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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2144307-A-Years-End
Rated: E · Short Story · Emotional · #2144307
Goodbye to 2017: For the Short Shots Contest
Word Count: 1515
Ken lowered his sunglasses against the glare on the sand, and dropped a hand into the cooler, fumbling out a Corona. Icy condensation dripped on hot, greasy skin, still too pale for the tropical December sun. The beach was brilliant, almost blinding if he weren't wearing eye protection. Ahead in the sand, Harry looked back, dapper in his own shades and Santa's hat. His carrot nose and stick arms carved shadows below.

"What are you smiling at, buddy?" the software manager asked.

Harry didn't reply. Snowmen were like that, even when they were made of sand. It had seemed a fine joke, like something out of a Super Bowl commercial, the kind you didn't raise the remote to skip, because it reminded you of somewhere you wanted to be. Maybe even someone you wanted to be there with. Now, that thought was a kick in the head.

"Yeah, of course I blame you, buddy. Do you see anyone else here?"

The sculpted figure stared back gamely. A real man stood up for himself, but Harry wasn't the kind. Well, what he lacked in backbone he made up for in conversation. It was a good thing, too. This little strip was pretty far off the beaten path, and you wouldn't dare swim here, with the jellyfish and the undertow, and the rocks on either side. That seemed to have kept away the crowds. This beach was only good for the view.

"No, it's fine. Jennifer would have been laying into me about something by now; I'm glad you took her ticket. It would have been too much sun or too much sand, not enough money, or my fear of commitment. Funny that, since she's that one that left. Don't spread that around, though."

Harry stared back accusingly.

"Pfft. Don't you take her side. What does it matter if I don't know where I'm going? Maybe I've just never been anywhere I was supposed to be. How're you supposed to know if you haven't seen it all?"

"I'd advise staying away from places with 'Keep Out' signs," responded an amused feminine voice from behind. "That's called trespassing, by the way."

Ken spun so fast he lost half his beer to thirsty swim trunks. "Damn, sorry. I didn't see a sign on the way in. Miss... ?"

The laugh that followed was a pleasant alto. The woman who had startled him was a tall brunette in a floral dress wearing a red bandanna and leather sandals. Her cheeks were freckled and red from the sun, and her nose was practically glowing. She shrugged shoulders that were sporting a good starter burn. "Alice. I'm sorry too: I don't usually get quite that kind of reaction. Anyway, I'm just walking through: I wouldn't have stopped, but your friend looked pretty harmless."

"You don't live here?" Ken asked, still recovering.

Alice shook her head with a grin. "I wish. I'm just at the hotel a few miles down. I didn't see the sign, either, but a mile down the road a guard gave me what-for for getting too close to the mansion - some starlet I think. The guard wouldn't say, just made me turn around."

"Well, thanks for letting me know. I guess I'll pack and head out. Tell you what, though, you've got some color working on those shoulders. I have some sunblock, SPF good for roughly the surface of the sun, if you want it."

The visitor's eyes crinkled in slight discomfort. "I'll be fine, I'm sure. It's only a few miles back."

Ken shook his head as stood, wiping free some of still-foaming Corona from his trunks. He reached into his bag and tossed her a small plastic bottle. "One good tip deserves another. The tropics'll do you in fast if you're not prepared. I'll feel bad enough leaving Harry without his hat."

Alice nodded in gratitude as the dark-haired man shrugged a shirt on over muscles that showed every day of his two-month trial gym membership, and unceremoniously stripped Harry to the naked sand. It only took moments to smear bleach-white blobs on her pained shoulders and Rudolph nose. She hesitated a moment, and worked another squirt into her cheeks and the back of her neck, then passed back the bottle, which Ken caught gracefully, and slid into his bag with the rest of his bundle. "Thanks, uh...?"

"Ken Walker, and no need to thank me, unless you want a ride back on the buggy."

The uncomfortable look was back. "I appreciate it, but really I'm fine. I'm not looking to be rebound for a snowman and his friend's guilty conscience."

Ouch. Ken shrugged at the brush-off, though. "Not a problem. Not much point in picking up strangers thousand of miles from home, when I can't keep the ones I know."

Relief struggled with guilt as Alice ducked her eyes. "See you around, stranger."

"Happy 2017 if I don't," Ken returned, saluting with his beer. That won a ghost of a smile before she turned to go. He downed the last of the Corona, and trudged back to his vehicle, cooler and bag in hand.

~ ~ ~

After a few hours of watching wisps of clouds pass from a mountain vista, Ken reluctantly worked his way back to the hotel. The thought of staring at white walls being too much to bear, he made his way to the pool bar, only to see a familiar dress. Alice was sitting alone at a table, though she was watched by several pairs of eyes: pretty much everyone short of the musician setting up his guitar.

"Alice," Ken called out, "fancy meeting you here. Waiting for a friend?"

She shook her head, but he could make out a smile against the fading light. "Nah, my girlfriend's sick as a dog - it's not pretty. She kicked me out of her room, and made me promise to meet a handsome guy. You'll forgive me if I intended to lie. But have a seat if you like."

"Need someone to scare off the sharks, huh? I suppose I can live with that," the young man replied.

"You're my hero," Alice replied in dead-pan.

"Any reason why you need one?" Ken replied.

"2017 isn't enough?" Alice asked.

"I'll drink to that," he grinned, sliding into a chair.

The wind was cool as the stars rolled up into the sky. To the west, the fall of the day was fire and liquid gold, spreading across God's canvas into pale clouds and pink and yellow dreams. The silence was long, as the pair watched the day fade together, broken only long enough to order a pair of Mai-Tais.

"It's lovely," Alice said suddenly.

"The dying light always is," Ken replied. "It's almost enough to make me miss it."

"It can't be that bad," Alice said, scrutinizing his face. "You clean up well enough. You must have some money if you're here over Christmas. It's not like it's hard to be a guy in - what is it you do, anyway?"

"Software," Ken answered. "No, it's just two years is a long time to find out you don't know someone at all. I was going to ask Jennifer to marry me here. I never even got to show her the tickets."

"Ouch," Alice winced. "I'm sorry. Now I feel like a bitch."

The software manager ran his hand through his hair. "Not at all. It is what is. What's your story?"

"Too many nights in the office for an entitled prick, and a long stream of narcissists. Then the company decided to lay off a third of the staff, and guess who was included? Emma and I set this up months ago, and it was too late to return the tickets. Mom told me I had to go, so I did. Emma's catching the flu here on day one is just the icing on the cake. I worry, but she's not the kind who will let anyone see her miserable."

Ken whistled. "Well."

"At least the cover band's decent," Alice added.

"No one promised me a damn thing," Ken grinned, "so this is a sight better than that, as long as the Mai Tais are generous with the rum. No boss, no office, no expectations, just fire and stars and electric guitar. And a pretty woman to share a drink with. A man could do worse."

"Ken - "

He sighed. "I know. You're not looking for anyone, and truth to tell, I'm not, either. It's just good not to be alone tonight. It's been a rough year, and this feels nice."

Alice nodded. "You're a good man. Merry Christmas, and here's to a better new year to come."

"Cheers to that," Ken agreed. "It's a fine night."

The drink and the music mixed and the night ran long into jokes and deep conversation. For one night there were no worries; there was the pleasant buzz of the Mai Tais, the drum and guitar, and the glow of the fires. There was the smile and laughter of a wounded friend he might never see again. And there was hope: enough to fuel a whole new year.
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