Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, situations, etc. are the property of their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended.
Beta'd by SunflowerFran.
Mistakes are my own.
I was pretty sure I once read somewhere that a house was a being - a living, breathing thing with thoughts and feelings that gave and took. And if you weren't careful, mindful of its needs and what it was trying to tell you, it could turn, proving to be the biggest, most regrettable pain in your sorry, indebted ass.
Kind of like this one was now.
Holding out the lantern Alice so thoughtfully left for me, I slowly made my way down the darkened hall, stubbing my toe on a raised floorboard.
"God-dammit!" I growled out, grabbing my throbbing foot to hop around on the other, realizing in that moment that I was stuck with the worst kind of all – a house with a grudge.
Not the creepy kind with an evil, havoc-inducing spirit that terrorized and then killed you, no; although it was pretty creepy, how it creaked and cried, straining under the weight of the whining wind.
But that was normal, right?
Totally normal, I told myself, gritting my teeth, and blowing out a soothing breath through the flare of my nostrils. I was a grown woman; I was not scared, just concerned for the structure, how sturdy it really was, given that supposedly-taken-care-of termite infestation. One fallen branch from the hollowed-out trunk of that Sycamore out back, and the roof was a goner.
Placing my palm on the torn, flowered wallpaper, I followed it slowly, timidly testing every step to the first door on the right, thankful when I actually found a bed to collapse on. Setting the lantern on the bedside table, I didn't even bother turning down the sheets, crawling onto the springy mattress to collapse on my stomach. I restlessly flipped to my back.
If not for the sporty wallpaper, I would have wondered whose bedroom I was in. But given the strip of bubbled-up balls, gloves and wooden baseball bats, I ventured to guess it was Jacobs. From what I gathered from Alice, all the spare rooms had once been filled with kindness and love; a fact I think proven by the thoughtful decoration, and how he left it unchanged after all these years - that or adolescent laziness. Either way, I felt my heart actually ache for him, the pain he endured in this shell of a house. Those walls, they suffered with him, too, absorbing the stress and sadness of a boy who was lost and without a mother. Closing my eyes, I felt them sting, filling with tears I refused to shed. I knew that sob story all too well. And while I couldn't do anything to fix that little boy's or my unfortunate past, I could fix his house.
And I would.
The sun was what woke me, beaming brightly onto the lid of my eye, burning straight through and into my retina. I turned my head, but couldn't go back to sleep after a light sweat broke out, moistening every surface of my too-warm skin. I was surprised I got any at all since I didn't have a fan or air conditioning. I usually couldn't. Not only did they keep you cool, but they produced a soothing sound - one that lulled you into dreamland with a constant calming hum.
I missed them.
Yawning, I pushed up onto all fours, somehow making it back onto my stomach during the night. Slowly crawling off the still-made bed, I placed my feet on the cool, wood floor, wishing it and all the walls a mumbled "good morning." I had a lot of making up to do for something I hadn't even done. And what better way to start than with a simple, kind introduction? To an outsider, it probably would have seemed crazy, walking the length of the hallway, roaming the structure slowly, feeling it beating just under the pads of my outstretched fingers. But, it felt right - getting to know it, letting it get to know me.
Walking out the back door, I left it open, allowing the fresh, cool breeze to flow through the house and air out the stuffy smell of mothballs and years of pent-up dust.
I took the beaten path barefoot, winding my way through the weed-filled garden, all the way back to the creek just beyond the tree line. The hug of the mud felt good on my feet. I dipped my sore toe in the water, briefly considering wading into it to help cool my over-heated skin. But the revving hum of approaching, heavy machinery nixed all ideas for a relaxed, Summer morning. Piping had to take priority, I reasoned, unless I wanted to bathe in the water of the shallow, bubbling brook from now on. Just the thought made me shiver, and not in a good way. I wasn't that brave or adventurous.
Cautiously climbing out of the muddy bank, I made my way across the overgrown field, ignoring the tickle of the grass as it clung to my feet. By the time I reached the back door, they had already started digging, wandering in and out of the open house like they owned the place. I just stood back and out of their way, watching them work. I was contemplating going inside and hiding until they were done when a shaggy-haired blonde approached, his kind eyes beaming blue.
"Sorry for the intrusion. We knocked, but there wasn't no answer. And Alice, well, she insisted we get started straight away." He smiled easy and light, holding out a hand. Firmly shaking it, I quickly crossed my arms over my chest, realizing I wasn't wearing a bra under my tank top. "I'm Jasper, by the way, Alice's husband," he introduced, though I had already guessed as much.
His smile grew even wider and I looked down to make sure the ladies weren't showing.
"Yeah, I know, Alice's new, best friend."
Oh, well, I wasn't too sure about that.
"Anyway, Bella, I know Alice told you three days, but it's gonna take at least five, with the amount of corrosion that needs to be dug up, there's just no way to do it in less." His demeanor was regretful; the grimace conveying an unspoken apology. Since I was already expecting it, his news came as less of a blow. But a blow, nonetheless. Nothing ever worked out the way it was supposed to, so I hadn't expected this to be any different. I found it was easier to shrug it off and leave him to his work, walking back into the house and straight into what felt like a solid, brick wall.
"Oh!" On instinct I uncrossed my arms, and a pair of warm hands replaced my own. Instead of falling back, they pulled me forward, tightening their grip as the owner held me steady. His grunt was low and feral, rumbling deep between the bumping bones in our chests, his heart beating slow and steady against the top of my right breast. He felt nice. Smelled nice too, I noticed, not that I was blatantly breathing him in, even though I totally was – blatantly. And possibly with an embarrassingly audible sniff.
I briefly wondered if he derived from the forest, maybe bathed in baths of woodchips. He was so cedary sweet. All soap and sawdust from a slab of freshly cut lumber.
Goose bumps flourished with a prickling wave of want, mortifying me with the hardening of my nipples. I prayed he couldn't feel them, as my gaze roamed up to stop on the straight line of his mouth and the full, browned beard surrounding it. My stomach flipped when he grunted low again, squeezing me even tighter before moving me aside to wordlessly make his way back out and into the sun.
Shaking the morning haze from my head, I padded into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water from the fridge, pouting when I felt how warm it was. The same went for reaching out to flip on the bathroom light. I snorted at how easy it was to forget that I didn't have any power, feeling around for the toilet so I could pee in total darkness, and then cursing myself when I remembered I had no toilet paper or running water either.
Laughing humorlessly, I stood and pulled up my cut-offs, grabbing my warm bottle of water before heading back outside to plop down on the steps. The heat was more bearable on the shaded front porch with the sun shining on my legs. The view wasn't all that bad either, better than that old, flowered wallpaper any day. It was beautiful out, all lush and green and glowing. I watched as the bearded anomaly stripped off his shirt, the shine of his burnished hair competing with the glistening sweat that quickly covered his upper body; the way it moved over his muscle, catching the light of the sun to cast a blinding glare off of his skin. Occasionally glancing from side to side, I slyly kept him in my sight, admiring how he heaved and swung the pick-ax, flexing and relaxing the solid muscles in his back. It was unfortunate that Alice pulled up just then, blocking the show with the boxed-out frame of her flashy, refurbished car. I mean, it might have been something to look at, but he was prettier.
So much prettier that I had forgotten all about breakfast.
"Morning, friend," she greeted sweetly, following it up with a nice slam of her car door. "See something you like?"
Her smile widened, all knowing and I averted my eyes, squinting past her at the car.
"Yeah, what is that, a fifty-nine?"
Pulling off her cat-eyed glasses, she rolled hers, plopping down right beside me on the step.
"He's a total shit, just so you know."
Keeping silent, I leaned back on my elbows to soak up the sun, trying not to think about how the total shits were usually the best lays.
"You'd have much better luck with Peter there." She pointed to the blonde that looked exactly like Jasper, describing him as dependable, and an all-American man – whatever that meant.
I wasn't all that impressed.
"He's Jasper's cousin, and really sweet. You should let me hook you two up." Smiling slyly, she wiggled her brows, getting a little too excited and way ahead of herself. "We could all hang out together, and go on double-dates, it would be so much fun!"
Raising a hand, I quickly shot that shit down, "Uh, no thanks." I gave her a pointed look before leaning back to relax against the porch, happy to say, "I don't date."
Sighing, she faced forward, sliding her glasses back over her narrowed, green eyes; a small pout pulling on her lips.
I smiled a genuine smile, turning my attention back to the man at hand.
"Fine, but just stay away from that one," she warned, pointing towards the burly, bearded grunter. Head titled back, he took a drink from his bottle of water, his rippled muscles stretching in such a way that my compliance deemed highly unlikely.
"He doesn't date either."