Flash Fiction: Jess & Sarah

(Jess & Sarah’s story originally appeared as a serial flash fiction on CharlieGsOutfitRatings Instagram on 9/15/2021 under “Book Vibes.” It has been modified for this blog post.)

Jess always wore the strangest color combinations, as if to warn Sarah away from him. Worked for her. He was her most annoying coworker—the adventure coordinator at their hotel—and seriously always had a leaf or stick in his hair. They were adults. He should act like one.

“Morning, Sarah!”

She looked up as he waved while walking by the front desk where she worked, a group of people, clad in athleisure wear more expensive than her rent, following him with huge smiles on their faces. She recognized three of the women as repeat customers, always stopping by for lunch and a “Jess Hike.”

Hikes sounded horrible enough on their own, but add in Jess? Hard pass. She narrowed her eyes as he pulled his long hair back into a bun and a small twig fell out. Jess scooped it up and held it out for the group to see. “Wait until you see this beautiful birch. She’s just up the hill…”

The phone rang and Sarah happily diverted her attention away to grab it. “Sylvia Hotel, front desk.”

She closed her eyes when the guest asked for the manager and the police. It was going to be one of those days.

***

Jess loved getting paid to introduce people to nature through his eyes. Growing up in a small log cabin with five siblings meant spending a lot of time outdoors. He’d been lucky he’d found a way to turn what he loved into a living with health insurance.
When he was alone, he never hiked in a shirt, and rarely even in shoes. He liked the cool earth in his feet while the sun warmed his skin. He never felt more connected than he did in those moments. Except maybe when he made Sarah smile and she tried to hide it.

However this job required a shirt and shoes, although he never put much thought into dressing. He usually just grabbed whatever was next in his closet and headed out. He knew people judged his outfits for being flashy or mismatched, but he couldn’t care less. He would still find a way to wow their minds with nature. As for Sarah, well, maybe someday she’d actually see him. The real him.

He took his group on a long hike, weaving through trees older than all of them to a small, crystal clear lake surrounded by evergreens. The gasps of shock and delight were his favorite. He stepped out of the way as the group held up their phones to take selfies and video. It hurt his heart to know that this would be the only way for many of them to experience nature again while locked inside office buildings and homes the size of the hotel. Sounded like his version of hell.

His phone buzzed and he pulled it from his pocket. He didn’t like to check alerts while working—or ever really—but he’d been keeping an eye on an incoming storm cell and needed to make sure it wasn’t a weather alert.

He frowned at the screen. A text from his sister, Kate, who worked in the kitchen.

Kate: Emergency order. Sarah’s cake isn’t ready and she’s leaving in 30!

Jess blew out a breath. Ever since Kate took over as day shift kitchen manager, she made a dessert for every employee’s birthday. He wasn’t going to let her down.

Jess: I’ll distract her

He tucked his phone away and tapped the other side of his cargo shorts where the gift he had wrapped in newspaper was still in his pocket. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew Sarah couldn’t stand him. But that didn’t stop his stupid heart from tumbling over itself when it saw her.

He had been planning to leave the gift in her locker, but it looked like he was going to have to get creative.

***

Sarah just wanted to go home and put an ice pack over her eyes. Today had been a shit birthday. Her head was throbbing, her feet sore, and her throat hoarse from the hours documenting allegedly stolen jewelry.

Turned out the guest just forgot they had left the pieces at home. She reached up to grab her favorite necklace—the one her grandma had given her exactly ten years ago on her birthday—and the familiar twinge of loss poured through her. She had lost it two weeks ago. Biting down on her cheeks, she pinched the bridge of her nose trying to ebb the pain instead.

“Go home, I got this,” her replacement, Keeran said.

With a silent thank you wave, Sarah practically ran to her locker. She snatched her purse and slipped her feet into sneakers, then closed the door. She barely refrained from groaning when she saw Jess standing there. “What?”

“Come with me.”

She hiked her purse higher on her shoulder. “Jess, I feel like shit and just want to go home.”

“Look,” he leaned in closer and lowered his voice. She caught a whiff of sunshine and evergreen and found herself leaning in. She straightened.

He held up a hand. “I know I’m not your favorite person. Just trust me for fifteen minutes, okay?” He looked up at her, hazel eyes big and earnest.

Her stomach flipped. Well that was weird.

“Okay?” she heard herself respond but couldn’t remember actually making the decision.

With a sigh she put her purse back in her locker and followed him. As they exited the side of the building, she paused. “You’re not making hike with a headache are you?”

He held up his hand, pressing his thumb and index fingers close together. “Tiny one. Not even a hike. More like a casual walk.” She hesitated but he reached out his hand. “Trust me, remember?”

And for some reason, she did. She even put her hand in his. What was she doing? This had to be the headache’s fault.

He wrapped his large fingers around hers, his both soft yet rough with calluses. The heat from the simple touch flooded through her, easing her headache and making her aware of each step as his palm moved against hers. What was happening?

She looked up at his profile, his eyes trained on the view ahead. His strong jawline. The way the rays of the evening light highlighted sun-bleached streaks in his brown hair.
She swallowed hard. Objectively she knew beneath his loud clothing choices and outdoorsy demeanor, he was an attractive man. She’d heard enough people giggle about him in the break room and lobby alike. But had she ever stopped and looked past her own prejudice?

Clearly not, because that pang of her heart against her rib cage was new. “What are we doing?” she asked, unable to take the mystery of tonight anymore.

He gestured in front of them. “Storms cleared up. Seemed like a crime to miss this glorious of a sunset on your birthday.”

She stumbled at his words and he caught her, his hand in hers squeezing tighter and the other going to her waist. They stood, the space between them as energized as the air before a lightening strike. With a quick smile he released her hip and stepped back, and she felt his loss immediately. Ah, she thought, I get it now. Why all these people have become regulars.

She cleared her throat. “H-how did you know it was my birthday?”

He glanced at her and smirked. “Kate’s my sister. And she’s running late on your cake. Asked me to distract you.”

The pieces tumbled together. Kate was his sister? She always liked to celebrate the staff’s birthdays. But was he just here to distract her? Heat crept up her cheeks and she tried to tug her hand free.

He squeezed tighter. “She didn’t ask me to hold your hand.”

“Then why are you doing it?”

He flashed her a smile. “Thought you would’ve figured that out by now.”

“I—“ her head was spinning.

He laughed and she stopped walking, the sound different from the placating chuckle he gave the guests. “I like you, Sarah. You never fail to make me laugh. Which I get is complicated since you really don’t like me.” He lifted a shoulder. “And I’m okay with that.”

She glowered at him. “I don’t dislike you.” He raised both eyebrows. “I just…am a little judgmental sometimes. I’m working on it.”

He smiled and tugged her forward. “You can go back to judging me after you see this. For now, just pretend you think I’m awesome and handsome and—“

“I got it,” Sarah grumbled, both embarrassed and humbled and…something else she didn’t quite want to name yet.

They paused in a clearing as the trees fell away and the sunset reflected off the water of a small lake, as if it were a mirror. She gasped, pulling her hand free from Jess’s and staring at the view.

They stood in silence as the light faded, listening to the evening calls of crickets and frogs and other creatures Jess probably knew the names of, but she didn’t.They walked back, hand in hand, the flashlight from his phone guiding them. She had been utterly changed by the beauty of the sunset. And he’d been the one to show her.

When they made it to the parking lot of the hotel, he tugged her to a stop under a light. “I have one more surprise for you,” he admitted.

She smiled and pressed her lips together. “Okay?”

He pulled a small box from his pocket and handed it to her. She carefully peeled away the paper and lifted the lid. Tears burned her eyes as she caressed the glass pendant with pressed flowers that she thought was lost forever.

“A guest found it in the parking lot and I had to practically wrestle them for it,” he grimaced. “Got my first complaint because of that one, but I knew it was yours.”

“How?” she asked, her breath shaky.

“You wore it every day.” He touched the clasp. “I replaced the chain and had the prongs on the pendent reenforced. There’s also a safety clasp now, too.”

He reached down and picked up the necklace, then walked behind her. She pulled her ponytail to the side as he slipped it around her neck. His fingers brushed her sensitive skin, sending ghostbumps over her entire body. She raised her palm and pressed the pendant against her skin, the feeling of it being home robbing her of speech.

She turned to face him, raising her hand to his cheek. “Thank you,” she mouthed. And all the judgmental, bratty images she had of him, the ones that had prevented her from seeing the thoughtful, emotional, beautiful man underneath, fell away.

She cleared her throat. “Do you…maybe…if you want…um…want to have dinner with me tonight?”

He put his hand over hers and turned his face to the side, leaving a lingering kiss on the inside of her palm. Sparks shot through her arm and bounced around her body.

“I would love to.” The back door opened and he smiled. “But after cake.”

Sarah turned to find a dozen of employees surrounding Kate, who was holding a cake with glowing candles. “After cake.”

He took her hand in his and squeezed. “Happy birthday, Sarah.”

And don’t worry—she made him take her on a hike for her birthday every year after.

The end.

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