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Fiction Holiday Suspense

There is a certain type of person that loves 100 degree weather, scant breeze, and barely a lick of rain for days on end. Texans. There are a new breed of Texans that wake up at dawn, walk to the gym or gets a run in, stop off for morning coffee at Starbucks, walk to work and then back home again along the paved streets and busy intersections. Downtown Dallas was the place. Contrary to popular belief, Dallas isn’t just full of cowboys. The Dallasites have taken over and they love the allure of the big city.


Living inside the loop was attractive to her. Being moderately young, single now, an up and coming lawyer in Big D, she felt that Dallas was the place where she could be herself, finally. On any given day the suits busted between buildings, vacationers were looking to solve the Kennedy conspiracy, and live music wafted through the side streets near the museums. There were plenty of moms with kids, millennials with dogs, and outdoor yoga all on display for the avid people watchers. She would fit right in.


She needed the change from the outskirts of town. She needed the change from a relationship that burned so hot that it melted her soul like a wax candle with an untrimmed wick. They met in middle school and had stayed together all those years. Her only boyfriend, fiance, and almost husband. She had scraped and clawed her way into the prestigious Shwartza and Hartford Law Firm, climbing rung by tedious rung. Just a string of never ending days driving into the city. She was consumed by work, often having a bag of hot fries and soda on the long drive home. She had a guilty pleasure, too. Grimdark fiction was her escape most days on the drive. Fantasy worlds where she escaped before arriving home to a man who resented her for each ounce of success. 


He resented her. The thing was, she resented him right back. For some years she thought that she wanted what he wanted. She thought that he was her soulmate. Turns out, she had nothing in common with him and only realized it after graduating from law school. 


She spent months planning her escape.. For months she fantasized about living on her own, in her own space, walking to work like the other junior partners, walking home and not feeling guilty for being late. Not feeling frustrated by sitting in the freeway parking lot for hours. Not having eye daggers thrown at her from Antone each night she walked into their house. 


She had a plan. File for divorce. She would give him everything they had accumulated except her car. This was more than fair. She was the breadwinner of the two, but not because he was incapable. It was because he was uninterested. He had a dark side that stole the air from her lungs. He had a few violent episodes over the years. When she started her job with the firm downtown, his dark side showed up more frequently and increasingly grim. 


Most nights she came home to Antone and Rane playing video games in their living room. Beer cans, pizza boxes or burrito wrappers strewn about the carpet as a shadow to their fixed positions in the floor. Rane would make eye contact and wave or offer a greeting of some sort, while Antone gave a grunt or belittling comment. 


Rane and Antone had been friends for most of their lives. All three went to the same high school. The guys worked together at Rane’s lawn company, which was mildly successful. They hung out most nights together. Rane was patient, kind, and always apologizing with his eyes when Antone took things too far. He felt for her, but not enough to intervene. She often wondered what Rane saw in Antone. Why would someone as gentle as Rane befriend a brute? A better question, why had she chosen Antone over Rane years ago? 


She lived alone, finally! A prestigious address, marble countertops, stainless steel appliances, and stained concrete flooring was definitely a step up.. She found the courage to say that she was leaving, if texting someone is considered courageous. On the last Friday in July, she packed a weekend bag and made a reservation at a hotel while she finalized the lease on her new apartment.


Her:

“Antone, I want to take a break. I will be moving out.. We can still talk and maybe find a way to make “us” work in the future.” 


Him:

“You will regret this.”


That wasn’t the response that she was expecting. Was it a threat or was that simply anger? She didn’t hear from him through the weekend. That could be a good sign. Maybe he wanted this too. 


On Monday as she drove to work, she thought this may be one of the last Mondays that she will drive in. She daydreamed about having time for a run, stopping in for coffee, and reading up on her cases before walking to the firm. A professional woman! After leaving the only relationship of her life, finally she would be single. She exited the elevator at the firm and saw Rane standing there, package in hand. 


Rane spoke, “Antone asked me to bring this to you.” 


“Why are you here? Could he have mailed it?”, she asked.


“He asked me to bring it and I did. Honestly, I think you are making the right choice by leaving. I wish things could be different, you know? Here, I gotta go.”


He handed her the box, a 12 inch cube. It was surprisingly light. For a moment she thought it may just be empty, but why would Antone insist on Rane delivering an empty box? She took the it to her office. She had already caused too much drama for one morning by having Rane in the reception area.. 


She stared at the box with impatience and agitation. This was typical of Antone. She hurriedly opened it thinking that she would get it over with and throw the gift away. She peeled away the tape to find a smaller box inside. Dread hit the pit of her stomach. She didn’t know why but every fiber in her being screamed to throw it away without opening. Slowly, she pried the lid from the smaller box, holding her breath. Her heart almost burst out of her chest when she saw her dog’s collar and tags, covered in blood. A note lay inside the box, “You did this. What’s next?”. 


She stifled a scream as she scrambled to put the lid on the box and replace the tape. Her eyes darted around her office. The door was closed. Through the wall-sized window she could see coworkers walking past, others standing close together looking at documents, and still others just getting their morning coffee. No one seemed to notice the terror behind her office door.


She called Rane. He sounded as horrified as she was to hear what was in the box. He promised that he would check on the dog and let her know what he found. Within an hour, he texted her that the dog was fine. Antone had to get out of her life for good. She got a restraining order, a new phone number, a PO Box, and walked away without even returning home for her clothes. She would never see or speak to him again. 


As fall began, the newness and awe of living downtown started to fade. She still loved the short walk home from work, but honestly, she was a little lonely. It was time to trust again. She would give finding friends a chance.


The firm hosted a private dinner at Souza on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Since the package delivery, she had been out of sorts. She was a bit paranoid. Avoiding people as much as possible had been her way to deal with the transition into this new life. She decided to make an exception. It was time to restart her social life. 


Plates of sushi, wontons, lettuce wraps, chicken lollipops, and other delicacies floated through the table of 20. Her peers were laughing, genuinely laughing and happy. She remained on guard throughout the evening, measuring each word and ensuring that she didn’t share too much and hoping no one knew about the ugliness of her break up. 


It was late when she started the walk home. She pulled her sports jacket closed and hugged herself attempting to block the stinging cold. It had been a great night. She was safe. Maybe this was the beginning of her next chapter.


Stepping into her building was like a warm toasty oven...an oven that smelled like weed with a hint of dog, but nevertheless an oven. The elevator near the front of the building was jammed open. Someone was trying to move in or out, she couldn’t tell. She decided to walk to the back of the building to the freight elevator. Maybe she could be happy again. Hope kindled in her chest. She would text her mom that she would be home for Christmas this year. She felt alive again. 


In a hurry to get into bed, she remotely unlocked her apartment and adjusted the thermostat while waiting on the elevator.It was the night before Thanksgiving, she was off for the long weekend. She smiled to herself and felt something like joy blooming in her heart. 


The freight elevator opened and out stepped Rane. Their eyes met. She stepped backward out of shock. She fought the urge to run. He looked at her, surprise showing on his face too, then quickly stepped towards her. Panic flooded her brain. She reached for pepper spray in her purse and shouldered past him. She was jamming the 3rd floor button repeatedly as the doors closed. Rane turned to face the elevator as the doors were closing. Looking into his face, she could see his lips were moving but she could hear anything except the pounding of her heart as the urge to escape engulfed her entire being. 


It was too damned hot. She fought the urge to jerk her jacket off and toss it on the elevator floor. Rane was in her building. She desperately needed to get to her apartment and lock herself inside. She chose this building for security and went to painstaking measures to leave no trace of her new address. The elevator dinged then opened on to the 3rd floor. She walked hurriedly down the hallway toward her apartment, heart still pounding. Every few seconds she looked over her shoulder. As she approached her door, she saw a box sitting on the welcome mat. It was a 12 inch box, identical to the last package. 


No. The voices in her mind screamed and argued. It was Rane! No, it’s just a package! No, Antone had found her. Back and forth for what seemed like eternity as she walked the hallway towards her door. Her head swam and she felt bile tingling at the back of her throat. 


Wait, is she even on the right floor? Is this her hallway? Yes. 


All the hallways and doors were identical in the building. Maybe she was flustered and got off on the wrong floor. Hold on, was that her welcome mat? Yes.


The number on the door was her apartment number, the “Happy Thanksgiving” wreath was the one that she hung last weekend. It was possible that someone left this package at the wrong door. She looked frantically up and down the hall. This is the “What’s next” that Antone had warned her about. Her thoughts raced as she bent to read the address information on the box. It had her name in bold letters and Apartment #305, with no return address. He had found her. Her phone buzzed, a text from a number she didn’t know. It read, “Hello” and her full legal name. Heart pounding and hands shaking, she went in and locked the door behind her. She sank into her sofa, dark except for the Christmas tree lights, with shoes and purse still on and stared at the tree until she fell asleep. 


The package stayed in the hall all night.. She slept in, showered, and dressed warmly for the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5K race. Running was something she had enjoyed with her dad. He died 10 years ago on Thanksgiving of all days. She hadn’t celebrated with family since his death. Thanksgiving lost all its meaning, all of the shine. Running 5K would be way healthier than sitting around stuffing her face with dressing and pie afterall. 


As she opened the door to leave, she remembered. The package. Rane in the elevator. Antone’s threat. The random text using her full name. After moving downtown, she attempted to be as anonymous as possible, hidden from the world. The text was from her past. Was the package from her past too? 


Refusing to deal with it, she kicked the box into her foyer and locked the front door behind her. She did her best to put it out of her mind. There was just enough time to make it to the coffee shop, down an espresso, and walk over to City Hall to begin the race. She would enjoy the race, even if it killed her. 


The closer she got to the starting line, the better she felt. Some of her coworkers were running too.


 “I’m a normal girl, living a normal life. I have friends, if I can call them that, and we do normal things together...like 5Ks on Thanksgiving.” The thought was on repeat in her head.


It produced a slight smile underneath her mask and quickly spread to her eyes. The bullshit of the past was fading from her mind like a cloud in the sky. She saw her coworkers ahead and walked briskly to join the group. This would be a perfect morning. And it was, except for the gnawing feeling that something was undone. Something needed fixing. Something was not quite right.  


After the group passed the finish line, talk began about what was next for the day. Some were going to their parents for lunch, some were going to the Dallas Cowboys game, some were headed to Souza for Thanksgiving Happy Hour. She remained non-committal. Her plan was to binge watch TV and lay on the couch.


During the 10 minute walk back to her apartment her smile faded. Dread was growing in her chest. Rane was in the elevator last night. The box.The text. She had enough. She would take the box to the trash without opening it. Her phone buzzed. A text. 


“Hey, did you get the package?”


She opened her door and there it was. The package addressed to her. No return address. No hint at what could be inside. The willpower to throw it down the trash chute evaporated. The text repeated in her head as if Antone was whispering in her ear. “Did you get the package? Now you know what’s next. I found you.”


“I got the damn package!” she cursed out loud as she kicked the box across the room. It slid effortlessly across the polished concrete and stopped under the Christmas tree. 


“Great, now its a fucking Christmas present.” 


Agitated, she walked towards the bathroom, shedding layers of sweaty clothes onto the floor. After a shower, she would feel better. She would open the fucking package or she would throw it away. Then, she would block the number that was texting her phone. Lastly, she would make some popcorn and frozen pizza for Thanksgiving lunch, lay on the couch and eat it in the dark while Netflix played nonstop. 


Halfway through her pizza, an email notification lit up her phone. Email, seriously? On Thanksgiving? The message was from Rane Watson. She paused the show, turned on the lights and walked toward her balcony as if Rane could be out there. She stepped out into the sunshine and crisp breeze, wearing just sweats and fuzzy socks. She held her breath and opened the email. 


“It was a pleasant surprise to see you yesterday. I had no idea that you lived in my new building. Antone’s mood and our friendship deteriorated once you left. I would have left long ago I think, but I stayed around for you. I am still very sorry for my part in the package at your office. I know you probably won’t forgive me, but if you do I hope we can be friends as well as neighbors.” ~Rane 


It took a long time for her to digest this. She replied to unknown number about the package.


Her:

“Who is this?” 


Response:

“Oh! This is Bailey, Mr. Swartza’s secretary. He asked me to see if you had received the package. I guess he thought that you would have messaged him when you received it. I hope you are having a great Thanksgiving.”


Mr. Swartza? He was the senior partner at Swartza and Hartford Law Firm. Her eyes hungrily searched for the package as she ran towards the Christmas tree. The box still sat in the same place where it had landed after her furious kick. Now as gingerly as if it were a baby, she picked up the package and took it to the kitchen. Opening the box as if it were made of delicate glass, she peered inside. There was bubble wrap and a red envelope.


She ripped open the card. 

“An early Christmas gift for the hardest working junior partner at the firm.”, signed Lioni Swaerza. 


Tearing her nails into the bubble wrap, it fell away to reveal a name placard. Her name, and underneath the one word she had strived to attain “Partner”. Mr. Swartza had made her a partner in the firm. A whirlwind of emotion flooded her body and mind. All the hard work, sacrifice, and long nights. She was alive. She could start to trust in the good. This was the start of her next chapter.


December 04, 2021 01:30

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3 comments

Jon Butters
18:35 Dec 09, 2021

I agree with KB, the tone throughout versus the tone at the end seems very different. It feels rushed. I also think some restructuring would benefit the story both in it's narration as well as adherence to the chosen prompt. But I'm not a judge, and maybe I'm nitpicking. It's a good story, and I was invested in the character, so I hope she continues to do well

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Kevin Broccoli
22:59 Dec 08, 2021

I always think holiday content is so hard to pull off and you did it so well. Love the fearlessness. I almost wish it hadn't been tied up so well in the end. It felt like it was separate from the tone you'd established up to that point.

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Astrid Mercier
06:25 Dec 09, 2021

Thank you for the feedback!

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