There were five faces smiling at me as I stepped into the room. At least they are all smiling, I thought as my nerves jangled riotously.
"Right," Caleb said, one hand resting in a reassuring yet understated way at the small of my back, "Unless they've all m-moved r-round j-just for shits and giggles, this is Banjo," he said, nodding at the short, stocky, fair-haired man in an armchair on the far left, who gave me a big, blue eyed grin. "N-next up, on the sofa is, or w-was," Caleb chuckled, "Chris, and that's Smiley next to him, and this," he nodded at the armchair on the right of the sofa, "Is Mickey." They each raised a hand as Caleb called their names, and I returned fire with equal measures of warmth and nerve.
In the flashing instant after they had all said a mixture of, "hey," "hi," and "hello," I remembered the difficulty Caleb seemed to have saying my name, so I chirped, "Hi, I'm Alyssa," and resisted the urge to shuffle nervously closer to the protective bulkhead that was his body. They seemed nice enough, but I could feel my inner hermit screaming to run away.
"Is there space for you to perch somewhere?" Caleb asked.
"Aren't you going to offer the lady a drink, Starling?" Chris snickered.
I smiled at Caleb's bashful blush and gave a soft giggle, rocking my hips sideways, nudging him affectionately.
"I'm sorry," he said, turning just enough that his lips faced ever so slightly towards me, "Wh-what w-would you l-like?" I found I liked the way they pouted slightly as he stuck on the consonants.
"What's on offer?" I said, feigning a confidence which I didn't feel and lowering myself onto the arm of the sofa next to Chris. His shock of red hair and alabaster pale skin reminded me of Wash from Firefly.
"There's w-wine or beer, or something soft..."
"I'll have a beer, please," I said, without thinking, no doubt distracted by the cute dimples denting his cheeks where his smile ended. It was when Banjo opened his mouth that I thought I maybe should have chosen something a bit more ladylike, but I wasn't about to start pretending to be something I wasn't, just to impress his friends.
"Well, I'll give you this, Caleb," Banjo grinned, lounging in the softly-cushioned chair with his knees spread wide, ankles stretched out and lolling miles away like he owned the place, "The lady appears to make good choices..."
"I seem to have done ok so far," I said, looking at Caleb's slowly-retreating back, and getting a smile for my efforts.
It was only as I glanced away from Banjo to follow Caleb that I noticed how skinny his ankles were, poking out of the end of his thick, scruffy jeans which had risen up as he'd stretched his legs out. With a double-take and a jolt of shocked surprise that shot down my torso to the pit of my stomach, I realised that he had no ankles. There were just the delicate mechanisms of prosthetic limbs. Not wishing to be caught gawping, I quickly looked away again, praying I'd got away with it.
As my green eyes met the dark circles of Smiley's irises, I did wonder if I'd been rumbled. The look he gave me for half an instant was so complex I couldn't untangle it, and before I knew it the expression was gone, and he gave me a smile that I guessed had earned him name: dazzling white teeth gleamed, the warm tones of his black skin, setting them off and making them seem all the whiter. "So how'd you two meet, anyway?" he asked after Caleb had gone to fetch me a beer. His accent was one of those lyrical London accents like Dizzee Rascal's, and I instantly liked him.
"He didn't say?" I asked. I did not want to undermine him in front of his friends by telling them I'd essentially picked their former captain up after he'd been beaten to the ground. I floundered horribly for a few seconds, before I heard Caleb's raised voice from the doorway.
"She was c-coming home from a house party and I was l-lying on my arse or my face, I forget wh-which, on the pavement. It was l-late, she g-got me back on my feet, and I thought that w-was that..."
"But then I found his wallet the next day, dropped it off at his house, and he asked me for coffee," I supplied.
Banjo grinned, or maybe it was a leer, I couldn't tell which.
Caleb kept talking, ignorant of the gesture. "We sk-skipped the c-coffee and w-went str-straight to the alcohol, as it happens."
"Best plan, mate, best plan," Banjo smirked. I couldn't tell if he meant I was a woman who you needed alcohol first to enjoy, or if he thought that the awkward pussyfooting around the early dates was a waste of time.
Smiley stretched and reached for his beer, holding it up to me first and saying, "Well, we've been trying to get old Starling here to fall for anything with tits for the last three years, but it seems he's done much better for himself without our help. Starling, I congratulate you, and Alyssa, I thank you." He seemed simultaneously serious and silly, and I gave him a shy smile, raising my own beer a little in acknowledgment before taking a massive gulp that fizzed at the back of my throat. I clamped down a cough, though suppressing it made my eyes water. I smiled nervously and let the boys pick up the conversation, which allowed me to slip into the background.
Mickey had been sitting side-on to me, and it was only another few minutes before I had to deploy my acting skills again, because when the quietest member of Caleb's old unit turned slightly more to face me, the right side of his face rotated into view to reveal the shiny, pale surface-texture of badly burned skin. His eyebrow was gone, his ear was a shrivelled stump, his lips melted slightly into the rest of his cheek, and his hair didn't begin to grow until two or three inches above the place where his ear had once been. The shock didn't stop there though, because as I wrenched my eyes away from his ravaged face, my gaze came to rest on the empty sleeve of his t-shirt. His right arm was also missing. He caught me looking at him, and I did the only thing I could do, which was to offer him a neutral smile, and then return my eyes slowly and calmly to Chris, who was busy recanting some hilarious tale from basic training that was so full of military jargon and slang that even I, with a twin in the Army, couldn't make much of. Mickey's face had fascinated and, if I confessed, frightened me a little. Guilt at my reaction mingled with a deeper emotion, and I sat there thinking of Luke, and the daily danger he and his unit were in, and, amid all the laughter and laddish jokes, I began to feel really lonely.
Caleb kept his hand gently resting on my thigh, a semi-spectral presence barely felt through the thick material of my jeans, occasionally feeling the weave of the cotton or the strength of the seam with a slight, absent-minded movement of his thumb, but he didn't speak much to me.
I smiled along as they made their Army jokes, and listened as they told their blokish stories, never revealing my connection to the forces, never speaking up much, just quietly drinking beer after beer until I surreptitiously looked at my phone and saw blearily that it was half eleven. Knowing I had work the next morning, I groaned and thought about leaving. I was fairly near the door, and as I shuffled in my seat, I realised that I would have to pee before walking home, but the thought of halting the conversation, which was rapidly leaving 'animated' and heading towards 'heated' on the subject of Premiership Football, to ask where his bathroom was, filled me with nauseous anxiety.
I bided my time, occupying my hands by running them absently around the neck of the beer bottle, which might have been my fourth, maybe even my fifth, until finally there was a lull, with only Banjo and Chris still arguing the finer points of this year's football highlights. I leaned in deliciously close to Caleb for the first time since being in the boys' company that evening, and whispered, "Can you point me in the direction of your bathroom?"
"Sure," he smiled quietly. "It's the door on your left as you come in through the front door..."
"Cheers," I said, and ducked out of the room. It was only after I'd been on my feet for maybe five seconds that I realised how much I'd drunk. Mercifully I'd made it out of the living room where everyone was still sitting laughing, but as the world spun and everything seemed really blurry, I knew I had to make it home shortly.
Girls take forever in the bathroom. That was what Luke always said jokingly. It is a truth universally acknowledged by boys that girls always travel in packs to the bathroom, and they always take forever. For some reason that dropped into my head as I sat down in the tiny, pristine, white-tiled downstairs toilet, and I tried, despite being hampered slightly by my embarrassing levels of inebriation, to be quick.
I emerged a few minutes later and closed the door behind me as quietly as I could. I stood with my back against the cold, white-painted wood of the door for a moment and let the world catch up with me. Voices floated from the living room, but another pair of voices sounded much closer. Turning round to my left, I saw the figures of Caleb and what looked like Chris standing in the kitchen, though it was hard to see because the lights were off and the person I took to be Chris had his back to me. And also I was well past tipsy and barrelling on into plain old drunk.
"No, n-not yet," Caleb was saying. "We've hardly even really seen much of each other..."
"I know, mate," the person said, and I discovered that my bleary-eyed guess at identity had been wrong. It was Banjo. "But I saw her face when she noticed my legs, and Mickey's face and arm... She seems like a nice person and all, but are you sure she can take it?"
"Take it?" Caleb quizzed sharply, "I know I've got c-confidence issues, but it's not that bad, is it? I'm not so hideous that she'll flee for the hills, am I?"
"Fuck off, I didn't mean it like that, and you know it." His speech was slurred, and he had one hand on the countertop, but there was a truth in his words that sliced through me like cold wind. In vino veritas?
What if I couldn't take it? Caleb was a sweetheart, of that I was absolutely sure, but what if I didn't like his battle scars? As I forced my eyes back to Caleb, I stared hard at the black cane and the stiff right leg. What was it like underneath? He said it'd been broken in something like six places - what would that look like? Would it be twisted and gnarled like an old tree, or really skinny like I'd only seen on athletes at the Paralympics? What if I freaked out when (if) he ever showed me his body?
The world spun a little again and I made more noise than I had intended as I steadied myself on the closed door. Caleb's head jerked slightly at the sound, and Banjo turned round to face me. I smiled innocently and Banjo's lips twitched into an awkward smile before he slapped Caleb on the shoulder and said, "Think about it, mate," and made his way to the door.
His gait was almost normal, except for a more pronounced side-to-side rocking, and he ducked his head into the living room briefly and waved at Chris, Smiley and Mickey still inside, and called, "See you," before turning back to me.
He hated me. That was my first thought as his ice blue eyes bored into mine in the shadowy hallway. Then he smiled an enigmatic smile and held out his hand to me. I took it, feeling the palm of his hand hard and unexpectedly leathery against mine, as he said earnestly, "It as as nice to meet you, Alyssa. I can't remember the last time I saw Caleb this relaxed." And that was it. He opened the front door and disappeared into the freezing night, leaving nothing but a gust of winter air and a seething mass of confusion in his wake.
"Bye," I said vaguely.
As though his exit had been a signal for everyone to move out, I heard the sounds of rustling and rising in the next room. Caleb made his way up the hall to me before the others had made it out of the living room, and he held out his left hand to me, as though asking me to take his in mine. I did and he drew me close to him, leaning down into my hair and whispering in my ear, "Stay behind a moment after they've gone, will you?"
"Ok," I whispered, still confused by Banjo's Jekyll and Hyde behaviour towards and about me.
I think he picked up on my anxiety because he squeezed my fingers together gently.
Suddenly Smiley's big, muscled form was in the doorway, casting strong shadows into the hall, and while he, Chris and Mickey all clapped Caleb on the back and thanked him for beer and banter, Caleb never let go of my hand.
"Cheers, man," Chris called over his shoulder as they headed out to a bright orange Ford Fiesta that sat with a heavy frost growing slowly over windscreen.
I shivered, and Caleb stepped forward and shut the door. "It's fr-freezing out there," he commented, making his way back to me slowly, a slight wince lingering on his brows.
"I know," I said, becoming conscious of just how much I'd had to drink. "I don't really want to walk home."
"So don't," he said impulsively.
"St-stay here tonight," he said, as though it were the simplest idea in the world.
And then because I was drunk, though I like to think it was because it felt right, I just simply said, "Ok."
And Caleb walked towards me with a smile instead.
I was still apparently in denial about what I'd just agreed to, and asked, "What did you want to talk to me about?"
"Talking's n-not my str-strong point, re-re-remember? he smiled. And he tugged me gently towards him. "I wanted to k-k-kiss you," he whispered.
He tasted of beer, but then again so did I, and as I fell into the kiss, I wound my hands up behind his head, twisting my fingers through his hair in a way that made him moan slightly, and screw his eyelids tighter together. To my surprise I found the traces of a long scar concealed in his thick brown hair.
Caleb pulled back when he realised what I'd found, and he said in a voice so quiet it was almost inaudible, "I seem to have sc-scars and secrets tucked away all over the pl-place. You seem pretty g-g-g-good at finding them..."
"Is that a bad thing?" I whispered apprehensively, conscious that the hallway was dark and I was having to peer hard through the gloom to see his face.
He took his time in replying, the smile that came at the end of the pause going some way to assuaging my nerves. "I don't think so, no."
I shivered again, the lingering cold air in the hall sneaking in around the bottom of my shirt where my raised arms had tugged the hem upwards to reveal my bare skin. His left hand discovered that bare skin, and he ran his palm over my lower back in a way that made my spine arch in delight. The touch of a man can be truly electric, especially if it's an unexpected pleasure, I thought, gazing up at his face.
"Mmm," he moaned. "C-come on, it's late. We should head upstairs."
"Shall I turn the lights off down here?" I asked, glancing to my right where the free-standing up-lights in the living room cast golden ambient light along the walls.
He nodded. "If y-you w-wouldn't mind."
I slid out of his touch and caught sight of his white cane hanging on a peg by the door. For an unknown reason a shot of heat flared between my thighs, and it got me thinking about that touch of his. It was exploratory, and definitely sexual, but there was a depth to it that I hadn't expected. As I flicked the lights off and stumbled through the shadows back to where he stood stock still as a statue waiting for me, I realised he didn't really have much idea of what I looked like.
Time to change all that, I thought with an alcohol-soaked half-smile.
"Ok, all done," I said quietly. "Lead the way."
He seemed to falter for a moment, perhaps surprised by my choice of words. Then with a soft expression he shook his head slightly and turned away to make his way up the stairs. It was a slow business, but I got to admire him from a new angle as I moved up behind him. When we reached the top he took a second or two to catch his breath before turning left and moving quietly along the corridor. An open door on our right showed glimpses of pink upholstery and I guessed it was Amy's room.
Caleb's bedroom was immaculately and enviously clean. In the ambient light from the lamps outside, I saw that the carpet was a pale, dusky blue, and a large double bed stretched out in front of us, its white sheets neatly smoothed. It looked very inviting, and I suddenly transitioned from horny drunk to sleepy drunk at the sight of it.
He paused uncertainly halfway across the room, and I got the distinct feeling that he was rapidly regretting his boldness. My heart began to sink. "L-listen, if this is... too soon or anything, I... I'm very happy for you to have my bed, and I'll sl-sleep on the sofa..."
"I don't want to put you out," I said, coming up behind him and looping my arms bravely around his waist, mostly to stop myself swaying. His back was tense, like steel and concrete, and I looked up over his shoulder at his sharply angular jawline. "Besides, it's not the eighteenth century. You don't have to be such a gentleman all the time."
"Y-you think I'm a g-gentleman?" he grinned, turning with surprising speed on his left foot so that he faced me, his left hand suddenly at my waist again.
I giggled, swaying and he caught me. "Maybe it's the army captain thing... You know, you always hear of army boys rescuing people..."
"My r-rescuing days are done, I think," he said, still with his palm on my side.
I reached up and cupped his cheeks in my hands. His eyes rolled constantly back and forth behind the lids, and I was suddenly fascinated by them. Don't get distracted, I chided myself, leaning in and planting a kiss on his lips. "Don't be so sure," I grinned.
His fingers began to search under my shirt again, with a purpose this time, finding out what kind of top it was, and then when he found it was a stretchy material, he began to lift it. He paused politely, silently asking permission. When I obediently raised my arms up, he drew my top off over my head.
As my long red hair swished and fell back over his arm, he gave a moan that turned into an almost throaty growl. He held his black cane out to me and said, "Put that against the table on the r-right hand side of the bed?"
I did as he asked, reverently carrying the black cane over, feeling its weight and permanence between nervous fingers, and came back to him, pausing a few meters away to admire him. He was listening intently to my movements, and when he could no longer hear my footfalls, only my breathing, he have a lopsided smile and said, "Now c-come back?" Again his intonation rose at the end, making the sentence a question, a request not a demand.
I crossed over to him and began to undo the white pearly buttons of his grey checked shirt. He tilted his chin upwards, leaning backwards to expose the day-old stubble that was forming like sandpaper around his jawline. While I undid the last two buttons, I kissed him on the junction between neck and jaw, and he exhaled a shuddering breath. "God, Lyssa," he mumbled.
"Mmm?" I asked innocently. I liked that he seemed to have taken to calling me Lyssa, it apparently being an easier sound to say than 'Alyssa'.
His hands were moving up my torso now, and though he lingered on the lace of my bra, though I noted that his hand politely skirted around my breast. Finally he moved up to my collarbone, coming to rest at the back of my neck where my red hair met my skin. He ran his fingers all the way down through it, combing it out so that it tumbled down my back, brushing against my spine.
The material of his shirt was thick and heavy, and I shrugged it off his shoulders, revealing his chest and arms fully for the first time. A sprinkling of dark hair nestled in the centre of his chest, but other than that, his skin was smooth, with only a series of old nicks and scars across his toned body, some thick like rope, some ghostly like gossamer. He wasn't muscled like Smiley had been, but there was a toughness that showed he had kept up his military training as much as he was able.
Caleb's breathing quickened as I let the shirt fall to the floor with a soft 'flump' and began to run my hands over his shoulders and chest. I sensed neither of us was relaxed enough with each other to go all the way that night, and as I moved towards his belt, he rocked, swayed slightly, and then put the brakes on gently by bringing his big hands to meet mine and catching them softly. He lifted them off his body and caressed them gently.
"Not yet," I whispered. It wasn't a question.
"No," he smiled.
He brought his face through the darkness and kissed the side of my head, leaving a kiss tangled in my hair above my ear before he limped away from me, leaving me coursing with energy despite my tiredness. I wanted him. I didn't care what lay beneath those indigo jeans, I wanted him.
"Bathroom's the door on your r-right, at the far end of the corridor..." he said, and it could hear the blush in his voice. I wondered why he wasn't using his cane to walk, but he seemed ok without it, just slower, the limp more pronounced. "I'll g-get y-you a toothbrush out. I think w-we have a spare," he added as he disappeared through the doorway.
In the silence and the stillness left behind in his absence, the room seemed to implode in on me and I actually staggered slightly. Distracting myself, I began to around his room. Neither of the bedside tables had lamps, so the only source of light filtered in from the street lamps outside. The room was almost soulless, like a hotel room, which surprised me. I knew I shouldn't be surprised to find no photographs or anything, but aside from an open wardrobe door, and a series of clothes hanging like a little regiment of textile samples inside, there was no sign that this room was even used. An iPad was charging beside the table where I'd propped his cane up, and an alarm clock with big buttons on the top blared out a red LED time. A few minutes to midnight.
I pulled off my tight jeans and flung them in a corner. The room was chilly and I slid under the covers while I waited for him to come back. I didn't have much makeup to take off, one rinse under the tap and it'd wash off, so the desire to slide into sleep on the soft pillows was seriously tempting. I forced myself to stay awake, and breathed in the scent of the sheets.
I must have dozed because I jerked awake at the feeling of pressure on the other side of the bed. Caleb was sitting, shirtless, on the edge of the mattress, leaning forward and fumbling with something on his right leg. It clinked and rattled as he lay what I took to be brace on the floor. He swivelled round and lifted his right leg up onto the bed with his hand as he did. It was thin, but not emaciated, with his quad looking misshapen as it disappeared into his loose boxers. The calf muscle was withered into non-existence, and there was a multitude of scars around the knee and down the shin, and finally, as the duvet was drawn up to cover him, I noticed the scars around his ankle, which sat awkwardly stiff, almost like it was fused.
He let out a sharp cry of pain that was quickly stifled as he lay back, and I sat motionless while he took several short rasping breaths. He blew the last one out and said, "Sorry if I w-woke you."
"No, I was trying not to go to sleep - I hate not brushing my teeth before bed."
He chuckled hoarsely and said, "W-well, y-your br-brush is on the side of the sink."
"Thanks," I said. "And one last thing..."
"Do you have a t-shirt or something I could borrow - it's kind of cold..."
"Oh, sorry!" he said, making to get up again.
"I can get it," I said hurriedly, "If you just tell me where?"
He pointed at the dark oak chest of drawers against the wall facing his bed. "S-second dr-drawer down, anything from there."
"Thanks," I said, sliding out from under the duvet in just my underwear. As I took my bra off I turned instinctively away from him, though it seemed ludicrous to me even as I did it.
As if reading my thoughts he snickered, "At l-least you don't have to w-worry about pr-privacy with me..."
"Don't shatter my illusions of you being a gentleman," I whispered back. "Don't tell me that if you could see I'd need to make the effort to hide myself..."
"Even if I c-could see," he said, "I'd turn away if y-you w-w-wanted, don't w-worry."
I flitted back across the room wearing a big baggy t-shirt of his, and leaned down to kiss him. He seemed surprised at my forward behaviour, maybe because I lost my balance and kissed him much harder than I'd meant to, but he kissed me back, tasting of mint, which reminded me that I probably still tasted of stale beer. Attractive, Alyssa, well done.
When I returned, he was still on his back, one arm draped on the pillow above his head, the other across his chest, which rose and fell evenly. I paused in the doorway, pulling the door ajar behind me, and watched him for a few moments. In sleep there was no hint of pain on his face, and he seemed younger somehow.
He stirred when I lifted the duvet and climbed in next to him, groaning and shifting his hips and back. "Y-you find everything you needed?" he asked.
"Yes thank you," I smiled. His shoulder looked inviting, and I put my hand out and let my fingers work into the muscles. I lowered my head onto it and as I breathed in the scent of his skin, asked, "You mind if I stay here a while?"
The duvet rustled as he brought his raised arm down around me and lifted the one that had been on his chest so that it draped over my body. "Lyssa, y-you c-can stay as l-l-long as you l-l-like," he stuttered softly.
His hands snuck under the cotton shirt and ran slowly over my skin until his palm came to rest in the hollow between my hip bone and my belly button. I rolled onto my side, facing him, and worked my fingers delicately over his chest. The last thing I recall is the gentle warmth of his hand resting on my hip as my leg pressed gently up against damaged leg, and hearing his breathing deepen until he drifted off into unconsciousness. I can't have been long behind him.
To be continued........