I found it extremely difficult not to bolt out the back door and spend the night in the woods; the thought of Zoe in the house alone with some strange guy was just enough to stop me. Just barely. My life was filled with irritating inconveniences centering around Zoe. Like the fact that, despite being two years older than her, we shared a birthday (I always suspected our parents lied about the date of Zoe’s birth to make celebrations easier) or that I really did love the little twerp, even though she was certainly the bane of my existence. Zoe, of course, was well aware of the latter and often played on it to my detriment-which was why she was the bane of my existence.
I sat on my unmade bed. In, my half-cleaned room, and wondered what fresh torture Zoe had in mind for me tonight. I could hear her in the bathroom singing happily while she blow dried her hair. I had no doubt that she would remain there preparing for her “date” until just before six. I didn’t think for one minute she would allow me the opportunity to answer the door when her guest arrived. If only I could figure out what else she was up to, maybe then I wouldn’t feel so jittery and nervous. Or maybe it would only be worse-Zoe’s schemes were like that sometimes.
When the door bell finally rang, after what seemed like both an agonizingly lone time and un unbelievably short time, I was fervently praying to whatever gods were listening that I was being overly paranoid and Zoe just wanted to watch a movie with some boy she like from school.
The Gods hate me.
As I came down the stairs into the living room it was no boy I saw standing there hugging my little sister much too tightly with his hand in the small of her back, it was Chad Cheney, captain of the swim team. The guy was a freaking sculpture: a blonde-haired, blue eyed, tanned sculpture. The guy was freaking rich, his parents house was a square foot shy of officially being a mansion. Every girl in school, my school, high school, swooned over this freaking guy. But besides all of that, the guy was a freaking senior. It’s one thing to know that seniors routinely ask out your little sister, it’s quite another thing to find out one of them is actually dating your little sister. The guy was a freaking dead man. My blood-pressure spurted up like an out-of-control oil well and my fists clenched of the own volition.
At least he had the decency to look ashamed when he saw me standing there. “Uh, Ichabod, what’s up bro?” He asked, his eyes firmly on the floor.
“What’s up bro?” I parroted in disbelief with all the venom I felt building up inside of me. Was he really that stupid? I had never taken him for the stereo typical dumb jock. Did he not realize he was older than ME and he was dating my LITTLE sister? I had never been in a fight before, and something told me Chad was not my smartest choice for an inaugural bout, but….I could hit him with a shovel. Hadn’t I decided earlier there must be a shovel around the house somewhere? I quickly scanned the living room, as if I might actually find one propped up in a corner, and only got more angry when I didn’t see one. I felt…..something….inside me stretch taut, like it was about to snap…..
With three quick strides Zoe was there in front of me, both hands flat on my chest. “Itch? Take a breath.” She was whispering up at me. “We’re not going out anywhere, we’re going to be right here where you can see us the whole time.” She sounded as though that was perfectly reasonable. “Please calm down.”
“Zee, do you realize he’s a senior?” I growled. Without waiting for an answer, I looked up to glare at Chad over Zoe’s head. “Do you realize she’s only fourteen? “I could feel myself losing control, that…thing…inside me felt like it was starting to rear at the edges. It felt so similar to my unexplainable rages, yet different in some fundamental way.
Chad grimaced, still staring at his feet. And answered in a ragged whisper, just barely loud enough to me to hear. “I know. But there’s something….I can’t explain it.”
I looked back down at Zoe in time to see her brow furrow and her bottom lip tremble before she composed herself. Every muscle in my body tightened as I prepared to launch myself at him. Zoe’s hands balled up into two tiny fists, gripping my t-shirt, and her wide eyes narrowed.
My only response was a thunderous bass ripping out of my throat.
“Itch, you’re scaring me.”
And Just like that, my anger dissipated. I never wanted Zoe to be afraid of me, not really. I immediately felt horrible, wiping away any vestige of the rising rage. The rapidity of the emotional shift left me slightly dizzy.
I hugged her fiercely for a moment, then pushed her out to arm’s length. “I’m sorry.” I apologized. Looking into her eyes so she would know how much I meant it.
She released a tiny sigh and stepped in to pat me lightly on the chest, but when she spoke her eyes and voice blazed-and not with fear. “If you EVER…EVER…” She choked, seeming unsure of how to continue, her diminutive body shaking with the intensity of her fury. Much as I hated to admit it, I may have been intimidated. The tiniest twinge of intimidation. Almost nonexistent.
“Come on, Ichabod, come show me where the popcorn is.” Erin was there, suddenly, leading me by the hand towards the kitchen. Where had she come from? And how had I not noticed her? Everything was happening too fast. I needed a quiet space to process all of the emotions. There was far too much emoting.
“Holy crap.” I breathed as I got a good look at her.
Her dark brown hair was pulled up in a loose bun, with two strands left free to fall on either side of her face. She was wearing tiny diamond studs in ears that seemed just a little too long, they gave her a slightly elfin look I had always found captivating. Her dress, the same blue as my car, tied up behind her neck and clung to her in ways that made my mouth dry. Before I could stop myself, I had reached out, cupping my hand around her cheek, and turned her face up. The blush had brought out the color of her eyes. As if she needed it. Those eyes….totally not helping with the emoting.
“I’m sorry.” I apologized quickly and pulled my hand away with a jolt. Great. I was on a real roll tonight-threatening Chad, scaring Zoe, embarrassing Erin, maybe for a finale I’d save everyone a lot of grief and set myself on fire.
“Are you okay?’ she asked, her eyes ticking back and forth between mine.
There was that question again. Again I felt he weird urge to tell her the truth. I took a deep breath and sighed. “I really don’t know anymore.”
“You look like you need some popcorn.” She said, the wisp of a smile lighting her face, as she pulled me to the microwave.
“Yeah, that oughta do it.” I smiled back and reached up in to the cupboard above the counter, grabbing a box filled with folded paper bags. I could feel Erin’s eyes on me as I popped a bag into the microwave. I set the timer. I leaned forward on the counter. I looked into the back corner of the cupboard’s underside checking for spider webs. Finally I worked up the courage to turn around, sure enough, she was watching me and biting her lower lip. I wondered if she realized just how irresistible she looked when she did that.
“What?” I asked self-consciously.
“You’re kind of intense,” she answered absently. Continuing to stare at me.
“As usual, I didn’t know what to say. So, I admitted, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
At first, I didn’t think she was going to elaborate. She just stood silently staring at me and chewing on her lip, but then her eyes focused tightly on mine. “You saved me from that dog today and I didn’t tell anyone because it didn’t seem real. You moved so fast, and the look in your….I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you. You always seem to be in the throes of some deep emotion, it shows in your eyes more than anything else. It’s why Zoe worries about you so much.” Her voice was quiet as she explained. “It makes you mysterious…and a little scary.”
I was shocked. Sure I scared myself. I was terrified of whatever was happening with these fits of rage. But the idea that anybody else would be scared of me….then again, hadn’t I scared Zoe tonight? It made me uncomfortable that other people could see my inner turmoil.
“Are you trying to tell me you think I’m interesting?” I joked, my lame attempt to ignore the direction my thoughts were taking, maybe lighten the mood-something I didn’t usually care about.
“Ichabod.” She laughed, “you are the only guy in town a girl would never have to lose sleep over, worrying you were going to dump her for Zoe. That alone makes you interesting.” She was laughing, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she might really mean what she was saying.
“I never thought of it like that.” I chuckled dispelling some of my unease. “I guess I’m the town’s most eligible bachelor. “
“So you can laugh.”
Occasionally,” I allowed. When had this gotten easy?
The microwave’s beeping sounded like a klaxon as it shattered the magic of our moment and making us both jump. An awkwardness insinuated itself into the proceeding silence. I remembered suddenly that this wasn’t a date, it wasn’t even a chance meeting; Zoe had planned the entire charade.
“So is that how Zoe convinced you to come tonight? By selling you on my virtue as the only guy around who couldn’t possible want her?” I hoped I didn’t sound as bitter as I felt.
“She tried to.” Erin almost smiled, then looked down at her feet. “But it was the little things that made me decide to come, the way you always wait to make sure Zoe gets inside safely whenever you drop her off anywhere, how careful you are around anyone smaller than you, that you saved my life today, stuff like that.”
Wow. I….wow. “Erin, look I know that despite anything else, you’re here because Zoe asked you to come…” I trailed off, trying to find the right words. How was I supposed to tell her I was happy she was there anyway? Preferably without sounding like an idiot.
“Yeah, she’s pretty convinced that we’re perfect for each other.” She sighed without any hint of how she felt.
“THERE IS A VERY TINY PERSON STARVING IN HERE!” Zoe yelled from the living room.
Erin and I shared a brief smile while I grabbed the popcorn and poured it into a big bowl. I walked into the living room to find Chad and Zoe on the couch together, his arm around her as she leaned into him with her hand on his chest. Chad. My body stiffened with a pulse of anger – I had somehow managed to forget about Chad. Then Erin was beside me, wrapping her arm through mine, and I melted, allowing her to lead me to the couch. Damn, I was really easy.
Well, easy I might be, but there was still enough ire in me to look over Erin and ask Zoe with mock sweetness, “Does Dad know about this?”
The idea obviously horrified her, “NO!” she exclaimed, then smiled and mimicked my sweet tone, “But Mom is fine with it. She likes Chad.”
Damn. If Mom really knew about Chad and approved, I was overruled. It also meant that if I told Dad I would have to deal with the wrath of Mom – a shudder – inducing thought.
Chad looked over at me cautiously. “Ichabod, dude, I think it’s totally cool the way you look out for you little sis, but I swear, me and Zoe don’t do anything but hang out.” I’m sure he meant for the stupid smile on his face to be sincere, it just made me want to hit him. Zoe punched him in the stomach and, while I’m certain he barely felt it, he flinched and took the hint to shut up.
The movie started and, against my better judgement, I reached back behind me and flipped the light switch off. Everyone settled in to watch. Everyone except me. I was busy making sure Chad was keeping his hands where I could see them but, as hard as I fought it, I started to become more and more aware of Erin sitting next to me. Chaperoning was hard. I tried to divide my attention equally between watching Chad and staring at Erin. I knew from the start I was fighting a losing battle. A half hour into the movie Erin took me by the hand and guided my arm over her shoulder as she snuggled into me. After that I completely forgot about Mr. Swimteam. All of my senses focused tightly on Erin. A light cinnamon scent was coming off of her, making it almost impossible for me to think straight. How did she always manage to smell like food? I couldn’t believe how soft her skin was, feeling her warmth against me had my pulse pounding. I watched her watching the movie and wondered why I had never before noticed how the corners of her eyes would crinkle slightly when she smiled or how she would scrunch up her nose when she saw something she didn’t like.
Get ahold of yourself, Ichabod, I mentally chastised myself – you’re starting to cross over into boy-band territory here. I had nearly gotten a handle on myself when Erin reached her arm around me, pulling her legs up underneath her, and readjusted her head on my chest. At that point all thought fled and dove into a foxhole as my mind became a battleground between manners and instincts. I never imagined that simply sitting could be so exhausting. I was even starting to sweat. With her head on my chest I was sure Erin could hear my heart speeding and my breathing became panting. If I had been able to frame a single coherent thought I probably would have been terribly embarrassed. As it was, I could barely remember my own name – beyond Erin, the world ceased to exist.
I blinked a few times in surprise and confusion when the lights came back on. I looked up in time to see Zoe smile at me over her shoulder as she carried the empty popcorn bowl into the kitchen. I felt the couch shift, Chad stretched. Everything seemed intrusive, too close with the lights back on. I tried to bring my focus back to Erin and while I didn’t find that the least bit difficult, it felt less complete than before. The only movement she made was her steady breathing. I thought she might have been asleep and desperately wished I could see her face.
I was just starting to relish the thought of spending the night right there, when she rolled her whole body over so she could look up at me. “Did you like the movie?” she asked.
Our faces were inches apart, making it very difficult to pay attention. Had she just asked me something? Something about a movie? “What movie?”
She leaned back to look at me more fully, her eyes sweeping over my face, and then a small smile set those eyes to twinkling. “I’ve seen you staring at me in class.” Her eyes held mine, giving me the strangest feeling – like I was having an out of body experience.
“Do you know, I have always thought that if the oceans were perfectly still, they would be the same color as your eyes.” Wait, What? I’m pretty sure that hadn’t been what I meant to say at all.
“Dude, that was the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.” Chad. But I found it surprisingly easy to ignore him with Erin so close.
She was looking at me like she had never seen me before, those eyes combing my face, their glorious light green color sparkling with some mysterious emotion. She was leaning towards me, her lips slightly parted and her eyes closing. I felt one quick stab of panic, then instinct won the war, crushing every thought but my need for her. I pulled her to me, the taste of her lips lifting me away on hurricane force winds – I had only believed I was floating before, now I was soaring! At first the kiss was shy, became tentative, but it seemed to ignite something deep within both of us and, as our breathing began to come in rapid gasps, the kiss became more urgent.
Someone cleared their throat loudly. Several times.
When I could actually bother to notice anything going on around me, which only became possible because Erin had pulled away. I realized we were completely wrapped around each other. A deep blush burned my skin, possibly matching the dark crimson which blazed her complexion to dusk. It was only her obvious embarrassment stopping me from kissing her again. I had a stray thought that if I immersed myself that deeply in her again I might never find my way back to the surface of her fathomless seas. It only made me want to kiss her more. Erin slowly disentangled herself and stood, still blushing, to straighten her dress. A great sense of loss swept over me once we were no longer touching, it felt close to despair. I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous, but myself didn’t believe me. The truth was, I had no idea what was happening to me, I had no experience with this sort of thing. Maybe I really was being ridiculous. How would I know? The only thing I was absolutely certain about was that, right there in that moment, I didn’t want to feel any other way.
Mumbling something which, for some reason, sounded like an apology, Erin spun and qucily followed Zoe into the kitchen. I sat there, staring after her, while I tried to make sense of the thoughts tumbling through my head.
“Uh…dude?” Chad. It was a measure of my euphoria that I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of anger at the sound of his voice.
“What?” I asked without looking at him.
“Are we cool?”
Maybe I had always given her too much credit in the intelligence department. Maybe he was just the stereotypical dumb jock.
“Not a chance,” I answered simply, still not looking at him. However, I didn’t actually have to see him to sense he had more he wanted to say. Probably some lame justification. I wasn’t willing to trust my self-control that far, and I really didn’t want to hear it anyway. I got up and followed the girls into the kitchen before he could work himself up to whatever it was.
Zoe and Erin were standing at the sink with their heads together, whispering, when I walked in. Their quiet conversation ceased as soon as they noticed me and both gave me hard stare only marginally softened by their twin blushes. I immediately turned on my heel and walked back to the couch. Inexperienced I might be, but I wasn’t such a fool that I wanted to deal with whatever that had been about. At least Chad didn’t try to talk to me again.
The girls remained in the kitchen for the better part of an hour, only the occasional giggle giving evidence of their continued presence. For some inexplicable reason I started to get nervous. The few glances I made towards Chad showed me he wasn’t feeling any better than I was. I didn’t know if I should find that reassuring or not.
When the girls finally did emerge, they came together – practically walking in step – and wearing the same small smile. I wondered if Erin was exaggerating her walk on purpose or if it was just my imagination; it didn’t matter, either way, I was enjoying the spectacle. Erin’s slow, seductive steps brought her right in front of me, where she settled down into my lap and hung an arm around my neck. It was impossible to figure out which would kill me first – my brain exploding or my heart beating out of my chest.
“Will you walk me out to my car?” she asked looking down at her finger, idly running up and down my chest.
My mouth was so dry I wasn’t sure if I would be able to answer, so I simply nodded. Her responding smile was dazzling, making her leaving an almost physically painful event – so much so, that when she tried to stand I held her fast and picked her up, cradled in my arms, to carry her to the front door. I was feeling pretty proud of myself and I swung open the door, no easy feat with Erin in my arms, and carried her outside. I actually managed to make it without stumbling, falling or dropping her. She giggled softly into my shoulder and I felt myself smile in response, it felt oddly unfamiliar on my face – almost as if I had never really smiled before. My first real smile. I chuckled at the realization.
“What’s funny?” she asked.
“And that’s funny.” She didn’t make it a question, though she seemed to be struggling to understand.
“Not funny exactly, just surprising. Happiness I rare for me. I guess I haven’t had enough practice with it to recognize it right away.” I chuckled again at the absurdity of the statement and the almost casual honesty she seemed to be engendering in me.
“So, I make you happy.” She seemed delighted with this news, her smile stretching across her face and her eyes sparkling again just like they had right before we kissed. The memory of that kiss got my pulse racing. I started walking again before she could feel the acceleration.
She sighed when I set her down in front of her mother’s mini-van. I might have signed too, I felt like sighing, I just hoped that if I did she hadn’t noticed. WE stood there, staring into each other’s eyes, while somewhere behind me Chad and Zoe murmured their good-byes. Very slowly, Erin reached up on her toes and kissed me gently – I wanted desperately to give in to the inferno inside me, to consume it and be consumed by it. Instead, I exerted great effort and managed to restrain myself, allowing her to pull away after the briefest of moments. Her eyes never left mine. There seemed to be a sudden wariness in those eyes that I couldn’t explain. Did I look angry? I tried to smile. It fell off.
“Are you okay?” She asked me for the second time that night.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, trying not to blush for the millionth time that night. She looked away, frowning. I instantly felt like an idiot of course. I was going to have to figure out how to stop hurting her feelings if this was going to work. I really wanted this to work. “It’s just that, well…” I struggled to find the words which would make me feel better. “I’m just nervous. I’m afraid of doing something that’ll scare you off.” There. The truth had worked well so far, it seemed to be our thing, so I was only mildly surprised when she smiled. It still knocked me breathless though.
“You’re a surprisingly sweet guy.” This time I couldn’t stop the heat flooding up my neck and bathing my face. She laughed as she touched my burning cheek with her fingertips. I thought she might say something more, but apparently, she changed her mind because after leaning in for another quick kiss she climbed into the mini-van. I was still collecting my scattered thoughts as she pulled away.
I stood in the front yard looking after her until her taillights disappeared into the night.
When I stumbled inside, feeling like I had just awoken from a dream, I found Zoe standing in the middle of the living room with a smug expression on her face. “Have fun?”
It seemed absurd trying to deny what must have been painfully obvious, so I didn’t bother. “Yes,” I answered.
“And you are beyond any shadow of a doubt the best, smartest, most beautiful little sister in the history of the world.” I even managed to it without a trace of sarcasm. She deserved it.
“Thank you.” She bowed her head graciously, the picture of royalty. “Now,” a familiar mischievous spread across one side of her face as she looked up, “maybe we can talk about your wardrobe.”
“Don’t press your luck, twerp.” I tried to sound irritated, but couldn’t manage it so I settle for stomping off into the kitchen. Zoe followed me, unperturbed.
“Aw, come on Itch,” she whined, “I’ll be fun.”
“Absolutely not.” I hid my smile by busying myself putting coffee on. I was reasonably sure she was only teasing me, but I couldn’t be certain. It was better to play it safe and give her no reasons to claim a victory. Especially on this subject.
“I bet Erin would like it.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that one. “Forget it. Besides, things seemed to go just fine tonight without designer clothing.”
“That’s true,” she allowed, though she sounded astonished. It probably caused her to question her world view. Finally, she shook her head, as if trying to dislodge an unsettling thought. “Doesn’t matter,” she muttered with mild annoyance, only causing me to laugh harder.
“Just be satisfied that, for once, I’m grateful for your meddling,” I suggested when my prolonged laughing caused her to scowl. “Besides, all of the frowning is going to give you wrinkles.” Her face smoothed instantly, almost launching me back into hysterics – I mastered composure this time. I was having a good night and really didn’t want to ruin it with a fit of itching.
“You and Erin really do make a cute couple.” She smiled and I knew that I was forgiven, though I doubted she would forget about her fashion make-over. At least I had been granted a temporary reprieve. “You should call her tonight.”
“Now? Zoe, she’s probably not even home yet.”
“Itch, I realize mom and dad have kept this house locked in the stone age, but the rest of the world has advanced beyond worshipping fire and the land-line. Erin has a cell phone.”
Right. Duh. I could totally call her tonight. In fact, I could totally call her right then. My heart did a little leaping fist pump. Maybe a ‘yipee’. A dignified ‘yipee’. “You don’t think it’s too soon?”
“Do you care?”
WE were standing across the kitchen table from each other, smiling, when I heard glass shatter in the living room. Zoe’s head snapped in the direction of the noise and the back to me. “ITCH RUN!” She screamed and threw herself to the floor as a spinning ball of crackling blue light flew through the space her had had just occupied. The ball of light crashed into the back door, smashing the window and setting the frilly curtains on fire.
I vaulted over the table and set myself between Zoe and whatever had attacked her. A small corner of my mind that was somehow retaining its grasp on rational thought assured me I was dreaming. That made sense to me. Where else, but in a dream, do balls of lightning fly around. For that matter, where else but in a dream do I have a date with Erin Madrugada? Dreams, no matter how vivid, I can handle. Reality’s the problem. So, the realization the whole night was a dream was a relief and a disappointment, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise.
Standing amid the broken glass, knees slightly bent, hands arced into claws, was a stocky man with close cropped blonde hair and icy blue eyes glowing with demonic energy. His eyes were glowing. The wind, blowing in from the broken window behind him, whipped the flimsy lace curtains around his arms and legs. His eyes narrowed as he stared at me and I felt the world give an odd jump in his direction. Blue sparks leapt from his fingertips to form balls of energy in his palms. It suddenly hit me that only a second had passed since Zoe’s scream, maybe only a fraction of that, and all the hair on my body stood at attention. I considered the possibility that is wasn’t a dream.
The smile splitting captain static’s blocky face was cold and unfriendly. “I never imagined I would get to kill two Cayce Pups.” His voice sounded husky and barely restrained excitement. “Your parents have been busy.”
It took me a beat to realize he was casually talking about murdering Zoe – when I did…that thing… inside of my body trembled with the strength of the rage filling it. It was like while heat pumping through my veins, spilling out through my pores. I was only vaguely aware of the light bulbs flickering, then popping, and showering me with their dying luminescence. The stranger’s smile slipped and slowly slid into a contortion of panicked horror. My trembling intensified, my inner fires consuming thought and fear and being, burning everything, me to ash. My vision leapt downward and forward as if the entire world were shaking apart.
The stranger threw his hands forward at the same moment the fires overwhelmed me and I screamed with anger and anguish beyond anything I had ever felt before. A blinding blue-white light invaded my vision, dominating all it touched, conquering eternity…vaporizing my blood…scorching my skin from bone…
When it at last faded away I could see nothing but black. I felt like I was falling, but slowly. From somewhere far away I could hear the cacophony of a thousand explosions…then Zoe’s voice, Itch?” why did she sound like she was crying? Was she okay? I tried to reach out, but my body couldn’t respond.
My last thought, before the blackness pulled me beneath it, was to wonder if I was dying. I was strangely calm about it, almost as if I had been expecting the other shoe to drop all night.