17 - Don't Let Him Bite You

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Liz was gone by the time Nat woke up the next morning — she always liked to go into the shop early on Mondays, taking an extra hour to get ready for the week before the doors opened. Nat could tell by the way the light looked around the edge of the curtains that she had overslept. The sky had a saturated quality, like all the colors had been turned up and brightened. 

Waking up like this, tucked beneath a goose-down duvet and bathed in the uneven bars of sunlight peeking through the curtains, it was hard to remember why she had been so uneasy the night before. She hadn't forgotten about the Riveras, but the emotions felt dimmed, softened, the emotional distance lengthened by sleep and perspective. 

Terrible things happened in the world all the time. They didn't mean anything. There were no greater patterns, no interwoven connections hidden beneath the surface of things, and it was silly to think that there were. 

She was telling herself this when the doorbell rang.

Shit. Liam. Of course his dad would be dropping him off here on his way to work.

Nat struggled to get out of bed, searching hurriedly for something to wear. She pulled on a t-shirt and a skirt, a strangely mismatched ensemble plucked from the laundry on the floor — a covering for nakedness, and nothing more. Hurrying barefoot down the hall, she grimaced at the sound of the doorbell ringing a second time. It was the same sound, of course, but it sounded angry and impatient, the way a phone left ringing seems to increase in pitch and urgency.

She fumbled with the deadbolt and flung the door open, trying to offer a smile of greeting.

Kyle Loman did not smile back. She tried not to take it personally.

He was a tall, broad man, not exactly fat and not exactly muscular — just solid, like he'd been molded from clay and the sculptor hadn't bothered to peel away the excess. His silhouette was square, and his features had the same squared-off look, accented by the high-sided flat top haircut and his neatly manicured nails, cut straight across the fingertips. 

Liam stood in front of him, a softer shape of unmolded clay, all round at the edges. He held his child-size backpack in his arms. He was still wearing his pajamas.

"His mother didn't pack him enough clothes," Kyle said, by way of greeting. "He'll have to change here."

"Oh." Nat blinked, trying to find words, articulate a response. Her brain was still fogged-over with sleep.

"She here?"

She shook her head and backed away from the door, an invitation for both to come inside. "Liam, go put your things away and get ready for school," she said, and he started for the hall.

"Hey, wait a minute," Kyle said, stepping inside. "Aren't you going to say bye to your old man?"

Liam stopped, ran back the few steps he had taken, and hugged his father around the middle, mostly embracing one tree trunk of a leg. "Bye, Daddy."

"Atta boy." Kyle laid a hand on his back, squeezing him against his body, before patting him on the rump, an affectionate swat. "Now go get dressed like your auntie said."

Auntie. There it was again. Nat grimaced.

Kyle either didn't notice her reaction, or simply did not care. He ran a hand back through the short bristles of his hair, arching his neck to peer around the room. "Liam was saying y'all got a new dog?" His eyes landed, then, on the hound by the door, the sentry beast standing watch over the entryway, and he began to laugh. "Sonofabitch. Boy had me going. The way he was talking, it sounded like it was a real thing."

"Oh, it's real enough," Nat said, wearily. She brushed her hair back behind her ears, hyper aware of the way strands were sticking out in odd directions. "Can I get you anything? Coffee or juice or whatever?"

"Ah, nah, I'd better be off to work." His eyes were still trained on the dog, a grin spreading across his face — the slow, easy smile of someone who's been pranked and taking it in stride. "You keep an eye on Killer, there," he said, teasingly, nodding toward the hound. "Careful he don't bite you."

Nat laughed, politely, and muttered a farewell, closing the door behind him as he retreated away toward his car parked in the driveway. 

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