Authors: Marion Studer
My eyes snap open and stare into a pair of dark eyes, expectantly pleading for me to get up. Rufus tongue falls out and he happily blows his doggy breath into my face.
“Traitor!” I snap at him and get out of my bed.
I can’t suppress a glance to the cottage as I pass the window.
Slipping into my clothes, I go over the events of the night before and experience deep concern over my conduct.
How could I not notice right away that I scuffled with a woman? I groan out loud when I remember slamming into her and pushing her to the ground.
I need to apologize to her.
Letting Rufus outside, I prepare a strong coffee, knowing I needn’t to worry about him harassing my new neighbour.
No, it wasn’t him she needed to worry
. It was me, and the realization makes me groan again.
With the cup in my hand I walk out to the backdoor, my eyes searching for my dog where I find him sniffing at the cottage and wonder how he made friends with this woman so fast.
Everything stays quiet at the house and I decide to wait for an opportunity to talk to her.
While I pick up my work outside, my mind replays the night before over and over again. How could I not notice her being at the house or hear any noises coming from there?
But then that’s not entirely true. I did hear something, that’s why I set the mice traps, and I was at work during daytime, enough time for her to move in. The other possibility would be that she is only here to look after the house. I really want to find out, and before everything else, I need to apologize to her.
Something struck me last night when I stared into those clear blue eyes. It was like a moment of recognition, a moment of a warm deep feeling, unexplained but liberal.
The day morphs into the evening and I haven’t seen or heard anything from the woman.
I’m done with the floor boards and satisfied I put my tools aside. I take a quick swim in the lake taking care being hidden from the sight of the other house and rush to change into clean clothes.
After starting the BBQ I hurry over to the little cottage and knock on the backdoor. I just lift my fist to knock again, when the door opens and my breathing stops.
Something clutches hard in my chest, so deep it’s painful. “… Chloe?”
I knew the moment would come when he wanted to talk about last night. I watched him during the day working on his porch, his gaze slipping over to my house on occasions. I stayed hidden in my sanctuary, hoping he would just ignore me, but then I see him walking over and knocking on my door.
I have no choice, I can’t hide forever. I will have to let him introduce himself to me, and then we will just live like any other neighbours, side by side. With a sigh I open the door and stare at this good looking stranger.
His dark brown hair is still wet from the swim he took, curling slightly at the ends where they meet the collar of his white shirt, letting him look even sexier. His jeans hang low on his hips and his well build muscles shine strong and toned in the last light of the day. But before I can take any more of his good looks in, he speaks my name. I falter, my eyes go wide.
“Chloe?” he repeats slowly, as if memorizing the feel of it on his tongue.
My brain searches franticly for an explanation to how he could know my name but comes up empty.
“Chloe Williams… is it you?”
Think Chloe, think! How do you know him? Where did you ever meet him? I can’t come up with an answer. I would remember him. I wouldn’t forget his good looks, this chiselled face, wouldn’t forget his deep baritone voice. I look over his features, but my mind stays blank.
Minutes pass, but maybe it’s just seconds, when I slowly nod my head to let him know, that is me, or at least that this was my name. Like conforming to myself I shake more vehemently while my hair falls into my face and my eyes skim to his chest.
I can hear his breath coming to a hold and my eyes skip up to see his shocked face, drained of all blood.
Uhm… now what ?
Now I’m getting really concerned. Should I stay and wait for him to explain, or should I take the safe way out, slam the door in his face and hide out until he goes away?
Chloe, you are ridiculous
, I tell myself, straighten up and take a step closer towards him, not wanting to look frighten by him. My hand still holding on to the door - just in case.
While I study this man my eyes sweep over his body. Nope! I definitely would remember this one. Then I concentrate on his face, his strong jaw with light stubble, a strong straight nose and dark brown eyes.
This intense dark pools, who seems to capture mine. There is something familiar but I can't put my finger on it, just a tiny feeling deep down welling up slowly to the surface. And while I stare into this eyes my heart begins to beat faster, to a point I’m afraid it will jump out of my chest. There underneath all this muscles and strong lines I recognize the familiarity of an old friend I have once known. My best friend I shared everything with for so many years of hurt and heartache.
Could this be …?
I register him putting his hand on my arm, but I’m incapable to tear my eyes from his. My mouth moves, but there is no sound and I’m trembling.
His deep voice finely is telling me what my mind tries to put together.
“Tucker Davis, do you remember me?”
Do I… remember you?
Oh god! How could I ever forget about him? He is on my mind for the last twelve years… or his teenage image for that matter. I never thought of him as grown up, or of him to have such a immaculate body.
He lifts his hand from my arm to softly tilt my chin, so my mouth chutes close and I can hear myself swallow, hard. A soft chuckle escapes his lips, but his eyes stay serious. He leans in a little closer, staring at me with his intense eyes, and the world feels suddenly a little tighter.
Tucker’s head snaps back to his house, remembering something, then he tells me, “Chloe, I can’t believe it’s you… Let’s talk. I was just about to make dinner and would like you to join me.”
Like in trance I can only nod while automatically reaching to close the door behind me. And with his hand on the small of my back, I follow him the short distance to his backyard and that all on wobbly feet. I almost take a tumble down the two steps of my porch, my mind in total turmoil, but Tucker’s hand tightens its grip and I continue. He offers me a lawn chair and I just plop down, still too stunned.
His eyes are probing as he crouches in front of me, “You all right?” I barely nod my head and blush.
“I’m right back, okay?” His penetrating stare gazes at me for what seems an eternity until I nod my head. While he gets up and walks into the house I finely let out the breath I am holding.
What on earth…
Feeling a present to my side I tilt my head to see the dog sitting close by. I send him an absent smile and like on command he leaps close, pressing his wet nose into my latched hands. He looks like he is laughing at me as I absently stroke his head.
“I wonder how you could win him over. He usually is very reserved towards strangers,” with that Tucker places two plates and silverware onto the small table between the only two chairs and straightens up.
“How are you Chloe? It’s quite a surprise to see you and a very pleasant one I have to say.” He moves slightly closer waiting for me to finely say something.
Yeah I know, I should say something.
My heart is still racing and I can’t look at him.
“I’m beginning to get the feeling you don’t like me,” his eyes narrow, his deep voice rough and slightly disappointed, spoken very quietly, tearing at my heart. I know I have to let him know. So I jump out of my chair and race to my cottage, leaving two pairs of astonished eyes behind me.
To know the person I tackled to the ground in the dark last night makes it just harder to apologize to.
Knowing the possibility of running into her was there when I moved back, but it couldn’t prepare me for the shock of actually being so close to her.
She is all grown up and more beautiful than I can remember. Only her eyes have the same haunted look that makes me weak and all protective.
It took her a moment to recognize me, I must have changed quite a bit or it was just the unexpected surprise. I had to swallow down a lump and physically holding myself back not to pull her into my arms when I recognized her in the day light.
Since I can think back I was taken by Chloe. She was like a little sister to me, a friend I could tell everything to. And in return I was her shoulder to cry on, the one to hold her until her tears subsided.
And then we had to move away and I had no way to catch those tears of hers.
We told each other our deepest secrets, talked about our fears and what we hoped for the future. I felt like I could be Chloe's friend forever not knowing then that I was the one to betray her and the friendship we had.
Now I'm standing here, my heart in a race against itself. How many times did this moment play out in my mind? How many times did I wish to see this little girl again, wondering how her life turned out? If her life changed after her step dad’s dead and what she was doing today. Yes I wondered all this years, but never had the courage to phone her up and talk to her.
Now I had the chance to talk and she run out on me. Is it really to late to catch up on old times and friendship or did she hate me so much that she refuses to talk to me? I go back inside not sure if I should try again to invite her over, or if she just needed time.
Thinking about how to proceed I toss together the salad, slice some bread and take the meat outside.
There she is again, sitting in the same chair, an uncertain smile tugging at her lips. And she still didn‘t say a word - how odd.
“I thought you bailed on me,” I say in a light tone, not wanting her to know how relieved I am for her to return. I walk to the BBQ place the steaks on the grill and turn around. I haven't notice the little chalkboard she is holding now and writing on it. Baffled I stall in my movement. She lifts the board and I step closer.
It's good to see you, Tucker. I'm fine and how are you doing?
I read what she has written and confused ask Chloe, “is something wrong with you?”
She takes a quick peek at me, before her eyes downcast again and she is shaking her head from side to side. I squat down, trying to catch her eyes. “Why won’t you talk to me, Chloe?”
Her hand moves over the board.
I can't. I haven't spoken for twelve years.
My head snaps up. I'm shocked. I didn't expect this and my mind rallies. Twelve years. Did the death of her step dad influence her that much, that she won’t talk anymore or did something else prevent her to communicate?
I rub my hand over my face, and then comb my fingers through my hair. A sudden shackle of shame imprisons me and I pull myself to my feet. I go and check on the meat, turn it and come back to sit on the other chair. Her lips twitch and I have to salvage the situation quickly, before I lost her to the rising pain I can see in her eyes. I need to change the subject.
“How come you are here? I mean, why are you in this cottage?”
With a little sponge I haven't notice before; she erases what was on the board then writes.
It was my Aunt Hilda's house. I think you never met her? She left it for me and it gives me the opportunity to live on my own.
I read, then she erases with a few quick wipes before she writes again.
My mum never got better. Her drinking got worse and I'm glade to have finely a place of my own.
I stare at her. I can't believe she stayed all this time with her mother, knowing how cruel and fucked up her life was. Her mother never cared much about Chloe. I never heard Chloe telling me about her raising a hand at her; I assume that task she left for her second husband to carry out. The thought alone let me curl my hands into fists, leaving me with an unspoken rage and I'm glad that bastard was gone.
“How do you support yourself?” I can't take my eyes off of her, she’s just so beautiful to look at and finally her eyes meet mine, a spark in them, that wasn't there before and she writes.
I'm a teacher for mute kids and this fall will be my second year of teaching
I let out a released laugh, “a teacher, huh, that suits you, Chloe. I wish I had such a good looking teacher growing up.”
She smiles shyly, blushes and I watch as she leans over, tucking a wisp of blond silky hair behind her ear. And once again I marvel at her quiet grace and beauty and my whole body response to my attraction towards this girl.
“Are you ready for something to eat? I think the steak is done.” With that I go and with slightly trembling hands slide one onto her plate and the other onto mine. I place the salad bowl closer and serve some beside the meat, before I sit down and help myself to some salad and bread. I watch her take the fork then looking at me and silently mouthing a thank you. I smile and with great strength I concentrate on my dinner, not sure how to contain myself from taking her into my arms, making sure she is real and that I wont let anything bad happen to her again. Cutting a piece of meat I try to swallow it past the thick knot building in my throat.
Then I remember I forgot about the drinks. As I ask her if she is okay with some wine, she nods and I quickly go and get us two glasses and a bottle red wine.
Chloe in the meantime wrote on her board:
I can’t believe how time has flown. I mean I know it’s crazy because I have grown up and all but for some reason, inside my head I just kept you as this lanky boy. You look so… different. What are you doing here?
I pour us some wine and answer her, “I know what you mean Chloe, and for me it seems so unreal as well to see you all grown up. I moved back about five months ago and started working at the old mill, but plan on open up my own construction business some day .”
I hold out my glass and click it with Chloe's, “to a good neighbour and to an old friendship.”
Her cheek blush and she sends me a shy smile. I just then notice Rufus slipping closer to Chloe and her hand holding a little piece of meat out for him. He slowly takes it from her and sits back down again, smiling up at her. So this mystery about their friendship just got solved. And since when did he have such good manners?
I tell her about my work at the mill, so she can enjoy her meal, deliberately leaving out the aversion some people show for me, since I returned. My eyes focus on her. I study her every move, trying to get to know her again. Searching for the girl I once have known so thoroughly, but finding an even more beautiful young woman. I catch her looking at me once in a while but quickly focusing on her food again, leaving me feel the loss of our once so great trust.
After finishing our dinner, I clear the table, taking everything inside, what gives me a short break to collect myself. I know I'm staring at her a lot, I know, but I can't help how my whole body reacts. Even Rufus seems to be under a spell, what makes me smile.
Walking back out I see Chloe sitting on the steps to my new deck, the wineglass in her hand, with a fare away glance.
You can't tell from looking at her, all the little pieces of scars she wears on her heart, her soul and hell maybe still on her skin. No, it is covered underneath her pretty exterior, tucked away from the world. I feel my hairs standing on end. How much this girl had to endure and still kept her grace and innocent flair about her. My fingers twitch, longing to touch her, to feel her, to make sure she is real. But I just position myself one step below hers and keep on staring at her.
A slight sweet scent of her tickles my nostrils and I take in a greedy breath.
“Look, I'm really sorry for last night. I thought it was an intruder and I should have first checked on the person.” My discomfort is evident in my voice. She only lightly nods.
“And how is Chloe doing?” I watch her closely, her face mostly hidden behind a curtain of soft long blond hair.
Furrowing her brows, she stares at me confused. Her free hand reaches for the slate lying beside her and writes
. What do you mean?
I let out a small huff. My laugh disguises the anguish I'm trying so hard not to show.
“Tell me about you, Chloe. How is life treating you and how come you are living on your own or at least that's what I assume, therefore I haven't seen anybody else.” My voice rougher then anticipated. I'm holding my breath. I'm not sure what I expect to hear, or what I'm hoping to hear.
In slow motion she writes.
. Then she stops, like she has to think hard what to tell me, straightens up a little and continues.
Everything changed back then.
I can see the pain in her face and assume she means the death of the monster of step dad, but I don't interrupt.
It was somehow easier without him, but mum slipped even deeper into more drinking and I was left alone to look after myself and taking care of her.
My throat restrained, I ask roughly, “did she ever ......?”
Chloe slowly lifts her head and with tears close to the surface shakes her head, bravely plastering a sad small smile to her face.
“And......?” I probe careful into her story. Her sponge erases the written words.
My mum had some rough years and a few relationships, screwing her up even more. I went to school and made my degree in teaching. Last spring I finely talked her into selling our house and renting an apartment, while attending a therapy. Where she is since last spring, getting help and with the heritage of this cottage from my aunt, I decided that it was time for me to manage my own life.
Her hand stops, letting me read, then cleans the slate in a hasty manner, like she wants to make a point.
But still I had so many questions and urge her on, “what about you Chloe, are you in a relationships, or seeing someone? Someone special I mean?”
She didn't move or write anything. Maybe she won't tell me. I'm sure there must be someone, and it squeezes my heart to think about it. But how could someone so beautiful and modest not be taken, it's the most innate thing to be. But then why did the notion alone feel worse than I thought it would be? Wasn't it supposed to make me feel better, to know she found happiness?
No. It doesn't feel good. It actually bores a hole into my heart and lets me feel… jealous. A concept totally strange to me.
I was her friend once. I had her heart and I will do anything possible to get it back. I'm just not sure she will have my friendship again, after learning what I have done…
Beyond anything I can't believe she stopped speaking and I would do everything to give her the voice back.
I just notice her breathing becomes more rugged and her slender hand holding the piece of chalk shows white knuckles.
What the f…?
Than her breath quickens as if it is hard for her lungs to expand. And the truth hits me square in my face. Damn, I know the signs. This is a panic attack. Shit. Does she still get them? After all this years? I have totally forgotten about them, but before I can make a move, she gets up and stumbles to her cottage, her board forgotten on my steps.
I pick it up and hurry after her. I spot her on the swing bench and slowly make my way to her. I watch her bend over, trying to calm the tight crushing pain in her chest.
I hurry up the two steps and slide up close to her. Like back then I take her into my arms. My hand strokes her soft straight hair and I whisper, “Breathe .....Breathe slowly and steady Chloe – one, two, three, one deep breath and again-one, two, three ......”
Her slim frame shakes as she wrestles her demons away, matching her rhythm to my voice. Her chest softly rises and falls with each fought for breath. Her long hair dangling like a curtain over her face, down her knees. I gently stroke the back of her head until her body relaxes and wait for her to calm down.
When she finally slowly straightens up, I slip my arm around her shoulders and pull her close. She freezes, not sure how to react to my closeness, then relaxes and leans her head on my chest. Tears spill from her eyes and she squeezes them tightly shut. I lift my hand and cup her cheek, my thumb slowly wipe away the falling tears.