This one-shot was originally written, but never finished, a long time ago for no reason whatsoever. When the wildfires broke out, I finished it up to be included in the Fandom for Texas fundraiser compilation. Lemme know what you think.
I smile at my favorite bartender and pick up the beer he slides my way. "Thanks," I say, probably too quietly for him to hear, but Seth just grins at me and turns to take the next drink order.
I take my usual seat at one of the high tables by the wall and shrug off my hoodie. It's the perfect spot, not too close to the stage and not too far from the bathroom. The waitress will miss me when she makes her rounds with the band's tip jar, collecting gas money for whatever brave, desperate souls employ the tiny, makeshift stage in their climb toward bigger, better gigs, and I'll have to slip a few bucks to Seth, who will toss it into the jar when she returns to the bar. But here…here I'm out of the way, less likely to have beer splashed on me as someone stumbles around for a closer seat or pushes his way to the restroom. The lights in my little corner are dim, hiding me from the "hunters," as I've secretly dubbed them—those oddly dressed men who come to places like this looking for something drunk and uninhibited to keep them company until morning, when they'll make an excuse about an appointment, a dog they need to walk, a friend that needs a ride…anything to avoid promises and phone numbers they won't bother keeping.
Seth's little bar is by no means a social hot spot. There is no pulse altering, deafening beat to attract the college kids. There are no premium beers or obscenely named drinks. There is no line outside the door, no cover to get in, and no reason for the larger population of Seattle to even suspect that we all escape to this out of the way place just outside the city. The partially lit neon signs flash and buzz, spilling pink and blue and yellow light over dusty shelves littered with ancient sports paraphernalia.
Tonight is a comfortable mix of regulars and wanderers, all fading into each other under the haze of dust and smoke and colored lights. I watch them mingle and avoid, run into and step around each other in the poorly choreographed dance called Friday night. Some I recognize, faces I see here often enough to predict what they will order, at what point they will make fools of themselves, and which door they will stumble through as they leave. Others are new, strangers who have lost their way and found this place by mistake, perhaps thinking it's one of those friendly neighborhood bars that sitcoms convince us are real, or maybe hoping for a Roadhouse-esque brawl to cap off an evening with a more seedy, exciting element they can tell all their friends about when they return to their sterile, uneventful lives. But where they are is neither of those things, and I begin placing my silent bets, judging these strangers on appearance, predicting the moment they will each realize that the rundown bar with the muddy parking lot does not have answers to whatever problems they have carried in on their backs.
Three women stand at the end of the short bar, partially blocking the sole waitress's only way back behind it as they pose and preen, each trying to catch the eye of my beer-slinging friend. Seth is tall, broad-shouldered, and perfectly sculpted, and the attention this gets him is not unexpected. He handles it well, though, fending off their more lascivious advances with an easy, friendly, and possibly even genuine boyish smile as he keeps himself just out of reach of their acrylic tipped fingers. The waitress squeezes past his fan club and moves close to him, resting a hand on his forearm as she leans in and upward to whisper something in his ear. He chuckles and shakes his head at her before looking up and around the room, catching my eye for a miniscule moment and giving me an amused wink. He knows what I'm doing. I'm creating them.
I think I'll call the short one Mildred. Her real name is probably something more stripper-ish, something like Destiny or Summer or Candi - with an i, of course - but I decide that Mildred is much more entertaining. My imagination spins quickly, assigning her fourteen small, nervous, yippy dogs she calls her "babies," and a cookie-cutter home in a cookie-cutter neighborhood. She was married, but they divorced after he discovered her infidelity with…the pool boy? No, neighborhoods like the one I imagine her living in don't generally house the kind of people who can afford pools and boys for them, so I decide it's the UPS man she was sleeping with. She looks like she would find brown shorts of an unfortunate length to be perfectly irresistible.
Her companion I name Vesta, and I bring my hand up to my mouth, trying to cover my weird giggle-snort as I watch her attempt to lean sexily against the swinging partition between the employee space and where she's planted herself for the evening. Unfortunately for Vesta, the partition does exactly what it's designed to do: swing. And in a move so ungraceful that I doubt even I could top it, she pitches forward and then rights herself, only to plunge backward. Most likely unbalanced further by the seventy three pounds of silicone stuffed in her chest, she falls hard, right on her ass, and gapes up at her laughing friends. The waitress glances at her, turns up her nose, and turns back to the Seth, who's failing miserably in his attempt to pretend that he didn't see. Smart man, Seth, I think. Normally, he would be the first to rush over and help a woman who has fallen, but he knows as well as I do that poor Vesta would take that as an invitation to touch him right back, and Seth can do so much better than a one-night stand with whatever walking disaster tries to throw herself over the bar at him.
Not wanting to blatantly stare, I watch from the corner of my eye as Vesta's so called friends laugh at her, not bothering to help as the thoroughly embarrassed woman pushes herself back up off the floor and looks around to see who happened to witness her fall. It's so sad and pathetic that I wonder if I haven't been too mean in giving her such an ugly name, but before I can choose another or even begin to dissect the third woman, my attention is torn away by a mic check.
I turn my gaze to the stage, where tonight's entertainment, a lone man with an old guitar gets ready to play, and the sight of him takes my breath away. Under the blue gels his pale skin appears otherworldly, and his disheveled hair is a strangely beautiful shade of brown, most likely highlighted by some other color I can't discern under the unnatural tint of the stage lights. Closing his eyes, he begins to sing, softly and confidently, his voice a gentle, dangerous caress in the air.
I am transfixed. The music is simple, and the words rather cliché in places, but his voice…oh, his voice. The gentle murmur of the crowd folds in upon itself, cloaking the run down old bar in respectful silence as even Seth and the waitress whose name I may never bother learning stop what they are doing and lean forward to listen. No, not even the hissing clink of a bottle being opened is allowed to intrude upon the angelic tone that wraps itself around every listener present. And he knows it, too.
He opens his eyes then, slowly letting his gaze wander across the small crowd, purposefully making eye contact with each and every one of us. I watch, somewhat amused but even more fascinated as, one by one, each person he stares at shifts uncomfortably and turns away. Even the three stoogettes from Seth's fan club can't meet his penetrating gaze for longer than a few seconds. And then there's me.
Determined to be different, intent on meeting his challenge, I wait my turn, knowing that in just a few seconds he'll be looking at me, trying to force me to look away with his piercing stare. And sure enough, after one more patron begins studying the sticky floor, his eyes lock with mine. He's challenging me, just as he's challenged everyone else. His cockiness dares me to look away, to lose this childish staring contest, but he doesn't know a thing about me. I'm a loner, a people watcher, and I can't fathom tearing my eyes away from this most fascinating person. And when his eyes finally meet mine, I am trapped for several interminable seconds, longer than forever, and shorter than I look back. Yes, he turns away first, but not before one eyebrow arches and his words falter above his perfect strumming. Take that, beautiful staring angel guy, I think to myself. I try to hide my smirk as he quickly recovers, and I wonder if anyone else noticed our silent war of wills. He's not so skilled at hiding his own, though, and the corner of his lips lifts, even he wraps them around the lyrics that spill from his smirking mouth. Gabriel. It's the only angel name I know, and it suits him, mysterious and chilling, even as heaven gilds his wings.
An old man shuffles past, deaf to the music and blind to everything but the cartons of cigarettes he methodically tears open as he fills the ancient vending machine by the restrooms. I wonder how much of his life has been spent selling his soft packs through machinery, and I wonder how many stops have disappeared from his route in the decades since doctors stopped extolling the health benefits of tobacco. He finishes his work and locks the yellowed glass door back in place before stepping over to the bar where a new bartender counts out his pay.
I haven't seen this one before. He's taller and broader than Seth, his smile just as genuine, but his eyes are darker and much, much deeper. I look around for Seth, wondering if he's left or simply busy with something else, but I can't find him. So I turn my eyes back to the stage only to be met with Seth's kind smile mere inches from my face. He pushes another beer toward me, shaking his head when I try to pay, and then hugs me and says something about coffee and a girl. I give a little wave as he walks away grinning, and I hope she's worth his time and worthy of his heart.
The waitress makes her rounds again, collecting filled ashtrays and stray tips while skillfully avoiding the reaching hands of men who have indulged too much and know too little about how to charm a woman. She shoots a pointed look toward the bar, and I turn to see the new bartender standing tall and furious, glaring at the unfortunate man who tried to put his hands on her. She's strong and determined enough to take care of herself, and though his muscles are tense and his large fists clenched, he goes back to pouring drinks as he casts cautioning sideways glances at other potential offenders.
I want to name him, too, make him part of my game and cast him in a role among the characters in my head, but nothing seems fit. He could be Samson, with his thick ebony hair swinging loose and long, or perhaps Goliath as his large frame fills the small space behind the bar. But where the names are Biblical, the man I see is devilish, a body chiseled like heaven to entice the weak and the lustful into the sweetest hell. There is a grace to his movements, a smooth and gentle dance that defies his massive size, his large hands sweeping fluidly between glasses and bottles and wedges of lime.
The hours pass, sure and slow as my foot taps to the beat of the music and my own unhurried thoughts. I watch the women in the room, trapped by Gabriel's hypnotic stare and silken sound, sway and melt into dreams of what they think they could be if only his passion extended to them. I watch the tempting bartender, his skin aflame beneath the red neon over the bar, muscles rolling and rippling as he completes otherwise innocuous tasks. I want to walk over there, see if he's really the antithesis of the man on stage, but I don't need another beer, and I can't make myself move from my seat. It hardly matters, though. Rain and night have both fallen thickly over the city, and one by one these lost and wandering strangers push their way out into the silvered darkness, taking their chances on slick roads and first names they won't remember tomorrow. The smooth voice fades as Gabriel's fingers grow heavy and slow upon the strings, and his low, easy melody is replaced by the sharp clinking of bottles being discarded. The lights above the stage are dimmed and darkened, and the waitress shuffles between tables, putting out forgotten cigarettes and collecting crumpled dollars that won't make up for her aching feet and beer stained shirt.
"Buy you a drink?"
The velvet voice is soft and low in my ear, and were it not for the lazy weight of the night, I would startle. Instead I turn my face toward the hypnotic sound and stare into the verdant eyes of the man who looked away. I shrug, and he smirks for the second time, no doubt believing I am simply a challenge, and then he strolls to the bar, leaning in to place his after last call drink order.
The waitress's eyes are on me as the music man speaks to her, and she shakes her head, holding out her hands to show she has nothing to offer at this hour. The man looks back at me, another cocky twitch to his lips before he turns back to her and slides his hand across the bar. She looks down and her eyes widen infinitesimally before she picks up and pockets what I know now must be money. She catches my eye again, her expression thick with apology and warning, but then she reaches under the bar and fetches a bottle, pouring the amber liquid over ice before she pops the top off a beer and sets both drinks down.
It takes him years to walk back over to me, months between carefully planted footsteps and miles of pick-up lines and suggestive comments behind his eyes. He leans heavily on my little table, hovering in my air as he hands me his ill-gotten purchase.
"Edward Cullen," he says, as if this name is one I should know and be thankful for.
"Isabella," I reply, taking a sip of my fresh beer and nodding as I swallow.
"I haven't seen you here before," he says.
"That's because you haven't played here before," I reply.
He tosses his head back, laughing heartily as he slides around the table, stepping closer than he should so he can tell me I'm funny. The smoky haze swirls around us, pulling me nearer to him before I realize what I'm doing, and his eyes darken as they sweep over every visible inch of me.
The waitress comes over then, unceremoniously dumping the contents of the cut milk jug that serves as the bands' tip jar, covering the little table with wrinkled bills. He blinds me with a smile before quickly arranging each dollar in a neat little stack, which he folds and slips into his pocket.
"We're closing up now," she says, her words sharp and unexpected, and I wonder if her change in attitude toward me is due to the unnamed bartender whose arms are crossed over his chest as he watches us, his gaze dark with what looks like anger, softening only when my eyes meet his. Perhaps he's an asshole who will just stand around as the waitress does all the work. Perhaps he's her lover, and they've yet to finish the fight they began before her shift. Perhaps he's just there and different and very much not Seth, and this unnerves her as much as it intrigues me.
I move to stand and grab my worn blue hoodie, wishing I could stay, that I had the courage to speak to the man at the bar, but this green-eyed angel is faster than my thoughts, appearing instantly behind me as he waits for me to slip my arms into the warm garment he's now holding. I thank him quietly, pulling the zipper halfway up before he extends his arm, gesturing for me to step ahead of him. I chance a look back at the bar as I step outside, only to see the waitress walking away as the dark eyed bartender continues to watch us.
"Coffee?" Edward asks.
"Um…okay," I hesitantly agree. I don't see the point in caffeine when all I'll do afterward is go home and go to bed, but I have nothing to do tomorrow, and I'm curious about the man beside me. He's beautiful and different, and despite my tendency to avoid new people and places, I resist the urge, deciding instead to follow and learn his story. He stands taller at my acquiescence, and I am tempted to renege, unwilling to fall at his feet as countless others surely have. I'm not a challenge, a prize to be won. I'm simply curious, and he is a strange puzzle whose pieces I wish to uncover.
The sky is shedding a miserable combination of drizzle and rain, too much to ignore and too little to have to make a run for it. The random droplets splash against my face as Gabriel, now Edward, reaches to pull my hood up and then offers to drive.
"No, I'll follow you there," I say instead, a steady stream of my father's warnings playing through my head. He could be a serial killer, a rapist, an alien in an angel's skin, and I while I don't want him to disappear just yet, I am far too much my father's daughter to simply get into a car with a man I do not know.
He pulls out his keys and presses a button, and a car across the lot flashes its lights at us. He looks at me expectantly and I point to my old beat up truck, no alarm necessary as no one could steal it anyway. Edward looks a bit surprised and possibly a bit disgusted, but then he shakes his head, laughs, and jogs across the lot to his super shiny silver car.
I'm only halfway to my truck when I hear his engine purr beautifully and see his reverse lights kick on, and I quicken my step, not wanting to make him wait simply because I know better than to attempt a run. When I yank open the door to my truck, I turn around only to see his tail lights as he pulls out of the parking lot and head off toward Dot's, the only sit-down place in this area that's open all night.
I laugh as I pull my screwdriver out of the glove compartment and jab it into what used to be an intact ignition, twisting it a bit to start up the old beast. Nothing happens. I try again and again, only to become more frustrated as the rain beats a heavy rhythm on my truck's uninsulated roof, a quickening drumming that tells me the sky is truly falling now. I heave a sigh and lean back, closing my eyes as I wait for Edward's true angelic quality to make itself known, but twenty minutes pass and there's no sign of him.
He doesn't seem like the type to wait around for a girl, and I begin to wonder if perhaps he was toying with me all along. He would have to be at the diner by now, and he would have to know that something is wrong. Or maybe not. Maybe he just thinks I bailed and he's already charming the pants off some gullible girl, foolish enough to believe that smirk is a smile.
It's times like these that I wish I believed in technology. If I had a car that wasn't seven thousand years old, I might have one of those little button things where I could call for help. And my argument that I don't need a cell phone because I rarely find occasion to call anyone now falls flat. Each second I wait brings heavier and heavier rainfall, and soon the sky is vibrating with electricity and booming with thunder.
Finally I give up, yanking on my still zipped hoodie, as if pulling at it will turn it into a giant tent-like umbrella to shield me from the sheets of water being dumped from the pitch sky. It's no use. I'm stranded and will soon be soaked, but I've got to get back into the bar if I'm going to call for or get any help, and the chances of someone still being here are ebbing away while I hesitate.
I jump out quickly, slamming my door behind me and cringing as my shoes are suctioned into the mud. Water sloshes in at my ankles, immediately soaking my socks, and my hood slips off the back of my head as I lurch forward and pull myself free. I'm just in time to see a small red car pull toward the road, and I wave and yell, praying that the dark haired waitress inside will stop for me, but her wipers aren't quick enough to clear her view, and she rolls out onto the road and away from me without looking back.
Maybe the bartender is still here. I haven't seen him leave, and there's no way he could fit in that tiny red car with the waitress. I yank my hood back up, pushing my already soaked hair beneath it as I walk quickly back over to the door of the bar. I yank hard, but it doesn't budge. I cup my hands around my eyes and press my face to the glass, but all I see is nothing, not one spark of light to let me know that someone is inside. I feel like I'm going to cry, desperate and disappointed and all together pissed off that Murphy's Law has decided to kick my ass tonight, but I wander around to the back anyhow, hoping against hope that someone forgot to lock the back door.
I weave around the giant puddles and feel my shoes slipping and sticking in the thick mud, holding my breath as I pass a putrid dumpster and approach the dented metal door. The handle is broken but still attached at the top, and I take a deep breath before I give it a pull.
Suddenly I'm flying backwards, my eyes on my feet as they fly out from under me, and all I can do is hold my breath and wait to find myself covered in mud and whatever filth has risen in the water that's pooled on the ground. But instead of a hard, wet landing, I feel a painful yank in my shoulder and a crushing vice around my wrist. My head snaps back and my body is pulled upward, and I can't hold back the half-yell, half-whimper that accompanies the sharp agony of my arm being ripped off.
I'm slammed hard into something solid, a brick wall or the steel door or maybe the rocky cliff of a mountain I hadn't noticed. I'm not sure what I've hit, but it's enough to make me wonder if my cheekbone is shattered, and I'm suddenly very concerned with whether or not they will ever find my body. In a fraction of a second I hear my father's voice again, stern and protective, warning me about wandering around in darkened alleys and deserted parking lots, and I'm filled with guilt at the realization that I'm proving him right. I'm the stereotypical defenseless woman caught out alone on a stormy night, and I know my character is the one who is killed, probably topless, within the first few scenes of the movie. Before I can make sense of my thoughts or take a last look at my surroundings, I'm somewhere else, somewhere warm and dark and without the steady buckets of water landing on my head.
I reach blindly, my hands instantly hitting the brick wall again, only it's the wrong texture. It's not rough and flat. It's smooth like cotton and strangely rippled. My wrist is caught again, the same one that was nearly crushed just seconds ago, and I whimper, more in fear than in pain.
"Sorry," I hear a low voice say, as slow fire burns through my veins, ignited where this stranger's fingers brush over my skin.
"Wha—?" I try to ask, but my voice catches in my throat, and I have to cough to clear it before I can speak. "What?" I ask, this time more clearly.
"Did I hurt you?" he asks me, his voice low and soft and completely out of character for some knife wielding maniac.
I want to say yes but instead I shake my head, not even considering that he can't see my silent answer in the dark. The pain isn't so sharp now, and the voice isn't so frightening. My cheek still smarts, but more like I was slapped and less like I was punched, and I realize now that my imagination was carried away by fear more so than actual injury. In fact, my shoulder only aches a little, and I'm really just glad that my arm is still attached.
"I didn't…I mean…I didn't want you to fall," he says, dropping my arm as his voice moves further away from me.
He doesn't sound like a killer. Well, at least not what I expect one to sound like, but then again, I haven't spent any time with killers. But before I can ponder criminals and murderers further, I hear a click, and blue neon casts an odd glow around me.
"Bartender?" I ask, recognizing his features in the dim light. As if he doesn't have a real name. Better than calling him Goliath, I guess.
He's standing only inches away from me, and I crane my neck to make eye contact.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
But I'm once again struck dumb as I look up at his perfectly chiseled face, caught instantly in the depth and darkness of his warm brown eyes. I just nod and rub at my shoulder.
"Let me see," he says, nodding toward my shoulder.
"Are you a doctor, too?" I ask jokingly.
"Shit. You need a doctor?" he replies worriedly, and I instantly regret my stupid attempt at humor.
"No," I say quickly. "I was just…I'm fine," I tell him.
He reaches for my hoodie, and I jump back, on edge from my imagined near death experience and surprised by the sudden, quick movement. "Will you just let me see?" he sighs, sounding a bit offended.
"Okay." I unzip my soaked jacket and look around for a place to put it. He takes it from me instead and tosses it on the floor. I start to protest, but what would be the point? It's dripping wet and probably splattered with mud.
I gasp as his warm skin makes contact with mine, his fingers gently running over my shoulder. I'm tempted to try and fake a wince, just so he'll keep touching me, but I'm a shitty actor and he'd probably just laugh.
"You're cold," he says.
I nod as I watch his dark skin move over mine as he pushes the strap of my tank top aside and continues his inspection. "I'm wet," I say, accounting for my chilled state.
His movements stop, and for a split second, I wonder why. I just told him I'm – oh!
"I mean, it's pouring out there and…I…uh…" Yeah. I'm articulate.
"Let me see if we have anything you can change into," he says, his long legs swiftly carrying him away before I can humiliate myself further.
I take a step to follow him, only to slip and nearly lose my footing. Damn mud. It's caked thickly on my shoes, and as much as I want to get over to the phone, I can't exactly go leaving footprints through the whole place. I toe off my shoes and kick them over toward the door. My socks are useless at this point, too, so I pull them off and toss them over with my shoes before I head down the hallway after…Bartender Guy.
The darkness here is so different from what I am used to. I normally find comfort in these shadows, but where life usually buzzes around me, the building is now cloaked in silence, broken only by the violent crashes of the raging sky outside. The emptiness, the quiet…I can't blend in, can't fade into a shadow while the world goes on around me. Here I am focused on, spotlighted, and utterly out of my element.
"Bartender?" I call out, feeling completely stupid, both for not knowing his name and for feeling so lost in such a familiar place.
"It's Jake," he chuckles from somewhere nearby.
"Okay, Jake…um…can I use the phone?" I ask. "I need a tow or something," I explain.
He pops up from behind the bar and doesn't look at me, but he gestures toward the old rotary dial on the wall. I pad over to it, cringing a little as my feet cover more of the unmopped floor, hoping my jeans aren't dripping water all over the place. I pick up the handset and…no dial tone. Nothing. "It's dead," I sigh. "Do you have a cell phone I can borrow?"
"Sorry, no," he says. "And apparently Seth doesn't even have a lost and found."
"For something you could wear."
"Thanks, but I'm not sure I want to wear clothes someone left behind," I laugh through my chattering teeth. "I mean, who the hell loses their clothes at a bar anyway?"
"Good point," he replies. "But you still need to get out of those."
"I'm fine," I say, even as I wrap my arms around myself, trying not to shiver.
"Here," he says, whipping his shirt off before I can stop him.
"Um…." My heart stutters, stops, and takes off in a flurry of uneven beats as my eyes latch on to the sinewy lines of muscle that cut across his perfect body. Even beneath the blue neon light his skin is warm, darkened gold, clinging to massive shoulders, rolling over thick pectorals, and finally sliding down the deep "v" etched over his hips. Evil, unwelcome denim blocks my sight there, and my gaze wanders upward again, my fingers yearning to trace the contours of the most beautiful man I've ever seen. I'm distracted then by his thick lips, curled back in a smile to reveal perfectly white teeth, and the tiny crinkling lines that linger beside his amused eyes.
I feel my skin grow unbearably hot. Whether from the mortifying realization that I've been caught ogling this man or from the obscene fantasies spinning wildly through my mind, I do not know, but while my pride begs me to turn, run, curl up in a corner and die of humiliation, my lustful hunger urges me forward. I reach blindly, the need to touch him cutting off all other faculties, and I'm startled when I find my fingers wrapped around soft cotton rather than strong arms.
"It'll probably reach your ankles, short stuff," he laughs, nodding at the t-shirt he's handed me. "Go change."
I'm not sure I'd normally be comfortable wearing a stranger's t-shirt as a dress, but it smells heavenly, and it's all I can do not to bring it closer to my face and drown in the scent. Besides, I'm cold, wet, and miserable in the soaked through clothes I'm wearing, and I have no other options.
"Bathroom's over there," he says, pointing over my shoulder at a door I could easily find myself.
I hesitate, glancing down at my bare feet and then back at the messy shoes and socks I left by the door, and I return my eyes to the…Jacob. "Um…" I start uncertainly. I don't think I can bring myself to walk barefoot into the bathroom. I know that it's cleaned daily, but usually before the bar opens, not after a night of whatever happens in there during the show.
"You can lock the door," he says, the smile slipping from his face.
Sure, because the lock will keep my feet from touching whatever grime and nastiness hovers atop the cracked and scuffed linoleum. Why would…? Oh. "No!" I exclaim too loudly. He looks at me as if I've lost my mind, and I'm sure he's regretting letting me in. "I mean…it's just that my shoes…" I trail off. "Isn't there an office or something?"
"Oh. Sure," he says, and I can see the moment that understanding dawns. He's like an open book, like me, every thought and feeling immediately registered in a smile or a shrug or deeply furrowed brow. He takes a step toward me and I meet him halfway, only to be disappointed as he looks down at me and says in a quiet voice, "It's right over there."
I struggle to compose myself, knowing he sees my disappointment immediately and ashamed that my uncharacteristic want of a man I don't know is written so plainly on my face. I want to touch him, still, and if I reach out, I can, but the night is young, and I will have limitless time to repeat this disappointment later.
I can't find the light switch, but at least there's a window, and then as the lightening cracks the pitch black sky, the small room is illuminated enough that I don't go stumbling over a chair or anything. I change as quickly as I can, peeling off the denim that's adhered to my legs and laying my not-as-muddy-as-I'd-thought jeans over an empty wine rack behind the desk, praying they will dry more quickly than is actually possible. I run my fingers through my hair and wish for a hairdryer, even though I know my hair would end up frizzy, but it would be better than the drowned rat look I'm sporting at the moment. I sigh, leaning against the desk, and realize I have no idea what to do next. Should I ask him to drive me home? Does he even have a car here? I didn't see one outside.
A loud crack of thunder shatters my musings, and I rush to the door, scared like a little kid who wants nothing more than to crawl in bed with Mommy and Daddy to escape the storm. I don't know what I'm doing, where I'm going, but I'm not staying in this dark office alone. I yank the door open and practically fly out into the hallway. Or at least that's what should happen.
Once again I hit what I now know is not a brick wall. It's tall and wide, and it's definitely hard, but it carries the same scent as the t-shirt I'm swimming in, only concentrated. And it's warm, so, so warm, but as much as I want to curl into his body and just inhale, I cannot defy the laws of physics. Balance lost, I start to tumble backwards, only this time my arm isn't violently pulled in the opposite direction and I land hard on my ass, just like Vesta did, as tears fill my eyes.
He's on top of me in a second. Well, not on top the way I wish he would be, but rather hovering over me, seemingly assessing me for damage. I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry. Who the fuck am I kidding? Of course I'm going to cry.
"Where does it hurt?" he asks, reaching for me.
I want to say my head, my heart, my soul. But they're not really hurt. They're just freaked out and confused and maybe a little at war with each other. It's only my pride that's been injured, and I try desperately to ignore it, ignore the fact that I'm rideless and phoneless and graceless, wearing a bartender's t-shirt and sprawled out awkwardly on the floor. So I shake my head and try to wipe away a traitor tear, thankful that the darkness is as secretive as I'm trying to be.
"Bella?" he asks, his thumb brushing over my cheek, no doubt noticing the damp tear track.
"I'm okay," I say quietly, tempted to lean into his hand but knowing I shouldn't. "Wait," I say, realizing something. "How did you know my name?"
His sharp intake of breath brings my eyes to his face as another flash of lightening briefly lights the small office. He looks…embarrassed?
"I asked Seth," he says, his answer explaining nothing.
He takes his hand away, and I want to cry, to grab it and bring it back to my skin. Instead I am still and silent, my mind whirling and spinning and trying to process. He asked Seth about me? Who is he? Why is he looking down at the floor…shit! My underwear's showing. I scramble backwards, tugging the shirt down over my thighs again, remembering that I didn't shave my legs this morning and wondering if he can tell. He was almost right. It just about reaches my knees. Well, except for when I'm splayed out on the floor with it twisted around my waist.
"I keep running into you," I say, a half hearted laugh accompanying my words.
"I don't mind," he replies, his voice dipping lower.
I'm at a loss. I don't know what to say or what to do as I finally pick myself up off the floor. I don't mind either. In fact, I'd be happy to run into him and just stick there, attach myself to him like Velcro, but I'm way too good at this whole falling down thing.
This. This is why I don't hang out with people, don't date, don't do anything that would require human interaction. I suck at it. I lurk so well, standing in the fringe, looking in, assuming and judging, but when I'm in the thick of it, I'm just as much of a mess as the people at whom I spend my time silently laughing. I'm not funny or witty or intellectual, and my idea of a conversation is generally just nodding at the appropriate moments as someone else speaks. I'm that girl, the one you see standing just outside the real girls as they laugh and gossip and just… live. I'm the one who boys looked past in school and men look straight through now.
Just then a boom of thunder hits so hard the very air around us vibrates, and a sharp, violent crack of lightning sounds like it's struck within inches of where I stand. There's a tearing sound, followed by a crash, and I scream like a fool and jump toward him.
This time I don't run into him, though. I'm pulled into him. His thick arms wrap around me, securing me against his chest, and my instincts win out as I nuzzle closer. I tell myself that it's okay, that I can be here, do this… because he's warm and safe, and I'm cold and a mess, thanks to the sobbing sky. But I know I'm only doing it because I can, because this time, this moment, it's okay to be this close to him.
"Come on," he practically whispers, slipping his arms from around me and taking my hand instead.
I follow blindly, possibly stupidly, through a door right there in the office, down an unlit stairway, and into a darkened basement. My grip on his hand has tightened, as fear renews its efforts to undermine my every decision tonight. I'm walking into a basement with a man I don't know, and I can't deny that a part of me is back on the whole serial killer train of thought, but a bigger part is imagining movie-quality seduction scenes and romance novel covers. Clearly I am the dumbest woman on the planet.
"Stay here," he says when we reach the bottom of the stairs. His hand slips from mine and the chilled air once again wraps itself around my fingers. My ears strain to hear every whisper of sound as his feet fall against a carpeted floor, and then, with a click, the room is bathed in warm lamplight.
There's an old sofa along the wall, its cushions visibly lumpy and misshapen from too many years of use. Directly across is narrow bed covered in a thick woven blanket. There's a sink and a mirror and a small television, but not much else.
"Do you live here?" I ask, wondering how it's even possible that he's been this close for so long, and I've never seen him.
"No," he chuckles, long hair brushing softly over his bare shoulders as he shakes his head. "I just crash here sometimes." He steps over to the old television and turns it on, and then he turns back toward me. "Might as well make yourself at home," he shrugs, gesturing toward the sofa.
I take a seat on one end and perch uncomfortably on the edge of the cushion. I want to curl my legs up underneath me. Better yet, I want to curl up against him. But I know better. He's being kind, letting me stay here until the storm passes, and I can't let myself be like those women that throw themselves at Seth. For one, I don't have the hair or the clothes or the delusions they have, but really it's just that I don't have the courage.
I watch the as the muscles over his bare back ripple and roll as he moves almost silently through the tiny room. He digs through a box and then shuffles through the contents of a duffle bag, and then he finally holds his arm up, victoriously clutching…a cd?
"No cable," he says by way of explanation as he steps closer to hand me three discs. "Burned them for my brother," he says, and I notice the names written across them in black Sharpie. "I have better taste than that," he chuckles.
They're movies, ones I've never seen and never really planned on seeing. But I suppose we need something to keep us occupied, and if nothing else, bad movies on the ancient television will help drown out the muted sounds of thunder above. I shrug and hand them back to him. "You pick," I say.
He looks over each one, as if they will tell him something more than the titles scribbled in black marker, and then finally slides one into the small dvd player atop the TV. "I don't think this one's too bad," he says, grabbing the remote and coming over to sit on the other end of the sofa.
The sound kicks in, and the title rolls across the screen, listing off the names of actors I recognize but don't really care to see. I finally do give in and curl my legs beneath me, tucking my feet up and pulling self-consciously at the long hem of the shirt I'm wearing. My mind kicks into overdrive as I examine him in my peripheral vision. He laughs at the parts that are supposed to be funny, kicking his long legs out and propping them up on a poor excuse for a coffee table, and I shift my position, surreptitiously eying the way his jeans cling to the muscles beneath. No man should look like this, and for a second, I remember all of Dad's warnings about boys and drugs. Marijuana would make them lazy and careless. Cocaine would make them manic and erratic. And steroids would make them…small, at least where it mattered most. Of course, that's not the way Dad words it, but I know what he's getting at. And I've never seen anyone built the way my bartender is without some kind of illegal help. Only steroids don't make you taller. They don't make your voice so deep and gentle. They don't make your every movement smooth and graceful. No, this man isn't the result of some illicit cocktail of hormones and energy. He's better, worse, safer, and much, much more dangerous. He catches me looking, and I feel my face heat for the thousandth time tonight, turning my head abruptly back to the movie, even though I can no longer remember what we're watching.
I'm uncomfortably aware of his arm, resting against the back of the sofa, and I wish it was reaching for me, spanning across the miles and miles of space, one endless empty cushion between us. And while I feel a pull, a gravity drawing me toward him, I lean the other direction, resting my head on my hand on the high arm of the sofa as I focus more on his laughter and steady breathing than I do on whatever images fly across the television screen.
I'm awakened by a loud booming sound, so deafening that in my dream ruled state I wonder for a moment if I'm under attack, if war has broken out while I slept. Something strong and warm wraps around me, and I tense, pushing at it, not sure what I'm trying to escape, but knowing I'm caged. And then I remember where I am, who I'm with, and I illogically feel as if these arms could ward off the still raging storm.
He mumbles something, and I realize he's slept through the utter destruction outside. I tense, waiting, wondering if he will awaken, wondering what I will say and how I will fumble through my attempts to excuse my being halfway on top of him. The room is dark, save for the glow from the static-filled TV screen, and my greedy fingers betray me, betray him, sneaking up to trace the light over his muscles, the shadows in the cuts of his form. My face flames against his chest as my eyes follow the path of my hand, reading each line and dip and smooth expanse of his skin.
His sleepy fingers trail up my back, rubbing the soft cotton of the oversized tshirt over me, and I feel it bunching, rising up as he pulls. I raise my head and see that his eyes are still closed, his face relaxed and maybe even a little boyish as he slumbers. I move carefully, trying not to redistribute my weight too much as I do, not to disturb him, not to lose this moment that is mine and mine alone. But just as I reach behind me, grasping the hem of the shirt to pull it back down and cover myself, he speaks.
"Stay," he whispers, his single word an echoing shout in my head.
I press my palms against his chest, trying to raise myself enough that I can look him in the eye. I just want to see what this is, if it's my imagination, if I'm still dreaming. But his hands fall away from me, misunderstanding, letting go, and I realize I've ruined the simplicity of whatever this moment is.
"No," I say, panicked, lifting myself quickly and finding concern, defeat, and disappointment in his dark eyes. "I want to stay," I breathe, barely feeling my own words leave my lips and wondering if they've floated to his ears or simply disintegrated in the air around us.
He stares at me for seconds, for years, for confirmation and assurance, and I know this is my chance, my risk to take, my humiliation to earn, my moment to seize. And so I do it. I kiss him. Breath held and soul trembling, lips unsure and body unsteady, I bring my mouth to his and wait that second-long eternity for his reaction. His arms encircle me again, his hands returning to my back as his lips begin to move slowly, gently, almost sweetly against mine, and I press my weight against him, covering what I can of his body with my own.
The sofa cushion sways and dips as he sits up suddenly, still holding me tightly to his chest as one hand finds its way into my hair, pulling, twining, raking through. I shift myself, folding my legs on either side of his, a whimper escaping the confines of my throat and dying a sweet welcomed death on his tongue. His fingers fly down my back, sliding over my ass and to my thighs, where he grips me tightly as we begin to float. I'm swimming, swirling, losing balance and sense of direction, his body my only anchor, until I feel something soft against my back, the mattress creaking beneath our combined weight.
He's no longer kissing me, his body risen and hovering over mine on the narrow bed, but not touching. I want to ask what's wrong, why we stopped, if he wishes he'd never opened the door to me, but my lips are still tingling from his kiss, and the thoughts in my head don't even resemble words.
"Is this okay?" he asks, suddenly sounding uncertain. This is the moment the sky has chosen to become deathly quiet, the only sound between us the rhythymless breaths that threaten to spit my chest wide open.
I nod, praying he can see me in the darkness, because I cannot possibly create a sentence from the insecurity and panic that envelopes what's left of my mind. But he doesn't move. He just stares, those dark eyes boring into mine, surely seeing everything, every secret, every dream, every wish to be something more than I am. And then slowly, so slowly it hurts, his face lowers to mine again, his lips brushing over my own, tenderly, tentatively.
"Please," I breathe against them.
One arm holds his weight, despite my desperate effort to pull him completely on top of me, as the other trails down my side, over my hip, and finally beneath the fabric separating us. My…his…the shirt rides up as his fingers spread across my stomach and I push myself against him, more brazen and bold than I have ever been before. Strange noises crawl from my throat, and I don't hear, don't care, only feel.
His fingers bleed fire across my skin and I want to cry out in pain, in pleasure, in desperate need, but my voice has burned to ashes that sail away on unsteady breaths as I gasp and sigh and melt beneath him. His lips are soft, gently demanding against my mouth as I breathe his air and absorb his touch. There is no thought here, no voice of warning or reason to weather the flames and make itself known. There is only feeling, only breath and skin and flowing movement.
His mouth leaves mine and his nose skims over my cheek, into my hair, his lips glancing over my ear as I become liquid, forming to his shape and attaching to each perfect cell.
"Bella," he breathes, my name winged and floating into the heated air around us, hovering, and fading away as I my hands clench over his shoulders.
The shirt is gone, lost or maybe disintegrated in the circling heat, and his body slides down over mine, his lips wrapping around my nipple, my mouth falling open, unable to claim the air my lungs have forgotten they need. My leg lifts itself to wrap around him, my hips circling to meet his, to meet him, to meet the heaven I know he holds.
A snap, a zipper, the rush of fabric pulling away, thin elastic slipping down my legs until our bodies are again flush, skin upon fiery skin. My wandering hand is steady as it slips across his chest, his stomach, thin hair that leads to thick, hard, pulsing muscle and a hiss from his lips. I hold, encircle, slipping my hand around and over again and again as he thrusts into my hand until his moans drown out the thunder and his body jerks roughly away.
But before the separation registers in my fogged mind, we are again connected, soft hungry lips against slick wet skin, my legs pushed up, hooked over his shoulders, his fingers joining his tongue, finding me heated, open, needy. His tongue seeks, dips inside, tasting and readying. His fingers follow, sliding, spreading, slipping inside to work in tandem with his mouth until my cries fill the air with pleas and prayers and wanton declarations.
His hand is on my face now, his eyes once again seeking out mine, but I am already lost. My hand finds him again, pumping and sliding and clenching over moisture tipped skin. His breathing quickens, turns to moans, shared between our joined mouths before my legs are wrapped around him and he's right there.
Hesitation. A final chance to back out, back away, go back to being strangers seeking shelter. But I want his shelter, his soul, his everything. And so I grip his waist tighter between my thighs, my legs pulling against him, begging him to complete this, to complete me. And he's so, so slow, my body stretching, his body filling, gasps and whimpers and panting breaths marking each movement, every new depth discovered. We rock and writhe and grip and cling until he tenses and I clench and the world splits apart at its core, pulling us into blissful flames.
Our breathing quiets now. His weight lifts and turns, shifting to settle beside me before pulling me back against him. He is hard and soft and warm beneath my cheek, his heartbeat drumming a lullaby through my veins, and my eyes grow heavy as his arm encircles me. The rainfall is lighter now, tapping a soft rhythm as the world darkens and fades into dream.
The early morning sun is unforgiving, stealing through the high window above us and seeking out my heavy eyelids, the world nothing but pink and squinting behind them as I try not to give in. A slight shift beneath me and my eyes open wide despite the painful too much light, and I'm instantly aware, too aware of my surroundings. My body slung over his, my leg wrapped around him, my hand resting so perfectly low on his hip. His hold on me is no less familiar, one large hand splayed across my ass, the other around my back, fingers wrapping around to brush against my breast.
I want to run. I want to relive it. I want to go back in time and spend the rest of my life in last night, but I can't. I have to go back, back to my people watching and my slow as hell truck and my dad's house, where I will daydream while he watches sports and sing to myself as I make dinner. We'll eat in silence, and then watch whatever sitcom happens to be on, and then I'll go to bed alone in my childhood room, pictures of friends I used to have and bands I used to worship splashed across the deceitfully sunny yellow walls. I'll tell myself I'm not alone, not lonely, not needing anything else in my life. I will lie. But I can't lie here.
I ease myself away, slowly, careful not to disturb his peaceful sleep. My movements are awkward and my position even more so, but I sigh with remorse and relief as one foot finds the floor, and I lift the rest of my body away from his. He mumbles and turns toward the wall, pulling the blanket to his chest and leaving his feet to poke out the other end. I take one last moment to memorize him, and then I run.
I make my way through the quiet building, its sad décor even stranger in the light of day. I slip into the office, pulling my stiff jeans on quickly and grabbing my tank top. I know I need to change, leave his shirt for him to find later, folded neatly on the desk in a gesture of return. But as I begin to lift it over my head, my senses are assaulted with a heady scent, and my arms fall back to my sides. It's just a shirt. He won't miss it, won't mind if I keep it, probably doesn't even care if he gets it back. So I gather my tank top under my arm and pad quietly down the hallway, picking up my still damp hoodie and grabbing my socks and shoes by the door. Slipping the lock, I take a peek outside – definitely not something I want to walk barefoot through. So I sit down on the floor and begin to pull my shoes on as quickly as I can, tucking the shoelaces inside instead of tying them, and slip outside.
I dodge puddles and stick to the somewhat drier ground as I make my way to my truck, only remembering now that I am outside that I was stuck here for a reason. If it doesn't start, what will I do? Go back inside and pray that the phone is working again? Hope he sleeps long enough for the tow truck to steal me away? I hold my breath and cross my fingers as I climb inside, praying as I stab the screwdriver into the ignition that it will work.
With a shudder and a whine, followed by a deep rumble, my old truck comes to life, the seat vibrating beneath me with the force of its awakening. With one more look in the rearview mirror at the place that was so different and unexpected last night, I throw it in reverse and then pause. What am I doing? Why am I running? Because it's too good to be true, I tell myself. Why? Because he doesn't know me. But what if he could? What then? He could have last night, but he barely spoke, and I'm not so stupid as to think one night means anything more than a way to pass the time.
This isn't me. I'm not the girl who can handle one night stands, who can look at something like this, someone like him as a fond memory. I took a chance, or maybe I just forgot myself, but whatever the case it hurts because it's nothing tangible, something fleeting, everything passionate that my life lacks. What else am I supposed to do? Stick around for the awkward no talking and avoiding each other's eyes, the "I'll call you" that means nothing, the slap in my face realization that this is the norm for him and anything but for me? I'm doing the right thing now, leaving with my clothes and my dignity and whatever excuses I need to justify it all.
My door is yanked open, a pained creaking of metal hinges in desperate need of oil, and I jerk my head up to lock stares with the angriest eyes I've ever seen. His bare chest is heaving, rising and falling with more restrained power than I could have imagined, and I instinctually cringe away, more wary than scared, but worried nonetheless.
His eyes flash something else, a hint that he is aware of the rage he projects, and then his shoulders drop. "Why?" he asks, and I am torn into silence.
I open my mouth to speak, but there is nothing I can say, nothing that will explain the internal battle, the fear of the morning after, the sheer disbelief that something like last night could even happen to me.
"Bella?" he prods, his voice now soft and uncertain.
"I… I don't know," I reply, and it's the truth. I don't know how last night came to be or what I'm supposed to do with it. I don't know why I am running or where I am running to, for surely the second I get home I will feel the pull back to him. But I don't know what this is or was or could or couldn't be, and I don't know how to hold onto it and certainly not how to let it go. I don't know him, and now it seems I don't even know myself.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asks, his eyes releasing mine as he looks away, around, anywhere but directly at me, his fingers twitching at his side.
"No," I almost whisper.
"Are you coming back?" he asks, fear creeping into his voice.
"I don't know," I say again. I know nothing. "Am I supposed to?" I ask.
"I want you to," he says.
"I don't know you," I sigh. "You don't know me, not at all."
He looks back at the bar and opens his mouth to say something, but his words have gone the way of mine, pale and without sound. I want to explain, to apologize, to make excuses and give him a million reasons why it's better this way, but I can't. And so I reach to pull the door shut again, afraid to look at him as he steps out of the way, and then glance in the mirror one more time and push the gearshift back into reverse.
"Wednesdays," he says suddenly, loudly, his large hands closing over the rolled down window.
"What?" I ask, confused.
"Wednesdays. You come in early and sit by the bar, writing in that yellow book and chewing on your pen until it gets busy. You only use black ink, never blue, and then you leave before the music starts."
"How…? But I've never seen you," I say, as if that makes his words less true.
"I'm always in the office…"
"Seeing me and knowing me are two totally different things," I say, at once wanting to slap myself for arguing.
"Converse," he continues. "You have two pairs that look almost the same, but one has white laces and one has pink. And you always have your hoodie. You tap your foot out of time with the music every Friday, and you always sit at that same table. And warm beer. You don't like it cold, and Seth keeps it under the bar waiting for you. You mouth the words to the songs you know, and you nod your head to the ones you don't, and your hair looks black under the blue lights."
I just stare at him, wondering what's so fascinating about me that he would commit to memory all my insignificant details. Is he like me, sitting on the perimeter and watching the world go by?
"Let me get to know you, Bella. I've waited so long," he pleads, taking a step back, giving me the out I need if I want to back away, drive off and leave him behind.
I kill the engine and drop my hands from the wheel.
"Stay," he says.
And I do.
So yeah, that's it. No idea why I wrote it in the first place. But I am curious to know how many of you managed to get through the whole thing. My guess is that the Jake fans bailed when she agreed to leave with Edward, and the Edward fans bailed when she went downstairs with Jake. That leaves me with what? Two or three die-hard Bella fans?