Well, it’s been half a year. Some months ago, when the outside world wasn’t just part of my imagination, I entered a short story contest. It was the first ever writing contest I’d entered, and subsequently the first ever writing contest I lost, but it was fun! Below you’ll find the two thousand or so words I wrote and then agonized over for days. Enjoy!
The door swung shut behind her, the loud bang reverberating down every spent nerve she had. Maybe if it wasn’t the end of the week, and maybe if her day started and ended completely different than the way it had, she would have caught the door deftly with her hand or the heel of her boot to quiet her entrance.
As it was, the door slammed, her body jolted, and her irritability rose. She tried to release some of that anger with a long breath in through her nose and out through her mouth, but it didn’t help. Instead, her leather purse landed with a soft thud behind the door, her boots and socks following shortly thereafter. What she needed was dinner and a glass of wine. She walked down the dark hallway of the house she wanted to love but didn’t, her bare feet growing cold against the dark wood floors, in search of exactly those two things. Three things, if she included her husband who, on a Friday night at 7pm was almost certainly in the kitchen whipping together something for the both of them to eat.
Except, she realized as she got closer to the kitchen, the house was too quiet for him to be cooking. Oz was many things, but a quiet cook was not one of them. Often, she’d open the front door to country music blaring, her husband singing loudly slightly out of time and extremely out of key. If show tunes were playing, it meant he was in a good mood and experimenting with a new recipe. No music implied it was her night to cook, but he hadn’t sent a text asking her to pick something up on the way home.
The kitchen was just as dark as the hallway. In fact, none of the lights on the ground floor were on. Luckily all of the boxes they had yet to unpack were shoved into the spare bedroom, otherwise they would have posed a tripping hazard. It was one of the issues she’d had when Oz had convinced her to move out here; even in the dead of night in the city, everything was still illuminated. She hadn’t gotten used to the lightless country nights yet, and she wondered if she ever would.
“Oz,” she called, as she walked back towards the stairs. When there wasn’t a reply, she yelled it louder.
A sound of surprise came from somewhere on the second floor, followed by a muffled curse. A door opened, if she had to guess she’d say her office door, and Oz’s heavy footfall sounded down the hallway a second later. He appeared at the top of the stairs, a tall shape now backlit by a soft glow.
“Babe, I wasn’t expecting you home early.” This time the confusion was on his end, his tone of voice and the way he anxiously smoothed down his black beard giving him away.
“It’s 7,” she stated, letting some of the annoyance she felt creep into her voice.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time, as if to corroborate this fact. He brought something up on his screen, swore under his breath again, and looked back down the hallway from where he’d come. She could see him processing a number of scenarios to which she knew almost none of the variables.
“Okay, right. I, uh, need a second. Don’t come upstairs.” He didn’t wait for her to respond, but instead half ran back to her office and closed the door.
This was so unlike his character, so not what she was used to coming home to, that she was immediately suspicious. He was terrible at keeping secrets, he didn’t usually see the point. He was known for buying a present for someone and then telling them almost immediately afterwards what he’d gotten. It wasn’t like Oz to hide something from her, especially not like this.
Curiosity, annoyance, and growing hunger stopped her from staying downstairs like Oz had asked. Instead, defiant, she climbed the stairs and walked down the hall to her office. She was a grown woman, she didn’t have to stay downstairs if she didn’t want to. She paused at the closed door, light spilling out underneath the frame, the need to be polite and knock before entering stopping her. The defiance, like a bubble, burst. Her stomach growled, egging her on.
“Oz, what is go–,” she opened the door and stopped. Her husband was leaning up against a giant set of built in wooden bookshelves that had not been there when she’d left for work that morning.
His reaction was delayed, but when he realized she’d opened the door, he quickly stepped away from the bookshelves and hid the hammer he’d been holding behind his back. As if this somehow blocked her from seeing the rest of his tools lying in the room. The movement was so innocent and childlike that for a minute she didn’t know what to do.
“I-I can explain,” he said, clearly uncomfortable under her scrutiny.
“You built me bookcases.” She walked over to the shelves and ran a hand over their surface, feeling the texture of the naked wood with her fingertips. She’d seen Oz work before, the love he put into each of the pieces he worked on. Now, it was reflected in the angles of these shelves. Her shelves. In the alignment, the perfect fit, as if they were always meant to be a part of this room. They took up the entire wall of her office across from her desk, and added a sense of wonderment to the space. She’d always wanted floor to ceiling bookshelves, but had given up on the idea shortly after they’d moved in. There were more important things that needed fixing.
He was watching her and she turned to meet his gaze. His dark eyes searched hers, trying to gauge the emotions behind them. “Do you like them,” he asked as he fiddled with the hammer behind his back, the nervous energy trying to escape him somehow.
“Did you build this all today,” she sidestepped the question. She didn’t quite know how to sum up what these shelves meant to her. A simple ‘I love them’ didn’t begin to explain how the thoughtfulness had formed a lump in her throat. A lump that she was having a hard time swallowing around, if she was being completely honest.
His face lit up, as it always did when questions about his work came up, “I worked on them between customers over the past month. After we had that talk.” That talk had been a breakdown she’d had that had resulted in her stoically packing up her anger into the car and taking it on a drive for a couple of hours until she’d calmed down enough to face him and the house again.
When they’d discussed where to live after getting married, the country hadn’t seemed like such a bad idea. She loved the city, but a change of pace was needed. They’d both fallen in love with the house, even though she thought it was beyond the scope of what they could easily renovate. The house inspector had assured them it was mostly cosmetic, and Oz had assured her that he’d organize his workload so he could spend more time working on the house. The former had rung true, the latter had not.
“I also hired someone this week,” he said, taking a step towards her, “You were right. The house needs the work. So Jack’s going to be running the shop for me for awhile. I can spend a day or two a week fixing things up here and still keep the business going. We can do this.”
An emotion that she didn’t fully understand squeezed her chest. Without thinking, she took a step, two, then wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his.
She’d taken him by surprise, but it took him only a heartbeat to reciprocate the kiss, instinctively pulling her closer. The tension in the curves of her body were apparent and he wanted nothing more than to relieve her stress.
She pulled back from the kiss but remained in the circle of his embrace, “Thank you.”
He leaned forward and put his forehead against hers, “I love you, you know.”
Unable to meet his gaze right then, she opted to stare at his chest instead. She placed a hand overtop of his heart, the soft fabric of his shirt warm with his heat. “I know,” she whispered softly.
They stayed like that for a minute, enjoying being in the presence of one another. No obligations, no issues, just the two of them being present together. Until her stomach growled, reminding them both that it was dinner time.
With reluctance, she moved to untangle herself from him. Before she could fully remove herself, he leaned down and kissed her forehead. She gave him a small smile.
“I guess I’ll go whip something up quick,” she said, turning towards the door. What she really wanted was to sit in this room all night and stare at the beauty of her shelves.
“Don’t worry about it. Pizza should be here in,” he pulled out his phone and checked the screen, “10 minutes, give or take.”
“You ordered food?”
He looked at her sheepishly, “I knew you’d be hungry, and I wanted to get these built before you got home. I thought maybe you’d want to spend the night organizing your books and eating pizza.”
This time the smile that she gave him was genuine and huge. The smile that he’d seen a hundred times over when they’d first started dating, and fallen more in love with each time he’d witnessed it. It transformed her face from pensive to unfettered, like a caged bird set free.
The first night she’d moved into her apartment in the city was one of her happiest memories. It marked the beginning of her feeling like an actual, responsible adult. The first thing she’d done, apart from putting sheets on the mattress tucked into the corner of the room, was order a pizza and organize her books. Her bookcase hadn’t actually been a bookcase at all, just piles of colorful spines against the wall in her living room. But they were hers and they were in the apartment she had rented by herself.
“Did you want to put music on and help me,” she asked after a moment.
“Am I allowed to sing?” He gave her a playful smile out of the corner of his mouth that brought a mischievous glint to his eyes.
She nodded, “Only if you are alright with me covering my ears.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I have an amazing voice,” he replied.
A chime sounded through the house, startling them both. He let out a little laugh, “Pizza must be here early. It’s paid for, if you want to grab it. I’ll start hauling yours books out of the spare room.”
She stopped him with a hand on his arm as he moved to walk by her. Their eyes met and she intentionally held his gaze, letting him see what she was feeling.
“I love you, Oz,” she said, tenderly.
He leaned down and gave her another quick kiss on the forehead, “I love you too, Viv.”