I awoke with a jolt in a dark room. For a moment or two I had no idea where I was, and the only thing I was sure of was how awful I felt. It was like being a student again, only worse, because I was too old to be hungover any more. I groaned. My stomach felt ready to heave its liquid contents back up, my head was throbbing, and my throat was dry and inhospitable as sandpaper. I did manage to note, however, that the pillow I was on was much nicer than my usual one. Deeper, fluffier, softer. Then as I slowly stumbled back through my thoughts, I remembered where I was, and rolled over to find Caleb lying on his side with his back to me. The room was winter-dark, so I could barely see past the end of my own nose, but I knew his alarm clock would be blazing out the time in furious red LEDs.
Trying not to rustle the duvet or move around too much I sat up and saw that it was six thirty three. The sinking feeling of knowing I had get going soon filled my stomach like a handful of gravel. I had to change and get my stuff together for work, but my groggy body craved more sleep. Five more minutes, I thought, snuggling up to Caleb's slumbering back and fitting my body around his as best I could, trying not to bash his bad leg, my arm lying gently over his waist. His skin smelled amazing as I nuzzled into the nape of his neck. His breathing changed and I knew I'd woken him up, but he said nothing, only shuffling slightly and sighing a single, sleepy sigh, before beginning to breathe more deeply again.
Five minutes turned into sixty five, and the next thing I knew, the door had been flung open, ricocheting off the wall with a crash, and a small and extremely enthusiastic creature had come barrelling into the bedroom. Amy, dressed in her school uniform, woke us both with a start as she flicked on the light and called, "Cay-Cay!" making us both sit bolt upright in shock. "Oh!" she cried in surprise, screeching to a halt at the end of the bed. "I'm sorry!" Blushing, I saw, was a family trait, as her cheeks turned the same colour that Caleb’s had a habit of going.
My though my hangover eyes were extremely grateful that the lightbulb in the centre of the ceiling was one of those energy saving ones that only get to a sufficient brightness by the time you need to switch them off. "That's ok," I gabbled, clutching the duvet up around my neck, embarrassed as a school girl, even though my modesty was covered by one of Caleb's t-shirts.
The man lying casually next to me began to laugh a deep, gravelly, husky laugh, his bright, cheeky smile spreading right across his handsome face. Little crinkles flickered into life just beyond his lips, extending his smile well into his cheeks, and laughter lines that I hadn’t seen properly before fanned from the corners of his closed eyes. The annoyance that had kindled in me quickly evaporated into affection at the sight of just how cutely handsome he looked. I resisted the urge to lie back down next to him and kiss him all over his neck and chest, and maybe elsewhere less PG13.
"Are you staying for breakfast?" Amy asked, apparently over her embarrassment entirely. "I came to ask Caleb if he wanted pancakes..."
I smiled at the small and enthusiastic child. "I'd really better be going, thank you Amy, because I have to be in work soon, and I need to go to my house first..." I ran my hand through my tangled hair, hoping my face was not the same colour red.
Celeb’s laughter was cut off abruptly as he half sat with a grunt, and said, "Surely you can stay for some of Nan and Amy's legendary pancakes?"
Eyes still closed, his speech was clear, as though his stutter was still asleep, and his voice was low and beautifully gravelly. I thought, as he sat there all tousled and sleepy, propped up on one elbow, that he looked more like a Grecian statue of Apollo than a human. "Maybe one pancake," I conceded, my stomach growling, though my throat was drier than the Atacama and I desperately wanted something to drink more than something to eat. "And a cup of tea?"
"Nan makes the best tea," Amy said matter-of-factly, her blonde hair hanging loose and un-brushed around her shoulders.
"That's true," Caleb confirmed with a smile. "Now go and tell Nan that Al-Al-l-l... th-th-that Al-Al-Al-l-l... that L-Lyssa is staying for br-breakfast, and l-let us wake up pr-properly, ok?" My name appeared to have woken his sleeping stammer up.
"Ok," she chirped, and, spinning on one foot, she danced from the room.
As the door closed behind her, Caleb said sideways over his shoulder to me, "I'm sorry about that..."
"Don't be," I said. "She's adorable." I stretched, rapidly regretted extending my stomach muscles so much, and coiled back in on myself protectively. "You forget I have a twin brother. And brothers come in and deliberately wake you up, usually with an ice cube down your top, a class of water over your face, or a good tickle." I thought for a second, and then added, “Or if you’re really unlucky it’ll be a freshly-caught frog from the garden drain outside…”
He huffed a chuckle, "I n-never did that," he said.
"No, I'll believe that," I smiled and watched him as he swung his legs off the bed and sat there a while, head bowed forward. I thought his breathing had changed, seeming shallower and harsher now.
I felt rough, and wanted nothing more than to call in sick, but I dared not. I needed all the pay I could earn at the moment, and besides, having something to do might take my mind off the hangover. It was only piercing and simple soldering work to do that day; nothing that required 20/20 vision and 100% focus. It wasn't as if I had diamonds to set or anything.
I lowered myself back down into the pillow and stared up at Caleb's scar-lashed back. I reached out to trace some of the lines, but he flinched the moment my finger touched the first scar, and my hand leapt back. "I'm sorry," I said reflexively.
"Don't be," he said, suddenly calm, returning my own words to me over his shoulder. "I j-just wasn't expecting it. My back is very sensitive."
"I didn't know that," I said, sitting up again. "It's also very beautiful." I kissed him right between his shoulder blades and he shivered in what I hoped was pleasure.
"When w-will I see you again?" he asked, tilting his chin down so that his words stumbled out towards me over his shoulder. "Y-you w-want to c-c-c-c..." The sound lodged at the back of his tongue and he clamped his lips shut to stop the repetition. "Excuse me. Do y-you w-want to c-c-come round for dinner this w-weekend?" His torso contracted almost violently to force the recalcitrant sound out with the air.
"I'd love that," I said. "Don't you want to check it with your Nan and Amy first?"
"Actually it w-was N-nan who suggested that I ask y-you over wh-when I w-w-w-w..." he broke off breathlessly and I thought I heard him swear under his breath. "Bad speech day," he muttered. "Wh-when I w-wouldn't shut up about you..."
"Ah, that's what all that was about yesterday when I arrived," I giggled, reaching up and tucking a strand of his hair back behind his ear. It seemed really strange being with a person who never opened their eyes, and I ran my thumb over his eyebrow before I retracted my hand and asked impulsively, "You don't open your eyes?"
I'd seen shellfish on nature documentaries rocket back into their shells when frightened or disturbed, and watching Caleb shy back into himself reminded me strongly of that. His cheeks flushed and he pulled back slightly. "N-not n-normally, no."
"Even when you have your glasses on?"
He shook his head bashfully. "W-with the gl-gl-glasses on, it's n-not so bad."
"What's not so bad?" I asked, hoping I wasn't pushing him for answers too hard too early in the morning.
He sighed, looking suddenly heartbreakingly sad, eyes rolling restlessly beneath the lids, as they had the previous night. "I g-guess I just feel very vulnerable wh-when they're open... L-like it's t-t-ten times more obvious that I c-can't see wh-when my eyes are just r-rolling around bl-blindly..."
"I think I understand," I said, pausing a moment.
"Plus they're all d-disgusting to l-look at anyway..." he added, mumbling and turning away from me.
I very much doubted that, but it didn’t feel right to be combative about it just then. "You know," I added, thinking in for a penny, in for a pound, "I’ve said it before, but just because I'm curious about you, don't feel like I'm trying to pressure you into giving me more than you want to, you know that, don't you?"
His lips twitched at the corners and he stayed 'staring' up at the ceiling. "Thanks," was all he had to offer.
Caleb was beautiful. The thought washed over me and I wanted to reach out and touch him. He sat serenely for a moment, breathing evenly, but then his features flickered and suddenly that beauty was torn in two as he yelped, swore, grimaced and stretched down for his right knee with both hands.
I sat there, tense and uncomfortable, while he nursed various joints with cupped hands. I didn't know what to do; it was obvious that he was not 'alright', so it was pointless to ask, so I just lay there looking at the man I was falling in love with as he clutched his hip and knee in pain, and swore under his breath. Finally I had to say something. "Tell me if there's anything I can do," I said softly.
He blew the air from his lungs in quick hard puffing breaths and shook his head, grinding his teeth together while his hands kneaded and worked the muscles at his hip.
I was as stuck in limbo as he was, though obviously without the physical pain: I didn't know whether touching him would be a reassurance or an annoyance, or whether I should get someone to help him or just leave him be. After maybe three long minutes of tension, I thought I felt him relax a little. Those exhales became longer, more controlled, and then he let go of his leg, letting his hand fall limply to the mattress.
"Is it better?" I asked tentatively. The expression on what little of his face was visible to me was what I could only take to be deep shame, which left me entirely confused.
"I'm sorry," he muttered.
"Whatever for?" I asked, sitting up and leaning closer, still without touching him.
"That," he hissed.
I was not letting this one go. He didn't have to feel ashamed of anything as far I was concerned. "What?" I repeated evenly.
"Y-you shouldn't have had to see that," he whispered, sitting up straighter with a heavy wince and reaching out to the drawer of his bedside cabinet. I was shocked to see an uncountable number of pill jars rattle with the movement of the opening drawer. He rifled through a few, running his finger down the side of each successive jar to read the raised dots of the Braille on the labels until he found what he was looking for. He dry swallowed two generic looking tablets and sat on the edge of the bed, moving his right leg carefully with his hands.
The hem of my borrowed t shirt became fascinating to me for the next few minutes while I left him alone. Finally I said, "Caleb?"
He held his hand up in the air by his side and said, "Don't." He didn't speak harshly, but the suddenness and command in the gesture shut me up immediately. This was rapidly going south and I didn't like it at all, and what made it worse was that I had no idea how to stop it.
I stood up and began to dress. While I shuffled into my jeans again, I heard clinking and shuffling which I guessed meant he was putting on that brace again, but I didn't turn round.
"You want me to wait downstairs?" I said, my voice dull and almost emotionless.
He stood with another gasp and a hissed profanity, using the black cane I had rested against his bedside table the night before. Another few seconds of silence was followed in a new tone by, "Lyssa," he said, and as he spoke he turned around. He was shirtless, and if the situation had been any different, I might have crossed the room and covered him with kisses, but somehow that just would not have been an appropriate course of action.
As he was standing beside the bed, I couldn't see his lower legs but the highest cuff of the brace which gripped his thigh was in view. His quad was strangely shaped beneath it, with what looked like some of the muscle missing in one place, and there were a number of thickly-corded scars. I didn't know whether to stare or look away, so I did what I wanted to and drank the new sight in; he clearly wasn’t hiding from me now.
He took three confident but painful looking steps away from the bed and came to a halt in the centre of the room. His rocking gait was careful, imperious and embarrassed all at once. There was a sudden and different resolve in his voice and features, which made me curious more than anything as I stood, stock-still, watching him approach me.
His lips parted again. "I hadn't pl-planned to do this at all – I w-was just g-g-going to g-get up and head downstairs – but before this re-re-relationship g-goes any further, y-you need to see me. I need you to see me. You n-need to kn-know wh-what y-you're getting involved with."
"Ok," I said, still trying to keep emotions out of my voice. Underneath I was coursing with excitement and nerves.
"This is it; this is me," and he raised his left hand from his side in a gesture of open surrender. He hadn't opened his eyes, but I realised this was about as vulnerable as he could make himself.
I looked. Caleb stood before me in a pair of black boxers and a brace. His face was stern, though I could tell he was nervous, a vein pulsing in his neck. From where I stood, I let my green eyes wander over his collar bones, one with a big lump which suggested he’d broken it at some point, over the masses of his rolling shoulders, over the defined upper arms, down over his lean, sculpted, scarred torso, and down that trickle of hair which disappeared into, and led my gaze to, his boxers. His mismatched quads intrigued me, and my eyes flicked from one to the other a couple of times, calculating subconsciously the difference in size, the chunks that the blast had sheared off. His right knee was strangely shaped and looked larger than it should have been because of the slenderness of the thigh immediately above it, and there was a long central braid of scar which ran vertically like the warp of a tapestry while the thick struts of the brace created the weft over it.
The brace itself was quite the contraption. Two struts crossed his thigh, the top one coming in at an angle and scooping the deformed muscle up, while the lower was parallel to the ground. They connected to an upright strut which ran up the inside of his leg like a seam, hinged at the knee with a locking mechanism. His calf was withered-looking and frail, encased in the two lower struts of the brace, and his right ankle was delicate and scarred as a fawn’s hock laced with cobwebs. He had been well and truly broken, but combined with the strength that he radiated, I thought his body was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
And then I did cross the room. My bare feet only whispered my coming on the carpet and I think I was closer to him than he realised when I put my hands on his shoulders. I heard him inhale in surprise and then let go a long shuddering breath, as I kissed him right in the centre of his chest. "It's ok," I said. I knew, I could see in his face, that he really did need this. How could I let him know that I had really seen him, and that it really was ok?
How did he see me? I smiled to myself as the answer came to me. I knelt down and briefly but sincerely ran my hands down his chest, over his hips, down over the struts of his brace, fingers lingering as long as they dared on the withered muscles and crosshatched scars, right down to where his toes gripped into the soft pile of the carpet. This was Caleb's leg, Caleb’s body, Caleb's story, written loud and clear for me to see, to touch, and to kiss.
A muscle in his thigh began to thrum, and I could see his hand shaking. I stood once more and put a fleeting palm on his cheek and said, "Thank you. I'm guessing this can't be easy. This is new to me, so you'll have to be patient with me if I don't get things right, but I like you, Caleb, a lot." I could feel a stream of words billowing up and I wasn't sure if it was best to let them out or keep them in. They ended up on my tongue, so I carried on. "You're sweet, and funny, and tough, and kind, and you might not know it, but you are extremely good looking. I want to get to know you - all of you - much better, but I don't expect that to happen immediately. You don't know all of me yet either. I may not have anything as apparent from the outside, and I wasn't blown up defending freedom in Afghanistan, but I have faults and flaws too, some of which you haven't seen yet." I finally rammed the brakes on there in case my babbling got way out of hand.
I blinked and turned my green eyes back up to his face, to where his closed eyes were rolling constantly, making his eyelids flicker. Caleb was just standing there, his right hand gripping the handle of his cane so hard his knuckles were turning white, his left hand open in a kind of stiff rigour mortis by his side. It was still shaking. "Caleb?" I asked. In and out, in and out, his breathing was quick and shallow, but not panicky. And then for some reason I had to giggle. Maybe it was the tension, or relief, or fear, but I let out a girlish little giggle and impulsively kissed his slightly-parted lips.
As if that sparked him back into action, he scooped his right hand around my back, still holding his cane, and yanked me in towards him with the back of his hand. He was savagely strong, and the grip of his cane dug into my spine. His left hand found the back of my head and he kissed me harder than I've ever been kissed in my life. "Where have you been for the l-last four years," he whispered as he pulled back.
"Living just round the corner," I grinned, giving a small ‘oof’ as he released me a little.
"Unbelievable," he murmured, still with his hands all over me.
"You. This. Us." He didn't seem capable of full sentences.
A voice called up the stairs, summoning us down for breakfast and we both smiled.
"I'll see you downstairs," I said, kissing him one last time on the tip of the nose and slithering out of his arms.
Glancing back over my shoulder in the doorway, I saw him with a broad grin on his handsome face, shaking his head in disbelief. I lingered there a moment, watching him go to the drawers opposite the bed and run his hand down the handles until he reached the third drawer down and extracted a pair of dark jeans. The brace somehow looked part of him, organic in its pairing as a trellis and a rose. I'd been granted a glimpse at something over which he was protective and self-conscious, and my hands itched to touch him again, to feel the unusual contours of that strangely shaped thigh, to work their way over his emaciated calf, to circle his stiff ankle. All in good time, I chided myself.
"I thought y-you were g-going downstairs," he smirked without missing a beat.
"I was," I giggled again, "I am." And I made my way down to the kitchen, following my nose.
Caleb's Nan and his sister had been busy while we'd been upstairs, absorbed in the fog of the grand, melodramatic ‘reveal’, and there was a stack of at least twelve pancakes sitting on the side, escorted by a huge china pot of tea like a massive tank.
"Good morning," the older lady said, "It was nice to meet you last night, even though you did get whisked away quite quickly. You can call me Jean, by the way." She pottered about with a handful of plates and set them down on the table. "Would you like two pancakes or three?" she asked, bringing the stack over to the table. "And do you take milk or sugar in your tea?"
"That rhymes!" Amy laughed, already seated, singing and bashing the ends of her cutlery on the table in time, "Two or three, sugar in tea!" as Jean set a jar of Canadian maple syrup down on the table.
I had to smile. I'd had a happy enough childhood, but breakfasts had never been fun; I had never laughed quite like that little girl just had. I caught Jean's eye and she winked playfully at me as I replied, "Just milk please. And I think I'll start with two pancakes and see if I have room for a third?"
Amy's head snapped up and looked at me, saying said seriously, "You should probably start with three and then leave one if you can't eat three, otherwise Caleb will eat all of them and there won't be any left."
"No," I said in mock surprise. "Surely not?"
"Mmhmm," she nodded, pigtails jangling, "He's a complete pig. He'd eat all of them if we didn't claim them first."
Jean laughed a crackly laugh and said, "You'd better get started then. Molly and her mum will be here soon to take you to school." She watched as Amy reached for the syrup and added, "Don't have too much - we don't want you fizzing all morning..."
I smiled as the little girl tucked into her allotted number of pancakes and rationed syrup. A few minutes later Caleb walked into the kitchen and inhaled. "Mmm, Nan, that smells amazing."
"Take a seat on this end and I'll put what's left on a plate for you."
"Wh-what's left?" he asked, the glint that was missing from his eyes evident in his voice, "L-Lyssa, y-you haven't eaten them all, have you?"
I had my mouth full, and I left it that way for exaggerated comedic effect, and said, "Well, I heard that someone else would eat them all if I didn't, so..." And I got a laugh from everyone.
"You've got competition, Caleb," Jean chuckled, setting the plate down at the head of the small, rectangular table.
I watched as his left hand searched vaguely for the back of the chair and then as he lowered himself cautiously down, releasing the brace at the knee as usual. I caught a wince as he straightened up, but the flash of pain passed.
With a clear mouth, I turned to Jean and said, "These are delicious, Caleb was right."
"Oh Amy and I have been making this for years, haven't we dear?" Amy nodded, her own mouth too full to form words. "We've had plenty of practice."
I ate my third and last pancake and looked at the clock on the wall. I had very little time to get home, shower, change and make it into town for 9 o'clock. It was just doable, I hoped. "Listen, Jean, Amy, this is amazing, and I wish I could stay longer, but I've got to rush off to work, and I've got to go home first." I gulped the remainder of my tea down and stood up.
"Caleb, dear, did you invite Alyssa for supper this weekend?"
He nodded mutely, chewing furiously to clear his mouth. "Mmmhmm, I did," he finally said.
"Lovely," she smiled. "Saturday or Sunday?"
"W-we didn't g-g-g-get that far," he said, turning his head towards me. His expression gave away none of the ‘why’ we hadn’t got that far, and I silently blessed him for it. "Wh-which day suits y-you best?"
I was a saddo with no social life to speak of, so either suited me just fine. "I think I'm free both nights, so whatever is easiest for you all," I said honestly, looking from Caleb back to Jean.
"Well, I've got bridge on Saturday afternoon, and Amy has a netball match in the morning, so why don't we make it Sunday?"
"Sure," I smiled. "That'll give me a chance to catch up with some of the making I've got to do for my own jewellery line."
"What kind of jewellery do you make?" Amy asked.
"All sorts," I smiled. "Everything from rings with stones to big chunky chain necklaces, or delicate pendants, big dangly earrings or little tiny pearls... I have to be able to make all sorts of things in case someone comes to me and asks for something unusual."
"That's so cool," Amy breathed, clearly awestruck.
I stood and moved round the table to Caleb and put my hand on his shoulder. "Don't get up. I'll see you on Sunday." And I squeezed the solid muscle between my strong fingers.
"I'll see you to the door," he said. "Pancakes, no matter how delicious, c-can w-wait."
"I'm honoured," I smiled.
"You should be," Jean laughed. "Usually nothing can tear that boy away from his food. I don't know where he puts it all."
"It's a boy thing, Jean. My twin brother, Luke, is just the same."
I scooped my bag off a hook in the hall and pulled my big woollen coat on against the frosty day outside.
"Thank you," Caleb said quietly. "It c-c-can't have been easy meeting the boys l-l-l-like that l-last night..."
"I have to admit, even though I've met a fair few Army boys since Luke's been in the forces, I was a bit intimidated by them. They were all nice though, so it was ok..."
"Yeah," he said fondly, "They're a good bunch."
"Protective of you though..." I added, thinking back to Banjo's conversation with him in the kitchen.
He shrugged. "We've b-been thr-through some shit... I g-guess it makes y-you pretty tight."
"True," I agreed.
There was a moment that hung between us and then he said, "C-come here." And I stepped into his open arm. His right propped him up on his cane while his left hugged me close. "Thanks," he said awkwardly into the side of my head, like he didn't want me looking at him while he spoke. I had no problem staying where I was, with my cheek against his while he stuttered quietly into my ear. "I'm sorry about this m-morning," he said. "But thank y-you for y-your... y-your re-response. I'm very... gr-grateful."
I smiled and held him tighter for a moment, feeling that I didn't need to speak a reply for him to catch my meaning.
"I w-w-w-won't br-bring it up again after today," he said. "I j-just need y-y-you to kn-know wh-what a big deal it is for me..."
"I know," I said. His ear was deliciously close to my lips and I turned my head just a little and planted a kiss on the softest part of his cheek just in front of his ear, and smiled as I heard him gasp and then chuckle with pleasure. "I look forward to Sunday," I said, pulling back, knowing that time ticked by while I stayed glued to Caleb in his hallway.
He released me and I stepped back to open the door.
"Is there anything y-you don't eat?" he asked as a rush of cold air blasted in over the thickly-frosted lawn outside.
"Very little," I said, thinking quickly, "Anything that tastes of aniseed, but that's about it."
"Ok, so it'll be fennel soup, and liquorice for pudding..." he grinned.
I laughed and said, "I'm so glad that losing your sight made you such a good listener..."
It was his turn to laugh, and as my boots clacked up the path away from him, they added a rhythm to the music of his laughter. The finale was the creaking gate and the shutting of the front door, and I knew that the rest of the week would fly by and it'd seem like no time at all until I saw him again.
To be continued...