"Lena? Listen, I'm sorry to wake you, but state patrol called in another stranded car on your access road." Kelly Ann was the local dispatcher, and while she was trying to say it in a kind way, at nearly 3 a.m., her message was sure to ruin my chances of sleep. As it was, Kelly Ann was lucky to get me; I had just come to bed not twenty minutes earlier from my studio.
"Was there a crash? Because the last time you sent me out there, I was almost shot by that damn amped-up hunter who ran his car into a tree."
Kelly Ann seemed to find this little anecdote far more amusing than I did and laughed accordingly, before remembering that she needed my help. She cleared her throat before continuing. "No accident, just trouble with the engine. The heat wave is making everything go haywire. This is the fifth call for help we’ve had since Monday. You’d think folks would learn to take that into consideration this far from town," Kelly Ann commented with a pronounced yawn. It echoed through the phone, eliciting one from me as well.
"Did they make it down my road, or are they still on Route 35?" I asked while stretching out on my bed. My legs felt stiff from the hours I spent crouched in front of one of my sculptures.
"They made it to the entrance, but his car didn't complete the turn, so it's likely he's in the dirt."
"Do I need to take Gallifrey with me?" I asked Kelly Ann, knowing she would understand the question’s meaning. I cast a long glance at the other room where my furry companion was likely snoozing.
"He seemed like a dick to me, going on and on about how and why we were incapable of sending someone out to him with the truck. But his license checks out—no priors, not so much as a speeding ticket. And he's driving a Mercedes. It's not the city boys that you have to worry about. I've said it before about those men, but I'd go packing somethin' at least, just to make sure. Clint and Dan are out at some rager the kids were throwing at the lake cabins, and judging by their last call, they might not be able to bring the tow rig until tomorrow evening."
I could hear the eye-roll in her voice. Adolescent mischief had been the mark of this entire summer—perhaps more than any other—and I had taken more than a few wayward drunken kids into town to be collected by their parents. I was glad they were breaking up now before anyone got the brilliant idea to target the old house on the hill.
My feet hit the floor with a thud, and I stumbled my way over to the dresser in search of decent clothing.
"Alright. I can keep him out in the studio for the night if you can send whoever comes in for the first shift to collect him. Maybe if they make it before noon, I'll throw in some beignets." I didn’t want a stranger at my place any longer than necessary, so I figured promised pastries would hurry things along.
"That’s a deal, honey. I might just come myself if you're offerin' that up," Kelly Ann responded before the line went dead.
She was the only person I knew that didn't end the call with the standard niceties; Kelly Ann merely hung up when she finished talking. To be honest, I think she was scared of me, too, and I couldn’t blame her. Some people had a sixth sense about danger, and Kelly Ann had always given me a wide berth.
Ten minutes later, fatigued and frustrated, I was headed down my private drive on my four-wheeler. Compared to the sweltering temperatures of the daytime, the cool night air felt like silk on my skin. Even with all the windows open in the house, there was just no comparison to the free Louisana night breeze.
It took me only five minutes to navigate down to the point where my road intersected with the highway, and I almost missed the man and his vehicle entirely in the deep darkness of the moonless night. Rain had come and gone hours ago, but dense clouds still hung suspended in the sky.
The car he was driving was a deep, dark blue, with such breathtaking beauty and class that even with my untrained eyes, I knew it must have cost a fortune. Its elegance made me feel homely and out of place. I had chosen a pair of old denim jean shorts and a loose t-shirt, paired with cowboy boots and a thrift store ball cap to cover up hair I didn't bother to brush—and I had a lot of hair.
Combining my unimpressive attire with my entrance on this four-wheeler, the man’s confused expression was understandable. He was leaning against the rear corner of his car, with his long legs crossed casually out in front of him. I was willing to bet that when Kelly Ann had assured him she would send help, he hadn’t imagined it would be someone like me.
The car was large and sleek like a killer whale, and yet he still managed to appear imposing against it. I realized he had to be at least six-three, maybe even taller, with very broad shoulders. His suit jacket was draped over the back bumper, so he was only wearing a crisp white shirt—unbuttoned at the collar—with black suspenders that hung snugly without straining. They attached to a stylish pair of dark dress pants and shiny-looking shoes. Good God, of course he had to be handsome.
He had longer dark hair that dusted his collar, shadowing his face in the lights from my vehicle. It made it hard to tell if the planes on his face were as sharp and angular as the appeared. The beauty of him was at odds with the harsh scowl that turned the corners of his mouth.
His broad jaw was clenched to the point of being painful. My eyes blinked several times, just checking to make sure it wasn't some bizarre illusion. This man was cut from a finer cloth than anyone who lived in this neck of the woods, and people like him didn’t just show up in places like this. Alarm bells rang out in my head, and it took some effort to clamp down my more paranoid tendencies. There was nothing to worry about yet. Plus, I hadn’t had an incident with the otherworld in nearly a year.
Once the engine to the four-wheeler cut off, the silence that settled felt odd. It wasn't uncomfortable, just strange, as if we were waiting for something. Gallifrey, predictably, chose that moment to bound into view and shatter the silence with a hail of obnoxiously loud barks. At my command, he heeled, backing up until his big German Shepard ass sat down at a familiar spot near my left foot. Then the mystery man laughed. It sounded bitter to my ears, almost mocking, and it compelled me to speak.
"I'm Lena," I spat. Gallifrey trailed behind me as I dismounted and took a step forward. I hooked a thumb back at the road. "This is my private access road, as Kelly Ann probably told you. She sent me down to help." I reached out for a handshake, and my hand hung suspended in the air as the man glanced from the road to my face to my dog in quick succession.
He didn't say anything or make a move to take my hand, but I didn't take it personally. I was sure the theme to Deliverance was playing a steady track in his head.
When it was clear that I wouldn’t break our little staring contest, he smiled tightly, finally reaching out to take my hand.
"Blake," he responded back with a firm handshake that was bereft of warmth. Getting down to business seemed best, since he looked so uncomfortable.
"The tow isn't going to be here until tomorrow at some time, so if you want, just grab what you need from your car there," I explained, motioning towards the vehicle. "I can give you a lift up the mountain and a place to rest your head." If I had been expecting some grand gesture of gratitude at this offer—which I wasn’t—I would have been disappointed. Blake took this news grimly, as if the mere idea was offensive to him.
"My GPS didn't give any indication that there was anything but trees in the area," Blake said with audible frustration while glancing at the path I’d taken to get here. Oddly, his eyes found the exact location of my house, even though I knew it was impossible to see from this far down. There were simply too many trees.
I had to admit that his anger wasn’t unwarranted or out of place in this part of the country. Outsiders often got lost, and in this age of super location technology, most folks weren't accustomed to feeling such disorientation. It turned the best of us cranky, but adding in the heat and his car trouble, I was surprised he wasn't screaming at me yet. Most that I rescued from around these parts were typically in a foul mood by the time I arrived.
"That car must be even more expensive than I imagined if it can get a satellite signal out here," I commented with an admiring glance behind him. Gallifrey, now bored that the stranger posed no threat to me, promptly laid down at my feet and fell asleep.
"She's never failed me," Blake responded back, glancing over his shoulder before grabbing his suit jacket off the trunk. He ran his hands over his pockets, and then turned to look at me. Apparently he didn't need anything from the car.
There was little light to see by, and I had almost missed it entirely, but a stretch of dark shadow popped out from behind his collar when he reached for the jacket. A tattoo, by the looks of it, was just peeking out from not only his neck, but also one arm. The end tail of some script showed under his rolled-up sleeve and wrapped around one thumb. It added to his already considerable handsomeness, making him seem alien. Perhaps that was where he came from originally. Some foreign planet where ridiculously beautiful people fell from the sky and into the forest.
Kelly Ann is going to love this story, I thought to myself. She was always hoarding romance novels at her desk in the station. Clint, our resident sheriff, liked to tease her about the covers.
"Okay, right, um," I stammered, realizing a little too late that Blake had caught me staring. "Like I said, the tow isn't going to be able to give you a lift until sometime tomorrow. I can give you a place to sleep for the night until Clint or someone else can come and retrieve the car."
Blake continued to look at me, and since he didn't outright refuse my offer, I decided to start moving. "Gallifrey, up!" I commanded, giving him the signal that we were heading back home.
My loyal boy sprang up at attention, not for one second letting on that he was still sleepy. He took point in front of the four-wheeler, nose pointed directly where we had to go.
Blake stood nearby, giving the ATV a speculative gaze.
"You can put your jacket on if you want. It's cool enough, and then you won't have to worry about losing it along the way," I instructed.
Taking my hat off, I bent my head down and shook out my long, auburn hair, wrapping the band around it and sliding it into a ponytail before shoving it back under the ball cap. Once I had righted myself, I glanced to Blake; he was sitting astride my four-wheeler, with a look that told me he didn't quite know what to do with it.
There was no space at all in front of him where I would normally sit and drive. Instead, Blake's thick legs were situated on each side, with Gallifrey bellowing like a hellhound at his knee. There was no yelling or complaining for Gallifrey to stop; Blake was just staring him down with a curious expression. Then he spoke a few words in what sounded like German, and my dog stopped barking.
Gallifrey sat back on his haunches, looking perfectly relaxed.
What the hell?
"I'm the only one he listens to," I explained to Blake with obvious disbelief at what I had just seen. My frustration turned to curiosity as I stared at the pair of them. "What did you say to him?"
"Let's go, Lena," Blake commanded, ignoring my question entirely and starting the engine.
It thrummed to life in the silent woods, shaking the ground and picking up leaves. They swirled around the dirt near my feet, jumping to life and flying in my face. A couple even managed to land in my mouth, causing me to sputter as I hastily removed them. Blake cleared his throat, redirecting my attention back on him.
"What did you say to my dog?" I asked again, now annoyed by both my traitorous pet and the dirt in my mouth.
"Why Gallifrey?" Blake countered.
"I have a thing for British TV. What did you say to my dog?" Any patience I had held earlier fled now, and the evident anger in my voice caught his attention.
"Your German Shepherd is well-trained, Lena." There was a sharpness to his gaze, but kindness in his tone. A shiver of something, and not a comforting one, passed over my skin.
"My, my—he was a gift," was all I could stammer out.
My voice was strange and high, as it had been when I was a naive young woman so many years ago. Only Amos brought out that side of me. It was a part of myself I rarely let out at all, much less to this strange man. The soft love in my face as I looked at my dog, though, I couldn’t hide. Gallifrey was it for me, the only being around me filled with light, stuck in a lifetime that only reflected the darkness.
"Will you get on now, Lena? I'd like to get some sleep tonight," Blake asked suddenly. He brought me out of my sadness like a splash of cold water on my face.
"That is my four-wheeler, and you have no idea where you are going in the dark," I pointed out.
"Gallifrey knows the way. Are you always this stubborn?" he asked with another smirk.
If he gives me one more smirk, I thought, I’m going to smack it right off his face.
"Get on, Lena," he commanded again.
The idea of me obliging him was at once ridiculous and logical, which left me in an odd state of confusion. I didn’t want to submit and let him dictate what I did. But there was also something that ran deeper, as if there was a piece of me that felt at peace letting him lead the way back up. Gooseflesh peppered my arms and legs, and some primal instinct warned of impending danger. But fear was never something I gave into without a fight, and over the years, my paranoia was more often than not unfounded.
So with a quick command to my dog in German, I mounted behind Blake, and we left.
Blake drove recklessly at first as he struggled with the control, but he was a damn quick learner. In less than a minute, he went from being a total novice to driving it like he’d been born on one. He even managed to dodge the pits that marred the dirt path, the little divots that only I knew about. The only upside to his showing off was that I didn't have to hold on to his body to stay steady. All it took was one careful hand behind me on the back of the seat to keep a distance between us. Blake chuckled at one point, looking over his shoulder and smirking at my lack of contact with him.
It was his smell that was getting to my head the most. It wasn't necessarily a cologne or anything so artificial; Blake smelled of fresh water, like rain, mixed with the underlying musk of his body. Like wet metal in the sunlight. Even then, the description wasn't even close to what I felt. Between that and the sheer immensity of his size, it was sensory overload.
The wheels slowed to a stop, but a few seconds before, I had already dismounted and taken a few running steps to catch my balance. Blake was disarming me, putting me at ease with a strange sense of familiarity, while simultaneously making me irrationally awkward. It felt like someone had shoved an eighteen-year-old version of myself into my skin. And that year hadn't been a good one for me.
"You in a hurry, peaches?" Blake asked, himself just stopping the vehicle and getting off the four wheeler. He shook out his legs, brushing some leaves and dirt of his pants before slinging his suit jacket over one shoulder. Of course, he managed to appear perfect, which may have sent me over the edge. It seemed like I was permanently in a state of disheveled glory.
"Peaches?" I mimed back in horror.
"Your cheeks are the exact color, just enough blush to paint them that shade," he said quietly.
I clenched my fists. "Call me ‘peaches’ again, and I'll Google the German command for castration," I replied, eyebrow arched defiantly as I looked meaningfully to my dog.
The traitor of which I spoke was panting near where Blake stood, his eyes bouncing from the stranger to me, asking if he could keep this fun new toy.
"Noted," Blake said with his arms raised in mock surrender, a small smile trying to break through his solemn mask.
"This is my house," I explained dryly while gesturing to the building behind me. Blake nodded, his eyes taking it all in.
The house, all that remained of my previous life, sat large and imposing at the top of the hill. It was constructed in the old style, with a large wraparound porch and three full stories—all filled with ghosts. In every creak of the floor, through each warped window, I heard his voice and saw his face.
"Come with me.” Gallifrey bounded after me, coming to stride alongside my flank as he usually did. His presence gave me an amount of security, battling back the demons that followed me so closely while reminding me of how far I had come.
Blake kept pace from a few yards back, and I had a nagging feeling he was choosing to give me the space. Most I encountered did the same, always giving me a wide berth, so I chalked it up to that. We rounded the corner, and my studio came into view.
If the house was my personal cemetery, then the barn—recently converted into an art studio—was like a nursery. Life began there; despite the death that clung to me and everything else, I could hide from it all within those old walls.
It should have bothered me, having an intruder into such a coveted space, but this wasn't the first time or the last that I'd let a wayward traveler stay the night. Even so, something about Blake grated on me. I could tell already he wouldn't understand the significance of this place. Or, I feared deep down, he seemed the type to understand it all without explanation. Either way, it rankled my pride.
I stopped outside the doors and turned to face Blake. He wasn't smirking any longer, just scrutinizing my face with an odd expression. It was halfway closed off, not allowing me any indication of what was working behind his dark brown eyes.
"You will stay here tonight." I was seconds away from keeping him in my house, just so that I wouldn't have to take him inside my artistic sanctuary, but safety hastened my more logical side. And, there was a small sense of panicked danger I could feel emanating from him. It would be suicide to allow this stranger to sleep in my house.
"It's going to be hot, but you can leave these doors open if you want,” I explained while opening the wide barn door to let us into the studio. “It should be cool enough with the breeze that flows in."
The motion sensor lights kicked on as soon as Gallifrey crossed the barrier into the main space. Blake was quiet behind me, not advancing as quickly, and I did my best to ignore whatever that meant.
"This is your studio," Blake finally said after a few moments of him roaming the main floor. He looped around each of my kilns, his interested eyes gazing over the racks and racks of finished and unfinished pottery.
"Yes," I responded, unsure if he was asking a question or making a statement.
Blake then took a long and slow lap around the back portion of the barn. The majority of my driftwood sculptures sat in an open space, wood shavings scattered on the ground like vines growing on the wall. It smelled like I imagined Heaven would—clean and earthy, alive and dead all at once.
I watched as Blake carefully navigated all the tree stumps and hand-carved tables that littered the area between projects. Each was laden with supplies and had empty beer bottles stacked precariously on top. In short, it was a riot of disorganization, and Blake—with all his fine-suited glory—looked as out of place as anyone I had ever seen in here.
"There is a loft apartment upstairs, and a basket of linens next to the pullout couch.” Blake was viewing everything with a peculiar kind of intensity, and I was keen on him moving on and not lingering near my art. "I keep some old clothes up there for when things get messy. There should be something that fits."
Most of them had belonged to Amos, and the idea of Blake wearing them both intrigued and terrified me. I never offered that up to guests, and it was odd that I was now, for Blake.
"They are very moving," Blake said then, ignoring my blatant hint for him to leave it all be and settle in for the night. His hand reached out to touch one of the sculptures, but before he could contact it fully, Blake pulled his hand back. It seemed there was a reverence in here that even this man could feel, and it was pleasing to see.
"There is no bathroom in here, but near my stack of firewood around the corner is an old outhouse you're free to use."
Blake turned from his perusal of my work, his expression surprisingly devoid of scorn, unlike most of the summer guests that stayed here. This time, the stranger merely nodded at me as he shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against one of the roof uprights. It felt like he was waiting for me to speak, or to instruct him further, but I was too busy staring at him to act. After an awkward moment, the realization hit me that he wanted to know what to do come morning.
"Come on up when you wake, I’ll feed you breakfast and try to call Clint. If he’s not too hung over, he might come down earlier," I said finally, and then turned to leave.
"And if I can't sleep?" Blake called out to me. He sounded playful and cheeky, unlike his earlier cold and slightly arrogant countenance.
"Count sheep," I suggested flatly.
"Is that what you do when you can't sleep?" he asked, with an interested head tilted in anticipation of my answer.
"All this heat, combined with the silence you find out here, it gets to your mind. Amplifies the noise. My advice, find something to quiet it all. Count sheep, make grocery lists, recite the Gettysburg Address, whatever floats your boat. As for me, I throw pots or paint shit," I explained while gesturing towards my wheels and easels.
It was an oversimplified explanation of how I coped with life, but Blake seemed to understand my struggle, recognition echoing in the depths of his dark eyes. He was so entrancing—familiar and foreign all at once—that I yearned to connect with him in some way.
"Why not the wood sculpting?" he asked, moving out of his pocket of light to stand in a little bit of a shadow. It almost looked like he was trying to move in closer to me. I found I wasn't as scared as I probably ought to be at this.
"Knives and wood tools this late at night? That wouldn’t be a good combination." I held up my left index finger as an example. There was a dark line running along the outside edge, a scar from where I’d sliced it open one late night while working on a piece. I was young then, not even twelve, but I thought the scar now gave me street cred.
Blake closed the short distance between us and reached out for my hand. Before I could protest, he took it gently in his own, holding it under the overhead light to get a better view. The knuckle wouldn't straighten all the way, but while it had hindered a few works, I mostly forgot it was there.
"You sliced right through the tendon," Blake noted, and I nodded.
"Doctor said I'd never have full use of it. Idiot quack, but back then they didn’t believe in anyone, so I don’t take it personally," I muttered to myself, eliciting a lazy smile from Blake as well.
"There is no accounting for what the mind can do to heal the body, even if it doesn’t want it." He said the phrase softly, as if the sound of it was more for his ears than mine.
"The mind can imprison as readily as it can set free. And the line between the two is as sharp as the knife that cut me." Our simple conversation seemed to be thick with an underlying layer of earnest exchange.
Typically, I eschewed others, for very compelling reasons, keeping to myself and hiding in my studio. And now here I was, chatting about the mysteries of the mind with a total stranger. A complete, beautiful stranger. God, what the hell was I doing? I never talked to people.
The local kids called me all sorts of names, but the main theme was crazy, hermit artist lady with the giant dog. The house itself scared them enough, and adding in my less than credible family history only stoked the rumors. Those rumors, while harmless, occasionally led to the headaches of a trespassing drunk teen egged on by mischievous friends. Amos used to mess with them from time to time, and now Frey usually took care of them for me.
It was then that I realized Blake was still holding my hand. He cradled it ever so gently in his own, resting in the center of his large palm. My body responded in accordance with my brain, and I finally managed to pull my arm away.
"Lena—" Blake began saying, but I cut him off. He was looking at me with an explicit apology in his features for touching me.
"Good night, Blake," I called over my shoulder as I left.
"Don't look at me like that, Frey," I chided my dog as I changed into my nightgown.
The entire way back from the studio, he had kept glancing back towards the barn. He looked both anxious to get back to the house and uneasy about leaving our guest there.
"I couldn't let him in the house, old boy, we know nothing about him. There's something not quite right about him, or too right about him. Plus, he got under my skin." And no one did that.
Gallifrey gave me a gruff bark in response and then curled up on the end of my king-sized bed, curiously watching me with one eye. He sure could be an asshole when he wanted.
"You think he's one of them?" I asked, reading the expression in Gallifrey's face. He barked as if responding, but whether it was a confirmation of my fears or a command to shut up and sleep, I couldn’t tell. Either way, his meaning was beyond my comprehension.
“No, he didn’t throw off any power. No magic, no coldness or vibrations, just nothing. He’s probably some yuppie lawyer headed out to the Gulf and the closest oil rig. The last two were just like him.” We both knew that was a lie—he was wholly unlike any of my past guests. Gallifrey huffed and turned his head.
Normally, I would be washing up because of my work in the studio, but now I needed to do it in order to clear the dirt from my face and hands. I told myself it was for that fact alone, and not for the strange smell of Blake that penetrated my clothes and hair.
The skin under those areas, face included, still felt warm and flushed, as if I were attempting to blush. The possibility of such was ridiculous to consider. Men did not fluster me; I was impervious to them, or so I kept telling myself as I tried to shake off the feeling Blake left behind.
My body slid over the sheets reveling in the sensation of the cold fabric, freshly chilled by the open window nearby. As tired as I was, it was a fast descent into sleep, though I feared it wouldn't last long.