughed when his eyebrows shot up at the sound of her career. “I’m not a fool,” she had promised him while flicking a strand of chestnut curls over her tanned shoulder, “I also have a degree in marketing, just in case the photography thing doesn’t work out.”
“Uh, huh,” said Orion as he sipped his green tea latte.
“You’re skeptical,” she said. “That’s ok; I’ll just have to prove you wrong.” Carissa wrapped glossy pink lips around her red straw and winked at him.
Orion leaned in, “Oh yeah?”
Carissa leaned in across the coffee table, nibbling her bottom lip, “Yeah.”
Carissa’s timer went off, pulling her from her memory. She hurriedly stacked her many photos of the bride and groom from last weekend’s wedding. The pile was shoved onto her desk after she pushed aside a mug of pens which crashed to the floor. Only when she bent down to collect her pens did Carissa begin to feel the effects of her wine. Her stomach lurched and the apartment felt hot. Probably, she figured with a wry laugh, due to the pot of boiling water. She managed to collect her pens and rush back to the kitchen to turn the heat off of the pasta.
In her bedroom, she threw on her best dress and reapplied her foundation and lipstick. Carissa then popped into the bathroom and spritzed herself with Orion’s favorite perfume: rose. Standing in front of the mirror, she rehearsed her speech, “Orion, I’m so sorry about how we ended. I know that I was out of line and crossed a boundary with Sam. It’ll never happen again. I promise. I want to commit to you.”
It had just been one drunken almost kiss.
Could you even really call it a kiss, if the other person’s lips aren’t puckered?
It didn’t matter, ultimately. Because her lips were. Her lips were puckered.
Carissa needed a deep breath at that thought.
She said her Hail Mary a second and third time, making sure her voice was even and not too screechy. As she finished her third rehearsal, she fluffed her hair and took a deep breath. Just in time for the doorbell to ring.
Carissa undid the gold chain at the top of her wooden door and then her silver deadbolt. She wrapped a trembling palm around her door handle, turning it slowly. Her heart raced in her chest, like it did on that first date. Only worse. Worse this time because it wasn’t a first date.
“Hey.” she said. The man standing in front of her was clearly Orion 2.0. He stood straight against the inky black sky, his red toolbag in her left hand. His hair was neatly styled and he wore a black button down bearing his father’s company logo on the left breast: a golden lotus. Carissa tried not to stare at his pink, rose shaped lips. Or his more defined jawline. She tried not to breathe in the scent of his familiar cologne. She really did.
“It’s 10:30. You gonna let me in?” Orion asked with a disgruntled sigh.
“Oh. Right…sorry,” she said and stepped to the side. Orion stepped back into the apartment he and Carissa had called home for three years. He pushed past her, gunning for the little hall closet which held the HVAC system that once belonged to both of them. Orion began pulling out tools and set to work. “I know it’s late. I made supper. It’s spaghetti and meatballs…your favorite…Would you like…A midnight snack?” Carissa asked. lingering six feet away from him. She pressed her lips together.
“It’s not midnight, we got like an hour and a half left. So, what exactly is goin’ on?” Orion interrupted.
“I…I don’t….um, really know. It just…shut down,” Carissa waved her hand like a damsel in distress wishing that the wind, which had mysteriously calmed down, would pick back up. Her heart wanted to add more, her soul yearned to reconnect with its mate. The work couldn’t possibly take more than a couple hours. Slowly, as the cuckoo greeted the two of them to announce 10:45, she realized she had a deadline.
“Uh, huh,” said Orion as he flicked his flashlight back off.
“You’re skeptical,” she said. “That’s ok; I’ll just have to prove you wrong.” Carissa marched behind him and began fumbling with the thermostat. It beeped and beeped and beeped as she attempted to command it to go to 80 degrees in the apartment. The two of the stood in silence as the system did not, in fact power on, as Orion had thought it would.
“Stop, stop, stop,” he waved his hands at her, inadvertently conducting the cloud of cologne in her direction. Carissa really tried to resist inhaling. She really did. His hands felt rough on her shoulders when he directed her to step aside. “Can you just let me work?” he said, holding her gaze. Just like he did when they used to fight. A fury bubbling in those deep, black eyes.
“Sorry,” she whispered, her hopes of a kiss dashed. She padded back to the kitchen like a shamed child and threw open her cupboard. Carissa slammed a bowl onto the counter. “It’s really broke. Orion. It’s not like I would lie to your father just to get you to come over,” she shouted. Her silverware drawer clattered as she yanked it open. Carissa stomped to the pasta and began draining it in her colander.
“Yes, you fuckin’ would,” Orion muttered.
“What?” asked Carissa as she scooped the pasta into the bowl.
“I said, ‘yes, you fuckin’ would!’” Orion’s voice boomed through the apartment.
“No, I fuckin’ would not!” Carissa’s voice was now a full octave higher than it was originally. She began spooning the remaining red sauce from a jar onto the bowl of pasta, “Stop shouting. It’s ungentlemanly.”
“You think I give a fuck about bein’ a gentleman?” came Orion’s outraged reply. Carissa huffed, yanking her oven door open. She cursed when her bare hand came into contact with the glass casserole dish which was quickly tossed onto the coils of the stove.
There was exactly 90 seconds of silence before Orion offered, “Are you OK?”
In the kitchen, Carissa sunk into a seated position with her back pressed against the now closed over door. Her knees were pulled to her chest. A kitchen towel over her mouth to stifle her sobs. Her own perfume nauseating her. She heard the soft footsteps of boots entering the kitchen. When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Orion kneeling beside her. His rough hand on her shoulder. “Hey…” his voice was soft now. “Carissa, I…” She desperately wanted him to wipe her tears away. But he didn’t. Instead, he stood up, placing his hand on his hips. She swore he looked over at the bowl of spaghetti longingly.
The words, “I’m sorry,” remained lodged in her throat. Trapped behind a boulder of shame and pain. “Come back,” rolled its way from her mind to her tongue, resting on the edge of the cliff that was the tip of her tongue. “I love you,” beat with the thumping of her heart. “Can we try again?” ached in her soul, playing over and over again like a song she couldn’t forget. Her speech felt like an avalanche predicted for years, but never actually occurring.
In her silence, he walked out of the kitchen. Carissa remained, listening as the cuckoo announced 11:30pm. Her head remained buried in the towel as she sniffled noisily. That used to work, used to bring him back to her. But, as she opened her eyes into the blackness of her towel, she began to process the reality that he wasn’t coming back.
“I think I fixed it for now, but I’ll have my dad drop by tomorrow to make sure it doesn’t need anything more,” Orion said, as his boots squeaked on the kitchen floor. She hadn’t even heard the system power back on. “I set it at 75,” he told her. “I wouldn’t mess with it anymore tonight,” he continued. Carissa looked up at him, just like she had when he called the engagement off. With the same, big, brown eyes that filled with tears at the sight of his open palm, waiting for her ring that was suddenly not hers.
Her little blue bird with its yellow beak appeared. She could swear a smile teased on Orion’s lips. “Can’t believe you still have that thing,” he said with a laugh. “Wasn’t it like five bucks at that stupid garage sale?” he asked.
“Yes, but I love Harold,” she said. Her voice deep with pain and her mouth thick with saliva.
He chuckled, “Harold. I forgot you named him.”
“Of course I named him,” she said with a smile, wiping her tears away as she stood. She stood toe to toe with him, breathing in his cologne and staring into his eyes.
Suddenly, it was 11:45—cuckoo…cuckoo…cuckoo!
Her mouth filled with words, thoughts, hopes, and prayers. They formed a bubble, forcing her tongue from the roof of her mouth down to the bottom of it. Dry lips pressed together nervously, being licked incessantly. Her breathing felt uneven. Her eyes burned hot as more tears welled up. Red, hot cheeks glowed in the night. He seemed to be watching her, like a hunter stalking his prey. His gaze remained unwavering, eyes locked with hers. She wiped her hands on the hem of her little blue dress—the one he picked out from that little boutique downtown. She closed her eyes softly, letting tears roll down her cheeks, washing away all that she wanted to say, but couldn’t.
Carissa watched as he turned on his toe and walked out. The door softly shut behind him. The cuckoo clock in the kitchen sang its song, proclaiming midnight.
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Carissa held on to hope for a long time, it’s hard to let go of love but he had certainly moved on. I can see both of their viewpoints. Seems like she hadn’t let go or realised he would. You write the preoccupation of her mind very well.
Love this as much as Carissa loves Orion. I could vividly feel Carissa's simultaneous anxiety and desire in the pit of my stomach. I suppose the two often go hand in hand. I really appreciate how natural and realistic their interaction is. I've read far too many books and watched far too many shows where the dialogue is just so cringingly unnatural--sweeping declarations, and dramatic professions of love. This story you've written right here is *exactly* how real people talk--and I believe the best fiction reflects the real human cond...
Hi Liv! Thank you so much for your kind feedback. I am an admirer of your work. I love so much that you enjoyed the dialogue because it’s very specifically, something I’ve worked on a lot in my writing. Thank you for pointing it out!
I'm an admirer likewise!
Amanda, I love how you gave us hints to build up the tension and tell us the story of Carissa and Orion's past. There was really only one or two lines in there that tell us about Carissa and Sam almost kissing which led to the end of their engagement, but we could feel the rest of it through your story telling. I was unsure who Alex was initially but you weaved it in there, perfectly placed. I was hoping for a happy ending here, but I think this is the more realistic ending, unfortunately. You design your characters history so well!
Hey Anne, I intentionally changed this story after the feedback I got on “Birthday Beam”. I wanted you guys to have a clear understanding of why the couple didn’t work out. I’m so glad you liked it. I appreciate all of your time!
You did a great job implementing the feedback. This was well-done and definitely more satisfying to know what the issue was between the two characters. Good job!