"Emma, what are you talking about?" Lila Hutchins stared at her sister, unable to comprehend what she'd just heard. They were at a Christmas party but Lila barely registered the lights, the decorations, or the songs. Emma's words had blocked everything else out.
"Just what I said, Lila. I don't think it will work with the two of us. It's just not..." Emma put her hands together, back to back. "Just not meshing." Her brown eyes were bright and she was fidgeting.
"Not meshing?" Anger bubbled up in Lila as she saw the signs of a high in Emma's behavior. "Since when?"
"Oh ... I don't know." Emma made an impatient gesture with her hand. "But come on. We've been here how many months, and nothing's happened. We're working crap jobs as waitresses. That's not what we wanted, is it?"
Lila narrowed her eyes as Emma shifted her weight from foot to foot. "We knew it would take time, Emma. We haven't been at it all that long. There are worse jobs than waitressing."
"Look, Lila. I didn't want to say anything, but Sam's got a line on something. Except it's just with me. He thought it would be easier with just one of us. Didn't you, baby?" She turned adoring eyes up to Sam Hollings and gave him a bright smile while Lila tried not to gag.
"I did." Sam nodded, handed Emma a cup full of eggnog, then turned to Lila. "It's nothing personal, Lila. Just, you know ... you have to start somewhere."
Lila hadn't trusted Sam Hollings from the moment they'd met him, but Emma had been entranced. He'd stepped into their lives after a performance at a small club. He had dark hair, green eyes, and a smile that had overwhelmed Emma. With some reluctance, Lila had let Emma take the lead, hoping that she could step in if things went wrong with Sam. It looked like they had and like it was way too late for Lila to stop anything.
"Anyway." Emma took a big gulp of her drink as Sam slipped an arm around her waist. Lila wondered what Sam had put in it and was on the verge of grabbing the glass when Emma tossed back the rest. "It's not like I'm going to forget about you, Li. Once I've got something in place, in ... um ... in writing, then I'll put in a good word for you." She nodded vigorously.
"A good word?" Lila glared at the two of them, fury rising with every passing minute. "Gee, thanks, sis."
"Lila, come on." Emma's temper started to flare. "At least I'm trying to get something done."
"I won't 'come on, '" Lila snapped. "And you." She tried to dislodge Sam's arm from Emma. "Leave her alone. Emma, we have to go."
"What? Hey, stop that!" Emma looked startled. "I want to stay with Sam."
"Emma, will you listen to yourself?" Lila was half-pleading, half-angry. "You want to go on your own? When we always planned to do it together?"
"Things are different. Things don't always go the way you plan."
"It's different because of him!" Lila jabbed a finger at Sam. "It's all changed because of him! What do you really know, Emma? What about this lead, huh? Have you seen anyone? Talked to anyone?"
"Shut up, Lila." Sam looked at her with a snarl.
"Back off, you son of a bitch!" Lila met his glare, her green eyes flashing. "You think I don't see through you? You don't have anybody lined up. You're a con man, you're slime, and I won't let you drag my sister down with you."
"Leave him alone!" Emma stepped between them. "He's right. I've been writing the music and the words and you don't do anything. You just wait for me to tell you what to do. Well, I'm tired of doing all the work and then both of us getting credit. If it weren't for me carrying you, maybe I'd already have a deal!"
"That's right." Sam broke in, his face red with anger. "You're no good and you know it. Emma's been carrying the both of you. She writes the words, and the music, isn't that right, sweetheart?" Emma nodded and he pushed on. "If it weren't for you, Emma would already be recording an album."
Lila felt tears sting at her eyes but fought them back. "That's not true. You're feeding her lies!"
"He is not!" Emma shouted. "You're trying to hold me back. You just can't stand the idea that I've got the talent and you don't. All you can do is hold on to my coattails. But not anymore, Lila. I want to go places and Sam's going to help me."
Lila grabbed her sister by the shoulders and shook her. "Emma, listen to me! He's just using you. He doesn't know anything about music, he's just stringing you along. We're a team, we always have been."
"Emma's the team here, Lila." Sam gave her an oily smile. "She's the star, and you know it."
"He's right." Emma turned a warm smile on Sam and snuggled against him, then gave her sister a cold look. "Really, Lila, you should be happy for me. Like I said, I won't forget you. I can hire you on later, I'm sure I'll need an assistant or something." Emma gave a short, hard laugh. "It's my music, Lila, and I don't want to share it anymore. I don't need to. Now, go away. Sam and I have plans to make."
Lila left but Emma didn't notice; her attention was focused on Sam, and the promises he'd made.
Two years later
How did I let this happen?
Emma pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders, wishing the warm fleece would chase away the cold inside. She huddled into the corner of the couch, staring out the window.
She wished it was snowing, but there was only frozen rain. It pelted the window of her third-floor apartment with a flat, staccato dit dit dit. She stared out the window, trying to keep her mind blank. If she didn't, she'd think about what she'd done, who she'd hurt, and how she'd never make up for it in a million years.
A clip clop sound rose over the cold drizzle and she got up and went over to the window. Despite the weather, she slid the window up, breathed in the frigid air and listened to the horse's hooves slap against the street. She loved to watch them go by; it was about the only thing she did love about the city anymore. I've lost everything else, she thought.
She watched the horse go by, pulling its carriage behind. A couple sat on the bench seat, under their own blanket. Cuddling, she mused, not huddling like she was. No doubt they were warm; they probably chased each other's chills away with kisses and tender words. Her imagination filled in more details.
"They're in love," she said aloud, even though she was alone. "Engaged, maybe newlyweds. No. They'll be engaged by the end of the ride, that's why he suggested it. It's winter and cold, so they'll have to be close to stay warm, and the blanket makes it more romantic.
"While they were going around the park, he pulled the box out of his pocket and proposed. She was surprised and teared up." Emma paused. "She wasn't stunned, though. They'd talked about it; the only issue was the timing. She figured he'd wait until Christmas, and he knew it. So he decided to do it early. It was the only way he could think to surprise her."
She watched some more. "Even the driver's a romantic at heart. They should have gotten off a few blocks ago but he's letting them ride all the way back. He'll probably even call them a cab."
Emma sighed and turned from the window, feeling hollow despite her romantic flight of fancy. Two years ago, she could have written a song about that. She would have jumped at it, unable to stop herself. Now she couldn't if she tried, and she had tried.
It was no good anymore. The words came out wrong. Even if they were half-right, her voice was no good for it. She couldn't even sing along with the radio. It hurt too much. Everything she had loved about writing and singing was gone. Not just gone, she reminded herself. You threw it away.
Her eyes fell on the old piano in the living room. The former tenant had left it behind, and it was a constant reminder to Emma of just what she'd lost.
Tears gathered and Emma fought them back. She tried to make herself concentrate on the positive things, as she did when she was on the verge of self-pity. You have a job. You have a place to live. You have a whole city to walk around in, to lose yourself in.
That was the problem, Emma thought. She'd been living in the city for something like three years and still didn't feel she fit in. Perhaps that was why she liked the horses. They didn't seem to fit either. With their big leather harnesses, their blinders to keep them from being frightened as the cars whizzed by, and the carriages they hauled behind them, the horses looked like they'd been transported from another time.
I wish I could transport to another time. Anytime, anywhere would be better than this.
With a sigh, Emma dropped the blanket on the couch and grabbed her coat for the walk to work. She preferred the late shift; her apartment was less lonely during the day. Nights were harder to get through alone.
Luke Thornton waved as the cab containing the newly-engaged couple drove away. He enjoyed doing things like that. Plus, he'd won the bet on who would get the first wedding proposal among the carriage drivers.
He turned to see Sol Kantner waving to him as he began to unhitch the horses. "Hey, Sol."
"Lousy weather, eh, kid?" Sol shivered and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. "Whaddaya say to a coffee at Millie's?"
"Sounds great." Luke nodded. "Just let me get the ladies all set here."
"Ladies." Sol snorted. "They're horses, kid. Mares."
"I know, Sol." Luke rolled his eyes. "I grew up on a farm."
.... There is more of this story ...