Flash Fiction: Eliza & Tanner

(Eliza & Tanner’s story originally appeared as a serial flash fiction on CharlieGsOutfitRatings Instagram from 2/15/21 to 2/19/21 under “Book Vibes.” It has been modified for this blog post. Note: contains characters from Amy & Cole’s flash fiction.)

 

When the package arrived—the first one in nearly six months—Eliza’s heart skipped a beat. Just seeing his name scribbled across the address label was almost like one of his soul-affirming hugs. Almost. She ran from the mailbox into the apartment, opening her mouth to call out to her roommate before she remembered that Amy had moved out.

After a year of dating, Amy moved in with her boyfriend Cole. (Well, he wouldn’t be only a boyfriend soon. Eliza had been helping him plan a proposal.) As much fun as it was to live alone, it sucked to not have someone to share the little things with.

Whatever. She’d FaceTime Amy later. For now, she’d just enjoy the story that laid inside the box.

She sliced the tape and folded back the flaps, the scent of salt water, sunscreen, and Tanner’s cologne washing over her. Her chest ached from missing him. When was the last time they had even talked? At least a year. Who knew being a travel photographer was so demanding?

The contents told the story of a beautiful island. Handfuls of shells, a tacky keychain, a poorly folded map, three polaroids, and a letter on a hotel notepad. 

LiLi,

You ever go someplace new and just know someone else would love it? Then spend the whole time you’re their missing them? That was this place. You needed to be here.

I miss you.

Got a couch for me?

Tan

She ran her fingers over the nickname. LiLi. He’d called her that one day in the third grade and it stuck. God, she missed him. She wondered what timezone he was in and if it was too late for a call. She picked up the phone anyway and dialed.

For the first time in a year, he answered. His voice like a salve to sunburn. “LiLi,” he breathed. “You got my package?”

“Yes! Hey. I miss you back.”

“Good. Because I have another surprise for you.”

She smiled. “What?” Someone knocked on her door. She stilled, her heart thundering so hard she could hear it in her ears.

“Knock knock.”

***

Eliza stared at the man standing on the other side of her threshold. Her throat was tight with emotions and her head spun with questions she wasn’t ready to ask. She swallowed three times then smiled. “Hey stranger.” She ended the call and put the phone in her pocket.

Pushing the door wider and taking a step back, she bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from saying anything too embarrassing before he had even set his bags down. Like, “why can’t you just call me like a normal person?” Or “I hate missing you all the time.”

He dropped his backpack and duffel next to the couch then gave the apartment a once over. She studied him in return.

His hair was longer and a beard smoothed the angles of his sharp jaw. His shoulders were hunched and there was a new scar on his arm, pink on his suntanned skin. It was his eyes though that gave her pause. They were…tired.

“This is exactly how I envisioned your place,” he finally said. “Functional and eclectic.”

She lifted her arms. “Tada.”

“Can I crash on your couch for a few nights? Just until I figure out my next move?”

She didn’t say, “As long as you say goodbye this time.”

Instead, she opted for, “You know I always have space for you. In fact, Amy just moved out and left her bed, so you’re welcome to stay in the second bedroom.”

He smiled so big it made her smile. “You were always my favorite for a reason.” He rounded the coffee table and wrapped her in a hug, listening her off the ground.

His scent, his warmth, his soft sweatshirt cocooned her and she clung on as if she could suspend them in the moment forever.

“If you ever leave a year between phone calls again, I will hunt you down,” she warned.

He released her and nodded solemnly.

“It’s just…sometimes it’s harder after I talk to you. You’re too easy to miss, LiLi.”

She bit her bottom lip and nodded once in understanding. She knew that feeling all too well. “Well, you can stay as long as you want. Under one condition.”

“Hm?”

“Stay out of my room.”

***

Tanner laid back on the bed and sighed. He needed someplace where his body, his soul could rest.

He’d spent the last few years traveling with environmentalists and wealthy explores who wanted their journeys documented. It had been everything a younger Tanner had ever wanted. But sometimes being treated as an accessory meant his employers thought he was expendable. And after the last job, he needed to regroup.

This was the only place he could think of that might feel like home.

As he stared up at the afternoon light pouring in across the white ceiling, he knew he had made the right choice.

He closed his eyes and listened as Eliza moved around the apartment, quietly singing along to music playing on her phone. He’s never heard the song before, but that wasn’t surprising. Half the last trip his cell didn’t work.

He wanted to sit next to Eliza and have her walk him through everyday that’d passed since the last time he saw her smile.

This was the part he was always bad at. The apologizes for the space he put between them. The missed birthdays and holidays. The rarely answered voicemails.

He hoped he knew that he packed those boxes he sent with everything he couldn’t say. It was the only way he’d figure out how to tell her how much he missed her. About how he wished she’d said yes when he had asked her to join him all those years ago.

About how sorry he was for leaving without saying goodbye.

He wasn’t a kid anymore. He needed to start making amends. With a sigh that carried too many burdens to share, he pushed himself up off the bed and dug out his camera.

“Hey LiLi,” he called, walking into the living room. She stopped mid-mop of the kitchen floor. He swallowed hard. She only cleaned the kitchen floor when she was stressed.

Had he done this? Had he caused her stress? Yeah, probably. He was a dick.

He offered a sheepish smile and lifted his camera. “Wanna go for a walk?”

She bit her lip and nodded. “Five minutes then I’ll show off my new camera.”

“Can’t wait.”

***

Eliza kept looking up from her camera to make sure Tanner was still there. Sometimes he seems more like a memory than a real person. But he was still standing by the lake, crouching to take likely some breathtaking photo of the water.

She lifted her camera and took a picture of him. If someone took a photo of her right now, they’d capture their entire relationship. Him focused on the water, her focused on him.

Letting him stay at the apartment was a mistake. It was going to wreck her when he left again.  He’d fill her up with attention then before she had enough of him, he would pack his bags and wave goodbye. Unless it was like last time, when he just left a note.

To be fair, she didn’t think it was possible to get enough of him. He was the kind of person people were drawn to, someone who made friends no matter where their were. The snapped another picture, proving her point, as he focused his attention on a golden retriever who had come to greet him.

A frazzled mother and a kid ran to the dog, and Tanner took his time talking to them and handing the leash back.

No doubt he was encouraging the kid to be on their best behavior, and the mom will tell all her friends about the handsome man on the beach who rescued their runaway dog.

That’s what I would do in her shoes.

Eliza’s phone vibrated.

Cole: Thursday’s the day

Eliza: Amy’s birthday? That’s a strong move

Cole: good move or bad move?

Eliza: It’s perfect honestly

Cole: 👍🏻

Cole: You’ll be ready?

Eliza: Sir, I am a professional

Eliza: aka chill the F out 😘

“Why do you have your nefarious smile on?” Tanner asked.

She jumped, nearly dropping her phone. “I forgot you walk like a cat. I’m helping my friend Cole propose to Amy on Thursday.”

His brows went up. “Old roommate Amy?”

She nodded. “That’s the one.”

He clapped once. “Okay, how can I help?”

Her heart did a tap dance in her chest and his willingness to dive into a plan headfirst, despite only knowing Amy peripherally. “Let’s head home. I’ll show you what I’ve got so far.”

***

In his early twenties, Tanner had needed life-altering adventures to make himself feel alive. Now, a night with takeout and a good movie made him feel like he was human again. So did the paper cuts.

Who knew that putting pictures into frames would be so risky?

Eliza was pouring over her sketch book, trying to map out the temporary instillation that she was putting together for the proposal. Her friend Cole had rented out a space for Eliza to display her work and then they created an elaborate cover story about how an artist had bailed at the last minute and Eliza was asked to step in.

Amy thought she was just coming to a launch party to celebrate her friend’s photography. But this series was a hundred pictures of Amy and Cole. To a stranger, LiLi having a hundred pics of her friends might veer into the creepy, but she was like Tanner. Always documenting the world around her, witnessing life through a lens.

He slid the backing on the last frame and leaned back on the couch, pressing on his cuts. Eliza leaned over and taped a number to the back of the frame to help her organize.

“Thanks, you saved me hours,” she said.

He held up his hands. “Glad I could be of service. You are letting me crash here.”

She nodded, chewing on her lower lip. Her pencil stopped and she glanced sideways at him. “Do you know how long you’re going to stay?”

He swallowed and ran a hand over the back of his neck. “Not yet. But let me know if I’m getting on your nerves.”

“Well, if you’re still here Friday, we’re doing an engagement party brunch for Amy and Cole. Assuming she says yes.” Her eyes met his and his stomach swooped. She was expecting him to say no.

“I’m there. Promise.”

Her pencil started moving again, but she didn’t respond. That was fair; he wouldn’t trust him in her shoes. He opened his mouth to say something to bridge the gap they’d never been able to close when his phone rang.

He frowned at the number. Why was his former manager, Roy, calling him? He thought the resignation letter was clear enough. “I’ve gotta take this.” He walked into his room and closed the door, then answered with a brisk, “What?”

Not the most professional, but he didn’t care.

“Listen,” Roy said. “I know you don’t want to talk to me. But—”

“I’m not inter—“

“Live Nature Magazine is recruiting for a year long series and they’ve partnered with us. You’re the one of the best we’ve ever had. I know you quit, but I’ll tear up this resignation and we’ll pretend it never happened. Nearly every photographer who has done a long series with Live Nature—“

“Has won an IPA.” Tanner sat on the edge of his bed and scrubbed his face with his freehand. An International Photography Award was the equivalent of an Academy Award. It would change his career. It would change his life.

***

Tanner shouldn’t have picked up the phone. And if picked up the phone, then he shouldn’t have asked about the job. Because he had promised himself he was done with traveling for months, years on end. He was done sleeping in tents and getting a string of new vaccines and the annoying side effects of malaria prevention medication. He was done with missing birthdays and weddings and holidays.

But the longer Roy spoke, the harder Tanner’s heart thudded in his chest. It was a project he would have taken without a second thought a decade ago. Hell, a year ago.

His mind raced. Emotionally he wanted to do this. To have a real chance at the IPA, to work for such a prestigious magazine…this was an opportunity that could make or break his career.

And then what?

“Tanner?” Roy asked.

He shook he head and refocused on the call. “Sorry, yeah. I’m still here.”

“If you want this, it’s yours. You have to be in New York on Friday.”

His grip on the phone tightened. “What? This Friday?” He’d miss the brunch he promised Eliza he’d attend. A promise she already knew he was going to break. His chest hallowed out at the thought. He was such an unreliable asshole.

“Consider this my formal apology for what happened,” Roy said. “Sleep on it and call me tomorrow.” He disconnected.

Tanner threw his phone on the bed and stood, pacing in sharp loops at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t believe any of this. A knot in his chest tightened, making it harder to breathe. On paper this was everything Tanner ever wanted. So why didn’t he feel anything but dread?

There was a knock at his door. “You okay?” Eliza asked.

He blew out a long breath, pasted on a smile, then opened the door. “I’m good. Hey, is that ice cream place still around?”

Her eyes searched his and he knew she knew he was lying, but she was kind enough to not call him on it.

“Yeah. It’s open until ten.”

He pushed passed her. “Let’s go get sugar high.”

***

Tanner was a good actor, but she was a better observer. Her job, her life was capturing human expression at the most pivotal moments. She also wasn’t a freaking idiot.

She saw the way he pushed his melting ice cream around instead of eating it. He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. His leg never stopped bouncing.

He stared at her like he was trying to memorize every detail.

No, she wasn’t an idiot. She knew he was leaving again and soon. She didn’t know who was on the other end of the line, but whoever it was had stolen the light from his eyes. Not that he had been glowing much since he arrived.

God, she was so tired of this game where they just didn’t talk. They both pretended everything was fine until he left again. She set down her spoon, pushed her sundae away, and folded her hands in front of her.

“What?” Tanner asked.

“I’m tired, Tan.”

He sat up. “Then we’ll head out.”
She placed a hand on his forearm to keep him in place. “Emotionally.” She bobbed her head. “Okay, I could use a nap, too, but that’s not what I’m getting at.” She removed her hand and gestured between them. “I’m tired of us not talking.”

His fingers banged out a melody on the edge of the table. “Okay, we can talk.”

“Who was on the phone?”

The Happy Tanner mask cracked and for a moment, she saw the real man underneath. The one she’d wish he’d show her. The one that was hurting and exhausted.

He shifted and broke eye contact with her. “Just an old friend.”

The thread she had kept wrapped around their friendship, no matter the distance, strained and broke. He lied again. And she was done. She stood and picked up her dish, throwing her half-eaten sundae into the trash and pushing out the door.

“LiLi, wait!”

She didn’t wait. She wasn’t a kid anymore, so desperate for his attention and friendship that she’d let him get away with murder. She wanted her real best friend back.

He ran in front of her and held up his hands. She stopped and crossed her arms. “You are supposed to be my best friend. But you’re a stranger to me now.”

He shoved a hand through his hair and shook his head. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so much.”

“It’s not about physical distance, Tan. Even when you’re right in front of me, you’re half way across the world emotionally. You can stay through the weekend, but then you need to find somewhere else.” She paused when he flinched. “Ah, you’ll be gone by then anyway.” 

***

Tanner watched her storm off, then followed several feet behind to make sure she got home safe. Once she was inside, he kept walking

This was LiLi. His best friend. The person who’d known him his entire life. She was the person who cared the most about him in the entire world. His dad hadn’t even texted him on his birthday this year. LiLi had emailed him a photo montage of their best pictures to one of their favorite songs from high school.

He needed to be better. He never wanted to disappoint her, yet he was constantly managing to do that. He wished he could call his mom. He missed her voice, her advice, the way she shook her head at him when he was being ridiculous. It had been twelve years since she passed, but sometimes it still felt like twelve minutes.

His feet led him to the lake. He sat down on a bench and stared out at the setting sun. For a fleeting moment he wished he had his camera, but then pushed the thought away. Today he just need to listen to the waves, the breeze, the birds that called to each other.

“Any advice, Mom?” he asked the wind.

He already knew the answer, he just didn’t want to acknowledge it. He had to tell Eliza everything. He had to stop shoving away everything that wasn’t work and pretending it didn’t matter.

Especially when it mattered the most.

When he walked in the apartment, the linger scent of lemon clung to the air. She’d mopped the kitchen floor again. He’d done that. He rubbed his chest with the heel of his hand to try and ease the ache the knowledge left him with.

He knocked three times on Eliza’s door. “Can we talk?” She didn’t respond. He hung his head and turned to walk to his room when the door opened. She was in her favorite sweat pants—a pair she’d stolen from him in high school—and her eyes were red rimmed.

It was like a fist to the stomach.

He lifted his hands to her shoulders and squeezed. “The truth. I promise.”

***

They were only a couch cushion apart, but miles and years and all the words left unsaid were piled between them. Tanner stared at the picture by her tv, one of Eliza and him in high school at a carnival, both with huge lollipops in their mouths. God, what he wouldn’t give to be back in that moment.

He rested his elbows on his knees and looked down at his hands. “Half way through my last trip, I wanted out. I finally got enough cell service to texted my manager, Roy, and told him I’d pay for my own everything, just get me to any airport. He refused. Said if I came home now, he wouldn’t pay me.”

Eliza held very still, as if moving even an inch might make him stop talking. To be fair, she was probably right.

“To get off the island we needed a boat or a plane. We had come in on a chopper, but it had returned to the mainland. Figured if I could make it another week until one of the local boats came to drop off fresh supplies, I could bribe them to take me back with them.”

The back of his neck burned, the memory of the scorching sun lingering long after his skin healed. He folded his arms and ran his thumb over the scab on his left forearm. “We had been hired by some super wealthy guy who wanted us to document him and his family spending a few months exploring the island. We had thought he was some scientist or philanthropist, but it turned out he was just an asshole who wanted something to brag about on his holiday cards.”

Eliza scooted closer. Just an inch.

He swallowed hard and continued. “The supply boat didn’t come the next week and when I asked, the guy who hired us brushed me off. The next morning, my coworker and I woke up to the sound of a helicopter. When we rushed out of our tents, the camp was completely empty and the chopper was already off the ground.”

She turned to face him. “What?”

He looked down at my feet, trying to focus on my socks instead of the memory. “They left us there. The family decided they wanted to go home, abandoned all their gear—and us—and just left.”

She gasped and closed the space between them, her shoulder resting against his. She was like a balm, soothing him. “Tan…”

He shook his head once, knowing that if she stopped him, he’d never continue. “Roy took legal action, don’t worry. And luckily we found some locals who helped us hire a boat from a different part of the island. But it took four days, and they hadn’t left much food or water behind.”

He held out his forearm and showed her the scar. “Got a pretty gnarly snake bite, too. Lucky it wasn’t poisonous. I quit the moment my feet were back on the mainland. I’d been thinking about traveling less over the last year and this was the final push.”

Eliza just stared at him. “Roy was the one that called you?” He pressed his lips together and nodded. “Why?”

He closed his eyes for a beat then looked back at her. “Because he has a new job for me.”

“How could you go work for him again?”

He hesitated. “Because it could change my life.” She kept her shoulder touching his as he explained about the job, the opportunity, what it could mean for his career. He didn’t have to explain that he wasn’t worried about being mistreated on this trip. He didn’t have to.

Live Nature Magazine was one of the bestselling magazines in the United States. He’d probably stay in hotels and get three meals a day. Even as he spoke, though, it was almost like he was trying to convince himself that this was a great idea, as much as her.

She was silent for a long moment before nodding once and leaning her head against his shoulders. “You know you have to go. You have to do it.”

He sighed. “I know.”

“It’s everything you’ve ever wanted.”

He kissed the top of her head. “Come with me.”

“I can’t.”

He signed again. “I know that, too.”

***

By silent agreement, they didn’t acknowledge that Thursday would be their last day together. Eliza woke with the sunrise and made Tanner’s favorite breakfast. The coffee was extra strong, because she knew he was still wrecked from the time zone change, even though he tried to hide it.

Today was the day two of her friends got engaged and she had a lot of work to do. A lot of distraction from the fact that Tanner was leaving tomorrow. Her orange juice turned to acid in her stomach.

She recorded a very off-key rendition of happy birthday and sent it to Amy. Then she woke Tanner up and they shared breakfast like it was something they did every morning. Their knees touched under her tiny table, but neither of them pulled away.

They worked in tandem loading and unloading her car, Tanner putting his hands on her lower back or hips every time he moved past her. She missed his casual touches, his hugs, his tickles, his side-pokes. It was as if them talking last night had pieces back together whatever was broken.

While Eliza studied the space and the photos they had laid out on the floor, Tanner rested his chin on her shoulder. She leaned her head against his, closing her eyes, and tried to memorize this moment.

“Do you want my opinion or only my physical skills?”

She pretended to think about it. “Hmmm…” He poked her side. She laughed and dislodged his chin, but didn’t examine why she suddenly felt colder. “Okay, what is this opinion?”

He crouched, removing a small photo from the center of a small cluster. It was a photo with Cole whispering something in Amy’s ear and Amy laughing, her head tilted toward the sun. “This should be the featured photo.”

She frowned, looking from him to the large print she’d made as the feature. “I didn’t pick that one because Cole was blurry.”

“Ah,” Tanner said, straightening and walking over to her. “But, I think you’re too close to the photos. I mean, feel free to ignore me, the feature you have is beautiful.”

He was right; it was a photo from New Year’s Eve, both of them dressed in 1920’s style outfits, sitting side by side. It was a great photo compositionally. ”But?”

“But in this photo,” he tapped small picture, “you didn’t just capture them. You captured an intimate moment. Look at how his fingers are tangled in her hair, like he just can’t get enough of her. Look at her hand gripping his shirt like she never wants to let go.” He met her eyes. “You have the rare gift of being able to capture love.”

Her skin warmed at that word. Love. He handed her the small photo and she forced herself to break eye contact and reexamine it. She swallowed hard at the pang that echoed through her chest. Tanner was right. He had always made her see the world differently. Challenged her to grow.

Him leaving again was going to destroy her. She cleared her throat. “You’re right.”

He took the frame from her hand. “I’ll go get it enlarged. You start hanging.”

She watched him walk out of the room, her eyes stinging. No, she couldn’t be sad today. Today was a day for dreams and wishes. Tomorrow she could be devastated.

***

“LiLi!” Tanner called. “We gotta move!”

“Coming!” She flung open the door then quickly closed it behind her. She was a wave of soft perfume and sparkle. She finished putting an earring in then spun around with her hands at her sides. “All good?”

He took a step back, hand pressing to his chest to try and keep his heart inside his rib cage. The dress was the same color as her eyes. And her hair swept to one side showed the curve of her neck.

“That bad?”

He shook his head. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

She rolled her eyes, but the top of her ears turned pink. “Well, you clean up well, too.”

He smiled. “Why thank you.” He didn’t have much in the way of dress clothes, but he managed a button up with the sleeves rolled to his elbows and jeans without holes in them.

Eliza glanced at her phone and emitted a squeal. “We gotta go!”

He was smart enough to just keep his mouth shut and open the door.

When they got to the venue, they hurried in and were greeted by a group of people whom Tanner suspected were friends and family.

Eliza hurriedly kissed cheeks, nodded at well-deserved praise, then checked her phone again. “FIVE MINUTE WARNING!” she shouted. “Get into the room next door.”

While everyone filed in, Tanner dropped the fresh rose petals on the floor, while Eliza turned on the a playlist of classic love songs she’d spent the week curating. They grabbed their cameras and stowed their bags in the room next door. She kicked off her shoes and hid behind a large potted tree. Tanner choose a small love seat along the opposite wall.

The door opened and Amy and Cole walked in. Eliza was snapping away, and he was glad the music covered the shutter sound. Tanner followed suit, trying to capture Amy’s reaction as realization dawned that all the photos were of her. When Cole dropped to his knee, Tanner heard a sob to his left.

Glancing over, he found a tear-stained Eliza, trying to hold her camera steady.

He adjusted his camera to snap a few pictures of her. She was absolutely beautiful, lost in her friends’ love. This is why he’d been in love with her for his entire life. He was just the idiot who was always leaving.

With shaking hands, he turned back to the couple who were locked in a celebratory embrace. On cue, the doors opened to reveal their family and friends and the impromptu engagement party began.

Eliza ran screaming at her friends, tackling them in a hug that almost knocked all of them over. Tanner kept his camera locked on them, trying to capture the pure joy on Eliza’s face.

When was the last time he’d seen it? He wanted to be the one who made her face light up like that. Something that felt like his heart broke in half.

“Tanner! Come here!” she ordered.

He walked over and put his hand on Eliza’s lower back, unable to keep from touching her. “Congratulations!” he told the couple.

“You remember Amy, of course, and this is her new fiancé Cole!”

“Your girl here is responsible for this,” Cole said.

His girl. Tanner slipped his hand to Eliza’s hip and tugged her into his side. Just for tonight, maybe they could pretend.

Eliza touched Tanner’s chest and he nearly forgot how to breathe. “Not just this,” she gestured to the room, “but the relationship. I played the ‘I’m going to fake date him to make you realize you’re in love with him’ card.”

Tanner scrunched his nose. “You did that to Jamie Albright and Kyle Centan in tenth grade.”

Eliza point at him. “And they’ve been happily married for years.”

Amy laughed and shook her head. “I was so jealous. But I should’ve known you were faking.”

Eliza put a hand on her hip. “Excuse me, I’m a phenomenal actor.”

Cole laughed. “You are. But you never looked at me the same way you look at him.” He nodded to Tanner.

Two older adults flanked the group and the happy couple turned to greet them.

Cole’s gaze caught Tanner’s. “Hope to see you tomorrow at the brunch.”

Tanner couldn’t do anything but smile back. He wouldn’t be there; he’d be at his airport gate wondering if he was making the biggest mistake of his life.

Eliza stepped away from him to grabbed two flutes of champagne. “Drink up. I’m going to make you dance with me.”

He smiled down at her and swallowed the liquid courage. Then dance they did. She stood on his feet, head tucked into his shoulder, swaying in the corner. “Reminds me of prom ,” he teased.

“Until you snuck off with Clarissa Fortune to make out behind the punch bowl.”

He laughed. “Fair. Too bad we don’t have a punch bowl here.”

She poked his side. “No Clarissa, either.”

He raised their cupped hands to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “My tastes have improved since then.”

She lifted her head to search his face. “Tan” she whispered. “You’re leaving tomorrow. We can’t—“ her breath hitched.

“Just tonight, LiLi. Just pretend for tonight, okay?”

She nodded and snuggled her head against his neck. He never wanted this moment to end.

***

Eliza found him dozing on the couch. A nature documentary on mute was the only light in the room. She pulled the light blanket off the back of the couch and laid it over him. Not because it was cold, but for comfort.

He shifted and opened his eye, sleep softening his smile. He lifted the edge of the blanket. “Come here.”

She slid in next to him. He moved his legs so they intertwined with hers, his arms pulling her tight against him.

“You’re very snuggly when you drink champagne,” she mused.

“Just for tonight.”

They were touching head to toe, his forehead against hers. Her breath shook. When was the last time she’d been held like this?

“LiLi, you are the person I love most in this world,” he breathed. “I don’t know how to leave again.”

She swallowed the pieces of her broken heart down, her throat stinging. “You’re going to wake up in the morning, pack your bags, and walk out that door. We’ll drive to the airport and you’ll wave goodbye.” Her voice caught on the last word.

He reached up and traced her bottom lip with his fingertip. “If I was staying, I’d ask if I could kiss you right now.”

Her breath hitched. Nothing in the universe mattered except his finger. “If you were staying, I’d let you.”

He should’ve been the one. She had always been waiting for him. She knew it was time to stop waiting.

Tomorrow, tomorrow she’d figure out how to move on without him.

Tonight it was just this.

Their gazes locked and held, and she imagined another future where he stayed. Where he kissed her and she kissed him back. Where they moved together in quiet whispers and gasps of love. Where she looked at him this way every time they woke up.

He closed his eyes for a moment and she recognized by the pain in his expression that he imagined it, too. Giving up one dream to chase another was always the hardest part of life.

She leaned forward and kissed the furrowed spot between his brows. Then she brushed her lips on the corner of his jaw.

He buried his face in her neck, pulling her even closer somehow. His ragged breath caressing her sensitive skin. His lips moved across her collar bone and up the side of her neck, across her jaw, and lingered at the corner of her mouth. Then he pulled away, resting his forehead against hers again.

All her organs rearranged themselves in a non-sensical order, her heart giving up and moving to her stomach, her stomach disappearing all together. Their lips were one single breath apart, but it might as well be miles. They couldn’t kiss. It would break what was left of them.

“Promise to come home in a year?” she asked, not ashamed of her desperate tone. So much for getting over him.

He kissed her nose, the only answer he could give her. She knew that. She knew that there was no way either of them could make a promise right now. Who knew where she would be in a year? Who knew where his career would take him?

She fisted his shirt tighter. “I’m not ready to let go.” She meant tonight, but maybe she meant forever.

“I’m never ready.” He held her as close as they both fell into a soft sleep.

***

“Are you sure?” Eliza asked for the sixth time.

Tanner rested his hands on her shoulders. “I took a Lyft here. I can take one to the airport.”

She bit her lip and nodded. After a frantic text from Amy asking Eliza to pick up something from the local bakery—whose delivery truck had broken down—Tanner had promised to find his own way to the airport.

It was probably better this way. No constant reminder of what he was going to miss the entire way there.

She pulled something from her pocket and held it out. He dropped his hands from her shoulder and opened his palm.

He stared down at the plastic photo keychain with the lollipop picture inside. His heart fell through the floor.

“That way, I’m always with you,” she explained.

He swallowed once, then again, his throat forgetting how to work. Hot emotion burned his eyes. “It’s perfect,” he whispered.

She palmed his cheek and he closed his eyes, leaning in to her touch. “Take care of you, okay?” She stood on her tip toes and kissed the corner of his mouth.

Then she was gone.

The moment the door closed, all the oxygen left the room. He stumbled back a step and gasped for a breath. Another.

Logically, he knew air was filling his lungs, but it didn’t matter. He was already leaving his heart behind, might as well leave his entire chest cavity, too. He opened his phone app and ordered a Lyft.

He still had time, but he couldn’t sit around in this apartment anymore. The moment he got to the airport, he’d feel better. He was always a little nervous before a trip and this was a big one.

He walked around the apartment, trying to memorize the details that made it feel like home. The shells he’d set her filled a vase on the window ledge. The frilly apron she liked to cook in hung on a hook in the kitchen. Photos of her family and friends covering the fridge.

Then, he stood in front of her door, hand resting on the doorknob. She told him to stay out of her room, to respect her boundaries. But something told him he needed to open the door. He held his breath and turned the knob.

It was exactly as he expected. Clean with only a few articles of clothing tossed on a chair. Her bed hurriedly made and a discarded outfit across the bottom edge.

And photos. Above her headboard were lovingly framed pictures on a perfectly symmetrical pattern. He moved to close the door when a flash of turquoise caught his eye. He’d only seen that color one place and it was the beach on a trip two years ago.

He stepped into her room and walked over to her bed. His heart, his poor heart, took another tumble. The photos were his.

All of them. Pictures and postcards he’d sent her, clips from magazines, and even a few prints from his website. He inhaled sharply and sat on the edge of her bed, legs shaking.

She’d done this for him? No, not her him. For her.

He pressed the heals of his hands against his forehead. He was only hours away from making his dream career happen, but he was going to have to leave his dream girl to do it.

And what would he do if he stayed? What job would he get that wouldn’t make him feel like he was suffocating. He looked back up at the photos. He’d never seen his portfolio laid out like this and he was proud of the work he’d done.

Honestly, he should be submitting to photography awards anyway, including the IPA. The moment the thought registered, the knot in his chest eased.

“What do I want?” He thought to himself. No, that was the wrong question. If he was talking to his mom, she’d ask, “what DON’T you want?”

He stared at the keychain that was still in his hand. He didn’t want to leave Eliza. He didn’t want to be gone for another year or more. He didn’t want to work for Roy again.

He didn’t want to work at a job that made him sit in a cubicle every day until he retired, but Eliza made her living as a photographer. Surely she’d have some pointers for him. He trusted her, and more importantly himself, to figure it out.

He had gotten him and his coworker off a remote island after days of no food and hardly any water. He could figure out a new career path. He allowed himself to think about staying. His chest knot eased more. He thought about spending every day with Eliza, holding her every night. The knot disappeared.

His phone alerted him that the Lyft was here. Daydreaming was over. He took one last look around, closed her door, and walked out of the apartment. He was still holding the keychain.

***

Eliza glanced at her phone, watching the time tick by so slowly, she thought she could feel her nails growing. Never had she been this impatient to leave a party. She clenched her jaw and sat up straight. No.

She would not let Tanner leaving ruin this celebration. In another hour, forty-five minutes if she played her card right, she could go home and bury herself under her duvet until next week’s newborn photography session.

Cole sat down next to her and bumped his shoulder against hers. “We gonna talk about it?” he asked.

She hook her head and drained her mimosa. “Nothing to talk about. He left. I stayed.”

He grunted. “You sure about that?”

She frowned. “Uh…yes?”

“Hmmm. Then who is my future wife threatening on the front porch?”

Eliza stood up so fast, her chair skated into the wall behind her.

Her hip nicked the edge of the table and she sucked in an obscenity, limping a little to the front door. She shoved through and stopped as she saw Amy hugging a man.

Except it wasn’t a “I’m so glad to see you, welcome!” hug. It was her “I’m going to say something low and threatening in your ear so you know I’m being serious” hug. When Amy stepped away from the embrace, Tanner looked up at Eliza.

Eliza was completely frozen to the spot. There was no way he should be standing in front of her. He’d never make the airport if he didn’t leave right now. Her heart was beating so hard, her vision shook.

Amy turned around, winked at her, then grabbed her shoulders, slid behind her, and shoved. Eliza flailed into Tanner. He caught her with his hands on her arms, steadying her.

She felt every inch he put between them when he pulled away. “What are you doing here?” she managed.

“I forgot something important.”

***

“What’d you forget?”

His fingers slipped under her chin and tilted her head up, until her eyes met his. “You.”

She blinked then shook her head. “Tan, I’m not going with you. My life is h—“

“I’m absolutely, positively, crazy in love with you, LiLi. And I forgot for a awhile that I need to be wherever you are.”

She opened her mouth to speak but she couldn’t find words. Any words.

“I turned down the job,” he explained. “I’m staying. With you, if you’ll have me. I don’t know what I’m going to do for work yet but I have some money saved and—”

She grabbed his face with her hands, stood on her toes, and kissed him. Full on, desperately-in-love-until-the-end-of-time kissed him. He growled low and wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her off the ground. She soared through the clouds, her head spinning. She had to be dreaming. This couldn’t be real.

But he tasted of mint, and his stubble tickled her face and his lips…somehow this was real life. Somehow, this nightmare turned into a  dream turned into a fairytale.

He angled his head and deepened the kiss, and nothing else mattered but this moment. The minutes, hours, days, months, years they’d been desperate for each other wrapped around them.

Someone cleared their throat and Tanner pulled back and lowered Eliza to the ground, his cheeks turning pink. She spun around to find a beaming Amy.

Amy handed over Eliza’s purse and keys. “Go home,” Amy ordered. “Call me in a few days when you resurface for air.”

Eliza kissed Amy’s cheek then grabbed Tanner’s hand. “Let’s go home, Smoosh.”

Tanner smiled and mouthed the word home. Then he stopped. “Smoosh?”

She shrugged. “Just trying out nicknames on my new boyfriend.”

He laughed and they started walking again. “Well, I already have a nickname for my new girlfriend.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. “Love you, LiLi.”

She squeezed his hand. “Love you back, Smoosh.”

He just shook his head and opened her car door for her, before climbing into the passenger seat.

Eliza out the car into drive, then paused. “What’d Amy say to you?”

He raised an eyebrow. “She said if I hurt you, she’d make sure ‘No Body No Crime’ would be my autobiography and not just a song. And she told be she had her boating license. I don’t know what this means, but I believe her.”

Eliza laughed all the way home.

The End.

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