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RISK YOUR HEART
The first place award-winning story, 2015 Summer Romance Contest
Leah could almost convince herself that she’s holding it all together, if it weren’t for the devilish nightmares. She escaped from a harsh background, survived hard times, and is fine, thank you, working from home. Alone. (Who needs friends, co-workers, or a man, when you’ve got Netflix and a vibrator?)
Drew is a nice guy. Sure, he had one tough knock, but he was able to heal, and now he just about radiates goodness. He’s an EMT and an associate deacon. Could he be any more angelic? Guys like him don’t belong with people who are as deeply broken as Leah.
Fate throws them together, but will the trauma from Leah’s past keep them apart?
The scarred man pulled a vicious-looking curved bowie knife out of his jacket and raised it high—aimed at me. I stopped breathing. A flash from oncoming headlights glinted off the knife as he prepared to strike. I wrenched open my car door and jumped out; we were moving at full speed.
The cold wind hit me first, an instant before the hard smack of the ground. The impact on my back was so hard that my teeth clamped together, and I tasted blood, but I didn’t stop. My skin was sacrificed to the rough road as I rolled. I was up and running, barefoot, screaming with no sound as my pleading cries were eaten up by the fierce winds.
The air itself taunted me, pressing me back as I hurled myself against it. I was running full out, my heart a thousand dogsleds trying to burst out of my chest, my sweat going from hot, to clammy, to cold in an instant, soaking me fast with my abject fear. I twisted to look behind me as I ran. I saw four more men, wearing white, Jason-like ski masks, and carrying long, black wooden stakes raised high over their heads. I started to hyperventilate. I tripped.
I heard a voice from far away. The tone was calm but firm. “Leah, you are perfectly safe. You are here in my office. Come back. You are perfectly safe.”
My heart stopped beating for a second, and I jerked with a gasp, jackknifing up to sitting so quickly I almost flew an inch off the couch. I put a hand to my chest.
Dr. Jeffington’s kind face was drawn in concerned lines, his body leaning forward out of his chair. “Leah, look around you. You are right here, just where you started. Feel the couch under you.” His voice was slow and soothing, almost medicinal. “Take some deep calming breaths.”
My heartbeat was techno music on speed, and my eyeballs were like pinballs, my panicked gaze ricocheting from the paintings to the bookshelf to the desk, bouncing but not registering, until I focused on the sunlight streaming in through Dr. Jeff’s window. The tree that had green leaves on it all spring looked as if some witch has sucked all its life juice from every cell and then cackled, a sad result from the late May/early June drought. I knew how it felt. Despite being freezing cold in most of my dream, I was sweating now.
I took a deep, steadying breath and held it, and then let it out very slowly. I let my hand drop from my chest. Reluctantly, I looked at my therapist.
“Now, tell me what you saw in the dream,” he said.
I shook my head. Tell him I was chased by faceless strange men, again? No thank you. You don’t need a degree in psychology to read into that one.
“Leah, I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me. You were fine, and then you weren’t. Why don’t you start with—”
I got up. “I think that’s enough for—”
“Leah, PTSD is normal in cases where—”
“—today,” I said.
He sighed. “You are going to face your past some day, Leah. All of it.”
“Gotta go,” I said. I grabbed my purse and walked out the door.
The Hershey’s bar had melted in my purse, which was a total bummer because my post-therapy chocolate bar was the one weekly splurge that I allowed myself. I sat in my black Ford Focus and banged my head against the wheel. I thought I might look like a blonde Muppet, moshing her head back and forth to Animal drumming or maybe banging my head to The Ramones’ “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down”.
I leaned back against the hot car seat, suddenly spent. I had one of those silver-colored windshield sunscreen thingies, but I had forgotten to stick it in the front window. I guess in the back of my mind I probably figured the car couldn’t get that hot during a fifty-minute therapy session. Wrong. I should’ve known better. This was steamy, sultry Savannah, Georgia. The part of the country that had beautiful, gorgeous, temperate weather ten months out of the year, but for two months it felt like you were roasting inside a sauna where the temperature setting had been turned up past the end of the dial to an area clearly marked ‘have arrived in Hell’.
I thought about the dream, vision, whatever, again. Yes, it was awful, but I wasn’t helpless. Maybe I wasn’t just running away from something, maybe I was also running toward something.
The air conditioning in my car finally hit the point where it was blowing cool air, and I leaned toward the vent and peeled my shirt away from my chest at the neckline and flapped it back and forth in the air stream, enjoying the cool flow on the top of my breasts.
“It doesn’t have to necessarily mean anything deep,” I said to myself. “So, I have weird hypnosis sessions and freaky dreams. Steven King has freaky dreams too, and he’s totally sane.”
Somehow, I didn’t find that too reassuring.
I revved the car and carefully looked over my shoulder as I backed out of the parking space. I noticed I was checking my rearview mirror more than normal, as if I half-expected zombies from The Walking Dead to acquire super speed and be able to run up to my car and grab on to the back bumper.
I pictured a bunch of them, in their torn clothes and gray make-up, hanging off the back of my Focus like an undead ‘Just Married’ streamer party favor. That made me smile.
I pictured the imaginary zombies losing their grip, getting run over by the SUV behind me, and exploding into dust. That took the edge off. Imagination is good. I could probably beat these dreams just by thinking silly endings to them. Like Doc Jeff said, the answers to our problems had to come from within.
I canceled my therapy appointment for the next week and the next. What can I say? I’m a coward. The temperature climbed to the record highs, making me worried my air conditioner would break. As I spent most of my time at home in front of the computer, directly under the vent, the thought of an A/C failure was almost enough to give me a new set of nightmares.
I had a lot to be grateful for. Hershey bars, a great imagination, indoor cool air. I focused on that.
Ironically, as the temperatures outside got hotter, my dreamscapes got colder. I was often naked or almost naked. When I was running, my nipples stood out to sharp points that could cut glass. I tried to cover them, wrapping my arms around myself. My feet would slip on the sheer sheets of wet ice, my bare hands plunging into cold mixtures of ice and slush.
My dreams were getting worse. I couldn’t remember the last time I slept through the night. The night I woke up screaming, I had to consider going back counseling.
I resisted. I wanted to slap myself in the forehead when I thought about it. I hated that I might need it. I had a huge mental block, no, a wall, around the idea of spending a whole summer in therapy. Good God. A summer in therapy. I’d managed to escape it for part of June, and I had had high hopes for skipping most of July. It wasn’t how I wanted to spend my August either.
I had planned on ignoring my problems and catching up on all the back episodes of Game of Thrones.
Damn this need for peaceful sleep thing.
I called Dr. Jeff and made an appointment.
“No hypnosis this time,” I said, after I said hello.
“Fine,” Dr. Jeff said.
When I came back, he had me fill out this form. It was more of a chart really.
“These are the main areas of a person’s life,” Dr. Jeff said.
Yeah. I could see that. You rated how well you were doing in each category and why. The categories were things like finance, physical, spouse relationship, family, friends’ relationships, social, career, etc. Blah, blah.
I filled it out and handed it to him. I don’t know exactly why he made me do it. He knew all this stuff about me. When I finished the chart he took out a marker and colored in the parts that needed work in red. It was a pie with three-quarters missing, a huge raw-meat chunk of life torn out.
“I wanted you to see this. You can’t live like this and be okay. No one can live like this.”
Social: none. Past: gah. Family: HAH! Spiritual: pfft. Mental: basket case with frequent Freddy Kruger. Career: good. Finance: meh. Health: good. Sex: imaginary. Romance: nix, nada, zip, hopeful. Happiness…intermittent.
Who am I kidding?
Dr. Jeff had me color the rest of the chart in. Blue for the areas that were somewhat decent, purple for the areas I was totally satisfied with, and an orange over the red for the areas where I had a little more willingness to work.
The chart looked like one big sunburst. A volcanic stop sign. It was too overwhelming to fix.
“It’s June 21st,” Dr. Jeff said. “Officially the first day of summer. Traditionally spring is a time for planting and renewal, and summer is a time for really rejoicing and wholeheartedly embracing brand new activities. So we’re going to start in and do new things.”
I had been abused. Then I had runaway. Like many runaways it had been a struggle, and even after I wasn’t living on the street anymore life was far from perfect. Yeah, when I was younger, much younger, I lived on the streets in some horrible times. Then Nick had found me, and it had all changed. Eleven amazing years. Now he was dead, and I was looking at blood-red pie. My Dom had helped me with everything, how was I possibly going to…
“All right, Leah, we’re going to pick one category and work on that. Where do you want to start?”
How about canceling therapy?
“Okay, here’s your assignment. You are going to volunteer for something,” Doc Jeff said.
“What?” I asked. I don’t know why what he said surprised me. It wasn’t like I’d never volunteered for anything before. It was just that right now I felt like I was so broken, drained. It felt like there was nothing left to give and nothing left that people would want. I was at the bottom of the barrel; I had drained all my reserves.
“Volunteer,” Doc Jeff said. “You need to get involved in something that makes you to have contact with people and does good for others. By next week I want you involved in something new. You’ve got no religious or spiritual support either, so I think that should be next. By next session I want to hear that you’ve joined a volunteer project, and I want a detailed report on exactly what it is.”
I stood up. I got the same feeling I often had, that I never wanted to come back, but this time it was fierce. It rushed through me. “Thanks, Doc,” I said.
Truthfully, I forgot about it. I mean completely and totally forgot about it. And I didn’t think it was a Freudian slip. I worked from home as a graphic artist, or more accurately, graphic computer image cut-and-paste mover around-er. I “freelance” for this advertising company that specializes in catering to the pharmaceutical industry. My job was putting together anything that needed pictures in it. It could anything— ads to go in magazines or brochures. A lot of it was making information about drugs that have too many side effects have a lot of pretty pictures to make it look palatable to the sales people who are learning about it. I liked the artistic part of it, and I wouldn’t have minded my job so much if my boss wasn’t such a jerk. The good news was I only had to deal with him by email most of the time. The bad news was he tended not to give me a project until the very last minute and then he sometimes wanted it done right away.
So it was hardly my fault that I completely forgot about Dr. Jeff saying that I had to find an opportunity to volunteer. When I left Dr. Jeff’s office I’d totally planned on volunteering. But then a big project came up. I became engulfed in that. My dreams were a little less violent, my sleep a little less fitful, my ever-pressing need for sex a little less pressing. Forget Dr. Jeff. I just needed time.
It made sense that June was rough. June of last year was when my Dom died. June was almost over. I was a mess, but I kept feeling like something magical was right around the corner. It was like when you see something move out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn to face it, it has already flashed out of sight.
July pressed in with three days of over 100-degree weather, and a heat index that cut like a sharp knife, peeling the skin off the landscape. The morning of July 4th the heat wave broke, as if Mother Nature wanted everyone to have a good time.
I opened my window to enjoy the 80-degree weather and the balmy breeze as I worked at my computer. I caught a glimpse of long, strawberry blonde hair, below me and to the left, just barely in my field of vision. Whoever it was turned a corner out of sight. Firecrackers boomed in the distance, and even though they sounded vaguely like gunshots, they didn’t bother me.
My apartment complex was having a 4th of July party, and by mid-afternoon I could hear kids playing, yelling, and splashing in the pool and adults talking and laughing. There was bad country music playing, luckily at a relatively low volume. I smelled barbecue sauce and pork and beans, and something that smelled sticky sweet, maybe cut watermelon; the scents were carried up through my window by the gentle breeze.
I thought about going down, but even after just over a year I didn’t feel like I could stomach Independence Day without Nick, and I didn’t feel like celebrating. Sitting in front of my computer I realized that I didn’t know anyone in my apartment building. The one couple we had been friends with, a couple with the same age difference and general ways as us, moved away right after Nick died. Even though I had been alone for a year, I had blocked out the fact that I had been so lonely. Suddenly the loneliness felt like a yawing empty pit in my stomach that reminded me of the Grand Canyon.
I knew more appointments with Dr. Jeff would help, but somehow I thought it would take more than that. I got up and looked out my window again. Dr. Jeff had wanted me to volunteer. I bit my lip. I had to live a little, and I knew I should love again, or at least love as much as I ever could again. I’d built a wall around my heart that never softened. It wouldn’t be easy.
I turned on some music. I found a classical station and turned it so low I could barely hear it. Music always made me feel like I wasn’t the only one in the universe, like there was something else out there. I decided to put everything else out of my mind for the afternoon and focus on my work. I didn’t need pool parties, or fireworks, or cool friends flipping hamburgers. Yeah, I needed something. But until then Mozart and deadlines would have to do.
I mean it wasn’t like I had to be happy to get work done. Lots of people spent the fourth of July alone with their computers, right? Of course, they were probably on Twitter posting with all their friends or spending all their time on Facebook watching short video clips of funny cats or something. I doubt many of them were spending Independence Day feeling like being alone is hardly independent.
Buck up, Leah. You have a job. You have a good apartment. You live in a beautiful city.
Sunday afternoon when I was driving, I remembered the dream, the scariest one, the dream that had felt so real I could feel the cold to the bone. I shivered as I thought about it. Calling it a dream was too mild. I remembered the nightmare, the one with the scarred man and the knife, and the masked men and the stakes. My mouth turned sour, as if rancid milk lined my tongue, then dehydrated quickly and sucked my tongue up so it stuck to the roof of my mouth. The back of my neck and my palms broke out in sweat, and the air conditioner quickly turned them cold and clammy. It was hard to breathe.
I drove on, not really paying attention to the turns.
I felt my throat constricting, closing up like a maze with the walls squeezing inwards. Sweat poured out into my armpits and a cool clammy film clung like a cold beaded curtain on my forehead and palms. There was a sudden fisting contraction of my stomach, and the feeling that an elephant was sitting on my heart. Oh, no biggie. I recognized the symptoms as a prelude to a full-on panic attack.
I paid attention to the green in the leaves that lined the road as they flew by the side of my vision and looked for a place to stop. Finally, I pulled over into the lot of a big church with a broken steeple. I turned the car off and placed my forehead on the wheel. Had driving set off the dream because that hypnosis nightmare at Dr. Jeff’s weeks ago had a car in it? Would I have trouble with driving now?
This was ridiculous. I had to do something. What had Dr. Jeff said? Volunteer. I looked up. I was at a church. Maybe they had…I don’t know…bake sales or something. Probably nobody would be there on a Sunday late afternoon. I noted the name of the church and promised myself I would call them later.
I turned the key in the ignition and my car made a chk-cha-hick sound.
I tried it again. More sputtering. Fuck.
I dug my cell phone out of my purse. No reception.
I got out and walked to the church doors, fully expecting them to be locked. Nope. Open.
It was nicer inside than I expected. There was a hush, a loaded poignant silence, the kind of beautiful stillness you only get in sacred places. There was a ton of light from overhead skylights and some blue and purple light filtering in from stained glass windows high up on the walls that somehow made me think that one day I’d see rays of hope again, that my own filtered rainbow might be somewhere out there, ready to slap me upside the head in days to come.
I walked around trying to find someone. I finally stopped in front of a bulletin board. I looked at the notices, everything from ‘Jesus loves you’ to ‘need a babysitter’. I spied the church calendar out of the corner of my eye and was just going to check for a bake sale when a huge shaft of light landed on a notice. “Labor Day volunteer coordinators needed. Have fun, meet new people, and make a difference. Make it a ‘labor of love’.”
It was as if the flyer had a neon sign on it that said ‘Yes, I mean you’. I was used to having my dominant telling me what to do. Now I was looking for direction from signs.
I stared at it. I considered just taking the notice off the board but decided not to. Forget it. Maybe. I took a few steps back, staring at the notice and digging into my purse for a pen at the same time. I was walking backwards while I looked down into my bag, still not finding a pen….
And banged into someone and knocked him over. Someone large. And hard. I landed on my back on top of him. Papers flew everywhere, a shiny, colorful explosion all around us and under us. Both of us wiggled and floundered, unable to find purchase. The harder I tried to push up the more I just ground myself into him.
“Wait,” he said. Then he rolled us, and he was on top of me.
Holy shit. Our eyes met, and I swear there was an electricity, a snap. I was frozen, mouth agape. He reminded me of my Dom. I stared into those brown eyes, only a few inches from mine, and was lost.
“I’m so sorry, I’m….” He got a knee on the floor but slipped on a paper, and he fell on top of me, hard, crushing my breasts. “Oh shit,” he mumbled.
The paper wafted down. I tore my eyes away from him to look at it. I could see the letters —Day —unteer.
“Freakin’ glossy flyers,” the guy said trying to get off me and slipping. He fell on top of me again.
“God damn it!”
I laughed. “You’re in church.”
He rolled off me and kept rolling until he was away from the paper pile. Then he sprung up. He walked back, watching his step, and offered me his hand. I took his hand, and very carefully stood. Then I was face to face with him again.
It wasn’t so much that he looked like my Dom. They were both brunettes, built, about 6’3, with brown eyes. So, I understood why this guy reminded me of him. This guy was closer to my age though. He had a face that was innocent, open and smiling. He reminded me of fields sparkling in the sun.
“I usually offer to buy a woman dinner before I try to get on top of her,” he said.
I smiled back at him. “I usually request dessert first,” I said.
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Drew Macomber.” He pronounced his last name May-comber.
“Leah Heleng,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, and crouched down and began to sort the flyers into piles. There were at least four different colored flyers. I helped him sort them into piles and begin to pick them up.
“What do you do? Work at Kinkos?” I asked.
“Huh? No, no. I’m an assistant Deacon here. I’m in charge of volunteers.”
My head swam. I said the words. Separately. “You’re. In charge.” I paused. “Of volunteers.”
REALLLLLLY. Thank you Doctor Jeff.
“That’s quite a coincidence,” I said. “I came here looking for an opportunity to volunteer.”
“Well, you came to the right guy. We’ve got the multi-denominational pre-holiday dinner, end-of-summer cleanup, adult literacy, kids’ summer reading, home building, poverty and feeding volunteers, the Labor Day fair. Then there’s publicity, recruiting—”
I broke into tears.
“Hey, hey. Wait. What?”
He put the piles of papers on a table and dragged over two metal folding chairs. “Sit,” he said firmly and pointed. That I could do. After all, I was used to following orders. I sniffled.
Drew took both my hands in his. “Now. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I shook my head. What was I going to say? Hey, I’m a sub. I’m not used to being overwhelmed with choices. When there’s a big brunet hunk around I’m used to him making the decisions and telling me what to do? I don’t think so.
Drew lowered his voice. “You can tell me. Hey, I’m the assistant Deacon here. That’s the same as the associate Deacon, the vice president Deacon, the honorary ‘I comfort crying women all the time’ Deacon. You can tell me. I do this all the time.”
I had been looking down and I looked up at him a little bit through my lashes. “It’s… silly. I… lost someone. Sometimes little things… are just too much.” There, that didn’t sound awful.
Drew took a deep breath. He held my hand briefly, for two or three seconds, no more, and then rubbed his thumb back and forth over the sensitive skin in the ‘V’ of my hand, where my thumb met my forefinger. It felt incredibly nice, calming and exciting at the same time. He stopped way too soon.
“Tell me what’s bothering you,” he said softly.
“I’m not even sure I can talk about it.” I squeezed his fingers. “I’m just part wind-up toy that keeps going and going on automatic and part….” Blinding need.
“Part what?” Drew asked.
I shook my head again.
“Okay,” Drew said. He pulled his hands away from mine. “I’ll tell you a story from my life instead. How about that?”
I nodded. “That would be great.”
“I married my high school sweetheart. I was a big dweeb, an unpopular loner geek, and a little bit of a jerk, but I got the girl. Everyone thought we were too young to get married, but I wanted to nail it down, make sure that amazing cheerleader would be waking up next to me for the rest of my life. So the day we finished high school, we eloped, and, despite the naysayers, we did really well.”
Fuck. Married. I should have known. I looked down at his left hand. Gold band on his ring finger. I should have noticed it before.
I looked in his eyes. They were a really nice warm shade of brown with gold flecks. Of course the cheerleader married him. “So one day, three years ago, we were having sex…” He trailed off for a second and looked at me, like he was making sure it was okay to say this. I nodded.
He smiled, remembering. “We were having sex, and I was on top of her, having a grand old time, and she laughed. Just out of nowhere. It was probably just a giggle of joy really. But I said, ‘You think that’s funny?’ and she nodded, and I said, ‘I’ll show you funny’, and I started pounding harder.”
He paused staring at a blank spot on the church wall. “Well that just made her laugh harder, so I started thrusting harder, and she started laughing more, and you know how it is, it was a challenge now, pretty soon I was going at it with everything I had and she said, ‘You’re going to break something.’ Pretty soon we were both laughing and sweating and coming and it was absolutely the best sex you could possibly imagine, the best I’ve ever had, I swear I saw stars I came so hard.”
He paused. I wondered if that was the end of the story.
“I rolled off her, and she put her hand to her chest and said, ‘Ow.’ Then I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘I have terrible heartburn or something.’ I thought, serves you right for laughing at me during sex, but I didn’t get a chance to say it because she said. ‘It really hurts, Drew, will you go get me some Tums? I hopped out of bed to get her some Tums, and when I returned with the bottle she was dead.”
“It wasn’t heartburn. It was ‘or something’. She had a heart attack.”
“Oh my God. Drew.”
“I never told anybody that before. I mean, the you know”—he made a pumping gesture with his hands—”you know, the sex part. Everyone knows my wife died of a heart attack.”
“Holy.” I covered my mouth, horrified. “How old was she?”
“Twenty-three,” Drew said. “You see, no one thinks that that can happen to someone that young, right? That’s part of the reason I told you. You look about that age. Young. Too young to have lost someone you love. You said you lost someone. It’s bad enough that you want to break things, throw dishes, drive off a cliff, and cry in front of a stranger? Well. I get it. But don’t drive off a cliff, and don’t cry in front of a stranger anymore. Cry in front of a friend.”
For a moment I was too shocked to say anything, and I just sat there. He told me something he never told anyone just to make me feel better? Of all the things to say….
I gave him a half smile, one side of my mouth sort of quirking up, as my eyes filled again, but the fat tears didn’t roll over.
“Your turn,” he said.
I shook my head.
“Come on, it can’t be worse than my story. I fucked my wife to death.”
“You did not!”
“I know.” He paused, making sure that his shocking words wouldn’t make me think that he was callous. “I guess I just wanted to see if I said something shocking it might bring you out of whatever bad head space you’re in. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to goad you into sharing. I want to know, but maybe now is not the time.”
Drew moved the conversation to more comfortable topics. He asked me about my job, and I found myself telling him the reasons that I was unsatisfied and alone rather than the fact that I appreciated that I could work in my pajamas. Drew told me about what it was like being an EMT first responder. He made it sound exciting rather than nerve-racking, maybe because he didn’t want me to worry about anything in a moment I was obviously vulnerable.
“I’m sorry I got teary,” I said. “That’s not like me. I guess I don’t know how I’m going to react to anything right now. My car battery went dead outside in the parking lot, and it just felt like the last straw. I don’t want to just sit here and mull, or be in a pity pot and do nothing. Also, I’m probably taking up too much of your time.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I have plenty of time for friend who needs a minute.” I had a feeling he was going to say I have plenty of time for a damsel in distress, but he changed his mind. I had no reason to really think that. I was probably imagining it.
“Maybe it’s time for action,” Drew said. “Let’s figure out which project you’re going to volunteer on.”
“Can you decide for me?” I asked in a small voice.
“Sure, Leah,” he said. The way he said my name, drawing it out slightly, with a deep tender sound made me feel warm inside. “Let’s start you off with the Labor Day festival. I know we’re smack in the middle of July, and September seems far away, but in planning terms, it’s practically right around the corner. We’ve got to hop to it. The start of September, change of seasons, maybe it will give you something to look forward to; I have a feeling it’s been one hard summer for you.”
“You can say that again.”
“Maybe a little hard labor will do you good.”
A little hard something anyway, I thought. Maybe not so little.
But I knew I was joking. Even though it had been a year for me, and I don’t know, how many…I guess maybe three years for him, it was clear neither of us were ready for a relationship, even a casual one. I looked at his brown hair, and kind face, and into his mournful eyes. Nothing would ever happen. But it would’ve been nice if something could.
Drew gave me my assignments. I was going to work on publicity for the Labor Day festival/demonstration/show and concert in the park. He walked me to my car. Only when we got there I remembered that the car hadn’t started.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Sssshh,” Drew said. “You’re in church.”
“It’s the church parking lot. That doesn’t count.” I kicked my front tire.
“I think my battery’s dead.”
“No problem. I’ve got cables.”
I waited while Drew drove his car up to mine and did that thing with the jumper cables that all guys know how to do. After a minute he said, “Okay, now try.”
I did. Same sputtering sound.
Drew leaned into my open driver’s side window. “That’s not the battery.”
“What is it?”
He shrugged. “Alternator probably.”
I took my cell phone out to call a tow truck. No service. “Fuck.”
“Bad girl,” Drew said.
I snapped my head around to him. He had been joking; he hadn’t meant to make me wet. It was sad. I was like Pavlov’s dog. Just the sound of ‘bad girl’ or ‘good girl’ gave me thoughts filled with wonder and security and lust. There was something about hearing that that made me feel like a shiny snowflake, sparkling.
Drew took out his cell phone. He had service. He probably had a more expensive carrier than I did. The cell phone towers used by the cheaper companies in Savannah were notorious for going out. He put the phone up to his face and made his voice mimic the exact tone of the geeky guy in those old commercials. “Can you hear me now?” Drew glanced over at me, and I could see he was fighting a smile. He hadn’t even dialed anyone yet. He was just making a joke about the fact that he had service I didn’t.
“Very funny,” I said.
I got out and stood next to him. I went to grab the phone from him, but he held it up and away and I had to reach for it, bringing my body against his. Subtle electricity arced between us.
“Tell me who you lost,” he said softly. His voice was full of care and I wanted to tell him everything. It would be best to be careful about that.
“Who did you lose?” he asked, and his voice was even softer.
“My…”—Dominant—“Boyfriend. We never officially got married, but we lived together for eleven years. So by common law, that’s my husband. He died a year ago. Car accident.”
“Eleven years?” Drew said. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-six,” I said.
I could see him do the math in his head, and then he raised his eyebrows.
“We weren’t…” I touched my forefinger and thumb together and made a fucking motion with my fingers. “You know. Together that way at first.”
He put his hands up. “No judgment. I don’t judge.”
He handed me his phone. I called a towing company I had used before, Koonz, King, and Murphy. They said it would be at least an hour and a half wait. Fuck. In Savannah when they say an hour and a half, they really mean three hours. That sucked. It was because it was Sunday evening. Crap.
“Listen, Leah,” Drew said. “The first Labor Day planning committee meeting is here, tomorrow. You work from home, right? Why don’t I give you a ride home? I can pick you up tomorrow, and we can deal with it then. We can call it in, have the meeting, and when we’re done the tow truck will be here.”
I nodded. He was right.
We laughed more on the ride back to my apartment than I had in the past year. Drew and I had an ease of conversation I’ve never had, not even with my Dom.
Drew had more Emergency Medical Technician certifications than I knew it was possible to get. I got instinctively that he tried to make up for not being able to save his wife by saving others. I also understood that he liked the excitement. I liked that he liked the excitement. My life had been one long year of gray. Like fried okra that had sat in the sun for so many seasons it had been blanched, bleached, and turned to mush. I wanted excitement, too.
He dropped me off, promised to pick me up at six p.m. tomorrow, and motored out of sight.
I stood in the parking lot for a minute, staring down the road where his car had been, like a puppy straining at its leash, leaning forward, panting for its owner to back.