I had it all figured out, Ray told himself. I had it all planned. And it was a flawless plan. It should’ve worked. It was supposed to work. I shouldn’t have to make this choice.
And it was, indeed, a flawless plan. His head had become a chart he’d drawn this plan on, because he wanted this to work. He needed it to work, badly. But things never go as planned. There’s always that ‘it’ factor. That one thing you never give a second thought to, that one thing you fail to take into consideration. Yeah, that’s the one that shows up to bite your ass just when you’ve almost made it. The painful almost. Like a shark pulling you back into the depth just before you break the water surface. And surely enough, it fucking did.
~48 hours earlier~
“Stop it, Ray, it tickles.”
Sky giggling and flinched away from his touch, and Ray couldn’t stop but chuckle a little himself in return. She was lying on her tummy in his bed, her bare back exposed to Ray, and he was drawing circles absent-mindedly, simply taking her in, entirely content to simply lie by her side and watch her. ’Cause she was quite the sight.
He wanted to capture her. It sounded weird in his head as he thought about it, but it wasn’t in a creepy way. Not in the way you’d capture a butterfly in a net. More like in the way you take a bee into a whole field of flowers, letting her roam, but keeping her within reach. Ray wanted to have her constantly within reach, so that he could cherish the warmth he was flooded by every time she was near. He wanted to take his heart out and lay it under a microscope, just so he could observe her fingerprints on it.
And yet, he knew just how unstable this relationship of theirs was. He knew nothing of Sky, he had nothing on her except her very presence and what was clear to the eye. He knew her hair was blonde and her eyes were small galaxies of their own, and that she had the brightest smile and the most kissable dimples, and that she was anything but a morning person, but a hands-down night owl, that she hated milk, but could drink gallons of orange juice. He knew she had a thing for his hair and couldn’t stop running her fingers through it, he knew she bit her lip a lot, and had a maddening habit of biting his, too, making his brain explode on occasions. He knew she snored a little, in the cutest, kitten-like way, as if she purred. She also talked in her sleep, merely mumbles, really, that he had trouble deciphering, and if he ever tried to get her to repeat, in a delusional hope that she was dreaming about him, she just chuckled mischievously, muttered a ‘yeah’ and rolled over to the other side. But the list stopped here.
So he made a different list. Not even a list, really. More like a really specific plan. There was no point in denying that he’d fallen hard and violently for Sky. And if this was all it took to keep her in sight, he’d settle for being a small star in the endless horizon that she represented.
The plan was meant to make Sky realize that she had a place by his side. That they belonged together in a beautifully unfinished harmony. And it had to happen slowly, progressively, like holding your hands up as you approach a skittish kitten under the bed, careful not to scare her away.
So, Plan A was in motion. Sleep in with her and stay in bed until noon.
It wasn’t much. But she had this little unsettling habit of disappearing during the day, and Ray sometimes found her back in his apartment when he got home from work, or she’d arrive shortly after him. Most nights were theirs. But then she’d disappear for days, leaving him with the maddening thought that she’d left for good, with no intention to come back. And he’d grow angry and frustrated and was fussing about it, and then he heard the click of the key in his front door’s lock, and he had every thought of yelling at her, of grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her, demanding explanations. Which he probably should have done. Any sane person would have. But then again, Sky also had the habit of knocking every ounce of sanity out of him, and when she walked in and Ray’s gaze fell on her intoxicatingly blue eyes, he dropped dead all over again.
So maybe Plan A was simple and insignificant. But getting her to stay in bed until noon might have led to her spending a whole day with him, and maybe he could’ve gotten the chance to get some answers.
So far, so good. It was already 11 a.m., so one more hour to go and Plan A would’ve been successfully completed. Ray smiled to himself and tightened his grip on Sky’s waist. She shot him a smile, placed a quick peck on his lips, and then she did the thing that felt like a kick in the guts to Ray.
She stood up.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, trying to sound casual, but the frustration was clear in his voice. “I thought we were staying in today.”
Sky shot him a smile, the kind of smile that a patient mother shoots her toddler when he’s being adorably unreasonable. Which only angered Ray to no end. He wished she’d just stop giving him this kind of looks. Like he was a snowflake in her palm and she was the only thing keeping him from melting. Like he was a tiny bug and she was doing him the favor of his life by not crushing him.
“Well, it’s already late, and I’ve got an errand to run,” she explained vaguely as she buttoned her jeans.
“Right,” Ray said icily. “An errand. But I cleared my schedule. We were supposed to spend the day together.”
She leaned on her hands on the bed and rubbed her nose against his, and Ray’s breath caught a little in his throat, but then he remembered he was mad at her.
“Maybe you should’ve asked me first, Ray of Sunshine,” she spoke, then kissed him again shortly, turned on her heels and left the bedroom, winking at him on her way out.
Plan A, crashed and burned.
Good thing there was still a long way to Z.
~38 hours earlier~
Plan B. Cook her dinner.
It was almost 9 p.m. and she still hadn’t showed up. But the minute she’d walk through that door, she’d be quite swept off her feet, just like Ray had promised her she would. He remembered their talk, and he remembered the look in her eyes when she said she had never been cherished. He could tell she had never had someone making her feel special, loved, appreciated. Making her feel like a priority. And he intended to show her just how deeply he cared for her, and hoped it would trigger some sort of— well, he wasn’t sure what. But whatever it was, he hoped it would trigger it.
It was 9:00. This was weird. She’d never been this late before. The latest she’d ever been was a little past 8. Well, maybe that mysterious errand of hers had taken longer than usual.
He sighed and paced around the kitchen, eventually settling for lighting up some candles and dimming the lights. Romanticism to its best. Sky would have to have been made of ice not to swoon at the scene.
He’d cooked a killer lasagna. It was mother’s secret recipe and he knew for a fact that it held the kind of love that went straight to your stomach and then proceeded to flood your senses. He poured two glasses of the same brand of red wine they’d drank that first night she’d spent in his apartment, and he kept waiting, his heart slamming against his rib cage in anticipation for her arrival, and for the way her face would light up with surprise when she walked in.
It was 09:43. Okay, this was more than odd. The tingling of anticipation turned into the chill of worry. He was all too used to the feeling.
11:21. The candles had burnt out. The lasagna was cold. Ray was sitting in a chair, eyes glued to the door, trying to make up excuses for her. Because he knew for a fact she didn’t offer any. She never did. She waltzed right back in into his comfort zone and settled back by his side like this was the only reasonable place to be. And he allowed it. Because she felt good by his side.
1:37 a.m. She wasn’t coming. With his heart carefully hidden under all of those papers on which he’d sketched his plans, so beautifully and carefully architectured, he stood up from his chair, took the plates and emptied their content in the trash can. He threw the dirty dishes in the sink and went to bed at 2 a.m.
Because nothing good ever comes after 2 a.m.
Plan B, crashed and burned.
~23 hours earlier~
It was noon, and it was Ray’s day off. He usually couldn’t sleep in even during his days off, but today was an odd exception that he couldn’t explain. His eyelids slowly cracked open and he stretched, rolling to one side, and he felt the sharp smell of oranges before he saw her.
Of course. Even his silly brain was so in love with her, it got better rest just by scenting her fragrance nearby. Bastard.
She was lying on her side, facing him, eyes closed, but her breathing was uneven enough for Ray to be able to tell that she wasn’t sleeping.
He thought about last night, and wondered when she got in. He hadn’t heard her. He also thought about the usual impulses. Grabbing her by the shoulders, shaking her, demanding answers. But he stopped himself midway.
Plan C. Don’t ask questions. Don’t push her. Let her have her space.
So he sighed and traced her collar bone line with his fingertips, his touch light as a feather. He felt her shudder under his fingers.
“Morning,” he whispered, and she smiled back.
“Noon, Ray of Sunshine. S’not like you to sleep until late.”
Ray chuckled lightly. So many questions danced across his lips. Where had she been? With whom? Why hadn’t she showed up last night? Why had he showed up at all after he’d gone to sleep? She must’ve known he was sleeping so late at night. So many questions. But he had to stick to Plan C . So he settled for only one question, not mentioning the whole dinner thing and how much he’d wanted last night to be just a romantic night for the two of them. One safe question only.
“How do you feel about pancakes for breakfast?”
~18 hours earlier~
Plans D, E and F. Variations of the previous ones.
The rest of the day went by smoothly, like any other one. Unanswerable questions still bugged the back of Ray’s mind, but he learned that he didn’t mind this. Not bearing the weight of said questions on the tip of his tongue, he afforded the luxury of pushing them deep into the back of his mind. So Plans D,E,F. Nice talking, no pushing her, no questions, draw her in slowly and surely, like a skittish kitten.
And it was working well enough. He held Sky cuddled in his arms, and they were talking non-sense, simply enjoying the presence of each other and hearing each other’s voices. And in those small moments, Ray felt the need of nothing more. No names, no backgrounds, no past, no need to place her. Just a deep longing to keep her.
So he dared to conceive a Plan G.
~13 hours earlier~
Plan G. (Aren’t there a little too many plans? No. Shut up.) Extreme measures.
Find a way to pop the words.
What do you mean, what words?
Yeah, those ones.
Those three ones.
Yeah, so it was terrifying. And all the ways he came up with took up at least half more of the alphabet. He was running out of letters.
He didn’t want to scare her away, though. He knew their relationship was fragile. He knew she might have seen those three words as shackles and that her first instinct could have been to flee. But he’d take that chance. He’d find a way.
They were lying in his bed, Sky on her tummy, which seemed to be her favorite position, legs dangling in the air, reading a random book she’d picked out from his shelf. Ray was sitting with his back against the headboard, a sketchbook in his lap, and he was drawing her. He’d done that a lot since they’d met, and his sketchbook was full of drawings of her. Sky with that silver mask, Sky in the rain, her hand extended to him in an irresistible invitation, Sky soaked to the bone on the docks, Sky in the elevator, eyes wide, Sky smiling slyly at the subway, Sky walking toward him with her cute umbrella, Sky in his arms at the library, Sky on his doorsteps, Sky in between his sheets. And somehow, he’d managed to keep those sketches out of her sight. He didn’t want to freak her out. But now he stopped with his pencil midair.
But what if these sketches spoke more than he could? What if he didn’t need to utter those three words, when he could let the ways his fingertips traced her shape by instinct, by heart, by muscle memory, speak for him?
His breath caught in his throat as he was looking for ways to spell it out for her, and Sky felt his eyes on her and raised her gaze.
“Are you having a seizure, Ray of Sunshine?” she cocked her head to one side, smiling teasingly.
Ray sighed and shook his head, gripping the sketchbook even tighter. Sky seemed to notice so.
“Whatcha drawing there?” she dangled her feet, biting her lip playfully.
Ray took in a shaky breath, suddenly shy. Suddenly self-conscious. Suddenly scared. But before he could react or realize what was going on, she snatched the sketchbook from his hand and started to flip through the pages.
Ray waited silently, unable to move or to breath, patiently waiting for her to either freak out, or to reciprocate his feelings. And he could see her face changing, a small crease appearing between her eyebrows as she took it all in, her eyes following the route of her fingers switching pages. Her teasing smile fell and, instead of it, her lips formed the shape of a small ‘o’.
“Ray—“ she whispered eventually, her fingertips barely brushing against the paper, as if afraid she’d ruin them. “You made these all?”
Not trusting his voice, he conjured a small nod.
“Ray, but these are—“ she breathed in, then out. “These are all so beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful,” the words escaped Ray’s lips without him noticing, but he let them settle in the silence gathering around them, surrounding them like a velvet blanket.
Sky’s eyes were wide, and Ray thought it was safe to assume she was past the freaking out part.
He wanted to tell her. To tell her why he’d drawn her, why he’d felt the need to capture her on paper, to lock her silhouette on the tip of his pencil. To tell her how he felt. How she made him feel. But she knew. She knew it all. So they kept sitting in silence until Sky studied every single drawing of her. Once. Then twice. Then once more. And Ray waited patiently for her to be ready to talk. And eventually, she did.
“I’d say… I’d say you’re making pretty good on your promise, Ray of Sunshine.”
Ray stopped breathing. Stopped thinking. Stopped existing. And then was reborn again, from the ashes left behind after her lapis lazuli eyes set him on fire.
“What promise?” he asked dumbly, though he knew too well.
Sky smiled, and then he knew everything had been said through the weight of looks exchanged.
“To make me fall for you,” she replied serenely, like it was the most natural, simple, obvious thing in the world. “I fell straight on paper, Ray of Sunshine. Laid carefully by your skilled hands.”
~10 minutes earlier~
Ray picked up the book from the counter, shifting through the pages, wondering if today was the day he’d finally be able to break the spell and read again. It was the first day in weeks when he felt… good. Serene. Calm. He could finally feel this relationship he had with Sky catch shape, let itself be contoured.
But he was getting ahead of himself. His plans were far from over, and he’d spent the whole morning coming up with new ones, and he was getting confident and starting to aim high. At this point, he was all the way to Plans M, N, O, P, and beyond, and he wasn’t even sorry.
His phone rang, bringing him out of his reverie. He checked the caller ID, but it only showed a number. Huh. He wondered who it could’ve been. He answered the phone and froze into place.
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright. This is Michael Smith. I call you consequently to the internship you have applied for a while ago.”
The opportunity of his life, all the way across the country.
The sound of glass breaking shattered his mind piece by piece.
They say you shouldn’t worry if Plan A fails, because there’s still 25 letters left.
There’s no plan.
The minute you make it to Z…
…Congratulations, Mr. Cartwright.
You learn it’s never really over.
...We have carefully reviewed your application.
It’s all an endless cycle…
…And we have found it very impressing.
Of making plans you can’t live up to…
…And have therefore decided.
And promises you can’t keep…
…You are the ideal candidate for an internship within a highly prestigious law firm.
So you end up stuck in a carousel that keeps spinning…
…In New York.
That is, until you jump out.
And you learn that dizziness and motion sickness are just so much better than hitting the solid ground.
Better than the agony of a broken heart as you look over your shoulder and acknowledge how much you have to leave behind.