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By My Side - Three

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

If anything important was happening that she needed to be alert and well-rested for, Marissa DeLuca could pretty much guarantee she would wake at 4am. She once mentioned it to her flatmate, who joked that maybe her body zapped back to American time when she was stressed. That didn’t make sense, because 4am in Scotland was like 10pm in Nowheresville, Nebraska where she came from, so why would she wake up then? That said, she had to admit that it started happening a lot more often since she moved, so maybe jet lag had permanently screwed with her body clock or something.

Or maybe it was just that a lot more exciting things tended to happen to Marissa in Glasgow than in her home town. She was that horrible cliché in that she’d packed up her whole life and moved half way across the world for a guy. Except not exactly, because she hadn’t met him yet.

Marissa had survived the horrors of high school as a chubby, friendless person, by losing herself in endless books about strapping Highland warriors, and had even, for a brief, regrettable, period in junior year, invented a long distance boyfriend. She hadn’t meant to. It was just that some girls in the lunchroom were loudly debating when various kids in their class would get married. When they got to Marissa, they all just burst out laughing, like it was a hilarious joke that anyone would ever marry Marissa. Her friend Jordan whispered at her just to ignore them, they were assholes anyway, but something crazy took over Marissa. She announced, loud enough for the whole lunchroom to hear, that she probably wouldn’t marry her boyfriend Lachlan, but maybe.

That had shut them up.

For about two seconds, then the questions started and Marissa was committed.

Lachlan had written her heartfelt reams of poetry and outpourings of love from his castle on a purple mountain overlooking a loch that pretty much always had a majestic stag drinking from it. She would have gotten away with it if that bitch Gabby Meredez, who had actual cousins in someplace called Maidenhead, pointed out that “Lachlan” wrote on three-hole punched paper while actual UK people used two-hole punched paper.

Marissa begged her mom to let her switch schools after that, but her mom just laughed. Marissa suffered through another torturous year before escaping to Omaha after graduation to start her real life. Her grades hadn’t exactly been scholarship-worthy, so the School of Life was her only college option.

Marissa eventually found a job as an office administrator for an insurance company, and her soul gradually withered and dripped out her ears as her twenties trickled away with literally nothing ever happening. One day, a new broker, a twenty-one year old frat boy with a permanent tan and unnaturally inflated muscles, felt the need to basically explain the alphabet to her while asking her to file some paperwork. Without a word she got up and went into the gigantic walk-in filing cabinet, sat down on the floor at the back and started to scroll through her phone. She hadn’t read a Scottish romance in years, had pretty much forgotten about her whole obsession, but dammit she was going to download one to her phone this second. She was going to sit and read the entire book in an afternoon and steroid-frat boy could just explain the alphabet to himself.

While noodling around online, trying to remember the name of her favourite author, Marissa stumbled across a want ad for a Communications Officer for a small publisher in Glasgow. Well, Marissa could communicate. She communicated every damn day, right up to and including the finger she’d shown steroid-frat boy right before she slammed the filing cabinet door in his face.

Before she could chicken out, Marissa applied right then and there, and somehow she got the job. Thanks to her mom’s mom being born in Aberdeen, she managed to get a visa. The next thing she knew, she was on a plane strapping herself in to actually move to Scotland. Three years later, she still couldn’t quite believe she had done it.

Glasgow was a little different than she imagined. The men were a little shorter than advertised, not quite as strapping. It rained so much that even when it wasn’t raining the air was kind of wet, and the only castle she heard of was someplace called Castlemilk but her flatmate made her swear never to go there without supervision.

But her flatmate, Kym, was the most enthusiastic, fun person Marissa had ever met and regularly had her lying on their kitchen floor screaming with laughter that made her abs hurt for days afterwards. In fact, Marissa had learned to just assume that everyone she met, if they were talking, they were telling a joke. Like the entire city had some kind of mass comedy-Tourettes.

In the past year, Marissa had had more fun than she’d had in the previous twenty-eight. She’d accidentally made out with a policeman on a dance floor who was supposed to be raiding the place for under-age drinking. She’d gone for just a quick wee one after work that ended up with dancing on tables at 3am. She once scaled the wall of a beer garden to break into a private party, only to discover that the bar was in fact open and her friends had strolled in the front door. And her job turned out to be a dream come true. She had already been promoted to Events Manager, and got to spend her days organising book launches and author panels and networking drinks. She hadn’t met her strapping Highlander — hadn’t even laid eyes on one if the truth be told — but she found that she couldn’t care less.

And now it was the morning of the launch of her very own literary festival. She’d pitched the concept of a Scottish romance festival to her bosses, planned it, budgeted it, promoted it, and now it was happening. She’d virtually met some of the authors whose imaginations had dominated her teenage years and talked them into flying over for an unknown festival in Glasgow. Her genuine passion for their worlds bubbled over as one by one they all agreed to show up.

Now, it was 4:45am and Marissa had given up on sleep. She dressed and slipped out into the quiet city. Even though Kym regularly yelled at her for wandering the streets at all hours, insisting one day she would be knifed to death and it would be her own fault, walking soothed Marissa. Rightly or wrongly, she always felt safe.

She skirted around the edge of the Necropolis and the gothic cathedral looming overhead. The sky was just beginning to lighten when Marissa sat down on a bench in Alexandra Park. Despite walking fast for a good hour, her stomach was still churning with excitement and nerves and it felt as though her brain was fizzing like a hot tub. She went through her checklists for the thousandth time.

She had done everything she could have done already. She knew exactly what she needed to do today. She was calm and in control and entirely up to the challenge of launching her very own book festival. She squealed out loud then flushed, looked around, but there was nobody nearby to hear. It was still what Kym called stupid o’clock.

There was a flurry of squawks and splashes as some ducks got in a fight in the pond in front of her. Marissa stood. Enough wandering the streets. She would home, take a long, hot shower, drink about a gallon of coffee, and start the day of her dreams.

Then she saw it. Floating in the pond. A dark shadow —

Even before Marissa got close enough to see properly, she knew what it was. Her veins turned to ice and a lump formed in her throat as she took in the woman’s long, fair hair floating in a halo around her.

She needed to wade in, get to her and carry her back to the path. She tried to remember the first aid course she did in high school a thousand years ago. Pinch the person’s nose. The rhythm of Staying Alive. That seemed like a cruel irony.

But the woman was face down, entirely still. Marissa smothered a moan as she realised she couldn’t help her. She fumbled for her phone with clumsy fingers, and called the police.

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