This is my entry for the "A Love Like Fire" contest. The contest C2 can be found here: www . fanfiction . net/community/A_Love_Like_Fire_Contest/90184/14/0/1
Please note: For some reason, FFn is showing the story is over 15,000 words, but it was validated by a contest admin to be within the limit.
Here is your one and final warning: It is NOT fluffy.
Entry for "A Love Like Fire 2011"
Rating: M for language, sex things and a couple of barely-underage beers.
Prompt: Mostly "Monster" by Meg & Dia, but also "The End" by Kings of Leon.
Disclaimer: Twilight and its characters belong to S. Meyer. i'm just taking the dolls in her dollhouse for a little spin in the crazy machine.
Everything is ready.
It stays that way, silent, waiting. Always.
I turn out the light and head back to the house.
Everything is still ready. Sturdy shelves, filled and faced. Supplies scrupulously labeled and catalogued.
I don't know why it calms me so much to be here, to check.
I guess being around something complete is heartening for me.
I turn off my flashlight, and the room and I bask in the darkness together until my feet get too cold, and I turn and head for the house again.
I reinforced and stocked this bomb shelter as a refuge in case of disaster, social collapse, zombie apocalypse, but it has become more. A refuge from everyday life; from the uncomfortable buzzing in my head that accumulates after a day of work, the awkward fumbling for words at the parties my brothers drag me to, and the minefield of dating that has left me twitching, limbless, eviscerated.
I stand here, between shelves of canned peaches and all-weather camping gear, and it all disappears. I am alone in the best way possible.
This shelter is a silent friend, embracing without judgement, promising its unfailing protection, come what may.
This shelter is exactly that. Shelter.
Sometimes on the weekends, I sit here all day like this, my ass growing numb against the bare concrete floor. The cinderblock walls keep out the sound of the phone ringing (my foster mother, or a telemarketer) as well as the silence of it not ringing. I check and recheck the dates on the preserved food, refold my emergency changes of clothes, count my fireproof matches. I vaguely wonder if I should put some pornography out here. When The Grid collapses and the internet doesn't exist, smut will be at a premium. God knows if I don't have a female in my life now, my chances in the New World we're faced with after whatever crisis befalls us first will be no better. And my dick won't care that 90% of the population is wiped out by nuclear holocaust or a plague of reanimated dead. I decide to go back in the house and order some magazines online. And maybe jerk off. As long as the internet is still here today, why waste it, right?
I think I have a mouse in the shelter. There was dirt near the doorway, tiny clumps like when mud gets caked in the tread of your boots, the exact size and shape of mouse droppings. The idea is nauseating - not that mice themselves are revolting, but if a mouse can get inside my shelter, so can an airborne viral pathogen, radioactive dust, and floodwater. The thought of my shelter filling with water, all my supplies, my careful planning drowned and useless ... I gagged involuntarily. Tomorrow was Friday. As soon as I got home from work, I'd clear the entire shelter, sweep and re-check that the damn thing didn't chew any wires or get into my food rations. Or lay down and give birth to anything. Okay, now I might be a little revolted.
"3:42 am" looks hazy on the clock on my stove; I'd bet it's been drinking tonight. Fucking derelict stove.
I don't get it. I moved every shelf, scoured every inch of the floor for holes and leaks. I disassembled the air fan in the roof, checked each piece and reassembled it. I examined the seals at the door mouldings. Nothing. It's airtight.
I'm used to being frustrated, but I don't like being confused. The only explanation was that I must have tracked the dirt in myself, but that rings hollow. I would have tracked the same dirt back into the house too, wouldn't I? So back inside, I cracked open a beer or six for a little buzzy numbness.
I was really hoping to see a mouse. I had already decided what to name it. Chico. Chico the mouse.
It's the Corona talking, but I almost felt like I'd lost a friend before I'd even met him.
Nope. No mouse.
It had been a week, and there was no sign of anything living having been in there anymore.
Not even me.
The days passed. Work. Home. Work. Home. Jasper dragged me to one of his frat parties. I spent the whole night holding down a couch and nursing a single Heineken, watching a boy and girl across the room round second base. I came home alone, untouchable, and collapsed into my bed without undressing, the weight and hardness of my shitty little life suddenly pulsing and cruel, a hot fist punching me in the throat. I woke up in the middle of the night and vomited twice, not from drink, but from the sickening emptiness. Before falling back asleep, I considered destroying the shelter. Why would I want to survive a cataclysmic disaster, anyway? If my life was just going to be more years of this, I should be standing up on the roof, welcoming the falling bombs with my open arms.
There was definitely something living in my shelter. Only, it wasn't a mouse.
Mice can't open Snickers wrappers. Or attempt to conceal them.
It was just a small piece of crinkly plastic, hidden almost completely under a shelf, just the tiniest shiny brown corner left in sight to warn me. It definitely wasn't mine, and that meant that someone else had been in there.
Inside my shelter.
First came the sense of violation, of exposure and vulnerability, and with it, the trembling.
Next came the fury, and the trembling stopped.
Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to change the lock, or add a new one, and keep them from returning. But I needed more. I was going to catch him.
But first I had to know, for sure, that I had a repeat visitor.
I stalked into the yard towards the shelter wearing nothing but my boxers, the misty air cooling me and sucking some of the rage from my hot skin. The moonless night was black but my steps were sure. I could find my way to the shelter blindfolded and drunk, crawling backwards.
I bent down and stuck a postage stamp at the bottom of the floor, half on the door itself and half on the jamb, slitting a notch into the sticky paper with my thumbnail. If the stamp was torn through in the morning, I'd have my answer. And if it wasn't ... I'd have serious reason to question my sanity.
I didn't get much sleep that night.
I woke up late, rushed through a shower, and skipped coffee & breakfast entirely in my haste to make it to work. But I wasn't in such a rush that I didn't have time to slip out into the back yard, through the dewy grass, and crouch down before the entrance to my shelter.
It appeared that I had an unwelcome guest.
All day at work, the earth revolved. Phones rang. People stopped at my desk and their mouths formed words. Papers rolled forth from printers, slipped into folders, dropped into wastebaskets. But my mind was back at home, on my intruder.
I was trying to stop imagining somebody in my one safe place.
I was trying to remember where to buy bullets for my Browning 9 mm pistol.
It wasn't until I was sitting on the floor against the far back wall of the shelter, stiff from maintaining this post for hours, that I realized I'd had nothing to eat today. I hadn't eaten breakfast, eschewed lunch in favor of a trip to the sporting goods store for ammunition, and once home from work, I only stopped to use the bathroom before coming out here to my grim vigil. Now, in the hallowed silence of this repurposed garage, there was nothing distracting me from my growling stomach and the beginning of a headache. It was ridiculous, because I knew just three feet away I had an entire carton of Power Bars, and the metal shelves that dominate the room are neatly stacked with canned fruit and meat. But they are supplies; they are reserved. They are here for a reason, just like I am. And their destiny has not arrived yet. I don't touch them.
I am aware of how people see me.
I'd heard the word "freak" more times before I turned ten than most people have to hear it their whole lives.
They called it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, they called it an Autism Spectrum Disorder. They speculated that it was both, then agreed that it was neither. My foster parents brought me to doctors, child development specialists, child psychologists - both the kind with white walls and Kleenex and the kind with offices draped in Native American quilts, reeking of nag champa. When they ran out of those, they tried herbalists, acupuncturists, even a chiropractor who claimed to have success with stubborn kids. The simple truth was harder for them to accept than the idea of me being cured by a needle in my palm or some weed from Ecuador.
I just liked things the way I liked them. I was unwilling to accept substitutes. I didn't fold my clothes perfectly out of fear of not doing it. I just needed it done right. Truly, I didn't see how this was a problem.
But other kids did. Being as inflexible as I was meant that I couldn't turn a blind eye to a kicker stepping over the plate in kickball, or accept someone calling a mulligan. It wasn't fun for me, it wasn't fun for them, and the gym teachers soon realized the only way I'd participate was as a referee or line judge, happily isolated from the others. It stayed that way through high school, and only in college did I discover that alcohol & weed helped me not give a shit enough to make forays into the social arena. If I got wasted, I could go to parties, make friends, talk to girls - Hell, I could even fuck. I spent most of sophomore & junior year buying beer at the mini-mart with my scrupulously credible fake ID, rolling picture perfect joints and eating breakfast cereal out of the box. The resulting free fall in my grades was more than my foster parents were willing to overlook, and they gave me the non-choice between getting sober or dropping out and supporting myself. I had no skills, no idea how to find a job without college - I had to accept their terms and clean up. They made me go to a AA meetings for a whole summer, as well as submit to random piss tests.
The funny thing was that when I came back senior year, sober and studious, and all the parties and friends and girls were gone, I didn't even miss them.
Again, I didn't see how this was a problem.
People are unfailingly disappointing. 99.9% of people over the age of about 14 are shallow, selfish, and disgusting. Even those air-brushed celebrities, looking so Photoshop perfect on the covers of checkout gossip magazines - they fall short of the glory they ascribe to. They drink from the carton. They get infected toenails. They park in the handicapped spaces.
They ruin everything.
And I was about to show one of those assholes that Edward Cullen is not to be fucked with.
But the combination of static in my head from hunger, inadequate sleep, and the tension that I bear like a yoke every day proved too much. My head bowed forward, and I dozed.
The silence was like a warm blanket wrapped around me.
Until it was gone.
My head jerked up as the door to the shelter opened slowly, letting a widening slice of moonlight in to pool on the poured cement floor.
My heart pounded furiously and my breath rushed away. This was it.
I waited until the door was shut again before I cocked the hammer back on the pistol trained on the door, and the sound echoed against the cinder block walls like a thunderclap. The intruder let out a small gasp and I trembled at the realization that for the first time, someone was actually in here with me. My voice, thankfully, betrayed none of my trepidation. I sounded as smooth and lethal as black ice.
"Put your back against the door and your hands in the air. Now."
The intruder responded with a whimper. It was too dark to see if he had complied.
My free hand reached over and turned on the camping lantern.
My shock was like an orange in my throat.
It was a female.
A woman stood before me, shaking, panting short, terrified breaths. She can't be much older than 17. Her face and clothes were dirty, her hair greasy and tangled. In her hand was a small black plastic bag.
"Drop the bag." My voice was starting to lose its erection.
She dropped it without moving her arm. It hit the floor and a bottle of juice rolled halfway out. A crunching sound alerted me that there was some kind of chips or popcorn in the bag as well. Food? Why was she bringing food in here?
"You're a girl."
Shit, I think I said that out loud.
She crinkled her brow as if she thought I was crazy.
This was a look I was used to getting.
"I know," she said quietly.
"Why are you a girl?" I blurted out in my shock.
She bit her lip and looked at the floor. "Uh ... I'm not sure how to answer that. Please, mister, I'm so sorry, please ..."
She drew in a long, shaky breath. I realized I still had the Browning aimed at her chest. Her heart must be pounding as hard as mine under her dirty clothes.
"Please don't kill me, mister. I swear I never stole anything from you, I'll never come back, please just ... fuck, please let me go."
Her voice faltered on the last few words and I lowered the gun.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
She sobbed once in relief. But she was still clearly terrified.
"Sit down. Right where you are."
She slid down to sit with her back against the door. I had the feeling if I hadn't asked her to sit, she'd have fallen.
We stared at each other in silence for long seconds. I rested the gun on the floor, but kept my hand on it.
Okay, I was still in control here. So what if it was a girl? I still wanted answers.
"My name's not Mister," I said, keeping my voice even. "It's Edward. And this place is mine."
She nodded. "I'm really sorry. I promise I never touched your stuff or anything, I was just looking for a place to sleep. And I swear if you let me go right now, I will run so far and so fast I'll lose my shadow. Please. Please, uh .. Edward. Right? Edward?"
It had been so long since I'd heard a girl say my name. I liked it. And this chick was still scared of me. Which, if I was honest, I kind of liked too.
"Edward," I confirmed. "And you are ..."
She cleared her throat.
"Okay, Jessica," I tried to make my voice sound authoritative, but fell somewhat short, like a junior high vice principal, "would you like to tell me your real name?"
She laughed. It was like seeing through her lie relieved her of tension.
"It's Bella," she smiled. "How did you know?"
"Because no one coughs before they tell the truth unless they have tuberculosis or a rope around their neck."
The smile fell from her face so fast, I almost heard it hit the floor.
"Or a gun aimed at their face," she said quietly.
I felt bad for a split second. But I didn't put the gun away.
"What's in the bag?" I asked cautiously. I was pretty sure it was just food, and this girl looked practically helpless, but she could always have a weapon.
"Um, it's just some juice and snacks, you can have them. I swear it is literally all I own. I think I have 35 cents left."
My head was a little fuzzy and anxious, and I was still starving. My mouth watered at the thought of a sip of cold, sweet juice.
"Kick it over to me."
She gave the bag a weak push with her dirty sneaker and it landed directly between us. I stared for a minute before standing and retrieving it, then sitting back down in the middle of the shelter, facing her. We were a lot closer now, and I had no wall behind my back to remind me about hard coldness. Rifling through the bag, I found a bottle of grape juice, a bag of Doritos, a handful of Swedish fish, and a pack of bubble gum. It looked like she'd swiped the bag from a middle schooler.
"You were coming here to eat?" I asked. I already knew the answer to this. Why was I asking her all stupid questions?
She nodded. "And sleep," she added. "I just couldn't sleep in the rain anymore. There was this spot behind the laundromat, they have an awning over the steps, I used to sleep there and it smelled like dryer sheets but it was really warm, and then these guys came and they started messing with me and I couldn't go back there anymore." She was still scared, running her words together and looking at the ground as she spoke.
"Like what kind of messing with you?" Before she could even answer, I interrupted myself, "Wait, are you homeless?"
She instantly looked offended. "I'm not - well, I don't have a home that I can go back to right now, exactly - but that doesn't make me homeless, right? I mean, it feels more like camping. And it's only been a few weeks."
I opened the juice and drank deeply while keeping my eyes on the girl. She had to be a runaway. She was dirty and looked a little skinny, but basically whole and sane. She was eating junk though, maybe because her parents forbade it at home. She was a young girl, sleeping behind laundromats, with no money and nowhere to go; clearly she was at risk, for any number of unpleasant predicaments.
And I'm the asshole that just drank her juice.
"Shit, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ..." I shook the empty juice bottle.
"It's really fine, no problem," she said. "There's always plenty of rainwater around." Still, I had thoughtlessly taken from this girl who had practically nothing.
I knew what I had to do. And it didn't feel as wrong as I'd imagined.
I reached into the bottom shelf, ripped into the plastic packaging, and pulled out a bottle of water to hand to her.
She accepted it with a sheepish, fleeting smile.
"You can take the whole case if you want," I offered.
I'd just rotate a new case in. It wasn't the end of the world.
It was better than feeling like shit for chugging the girl's juice right in front of her.
And now that I thought of it, it seemed she'd been sneaking in here for a while, impoverished, hungry, exhausted … and I knew, without a doubt, that she hadn't touched a single thing in here.
A hungry girl that resisted the food right in front of her. She deserved a little trust.
"I've got no place to put it, but maybe just one more for the road. If you're letting me go." Her brow furrowed.
"How long have you been coming here?"
"Uh," she looked at the ceiling as she thought, "Ten days? Maybe more?"
I pursed my lips and sighed. She'd left the place immaculate.
"And you can't go back to where you came from?"
She shook her head slowly, solemnly.
I reached down and took the gun in both hands. She inhaled sharply and scooted herself backwards against the door.
I clicked the safety back on, and put the gun into the back of my jeans. I held my hands up, palms open, to show I had no intention of harming her.
I picked up the empty juice bottle, playing with the purple label.
"You could keep sleeping here. If you want."
Her brows knitted. "I'm not … uh … listen, I don't want to have sex with you in exchange for a place to stay. I'm sorry, I'm just … I don't want to do that."
"No, no," I protested. "Nothing like that. Jesus, have you - have you had to do that?"
Her eyes widened as she shook her head. "Not yet. But it's been offered. I'd rather go home," she spoke softly, her voice breaking on the last word. "And that's saying a lot."
I'd never had a pet. So I didn't know what it felt like to take care of something. To be responsible for another's welfare. But I was starting to get the feeling that I wanted to. That maybe the little I had was still something worth sharing, and that this girl needed one person, just one person to help her out without taking advantage of her. Dammit.
She could be my Chico.
"You could stay here," I repeated, with more authority this time. "You don't have to give me anything in return. There's water right here," I kicked the shelf that held four cases of bottled water, turning and slapping the shelf behind me with my palm, "and this one has some energy bars."
I ventured a glance at the girl and saw her face break into a tentative smile, the hope beginning to spread like melted chocolate inside her eyes.
"Over here," I stepped back to grab a large brown nylon bag from a high shelf, "is a sleeping bag. Do you know how to fold one of these up?"
She nodded quickly, and a tear that had been welling up fell from her face.
I felt like a goddamn king.
"As long as you clean up after yourself, you're welcome to stay in here."
I stood face to face with her. A new tear must have slid down from the other eye, leaving a track that shone.
We just stared at each other for a moment. I listened hard for the part of me that should be screaming that no one can be in here, that she was going to wreck the place and disappear, that this was a mistake.
Not even a whisper.
"Do you really mean it? You'll let me sleep here? For nothing?" she seemed like she was restraining a full giggle.
"As long as you want, Bella."
I held my hand out for her to shake. Some part of me felt overwhelmed at having a conversation with another person, and I needed to get back to my privacy to absorb this night and what I'd found.
She shook my hand with a soft grip, but I was held in place by the wide smile and glistening eyes that told me I'd given her something she considered a gift. She breathed a "thank you" so low that I nearly missed it. I'd given her a little trust, and she'd returned it.
I wanted more.
"If there's anything else you want, maybe I can get it for you. Like, do you want clothes or something? Lip gloss? I don't know what girls … " my voice trailed off, the words sounding stupid in my ears.
"I'd really like no more guns, please, Edward."
I nodded. "Of course. But do you need any … things?"
I had no idea how to phrase it. There was a whole scented aisle at the drugstore full of the things I meant, but I had no idea what they were actually called, exactly. And I really hoped she didn't want them, because then I'd have to look them up on Wikipedia and somehow procure them for her.
"Actually," she bit her lip briefly, "I would love a book, if you have something I could borrow. Anything would be fine," she smiled. "I've already finished the reading material you left under the camping stove."
She meant the porn.
"I'll see what I can find," I mumbled as I stepped out into the damp night, glad the cover of darkness was there to mask my embarrassment.
But as I gripped the doorknob, I had a new thought.
"Bella?" I called quietly as I stood in the doorway. "I do want something from you."
Her face froze.
"Tell me how you got in here."
She exhaled in relief. Walking over to me, she pulled a long, thin metal stick out of her back pocket.
"I slim jimmed the door lock," she began, "but this padlock was too easy." She took the combination lock in her hand and flipped it over, revealing that I'd left the white sticker with the combination on it intact.
I'd spent two years stocking the shelter, reinforcing the walls, organizing and reorganizing, making sure I had everything I'd need to be protected and survive. And yet I had forgotten to hide the combination for the lock that kept it all safe.
It was always the little details that killed me.
I shook my head and started the walk back to the house, feeling the dewy grass brush my ankles.
"Goodnight, Bella," I said to the air.
I wondered how long it had been since I'd said goodnight to anything.
When I woke up the next morning, I wasn't sure if Bella was a dream.
A bowl of cereal, a cup of coffee, a shower, the news. They all happened but through each, all I was thinking about was her. Wrapped up warm and safe for the first time in weeks, in my brown sleeping bag, in my shelter, in my back yard. I had the urge to bring her some breakfast, but I didn't want to disturb her sleep, or intrude on her privacy.
I did allow myself to leave a large shopping bag crammed full of books at the shelter door before leaving for work.
I don't want to file these applications. I don't want to update the staff calendars. I don't even want to take my lunch break, but I do. I half-assed everything at work and hoped my supervisor would just let it slide today. I could hardly focus on anything other than the girl named Bella and what she might be doing right now. I was thinking up things that I could ask her about, things she might want, wondering where she came from and why she wasn't there now.
In the office bathroom, I practiced smiling in the mirror.
Returning from lunch in my car, I rehearsed the perfect tone of voice to speak to her with.
I didn't want to scare her off. The thought crossed my mind that she might not be there when I get home, and something unfamiliar swirled low in my gut.
There was nothing I could do. If she left, she left. I'd have to replace the supplies she'd used, improve the locks on the door, and let it go.
I was pretty sure she would be there, though.
And I was right.
Knocking on the door of my own shelter, the place that's been like a cinder block confessional to me, brought with it the oddest feeling.
Until she opened the door, saw my face, and smiled so wide, I had to look behind me to be sure she wasn't smiling for someone else.
It was all for me.
"Hey," she grinned.
"Hey," I smiled back.
"Thank you so much for the books, Edward. I loved them. I tried to go to the library about a week ago, but I couldn't bring myself to go in, not like this. I just stayed in here out of the rain and read all day, it was heaven. How was your day?" she asked, still grinning.
Something inside my chest danced at the idea of her asking me about my day.
"Brought you something." I held out the brown paper bag, and she reached over and took it from me quickly, without hiding her excitement.
"Oh my god," she moaned, giving me a wide-eyed look of disbelief as she took out a Snickers bar. "I can't believe this! Did you buy one of everything on the checkout candy shelf?"
I shrugged. "Sort of. And some juice."
"Oh, Edward," she shook her head in disbelief at my small gesture. "Thank you. You didn't have to do this, any of this. Thank you," she spoke softly, looking up at me through fringed lashes that I know, without a doubt, are naturally hers.
"Will you stay?" she asked, shy eyes pointed at her feet. "Candy-for-dinner isn't as much fun without company."
I hadn't actually anticipated this.
"I, uh … I just ate, but I'll stay with you, sure. If you want."
She gestured me in and though it should have irritated me to be welcomed into my own shelter by a stranger, it just registered as strange.
She sat down on the floor and I followed suit, wrapping my arms around my knees and regarding her with interest while she made these high-pitched little squeals of pleasure, dumping out the bag of candy on the floor and pawing through the pile. She settled on starting with the king-size Snickers.
"What did you have?" she asked.
"Sorry? Have when?"
"You said you'd just eaten. What did you have?"
"Oh," I finally replied, "Sushi."
She put on an exaggerated expression of disgust, like a kid who's been served brussels sprouts.
I couldn't help but laugh at her wrinkled nose and pinched mouth.
"What's wrong with sushi?"
"Where do I start?" she asked through a mouthful of chocolate and nougat. "It's slimy, it's cold, it tastes like dog food. And on top of all that, it has the nerve to be ridiculously expensive!"
I shook my head and breathed a chuckle. "It's an acquired taste."
"I don't get that," she continued, "Why keep eating something that's gross? Who has time to acquire a taste? Now, this ..." she tapped the remaining half of her candy bar, "No one ever calls chocolate an acquired taste. You know how good it is as soon as you taste it."
"That's because our brains are programmed to crave sugar," I counter.
"Yeah, exactly. We were born to love it. Why fight that?"
She rendered me speechless. I wasn't entirely sure that we were talking about candy anymore.
I looked around the shelter to distract myself from this girl's strange kind of sense. With the light of two camping lanterns glowing sterile white over the shelves of boxes and cans, ordered and predictable and familiar, she was the unknown quantity, a sharp contrast in her softness. She was currently arranging a bag of Reese's Pieces into brown, yellow, and orange stars before she ate them, so I let my eyes take her in for a moment.
A few small bits of leaves snarled in her deep brown hair, which hung halfway down her back and was in mostly good condition, despite a few tangles and a slight greasy sheen near the roots that pulled the strands into dark ribbons. She was wearing a shirt similar to hospital scrubs,with what looked like it had once been a white long-sleeved thermal shirt underneath. As she leaned over the field of peanut butter stars, the waistband of her jeans pouched out in the back, showing a few inches of tantalizing skin, and revealing that she'd clearly lost weight since these jeans had fit her. Her skin was sallow, pale and smudged with dirt near her temples. Her hands were the worst off though. They were inarguably dirty, with enough grey earth and ash settled into the skin to outline every crease and divot. I suddenly felt ashamed of myself for not offering her something more nutritious to eat. And some hand sanitizer. And some toilet paper. Jesus.
"Hey," I blurted out, a little too loud, "I thought maybe you could …"
She looked up and her glowing eyes burned right into me, so bright and wide.
"Uh …" I chased my train of thought.
She was pretty. Even like this, clad more in dirt than clothes. It shone out from her like the flickering light of a bonfire.
But I shouldn't care if she was pretty. It wouldn't have mattered what Chico looked like. And that's all this was.
"I thought maybe when you were done, you could come in and have a shower … if you wa -"
My offer was interrupted by the kind of scream you typically hear when a girl has found a spider in the sink.
"Are you kidding? Are you serious? Please tell me you're serious, because I-haven't-had-a-shower-in-such-a-long-time-and-oh-my-god-thank-you!" She launched herself at me and threw her arms around me so fast, I couldn't react quickly enough to stop her.
She smelled like wet, naked earth.
Like a promise.
Just as I relaxed into her embrace, she pulled away.
"Now? Can we go now?" she asked, practically vibrating with excitement. It reminded me of a dog who suspects he's going to the park.
"Sure," I shrugged, "If you want."
I watched as she meticulously cleaned the wrappers and leftover candy, even brushing the tiniest crumbs of chocolate into her palm and depositing them into the bag.
We left the shelter, locked the door and started the walk to the house. It was only a few hundred feet, but it felt like a mile. She walked a step behind me, clutching the bag to her chest. As we approached the back door, she spoke.
"I want you to know how much I appreciate this, Edward. Not a lot of people would offer up their homes to a stranger. I don't know why you're being so kind, but please know that it means a lot to me. I swear, I won't touch anything of yours, and as soon as you tell me to go, I'm gone. I just …" she sighed. "Thank you. I hope your mom knows she did good with you."
My stomach knotted.
"My mother's dead," I spoke low, gravel in my voice.
She bit her lip. "Mine too," she whispered, looking away.
I pushed the door and held it open for her. "After you."
Stepping into the kitchen, I flicked the lights on.
"Whoa!" she exclaimed.
"What? What's wrong?"
Her eyes were wild as she took in the kitchen. "Uh, nothing. Except that there's no way you live here."
"Why would you say that?"
"Because," she smiled, "I've never seen a bachelor's kitchen this clean before. Where's the pyramid of empties? Where are the armies of cockroaches feasting out of Taco Bell wrappers?"
I breathed a laugh. "Things deserve to be clean, Bella. Not everyone with a Y chromosome likes to wallow in filth. And, hey," I put my hand on her shoulder, turning her to face me, "what makes you think I'm a bachelor?"
She skimmed my hand with her thin fingers. "No ring."
"I could have a girlfriend," I argued.
She shook her head. "A guy with a girlfriend wouldn't have brought me candy. He would have brought the cops."
I scowled at the floor. I hadn't said a word about myself and already she knew too much.
"Bathroom's this way."
I led her through the kitchen, into the hall, and gestured to the bathroom. It was fairly generously sized for this property, a converted cottage set back from the street, and it boasted an old-fashioned claw foot tub that I liked.
Bella sucked in a staccato breath beside me.
She shook her head as she spoke, "It's like an oasis. It's beautiful."
I snorted. "It's a bathroom. You know what happens in here, right?"
She looked up at me and her expression was equally grateful and apologetic.
"I'm going to need two towels. One to dry off with, and one to clean up your bathroom, in case I make it dirty."
I gestured to a brushed nickel rack holding eight meticulously folded white towels. "Use whatever you need."
She bit her lip, and I reached out to take the bag of candy from her. "Thank you," she breathed.
"You're welcome, Bella. Take your time."
"Thanks!" she repeated, louder, shutting the door.
Without daring to look into her eyes again, I stepped out.
But I couldn't quite get my legs to walk away.
I stood against the wall, a few feet from the bathroom.
The sound of a zipper. A soft rustle.
What was I thinking?
The clink of metal. Maybe she was taking jewelry off and laying it on the sink.
I had let a total stranger into my house.
The hiss of water spraying into the tub.
A girl stranger. Who might be completely crazy. Who might have an angry, armed father looking for her. What kind of stupidjuice had I been drinking?
Before I could doubt myself further, a deep moan interrupted my thoughts, entering through my ears and scrambling my brain before heading south and awakening the part of me that was most interested in it.
The low note of pleasure sounded more like something you'd hear coming from a bedroom than a bathroom. For a fraction of a second, I struggled to remember if I owned a detachable showerhead.
But seeing as I enjoyed showers daily, I supposed I couldn't guess at the relief and delight of a hot shower to someone who had been denied one for a long time.
Another satisfied moan from behind the door. I was willing to bet she'd turned around under the soothing spray, the warm water pouring through her long, dark hair and cascading over the pale expanse of her back. Her hands were probably buried in her hair, working my cheap shampoo into a lather, while tiny, lucky white bubbles sailed south with the current, travelling over the curves of her waist, her hip …
This was bad.
Lusting after Chico was bad.
If it was anyone else thinking about her in that way, I'd castrate them with safety scissors. She was cute, and thoughtful, and honest. She was so much more than just some girl, some body to touch. And right now, I was the only thing standing between her and whatever those guys at the laundromat had in mind.
Hearing her soft, sweet voice start to sing quietly on the other side of my bathroom door cemented my resolve.
I would protect her.
And the first step to that was for me to walk away and stop eavesdropping on her in the shower.
Which I was going to do.
Right the fuck now.
With much effort, I pried my back off the wall and headed into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. I adjusted my dick to the more comfortable twelve o'clock position, willing my brain to overwrite the mental images of Bella's wet, naked skin with a plan for what to do next.
How do I protect someone? I've never done it before.
Scooping coffee into the fluted filter, I tried to think from my catastrophe preparedness perspective. First priority: defense from the elements. That was easy. She was already staying in my shelter.
Next: procure resources. Food and water were cheap and readily available to me, and I didn't mind sharing.
Third on the list was defense from hostile elements. Slightly more complicated. She was safe when she was with me, but what about when she was out? I could get her a can of pepper spray, but I wasn't sure how effectively she could wield it against an attacker, or multiple attackers. The thought of someone using it against her made me grit my teeth.
A timid tap on my shoulder broke the clouds of anger that were beginning to mass. But even before I turned, I already knew what sight would greet me. I pivoted to look at her, I knew the sight I would see before I even turned.
Wrapped in just a towel.
Her wet hair dripping over her smooth arms.
Her bare white feet, so girlish somehow, even with bare toenails.
Her legs, curving gently upwards towards ...
I snapped my head up. "Yes?"
She bit the edge of her lip and blinked hard.
"I promise I'm not one of those annoying people who gets an inch and takes a mile, but since you've been so sweet to me …" she crinkled one eye in shy hopefulness, "I thought maybe it wouldn't be a big deal to ask you for some old clothes to borrow, and the chance to wash my old ones? I could use your sink if you don't have a washer, I just thought maybe I'd stay cleaner longer if ... if I had something … fresh to put on."
I wondered if I had anything to lend her that was unattractive enough to keep my desire at bay. I thought about it so long that her face began to fall, misinterpreting my hesitation for displeasure.
"It might take me a minute to find something, um, small enough," I said, glancing once again at her body covered in the white cotton towel, wrapped loosely, the soft fibers kissing each droplet from her skin.
She followed me into my bedroom, watching as I opened a drawer and carefully searched through the folded contents. I didn't have anything that would fit. I knew that. But I could find something with a drawstring, and that would be good enough for now.
After a moment, I produced a pair of grey sweatpants and a white t-shirt, holding them out proudly. I would definitely not be tempted to imagine more of this girl's skin when she was lost in XL men's workout wear.
But she was biting her lip again. "Um, something for … underneath?"
I opened another drawer and added a pair of black boxer briefs to the pile.
Briefs that would, in a few moments, be embracing her hips and thighs.
"And maybe socks? My feet get really cold."
I tried to be inconspicuous in adjusting my erection again as I turned back to the dresser for a pair of black socks. None of this shit matched. I wondered if she cared. I had been under the impression that girls liked things to match. Although I suppose I might have inferred that from Victoria's Secret catalogs.
I handed her the clothes and she accepted them with both hands, letting the towel fall to the ground.
The air in the room was suddenly gone.
She placed the folded clothes neatly on the corner of my bed, and now there was just her, her bare skin, her taut belly, her small, perfect breasts, the soft shadow of her sex, standing exposed before me, inches from my fingertips.
"You've probably figured out that I'm not a shy girl," she said conspiratorially, giving a clever little smirk before turning to grab the socks and oh Jesus.
The slope of her back.
The shallow track of her spine, sliding down her skin like a tear, giving way to the cleft of her ass, lifted and smooth and seemingly begging to be touched.
I couldn't tear my eyes away.
I didn't even try.
"I hope you know," she looked over her shoulder at me as she spoke, "these socks are going to make my feet so happy. It's crazy, my feet are always freezing, even when it's not cold out." She lifted a leg to slide the black cotton sock over her delicately angled foot and for Christ's sake. She was putting on the socks first.
She must be trying to torture me.
The joke was on her. Because if she didn't hurry up, I'd be dead before she was dressed.
She kept talking as she pulled the other sock on. "And I'm going to wash these for you as soon as my clothes are ready, I promise," she said. She picked up the boxers, turned around to face me again, and slid them up her legs so fucking slowly and this must be it, I must be dead. I wasn't breathing, couldn't feel any part of my body. Dead.
She managed to get the briefs up her legs and as they finally hid her sex, I felt air pulled into my lungs once again.
Chico was so. Fucking. Beautiful.
Maybe I needed to rethink my plan to keep her safe. Maybe I was the thing she needed the most protection from. Because now that I'd seen her naked, I couldn't think of a single thing I wanted more than to see it again.
Once she finished dressing and we walked back to the kitchen, I gestured for her to sit as I poured us both a cup of coffee.
"Bella, we have to … I mean, I don't …" I sighed. I was probably going to mess this up, but I was on unfamiliar ground anyway. Why not just rush into foolishness and clean up later?
"Bella, where do you belong?"
She ran a slender finger around the edge of her coffee mug.
"Edward, you've been so kind to me, please know that I appreciate it more than I can say. But you don't have to keep taking care of me. I'll be out of your hair right after this coffee, and you'll never -"
I cut her off, shaking my head. "Stop. I'm not trying to get rid of you. I just … I want to do more for you than a fucking candy bar and a shower. I want you in a better situation. Back home. Somewhere safe."
She snorted a grim laugh.
"My home is not safe. And if we're going to have this conversation, I'm going to need a beer instead of a coffee."
I narrowed my eyes at her. "How old are you?"
"Twenty. Twenty-one in September. It's not like I've never had a beer, Edward."
She was older than I'd first thought. Only three years younger than me.
Shrugging, I got two Coronas from the fridge and set one in front of her, taking a hearty gulp of mine.
She knocked hers back, pounding it hard. This certainly wasn't her first beer.
Setting the near-empty bottle back on the table and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she slumped forward in resignation.
"My mom was found shot dead in the trunk of my stepdad's car about six months ago."
She took a slow, deep breath and let it out.
"I know he did it. The cops know he did it. But he disappeared. He's probably sipping a margarita on the beach in Mazatlan right now."
She leaned her temples onto the heels of her hands, and I brought her another beer from the fridge, opening it and sliding it over to her.
"I stayed in the apartment until I got kicked out. We had no money to begin with, so that wasn't long. Then I moved in with my boyfriend, James."
She took the second beer and sipped slowly.
"He was always kind of … I don't know how to put it. Controlling. A little rough, I guess. That's just who he is, you have to know him." She laughed bitterly. "Or actually, don't, please. He's a prick."
I blinked slowly, holding my breath in. I was pretty sure I didn't want to hear any more, but if she had to live through it, the least I could do was listen to her tell me about it.
"It was fine for a while. He would push me around a little. But hell, I pushed right back, you know? And had I lost my job at the diner, so I tried to make the best of it. Then one night he wanted to go out to the bar with his friends, I think it was Mike's birthday or something. Whatever. I told him I didn't feel like it, I was tired and crampy and his friends were lame anyway. And he hauled off and hit me right in the eye."
She took another swallow of the beer.
My fists were so tight, the nails were making crescent moon imprints into my palm. I wanted to know what he looked like, so I could properly visualize smashing his face into a broken, bloody mess.
"And he apologized, crying, telling me that he was just really tense and he didn't mean to take it out on me - he stayed home the whole night holding a bag of frozen peas to my face."
"Bella," I spoke, my voice low and dark, "nobody ever has a right to lay a hand on you, ever; you know that, right?"
"Oh, I know," she agreed. "I guess I always knew that he was over the line, it was just a wake-up call that things were getting worse, not better, you know?"
I nodded silently.
"So I waited until he fell asleep, threw some things into a backpack and left. I might have been overreacting but I just thought … I thought that if I let it escalate, it would be like slapping my mom in the face."
She took a deep breath, pursing her lips. I tried to relax my fists, wiggling my stiff fingers. I still wanted to fuck up any guy who had laid a hand on her, but I was relieved that at least she'd been able to get out.
"Your dad? You can't stay with him?"
She sighed with exasperation. "My mom only ever told me his name was Charlie and he was in the police academy when she met him. Even if I could find the guy, I have no need for a man who couldn't even be bothered to stick around long enough to meet his own baby."
So, no armed and irate father. This was both a good thing and a bad thing.
"I went to go live with my friend Jane, but that was a waste of time. Her parents freaked and wouldn't let me stay. So I got a shitty motel room for a few nights, until I couldn't afford it. Went to the bus station for a while. One night I fell asleep there, and when I woke up my backpack was gone. Since then I ride the bus, walk around, look for dropped change. A few times, I grabbed some coins from the fountain at the mall, just to eat. I hate stealing, but I had rationalized that that money had been voluntarily abandoned, and the fountain didn't look very hungry. Then there was the laundromat. And then you."
She gave just the shyest hint of a smile.
"Did you love him?" Even I was surprised at the quiet anger in my voice.
She shrugged and lifted her eyebrows. "I don't know. Maybe once. Not anymore. I'd rather take my chances with nothing than live with a poison, you know?"
She finished the beer and slammed it on the kitchen table, a little too loudly.
"Enough heavy," she announced. "You want to do something fun? What do you like to do, besides clean your kitchen and point guns at girls?"
"Hey, you were trespassing," I defended.
"Were? Past tense?" she asked. "And what am I now?"
I took a deep breath. "An invited guest." I swallowed hard. "A friend."
She smiled again, a wide, easy smile that reminded me of wind chimes in a breeze.
"Okay, friend," she pronounced the word carefully, "I've got a little buzz going and I want to see what you're like on a typical night. What would you be doing if I wasn't here?"
"Reading, I guess." I mentally patted myself on the back for saying the right one out loud.
"Okay, but I've been reading all day, I've read enough for both of us. What else? You want to watch TV and share some Skittles?"
The mention of Skittles reminded me that she needed something substantial to eat.
"How about pizza and a movie?" I suggested.
She looked thrilled. "Really? You'd take me to dinner?"
"Well, yeah, but considering you're in sweats a mile too big for you, I was thinking delivery."
She squealed and clapped in delight.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you! Oh, Edward, this is going to be so much fun. You have to pick the movie, though, okay?"
I nodded, smiling, and was completely unprepared for her to throw herself into my chest in a hard, desperate hug. Tentatively, I let my arms wrap themselves around her shoulders, my nose venturing into her damp hair. She smelled like me, like my detergent, and whatever fragrance my 99 cent shampoo contained … blue, I think. But there was something else. Earthy. A blade of grass. The air at the top of a hill. The sunrise. The scent filled my head and swirled behind my eyes, looking for an exit, but it was trapped.
I was trapped.
Folded in her skinny little arms, pressed into her body, I let my hands drop to her waist and imagined what it might feel like to be in love. Since I had never fallen for anyone before, I guessed it couldn't really feel that different from this.
Pizza was ordered, received, and consumed, along with another beer or two. We sat with our legs curled up on the couch, feet almost touching. Somewhere in the first hour of The Watchmen, I glanced over to find her already looking at me, eyes lit in the flickering fire of the screen, her expression somehow expectant.
Drowsy and buzz collaborated to make my thoughts slow, and I watched her watching me for a long minute before I remembered to speak.
"Something up, Bella?
"Can I …" she trailed off.
"Can you what? You want another beer?"
She made a face.
"Can I come and sit with you?"
I wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but there was no interpretation of that sentence that I could find objectionable.
She crawled across the couch on her hands and knees, settling herself between my legs, her back to my chest and her head resting on my collarbone. She nestled herself in, burrowing her ass right down between my legs.
Her scent was so strong, I had to close my eyes and breathe it in deeply, consuming it.
Only a few minutes had passed before I felt her the fingers of her right hand skimming mine, leaving a fading trail of warmth where she had touched. She twined her thin, nimble fingers into my heavy, calloused ones, and pulled my arms across her body, wrapping herself into a hug.
"This is okay, isn't it?" she asked timidly.
My mouth was full of my thick tongue and I couldn't speak, so I just nodded. It was more than okay, it was intoxicating.
"You know how when you're in a store or a park or something, people brush up against you sometimes? Well, when you look homeless, people will walk over hot coals to avoid accidentally touching you. So it's been a long time since I've felt contact like this. I'm think I'm kind of getting addicted to it," she concluded with a giggle, nuzzling her head against my shoulder.
I responded silently with a light squeeze of her hand.
I was becoming addicted too. I could feel it, a craving, building up in my stomach, filling my chest and clouding my mind. It was an infection, strange and growing and I'd definitely never known anything like this before. It felt like drowning, but wanting to swim deeper. Like burning, and wanting to climb inside the fire at the same time.
We could have been watching anything. Infomercials for music collections. A show about the history of pencils. A movie with people dressed up as office supplies. I had no idea. All I could do was feel her warm little fingers tangled in mine, her feet slowly stroking my calves.
Until somewhere in hour two.
When she squeezed my right hand with hers and slowly, so achingly slowly, led it south, inside her sweatpants, under the boxer briefs, where her skin got warmer, until my fingertips brushed up against downy curls.
I know almost nothing about women.
But I know what it means if she puts your hand between her legs.
I just wasn't sure what to do next.
Fortunately, she seemed comfortable with taking the lead.
She let go of my hand briefly to reposition hers on top of mine, her fingers placed on mine like piano keys. She guided me lower, her hips rising into my touch, until I felt her skin part and give way to a silky wetness that made me twitch inside my pants. She pressed her head into my shoulder, turning her face into my neck and releasing a long, smooth breath. I ventured another finger into her folds, stroking the little bud of flesh that her hand was urging me towards.
I hadn't touched a woman sexually in about two years, but as Bella moved my fingers back and forth, some forgotten spark inside me flared and ignited my body's memories of desire. I shifted my hips up into her body, showing her how hard I was, how easily my body responded to hers, while continuing to meet her rhythm, eliciting a strangled moan from her lips as she moved her legs farther apart, opening herself fully to my touch.
She squeezed my left hand, and boldness seized me. I removed my hand from hers, slowly spreading my fingers like wings across the soft skin of her belly, climbing their way up under the edge of her t-shirt.
I paused as my fingers met the underside of her breast, but like a mind reader, she whispered into my throat, "Yes, Edward," and my desire surged so intensely I wondered if I could cum without being touched. The boldness turned into fire as I palmed her small, soft breast in my hand, feeling the hardness of her nipple press itself into my hand as she arched her back, panting and lost in pleasure.
My fingers increased their pace, sliding back and forth in her folds, and she knew I needed no more guidance. She withdrew her right hand to bring it up over her head like a ballerina, fingers raking softly over my scalp.
Swirling her hips into my hand, grinding her ass into my aching erection, she felt so perfect, so brilliantly alive and open and unfocused in her ecstasy, moving like a mermaid, undulating against my touch. I couldn't see her face, but remembered the sly smirk from earlier, when she'd dropped her towel for me, and suddenly my fingers were frenzied, pulsing against her fast while my left hand rolled her sensitive nipple hard between my fingertips, pressing my fingerprints into the pebbled skin.
She keened softly, turning her face into my chest, and moaned into my shirt, "Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop."
Again, I admit I know almost nothing about women.
But I know that when she says "don't stop" … You. Do. Not. Stop.
"Oh fuck, fuck," she breathed, her legs pushing against the couch as they began to stiffen.
I turned my head towards her and our lips met effortlessly, like magnets. Her mouth was so warm, so warm and slick and as I kissed her she opened her mouth, beckoning me and I fell inside, I fell into her as her legs trembled with the strength of her orgasm. I fell into the chasm of her bliss, where light and heat and pleasure fused into fire, swirling in the shape of a woman, a woman whose voice was a heartbeat.
I felt the vibration of her satisfied whimpers against my mouth as she ended the kiss, our first kiss, to lay her head against my chest. I had no doubt she could hear my pounding heart within. I was pretty sure there was nothing I'd be able to hide from her after tonight.
After a long moment, she lifted her head to look in my eyes, squinting slightly, as if searching for something there. Quickly her smile turned devilish, and she slid her hips down the couch, licking her lips as she reached the button of the cargo pants I'd worn to work that day.
For a split second, I thought of the Edward that had drank coffee at his desk earlier today and had a burger for lunch and practiced saying hello in his rear view mirror. The one who'd eaten pieces of sushi at stoplights and went to the convenience store to buy an obscene amount of candy for a girl he wasn't sure he'd ever see again.
I felt bad for that Edward.
Being this Edward was infinitely better.
Her eyes stayed on my face as she opened the button and lowered the zipper. The mischievous glint in her eye told me she was enjoying my undivided attention. Without breaking eye contact, she reached in and pulled me out, not even looking down at the erection that sprang free and bobbed inches from her face. Without hesitation, she licked the underside with her hot little tongue from the base to the tip.
I shuddered involuntarily and struggled to keep my eyes on her, rather than closing them and throwing my head back, lost in the improbable ecstasy of the moment.
With a last playful smile, she took the head into her mouth, sliding it back as she swirled and flicked her tongue under the ridge.
"Holy fuck, Bella."
The words seemed to come from someone else, but in my voice, as I was trying too hard to hold back my climax to perform complicated tasks like speaking English.
She seemed to take encouragement from the words, sucking hard and moving her head quickly up and down the shaft, humming softly, creating the most incredible soft vibrations against my sensitive skin. She broke eye contact to get a better angle to bring me deeper into her hungry mouth, then added her right hand, pumping the base with a delicious twisting motion as her hair ticked my bare thighs, dark curtains swishing silently over a pale stage.
I felt like I had never felt anything before. Like I had been living inside a box, waiting to breathe, to taste, to touch. The sterility of my life before her was an anchor that held me still and dragged me down. Even if this moment was the last one I shared with Bella, I knew I could never go back. I would never be that guy sitting alone in the cold, dark shelter again.
She hummed again, slowing her rhythm as her eyes flicked back up to my face, and she pressed her lips into the ridge below the head, encircling me tightly. The moan of pleasure that drifted from my lips reminded me of her soft whimpering under my touch just moments ago, and I remembered how slick and hot she'd felt, quivering beneath my fingertips. I brought my right hand to my face to inhale the scent of her, a clean, enticing smell laced with the ocean and raw desire. I slipped the two fingers into my mouth and promptly exploded.
I'd read somewhere that on average, a human male needs about four minutes of stimulation to reach orgasm. I'm not proud to say I fell short even of that low standard.
By the grin on Bella's face, beaming through the haze, she wasn't upset.
She crawled back up, through my legs, pausing to tuck me loosely back into my pants before cuddling close, snuggled in the warm spot between my arm and my heart.
"Mmm," I hummed contentedly into her hair. "Stay?"
Her answer as wistful but firm.
I nudged her with my chin to get her to look at me.
"No? You don't want … I mean, you don't have to - "
"It's not that," she interrupted, "But if I stayed here, I'd feel like I was buying a bed to sleep in with the things I did in it. I can bring myself accept your gifts of food and your trust and the use of your shower, but ... I'm just not ready to accept this. Do you know what I mean, at least a little bit?"
I nodded. I wasn't sure I understood, but I definitely didn't want to push her away by moving things too fast.
She smiled, and began kissing a line along my jaw, moving her body into a crouch as the kisses trailed down my neck and along my collarbone, casting a spell of quiet submission, until she popped her head up suddenly, placed a quick, hard kiss to my surprised lips, and took her warmth away. She stood, briefly adjusting her drawstring, and turned to go.
"Thanks for the clothes and the pizza and everything, Edward. Will I see you tomorrow?"
I nodded weakly.
With the flash of a grin, she was gone. I heard the back door close and imagined her sock feet getting damp with dew as she walked through the grass to the cinder block shelter.
When I woke, the DVD menu screen was all that greeted me.
Was it real?
My inner pessimist said no.
But two fingers on my right hand said yes.
"I said, these are the updated changes to the staff calendar. Print out a new set and add them to the folders for the afternoon meeting. Geez, you are like, on another planet today, Edward!"
Only five more hours until I get to go home.
"Brought you something."
She gave a suspicious smile.
"It's not more candy, is it? Because I'll be diabetic if I keep this up."
"Not candy. It's in my pocket."
She laughed. "Oh, that kind of gift? Don't you want to make out or something first?"
She reached in my pocket and withdrew a keyring with a single, perfect, silver key dangling down.
"And this is ..?" she questioned.
"For you. So you can use the bathroom. Shower when you want. Eat whatever's not expired."
Her hand flew to her mouth. She acted like I'd given her a diamond, instead of a 99 cent key.
"You'd really - you think - this is," she shook her head, tears beginning to well up, "this is a lot of trust you're offering me, Edward. Are you sure I deserve it? I won't be upset if you want to take it back."
I reached out to close her fingers around the key still hanging in the air, then threaded them together with mine.
I panted against her sex, spread open for me like a book I'd always wanted to read but had never been able to find. She continued grinding herself against my face, setting a wicked rhythm that I was only too happy to follow. Her fingers wove themselves tightly into my hair as she loosed a feral moan, the kind of sound that meant both "good" and "more". I brought my hands to her inner thighs, fingers splayed out on her skin, pressing both of my thumbs against her entrance, slowly, still lapping at the neediest part of her slick flesh. Feeling her hips rise off the bed, I dared to push my thumbs inside, teasing her with just the tip of my tongue before sucking her sensitive skin fully into my mouth, flicking it in quick upward strokes.
Please let me feel you.
And she did. I felt it; even if her legs hadn't shaken, even if her flesh hadn't quickened against my fingers, I still would have felt it. Something passed from her to me, like a breath of smoke, dim, indescribable, but real. Like a photograph of a ghost.
Her fingers loosened in my hair, and she laughed, the sweetest sound I'd ever earned.
"OhmyGOD that was amazing. I'm sorry I tore your hair out."
I climbed between her thighs, hovering over her naked skin.
"I'm not. I have plenty more."
Her hand slid around the back of my neck, bringing me in for a kiss, the taste of her shared between us like a secret.
"You … want me to … ?"
"No, it's okay, I'm good. Next time." And it was the strangest thing, but I really was okay. Her orgasm was my orgasm. I was still hard as anything, but I felt grateful and satisfied, too.
She smiled and shrugged, kissing me once more before standing and finger-combing her chaotic hair, finally giving up and pulling it into a messy bun.
I saw a bright flash of color I hadn't noticed before. A tiny tattoo on the back of her neck.
I stood quickly, standing behind her, hands running up her sides, cupping her bare breasts, as she giggled.
It looked like a tiny flame.
"What's this?" I nuzzled the orange and yellow ink.
"Oh, I got it when I was eighteen," she said dismissively. "It's supposed to represent fire. I think I picked the design off a bag of spicy corn chips or something." She shrugged, turning around in my arms, pressing against my hardness.
"I wanted to rebel, you know? It was dumb."
I ran my still-wet thumb over the marked skin as I kissed her mouth.
"Stay," I whispered against her lips.
She hummed her chagrin.
She broke away from me, smiling, reaching for my brown t-shirt that hung from the doorknob, a victim of our haste.
"But I'll tell you what. I'll use this little thing," she reached into the pocket of the sweatpants she'd worn earlier, producing the key, "and surprise you tomorrow."
"You'll be here? When I get off work?"
"Around 5:20, right?"
"Don't come too early, or you'll ruin it." She grinned.
"That's what she said."
She laughed and swatted me before pulling on the pajama pants and flip-flops I'd dug out of the basement for her to wear on these warmer nights.
She blew me a kiss at the doorway. "See you tomorrow, handsome."
As soon as I heard the back door shut, I stood, naked but covered in her fading warmth, at my bedroom window, watching her slight frame swaying as she walked towards the shelter. Her shelter.
As she reached the door, spinning the lock, she turned around and waved at my silhouette in the window.
How did she know I'd be watching?
Because she felt it too.
I debated taking a sick day, but decided to go in instead, so I wouldn't invalidate my surprise.
Still, all I could remember from my eight hour workday was having chicken salad for lunch, and wondering when it would be okay to tell Bella that I was in love with her.
"Your timing is impeccable," she called from the kitchen as I closed the front door behind me. The air was thick with the delicious smells of tomato and melted cheese.
Even more appealing was the knowledge that someone had been here, waiting for me. Preparing a meal for me.
I was smiling as I entered the kitchen, but inside, I fell to my knees and wept at the relief, the sheer sweetness. I wanted to thank the cold wind that blew Bella, like a fallen leaf, into my life.
She was pulling a casserole pan out of the oven, using two hand towels for oven mitts. The top was covered with bubbling cheese and steam rose off in waves as Bella rested it on top of the stove.
"It's nothing fancy, just a little casserole my mom used to make. There weren't a whole lot of fresh ingredients to work with, but you have a great selection of canned stuff."
"And I hope you like apple pie, because that's going in the oven next."
Before either of us knew what was happening, I had my arms wrapped around her, pressing her body tightly into mine in a chaste hug.
She chuckled and hugged me back.
"Guess you like apple pie."
I grabbed the hand with the towel still in it and brought it to my lips, kissing her fingertips each in turn. They smelled like cinnamon from the pie.
"You are, by far, the very best thing that's ever happened to me by accident."
From then on, I started leaving her grocery money. She loved shopping at the little produce stand a few blocks over, and didn't mind taking the bus to the larger market in the next town occasionally.
She stayed in the house much of the day, cooking frequently, and always managed to come up with something adorable to surprise me with.
One night, I came home to not one, but two pans of vegetable lasagne and a loaf of garlic bread.
One night, she met me at the door in a parka, declaring it was winter in June. She handed me a mug of hot cocoa and pulled a knitted cap over my head. Later, I found she'd strewn tiny cut out paper snowflakes all over the bedroom. We snuggled under a quilt until it got too hot. Then we peeled our clothes off and kept each other warm.
One night, she made a pitcher of margaritas and we drank it through a crazy straw. Then we pretended to have a swordfight with the chicken and pepper skewers. Which turned into me chasing her around the back yard with a bottle of marinade. Which turned into us having slow, powerful sex in the grass.
I was in a dream.
I was happy to never wake up.
"You know what today is?"
"It's my birthday."
"Hm. Happm bffda."
I should have known better than to try and talk to her while she was napping. It was Saturday, and after running a few errands, we'd come inside, made love in the shower, and crawled, wet and naked, into the bed to nap curled up against each other's skin. But we'd been sleeping here for two hours; Bella's hair was plastered to her forehead and it was almost dinner time. Had to wake up sooner or later.
"So, I want you to give me a gift."
Bella stretched with a groan, yawned and threw one leg over mine, mounting me.
"Okay, you want me to wear that new bra & panty set you got me at the mall? And I'll give you a little lapdance after dinner?" She lifted her eyebrow suggestively.
Wasn't what I'd had in mind, but now I wanted that too.
"Yes. But something else."
"Greedy boy," she chided. "Brownies and chicken tetrazzini?"
She owned my balls and my stomach.
"What more do you want?"
I swallowed hard. "Stay tonight?"
She took a deep breath.
"Edward, you know why -"
I cut her off, impatient. "Just tonight. It'd be like a sleepover. Just this one time. Please?"
I put on my best little-boy pout. Who knew I could be charming when I took a break from being paranoid?
She rolled her eyes. "Maybe."
If the past few weeks had been any indication, Bella's maybe was as good as Bella's yes.
She stayed that night. Locked in my arms, hair wildly splayed across my chest, she slept fitfully, twitching and pushing, muttering names I'd never heard her mention before. My precious girl was still a garden of secrets.
I didn't care.
"I love you," I whispered into her temple.
"Let me go," she murmured back.
It was a shock to come home and not smell anything cooking. But one look at her puffy, tear-streaked face told me that dinner was a symptom and not a cause.
I sat next to her on the kitchen floor, afraid to speak.
She drew a deep breath and handed me a white plastic stick.
"Is this … what is this?" I asked, leaning into her.
"It's the end, Edward."
"What? What are you talking about?" If this was a joke, it wasn't funny.
"Look at it."
Just a plastic stick. With two little windows. A blue plus sign in one of them.
This was something from that scented aisle I'd never been in. It only took me a moment to realize there was only one thing it could mean.
"So … pregnant?"
She nodded, fresh tears making dark dots on her khaki shorts.
"I thought you said you were on the pill." I tried to keep my voice light while my blood pounded in my ears.
"Was. Past tense. My pills were in my backpack that got stolen. Along with the rest of my meds."
The rest? Bella hadn't told me about other medication.
I tried my best to comfort her amid my own shock. I wrapped my arm around her shaking shoulders, hushing her cries, ignoring my fingers tingling, my lips numb.
"It's not the end, Bella. It's definitely an adjustment, but we'll find a way to manage. Please, don't say it's the end."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" her voice snarled with an anger I hadn't heard before. "You want to keep it?"
Uh-oh. Had I said the wrong thing? Wasn't that what she wanted too?
"Well …" my voice trailed off.
"Edward, we've known each other for all of fifteen minutes," she snorted a bitter laugh. "You don't know me."
"How can you say that?" I was hurt. "I ...I know this is a shock to you, I know you're, like, emotional or whatever, that's fine. But just .. don't attack me, okay? I'm upset by this too."
This brought on another wave of sobs, and I folded her into my chest, rocking, savoring
the scent of her hair. I decided not to say anything else. I'd just let her lead. She'd take us somewhere safe.
After the tears finally subsided again, she spoke.
"When I close my eyes, I just see mountains of plastic car seats and strollers and, God, the diapers … and birth classes, and doctor visits, and minivans … That's not me, Edward. That's not us. I mean, have you ever even held a baby?"
"That's not the point, Bella. This isn't just a baby, it's our baby. Our family," I added, looking away from her hands to the floor. "And it's not like either of us has any family to speak of anymore."
"But that's not good enough, Edward. To throw away my youth, our youth? To change everything forever just so some little shit factory can eat money for the next 18 years?"
"There has to be something great about parenthood, or else no one would do it," I softened my voice, nuzzling her dark hair. She had beautiful hair. Our child might have hair like this.
"They do it because they get knocked up, like me," she spat. Her fingers were trembling as they picked at imaginary hangnails. "My - my mom. She got knocked up. With me. And it ruined her life. She wouldn't have had to date such scummy losers if she hadn't been a poor, struggling single mom. And then she wouldn't have died."
"Baby, Bella, no. You didn't cause your mom's death. That was a psychotic act of violence. And anyway, I'm not leaving. I'm here for you," I swept some damp strands of hair out of her face and tucked them behind her ear. "No matter what."
"Then you'll take me? To go get this … resolved?"
I held her tighter. "Just give me a week. One week to convince you that we can handle this."
She drew a deep breath and nodded.
"What happened to your mom?"
Now it was my turn to take a deep breath.
"I told you. She died."
"What happened that made her die?"
I suppressed the surge of irritation that rose at her question. If I wanted her to open up to me, I had to be forthcoming too.
"My dad was in a car accident when I was five. He hung on for two weeks but never regained consciousness. My mom drunk herself to death over the next few years. I went into foster care and she got sent to treatment. But as soon as she got out, she went on a binge and it never ended."
"She didn't stay sober and fight to get you back?"
"No. She just gave up."
"Shit. I'm sorry," Bella said softly.
"Yeah, well, fuck her. We won't be like that, baby. We can do better."
She hummed, burying her face in my chest and tightening her arms around me.
Don't give up on me, Chico.
"Just give me one week," I murmured.
But she didn't.
I left work at lunch the next day, claiming a stomach bug, and came home to surprise Bella with a dozen pink and white tulips and a box of those ridiculously overpriced cookies. I expected her to be napping, so I tiptoed into the kitchen. My feet froze when I heard her voice.
"No, no insurance. Okay. Thursday at 10 am would be great. First initial B, last initial S. Okay, yeah, I will. Thank you."
She hung up the phone and turned around to see me in the doorway, eyes burning, fingers tightening around the crinkly plastic of my bouquet.
They say people who are unstable or who are pushed to the edge "snap," as if there is a literal sound that marks the switch from human to animal behavior. There is. For me, it sounded like a metallic ping. Like a dime hitting the third rail.
She was so light as I threw her over my shoulder, like a sylph, an air spirit, like Persephone. She smacked and kicked as I carried her out the back door, first playfully, then harder. I think she was shouting, but the pounding of my heartbeat screamed in my ears like a hurricane.
When she realized where I was taking her, she bucked against my hold. It reminded me of that first night, when she urged me to touch her, and the way she moved her hips against my hand like a flamenco dancer.
I flung open the shelter door and dropped her wiggling body inside.
I could hear her now, her voice sounding strange and loud, echoing against the bare cinder block walls.
"Edward, I'm sorry! Please don't do this!"
"We'll talk about it when we've both calmed down."
The door slammed with a squeal.
I made myself some kind of sandwich for dinner that night. It was terrible: cold, dry, and tasteless. I threw it up an hour later with retches so strong that I couldn't breathe. When the food had all been ejected, silent tears streamed from my eyes and my body kept convulsing, trying to rid itself of her betrayal, or the thing which made it hurt so much.
I called out sick the next day.
I bought two breakfast sandwiches, a carton of milk and a bottle of orange juice at the deli off the highway. I put her sandwich in a bag and tied a length of twine to the handles.
Dismantling the exhaust fan in the shelter's roof was a quick job since I had just done it a few months earlier.
God, she looked small, sitting cross legged against the wall as I peered down at her through the hole in the roof.
"Brought you something." I held the bag up so she could see it. "You want milk or juice?"
"Juice," she said in a strained voice. "No, wait, milk. I'll need vitamin D if you're going to keep me out of the sunlight like a veal calf."
I dropped both the drinks into the bag and lowered it down to her.
She untied the bag and started opening the sandwich.
"Thanks. Fuck you, but thanks."
Okay. I deserved that.
"I only asked for a week. Just some time to talk about it. And you went behind my back."
She swallowed a bite of egg and sausage before speaking.
"There was nothing to talk about, Edward. It's my body."
"Wrong, Bella. Your body is holding my kid. The only family I have in the whole goddamn world. And you won't even give it a chance."
"Fine, so maybe I jumped the gun, okay? I'm sorry. Now will you please let me out?"
She kicked the shelf next to her, hard. Its contents shook with her frustration. "So then what exactly is the fucking plan, Edward? Keep me here until I give birth?"
I actually had no idea what to do next. What I had done constituted false imprisonment. I couldn't keep her in there forever. But I wouldn't risk losing her. There was no life for me without Bella.
"There's a chemical toilet on the back of that bottom shelf there. Feel free to use it," I said, my voice deep frost.
"No, Edward, don't -"
"I'll be back tonight with dinner."
"Edward, you know you have to let me out, please just - "
She kept talking but the words missed my ears, swirling out into the air as I began screwing the exhaust fan back into place.
For dinner, I got us Chinese.
I lowered her sesame chicken and vegetable lo mein through the roof's air vent in silence. She didn't even look up.
"There's a Snickers bar in there for dessert."
Around me, crickets chirped in the tall grass, unaware of the heaviness of my heart, the void that groaned with longing for the girl I could not keep, and could not lose.
My chest spasmed, tears beginning to spill over, spattering against the poured concrete floor several feet below.
"I love you, Bella," I choked.
At that, she looked up. Her expression was mournful, and dark circles haunted her eyes.
"Is this what love looks like to you?" she asked softly.
That night, I dreamt of the sound of wings beating against a cage. The soft flapping that belies a silent scream.
When I woke to an acrid smell, it was already too late.
The firefighters told me that my shelter had been a tinderbox waiting to explode, built against both fire code and city regulations.
It could have been an accident. I had stocked it with fuel canisters for the camping stove, a gallon of gasoline for the generator, and there was plenty of paper and cloth to feed the flames. All that had been needed was a spark. I had waterproof matches in there, electric lighters, and firesteel. That's several different permutations of ignition and fuel.
It could have been an accident.
But when I remembered what she'd said in my kitchen the night she told me about her ex-boyfriend, I knew it was her choice.
I'd rather take my chances with nothing than live with a poison.
The fire investigator who came to question me in the hospital said I had suffered from second degree burns to my hands and face, smoke inhalation, and lacerations to my feet. He said I'd been screaming someone's name, but no one remembered what it was. He told me I'd been like a man possessed, that the firefighters had to drag me away bodily, that I had even punched one, and was lucky he had declined to press charges. I remembered racing outside, and the dewy grass beneath my bare feet, but only blackness after that.
The investigator never mentioned anything about a body. I thought it possible that she and the baby had been incinerated so completely that there was nothing left to find.
It was also possible that she had found a way to escape, and had set the fire either in retribution, or to cover her tracks.
Over the course of the week I spent in the hospital, I debated which was more painful: the thought that I pushed her to a desperate and excruciating suicide, or the idea that she was out there somewhere, driven away by my love, wandering the world with or without my unborn child dreaming in her belly.
When I was finally released from the hospital, I entered my house through the front door, unwilling to survey the damage that had been done in the back yard. Part of me wanted to salvage something, to remind me that she'd been here, she'd been real, because this was the place where we met.
But a souvenir was no use.
Proving she'd once been mine wasn't going to bring her back.
It was like meeting Bella had caused my body to grow a new mouth, hidden somewhere inside me, and it was screaming with hunger. I'd never be able to find it, feed it, silence it. Life would always be a black hole of wanting her, missing her, aching and empty.
When I got to my bedroom, I found my 9mm exactly where I had left it after that first night, jammed in the space between my headboard and the wall. As I pulled it free, I noticed something delicate and white resting on the barrel.
One of Bella's tiny cut-out paper snowflakes.
The muzzle tasted like ash, like something that had been consumed.
It was always the little details that killed me.
A/N: Thank you, deeply and sincerely, for reading. i wonder if you can tell that i really poured my heart into this.
If you liked it, please review; reviews make me so happy.
EdwardsBloodType is an unbelievably talented writer, a thorough and encouraging beta, the funniest chick i know, and the girl i should have married. Thank you so, so much for all your help and patient hand holding.
fetish_fanfic and jadalulu have been my thoughtful, supportive cheerleaders on this story and i owe them more than i can repay.
i'd be so grateful if everyone who read this would take the time to check out the contest here ( www . fanfiction . net/community/A_Love_Like_Fire_Contest/90184/14/0/1 ) and vote for your favorite, starting May 16th. Who knows, it might even be mine.