26. Shelter

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The door was unlocked, but fog had soaked into the wood and swollen it inside the frame. Ash tugged on the handle, first with one hand and then with two and finally with her foot up on the wall beside the jamb, her arms pulling, her leg pushing, her entire body strained. Water poured off her head and ran in clear streams down her face. Her cross glistened in a white niche of skin. "You. Ass. Hole."

The door swung open. She plopped into my lap, and it must not have been comfortable with the drumbeater beneath her, but she didn't move, just sat there breathing.

It was dark inside the visitor center.

Lightning streaked overhead and a flickering glow lit the building. The walls were mud brown and covered in posters. In the center of the room sat a circular desk buried in dripping rubble. Two high bookcases rested beside it, their shelves empty, pamphlets strewn on the floor. Ash got up from my lap and walked through the doorway. I followed her. That I could follow her on my own was a small miracle. My right eye squinted through blood. My head throbbed. No, my head was a throb. I didn't have a head at all, really, just a house where pain rented out all the rooms.

Ash slipped into the dark, and I lost her. A gust of wind banged the door shut behind me, and I lost myself. My chest shrunk to half its size. My hands tightened. I started to turn back when a light flicked on above the desk. But the electricity is off, I thought. Then I saw the chunk missing from the ceiling, and the glow of the storm strobing down through the jagged hole. No Ash, though.

The visitor center darkened. I waited. When the next round of flickers started, I moved deeper into the building. My wheels peeled apart the soggy pamphlets lying on the floor. Welcome to Widow's Peak! one of them read. Another was titled, Hello Honaw. I pushed around the bookcase and spotted Ash against the back wall. She sat like a kid in timeout, like Billy in his corner. The light stuttered and finally stopped. I went to her in the dark, climbed down, and took a seat beside her. The sound of the rain was soft, echoey.

"Do you like broccoli?" I said.

"What?"

"Broccoli. Do you like it?"

"No."

"Did your brother?"

"Yeah."

"Thought so."

For a while we were silent. The storm was outside except for the tiny bit of it coming through the roof, and we were inside, and that was enough. Then it wasn't. "My brother," I said. "Was such a little loser." A forked tongue licked the sky and lit everything bluish white. "That's it. I'm done. That's all I wanted to say." I swallowed. "He used to put chap-stick on, strawberry chap-stick, just to lick it off. I'd watch him do it. He'd layer it on thick like a girl. Then his tongue would eel out of his mouth, all wet, and go round and round his lips. Mmmm. I swear to God. He'd actually mmmm as he did it. And that's not even the worst, not even close. He'd pick his nose when he thought nobody was looking and roll the booger between his fingers until all the stickiness was gone and he had this perfect green lump. Next, and I'm not shitting you here, he'd put it back. He'd push the booger deep up into his nose and sit there looking all guilty. I mean, what kind of kid does that? Seriously." I was talking faster. "And my mom, don't get me started on my mom. She was like this wide open gash, this walking wound. She took everything anybody threw at her, she had no skin, it was always, 'here's my heart and here are some darts, have a beer while you're at it.' She was so stupid. She didn't even know my dad was fucking around, she was so stupid, and he was always bumping shoulders with me about it, like we were buddies, like 'look at us studs,' and fuck him too, I'd hit him if I saw him now, I'd break his stupid fat jaw. I would. I'm not kidding. I would."

Ash leaned her head on my shoulder.

I felt different somehow. I slid my hands into my leather jacket. Deep in the left pocket my fingers brushed something thin and dry. I knew what it was as soon as I touched it. It had been there a long time. It could stay there a little longer. I pulled my hand out, felt over to Ash, and reached into her coat. She didn't say a word. After I found what I was searching for, I reached back into my own pocket.

The joint was bent at the middle, and the paper had a little tear, but the tip lit easily enough in the flame from Billy's Zippo.

I took a drag.

I passed it to her.

When we had breathed the last of the smoke, when there was nothing left to hold onto but Ash, I put my arm around her.

"You should talk about it sometime," she said.

So I have.

So I am.

The rain had stopped but the storm refused to die. Where lightning flashed against the fog, the night throbbed purple. I lay on my back, one eye half open. Bit by bit the diamond ring snuck down my middle finger until, finally, at the very last second, I closed my hand and trapped it.

"Shit," said Ash, "you aren't asleep?"

The next time I was asleep, and it wasn't the ring she was attempting to steal. I came up slowly, coaxed from my dreams by a soft, smooth grip. The clouds had broken, and moonlight dripped through the hole in the roof.

"What are you—"

"Shut up, dumbass."

Ash moved my hand beneath her shirt, to her breast. Her nipple was hard. So was I. With a moan, she lowered herself onto me.

I know heat.

Believe me, I know heat.

But I've never felt anything as warm as her.


____ ____

Author's Note:

I don't have much to tell you except that this is one of my favorite moments in the book, so why don't you tell me. What did you think?

Coming up next week . . . let's just pretend for a while that there isn't a next week, yeah?

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