The leaves were a riot of fall colors - reds and golds, purples and oranges. They glowed in the light of the setting sun, putting on a glorious show that was lost on the man on the bench. He sat, hunched over, staring intently at a picture in his hands. Only someone who knew him well would have seen the pain in his dark eyes, would have noticed the bow in his neck and back that spoke of the weight of guilt and regret that lay heavy on his soul.
The phone in his pocket buzzed once, impatient. He unlocked the screen to read the text.
“Where are you? It’s time.”
Eisuke’s texts were as curt as his spoken words.
The man didn’t hurry to respond, laying the phone face down on his thigh, and returning to contemplating the photo in his hand. A young woman, smiling and blushing as the man now sitting on the bench kissed her cheek. The picture itself was worn around the edges, having been often removed from the pocket in his wallet.
“It’s been nearly two years now, Hana. I still can’t let go. I took care of the drunk bastard that took you away, but it hasn’t helped. I miss you every day. I’m trying to be the man you encouraged me to be, but it’s hard. Some days, I don’t even want to get out of bed. But I know you wouldn’t want me to give up, so I haven’t yet.”
He caressed the face in the photo, then slid it back into it’s spot in his wallet, dropped his wallet into the inner pocket of his jacket, and stood up.
“On my way”, he texted back, purposeful strides taking him quickly away from the bench.
You sat at the makeup table, putting the finishing touches on your hair. Tonight was the first night of your new gig, a retro nightclub and lounge in the Tres Spades hotel.
“It’s about time, ________. The band is already in position.”
“Thanks, Jin,” you answer, giving your hair a final spritz of hairspray and your lips a final coat of candy-apple red lipstick before standing up and walking toward the stage. Your hands brushed down the front of your dress, smoothing out the wrinkles in the red silk.
A small smile lifted the corners of your mouth as you noticed your requested bottle of water, sitting in hidden spot on stage, the straw, still in its wrapper, laying beside it.
You took a moment to prepare the water, knowing you would need to be able to drink between numbers.
You took your position in front of the microphone, playing nervously with your earrings. The set he’d given you after your first ultrasound. He’d been so deliriously happy to be a daddy. Had insisted on being the one to decorate the nursery. That dream had died with him, but at least you had the memories.
You pushed those thoughts from your mind, focusing instead on how proud he’d be of you following your dream, the thought of his pride in you putting a smile on your face as the curtain rose.
The show was a rousing success, and you made your way among the crowd, shaking hands and posing for pictures.
Finally, you reached the table of your new boss, a man who’s smile was every bit as predatory as a shark’s, but he was a brilliant businessman. He introduced you to the men he called his business associates. You recognized the diplomat, and you were fairly sure the detective had been involved in the investigation of your husband’s death, though several of those weeks were a blur in your mind.
The men all seemed nice enough. Two were flirty, with the older man having a much kinder face. The younger one was pretty, but something about him felt almost cruel. The British man gave off quite the ‘stay away’ vibe. The last one, a big Chinese man, had an aura of sadness around him. Maybe you recognized it because it seemed similar to your own.
You smiled through the meeting, chatting brightly, answering their questions.
Mr. Ichinomiya met your gaze across the table.
“If this continues to be this popular, I’d like you to consider adding a few more shows each week, and possibly extending your run.”
You nod, honestly excited at the prospect. Your contract currently was for three shows a week, through the end of the year.
“We’ll give it a couple weeks, long enough for the newness to wear off, and revisit the subject.”
“I look forward to it,” you answer.
“Excellent,” he answered, handing you a glass of deep red wine. “Here’s to future possibilities.”
The two of you clinked your glasses together, and you sipped at your wine. It was sweet, pairing well with the hors d’oeuvres at the table.
Most of the men chatted amiably enough. The one with kind eyes flirted shamelessly, and the one that seemed enveloped in grief simply sat quietly in the corner.
After some time, you stood.
“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I need to get home. Thank you for a lovely evening.”
You bowed your head to the men, who stood as you left the table.
The weeks wore on. At least one of the guys was at every show, and you gradually came to be on a first-name basis with all of them, except the mysterious Mr. Oh. He wasn’t there as often as the others, and when he was, he mostly sat in his corner, speaking only when spoken to.
The last two weeks of the year, you were doing two shows a day, every day.
Eisuke had given you the use of a very nice little suite, and had made arrangements for you to use any of the dresses in the hotel mall’s shops for your act, as well as unlimited use of the beauty salon.
It had been a little strange, closing up your little flat, having mail redirected to a post office box, asking your neighbors to keep an eye on things for you, and hiring a company to take care of any snow removal that may be necessary. You hadn’t realized how much pressure was removed from your shoulders at not having to decorate, at not having to face down another holiday alone, in a house that should have been filled with love and laughter and toddler toys.
There was another, unseen benefit to staying at the hotel. It meant you didn’t have to worry about getting home each night, which also meant you could drink a little more, which, in turn, made being able to handle this time of year a little easier. This should have been your third Christmas as a family. Instead, here you were, singing holiday songs to happy couples and families. The alcohol was often the only thing that made it bearable, much as you loved singing.
Tonight, Christmas Eve, you had finished your last show and headed to the bar, looking to get drunk enough to pass out. You only had an evening show tomorrow, so a hangover wouldn’t be a problem.
The only problem tonight would be chasing off potential suitors, two of whom had already caused you to have to change seats.
You sat at the bar and ordered a strawberry daiquiri to start with, followed quickly by a rum and coke.
“That seems like an awful lot for a woman of your size to be drinking,” a low voice rumbled beside you.
You looked over, prepared to shoo yet another one away, but changed what you were going to say.
“Mr. Oh. It may seem like a lot, but I can hold my liquor pretty well, and I can assure you that it’s not nearly enough.”
He looked at you, one eyebrow raised, and downed his fourth double whiskey before replying.
“You’re drinking like you’re trying to forget.”
“I’ll drink to that,” you answered, moving on to a bloody Mary. “I guess it takes one to know one.”
He only grunted in response, and the two of you sat quietly for a few minutes. He was actually pretty handy to have around, as his slightly menacing presence kept even the drunkest potential paramours away.
“How long has it been for you?” He asked, staring at the bottom of an empty brandy snifter.
“This would have been our third Christmas together, and our second as parents. You?”
“This should have been our second holiday.”
“I’m sorry. It’s hard enough to get through regular days, but these damned holidays, surrounded by happy couples, are so much harder. Even when everyone around you thinks you should be ‘over it’ by now.”
He grunted again, nodding his head this time.
“They seem to think, that just because they all cared too, and because they’re all ‘over it’, you should be, too…”
You nodded, picking up his train of thought.
“They can’t or won’t understand how much more you’ve lost, because their relationships weren’t the same.”
He raised his nearly-empty glass, and you clinked yours against his, both of you chugging was was left of your respective drinks.
You felt the room spin, and knew you needed to get to your room before you caused any embarrassment.
You ordered two bottles of water and slid off your bar stool, wobbling when your feet hit the ground. As the bartender ran your credit card, you slipped off your shoes, knowing there was no way in hell that you were going to be able to walk in the stiletto heels.
“Thank you for the company, Mr. Oh. It’s much more pleasant to not drink alone. Good night.”
You started walking slowly away, in what you hoped was a reasonably dignified manner, considering how much you’d just had to drink.
You had just stepped outside the bar when you felt a large hand on your lower back, and looked up, surprised.
“It’s Soryu,” he said, “and I didn’t like the looks some of the men were giving you. I’ll walk you to your room.”
“Thank you,” you answered, fighting back the stinging in your nose that always prefaced a good cry. “Please, call me _______. No point in being formal when we’ve gotten drunk together.” You smiled at him, and were rewarded with a small chuckle on his part.