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My Dear Sweet Innocent Child
I walked quietly, grateful that my flat-soled well-worn Converse made no sound on the linoleum floor. I grimaced as a machine somewhere to my right beeped loudly, a sound made so much louder by the silence that resounded through the hallways. I glared in the general direction of the unknown machine. I kept walking as silently as a klutz like me is able until I reached room 365, where my precious child was staying. I opened the door slowly, peeking inside. When I saw the angel was awake, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Hey, darling, how you doing?” I asked playfully. Ross looked up and smiled back.
“Hey yourself.” He waved almost shyly at me, a playful glint in his beautiful grey eyes. I grinned at him and closed the door softly behind me. I tossed him the paper airplane I had been carrying. He reached up and caught it. He glanced at me, puzzled.
“Gee, Wiz…thanks?” Ever since Ross was a baby he had called me Wiz; the result of a mangled attempt at my name, Iris. It turned into one of those cute baby names that stuck because I liked it and so did he. Now even my close friends called me Wiz. I laughed and ruffled his baby blonde hair that had finally grown back. “Open it, kid.” Ross began to unfold the plane, resentfully attempting to flatten his now mussed up hair with one hand. I grabbed a chair and spun it around, leaning on the back so I was facing Ross’s bed. He froze and looked up at me with a funny look on his face, the kind of look you give when you’re opening a present and you guess what you think it is.
“You didn’t.” he whispered in shock. I smiled at him. “Did I?” I murmured. He re-read the paper, making sure he got it right the first time. He looked up at me with his mouth hanging open. I let him hang there for a moment, then said,
“Hey, Ross? You trying to catch a fly or something?” I tapped his chin softly and he closed his gaping mouth. He smoothed out the paper with trembling fingers.
“Jeez, Wiz, why’d you have to fold it?” his voice held a hint of a whine, but he was holding it back because he knew I couldn’t stand whining. I grinned.
“I knew it make you mad. But,” I continued as he opened his mouth furiously to argue, “I also knew how much this matters to you. So. I have the original at home, in a folder.” I chuckled at the expression on his face and blew him a kiss. “What kind of sister would I be if I folder your letter from The Edge? I’d be horrible.” He nodded vigorously. I laughed and he smiled.
“I’ve missed your laugh, Wiz. Thanks for bringing this,” he added, “It made my day.” I smiled.
“Always at your service, my lord.” I smiled as he stuck his tongue out at me. “What, no flipping me off today?” I asked jokingly. Ross smiled and shook his head.
“Nah, I’ve been visiting the younger kids and I don’t want to get into bad habits. Although,” he added sheepishly, “It seems as though they’ve got some habits into me.” I grinned.
“Little kids?” I asked casually. He glanced at me and smiled, seeing right through my charade.
“Yep, little kids. Mostly the ones that are on the mend and have too much energy to stay in their beds all day. I don’t mind, though. I like them. A few of them remind me of me when I was younger.” I rolled my eyes at his sudden cockiness.
“So, what, are they stubborn and too brave for their own good?” I asked sarcastically. He nodded, saying, “Yeah, and a few of them are going to be pretty good-looking, I’d guess.” He grinned as I rolled my eyes and swatted at his arm.
“Well, in any case I’m glad you’re out visiting.” I conceded. Ross would be able to tell that that was the reason I’d asked in the first place. He nodded and reached for my hand.
“I told you, Wiz, the docs say I’m on the mend, for good this time. All my CT scans came back clean, and I’ve been feeling a gazillion times better. Seriously!” he added when he saw my eyebrow raised in disbelief. I smiled at my little brother. Although, I thought, he’s not really so little anymore, is he? My once small darling child was probably taller than me by a good foot, and I was quite proud of myself for being five foot four. Maybe not a foot, I conceded, glancing up and down Ross’ length. I glanced up at his face and smiled at him.
“Hey, you, quit checking me out. I haven’t worked out in, like, two months.” I laughed and said,
“Oh, believe me honey, it wasn’t you I was looking at.” He raised an eyebrow. “Got a thing for hospital blankets now, sis?” he asked seriously. I let out a dignity-stripping squawk of laughter and smacked half-heartedly at his arm again. I hadn’t quite believed that he was getting stronger, and still didn’t trust myself to hit him playfully the way I used to. When he was up and running and swimming again, then I would hit him. I glanced at my watch and sighed, the laughter running out of my system and the smile sliding of my face.
“Hey, buddy, I gotta go. I have work.” His face fell faster than mine did, and my heart broke before he covered his disappointment with a smile.
“Yeah, gotta pay those bills, huh?” He was trying to cover the fact that he didn’t want me to leave, but I heard his voice crack before it strengthened. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I coughed and said with an attempt at a smile, “Yeah.” Ross sat up in his bed and held out his arms, the way a little kid would when they want to be picked up. I grinned and gave him a hug. He’s really very tall, I thought as my arms wrapped around his torso. He’s still sitting on the bed, and I’m standing!
“Don’t grow too much between today and tomorrow, kid, alright?” I said as I ran my hand over my face. He grinned and nodded.
“You got it, boss.” He said jokingly. He kissed my forehead and pushed me softly towards the door. “Go on. Don’t be late for me.” I kissed his forehead and left. As I left I saw him re-reading the letter from The Edge and I smiled.
I rushed into the Barnes and Noble that I worked in and practically ran to the back to drop my bag off and grab my headset and walkie-talkie. I came out, smoothing my waist length blonde hair, so like my brother’s, just in time to see my manager coming back. Probably looking for me. I groaned silently and hurried for the front desk, where I was checking people out for my first hour. I glanced around and saw my friend, Rick, heading out for floor duty. I jogged to catch up with him. Looking good today, buddy. As usual. I glanced a little wishfully at his curly brown hair, my fingers itching to play with it. He had the most beautiful silky curls that probably belonged on a girl’s head. I had convinced him years earlier that they looked just great on his head too. They did look amazing; I loved his hair. I think if he cut it I’d die.
“Hey, Rick!” I said. He looked at me and smiled. Ah, yes. A smile already after two words. My lucky day! Rick had the kind of smile that was infections and gorgeous and playful all in one. A day without Rick’s smile was like a day without, I dunno, without air.
“What’s up, Wiz?” I felt the usual thrill at his husky voice using my childhood nickname. I nodded out at the maze of books stacked precariously on tables.
“Going for floor?” I asked. He nodded miserably. “Want to trade? I’ve got check out, and I hate it.” He knew that, but complaining is always fun, no matter how often the complaint has been voiced. I also knew he would want to trade, because I knew he hated floor, but it’s polite to ask. His face lit up and he nodded vigorously. Oh hey, I found the sun. Inside. I’d been wondering where it went.
“You mind?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Nah, go for it.” I peered at his face. “You alright?” he hesitated and I cut him off.
“Coffee. After your shift. You’ve got that look, man.” I was hoping with a sinking feeling that I was wrong, but I had a feeling I was right. Rick smiled sheepishly and nodded, then hurried for the registers. I smiled, content that Rick was happy, and headed off for my double shift of floor duty. In my head, I was jumping up and down. Floor duty was my favorite.
“Yes, ma’am, I know that it’s on the reading list. That’s probably why we don’t have any in stock right now. I can put one on order, if you like-” I sighed as the woman began a tirade about how she was terribly disappointed that we didn’t have a copy for her and she would be speaking to the manager about this, you know. I glanced at the woman’s daughter, who was slowly turning redder and redder and edging away from her mother slowly. I smiled at her and nodded toward the bookshelves. She smiled gratefully and walked quickly away from her mother, casting malevolent glances over her shoulder. Finally I interrupted and said,
“Here, ma’am, tell me the name of the book again?” I opened a new search window in the store computer and poised my hands over the keyboard.
“All Quiet on the Western Front. My daughter needs it for school.” The woman snapped. I nodded as I typed. It came up as the first entry; several mother’s daughters had needed this book for school, evidently; it had been searched a lot recently. I bit my lip and braced myself for the tirade sure to come.
“Well, ma’am it doesn’t look like there’s any on the floor right now, but let me go ask the manager, alright? I’ll be back.” I turned away before she could say anything and ran for the front of the store where Tony, my manager, was selling Nooks.
“Hey, Tony? Got a second?” He glanced my way and nodded. “There’s a woman upstairs who wants All Quiet on the Western Front. I know,” I added as he opened his mouth to speak, “I know we don’t have any in stock, I looked, twice, but she’s vicious and I told her I’d ask, so I’m asking. And, also, she’s probably going to complain about my service, and I-” Tony patted my shoulder and said,
“Hey, hon, don’t worry about it. I’ll go talk to her and try and get her off your back. Get back upstairs?” I nodded and told him where Mom-zilla was. I watched from downstairs as Tony worked his manager magic on her, and then snuck upstairs. As I was passing a customer kiosk, a voice said, “Um,” very loudly. I glanced around. W-o-w, I thought, and they say hotties don’t read! This guy had dark hair that was swept back from a widow’s peak and the bluest eyes ever. He had stubble along his strong jaw and semi-nerd glasses perched on his straight nose. Even with the nerd look, though, I could tell this guy belonged at the beach, with surfboard in hand. He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen, and I had thought that about Ross and then Rick.
“Yeah?” I asked with a smile. I never liked saying “Can I help you?” It just sounds cheesy. “What’s up?” I impatiently flicked my hair from my eyes. The guy smiled sheepishly at me and said in a deep baritone voice,
“I’ve been looking for these two for almost an hour. And it’s a little depressing but I can’t find them.” He showed me a scrap of napkin with two titles scrawled on it. I looked at it for a second and then I looked at him for a second and asked,
“Why didn’t you just ask?” Man, this guy had a good smile.
“I always feel like if I ask, they’re going to lead me right to the book without looking twice and then I’ll just feel stupid for needing help in the first place.” I laughed softly as I led him towards the shelves that had the first of his two.
“I used to feel like that too,” I said as I plucked his book of the shelf and handed it to him, “But then I started working here.” He made a face at me and I laughed.
“You know, actually, I think the other one is right….here,” I said, turning around to face the other shelf. “There you go! Is that all you wanted?” I asked a little sadly. I really liked looking at him, and he seemed nice. He seemed to sense my disappointment, because he laughed richly and said,
“I’m afraid that’s it, unless you’ve got suggestions?” I looked at him suspiciously. There was that gorgeous smile again. He seemed to think that my brain would go blank at it and I’d start stammering and maybe I’d even turn red. Oh, wouldn’t that be simply darling of me?
“You know,” I said slowly, “There’s a list of staff picks.” His smile wavered but came back strong.
“Oh, I know. I just wanted it from you.” He’s trying so hard. And it’s not working. Ross would get a kick out of this guy.
“Tell you what. Come back next week and I’ll have a list.” I smiled up at him. It seems like the world’s ambition is to make every single living soul taller than me. As much as I wanted to defy his expectations of me, I couldn’t help wanting to see him again. Getting him to come back tomorrow was my attempt at playing hard to get. His ocean blue eyes fell but picked back up at my smile.
“Sure. See you later…?” he left it hanging and I stared at him a second.
“Wiz. No, wait,” I said quickly. “Sorry. I’m Iris.” I stuck out my hand to try to cover up my momentary lapse of memory for my own name. He shook it, looking shocked at how strong my handshake was. Something my brother had taught me. He stood in front of me for a minute longer than he needed to before I said,
“So…bye.” I gave a little wave and stuck my other hand in the back pocket of my jeans. His cheeks flushed and he said, “Yeah, bye.” He gave a sheepish little smile and started to leave but then turned around and said over his shoulder,
“I’m Archer, by the way. See you soon, Iris.” And he left. I leaned my shoulder against the bookshelf nearest me and crossed my feet at the ankles. I watched Archer leave and shook my head, but in spite of myself I smiled.
“Thanks, have a great day, bye” I must have said that a million times. All day I kept looking for Wiz, then remembering I was going to eat with Kate, and then seeing Wiz walk by and admiring her shiny hair, and sometimes with a little more embarrassment, her jean-clad legs. I had watched her transfer from her slightly pudgy middle school physique to the varsity tennis player- swimmer-runner’s body she had now. I used to joke about how muscular her arms were, but her strong shoulders really did look good in any shirt she wore, and her strong collarbone was easy to admire. Wiz walked by again, this time twisting her hair through her hands and pulling it over one shoulder. She rested her hands on her hips, her bright green eyes sweeping the floor for something that needed doing. I saw her give a silent sigh of exasperation as she started to organize the clearance table. I smiled. You’ve got OCD, Wiz. How many times have I said it? I thought towards her. Ah, how I wished we shared a mental link. The long hours would melt away if I could hear what goes on in her pretty head when she bites her lip, thinking, or when she watches someone walk by and rolls her eyes. I glanced at my watch and groaned. I had a while before coffee still. The hours would not be melting anywhere; however hard I wished, no mental link had appeared yet. I greeted the girl who was buying a huge stack of paperback fiction. I glanced at the title of one and, trying to make conversation, I said,
“I liked this one,” She looked up at me from her phone and said flatly,
“Oh.” She resumed her texting. Well. That was rude. I remembered ruefully that all girls couldn’t be Wiz. I shook my head and waved off the rude teenager and welcomed the next customer, a frazzled looking father who had two small boys with him, both of whom were touching everything and asking for it in young, high voices. I smiled apologetically at him as I bagged his three Nicholas Sparks novels, apparently for his wife, and waved at the boys as they bounced off after their father. I sighed I faced the afternoon in front of me. I missed Wiz and her smile and her snapping green eyes and the way she impatiently flicked her hair out of her face and the cute words she used with absolute seriousness. I thought hard about the last time I had heard her laugh, and with a feeling of despair realized I couldn’t remember. Maybe that was why I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I needed to see her, to walk with my shoulder almost touching hers, to watch the funny way she drew invisible designs on the floor with the toes of her small, worn out shoes, to watch as her fingers danced on her lap or the arm of her chair and try to decipher what song she was playing on her not-present keyboard. Coffee can’t come soon enough, Wiz.
I caught Rick’s eye as he was leaving the cash register and sent a smile his way. It made me way too ridiculously happy to see him. I finished helping the little old man look for his murder mystery and went to grab my stuff.
“You have your car, Rick?” I asked as we walked out into the darkening parking lot together. He shook his head.
“It’s in the shop. Again. I think my sister must have been messing with it. She thinks she wants to be an auto-mechanic, but she has no clue what she’s doing. It’s driving me crazy. And of course she wouldn’t think of ‘working’ on her car, or maybe Nate’s.” he rolled his eyes as we walked to my silver Mini Cooper. I unlocked it and raised my eyebrows.
“Nate?” I asked. Rick shot me a surprised look over the canvas top of the car.
“You don’t know Nate? You haven’t been over in a while. He’s the new boyfriend.” He buckled his seatbelt before he even closed the door. It’s a weird quirk of his.
“Ah.” I said as I started for the nearest Starbucks. I glanced over at Rick. “Do we like Nate?” I asked. Rick sighed.
“I think we do. But of course Ashley isn’t sure she really likes him. She’s just glad he sticks around. I think if he lets her work on his car then it’ll seal the deal.” I laughed. Rick grabbed our usual armchairs in the corner of the Starbucks while I went to get the coffees; Rick’s latte and my not-coffee- hot chocolate. I looked over at Rick and raised his latte to him with a questioning raise of my eyebrows. He deliberated and shook his head. I grabbed the milk for my hot coco but none for his latte and took both drinks over to the chair. I handed him his coffee and said,
“Okay, son, spill the beans,” I plopped myself in what I had come to consider my armchair and looked expectantly at Rick. I knew from experience that it was probably something about a girl and that he would probably take a while to start talking. I settled back in the chair and prepared myself for the long wait. My free hand’s fingers subconsciously began to dance out the notes of John Legend’s Imagine. Rick surprised me and said almost immediately said,
“Kate asked me to dinner tomorrow.” I took a sip of my hot chocolate to cover my surprise. Kate was gorgeous. Good hair, pretty eyes, Barbie body….yep, every high school guys’ dream. She was the girl both in school and out that all the guys hounded after, Rick included. I had sat by and been the good friend who comforted Rick through rejection after polite rejection. I had never really liked Kate all that much. Maybe the fact that I loved Rick as much as I did didn’t help matters. I couldn’t see her noticing Rick now after all these years, but maybe she saw something I didn’t. I doubt it.
“You going?” I asked, licking whipped cream off my lip. He nodded.
“So what’s the problem? You like her, she likes you, you guys are going to dinner. I’m not getting this, man.” Rick smiled and flicked a bit of napkin at me.
“That’s just ‘cause you are so innocent and have no experience.” I sat up indignantly. He chuckled, before I could argue. I sat back down, glaring at him. He was right, but I was hoping to come up with an argument anyway. I came up with nothing. He got up to grab a coffee stirrer. I knew I missed something, dammit. I thought, watching him. Rick sat back down and starting stirring his coffee, saying, “The problem, my dear sweet innocent child, is that she never liked me before and she’s dated a million other guys and who knows what she’s done with them.” I watched Rick’s ears turn red.
“And I’m the innocent one!” I ruffled his curly brown hair. “I still don’t see the problem, my dear sweet innocent child.” Rick started to throw up his hands that were holding his coffee, then thought better of it and put the coffee down before throwing up his hands in exasperation. I stifled a giggle.
“Well she almost obviously won’t stay with me! What if we started a thing and then she went back to one of her other friends? Even if we start having something, which I’m not even sure we will yet, but just saying we did start to, I almost positive she’d leave anyway because I’m almost positive she wouldn’t like me once-”
“Hey hey hey!” I interrupted softly. “Where’d all this come from?” Rick looked at me quizzically. “All this ‘almost obviously’ and ‘almost positive?’ Where’s the Rick I knew that was always positive?” Rick sighed and gestured for the door; we’d both finished our drinks. My eyes never left Rick as we headed out for the car. I decided not to take him straight home; we needed to finish this. I got in the car and realized I couldn’t drive and stare at him at the same time, so I said,
“Wait! Please hold all thoughts until we’ve arrived at our destination.” I saw him smile as he buckled his seatbelt. My heart lifted just a little.
I pulled up in the parking lot of the old park we used to hang out at. I went around to his side of the car and opened his door. I blocked him getting out and said,
“Here’s the deal. Since I drove all the way over here, you are going to spill every single gut-wrenching secret you have. Got it, mister?” He smiled and said he got it. I let him out of the car. Rick fell in step beside me, his shoulder almost touching mine, as we walked over to the swings. I subconsciously fell into the swing on the left, him the one on the right. I looked at him expectantly. He glanced at me and laughed a little breathlessly, the way you do when nothing’s funny but you need to do something, so you laugh. I smiled but still said nothing. When he didn’t say anything I finally prompted,
“Almost obvious and almost positive?” He nodded, seemingly grateful that he had been given a question to answer.
“Um.” He scratched his curly hair awkwardly. I sighed.
“Rick,” I said reproachfully. Then I said, “What about- what were you going to say before I very rudely interrupted you?” Rick glanced at me resentfully and then looked down to his feet, to which he said,
“I was going to say that I’m almost positive she’d leave because once she saw,” Rick turned bright, bright red; and not only his ears but his whole face and some of his neck, “…once she saw me without a shirt.” He said in a quiet rush. I watched his face, waiting for the redness to recede, but it didn’t. “Well say something. I don’t even really care what, just something.” He said, still looking at his shoes.
“Um.” I said, still watching him. A smile broke over my face as I watched him throw his hands up in exasperation for the second time that night.
“All you’ve got is um?” he asked me, “Seriously? No ‘oh gee Rick, I’m so sorry, here’s how I’ll help’?” I grinned at him.
“Oh gee Rick, I’m so sorry,” I said. He glared at me and said,
“Very funny. Simply hilarious.” But he couldn’t keep from smiling too.
“But seriously,” I said, “Why do you think that?”
“What, the bit about the shirt?” I nodded. He shrugged. “I dunno, I guess it’s just the same self-esteem low-body image that everyone has.” I looked at him skeptically and he looked back apologetically. Finally I said to him,
“Rick, if you’re sorry for lying to me then just don’t lie! What a concept,” I crossed my arms across my chest. “I know when you’re lying; you’re not that good in the first place, and I know you too well.” He grinned but it went away fast.
“Fine, you got me. My last girlfriend left when we went to the beach for the first time…I always thought that it was because there were other guys who looked better without a shirt than I did.” I looked at Rick sadly but covered it when he raised his eyes to meet mine. With a jolt I realized that they were really, really green. I’d never noticed until now that they had a ring of grey around the outside that was the same color as Ross’ eyes. How could you not notice his eyes? I berated myself. Well, I knew they were beautiful. The rest of him is, I argued with myself.
“You know, Rick, this is going to sound mean, but I think that’s a little ridiculous.” I watched him carefully as I continued, “I mean, that’s a super shallow thing to do. Honestly, if she left because she didn’t your body more than she did like your person, then was she really all that worth it?” Rick looked at me, confused. I started again, frustrated that his eyes had thrown me off so much I couldn’t even express myself.
“I mean,” I said slowly, working it out as I spoke, “If she thought she liked you, and then left because she didn’t like your body, then she didn’t really like the important part of you in the first place. Or at least she didn’t like it enough to stick around.” Understanding dawned in the eyes that I now needed to see for every moment I was with him.
“I guess that’s true. But still, it’s something that’s bothered me since then, and that was- I don’t even know how long ago. It’s just a thing, I guess. They way some girls are obsessed with have nice legs or a good stomach or whatever, I wanna look good shirtless. I guess it’s kind of dumb, in hindsight.” Rick lowered his eyes from mine as he spoke and I wanted him to look at me again.
“Nah, it’s not that dumb.” I said, and I was proud my voice wasn’t shaking the way Archer had wanted it to before. I got down from my swing and sat with my back against the pole holding up the swing-set. I pulled my jean-clad legs up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, resting my chin on my knees.
“You said it yourself; everyone has a thing that they want, and that’s yours. But,” I added, looking out at the dark park, “I still think that if a girl only likes you for your body, than she’s really not worth it, is she?” I felt Rick’s eyes on my face, but I didn’t turn to meet them.
“What about you, Wiz? If I took off my shirt right now, what would you do?” I shot him a glare. “Seriously?” he nodded, his face guarded. I sighed.
“Rick. Has this ever mattered before? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you shirtless, and I’ve known you since high school. I’d probably go right on talking to you like you hadn’t taken off your shirt. What are you doing?” I asked as he stood up. He turned away from me and grabbed the hem of the shirt before taking it off over his head. I stared at his arms without lifting my head from my knees. But I could feel my eyes widening. Damn. He’s ripped. How did I miss this before? Oh, yeah, I’m not his shallow ex-girlfriend who only notices Rick because of his not so hot body…which is actually pretty freaking hot. Wait, what? I caught myself wishing he’d turn around so I could see his chest, but then I felt horrible. Just as I was berating myself for wishing it, he did turn. He tucked his shirt in the back of his pants the way runners do when they take off their shirts. I prided myself on not reacting; my chin stayed on my knees, my arms stayed around my legs. Rick stood a couple feet in front of me with his hands on his hips. All that did was accent his very muscular arms and shoulders, which did not help my act of nonchalant-ness. I allowed my eyes to very quickly rove over his chest, which was as toned as any Calvin Klein model. I involuntarily gasped softly as I saw the ragged scar that ran from his strong collar bone almost to his waist. It was puffy still, and looked like it had been badly healed. I could see where his insecurities came from; the scar was not pretty, and was not easy to look at. It looked scary, almost, like Dr. Frankenstein had decided to experiment on him. The skin around it was red, like he’d gotten sunburn, and his veins stood out around it. I looked somewhere else, though, because I told Rick I wouldn’t care about how hot he had turned out to be, and I had to look away for that. It’s just a scar, Rick. Then I shook a finger at myself. Poor Rick. No girl was going to want to look at that for more than two seconds, let alone two hours or two years, and as all guys invariably want in the end, Rick would eventually want a girl to be able to look at him shirtless for more than two seconds.
“You going to say something?” Rick finally asked me softly. I tilted my head so it was looking up at his face.
“You’re even taller from down here.” I said. My voice sounded small. Rick laughed and squatted in front of me. I gave him a quick smile and stayed quiet.
“Anything else?” Rick asked. I laughed shakily.
“Jeez Rick, what do you want me to say? I can’t really say anything without talking about you-” I gestured to his torso, “And I said I wouldn’t do that.” I think he could hear the resentment in my voice, because he smiled and said,
“You can, if that’s all you’ve got. I like listening to you talk too much to let you get away with not saying anything.” He likes to listen to me talk? I released the vice grip my left hand had on my right wrist and got up so I was on my knees in front of Rick’s crouching figure. I scrutinized his face and brushed a stray curl out of his eyes and wiped away a tear making its way steadily down his face. I held it on the tip of my finger and held it up in front of his beautiful eyes and said softly,
“You know, Rick, you didn’t have to prove anything to me. I like you just fine with your shirt on.” I love you with your shirt on. He smiled weakly and flicked the tear off my fingertip.
“I guess I wanted to prove it to myself that you wouldn’t leave when you saw-” he fingered the base of the scar at his collar bone. Seeing it from where I was now, I saw it was a little less than an inch wide and it looked like it hurt. A lot. I lightly touched my finger to it and winced as I felt it radiating heat.
“What happened?” I asked softly. “Actually, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not really my business.” I started to take my finger away but Rick caught in and pressed my whole hand against his chest. My breath caught and I looked up at him, puzzled. Rick attempted a smile and said hoarsely,
“Your hand is cold. It feels nice.” I nodded and softly pressed my left hand directly below my right.
“My hands are always cold.” I murmured. Rick looked down at me and told me,
“I know. I guess I should ask for your hands more often.” I ducked my head and smiled.
“Does it bother you a lot?” I asked, applying a little more pressure with my hands, indicating his scar. He shook his head.
“Sometimes more than others. In the kitchen it usually bothers me the most.” I gave him a weird look and he laughed and stroked hair out of my eyes.
“When I was younger my dad threw a knife at my sister.” I stayed quiet but I guess my eyes showed and Rick explained, “He was a drunk that was never home. But when he was he threw stuff. And that time it just happened to be a knife. A huge knife.” He shook his head bitterly. “I never told Ashley I took the hit for her; she just thinks Dad was being Dad again and it was my turn. She’d feel terrible and hurt, probably, that I didn’t tell her sooner. I’ll just spare her that. It’s the last thing she needs.” I turned my hands over so the colder backs were touching the scar and my palms could get re-cold. I noticed Rick was running his hands through my long hair. I wonder how long he’s been doing that. I wondered idly. I decided I liked it and he could keep going. I looked up at his face.
“So why kitchens?” I asked quietly. I watched as Rick pulled a face and smiled to myself. He was going back to the Rick I knew and loved.
“I dunno. I guess ‘cause he threw it in the kitchen and I’m remembering?” I nodded.
“Makes sense. I’ll be sure not to ask you to hang in the kitchen with me, then.” I said, more to myself than to him, but he heard me and said,
“Wiz, if my choice was hang with you in the kitchen and have my scar burn a little, or feel fine but not be with you…I dunno, I guess it’s not really a choice anymore.” I pulled my hands away from his chest. He looked at them and back to my face and then to my hands again. I giggled.
“They’re not cold. They will be in a sec, though, hold on.” He smiled with satisfied understanding and continued to stroke my hair.
“So what’s not a choice anymore?” I prompted. I had butterflies, which I hadn’t gotten since my brother’s first CT scan results.
“Oh. Being around you or not.” He said simply, glancing to see my reaction.
“Why?” I grilled him. “I’m not all that special. I’m not Kate.” He shook his head.
“No, you’re not Kate.” He smiled as I made a face. “Nah, you’re cuter than Kate.” I started to make a face again, but then I heard what he said.
“Sorry?” I’d heard him wrong, or maybe he was getting sick from not wearing a shirt. A little me was not cuter than Kate. He nodded at me and smiled at the expression on my face.
“Cuter than Kate, yes. And nicer, and sweeter, and actually-” he paused and cast his vibrant eyes fleetingly up and down my kneeling figure, “-yep, hotter than Kate too.” He grinned as I playfully whacked him upside the head with my hand. I hadn’t missed his subtle sarcasm. He shouldn’t mess with me. Not when I want him so desperately to say that for real. I would never be able to hit him the same way I used to ever again; I internally winced as I remembered all the times I had punched his chest and how much it must have hurt him. I placed my hands gently on his scar again; they had quickly regained their usual chilly nature. I smiled contentedly as I heard his almost-silent sigh of relief.
“You know, Rick, I think you might be getting ill from not having a shirt. Maybe you should put it back on-”I stopped as I realized that this was exactly what he was afraid of. Just as I reached this realization, he had pulled away from me abruptly.
“Why? Does this-” he gestured at his whole torso without specifically pointing out his angry scar, “-bother you so much I need to have a shirt?” He started to stand up but I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down so his eyes were back at my level. I was stung when I saw how much hurt they held. I shook my head sadly.
“No, Rick, it doesn’t bother me a smidge. Not one smidge, you hear me?” I asked playfully when he didn’t respond. He conceded to giving me a shaky laugh that was more of a sob. I laid my right hand on his cheek and wiped a steadily rolling tear away softly with my thumb. My left hand hadn’t left his shoulder; it was slowly, subconsciously creeping towards the muscle on the back of his shoulder and then to rest on his neck, cupping it softly.
“Listen, kiddo. To me it doesn’t matter if you have a no shirt or a t-shirt or a turtleneck. Honestly I like Rick the person; the person who likes his lattes with or without milk, the one I always forget likes coffee stirrers, who hates floor duty and will always switch with me, the one who buckles his seatbelt first, the one who hates cookies but can eat a whole tub of raw cookie dough by himself but always lets me help him, the one that loves his sister more than he admits, the one who has a thing for cool old cars, the one who always throws his hands up when he’s upset, the one who legitly cute when he gets mad no matter how cliché that sounds. The one who walks shoulder to shoulder with me through dark parking lots and sits in our armchairs in Starbucks with me. The Rick with the gorgeous smile and the beautiful hair and the laugh that I need to hear at least a zillion times a day and the amazing, beautiful eyes.” I slipped and said, “I would love you, my dear sweet innocent child, even if you were the nerdiest, most cut-up child on this earth. Although,” I glanced down sheepishly, “I realize now that I like your body too, a little more than I’d anticipated.” I glanced up at him through my eyelashes, a little scared of his reaction. His cool, dry fingers lifted my chin up so my green eyes met his.
“You mean that?” he asked softly. I gave him an incredulous look but said just as quietly,
“Rick, my child, I would not speak one breath of that if I didn’t mean it with all my heart.” I smiled at his look of disbelief and laughed a small laugh as the smile I loved so well broke out over his face.
“Hey, Wiz, can I ask a favor?” I nodded, apprehensive. He pointed to his neck. “Work this out? I’ve been tense since I spoke with Kate yesterday.” I rolled my eyes but smiled and pushed him down so he was sitting, not crouching, and kneeled behind him. I started working my thumbs into the muscle and the base of his neck and whistled softly.
“Jesus, Rick, what made you so tight?” I bit my lip as the rocks in his shoulders refused to be worked out. He shrugged and I whacked him softly. “I can’t work if you move,” I reminded him. Slowly, as though he was scared of it, Rick began relaxing his shoulders, and soon after, the rest of his back. He sighed heavily and said so quietly I could hardly hear him,
“Jesus, Wiz, you’re amazing. Um. I like Kate. Kind of a lot. So I was excited when she asked me to go with her, but then at I saw one of my friends, and I realized that I had a damn tough decision to make.” My heart sank. Another girl? Come on, Rick. How many girls would sit in a dark, cold park and work out your shoulders? But I kept going. I couldn’t stop; he really needed to be worked out, and plus it gave me an excuse to touch him. He began speaking again, but so softly that I needed to lean forward, putting my face next to his to hear him.
“Kate is pretty. In high school I would have given practically anything to go out with her even once. But I realized today I don’t know her at all. All I know is she has a reputation for being a slut. And maybe that’s not true, I don’t know.” He ran a hand over his face like a man a hundred years old and bone tired of the world. My hands stopped working on his shoulders and rested lightly on his collarbone. “But she’s not really smart. And she doesn’t like to read. And she told me she doesn’t like coffee. She would never walk shoulder to shoulder with me; she’s too short. She doesn’t have pretty eyes or long silky hair. She doesn’t have strong shoulders that look good in anything, or long runner’s legs. She’s so obsessed about her figure that isn’t that good she would never eat half a tub of cookie dough with me. Plus something like that would be much too childish for an adult like her. She doesn’t draw on the floor with the toes of her worn out shoes and she doesn’t play an instrument, for real or on the arms of armchairs in Starbucks. She doesn’t even like real music, just the crap they play in clubs and bars and I don’t even know where. Her hair is so hairspray-ed it looks plastic and she never has to flick it out of her snapping green eyes. She doesn’t have a killer smile that reaches all the way across her face, and she certainly-” Rick turned abruptly to face me, catching me by surprise and forcing me to hug him around his neck to prevent myself from falling, “She certainly doesn’t have your laugh, and she certainly isn’t you, my dear sweet innocent child.”
I blinked slowly. I knew I looked like a deer in headlights, but I wasn’t expecting that. I went through it in my head again, repeating every word. I threw him a quizzical glance. Me? I asked silently. My voice seemed to have vanished. Rick smiled and stroked my cheek.
“Yes, hon, it’s you. You are the elusive ‘friend’” He laughed as I struggled to understand. “You didn’t get that during my speech?” I shook my head.
“No. I mean, yes, I did get it. When you said the bit about the cookie dough I started to catch on. Man, I’m slower than most.” I shook my head ruefully. I smiled at him, realizing for the first time his face was next to mine, the front of his head facing my cheek. “You mean that?” I asked softly.
“Wiz, my child, I would not speak one breath of that if I didn’t mean it with all my heart.” I stuck my tongue out at him, and he smiled at me, leaving me breathless. Rick made a weird noise and started fidgeting. I glanced up and down, marveling again at the artfully sculpted figure he cut.
“What?” I asked, annoyed that he moved so I couldn’t touch him anymore. He had positioned himself so he was sitting Indian-style directly across from me. I half smiled and reached absently for his hand, which he grabbed and placed on his chest again, but not over his scar. I glanced at him, puzzled. He had closed his eyes. Hesitantly, I ran my fingers lightly over his muscled body, pondering how I had never, ever noticed how toned he was in all the years I had known him. I bit my lip. I felt bad for thinking it, but I wanted to do it more. Slowly, haltingly, I traced the lines where his muscles stood out one by one. All of them. My breathing was quiet, but Rick’s was so shallow I could barely hear it. Reaching the base of his scar near his waist, as gently as I could, I traced it up to his collar bone and rested my hand over his heart. My fingers there started to dance out the notes of Marriage D’amour by Richard Clayderman. Rick opened his eyes and smiled at me.
“What?” I asked, my hand still playing over his heart. He nodded at my fingers.
“Your fingers are so soft. I thought you were breathing on me.” I smiled and shook my head. “Thank you,” he said, ducking his head to meet my gaze.
I tilted my head to the side. “For what? I wasn’t aware I’d done anything.” Rick rolled his eyes at me.
“Let’s see.” He started to tick the things off on his fingers. “For taking me out to coffee, for bringing me here, for saying all the sweet things you said, and for-” he gestured to my hand and his chest, “For that.” I smiled and inclined my head.
“My pleasure. But,” I tenderly brushed a curl out of his eyes, “What was ‘that’? And why am I being thanked for it?” I indicated my still skipping fingers. Rick reached up and grasped my fingers, intertwining them with his own. He looked straight at me and asked,
“You ever feel terribly lonely? Like no one in the world wants you at all, and you know it?” I nodded once. “Sometimes I just get so sick of people staring and leaving me because I’m not pretty. Whatever, Fine. I don’t need to be pretty anyway.” He said ‘pretty’ with a scoffing tone, as if he didn’t like the word, but I knew he desperately wanted to be that which he despised. “But,” he continued, “You don’t care a smidge. You sat here with me and talked with me and even touched me. And, to me, it seemed like you were almost enjoying yourself. Like you wanted to.” He laughed softly. “It feels nice to feel wanted sometimes, even if you don’t want to get lucky.” I smiled at him.
“For the record, I think you’re more than pretty. It was my pleasure, kid. But seriously,” I ducked my head to meet his gaze, “You are more than welcome. It was nothing. Alright, fine! It was more than nothing. And I did want to. I’ve wanted to for a while.” I said as he raised an eyebrow mockingly. I made a face and laughed along before lying on my back and putting one arm behind my head. The other I refused to pull out of Rick’s grasp. I sighed happily and closed my eyes. I heard Rick rustle and opened my eyes to see him lying on his side next to me, one hand propping up his head and the other still holding mine.
“How’s it going?” I murmured sleepily. Rick had disentangled his fingers from mine and was tracing patterns absently on the palm of my hand.
“You ever have a boyfriend, Wiz?” he asked. I shook my head; why was he asking? He would have been the first to know if a miracle had occurred. “So you’ve never gotten a kiss?” he persisted. I shook my head again. He sat back, puzzled.
“That ever bug you?” he asked after a moment. I screwed my face up, trying to think.
“Sometimes,” I said slowly. “Sometimes I’ll read a novel or a story and it’ll a beautiful love story, and I’ll always feel really empty after, wondering why it couldn’t be me. I torture myself by reading romance, but I like it too much to not. Sometimes I feel pathetic that I didn’t have a boyfriend all through high school, but at the same time I’m almost proud that I didn’t. I guess I kind of figured that I’d be able to meet so many more people after high school, and if I was settling in school, what was the point. So, to answer your question, yea, I guess it does bother me that I haven’t been kissed. I just never thought of it before.” I turned my head to face his. “Why do you ask?” Rick shrugged, then sat up suddenly and kissed me, softly at first. I froze, then freed my hand from where it was tangled in my own hair and tangled it in his, pulling him closer with gentle urgency. His hands were warm around my waist, and I realized I’d never felt safer. When he pulled away, his eyes were wide with shock.
“What?” I asked with a touch of worry in my voice. As Rick had graciously reminded me, I’d never had a kiss before, and I was scared I wouldn’t be any good. My fears were not erased when Rick said,
“You sure you’ve never kissed before?” I rolled my eyes, my arms still wrapped around his neck and tangled in his silky soft hair.
“Yea, Rick, I’m positive. Why?” I asked again. Rick’s eyes got wider than they already were. I didn’t know that was possible.
“Positive?” He sounded incredulous. I rolled my eyes again.
“Jesus, Rick, yes, I’m 110% positive! It’s not like I could be anything other than positive.” I sounded sarcastic, but my heart was sinking. He was about to tell me that it showed, and that he wouldn’t be kissing me anymore, thanks anyway. Rick shook his head like a dog shaking water from his ears.
“Damn it, Wiz.”
I looked at him, surprised. “Huh?” I asked stupidly. His arms, still wrapped securely around my waist, pulled me closer with a sense of urgency that sent thrills up my spine.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked me, his green eyes snapping. I looked at him and raised my eyebrows. “Don’t keep that from me. Ever again. God, Wiz, you can’t have me not expecting anything and then giving me that.” He started kissing my neck and my cheek. “Next time you’re going to kiss me like that give me a warning first. You can’t go all sexy and gorgeous on me and not let me know. I’m gonna need warning when I’m gonna need to restart my heart.” He growled in between kisses. A smile broke over my face.
“Hey, Rick?” I said softly.
“Hmm?” he answered, resting his chin on my shoulder. I blushed and asked,
“Did you mean it when you said I was hotter than Kate?” His stubble tickled my shoulder as he smiled.
“That bugging you?” he asked me. I tired to glare at him.
“Answer the question. Please.” He kissed my nose.
“Since you said please. I meant it.” So casual, I’d almost missed it.
“For real? You’re crazy.” I informed him. He chuckled.
“For real. Honey, at least you have something to fill out your jeans.” After a second I blushed again.
“Really?” I almost refused to believe him, in case he laughed and said just kidding. He rolled his eyes.
“Yes, dear child, really. Kate has no butt at all. You look amazing in jeans; the same cannot be said for her. It used to drive me crazy when you wore jeans to work, the dark ones? They’re my favorite. Ever. Is that all, question bug?” he started to kiss me again, so softly it could be a breeze. “I don’t like not kissing you now that I know how much I like it.” I smiled and said,
“Hey, Rick?” I re-tangled my hands in his hair that I loved so much.
“Hmm?” he murmured, still kissing me.
“I’m going to kiss you like that again,” I told him. I watched him think for a second, and with understanding dawned his beautiful smile, and I didn’t let him say anything before leaning in and kissing him.