Most of my recent short stories have fallen on the dark side. I’m not sure why that happens, and my friends like to tease me about it. So I was determined to write something sweeter, a cozy romance, perhaps. It was a little harder than I expected but I was ready for a writing challenge.
One of my favorite things about following prompts from this book, Write the Story, is that I can curb my fondness of going down writing rabbit holes. I tried to keep this romantic short story simple and I hope you like what I ended up with!
Title: An Unexpected Union
Words: brothers, potato, common, hands, boyfriend, alphabet, scribble, hydrangea, sandwich, tug-of-war
Julie Lillis wiped down the counter in the deli she’d worked at since high school. Kelly’s Deli was the go-to lunch spot in the small town of Pinto and most of the residents came through the doors for their famous roast beef sandwich or a bowl of vegetable alphabet soup any given day.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is.” A tall, lanky young man with waves of dark hair falling into his brown eyes leaned over Julie’s shoulder, making her jump.
She swatted at him with her towel and he poked her in the ribs. “Damn it, Shawn, what’s wrong with you? You’re gonna get an elbow to the nose one of these days.”
“Yeah, right,” he drawled with a smirk. “Anyway, I don’t get what’s so wrong with sticking around here one more year before you run away from home.”
Rolling her eyes, Julie tucked a blond curl behind her ear then put the chairs on the tables so Shawn could mop the floor. “Don’t be so dramatic. I’m not running away from home, I’m running toward my future. There is no way to get around the fact that my prospects are severely limited around here. It’s already been three years since graduation, I’ve got my associate’s degree from the community college, it’s just time for me follow my dreams.”
Shawn Flores leaned on the mop handle and stared at the floor while she talked.
“You know I won’t quit until I’m working for the Smithsonian Institution in some aspect. One of the museums in DC would be ideal, but I am not picky.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes, noticing Shawn’s forlorn expression.
They’d been like two peas in a pod since they were eight years old when Shawn moved into the house next door to Julie’s. It had been in the deepest heat of the summer, the kind of oppressive humidity that made daylight unfit for man or beast. At first, they wanted nothing to do with each other. His family had moved into the house that had been vacated by Julie’s first best friend, Annie, and her eight-year-old brain blamed him for making Annie leave.
First thing on summer mornings, Julie and her mom would work in the yard, pulling weeds from the small vegetable garden and watering the flowers. Julie’s favorites were the hydrangea bushes under her window. She’d picked out the first one when she was five and had gotten to buy a new one each year. The result was a collection of thriving blooms in blue, purple, and pink that mesmerized her every time she looked at them. One such morning, she’d been daydreaming over the flowers when Shawn’s mother came barreling over, dragging him behind her, to introduce herself. Julie glared at him. He stuck out his tongue. They maintained their crossed-arm standoff for nearly five minutes before she noticed his Power Rangers t-shirt.
“Hey! Do you like Power Rangers?”
Shawn had narrowed his eyes and answered, “Maybe. Why? Do you?”
Within another five minutes, Julie had dragged him to the shed where she kept her collection of morphers, swords, and laser blasters and the rest was history. Their bedroom windows faced each other and they spent the next ten years talking to each other through those windows after bedtime or taking the time to scribble a secret note before folding it into a paper airplane to shoot across the yard.
But looking at his mopey face in the middle of the darkened deli, Julie felt a pang in her chest. She talked a big game but she was nervous about leaving alone and not having him to talk to and lean on every day.
“Hmm?” he mumbled as he started swishing the mop back and forth on the black and white tiles.
“You could come with me, you know.” The way his head whipped up and his eyes locked on hers wasn’t the reaction she was expecting. He’d always refused to talk about going to college with a snort and a wave but this was very different.
“What do you mean?”
Hopping onto the counter behind her, Julie swung her legs and shrugged. “What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean you don’t have to stay here in this nowhere town and work at this old deli for the rest of your life. Let’s pick out a college together, one where I can get my history degree and museum curator’s license and you can take art and music classes.”
He frowned into the bucket of soapy water. “Don’t be dumb. First, how the hell am I going to afford college? After dad left, mom and I couldn’t even afford the community college here in town. Second, I can’t make a living with art or music. I’m better off staying here and managing the deli in another couple of years.”
Julie dragged her hands down her face and groaned. “Oh my god, Shawn. You know Joe isn’t going to retire. Like, ever. You will have to pry that set of manager keys from his cold, dead hand, and even then it’s not a guarantee. You are so talented, you could do anything you wanted! You deserve so much better than this.”
His smile was sad as he rolled the mop and bucket past into the back room. “You think so? Sometimes I wonder.”
“Hey,” she whispered, placing her hand on his arm. “Your dad’s an asshole and your folks were wrong to play tug-of-war with you during the divorce. They were both in so much pain they couldn’t see what they were doing to you and I’m so sorry.”
Without looking up, Shawn placed his hand on top of hers and sighed. “I want to believe you, Jules, I really do. And I try to. But there are only so many positive affirmations I can tell my mirror before the words mean nothing.”
Julie’s other hand slid into the longer shaggy locks at the back of his neck while she tried to think of what to say. When he was about twelve, his dad began an affair with a woman he met on the golf course and his attitude at home turned to shit. He was rude to Shawn’s mom if he acknowledged her at all, and he had zero kind words for Shawn when he realized that football and baseball weren’t in his future. Instead, singing and art were Shawn’s true and outstanding talents, but his dad never accepted that. He left a year later. She knew she shouldn’t, but Julie felt guilty that her parents were still married and happy together.
Leaning into her touch, Shawn started to relax. He turned to lay his forehead against her shoulder, wrapping his arms around her waist. It was a common pose for them, taking comfort in each other without words or judgments.
Shawn took a deep breath and pushed back from Julie’s embrace. “Thanks, Jules. You always know how to make me feel better. And you know what? I’ll think about it. There are worse things than running away with you.”
The way she gasped when he said that made his heart skip a beat. She knew he would do anything for her, so why would she look so shocked and confused?
Just then, there was a loud rapping on the front door. Julie’s face lit up as she jumped off the counter but Shawn’s whole posture deflated and he muttered, “Like spending any time with him, for instance.”
“Hush, you,” Julie laughed as she unlocked the door to let in her boyfriend and resident town stud, Troy Hawkins. After she set the lock behind him, he immediately crushed her against his chest, his hands roaming all over her. “Woah, hold up there, tiger – we’re not alone!”
Without letting go of Julie’s butt, Troy sneered at Shawn and flipped a bro nod his way. “S’up, man.”
Shawn hated him. He was one of a set of athletic, handsome, all-American brothers who were virtually worshipped in Pinto. Somehow, they were blessed with good looks, strength, and sports ability, but not one of them had a higher IQ than a potato.
From the time they were thirteen, Troy had decided that Shawn needed a shove into the lockers or a friendly trip in the cafeteria pretty much every day. Once they graduated, Shawn thought he’d finally gotten rid of that douchebag and was ready to live his life free from the Hawkins brothers’ bullying tactics.
But no. Julie had crushed on Troy all through school and he’d never given her the time of day, instead dating the head cheerleader, Allison Bernhard. Then Allison left for college. After burning through the rest of the cheer squad, Troy had finally noticed Julie a couple of months back and Shawn was forced to play nice for her sake.
Yep. With the burning passion of a thousand suns, he despised Troy Hawkins.
“Not much, Troy. What are you up to tonight?”
Eliciting a squeal from Julie as he lifted her off the ground with one arm, Troy sauntered into the deli, tracking dirt behind him on the floor Shawn had just cleaned. “Gonna take my best girl here out on a date. You’ve had to wait long enough for me to have some free time, I thought I’d surprise you.”
She pressed a lingering kiss to Troy’s lips and Shawn tried not to barf.
“Give me just a minute to change out of my uniform and we can go. Where are we going?” She gazed up at Troy with shining eyes, then shook her head. “No, don’t tell me. It’s your surprise. I’ll let it be a surprise.” Then she dashed into the back room leaving Troy leaning against the counter while Shawn rolled the bucket back toward the door.
Neither of them acknowledged the other. With Julie out of the room, they didn’t need to pretend to be civil. In fact, Shawn was pretty sure that Troy had forgotten he was even in the room, which was fine with him. The last thing he wanted to do, short of gouging out his own eyes, was to make small talk with Troy freaking Hawkins. Thankfully, Troy’s phone rang just then and Shawn was saved.
Because he was a moron, Troy answered the phone on speaker and a female voice filled the room. “Babe, where’d you go? My bed is lonely.”
Shawn froze and tried to shrink into the shadows. What the hell was he hearing?
“Allie, I told you not to bug me about what I’m doing. I had something to take care of, and that’s all you need to know. I’ll come back when I feel like it.”
Allie? Was he talking to Allison?
She purred from the phone, “I miss you, that’s all. And here I am, all alone, lying in my bed without a stitch of clothing on me.”
From his vantage point, Shawn watched Troy rearrange his stance and grin. “Yeah? Send me pics to get me through until I can get back there. I gotta take my little cousin to a ball game then I’m all yours. Love you, Bernhard.” When he disconnected the call, he noticed Shawn was in the room. He frowned and his face darkened, fists clenching at his sides.
“What the hell, Flores? You spying on me? Do I need to put you in your place? Again?”
Fury pulsing through him, Shawn pushed the bucket out of the way and drew up to his full height. “Nope, not spying. But I sure heard enough to keep you from taking Julie anywhere tonight. Or any other night, for that matter.”
“Oh yeah? What do you think you heard, shithead? You didn’t hear dick.”
“Mmm, I beg to differ,” Shawn countered. “I heard, loud and clear, you lying to your old girlfriend Allison Bernhard, asking for nudes and promising to be back in her bed as soon as you were done with your ‘cousin’. All that while you’re waiting to take your current girlfriend on a date. Sound about right?”
Taking a couple quick steps toward Shawn, Troy brandished his fists and snarled, “You better keep your damn mouth shut or I’ll knock your teeth down your throat.”
Shawn laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Troy, you stupid, simple gorilla. I’ve let you push me around for half my life, let you threaten me and make a fool of me and it was no big deal. I could take it.” All humor drained from his face and his voice dropped to a deep, low tone that didn’t hide the menace behind his next words. “But Julie means everything to me. Everything. I have been in love with her since the day I met her. She deserves the sun and the moon and all the stars in the galaxy and the next and you are a speck of dust on the bottom of her shoe. And I won’t let you hurt her, ever.”
“Ha. What’re you gonna do, Flores? So what if I get a little piece of ass on the side, ain’t no big deal. Allison is a fantastic lay – you should take her for a ride sometime – and since Julie won’t give it up quite yet, I’ve got every right. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, anyway.” A growl emanated from deep in Shawn’s throat as he advanced one step at a time. Troy tried to hold his ground, but the flash of fear behind his eyes was unmistakable. “You gonna tattle on me? Who do you think she’s gonna believe? Her loser neighbor or her hot boyfriend?”
“Oh, definitely the hot boyfriend.” At the sound of Julie’s voice from the darkened doorway to the back room, both men jumped and stared at her. Then Troy smirked over his shoulder at Shawn and sauntered toward the pretty blonde. Shawn’s heart broke and he hung his head.
“I knew you would, baby,” he gloated, reaching for her.
But Julie avoided his touch.
“Yeah, when my boyfr- excuse me, I mean my ex-boyfriend, himself, says that he’s sleeping with someone else why wouldn’t I believe him?” She crossed her arms and glowered at Troy until he was forced to take a step backward. “I think it’s time for you to leave, Hawkins.”
The grin on Shawn’s face as Troy skulked from the deli was more pride in his best friend’s gumption than the fact that Troy Hawkins had finally gotten caught in his own lies. Although that was pretty sweet.
His face burning red, Troy stopped at the door and fumbled with the lock. “Yeah, well, you both are losers. Julie Lillis, you’re a prude and I am way out of your league. I was doing you a favor!” When Julie stepped up next to Shawn and rested her arm on his shoulder Troy nearly came unglued. “Whatever. You two deserve each other!” He finally yanked the door open and stormed out into the night.
The two friends didn’t move or speak for a moment. Shawn knew that couldn’t have been easy for Julie. One part of him wanted to whoop and laugh at the humiliation on Troy’s face but the other part could sense that his best friend was unusually quiet and still and was probably embarrassed, herself. He turned toward her and squeezed her hands.
“I’m so sorry Jules, you didn’t deserve that.” His whisper sounded far too loud in the silent restaurant. “And Troy didn’t deserve you. You know I’m glad he’s gone – I’ve never hidden how much I loathe him – but I’m so sorry that he hurt you like this.”
Julie kept her eyes trained on their joined hands, her eyebrows drawn together. Then suddenly her scowl eased and the corner of her mouth lifted. “Don’t worry, he didn’t hurt me. I knew what he was a long time ago and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Shawn started to laugh but Julie’s head whipped up and she fixed him with an accusing glare, freezing him in place.
“But you, on the other hand, I am pissed at you right now!”
“Wait – what? Why? I didn’t trick him into outing himself, I didn’t start anything with him! I didn’t do anything!” He stumbled backwards as Julie jabbed him in the chest.
“That’s right, you didn’t do anything,” she yelled. “All this time, all these years – wasted – because you didn’t do anything!”
Shawn’s back hit the counter and he couldn’t retreat any further. With anger still written all over her face, Julie marched closer, pressing him back until their faces were only inches apart. Then, with an exasperated huff, she captured his lips in a passionate kiss.
At first, he didn’t understand what was happening, but then realization dawned and he wrapped his arms around Julie’s waist, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss. Every moment of his life had been leading up to this moment, every fiber of his being had yearned for this, and he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming. But he didn’t care.
When they separated, both of them panting and cheeks flushed, they stared at each other for a stunned moment. Then they laughed before holding each other tight.
“I heard what Troy said, Shawn, but I heard what you said, too,” Julie murmured against his cheek. “You’re an idiot. So am I.” She tangled her hands in his thick, dark hair and pulled back to gaze into his eyes. “All this time, you felt the same way I did and I never thought to tell you that I love you. That I’ve always loved you.”
The warmth and joy spreading through Shawn’s chest was something he’d never experienced before, a sense of pure joy and acceptance and love. Looking into his best friend’s crystal blue eyes he knew deep in his bones that he’d never be without that feeling again.