Title: Beneath Your Skin
Summary: Sometimes predictable people are the most unpredictable and little boxes hold the greatest treasures.
Disclaimer: I don't own 'em. I just like to play with 'em.
I had this working theory that every guy was predictable. And there was one specific guy who was proving my theory correct. He appeared at half past noon every Monday through Friday for the past two weeks. He would sit himself on the left end, as far from Mrs. Jenks as possible. Quite frankly I don't blame him. The woman really knows how to swing purse.
The chime above the door sounded and a little woman twirled her way into the shop all glitter and bangles and spiky fuchsia hair. She looked like a tornado with daring fashion sense. As I turned to look back out the large bay window at my predictable subject I realized he had disappeared.
Mrs. Jenks was still there, her champagne-colored purse still clutched tightly in her angry liver-spotted hands. It wasn't time for him to leave. I clicked the ball of my tongue ring against the back of my teeth, this would not do. I didn't like being wrong.
"Hey Angie," I called to the back room, probably louder than necessary, "you mind covering? I think I'm gonna go have a smoke."
The tall bird-like girl emerged and blinked her big bird-like eyes at me from behind thick black frames.
"Not a problem." She said all soft-spoken words and winding limbs.
I spared another glance out the window at the vacant green bench.
"There's only one customer in right now. A little thing in the back looking at the Art books." Angie nodded at me, ever the diligent employee. I hopped down from the tall stool behind the counter and grabbed my canvas bag.
I escaped out the heavy back door (the one that required a block in the jam so it didn't stick) and promptly buried my head in the satchel looking for the crumpled pack of Swisher Sweets 'Little Cigars' that I jammed in there this morning. I emerged victorious and sucked the end of one into my mouth. I dropped my bag to dig through my pockets for the heavy butane lighter I carried with me.
I flipped the top of the ornamental silver lighter and, with a flick of my thumb; the blue flame sprang to life. My back hit the wall with a heavy thud deep in my chest that rattled my insides. The brown paper charred and strawberry smoke curled in my mouth, slow and sensuous against my taste buds. I closed my eyes as I let the seduction of the whole experience overtake me.
A rough cough to my left startled me out of my trance. My head whipped in the direction of the sound. I was ready to give a thorough tongue-lashing to whoever interrupted my current affair with the strawberry cigar still burning in my hand.
"You, uh, got a light?" His voice was rough like sandpaper and luscious like a good brandy. His hair was tousled, pushed in more on the right side than the left. And there was stubble, glorious stubble, casting sex across his jaw line. His eyes were like malachite, all swirls of every shade of green and eroticism known to man, and framed by lashes women would kill for. But it was definitely, absolutely, without a doubt the same guy who had been occupying the bench across from my shop.
I handed him the heavy lighter. Our fingertips barely touched but it felt as though we had full body contact. He could see every bone in my body and I didn't know if I liked it. In return I could see every chip in his alabaster skin. As he retreated, a feeling crept along my skin and it left dirty trails. I felt voyeuristic without actually knowing why.
I let my head loll back, taking a deep breath in through my nose. A heavy silence encompassed us, sweltering and thick like an oncoming thunderstorm. I brought the cigar back to my lips and took a long slow drag. God, it was almost better than sex.
As I released a long plume of smoke, a strangled sound came from the green-eyed bench-guy. I cracked one eye lazily to observe him. He wore a black, long-sleeved shirt, indistinct aside from the stretching at the ends of the sleeves. With blue jeans and steel-toed boots, he was a regular James Dean.
A Marlboro Menthol Light dangled from his weathered tickle-me-pink lips and he blew smoke out his nose like a restless angry dragon. He was the curious sort, as my dad would say; he hadn't quite made up his mind on what he wanted to be. 'Friend or foe? Fight or flight?' I waited for his next move.
"Looks like rain." He finally said, his eyes darting from me to the sloppy puddle between us.
I squinted at the dark cumulus huddled en masse above us.
"In this town, it always looks like rain." I snuffed the end of my cigar against the brick wall, sad to see it go. The weight of my lighter settled into my back pocket and I collected my bag, turning to go back inside.
"You, uh, live around here?" I looked at him; one hand shoved into his pants pocket, the other holding the filter of the cigarette to his lips.
"Yeah." My tone was obvious, my look contemptuous. I pulled the door open and rushed inside.
Angie was waiting on the dancer girl from earlier. The little fiend grinned at me, her cheek piercings deepening with the upward curve of her lips. She quirked her head to the side, her large turquoise earrings jingling with the movement.
"I'm Alice." She said, shoving a tiny tatted hand in my direction.
"Bella." I said warily, taking the proffered appendage and shaking it with the enthusiasm of someone expecting such a little thing to bite. She was the meddling kind.
"I'm new to the area, just moved from L.A." Her eyes twinkled gunmetal gray. Her nose seemed too small for her face and her eyes too large. She had a sparrow inked on the side of her neck and heavy chain jewelry draped all over her collarbone. Alice was certainly...whimsical; a hardcore Thumbelina in my own bookstore.
"Well, welcome." I said, trying to appear as friendly as my anti-social personality would allow. Angela continued to scan books, too absorbed in barcodes to pay us any mind.
The next day, as the usual time of half past noon rolled around, I looked for bench-guy to reinstate his predictability. Yesterday had thrown me off and I hadn't liked it. I went home and ate half a gallon of ice cream for dinner only to go straight to bed afterwards.
When the clock finally ticked down to one and the anxiety in the cockles of my heart became too much to bear, I called for Angie to cover the desk while I ducked out back for a cigar. She emerged from the back of the shop where she had been stocking books, nodding at me like her head was perched atop a stick.
A light drizzle greeted me as I shot through the door. I pulled out a slim cigar and searched for my lighter, apparently having forgotten it in my rush to get outside. Just as I was about to turn around and go back in to get it, a cheap purple lighter was thrust into my face, the flame already charring the paper.
"Hey." His voice was soft and his hair, weighted by the rain, hung in his eyes.
"Hey." We stood in silence for a few minutes just listening to the sounds of tires on the wet pavement and the rush of people on the sidewalk.
"You don't actually smoke." It wasn't a question and he acknowledged that.
He managed to look adorably sheepish, rubbing the back of his neck.
"No, not really. I quit, uh, a while back. Those were my sister's." He met my gaze through heavy lashes. A startling flutter settled in my chest
"Figures. It was the menthol lights that gave you away. It's such a girly cigarette." I pushed my own smoke through my lips, savoring the taste as it caressed my teeth and tongue.
He laughed. A short low burst of sound, self-deprecating and caustic, that I wouldn't have thought I'd heard except for the nerves tingling in my fingers.
"So, why'd you do it?" He gave me a curious look at the question. "If you quit I mean." A rich fiery red burst across the lightly freckled apples of his cheeks and bridged across his nose.
"I, uh...that was...shit." He muttered and shifted, eyeing the end of the alley and looking ready to bolt. I quirked an eyebrow at his bashful nature. "You're attractive. I needed common ground."
"I'm attractive?" He nodded. I 'hmmed' in consideration.
He looked at me oddly then, like I had become a different beast. Apparently our pseudo-conversation was over. His discomfort, blatantly obvious, spurred some kind of urge in me. I never had been a patient person and I always was something of a go-getter. I threw the butt of my cigar to the ground and scuffed it out with my shoe. My stomach lining was twitching, my heart stuttered, and I felt moisture break out on my palms. Wiping my hands on my tattered pants, I stepped towards him.
He continued to cast skittish glances at me through the dark fringe of his lashes as I approached him in much the same way one would approach a frightened animal. Face-to-face now, mere inches from each other, I took the stubbled skin of his jaw in my hands, and applied enough pressure that he was forced to look at me.
He stiffened at our contact; the thin skin of his lids had fluttered shut, concealing his vibrant eyes. I shuffled closer 'till my grungy sneakers bumped his sturdy boots. Certain points of our bodies connected at our nearness and I could swear I felt a current surging just beneath his skin and inside his bloodstream. The air felt charged like with static electricity.
My breath came in quick short pants, it had been a while since I had done anything like this; his own sweet breathing quickened in a pace that matched mine. I felt...frantic.
The muscles in his face twitched and danced under his skin in anticipation. I studied the pores of his face, the rise and fall of every subtle curve. He was starting to break out a little in a spot above his right eyebrow.
Our noses met first, our breathing converged, my eyelids fluttered, and finally the sumptuous skin of his mouth encountered my own. At first it was gentle pressure. We stayed there, pressed together at the mouth.
His breathing was hard and stiff through his nose. I moved slowly, one hand leaving his face to slide up and into the immense forest of hair atop his head. I lightly ran my fingernails over the sensitive skin of his scalp. His breath finally moved from behind his lips in a shuddering exhale and suddenly he was upon me, all nimble teeth and grasping callused fingers. He gripped my hips and pulled me up to my toes so as to meet him better.
Our teeth knocked together and the clinking, grinding sound echoed in my head. I felt like I was sixteen all over again, all clumsy teeth and heavy breath.
I don't know what had possessed me to kiss this man. At some point I realized, amidst our tangled lips, that I was entranced by that subtle current that ran along his skin and moved his limbs in fascinating awkward ways.
We broke apart in a burst of astonishment. My hands were still tangled in his hair; his thumbs still ran circles on the skin at my hips.
My hands found their way back to my own mess of hair, his hands slammed into his pants pockets, and that awful awkward "oh-my-god-I-just-kissed-you-and-I-don't-even-know-your-name" silence hung in the air between us like the misty rain.
"I'm just gonna..." I shoved my thumb in the direction of the door. I knew I should have been embarrassed and, while I felt awkward, I wasn't.
"Wait..." His voice left his mouth just a little too loud and I grinned with quick relief before turning back to him. "Can I get your name? Maybe your number? Please?"
"You're going to need to do a little more than ravage me in a back alley to get my number." I completely ignored his first question. It was far too fun to fluster him. I wiggled my fingers at him and disappeared behind the heavy door, back into the safety of my little bookshop.
I spent the next day and the day after that holed away in my little apartment. Angela wanted the extra hours and I wanted to toy with bench-guy, so an impromptu vacation worked perfectly. I was settling in for a third day spent in sweat pants, watching daytime television, and eating ice cream from the carton, when my phone rang.
It was shrill and annoying like that bird that hung around outside my window at four in the morning. I always hated phones...and songbirds.
"What?" I jammed a spoon into the carton as I answered the phone and made my way from the kitchen into the living room, heading straight for the plush couch, kicking cat toys out of my way. Angie's heavy burdened sigh attacked my conscious from the other end.
"Why can't you answer the phone like a normal person? A simple 'hello' would suffice." I twisted my spoon even deeper into the frozen cookie dough and vanilla ice cream.
"Where's the fun in that? You're the only one that calls me anyway." I dug between the cushions for the remote and she gave another long tired sigh. "Not as easy as you thought, huh?" I could picture her long twiggy arms pulling her shoulders down.
"Something came for you today. Do you want me to drop it off after close?" I could hear paper rustling in the background. I absently wondered if she was making paper cranes out of the invoices again.
"Yeah, sure. What is it?" I rifled through the mass of stuff that had collected on my coffee table.
"A box." I paused in my rifling. 'Well, no duh.'
"Who's it from?"
"I don't know. It doesn't say."
"Right. Okay. Thanks, Ang." I clicked the 'end call' button before she had chance to say goodbye.
Shouting with triumph, I emerged from a pile of newspaper confetti (courtesy of, Gordon, my cat) victorious in my search for the missing remote.
I polished off the entire carton of ice cream and made it through three soap opera's and a new episode of Tyra before Angie showed up. She stood in my doorway, a little box tied with yellow ribbon nestled in the palm of her hand.
"Someone slipped it through the mail slot before I got there." I eyed it curiously. The excitement that usually accompanied presents overtaking me.
"What if it's like some crazed serial killer who left it and there's some poor Joe-shmoe's finger in there?" Angie appeared grossed out by the thought.
"As far as I know there haven't been any serial killings in the area."
"Buzzkill." I muttered, pulling the door open wider to let her inside. She handed me the package before perching delicately on the edge of the couch.
I played with the ends of the ribbon, flipped the tag, studying the beautiful swirls and lines of a little doodle. Curling, sweeping black lines formed the image of a regal lion. On the other side, in elegant cursive, it said 'She likes me? She likes me not?'
"How'd you know it was for me? There's no name." Angie jerked her shoulders in a movement that I suspected to be a shrug but her limbs were to sharp and it didn't look comfortable.
"It's certainly not going to be for me." Gordon brushed against her leg, his fat little body molding around the sharp angle of her ankle. Angie gave him a contemptuous look. "Are you going to open it?" She finally asked.
I pulled one of the ends of the ribbon. It loosened. So, I pulled a little more, in increments, until I held one long yellow ribbon in one hand and the little white box in the other. As small as this box was, it felt heavy with some unknown meaning. Standing in the middle of my living room, barefoot, in my pajamas, I dropped the ribbon and pulled the top off.
Inside my little box was the most perfect little sprig of fiery orange sweet pea blossoms.
The next day brought about my return to work and an anxiety I had never experienced before. I had a hunch about who dropped that little box through the mail slot and I sincerely hoped he would appear again today.
It was still early morning when I unlocked the door to the shop. There was foggy dew all about the air and it gave the tiny town something of a secretive feel. The brass knob of the shop door glimmered with condensation; the key fit smoothly into the slot. I pushed the door open with an expectation similar to meeting a firing squad; unsure of what I would find on the other side to be good or bad.
The chime tinkled and the bulbs in the fixtures fizzled when I flipped the light switch. The shop was as empty as it always was. I wasn't quite sure what I had expected to happen. I turned to close the door back up when a little blue box, tied with twine, caught my eye.
'The culprit strikes again.'
I pulled the twine and it tumbled loose. There was a matching blue post-it note inside. In tiny neat letters, written with an ordinary ink pen it read, "According to Greek mythology, Humans were originally created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Fearing their power Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other half. - Plato's The Symposium."
And underneath the little piece of paper was a set of salt and pepper shakers, shaped into little cats that hugged each other.
The next day there was an orange box with a postcard declaring greetings from Hawaii. On the back he quoted, "Have I gone mad?" in bold black sharpie and below it, in smaller print, "I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are." And underneath was a refrigerator magnet in the shape of a question mark.
Angie thought they were cute. I thought they were fucking confusing. She said it was sweet to have a secret admirer. I didn't dare quash her dreams and tell her it was the same guy I jumped in the back alley and who, until recently, sat on the bench across from the store front, and frustrated me without even speaking or being in the same room.
His unpredictability threw my center gravity off and I found myself unsteady and unfocused. And the critters in my stomach that wreaked havoc every time another brightly colored box showed up were not helping.
Still, I went home every night and carefully placed my new treasures about the apartment. I had hung the sprig of sweet pea blossoms above the center island in my kitchen. The little salt and pepper shakers right below it. The question mark was stuck to the door of my freezer right above a heart magnet I stole from my mother's house.
When things got slow, Angie and I would formulate theories about my "secret admirer." For a strict intellectual, hers were usually romantic while mine often revolved around a creepy stalker obsession.
The most recent package, a tiny red box, held the scrap of a page torn from a book. In Times New Roman script it read, "He died in a tree from which he wouldn't come down. 'Come down!' they cried to him. 'Come down! Come down!' Silence filled the night, and the night filled the silence, while they waited for Kafka to speak. 'I can't,' he finally said, with a note of wistfulness. 'Why?' they cried. Stars spilled across the black sky. 'Because then you'll stop asking for me.'" The passage was from "Franz Kafka is Dead" a piece in a Nicole Krauss book.
"It seems as though he is reluctant to reveal himself." Angie said her voice low. "Maybe he's afraid once he does reveal himself you won't want to be with him."
"Maybe he's a narcissist and he's just egging me on." Of course I knew he wasn't but I wasn't going to tell Angie that.
"Maybe he's waiting for a sign." She was the most excited I had ever seen her. Despite the thick lenses of her glasses that magnified her already unimaginably large eyes, she seemed to be...sparkling. She was a champagne bottle all shaken up and ready to pop the cork. Who would have thought a good mystery would get the girl all hot and bothered.
"A sign from whom?" I asked, turning back to the computer and pulling up a game of solitaire.
She seemed to think about it for a while. Her brow furrowed into little lines and her sharp shoulder bones curled up around her ears. She sat so silent for so long I figured the subject had been dropped so what she said next gave me pause.
"Maybe he wants a sign from you."
I went home that night chewing on what Angie had said. The more I thought about it, the more she sounded right. I hated when other people were right. I kept Gordon from his beauty sleep most of the night with my tossing and turning. He eventually resorted to taking shelter in my closet.
The next morning I spent an extraordinary amount of time getting ready for work. My hands kept up a nervous fidget as if conducting an orchestra. I double, triple, and quadruple checked my bag and my pockets; and lost my keys at least three times before finally tripping out the door.
The walk was always quiet; the town not quite awake yet. I took deep breaths to calm myself, inhaling the sharp fall air. I pushed the jitters swarming in my ribcage to a tiny spot in the pit of my stomach. With a renewed sense of my old self, I determined my nerves would not get the best of me.
Of course that didn't last long when I spotted a familiar profile standing outside the shop. My feet stuttered, as did my skeletal structure and every internal organ I possessed, when I saw him. His warm wool coat gave him sharper lines across his shoulders that contrasted nicely with the mess of russet hair atop his bowed head.
He was fidgeting with a box; and, watching him fidget with that little package I knew was meant for me, made the jitters and the nerves and all those little critters swarming inside me, melt into a smooth drunkenness.
I came to a stop beside him. He didn't turn to look at me. We both stood facing the door. Tall and heavy and painted a dark burgundy with a tarnished brass knob. The door was one of the reasons I liked the place. It gave the otherwise normal structure character, a history.
He finally handed me the box. I almost leapt with excitement. It felt a little like Christmas morning. It was a plain brown cardboard box, no bigger than the others I had received, but there was something...significant...exclusively infinite...about this one. I tugged the ends of the thick cream colored ribbon and pulled the top of the little box off.
Nestled on top was a stiff piece of yellowed parchment, folded into a little square. I lifted the edges, undoing the sharp creases. The indigo ink was a stark contrast to the heavy paper. Written in delicate swirling lines he said, "There are galaxies beneath your skin and I want to discover every star."
Beneath the paper, in a hammock of plush stuffing, lay a little crystal star, a sun catcher. I held it up in the early pink light and it cast striking bits of illumination across the face of the man standing next to me. He fidgeted nervously as I twirled the entrancing little bauble, caught up in the patterns it created.
Having tortured him long enough, I finally put the little crystal away and pulled the battered box from my pocket. I had found it in the back of the coat closet, slightly crumpled and scuffed. It was perfect.
His face showed his surprise and his wonder. I was not the only one captivated by little boxes. He held it reverently, as if it were the most precious thing he had ever received, and again I was struck dumb by the unpredictability of this predictable man.
He gave me a quick look, his malachite eyes flashing in excitement, and tore into the tiny offering. When he reached what was inside he gave a laugh, exalting and golden.
"It's your number." He said, awed.
I shrugged, slightly embarrassed that I didn't have something more extravagant or meaningful to give him.
"I told you, when you did a little more than ravage me, I'd give it to you. I'm a woman of my word."
He must have picked up on my self-consciousness because the next moment he was looking at me with the most deliciously stunning smile.
"You are not the kind of girl one gives roses or takes to expensive dinners. You smoke strawberry cigars and duct tape your shoes. You are fascinating and maddening all in one sentence. And I've never been so foolish, but I am completely captivated by you."
And suddenly, as if some odd weight had been knocked loose from my brain, I found my equilibrium again. I was steady and sure and never stuttered a single step.
A/N: And scene! In case you're wondering, I have at least one companion shot to go with this (tentatively titled Jack and Jill). As always, feedback is marvelous and you can find me on twitter.