Like a Fairy Tale     

 

              Jake didn’t realize he’d been keeping track of how long it had been since Liam had been declared missing, but he had.  And by his count, by the time Lana left for New York in September, it had been almost four months to the day.  Four months without even a hint of news—good or bad—for any of them to hold on to.

                News of him missing in action had taken the joy out of the war’s ending.  In some ways, it made it even worse. With word of men returning home by the boat load, it didn’t seem like too many were concerned about those left behind. But Jake knew it hadn’t stopped Charlie hoping and praying for her husband’s safe return, just like it hadn’t stopped Lana from her chewing bruises into her lips and leaping to her feet every time the phone rang.  He didn’t show it the same way, but Jake missed Liam too.  They hadn’t known each other very long, but they’d been friends from the start.  It was an unexpected punch to the gut to wake up every day and realize that his friend was still gone—to consider the very real possibility that he might not ever be back.  Liam had a very clear-cut way of looking at things; he didn’t like people dancing around the heart of any matter.  It was a quality Jake had found was very rare—extremely rare in California—and something he’d missed in the last few months.

                The last time he saw Liam, it was late in March. They were back in New York to kill two birds with one stone: a show at WBFR and a visit to Lana’s brother Patrizio’s house to celebrate the arrival of his third son.  But that had all been done with by Friday and Lana had specifically left Saturday wide open to spend with the Bradys. It was still cold enough to need a coat in Manhattan and Lana’s engagement ring was currently burning a hole in the inside pocket of his. 

                He leaned against the bricks of the Spence dormitory and lit himself a cigarette, smiling as he watched Lana drag Charlie by the hand to where a group of young girls was playing hopscotch. He couldn’t personally imagine even walking in the shoes Lana pranced around in all day, but it was something else entirely to watch her jump in them and hop up and down on one foot.

                Liam’s face was one of confusion as he exited the shop across the street and jogged back over to join him.  “I thought we were meant to be going to lunch,” he said with a curious tilt of his head. The ladies had insisted on going to lunch at the automat where they’d spent their lunch breaks at Spence and had been thoroughly delighted to stumble upon recess at their alma mater, derailing their plans for a chance to play with the current students.

                Jake laughed and took a drag of his cigarette.  “We were,” he said simply.  “The girls were distracted.”

                Liam followed his gaze to where Lana was holding out her hands to catch Charlie who seemed to be on the verge of losing her balance. He was grinning when he looked back. “Something tells me we should just fend for ourselves.”

                “Oh, they’ll stay here for hours,” he agreed amicably. They watched as two little girls took their turn before it was Charlie’s again.

                “Y’know,” Liam said after watching his wife bend down and scoop up her rock before bouncing off the board on one leg. “I don’t recall hopscotch being this fascinating before.”

                Lana had unbuttoned her coat by the time it was her turn. Jake took a steady inhale and felt absolutely no shame in watching her hop gracelessly from one foot to the other, showing off with a spin somewhere in the middle before she grabbed the rock she’d thrown and bounced off.  “It’s kind of like watching Jell-o on a pogo stick.”

                His companion chuckled and shook his head. Jake returned his lighter to his pocket; his fingers brushed the small, velvet ring box that had gone everywhere with him since he’d picked it up from the store over two weeks ago. He swatted at Liam’s arm and cleared his throat.  “Hey, pal, can I show you something?”

                Liam glanced over with interest. “Of course.”  Jake reached into his pocket and removed the ring box with a furtive look in Lana’s direction before he turned away from the hopscotch game and showed the contents of the small box to his friend.

                “What do you think?” he asked, shuffling his feet nervously.

                Liam placed a hand on his chest.  “Darling, it’s lovely.  But I don’t think they’ll ever let us be together.”

                Jake laughed and rolled his eyes. “You’re hilarious,” he said dryly, tucking the box back into his pocket.

                “I think it really is lovely,” Liam said sincerely, once his giggles had subsided. “But can I ask you a question?”

                “Sure.”

                “What’s it doing in your pocket instead of on Lana’s finger?”

                Jake looked down at his shoes and rubbed the back of his neck.  “Waiting for the right moment, I guess.”

                Liam looked back over his shoulder.  The little girls had been called back inside by their teachers and Charlie was standing with her hands on her hips, beckoning for Lana to get down from her new perch on the ledge of the stone wall that ran next to Spence.  It wasn’t very high, maybe five or six feet, but he couldn’t figure out how she’d gotten up there.

                “Lana you’re going to fall and break your neck!” Charlie exclaimed, looking exasperated. “Get down!”

                “I won’t fall!” Lana said with the boldness of someone who already knew she was right. “And besides,” she stopped her mindless dancing and shot her best friend a sassy look. “Wouldn’t you catch me if I did?”

                Liam couldn’t help but smile, watching the two of them together. He turned back to Jake. “You really love that girl?”

                Jake stole another look at her; he willed himself not to go red when her eyes met his and she puckered her lips with a kiss in his direction. “Yeah,” he said with a smile. “I really do.”

                “Then, forgive my asking, but what’s going to make one moment more right than any other?”

                Jake didn’t have an answer for that, but he could feel Liam studying him while he watched Lana try to get Charlie to join her.  Her cheeks were flushed from the hopscotch, her curls were losing their precision and beginning to frizz, and her eyes were sparkling. His friend had a point; he could think of a million perfect moments that he’d spent with Lana in the last two years—none of them could be considered more perfect than any other. 

                “Don’t think about it too long, mate,” Liam said, focusing his eyes back on his friend.  “I can’t imagine she won’t say yes.”

                He left him then at a sprint and before Jake could realize it, Liam had climbed up the stone wall and had joined Lana in what looked like a very complicated tap dance.  “Oh for God’s sake!” Charlie exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “Both of you now?  Really?  Can’t one of you keep your feet on the ground?”

                Liam shot her devilish grin.  “Where’s the fun in that, darling?”

                Jake stuffed his hands in his pockets and strolled over to where Charlie was fretting. “It could be icy,” he called up to them, but his warning was half-hearted around the smile on his face.

                “It’s not icy,” Lana called back, not taking her eyes off of the way Liam’s feet were moving, trying to match him step for step.

                “You two are idiots!” Charlie called, crossing her arms over her chest.

                “Sure are!” Liam agreed with another laugh.

                “But we’re your idiots,” Lana added and sent a wink in their direction.

                Jake smiled again and put an arm around Charlie’s shoulders.  “What are we going to do with them?” he asked, shaking his head.

                “I’m afraid we have no choice but to love them forever,” she declared, and Jake knew that just like himself, Charlie had been given no say in the matter.

                But Liam’s disappearance had changed everything. If someone had told him six months ago that it wouldn’t bother him that Lana didn’t want to wear her engagement ring when she went to visit her best friend, he probably wouldn’t have believed it. But when she’d slipped the ring off of her finger in favor of wearing it on a chain around her neck, he had understood.

                “It’s not that I don’t want to tell her,” Lana had explained with that guilty look he knew too well. “It’s just not the right time.”

                “I know,” he’d said, helping her to fasten the chain around her neck. He swept her hair to one side and pressed a kiss to her shoulder.  “But don’t you think she’ll be happy for us?”

                Lana looked at their reflection in her vanity mirror. “I think she’ll pretend to be,” she said after a long, thoughtful pause.  “No, I know she will be eventually—but it just doesn’t feel right to be so happy with everything so up in the air.”

                He’d given her a faint smile and tilted her head up to look at him.  “So you are happy to be marrying me,” he clarified, deciding he was never going to get tired of trying to memorize every fleck of gold and green in her brown eyes.

                She had smiled and let him drop a kiss onto her lips.  “Yes,” she said softly, rolling her ring between her fingers, zipping it along the chain. “I’m very happy.  I just want to wait until things settle down before I tell anyone else.”

                She had put the ring back on as soon as she’d arrived home; it was currently decorating the left hand that was slung across his chest, attached to his snoring fiancée.  He glanced from the glittering gems back to the USO order that had been delivered earlier that afternoon.  One last show in Waikiki; a sendoff to the troops that were stationed there.  He could certainly think of worse ways to spend the second week of October, especially when he didn’t have anything but reshoots lined up until after the new year.

                “You should come with me,” he said softly, curling his fingers around Lana’s.

                Beside him, she stirred with a sound of confusion; he instantly felt guilty.  “Whadyousay?” she asked, pulled from a surprisingly sudden deep sleep.  Her hair fell into her face as she squinted at him in the light of the bedside table.

                “Nothing,” he said quickly, feeling the tops of his ears redden.  “I was talking to myself—go back to sleep.”

                She frowned, her lips pouting invitingly as she shuffled herself around to peer at the papers in his hand.  “Waikiki, huh?”

                “Just for a week,” he said, feeling stupid that asking her to join him had made him so nervous. He’d already asked her the biggest question in the world, he reminded himself, and she’d said yes.  So why did it fill him with adolescent jitters just to ask if she wanted to take a vacation with him?  “You could, uh,” he cleared his throat.  “You could come with me.”

                Lana’s frown turned thoughtful. “I’ve never been to Hawaii,” she said, dropping her chin onto his shoulder.

                “I know,” he said, feeling a little more confident.  “It’s nice there.  You could relax…lie on the beach, get a suntan,” he pressed a kiss to her temple. “Drink something with an umbrella in it.”

                He felt her smile more than he saw it.  “Drinks with umbrellas in them sound pretty nice,” she admitted softly.  “But I don’t know.  Now’s not a good time.”

                He swallowed back his sigh. “What’s not good about it?”

                “Plenty,” she said, not looking at him.  “I shouldn’t…”

                “Keep putting your life on hold for something that might not ever happen,” he said, cutting off the protests that had started to sound a little overplayed, even to him.  “You’re not helping Charlie by treating her like a bird with a broken wing.”  The tension snaked up her spine and made him instantly regret what he’d just said.  It wasn’t that he didn’t mean it, but in hindsight, he probably didn’t have to have said it quite like that. 

                Lana pushed away from him.  “Thanks for the keen observations,” she snapped, getting to her feet and grabbing her robe from the floor of his bedroom.  “Because I was harboring the delusion that I was so goddamn useful before this moment.”

                He willed himself not to smile like he always did when she swore.  “There’s my Jersey girl,” he said, waiting until her shoulders relaxed and she was safe enough to approach.  She had made her way over to his open window and leaned against the pane.  He let out a deep breath and summoned his courage.

                She didn’t move when he touched her back so he waited a few more seconds and moved his fingertips in a circle between her shoulder blades.  “It’s just a week, kiddo,” he said softly, watching the side of her face for any signs of softening.  “You don’t have to come with me,” he continued, “but I’m not going to lie about the fact that I’m worried about you.”

                The angry blaze was gone from her eyes when she turned to look at him. “Worried about me? I’m f—”

                “Stop saying you’re fine, Lana.  You’re not fine.  You don’t sleep well, you forget to eat, you’re running yourself ragged trying to be in New York and Arizona and California all at the same time and you’re harassing the mailmen for letters and telegrams they don’t have.”

                She rolled her eyes.  “I don’t harass them,” she argued weakly before she sighed.  “I’m not used to feeling useless,” she admitted.  “Charlie may be telling everyone to treat her like she’s fine and dandy but she’s not, and even if she is it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t fix this for her.  I can’t do anything and I hate everything that’s happened and I just wish none of it ever had.”

                He looked at her for a long time before he spoke again, choosing his words more carefully this time.  “Well, we can’t change what happened,” he said finally.  “But I also don’t think anyone is expecting you to put the rest of your life on hold because of Liam and Charlie. Least of all your best friend.”

                She sighed again.  “I know…”

                “So why don’t you write her a letter and tell her you’re going out of town,” he suggested gently, inching his hand over to her shoulder so he could turn her to face him. “And come and surprise those soldiers you love so much.”  He could tell he was pretty close to winning this particular argument.  “Because I can tell ya right now, kitten, those boys aren’t going to be nearly as excited to see me as they would be to see you.”

                Lana rolled her eyes again, but Jake could see that he’d won in the smile she was trying to hide.

 

***

 

                Jake had to admit that he really did enjoy being right.  Lana was currently lounging on the wicker chaise on the balcony of her hotel room, her face tilted up to the sun and her skin glistening with suntan oil that smelled like coconut.  He came up behind her chair and looked down at her with a smile on his face.  “Lana?”

                “Mmm?” she didn’t open her eyes, but she raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement.

                “You’re starting to burn a little bit, sweetheart.”

                She let out a contented little sigh and shook her head. “You’re just saying that to get me to flip over,” she said, her voice low and lazy.

                Jake laughed. “Not this time, I’m afraid,” he trailed a fingertip over the top of her shoulder and down over her collarbones.  “You’re going to look like a lobster if you don’t change your plans for the rest of the afternoon.”

                She opened her eyes for that and shot him a smile.  “And nobody wants a lobster entertaining our soldiers.”

                “Eh, I don’t think those boys much care what color you are,” he assured her, bending to place a kiss on the sunburned tip of her nose.  When she spent too much time outside, there was a pattern of faint freckles that appeared on her nose and cheekbones.  “Come for a walk with me,” he said softly.

                “You got it,” she agreed and got to her feet, pulling on a pair of black shorts and one of his button down shirts.  She tied the ends at her waist and rolled the sleeves up.  She was a little pink from the sun, her hair a frizzy and unkempt mess and she hadn’t worn any make-up since her stage appearance two nights prior. And Jake was fairly certain she’d never looked more beautiful.  “Let’s go,” she said, holding out her hand with an expectant look and without a glance in the mirror.

                The sand was soft and wet beneath their feet as they walked hand-in-hand in the surf. He glanced sideways and bumped his shoulder with hers.  “You happy you came along?” he asked, a little smug.

                Lana glanced sideways up at him and squeezed his hand.  “I am, actually.”

                “Good,” he let go of her hand to put his arm around her shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “You look happy.”

                She gave him a devilish grin a second before she pushed him gently to the sand and climbed playfully on top of him, straddling his lap with her knees.  “You’re right,” she said lacing their fingers together before she leaned in for a kiss.  “I am happy.”  He accepted her kiss and let her push him backward until he was reclining on his elbows.  Lana pulled away abruptly and sat back on her heels.

                “What’s wrong?” he asked, surprised.

                “Let’s get married,” she said suddenly, the idea quickly taking shape behind her eyes.

                Jake laughed.  “What, here?  Now?”

                Lana shrugged.  “Why not?  You’re happy, I’m happy, we’re in the most beautiful place in the world…” she got to her feet and held out her hand.  “Life is short and I want to spend as much of the rest of mine as possible married to the man that I love.”

                It was hard to argue with that kind of logic…or with the look Lana was giving him.  He felt his smile split his face in half as he got up and brushed the sand off of himself.  “Okay Lana,” he said, clasping her hand in his.  “Let’s get married.”

                She insisted on an hour to get ready and when she met him in the lobby of the hotel, her hair was tamed back into its normal glossy curls, her lips were painted red and inviting and she’d put on a yellow sundress and a pair of high heels.  The hotel concierge had given him a map to the Waikiki courthouse and a wink good luck. 

                “Do you think it’s as ridiculous as I do that we’re getting married at a building on Punchbowl Street?” Lana asked him as she studied the map on their walk over.

                He looked down at her with a smile.  “You getting cold feet on me, Nottingham?”

                She squeezed his hand and returned his grin.  “Not in a million years.”

                There was, apparently, nothing to getting married in Hawaii.  Especially at the courthouse.  The clerk barely looked up over the top of her glasses as she handed them the necessary forms.  Lana glanced over at him as she chewed her lip and inked in her name. “That’s it?” she asked the clerk.  “We just fill out these forms and then we’re married?”

                The clerk looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. “No, fill those out and the judge will call you in.”

                They only waited a few minutes in the uncomfortable wooden chairs before a bailiff called their names and herded them inside.  The judge looked to be about seventy-five and, judging by the way he yawned after he read their names, not a fan or even familiar with either of them.  He read a paragraph about the sanctity of marriage from a notecard, asked if there were any objections (neither the bailiff nor the court reporter had any), and pronounced them married after a few quick questions about entering into this union of their free will and understanding the gravity of the decision they were about to make.

                “Well, go on,” the judge said, looking at Jake expectantly after he’d finished speaking. “Kiss your bride.”

                Even Lana seemed surprised that it was already finished, but she tilted her chin up and accepted his kiss, leaning into him for a moment to let her foot pop off the ground.  “Did we just get married?” she asked when she pulled away, a smile wide on her face.

                He chuckled.  “Yeah, I think we did.”

                “Huh,” she said, her eyes sparkling the longer she looked up at him. “How about that.”

                They went to lunch and then for another walk on the nearest beach.  Lana hugged his arm thoughtfully.  “Forgive my saying, Mrs. Lawrence,” he commented, enjoying the way it sounded on his lips and the way Lana smiled up at him when he said it. “But you don’t exactly seem filled with wedded bliss.”

                Her teeth pressed gently into her bottom lip.  “It just…” she frowned.  “I thought I’d feel different. But that was so…”

                “Quick?” he asked with a smile. “Impersonal? Unromantic?”

                “Buying my last car felt like more of an event than that,” she declared, making him laugh.

                “Didn’t help that the judge was practically asleep when he was reading that bit about the sanctity of marriage,” he said, unable to keep his shoulders from shaking.

                Lana snorted once and covered her mouth, trying unsuccessfully to hold in her giggles.  “Not exactly a fairy tale, was it?”  She stopped for a moment and looked down at her hand.  “Jesus Christ,” she said with another laugh. “We don’t even have wedding rings! Who put us in charge?”

                Jake laughed as his eyes landed on a trinket shop a few yards down the beach.  “C’mon, we can fix at least some part of this tragedy,” he said, lacing their hands together and tugging her gently to follow behind him. 

                “Where are you taking me?” she asked with a confused giggle.

                Jake stopped walking and tuned back. “I can’t have my wife disappointed on the very first day of the rest of our lives.”

                Lana bit back her smile and pulled on their joined hands until he was within kissing distance. “Keep saying things like that, I’m going to forget all about being disappointed,” she promised.

                “Come on,” he said, touching his forehead to hers. “The most beautiful bride in Hawaii deserves a little romance on her wedding day.”

                The shop had a scrubbed wooden floor covered in sand and colorful straw mats.  The walls were decorated with wide brimmed straw hats and beach towels. At the back of the shop was a small, glass case and a tan-skinned employee.  “How can I help you folks?” he asked while Lana ran her fingers over a display of white shelled necklaces.

                “We just got married,” she said, looking up with a smile.

                “Oh, congratulations,” the shopkeeper said, looking between the two of them. “You seem very happy together.”

                “We are,” Jake assured him, squeezing Lana’s shoulders.  “We are, however, in need of a pair of matching rings to make this thing look official.”

                The rings were not pretty; he was the first to admit that. They were cheap silver—probably no more than polished tin—and a matching set only put him back three dollars, but Lana looked absolutely delighted when she sat down next to him in the sand and held out her hand.  “This is probably going to turn your skin green, sweetheart,” he said holding the ring at the edge of her finger.

                Lana laughed. “And just when I thought our wedding vows couldn’t possibly get any more romantic.”

                Jake smiled and thought for a minute before he cleared his throat.  “Okay, how about this.” He made sure the ring was poised to be slid over her knuckle before he raised his eyes to hers.  Her eyes were a softer brown in the golden pink of the sunset that had just begun falling around them. “I, Jake Lawrence, take you, Milana Marie Nicastro, to be my wife. I promise to love you and to cherish you, and to take care of you,” he cleared his throat again, “while never forgetting that you are more than capable of taking care of yourself.” Lana’s grin urged him to continue. “I promise to make you laugh and to keep you safe and to always remember that you choosing to spend your life with me has made me the luckiest man in the world.”

                She laughed and wiped at her eyes with her right hand as he slid the ring onto her left. “That was so much better,” she said softly, leaning in to kiss him.

                “Your turn,” he said, waiting until she had slipped her engagement ring back onto her ring finger and fit it snugly above her new band.  The contrast of the two made the wedding ring look even cheaper.  He shook his head.  “And we’re getting you a new one as soon as we get back to the mainland.”

                She snatched her hand back and gasped dramatically.  “Don’t even think about it!” she exclaimed. “I love this ring.”  She held out her other hand. “I believe you said something about it being my turn?”

                Lana took a deep, steadying breath and held his ring at the tip of his left ring finger.  “I, Milana Marie Nicastro,” she paused and made a face at her full name and made him laugh. “Take you, Horatio Jacob Lawrence—”

                “Oh my God…” he groaned and almost pulled his hand away.

                Lana cackled. “You didn’t think I knew about that, did you?” she asked with a smile that wrinkled her nose.  “Your mother told me so much about you the last time we visited.”

                He covered his red face with his free hand. “She’s dead to me!”

                Lana was still giggling when he looked up. “Come on, come on,” she demanded impatiently. “Let me finish!”

                “Okay,” he took a deep breath and watched her try to get her giggles under control.  “Go on.”

                “I take you to be my husband,” she began again. “I promise to listen to you and to talk to you and to only fight with you about one thing at a time.” He mirrored her smile before she continued. “I can’t promise that we’ll be happy every single day for the rest of forever, but I can promise that I will love you and choose you every day for the rest of my life.”

                She sealed her vows with another kiss.  It might not have been a fairy tale, but Jake thought it felt pretty close to perfect.