Thursday, August 31, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 2: At the Bus Stop



“Your stop’s on Fairway?” I asked as we moved off down Charleton. After a quick glance to confirm the absence of cars in either direction, Asher had abandoned the sidewalk for the street itself; I guessed he wasn’t a fan of the stretches of cobblestones. I paced alongside him; his wheelchair could go at a good clip.

“Yeah, the Ridge St. stop,” he confirmed, which put us at about a 10-minute walk, and then however long it would take the bus to come. Thanks to taxpayers with an enthusiasm for public transit, buses ran every 30 minutes even this late at night, but that still meant it could take an hour end-to-end for him to get home. He must have been thinking about the same thing, because he said, gesturing vaguely at the sky overhead, “Honestly, I think I could use the air and stuff. I need to chill out after that. I don’t think I’d be able to settle down if I called a cab, went home right away.”

I shrugged, not comfortable making a recommendation either way. At that point we hit Fairway, turned left onto its broad, well-lit expanse. I noted, as he regained the sidewalk, that his shakes had subsided.

New Beginnings Chapter 34

Hi friends,
this was a busy week for me and I almost couldn't get the chapter edited on time but I won't leave you hanging especially when we are nearing the end of NB. I hope the editing was sufficient for this chapter.
Thanks for everyone who is reading along still and thanks for all your comments. You guys mean a lot to me.
I give you Chapter 34 of NB. It starts out "wet" as someone called it before and hope you enjoy Anna and Shane getting close once again.
Thanks everyone,
Hugs, Dani
TOC   New Beginnings

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

In/Exhale Continues

I apologize that it took so long for this final episode of the day to get to you guys. I'm also sorry it's being posted so late.

For those of you who don't know, I live in the Houston metro area, which was recently hit very hard by Hurricane Harvey. Fortunately, our home didn't flood, but we had power go in and out and water come far too close for comfort (especially for someone who lived through Hurricane Katrina).

The bad news is I haven't been able to work much lately on any of my writing because of my health. So I don't know if I can promise a new episode of I/E next week or even in two weeks. But I'll do my best.

Previously on In/Exhale: Kai has had a long weekend. He went to Omaha to visit the hospital there, and although he agreed to check himself in in a couple days, he has his reservations. Despite his anxiety, he went to dinner at Frankie's house and was hit by a rush of emotions about the fact that he wasn't adopted. The dinner capped off with Frankie kissing Kai and revealing his long-time crush, that set Kai whirling.

This Week on In/Exhale: Kai reacts to the dinner and everything he's been struggling with lately. When powerful suicidal thoughts hit him, he makes some potentially devastating decisions.

Next time on In/Exhale: The aftermath of Sunday night. David has his important job interview with the Deaf man he met at the meeting, but circumstances in Kai's life may prevent him from making that interview despite its significance....

I hope you won't hate me too much after this episode!!

In/Exhale - February 11, 2001 - Part IV

I have to admit I'm really nervous about how you guys will receive this episode... I'm looking forward to your comments... (or maybe not?)

Thank you again for those of you who continue to support my crazy stories despite how erratic my posting has been. I have been feeling better relatively with my current med regimen and I'm hoping this will mean more time to write. As always, your comments and support really help motivate me to keep going.

-CA

PS: If you need to catch up, check out the Table of Contents. Or, if you'd like to try reading my other story, try Love UnSeen's Table of Contents.

Shadowboxing, Chapter 3: Scheherazade

“Once upon a time,” Asher said, “on the – what is it? – the seventeenth day of the tenth month of the year, a young man found himself in the happy circumstance of having arranged for himself a date. Now, this young man, being a big ol’ queermo – “ I snorted, and his smile widened “ – had resorted to use of the magical rite known as Grindr to find himself said date. He had also, for the very first time, made himself a dating profile – magical, of course – that didn’t mention the fact that he was in a wheelchair, because he was sick of not getting any dates.

“It felt like giving up, but also like not that dumb of a move. Also, I did use one photo where you could see pretty much the whole situation, so.” I had been wondering about that, and pulled my mouth to one side. Asher sighed, with heat, and thrust his hand back through his hair before composing himself again.

“Lo,” he continued, with a desultory prophetic gesture, “came the night of the date. The other guy had seemed cute and smart and interestingly employed, and they had exchanged many a humorous missive via the mystical Grindr. Our young man was way excited, got himself dressed up real nice, but not nice enough to look like he was trying too hard, and headed out early for the tavern they had agreed upon for their amorous encounter. This meant he had many, many a minute to find a seat that would sort of but not totally hide the wheelchair, and to freak out over how this guy was going to react when he saw it, the arm, etc.”

Asher paused here. Somewhere along the way he had stopped meeting my eyes. I gave him a little while, before deciding that he might appreciate a push. “So?”

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 4: View from the Morning

Of course I ended up falling asleep right before the sunrise; so much for that romantic notion. Luckily, somewhere along the way I had ended up having the sense to tuck a pillow under my knees, so I didn’t completely hate myself in the morning. Still, my back and neck were killing me when I woke up, not to mention my wrist; it had to be from the stress of last night. It was also 11 AM, later than I could remember waking up in at least a year. Outside, the sun was shining weakly through an even, milky haze of cloud, which was about how I felt.

I swore to myself for a while before I even tried getting up, just feeling the deep, pulling pain as I shifted my back and arms minutely. Finally I got myself up onto my one elbow, levered up from there to a sitting position, groaning continuously. The only good thing that I could immediately see was the fact that I had gone to bed in nothing but boxers, which meant there was very little between me and a scalding-hot shower.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 5: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

On the bus ride over, I learned that Asher was 26 – four years younger than me. (That was how much he’d been forcing – no, coaxing – me to talk about myself at the café, that I hadn’t learned even his age till then.) He was an only child, and hadn’t moved out from his parents’ until just last year, but not for lack of encouragement. He was close with his parents, not just of necessity, and they’d always pushed him to be independent. But it had taken him a bit longer to finish college, and after that, it had still taken him a few more years to feel ready to leave home. Once he did, his parents had helped him find an apartment – one closer to his job, and reasonably accessible – and had helped him negotiate renovations with the landlord that would help bring it to fully accessible.

He worked as a web developer for a large company. I didn’t understand entirely what that that entailed, which hardly offended Asher; he admitted that he was in it largely for the job security. “I’m not ashamed to admit that good medical insurance is slightly more important to me than being passionate about my job right now. It would be nice to find something I’m more excited about in the future, but for now I’m happy to work with nice people, at a steady job.”

I nodded slowly. I was savoring the process of building out a picture of Asher’s daily life, his family, how he thought about things. It was already clear that he was more of a thinker than me, or more of an intellectual, I guess the word would be. (After all, I spent most of my time thinking to myself, even if I hadn’t bothered finishing college.) He read a lot, for example, which I didn’t have that much patience for, and especially about art, which had always intimidated me. But it struck me that even when he went somewhere in conversation I couldn’t quite follow, I liked the nimbleness and excitement with which he thought and spoke, the way he could sort of dance back and forth across a topic, come at it from different angles. I could almost see his thoughts moving over his face like a flickering light.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Update to The Girl I Didn't Kill For

Hi all!

Thank you a million to everyone who commented on the last chapter.  I'm not sure if I'll be able to post next weekend, so I'm going to make this one extra long.  Jessie and Nick finally meet up again for the first time since his injury.

Chapter 4

Please let me know what you think!

And I finally made a Table of Contents!

Shadowboxing, Chapter 6: Night

It took me a while to realize that the way Asher had said “we’ll do it in the morning” implied, even assumed, that I was going to stay over the night. We had just about finished cleaning up after dinner, so it would have been a natural point for me to start saying good-night. Perplexed, I turned to him, working out what to say next.

“Asher, w-were you interested… in me staying over?”

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 7: Amy Opines


The next morning, when we’d finished filling out the online crime report form – Roy ended up having to take the lead, typing in half of my responses for me when I shamefully but not surprisingly wilted before the challenge of, for example, enumerating physical descriptions of the gang of four – I felt a sudden jolt of superstitious fear. Everything that had happened since I’d met Roy had been so improbably good that I had the sudden conviction that signing off on this would bring it all to a close, seal off the freak outgrowth of space-time that had allowed us to briefly coexist.

(The back of my mind also observed, helpfully, that it was likely that I was once again using this imagined crisis as a distraction from attempting to reckon with the men in the alleyway.)

As Roy and I kissed good-bye at the threshold of my front door, the question is this the last time formed itself clearly in my head, sent a chilly wave of unease through me; my back contracted uncomfortably, tilting me back and to the right. I felt as if I couldn’t look him in the eye, either. I think he noticed, too, because a look of puzzled concern crossed his face as he stood up. He said nothing, though. After he’d headed off down the sidewalk, with his rolling, ground-eating gait, I cursed myself bitterly for wasting the moment.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 8: Past is Present

That Sunday afternoon, Roy and I met up at the public library. I’d wanted to pick up a few new books that I was excited about, Gilded Age histories, and we’d agreed that a walk in neighboring Crown Hill Park sounded like a good idea afterward.

A curious thing happened on the way out. We were rolling out through the front lobby, Roy’s footsteps and those of other patrons echoing off of the polished stone around us, and before I could hit the handicapped button for the double set of glass doors out front, a man started holding the first set open for me.

He was quite striking – almost Roy’s height, lean, swimmerish in build, with sandy hair, a wide mouth, and an eyebrow piercing. As I turned to say “thank you,” I looked him over, as you do, but his pale, cattish eyes had already moved behind me and up to Roy. I saw his brows lift slightly in recognition. Then his eyes moved down to Roy’s hand, which he had rested lightly on one of my shoulders, and the pierced eyebrow flickered up fractionally. “Hey,” he said to Roy. The slight smile on his lips was hard to read.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 9: And the Night Came On


Shortly after the day at the park, when I had started to tell Asher about the worst of my past, we were sitting on his couch together, doing not much – I had been asking him about the book he was reading, one of the ones we’d picked up together from the library – when his phone rang.

He picked up, frowning slightly when he saw the number. “Hello?”

I could hear a woman’s voice on the other end.

“Yes, this is Asher Klein,” he confirmed, a little warily.

I watched as he listened for a little less than a minute. I couldn’t make out more than the occasional word. Asher’s face got tenser; I could see that he was steeling himself. “Yes. Okay. Okay, I see. No – okay, yes, I think I understand. Great. Yes, thank you. Have a good morning.”

He exhaled hard when he hung up, and paused for a moment before turning to me, tilting his head back a little to look up at me – even sitting, the difference in our heights was significant. Asher had mentioned once that his doctors were sure he’d have been small even if he hadn’t had CP. “They’ve arrested all four of the men from the alleyway,” he said, his voice carefully even.

New Beginnings Chapter 33

Hi NB friends,
I hope you enjoyed last week's long chapter. Thanks to all my loyal NB readers for commenting and reading.
I give you another long chapter this week as Anna convinces Shane to look into getting a wheelchair.
Here is Chapter 33 of NB. Let me know how you like it and as always thanks for reading.
Hugs, Dani

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

No story today

I'm sure you guys are tired of hearing that. I will have the next episode of I/E next weeek... after that, it'll depend on how I'm doing. I'm really sorry... I miss Kai and Jackson too, lol.

Thanks for understanding.

-CA

Shadowboxing, Chapter 10: Aftershocks


That morning I woke up twice, the first time just around dawn. I lifted my head, looked around a bit. The outlines of the room, the furniture, looked a bit ghostly, flat, in the greyish light; it must have been overcast outside. I felt blank, fuzzed out, myself. What did I do? said a blank, confused voice in my head; it sounded young. I ran a hand over my chest under the covers, found it tacky.

You had sex, said another voice: flat, accusatory.

I felt an automatic surge of sick heat in my gut. Oh.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 11: Bobbing and Weaving


There was a step into Roy’s boxing gym. Just a small one, about four inches of pitted concrete before the dented metal door into the gym (which was clearly a repurposed industrial building, maybe a small warehouse) – but still, it was a step.

“I hope this isn’t symbolic,” I said, looking up at Roy.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 12, pt. 1: Meet the...


It was mid-November, an overcast Saturday, though not too cold. Eduardo and I were finishing up a job for a client, replacing a few beds of mums and late pansies with dwarf yews. It was easy, systematic work, spading up the clumps of flowers – personally I thought they’d been planted too shallowly, though now it only made my job easier – and pulling out the conical little evergreens from their flimsy plastic pots to dig in instead. My head remained restfully thoughtless as the pair of us bent and dug. Sweat ran down my neck into my t-shirt, pleasantly icy when the wind ran over it, and the mound of discarded flowers in the wheelbarrow behind us grew. The pansies were still blooming, though straggly; I thought I might rescue one to repot for Asher, along with a yew that wasn’t fit to be planted.

As we neared the end of the last bed, the client, Mrs. Petersen, came out on her front doorstep to watch. She was thin, blonde, in her late twenties, and slightly pregnant. I guess “a few months in” was the phrase for it. She had on an oversized hoodie – I wondered vaguely if it were her husband’s – and leggings. There were purplish shadows under her eyes, and the corners of her mouth seemed naturally downturning. She said nothing after an initial exchange of hellos, and as Eduardo and I continued, I became uncomfortably aware of the intensity of her gaze.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 12, pt. 2: Meet the...


“Do you want to…?” Asher nodded his chin in the direction of the bathroom. I nodded quickly, gratefully, and darted away to wash my hands and face.

When I emerged, they had resumed chatting and eating; I moved to the table, bobbed my head, and seated myself. They all smiled; Asher’s smile had recovered some of what I now saw as his habitual mischievousness, though I could still hear his legs kicking against his chair. He slid an empty plate to me. The food looked and smelled good: some kind of grain salad with parsley and tomatoes chopped small, spiced chicken, peeled oranges, fresh bread. I wondered who had made the food, and then, again belatedly, Asher’s voice filtered back into my head, explaining his monthly lunches with his parents: We swap off places, and whoever hosts does the cooking, too…

Slowly, I relaxed, just watching and listening; after a few minutes I felt settled enough to reach for food. Asher’s mother had been telling a story about one of her students; she worked as an art teacher, and an art therapist, I remembered – something I’d never heard of until Asher had explained it to me.

This student – from the way Rebekah talked about him, I got the sense he was really young, kindergartenish – liked to draw chickens, red feathered blobs, and Rebekah was gradually working out that there was a particular chicken, one with a flower in its “hair,” that represented him. “So I was wondering,” she said animatedly, “if perhaps there was something he was trying to say about gender, although he’s certainly too young for us to jump to any conclusions, though really, so many children do start feeling that out so young, you could say many already have convictions about that…”

“So what did you do?” Asher said, smiling, his eyes bright; I could tell his legs had stopped kicking, and, since he was taking a break from eating, he had moved his hand on the table so that his little finger touched my arm, which sent a curl of warmth through me.

“Well, I started encouraging him to show me more about the chicken with the flower, what would the chicken like to do this weekend, where does the chicken like to go, etc.”

“And?” said Asher’s father this time. His voice sounded so much like Asher’s, just roughened and deepened with age. I couldn’t resist looking back and forth between the two of them, seeing all the little things that made them look alike: the shape of their ears, the way their hair curled, the long bones of the face and nose. Asher was just much smaller than his father, sized after his mother, and with her large eyes.

“Sports cars!” Asher’s mother burst out, laughing at her own story. “It turns out the chicken likes sports cars.” Asher was laughing, too. “Also, carrots. And back doors. I’m not quite sure what to do with the carrots, I confess, but there is something interesting about the back door – he started to say something about sneaking around, needing to sneak around like a spy. That’s where I’d like to pick up again next week.”

“I love it, Mom,” Asher said, leaning back in his chair. “Kid detective. Their brains are so weird, I just love hearing these stories. Does he actually like carrots?”

“No!” said his mother, laughing again, at about the same time that his father put in, with his mild voice, “I don’t think our brains get any less weird. We just get better at knowing what we’re supposed to hide.”

“How much did Mom pay you to say that?” Asher said with a grin; his father leveled one back at him, brows raised, while his mother laughed and gave Asher’s shoulder a reproving tap.

I looked back and forth among the three of them. Asher-people, the thought came into my head. It was so easy to see where Asher had come from, his patience, his bright inquisitiveness, his humor. I couldn’t imagine my parents talking about any of the things that had just been talked about; I couldn’t imagine them laughing so easily together over little things.

And they had, all three of them, accepted me so easily, silent in their midst, but not ignored; one or another would occasionally look at me to see if I needed anything, if there was anything I wanted to say (not yet, although I was working up to it), or just to include me in a smile.

I had also belatedly remembered that Asher had told me that some of his friends with disabilities couldn’t talk with their own voices, had to use tablets or other devices to speak for them – I would have liked to see how that worked, figured I would at some point in the near future, if things kept going the way they did. (And when did you become a guy who actually got introduced to friends? To family? said a voice in my head.) So, it stood to reason that his parents would hardly blink if he had a friend who just took a while to talk – even if he did also interrupt lunch while sweaty and filthy. Working through thoughts like this, I was gradually cooling the shame and embarrassment I’d felt.

Asher moved his hand onto my arm. His mother’s smile might have widened a little, but otherwise, his parents didn’t react: also a new, previously unthinkable thing for me. “Roy,” he said, his look gently teasing, “is your plant getting hungry on the doormat?”

“My p-plant?” I said, startled. I set down my fork, and then I remembered the yew. “Oh! Oh, yes. That was ggg-going to be a present for you.” His mother’s smile widened even further. “No, he’s g-good,” I said, “he’s a ppp-patient little guy.” It had taken me a little while to pick up Asher’s gentle style of bantering, when we were first getting to know each other, but now it was easy, especially with two other Kleins in the room.

“What did I do to deserve a present?”

I wanted to say, just being you, but resisted while his parents were here. I wiped my mouth with my napkin. “He wouldn’t have gg-g-gotten any love b-back where he came f-from. I thought he would be h-happier with your other trees.” I pointed to the two in the corner.

“Oh, hey, thank you,” Asher said, grinning with real pleasure; the fingers of his small hand flexed slowly. “I can’t wait to meet him. Neither can my trees.”

“Did you come straight from a job?” Asher’s mother said. “Asher tells us you work in landscaping.” I looked at her gratefully; she was giving me a chance to excuse my muddy arrival.

“Yes, I did,” I said. “So, sorry about – “ I gestured to encompass my t-shirt and so on. Everyone murmured that it wasn’t a problem, and I felt infinitely better.

These people, I thought.

“Everything went well with the job?” said Asher’s father.

“Yes,” I said automatically, “it was easy, just ss-switching out s-seasonal plants. Only…” The image of Mrs. Petersen came back into my head, her darkened, unhappy eyes. I paused, unsure if I wanted to talk about this, but felt I needed to. “There’s s-s-something s-strange about the woman we worked for today. She’s pregnant, and young, and she has a bb-beautiful house, but she sssss… suh… she seems very sad.”

Asher looked at me with a troubled expression; I think he could sense some of what I wasn’t saying.

His mother made a sympathetic noise, her eyes soft. “Does it feel strange to know you can’t do anything about it?”

I thought about it. “Yes,” I realized. I opened my mouth to say more, and then realized I didn’t have anything more to say about it, that that was how it made me feel: strange, and helpless. Her coming on to me did give me a slight sense of the wrongness, the kind of impatient discomfort that I always felt when women took interest in me; but in her case it hardly seemed to have anything to do with me. I, and Eduardo, had just been there. I looked at Rebekah and nodded once, emphatically.

“You’ve probably seen quite a lot of strange things in your time, working around people’s houses,” she said, more lightly.

I laughed, shaking my head. “T-t… too many.” And, only a little haltingly, I was able to get out the story of the time I’d found a “tame” raccoon being kept by a teenager in the mildewy toolshed that his mother wanted demolished, which had ended in tears and rabies shots.

Afterwards, I still found myself prickling with occasional waves of nerves – these were Asher’s parents, they knew that I was… with their son, had to be sizing me up, asking themselves all sorts of questions about how on earth I made sense as a match to their college-educated, computer programmer son. But, looking at their faces – I seemed to have pulled the story off, they were chuckling incredulously – I felt a sense that I had performed enough.

The word “perform” did occasionally pop into my head when I was with Asher, to my regret. It was hard to escape the sense that as patient as he was, he was always waiting for me to say more than I felt either capable of or interested in saying. Talking was his element, he’d told me so, directly, but to me it was like fire: untrustworthy, unreliable. I wasn’t sure how often I’d imagined a look of disappointed expectation in his eyes when I’d said what felt, to me, like enough, a complete thought – but maybe (I needed to ask him sometime, hadn’t yet had the courage) only left him with more unanswered questions. For a moment I thought back to our conversation in Crown Hill Park, about my past; immediately I flinched away.

You can do better, I thought to myself, with a deep stab of shame and anger.

I pulled myself out of the spiral, glanced around the table. Asher’s parents were talking softly to each other – it sounded like they were sorting out other weekend plans. Asher gave the appearance of listening to them, while slowly starting to stack the emptied dishes that he could reach. But I could tell he had his eye on me.

When he saw that he had my attention, he leaned towards me. “Doing okay?” he said softly.

I gave him a one-sided smile, and raised my eyebrows questioningly: I don’t know, am I?

“They like you,” he said immediately, and even more softly. And he smiled.

My stomach flipped; I couldn’t tell if it was his smile, renewed nerves, or both. I raised my eyebrows again, made an “if you say so” face, and then gently nudged his hand aside from the stacked dishes to make it clear that I’d take charge of the washing-up. He gave me an appreciative look, and turned to listen to his parents’ conversation.

I listened in carefully as I scraped off bits of food, did the rinsing and racking in the dishwasher. They were just talking about an event that one of Asher’s cousins was holding soon (I didn’t totally get what, maybe because it was a Jewish thing) – but I wanted to understand their patterns, how they thought about things, what they expected of each other. The last time I’d spent any time with somebody else’s family was probably in – Jesus – high school, back before I had to quit the soccer team. I felt like a street dog trying to remember how to sit, roll over, shake, speak.

I was listening so intently to everything in and around the conversation that it took me a moment to register that they had actually asked me a question, had all turned to look at me expectantly. I shook my head quickly and widened my eyes in apology.

Asher repeated, “November 18th? What do you think, Roy?”

I took a pause, a long one. First of all, I still wasn’t sure what I was being invited to, and was embarrassed to ask them to repeat themselves, again.

Second of all: November 18th – three days away – was the arraignment date for the four men who had assaulted Asher in the alleyway. And from the innocent way that Asher was asking about it, I couldn’t tell if he had genuinely forgotten about it – which I couldn’t believe – or if he was putting on a front because he still hadn’t told his parents about it.

Which, the more I thought about it, seemed more and more likely the case, because I could not believe that parents like Asher’s wouldn’t have commented at least once about the court date.

I opened my mouth, but couldn’t say anything. I could tell that Mrs. Klein was getting ready to say something nice – probably she just thought that I was being shy again. I moved my gaze to Asher and raised my eyebrows at him slightly. Did you…?

When he couldn’t hold my gaze, my stomach sank. Mrs. Klein stopped whatever she was going to say; both of his parents looked back and forth between us curiously as the silence stretched on and on.

I had no intention of forcing Asher to do anything in front of his parents. And it wasn’t as if Asher had even planned to attend the arraignment, so for him there wasn’t even a timing conflict with his cousin’s event – just the symbolic weight of the date. (But I sure as hell wanted to see the four standing in front of a judge.) So there was still no reason I couldn’t just play this whole thing off as me being perpetually socially incompetent.

Except that – and I’d tried not to subject Asher to this line of thinking too much, but it was often at the back of my mind – if the assholes didn’t all take plea bargains, the case would go to trial, and then Asher would be stuck lying to his parents about the nonexistence of multiple future court dates, stretching out over months, all while his stress went through the roof.

And, Asher was sitting there now with a crushingly clear look of guilt on his face, his legs so tense that they were trembling continuously, hovering a few inches out of the seat of his chair, while his mild, kind parents continued to look back and forth between us in confusion.

I had to say something. Physically, I forced out the words: “I’m really sss – sorry –”

“Oh, no no no, honey,” Rebekah rushed to say, leaning forward so quickly that her glasses shifted half an inch down her nose; distractedly she pushed them back up again. “If it’s at all an issue for you, please don’t worry about it, it’s just a little get-together.”

“Honey”? part of my brain remarked incredulously.

“Actually…” Asher said slowly. I looked back to him, worry twisting through my stomach. He didn’t look up at any of us, and I could tell he was holding himself very carefully in his chair, trying to minimize the distraction of his trembling legs. He continued deliberately, “I think… Roy is hesitating because there’s something I didn’t tell you about that date. The 18th.”

I crossed one arm across my chest, put my other hand to my jaw to rub it. My heart was pounding, I couldn’t escape the sense that I had no idea what was going to happen next – except that Asher had to be feeling twenty times worse than I was right now. I wanted to go to him and hold his hand, but didn’t want to distract.

The next time he looked up, I did my best to give him an encouraging smile. He returned it with sudden and astonishing warmth. I blinked in surprise – and Asher began to tell his parents the story of how we’d met.

UPDATE to The Girl I Didn't Kill For

Thank you so so much to everyone who commented on the last chapter. It really means a lot to me, honestly. I know it seems silly that someone just writing "Hey, I enjoyed this" would be motivating, but I promise it is.

And to anyone who felt the last chapter was too short, this one is definitely longer. And involves a massage....

Chapter 3

For those of you who haven't read the beginning, here's the first three chapters together.

P.S. Crazy in Love is supposed to be on sale today for only 99 cents in US and UK.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Shadowboxing, Chapter 13: Killing Time till the Day of Execution


I was flat on my back in the alleyway. Cold, damp asphalt pressed into my back; darkness muffled my vision past a few feet away. I felt thick, cold, sick. Somewhere nearby I could hear voices: hard, mocking, incomprehensible. The sounds came in snatches, sudden harsh syllables jabbing into my hearing. Sometimes they floated nearer, as if the men were coming back, and my heart pounded; then they faded off again.

With my good arm I reached for something to help me, feeling around for anything, but all my hand encountered was empty air, and the chill, pebbly asphalt. I couldn’t push myself up, I felt so cold and weak, as if pressed into submission by the darkness.

Suddenly the voices blared close and loud, as if the men were standing over me in a circle and shouting into my face. But I could see nothing but darkness. They were shouting and shouting, broken, nonsensical syllables.

The confusion was so total that I woke up, panting with fear.

I blinked up at the ceiling and ran my hand over the comforter over and over, working to convince myself that I was here, not there. Under the covers, my legs were kicking frantically, my bad arm was snapping in and out, and my wrist felt excruciatingly tight, the pain bright and urgent. In a way, the pain was nice: it proved that I wasn’t in the dream.

As my head slowly cleared, I registered with a sinking sense of regret that Roy wasn’t there; he hadn’t been able to stay over for several nights. I craved his touch, the sound of his breath, so badly that my heart seemed to ache.

Having him there was the main reason I had said no, not yet when my parents had asked me if I wanted to see a therapist, after I had told them about the nightmares, after I had told them about the men in the alleyway. But of course, he couldn’t always be there.

I had to breathe, slowly, for what felt like hours before I could fall asleep again.

The next day at work, Francis asked me if I was coming down with something, and I almost said yes, because I felt that miserable.


***


The third time Amy was mean to Roy, I had to call her out on it. Conveniently, about fifteen minutes later, Roy excused himself from the table to take a client’s phonecall. As soon as he was out of earshot, I leaned toward her, and put my hand on her upper arm. “Amy.” We were at a downtown restaurant; she appeared to be distracted by a large party of sorority girls exiting noisily into the night; when the door finally closed behind their clattering heels and stream of bright chatter, we could feel a ghost of the cold air they’d let in.

“Amy!” This time she swung around to look at me, with an expression of mild amusement. The warm lighting filtering down from the shaded pendulum lights overhead was a color that I thought of as particularly “Amy:” a coppery-gold that made her curly hair and pale eyes glow, like a foxy Renaissance angel.

“Hm?”

“Amy, I feel like you’re being… snippy to Roy.”

For a moment she looked blank, and then a slightly wary look came into her eyes. “What makes you say that?” she said, with careful neutrality.

“It’s – I’m sorry to badger you.” I was already doubting myself, but pressed ahead; I didn’t know how soon Roy’s call would end. “It’s – something about the way you keep saying ‘oh?’ back at him, no matter what he says.” I replicated the subtly challenging, contemptuous tone I’d heard, and the slight lift of her left eyebrow that went with it. Afterwards I had to stop myself from smiling nervously, undercutting what I was trying to say.

Amy looked aside a few moments, before lifting one hand to prop her chin on it; with the other she started slowly stroking the plastic cuffs of her forearm crutches, propped on her side of the table. “Don’t apologize,” she said a little absently. She returned her gaze to me, looking serious, almost severe. “I honestly don’t remember doing that, but you’re right that I probably did. Sorry. Mea culpa.”

Internally I relaxed a little. I started rubbing my hand over my right hip; both had been uncomfortably tight since the nightmare, which always made me a bit paranoid of having to have hip surgery done again. Worries on worries.

I was so used to Amy that when getting ready to introduce Roy to her, I had forgotten – maybe conveniently – that her high spirits could also come out as prickliness, which I was sometimes exasperated by, and sometimes actually admired; between the two of us, I was definitely the pushover.

I could tell she was also looking around now to make sure Roy wasn’t coming back imminently; at about the same moment, we both located him outside, a few windows down from where we were sitting. He was standing with his back to us, clearly still on the phone. Reflexively I admired the way the column of his neck looked when his head was bent down, the way that his hair came to a point at the nape of his neck, which I liked to kiss when I could.

Amy looked at me again. “I do like him, you know.” I almost let out an audible phew. “But, like… you know I have insanely high expectations for anybody who expects to be with you.” Unprompted, we exchanged identical, deliberately awkward grin-grimaces, stretching our lips away from our teeth, then laughed at the simultaneity.

“I appreciate it,” I said after we’d composed ourselves, “you know I do. But go easy on him. You know he’s super shy –”

“You don’t say,” she said with rich sarcasm.

“Come on!” I said indignantly. “You’re doing it again.” It had been painfully obvious that Roy had been intimidated by Amy as soon as the night had started, taken aback by her quick glances and remarks, which was why I had been set on edge by even the very subtle mockery that had seeped into her handling of him.

“Sorry, sorry –” She looked genuinely guilty, her cheeks flushing a bit. She started making a circular gesture with both of her hands. “It’s just, you know, I’m used to our back-and-forth, I have high expectations for this guy, and he’s sweet, it’s so clear that he’s crazy about you, but he’s like…”

“Not what you expected,” I finished bluntly; I was trying to steel myself, on Roy’s behalf. Again she looked guilty, and glanced out the window at his back. “We talked about this already, Amy.”

“I knowwww,” she said, swaying side to side in her seat. “It’s just - he’s such a jock, Asher! It’s bizarro!”

“I think you mean ‘super hot,’” I corrected her, primly. We were both enjoying letting humor loosen us up again, without losing honesty.

“Fine, yes, he is an excellent specimen of the masculine form.” She batted her eyelashes at me. “I admit – it’s not that I wasn’t listening when you told me he was huge and buff and huge, but… yeah. It’s like my mental picture frame couldn’t go that big. Does he like, carry you around your apartment and shit?”

I had to smirk. “Actually, yes. Buff boyfriend -” I stopped rubbing my hip to sketch a large “greater than” symbol in the air “- assistive technology.”

“God!” Amy flung her head back, rolling her eyes. “Where did I go wrong? Akshay won’t carry me.”

I burst out into incredulous laughter. “Is this a problem for you?” Inwardly I felt a twinge of happy relief that Akshay was still in the picture; it had felt like Amy’d been avoiding mentioning him for a while.

“Yeah, he says it’s demeaning to women -“

“Oh my god, what?”

“Well you know he’s all up in arms about resisting his super patriarchal upbringing – also he says I’m ‘too long’ -“

“Wait, what? Oh, crap, Roy is coming back in. Anyway, can you please work on being less, like, reverse-ableist now?”

“But jocks deseeeerve it, Asher –“

It was nothing we hadn’t joked about before, but – “This one is my jock.”

She reached out and touched my shoulder quickly, her eyes soft. “Yes, I’ll be good. Thanks for calling me out.”

Gratefully, I smiled back at her.

My brain was still working furiously as Roy strode back in and made his way back to our table. What we hadn’t had time to get to – the world doesn’t have infinite time for your neuroses, Asher, I reminded myself sardonically – was just how oddly put-together a puzzle Roy was, which I thought had to account for a good part of how edgy Amy had gotten with him.

The truth was that Amy and I both liked things to go fast, when it came to conversation; that we liked to talk a lot, and quickly, was a central pillar of our friendship. “I’m used to our back-and-forth,” she had said just now. Neither of us had ever directly acknowledged it to each other, because it felt unworthy, but we both knew that it took each of us a very deliberate mental switch, an almost physical resetting of expectations, to engage with disabled friends who were low-verbal or nonverbal. Slow down, chill out, wait and listen. With each other, there was a guilt-tinged relief in getting to go as damn fast as we pleased, while still enjoying the comfort of not having to explain any disability stuff.

Roy, on the other hand, was a weird inversion: able-bodied as hell, the picture of red-blooded American masculinity (minus the being-gay part), but also close to nonverbal, under the wrong circumstances. I had a pretty firm sense that that uneasy, paradigm-breaking combination was why Amy hadn’t been able to stop herself from needling him. And while Roy’s difficulties with his stammer made me feel incredibly tender towards him, it would have been a lie to say I didn’t, sometimes, feel impatient.

I had worried intensely and often about us being completely mismatched: why the hell would a guy like Roy want to date a guy who couldn’t run, hike, climb, or really do anything other than sit? But as time rolled on, I was starting to have the sense that all of these weird asymmetries created a kind of momentum in our relationship – the sense that we would be able to keep finding each other interesting for a very, very long time.

Roy pretty perfectly capped that frantic train of thought of mine by running his hand around the back of my neck as he walked around me and back to his seat. I smiled up at him, probably fatuously, and he smiled back. And out of the corner of my eye I saw Amy quirk half a smile, too.

The rest of the dinner went great, to my immense relief; I could even feel some of the tension ease out of my legs, so I felt like I was actually sitting in my wheelchair instead of balancing precariously. Amy’s veiled needling disappeared, replaced by the tenderly serious attitude she took on when she was really listening to someone, and Roy even relaxed enough to make her laugh with a quietly mischievous remark, which I knew would be a big step forward for him in her mind, compared to the tense, awkward, almost cringing Roy she’d seen at the beginning of the evening. When that happened, I gave her a challenging little smile: See? He is fun. And she gave me back a chastened grin.

Afterwards, we shared an accessible cab back to Amy’s and my apartment block, and it was fun, incredibly so. All riding along together in the dark, the streetlights sliding by outside, Roy holding my hand – the night took on a giddy, loose quality, especially when Roy cracked one of the windows to dilute the oppressive odor of pine car freshener, and chill air began streaming in. It felt like we laughed the whole way home.

On the sidewalk outside our apartments, Amy surprised Roy by lifting up her crutches to give him a big, long hug, squeezing him around his middle; I ducked my head and grinned at how big his eyes got. Then she crutched over to bend and give me a hug of similar duration, finishing it off with a peck on my cheek. “G’night, babe.”

“G’night, Amy. And thanks.” We exchanged a last smile before she waved and turned off towards her apartment.

Inside my kitchen, Roy shut the door behind us; while I was looking around, letting out a long breath, I heard him make a distinctly animal sound behind me, and then his bootsteps came at me swiftly, and his arms wrapped around me from behind. “Whoa! Hi!”

“Mmmm –” As I laughed helplessly, he kissed his way up and down my neck, nipped at my ears, slid his heavy hands up my chest and face to run fingers through my hair, then back down again to unbuckle my seatbelt.

“Oh, hi –” Now he was sliding his hands down my back, gently pressed his fingers against the backs of my hips and down to my ass.

“Ready?” he asked softly.

“Yes – I think –” I thought I knew what he was asking, and then he did shift to one side, slid one arm behind my shoulders and one under my knees, and picked me up smoothly and swiftly.

Now we were face-to-face, something I otherwise never got to experience when the other person was standing. I looked deeply into his eyes and smiled, my heart pounding with happy excitement. “Hi,” I said again.

“Hi,” he said this time. His smile made my stomach feel like jelly. I kissed him for a long time, feeling light and easy and safe in his steady arms.

When we broke, he cocked his head in the direction of the bedroom. “Shall we…?” I grinned and nodded, and he strode off.

“Amy’s jealous that you carry me around, ‘cause her man won’t,” I murmured teasingly in his ear. He snorted. “I got the best one…” I said in a sing-song, and kissed his neck slowly. He made another animal sound, flipped off the kitchen lights with his lower hand, and we passed into the bedroom in darkness.


***


Again I’m in the alleyway. This time I’m in a chair, not mine: a shitty metal chair, like in a movie interrogation scene, and they fan out around me like movie interrogators. I feel profoundly homeless, in alien territory. Again I can’t understand their voices. They gabble harsh, excited sentences that echo off of the brick walls enclosing us. Now there’s no alleyway, just a little box of brick with the dark figures circling me around; it’s not clear now whether they’re figures, or shadows on the walls.

I’m struggling to move, kicking my legs, struggling to straighten my contracted arm. I don’t know what I’ll achieve, but there’s a sense that rocking, knocking over the chair will break the spell, the dream.

After another interval of distorted time, the alien voices echoing in my ears, I realize what the issue is. They’ve tied down my good arm, my only arm, to the arm of the shitty metal chair. When I realize that, that I have nothing, that I’m nothing but a stream of panicked thoughts in a useless body, the fear is so profound that I want to sink down and die.

I wake up, and this time Roy is there. He holds me while I cry.

Friday, August 18, 2017




The Waterfall




I would never admit it, but I hate being left alone, especially in the forest. My brother, Jake, went to take a piss, but either it’s a very long piss or he has other business to do. Either way, I’ve been left propped up against a very wide tree, which dips at the bottom, cupping my back. The midmorning sun winks from between branches, and the forest sighs with a swish of leaves. The scenery should calm me, but instead I’m holding my breath at every chirp, every crack of the branches. 
A minute of nervous overreacting later, I hear Jake’s footsteps. Pastel blue fabric appears from between gnarly trees, then dips out of view. That’s… not my brother. My heartbeat accelerates, and my body, splayed out uselessly, does nothing but give a big shiver. I hope the stomps will fade, but they get louder. A pair of cracked leather boots appear, and when I lift my head I see the entire length of a woman, very tall, frazzled red hair, dirty trousers and shirt. She’s clutching a lumpy bag made from a red kerchief, and she’s only a few feet away.
I see a lot of the whites of her eyes as she stares at me. If only she knew what she could do to me, how she could grab the picnic basket or even my shiny black boots and I wouldn’t be able to stop her. 
“What are you doing here?” I thunder. My voice is scratchy, but I can sound terrifying if I want. She stares at me for another second before her lips turn up into a smile. Is she insane?
My heart jumps as she steps over a log, coming closer. “Retreat,” I tell her. “Retreat or I shall draw my sword.”
She folds her arms. 
“I warn you,” I say. “I can behead you in seconds.”
She smooths down her hair, which is unravelling from a long braid down her back. “So do it. I’ll wait.”
Well… Now what do I do?
Any new strategies die from my thoughts as she crouches down, and leans in close to my face, still with that stupid grin. I feel a lump in my throat.
Finally, she leans back and chuckles. “Good lord, you look like you might piss yourself. Calm down. I won’t hurt you.”
My eyes dart around. “Do you… do you know who I am?”
She sets her handkerchief bag down near my arm. “Well, we’ve heard about you in my village. The man who cannot move. Now I see it’s true.”
I watch her movements carefully as she settles herself on the ground. “How did you know?”
“Most men wouldn’t just lie there if they had sighted a lone woman in the forest. Although there’s a slim chance that this is a trick and you may just grab me. I’m terrified.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I am. See?” She takes my hand and holds it to her breast, where her heart is beating rapidly.  
I snort. “That’s nothing. Feel mine.”
She drops my hand and it lands on her lap. We both look at it, until she lifts it again, gently curling my fingers and placing it on the ground, at my side. Then she feels my heart, pressing against the tough fabric of my shirt.
“What’s your name?” I ask, as the sun peaks overhead and she blinks it away.
“Cleo.” She looks away. “Do you have any food? I haven’t eaten in a day.”
The forest rustles, and my brother emerges, whistling and stuffing his penis back into his trousers. Cleo notices him first, and when he sees her, he stumbles.
“God’s ears,” he curses. He rubs his eyes. “God’s ears, Elijah, I leave for two minutes and you lure a woman to the picnic?”
“A little longer and there would have been a party,” I shoot back. “What took you so- you know what, I don’t care to know. This is Cleo.”
Cleo’s head swivels from me to Jake. She seems to be deciding if she should trust us.
“You can dine with us,” I tell her. “Even if Jake wanted to harm you, he’d trip over his own feet trying to approach you.”
Cleo smiles at me. “It’s you I’m worried about. I hear you’re quite the swordsman.”
Jake squints. “Uh…”
I chuckle. “Please… don’t bring that up again. We have plenty to eat, so we can share. Jake?”
With an exaggerated sigh, Jake leans over and drags the woven basket into the loose circle we’ve formed. “I’m glad you’re so eager to give away our food.”
Cleo eyes the basket hungrily. I wish Jake would hurry up as he unclasps the top, pulling out paper-wrapped chicken patties, two apples, a few small barley rolls, some raw potatoes, a flask, three hard-boiled eggs, and a long piece of cinnamon cake. The two of us eat a lot, so we bring a lot, lucky for Cleo. 
“Let’s eat before we cook the potatoes,” I say. I hate having to articulate everything I do, especially since Jake looks at me weirdly, since we always cook the raw food first. I raise my eyebrows at him and he sighs, handing Cleo a patty and an apple. She eats the first item in six seconds and takes a crunchy bite out of the fruit.
“A woman with an appetite,” Jake remarks, unbuttoning his vest.
She glares at him. “What about that?”
“Nothing.” He shrugs out of his vest and takes the empty water canteen from the basket. “I’ll be back.”
He heads for the nearby stream, which is a few minutes away, leaving me alone again with her. She chews loudly, quickly, like this opportunity for food might disappear at any second. I notice the dirt streaked down her cheeks, like she tried to rub herself clean but didn’t entirely succeed. 
“So what are you two doing here?” She asks.
“We came to see the waterfall,” I say. I have to crane my head to see her because she’s sitting to my side. “It’s not hard to get there since there’s a sort-of path from the road-”
“The road?” She almost drops her apple. “There’s a road nearby?”
“Yes, there’s a pathway that leads there. This is a well-travelled waterfall.”
She closes her eyes. “I’ve been trying to find the road for many days.”
I look at her for explanation, but none comes. She asks if I’m hungry, and holds her apple to my mouth. I take a deep bite. The juices run down my chin, but she’s already looking away, distracted. 
“Which way is the road?” She asks.
My tongue strains over my chin as I try in vain to clean myself. “To the west,” I say. “Perhaps a few hours. I doubt you can reach it by dark.”
“And the waterfall?”
“Also a few hours. We are at the halfway point.”
Cleo sighs deeply. She unearths a roll from the basket and we share it. My brother returns as she is swiping the crumbs from my chest. Jake eyes her suspiciously as he uncaps the filled canteen and takes a swig. We’ve already got kindling prepared, so he lights it with a match, and soon the undersides of our faces are bathed in the fire’s warmth. Jake tosses in the potatoes and passes Cleo the canteen. We talk amicably as the fire replaces the sun as our light, Jake and I revisiting tales from our work as merchants. 
“One time,” Jake says, tossing a potato peel into the flames, “Elijah convinced the mayor of Dagshire- that’s a fishing town- to buy 40 sets of tap-dancing shoes. He said it was for the survival of the next generation.”
Cleo raises an eyebrow at me, folding her arms. 
“Well, they had a problem,” I say. “The women there are usually healers, and they found the local men to be below them. Fishing was a brainless job, they said. Many were finding husbands elsewhere.”
“Let me guess,” Cleo says, a smile leaking onto her face. “You told the mayor to teach them dancing?”
I grin. “I hear that Dagshire now has three tap-dancing events in the year. I guess women like a man who can dance.”
Jake rolls his eyes. “You think you’re such a salesman. You’ve just got a pretty face. Opinion, Cleo?”
I lick my lips. “Jake-”
Cleo holds up a hand, and proceeds to scrutinize me. Her eyes rove from my unkempt hair, to the sparse beard framing my chin, down to the front of my white tunic, unlaced to my mid-chest. I feel my neck heating up.
She cocks her head. “He’s not… terrible to look at.”
I snort. “I’m pretty sure people notice the chair my brother hauls me around in before they notice my face.”
“Oh hush,” Jake says. He starts to pack up what’s left of the food. “You wouldn’t believe how many prostitution offers this man has received. We could have been rich.”
Cleo tosses a branch into the dying fire. My stomach is sated, and the urge to empty my bladder presses heavily on me. I watch her closely through flickering, smoky air. I have the feeling she’ll be staying with us for a while, judging by her half-closed eyes.
Jake is sitting with his chin in his fist, tracing slow, contemplative circles on the forest floor.
“Jake,” I say.
He snaps up. “Yes?”
I bite my lip. “I… Um. I…”
“God’s ears. Spit it out.”
I close my eyes. I don’t think I can wait much longer. Jake tosses a twig at me. “What?”
Cleo watches us intently. I don’t know why my heart is pounding, or why I feel such crushing shame. It’s a simple thing.
Jake groans. “Elijah, what?”
“I have to relieve myself,” I say quietly.
He sits up straight. “Oh. Oh, of course. I’m so sorry.” He scrambles to his feet. “Right. Let’s…”
“It’s alright,” I say, as a shiver runs through my body. “Just… quickly.”
He nods fervently. I feel Cleo’s eyes on me as my brother scoops me up from under my knees and behind my back. My legs swing as he carries me out of the clearing. My bladders feels like it might burst.
When we are a few trees deep, Jake sets me down quickly, all crooked over the damp grass, and unbuckles my belt. He tugs down my trousers and drawers, pulling them free over my shoes. This is all in minutes- he’s gotten accustomed to this routine. Then he hooks me under the arms and hauls me onto a rock, sitting me up and holding me like that.
The stone is cold beneath my bare skin, but I haven’t begun to urinate. My penis rests on the edge of the rock, between my naked legs. My chest heaves, in and out.
“I think you need to calm down,” Jake says, his voice emanating from right behind my ear.
“I think you need to hush,” I say sharply.
 His fingers tighten around my torso. “Sorry.”
I look up at the sky, the color of cold, dark water. “No, it’s fine. Really. It’s-”
“Oh. Hey.”
We both look down as a stream snakes down the side of the stone, pooling in the soft earth and then dissipating. My body can finally melt into sweet relief. When the stream turns to a drip and then dries up, Jake drags me back onto the ground to dress me.
“You have to stop with Cleo,” I say. My face is inches from a sharply scented plant.
“Stop what?” Jake pushes my head from the plant.
“You understand my meaning. You… you asked her if she found me attractive. It’s such a tease.”
Jake sighs, my drawers bunched in his hand. “I don’t know why you think so.”
 I hate when he gets like this. I look away as he pulls my undergarments over my crotch, and then gets to work with my trousers.
We’re silent until he’s finished. He lifts me with a groan. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“Oh, hush. You’re not even thirty.”
When we get back to our campground, Cleo’s got her handkerchief all tied up. She averts her eyes, and I don’t blame her. Jake hefts me in his arms. I’m aware of how I must seem to her, helpless, like a baby. A man who needs his brother to feed him, clothe him, help him urinate. Nothing attractive in that.
“Can you do me a favor?” he asks her. “Do you mind spreading out that blanket? Near the fire would be excellent.”
“Of course.” Cleo scrambles to arrange the blanket, and Jake lays me down on the left side of it, closest to the fire. She hovers behind us, as if scared he’ll drop me. I yawn, and Jake yawns, too.
“I guess I’ll be going,” Cleo says. In the faint light she’s a dark statue, towering above me. “Thank you both for the food.”
Jake claps her back. “You are quite welcome.”
She recedes into the dark instantly, like a cat. I turn my head, but she’s already gone. Something chirps, another thing rustles. The music of the night has already begun.
I lift my head. “Are we crazy?” 
Jake squats down next to me. “What?”
“Cleo just went off into the forest. By herself. At night.”
“So? She’s an adult. We don’t have to watch her.”
“Jake! Would you want to be in the forest alone? Go call her back.”
He pouts. “What if I get lost?”
“She didn’t get far. Just try.” God’s ears, my brother can be such a child sometimes. He stomps off into the brush, and after two seconds I realize that they’ll probably both get shot down by bandits and I’ll die here, alone. A piece of ash flies into my eye.
Fortunately, I hear my brother’s nasally voice almost immediately. I can’t see anything though, with my eye clouding up.
“Elijah said you should come back,” he says. Stupid, talking so loudly in a place like this. I can’t hear Cleo, but soon two shadowed figures emerge from the trees, twigs cracking beneath them.
“You sent for me?” a dismembered voice says. It’s really quite black. She sounds annoyed.
“Yes,” I shoot back, blinking uncontrollably. “Where were you planning on going?”
Her face is lit in orange as Jake revives the fire. “To sleep. What do you want me here for?”
I stare up. What am I supposed to say? Cleo squints at me. “Have you got something in your eye?”
She kneels down. My blinking has quickened, and I believe I’ve begun tearing up. With her thumb, Cleo catches the drop before it can roll down to my ear. I tilt my head in protest, but she holds my chin steady. “Here, don’t move.” With her pinky, she dabs at my eye. “Better?”
Her slender fingers press into my cheek. I swallow a lump. “No, it’s still there.”
She tries again, and after a few seconds my eye stops stinging. She wipes the tears with her fingers, which are dirty, but I don’t mind.
“I asked you to come back,” I say with a sigh, “Because I don’t want you to be cold.”
“I’m alright.”
“Well. It was really because I don’t want you to be alone.”
She hesitates. Even at this angle, where all I can see are sharp shadows, up her nose and all the dirt caked at the roots of her hair, she’s beautiful, with her stubbornly knotted eyebrows and hollow cheeks. Behind us, Jake busies himself setting out his own blanket.
Cleo leans down a little closer. “The truth is… I know there’s water nearby, right? I want to wash up. I haven’t bathed in long time.”
“You want to bathe at night? You can do that tomorrow.”
“Why wait?”
“Have you never visited a forest before?”
Her silence indicates I’ve found my answer. “Please,” I say. “You smell wonderful. Wait until tomorrow.”
Jake coughs. He must have heard that. He yawns again, plopping down onto his blanket. He puts the basket near his feet, close enough to the fire that bears won’t approach it.
Cleo tosses down her handkerchief. “Would you like me to stay?”
I roll my eyes. “Would you like me to like you to stay?”
“Oh, hush!” Jake calls. “Cleo, lie down and hush. Oh, and cover Elijah, please.”
The fire bends as a wind sweeps through the trees. To my exhausted bones, the cold is painful, and I see Cleo wince too. I instruct her to tug the blanket from under me. She holds it like she’s never seen a blanket before. “Now should I…” 
“It’s a present. Enjoy.” I turn my head to the fire.
“I’m not taking your blanket.”
When I don’t answer, she sits down beside my ramrod-straight body. She spreads the blanket over me and then slips in beside me, not a hair touching my skin.
“Elijah?” she whispers.
“Yes?”
“When you sold the tap shoes to that fishing town, who taught them how to dance?”
I turn my head. She’s staring at the stars, eyes glassy with the reflected fire.
“My twin and I.  I read the book, he showcased the dance moves.”
She raises herself to her elbows. “You’re twins?”
“Yes. But I am older than Jake.”
“Goodness gracious. So you’re a twin, and you know how to dance?”
“Yes. And yes, theoretically speaking.”
“I must say, this is not how I imagined my night to be.” She settles down close to me. The side of her hand brushes mine, and I wish I could take hold of her, firmly, the way she held my jaw today. I would roll over and stroke her cheek.
“Sleep well,” she says.
“Anyone want vodka?” Jake asks, and I hear him rummaging in the basket.
I laugh. “No, thank you.”
Cleo’s already motionless.
I fall asleep like that, inches from Cleo, her body stiffer than mine from the cold. When I wake a few hours later, as often happens during the night, her arm is splayed across my chest, face burrowed in my arm, perhaps in hope of some warmth. No smell comes from her, but I can feel her cold fingers and warm breath. I do not sleep again for some time.
>>> 
The front wheel of my chair drops suddenly, and I lurch forward, head almost hitting my knees. Actually, it’s not a chair. More like a wheelbarrow, in which I’ve been folded up and tied down. Jake uses it on bumpy terrain, such as now. But I can never accustom myself to sharply angled ground. I hate it. The only thing that stops me from smashing forward is the bag of provisions on my lap, but I still end up with my back curled forward, chin scratching my trousers.
The wheelbarrow continues to bump along as we descend past a row of gnarly trees. I use this proximity to my thighs to wipe the perspiration from my forehead on my trousers. 
“Jake, stop,” Cleo says.
“That is difficult on an incline,” Jake says, but he pulls me to a halt. Cleo lifts the hem of her shirt and dabs the underside of my face and my forehead, ignoring my protests.
“Don’t do that,” I growl, trying to duck.
“No one offers to wipe my sweat,” Jake says.
 Cleo shrugs, tucking in her shirt. “You didn’t teach me how to catch a fish with my bare hands.”
He resumes pushing, and the jostling begins again. “Oh. And you’re telling me that my crippled brother taught you that.”
“I told her about it,” I say. “She went and did it. While she was bathing.”
“God’s ears,” Jake says, and I can hear him beginning to lose his breath. “Thinks he knows bloody everything.”
“I do,” I say, and Cleo chuckles. I’m glad she decided to join us. I guess our company isn’t too terrible. Alternatively, the terror of being alone for so many days has gotten to her, and she craves the companionship of whichever humans she can find. Jake is surely grateful, too, because at midmorning, during a water break, Cleo offers to take the handles of the wheelbarrow.
“You think I’d let a woman push my brother around,” Jake scoffs, swiping at his forehead with his sleeve.
“You look like you might pass out,” Cleo says. “Anyway, feel my arm.”
“I love squeezing things,” Jake says, and I shoot him a dirty look. He grips Cleo’s flexed upper arm. I can’t see anything under her ballooning sleeves, but he looks impressed.
“I think Elijah wants a feel too,” Jake says, taking another drink of water. He hasn’t relinquished control of my chair yet.
“I never said that,” I say.
Cleo smiles and gets down on one knee. She takes my limp hand and cups it over her forearm, putting her hand on top. Then she squeezes. Her arm is firm, like squeezing a rock. I meet her eyes. She folds my hand back in my lap.
“Are you some sort of strongman?” Jake grumbles, as he steps aside. 
“I’m a water-carrier by day,” Cleo says, pushing me forward at a brisk pace. Jake skips a step ahead of us, having been demoted to branch-sweeping duty.
“And by night?” I ask.
“I write stories,” she says.
We reach the waterfall at around noon. Jake switched back to the wheelbarrow a while ago, even though Cleo complains about pushing significantly less than he does. The forest changes as we approach the water: sounds get softer, with only the occasional chirp piercing the air. The trees are knotted thickly around each other, and Jake has to resort to walking backwards, dragging me down the overgrown path. I hear the distant crash of the fall, and I see Cleo’s brow creasing.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, my shoulders swaying from side to side.
“Is that… the waterfall?” she says.
I exchange a glance with my brother.
“Never seen one?” Jake says, pausing to mop his brow.
“I grew up in the city,” she says, pushing aside a low-hanging branch. “The only falling water was acidic rain. I know what it looks like, though, I’ve seen paintings.”
Her smugness fades away when we step out of the muggy shadows, into a day so bright that there are orange spots in my eyes. Beside me, Cleo gasps, but since I am facing my brother, all I can see is the mossy path we took to get here. Jake lowers the handles of the wheelbarrow, and I tip forward again.
“It’s… enormous,” she says, her normally robust voice hushed. I wait for Jake to make some comment about what’s in his drawers, like ‘yes, that is what she said,’ but he just pants, tired but in awe.
“Turn me around,” I say. 
“You think Elijah’s too bossy, Cleo?” Jake says.
Cleo rolls her eyes, nudging Jake to the side with her elbow. In one heavy motion she swivels me around.
The waterfall is taller than any building I’ve seen, cascading down the side of a scraggly mountain. It never fails to knock the wind out of me, each time I see it. On the rock face there are inlaid pockets with bushes growing, and little falls, spurting out and getting lost in the thundering stream. The smell of leaves and dampness is so strong I can almost taste them, or perhaps that’s the spray, carried to us in the moist air. We’re at the foot of a wide pool framed by boulders. It leads away to a runny creek, probably the same water source as we used yesterday.  
“That’s our rock,” Jake says, pointing to a broad-faced boulder that flirts with the edge of the water. It’s inclined slightly, at a right angle from the view. By ‘our rock,’ he means that’s where he drags me every year when we visit this place.
He cracks his knuckles. My body can breathe, finally, as he lifts me from the metal embrace of the wheelbarrow. I feel damp and rusty from the lack of circulation. He’s done this a million times- carried me in his arms from place to place- but with Cleo watching, I feel stiff and awkward. We circle to the edge of our rock and he sets me down a bit wobbly, and I feel Cleo’s hand on my back, guiding me down onto the boulder. After throwing off the picnic basket and his shirt, Jake gets a knee up and hops onto the rock beside me. His springiness is in such contrast to my lack of movement. On my other side, Cleo clambers up, her dirty red satchel in hand, a bit unsteady.
“Can I give you a hand?” I say, bending my neck at an awkward angle to see her.
She smiles. “How chivalrous.”
To my left, Jake looks like he’s asleep, but I know he’s not. His body makes all sorts of micromovements- twitches, blinks, that only cease when he’s sleeping. When we were children, he was never able to opt out of his housework by feigning sleep. I always did. Yes, I helped with housework. I was always in charge of keeping an eye on the children. If anyone broke anything or tried to start a fire, I would holler. I did this until all my younger siblings were grown, and I realized I was the eternal child, always needing to be fed supper and put to bed. My mother was relieved when Jake and I left home to start our own business, thus transferring all care to him. 
I realize my eyes have been closed when they fly open, at the sound of a splash. I look to my left, and see that all of Jake’s clothing are in a heap where he was lying seconds ago. I lift my head to see him emerge, spluttering, right at the base of the waterfall. The water’s deep there. I watch bemusedly as he splashes, chasing a dragonfly.
To my right, Cleo’s up on her elbows, staring straight ahead, still as startled as if she’d found a path to heaven. 
“Have you really never seen a waterfall?” I ask.
At first it doesn’t look like she’s heard me. Then she rolls to the side to face me. “I’ve never even left my town before,” she says. Her mouth stays open, like she’s searching for words. I notice the faint scars on the side of her cheek and neck. Then, I see more- creeping out of the hem of her shirt, disappearing into her breasts, white trails that look years old, but haven’t been erased.
“Has someone hurt you?” I blurt out, then regret it immediately. Her gaze flickers down, and she folds into herself, pulling her hands into her sleeves to hide more marks, round ones, ones I hadn’t noticed.
“Cleo, I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s alright.” She stays as she is, staring at me unabashedly with her gray-green eyes. “Did your father ever hit you?”
Ah.
“My mother did, once when I was fifteen,” I say slowly. “She was frustrated and tired. She slapped me.”
“What did you do?”
“I wet the bed.”
This makes her laugh, but she sobers up quickly. Her fingers wander to the cuff of my sleeve, where there’s a little brown button. She unclasps it and fits it in the loop again.
“My father was a blacksmith,” Cleo says, and my heart sinks. She fingers the button. “My mother was the town laundress, so I had to stay in my father’s workshop. He was frustrated, too. But not tired. He would burn me. It was always for little things- the big things, like if I broke something, he’d just yell. But when I handed him the wrong tool or dropped something, he’d just grab my arm calmly, press things onto me, things that hadn’t cooled yet.”
She laces the button in and out, concentrating hard. Then she drops it and looks up. “And you know the worst part?”
I tilt my head up.
“He wasn’t even drunk. Never, only at night. His hands were so steady. All my friends who got hit, their fathers were alcoholics, out of control, not themselves. But not mine.” 
She exhales shakily. Some part of me sensed this, the pain hiding behind her taut jaw. We lie in silence for a while, watching the falls, and the bugs jumping on wet and dry land.  “Come here,” I say softly.
Her eyebrows knot. “Why?”
“So I can pretend to hug you.”
She hesitates. “Alright,” she says, and arranges herself so she’s in the crook of my arm. I nuzzle the top of head, breathing in the gentle scent in her hair. the only real physical comfort I can give. She sighs into me and puts a hand over my chest, anchoring herself there. “I’m sorry for all the chattering,” she says, muffled into my shirt.
In this moment, Cleo seems frail, the first bit of weakness I’ve seen since I’ve met her. I’m scared if I breathe she’ll float away. I want to hold her forever.
“Don’t ever apologize,” I say. “Speak as long as you like.”
After a few moments, she does.
“It all fits together, see?” she says. “All those burns- they’re the reason I left. All the stories I write are about pain, about a squashed existence. Even though I left my childhood home years ago, I could never escape from that identity. That’s why I needed to get out.”
  “So you just… walked into a forest?”
“Yes. I travelled for a few days on the road, stopping in inns, but then I decided I wanted to be in the quiet, among trees. But I got lost.”
“Then you found us.”
“Yes.” She sits up suddenly, leaving my arm cold. “And you have so many stories, Elijah. You’ve lived, even though you...  can’t move.”
“I have,” I say quietly. “I’m a lucky man.”
Another loud splash breaks the stillness. Jake sloshes towards us, the water knee deep. Cleo averts her eyes.
“Had a nice swim?” I ask.
“Oh, excellent,” Jake says with gusto. He shakes his head like a puppy, spraying us both. It both irks and amazes me how comfortable he is in his naked body. Of course, he hasn’t got anything to hide. 
He clambers up next to me, holding his shirt and the picnic basket, leaving dark drops on the dusty grey rockface. Cleo’s scooted back to her former position, a few inches from me. Jake drapes his shirt over his midsection and rummages through the basket, pulling out a dented pear. He takes a sloppy bite.
“Elijah, can I sit you up?” Cleo asks chirpily.
I glance over at my brother. When I don’t respond, she coughs, her cheeks reddening. “I just thought-”
“Alright,” I sigh. “Why not.”
Jake eyes me bemusedly, remaining quiet. The fact that he is enjoying this so much makes it so that I must protest. I keep my face neutral as Cleo slides behind me, then grabs me from beneath my arms, hauling me up against her chest. I can feel her breasts press into my back, as she hoists me further, until I’m in a somewhat upright position, my head on her shoulder.
With whatever dignity I have left, I mutter, “Would you like to split a pear?”
My brother tosses the fruit our way. Cleo catches it with her free hand and offers me a bite. We eat in silence, the three of us, basking in sunshine, in the buzzing, roaring secret oasis that is ours for now. When Jake is done, he twists and tosses the core into the forest. Cleo and I take longer, her hand fluttering over my chest absentmindedly as she chews.
She eventually sets me back down on the rock. While the height of the day is making me drowsy, Jake grows restless. His hair is mostly dry. He scoots toward me, and unties the string on my tunic in one pull.
My head shoots up. “What are you doing?”
He pulls back, stung. “Don’t you want to go for a swim?”
“Not now,” I say. I make the decision, in this moment, not even sure why I feel this way. “I’m… tired. And I don’t feel like getting wet.”
“Really. We came all this way.”
“I’m tired.”
“Ah. That’s fine.” He sounds hurt. This trip is one of the highlights of his year, and it’s not easy bringing me into the heart of the forest. Neither of us is looking at Cleo, but I’m sure he thinks this has to do with her, and he’s right. 
For her part, she’s a silent presence at my side. I know she won’t go in if I don’t. The air is charged now, the heat oppressive. Jake slings his shirt from his privates, and slides back into the water, alone.
We spend the rest of the afternoon watching the water draw up against the boulders, and recede, creating foamy little rapids. Jake doesn’t say much to me when he gets out. We find a spot right beside the falls to camp, somewhere shady and hidden. This will be our last night sleeping here, under the dark sway of rustling branches. Jake helps Cleo catch another few fish for us to cook, using the method I taught her.
When darkness falls, she settles in under my blanket, her leg curling over mine. I’ve come to crave her touch, and the more she gives, the more I want. The crackling fire and scuttle of nocturnal animals fills me with unease, a restlessness mirrored in Cleo, who squirms against me, eyes fluttering open every once in a while.
We reach a point where the two of us are staring up, eyes half-lidded. She’s a silhouette beside me.
“Cleo?” I say, my breath in her hair.
“Yes?” she asks, unmoving.
My heart hammering, I plant a kiss on her forehead. “Can I do that?”
Her breathing is loud. “Yes.”
I peck her gently again, but her forehead is as far as I can reach. She rolls over, hair falling over her shoulders, and kisses me without restraint, our tongues wrapping each other, her fingers raking again and again through my hair. The sound of our breathing fills the air, heavy and searching. 
She pries open her shirt and through the faint light I can see her breast hang out, and she moves up so my lips can touch the hot skin there, feel out the curve, and her erect nipple. She shoves my shirt up over my nipples, and her hand moves down into my drawers to clutch my hardened penis, freeing it from constraint.  She rubs the skin vigorously and I bite down so as not to scream, driving my head into her shoulder, trying to muffle my grunts as I finally ejaculate onto my chest. I lick my lips to find them ringed with sweat. 
Cleo collapses down next to me, and she makes a little joyful sound, almost a laugh.
 “Now I’ve got to clean you up, don’t I?” she whispers.
“If you don’t mind,” I say. My chest rises and falls as she wipes me down with a cloth, and a bit of water.
“Now you,” I say breathlessly, when she’s pulled my tunic back down and retied the strings. Her dark figure sits over me, her body language unmoving. 
“Elijah, I don’t… I can’t risk a child.”
For a second, confusion swirls between us, until I finally understand. “No,” I say softly. “Come to my mouth.”
She glances over at Jake, who’s snoring softly. I turn my head and kiss the only thing I can reach, her knee, imploring her to come closer. “I know what I’m doing,” I say. “You’ll like it.”

Slowly, slowly, she raises herself to her knees, dropping her drawers, the only thing she’s got on. She crawls up and swings a leg over me, engulfing me in the sharp smell of her vagina. Suddenly my vision is engulfed by her lean thighs and the bush between, and I flick my tongue up.
“Elijah,” she gasps, and I almost smile because I think she likes it, a lot. I probe further, and she keeps saying my name, between breaths for air, “Elijah, God’s ear, Elijah.”
Later, when she’s once again cradled in my arm, we both fall asleep almost instantly. Nestled under this scratchy blanket, Cleo breathing into my neck, I feel warmer than the midday sun.
>>> 
The next morning, I wake with a crick in my neck to the chatter of birds, to patches of light dancing across the faded blanket. I strain my head to the side, stretching, and Cleo stirs. I notice the crown of freckles that glide over her nose, and I wonder if she has them in the winter as well. I try to imagine her bundled in an overcoat, fat boots pushing through the snow, the heavy saddle of her water pails pressing into her back. But my mind’s eye wanders stubbornly back to the falls yesterday, where her bright hair is tied back messily, her shirtsleeves fluttering in the breeze, and she’s laughing, her teeth glinting with daylight. 
Now, she fidgets, first pushing herself deeper into sleep, tugging the blanket about her. She gives up and finally comes to a stop, her eyes cracking open, a wide yawn escaping her lips.
“Why are you staring at me?” she asks in a cracked, sleepy voice.
“Because you’re beautiful,” I whisper, surprised at the gruffness of my own unoiled voice. She traces a finger down the side of my jaw, which is prickly, and moves down to my Adam’s apple. She leans forward and kisses my cheek, pushing at the hair crowding my forehead, and then settles back, content.
I turn my head to see Jake watching us, his blanket still framing his chin. He rolls over quickly.
“Come into the waterfall with me,” Cleo murmurs, not having noticed my brother.
I turn my head to her. Our faces are both on their sides, our noses almost touching. “Now?” I say.
“Why not? It’s your last chance. I can carry you, I’m sure I can.”
“I… I don’t know,” I say lamely. 
She sits up, yawning again. “Well, think about it. I’m going to take care of business.”
She moves from underneath the blanket, and I shiver. As soon I can no longer hear the crack of twigs, Jake sits up, stretching. He then gets to his feet, draping his blanket like a cape over his shoulders. Rubbing his eyes, he takes a swig from the bottle that we left lying near the now-dead fire.
“Jake?”
“Yes?”
“Did I-” I swallow. “Did I ruin the trip for you?”
He looks up. “What? God’s ears, no. I’m happy for you.”
I snort. “Really?”
He shrugs, then comes to sit cross-legged beside me. He hauls me up, like Cleo did yesterday, against his chest, and give me the bottle. The vodka tears at my throat as it goes down.
“Thank you,” I say, grimacing.
“No- see, no, Elijah. Don’t do that. Don’t thank me.” 
I tilt my head back. 
He stares at the bits of sky above. “I always thought- God’s ears, this isn’t easy to say. I always thought it wasn’t fair that you’re the cripple. You and I- we’re the same. Almost. So why wasn’t it me?”
“That doesn’t matter,” I say irritably. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be in bed at home, being fed porridge by Mama. You got me out of there.”
“What I’m saying is, I’m not upset about Cleo. I’m glad we found her. That you found her.”
“Because you pity me.”  
“No… It’s because of her. Who she is.” Jake takes another swig, and I can feel the liquid go down his throat. “Let’s be honest, Elijah, some of the women who bed you, they think you’re a freak.”
“Thank you.”
“You know it’s true. But Cleo… I think she’s real. I think you can trust her.”
I wonder how much he saw, or heard, from last night. “She wants to take me into the waterfall.” I crane my head up so I can see his face. I’m usually the expert on everything, the one with all the facts, but this is something that’s more Jake’s area.
“I heard,” he says. “It’s not conventional. But then, you’re not conventional.”
“Well… I think I’d better pee before I go.”
His laugh thunders through me. “Good thinking.”
A few minutes later, when he carries me back to the sleeping ground, Cleo’s already back. She’s standing in the spot where we slept, glancing around as if she lost something. She steps over to us hesitantly, her eyes trained on me.
“Can I steal you for a bit?” she asks.
“Finally, yes,” Jake says in my stead. “Take him, please.”
“You won’t drop me?” I say.
She shakes her head solemnly. “I promise.”
Still, as Jake helps her position her arms beneath me, the two of them tangling in the exchange of me, I get a dropping sensation in my stomach, as if I might tumble to the ground at any moment. I feel her long fingers gripping me, and then after a split-second where I feel like I’ve been dropped, she’s got me. Jake steps back, hands on his hips. I’ve never seen him from this perspective.
We trudge towards the waterfall, a thirty second walk. While I am probably the same height as Cleo, I am awfully skinny, and she is awfully strong. She sets me down on the boulder and there’s a terrifying moment where I think she might drop me, but then my back is on hard ground.
“You did great,” I say, and she beams, standing at the base of the boulder in front of me. Behind her, the majestic fall rises, cascading angrily into the pool, thundering like always.
“Shall I undress first?” she says coyly.
I put on a fake air of nonchalance. “I wouldn’t mind.”
She folds her arms. “Are you sure? I have a lot of scars.”
I wish I could just lift her clothing off myself. Like always, I have to vocalize anything. I raise my head and clear my throat. “Cleo? Please undress for me. I know your body is exceedingly beautiful and I’d like to see it in the light.”
She rolls her eyes, but a blush creeps onto her face, and she pulls her shirt over her head, then drops her trousers, and steps out of her boots, then her drawers. 
“I was right,” I say.
“Hush,” she says, “Because it’s your turn now.”
She climbs up onto the rockface and slides my tunic up. I lift my head to help her pull it over. She finally pulls it free, and now my flat chest is on display. I’m the color of faded wood, the lightest shade of brown, much darker than Cleo. I find myself searching her for a reaction, as she unclasps my trousers and tugs them down slowly. My legs bend awkwardly, thin from disuse, and my feet flop to the side. Finally, she pulls down my drawers, finding a surprise inside, though it deflates quickly.
“Wow,” she says. I notice there are also freckles on her breasts and collarbone.
“Yes,” I say, blood creeping to my cheeks. “It does that… Well, you have an effect.”
She laughs. “Are you ready?”
“I’m very ready.”
Actually, I’m very nervous. Cleo gathers me into her arms again, this time skin on skin, dark on light. She wades into the water, which is only calf-deep at the outset.
“Is it cold?” I ask, peering down over her shoulder.
She stops, hoisting me in her arms. “Are you worried?”
“I don’t know.” My voice comes out gruff again. I clear my throat. “A little.”
“It’s alright,” she says softly. “I’ve got you.”
The water gets deeper as she sloshes forward, towards the fall. The spray starts to prick us, until we are both covering in mist. I blink it away. The ground must be slippery, and this is her first time. Then, I feel cool water slap up against me.
My body tenses. “God’s ears, Cleo-”
Her lips brush my ear. “It’s alright, Elijah. I’m not going to drop you.” She takes another step, and then we’re submerged to our shoulders, the water shocking us both. She laughs, and lets down my feet so that now her arms are both wrapped around my chest, me facing her. My breaths are shallow.
“Close your eyes and breathe,” she says, and I do, and soon I realize that she’s gripping me firmly and she won’t let go. The waterfalls crashes down behind us, and when I open my eyes, she’s right there in front of me. I lean in and tug on her soft lips, and she tugs back, and we kiss beneath the roar of the falls.