It's a powerful word. It's a word that when used in reference to the future holds boundless hope. But when used in relation to the past, it generally connotes regret. If I had done this, if things had gone like that, if, but, then things would be different now. George Bailey was shown what things would have been like, but his if had no regret. His if showed him that he made the best decisions. But not everyone is George Bailey. If and but. Yeah, when ifs and buts are candy and nuts, we'll all have a wonderful Christmas.
Everyone in Oz does it, especially at this time of year. When you're lying on your bunk in your cold cement and glass cell for hours at a time, sometimes the only thing you can do is think about your past, think about how things could have been different. Everyone on the outside is huddled together under a fresh Blue Spruce, hanging lights off it, humming along to songs they've heard a hundred times before, waiting with anticipation to see what that shiny gold box with their name on it has for them. Here in Oz, the guys are lucky if they get a package and a one hour family visit. They don't drink eggnog, they don't get annoyed at their in-laws, they don't trip over hyper children tearing around the house, and they don't wait anxiously to see what Santa brought them in their stocking. They sit around and think about what they could be doing right now, only if.
Tobias Beecher sits on his bunk, thinking of his children, nestled snug in their beds, and how he would be handing them shiny boxes right now if ...
Augustus Hill sits confined in his chair. Right now he'd making love to his wife if...
Some of them take comfort in thinking of past times that were happier, surrendering to visions the ghost of Christmas past allows them to relive.
Bob Rebadow thinks about his beautiful young fianc‚e, how they made love in her parents' house on Christmas Eve after he gave her a diamond ring.
Jonathan Coushaine thinks about his family. His mom and dad, the wonderful turkey and world class stuffing that always went along with the traditional dinner.
Miguel Alvarez thinks of his favorite Christmas past. He remembers it in detail, savoring every memory, and wondering how things would be now only if.
It was five years ago. Long before he ever set foot in Oz as an inmate. Long before his now dead baby was even a glint in Maritza's eye. Long before Maritza. He was younger, and even more brash and cocky then. He and a buddy had made a delivery to an upscale client downtown. It was December 20th, and they were looking for something new to do. Tired of the same old hangouts in their own neighborhood, they drove around the city, looking for some new excitement, or at least some scenery around them as they did the same old thing. "Hey, let's go in there, man, shoot a game of pool, decide what to do," his buddy suggested.
Turning his head to look out the passenger window at the bar, Alvarez questioned his pal's decision. "Yo, what do you wanna go in there for?"
Shrugging slightly, Eddie answered indifferently. "I dunno, don't really care. I'm thirsty though, and there's a parking spot. How often you find a spot like that, huh?"
A half grin creeping across his face, Alvarez agrees, "Yeah, must like be a sign or something. Alright, let's go, have one in there, man. But if it sucks, we're outta there after one game."
He saw them as soon as he walked in the door, and was immediately thankful for the serendipitous parking spot. He noticed the redhead especially. Her back was to them, but she turned as they entered, and he caught a glimpse of her face before she turned again, a mass of flowing auburn hair falling down her back, warm and inviting above snug fitting, dark Levi's. Elbowing Eddie and nodding in their direction, he asked him, "Whaddaya think of that scenery?"
Whistling slightly and winking, Eddie concured with him, "Not bad at all. Nice to check out the view in new sections of town sometimes, huh? Hey, go rack 'em at that table, I'll grab us some beers, man."
"Nah, nah, nah," Alvarez smiled at him, "I know what you're up to. I don't want you wrecking our chances you know, right off the bat by saying something stupid."
"I won't say anything dumb! Fuck you, man, like you some hotshot Romeo anyhow. We're here to shoot a game of pool, go rack 'em."
Like all customers in a not so crowded bar, the girls had turned around to see who was entering when the two strangers came in. Taking quick, surreptitious glances as they walked through the door, she had already been impressed by the stranger on the right. Unfortunately, the one on the left was the one making his way to the bar right now while his buddy was taking off his jacket and settling near the pool table in the back. She liked the way he moved, a self assured swagger that began in his shoulders and moved with a subtle rhythm throughout his torso and legs as he walked. She found it sexy, and a bit cocky. Halting next her, Eddie ordered a couple of beers from the bartender and then turned his gaze on her and immediately broke his promise to Alvarez by uttering one sentence. "So, what's your sign, baby?"
Turning to face him, she cast an annoyed look at him and answered crisply, "Yield."
Waiting a beat as the answer registered, a slow grin broke across his face and he chuckled to himself. 'Stuck up, bitch,' is what he thought about her as he then looked past her and to her friend. Eyeing her conspicuously, he licked his lips as she returned his gaze and then winked at her. She laughed, and he thought that was a good sign. The bartender placed the bottles in front of him, and he tendered a bill. Still hesitating at the bar and looking directly at the blonde, he suddenly heard his name being called from the back.
"Yo, Eduardo," the voice rang, with perfect Spanish enunciation on his name. "I got 'em racked back here, come on." Winking again, Eddie scooped up the bottles in one hand and reluctantly turned and headed toward the back.
Throwing a long lock of auburn hair over her shoulder, Marianna turned and looked toward the back of the bar. The one she previously noticed was chalking a stick. Never removing her eyes from him, she absently spoke to her roommate, "You know, that's our table. We won it, our quarters are up there, my name's on the board."
"Oh, come on, Mar, let 'em have it, we aren't playing anymore."
"No, it's the principle of the thing. Besides, it's starting to get late now. It's gonna get busy soon. If they hog that table, and then it gets busy, we'll never get it back," she explained.
"No, you just want to go back there and hassle them."
Dropping her jaw and looking at her friend with mock offense, she raised a hand to her chest and exclaimed sarcastically, "Who? Me? Hassle someone? No, what's fair is fair though. They want the table, they have to beat us, come on," she instructed, picking up her own drink and moving determinedly toward the back.
She could hear them bickering about the rules of Cutthroat as she got closer. "Nah, man, It's my break, THEN I call what I want," she heard the one she was interested in answer the other. "'sides," he said, "only two of us, we need three for cutthroat, just play eight, man." As she got close, she saw him hovering over the end of the table, his left arm stretched out over the railing as his other one aligned the stick with the cue ball. Just as he moved back, preparing to strike and break, she swiftly reached down and snatched the white ball off the table.
He rose instantly and stood ramrod straight, fixing his gaze upon her. She wondered briefly if she had miscalculated as she saw the knit of his brows, and gleam of anger move across dark eyes. Not flinching, she realized she hadn't made a grave error as he looked at her face and the hostility dissipated as rapidly as it had appeared. Replacing the ire, a wide grin crept across his features, revealing high, defined cheekbones, and softening his dark eyes even more. He turned his head down and sideways as the grin increased. "What, you got rights on that cueball or something," he asked as one brow arched.
"No. I have rights to the table," she replied, nodding to the chalkboard behind him. "These," she pointed to the quarters on the railing, "are mine. And I last won on the table. If you want it, you have to beat me." Her friend smiled at Eddie apologetically behind her.
Turning around, he inspected the chalkboard, and read the only name not crossed off. "Marianna, huh? Ok," he said simply. "You want to break?"
"Well, you shouldn't break your own rack, and it is my table," she answered, stepping closer to him and placing her hand above his on the stick, slowly pulling it away from him.
"So that's your stick too, huh," he asked cockily.
"Yeah, pretty much everything around here that I want to claim is mine. Thanks for chalking it for me, though."
Dropping the white ball back on the table, she leaned over the railing and adjusted it with the tip of the stick. "Eight ball or straight pool," she asked.
"Your table, you call it. You call it."
"Eight ball," she said simply, then with one fluid motion struck and sent the balls rolling around the table.
She dropped the two on the break, called low balls and leaned over to align a shot on the one ball at the opposite end of the table.
Crossing his arms in front of him, he snickered a bit, tilted his head to the side, and remarked cockily, "I dunno, lotta green there, you sure you wanna take that shot?"
Carefully aligning the shot, when she was satisfied, she turned her head and looked at him, catching his gaze. Never taking her eyes off his face, she pulled the stick back and shot, sending the one ball into the chosen pocket, then allowed a satisfied smirk to emerge on her features as his dropped into shock.
Behind him, Tracey and Eddie erupted into laughter.
After the first game, she immediately raised the stakes. "Play for shots, loser buys."
After buying her four shots, and drinking with her, he felt his own head humming and face warming. Watching her lean over the table and bank the eight ball in, effectively costing him another round, he leaned into his friend and remarked quietly, "She's beautiful, man."
"Yeah, forget it, Alvarez. You got no chance there."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Look at her, she's not from our hood, she's got class, you ain't getting nowhere with that chiquita, she's just taking you for free liquor my man."
Turning an annoyed gaze at his antagonizer, he noticed Tracey slide up next to them, and instantly switched to Spanish, not wanting this to be heard by her, but also not willing to let the subject drop. "Yeah, I'll bet you I can bag her. She like, digs me, man."
Laughing and watching Marianna stride to the bar, appreciating her catlike saunter in her snug, dark Levi's, as she ordered another round, compliments of Miguel, Eddie responded. "No fucking way you taking her home tonight."
"Maybe not tonight, but soon. Soon. I can get her, man."
"Yeah? What's the bet?"
Looking back and forth between the girl at the bar who suckered him all night, and Miguel, he answers. "You're on. I'll give you till Christmas. Tis the season and all."
"Ok, hundred. I'll nail her before Christmas," he said assuredly and walked up to the bar to pay the bill he owed.
Sliding next to her at the bar, he placed a hand firmly in the middle of her back, checking to see if she would move away and evade his touch. She didn't. Instead, she shook her head once, sending the long tendrils of dark red hair over her shoulder to brush against the back of his hand, and turned to face him, raising a full shot glass. Still not removing his hand from her back, he picked up his shot with the other and looked her directly in the eyes. They were slightly curled up, glistening a radiant green and slightly betraying the effects of the liquor. He wondered if she could tell that he was getting rapidly drunk. She could, but didn't care. She gazed back into his dark eyes, certain she knew exactly what he was thinking as his mouth slowly curled into a smile as he looked at her. Never breaking eye contact, he raised his shot glass and clinked it gently against hers, speaking in a soft low voice, "'Tis the season," he remarked. Then they placed the glasses against their lips, tilted back their heads, and allowed the sharp liquid to rush down their throats with heat and intoxicating bite.
Hours later, Tracey was tugging at her sleeve, Eddie at his. They stumbled to their feet gracelessly from their perches at the bar. As he stood up, he realized just how drunk he was. He had been laughing with her, bickering the night away, drinking shots and hadn't even noticed just how looped he had gotten. She seemed in better shape than he was, even though she matched him shot for shot. Pushing a muscled arm through the sleeve of his black leather biker's jacket, he began laughing to himself, and staggered slightly again as he tried to pull it up around his shoulders. Next to him, she seemed fairly well composed still, her body not detailing just how furiously her mind was humming. "Com'on man," Eddie said. "We gotta get goin, you're fuckin drunk as shit, gimme the keys."
Unable to reply with anything but a laugh, he fished in his pocket, pulling the keys out and then gravely looked at his friend. "Don't crash, man. That's a new car. Hey! You girls need like a ride or something? We'll take you home."
"No, that's ok, we just live around the corner, you can walk us out though," Tracey replied to Eddie. She knew Marianna was drunk, didn't want her doing something stupid, rash. Something she'd regret the next day more than the throbbing headache and upset stomach she was already going to have to face.
Walking to the door, Marianna stopped briefly at the egress to adjust her coat and pull soft leather gloves out of her pocket and onto her hands. She then looked up at him, wordlessly leaned close, and brushed her lips against his. Hesitating there briefly, she waited for him to respond, for his mouth to press against hers, and when his lips parted slightly, she drew back, glancing up at the ceiling above them. His eyes followed hers, noticing the cluster of mistletoe suspended above them. "'Tis the season," she said.
Walking out into the cold, he reached for her again, but she backed away, evading him and moving to her friend's side. "Hey, can I call you or something?"
"You know where to find me," she said, and then turned and left him to watch her walk down the street, headed for home.
Sliding into the passenger seat, Miguel pressed his forehead against the cold window. It felt good and refreshing, so he moved his cheek against the cool glass, trying to revive himself a bit. Taunting, Eddie spoke first. "You didn't bag her amigo. Hundred bucks."
Turning to glare at his friend, he replied flatly, "Yo, fuck you, man. You said by Christmas, I got a few days. She'll be there tomorrow. Be there tomorrow."
Laughing, his friend taunted him some more, "You too drunk to fuck tonight anyhow."
"I ain't never too drunk to fuck, asshole," he muttered, then promptly passed out leaning against the chilly, frosted glass.
Later, he woke up in the middle of the night, bed spinning and miserably sick. A line from the classic poem rang threw his head as he mimicked its actions. 'He ran to the window and threw up the sash.' "Jesus, I shouldn't a drank so much sash," he muttered to himself, pulling the back of his hand across his mouth. Stumbling into the bathroom, refusing to throw on the light lest it singe his weary retinas, as he squeezed toothpaste onto his brush with shaking hands, he wondered about her. He wondered if she was as sick drunk as he was right now. He wondered if she'd show up tomorrow, hell, tonight again. As he tucked himself back into bed, he had one last thought. He wondered what he was looking forward to the most: collecting a hundred bucks, proving Eddie wrong, or actually doing what it took to win the bet. Then he thought of her lips pressed against his, and the crooked smile on her face as she pulled away, her green eyes curled into a smile. And then he knew what the best part was going to be.
Then next night, Eddie didn't really want to return back to that part of the city. "Come on, man, that blonde kinda dug you."
"What's with you, man? One night and you're all cow-eyed over this chick already?"
"No. Fuck you, man, I want my hundred bucks."
"Ah, forget it, I told you, that was a sucker bet. You ain't gonna get nowhere with that chick. You're gonna make an ass outta yourself."
"No I ain't. I'll get her, man."
"You like her, that's why you wanna go back there."
"I do not. I want my money. I got nothing to do for a couple a days, you know, I can get her. Come on, man, you don't wanna go there, the bet's off then, I gotta at least have a chance, I gotta see her to fuck her."
"I don't wanna go back there, man. I'm gonna be bored. No. I ain't goin back there."
"Ah, man, fuck. You don't wanna pony up the cash when I DO nail her."
"No, no. No, I don't wanna go back there. Fuck it, I ain't goin back there, you wanna go, you go by yourself."
"Come on, man, just come for a couple of drinks, we can leave if we're bored."
"No, man, I don't wanna go there. No way."
An hour later, they were shooting a game of pool at the bar and Eddie sourly remarked, "See, she ain't even here. She ain't coming here again."
"She'll be here."
"Yeah, how you know?"
"You're here, ain't ya," he said cockily and turned as he heard the door open. He couldn't help but greet her with a smile as he saw her. Nodding at him, she walked over to the bar and took off her coat, draping it over a stool. He knew he should wait, make her come over to him, but he didn't. He ambled over to the bar and grinned at her through upraised eyes.
"How you doin," he asked sheepishly.
Smiling, she answered, "I'm fine, now. I was hurting this morning though."
"Yeah, me too. You, uh, you want a beer or something? I don't think I can handle another shot right now."
Waving her hand, she laughed and replied, "No, no more shots, a beer is fine."
"Tracey, you want a beer or a drink or something?"
"Uh, yeah, sure, I'll have a Morgan and Coke, thanks."
They played some pool, had a few more drinks, and Eddie started cozying up with the blonde, using his unique brand of doltish charm to grow on her. The place stayed nearly deserted though, a strange contrast to the usual evening. Wondering why they had the place to themselves, Miguel moved to the front of the bar and peered out the window. "Oh, shit," is all he said.
"What," Marianna asked, as she moved up behind him, placing a hand on his back as he had done to her the night before.
"Look at that, out there. That's why no one's coming in. Fuck, I gotta drive home in that shit."
"Wow, that sucks," she said, surveying the street outside. Drizzling sleet was coming down, hitting the pavement and slicking it as the cold temperature worked on it to turn it into sheets of ice covering everything. Car windows were covered with a thin layer of ice, giving them a beveled appearance, and nary a vehicle was moving through the streets. Branches of trees lining the sidewalk were starting to bend under the weight of the accumulating ice upon them, as icicles kept dripping and growing longer as more rain hit them. The small piles of snow on the side of the road glistened as if covered by glass, and then they saw a pedestrian walking along the sidewalk. He was carrying a package in one hand, and had his other arm held perpendicular to his body, trying to balance himself. He couldn't get solid footing beneath him, and his legs kept splaying out sideways as he made painfully slow progress moving forward. Suddenly, he misjudged, and one leg went sliding far too quickly ahead of him. He began whirling his arm around, trying to regain balance, but was unsuccessful and went sliding to the ground, the package tumbling down upon him. Inside, Marianna and Miguel witnessed the scene and busted out laughing in unison at the sight.
"Man," he said after composing himself, "I better get going, it's only gonna get worse out there."
"Oh," she said. "Well, look, it's starting to snow, that should help, give you some traction over the ice. Maybe you should wait until some more has fallen."
Turning to look at her, he understood. She didn't want him to leave, and his heart thumped hard in his chest. Her eyes were cast down at the ground, and he waited for her to raise them and look up at him. When she did, he held her gaze for a long moment. He had no thoughts of money, or winning as he looked at her then. Licking his lips, he answered her, "Yeah, maybe I oughta wait, traction."
When they stepped out into the cold air later that night, they began laughing at each other. Even with the snowfall, the ground was treacherously slick, and they couldn't get solid footing. Tracey kept clutching Eddie's arm for balance, trying to steady herself as she moved gingerly. Suddenly, Miguel broke into a run, then pulled up and slid a good ten feet down the sidewalk. Not to be outdone, Marianna sprinted a few steps, then pulled up, feeling her stomach lurch as she glided swiftly toward him. Holding out a strong arm, he caught her as she slid next to him, giggling like kids. "Oh, man, we need a car to come by," she said.
"One of my favorite things to do, go schitzing, it's the perfect night for it."
Almost as if on cue, a car slowly rounded the corner, the driver aiming it with care over the dangerous streets. "Oh," she laughed, "here, watch." She then made her way to the curb, and as the car passed by slowly, she ran behind it and grabbed hold of its rear bumper. Holding tightly, she skated across the ice behind it until it began to slowly round the corner. She let go, and slid into the side of a parked car to stop herself, laughing hysterically the whole time.
Alternately running and sliding back to the group, her breath came out in white puffs in the cold air. "Isn't that cool?"
"Man, I gotta try that," Eddie spoke. "Next car's mine."
They stood on the corner, blowing into their hands to warm them, and shuffling their feet as the icy snow crunched beneath them. When the next car came by, Eddie hitched onto the back of it, skating behind it for nearly a block as the other three spotted another car coming down the street. "This one's mine," Miguel claimed, then his face dropped. "Oh, shit, man, it's the heat."
Up ahead, Eddie had slid another block, then let go and crashed to the ground. Picking himself up, he laughed as he trudged back to the group, unaware that his entire display had been witnessed by an outside party. When he did look up, he saw the black and white stopped in front of his friends and muttered curses under his breath as he walked over.
The officer stepped out of the car and approached the group. "What's going on here?"
"We're just out, you know going caroling, officer, spreading some Christmas cheer," Alvarez replied smartly.
"I saw what you were doing. That's very dangerous you know."
"Uh, yeah," Marianna interjected. "We're sorry, we won't do it anymore."
"Well," the cop said and eyeballed them. He knew they were looped, but they also didn't seem to be creating any real trouble. "Get home. It's nasty out here tonight. And don't be taking any more rides on the back of cars, it's illegal you know."
"Yes, officer, sorry," she spoke again.
As the cop crawled back in his car, he was concerned with his footing, and adjusting his seatbelt. He didn't look back at the group, as three of them stood intently watching him, while a fourth carefully snuck behind the car. When he pushed the car into drive and began to pull away, the three of them struggled to keep straight faces as Alvarez clung to the back bumper of the car. Looking over at them and grinning wickedly, he waved to them and slid behind as the cop slowly pulled away. He held fast to the cruiser's bumper for a few blocks before being overcome with laughter and letting go, slowly gliding to a stop behind it as the officer drove away oblivious.
When he made his way back to the group, they were all laughing at him, and Eddie slapped him on the back in salute. "You're an asshole, man, that was fuckin funny as shit."
His cheeks and nose were pink from the cold, and he blew on his hands in discomfort before shoving them in his pocket and gingerly stepping next to Marianna again. "Want us to walk you girls home," he offered.
With Tracey and Eddie up ahead, he nudged her shoulder as they walked. "I think they kinda like each other," he nodded at the couple in front of them.
"Yeah, things work out like that sometimes," she said, and then ran a few steps and fell into a fast slide. Unable to catch herself as she began to stop, she lost all balance and tumbled to the ground, falling into a small pile of snow. He stood over her laughing, turning his head to the side and lowering his eyes, they way they had laughed at the guy with the package earlier.
"Shut up, help me up," she said, raising a hand for him to pull her up. As he clutched her hand, she yanked him down hard, and with the ice beneath him, he couldn't stop his fall. He tumbled down on top of her as she chuckled at him.
"You think that's funny, huh?"
"Yeah, I do." She looked up at him then, and his grin faded along with hers. Snow crunched softly beneath them, and she was intensely aware of the weight of his body upon hers. A few wayward flurries fell from the clouded sky, one dropping onto his eyelashes and settling there for a moment before melting. The pink of his cheeks deepened, turning now to a ruddy flush of anticipation. Still not moving, they gazed at each other, a momentary truce in the competitiveness. No cars hummed by, no other people were out making noise. In the giant, populated city, at that moment, it felt as though not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
He saw the mist of her breath as she exhaled, and felt her chest beneath his rise as she drew it back in. She could faintly smell the leather of his jacket, mixing with the still present hint of beer upon his mouth. Closing his eyes, he lowered his face to meet hers and kissed her. Soft and yielding, she parted her lips slightly to welcome him. The warmth of his tongue played upon her lower lip briefly, then prodded her open even more. She could faintly taste beer, but underneath that, a slight saltiness, not overpowering, and wholly agreeable. His teeth razed against her upper lip as he emitted a shuddering breath when her hands wound up to his face and she drew her fingers down behind the back of his ears. He momentarily forgot the chill outside as he suckled her lower lip, her cheeks emitting warmth against his own. Her hand grasped at the short hair on the back of his head, and he responded by pressing more deeply, moving his tongue more deliberately against hers. He was jolted out of the delight by shockingly cold wetness upon his neck, and he instantly jerked away from her and reflexively moved a hand to the source of the discomfort.
She was laughing at him again, having shoved a handful of snow down his collar. She wondered if she would again see the mercurial flash in his eyes, and struggled out from under him as he pulled a handful of snow out of his collar and tossed it at her. No, he wasn't angry. He looked at her earnestly though, brown eyes still soft, searching hers for any sign of desire. Unable to return the gaze, she averted her eyes and rose to her feet, brushing snow off herself. He stood too, and blew on his hands. They were really pink now, having been buried in the snow as he had laid on top of her. Feeling sympathetic now, she gently wrapped her hands around his and drew them to her mouth, breathing heavily on them and rubbing them softly. "You ok," she asked.
"Yeah, I'm just cold," he said with a shiver.
"Come on, it's not much further."
When they got to the front door of her apartment building, Eddie and Tracey were standing in the lobby, waiting for them. She turned to face him, and sunk her hands into the pockets of his leather coat. He responded by doing the same, and lowering his head to kiss her again. It was brief and simple this time, and then he drew back and looked at her. "Gonna invite me in, show me your Christmas tree," he asked. Again he allowed her entrance into his thoughts by permitting her to search his eyes.
He didn't blink, nor shift his gaze. She inspected the large brown pools and saw eagerness, and hope. She saw the same things she was feeling reflected back at her, desire, and ardent affinity. Good Lord, she thought, he is beautiful. Those big dark eyes set beneath heavy brows that move and express everything. The symmetry of his features, those high, defined cheekbones, and strong jaw line. And his mouth, with that fuller bottom lip, so inviting, so soft and warm upon hers. She shivered slightly as she inspected his face, and inhaled deeply, drinking in the warm scent of the leather jacket mixing now not with beer, but with his own aroma, a bit tangy and warm. She nearly lost it. If he had leaned closer and kissed her again, she would have for certain. But he waited patiently, allowing her to decide, and she remembered.
Glancing behind her, she saw Eddie inside, with his arm against a wall, leaning into Tracey as she smiled coyly and looked down.
"Well," she told him, "I would invite you in, but I'd hate to see Eddie lose a hundred bucks."
"What," he said, completely stunned, moving back slightly.
"Tracey. She's a teacher you know. She teaches Spanish to high school kids, Miguel. She heard you, last night."
"Oh, baby, I'm sorry. That was just, stupidness, you know. It's, that's not what this is about. Yo fuck that bet, man," he said, removing his hands from her coat pockets and circling his arms around her waist.
Shaking her head at him, she backed away. "No, how do I really know that. I'm not a wager."
"I know. You aren't, really. You aren't. I don't care about that bet. I'll call it off and pay him right now if you want."
"No, no. A bet's a bet. If you fuck me before Christmas, you win. Well, you aren't going to win," she informed him, and began to walk into the building, leaving him standing there in the cold, dejected and confused. "By the way," she called out over her shoulder, "I'm worth much more than a hundred bucks."
He was busy the next few days, family obligations and gatherings taking up his time. He went to visit his mute father in Oswald, feeling immensely sorry for him at Christmastime especially. His grandmother wasn't allowed to visit her husband, his grandfather. He was locked away in solitary at the same prison. He had never even seen him. When they sat eating dinner all together on Christmas night, he thought silently to himself how he never wanted to end up like that. He wanted to be with his family, like this. Not absent, rotting away in a cell with a bunch of guys who will cut your tongue out if you cross them wrong. He was still young, and still had hope. He was tough, and brash, and got in fights all the time. He sold drugs, and had a wicked temper. But he never thought he'd do anything that would send him to Oz. He thought nothing could touch him, nothing bad would happen. Just like he had been sure he could nail that chick, he was sure could control his fate. Yeah, that chick, Marianna. 'I coulda had her too. If only I hadn't fucked up like that with that stupid bet.'
On December 26th, he and Eddie went back to the bar. Tracey was there, and Eddie was happy. Marianna wasn't. He assumed she'd show up. She didn't. He finally broke and asked her roommate where she was.
"She's at home. Didn't feel like coming out, I guess."
"She still pissed off at me?"
Shrugging noncommittally, she answered him, "You'd have to ask her."
"Yeah. Hey, what apartment she live in?"
"Cause I'm gonna go redecorate it," he said sharply.
Rolling her eyes, she gave him the apartment number. Pulling on his jacket, he stopped and slapped Eddie on the back. "I'll see you later, man."
Tracey debated for a while, thinking she should call her roommate and alert her that he was coming over. She knew she liked him. That's why she warned her about the bet, she didn't want to see her get hurt by some slick jerk. And now she'd like to make her night. The bet's over, he lost, and he's still coming to see her. But then she thought about it. Christmas may be over, but a nice surprise is still in the spirit of the season. Never too late for some Christmas cheer. So she decided to let her be surprised, and hoped Mar didn't look like complete shit. "Shit," she muttered into her drink. "I just lost a hundred bucks."
"Huh," Eddie asked, confused beside her.
"She bet me he'd be back."
When Marianna heard the knock on the door, she figured her drunk roommate forgot her keys, and she rose from the sofa a bit annoyed and threw back the door without even asking who it was. Shocked to see Alvarez, she raised a hand and drew her robe closed more tightly. "Oh," is the only greeting she could muster.
He stood there, hands in his pants pockets, shoulders drawn up, head slightly lowered, and looked up her sheepishly. "Christmas is over, but, uh, I'd still really like to see your tree."
A smile swept across her face, and she stepped aside from the door to allow him entrance. He stepped inside slowly, hands still in his pockets and walked over to the lit tree. "This real?" He inhaled deeply, inspecting it from top to bottom. "It smells real, 'less you used that spray stuff."
He turned around to look at her, still standing at the doorway. She closed the door slowly, but took only a step inside, not walking over to him. "It's real. It's a, ah, Blue Spruce."
Squinting his eyes a bit, he fixed her in his sight, "You allowed to have a real tree in this building?"
Laughing , she answered, "No, no we aren't. Screw 'em." Looking at him, she could see the golden lights from the tree reflected in his shining eyes. The soft light illuminated his strong features and cast gentle shadows in the hollows of cheeks, pronouncing his jaw line, and making his dark hair seem even more lustrous and rich. Good Lord, she thought for the third time about him, he's beautiful.
Clearing his throat, he spoke softly, "So, it's uh, after Christmas."
"I don't mind. I mean, I didn't mind waiting."
Arching a brow, she took one step closer to him. "What makes you think the wait is over?"
"You let me see your tree," he said, taking a step toward her.
The electricity vibrated as they moved within inches of each other, still neither one reaching for the other. "It's a really nice tree," he murmured, then leaned down pressed his lips against hers, kissing her softly at first, his hands still deep in his pockets. When he felt her hands reach inside his jacket, encircling his waist, he kissed her more urgently, and felt her tongue emerge, coaxing his mouth open against hers. Removing his hands from his pockets, he grasped her face, holding her close and stroking her chin with his thumbs as he explored and tasted her more deeply. Neither of their mouths was tinged with alcohol this time, instead offering only the slightly salty flavor naturally present. While she got caught up in the smell of his leather jacket again mixing with the faintly spicy aroma of his neck, he could smell the fragrant sweetness of her hair. He moved his hands along her neck, across her shoulders and kissed a line across her cheek, toward her ear, suckling on her earlobe and inhaling the luscious vanilla of her neck. His skin was soft against hers, and she realized he must have just shaved for her.
Her hands moved up his chest, enthralled at the hardness and definition of his muscles beneath them. Still they rose higher, up to his shoulders, lingering to feel their broad strength, then pushing away at the jacket covering them. He released her briefly, shaking free of the coat and allowing it to fall unceremoniously to the floor, then again immediately reaching for her: one arm circling her waist, drawing her closer to him as the other tangled in her auburn locks, pushing them away from her throat as he dove to kiss her there again.
She stretched out beneath him as he placed tiny kisses running down toward her chest. Grabbing the back of his head, twining her fingers in his short hair, her head fell forward again, chin resting upon the crown of his head as he teased her with sensuous kisses and ran a single finger down her chest, between her breasts. Shivering under his touch, her nerves were wired, each one crackling as his hands and lips brushed over that part of her body. She murmured something incoherent to him as he felt the rise and fall of her breathing increase sharply. Reaching even lower, he slid his hand around the loose loop of her robe, and pulled at it, allowing the thick fabric to fall away, revealing a vast expanse of taught, vanilla colored skin. Sucking in his breath, he ran his hand across her stomach, feeling her belly contract under his touch, and he knelt down to kiss her navel. Working his tongue around the pliant skin, he clutched her around the waist, and ran his other hand up the back of her leg slowly, reveling in the taut smoothness and slim shape.
Grasping his shoulders for balance, she longed to taste his mouth on hers again, but couldn't bear to pull him away from where he was either. He sensed her restlessness, savored it, and slowly began to rise back up, placing demanding kisses along her abdomen, her ribs, and then her breast. Stroking his ears as he lapped at a hardened nipple, her breath hitched in her chest, as his arms reached around her back, keeping her close, warming her spine. Again he moved up, kissing her jaw, stopping to whisper in her ear, "Es bonita, baby, es bonita." The tingling warmth in her ear made her arch her back and press her head close against his, clutching him more tightly as her chest and belly thrummed with delicious anticipation.
He kissed her mouth again, barely touching it, flicking his tongue out against her lips, and opened his eyes to watch her reaction. She moved back, evading his taunts, making him lean into her further. She raised a leg, drawing her knee against his groin, as she pulled her hands down over his shoulders, gently massaging the defined triceps before moving them up again, pushing up the sleeves of his t-shirt to feel the defined angles directly. He leaned his head into her neck, and she felt his breath, now hot and jagged fall onto her neck, and felt his chest and back expanding exaggeratedly as he panted against her. Reaching down, she pulled his shirt out of his pants, pushing it up, feeling the warmth and heat of his buttery skin drawn so tight against every sinew in his chest and stomach. The subtle gold hues reflected from the tree played upon his tawny skin, shading his muscles and bathing him with a lustrous sfumato. He released her briefly, helping to pull the distracting fabric over his head, then using the opportunity to catch her in a another deep kiss as he swooped back next to her.
Drawing close again, with shaky, eager hands she reached down to unfasten his belt as he wound his hands behind her, under her open robe, and pulled down upon her panties. Easing them over the curve of her ass, he then reached around front, sliding one hand down her belly, flicking a finger tauntingly against her as he lowered them further. She gasped as she felt his hand against her, and he grinned with satisfaction. Kneeling down again, he lowered them to her ankles as she stepped out of them. He looked up at her, and his chest thudded as he became painfully aware of how badly he desired her. He grabbed her waist and pulled her down to him, leaning back on the carpet, not even noticing the prick of wayward fallen pine needles as they settled next to the tree.
She straddled over him, her hands upon his chest, and looked down at his sculpted body. Unable to resist, she leaned down, her hair cascading upon his chest, along his sides as she kissed his chest, enjoying the feel of the flushed, warm skin under her lips. He groaned as she caught a nipple in her teeth, and pressed his hips up into hers. She licked at his throat, pressing her lips into his clavicle, igniting sparks everywhere she touched. Leaning back, she reached down and unzipped his pants, releasing him before inching back on top of him. Not allowing him entrance, she rubbed along the length of him, eliciting another libidinous growl from deep in his throat.
Unable to withstand anymore taunting, he reached up caught her hips, sat upright, and flipped her underneath him. She was momentarily shocked at the ease and quickness with which he overpowered her, realizing for the first time the strength that his tight muscles contained. But as he leaned back down over and covered her mouth with his flushed, hot lips, those thoughts melted away and she was lost again in desire. Everything began to overwhelm them. Her nostrils filled with the spicy scent of him above her, mixing maddeningly well with the sweet aroma of pine wafting from the illuminated tree.
Reaching down, he stroked himself against her as she had done to him, watching her grow breathless with anticipation, seeing the tiny golden lights twinkle and sparkle in her green irises. She reached for him then too, raising one leg around his slim waist, and guided him into her. He halted, refusing full entry as he gazed into her eyes. Locked by his sight, it took her by surprise when he slowly pushed into her. They held their breath as he entered, and then he dropped his head to rest his forehead against hers. When she thought he was in, she began to exhale slowly, and he suddenly ground in deeper, making her gasp, and shuddering in her arms. He drew out again, nearly all the way, then suddenly rocked her back with another strong stroke and she sighed in his ear. "Oh, you like that, huh," he asked, withdrawing and pushing again, wanting to hear her moan. She bucked underneath him with each forceful stroke as they panted in each other's ear, he still making slow, painfully deliberate movements. "You like that," he said again, then slightly adjusted his slender hips above her, moving more quickly, but with less depth. "Or you like this?"
She answered with a labored sigh, then crooning in his ear, "Yeah, yeah," as her skin began to tingle.
Tiny beads of sweat formed on his upper lip as he rocked her underneath him, her hips undulating against his once she caught the rhythm. "Tell me," he panted, "tell me what to do, tell me what you want," he commanded as he slowly increased the pace.
"Harder," she crooned to him, scraping her teeth along his shoulder when he obliged. Dragging her clenched fingers across his back, she directed again, "Faster," and again he complied, bending his head down, eyes closed now, brows knit in concentration as he drove into her, feeling her contract around him.
They wanted it to last, but were unwilling to stop the delicious currents rolling throughout them, refusing to slow down. When she heard him moan in her ear, it drove her dangerously close, and she called out his name through clenched teeth and pressed into him even harder. Hearing his name drove him wild, and he placed his hand under her hip, pulling her to him as he drove in again. Biting on his lower lip, he felt her taut nipples and hot, sweat slicked skin against his chest, smelled the vanilla of her hair and skin all around him. Now unable to catch her breath, she bucked against him again as the tightness in her belly spread in waves throughout her limbs, her toes curled up, she clenched her legs around him more tightly, and she came. Shuddering and gasping, the tingling reached a fevered high just as he moaned lowly again in her ear, feeling her writhe beneath him, contracting tightly around him. He looked at her then, her back arched off the floor, head back, and eyes squeezed shut as her hands held tightly to his arms, and it was too much for him. Driving into her again and pressing deeply as he came too, he held his breath, heart pounding hard in his chest that was pressed against hers.
They laid still like that for a few moments, unable and unwilling to try to move, catching their breath, allowing their skin to cool and heads to clear slightly. Then she stroked his back, and he shifted his weight, worried he was becoming too heavy on top of her. He schootched to her side, pushing her wet, tangled hair off her throat, and blew light, cooling air on her neck as he wrapped an arm around her back, keeping her pressed close to him. "Thanks," he whispered as he kissed her gently.
"Hmmm? For what?"
Clearing his throat, he looked down at her, dark eyes heavy with sleep. "Lettin me see your tree. It's a great tree."
"Yeah? You like it?"
"Mmmm. Best one I ever saw, baby. Smells good too."
Kissing him lightly on the mouth, she then backed away a bit, nestled into his side, stroking his stomach. "I'm sorry I made you lose a hundred bucks," she said.
"Ah, that's ok, baby," he replied, absently stroking her forehead with his thumb. "I made him go double or nothing I'd get you by New Year's."
If only he hadn't been dealing and they constantly fought about it. If only he hadn't planted a seed of doubt in her mind by telling her about the second bet. If only she hadn't picked up one day and moved back home to Indiana. If only he wasn't so concerned about being a tough thug. If only that guy hadn't scratched his car. If only...
But she did. But he did. But they did, and that's the way it works.
Augustus: Not everyone gets to look back like George Bailey did and be satisfied. Not everyone has a Mary Hatch. If only they did, man, if only we all did. If.
Sugaree: Merry Christmas everybody, may all your If's come true this season and be only happy memories. See ya in 99!