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By:Charlotte Stein

a cloth filled with ice against the side of her head.

All of which was bad enough on its own, before she even realized she’d left a step out. She’d missed the part about how she’d gotten into the house. Because of course he’d been able to walk on his two massive and completely conscious legs.

But she hadn’t. She’d been out for the duration, which meant only one thing—he’d carried her. He’d carried her! Unless he’d used some sort of contraption, of course—like a small trolley or a wheelbarrow.

Lord, she prayed for a wheelbarrow.

But when she finally dared open her eyes, she couldn’t make one out in the immediate vicinity. All she could see was the cream shag carpeting and the glossy mahogany coffee table and everything normal normal normal until she got to him.

He’d squeezed himself into the absolute smallest space he could have, considering. Right on the edge of the couch, massive legs just about folded in two. His knees like immense jutting bollards, barring her way.

Though she felt certain he hadn’t intended the effect. He almost definitely wasn’t trying to block her in, in some terrifying sort of fashion. But even so she couldn’t stop looking once she’d started, because not only were the knees massive, they were also covered in tight, black jeans that had holes in them.

Actual and real holes.

She didn’t know what to make of that. She’d never sat close to anyone who had holes in their clothes, though when she really considered she had no idea why the holes were the things she was focusing on. There were so many other parts of him that needed intense observation, like maybe the shoes on his feet that he seemed to have scribbled on.

They looked amazing, but for a moment all she could think about was how long she’d desired a pair of gray Converse sneakers just like them. And he had the damn things, but what had he done? Drawn on them.

She wanted to tell him, immediately, that her own Mary Janes came from a place called Shoe Barn, and that said place didn’t even have a name for them. They just called the type her mother bought her “regular”, and had done with it.

But that just seemed like a symptom of her earlier problem. Telling him too much, without meaning to.

“Hey, you’re not dead,” he said. She felt sure he’d intended to sound flippant, but she recognized the real tone underneath almost immediately. Not because it was familiar—it wasn’t. And it certainly didn’t sound familiar from him, in his cool too-deep voice with his edgy clothes and his punk hair.

But it was, nonetheless. Relief. He was relieved she wasn’t dead, even though he didn’t know her from Adam and she’d just cussed him out about occasionally buying something that was probably just one step up from cigarettes.

She turned her head slowly—it had to be slowly, because he actually almost touched her when she moved, and said something that probably should have sounded comforting, like go easy—and looked up at him. Then wished she hadn’t.

His reality-bending presence didn’t get any easier, up close and in her face. In fact, she felt almost certain he was burning a dark hole through the fabric of her mother’s beige living room as they spoke.

“I’m alive.”

Yeah, but for how much longer? That black hole he’s burning is bound to suck you in. Any second, now. Any second…

“When will your parents be home?”

She wished he hadn’t asked that. She wished she didn’t know what he meant, either. He could have meant it in all sorts of ways, really—bad ways. Even possibly sexual ways. But she understood he didn’t.

He knew. He really knew what would happen if they caught a boy in here with her. Not even a boy, really—he was all the way a man. He had stubble on his cheeks—rough, course stuff—and hair curling out of the top of his t-shirt and the big hand close to her face was worn-looking and all knuckle. As if he’d spent his life scouring dishes or maybe clawing his way up Mount Doom.

However, she couldn’t help noticing the soft roundedness of his cheeks, and now that she wasn’t challenging him the mean line he’d set his upper lip into had relaxed. In fact his mouth looked almost…she didn’t even know. She wanted to say like a woman’s, but the rest of him—all jagged and bullish—contrasted too sharply with those soft curves. And then there was the haircut and the tattoos…up this close she could actually make out one on his neck, for God’s sake.

What sort of person had a tattoo on their neck? She’d thought the inside of the wrist and the webbing between thumb and forefinger were tender places. The neck seemed like tissue paper to her. As if he’d blasted a confetti tower with a flamethrower.

“If you’re having trouble speaking you should probably let me know somehow,” he said, because oh God she’d taken a thousand years to respond to him. He’d asked a question and she’d answered by staring and staring at him like a maniac.

“Eleven. It’s always eleven on a Wednesday. Bridge with the Pattersons,” she managed to get out, though once she had, that familiar, brittle little voice at the back of her mind whispered, Yeah, but what if they change their minds tonight? What if, what if?

It wouldn’t even be the belt, for a creature like this in the house with her. It’d be a hole dug in the garden and her in it.

“Thought about taking you to the hospital, but call me crazy—didn’t think that would go down so well.”

This whole thing wouldn’t go down so well, she thought in response, but of course didn’t say. He’d already exposed too much of her. Any more and she’d be naked in front of him, probably shivering and even more embarrassed than she currently felt.

“Thank you,” she said, because those were nice, safe, expected words. He didn’t look as though he had expected them, however. His thick, dark brows raised, and she noticed yet another thing about him.

He’d had a piercing in one of them. There was a mark there, a little strip of missing hair, where it had been.

“No problem.