I’ve been posting a series of original flash fiction (stories under 2000 words) for my Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. You can find the first three here. This little piece takes place a few hours after the end of the sixth book in the series, I Shall Not Want.
Clare Fergusson slept with her hands tucked beneath her chin. She slept on her side, curled around herself, her hair messy across her pillow. Occasionally she let out a sound, half-way between a sigh and a snore.
Russ Van Alstyne lay propped on a pair of pillows, watching her. He had been celibate for almost a year, since before his wife had died, and he would have thought two rounds of sex would stun him into unconsciousness. Instead, he was still wide awake, watching his lover like the hero in some sappy chick flick. And what the hell, didn’t he deserve to? He had waited and wanted and fought against his feelings for four long years to come to this point, lying in her bed, the heat of her bare skin warming him.
When they had shifted from the fire-lit sofa to the bedroom – Russ still couldn’t believe he had been so swamped by urgency and lust he couldn’t make it out of the living room – he had grabbed two fat Christmas candles for some mood lighting. He had seen Clare’s unadorned bedroom once before, and he wasn’t expecting much in the way of atmosphere. The candles had looked almost indignant when he set the match to them, as if they couldn’t believe their decorative perfection was going to be wasted into mere flame and wax. Hours later, they, like Clare, had softened into radiance. Their pine-bough scent mingled with the smell of Clare and sex and the flannel sheets. If Russ ever managed to come down off his high long enough to get sleepy again, he’d blow them out. For now, he was content to watch the candlelight on Clare’s hair and on the tip of her pointed nose and on her hands, folded as in prayer under her chin.
His euphoria wasn’t enough to keep him from having to use the john, of course. He slid out from between the sheets, swearing under his breath at the shock of the cold. He snatched at a knitted afghan that had half-fallen off the foot of the bed and wrapped it around him. Have to bring a bathrobe over. The bathroom at the end of the hall was as cold as the bedroom. And slippers, he thought, while he did his business. In the mirror over the sink, he looked at his own reflection. His eyes seemed… lighter. Not just happier, but… clearer. As if something inside him had been scrubbed clean and set out on the line. He ran a hand over his beard. Shaving stuff. And a change of uniform. “Idiot,” he said to the mirror. What he really wanted was to bring over his entire life and install it and himself in the rectory. The priest’s husband. That sounded weird. But Clare’s husband sounded exactly right. Of course, first they had to get through her deployment.
He felt a cold that had nothing to do with the late December weather and the drafty old house. He had been resting in a moment out of time, but time was bearing down on him like an eighteen wheeler on the Thruway. Two weeks left. No, eleven days. It was already the twenty-sixth.
He went back into the bedroom, clutching the afghan and his reassurances around him. Lots of Guardsmen deploy to Iraq. Most of ’em come back. Hell, he himself had done two tours of duty in the meat grinder that was Vietnam, and he had come back all right. Mostly.
“Unf,” she murmured when he slipped back into bed. “You’re cold.” She rolled against him and wrapped her arms and legs around him, because that was Clare. She’d give her heat away with both hands and never stop to think maybe she should save some of it for herself. He thought of all the ways a woman could die in a war zone if her throttle was permanently set on let me help.
“Merry Christmas,” she said in his ear.
“It’s almost four o’clock. Christmas was yesterday.”
“It’s St. Stephen’s day. You know. ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even…’” He could hear the smile in her voice.
“I do know that one. ‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me the wench in the corner.’” He grabbed her.
She laughed. “Pine logs. ‘Bring me pine logs hither.’”
“He had the wrong idea. A good wench will keep you much warmer than a few lousy pine splits.” He buried his face in the crook of her neck. “Can we make today Christmas all over again?”
“Of course. Christmas is a season, not a day. It lasts until January 6th.” The day she was scheduled to leave for Fort Drum. They both paused.
Eleven days. Christmas is a season. He held her more tightly, as if he could squeeze out the fear that this season, these days would be all they had.
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll be okay.”
“I know you will,” he lied.