Abby expected the breakup with Harper long before it actually came.
It was like watching a cresting wave, enjoying the beauty of it, but knowing it would have to break eventually. Abby had used to be perfect for Harper, once upon a time. When her girlfriend had been unsure of herself, and couldn’t even count on her own family for support, Abby was the perfect rock to lean on, and she had loved it, all the while knowing that one day, Harper wouldn’t need that kind of support anymore.
She had loved it because it gave her purpose, to be someone’s Person, their family, the reason they came from work every day.
But, some part of her had always known it wasn’t going to last.
Harper cried when breaking up with her.
It happened in April, in the park, with freshly bloomed cherry blossoms floating to their deaths around them. Harper cried, and Abby didn’t. All her tears had been used up by then, during the late nights she had waited for Harper to come home from work, only to get apology texts in the early hours of the afternoon.
It was a work thing, Harper said. It was always a work thing. After all, the firm she was working for was so small, it was for such a good cause, and of course she had to put in extra hours each night, to get it off the ground.
It wasn’t Abby, Harper said. She just needed to work on herself for a little while.
It wasn’t either of their faults, Abby knew. Once, they had been perfect for each other. Now, Harper had moved on. She had a new life now, with an accepting family, and Abby had failed to fit into this new Insta-ready version of their life together, regardless of how their politics might have changed. Not her, the orphan who had had to teach herself to grow up at drag bars and gay dives.
So, in the crux of spring, the time for new beginnings, Abby was left standing alone in the park, facing the end of a relationship that she had put her entire heart and soul into.
A week after the break up, Abby was dragging herself to bed in an eerily empty apartment, when her phone lit up from the bedside table. When she scrambled to unlock it, she saw “RILEY” on the notification bar, and her heart did a sudden, weird flip.
The message was simple, and to the point. I heard the news. You okay?
Abby stared at it for a long time. Then, she tossed the phone away and hid her head under a pillow. She forced herself into a fitful sleep, knowing full well that Riley would have seen the read notification.
Riley didn’t text her again.
“It’s about the choice, you know?” Abby babbled to John, four months later, as she cradled her favourite drink in her favourite seat in their favourite booth in their favourite bar.
It was past midnight, she was four drinks in, and she didn’t see the way John was looking at her, with part-sympathy and part-concern.
“Ok, I am cutting you off,” he said.
As he reached for the drink in her hand, Abby waved him off, causing the liquid in the glass to slosh dangerously. She didn’t notice, too focused on trying to make the bleary point that she was trying to get across to him.
“Sometimes you think about doing shitty things, really fucking horrible things,” she said, and her words sounded dull and slurred even to her own ears. “But the point is, you don’t do them, you know?”
“I know,” said John, who clearly didn’t know, judging by the confused expression on his face. “Abby, I’m gonna take you home, ok? You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”
“Is the choice,” Abby mumbled to herself, as he guided her out of the bar. “I chose not to do anything, John. Is the part that mattered.”
When John invited Abby up to spend December with him at the lodge he was renting out with his boyfriend, Abby refused flatout.
“No way,” she said. “I’m not gonna be third-wheeling you and Ray.”
“We’ll be in two different cabins,” he insisted. “You won’t even have to see us, if you don’t want to!”
“I can not see you just fine from here,” Abby said. “Come on, John. This is your first Christmas together. I don’t want to crash that.”
“Oh please, we’re spending all of the New Year’s break with his family, too,” he said, waving her protest away. “I’m not spending the entire holiday month without getting to see my best friend even once.”
“You’re not going to let up on this, are you?”
“A-nope,” he said. “I’m not having you drag yourself out to some bar alone on Christmas. You’re coming with us, even if I have to lock you in the trunk.”
Abby swept her bangs away from her face, wondering how she simultaneously managed to get the most awesome and annoying best friend in the world.
“Alright,” she said, but put her hand up when John did a little victory fist pump. “But I’m not going to enjoy it, I promise you.”
“Tell me why your boyfriend is not driving up with us to help us unpack,” Abby said, as she drove up the winding roads with John busily texting next to her in shotgun.
“Ask capitalism, sweetie,” he said, as his fingers tapped away. “His boss just would not hear of him leaving before the evening.”
Abby shook her head, shooting a quick glance at him as he stared at his phone, a smile on his face as he read whatever message he had just received. The same John who would have called a committed relationship heterosexual capitalist propaganda just a year ago was head over heels for Raymond, and it showed in every word he said about him.
“Hey John,” she prompted.
“Mm-hmm?” came his absentminded reply.
“I’m glad you found Ray,” she said. “Hold on to him, okay?”
She thought he’d come back with something smart, but instead he briefly reached to pat her hand as it gripped the steering wheel.
“I know, Abby.”
When they finally reached the lodge where they had booked their cabins, John took out the booking papers, tucking them into his jacket to keep away from the stray snowflakes that were gently drifting around the area.
“I’ll go get us checked in, and you can start unloading everything,” he said.
Abby groaned as she half-fell out of the driver’s seat, her joints stiff from holding the same position in the cold for hours.
“Hey, why do I get stuck with unloading?”
“Which one of us is the lesbian here?” John asked. “I’m just playing to our stereotypes.”
Abby had just flipped him the bird, and was walking to the back of the card to unload the trunk, when a voice made her freeze.
Abby turned around so fast she almost stumbled face first into the snow.
It was Riley, bundled up from head to toe from the cold, her head swivelling between Abby and John in obvious surprise.
“Riley!” Abby said, aware of John echoing the same from the other side of the car. “What are you doing here?”
“My uncle and aunt have a cottage up here, and they’ve let me rent it while I work on a paper I’m submitting,” Riley said. “What are you guys doing here?”
“I...” Abby turned to John, realized that he wasn’t going to step in and keep the conversation going for her, and turned back to Riley. “John and his boyfriend decided to come up here for Christmas, and I... I guess I decided to tag along.”
She cringed, suddenly remembering the text she had let unanswered, which was the last interaction between them. But, there was only understanding and sympathy in Riley’s eyes, not offense.
“Well, enjoy your days off,” she said, nodding first at Abby and then at John, before lifting up the grocery bags that she had been toting along. “I’m gonna go put these away before they thaw.”
Abby nodded mutely. She stood there, frozen, as Riley walked away, before snapping herself out of it and turning to John.
“John, you didn’t.”
But, John looked as mystified as her, as he stared at the retreating Riley.
“I swear I didn’t know,” he said, turning back and shaking his head at Abby. “What are the odds of running into your ex’s ex at a place like this?”
Abby let out a slow breath. She was about to correct him that it wasn’t about that, exactly, but the very thought left her short. If it wasn’t about that, what was it about, then?
So, she turned back to the car instead, and popped open the hood.
“Let’s just get this stuff inside before we freeze our asses off.”
The first day of any away vacation was always a scramble, and this one wasn’t any different. Abby felt like she and John spent a solid four hours unpacking their luggage, and getting their cabins ready. They were almost done by the time Ray drove up, and at that point Abby slipped outside quietly, so that the two could get some privacy.
She thought about catching some rest in her own cabin, which her body sorely needed after all the driving and unpacking, but the sight of the soft snow falling outside proved too seductive to resist. Abby had her coat back on in no time, and was stomping out into the snow with gusto.
She avoided the pub adjoining the lodge, as well as the small groups of families chattering the campfire, and headed in the direction of the woods instead. As she neared the lakeside, and saw the view on the other side through the trees, Abby’s jaw dropped. On the other side of the lake, there were brilliant lights suffusing the entire sky, in vast flares of green and purple and crimson.
Her breath catching, Abby scrambled closer down to the lakeshore, holding on to a tree trunk for balance as she rose on tip toe. She had never even realized that it would be possible to see the northern lights from here.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” came a voice behind her.
Abby turned around more carefully this time, still holding on to the tree trunk for balance. It was Riley, of course, but she was looking past Abby at the sky, and there was a meditative look on her face.
“It never failed to amaze me, no matter how many times my parents brought me up here as a kid,” she said. “Just... how vast they looked. It really put things into perspective, you know? That, no matter how bad things got, there was a whole other world outside of my little bubble.”
Abby’s throat suddenly got tight.
“Yeah,” she said, turning back to stare at the lights again. “That’s exactly what it feels like.”
They just stood there side by side, watching the cosmic show, and then Riley gave a little hum, turning back in the direction of the campfire.
“Enjoy the rest of your night, Abby,” she said. “Let me know if the concierge at the lodge gives you any trouble; he’s an old family friend.”
Abby nodded, but just as Riley walked away, a sudden urge struck her.
“Riley, hold on.”
Riley stopped, and turned around, a politely inquiring look on her face.
“I’m sorry,” Abby said, sticking her hands into her jacket. “About not texting you back that time, I mean.”
A crooked smile curved up Riley’s usually undemonstrative face.
“Don’t sweat it,” she said. “I figured you were going through some things.”
“Still,” Abby insisted. “It was pretty cool of you to check in. I should’ve responded.”
“Tell you what, next time I’m at the lodge, you can spot me a drink to make up for it.”
Then, she gave that lopsided smile of hers again, and was gone, leaving Abby to stare back up into the sky, suddenly feeling lighter, somehow.
Abby did her best not to crowd into John and Raymond’s space, while she tagged along to the various activities John had planned for them. It wasn’t hard when it came to the group activities with other lodgers, where she could just slip away into the background and let them do their own thing.
The problem was, John was clearly trying to do the exact opposite, and involve Abby in All The Things so she didn’t feel left out, so it was touch and go on whether Abby always succeeded in her plans to give him and Ray privacy.
“We were thinking of going for a little trip into town to check out the stores,” John said, as she followed him down the road that led away from the lodge, towards where their car was parked. “Do some late Christmas shopping, and just see the view, you know? You’re coming along, obviously.”
Abby was awkwardly walking behind him, trying to think up some excuse on the fly as to why they didn’t need to accommodate her as a third wheel, when a voice called out from close to the lakeshore.
Abby looked up, jumping a little at the sudden call. Riley was standing next to a tandem canoe, and waving at them.
“You know how to paddle a canoe?”
“Come for a ride in the lake,” Riley said, and inclined her head at John. “Let loverboy have some time alone.”
Abby looked back at John, who was looking at her with concern.
“Are you okay with that?” he mouthed to her, hidden from Riley’s line of sight.
Abby nodded, as much to herself as to him.
“It’s cool,” she said, before calling out louder to Riley. “Yeah, I’m good with that. Just let me go get my gloves.”
Riley gave her a thumbs up.
It took a while for Abby’s muscle memory to kick in on how to paddle in tandem, but they managed to make it a respectable distance away from the bank without capsizing, and then followed the curve of shoreline from there.
Abby let out a content breath as she looked around her, at the peaceful sky, the fish jumping around in the water around them, the slight breeze in the sky. Her brain felt pleasantly empty, as she mindlessly rowed in pace with Riley’s strokes. So far, Riley hadn’t spoken much, and Abby was just fine with that.
“I keep forgetting how quiet it can get out here,” Riley commented, suddenly. “I mean, aside from the wildlife.”
Abby nodded, knowing exactly what she meant.
“My parents couldn’t really afford things like this often,” she said. “But, one time a family friend invited us over to their cottage for a summer, and it’s still one of the best experiences of my life.”
Riley smiled at her, and Abby decided to ask a question that had been niggling away at her.
“How come you’re not with your parents for Christmas break?” she asked. “Feel free to tell me to shut up anytime, by the way.”
Riley glanced at her.
“It’s fine,” she said. “My parents are going through some stuff this year, and I didn’t want to pick sides between them and, well, they got my uncle to offer me this cabin as an apology for having to miss Christmas this year.”
Abby nodded, having a feeling she wasn’t going to get more detail than that.
“Sorry,’” she offered.
“It’s been coming for a while, to be honest,” she said. “I’m glad they’re trying to work it out, instead of pretending nothing is wrong.”
She let out a long breath, and sighed.
“Sorry,” she said. “I barely know you. I shouldn’t have let you have to hear any of that.”
“It’s cool, it’s fine,” Abby hastened to say. “I mean, I get what you’re saying.”
“Still,” Riley said. “You parents died, and I’m here complaining because mine cancelled Christmas once.”
“Will you stop that?” Abby asked, sharper than she had intended. “Yes, my parents died. Yes, I’m still really sad about it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to start crying if I hear about someone else’s problems, okay? I wouldn’t have asked you if I wasn’t interested in getting an answer.”
Riley looked offended for some moments, and then she barked out her weirdly quiet laugh.
“Sorry,” she said. “That was patronizing, wasn’t it?”
“A little, yeah,” Abby said. “But it’s cool.”
“Maybe it’s me who owes you a drink, then,” Riley said, her mouth curving up all crooked again. “Or does this make us even?”
Abby shifted the paddles, her arms feeling the burn from the hour of paddling.
“All I know is I can use an ice cold beer right now,” she said. “Why don’t we go back inside, and find out?”
Abby woke up late the next morning, when the sun was well into the sky, to hear John knocking on her door.
“Come on out, Sleeping Beauty! There’s too much to do here for you to sleep the day away.”
Abby threw a pillow at the door. “Go away.”
But the knocking continued, so she finally dragged herself out of bed and let John in, while she changed out of her pyjamas.
“You almost never sleep in,” he said. “What happened last night?”
“Nothing happened. I just had a late night at the pub with Riley.”
John looked shocked.
“Riley?” he echoed. “Riley like your ex’s ex, Riley? I just thought you went on the canoe ride with her to be polite.”
“No, it was fine,” Abby said. “She’s... she’s actually really cool.”
The last part came out in a mutter, as she avoided his eyes and busied herself with finding a fresh shirt. By the time she looked back up, John’s eyebrows had risen even higher.
“Really cool,” he quoted. “Abigail Holland, are you implying what I think you’re implying?”
Abby waved him away with a hand.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “She’s just... really easy to talk to, you know? It’s been that way since the first time I met her. You know how you meet some people, and you just click with them? Like, you’re friends with them without even trying?”
“Yeah,” he said, slowly. “Sure.”
“It’s not like that, John. We just talked the whole night. I promise.”
“Hey, if it made you happy, I’m all for it,” he said, and he didn’t sound sarcastic at all. “Friend away.”
Abby rolled her eyes, picked up the pillow from where it had landed on the floor, and threw it at him again.
“Jerk,” she said, fondly.
Abby kind of got used to walking up to Riley’s cabin almost every night, just to have a mug of cocoa with her, or for the both of them to go a walk in the words or take an outing to the pub. For her part, Riley also seemed to welcome the break from writing her paper, which she seemed intensely stressed about whenever Abby approached the subject.
It was just another night. John and Raymond had retreated to their cabin after an evening walk, and Abby went to find Riley without even having to think about it. As she had done many times before, she passed the window of Riley’s cottage to get to the door. And then froze.
Through the window, she could see that Riley was inside, playing on the piano. It was a Christmas song that Abby had known from childhood, but she had never heard it played in such a melancholy key before. There was something sad and haunting about it, and Abby stood transfixed. It was probably creepy to be standing there eavesdropping, she knew, but it was as if the melody had cast a spell on her, and she couldn’t break it even if she tried.
She started when the final strains of the music faded away, coming out of the trance. She hurried away from the window before Riley spotted her, and knocked on the door of the cottage.
From inside, there came the sound of a chair being scraped back, and then Riley was opening the door, looking surprised to see Abby there.
“Hey,” she said, standing aside to let Abby in. “You’re a bit late, so I figured you weren’t coming.”
“The walk with John and Ray took a bit longer than usual,” Abby explained, as she took her usual seat on the arm of the sofa.
“I heard you playing when I came up,” Abby continued, fiddling with the sleeve of her jacket, and wondering why she felt so awkward all of a sudden. “It sounded really nice, so I thought I’d just wait and listen.”
Riley’s eyebrows rose.
“You were listening?” she asked.
Abby nodded, wondering if Riley would think it was weird, but Riley wasn’t saying anything.
“I’ve never heard it played in that key,” Abby said, to break the silence.
At that, Riley seemed to look bashful, and stuck her thumbs through her belt loops.
“I was feeling a kind of way, I guess,” she said.
“You wanna talk about it?” Abby asked, feeling on more solid ground now.
Riley shook her head.
“Thanks, but I-”
She turned, and seemed to be at a loss for anything to do or say.
All Abby knew was that she had felt something magical, watching Riley play through the window. And now, this moment was going to be over, unless she did something about it.
“How about you don’t need to talk, then?” she suggested. “Just come over, and I’ll see if John and his boyfriend can join us, and we can fix up toddies and play a board game or something?”
Riley looked quizzical, but she also didn’t look unhappy at the proposition.
“Board games?” she asked, as she took down her coat, and followed Abby out of the cabin. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for the board games type.”
“Hey, all gays are the board games type,” Abby said. “Is it not written in the lesbian bible that on the seventh day thou shalt play Clue with your brethren?”
“That’s what I get for skipping Sunday school,” Riley deadpanned. “Alright Mrs. Peacock, let’s go find out who killed Mr. Boddy.”
Christmas was a quiet affair that year, in terms of any actual preparation they made for it. John and Ray had invited Abby over to their cabin, and she had invited Riley on a whim. They’d brought in more food from the pub than the four of them could probably finish, and Riley had brought some wine that was older than all of them put together, and they’d spent the night playing games and just talking to each other, until it was long past midnight.
When they finally said their goodbyes, and Abby and Riley were walking towards their separate cabins, Abby was hit by a sudden reluctance to be parted so soon. She dragged her feet, and Riley seemed to be slowing down to match her pace, rather than hurrying her along.
“I’ll walk you to your door,” Riley said, when they came to the crossroads. “The road can be pretty slippery in the dark, if you’re not used to it.”
Inwardly, Abby’s heart gave that weird flip it sometimes did around Riley.
“Cool,” she said, outwardly. “Yeah, uh, that sounds great.”
But, once they finally reached Abby’s cabin, once again the two lingered by the doorstep.
Abby decided to take the first step, this time.
“Feeling up to a mug of hot cocoa?” she asked. “It’s just, I’m probably going to need some tonight, after all that drinking, but you probably want to get home and have a lie-down and -”
“No, it’s fine,” Riley cut into her babbling. “Cocoa would be great.”
Which was how they found themselves sitting on the doorstep of Abby’s cabin at 3am in the morning, watching the snow swirl around them while they chatted about anything and everything.
“-then she said I couldn’t open up to new people and new experiences,” Riley finished. She shrugged, and took a sip from the mug that her fingers were cuddled around. “Honestly, she’s not wrong.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Abby said. “That’s not true.”
Riley was shaking her head, and her eyes were staring ahead, instead of at Abby.
“No, she’s right,” she said. “Ever since I was outed, I’ve been that way. I know it was years and years ago but... it just fucks you up, you know?”
It was a question, but it also wasn’t, really, so Abby kept quiet.
“It was like, suddenly everyone I had grown up with and loved, hated me for something I couldn’t even control,” Riley said. “After that, every time I’d get close to someone, there was always this nagging fear in the back of my head that it’s not going to last and so I probably shouldn’t get invested at all.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so fucking sorry, Riley.”
Maybe it was the wind, or maybe it was just her being brave, but she found herself putting a hand on Riley’s wrist, as it clutched the jar of hot cocoa like it was a lifeline.
“You didn’t deserve that,” she said. “And you deserve someone who understands what you went through, not someone who judges you for the way your trauma makes you behave.”
Riley turned to her. She didn’t look like the self-confident doctor anymore, the woman who could walk through a banquet full of small-mind people gossiping about her, without faltering a step. She just looked uncertain and sad, another person battered by society for being something they thought she shouldn't be.
“Thanks,” she said, in a quiet voice. “I know it sounds stupid, but it really does help, to hear that from someone else, even when you already know it’s true.”
Abby moved her hand up to draw her in by the shoulders instead, the two of them huddling close as the snow piled up on their coats.
“I know,” she said, just as quietly. “I know, Riley.”
For a long time, they just sat there in silence, as snowflakes drifted down into their cocoa mugs and melted away.
Four weeks had gone by too fast, and just two days after Chrstimas, Abby found herself locking up the cabins, and heading out with John and Ray to the car that waited to take them far, far away from this liminal space.
Riley helped Abby carry out the luggage, although Abby wondered if that was just an excuse and she too, was just trying to prolong the moment when they’d have to say their goodbyes, potentially forever.
But, there had to come a time when the last suitcase was carried out, and the last set of keys given back to the concierge.
“Well,” said Abby, as the four of them stood around the car. “It’s been an amazing month, honestly.”
She was aware of John and Ray agreeing in a chorus behind her, and of Riley nodding.
“We better get going, I guess,” Abby continued. “If we want to reach the city before nightfall, I mean.”
But Riley didn’t seem ready to leave yet, judging by the way she was shifting from one leg to the other, something Abby didn’t usually see her do.
“It’s cool if you say no,” Riley said, and she was already sticking her hand in her pockets, and turning her head away partly, as if she expected to be rejected. “But, can I text you sometimes? It’s just, we seem to have become pretty close friends and-”
“Yes!” Abby said hurriedly. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”
Riley’s stiff posture melted.
“Cool,” she said, letting out a short breath. “Well, talk to you soon, then.”
And then she was hugging her, the faint scent she wore hitting Abby like a freight truck, making her stand there frozen, while Riley moved on to hug John and Ray goodbye as well. By the time Abby found her wits again, Riley was walking back to her cottage, waving them one final goodbye.
“Abby!” John finally said, in a stage whisper. “Go after her.”
Abby’s throat tightened, and she turned back to arranging their luggage into the hood. “I can’t.”
For all the confident facade that Riley put out to the world, Abby knew by now that she was a broken woman, just as broken as Harper and Abby herself, someone who had only been a child when her trust in the world had been broken.
Abby was terrified at the thought of Riley being hurt again, and even more terrified at the idea that she could be the one to do the hurting.
“Yes, you can,” John insisted, completely unaware of just how much turmoil Abby’s mind was in. “Look, Raymond and I will take care of the suitcases. You just go after her and talk to her, for god’s sake.”
“No,” Abby said. “It’s not that simple, John. Just drop it.”
She walked back to the front of the car and got into the driver’s side before he could argue with her again, clutching the steering wheel and trying not to think about how her heart felt like someone was crushing it with a vice.
When Abby had dropped John and Raymond off, before circling back to her own apartment, she was already flagging from the hours of solid driving. She trudged into her apartment building with her suitcase, only to find the elevator out of order.
Twenty minutes, a lot of cursing, and ten floors of stairs later, Abby half-walked and half-dragged herself into her apartment, suitcase in tow. Despite the sounds of constant traffic and sirens outside, the apartment seemed eerily silent as she walked in, compared to the life that had surrounded her everywhere at the lodge.
Abby let out a sigh, and sat on top of the suitcase that she had just lugged in. She felt too tired to even unpack, all of a sudden. What was even the point?
And then, her phone buzzed. Abby pulled it out, and realized that she had exactly one missed notification in the time she had spent getting all her luggage together and getting it up the stairs. It was Riley.
Text me when you get home safe. Even just a single emoji is fine.
Abyy let out a breath. Suddenly, in the blue glow of that phone, the apartment didn’t seem so large and oppressive anymore.
We got back fine. Not even a single bigfoot sighting :\
New Year’s Eve dawned just like any other day to Abby. Last year, she’d already be out the door with her girlfriend, either to pick up last minute suppliers or head to a friend’s party. This time, she woke up to the usual nonsensical greeting text from John, which she had expected, and a photo message from Riley, which she hadn’t.
It was a photo of the snowman that she and Riley had helped the lodgers’ kids to make, which was now half melted in the afternoon snow.
Bad news, Frosty isn’t going to make it to the new year : ( said the caption.
Abby smiled and sent an appropriate emoji back, skipping all the way to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
By the time she came back, the doorbell was ringing off the hook, which could only be one person.
“John!” Abby drew back from the door so that he could hurry in. “Shouldn’t you be spending the day with Ray?”
“He wanted to do some last minute shopping before we drive up to his parents,” John said, moving past Abby to make himself a cup of coffee. “So I decided to come by and see if you were still sulking.”
“I’m not sulking!” Abby said.
“You even turned down the invitation to join the New Year’s party at the bar,” John said. “Please tell me you’re not going to be a shut in.”
“I’m not a shut in,” Abby said. “I’m just... enjoying some alone time.”
Just then, her phone beeped with a reply text from Riley. Abby pounced on it, casually covering the screen with her hand. From the way John’s eyebrows were raised, she hadn’t fooled him.
“So, you’ll text her but you won’t go see her face to face.”
“Texting means nothing,” Abby said, defensively. “You and I text.”
“Uh-huh,” John said, and waited.
Abby collapsed back onto the sofa.
“I miss her,” she admitted, after a while. “I miss being able to just... walk out my door and talk to her whenever I wanted to.”
John didn’t shout out in triumph. He just nodded, his gaze sympathetic.
“I knew it,” he said. “You’ve been different since we got back, Abby. Everyone sees it.”
Abby fiddled with the sleeve of her sweater.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “She’s my ex’s ex.”
“From childhood. ”
“I’ve been hurt before,” Abby said. “What if it doesn’t work out again?”
“Then you try again,” John said. “Babe, I can’t promise you that Riley is the one. But, I can promise you that I’ve never seen you as happy as when you’re with her, and I’ve never seen you fall into place with someone in the effortless way that you do with her. That’s worth a shot.”
Abby let out a short breath.
“I’m scared, John. Not just that I’d get hurt, but that I could hurt her.”
“I know. But, do you stay up awake at night thinking about her?”
“Yeah,” Abby said.
“Do you feel like you could talk to her about anything and everything and it would be fine?”
Abby swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Then, I just have one more question for you, babe.”
Abby stared at him. “What?”
John took Abby’s car keys from the table, and tossed it to her. “What are you still doing here talking to me?”
Abby drove nonstop, but it was still twilight by the time she got to the cabin. She wasted barely anytime getting out. As she rushed up to Riley’s cabin, out floated the mournful twangs music that Riley seemed to favour playing. Abby didn’t bother to stop and listen this time, and hammered on the door instead, feeling her heart thumping as loudly as the knocks.
When Riley finally opened the door, the shock on her face was enough to tell Abby that she hadn’t been expecting anyone that night.
“Abby what are you doing here?” she asked, before her face furrowed in concern. “Did you guys leave something behind? You could have just texted me; I’d have mailed it to you.”
Abby found herself smiling and shaking her head.
“I didn’t forget anything,” she said. “Riley, I came back for you.”
It looked as if Riley had almost stopped breathing.
“Me?” she echoed, after a while.
Abby had agonized the entire drive about how to get the words out, had rehearsed paragraphs and paragraphs of flowery courtship in her head. Instead, as she stood in front of Riley, only one thing came stumbling out of her mouth.
“You were so beautiful that night,” she said, all in a rush.
Riley’s eyes were wide.
“What?” she said again.
“That night on your doorstep,” Abby said. “When we just sat there and talked the whole night. There were snowflakes in your hair, and your cheeks were so red from the cold, and you were so beautiful, and I should have kissed you then, but I chickened out, and I’ve spent every day since then regretting that.”
“What... what are you saying?” Riley asked, and her cheeks flushed again, almost to that exact shade of red that Abby remembered so vividly. “Abby, what are you doing here?”
“Not chickening out,” Abby answered. “Please Riley, am I making all this up in my head, this thing between us? Because I swear I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”
Riley’s mouth was open, but she silently shook her head.
“Say something,” Abby pleaded. “Please.”
“You’re not wrong,” Riley finally said, in a low voice. “Abby, I... you were healing from a breakup, and I didn’t want to hurt you and-”
She trailed off, and Abby found herself smiling, even as tears were coming to her eyes.
“You wouldn’t have hurt me just by saying something,” she said, braving the final step into the cottage, and closing the door behind her. “I just... wish we’d done this sooner.”
Then she took Riley’s face in her hands, and drew her in closer, until their foreheads were touching.
“Can I?” Abby whispered.
Riley was tearing up too, as she nodded, and then finally, finally , Abby was kissing her. Their mouths met together after an initial awkward maneuvering around noses, and Riley’s lips went pliant beneath hers in an instant, opening up to her with a soft noise that passed through Abby like a shockwave. She could feel fingers curling into her hair with an almost desperate fervour, as if Riley wanted to make sure she was really there. Abby held on to her with equal desperation, trailing shaking fingers up the column of her throat, and the line of her jaw, and kissing her harder with every soft noise she got out of Riley.
“Happy New Year,” she said when they finally separated.
Riley let out a breathless laugh. “Four hours too early for that, Holland.”
Abby let her eyes narrow playfully. “You assume I’m going to let you out of my sight for those four hours, Bennett.”
And then Riley was reaching for her, and they were kissing again, and again and again, until all Abby could take in was the feel of Riley’s lips on hers, and her body pressed against her own.
They rang in the New Year while drinking cocoa and eating gingerbread cookies by the lake, watching the northern lights instead of any fireworks show.
When the clock struck midnight, Abby turned to Riley and brushed a fleeting kiss against her lips, licking away the sweet crumbles of gingerbread that she’d been eating.
“Happy New Year for real this time,” she murmured against her lips.
Riley smiled and deepened the kiss, holding Abby tighter.
“Happy New Year’s to you too,” she murmured, as they broke apart.
Abby had always thought that winter was the season of death, the time when everything good in her life had died. But that night, as she held onto Riley under the stars, she knew that it was the start of something new, and long-lasting, and beautiful.