Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chapter 103 :The End of the World

"You're doing this to spite me, aren't you?" Fiona strode through the open doorway of the barn, her eyes adjusting to the dim slanting sunlight within. Her shadow fell across Yellow Sky’s mottled coat as Storm curried his horse. “ I had to hear about it from the crew. You couldn’t talk to me about it? Were you at least going to say goodbye?”

The graceful line of his back stiffened and he froze.  His head dipped as though he was composing himself, preparing to speak. Instead, he sighed, a great deflating gust of defeat. "You're leaving, too." was all he said flatly, placing the brush he’d been using on the shelf. His hands gently smoothed over the horse’s white-mottled muzzle. "It's not going to matter to you where I go." He turned to face her, meeting her eyes, and Fiona had never seen him look so shattered and haunted.  "Fiona..." he shook his head. "I can't do this anymore.”

"I don’t understand how I feel." she forced her face to remain steady, refusing to cry. She was afraid. Utterly terrified that the world was ending. "I don’t want to fight with you...but...I can't see you come home in the back of the wagon you understand, Storm?” Her voice cracked, and she was ashamed of the shrill quality of it, at the trite comment she’d uttered. What was coming out of her mouth was not what needed to be discussed and she knew it. "You don't know what that was like..."

"“Yeah, I do!” He spat, his face twisting in anger, brightness gleaming in his eyelashes. “It’s probably just like the idea of you leaving makes me feel. I feel like that every damn time I think about you getting on a ship and going across an ocean I’ve never seen and never will. And that I'll never...that you'll... look...Fiona...I just realized that the only thing worse than staying here with you is staying here without you. I have to get away from... here."

He looked up at her again with his black, black eyes and she felt a tear roll down her cheek. "I don’t belong here, Storm. I want to go home." She reached for him, her fingers brushing his face. And I don’t even know where that is anymore...bloody hell, maybe I do. Maybe that’s the problem.

He flinched, and her heart broke for what felt like the hundredth time. He threw up his hands defensively, deflecting her touch and shaking his head. "Don’t do this.” He breathed, almost inaudibly. “Don’t make it worse for me, Fiona.” He stepped backwards, his bootheel knocking clumsily against the rough hewn timbers of the stall behind him. Yellow Sky whickered, startled. "Just...go."

She caught his wrists, holding them in her hands, feeling his pulse fluttering fast beneath her fingers. Don’t push me away, Storm, I can’t bear it...and I’m sorry... She’d tried so hard not to hurt him, not to make it complicated, not to hurt herself. She’d failed in all of it. And now I’m leaving and he’s leaving and we’ll part angry and hurt and I’ll never see him again. All I’ll have left of him is regret...and...and...  Her eyes met his startled gaze as she pushed him backwards, trapping him between her body and the timbers behind him, pressing her starved lips against his.

A jolt went through her that nearly buckled her knees as he gasped, his head jerking backwards and awkwardly hitting the wall.  He clearly hadn't been expecting this. Neither had she.  She lied to herself, swearing she’d intended to kiss his cheek, his forehead, maybe just hug him, swearing that she hadn’t meant to do this, but he was like sweet water on parched earth, and she knew with a shock of panic that from here on out, she'd spend the rest of her life thirsty. This kiss would not be enough. A hundred of them wouldn't be enough.  What was left of her control was shouting at her, telling her to let him push her away, to walk out the door, to not turn this into something irreversible, but then he uttered a throaty, desperate groan that obliterated all remaining reason from her brain. He fumbled his wrists free from her grasp and crushed her against his body, his arms like iron bands. She could feel his heartbeat pounding hard against her breast, his silken hair spilling over her arms as she clutched at him. 

He took her over, his mouth hungry, almost frightening, drawing the breath from her. If he hadn’t been holding her so tightly, her knees would have failed and she would have fallen. Her senses exploded with his presence, with the warmth of his body, the velvet softness of his lips and the honeyed sweetness of his mouth. Gripping his shoulders, she sank against him. She could not get enough of him. She knew she never would.

It took everything she had to tear her lips from his and meet his gaze. He was shaking against her, trembling and breathless and she stared in awe at the beautiful face she’d grown so familiar with, the masculine curve of his throat, the sleek, shadowy fall of his black hair. And those endlessly deep eyes. Oh, his eyes...She felt weakness and heat and desperate want surge through her. She tightened her arms around him, her head on his shoulder, her lips sighing his name against the hot pulse at his throat. 

The strong arms around her and his hands tangled in her hair were her entire world, the wild galloping of his heart and the staggering gasp of his breath loud in her ear. Nothing else matters. Drawing in a deep, ragged inhalation, she savored the heady scent of him, hay and grass and sweet woodsmoke. Eons had passed in this tiny moment. Civilizations had risen and fallen and were buried by the sands of time in the moment they’d stood here. A different sun shone in the sky than what had shone there when she’d walked across the yard to the barn. The sunlight was brighter, the shadows deeper. She could no longer imagine what tomorrow might be like. “What now?” She whispered, leaning on him, tentatively breathing the air of her new world. She had been right to be afraid. 

His whispered voice was hoarse, breathless. “There’s never been a time I haven’t loved you, woman...” Then his voice failed him and he squeezed his eyes shut, falling silent as he held her.  

© 2010 Regina Shelley

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chapter 102: Reckoning Day

I had to be out of my mind to think this would work out in the end. 

Storm closed his eyes and leaned his back against the warmth of the cottonwood tree behind him, drawing a knee up and resting his elbows on it. He supposed it had worked out, at least for a couple of good years. Hardly reason to complain now, or harbor regrets. The greening grass beneath him was damp and pleasantly cool. He sighed, trying to relax. 

I’m sorry, Wash. I get what you’re saying. He went over what his crewmate had said to him, berating him for his inaction with Fiona. But it’s not the same. I’ve just...seen way too much.

Mr. Lynch had very graciously offered Storm comparable pay when he took the job with the company. But aside from that, the idea of being away from the army had appealed to him. The army job had been tolerable enough...though many of the officers and enlisted men treated the Crow scouts with the same humor that he supposed they treated the general’s pet monkey. And if I’m sitting here taking inventory of my soul, I suppose I should consider that doing that job made me feel vaguely dirty. And not in a good way. 

Erastus Lynch hadn’t treated him like that. Lynch had looked him right in the eye and shook his hand without flinching and with no trace of irony. He offered him a small bunkhouse with a small crew, meals cooked by women, pay based on the job instead of how white or red his blood was. 

However, when he’d ridden up to the guest quarters so long ago in Fort Bridger, he knew even then that the right thing to do would have been to turn around and ride back the way he’d come. Go right back and tell Mr. Lynch he’d changed his mind, that he’d agreed too hastily to take the job. 

It’s not like I’d never seen a beautiful woman before. He thought reproachfully, although truth be told, the alarm bells started going off in his head the moment he’d made eye contact with Lynch’s niece. He remembered ignoring his own wisdom, the way young men do when confronted with bewitching eyes and masses of curls. Forcing himself to believe he could work with her without becoming smitten. 

I actually believed that. He mopped his temples with the heels of his hands. “You stupid, stupid bastard.” he muttered before he knew he was speaking. She had been a fire goddess that day, the afternoon sun blazing in her flaming hair like a prairie fire under an Autumn sunset, filling her green eyes with molten gold. He noticed her noticing him, and he’d foolishly opted to ignore that, too. ‘Women like her view us ‘savages’ like we’re trained dogs’, he’d told himself. Pretty easy to ignore women like that, even beautiful ones. He’d certainly had plenty of practice doing exactly that. He told himself that she hadn’t been looking at him the way she had been looking at him. That he’d imagined it. But he knew he was no stranger to that look, and he also knew his own extremely accurate intuition would not have let him mistake it. He’d seen it on many a woman’s face, white and Indian. Hell, I’ve seen it on some men’s faces. 

I really am a deluded, lying sack of shit. How could I mess up this bad?

Mr. Lynch had conveniently  failed to mention his niece’s poor cooking skills. He’d also left out her bad temper and her fondness for off-color jokes. And he was sure his new employer didn’t even know about how his niece made smart aleck comments in his new scout’s ear and snuck sugar cubes into the pockets of said scout’s laundry. And it frustrated both himself and Mr. Lynch equally the way she would stand up to anyone and everyone, both of them included. 

But Storm knew could let his guard down with her, knowing there was no pretense in her when she was with him. He hadn’t counted on that, with becoming so familiar and comfortable with her. Hadn’t counted on the nights he spent lying awake, his head full of her laugh and the way her eyes flashed when she was angry. Hadn’t counted on gasping awake on the nights he was exhausted enough to sleep, his body drenched in sweat and burning with fiery trails where she’d touched him in his dreams, all wandering hands and silky skin and hot breath.

He opened his heavy, burning eyes and gazed at the hard angles of the horizon, at the ruddy wall of Castle Rock rising above the Green in the noon sun. He could disappear into that bleak landscape, let the spring rains and cold wind blast the fire out of him, ride until he reached the Bighorn and stay in the village until his head cleared and he was no longer possessed. 

I think you’ve fed yourself enough horseshit, Lights the Storm. Run as far and as fast as you want. You’re never going to shake free of her. You’ll shake yourself free of air and earth and your own spirit first.

And now she was telling him she was leaving, and he knew that the only thing worse than watching her go would be staying here after she’d gone. Here where the evidence of her touch and her scent and the remembered echo of her voice was everywhere and would turn the very air into torture he would not be able to bear. 

He put a hand on the base of the cottonwood, the other pressing against his ribs as he carefully pushed himself to his feet. He drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Then he started the hike back to the station, his eyes feeling like hot, gritty lead in his eyesockets.

Most of the crew were gone into town to buy lumber to fix the kitchen roof, which suited him. He’d settle up with them later after it was done, and work out what  to do about Luis. But running into the men and boys he’d come to regard as brothers now on his way to the house might shake his resolve to tell Mr. Lynch he was planning on leaving tomorrow and wouldn’t be back. 

© 2010 Regina Shelley

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Red Haired Boy, Part 2 (prequel)

“We got ourselves in a bit of a standoff, so we do...” The Irish thug on the stoop was surprisingly calm, considering Dorcas was still holding her blade jammed hard under his ribcage. “Would you feel better if I let you take me musketoon?”

Dorcas considered this. She was hesitant to reach for it, because she was afraid a shift in position might give him an opening to either grab her or hit her with the weapon. But on the other hand, I really do have the tiger by the tail right now. Gonna have to do something.

She put her hand on the weapon firmly, ready to pull him into her blade if he made a sudden move. He was taller than she, but judging by his lean, rangy build, and the way had the gun slung across his broad shoulders, a hard yank on it would pull him off balance. He kept his thumb in the trigger guard and his raised hands open, fingers spread to show they were otherwise empty and unready to fight.

“Take it.” He said, sliding his thumb slowly out of the metal loop.

“You try anything and I swear I’ll kill you.”She tightened her grip on both the gun and the knife handle, giving him a nudge with the latter to remind him of his precarious position. “I’ll leave your dead white ass right here on the stairs.”

“Aye, I’m getting that.”

She slowly pulled the musket from across his shoulders and backed out of his reach, leveling the barrel at his chest. “What do you want?”

“Well...It was me intent to help you with the door....well...that and if I hadn’t stayed, Connor most likely would have.”

“He seems to think your intent was to attack me. And he clearly knows you better than I do.”

The young man grimaced unhappily and shook his tousled ginger head. “Actually, he doesn’t.”

“You’re telling me you don’t know him, now?”

“He’s me brother.” The man muttered, a disgusted edge in his voice. Ignoring the weapon aimed at him, he turned towards the stuck door and put his shoulder to it. It moved another squealing inch. “Aye, got a problem here, sure. So...” He said conversationially, peering beyond the door  into the dank darkness within the tenement. “You play fiddle down at Pete’s place.”

Wha...? Startled, Dorcas’ mouth fell open. “You mean Almacks? The dance hall? Uh...yes. I play...violin.

“You’re very good.” He was stooping, straining his arm behind the door at something she couldn’t see.  

An unpleasant realization hit her. “Did you...did you follow me home?” She stepped back in alarm and re-aimed the big barrel, which had started to droop, back up to his chest.

“No.” He planted both hands firmly on the door frame, braced one foot against the door, and shoved steadily with his leg. The door slid slowly open, scraping and squeaking the entire way.

“Then why are you really here?”   

“Because I live here. I need to pick up more balls.” He turned and gently but firmly took his firearm out of her startled hands. “Tha’s not loaded, lass.”

Her mouth dropped open and she stared at him. I'd say he has all the balls he needs and then some. She crossed her arms, cocking her head at him. There is probably close to a thousand people living in this building. I guess it’s possible I’ve never seen him here. Especially if he keeps different hours...which considering that he’s wearing gang markings, I imagine he does.

His face broke into a cocky grin. “How stupid do you think I am?” He winked and gestured to the now open doorway. “After you. Mind your step, Mr. Scarano is passed out paralytic drunk in the hallway once again. He’s layin’ against door. And I smell know, the to the left. He’s made a right holy show of it in there.”

He really does live here. She stared at him, not moving.

He gave her a comical shrug and flopped down on the seatwall, looking up at her.  “Are you goin’ in?”

She thought about this. She felt fairly certain that if the man had meant to attack her, he could have done so while she was holding his unloaded weapon on him. He hardly would have handed her a loaded weapon, so she felt inclined to believe his claim that it wasn’t. Hell, he did get rid of his pig brother...he wasn’t obligated to do that. Still, not sure I want a Roach Guard I’d held at knifepoint and then at gunpoint knowing where exactly I live...  “No.”

He gave her an exasperated look and cocked his head. In the dim amber light, she could see that his eyes were a deep blue. Normally, she didn’t like blue eyes. They were pale and untrustworthy, and belonged to people who looked at her as if she were less than human. This man’s eyes were a deeper color, like indigo dye, and twinkled with amusement.

“Fair enough, lass.” He nodded. “So if we’re gonna sit here, I don’t supposed there’s any danger of me...” He gestured at the violin case."I mean, would you possibly let me...."

Is he serious? She raised an eyebrow at him.

He raised one as well and held out the musketoon to her.

I must be out of my skull. This violin is the difference between starving and not starving. She held out her instrument case and let him take it from her, taking the gun from him once again.

“You play?” She said incredulously, watching him reverently open the case. It was more an exclamation of disbelief than a question.

“’s been a while.” He said softly, his long, slightly freckled fingers running over the chalky white haze that marred the instrument’s narrow waist, plucking the strings and listening, adjusting them.  He found lump of rosin inside and deftly rubbed it over the horsehair of the bow. “I don’t know if I can even...”  He gently swung the instrument to his shoulder, and drew the bow across the strings, his eyes closing in what Dorcas thought was something akin to quiet ecstasy. He played each string, listening to the tone of each, the sweet, heartbreaking sweep of pure sound seemingly even more beautiful for the filthy squalor of the decaying tenement before them. When he reached the high E, it took her breath.

Then he bounced the bow like the Irish in the dancehall did when they were playing reels or jigs, and a jaunty tune she was pretty sure she’d heard before awoke from the strings. Hesitantly, as if his fingers had to remember what they were doing, and then more confidently. She smiled in spite of herself, intrigued. She didn’t play this style, and in fact normally didn’t care for this style. But it was interesting to hear her violin played this way.

He finished the tune, his eyelids slowly opening as he smiled at her. She was pretty sure his eyes were brighter than they had been. “Thank you, lass.” He said, his voice suddenly quiet and fragile.

Dorcas was not quite sure what to say. She cleared her throat. “That’s one I like” she said with a forced casualness, trying to place the tune in her mind. Trying to make him think she didn’t notice the emotion that transfigured his face, that twisted her soul inside her. “Beggarman, or Rigadoo...or...?”

He was carefully placing the instrument and the bow back into the case, closing the latches and holding the case out to her. He had a look of pure gratitude on his face, and he didn’t answer. She suspected he didn’t want her to hear his voice break.

“How about I call that tune Red Haired Boy?” She said charitably, abandoning her curiosity and with it, the need for him to answer. “I’ll remember that.”

Is this how the reel Red Haired Boy, otherwise known as The Jolly Beggarman or The Little Beggarman got it’s name? Well, anything’s possible I suppose, but to my knowledge, no. What I do know is that traditional and folk tunes and songs morph and change and get renamed all the time. Sometimes they’re called “So and So’s Favorite.” Traditional songs oftentimes go by many names.

I particularly love the tune Red Haired Boy, and often request we do it when I am involved in an Irish session. Once, when it was my turn to call the tune, I said “Let’s play Red Haired Boy”, and the fiddler beside me said “Ah, Danny Pearl’s Favorite.”  I gave him a questioning look, so he explained why he’d called the tune that.

You may recall hearing about Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was murdered in Pakistan by Al-Qaeda. What you probably didn’t hear was that Pearl played bluegrass fiddle, and was particularly fond of the tune, too. So his session buddies decided to honor him by renaming the tune, and passing word of the renaming to any other session musicians they played with.

The new name had trickled all the way to a hole-in-the-wall Irish pub called the Publick House way down in South Carolina.

So the next time I was in a session where someone requested Red Haired all know what I said. 

*Special Thanks to Fred for helping me out with some historical details on firearms!

© 2010 Regina Shelley

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Red Haired Boy: Part 1 (prequel)

Dorcas Smith noticed the doorknob on the front door to the tenement was, once again, ripped out of the door. He brother had repaired it the first three times it had happened, but this time, the doorknob was nowhere to be seen. She shouldered her battered violin case, got a better grip on her satchel, and gave the door a tentative shove with her open palm. 

The bent hinges groaned in rusty protest and the peeling, partially rotted door lurched only a few inches open, hanging on what was left of it’s hinges. She surveyed the new damage and sighed, shaking her head in disgust. This is gonna take two hands....

She glanced around the quiet, late-night darkness of the street, wondering if it was safe to put down her bags. Things around here had a way of growing legs with a quickness, and she couldn’t afford to lose anything, especially the violin. In fact, having it out in the open where people could see made her feel like a target. 

“Dammit.” She muttered, watching two young red-haired men saunter up the street. She bumped the door with a hip, but all that succeeded in doing was making it scrape an inch across the uneven and cracked wooden floor behind it, the hinges squealing. 

The men glanced her way, and one of them gave a derisive guffaw. “Tha's one way to keep the darkies out.” His accent was heavy, his words slurring.

Had Dorcas been with her brothers, she would have been either nonplussed or infuriated by the comment. But now, standing alone on the dark street having attracted the attention of a couple of armed ruffians, all she felt was fear. Her hand went to the shiv beneath her coat, noting with growing panic the blue stripe each of them wore on their pants legs and the rifle one of them toted against his shoulder. Roach Guard. Irish thugs. She was trapped on the stoop, unable to open the door or get out of the entryway and flee down the street. She gave the door another fruitless shove. 

“Connor, shut up.” The taller one with the rifle muttered. “Tha’s not how you were raised.”

“Oh, we’re gonna be fecking gentlemen, eh?” The man leaned against one of the seatwalls flanking the doorway, looking Dorcas over. “I'm raised right now, so I am. How 'bout it, brown girl?"

She gripped her knife, keeping it hidden, holding her case before her like a shield. She glared at him, meeting his eyes, sizing him up. He’ll be expecting a shot to the nuts...go for his eyes if he makes a move....they never count on that and spend all their effort guarding their berries...

“Lad, this isna part of the job. Leave off.” Rifle said firmly. “Look, go along with ya, I’ll catch up.”

“Oh.” the leering Irishman sneered. “I see how it sodding is. What do you wan’ me to tell Flannagan? You decided to take your wee laddie out for a little exercise so you’re runnin’ a bit late?”

“Jaysus! Will you just go?” 

“You’re a cute hoor, so you are." The shorter man spat at his companion. "Suppose I’m in the mood to get me oats as well, eh?” 

What did he just call me? Why did I not listen to Ethan? Why did I not stay in tonight? Dorcas pressed her back against the jammed door, gripping her knife so hard her hand started to sweat. Her fear warred with her outrage. Taller one might be easier to stab in the side...with any luck, that’ll bleed enough to put him down fast and keep him down, if I get him under his ribs... "I'm not a wh..." 

"He didn't say what you think, lass, and he was talkin' to me anyways." Rifle said evenly, not looking at her. “Connor. Come here to me, lad.” He put a calming hand on the shoulder of his menacing companion and firmly turned him so they were facing each other. “We both know you’re stopping at the Red Door for another drink before we meet Flannagan and the lads. Go wait for me there.” He put up a finger. “Not a sodding word more. We could fight about it here, sure, and then we show up so banjaxed and torn up the Chichesters have an easy job of just finishing it up and killing us. And you know sodding well we’ll run into them. And maybe Father Vallon's lads as well. They’ll be after the shipment, sure.”

The man called Connor stared up at his taller companion. “We’ll talk about this later, Georgie Fecking Washington,” He growled. 

“Aye, so we will, lad. Get a pint for me, I’ll be along.”

“Sodding tosser.” Connor gave Dorcas one last reproachful look over his shoulder and sauntered down the dark street, his gait self-conscious and cocky, like a dog who didn’t want anyone to know he’d been bested. “Wanker.” 

The remaining man looked up at Dorcas. “I’m sorry about that, lass.” He stepped up to the tenement stairs towards her and gestured towards the door. “If you want to go inside...”

She stepped swiftly towards him, and jammed the shiv firmly against his side, right under his ribcage, pressing  hard enough to get his undivided attention. “I will dump your filthy mick guts right here on the sidewalk, you piece of...”

“Jaysus, lass!” The man froze, gasping in pain as she dug the point into him. “I was gonna ask you to hold me rifle so I can see to the door.” 

“How stupid do you think I am?” 

“Clearly not as stupid as I am. Ouch!”  He didn’t move, holding his hands open, his thumb threaded harmlessly through the trigger guard of the weapon slung behind his neck and across his shoulders. “Lass, I might need that liver later, any danger of you easin’ off....?”

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t open you up and leave you for the rats right now. Pig!” She hated this man, hated what he represented. Violence and fighting and killing over nothing much important. The painted blue stripe on his pants told her he was on his way to yet another confrontation with gangs of others like himself. He’ll probably kill tonight and some other piece of filth might kill him. Life was cheap here, but it was because of people like him that it was so. She narrowed her eyes at him, forcing herself to calm down. He was a head taller than she was, wiry with strong shoulders. The dim light of the lamp beside the doorway reflected and highlighted a headfull of messy copper curls, gave his colorless face a haint’s ethereal pallor. Trash. Devil. Scum...Maybe I should let him just go on to the hell he's headed to...maybe they’ll all just kill themselves off and be done with it...

“Well, lass...” he said, clearly choosing his words carefully. “I think a pretty compellin’ reason is that if you do, you’ll be stuck out here in front of the aul' Brewery alone with a pricey fiddle, a pretty face, and a jammed door.”

© 2011 Regina Shelley

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chapter 101: Weak Spots

"So how's it look up there, Bugs?" The kitchen table had been dragged over to the burned end of the kitchen, and Saint stood on top of it, squinting up into the charred hole left by the fire. "That sod look like it's alive to you?"

"Hard to say. None of it's very green, but it's been cold, so..." Tommy's muffled voice floated down through the sunshine-filled void. "Most of it looks like it might come back after a few rains. Maybe we'll just have to replace what was on the corner...oh...oh, look at that..."

Lily watched warily from the sink, where she was washing the breakfast dishes. She wasn't happy at the soil, dead grass, and charred bits that had floated down onto the floor she and Fiona had so carefully cleaned, but it couldn't be helped. The damaged sod roof over the kitchen had to be fixed, and a dirty floor could be easily swept. She knew that whatever had transpired between Fiona and Storm, however, would not be as easily swept away.

Between Storm's sullen silence and Fiona's forced cheerfulness, breakfast had been excruciating. She'd never been so happy to be able to tackle a sink full of dishes alone in her life. She didn't have to go into the house to know that Fiona and Mr. Lynch were behind the closed door of the office, arguing heatedly. And while she honestly could not imagine such a scene, she would almost think that Mr. Storm had either wept or was on the verge of it when he'd earlier walked into the kitchen for breakfast.And when he walked back out minutes later, he was livid to the point of being terrifying. She couldn't help but wonder how Mr. Wash had fared going after him.

Being beaten to within an inch of his life and then the prospect of public execution hadn't been enough to crack Storm's control, so she knew the news that his job might be in jeopardy would hardly have been enough to push him over the edge.   

Did Fiona...tell him? That she's leaving?

Clumps of dirt sifted down past the charred timbers, and Saint ducked his head forward, narrowly avoiding a faceful of soil. "The hell you doing up there?"

"There's a lot of white grubworms up here." Tommy said.

"Well, we don't need to dig 'em out now. You can play with your crawlies later. It's raining dirt down here."


"Taking me back someplace I don't wanna go." Saint muttered as he worked. His hands were black with soot and earth as he felt along the damaged beams, pressing hard, searching for instability. Dirt clumps scattered and broke on the table and floor.

"Tommy," Lily called worriedly. "Please don't fall through the roof. Be careful."

"Don't you worry Miss Lily. It's pretty sturdy." He called back, his voice filtering dully through the hole and the remaining sod. "It is...uh...pretty sturdy...isn't it Saint?"

"Mostly, yeah." Saint said, tugging at a support beam. "Don't crawl right up to the hole...but I don't think your weight's gonna break anything.  Mostly lost some of the flat pieces holding the sod up, I think." He glanced at Lily, raising his eyebrows at her. "I guess if we gotta fix a roof, it's handy having these lightweight express riders to send topside, eh?"

She forced a chuckle she didn't feel. "I reckon it is."

"Little Miss...Hand me my hat, willya?" More crumbled sod fell into his hair. "I'm gonna end up with sand in my eyes...."  Dirt rolled off his shoulders and fell on the tabletop around his boots.

She dried her hands and picked up the black hat that lay on the bench. He'd taken it off so he could see to work above his head, but without it, he was taking a lot of dirt in the face. She walked over and held it up to him.

"Thanks." He took the hat from her and frisked the remaining debris from his hair, leaving a sooty smear across his forehead. "You don't look happy." He jammed the hat onto his head. 

Because I'm not happy. Not right at this minute, anyways. For one thing, I like it here and don't want to have to lose my job. She sighed. "The job. Fiona. Storm... Breakfast. You know."

Saint crouched down so he was more or less face to face with her. "Those two have been bickering like an old married couple as long as I've known 'em."

"It was different today." She reached over and briskly brushed a rootlet-filled clod off his shoulder.

A gout of dirt suddenly poured through the hole, exploding on the crown of Saint's hat. Lily yelped and scrambled backwards.

"Sorry." Tommy's muffled voice filtered down to them sounding sheepish.

"What did you do?" Saint shifted from beneath the hole, brushing himself off.

"There's...well...a whole bunch of Darkling beetles...."

Saint huffed, exasperated, throwing up his hands and shaking his head at Lily. "Can you believe this?"

Lily took Saint's hat off and shook it out before placing it back onto his head. "Tommy...?"

"Likes bugs. Yeah." Saint unfolded his legs and sat on the table far enough away from the hole that any new avalanches would miss hitting him. "There ain't no point in pretending we don't know about Storm and Fiona, so I ain't telling you anything new. It's just getting to the point..." he paused, an unspoken thought flickering across his features. "...where they can't pretend it's nothing anymore." He reached up without thinking and mopped his face with his fingers, leaving black smears. "...what?" He said, noticing the amused look on her face.

"Mr. Saint, you just..." she smiled in spite of herself. "Here." She took the hem of her apron and gently scrubbed at the offending smudges. "You just smeared soot all over your face."

"Gonna get a lot dirtier before we're done, you know."  He protested softly, but nonetheless leaned forward obediently, letting her work. His dark eyes settled on hers briefly before closing.

He really did have wonderful eyelashes. They lay on his cheeks like feathery black shadows. In fact, his entire face was a contrasting mix of soft and harsh. Rough stubble on smooth olive skin, a beautifully sculpted nose slightly bent from being broken in a brawl.  She felt the sandy grit atop his cheekbones and in the hollows of his eyes, acutely aware of the warmth of him against her fingertips as she swept it away.

The night of the fire seemed almost like it had happened a lifetime ago.  She thought of the way he'd hauled her through the falling embers and suffocating smoke, dumping her out of the window before him. How quickly he'd become incapacitated, how he'd lay retching and gasping in the garden for air when they'd pulled him out. She was nothing to him, just some plain-featured, skinny little girl he barely knew, and yet he'd run into a fire for her knowing what it would do to him. 

And nobody was in the least surprised he'd done it.

"So..."  He opened his eyes and looked at her, snapping her out of her thoughts. There was a forced casualness in his tone. "You and...Hungerford?"

She felt a warmth flooding her face, although she wasn't sure if it was the mention of Bender or the proximity of Saint's dark gaze that had triggered it. Maybe it's both. She shrugged self-consciously.  "I don't know, Saint." She stammered, suddenly embarrassed. "I like him. He's nice." And how is this any of his business? She thought defensively. Bold question from a man who regularly comes home with lip rouge on his collar. "And he's not my beau, if that's what you're asking. I'm here to work, not...look for...that."  She was actually glad in a way about the pink smudges and the scent of feminine perfume wafting from his shirt when she had laundered it. The idea that he had a sweetheart made her less nervous around him, made him off-limits. Made him safer to be around. She was still afraid of him. Maybe even more than she had been before she'd gotten to know him. But now she was afraid for an entirely different reason.

She drew in a deep breath, studying his face. “That’s about the best I can do without any soap.” She forced a smile. 

The fewer possibilities I have regarding Saint the better.

© 2010 Regina Shelley