Charlie woke early, her tissues all bound with nausea. Riley held her tight to him, his head buried in her hair. The need to drink? The need to retreat to safety? She couldn't be sure, but she needed air. She wriggled a little from his grip, and in his sleep, he tightened his embrace.
The scurrying of mice and the scuttling of something larger, which she assumed to be a squirrel, grated and scratched her anxiety raw. She watched her breath rise in the dim cold. The air had turned a chilly crisp. Knowing it would be a long while before the day warmed the cabin any, she wrapped a blanket around herself and got up to fix the fire. Riley called her quietly from in between states of consciousness, and she paused to tuck the remaining blankets snuggly around him, before reviving the languishing coals with a few split logs and some kindling.
The cold was in her to the marrow of the bone. Nothing a fire alone was going to help. So she found a pot inside the things Riley had packed, filled it with the large water bottle he’d brought, and set in on the top of the airtight stove.
Either she’d drifted somewhere very deep into her mind she couldn’t now recall, or the water boiled very quickly. She poured some into a tin cup and dropped in a tea bag. The water scalded her busted fingers, as she poked the floating bag to submerge it, forcing a burst of read to be expelled from the bag.
Riley was still fast asleep, beautiful in a dreamtime a million lifetimes away from her. Or maybe with her, and she was million lifetimes away from herself. Wherever they were, she wanted it to be closer. She pulled an old split vinyl-seated chair up beside the bed to watch him sleep, as she nursed her tea. His words drifted through her head like ghosts that could be angels, or ghosts that could be angels disguised as demons. This sleeping, peaceful, gentle man, who’d never done a thing to harm her, was the most terrifying creature she’d ever laid eyes on.
She knew who she’d been the day before the day before. She knew who she’d be tomorrow. But who was she today? And who would she be if she took what he was offering? And was he even offering it? Maybe he wasn’t. She doubted she was strong enough to find out, as she flexed her mangled hand just to feel the pain of it. Today she could afford to be falling in love. Tomorrow something would work out and she’d be gone. It’d be OK.
Riley rolled over to face her, slowly opening his eyes. Not like her, how she always woke, panicked until she could place where she was. He was smiling already before his eyes could possibly have focussed. Smiling at Charlie. He breathed very deeply and held the breath in his lungs a long while, as he smiled, looking at her.
It was awkward. She got up quickly to make him a tea.
“It snowed,” he said, drawing her attention to the lightly dusted windows.
She turned around to face him as he lifted himself to an upright position in the bed. “Yeah, just a little.”
“How was your sleep?”
“All right, I guess,” she said handing him the warm drink. She watched him blow into his cup, as a thief blatantly stealing a second while the attentions are turned; a warm flutter filled her when he raised his gaze, catching her in the act of revering him.
“Come on,” she said tugging at him with her good hand, leaving him with no option but to obligingly follow her, naked, across the cold cabin floor. Charlie took the tea from him, and set it on the picnic table, spilling a few drops in the gentle tussle. If Riley had intended to resist, the idea was short lived. He stepped in close to her, as she took him under the wings of her blanket. Her expression turned mischievous. “So, what I want to know...” she said.
“What I want to know…” She teased his lower lip lightly between her teeth.
“Tell me,” he whispered, cupping her breasts in his hands.
“What I want to know is…” she pulled back flirtatiously, a giggle pealing from her lungs, “is how fast are you, Riley Red Calf?” She shoved him enough that it took a few steps for him to right his balance again, and she broke for the door, dropping the blanket behind her. She ran down the small rutty dirt drive, and out onto the airstrip, with Riley in hot pursuit.
Their steps left green footprints in the icing-sugar cover of the valley floor. Charlie turned as Riley’s body connected with hers, catching her in his arms. He lifted her into a gentle tackle and laid her down on the snowy grass. She heaved upwards and rolled on top of him, but he gave her no fight. Motionless, he laid there looking up at her, letting her pin him, which she could only really do with one arm anyway. Her hair fell like a curtain around his face as she touched his warm mouth with her lips. No urgency. No apprehension. No needing. No questioning. Only friendship and love, laughter and joy. She capsized as he rolled her on to her back. The cold of the ground shocking her. Then he hoisted her up over his shoulder and spun her in dizzying circles until he was scared he might collapse and drop her.
They heard the distant hum of quads approaching, and the two of them howled with the naughtiness of playing naked in the snow as they were. “Put me down! Put me down!” she squealed. “Someone’s coming. They’re going to see us.”
“So?” he teased.
“No. Seriously Riley. Someone’s coming. We’re buck naked.” She pounded playfully on his back. “Serious. Put me down. They’re gonna see us.”
Riley ran back toward the cabin, Charlie still over his shoulder crying out like a little girl. He stepped on a few sharp rocks, and nearly wiped out several times on the fresh snow, but he hauled her safely through the front door, pulling it closed behind him, and dumped her playfully on the bed, pouncing up on top of her.
She let go, closed her eyes and waited for him. But instead of entering her, he paused taking that one exact moment and stretching it out for an eternity. The way her nose was still crinkled with laughter, her head tossed carefree to one side…the pause froze these things as if time had stopped, and yet their hearts could still beat.
She felt the the muscles on the far backside of his outward hip consolidating under the fingers of her good hand. His breath on her neck. Caresses and strokes awoke time from that pause with tickles and scintillations. Slow. Delicate. Knowing and learning her body and the way it reacted to his touch. She could tell by the way he leaned into her, catching himself off guard, that he wanted her, fully and deeply, but still, he denied himself.
He explored her with his eyes, with his fingertips, with his lips, until she could hardly stand it. She wanted him to penetrate her just so she could feel less than this that he was doing to her. “Please,” she moaned. “Please.”
And when she gave up pleading, yielding only to the spontaneous moans of all he was evoking in her, he parted her thighs, letting his fingers slowly crawl toward the warmth between them, and then he pressed his lips against the exposed flesh of a hidden temple that had long forgotten its sacredness, and he kissed it back to life.
It was late in the afternoon when Charlie finally woke. She’d been asleep for hours, but was heavy yet with drowsiness. She pulled on her clothes and found Riley out at the campfire, sketching with charcoal. “Hey,” she said, when he noticed her, “I’m sorry I slept so late. I don’t know. I’m just so tired.”
“That’s OK.” He motioned for her to take a seat beside him. “You’ll be tired for a few days. It’s part of getting clean. You’re body wants to draw into itself for awhile to heal.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” she said, taking the seat he offered.
“Yeah, I do.”
She nuzzled her head against his shoulder. “I went and wasted the day.”
He closed his sketch book and set it on a log, giving her his full attention. He brushed the hair back from her face. “Charlie, nothing about this day was a waste.”
The sun beat down so hot; it was like she had lost seasons, not hours. The snow was gone now like it had never been there at all. “I feel like an old woman. One minute I’m freezing, the next, I can’t stop sweating.” A long bead of perspiration rolled down her forehead, as if on cue.
Riley took a thick rag and lifted a large cast iron pot from the fire. He carried the pot to a table on the porch of the cabin and emptied it into a basin, then added a little cold water from a bucket by the door.
“Come here,” he said, and pulled out a chair for her, facing it outward from the table.. He motioned for her to sit, and she did. Leaning over her, he undid the buttons of her shirt, then slipped it off her shoulders. He dipped a cloth in the water and rubbed a bar of soap against it, wrung out the excess water and moved her hair to the side of her neck. He guided her to sit crosswise, and then he ran the cloth down her back, painting broad strokes of warm soapy water on it, as though he was covering a canvas. He moved in front of her and drew the cloth across her forehead, around her eyes and over her left and right cheeks, gentle to barely touching her bruised face. He ran the cloth down her nose, her chin, her neck, and across her chest. He washed the belly that he could imagine filling one day.
“Is it because you think I’m dirty that you won’t sleep with me?”
“No. No Charlie.” He laid his head on her lap, taking her hips between his hands. “You’re not dirty. It’s because I want you to know what you are giving me, before I take it.”