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Sheltered

By:Charlotte Stein

said if he ever caught her with anything like that he’d give her such a belting. But then he gave her such a belting for a lot of things. Coming in after curfew, watching something she shouldn’t be watching, breathing in a way she shouldn’t be breathing.

“I didn’t say that,” he said, and for a second he looked…hurt? It had seemed as though he’d flinched when she’d leveled the accusation, but she couldn’t be sure. “But come on. Everyone likes to unwind after a hard day of almost flunking out of college.”

It felt weird that her first urge was to ask him what he was studying. Her first urge should have been to tell him to go and never come back, unless he wanted the police after him.

But then he kind of half laughed, ruefully, and said, “Jesus—I don’t even know why I’m justifying this to you. Guess there’s just something about your face.”

And after that she didn’t know what to think about any of it. What did he mean, something about your face? Did she look particularly pious or something?

“I don’t care what you do. You don’t have to justify anything to me.”

He held up a hand then, and this time she could see he had a tattoo on the inside of his wrist too. A thick line of something, like lettering.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said, and she wondered what sign of offense she’d given. Did she seem wounded, suddenly? “You just seem so…”

She watched his eyes flit over her features and felt suddenly conscious of all of them. The way her nose dominated her face. How broad her cheekbones were, how nonexistent her upper lip was. The only boy who’d ever gotten anywhere near to her had said she looked like a silent movie star, which hadn’t seemed to be a compliment.

And it certainly didn’t feel like one now, with this strange, punkish creature studying her with his big, intense eyes. They looked black, in the low light, and they probably seemed more so because of the thick rim of eyelashes all around. Like shadows around his eyes. Like maybe he wore makeup, even though she didn’t think he did.

“You live here with your parents, right?” he asked, and for some unaccountable reason her face heated. Of course it had already started warming up back when he’d first run his eyes all over her, but this was stronger. More obvious.

She was a nineteen-year-old woman still living with her parents, still obeying their crazy rules and doing the crazy things they wanted her to do, like biking every day to Bible college. And now the cool punk with his earrings and his tattoos and his dyed hair knew it.

For the first time in her life, she was truly sensible of how humiliating her situation was. How not like normal people. This guy—this weird-ass guy—was more normal than her.

“I’m not getting at you, honey,” he said, and strangely enough she believed him. The honey should have sounded patronizing, but somehow it didn’t. It sounded gentle instead. Far more gentle than his bizarre exterior suggested.

“It’s okay,” she said, but it was only after the words were out that she realized every connotation of them. She’d somehow shared some part of herself with this punk, this drug addict. She’d told him it was okay as though she was okay, as though she could live like this and be all right, and she didn’t know how or when it had happened.

When she’d thought, This is the guy I want to share the most secret part of myself with. After a two-minute conversation about the criminal activities he indulges in on a daily basis.

“I have to go now,” she said. The words came out robotic and insane sounding, and she wasn’t the least bit surprised. Her face was burning. Her heart had started beating in her throat. She was only shocked that she managed to get out any sounds at all.

“Hey, no—wait,” he said, then put his hands on the gate as though he was actually going to open it.

She couldn’t allow that.

“No. No. It’s fine. I have to go.”

“Take it easy,” he said, but it was only after she’d caught her heel on something that she realized he wasn’t telling her to calm down. He was telling her not to back into her mother’s latest gardening project, about a second too late.

She tangled with it briefly—a hose, some trellis work, a pot filled with earth—before going over completely. Arms pinwheeling in an obviously embarrassing fashion. Nothing between her and the ground, suddenly, but air.

And then lights out.

She didn’t want to open her eyes. Mostly because she knew she’d just fallen over gardening equipment like a blundering idiot. But also because every part of her was aware of his presence. He hadn’t fled the moment he’d seen her sprawled over the porch, unconscious. Instead he had, apparently, opened the gate between her good, safe house and the Ryerson’s house of ill-repute, walked into her garden, and then somehow gotten them both inside.

He was inside her house. She could tell, even with her eyes closed. It was definitely the Italian silk print couch she was lying on, because she could smell the lavender stuff her mother pushed into the cushions. And he was definitely next to her on the couch, because it was sagging down precariously, just to her right—as though a ten-ton weight had settled on it.

It was more than that, however. More than the physical sense of him. There was a strange, bristling awareness of his presence running through her, as though he existed on a slightly different plane of reality and it was jarring against her own.

He came from the X Dimension. And in the X Dimension, strange men got cloths filled with ice and pressed them to your head while you were sleeping.

She could feel said cloth, sharply cold and nudging gently against her temple. Just the material, nothing more, but she knew with every little tingling part of her that his fingers and his hands and his arms were really, really close by.

He’d come into her garden, and then walked into her house, and finally sat on her mother’s good couch in order to place a cloth fi

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