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Six months is a long time to go without purpose. A long time to go without goals, or an aim, or a sense of urgency. A pace to the way one’s insignificant vessel crests each sunrise and sunset. It’s a hell of a long time to spend stuck in the same place, decaying in self-imposed exile like the rest of the seasonal foliage.
Nathaniel had never intended to stay at Gordon’s this long. It had just sort of happened. He’d needed an out from Wyoming, from all the social niceties and polite showmanship, and all the small issues he was suddenly expected to take an interest in and actively participate towards. So he’d taken the coward’s way out, trading the politics of one nowheretown’s for another’s.
It had come at a cost, of course. Things always did with his brother. Gordon believed in paying your way through life, whittling yourself a toolbox of hard-won strengths so that the next time you found yourself down on your luck, you either forged your own or died trying. It was a principle the guy lived his life by; self-efficacy to the extreme, which was one of the qualities he admired in his brother when it wasn’t such a giant pain in the ass.
Nathaniel spent most of his fall on the Hawthorne plot under broken machinery, running repairs on rusting-over farm equipment and using what little he’d learned in his landscaping degree to furrow the stubborn plots for root veg and tubers. Their mediocre turnover had financed the hens and the chicken coop they needed for the spring, and when he hadn’t been felling and hauling lumber through the backend of December, Em had enlisted him as an extra set of hands for her herb garden.
So yes, he had been suitably occupied by the farm and his brother and his brother’s new wife since he’d arrived at the bus station in Billings back in August. But he had yet to move to any sort of internalized rhythm, or cadence. He had yet to wake up each day with any sense of purpose thrumming in his veins.
Wiping down the dishes and pans that remained in the drying rack, Nathaniel flitted through his daily mental meandering down streets of meaning and resignation, wondering whether they had enough coffee in stock to get them through the week or whether he was going to get up tomorrow and accidentally axe his brother out in the toolshed. Em wasn’t a massive fan of the stuff – called it the ‘devil’s juice’ amongst other things – but he and Gordon got through a solid pitcher of it between mealtimes and ongoing projects. He realized he should probably check if the girl curled up in his covers would be needing a mug of the stuff, too.
He groaned, out loud. And then dumped Em’s great-grandma’s casserole dish back on the counter with enough force to scratch the granite.
Why, why, why did it have to be her? Of all the stupid, backwards townies that could have gotten lost in the forest and found their way across Gordon’s property lines, why did it have to be her??
There was just no justice in this goddamn universe.
The fact that he had recognized her, feeling his stomach bottom out and chest seize up the moment he’d caught her dripping rain and muck and filth all over the floor of their living room, known exactly who she was before she turned around to look him dead in the eye – that was what grated on him the most. Fingers digging into the countertop, he grimaced.
Her eyes were exactly as he’d remembered them. Dark and pretty, same shade as the chestnuts they’d roasted throughout the winter – framed by a round face and parted by the slope of her upturned nose. They’d looked warm and seductive and startled to see him there, just like the first time he saw her last year.
Pushing through the swing doors of Silvercrick’s local shithole, The Dandy Lion, Nathaniel shook off the worst of the rain and tree moss clinging to his jacket and dragged his boots into the tavern.
“Oh sonny,” the aging barmaid called out from behind the slab of teak that served as a bar topper. “Don’t you look like you could use a drink.”
It was sloppy, corny and stank of desperation, just like everything else in this suburban slice of hell. Nathaniel had made some fast observations since setting foot here a couple months ago, and he had yet to be proven wrong. Usually he avoided integrating with the dozen or so denizens that made up the social fabric splayed across the small valley town, but tonight he was in desperate need of a glass of whiskey, and he was willing to pay the price to get it.
Hmm. Maybe the barmaid was sharper than she looked. Go figure.
He found a seat where the bar topper wrapped around a load-bearing pillar, supporting one of the establishment’s fading menus. Settling in with a badly tempered sigh, he attempted to squeeze into the corner and waited with bated breath on someone to take his order.
The tavern was stacked. When there was only one decent bar in town, he expected Afyon Escort this was a common occurrence. Rowdy chatter and peals of laughter surrounded him on all sides, apart from his lone pocket of the bar where there appeared to be…
He turned to the girl sitting beside him. Her gaze was fixated on the stained wood beneath her beer bottle, and like him, she appeared to be drinking alone.
All of a sudden he felt a little lost. People didn’t drink alone in Silvercrick. They didn’t post up at bars devoid of company, or conversation, willing to simply hug a drink to their chest and let their musings swallow them whole. That was an ‘elsewhere’ thing. An ‘anywhere but here’ thing.
Fuck. Now he was getting confused. Just when he thought he knew the lay of the land beneath his feet.
He was still processing the jolt to his system when the rosy-cheeked barmaid ambled towards him – them – gray hair tumbling from her pinned-up bun and a sweet smile on her face.
“What would you like tonight, handsome?”
Nathaniel blinked in surprise. “Er – just a Jameson. Neat, please. It’s fucking freezing out there.”
The barmaid laughed in his face, and despite the uncomfortable heat of her breath, he tried to reciprocate with a smile. “Oh, I’ll bet. Will that be all?”
He paused, his mouth half open. His gaze rested on the green bottle to his right.
“And another one of those,” he mentioned, pointing towards it. “For the lady.”
He might as well have smashed the bottle across the bar, it seemed. The barmaid let out a squeak, color running from her cheeks, and faces began to turn towards them in ripples of curiosity.
The girl besides him examined the interaction with a blank stare, eventually slanting her brows. She coughed quietly.
“Uh, that’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to.”
Nathaniel felt his breath catch in his throat. Yeah, he knew that. In fact a large part of his brain was begging him to reconsider. But those words had taken to the thick air of the tavern like a flow of freshwater into a stagnant pond, and now his only intention was to keep paddling upstream.
“I don’t mind.” He shrugged, placidly.
The girl continued to stare at him. “You really don’t have to.”
He leaned back on his stool and looked at her. Really looked at her. A flannel-clad forearm rested on the bar besides her empty bottle, snaking over slim wrists and small shoulders, and a tight grey tank sat beneath her open shirt. Dappled under the sconce light and shadows from patrons at the bar, her skin swirled like strong, milky coffee, and her careless gaze quickly branded him with a heat the Jameson could only hope to follow.
He turned to the barmaid still frozen in place before him, bestowing upon her an empty, patient smile. The flush was back in her cheeks now, but it was through fervor, clearly, and not goodwill that she was spurred towards the back shelf.
Within a few minutes their drinks were set in front of them, along with a throwaway scowl. She didn’t glance back before moving on to serve the rest of her customers.
Nathaniel didn’t take it to heart. He’d only come in for a drink, after all.
Tipping his glass to his unwilling companion, he briefly caught her eye. “To your health,” he said.
She choked on a full-bodied laugh, casting her gaze towards the bar. A hand came up to mask her embarrassed smile.
“Thank you.” She tilted her new bottle back to him, just enough to prevent the contents spilling out. “Yours, too.”
He hid the pull of his grin behind the rest of his glass.
The silence began to dissipate, sidling away like an unwelcome third presence in their party of two, empty platitudes and quiet observations casting a net between their obvious islands. With the warmth of the whiskey flooding his system with benign, detached indifference, he began to indulge his newfound curiosity.
“Does she have a problem with you?” he asked, angling his chin towards the barmaid who’d since crossed the room.
The girl only laughed – a dull, empty sound, like a penny in a jar. “Nah. I wouldn’t put it like that.”
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow, leaning in across the bar topper. “How would you put it like, then?”
A pause pried through the chatter as she got herself comfortable. Jaw angled across a fist, supported by the elbow embedded into the teak, she blinked slowly and let her eyes stretch off into the distance. Pools of rich and glossy brown that reminded him of the shelter of the forest and the liquid in his glass. Her beer had steadily chaperoned the conversation, and in the process had loosened up those pretty lips.
“Patrice ain’t a bad egg.” Her mouth wrung out in a wry smile. “She means well enough.”
“If that’s meaning well enough, remind me not to piss her off.”
Another belly laugh, another Afyon Escort Bayan swig from her bottle. “Think it’s a little too late for that.”
“Yeah?” He finished off his glass and dropped a smile into the bottom of it. “Well. Guess I had it coming.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. She had it coming, too.”
Her deadpan delivery caused laughter to break out of him like a fist through a window – rough snickers that had him wheezing and waving down another glass. Nathaniel couldn’t remember the last time he’d had anything to laugh about.
He managed to cap himself after that, but didn’t have the presence of mind to notice much more about his drinking buddy other than the way she smiled, exposing wide rows of pearly white teeth, hair that lifted and crashed like the tide when she gestured to explain her thoughts, serious eyes framed by long, serious brows. Before he knew what was happening the stench of beer was running across the bar, splashing over his jeans and jacket, and their back-and-forth had splintered like the glass at their feet.
She burped. “Sorry.” Wincing as she rubbed at her abdomen, her lashes fluttered fast. “That… may have been one too many.”
He watched her with concern. “Wait – how many have you had?”
“Don’t think that matters much anymore.” Her lilt was still there, chirping and beautiful, but stomped beneath the sluggishness of her words. She began to rock up on her stool. “I’d better be getting home.”
“Home?” He racked his brains. “Whereabouts do you live?”
She waved her hand in a tangle of digits, a signal so confusing he guessed it couldn’t mean much no matter what state you were from. “Not farl. Just a block… or truck… or river… away…”
The space between the stool and the floor proved too much for her balance, her legs giving way as she was sent tumbling. He just about managed to get there in time.
“Fuck.” He wasn’t sure which one of them had said it, but it had come out low and breathy, and now the girl was leaning against him in a way that was causing serious constriction in places he hadn’t invited to their little rendezvous. Fuck, indeed.
“What are you doing?”
“Sorry, I -” he gently hauled her to her feet, jelly limbs and all, and attempted to prop her up against the pillar. “Just helping you up. That’s all.”
There was an exhale as she stumbled onto her feet. “That’s all?”
She was blinking back at him, lashes beating like a long-winged hawk – and he was the mouse, caught between her talons. It didn’t feel safe to move, or blink.
“I mean… yeah,” he stuttered out, eventually. Uncertainly. He quickly found himself fighting for air.
Two hands came up to rest on his shoulders, pawing against a breast pocket, using him for purchase. Breathing was out of the question now, it seemed. She was still staring up at him, blinking, slowly – those serious eyes way too close, framed by those long, pitched, serious brows – fingers resting against the nape of his neck, and curling into his hair.
His mouth, he felt certain, was going slack. It must be. His tongue darted out across dry, heavy lips, and he was sure he heard a gasp as she held him a little tighter.
… Then he was being shoved into the abyss of the room, knocking into living walls and IPAs and sending yet more bottles crashing to the floor.
“The fuck??” she all but yelled, hunched over in her quest for sobriety and braced against her knees. “What the hell is wrong with you??”
The walls shoved him back onto his feet, his ears ringing, his face flushing red.
“No, wait – I swear, I didn’t mean -“
“Oh I’m SURE you didn’t.” Her mouth twisted with a feral scowl, panting for air or from the force of launching him across the room. “So much for ‘helping me up’. I don’t need your help, you perv.”
Nathaniel simply watched the disaster unfold – gutless, gaping, horrified. He didn’t know what to do.
“I’m gonna go now,” she snarled at him. “You should too. Back to what… ever hole you came from.”
And with a final stumble into the walkway, she was gone – cloaking him back up in fear and embarrassment, and soaked to the bone from the fury of her rapids.
Colleen had slept well last night. As well as one can in the bed of a stranger, with rolls of thunder and rain pelting all the walls and windows.
It was hard to tell what the time should be when all the rooms were swathed in a similar shade of grey; either a filter from the clouds, or sickly pallor of the aging farmhouse. There were no clocks in the bedroom where she woke up, nor the bathroom where she tidied her bedhead using her handy fingercomb and splashed some water on her face. She would’ve abandoned all preening there if she hadn’t noticed the toothbrush left out on the shelf besides the shaving Escort Afyon foam, condensation still wriggling off the plastic packaging.
The fanfare of her arrival increased with every step she took down the stairs, even balanced on the tips of her toes. She tried to keep her bare footfalls within the faded green runner, and by the time she’d made it to the ground floor she had mentally prepared herself for any snide commentary or general berating she was sure would be awaiting her in the kitchen nook.
But when she got there, the place was empty. The small dining table was deserted, and the rooms branching off down the hall were deathly quiet, devoid of life or noise.
“Hello?” she asked out loud. Even Penny had somehow vanished. For the first time in twenty-four hours, she was well and truly alone.
Em’s low rasp just preceded her entry into the room – blonde curls swinging like a blinding axe come to cut through the shades of grey. Her skirts rustled over the floor in a language of their own as she pulled them in her haste.
“Hey! Er -” Overcompensating with borrowed cheeriness, Colleen smiled wide enough to lift the corners of her eyes. “Morning!”
“Morning to you too.” Em’s grin quickly intensified, her green eyes rippling with warmth and generosity.
Colleen coughed. “Um, sorry if I… overslept. I don’t actually know… well, I mean, I just…”
Em seemed perfectly content to let her fumble her way through the vagaries of an apology, though what she was apologizing for, she wished someone could tell her.
“You’re good, girl.” Em’s throwaway placation was a few sentences too late, though she didn’t seem to hold much remorse for it. If anything she seemed thoroughly entertained. “It’s only noon. Not like there’s much to do around here, anyways.”
“Where are the others? Gordon, Nathaniel?”
“So you’ve learned their names already, huh.” With her back turned to her, Em began to rattle through the cupboards over the stove. “Shoddy at introductions, those two. Don’t take it to heart. They’re out back – rain kept Gordon up all night, so I let him sleep in this morning – tried to give me hell about it, too, but I shut that up real quick. They headed out about an hour ago to inspect the damage from the storm.”
Colleen dragged a lone chair away from the table. She had to bite into her cheek to hold back the worst of her words.
“Do they know it’s not over yet?”
Em cast a glance back at her. “I don’t know. Gordon’s been here almost two years now – I’d expect him to know better.” She sighed, eyeing the clouds on the horizon. “It don’t take a brainiac to read that skyline.”
The room swelled with a heavy silence as they looked out through the small casement window above the sink.
Spring storms in Silvercrick were no laughing matter, not when the town sat this close to the foot of the mountains, and on the doorstep of a myriad rivers and streams. As soon as the ice thawed out and the snow had gone, brutal storms would rock the very foundations of these mountainside towns, with sheets of rain and torrents of buffeting wind ripping through the valley and sometimes lasting for weeks on end. Schools would close, businesses would shut, and people would draw their shutters and deadbolts indefinitely until there was a breather to examine the extent of the fallout. Only the church would hazard an early Sunday morning service for those who needed the hope and solitude – troubled souls who needed a prayer for flooding basements, or unexpected ailments, or family who proved a more terrible fate than the storm. The dirt roads would grow too soft and slick for even the toughest of trucks, so the locals would start stockpiling wood and candles and pantry staples as soon as their Christmas trees were sent tumbling into the river.
The damage was never just ended at roofs, or roads, or fences. A year without fatalities was a miracle, if not a godsend, and they hadn’t had one of those in a while. Families could be ruined irreparably by the wrath of these springtime storms; the disastrous desolation of them that came around like clockwork but were never made any easier to cope with, to live with, to bear.
Colleen’s stomach turned just thinking about it.
She wondered how the farmer and his family would fare. Would they lose their crops like the snowdrops and the crocuses, upended and ripped downstream? Or would the battering from the elements soften the soil enough to finally yield a bountiful harvest? Tame the lands and treat them kindly, these wildfolk who gave their lives to the woods?
Em was settling into the seat across from her, a plate of toast and a bowl of berries set in between them. Her usual impish charm had been dampened somewhat by the seriousness of the season, green eyes glassed over as she studiously laid out some needles and thread.
“Do you like coffee, or tea? We weren’t sure what you’d prefer in the mornings.” She rolled her eyes suddenly, and a hint of that joyful irreverence was back. “The boys like their devil juice black and strong, but I prefer a nice herbal tea myself. It warms the bones just fine.”
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