Chapter 7 - Nate
Maybe it was just my imagination-- bewildered delight leaking into my physical senses-- but she tasted sweet.
She smelled the same as she always did. Sweat and dirt overlayed on the crisp remnants of the perfume she wore during the day. Her skin had the same perfect, silky texture that it always had when we touched but it felt warmer. More electric.
I wanted to consume her. I wanted to gather up every ounce of what she was and claim it as my own until the end of time. I wanted to pull her so close there wasn’t a breath of air between us. I wanted to leave my mark on her so everyone would know-- she’s mine.
But this was Alex. Strong Alex. Sweet Alex. Fierce Alex. Innocent Alex.
So, instead, I cupped the soft, warm curve of her cheek in my palm and hovered a hair’s breadth away. The last thing I wanted was for the moment to end before it began, but I had to give her the chance. I had to give her a choice. So I waited with baited breath, and when she surrendered I felt it down to my toes. She didn’t move a muscle, but the air between us shifted, from a tense, crackling energy to a magnetic pull.
Even so, I was slow. I was gentle. I was everything that, in truth and reality and every place but there, I am not. I brushed her lips with mine and she sucked in a breath. I felt her shock and I wondered if she shared my disbelief-- not that it was happening but that it had taken this goddamn long. Because, now that we were here, I found it hard to imagine a world in which we’d ever been elsewhere.
Her brisk inhalation seemed to pull me in, and I deepened the kiss, letting my hand slip from her cheek up into her hair, pulling her closer. When her lips parted again, I let my tongue stray into her mouth. A polite intrusion, compared to what I truly wanted. An anxious, skittish part of me waited for the daytime version of my girl to show up. I was ready for her to push me away and say it went too far.
Instead, she met me halfway and explored right back. She was a little inept and a little awkward, and somehow so much better than every girl I’d ever kissed before. Because she tasted sweet, and because her fumbling foray into frenching made me smile in a way that seemed to come from the center of my chest. Her tongue didn’t know what the hell it was doing, but it was the same tongue that lashed at me when I was an idiot and rattled off the constellations in the perfect stillness of the night.
I should have stopped it when we both pulled back for air. It was her first kiss. I knew because if some other guy had kissed her she’d have told me and I’d have spent the rest of my life holding back the urge to beat him to a bloody pulp. No, this was her first. I was her first, and because of that I should have let it rest. I should have let it sit and simmer and soak in that I’d stolen that aspect of her innocence. I should have held her hand while I walked her home and hugged her goodbye and told her thank you.
I should have been a gentleman.
But I’m not a gentleman. I’m not gentle. I’m mean and harsh and violent and I take the things I want. I’m an asshole.
So, when we pulled away to breathe, I didn’t move off the rock and give her distance. I pulled my right hand from her hair, my left hand from her grip, and slipped both beneath her, twisting as I lifted, pulling her in my lap.
My ribs twinged, my hands hurt from Freddy’s stupid face, and my head ached from hunger, but I shut out the little annoyances. I was hungry and sore every day of my life. This was new. This was special. This deserved my undivided attention.
You know that phrase “like putty in my hands”? I feel sorry for the guy who coined it because he was missing out. Alex wasn’t putty. She wasn’t some inanimate object for me to shape and mold. She was a living, breathing creature who conformed to me of her own free will. She fit against me so naturally it didn’t matter that she didn’t know what she was doing and I couldn’t think my way around my need for her. She just fit-- against my body and into my life-- perfectly.
Her arms went around my neck, her chest pressed against mine as she pulled herself to me, raising her face. She didn’t speak but she begged for more with those pink lips-- swollen and parted in anticipation-- and her sweet blue eyes which fluttered closed-- entirely trusting.
I kissed her again, sealing my mouth over hers as if, through that contact alone, I could pull every ounce of good out of her body and into mine. I kept my left hand on the small of her back, holding her against me, but I let the right roam. I brushed my fingertips over her cheek once more, plowed my hand through the tangled mess of her hair, and followed the length of her spine through her shirt. Daytime Alex probably would have slapped me when I squeezed her ass, but this one just giggled against my mouth and shifted in my lap.
Her hands were busy, too, although they stayed safely away from the one part of me that most needed her attention. It felt like she was trying to touch every inch of me that she could reach. Her fingers combed through my hair, raked down my back, and clung to my waist with the same desperation I felt as I explored every inch of her mouth, drinking in the sweet, perfect taste of her.
Everything about that kiss was familiar. It doesn’t make much sense, because it was her first kiss and my first time kissing anyone I really cared about. It should’ve been earth shattering and novel, but it felt more like a release of tension. Like we were magnets, held apart for our whole lives, and in that moment we finally snapped back together like the universe intended.
Even when Alex stopped the kiss, we didn’t part. Neither of us wanted to. She sat there in my lap, her arms once more linked around my neck, her face just inches from mine. I held her, my hands plastered against the small of her back. I don’t know when they found their way beneath the hem of her shirt, but there they were, skin on skin, and she didn’t seem to mind.
Our eyes locked in the darkness, and Alex cocked her head slightly and licked her lips.
“Thanks,” she whispered, like I’d done her some kind of favor.
I cleared my throat. “Anything for you,” I told her, hoping she’d think I was making some kind of joke. I wasn’t quite ready for her to know the truth-- that I truly would do anything for her. Die, kill, lie, kiss, steal, fight… leave. Whatever she needed, I was hers. But we were kids, and that would probably freak her out, so I just smirked like everything was a joke. “It was a burden, though. Next time, try to ask a little less of me, okay?”
Alex scowled, smacking me in the back of the head and immediately erasing the effect by dropping a gentle kiss on my cheek. “You’re a jerk,” she murmured.
“You’re a pain in my ass,” I returned. “Now get off me before my legs fall asleep. I gotta walk you home so I can get back.”
“I’ve told you a billion times, you don’t have to walk me home,” Alex said, sliding off me and standing with her hands on her hips. I followed, thanking whatever gods might be listening that it was dark enough she couldn’t see how ready my body was to finish our little escapade. Walking was… let’s say difficult.
“And I’ve told you a billion times I don’t give a shit,” I said, following her across the creek and onto the game trail we both knew, now, by heart. We’d walked it so many times it was beaten down to the point that we could walk abreast. As I drew even with her, Alex reached out and took my hand. We’d held hands before, but that night it felt heavier. Like we were signing our names at the bottom of a contract we’d drawn up when we kissed. I clasped her hand in mine and swore to myself I’d never let go.
We walked in silence for a while, enjoying the still night air. You don’t know this if you haven’t spent much time in the woods, but it’s quieter on darker nights. It’s not that there isn’t movement. You still have crickets chirping and frogs croaking and owls rustling the branches overhead. It’s just a little more subdued. Like the dark is a blanket, resting over everything, smothering it.
“So,” Alex said, as we drew near to the edge of the treeline. I could see the lights of her neighborhood through the trees and, as it always did, my stomach began to churn at the thought of parting with her. I never really knew when I’d see her again. It could be less than a day. It could be a week. Everything depended on the place I lived, and that was chaos-- by definition unpredictable.
“So…?” I implored. She’d trailed off, her footsteps slowing, drawing us to a halt at the woodline.
“So we should probably talk about what just happened,” she said, turning to face me but keeping hold of my hand.
“Should we?” I asked. “I thought you enjoyed it.”
“I did,” she said quickly.
“Me too. You wanna do it again sometime?”
“Well yeah.” She nodded, but still looked uneasy.
“So what’s the problem?”
“What about our deal?” she asked. She was facing me, but she turned her head and stared at her house, worry etching deep lines in her forehead.
“Hey,” I whispered, taking her chin in my free hand and turning her face toward me. There were tears in her eyes, and I hated that I’d caused them. “You worried about your pops?”
Alex nodded, still not looking me in the eye. “It’s not you,” she said hoarsely. “I don’t want you to think it’s you. He’ll just… he’ll be so angry and he’ll find a way to keep us apart.”
“So we’ll keep our deal,” I said with a shrug. It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. “The only difference is I’m not your secret friend, anymore.”
Alex just frowned.
“I’m your secret boyfriend.”
I smiled when her face split into a grin and she threw herself forward, wrapping her arms around my neck and kissing me again. I locked my hands behind her back and held her against me as she stood on her tiptoes to deepen it. That kiss was short but it was just as powerful as the first. It set off the same crazy fireworks at the base of my spine. Would every kiss with her be like this?
We were both breathless when I pulled away from her with a frustrated groan.
“You’re a fast learner,” I croaked. “But we gotta save some progress for next time.”
Alex grinned and pulled away without a word, leading the way through the maze of her neighborhood’s shared backyard. When we reached the tree beside her house I hefted her up onto the lowest branch, watching with clenched, sweaty fists as she clambered up to her window and slipped inside.
After her window slid shut, I turned and made my way back across the yard to the sanctity of the trees. I followed the same worn-down path back to the spot and then past it to my neighborhood. I clambered through my own window, stripped off my shoes and jeans, and slid beneath the covers. It was the same pattern I always followed. Nothing was different. And yet, somehow, everything had changed.
* * *
I’d always hated summer break. For most kids I guess summer meant a magical three months of adventure and freedom. Pool parties and Disney trips and camp. Sleeping late, cartoons, and lazy days eating popsicles. That kind of crap.
For me, though, summer always just meant more stress. Work instead of school. More overlap where the kids and I were at home with our foster parents. High temperatures and higher tempers. Worst of all: no school lunches.
The summer before my senior year, though, wasn’t so bad.
I did what I told Alex and went to the vice principal the day after we kissed. I told him it was me who beat up Freddy Whitehouse. I told them a version of the truth, wherein I stumbled upon Freddy and his buddies giving Tom a hard time. I just left out of the part where I’d been following the kid around all day waiting for an excuse to confront him.
They brought Tom in and he vouched for my story, but it didn’t make much of a difference. I was suspended for a week. Freddy somehow escaped with three days of detention. Not that it bothered me, much. Suspension just meant more time to myself. Plus, Freddy might have escaped punishment from the school but he didn’t escape justice. His face was a puffed-up mess and I knew he and his buddies would leave Tom alone as long as I was around.
My foster dad kicked my ass when he found out, but it was just a little scrap. Nothing serious. I didn’t mind that, either. Nothing got to me, that week. I had the taste of Alex on my lips and her scent on my skin no matter how many times I showered or brushed my teeth. I was invincible.
After my suspension was over there were only two weeks left in school and I drifted through those in a happy haze. Although our deal remained intact, the energy between me and Alex shifted. She no longer averted her gaze when she saw me. Our eyes would lock across the room and her skin would flush pink, her lips would pinch together, and I knew without asking that the shadow of my kiss followed her around the way hers followed me.
When the school year ended I went to work with a kind of fervor. Years ago, as soon as it was legal, I’d secured a job at an auto shop within walking distance of my foster parents’ house. In the beginning it was just stupid shitwork the older guys didn’t wanna do. I cleaned bathrooms and swept floors and crap like that. After a while, though, some of the mechanics took me under their wing. They let me tag along and help on the simpler jobs. By the time I turned 16 I was doing the simpler jobs on my own and helping out with more complicated work. By the time I turned 17 I was doing complicated jobs by myself.
The shop’s owner, Red Mattis, was a pudgy older guy who chain smoked Marlboro Reds and sported a shiny bald patch that was perpetually smeared with engine grease. He was gruff and brusque, but he was a good guy. He worked on the floor with the rest of us and had a strict code of honor that built a loyal customer base. Red treated his workers well and would never lie to a customer or charge them for something they didn’t need.
He didn’t pay me a mechanic’s salary, because I wasn’t a mechanic. He did, however, offer to pay for a technical degree after I graduated high school and to keep me on in the interim. He gave me as many hours as he could and often showed up at work with a tupperware of leftovers he claimed his family would never eat.
Red was a good guy, but his charity grated on me and I had no intention of taking him up on his offer of school or a job after high school. I had never planned for the future. All I knew was that I wanted out. So I worked my job and saved my pennies and didn’t bother to ask myself what I’d do when I finally turned eighteen and escaped. I knew I wanted to keep looking after my foster siblings but I never asked myself how I’d do it. I knew I wanted to follow Alex but I never wondered if she’d really appreciate a homeless, jobless loser following her around her bright-and-shiny college campus.
That night we kissed, though, it was like a veil lifted. All of a sudden I saw my future and, let me tell you, that shit was bleak.
So I decided to try. It was too late to scrape together the grades to graduate on time, but I resolved to at least obtain the requisite knowledge to pass the GED. I picked up extra hours at Red’s shop to make money enough for an apartment. I spent every free minute devouring the books Mrs. Parker had given me. I pulled my boss aside and told him I was interested in that technical degree.
The summer before my senior year was a chaos of tension and hope. Every day meant long hours on my back or hunched over an engine block, covered in grease and dreaming of something better. Every evening meant finding enough food for the kids and piecing together a semblance of normalcy for them before they grew too old to realize it was fabricated. Every sunset meant lying in my bed in tense wakefulness while I waited for our legal guardians to stumble off to bed.
Every night meant bliss. Sheer, unadulterated heaven. I spent many long hours stretched out on the rock with the weight of Alex’s head on my shoulder, following her finger to the stars and listening to her voice as she talked about dark matter and quarks and the big bang theory. I chased her through the woods playing stupid little kid games, listening to her giggle, and I tasted the sweat on her skin when I finally caught her.
We pushed the boundaries of Alex’s comfort zone that summer and I remember every anniversary like it was yesterday.
On May 10, the last day of school, I groped her boobs through her shirt.
On May 21st it was raining, so we huddled in the cave beneath the tree and made out for the entire hour of the time we both had to spare. No constellations, no games in the woods, no distractions. Just her and me and the sound of the raindrops hitting the water of the creek. Alex was straddling my lap and I remember the silky smoothness of her skin and the hard tone of her muscles as I ran my hands up her thighs. I remember her shuddering in pleasure and shifting on my lap. I remember slipping my hands past the hem of her shorts and cupping her bare ass, pulling her tighter against me.
On June 10th she reached between us and, cautious and hesitant and experimental, finally gave a little through-the-pants attention to the part of me that had gone too long neglected.
On June 23rd we spread a blanket out on the sand so we could admire the sky and each other at the same time without tumbling off the rock. She tried to show me a star cluster she’d read about earlier that day. I said she was making shit up. She told me I was being deliberately obtuse. I rolled over and kissed her until she forgot why she was angry. She gripped my shirt and pulled me closer. I snuck a hand to her shorts and released the button. She didn’t stop me.
I moved slowly, sliding my fingers down, feeling the smooth surface of her stomach give way to a small thatch of soft, curly hair. Alex released her grip on my shirt and her hands found their way to my sides, fingers digging into my ribs.
“You okay?” I murmured breathlessly, pulling back to look down at her. She swallowed hard, eyes locked on mine, and nodded.
With a groan of relief, I bent to kiss her, letting my fingers continue to explore. I thought I might’ve died and gone to heaven when I slid one finger into the silken folds and Alex gasped, arching against me. I wish I could say I brought her to a swift and epic orgasm, but I was still young and selfish and hadn’t yet discovered how to coax bliss out of her with just my fingers. Not to say I didn’t figure it out quickly, but June 23rd isn’t that anniversary.
On July 4th we lay on the rock and listened to late-night fireworks, no doubt set off by drunken patriots. We listened to sirens sing through the night, no doubt carrying drunken patriots minus a few blown-off digits.
“It’s Independence Day,” Alex said, rolling to her side so that her chest was pressed against my ribs, throwing a leg over mine to hold herself up. She rested a possessive hand on my stomach, and I could feel the heat of each finger through my shirt.
“Technically it’s July 5th,” I said around the thick lump of arousal in my throat. “It’s past midnight.”
“You have to be a jerk all the time?” Alex asked, resting her head on my chest. Her hair tickled my chin and filled my noise with the heady scent of her.
“Yeah, I do,” I answered, trailing my fingertips over her upper arm. “It’s kinda my gimmick.”
Alex sighed dramatically. “Can we just pretend it’s still Independence Day?” she implored.
“’Cuz I wanna feel free.” The wistfulness in her tone leveled me. She wasn’t free. She lived in a prison, just like me. Sometimes I forgot that, I guess because I’m a self-centered bastard. I knew her parents didn’t hit her. Her father didn’t molest her. There was food at her table three times a day and snacks in her cabinet if she got hungry between. I suppose because of those basic luxuries I often slipped into the assumption that her life was sunshine and roses.
It wasn’t, though. Food and safety aren’t the only things a person needs to survive. Alex didn’t have love. Not from her parents. Perhaps once upon a time things had been good, but her father cared more for his parish than his family and her mom was tailspinning. And despite their shoddy parenting, neither of them seemed to want to let her live. She was trapped in a cage with apathetic guards who should have had the decency to either love her or let her go but did neither.
“Alright, you got it,” I said, squeezing her with my arm. “It’s still Independence Day. What are you gonna do with your freedom?”
I felt the hesitation in every line in her body. She was nervous, and nervous Alex usually meant good things for me. Please, please, please be ready, I thought, trying to keep my breathing steady. Every night since we’d first kissed I left the house with a condom in my pocket. Just in case.
“I kinda wanna get naked,” Alex said, her voice tiny and stifled by the humid summer air. Her head was still tucked up under my chin so I couldn’t see her face and she couldn’t see mine. Good thing, too, because all of a sudden I was grinning like a maniac.
“Okay,” I said hesitantly. “That’s it, just get naked?”
“Yeah!” Alex popped up on an elbow, smiling down at me with excitement all over her features. “It’s hot. I wanna get naked and play in the creek.”
“Well don’t let me stop you,” I said, shoving her off me playfully. “Get to it.”
“I’m not gonna do it alone,” she said, planting her hands on her hips. When she did that it was a sure sign I was about to lose an argument.
“What so I gotta do it too?”
“And in return I get to look at you, right? I don’t wanna do some bullshit where we keep our backs turned, that’s no fun.”
In answer, Alex reached down to the hem of her shirt and ripped it off, tossing it onto the rock. I swear, my jaw hit the sand. She was wearing a plain white bra and dirty old cargo shorts, her hair in a messy ponytail. Moonlight didn’t gleam off her skin, it just seemed to settle there, making her glow.
“Now you,” Alex said, gesturing at me as if unaware that she’d just stopped my world from spinning.
“Uh…” I cleared my throat. “Not yet. I’m not wearing a bra you know, so you gotta… it wouldn’t be fair if you were still wearing that.”
Her eyes held mine as she reached behind her and unclasped the bra and, with a small motion, tossed it onto the rock with her shirt. “Better?” she asked, placing her hands back on her hips. She was still a little nervous. I could tell by the set of her jaw and the way her throat worked as she swallowed. If you didn’t know her like I did, though, you’d think she’d done this a thousand times.
Unable to conjure my voice, I tugged my shirt over my head, praying like hell it was too dark for her to make out the smattering of fading, yellowish bruises that decorated my rib cage. Fortunately, they seemed to escape Alex’s notice. She nodded, a small smile tugging up the corners of her lips as her fingers unclasped the button of her shorts. With a single, smooth motion she shimmied them down her legs and kicked them off to the side.
Throat dry, dick straining, I fumbled with my belt and shoved my jeans down, kicking them over by her shorts.
There we stood, staring. I stared at plain white underwear and she stared at faded blue boxers, both of which probably came in a value pack from the dollar store. We were so ordinary. Just two kids in the heart of America, standing in a creek beneath a pale moon, wearing store-brand underwear and a gleam of sweat from the humid summer air. Just two kids falling deeply, madly, irresponsibly in love. What a cliche.
“Count of three?” Alex asked, and I heard a quaver in her voice and I guess I’m a sick son of a bitch, because the fact that she was nervous turned me on all the more.
“Sure,” I managed. “One…”
“Two…” Alex whispered.
“Three,” we said together.
That was it. My eyes ate every inch of her perfect body. The soft mounds of her breasts and the smooth curve of her hips. The small patch of hair between her legs and ten small toes with perfectly painted nails curling in the sand.
Fireworks went off overhead and for a moment she stood in spectacular relief, blue and white light flashing on her skin. Then we were plunged back into darkness. I’ll hold that moment in my mind until the day I die. July 4th by Alex’s standard, July 5th by mine. Independence Day: the first time I saw my girl naked.
July 12th was Alex’s seventeenth birthday. I didn’t have a lot of money and what I did have I hated spending, but I shelled out $50 bucks for her. I asked Red what I should get my girlfriend for her birthday and he told me chicks love jewelry. I went to a jewelry store but the sight of me made the clerk grow pale and I guess that makes sense. The only way I was walking out of that place with any merchandise was if I stole it.
It made me a little sick to get my perfect girl a gift from Wal-Mart, but it was all I could afford. I stalked the case for ten minutes, trying to find something suitable but everything seemed dumb. What would my Alex do with a fake diamond bracelet? What would she do with some gaudy gold earrings? Nothing looked right. Not for her.
I was starting to lose hope when I found the small card on a turntable sitting by the display case. In retrospect, I think the brand was for kids. There were little earrings shaped like dolphins and necklace sets with Best/Friend written on two halves of a heart.
At the bottom of the turntable, though, I found the card with the two tiny silver studs shaped like stars. I picked it off the rack, staring at the stars glinting at me and the price sticker on the corner of the card. $35. That much money for two stupid little earrings meant they had to be at least half decent, right?
So I bought the earrings, a package of Oreos, and some tissue paper to wrap up my shitty attempt at a birthday gift. The bill came out to $48.63, so I tossed a Snickers bar into the mix for my walk home.
We didn’t break down any physical barriers that night. Alex squealed like a little girl when she saw the earrings and made me put them in for her right there. We each ate a row of Oreos and then lay on the rock in a food coma.
“Thanks for the earrings,” Alex said eventually, rolling onto her back. It was hot as hell outside, but I felt cold from the loss of her head against my chest.
“I’ll get you something fancier next year,” I said, vowing to follow up on the promise. I’d set aside a whole separate account just for Alex. I’d get her whatever the hell she wanted.
“I don’t like fancy, you know that,” she said. “They’re perfect. Stop being stubborn and just say ‘you’re welcome.’”
“You’re welcome,” I grumbled. My arm was quickly falling asleep under the weight of her head but I didn’t dare shift. I needed her touch like I needed air.
She hesitated, suddenly tense with nervous energy, and I tried not to get too excited. What would it be this time? I’d been doing some research and I was pretty sure i could get her to come if she’d let me try. Now that’d be a good birthday gift. Screw earrings.
“Would it weird you out if…” she trailed off, gnawing on her lip.
I did cartwheels in my mind, bursting with anticipation. “If what?”
Alex huffed out a breath of frustration and rolled onto her side once more, burying her face in my chest. Her voice was muffled in my shirt, but her words still stopped me in my tracks. “Would it weird you out if I told you I think I might love you?”
The fireworks going off inside me put Independence Day to shame. I smiled and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “That depends,” I said, and I know I’m an ass for stringing it out. “Would it weird you out if I told you I know I love you?”
On July 12th, Alex’s birthday and the anniversary of the best and worst day of my life, we finally admitted that we loved each other.
On July 26th, exactly two weeks later, the moon was new and the plunging darkness was apropos, I suppose. That night, for the first time ever, without explanation or warning, Alex failed to show up at the spot.