Melissa K. Beynon
Last night the site had been alive with whipping winds, swirling snow, and feeding flames. Terror, confusion, and Lauren had dominated my emotions. Now the scene was calm and quiet, no winds and no flames, yet Laurens hold on my feelings remained. Letting her loose from that hug was the one of the hardest things I had done thus far.
How do you feel? she asked, patting my hand as Murdock stopped at the edge of the clearing.
Like kissing you, I thought, but answered, Fine. Im glad to see the fire didnt bother the other trees. As it was, the oak the plane was shoved against had a scorched black mark reaching ten or fifteen feet above the planes crushed front window.
Probably too wet from the snow, she commented, slipping from Murdocks back before I followed her down. I wonder if we can get at anything inside. Maybe the radio still works or maybe you had a bag of some kind. She wagged a finger at me, her eyebrows raised. If the snow put the fire out fast enough, we might be able to find some clues real easily. She trotted off toward the plane.
I took a deep breath to steady myself for whatever might happen, be it a memory or nothing. Staring at the plane, my plane, I tried to imagine myself flying it. Could I envision how to start it? Send it into the air? Land it? Did I know what the flaps did or the rudder? Did I know where their levers were? Did I know what to say to the tower before taking off? Before landing? I stared so hard at the plane I lost sight of everything around it. The trees, horse, snow, ground, sky, everything disappeared except that plane.
And I could no more see myself flying it than the space shuttle.
Lauren had vanished around the other side, so I wandered over to peer in through the pilots door, my door. It still hung open from when Lauren had dragged me through it. She was as small and delicate as a bird, but, as my life proved, she could be as strong as a bear when necessary. I was a good foot taller than her and outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds, yet she had managed to drag me from this wreck and then breathe life back into me.
Breathe life back into me.
I was about to view my coffin.
Suddenly, every sound - the crunching of snow beneath my boots, the twittering of winter birds, the huffing of Murdock as he shifted his weight, the tiny gasp from Lauren on the other side of the plane - was magnified a thousand-fold. I looked in and mimicked her gasp with one of my own.
There, flopped on the controls in front of the passenger seat was a body, head against the tree through the broken windshield and body thoroughly burned. The scream that came from Lauren was filled with horror and despair.
I never checked the passenger seat! she screeched as I rushed around the plane to pull her away. I never checked - !
Its not your fault, Lauren! I yelled over her hysterics. He was already dead. I held her face between my hands and forced her to look at me, only me. You didnt kill him.
Already dead? How do you know? Her face red and wet with tears, she tried to shake me off, but I held firm, wrapping my arms around her.
You dont want to know - She struggled to turn around and see for herself. All right! I hollered to stop her. His skull is crushed, Lauren. He must have flown at the window when we hit the tree. He died on impact. Wasnt wearing a safety belt, Im sure of it.
I took a deep, ragged breath and hugged her to me as her face fell from fear and anger to grieving relief. You didnt kill, baby, you saved. I sighed into her hair, my heart beating like the wings of a hummingbird. You saved me.
~ ~ ~
We sat together on the couch an hour later like mourners at a wake. Neither of us knew who my passenger had been, but his passing affected us anyway. I wasnt sure how I was feeling about this turn of events. I dont suppose his death was my fault, just like it wasnt Laurens, but some of the guilt had settled on my shoulders. I had, after all, been flying the plane.
I supposed it was good that we hadnt left him smashed against the tree, even though the smell was still stuck in my nose. For some reason there had been a tarp in the rear of the plane, and I used it to haul him from his perch and lay him in the snow, while Lauren looked for anything salvageable. We didnt bury him as Lauren was fairly certain nothing would bother him if it hadnt already. Eventually, some official would want a look at the body to determine cause of death and identity. I just hoped I was someone he had hired to fly him somewhere, not someone he had known and trusted.
Im going to start dinner, Lauren said, standing and shrugging off any further regret. She stepped over the duffel bag she had found and disappeared into the kitchen. I was waiting until I could be alone to open it.
I followed her into the kitchen, interested in helping, seeing if I was at all domestic, but soon found myself sitting at the table chopping vegetables and watching Lauren. Was there anything she couldnt do? I wondered, as she fired up three pots and a skillet. I wasnt sure what she was making, but was too content just sitting, smelling, and watching to ask. I figured if the beginning could smell that good, the outcome would be heavenly.
As Lauren buzzed around the kitchen explaining her every preparation like a master chef teaching wannabes, I wondered if I had ever done this before. Was there a woman somewhere, my own mother even, who had allowed me into her culinary domain to chop potatoes and be a taste-tester? Following on the heels of that was another thought.
Lauren, why arent you married? The question popped out of my mouth before it had fully formed in my head. Looking at her raised eyebrows, I regretted my tongue thinking faster. Sorry.
She smiled. Its all right. Stirring her concoction, she smiled a little less. I was engaged once. His name was Greg and he acted as my press agent, I guess.
Painters have press agents?
Well, he booked shows for me, gave official statements to the media, dealt with caterers and whatnot. All I had to do was paint, so I was happy. She shrugged. Greg was, too.
He liked controlling things. Including his fiancée. A vision materialized in my mind of little Lauren all splotched with rainbow colors, surrounded by canvas, and chained to the wall.
Yeah. She smiled sheepishly. I was about to get out of the limo hed secured to drive us to the opening of my tenth show in Chicago when I found my brain. He had been going on and on about an article the local paper had done on me. I was flattered that someone would go to such trouble researching me for a three page spread with five pictures. She grinned with another shrug. Greg was upset because I wasnt smiling in two of them, was covered in paint for another, and he wasnt in any of them.
And that changed your mind about him.
I changed my mind when he told me to, Her sweet voice dropped nearly an octave as she quoted the controlling ex, remember to smile this time, for Christs sake. I finally figured out that he didnt care about me at all. He just wanted to be where the fame and money was. Itll be a year, um, next Friday.
A few minutes of silence passed as I waited for her to tell me something more, but she didnt speak. I wasnt actually curious about him. I was curious about what Lauren had seen in him. And not for any reason other than did I have any of those qualities? Could I attract her? Did I? That mornings embrace in bed still lingered snugly in the warm recesses of my mind. Evidently, the fact that I had no right to this woman as a man with no name and no past couldnt stop my libido from beginning to throb for her.
Im ready for the potatoes, she said, bringing me back from my fantasies.
I scooped up as many potato cubes as my large hands could hold and took them to her. Watching her instead of what I was doing, I dropped the potatoes in the skillet and scorched the side of my hand. With a curse, I snatched my hand away only to have it snatched again by Lauren as she dragged me to the sink and thrust it under icy water.
Feeling both thankful and damned, I stood there, her back to my front, her rattling on about how she saw it coming and apologizing for grabbing me, while I moved a little bit closer and breathed deep the scent of lilacs. No longer did I associate that scent with rescue and angels. It was more accurately a reminder of unfulfilled passion. Unfulfilled and not allowed. But, sweet Heaven, to have her so close. . .
As she prattled on about how my wound wasnt too bad, I leaned just that much closer and dipped my head to come within millimeters of touching my lips to her ivory throat. Then my eyes drifted shut and my lips caressed her into silence. I held her hand under the frigid water and sighed against her skin, feeling her shiver. I was showing her how unable I was to resist, and she was letting me. I couldnt help wondering if maybe as wrong as this was, as foolish, maybe there was something good in it. It certainly felt good, Lord help me.
My other hand found its way across her stomach, wrapping my arm around her, and pulling her that scant inch closer so that her back was flush against my front. I widened my stance and bent my knees just enough to cradle her backside. She tilted her head, letting me have what I would, and gave a breathy moan. My hand left the water to cup one tempting breast and elicit that moan again, only deeper this time, as her hand brought my lips to hers.
I wanted her, and it was plain she would accept me. But would she still in the wee hours of the morning when reason replaced passion? Neither of us knew how long we would be stuck on this island. Could we risk our hearts?
I left her mouth, but did not leave her body. Were going to be spending a lot of time together, Lauren, so you have to make some rules for me. Tell me to stop, or. . . Gently, I squeezed her breast, pressed my need against her.
She hesitated. That was all it took. Her strawberry blond head ducked slightly and her hands fell away from me. With agonizing determination, I released her. She returned to the stove, my wet handprint on her shirt.
~ ~ ~
Night fell while Lauren and I ate in silence. I was the one who had been rejected, but she looked worse for it. Guilt hung about her slight shoulders like a lead cloak. Unable to let her sink under it any farther, I reached across the table for her hand. The whisper of contact sent her jumping up from her chair with a look of confused shock on her face.
Lauren? I asked, standing also.
She blinked a few times as if coming awake from a dream. Im sorry. I must have been lost in thought. I didnt even realize you were still in the room. She gave me a little smile and chuckle, then immediately sobered. Not that I want you to go anywhere. . .
Its okay, I understand. I paused as I came to a troubling and unexpected realization. Lauren, you dont think Id try to force myself on you. Do you?
I stared at her, and she stared right back at me. I could tell she was weighing her options to formulate the best answer. Was she considering whether or not I could become dangerous if she answered wrongly? No. She couldnt be. . .
Lauren, I will never hurt you.
She sagged, as if in defeat. Her head swung down and she rubbed a hand over her face. I know.
I moved toward her, cautiously but loudly so as not to startle her again. She stayed, even looked up at me. Her eyes were still troubled, pained, but she didnt move away.
As I enveloped her in my embrace, I expected no explanation for her rejection or her reaction. I just wanted to assure her that I would continue to be the man I was before. Her virtue was safe with me.
As I kissed the top of her head, and she relaxed against me, I whispered once more, I will never hurt you.
~ ~ ~
Long after dark, I retrieved the duffel bag and set it on the couch. Lauren hadnt mentioned it at all after bringing it back. I was glad for that. For some unknown reason, I wasnt willing to open it in front of her. Standing there looking at it, Lauren tucked away in her bedroom for the night, I assumed that unwillingness was actually nervousness should this reveal something about my past. With conviction, a feeling aided by her rejection, I grasped the zipper and moved it down.
Right on top was a haphazardly folded shirt identical to the one I wore. So, the bag was mine. Nodding with a sigh of acceptance, I lifted it off and set it aside. Reaching back in, I removed the item laying on a pair of jeans and tucked it behind my belt against my back.
Jerking upright as if suddenly struck, I heard the blood drain from my head in a thunderous rush. Gasping for breath, I removed what I had so unconsciously done in such a familiar gesture.
The revolver fit comfortably in my hand, the weight almost unnoticed as though I had held one like it often. My fingers curled around the grip as my first finger slipped behind the trigger guard to rest on the trigger. Swallowing hard, I took my finger out and checked to see if it was loaded. The motion to swing out the cylinder was so natural I felt my knees buckle, catching myself on the couch.
Six little black holes stared back at me. Someone had fired all of them and forgotten to reload. Dont kid yourself, you shot them and probably didnt need to reload. Clicking the cylinder back in place, I noticed the engraving on the ejector shroud.
The faint smell of gunpowder and bluing filled my nose. The beating of my heart was the only sound I could hear as a scene took shape in the shadowed region of my mind. Flashes of time. Anger. Gun. Firing. Blood. Shouting. Fear. Running.
Even as I shook with the terror of the memory, I desperately grasped for something more from it. Who shot at whom? Why? Had I been a good guy or bad? Was I flying that plane to escape? Was that dead man a hostage? Were we partners? What had we done?
I replaced the weapon with shaking hands and tucked the bag under the couch. Dazed with fear and worry, I laid on the couch and curled into myself, one thought bouncing around in my head.
Oh, God. Please, dont let me hurt her.
~ ~ ~
The sun was just peeking over the horizon as I buttoned up my third shirt. Two pairs of pants made walking difficult and that last shirt would surely pop if I tried to sit down or bend over, but I would need them all to keep from freezing on the long journey ahead. Two pairs of my newfound socks became my mittens this time. I gave a moments thought to making earmuffs out of another pair and ended up tying them together at both ends for a sort of headband. Id make do without a scarf and there was no way Id be taking that revolver with me.
Thinking of it still tucked under the couch in that damning bag brought to mind thoughts of Laurens angelic face as she slept peacefully in the other room. With stealth, I had crept in to take my silent leave of her. I knew without a doubt that I couldnt stay any longer. One tiny prayer wouldnt keep me from doing her potential harm. Who knew what kind of temperament I had? Maybe all shed have to do was tell me to clean my own dishes to have me snap and crack her skull.
Definitely not me.
So, I stood by her bedside, staring down at a forbidden heaven, and said a silent farewell.
The walk would take at least eight hours if I kept a brisk pace, she had told me that much yesterday. Well, she had said Murdock could make it in that time. I didnt have much of a choice, though. I couldnt risk it - her - just to stay where I felt safe and comfortable, well cared for and liked. And that liking definitely couldnt risk turning into anything more. I was probably suffering from some syndrome because she saved my life, kept me from freezing, and was currently the only woman around. That was it, no matter how much the rest of me knew it was a lie.
It was that part of me, the confused and overly hopeful part of me, that had me leaning down to kiss her tender lips and caress her sleep-pinked cheek before showing my gratitude by leaving her.
Finders Keepers by Melissa K. Beynon, Part Four