Authors: Jessica Katoff
“The act of me sitting, my gangly limbs folding into a chair, that’s what did you in?”
“You smelled like peaches.” He says the words simply, as if they are glaringly obvious to everyone in the known world, and Harper smiles at them. “You still do.”
“It’s just shampoo, Austin,” Harper deadpans, moving up his body to kiss him. He licks at the inside of her mouth and she licks at his, and everything is so right. She slides atop him, for a better angle and a better view, for the feel of his hips under hers, and laughs into his mouth, “What if I smelled like something else? Would you still love me if I smelled like… pears? Or apples?”
“I would love you.”
He chooses the words carefully, she thinks, and the air between them goes thick at
, and stays as such until Harper dips her head and presses her lips to his. It’s like she’s saying the same thing back to him with the feel of his lips between hers, the press of the flat of her tongue against the underside of his, grazing along the tips of his teeth. She swears she tastes peaches and she smiles into his mouth. He smiles back and their teeth clink together softly. Harper looks upon him reverently, his eyes a little blurry in hers because they’re so close, and she cranes her neck to kiss his forehead and closes her eyes at the blissful feel of it.
“Harper,” he whispers against her throat, and he isn’t saying anything he doesn’t mean. Her name sounds grave and light, all at once, and she holds so still, her lips at his forehead, because she knows it’s coming. She wants to remember this, this beginning and moment of blinding, brilliant significance, and she holds her breath as the words come. “I love you.” Austin’s words are sure, and she feels them, completely feels
them etch their way onto her heart, deep and burning and permanent, and she wants to say them back, but his mouth is on hers quickly and his hand is at the back of her neck. Harper thinks she tastes fear this time, and she kisses him, hard and soft, until it’s gone. When their lips part, he sighs out her name, and she sighs back, “I love you.”
Then they make their own heat in another way, a way with tangling limbs and hot moans, and their sweat sticks them to the blanket when they’re done. Austin shoves it away and basks in the chilled air of his apartment, Harper’s warm skin against his enough and too much. He strokes her hair away from her sopping wet neck and kisses the skin there, his breath cool, making her skin pucker.
“I meant it, you know,” Harper whispers once their breathing levels out, and it’s dark in the room but she can still see the way his eyes flicker to hers. “I wouldn’t say it, if I didn’t mean it.” She kisses his shoulder as he sighs, and she almost wants to climb atop him again, but her body won’t let her. It is tired and spent, sated, and it feels entirely too heavy. “Can I stay here tonight?” she asks softly.
Austin strokes his fingers through her hair and she draws patterns across his stomach with her fingertips, until a noise sounds from beneath the heart she’s drawn. He’s hungry and so is she, but neither one of them admits it, and they stroke fingers through hair and across skin, until the groans from both of their stomachs are too loud to ignore. Austin gives her a wry smile and she bites his shoulder and, unspoken, they agree to get out of bed and clothe their bodies, but not before he kisses her hip and she drags her nails lightly down his back.
“What time is it?” he asks in the dark of the hall.
“Late o’clock,” she answers, unable to see the face of her watch. “The pub should still be open, though. And if it’s not, I’ll call Clare and she’ll rouse Dylan and force him to make us food.”
They gather what little of their belongings they need—a phone, some keys, a wallet, his cigarettes, coats—and walk hand-in-hand out to her truck, which she’s parked haphazardly in the guest spot at the end of the row. He offers to drive and she lets him, thankful for the bench seat in her truck and how it allows her to be pulled against his side. He steers the truck with one hand and rubs her shoulder with the other, and Harper takes to leaning over and kissing his neck at the few stops and yields along the way. She can’t keep the smile off of her lips, or her lips off of Austin, and all of it feels like it was always meant to be.
“You remember that night—that night you came here and I—we were so out of sorts.” He says the words softly, almost sadly, as he pulls the truck into the lot. Harper’s fingers stroke his thigh, squeezing down by his knee, and she leans her body even closer to his. “It feels like forever and yesterday, all at the same time. Kind of like the day I met you.” He shifts his weight in the seat and pulls her even closer, half of her on his lap. He tucks a hand beneath her hair and settles it on the back of her neck, rubs his thumb back and forth there as he thinks a minute and listens to her breathe. “I lied to you that night.” Harper thinks back, but it feels more like forever and less like yesterday when it comes to the details, and she furrows her brow, cocks her head. “About him—I told you I only lied to you about Liam. I lied when I said I had faith he’d come back.”
“Ah,” she muses. Then after a beat, “You didn’t, really?”
“I didn’t want him to. I still don’t.”
“He’s going to, you know. Dan went to—he might already be back.”
Harper’s stomach growls and it’s nearly louder than her words, but she’s so glad to know that the pang in her gut is hunger and not longing. She doesn’t miss Liam at all. Austin pokes a finger softly into her side with a smile and nods toward the pub. The tension is gone as they step out of the truck and into the brisk night air. She laces her fingers with his and her stomach lurches a little bit at the thrill of doing that in public, in the open air where anyone can see. She squeezes his fingers between hers and pulls him close, close enough to kiss, and he is more than happy to oblige.
“So, what do we say? Dilly’s going to ask, you know. Clare, especially, will want to know.”
“What do you want to say?” Austin leans back against the low brick wall outside of the pub and sparks up a cigarette, takes a long drag. He notices that it’s the first time he’s smoked all day and he likes what Harper does to him and his vices. The smoke comes from his nose in long curls and he takes another drag quickly, as he waits for Harper to answer. She just toes the ground, flexes their fingers together and chews her lower lip.
“If you don’t want to call this anything—we don’t have to label what we are, if you—I know it’s complicated.”
“Can I be your girlfriend?” she asks, and it comes out nearly as quick as the smoke from Austin’s lungs as he coughs, chokes on his breath and the acrid smoke in his chest. “Shit, are you okay?”
He heaves in a breath and thumps his chest once with his fist, then looks up at her and he doesn’t want to admit that the tiny tears in his eyes didn’t come from choking. Instead, he nods and flicks his cigarette into the night, pulls her swiftly against his body by her coat lapels, but he doesn’t kiss her like she thinks he will. Alternatively, his arms crush around her middle and hug her so tightly, she nearly has trouble breathing herself.
“Is that a yes?” she whispers into the shell of his ear, her words laced with a nervous sort of laugh. “That had better be a yes.”
“Completely, totally, wholly, absolutely yes.”
“Good. Now, buy me a burger, Boyfriend.” She tugs on him, pulls his hands until he rises off the wall and tosses an arm around her shoulders, and they walk alongside one another to the door of the pub. “Oh, and some fries. I’m
“Anything you want, Girlfriend.”
He opens the door of the pub and she shows no hesitation as she steps inside with him, her hand around his waist, thumb hooked through a belt loop of his jeans. His heart pulses in his chest and he feels nothing like what he felt that night so long ago. He doesn’t feel lonesome or lost, or like he’s missing a part of himself. He feels completely and utterly whole, with his hand fitted to hers and her smile given to him alone, even in a room full of people they know. He feels wanted and loved and like she’s everything.
They settle onto stools at the far end of the bar and Dylan saunters over to them, smiles and sets cocktail napkins down before placing their usual drinks in front of them.
“I like this,” he notes, motioning to them and their smiles and their hands on each other as he sets a menu between them on the glossy wood. “What’ll it be?”
“I’ll get the usual and a cheeseburger and fries for my girlfriend.” Dylan nods like it’s nothing, but Austin beams and Harper squeezes his thigh beneath the surface of the bar, gives him a sideways smile and shakes her head. “That was fun,” he laughs, leaning closer to her. He nuzzles against her neck and kisses her skin and smiles, “Thank you,” against her ear.
They trade I-love-yous and eat fries and hold hands, and everything falls completely into place.
Ashland is bitter cold and wet, and not at all as Liam remembers. The cold is biting, seeping down through his skin and aching in his bones. He’s been gone months, but it seems like years, and in those months, he’s lost the small amount of body mass and muscle tone that used to fill out his wool coat—the buttons overlap the holes by far too much, letting the wind sneak in. He shivers more than he used to and the cold starts to hurt. The cold feels like her, like her lips and her heart, her words and his name, and he knows she is what he’s made her. He pulls the coat tighter around his ribs as another gust hits him, and stares bleary-eyed up at the all too familiar house on Nursery Street, his feet at the cusp where the driveway meets the road. The grey siding looks dingy and sad, the navy blue shutters like bruises to the eyes of the windows, and nothing is as he remembers. Everything is cold.
The first step is the hardest, and it takes him a while to move his feet from where he stands on the outskirts of the Reed property. He fists his good hand into his coat pocket, the other hanging limp, the bandage weighing it down, and gingerly steps up the drive until he reaches the age-old stain of motor oil on the otherwise unremarkable brick. His breath comes out as a strangled gasp and he can’t stop himself from falling to his knees, the palm of his left hand connecting with the stain as he drops. His tears fall onto the mark, but they don’t mix and he thinks too much of it, thinks it means more than just the separation of oil and water. He feels unwelcome, and he knows that he should, but that stain speaks volumes of memories and it hurts to know it will never grow, that over time, it will fade. Harper has Austin now, and Liam is nothing more than the fading black stain on her heart.
“She’s not here.” The words startle him and he pitches forward, all of his weight held captive by his one hand on the ground. “She’s not here and you shouldn’t be either.”
He hears Hilary’s boots clunk against the wooden porch, and the distinctly sharp sound of a knife as it’s pulled from its cover. He’ll never forget that sound or the way it feels to be on the wrong end of it—he learned that lesson the night of junior prom. Prom, happier times—a fresh round of tears breaks from his eyes.
“You don’t want to do that. You see this? I’m not on your side. Those tears—save ‘em.”
Liam hiccups through the tears and his whole body is shakes—from cold, from fear, from sorrow, from pain. He loses the strength in his hand and his body collapses over the oil stain. He curls into the fetal position and has never felt like less of a man.
“Oh, for the love of Jesus, get the hell up.” She stands over him, knife gone, and hauls him up by his arms, pulling hard and not caring that her fingers are roughly press into his obviously wounded hand. Liam wobbles, but remains vertical, and hangs his head as Hilary pokes a finger into his chest. “You can cut the dramatic bullshit. No one here feels sorry for you.”
“I know—I know that I—I just want her back. I want to go back—I need to—”
“I don’t care what you need,” Hilary spits, and it’s not just a finger poking into Liam’s chest anymore. The knife is back and pointed right over Liam’s heart. Liam silently wills her to do it and pushes his chest out until the metal presses hard against him. “I care about Harper and her needs. Not yours.” Hilary stares him down, her large brown eyes nearly crazy, murderous, and Liam won’t, can’t meet her stare. He’s never feared a woman so much in his life, as he has Hilary, and now it’s multiplied tenfold. “You go near her again and I won’t hesitate to use this. You hear?”
“I hear,” Liam answers meekly.
Hilary gives the knife a good push, denting Liam’s chest further through a sliver in his coat, before she nods stiffly and lets the knife drop to her side. Her boots crunch over the deadened grass and scrape along the porch planks before the door opens and closes, and Liam cries and stares at the ground, at the stain, and all of the ways he has let Harper down.
“I hear,” he says again.
It’s cold and no one hears him, and he’s fading. He’s almost gone.
The jarring metallic rattle of Austin’s windup alarm clock cuts through alternating soft snores and murmured dream-speak while the dawn is still at bay, held off by blackness and the waning moon. They are a heap of tangled limbs and body heat, and though Harper awakens at the sound of the alarm, the feel of Austin against her is too good to give up. The world can wait, if only for a few more minutes. She closes her eyes again and nestles her cheek against his chest, into the slight dip over his sternum, and she doesn’t mean to fall back to sleep, but it happens anyway. When she awakens again, it’s to the solid grip of Austin’s hands on her bare hips, and the only noise around them is the soft whisper of her name on his lips. She covers his mouth with her own and lets him slide into her, hard and yet so soft, and by the time the sun rises, they’re spent and late. They dress quickly, saddened that they’re unable to find the time to touch each other’s skin as it’s tucked away in clothes—hers being the somewhat-clean, smoke-tinged garments she left behind two days prior.