Updated: Sep 17
“Ten.” Cherry red, emerald green, hot wheels blue, and sunshine yellow lights danced along the fir planked walls imposing pine needle shadows with their glow. “Nine.” The fire crackled and thrived under the watchful eye of my handsome fiancé. His dark eyes meet mine from across the room. “Eight.” The television spokesperson comingles with the voices of my treasured guests. The living room is more crowded tonight than in the past nine New Year’s Eve’s. In an instant, I recall the shocking year that 2020 amounted to.
“7.” February 2020: The roads were wet after a week of downpours and sideways rain. My tires needed replacing, but I couldn’t afford new ones. I drove to work that evening concentrating on the road with laser focus. Traveling in the second lane, I followed the speed limit carefully avoiding potholes. I neared my exit when a semi-truck advanced to my right. Its wheels drenched my windshield with buckets of runoff momentarily blinding me. Slam, the thump was followed by a disconnect between my tire and the road. I braked, which was a mistake that I quickly corrected. The car wobbled and swerved out of balance with only three functional tires. The truck rushed past and I maneuvered to the side of the highway.
My mind raced as I considered what to do. My cell was useless since I was late with the bill and they’d switched off my service. Besides, I no longer had road-side assistance since I stopped paying the insurance premium. “Fuck.” I slammed my hands against the steering wheel and noted the time. It was 5:15 PM. I was expected at the event in thirty minutes.
Headlights shone in the rearview mirror distracting me from my dilemma. I watched as an SUV pulled up behind me. A man exited the vehicle and walked along the shoulder toward my car. Was he there to help or should I be afraid? My jaw set as he wrapped on the window. Rain poured down his leather jacket and his face was obscured under the brim of a black baseball hat. Reluctantly, I pressed the button to ease the window down.
“Do you have a flat tire?” His voice was deep and smooth. It caught at the back of his throat and vibrated down his body and also mine.
I silently berated, What the actual fuck are you thinking Lu? This isn’t some meet-cute you’ve concocted for a story. “I think so.”
“Do you have a spare?”
My eyes became saucers.
“Let’s look. Will you open the trunk?”
I could open the trunk, but my world might fall out. “Sure,” I said. As he shifted beneath the highway lights, I got a look at his face. His jaw was chiseled under a fashionable five o’clock shadow and his dark eyes were framed by soot lashes. I exited the car and smoothed my black skirt ignoring the rain as I walked to the back and opened the latch. “Sorry about the mess,” I stammered. The contents of my trunk–a box of books and a mound of clothes–were at once embarrassing and a relief as I put a jacket over my white blouse. “I’ll get this stuff out of the way.” I grappled with the box.
“Here,” his voice was a bass-filled hum, “I’ve got this.”
“Thank you.” I rushed to open the car door. “I’m Louise, by the way, but everyone calls me Lulu.”
He chuckled and pushed the box into the back-seat, “I like that name, both of them. I’m Trey. Are you a writer?” He gestured toward the books.
I cleared my throat, “Among other things. Tonight, I’m a cocktail server and I’m late.”
“Let’s get you back on track.” That was the first time our eyes met and I knew.
“6.” Earlier that day: Unseeing, I scanned the letter for what must have been the thousandth time. My eyes searched so furiously that they’d lost sight of reality hours before. My finger hovered over the finality of the send button. In that suspended snippet, the answer was quite plausibly yes. For now, no news was good news, but once I hit send, no news was simply, no.
The thought of another rejection was so disheartening that I considered throwing away the week invested in the query, not to mention the six grueling months of writing my second book. Since my first attempt was ignored by the publishing world, I was trained to expect crickets. Was it insanity that drove me to continuously submit or some sadomasochistic addiction? My shaky finger matched my spirit as I hit send and forgot about my writing career for good. There’d be no more submissions after this. I was quitting cold turkey.
“5.” Three days later: My phone buzzed on the table. I didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?”
“Is this Louise Hughes?”
Few people knew my pen name. I thought it a friend pulling a prank, but went along, “Yes, it is.”
“Hello Louise, I’m Mila Wayne. You recently queried me.”
That narrowed it. Since I’d had no luck with agents previously, I thought, why not go down in flames. I contacted the woman who represents best-selling author R.L. Samee. Lynn was the only person I’d told about my plan. What a rotten trick for her to play! I spat, “You expect me to believe that Mila Wayne is calling?”
The woman cleared her throat. “You did query me.”
“Yes, I queried Mila Wayne and we both know you aren’t her. Whomever you are, you can tell Lynn to fuck off. I don’t appreciate her humor.” I sputtered, “You know what? Don’t bother, I’ll tell her myself!”
I disconnected the line and angrily smashed letters onto the phone’s screen. I hit send missing the typos: “You ducking ditch. How could you oretens to be Miller Wayne? Not gunny.”
She replied quickly. “Are you off your meds again dear?”
I typed, “Mila Wayne, jerk!”
Lynn texted, “What about her? Did she get back to you?”
My phone rang with Lynn’s inbound call. “You, asshole.”
“Why am I an asshole?”
“You know why!” I snapped as another call beeped through. It was the number her crank caller used earlier. “Hold on, I’ll conference your little actress in.” I tapped the merge button and said, “Go ahead, I’m on with Lynn.”
The caller replied, “Oh good. Did you two have time to clear things up? You must now realize I am Mila Wayne and I love your book.”
“4.” Mila ended the call with the promise that she’d email a contract and her assistant would follow up. Lynn waited until she disconnected to scream like a deranged person. Her pitch pierced my eardrum. Impossibly, I managed to detect another call coming through. “Hold on Lynn.” I was frazzled and again, I merged the calls rather than putting her on hold. It was too late and I didn’t want to hang up on my new agent for a second time. I breathed, “Hello.”
“Louise?” The deep voice was unexpected and vaguely familiar.
“It’s Trey from the highway.”
“Oh.” My heart pounded impossibly faster. “Hi Trey. How are you?”
“I’m well. Did you end up making it to work on time?”
I eked, “Barely and only because of you. Thank you.”
“No need to thank me. I’m calling because I’d like to see you again.”
Lynn’s screech was a mortifying interruption. I explained, “Trey, my friend Lynn is on the line. When I clicked over, I mistakenly connected us all.”
His chuckle was warm. “Hello, Lynn.”
Her reply was rapid-fire. “Hi Trey. I’ve heard all about you and before she disconnects me,
I want you to know she can’t wait to see you again either.”
“3.” May 2020: The doorbell rang. A postman stood on the porch with a letter in his hands. “Thank you,” I said after scrawling something illegible on his display.
My hands shook as I contemplated the delivery. Would this envelope solve my money problems? As of that morning, I had $12 to my name, not even enough for a tank of gas. I tore off the strip and removed a thin sheet of paper. It was a check with five zeros behind the number one! The notation said, “Book Advance.” I ran the paper inside the tender web of my index finger. It bit into the flesh, stinging a confirmation. I wasn’t dreaming.
“2.” Christmas morning: Trey rooted around under the tree and pronounced, “I found one more for you.”
His molasses eyes bore into mine from his position on the rug. He handed me a handsomely wrapped package with red paisley paper and a silken white bow. I lifted the lid to find a tiny black leather box. Trey took my hand…
“1.” Happy New Year was the resounding cheer that engulfed the room, but was I ready to say farewell to 2020?