This Is My Skin
(and it's thick. this is not your skin - yet you are still under it.)
forever alone until i found you
and now you're always there
voice in the air, scent on my clothes -
but when the sun exposes all my demons
will you stay or run away?
- 7 -
His house smelt like stale coffee and bleach. The lights were harsh and too white, cutting like a blade through the hazy shadows that lurked in the corners. It was cold and stuck, a patch of the floor even glistening as if it had been carved from ice, the whole house frozen in time. Dust coated everything, hung heavy in the air, and the flat faces of mandatory photo frames stared back at her without blinking, without life. It was as if the house was a book, thick with an old tale full of history and journey, but it had been re-bound and given a new cover, blank and shiny and false.
Tommy stared at her like she was an intruder breaking the black ice that lay hidden beneath the threadbare carpet she crept upon. The wall of the staircase was a patchwork quilt, squares and rectangles of it paler than the rest, ghosts of photos that were nowhere to be seen: Harley wondered who had once lived there on that wall, whose face was no longer welcome.
"It's nice." The compliment was weak at best and Tommy didn't even bother to humour it as he watched her gaze around his abode, his sharp, learned eyes easily spotting her discomfort like she was a target and he was lining up for the shot. Then, as if suddenly remembering who she was, he took her coat and hung it over the banister, causing a plume of dust to huff into the air. Through the glare of the hallway light, Harley could see every particle and for a second, it as if she was gazing upon a universe, a solar system of grey.
"Wanna drink?" Tommy sounded so incredibly solemn, like a man without hope. His voice rattled through the air like a copper penny in a beggar's tin. Harley clenched her fists tight as she forced a smile, trying to remember the warmth of his hand against her thigh so that she might resist the cold that curdled the previously amiable air between them. She had come too far already, put so much on the line, that she couldn't let him bow out before they had even shaken hands.
"Sure. Coffee, if you have any?" He nodded and disappeared into the kitchen without asking her to follow. Feeling foolish lingering in the hallway, Harley wandered into the living room that looked out into the empty, dark street and delicately curled up in one corner of the long couch. The leather squeaked and it was cold against her skin as she pulled her legs up underneath her, folding in on herself in that way that she did so well.
Tommy walked through in silence, the gentle steam of her drink wisping around his jawline like smoke and she thought that he looked too big for the room, out of place, out of time. He handed the coffee to her and sat down empty-handed on the opposite side of the sofa, keeping his feet firmly on the ground. Perhaps she should have thanked him for inviting her in but that made her sound like something undead, unbidden and unwelcome, which wasn't exactly how she wished to come across. So, instead, she watched him. Or, rather, she observed him - and he was not necessarily in his natural habitat because it might have been his house but it was not his home, and the man who had answered the door the other night might have been his father but he was not his family (at least, not anymore - or not yet?) - and she knew that her gaze made him uncomfortable, but then, she speculated, perhaps he hadn't been comfortable for a very long time; perhaps he didn't know how to be anymore.
"Is this your childhood home?" The question fled from her the second she thought it and she had to resist the urge to slap her hand over her mouth like a child. Tommy's gaze snapped to hers with a trained precision and she nearly fell into the deep expanse of grey that threatened to swallow up her nerve.
"Yes." Such a story, such a world that lay within that single word, that acrid articulation, but she couldn't ask because he wasn't a prince and she wasn't a princess and there was no such thing as once upon a time because it was happening now and it was never just once.
"You live here with just your dad, right?" She had to ask. It would be unfair on her not to, no matter that it was unfair on him to do so.
"Have you lived here all your life? I know you left for the Marines, but -"
"No." Different - and yet the same. Maybe she should have stopped; maybe she should have given up. He already had.
"Did you move as a family?" Oh, personal questions, how they burrowed like parasites, writhing and gouging deep down past the flesh. Something flashed across Tommy's eyes and it wasn't pain, no, it was more than that: it was torment and desecration and survival.
"Yes... and no." Different - and yes, different. It was admittance to something other than the norm and that was a step in the right direction. She knew she was asking questions that Tommy felt could only be properly answered with a deeply intimate backstory and that he was nowhere near ready to share such things just yet, so she decided to give him a break.
"Okay. Your turn." She wasn't exactly an open book but Harley felt that she was more able to relax into the game of give and take than he. Tommy watched her for a moment as if to weigh up the likelihood that she was being serious, but then he sat back and asked her the questions that she had already answered.
"Why'd you come here?" Harley raised an eyebrow at his choice of question, understanding perfectly what he was attempting to gain.
"My mum travelled a lot when she was a kid and lived here in the States for a while. When I was growing up, she always told me how she would love to go back, how we would live here one day. When I knew that she was no longer able to achieve that dream on her own, I decided to do it for her." Tommy tried to read between the lines of her response but it only told him two things that he already knew: her mother was sick and Harley was devoted to her.
"Why the 'Burgh?"
"I know one of the doctors at the hospital, he's the brother of my dance teacher, and so he's helping me out. Also, I knew that Colt lived here and I hoped that he would let me stay with him which, obviously, he did."
"How long you gonna stay?" Oh, well, that wasn't fair. He already knew the answer to that, surely? Could he not see it in her eyes, in the way her shoulders dropped, in the black and white newspaper prints she scoured, searching for an appropriate place for her mother to spend the rest of her days? He knew this, Harley was sure of it, and yet he still wanted her to say the words out loud? He refused to give her even a hint of his past and yet he would force this torture upon her? Why was he punishing her, when all she wanted to do was help? Was he so cruel?
"Is this how this is going to go?" Harley asked in return and her words were sharp like glass, heavy like granite. Tommy tilted his head and narrowed his eyes, trying to ignore the burning siren that was scratching blindly in the back of his throat.
"It's a simple question," he said back. Harley stared at him for a long moment and then she leaned forward like she was eager to share some otherwordly secret. She put down her cup then steepled her hands so that she could rest her chin on them - and she smiled. It was beautiful and radiant and stunning, but it was cold. It held none of the warmth that usually shone from her smiles, and Tommy couldn't decide whether it was the smile of the prey about to be devoured or the smile of the predator, hungry for blood.
"I am going to stay here, Tommy, until my mother dies. I can't give you an exact date, I'm afraid, because she is going to die slow. Thing is, I don't know is what will die first: her mind, so that she will be nothing but an empty shell, or her body, and she will be stuck in the cage of her skeleton - but she will die. That I know for sure... and now so do you."
Not even waiting for him to take in her words nor the way in which they were delivered, Harley swung her legs round and came to stand, and with a grace that seemed more deadly than her rage, she began to walk towards the front door.
It took a second for Tommy to realise what he had just done and another second for the guilt to flood through, and then he sprang from the couch and ran after her just as she reached the door. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her round to face him, and perhaps it was unfair that he was using his strength against her but when she tried to pull away, he refused to let go.
"Harley, I'm sorry," he said - begged - without any hesitation at all. "I dunno why I did that."
"It's like you were trying to prove a point!" she exclaimed, voice shaking with rage and despair. "What do you want me to do, Tommy? What do you want from me? I never know what you're going do next - one minute you're kissing me, the next you're pushing me away! I'm exhausted, Tommy. I really thought we had something here, but if you're just gonna treat me like I'm your emotional rag doll, then I am gone."
Tommy moved his grip from her wrist to her hand and tugged her closer to him. This wasn't something he was comfortable with but when he had realised that she was just going to walk out that door and probably never come back, he panicked - and so he knew then that he couldn't let her go. Not even if meant his history, not even if costed him the truth.
"We do have somethin' here, Harley! I'm sorry, I just... I wanted t'know what you were gonna say. I didn't mean to make you upset or angry, I didn't think 'bout it that way."
"Yeah, Tommy, you didn't think, and now what? You gonna ask me more shit like that then refuse to even say a fucking word?" She was furious and her anger sparked like an electrical flame, scalding Tommy's hand but he still refused to let go. He knew that her rage was only covering up the sorrow that he had triggered and that it was now swarming around her throat like a heavy chain that she couldn't shake off. He knew this so well, he knew it as if it had been etched into his skin with her fingertips and he wanted her to know that.
"No. I wanted to see if you meant it, that stuff 'bout give an' take 'cause most folks don't. I've had chicks spill out their sob stories an' expect that to give 'em the right to know everythin' 'bout me right off the bat, an' that ain't gonna happen. I don't tell people shit like this, Harley. I don't let people into my life, I just don't." Harley sighed and used her free hand to swipe escaped hair out of her face.
He noticed then how what little makeup she had been wearing was smudged, black marks under her eyes that only exaggerated the purple circles there. Her cheeks were gaunt and pale, emphasised by the way the hall light shone down above her creating harsh shadows across her skin; her hair was unkempt, falling out her loose bun, and her eyes were red from lack of sleep. She looked small and fragile; and yet Tommy thought her beautiful, because while she appeared to be on the verge of shattering into a million pieces, she refused to break. There was a fierce strength in the sharp edges of her cheekbones, the pallor of her skin, and Tommy found himself in awe and perhaps something more.
"Neither do I, you know," Harley replied pointedly, though it seemed that her anger was swiftly dissipating. "This isn't something I do on a regular basis, I don't know what I'm doing - but I do know that this is what you do when you want to be with someone... and I want to be with you, Tommy." She looked away, suddenly embarrassed and Tommy's lips twitched into a brief smile. "But you've got to work with me here. I can't do this - any of this - by myself."
"You won't have to," Tommy said quietly, determined to prove himself wrong. There he was, standing before this brilliant flame, his light in the shadow, and he had been ready to extinguish her fire. Was he so far gone that he would tear her down so heartlessly? He had wanted to hear her say it, admit that she was waiting on her mother's death before she left, the only one in the lonely line through an empty funeral home, just walking the slow procession until she got to the end. He had wanted to hear it come from those plump lips of hers, see that dimming of light in the forest of her eyes because he had wanted someone else to feel his pain.
Harley, in all her beauty and grace, had walked into his home with a face pull of pity and a hand full of charity, creeping across the floorboards like she was a thief who realised they had picked the wrong house. Tommy had seen her pluck out missing photographs and the glass shards, scrunch up her nose at the stench of bleach and regret, shiver from the lack of warmth, lack of family. She had expected more and he hadn't delivered, and for a short moment, he loathed her for it. Harley had seen an obvious past scrawled across the heavily scrubbed walls and had grabbed it, teared at it, expecting him to play along without complaint; she had thought that an invitation into his home meant an invitation into his life and he had confused her courage for arrogance, her dedication to their potential as a demand for him to hand over the keys to his own nightmares.
And what right did she have, he had asked himself, to act like was the dominant one, the superior? To act like her problems or experiences were in anyway equal to his, but that because she had some semblance of control over her recital of them, that she was at ease with her past, and so that made her better than him? Tommy had felt like a fool, embarrassed and defensive with her seemingly calm and confident attitude towards their new game of sharing - she had expected him to share, so he had wanted her to share back, if only to see her crumble just for a second, to bring her down to his level, to make her the fool too.
Except, he really was the fool after all. Tommy, yet again, had let his defences erect too quickly and already they were threatening to smother out the one light in all of his darkness. He should have known that Harley didn't feel the way he had assumed she did in the slightest: only the previous night, he had held her as she cried - no, sobbed. Tommy had already seen Harley break, and why he had so desired to see her break again - just to make himself feel better - was beyond him.
"You don't have to tell me everything... you don't even have to tell me anything at all. I'm not asking for your hand in marriage here. I just... I want you to know that whatever you tell me, and whenever you decide to tell it, I won't run away or judge you. I won't be able to give you advice or help you forget, but I can listen... and maybe I can help you carry the weight of your secrets, of your past. I don't look like much and I'm not some super strong boxing champion-person, but I have two shoulders and sometimes that's all you need." Harley looked down again and Tommy saw the way she fidgeted with the hem of her shirt, nervous and flustered at her deeply vulnerable speech.
Who is this girl? Tommy asked himself. He ached to find out.
Discarding his second thoughts and pushing back his walls, Tommy lifted his hand and rested it against her jaw, his calloused thumb under her chin so that he could raise her head and force her to meet his gaze. She looked up at him from underneath her eyelashes and they were so full of hope that the words just fell from his lips without any effort at all.
"Ma died when I was eighteen. Cancer. It was just me an' her, my brother an' Pop were still here. We left to get away from Pop an' his drinkin'. When she died, I joined the Marines an' - an' when I left, I came back here. Been to warzones an' battlefields an' towns you don't even know exist, but I ain't really been anywhere. Just the same four walls that follow me no matter where I go."
The effect was instantaneous. The tension that had been gripping Harley's body vanished and her wary, anger-lined gaze softened into a sad yet warm smile. She tilted her head so that she was pressing against his hand and she lifted her own to run it through his messy hair. It was an intimate gesture, a gentle caress, and Tommy could only hope that she would do it again.
"I'm sorry about your mum. It's very brave of you to come back here to live with your dad, even if you had no other choice." She stopped and watched him for a moment; he wondered what she saw. "Anyway, we came here to talk about us, not our pasts." Tommy looked at her in surprise, having expected her to push the matter. Instead, she reversed their grip so that she was now holding his hand and she led him into his own living room. They sat back down on the couch and this time Harley crossed her legs and sat facing him.
"I'll go first this time. Right." She took a deep breath as if to steady her nerves then looked him dead in the eye. "This is probably hasty and reckless of me because I haven't known you for very long and I don't know you that well... but I feel like what I do know is more than enough. I was attracted to you the moment I walked through the gym door," she said without shame, a slight smile pulling at her lips. "I like when we hang out. I look forward to seeing you even if I do end up making a fool of myself sometimes. I like the way you talk, the way you smile, the way you laugh. I like how even when you're really pissed off, you're still crazy-polite, like you don't know how not to be. I like how you've got all this strength but you're never rough. I like the way you light up when you're with me, when no one else is looking."
It felt like there was a thunder storm taking place in his chest, lightening racing up and down his veins with a white-hot electricity. The things Harley was saying were girly and vulnerable and too romantic for him to properly reciprocate but he was pretty sure she didn't expect him to. She was sat there smiling at him in that coy, mischievous, tired, warm way that she did and it was as if a flare had been lit in front of him, lighting up the darkened world around him with a fierce green light. In his foolishness, he had wanted to smother that fire that was within her, but now as it blazed brightly before him, he wanted nothing more than to fan the flames.
Tommy's thoughts were endless but his words were finite and they escaped him now; how could he vocalise the tumbling, burning, pouring hurricane that had suddenly erupted in his hands just from the way she looked at him? So, without thinking about what he was doing, Tommy launched himself forward so that Harley was pinned underneath him, one of his hands cupping the back of her head.
Harley's seawater eyes widened at his spontaneity but then he was pressing his lips against her like the world was imploding all around them. Tommy kissed her with an almost animalistic ferocity; he kissed her like he was dying and she was his last chance at redemption. His body was hot against hers, burning through her skin as she arched up into him, arms wrapped around his neck so that she could pull him closer, and just for that moment, he and his touch were the sole reason for her existence. The Devil was in his lips, sinful and lusting and searching for more as he pressed them against her jaw, her neck, her collarbone, the bare skin of her breasts, and Harley thought that if this was Hell, even eternal damnation wouldn't be enough.
When they broke apart, Harley was breathing heavily, her chest heaving against the weight of him above her. Tommy kept staring into her eyes and she knew that he was waiting for a reaction, and that no matter how strong the man against her was, she had full control over him now: her next words would either make or break him. It was a power that tasted like his lips, that felt like his hand pressing into her side. She unabashedly stared back, unable to hide her cheeky smirk.
"And I really like that." Tommy grinned down at her and it sent her reeling, as if she had just downed a whole bottle of whiskey. "So is this happening then? Are we...?" Tommy shrugged then lowered his head so that his lips brushed against hers.
"We are," he murmured, and he kissed her again, more tenderly than before. He kissed her like he meant it and in the end, that was all she really wanted. She could feel her body reacting to his touch and when he adjusted his position above her, she could feel his react too, and yet he did nothing except kiss her. Harley was pretty sure that she would have done anything he asked of her in that moment but he didn't move and so neither did she. Tommy pressed his face into her neck and raked his teeth across her skin, making her moan and writhe, and she could practically feel him smirk against her.
"Bastard," she gasped and he laughed before capturing her in a kiss once more, biting her bottom lip when she ran her nails down his muscled back. He was built to destroy, to take down any opponent, and yet here he was, hovering above her like she was his only reason to breathe.
When the fire got too much for either of them to stand, they both sat up. They peered around the room and as if looking through the same eyes, they saw that it was no longer frozen. Their heat had melted the ice and it seemed that things did look better in candlelight after all.
They stayed on the couch for a while longer, Tommy playing with a lock of her hair while Harley gave them questions to answer. Both of them felt more comfortable than they had in a long time, and they were content with just finding out the little things. Harley spoke about her home city, her love for dance and how bad at Maths she was, and Tommy told her about MMA, the Marine life and how his talent for cooking was a closely-guarded secret. They talked about silly things, things that didn't really matter, but it was those little things that really made them who they were. It was things like favourite colours, guilty pleasures, laugh out loud moments and embarrassing memories that filled in the spaces around their pasts. They didn't know it yet, but as they shared the small things, they were slowly coming to realise that it wasn't their most tragic experiences that defined him: they were more than the things they had lost.
After a while, they drifted into comfortable silence. The cold had started to creep back in but they kept each other warm, and when Tommy next looked down, he found Harley asleep against his chest. She looked so calm and peaceful, the lines of her face smoothed out, and Tommy took a moment to watch her to just appreciate her stillness. Unable to bring himself to disturb her, Tommy carefully turned and slipped his other hand underneath her knees and brought her up into his arms. She stirred as he got to his feet but she didn't wake, and Tommy was able to walk through the house and gently lay her down onto his bed. He pulled his covers up over her shoulders and her breathing slowed, her body relaxing into slumber.
It was so very ordinary. There was a girl sleeping in his bed. They had talked and fought and kissed and talked some more. He had made her coffee and she had made him smile. He liked her; she liked him back. And that was it.
When his father came home, sober but sad, Tommy asked how he was doing. Paddy was surprised at the sincerity in his son's voice but didn't question it. He replied, a mixture of honesty and courtesy, and Tommy answered in kind. The coat over the banister didn't go unnoticed and when Tommy said that the girl from the night before was asleep in his bed because she'd had a long day, Paddy actually smiled. They slapped each other on the shoulder - awkward but passable - and bid each other good night. So very ordinary.
Tommy changed into a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a plain t-shirt, then climbed onto Brendan's old bed. It didn't take him long to fall asleep listening the steady rhythm of Harley's breathing, and when his nightmares caused him to wake, it wasn't sand he saw but the smooth outline of Harley curled up in his bed. Her presence didn't keep the memories away but he found it easier to calm his panting when he knew that all he had to do was reach out and she would be there. Tommy lay back down and just as he was drifting off, he noticed that he couldn't smell the burning anymore.
Today's quote is from the song I'm Yours Tonight by The Academy Is..., which I think is a nice Tommy-perspective song.
I quite like this chapter but I'm nervous to see how you guys find it. Please let me know what you think, good or bad!