Keeley heard Clay pull up outside her house before she actually saw him. Damn, didn’t notice his truck was such a noise polluter, she thought to herself. Otherwise, I would have never approached him. She laughed at the ridiculousness of that thought, then quickly grabbed a cardigan to go with her jean shorts and old USC tee ensemble.
He was already in his chair by the time Keeley reached him, something she was sort of ashamedly thankful for. “Hey you,” she said with a smile.
“Hey,” he said with a charming smile. “I was going to actually come to your door so that we didn’t have to meet up in a parking lot-like space, but you beat me.”
Keeley smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”
He shrugged. “Just be forewarned, eventually we going to meet up like normal folks.”
She laughed as she walked towards her little Volkswagen Golf. She immediately got in and cranked the car, hand on the gear shift, ready to go. She heard a tap on the window and realized that in her haste to get the car she hadn’t unlocked the rest of the doors. She leaned over and unlocked it with a quick apology. “Sorry, old, shitty car. Automatic locks don’t work and the back window is stuck permanently in the down position.”
Clay laughed and waved away her apology. “Whatever Keeley, I know it’s just that you’re flustered because I’m here,” he said with a crooked grin.
Keeley blushed ten shades of red and tried to mumble something about the perks of not having a car payment.
Clay must have noticed the change in her pigment because he chuckled to himself as he flipped a lever on either side of his wheelchair. Then he grabbed the doorframe with one hand and placed another hand in the seat of the car. One swift motion and thirty seconds later he was inside, pulling his legs one at a time inside the car.
He looked up and locked eyes with Keeley who’d been watching him intently, noticing not for the first time that his legs didn’t move at all unless he moved them with his hands. For the briefest of moments his eyes grew guarded and challenging, but then it passed and the easy-going look she’d come to know in the past week was there again. He turned to look at the empty chair and wrinkled his nose. “Crap.”
“What?” Keeley asked, rethinking the whole inviting- the- guy- in- a- wheelchair- to- a- carnival thing as she watched him adjust his legs in the seat. But then, she had warned him that that’s what they were doing; she mentally shrugged it off. If he’d have thought it was going to be a problem, he’d have excused himself she thought confidently.
“Well, I probably should have gotten in before you. That way I could toss this thing in the back seat without taking off your pretty head,” he said with an apologetic smile.
Keeley jumped out of the car and let her seat up. “Oh! Watch the bonsai,” she said, cringing as soon as the words left her mouth. She really needed to find an antibiotic for this word vomit of hers.
Clay grinned and gave her a look that clearly said “really?” and shook his head as he placed the frame of the chair in the back, followed by two wheels. Then he shut the door and turned to Keeley. “Alright, I do believe the bonsai is okay,” he said grinning at her as she crawled back in the car. He looked around taking in the fast food napkins and coffee cups strewn everywhere, not to mention the plant in the back seat. She really needed to take that thing inside. A mischievous smile was spreading across Clay’s face. “Well I must say that you keep an immaculate car.”
Keeley laughed at the jab. He and Jan were going to get along just fine. “And an even more immaculate household,” she added.
He grinned and leaned back in the seat. “My kind of woman.”
She giggled a little at the flirtatious comment. Before she could say anything back though he asked, “Um, do you know those people?”
Keeley reluctantly tore her eyes away from Clay and looked towards the street where Nate’s blue Ford Expedition sitting at the end of the driveway and honking. “Yes,” she said laughing as Jan stuck her head out the window and gave her a thumbs up. “That’s my best friend and her fiancé. We’re following them there.”
“Awesome,” Clay said with childlike enthusiasm. “Let’s go then!”
Keeley motioned for Nate to get out of her way and slowly pulled out. The twenty or so minutes to Mount Pleasant passed quickly as she and Clay made easy conversation about music. He liked classic country, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, and also nursed a soft spot for The Devil Wears Prada, which made Keeley laugh so hard she’d snorted, much to her horror.
She parked a little bit away from Nate and Jan and on the end of a row. She got out and watched Clay quickly assemble his chair and transfer out of the car, taking in his toned arms and noticing he was sporting a weathered looking tee from The Wreck. She smiled as he pressed the lock down on the door, without her even having to ask him.
As they approached the ticket counter she saw the color drain from Nate’s face as they approached. Jan, who’d been facing the other way, spun around to see what he was looking at. She grinned wickedly as Keeley and Clay got within earshot. “Well, knock me over with a feather.”
“What?” Keeley asked innocently, hoping desperately Jan wouldn’t call attention to the fact he was in a wheelchair. Surely that was obvious enough, to everyone.
“Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just that you’re almost as dreamy in person as you were on facebook,” Jan said to Clay, but with a pointed look at Keeley, who was groaning inwardly. She didn’t even want to imagine the grief she’d get for not forewarning Jan about the wheelchair. It would trump picking up a guy in a parking lot by a ton.
“Almost?” Clay asked with a charming smile.
“Almost,” Jan repeated with an equally charming smile. “I’m Jan. The Best Friend.”
“I’m Clay,” he said extending a hand towards Jan. “The Date,” he said waggling his eyebrows.
Jan laughed as Nate hugged Keeley in greeting and then introduced himself as well. The group chitchatted for a few minutes before making their way towards the ticket counter. After serious deliberation, they finally decided they were adults—ergo, they definitely needed the unlimited arm bands.
Keeley reached for her wallet to pay for hers and Clay’s, but he stopped her by placing a hand on her arm. In a low voice he said, “Keeley don’t.”
“But I asked you out on this date!” she said defiantly.
He smiled. “True,” he said gently. “But this is the first time your friends are meeting me. And no offense, but I can already tell Jan’s pretty protective of you. And I’m pretty sure if I don’t pay, she’ll see me as unfit—if she doesn’t already—and will have my head chopped off. ”
Keeley tried to sneak a glance at Jan. Sure enough, she was watching like a hawk to see if he was going to pay.
Keeley slowly put her wallet away. “Okay, but if we get concessions, I’m buying.”
“Okay,” he laughed as paid for two arm bands and she knew that he had no intention of letting her pay for anything.
They followed Nate and Jan to the Scrambler and stood in line. Nate was enthusiastically telling Clay about his job as a librarian and poor Clay, he was listening with rapt attention. Jan nudged her best friend in the back so she’d step up in line as she quietly gave her the third degree.
“A wheelchair?” she hissed into Keeley’s ear.
“Imagine how shocked I was when I propositioned him in the parking lot last Saturday!” Keeley hissed back as she heard it thunder a little bit.
Jan shook her head. “Keels, I would have included the ‘he’s handicapped’ part in the disaster story you told me last week. That definitely qualifies as disaster!”
Keeley cringed at the word handicapped. He was in a wheelchair, he was disabled, but here he was, doing normal people stuff. Handicapped made him sound like some sort of invalid or something. She shrugged, deciding to save that little speech for another time. “He was dreamy. And everything Brent wasn’t.”
Her friend snorted. “Got that right.”
Keeley playfully elbowed Jan. “Oh come on, you know you like him. You’re just jealous I might have snagged a ruggedly handsome man instead of a pretty boy like you,” she said glancing back at Nate, with his clean-shaven face and ironed pants.
“Screw you,” Jan said, but she was smiling. She loved Nate more than anything and Keeley knew that. “I was just surprised when I saw him. That’s all.”
Keeley shrugged. They’d reached the front of the line by now. “So was I,” she repeated and walked back to rescue Clay from Nate, who’d moved on to the ins and outs of the Dewey decimal system.
When they reached the head of the line, the operator man gave them a skeptical look and shook his head. Keeley looked to Clay to follow his lead. He simply exhaled heavily and followed behind the operator man, wheeling over the black cables and grass slowly. She only caught snippets of his arguments; by the time he and the man had made their way around the entire ride and back to where they’d started he flashed Keeley thumbs up and pointed at the nearest empty cart.
Clay quickly transferred up into the seat of the carnival ride and Keeley crawled in beside him, keeping a comfortable distance from him, wanting to cuddle but not sure if she should. The operator swiftly placed the bar over their bodies and legs, giving them an oft-repeated speech about keeping their hands inside the car at all times.
A few seconds later the ride was switched on and she was thrown hard against Clay. Whatever distance there might have been between them disappeared as the force of the Scrambler threw them together. She hoped she didn’t hurt him or anything she thought as she was thrown against him for like the third of fourth time.
The ride only lasted about a minute. It was thundering more by the time they came to a complete stop. They waited patiently for the operator to come lift their bars up and bring Clay’s chair. When he came though, the snaggle-toothed man just growled at them to get out, telling them they’d have to stand in line like everyone else, if they wanted to ride again. Clay gave him an incredulous look and pointed to the wheelchair over by the entrance, indicating he needed it before getting out. The man shrugged, obviously misunderstanding, and continued on to Nate and Jan’s car.
“Well, he’s just a perfect ray of sunshine huh?” Keeley muttered. Clay laughed kind of nervously and nodded. She could literally see the gears turning in his head and she knew what she should do. “Hey, want me to go grab that? Never know, Sunshine over there might spit in it or something.”
Clay cocked his head in surprise. Then he laughed and with a resigned sigh said, “If all he did was spit in it, we’d probably be lucky.”
Keeley laughed lightly too, taking that for a yes and hopped down to retrieve it. She wheeled it over and placed it where he told her, flipping a lever he said were the brakes, and holding it in place as he quickly slid down into it.
She felt strange a strange stirring inside her as she watched him. If she were him, there’d be no way in hell she’d be out here in front of all of Charleston, getting out in and out of a wheelchair, and with such a good attitude. And she never would have left her sole means of transportation with a character like that carnival man. Shit, if that man had told her no, she would have just tucked tail and went home. She sort of admired him—Clay, not the carnival man. And she started to realize that she was attracted to him on a deeper level, attracted to more than simply his roguish good looks and charming personality.
They caught up with Jan and Nate who were in line for the Ferris wheel, still laughing about Sunshine. The first drops of rain fell, with huge splats as they reached the front of the line and Clay was transferring into the seat of the Ferris wheel. Keeley crawled in beside him, silently praying the operator man would let them ride even though it was raining.
For the first time in a long time, her silent request was answered and things seem to actually go the way she wanted and they started moving backwards. After the Scrambler escapade Keeley decided trying to keep a respectable amount of space between them was stupid. She scooted close, her legs touching his and knocking one and making it move a little; he grabbed his knee with a hand, repositioning it as she leaned into his body ever so slightly.
Clay grinned down at her as he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her closer to him, securing her in something akin to half a bear hug. She gasped as she felt his firm muscles underneath the old, thin teeshirt. She mentally laughed as she remembered thinking she might hurt him on the Scrambler. If anything, she should’ve been worried about him hurting her!
By the time they reached the top, the few drops had multiplied and the bottom was really starting to fall. The ride stopped and they could see everyone starting to be unloaded. People were running towards their cars and within in a matter of minutes the fairgrounds were deserted.
She looked up at Clay, who was staring off in the distance, taking in the expansive view that the Ferris wheel’s height offered. She wondered what he was thinking about. His hair was curling slightly on the ends from being wet and his shirt was clinging to his chest. Of course, seeing his shirt made her acutely aware of her own white teeshirt and magenta bra she was wearing.
Keeley felt as if she were in a scene straight out of The Notebook waiting to happen. But of course, Clay didn’t (and she was thinking most likely couldn’t) shimmy out of the seat and hang on the Ferris wheel bar and she didn’t kiss another man or anything.
But oh, did she think about kissing the man beside her.
She closed her eyes as the Ferris wheel rotated downwards, imagining the feeling of the little scruff on his face rubbing her face as they kissed. She envisioned him leaning his head down to tenderly, but passionately place a kiss on her lips. She saw herself reaching a hand up and running it along that chiseled jaw line…
Oh shit. That actually was her hand reaching out for his jaw line.
She quickly got her wits about her again and smacked his rock hard shoulder. “Ouch!” he exclaimed in surprise.
“You, um, had a mosquito,” she said, wishing she could just disappear. She felt like a dumb teenager. So much for The Notebook, more like Never Been Kissed or Never Going to Be Kissed, staring Keeley Burns.
Clay cocked his head and gave her a funny look. But then he shrugged and just grinned knowingly.
By the time they’d reached the bottom the rain had leveled off to a steady drizzle instead of a downpour. Jan and Nate yelled that they’d meet them at Fuzzy’s, a local bar and headed towards their own car. Keeley quickly crawled out and waited for Clay to follow. This time, she forced herself to watch, not because she curious and unable to look away, but because she wanted to learn about this aspect of him. At least, visually learn. She wasn’t sure she was ready to learn everything about this aspect of him yet.
“Ahh!!!” Nate high-fived Clay as the eight ball sailed into the desired pocket. “Yeah man!”
Jan giggled. “I think Nate’s in love. And they’ve only had one date.”
Keeley rolled her eyes as she watched Clay take another swig of his beer and set the balls up for his and Nate’s opponents to break, starting a new game. The bar was relatively empty for a Saturday night, a fact they’d all been thankful for when they’d come in sopping wet after leaving the carnival. A couple pitchers of beer and two games of pool later, it appeared that Nate and Clay were becoming quite chummy.
“That was a quick game,” Keeley said, seeing Clay appear in front of her suddenly.
“Yeah,” he shrugged and grinned. “They said they had to ‘leave’,” he said, air-quoting leave.
“Bullshit,” Nate added. “They were just tired of getting their asses handed to them on a plate.”
Keeley and Jan burst into laughter at his words. Jan and Nate had dated since high school and from what Jan had told Keeley, Nate used to be the one getting his handed to him on a plate—daily. From old pictures that appeared on facebook, Keeley could only too easily imagine it was true not simple Jan exaggerating like she had the tendency to do. So, to hear him being on the flip side was hysterically funny.
Jan must have seen a confused look on Clay’s face because she instantly whipped out her smart phone and pulled up the aforementioned pictures, explaining the joke in between gasping for breath between laughs, much to her fiancé’s dismay, who disappeared to get more beer.
“So,” Jan said with a glint in her eye as Nate returned. Keeley’s stomach dropped and she knew no matter what she wasn’t going to be able to stop the next words to come out of her friend’s mouth. “What’s wrong with you exactly?”
Clay quickly swallowed the sip he had in his mouth, for once looking caught-off guard instead of prepared and suave. He wiped his mouth and grinned wryly. “Excuse me?”
Keeley let her head drop to the table with a thud, cursing the fact that she’d consented to going out and subjecting Clay to Jan for the first time while she was drinking. When Jan drank—even the most miniscule amounts—she forgot what manners were and what little tact she had. Keeley heard Jan repeat the question, same phrasing and let her head thud again.
Nate groaned in embarrassment. Keeley sat up and put her head in her hands, hiding from Clay as he answered Jan with a laugh. “I fell off a roof a few years ago.”
Keeley felt her curiosity piqued. She’d imagined he’d been in a car wreck or something. Wasn’t that how most people ended up disabled? And she was shocked to hear it’d only been a few years; he seemed so comfortable. She chanced a peek through her hands which were still covering her read face and saw Jan’s eyes growing wide.
“And how has that changed your life?” Jan asked, putting on her psychologist hat, the alcohol cloud obscuring her normally bird sharp sense from realizing Clay had actually evaded the question.
Clay grinned and shrugged, taking another sip of beer. “Well, I stay off the roofs now and that’s about it.”
Keeley kicked her leg hard under the table, hoping she was aiming at Jan’s and not someone else’s. “Ouch Keeley! That hurt!”
Clay and Nate looked curiously back and forth between the two friends. Keeley, flushed from embarrassment, was staring intently at her drink and Jan was rubbing her calf.
Clay snickered beside her and Keeley realized he knew she was embarrassed for her friend. He playfully nudged her with his elbow. Then he draped an arm across her shoulders saying fondly, “I’m actually glad you asked Jan. Keeley’s been wanting to ask that same question since last week but she’s just too polite to ever ask it.”
Keeley looked up at him, surprised that only after a week of knowing her, he’d hit the nail exactly on the head. She felt her insides turn to mush along with her brains as she stared into his green eyes, imagining them kissing. And other things.
Damn, she felt like a thirteen year old girl on her first date.
She quickly shook those thoughts out of her head though when she looked at the time. It was a little after one in the morning and Fuzzy’s closed at two. Besides the bartender they were the only ones in there she realized as she looked around.
She stood up and grabbed her wet sweater off the back of the chair and yawned. “I’m about to fall over.”
“Old lady,” Jan muttered with a smile, but also readily agreed with the guys that it was getting ready to go. They decided to call it a night and headed outside. Jan and Nate said their good-byes and Jan signaled for Keeley to call her in the morning. Keeley decided she’d call her the next afternoon, knowing Jan probably wouldn’t wake up before eleven the next day.
The drive back to her house was spent in comfortable silence with Florence + The Machine playing on the radio. To her surprise Clay actually started humming along.
Could he get anymore perfect? Well, yes, she thought to herself as she saw the pieces of his wheelchair scattered in the back seat of her car. But she pushed that to the far recesses of her mind, determining to not let it bother her right now, after such a good night.
She pulled into her driveway and turned the car off, wondering what to do next. Invite him in? As bad as she wanted to, she’d never been that kind of girl. Sleeping with a guy after just two dates wasn’t really her style.
But this was the first time since she’d split with Brent that she’d been in this position. And the alcohol she’d consumed combined with her mid-morning break down were telling her to go for it.
Keeley replayed the scene from the Ferris wheel, the alcohol allowing her to easily forget the wheelchair in the back seat and all the restrictions that might come with it. She imagined running her hands all over his body, exploring and felt his beard graze her cheek, his rough hands run across her body. She laughed to herself as she realized she’d accomplished her goal of having a guy’s butt occupying the passenger seat of her car.
Keeley felt her resolve weakening as she opened her mouth to invite him in, knowing she’d probably regret it in the end, but honestly not caring even a tiny bit.