Chapter 21: Finally

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An hour after lights out, Caleb walked past Wynter's door on his way back from the bathroom and heard her cry out, a wordless, strangled cry in her sleep. He opened her door as she was reaching out to the lamp on her nightstand. In her confused state she managed to knock over both the lamp and the open bottle of water next to it.

He came into the room, picked up the bottle from the puddle on the rug, set the lamp right and switched it on. She sat up, hugging her knees.

"Hey, what happened?" he said softly, squatting by the bed. In the glow of the lamp she looked dishevelled and frightened, a sheen of sweat on her pale face.

"I'm okay."

"You had a nightmare."

She looked at him with glazed eyes, not yet fully awake.

"You want me to sit with you for a while?"

Her brow furrowed in confusion, and then her expression cleared. She kicked the quilt down and shifted on the bed. For a moment her behavior totally confused him. Realization hit when he noticed the bottom sheet was stained with a dark patch.

"Is that...?" She tilted her head to examine the stain. "I think I finally got my period."

Well, this was something he'd never had to deal with before, in quite this way.

"You okay?" he managed.

"I dreamed... I dreamed..." She kept staring at the blood. "It's okay. Rosa put stuff in the bathroom for me."

"Why don't you, uh, deal with that, and I'll change the sheets."

"You don't have to." She gave a shaky smile. "I mean, I made the mess."

"Go on." He jerked his head toward the door.

She grabbed clean PJs and left. By the time she returned, he'd found another set of sheets in the closet down the hall and had everything tucked in. He indicated the pillow slip where he'd shoved the old sheets, and she added her soiled PJs.

She turned to him, still troubled. "Will you sit with me now?"

"Of course."

He sat up on the bed, leaning against the headboard, and put his arm around her. Her thin body vibrated against his chest with each thumping heartbeat. He'd grown up in a house with no women, but he'd helped girlfriends change bloodied sheets before, he'd been sent to the drugstore for emergency tampons, he'd learned to accommodate this particular bodily function into his relationships. But he'd never been there for a girl's first period and he had no idea what Wynter was feeling right now.

"There was a mattress protector under the sheet," he explained, with the need to reassure her.

"I don't understand."

"Well, mattresses are expensive, and blood is hard to clean, so it's a good thing..." He stopped before the conversation turned even more ridiculous. "Don't worry about it. It's all cleaned up. How are you feeling?"

"Is there a way I'm supposed to be feeling?"

"No, hun." He squeezed her shoulder. "This is a first for me, too, so I'm not sure what to say or do or..."

She patted his chest. "You're doing fine. I'm glad it's you here, and not Jesse. Jesse would be giving me a biology lecture right now, which I'm sure would be interesting but I just don't feel like it."

Caleb chuckled. "He means well."

"What do boys think about all this?"

"I can't speak for all boys, but... this whole process is mysterious and maybe a little scary for us at first."

"I think you're right. I heard a joke at school that made me think they're scared of it."

"What was the joke?"

"Why should you never trust a woman?"

Caleb groaned. It was a very old joke and he didn't need to hear the punchline.

"The answer is," she said, "because you can't trust something that bleeds for five days every month and doesn't die."

"God, that's awful."

"I thought so, too. All the girls thought it was awful."

"The way I see it, we guys are lost for words—intelligent words—because we're pretty much in awe of a woman's ability to grow a new human being inside of her."

"I'm never having children."

The way she said it, with such simple finality, made his blood run cold. Yet he had no right to question her conviction. He'd leave that to Jesse.

He risked asking, "What did you dream?"

"That someone was punching me in the gut." She rubbed her stomach. "It hurts. I took ibuprofen."

"It'll take a few minutes to kick in."

"I dreamed other stuff, too."

"Can you tell me?"

"I keep dreaming I'm drowning."

"Why?"

She pressed her face against his chest and didn't answer. He couldn't bear to think of her in this huge soulless house, waking up alone from nightmares in a cold sweat.

She said, "I didn't dream much in Arizona. I think I was always too tired. Why is my brain doing this to me when I had a good day today?"

"If you have bad dreams again, you can call me to talk. I don't mind what time it is."

"I'm not allowed to use the phone after nine, remember?"

"Sorry, forgot. You could sneak downstairs and fetch it."

She gave a silent little laugh that made her body quiver against his. "You're telling me it's okay to break Rosa's house rule?"

"Eh, special circumstances. Only my house rules are immutable."

"What does that word mean?"

"It means absolute, unbreakable."

"All those house rules... Why were you so tough with Indio and Jesse?"

"Didn't I tell you earlier they didn't even have a curfew?"

"But in other ways. Jesse told me you were obsessed with them learning table manners, and with politeness and not cussing. Those things seem trivial."

"I was trying to give them a head start in the world." Growing up motherless was a handicap he'd felt obligated to address.

"Was your dad like that with you?"

"Harry had rules, I guess, but they tended to change every day. That sort of unpredictability is far tougher to live with than my house rules—which are all perfectly fair and reasonable. What rules did you grow up with?"

She had been relaxing against him, but now she tensed. Damn, he need to stop being so inquisitive.

After a moment, she said, "I'm looking forward to your house rules."

"Good, you'll fit right in." His lips moved against the top of her head. "And maybe inspire Jesse to keep his elbows off the table when he's eating."

"I've seen your elbows on the table, y'know."

"Nobody's perfect."

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