She shifted, wrapping her arms around her waist and unwrapping them just as quickly, clasping her hands in her lap. She smiled, that big one that was all mouth and cheek muscles, but no eyes. “Well. Let’s just get started, then. Can I …?” She used her finger to indicate moving closer to me on the couch. Her gaze met mine and held for a moment as I nodded, anxiety coursing through my blood.
She scooted closer to me as my heart rate accelerated. I felt my body flush uncomfortably, my skin prickling as she again slid closer, our thighs almost touching. There was a red mark on her cheekbone that her makeup didn’t cover from this close. I wanted to ask her about it, but I couldn’t form the words. The adrenaline pumping through my body at her nearness made me feel dizzy, made me want to bolt, to flee. I was desperate for space, and though I knew it was irrational, I couldn’t help wanting to back away, to put myself at arm’s distance so I felt safe. I sucked in oxygen, her eyes still holding mine.
“I’m going to touch your hand,” she whispered. “Is that okay?” Her eyes were wide, and her lips were parted as her chest rose and fell with each quickened breath. I saw it—her nervousness, her uncertainty, but the care she was taking in spite of it—and for one sweet moment, a breeze of calm moved through me.
I let out a strange sound that was half word … half exhale. She hesitated, but kept eye contact. “Gabriel,” she murmured. I felt the warmth of her breath as she spoke my name. I smelled her perfume, something fresh and delicate that reminded me of spring rain and newly cut grass, something that seemed to conflict with the heaviness of her makeup, the boldness of her skimpy clothing. Who are you, Crystal? Really?
A pulse beat steadily at the base of her throat, and for a wild moment I wondered what it would feel like to place my lips there, to run my tongue over it. Would she let me? More importantly, would she want it?
Her hand touched mine, smooth, tentative, and I tensed at the skin-on-skin contact. Run! My thigh muscles contracted in preparation of flight, but I held myself still by sheer will, clenching my eyes shut. Words and phrases and sounds were whipping through my mind, assaulting me, taking me out of the present, back there.
You like that, don’t you?
I gripped Crystal’s hand tightly, and she let out a small groan of distress. My eyes flew open and I let go of her, standing quickly. I was sweating, my heart beating so harshly, I swore she could hear it from where she still sat. There was both relief and disappointment in putting distance between us. I expected the relief, but the disappointment was something new.
“I’m sorry,” I said when I could speak. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Do you want to try again?” Her words were said quickly, but her voice was soft.
I shook my head. “No. Not … not tonight. That was enough.” I let out an embarrassed chuckle. “You sure you’re up for this?”
She was still sitting in the same position as she had been when I stood, her hand lying limply on the couch where I’d been. Her head was tilted and her cheeks were flushed, too, though I couldn’t say why. She looked slightly confused as she bit at her lip. But then she smiled that practiced smile again and stood up, though she still didn’t answer my question.
She wrapped her arms around her waist again, and this time, left them there as she looked at me.
She’s as scared as I am. The thought caused me to frown. I wasn’t sure where it’d come from or why I’d had it at all. She doesn’t know what to think about this.
For a second we looked at each other awkwardly. “Oh, uh.” I reached into my pocket, taking out my wallet and counting out the cash and handing it to her. She took it with a small smile and stuck it in her bra.
“I don’t work tomorrow but I work the night after that if you—”
“That’d be great.”
She nodded. “Same time?”
“Yeah. Same time.”
“Okay, Crys—” I paused. “Can I call you by your real name? You know, now that we’re on more intimate terms. Having held hands and all.”
She laughed. “I told you, sugar. Around here, that is my real name.”
I frowned in disappointment. “Okay.
See you soon, then.” She opened the door and I walked through it, putting my hands in my pockets, glancing back once before I turned out of the hallway. She was still standing against the open door, looking slightly troubled, and watching me as I left.
Take my hand and follow me to the daffodil fields. The sweet perfume makes us invisible, you know. We’ll hide together, you and I. I won’t ever leave you alone.
Lady Eloise of the Daffodil Fields
I pulled up in front of the post office and stepped out into the summer heat. It’d been unusually hot for Vermont in the last couple of weeks, and I was looking forward to the cooling rain that was supposed to come later this week.
The post office was cool and silent, mostly empty on a weekday at ten a.m. I breathed in the familiar scent of old paper. Bridgett Hamill was at the counter filing her nails. When I stepped forward, she glanced up at me, her eyes widening slightly as she dropped the file and pushed it quickly into the open drawer in front of her.
“Can I help you?”
She snapped her gum, her eyes darting around. “Hello.”
I smiled thinly, embarrassed by her blatant standoffishness. We’d gone to school together. I’d helped her up once in second grade after a bully knocked her books out of her hands and she’d cried. But that had been before. I supposed when she remembered it, if she remembered it, that’s what she thought, too.
I paused as she stared at me, finally looking down to the packages I’d placed on the edge of the counter. I pushed the two boxes forward, the one on top toppling off and almost falling to the floor. “Shit.” I caught the package, placing it next to the other one. “I’d like to mail these.”
“Sure thing.” She went about weighing and stamping them and then rang up my postage, flashing me a thin-lipped smile. A couple of people were in line behind me, and after I thanked Bridgett stiffly, I nodded at them. The first woman in line—I was pretty sure her name was Penny—had a little boy with her, and she pulled him against her side, running her hand over his hair as I passed. She shot me a smile that had that same hint of sorrow I was used to.
A rush of warm air hit me as I pushed open the glass door, and before it shut behind me, I heard Penny whisper loudly to Bridgett, “Did you hear about—” The door clicked shut before I could hear the rest of whatever gossip she’d been about to relay.
I got into my truck and cranked up the air-conditioning, sitting there for a few minutes, leaned back on the seat, letting my discomfort fade. I knew why some of the people in town treated me the way they did, understood the vast array of reactions I still received. I should be used to it by now. I was used to it. But I hated feeling like the town creep show.
I pulled out of my spot and almost decided not to do the other errand I’d come into town to do, but at the last minute, I turned right toward the hardware store anyway. If I wanted to live a normal life, I had to force myself to start stepping out of the comfort zone I’d created. Plus, Sal’s was one of the few places in town where I didn’t feel like a bug under a microscope. A bug who was either liable to do something strange and unexpected at any moment, or a bug who still elicited constant sympathy and was a reminder of any mother’s worst fear.
I pulled into the parking lot behind the store and walked around to the front, the bell chiming over the door when I stepped inside the dim, stuffy shop.
“Hey, Gabriel,” Sal greeted.
I smiled. “Hey, Sal. How are you?”
“Hot as the dickens. I’d be working shirtless today if my No Shirt permit hadn’t been revoked years ago,” he joked, patting his large belly.
I laughed. “Time to invest in some central air?”
He sighed. “Gina says so, but I say, my grandfather and my father didn’t need it and neither do I. Heat makes a man strong. You should know—working in that quarry all day.”
“I mostly work inside, actually, but I won’t disagree with you. George is about as strong as they come.”
Sal nodded. “So was your dad. Now, hey, I got those gloves in you ordered along with the other things George put on the list.” Sal stepped into the back while I waited. I could have bought the gloves online, but I preferred to give my business to Sal, even for smaller orders. Plus it forced me to come into town with some regularity, and that was a good thing. Supposedly.
Sal carried a box from the back and set it down on the counter. “These should last you a while, then.”
“I’ll just put this on your account.”
“Okay, great. Thanks, Sal,” I said, picking up the box. As I turned to go, Sal called my name. I turned, and the look on his face was one of concern.
“Hey, uh, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but a little boy went missing yesterday. Still hasn’t been found.”