My boots crunched against the gravel driveway as I raced for cover. I should have been used to the rain by now, having spent the past year in the Pacific Northwest, but at times like this, when it was icy and fierce and coming at me almost horizontally, my reaction was - as Charlie often told me - downright comical to observe. My always-sympathetic father claimed that one would assume I was being shot at by the way I ran for cover when I felt even the slightest drop. This was not only completely untrue but also rather ironic since he was the chief of police, and the only time he’d actually even seen anyone attempt to escape heavy fire was during repeated viewings of Lethal Weapon. I guess that goes to show how dangerous our town was… at least to those who didn’t know what I knew.
As I continued to hurtle myself onwards, I skidded ungracefully to avoid colliding with the rusty, gutted shell of an old hatchback that had obviously been discarded, emptied of all useable parts, its only purpose now being to block my route to safety. My inelegant shuffling sent pieces of rock clanging into the garage's steel front wall.
I practically dove across the threshold in the manner of a sprinter who was milliseconds away from winning Olympic gold: nose… forehead… shoulders… chest… arms flailing behind… and finally legs and feet… Yes!!! A new world record ladies and gentlemen! Breathing heavily and ruffling my hands through my soggy hair, I glanced around as my eyes adjusted to the dark… only to find myself alone. Where the hell was he?
It had been months since my world had fallen apart. Months of mindless wallowing and general zombie-like activity that had eaten away at my existence like a flame crawling across a piece of paper, leaving only nothingness in its wake. The emptiness I’d felt these past few months had been almost impossible to bear. Almost…
But that was why I was standing here, listening to the rain beat deafeningly against the corrugated metal roof of his shamelessly hand-constructed-from-scratch garage. I took a quick tour around the familiar small space where I’d been more than certain I’d find him, or rather his long legs sprawling out from underneath God-knows-what he’d decided to resurrect this time. I then noticed that the light was off, the radio was silent, and all of his tools were neatly packed away, their boxes stacked against the same wall where his old Gore-Tex jacket – the one he never wore anymore because he didn’t have to - hung from its hood on a crooked nail.
I had resigned myself to one more scrambling trip into the deluge when suddenly I was swept up from behind. Two huge, warm arms encircled my waist and hoisted me upward, spinning me around, legs flailing in all directions. I screamed so loud I could have woken the dead.
He placed me on my feet again and I could hear his unbridled amusement as well as feel the rhythmic pulsating of his lungs convulsing against my back. “Shh-hhh-hhh-hhh…” he laughed, bringing his mouth down to my ear in an effort to calm my shrieking, but only making my heart beat faster… with irritation. I smacked at the dark, muscled forearm that held me in place. I felt his hot breath puff repeatedly through my hair as he pressed his face into the top of my head, still unable to keep his laugher in check.
“God damn it Jake, how did you get so good at sneaking up on people like that!?” I gasped as I brought my right hand up to pat his head, his chin now resting heavily on my shoulder. I could just barely make out his nose in my peripheral vision. He laughed again and released me, rotating me 180 degrees and straightening up to his impressive full height.
A few errant raindrops still glistened on the disheveled ends of his recently-cropped black hair, my hand having swept away the majority of the moisture a moment earlier. I wanted to brush off the rest but I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach, and he didn’t seem to mind anyways. He was half-clothed as usual, a pair of worn cargo shorts hanging low off his hips, flaunting his undeserved washboard abs. The boy ate more than any person, or animal for that matter, that I’d ever seen – and I’d been to the Phoenix Zoo on numerous occasions - and yet he was cut as though he spent 24 hours a day doing Navy SEAL training. I’d maybe seen him do one chin-up in the entire time I’d known him… and it was to haul himself up onto the roof to fix the TV antenna during an Iron Chef marathon. He was the ultimate definition of unfair.
“Not all of us are as… obvious in our approach as you are.” He smiled as he swept his arm from the general direction of the driveway to where I stood, hands on my hips, scowling in contempt of his unwarranted mockery. He was clearly implying that my unceremonious arrival had been loud enough to rouse him from whatever he’d been doing inside the house. Sleeping, no doubt.
“I was trying to get out of the rain…” I offered as a halfhearted explanation.
“Sure, sure. Here I thought you were just that excited to see me.” He grinned cheekily.
“Well, my original plan was to see you, but now I’m starting to think a nice walk alone in the rain sounds like a better idea.”
My sad attempt at brushing him off fell flat. I made it two steps towards the entryway before his large, scorching hand clamped down on my shoulder. One corner of my mouth lifted ever so slightly. I hoped he didn’t notice.
“Here,” he said, pulling the idle jacket from its place on the wall, “go nuts.” He dropped the hood onto my head. It came down so low on my eyes that I could barely see his hand gesturing towards the incessant downpour, inviting me to take myself up on what was sure to be a fabulous good time. The bottom of his jacket grazed the backs of my knees, and when I shoved my arms through the sleeves I had to struggle to roll them up about 4 times each, finally freeing my right index finger to prod him squarely in his sculpted chest.
“Thank you [jab], I will [jab],” I replied, my voice overconfident, my chin jutting upwards to allow myself to see his face. I felt, and surely looked, utterly foolish.
I spun around on my heel and proceeded to march purposefully back out into the rain, around the rusty car skeleton and up his long driveway. I could hear him splashing behind me, obviously making no attempt, as I had, to avoid the abundant puddles. I turned to face him abruptly, and he had to stop short to keep from colliding with me. The foot that he’d been leading with was submerged up to the ankle in murky water. He was wearing flip-flops, the cheap rubber kind that you get at the drugstore. I gawped at him appallingly.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing!?” I shouted over the rain.
He lifted his dripping foot, shaking it out to the side like he was kicking away a very small, very rabid dog… or raccoon. I sniggered inwardly at the mental picture only to shake my head back to reality, refocusing my attention on his now beaming, triumphant expression.
“Making sure you don’t get lost...”
The rain pelted off his bare copper shoulders as he stood there pretending that there was absolutely nothing amiss with this whole situation.
“…or y’know… maybe I like walking in the rain too.” He raised both arms out to shoulder height, palms facing the sky, and flashed me his astonishingly white teeth before allowing his hands to drop with a thud, shoving them into the pockets of his shorts that had already become soaked all the way through. I could hear him whistling (whistling!) as he strode confidently around me and towards the road, beckoning me forward with a jerk of his elbow.
“Well, come on then!”
I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly at him, “You can’t be serious, Jake. You’re giving me pneumonia just looking at you right now. I swear you won’t be satisfied until I develop a nervous twitch.” I angled my torso out over the small lake that was rapidly forming between us and snatched up his hand. He could have easily resisted my weak attempt at dragging him inside the house, but instead he lumbered complacently after me, undoubtedly satisfied that he’d managed to win this round.
We arrived dripping on the doormat inside his small, warm house. I removed the jacket and hung it on the adjacent coat rack. He kicked off his sandals and made to step out onto the kitchen linoleum.
“DON’T…” I barked, palms exposed to his chest with fingers splayed to arrest his progress, my shoulders hitched nervously up to my ears, “… move.”
I sighed heavily to relax my neck muscles, removed my boots, and padded over to where a dishtowel had been tossed haphazardly over the oven door handle. My overdramatic frustration caused me to whisk it theatrically by its corner, whipping myself on the arm in the process. “Ow…” I grumbled, rubbing the spot where my pale freckled skin was starting to redden. I glanced up sheepishly only to see him making a valiant effort to suppress his obnoxious laughter.
I stomped over until my face was about a foot from his chest. I stretched my hand up and roughly clamped it over the back of his thick neck, gripping hard and using almost all my strength to yank him down to my level so that he stood bent almost 90 degrees at the waist. Once again he submitted to my manhandling. I found his trust in me to be slightly endearing.
Letting go of his neck, I threw the towel over his dripping head and proceeded to dry his hair off with the same level of intensity I used on my own each morning after showering. I heard him whine lamely, “Hey, watch the ears… I need those y’know.”
I giggled, releasing him and throwing the now wadded-up towel at his chest. He caught it awkwardly just before it fell to the ground. My vigorous jostling of his head had caused his thick hair to now stick out randomly in every direction possible. It made him look sort of adorable, though I’d never actually tell him that for fear of bursting the balloon that was his already inflated ego.
“Finish the job, please,” I commanded, turning around and crossing the kitchen once again to open his fridge and examine its contents.
“Don’t even think about touching that leftover pizza,” he warned from across the room, hopping on one leg as he dried the other, his back eventually slamming into the wall as he lost his balance. “That’s mine…”
“Yeah, I’d better not steal your food, you might just starve to death.” I shot a sardonic squint-eyed glare at him over my left shoulder, returning my attention to the fridge with a head roll that was mirrored by my eyes.
My hand was inches away from a lone granny smith that was perched between two take-out boxes on the top shelf, when his frantic voice nearly made me hit the ceiling.
What!? Was it poisoned or something? Was he really that possessive about his food?
“Wait, wait, wait, wait…” He looked serious as he jogged over to the fridge where I stood frozen in place sporting an expression of alarmed confusion.
He slipped his hands under my arms and lifted me all too easily from the ground, turning around and nudging the fridge door closed with his heel.
“What the…?” I managed to sputter as I gripped his forearms, twisting my head frantically from side to side, knowing but unable to actually see where his shuffling feet were taking us. We reached the front door once again and he shouldered it open, not once losing his grip on me. He plunked me hastily outside, still under the cover of the porch overhang, and shut the heavy door right in my face.
I was flabbergasted. What the hell was this!? He wanted me to leave?
“I wasn’t going to eat your damned pizza, Jake,” I bellowed above the rain’s steady thrumming.
“No! Just… Knock!” I could barely make out his muted command from behind the thick wooden door.
I closed my eyes and brought my fingers to my temples, squeezing lightly as if testing the ripeness of a mango…Lord, give me the patience.
With successive flicks of my wrist I hammered the knuckle of my right index finger repeatedly in a quick staccato on the damp wood, stopping only when he finally reopened the door.
The look on his face was downright hilarious. It was like he’d entered a surprise party he already knew about, and was pretending to be shocked for the benefit of those involved. “Bella!” he cried, his intonation almost excruciatingly over-the-top, “I had no idea you were coming!”
And with that he scooped me into his arms, face buried in my neck, hugging me like he always did when I arrived on his doorstep unexpectedly. I was laughing now, the annoyance I’d felt towards him moments ago melting away as I experienced his warmth radiating all the way through my flesh and organs, through the aching holes in my heart, and seeping into my very bones.
“Good... to see you... too, Jake,” I choked out using what little breath he’d left remaining in my compressed lungs. I allowed my feet to dangle a foot from the ground for a few seconds longer, still laughing, before swinging my legs up to hook around his waist at the ankles, squeezing him with all four limbs as hard as my inadequate muscles allowed. I gently pressed the side of my head against his and I heard him exhale one last laugh into my neck before allowing me to slide down his lean torso to the floor.
He sighed contentedly, like he’d just switched on a light after trying to read in the dark for the past two hours.
“That’s more like it,” he said.