Hold A Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Carissa’s eyes flicked open to the buzzing of her alarm. It was still dark outside, and she sat up blearily, reaching up to push her mop of wavy brown hair out of her eyes. She’d always been a restless sleeper — no matter how carefully she pinned her hair up before she slept, it always ended up looking like a bird’s nest. She’d been embarrassed about it when Jim had first moved in… and a pang of mingled grief and annoyance flared through her. How long was it going to be before her first thoughts on waking weren’t about her douchebag ex-boyfriend? Recent ex or no, she wished she could just get the hell over him already. But she knew from bitter experience that her soft heart was likely to ache for at least another few months over his absence — even if their breakup hadn’t exactly painted him in the most flattering light. She pulled herself out of bed on autopilot, heading for the bathroom for a shower to chase the lingering sleepiness from her body. Carissa Knox was absolutely not a morning person, as much as she’d have liked to be, but once she was awake she generally found it hard to get back to sleep again. A good thing, too. She had a plane to catch this morning at some god-awful hour. A week ago, she’d have been nothing but excited, despite the early morning. But now — since everything that had happened with Jim — she couldn’t help but look at the long-awaited trip as just another imposition. All she really wanted to do was lay in bed until… well, until her heart stopped hurting, for a start. Until she could feel something other than this bleak, miserable emptiness. “Should’ve gone for that run,” she mumbled to herself as the hot water rushed over her.

She knew she wasn’t exactly doing everything she could to fight her depression at the moment. It had been part of her life since middle school, but she’d only put a name on it in the last year or so. Strange to think that she’d been twenty-two before she’d realized that it wasn’t normal to sleep fourteen hours or longer on the weekend, that it wasn’t normal to go through long bouts of hollow emptiness, to feel — well, not that she wanted to die, exactly, but that she wouldn’t mind at all if she just… stopped existing one day. She’d started seeing a psychiatrist, gotten a few coping mechanisms into place — he’d suggested she try medicine, but she’d been wary of the side effects. Jim had always had such strong opinions about the pharmaceutical industry… she narrowed her eyes as she switched the shower off, annoyed to have found her mind straying to him again. Of course, it was only natural that she was thinking of him. This trip had been intended for the two of them, after all. She’d been looking forward to it for months, and so had Jim — at least, so he claimed. He mustn’t have been that keen. After all, it hadn’t stopped him sleeping with a nineteen-year-old, had it? Carissa dressed quickly, shivering a little in the cool of the early morning, still running on the autopilot that had scraped her through high school.

She didn’t want to be awake, didn’t want to be getting dressed, didn’t want to be getting in the cab she’d booked … but she’d do it anyway. That was how it went, with chronic depression. You relied on whatever strength your body had to carry you through all the parts your mind was just too empty and defeated to bother with — and you hoped like hell that some kind of spark would wake you up eventually. Jim had been that spark, for her. She’d gotten through high school okay, with her depression made dormant by the combination of a reliable routine and — she suspected — her regular exercise as part of her school’s track and field team. But with all of that gone — and no job or college to replace it — she’d slipped into a deep funk for months on end, sleeping until the late afternoon, staying up late on her computer, taking long, pointless walks around the neighborhood. And it had been on one such walk that she’d met Jim. Insomnia, he explained when she started talking to him. On reflection, it had been a damned stupid idea — a teenaged girl, out in the middle of the night, talking to an older male stranger? But she’d been too lost in her own fog to worry about selfpreservation, even if it had occurred to her that he could have been dangerous. He wasn’t, though.

At least, not in the traditional sense. They’d exchanged numbers, started texting… and through her interest in him, she found herself emerging from the months-long funk that had followed high school. She started running again, got a parttime job at a local bookstore, even started writing poetry again — something that had been impossible for months. Jim encouraged her, too. He was a writer — that had been what he’d been doing when they’d met, sitting under a streetlight in a park, scribbling away in a leather-bound journal. He’d always had a fondness for fancy notebooks. She’d found it charming and old-worldly, back then… now, she just thought he was pretentious. At Jim’s suggestion she started going to open mic nights, sending her poetry to competitions — even got a few pieces published in magazines here and there. It was strange to think of other people actually reading what she wrote. Poetry had always been intensely personal, for her — a way of naming and recording the things in her mind to prove to herself that they’d been there, that she’d felt something.

A kind of talisman to guide her out of the fog of depression when it claimed her. She’d noticed, as she began to make a bit of a name for herself in the local poetry scene, that Jim’s support for her had faded. He’d stopped being so glowing when he read her work — started criticizing it more, finding fault in turns of phrase he’d previously had nothing but praise for, not turning up to as many of her readings. He was just busy, she’d told herself — busy with the tutoring job he’d picked up to pay the bills on the apartment they’d moved into together. Winning the competition had been big, for her. It was by far the biggest reward she’d ever received, far outstripping the free drinks she got when she read at open mic nights, or the token payments she’d gotten for the couple of published pieces. It had been her mother who’d sent her the competition, which was being run by a hotel in Scotland, of all places. Helena had stayed there once, a long time ago — she’d always loved the Scottish Highlands and had been on several trips there before Carissa had been born. The competition was to write a poem about the Isle of Skye, where the hotel was, and it was specifically targeted at international poets. The grand prize was a week’s stay, flights included.

She’d used it more as an exercise in writing something she was unfamiliar with than as any real attempt to win the competition. She was shocked even to be shortlisted — though the research she’d done in writing the poem had been surprisingly rewarding. She could see why her mother had loved Scotland so much… the pictures she’d looked at had been so beautiful, and she’d gotten lost in the old folk tales she’d looked up. The country’s history was so rich, so ancient… she always thought of American history as spanning such a long time, but Scottish history went back hundreds of years further than her American History classes ever had. Maybe it was that passion that had sparked the inspiration in her. Whatever the cause, she was shocked to receive a phone call a few months later informing her that she was their chosen winner. Not only would her poem be part of all of the hotel’s promotional material going forward, she was to be flown out for a week-long stay — with a guest of her choosing. Her mother had been her first call, but to her great dismay, the trip clashed with her parents’ annual cross-country trip to stay with family in Colorado. Helena had clearly been torn… but her voice was so full of pride when she congratulated her daughter, and she promised that they’d go together some other time. “Take that man you’re seeing,” Helena had suggested.

Carissa had rolled her eyes. She and Jim had been together for over two years at this point — they shared an apartment, they’d even talked about marriage. It irritated her, that her mother wouldn’t take the relationship seriously… but now, looking back, she saw that her mother had been absolutely right about the guy. Carissa had ignored all the red flags… his sullen moods, the insecurities he exhibited whenever she made any kind of progress in her career, the controlling attitude he had to her free time, her friendships, her hobbies… Cheating on her with a teenager, though… that was low, even for him. She’d found out a week ago — a week before the trip, a week before they’d been meant to be getting on this plane together. He’d even had the audacity to try to deny it, the scumbag — to tell her she was reading into things, that she was being insecure, that maybe it was a symptom of her mental illness… but the look on his face had changed a great deal when she told him her friend had seen him with the girl in question at a nightclub the previous weekend. Then the tactics shifted — accusations that she’d been neglecting him, that she’d been distant, that their sex life hadn’t been as active lately, that she’d been so busy with work that she hadn’t had time for him… and when she realized that he was trying to blame her for his cheating, she told him flatly to get the hell out. The lease for the apartment, to her great relief, had been under her name — he’d had some credit issues when they’d moved in together, so her and her mother had co-signed for the place. When she’d called in tears to tell her parents that Jim had moved out, that it was over between them, her mother had immediately offered to pay his half of the rent until she could find another roommate. At the time, she’d been so upset over the end of her relationship that she hadn’t appreciated the gesture for what it was — a reassurance that she could retain her independence.

It would mean turning the study into a bedroom again, of course — but the study had been more for Jim’s benefit than hers, anyway. He needed a dedicated room to write in, but she could write anywhere. And as she climbed out of the cab and headed into the airport, she began to feel the first stirrings of something like hope. Jim had been her first real relationship, sure, and she’d loved him — the betrayal was going to hurt for a long time. Going on this trip alone had felt pretty lonely and pathetic at first… but now that she was actually on her way, she could see that it could be just the opportunity she needed to move on. She’d been hoping it would be a romantic getaway, that she and Jim could use the time to deepen their relationship… but in the long run, she knew, it was a better choice to spend the time getting to know herself. With the first real smile on her face in weeks, Carissa headed for her gate, looking forward to this new adventure.

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