I fidgeted with my collar again. Even if Jess couldn’t feel the tender wound like I could, I knew he was thinking about the bite. He was always thinking about the bite. How could he not? Jacob’s mark was bigger than a road block or a mountain between us. Even though I could reach out and touch him, grasp his arm and bring him closer, he was worlds away. My neck ached like a sprained ankle or a fresh cut, completely taking over my thoughts. It was getting worse, an infection creeping underneath my skin like maggots wriggling inside of rotted wood.
Jess jumping in front of me jolted me out of my own head. We stood outside a diner that looked vintage, not as a choice but lack of upkeep. The neon Diner sign was missing the “n” and “r”, giving everyone a cheery welcome.
“It’s not exactly Michelin star,” Jess grinned, shrugging a little bit. I could close my eyes and feel the rasp of his voice gently scratch my neck and behind my ear. He was practically jumping up and down like a kid on his way to a theme park. “But it’s cooked food. When’s the last we had that, huh?”
“I already feel spoiled,” I joked, heat crawling up my face.
That seemed to please him. He hurried to the door to open it for me, making a bundle of bells ring. I walked by him, close enough to feel the warmth emitting off his body, close enough to feel his breath on my neck. My eyes stayed glued to his face as I passed. He gifted me a crooked smile and my mouth water, hungry for a kiss.
Jess had grown more muscular and rugged since living out in the woods. He could have been birth from the forest itself as if he crawled from the soft earth one day and speak to the trees. If I wasn’t already obsessed with him, Jess had to go and make himself MORE attractive.
The diner was longer than it was wide. There was only one row of booths against the windows and then, there was seating at the bar. I couldn’t pinpoint the last time this diner received a make-over. It had wooden paneled walls, adorned by hundreds of framed pictures of workers or customers through the years. What once might have been black and white checkered floors was more like stormy gray and yellow. Christmas lights were wrapped around the walls, along shiny gold garland. Small Christmas trees sat at both ends of the bar, blinking happily.
“Wow,” I whispered as my heart sunk. “It’s already Christmas.”
A little white board told us to seat ourselves, so I meandered to a booth by the window. It sat snuggly in the corner with a clear view of the whole place. Jess had paused behind me and took in the decorations with the same surprise I was feeling. It wasn’t even fall the last time I looked at a calendar.
Jess finally made his way to me, scooting into the seat across from mine. His eyes lingered, but so did mine. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, skimming the edges of his face from his forehead, down his cheekbones and his broken nose. My hands moved on their own, reaching across the table for his. He blinked, before turning with that signature crooked smile. Mine. Jess Castellano was finally mine.
“Can I tell you what I got you?” I asked.
“Got me?” Jess tilted his head, brows scrunched together.
“For Christmas.” I rubbed my thumb across his rough knuckles. Everything about Jess’ hands were rough like a favorite pair of jeans with rips and tears or like a precious toy that breaks from too much play. Jess was rough around the edges for the best reasons. His faults blurred the edges of beauty.
I told him, “I bought it forever ago. I always do that. I’m pretty sure all my Christmas shopping is done by Halloween. Do you remember that time the whole downtown area was shut down because the farmer’s market got out of hand?”
“I remember,” Jess chuckled, squeezing my hand and goosebumps waged a war against my limbs.
“When we were walking around, you spotted an old leather jacket-”
“Yeah, oh that jacket was sweet! He covered the shoulders in studs and it had this huge wolf patch on the back, but- oh man, who was it?”
“Right! He said it wasn’t for sale that he accidentally put it with the sell pile.”
My smile grew, taking over me. “I told him to say that.”
“No,” he shook his head, grinning. “You didn’t.”
“I bought it. It’s hidden in my grandmother’s attic.”
“No, it’s not.” Jess started to crack up and his laugh tasted like heaven.
“Mr. Garcia sold it to me half price.”
“Of course, he did,” Jess still laughed, raising from his seat and leaning across the table to reach me. This part always happened to me in slow motion, his face approaching and the smell of his pheromones swirling around me. He lips pressed against mine as I took a deep breath through my nose as if I could hold onto this moment, the moment before the pain struck through my neck worse than a mere cramp. It was like Jacob sinking his teeth through me again and again.
“Ah,” I winced. Jess flinched, pulling back. The pull away caused more pain in my chest and the dismay in his eyes ended me with their final blow. While he was still near and before he continued to treat me like a china doll, I whispered, “I really wish I could have given you that jacket.”
He leaned back, slipping his fingers into mine. Jess’ grinned returned and it looked like hope. He said, “Oh, I plan on getting that leather jacket one day.” I rubbed my thumb up and down his, savoring this quiet moment in the middle of this storm. Someone began playing Drive by The Cars on the jukebox.
A young waitress walked up to our table, blushing a bit. She eyed the two of us, knowingly and I remembered where we were. Out in public. We had spent too much time in the woods with just the two of us. We forgot the usual rules for PDA. My hand slipped back into my lap as I rubbed my fingers together, recalling his warmth.
“Mornin’ my name is May and I’ll be your server,” She smiled and passed out the menus. Her eyes lingered on Jess an extra second, but who could blame her? She blinked back to reality and asked, “Can I get you boys started on anything? Something to drink?”
“Coffee,” we said together.
May grinned wider, tapping her pad with a pen. “Comin’ right up-”
“And uh,” Jess leaned closer to her, speaking low. Not that it was a weird question. It only meant something to Jess and I. “Do you guys have a phone I can use? We’re obviously lacking coffee and god, honestly May, I don’t even know how I ended up here.”
I straightened, trying to see the reason in his eyes. I’ve never wanted to pick him apart more to figure out what he was thinking. He never mentioned this part of the date. The words were lodged in my throat. “Who are you going to call?” was the first thing I thought to ask, but my own mind corrected itself. Instead, the question should have been “Who is left to call?”
“Hm,” May pursed her lips. “We got a phone in the office. I’ll ask the boss man if it’s cool. One second.” She scurried to the back, leaving us alone.
The moment she was far enough, I turned on Jess. I opened my mouth, when bells chimed. The front door opened, letting a few guys in that looked like they just came out of their audition to be the next Brawny Man, just if he was fatter and with more gray hairs. I swallowed the dread, reaching for Jess again. I asked the less terrifying questioning, “Who are you calling? Your mom?”
Jess’ head dipped. He took my hand with both his hands as if praying over me. He whispered, his voice raspy. “If I hear my mom’s voice, I might break.” He took a deep shuddering breath. “No, I’m going to try to call your grandmother.” Looking up, he nodded. “Considering our situation, I don’t think Jacob will hurt your grandmother. Not if...”
He couldn’t say it.
Not that I could either.
The truth sat between us. “Not if Jacob wants you back.”
Jess continued, “He’d sooner use her to get us to go back than kill her. I want to check on her, the town, and so much. I have to call. Plus,” he chuckled. “I memorized that old broad’s number. No one did a pep talk better than Millie Burton. She talked me out of stealing my dad’s car and driving it right through his law office window.”
I nodded. “You should call her. Tell her I said...” The tears welled up in my eyes and I took a deep breath to steady myself. “Tell her I said I’m sorry we left her and that I love her.”
“I will,” Jess whispered.
May returned with small white mugs and filled them with coffee. Jess chugged his first mug, got a refill and followed May to her boss’ office. I watched him. I didn’t take my eyes off of him and even when he turned the corner, my eyes lingered. I should have told him to drag the phone out, so I could keep my eyes on him.
The bite on my neck pulsed and my fingers trembled on my way to touch it. Pushing down my collar, I laid my hand across it. My eyes watered as I felt the heat gnaw at my skin. It couldn’t be right. Something had to be wrong. I’ve known it for a while, but I couldn’t tell Jess. He didn’t need more to worry about. I was already putting too much pressure on him. I knew Jess wanted to fix everything, fix me, but it was impossible to construct a person back from dust.
The door opened, dragging through the hanging bells and I dropped my hand. A man walked in with a few of his buddies. Only one even glanced at me, but quickly turned and laughed at some joke. He clapped his friend’s back as they moseyed to I the counter, grabbing menus and talking to the waitresses. Still, my heart pounded, pulsing down my veins and through my fingers. I darted my eyes at the parking lot just to make sure they knew I wasn’t staring at them. They were just strangers. Not monsters with mouths full of sharp teeth, but the fear was already there. The anxiety sat just beneath my surface. Its whispers whirled around my head, telling me what I already knew.
He’ll find you.
He’ll find you.
Closing my eyes, I took a sip of my coffee and let it’s warmth blanket my tired bones and paints the walls of my body with its warmth and comfort as I tempted to tune everything out, but the smell of the bacon cooking and popping in their own grease. I filled my lungs with the smell of fresh buttery biscuits. I could already feel the sweet grease on my fingertips. I listened to the bubble of the continuous brew of fresh robust coffee and waited for Jess’ return.