Lacey shivered in delight when Daniel wrapped her in the warmth of his embrace. The fall air had grown brisk and her light cardigan did little to guard her against the chill. She could feel her very soul exhale as her body melted against him.
It feels good to be loved.
After six years, eleven months and three days of dating one guy after another,she finally found her soul mate. Daniel had been a casual acquaintance for decades. A familiar face that was always polite but never entered her orbit as anything more than a big brother type figure. He was five years older after all. They certainly did not have anything in common during her school years. He was eons ahead of her, practically a grown man as a college freshman while she was navigating the joys and sorrows of being a preteen.
When they met up at a mutual friend’s New Year’s Eve party, the sparks caught her off guard. Suddenly good ole Daniel felt less like a big brother and more like the answer to the prayer she had been too afraid to speak outloud. Lacey was ready for love in the New Year and Daniel fit her list of prerequisites to a T. It had been almost ten months and they were wholly inseparable. Forever was close enough to grasp in Lacey’s eyes.
Lacey considered Daniel her rainbow after the storm. Her last serious relationship was on-again and off again for five years. Rahim had been her boyfriend in every sense of the word except a title. They were inseparable but he would not make it official. “What’s understood does not need to be defined,” his favorite response when she pressed him to make their relationship exclusive. So for the years they were together, she was faithful – only entertaining other guys when her and Rahim were broken up – or in Rahim-speak “need to take time to think some things over.” Rahim on the other hand kept more than one relationship within arms reach at all times, often telling her about his latest or even current companion, dismissing some as nothing more than flings and glorifying others as the prototype for womanhood.
You can’t be broken up if you were not “together.” Lacey felt initially that Rahim was a drug she could not do without. No matter how many times they went their separate ways, if he called she answered. During their breaks, she would find herself with one guy or another, sometimes even in monogamous relationship yet still Rahim was orbiting in her space. She always knew when he was in a serious relationship or just hanging out with someone new. They conversed regularly even when he was committed to someone else.
“We are friends aren’t we?” He would chide her whenever she mentioned the inappropriateness of their conversations while he was in relationship with someone else. The words “my girlfriend” always felt like a dagger to the heart. Rahim has never once used that term in reference to Lacey, only with the women that came after her.
After her twenty-first birthday and looking at college graduation, Lacey began evaluating her relationship. She made a list of the pros and cons of her connection to Rahim. Pros – they had great chemistry. Rahim made her laugh and when they were together, the whole world fades away. Cons – he wouldn’t commit, he made her feel insecure and not good enough for commitment, he compared her to other women, he always came back in her life when things were stable and upend them, he interrupted her attempts at relationships with other men. On and on it went until the “cons” column was completely full. Lacey’s heart hammered at the thought of a life without Rahim.
She changed her number and deleted all of her social media to make a clean break for Rahim. She deserved love and Rahim was keeping her from it.
When Daniel proposed on her birthday the following month, the answer was a no-brainer. Spend the rest of her life with the man who has loved for best? Absolutely. Lacey wore her ring proudly, texting pictures of their private engagement to all of her friends and family. Her parents were surprised. They knew Daniel. He was a perfectly nice young man. The parental concern that debated whether he should have asked Lacey’s dad for her hand was quickly dismissed as old-fashioned by their only child. No one does that anymore. Besides, he wanted to keep it a surprise and just between the two of them.
Lacey floated into the new year on the wings of love. They had decided on a short engagement. Six months and not a day over. A spring wedding in the new year would be the perfect way to start their life together. Their anniversary was coming up, New Year’s Eve. Lacey and Daniel decided to make it a night to remember. He made reservations at the grandest hotel in the city. They would bring in the New Year on the rooftop with friends before retreating for a private celebration. Lacey’s head was swimming with possibilities. They hadn’t consummated their relationship – she was not ready and he didn’t push, but Lacey contemplated if their anniversary was the perfect night to give her future husband the gift of herself. They were practically married – and she needed to get over her apprehension regarding intimacy. The few times she had gotten close enough to consider sex with a partner, the awkwardness of it all had a chilling effect on all thoughts of getting hot and heavy. But things with Daniel had never been awkward – and their chemistry was palpable. If it would work with anyone it would be Daniel.
When the ball dropped in the middle of downtown, Lacey and Daniel shared a kiss that singed her senses. Her pulse hammered in her throat. Absolutely. Tonight.
Giddy with anticipation, Lacey floated around the room, doling out hugs and pecks to friends and acquaintances in the room. She left Daniel on the balcony as she chatted briefly with a college friend. Tyler was trying to get in contact with her old roommate – they dated ever so briefly in college and the new year had him trying to get that old thing back. Lacey texted her friend to get the okay before forwarding the number to Tyler. After a quick hug and pleasantries, Lacey was ready to get back to her man.
She scanned the balcony for Daniel’s familiar figure. Nothing
”Babe, where did you go?” She texted, brows furrowed. The message was opened but not replied.
Odd. Very odd. In their entire year together, Daniel has never once ignored a message from her.
“Babe, I’m worried. Call me!” She messaged again.
He read it at 12:36am.
12:45 almost ten minutes later and still, nothing.
She called him. It rang without interruption and went to voicemail.
”Babe, where are you? Are you okay? Call me! Please!”
Her first frantic message giving way to three more over the course of the next two hours. She probably called fifteen times. His phone wasn’t dead because it rang each time before going to voicemail. Anxiety turned to alarm which turned to panic. After asking everyone present and calling all mutual friends, Lacey gave up. Maybe he had too much to drink and was sleeping it off elsewhere. Maybe he lost his phone. She told herself not to worry. Daniel was smart and strong. He wouldn’t do anything foolish and he could take care of himself.
When 3am came and went, Lacey checked into their room alone and slept terribly. She was up at six and began trying his phone again. No response. Her friends also called him with no luck.
“Lord, please keep him safe,” she prayed between tears of anguish.
As hours turned into days, Lacey began calling Daniel’s family – they needed to know he was missing.
“Hi, Mrs. Pierce, it’s Lacey. I don’t want to alarm you but nobody has heard from Daniel since New Year’s Eve,” Lacey revealed carefully. She wanted to be sensitive but couldn’t afford to mince words. It’s been almost a week!
”Hey baby? You looking for Daniel? Sugar he’s right here! He drove in and surprised us for the New Year,” Daniel’s mom explained with a laugh.
He was at his parents? He drove from Maryland to Maine without so much as a text?! Was he insane?!
Worry quickly turned to fury as Lacey made the calculations. For all the hours she was calling and worrying on their anniversary, he was driving? While she was sleeping badly and alone in what should have been their magical night together, he was on his way to see his parents?
Lacey gave her best performance at nonchalance and ended the call with Daniel’s mom. Her fiancé was in for a world class fight whenever he decided to call her back.
When the week stretched into two weeks, Lacey’s anger began dissipating into worry and something else she couldn’t identify…dread perhaps.
Daniel was acting very out of character. There was still no calls and no replies to her texts. Maybe he was getting cold feet about the wedding? They had less than five months to plan their wedding now. Maybe he changed his mind about a short engagement.
When two weeks became almost a month, Lacey had carved out a new normal. She would call Daniel once in the morning to say hello to his voicemail and leave one text message in the afternoon. The man of her dreams was going through some sort of personal crisis. Until he was able to verbalize his struggles, it was up to her to ensure that he knew she had not abandoned him.
As their wedding date drew closer, Lacey retreated into herself. Thankfully they had not sent out engagement announcements or invitations so nobody knew her and Daniels timeline but for the two of them. Despite that saving grace, she did not want to answer questions about Daniel’s whereabouts from curious loved ones. None of her friends or family had seen him since the infamsous New Year’s Eve party. The less they saw of her, the less they would have to speculate about.
When she called Daniel’s number this time…it had been disconnected. A mixture of panic and relief washed over her. She wasn’t strong enough to stop going through the motions of reaching out to him. As long as his voicemail accepted her messages, there was hope that he would call back and they could fix what was broken. That hope was the most agonizing part of her ordeal. It taunted her relentlessly.
“You’re not gonna give up on him that easily are you? What happened to love? What about “for better or worse?” You were about to marry this man!”
Her thoughts haunted her relentlessly and kept her tied to the phone. Calling and texting daily with no response as only a deranged stalker would.
As her would-be wedding date drew nearer, Lacey came to terms with her situation. Over the last months, she had lost almost fifteen pounds from an already thin frame, she lost all interest in anything social and did the bare minimum not to get fired at her job. She did not respond to friends and had stopped visiting family. Her imaginary relationship with Daniel was a parasite that was leeching her dry. It was time to let him go.
As a symbolic release, Lacey changed her Facebook status to single. Her new relationship status had one like – Danielle, Daniel’s younger sister.
Lacey’s heart contracted painfully at the slight. Before she could stop herself, Lacey found her eyes roving over Danielle’s page for signs of Daniel. Her eyes immediately fastened on the large cover photo of Daniel and his entire family. Lacey recognized Daniel’s parents and his sister but the one unfamiliar face in the photo was a brunette with grey eyes standing between Danielle and her beloved brother. She knew before she read the caption.
“My brother and my new sister on their wedding day.”
The date was also familiar. May 1st, 2015, Five-one-fifteen. Like they always planned. Daniel was an apparition, a friendly ghost that haunted her life and gave her the best year of her life only to go to his eternal rest in the arms of another woman.
‘Love’ was a joke.