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Sheltered

By:Charlotte Stein

Even scumbag drug addicts can do the right thing sometimes.”

She felt her face heat.

“I don’t think you’re a scumbag. Or a drug addict. I just—”

“What?”

Don’t jostle me, she thought, but it was too late for that. He’d started jostling her all the way back by the fence. She could feel him, creeping under her skin and shaking her all around.

“Look, I’m not an idiot, okay? I know pot isn’t Satan’s weed, or whatever.”

He flicked his gaze to hers, so steady and dark and too intense.

“When did I say you were an idiot?” he asked, and she tried to remember. She really tried. Unfortunately, all she could come up with were vague impressions of him.

“You didn’t. You just implied it. With your…earrings and your haircut.”

He didn’t laugh, exactly. In fact, most of his reactions and his expressions seemed curtailed, somehow. Reined in. It only made it more obvious when he did smile, however. When he smuggled his laugh into a cough, behind his fisted hand.

“My earrings and my haircut make you an idiot? That’s a new one. Usually my earrings and my haircut just make other people back away. Kind of like you did in the garden.”

It struck her harder than she expected it to, him saying something like that. She didn’t mean it to or want it to, but it was there all the same. Like a small fist, direct to the chest.

“I didn’t back away because of how you look. You look…” Fine? Fine just leads to handsome, then gorgeous, then other impossible things, and you don’t want to go down that route, do you, Evie? That route is barred to you, for all sorts of reasons. He’s cool. You’re not. He’s attractive. You’re not. He’s free. You’re not. “You don’t look threatening, or anything. I just… Did the Ryerson kid say anything about me to you?”

She couldn’t think why the kid would have, but the fact remained—the punk seemed to understand way too much about her situation.

“What sort of things do you think he would have said? He told me your name, and that’s about it.”

She checked his face for a hint of mockery, but there was nothing there.

“Just my name?”

“We don’t exactly talk, me and Mickey Ryerson. It’s not like we have a ton in common—I mean, look at this neighborhood. These houses.”

He gazed around at his surroundings with a kind of wonder in his expression. Just a hint of it.

“Yeah, they’re really amazing.”

“Exactly.”

“And beautiful.”

“Definitely.”

“And worth a lot of money.”

It was as far as she could go. He didn’t look away during the whole of the exchange, and she could hear it in his voice. That he knew what she really meant by amazing and beautiful and worth a lot of money.

But the lovely part of it was—he didn’t say. He just started in on something else instead.

“My apartment overlooks an alley where they slaughter chickens for the Chinese restaurant across the way.”

She thought of feathers. Lots of feathers, fluttering in a dark, narrow space.

“Do you ever see them do it?”

“Sure. They don’t mess around—no wringing necks. A cleaver, straight through.”

“They’re not supposed to be doing it though, right? They’re not allowed.”

“A lot of people aren’t allowed to do a lot of things.”

God, there were thorns around this conversation. She could feel them rising up, every time they got to something that seemed like stable ground. It made her want to close her eyes, but doing so didn’t seem like a good idea.

Instead, she pulled her legs up to her chest. Bought herself time while she tried to think of a good subject change. Unfortunately, the only words that came were the ones that had been whirling around in her stupid head since she’d opened her eyes.

“Did you draw on your shoes?”

Of course she kicked herself immediately. She should have gone with I like the drawings on your shoes instead—and knew it. One sounded like an accusation, and the other sounded like she’d become a nice, normal person during the last ten minutes, instead of this accusatory asshole she was somehow being.

He even looked at her that way. As though he couldn’t believe she was behaving like such a jerk after he’d carried her fat ass inside and put ice to her head.

“I…yeah.”

She wondered what word he’d wanted to put between I and yeah.

You’re a judgmental cunt, probably.

“It’s nice.”

Inwardly, she rolled her eyes at herself. Even “nice” sounded like condescending bullshit.

“I can’t tell if you’re serious or if you’re mocking me.”

Her stomach turned over. One hand went to her face, even though she tried to stop it.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry—I’m…I don’t know. Bad at this. I’m all…”

The right word wouldn’t come. I’m all stupid? Foolish? Panicked?

“Uncomfortable?” he offered, and that seemed as good a term as any. “Wouldn’t worry about it. I’m the same.”

“You’re uncomfortable too?”

“No—I’m bad at talking to people too.”

“Oh.”

“But probably for different reasons.”

“Probably.”

For some reason, her heart had started hammering in her chest. Her palms had gone sweaty, even though she felt sure they should have done so ten minutes ago. What was so scary about this, exactly? He’d been a drug addict before. Now he was just some guy who found it hard to talk to people.

“I really do like your shoes,” she said, then felt worse. Her heart had passed her chest and moved on to hammering in her teeth.

“Thanks.”

“I like the…flower.”

God, she hoped it really was a flower. What if he’d drawn something much more manly and impressive, like a skull and crossbones, and she’d just mistaken it for a flower?

“Did a bigger version for class,” he said, and for a long moment she debated asking him what class he was talking about. She debated and debated and possibly also wrung her hands, while he went into his backpack and drew out an actual notepad, filled with…things.

Pictures. He had a notepad filled with pictures, that he’d done with his own two massive bear paws, in interesting mediums like charcoal. And then he h

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