The story so far:
The morning went pretty typical, but Riley’s in a peaceful mood as she heads to work.
The houses around Parker’s were old but mostly well kept, with small, tidy little lawns. In the distance I could see smaller farmhouses over neatly plowed rows of seedlings.
I glanced to the left as I jogged across the street. Louis’ yard was, as usual, weed-free and perfectly trimmed. It was a little curious that he wasn’t out on his porch yet, drinking his coffee and reading the paper.
Bordering on his right was Ms. Tillie. She preferred a more … natural approach to her landscaping.
I ducked under the azaleas that poured over her white picket fence, and felt around for the gate handle hidden behind a thick mass of morning glories. Inside, above an endless assortment of tea bushes and flowerbeds, I found her lounging on her porch swing. As usual, her nose was buried in a book.
Thanks to practice, I navigated her yard without stepping on anything important. Beside the bottom step she had mounted a large gazing ball. It was adorned with chimes shaped like fairies that jingled merrily as I passed by. They caught my attention, and I glanced at it without really meaning to. The world it reflected back at me looked twisted and wrong, and tinted a smoky hue.
“Well, it’s Heather’s girl!” Ms. Tillie declared as I climbed the porch steps. Her voiced danced, and it was easy to believe she’d already forgotten waving to me a few minutes ago.
That would have been a mistake. Ms. Tillie was an eccentric old hippy, but her mind was sharp and her favorite hobby was manipulation. When we first met, she told me that she had grown tired of trying to save the world.
In my whole life, I’ve changed zero minds, she had admitted bluntly. They might say they agree, but leave them alone for a couple of minutes and what happens? The demons I thought exorcised are back even stronger. Now I just celebrate what I love in others. People are always drawn to whatever creates the most love.
She leapt to her feet and wrapped me in a fond hug that I couldn’t quite make myself enjoy. I did like her. Of all the houses I cleaned, I had the most fun at hers. So I smiled brightly as I hugged her back, and faked my way through a few seconds of discomfort so that she wouldn’t feel rejected.
“I didn’t think you were coming today,” she confided with a wide grin. There was an odd, mischievous look in her eye that I didn’t quite trust. Maybe it was Ethan’s warning, or the especially thick eyeliner today. As an afterthought, I saw that she’d donned a flowery white dress instead of her usual paisley and denim.
“Well, I’m not complaining,” she added quickly, cutting off a reply that I hadn’t thought up yet. “Let’s get the boring stuff done so we can have a bit of fun before you go on vacation.” That secret grin fluttered across her lips again. “Not that I have any big plans, mind you.”
I doubted that as she ushered me through the front door. Whatever she was planning, I knew it was something that I wouldn’t be able to predict. I decided early on that it a waste of time to try, and just enjoyed the ride.
Precariously stacked towers of books littered the room. They were dense around her favorite little papasan chair, and she had set a box across them to make a sort of makeshift end table. Her old bookshelf was gone, replaced by a new, empty one that took up the entire wall. I wondered if it would be enough.
“It’s huge,” I admitted because she was looking at me with so much anticipation. “It must have been really hard to put together.”
“Ethan made it for me,” she gushed proudly. “It came yesterday, and he had it done and anchored to the wall in a couple of hours! Isn’t it wonderful? So today I want to put all of those –” and she waved her arm dramatically over the books, like a wizard casting a spell — “into this. And then it will be…” She mimed a chef’s kiss.
Her head cocked slightly to the right, then she nodded at some internal decision. “We shall do this over biscuits and tea,” she disclosed at last, then glided into the kitchen. “Jan gave me an orange oolong blend that I’ve been dying to share with you.”
I started a batch of laundry as she made tea, and we passed small talk between the rooms. Tillie didn’t really need me, we both knew. She just liked company and really hated housework.
When we started on the bookshelf, I quickly learned that putting the books away was a ritual she did not intend to cut corners on. In alphabetical order she told me her favorite thing about each story, like a mother praising her children. The towers were defeated, but a new one was growing beside the front door. It held the ones that Tillie insisted I read so that we could talk about them together next time. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it would take me a year to read half of that stack.
When we paused around noon, my head was packed with stories of fiery women and the men who pursued them. I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with me. I was almost twenty, after all. Was the kind of fire that Tillie preached about real, or just a fantasy for books?
I’d had boyfriends, sure. Brief things that filled the void for a moment, before we went our separate ways. If my stomach held any butterflies, I was a little concerned that they were all dead.
I tidied the kitchen while Tillie set a table in the backyard with tiny sandwiches and a pitcher of lemonade.
“Ms. Tillie, you’re up to something,” I teased her when she came back inside.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she replied, batting her lashes innocently. Twirling past me, she grabbed a clean washtowel that had been hanging on her cabinet door, then flipped on the tap. She soaked it in cool water and wrung it all back out.
When there was a knock at the door she didn’t seem at all surprised.
“Goodness, who could that be?” she intoned. She grabbed the washtowel in one hand and smoothed her hair into place with the other, then skittered off to answer it. Feeling that her long game was finally about to reveal itself, I flipped off the tap, then peeked after her to satisfy my curiosity.
“Ethan!” she cried joyfully. “What a surprise!”
Oh, I laughed to myself. She wants to throw a little party before I go on vacation. I wondered who else was invited. Her neighbor Louis, probably. Everyone assumed they had a thing going on. He’d been a grumpy old man at first, but over the past year I’d grown rather fond of his dry humor and the looks he traded with Ms. Tillie when he thought no one was looking.
I wondered if Ethan was really up for a party, though. Sweat forged trails in the dust that caked his arms. It was only noon, but he looked exhausted already.
When Ms. Tillie’s air conditioning reached him, he sighed in relief. “Didn’t you tell me to –”
She laughed suddenly, cutting him off. “Oh, let’s get you cleaned up, and then we can talk.” She passed him the washtowel, drawing a huge smile from the younger man. When his face and arms were free of grime, and the towel was no longer white, she grabbed his wrist and led him through the kitchen.
We traded a look of confusion, and he shrugged at me just before she dragged him through the back door. “Riley, dear,” Ms. Tillie called. “You should see this, too.”
My curiosity piqued, I dried my hands on my jeans and followed them out. They were heading toward her shed, and I watched Ethan kneel down to pick something up. When I reached his side, he was turning over large chunks of metal in his hands. “Well, that’s new,” he admired as he studied a larger piece.
“What is that?” I asked.
Ms. Tillie’s voice was low and mysterious. “It was the lock for the shed.” Shocked, I took another look. I still couldn’t fit the pieces back together in my head to resemble anything like that. I picked a smaller piece from Ethan’s palm and held it up to get a better look. The edges were clean, not jagged.
She guided us to the little table with the lemonade. Ethan and I took a seat, distracted by the puzzle in our hands. A glass appeared in front of me, filled with ice and dripping with beads of condensation. “Thanks,” I said absently.
“It wasn’t cut. It looks … like it was frozen, and shattered. Or smashed.” He looked concerned when he asked Tillie: “Did you hear anything last night? Any loud noises?”
She shook her head. “And there’s no footprints, either. I thought there might be after that sprinkle of rain we had, but the ground wasn’t soft enough for it.”
“What about Louis? Think he might have heard anything?” I asked, tearing my eyes away at last. Tillie was actually famous around town for sleeping through the last tornado.
“He’s not in,” Ethan said, cutting off Tillie’s reply. “Hasn’t been all morning. I ran a delivery over, and had to leave it on his porch. It was still there when I got here.”
She frowned. “Well, that’s unusual. He usually tells me when he’s going to be out… so I can keep an eye on his place.”
“Lou didn’t do this,” he asserted, and Tillie jumped in to agree. “Nobody thinks that.”
I set my piece on the table where Ethan was arranging the rest. “Then who?”
Tillie stepped closer to put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Oh, probably the usual, dear. Addicts looking for something to pawn… or just some asshole. Now you two enjoy some lunch. I’ll be right back.”
I watched her all but skip away. “That lock isn’t the only unusual thing happening today.”
Ethan chuckled to himself. “You just gotta get out of your head for a second. Look around.”
I shrugged. “What? I see the shed, flowers, you, me. A shattered lock.”
He nodded with a straight face, but it felt like he was laughing at me on the inside. “How many chairs at this cute little table? How many cups?”
“Well, two,” I answered a little impatiently. What did he see that I couldn’t?
“Two,” he repeated, waiting for me to catch on. “So, she didn’t intend to eat with us.” Finally, he leaned back and let out the breath he’d been holding. “It’s a date, Riley. She’s matchmaking. I wouldn’t put it past her to have broken the lock herself, just to set this whole thing up.”
“No,” I argued, laughing. I peered at the back door, picturing Tillie and all of her romance books. And then: “… Oh.”
He flashed a grin and shot me a thumbs up, then pitched a tiny sandwich into his mouth. “We’re two young, attractive people in the same zip code.”
“Attractive, huh?” I teased, leaving it vague which one of us was in question.
He ignored me deliberately. “By her logic we should have hooked up when you hit town two years ago.” He swallowed, then added, “I bet it’s been driving her crazy ever since.”
A plan jumped into my brain, and I could feel myself smiling. I locked eyes with Ethan and was about to tell him … and then I let it go. It was silly.
“Spill it. I can see your gears turning.”
“Mind reader,” I teased him.
“Vampire,” he threw back.
I leaned forward in my chair to talk secretly. “I bet it would really mess with her if this whole setup worked. Do you want to do some acting?”
“Yes,” he said with no hesitation, and made another sandwich disappear. He rose to his feet, fished a new lock out of his pocket, and threaded it through the holes in the door handles. With a click it snapped shut, and then he was at my side.
He offered me a hand up, and I couldn’t tell if he was already playing the game or if he was just being Ethan. It was my turn to ignore him, and I stood up without it.
“You know,” he told me, looking a little hurt, “it’s okay to let me help you every once in a while. You’re helping me all the time, but I never get to do anything back.” He was looking at the back door so hard that he might as well have been staring right at me.
I wondered if he knew what he was saying, or how it started a war in my mind. I couldn’t be a damsel. I didn’t want to be saved, or protected, or helped with the easy things. I thought that he knew that, even if he didn’t know why. But I couldn’t not let him help if that meant insulting him.
I pushed that particular bag of crazy closed for the moment, and promised myself that I would think it over later… when there was more time. I let him take my hand. “Come on, partner. Let’s give her a show.”
He was laughing when we came in through the back door, but it was a darker sort of laugh than I was used to hearing out of him. It didn’t distract me from the sound of Tillie’s papasan chair squeaking in the living room. I realized then that she’d probably been watching us from the kitchen window and darted back to the other room when she saw us coming.
I crept toward the doorway, meaning to peek in on her without being seen. Ethan squeezed my hand, and I let out a little yelp of surprise. With a muted laugh, I turned my head to snap at him. “Shh, Tillie’s right there!”
But he just smiled back, though it seemed a bit sad. He lifted his arm, pulling mine up with it, and led me like a dancer through a spin. When I was nearly full circle he let go, but I felt his other hand at my waist, guiding me closer.
It had seemed like a funny idea outside, but now that it was happening I started having doubts. Was he being serious? Were we playing the same game? I put my hand on his chest to push away but he caught it first, gently lacing his fingers through mine.
“We’re pretending, right?” I whispered, nervous.
“That was the plan,” he agreed, but there was a note of resignation in his voice now.
Maybe he was just a fantastic actor, and I was reading all of this wrong. But the way he looked at me made me feel… wanted, in a way I wasn’t prepared for.
“I just figured out, something’s been bothering me. Maybe it’s time I did something about it.”
“Well, that’s vaguely scary,” I joked.
He didn’t smile back. “You know, when you first hit town I thought you were … so much more than you think you are. And I knew you’d only be here a little while, so I let it go.”
He pressed the hand he had stolen to his chest. Though a frightening numbness was spreading through me, I could still feel his heartbeat. When he spoke again the words sounded more hurried, like he had to get them out before he changed his mind. Like he feared they were a bad idea.
“Well, I’ve been letting it go. Every day, ever since. I really thought that if I could keep it up… then it wouldn’t hurt so much when you left.”
He let my hand go so that he could reach out and brush my cheek with his thumb. My eyes closed, and I felt … something. A spark, maybe? Or was it just panic?
If I couldn’t tell the difference, then maybe I was broken after all.
He pulled me closer and I could feel my eyes were open wide, but this time I didn’t try to stop him. I didn’t know if I wanted this, or him… but I didn’t know that I didn’t, either.
I knew I was leaving soon. It would have been silly to do something like fall in love, so I didn’t let that happen. Did I fantasize? Um, yeah. I wasn’t blind, or stupid. He was one of the good ones. But he also wasn’t a fantasy – he was a person. I didn’t want to be his someone who … left.
“I just realized how stupid that was. I lost two years over it, and I’m tired of losing you, Riley. I can’t do that anymore, no matter what might happen tomorrow.” He bent to kiss me, and I was locked in my own indecision. When I didn’t look up to meet him, he brushed his lips against my forehead.
Behind me, I heard someone sniff. Ms. Tillie. I’d forgotten she was here… at her own house. I jumped at the sound, and Ethan recoiled. His hand went to his mouth, and when he took it away there was a spot of blood on his finger.
Really? his expression asked me, incredulous.
I put my hands up in surrender. I didn’t mean to!
“Vampire,” he accused me, laughing gently. He winced, and ran his tongue carefully across his lip. “Oh. That hurt.”
“I’ll get some ice,” I volunteered, mortified, but he shook his head.
“Believe it or not, I’ll live. Anyway,” he said with a heavy groan, “I should get back to work.” He nodded to Tillie, who had given up trying to be sneaky. He ducked past me and a moment later I heard the front screen door snap shut.
Tillie grabbed my arm. “What are you doing? Get out there!”
Did that just happen? Or was it a show?
I felt lost, trapped in an endless slideshow of memories. He was always there. Always trying to help me. I wanted to believe that’s just who he was. Just Ethan being Ethan.
And I was always turning him down, telling myself it was just country courtesy. I felt like the world’s worst person.
“What?” I asked once my brain relayed that she had been talking to me.
“Go after him, you silly miss! God, how can you be so bad at this after a whole morning of my tutelage?!”
Tillie grabbed my arm and pulled me through the living room, and out onto the front porch. Ethan was already dodging azaleas by the front gate. He hesitated when he heard her door open and looked back at us. I couldn’t read his face from here. Had I hurt him?
“Do you really think everything goes back to normal if you don’t go down there?” she whispered in my ear. “You have to talk, at least.”
A shiver went down my back. One foot shuffled forward, then I stepped down. And again. When I felt the sidewalk beneath me, I felt cold all the way through. Frozen in place. The moment stretched uncomfortably long, but I couldn’t figure out what to say now that I was down here.
“I’ll see you after work,” he hollered back, then disappeared through the ivy-covered gate.
I started to turn, to look up at Tillie, when something else caught my attention. It was my reflection in the gazing ball. It looked twisted and wrong. Dirty.
My hands ached, and I hadn’t realized that they were both curled into fists. I opened them slowly, expecting to see broken skin.
Under the little half-moons my fingernails had dug, I held the key to the new lock.