Bluewater Blues (A Bluewater Bay Novel)
This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.
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Jack Daley left his music career behind—along with his domineering father—and is struggling to make a new life for himself and his autistic sister in Bluewater Bay. When a summer storm sweeps a handsome stranger into his general store, Jack is more than ready for a fling. No strings attached, because Jack can’t share the secrets he and his sister are hiding from. Unfortunately, his feelings refuse to stay casual.
Mark Keao is married to his job as a costume designer on Wolf’s Landing. He’s autistic, so he’s used to people not knowing how to interact with him, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be a hermit. Especially when he meets Jack Daley, who dances with brooms, shares his love of the blues, and gets him like no one else. But relationships have proven complicated in the past.
Just when Mark is ready to try anyway, Jack pulls back. But Mark isn’t giving up, and neither is Jack’s sister. And then there’s the music both men love, bringing them together time and again. It will take trust, though, to bring them together for good.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The water ran in sheets down the big shop window, blurring the street beyond. Not that there was anything to see. The rain seemed to have swept every living soul in Bluewater Bay, tourists and movie people included, into the sea. “We might as well lock up,” Jack said, half to himself.
His sister’s reply came instantly. “No.”
He wasn’t surprised. They still had thirty minutes to go until six, and Margaret didn’t do spontaneous early closings.
It had been piddling on and off all day, promising relief from the unusual August heat, and now it was just plain pouring. “Not a soul’s going to be out in this.”
“No,” her voice came again from the back office. He couldn’t see her through the doorway behind the counter, but she’d been curled up in the armchair with her e-reader last time he’d checked.
He shrugged and resigned himself to half an hour of boredom. The specialty mustard jars on the shelf by the door didn’t really need straightening, but it passed the time. He didn’t have to count the cash to know that it had been a lousy day for Your Daley Bread sales-wise. Besides, counting the cash was Margaret’s thing; no need to butt in and upset her.
When the bell above the door chimed, he turned with relief, only to feel his smile freeze in place when he recognized the rounded shoulders under the ivory lace blouse. “Good evening, Mrs. Grissom. What can I get for you?”
She held up a gnarled finger, shook out her umbrella on the tiles, shoved it in the stand by the door, then started digging in her purse. “Just a minute. I wrote a list. I have it here somewhere. I did put it in here, I remember.” Calcified was the word that jumped into his mind as he was watching her. And not only because of her ancient physique.
He waited until she’d found her list in the pocket of her vest and handed it to him, then he read it out loud to double-check it was the right one.
At detergent, Margaret called out, “No laundry.”
The laundry detergent was one of the items still shrink-wrapped on the delivery pallet in the backyard because he hadn’t had his knife when the truck came, and then had forgotten about it.
“It’s dish detergent,” Mrs. Grissom said, pointing to her list as if it were written there.
“Coming up directly.” There was a brief silence as Jack collected all her items on the counter, mentally bracing himself for her next words. She never failed to comment on Margaret. And now Margaret had actually dared to say something in her presence.
And sure enough, as he rang up her groceries she said, “Don’t you think she’d be happier in a home?”
So very hard to keep his voice neutral. “She is home.”
Mrs. Grissom tittered. Most annoying sound in the universe. “Oh, yes, no, I mean one of those places where people like her can be properly taken care of. Maybe even have a job of sorts.”
Jack gritted his teeth. “She has a job. She’s the accountant for this business and a much better bookkeeper than I am.”
Another titter. “Oh, you’re too good. I was just trying to help.”
“I’m sure you were, Mrs. Grissom, bless your heart.”
She looked undecided for a moment. His voice giving him away, maybe? But, patently unfamiliar with that Southern slight, she eventually took the smile that was threatening to break his jaw at face value and patted his hand.
After she’d left, Jack stood braced against the counter for several long minutes, blindly staring at the rain-sheeted door, trying to unclench his jaw, trying to block the memories that defending Margaret always kicked loose.
The scent of the Magnolia dinosaur on the front lawn and red clay baking in the sun; the cricket-like trill of the sparrows, and splashing, and Margaret’s screams.
He shook his head to clear it.
People like Mrs. Grissom were the reason he’d taken Margaret away from Savannah, for her sake, and his. But they hadn’t been strangers or customers. They’d been family. Old blood and old money, so threatened by Jack’s and Margaret’s otherness that it had driven him and his sister clean across the country under a name not their own.
He should get back to work. Staying busy helped him keep the ghosts under control. The few customers they’d had that day had left muddy tracks on the black and white tiles that screamed for a cleanup. He got to work on the floor, and amused himself by humming a few notes of “Summertime Blues” into the mop’s invisible mouthpiece. Pretending it was his lost sax cut a little too deep, though, so he switched tunes, and pretended instead that it was a lamppost around which he then danced, belting out “Singing in the Rain” at the top of his lungs, when the door opened with the chime of the bell at the top, and the rain swept tall, dark, and handsome into the store.
The man was soaked from black hair to black trekking sandals. Charcoal three-quarter cargo pants clung to a fine ass, and the black T-shirt was plastered to his torso in a way that was hard not to stare at. He looked so quintessentially Washington that Jack had to smile. Also unbelievably hot. Too bad that sinking to your knees in front of your customers and begging them for permission to lick the rainwater out of their navels was generally frowned upon. “‘Sweet summer rain . . .’” he murmured before he could stop himself.
“Um,” the stranger said.
“Sorry.” Jack tried a smile and to quit staring. “I’m Jack Daley. Anything I can help you with?”
“Mark Keao. I was wondering . . .” He held up a ziplock bag filled with letter-sized posters. “There’s going to be a choir concert at St. Anthony’s on Saturday. Would you consider hanging one of these in your window?” The slow, rich baritone chased goose bumps up Jack’s arms and down to his toes.
The guy was nearly a head taller than Jack—story of his life. Not striking, as in turn to look and wolf whistle down the street, but nevertheless Jack’s gaze was drawn to the different angles of the man. Dark eyes, a slight crease giving thick, black brows the air of a perpetual scowl. A mass of leather and friendship bracelets around one bony wrist; long, slender fingers Jack could feel ghosting up skin way too starved for touch, leaving goose bumps in their wake. Raindrops ran down strong cheekbones, while the stranger simply stood there, apparently impervious to the discomfort of being quite that wet. Full lips, collarbones visible against the soaked shirt . . . damn. He reminded Jack of things he couldn’t have and normally managed not to think about. His life was too complicated, too much of a mess to share with anyone.
“Sure,” he found himself saying. What was the question?
“No,” Margaret said at the same time from the back.
Jack caught himself and shrugged a what-can-you-do apology. “That is, we have a corkboard for customers’ messages.” He pointed at the wall on the right, where sheets with rip-off phone numbers vied with other small notes for attention. “I’ll be happy to pin yours up there.”
“I’d appreciate that.” The guy, Mark, wiped his hand on his pants and fished one of the posters out of the plastic bag.
“You look like you could use a towel.”
Surprise flickered across Mark’s face, as if he hadn’t noticed that he was wet. “I don’t mind.”
“You’re soaked, man.”
“It’s not cold.”
Which was true. The clouds had cut the full force of the heat for now, but it was still quite steamy.
“At least wait out the worst of it in here,” Jack tried one last time. For some reason he didn’t want the stranger to leave.
“No,” quoth the raven in the back.
Jack half turned to the open door behind the counter. “C’mon, Margaret. It’s pouring out there.”
Her voice dropped low, though she didn’t have the range to match Mark’s baritone as she quoted him. “‘I don’t mind.’”
“He was being polite.”
“No, I really don’t mind,” Mark said. “The rain doesn’t bother me.”
Jack faced him and took the poster. “Do you sing in the choir, then?” That baritone would be perfect for singing, wouldn’t it?
“Yes.” Matter-of-fact, no embellishments.
He shouldn’t keep the guy. Margaret was waiting for him to lock up so she could get the cashbox from the register and do her tally. The knowledge that she would be fidgeting behind him was like an itch across his shoulders.
“What will you be singing?” Knock it off, Jack, you’re starting to sound desperate.
“Haydn’s ‘Missa in tempore belli.’” Mark pointed to a line below Jack’s thumb. “It’s on the poster.”
“Right.” Say good-bye, Jack.
“At the third stroke it is five past six,” Margaret said in her best Speaking Clock voice.
Jack nodded at the corkboard. “Well, I’ll hang that up for you, then. I hope you don’t have far to walk to your car.”
“I’m not driving.” The way he said it, it was a fact given, an assumption corrected, not a request for a ride. But it made Jack turn back.
“Oh, well, can I give you a lift anywhere?” As soon as he said it, he realized there was no way he could leave.
“No. I like walking.” And then, like an afterthought, “Thank you.”
Jack was too used to Margaret’s matter-of-fact delivery to be bothered by missing thank-yous. But tacked-on like that, like something remembered at the last moment, or learned by heart, struck a chord. He studied the man’s face more closely.
Mark held his gaze for a heartbeat, then looked at the corkboard. “I appreciate the offer,” he said, nodding once into empty space. Then he left and disappeared into the rain as suddenly as he’d shown up.
Behind him, Jack heard Margaret come in and open the old-fashioned cash register.
He locked the door and flipped the sign to the Sorry, we’re closed side. Then he stood and stared at the water sheeting down the glass. Tall, dark, handsome, and mysterious. There was something about Mark that had felt familiar, though, as if he should know the man he’d only just met. He watched Margaret count the money and enter sums into her hand-drawn table with a frown of concentration. Her seriousness plus the fact that the stranger hadn’t cracked a smile once the whole time they’d been talking kicked things around in his mind. Was Mark somewhere on the spectrum as well? Or was Jack starting to make up stories about strangers in his head because he didn’t want the encounter to be over?
If Margaret had had professional help growing up, could she have been more independent today? If he’d found a different solution than dragging her from motel to motel? He wished, not for the first time, that he could offer her better than stopgap help. They’d done their best, him and Mawmaw before him. It hadn’t been enough for his mother. He could only hope that it was enough for his sister.
She was certainly a lot calmer and seemed happier now that they’d settled down. The years on the road had been hell for both of them, but he’d always known that they’d been worse for Margaret, who depended on routines and quiet, safe havens so much more than he did.
He dreamed sometimes that he was a child again, and that Mawmaw was still alive. She’d occasionally sat on the floor behind him when he was small, before Margaret was born, listening to him stumble through the sentences of a book with his finger on the line. He’d be swaddled in her limbs, her chin gently resting on his head—best place in the world.
“You and me, Jack,” she’d say. “We have to be each other’s humanity.”
“Humanity. Beauty of the soul, my sweet. Beauty of the soul.”
He hadn’t understood it then. How lonely she’d been in the middle of that family. He’d learned as he grew up. He understood now.
* * * * *
When he opened the store on Thursday morning, the rain had stopped, and the sun was breaking through the clouds here and there. Steam rose from the asphalt like the setting of an apocalyptic movie. He glanced at the corkboard, then went and picked the poster off it. Classical choral music wasn’t his thing, but Margaret loved it. Which was reason enough to go. If she felt like it, that was.
He stepped behind the counter and leaned against the doorway to the office, flyer in hand. Margaret sat in her chair, skirt moving in the breeze from the fan she insisted on when it was hot. She hated sweating. Jack didn’t mind it. The steamy heat reminded him of home.
“Someone’s birthday is coming up.” He watched her closely for any response.
“Margaret’s,” Margaret said immediately. “On August seventh Margaret will be twenty-six years old.”
“Birthdays are for presents,” she said in a voice so like Mawmaw’s that he was momentarily breathless, as if he’d been punched in the gut.
Margaret tilted her head and sat with her shoulders straight as she looked around the room and then, for a fraction of a second, straight at him. She was clearly excited about it.
“Want to go listen to a classical choir concert, love?”
She folded and unfolded her hands in her lap. Yup, definitely excited now.
“Love,” she said, and the word spread in Jack’s chest as luscious and soothing as sweet tea on a hot summer day.
She didn’t always let him call her love. When she was stressed or afraid, she’d insist her name was Margaret. When she felt all right, she let it go. And then there were those rare occasions when she’d repeat the endearment with an expression as if she were listening to the music of the word, and to Jack it always sounded like she was saying it back to him. Her way of telling him she loved him.
“Make no other plans for Saturday, then. I’m taking you out,” he joked, trying to keep his own excitement in check. Anything could happen between now and the weekend. If Margaret had a good day on Saturday, they would go. If not, well there was always their favorite spot by the river or, if things were really bad, a book or a DVD while Margaret spent the day in her fort.
Back in Chatham County they’d said she was touched, just like her mother. And when she sat like this, hands in her lap, watching a spark from her prisms dance across the wall, her head cocked as if it made a sound only she could hear, she looked like her too.
Not that he remembered much of their mother. When he was small she had still come down to dinner sometimes, though she’d already been quite shut-off and living in her own head back then. She’d increasingly shied away from people until, by the time she was heavily pregnant with Margaret, anyone entering the same room, especially Charles, would throw her into a screaming panic. Charles’d taken to having her dinner sent up to her room, and after that Jack had found her door locked. From which side, he didn’t know.
Two days after her daughter had been born, she’d run outside in her nightgown and thrown herself off the edge of the ravine behind the house. The official version was that she’d fallen, but Mrs. Hardwick, the cook, had known better. She and Mr. Simmons, who’d delivered from Simmons’s grocery store, threw glances in Jack’s direction whenever they talked of his mother, so that for months he’d been convinced her death was his fault.
Mawmaw had been adamant, though, that she’d killed herself because of that man, which was what Mawmaw had called Charles. Jack had been brought up to call him Sir, and to stay away from him. No hardship there, because he’d been terrified of Charles. It wasn’t until school enrollment that he’d learned that Charles was his father.
Jack had been six when Margaret was born. Charles and Grandfather hadn’t cared enough to protest when Mawmaw had taken him under her wings, and they didn’t care when she had taken another one. They’d had no use for children. Especially girls. Even less when it had become apparent that Margaret was as touched as her mother had been.
“We need to protect her,” Mawmaw had said, and Jack had taken one peek at the tiny fingers and solemn eyes and had known that she was right.
* * * * *
On Saturday he found Margaret in a sunny mood, though the sunshine outside was somewhat hazy. It was cool enough now, because it was still early, but the weather report had forecast humid heat for the day. She hopped and danced and butterflied around the back room with her headphones on, and covered that shy smile of hers with a hand whenever she thought he was looking at her. It felt like they were sharing some fun game, or an intimate conspiracy. He tried hard not to think about how close to the truth the latter actually was.
Hopefully she’d still feel good enough to go when it warmed up later. He shrugged. Things would sort themselves without him worrying about them; they usually did. He resolved to start the A/C in the car in time to cool it down before they left, just in case.
After breakfast, he cleared and stocked the rest of the deliveries from the big pallet that he hadn’t gotten to over the week. It had been busy the last couple of days, as if people needed to make up for not having been out during the storm. He wouldn’t complain though. He and Margaret could sure use the money. Thanks to Mawmaw’s foresight, the house was half paid for, but he still had to stock the store every week. And now that they were settled in one place, it would be nice to have a little extra. Maybe get Margaret assessed, find something to support her efforts at communicating, or some activities she’d benefit from. As much as he liked to see her this excited about the concert, it also brought home the fact that she didn’t have a lot of events like those in her life. He wasn’t sure to what extent she actually needed other people around her, but for a short while at least and in moderate numbers, she seemed to enjoy company. She was fascinated by colorful, bustling places, even though she couldn’t be in a jostling crowd.
They left early, so they’d have their pick of seats. Small things like that could make or break an event. Unfortunately, as it turned out, others had had the same idea.
When Jack pulled into the parking lot of the elongated redbrick building with the square bell tower, Margaret ducked her head between her shoulders at the sight of all the people streaming into the church. But she didn’t let that stop her from getting out of the car with him.
“You’re a trooper,” Jack whispered to her.
After the sweltering parking lot, the inside of the church felt cool and dim.
Ahead of him Margaret started pirouetting, eyes wide, waving her hands at a pew, then another, then the steps leading up to the choir, her fingers picking out brightly colored spots of light touching their surfaces.
Jack pointed at the rosette window above the door. “Look.”
She stood transfixed, staring at the window, wonder on her face. Laughter exploded from her lips that had people turning and trying to hide their gaping.
He found an as-yet empty pew, the one end of which was worked against a column holding up the roof. Between that and his body, Margaret would have a protective space from where to enjoy the concert without anyone jostling her or sitting too close.
The church didn’t have an organ. Someone fiddled with a sound system. “You might want to plug your ears,” Jack murmured. “There could be audio feedback.” As he said it, a shriek from the speakers ricocheted off the walls. Margaret wailed and slammed her hands over her ears, then banged her back against the hard wood of the bench. Please, no.
Trying to stop her would only make it worse. This was her version of whistling in the dark. It kept the pain monsters in check. No, she needed the noise to stop. He knew better, though, than to fish in Margaret’s pockets for her earphones. Instead he leaned in and said with quiet insistence close to her ear. “Margaret, listen to my voice. Just my voice. Put your hand in your left pocket. Good girl. Now pull your earphones out and plug your ears with them.”
She complied so fast that he had to duck out of the way, or he would have been punched in the face. He watched her pick some music on her phone, and blew out a breath. Close call.
The choir filed in, and Jack scanned the figures for the tall and lanky one he couldn’t forget. There he was. All the singers wore black pants or skirts and white shirts, and damn, a white dress shirt suited Mark. And not only because Jack had a thing for white dress shirts.
There was rustling and low voices as they took their places, plus the occasional whistle and snatches of music from the sound system. Apparently they were using a canned orchestra with the choir.
The conductor gave a brief introduction, and thanked everyone for coming. Jack got Margaret’s attention with a wave in front of her eyes and pointed to her earphones. She took them out as they began, then immediately closed her eyes, her head swaying softly to the rhythm of the music. A soprano solo started, followed by a rich alto that was more to Jack’s taste. He’d never heard the piece before, at least not consciously. He winced inwardly at the louder passages, but Margaret didn’t flinch. Her lips were moving along with the words—trust her to know them—and her face and body were relaxed and at peace.
Jack turned back to the choir, to Mark, who sang like Margaret listened, with his eyes closed. He made Jack’s throat tight with longing, and for a second he was tempted to close his eyes as well. To give in and abandon caution, fall into the music and let himself believe that a connection outside their team of two was possible. But that would have meant letting Margaret out of his sight, which wasn’t an option.
A cello started up, and Mark moved into the soloist position. Oh? He sang and, sweet Jesus, Jack had been right. That rich baritone pebbled his skin from his wrists all the way to his hairline. He wanted to listen to that voice forever. The choir cutting back in felt like a betrayal. He waited for the next short solo line, and then the next, bereft when Mark made way for the soprano again. After that the soloists sang together without the choir. Mark’s solo was clearly over. It was still a beautiful piece, and the choir was of a quality Jack hadn’t expected in a town the size of Bluewater Bay. But it left him yearning. Because of Mark, and his voice. Because of all the music he’d left behind in Savannah.
There were standing ovations when it was over, and then everyone wanted to talk to people in the choir, especially to the conductor and the four soloists. Jack would have liked to talk to Mark again, but wasn’t sure how long Margaret would hold out. And anyway, what would he say? He didn’t know enough about what he’d just heard to make an intelligent comment about it. So he waited, until everyone was either up front or walking toward the door, to find clear passage for the two of them to leave. But when he scanned the aisle, Mark was making his way toward them, raising his hand to catch their attention.
Jack’s heart did a little two-step. He stopped and moved over to one side, where they wouldn’t be in the stream of people. He was still thinking about what to say when Mark joined them, but it was Margaret who spoke first. “Basso cantante,” she said. “Yes.” And she gave Mark one of her shy, covered smiles. It was high praise.
And Mark surprised him by getting that. He inclined his head toward Margaret. “Thank you. Almost. I’d say bass-baritone myself. I’m a bit more comfortable in a baritone tessitura. It was originally written for a bass, of course.”
“Of course.” It didn’t sound like an echo, but like she was agreeing with him.
“And you?” Mark turned toward him. “Did you like it?”
“A lot. And, honestly, I didn’t expect to all that much. Margaret’s the one into classical and choir music. Me, I’m more into blues and a bit of soul and jazz.”
“Absolutely. And Charlie Parker, despite the bebop.”
They kept throwing names and then styles at each other without comment or transitions until Margaret’s fingers pulled at his sleeve.
“Home, please.” Her not simply saying No, but being specific about her needs deserved immediate attention. Despite that, reluctance slowed Jack down. He wanted to keep talking to this man who was so odd and so familiar in such confusing and thrilling ways. But it wasn’t an option. Margaret wouldn’t ask to be taken out of a place with music and colored lights if she didn’t absolutely need to be away from the mass of people.
“Then we’ll go home, love. Would you like to say good-bye to Mark?”
She nodded. Then, to Jack’s stunned surprise she said, “It was a pleasure to meet you. Why don’t you come over for dinner on Sunday?”
He stared. It had to be a line she’d picked up in the crowd. Original speech didn’t come easy to her, much less polite conversation. Which didn’t mean that she couldn’t talk or communicate, but never, as long as he could remember, had he heard her invite anyone to come visit them. She didn’t just take to people at first sight. And even at second sight, the people she liked were few and far between. Margaret taking a shine to a stranger, and enough of one to invite him home was an extraordinary first.
“Thank you, miss. I’d be delighted,” Mark said.
The incongruity of such perfectly polite conversation between two people who not only didn’t shake hands, but didn’t even look at each other, surprised a laugh out of Jack. He gave Mark a brief nod. “So would I. Shall we say seven?”
“Seven sounds perfect.”
And that was that. No hesitation, no polite attempt to blow them off. The wish to meet again a mutual one, then? “Well, you know where to find us.”
Again Margaret tugged at his sleeve.
“I’m afraid we have to be off. I really enjoyed hearing you sing; you were fantastic.” He turned to Margaret. “Lead the way, Sis.” And half over his shoulder. “See you Sunday, then.”
Anticipation unfurled like wings in his stomach. What to cook? He had no idea what Mark liked to eat. Did he have any allergies? He hadn’t said anything. But he hadn’t exactly had time to think. Something neutral, then: no seafood, no peanuts. Damn, he was looking forward to this.
On Sunday evening, the store is dark, but the porch lamp over the annex door is lit, despite the still-bright sunlight. That must be the entrance to the house proper, then, where I’m supposed to ring the bell.
I’m listening to the receding echoes of its chimes, when the door opens to a mouthwatering smell of roasting meat and to Jack’s silhouette against a weak ceiling light that is trying its best to illuminate the dim hallway.
“C’mon in.” Jack steps back to make room, and I follow him almost the full length of the house. It feels like the next stop must be the backyard, but Jack opens a door on the left into the house itself. Smack into the dining room, a narrow affair with a second door straight ahead, and a third one on the far end of the right wall.
Margaret is about to finish up setting the table, arranging the cutlery beside each plate.
“Good evening, how nice to see you again.”
“Good evening.” She smiles without looking up from her task.
It’s not the kind of room I would have expected from these two. The decoration stopped evolving sometime in the sixties. None of it says anything about the people currently living here.
“It came fully furnished,” Jack says. “The previous owner moved into a senior residence and only took a few pieces with her.”
I’m not used to people being able to read me like this. I don’t know whether it would be more appropriate to apologize or laugh it off, so I don’t say anything, and he continues. “Please. Take a seat. Anywhere you like. Can I get you a beer or something?”
“I won’t say no to a glass of water. Alcohol doesn’t play nice with my meds.”
For a second Jack seems about to comment, but then he turns and leaves the room. Has he picked up on what I’m hinting at by mentioning the anxiety meds? I have Asperger’s has never been an easy thing to say, even back when it was still a listed diagnosis, when most would nod and assume they knew what I was talking about. Now that Asperger’s has been declared out of existence, explanations tend to be more involved. Too many people flat-out don’t believe me. I’m not autistic enough to meet their expectations. Fuckers.
And who’s ever heard of Sensory Processing Disorder? It’s not like you can casually slip that into the conversation. Hinting and letting people come to their own conclusions is often easier. Plus, it doesn’t rub me the wrong way as much as having to put myself on display and explain it as if I was an addict at an AA meeting. Hi, my name is Mark, I’m autistic. The anger starts to uncoil in my stomach. Wrong place, wrong time for that. I have to think about something else.
Jack returns with the glass of water just as Margaret disappears into an adjoining sitting room. The water is cold, no ice. “Thank you.”
Jack hooks a thumb over his shoulder, vaguely indicating the other side of the house. “Stove,” he says. “Be right back.”
I’m left stranded in the dining room, unsure whether Margaret would prefer me to join her where she’s curled up in a large, high-backed rocking chair, or to leave her in peace. In a sort of compromise, I stand in the doorway.
The sitting room is furnished equally sixtyish, if somewhat more plush. The only thing that might have been put up either by or for Margaret is a fishing line across the window with a number of different prisms hanging from it. A mantel clock ticks away on top of a heavy cabinet.
Whenever the prisms catch a vibration from a passing car or the breeze of the fan, a small flock of rainbows dance around the room. Margaret’s eyes follow the tiny dots as if she wants to commit every color, position, and size to memory, a delighted smile on her lips that she covers with her hand as soon as she knows herself watched.
She smiled the same way at the sun streaming through the church windows. Shards of light and color, prisms, stained glass; they cut into my eyes and now threaten me with a headache, despite the Irlen lenses.
I have no idea if conversation is expected. “You like the colors of light?”
Her voice drops a few registers and assumes a flat accent. “Humans can distinguish ten million colors.”
“Visible light ranges from 390 to 700 nanometers.” She cocks her head, then adds, “For humans.”
“Yeah, bees can see ultraviolet light, right?”
“Bees can see 300 to 600 nanometers. No red.”
I try to get comfortable with my back against the doorframe and my hands in my pockets. But watching the refracted light dance through the room starts the familiar pulling above one eyebrow that tells me I need to leave if I want any chance to avoid the threatening ice pick to the brain. “I’ll go and see if Jack needs any help in the kitchen.”
“No?” The rainbow dots are growing more intense by the second. “Because you want me to stay?”
“Because Jack doesn’t need help?”
Her gaze darts around the room much like the small dots. She drums a staccato on her thigh and repeats, matching my intonation perfectly, “Because Jack doesn’t need help?”
“Because he doesn’t want me in the kitchen?”
“Okay. I’ll stay outside, then, unless he tells me to come in. Would that be okay?”
Stepping through the door where Jack disappeared earlier, I find myself in another narrow hallway, equally dimly lit, this one with a threadbare carpet. What a rabbit warren.
The smell leads me to the left, where the kitchen door stands open, and again I lean against the frame, trying to stay out of the way.
Here blue notes spill from a radio on a corner shelf, and steam hisses from a pot on the stove. Jack stands with his back to me, singing along, though not always hitting the notes, bent over the counter in front of him. He’s shed his shirt, suspenders dangling across his ass, and his white undershirt displays his shoulders and arms kneading and slapping dough. I have to curl my hands around the desire to run my fingers over those deltoids and follow the contours of the muscles up into the black curls, now limp against Jack’s neck with sweat from the damp heat in the kitchen. He’s perfectly proportioned, and he moves like a dancer, despite the decidedly domestic task. I didn’t expect to find him quite so attractive. It rattles something loose in me.
An old-fashioned timer ticks on the counter; the lid of a pot on the stove clatters with escaping steam. Jack half turns to get it and stops midmotion when he sees me standing in the doorway. He holds his white-dusted arms away from his pants, though he’s already gotten some flour on them. His eyes narrow, and he ducks his head. Embarrassment? At what? Being caught in his undershirt? It’s his own kitchen after all. And it’s hot, even though my body doesn’t acknowledge the heat like his does.
Then Jack shakes his head with a smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes. It’s a delightfully crooked smile, higher on one side than the other. “I do apologize. I am so behind.” His drawl is a tad more pronounced than before, turning the Is almost into Ahs. “I had a last-minute customer who was slow as molasses in January. Uphill. Gave me a late start. Dinner’ll be ready directly, though. Just let me get this pie in the oven for dessert.”
“What kind is it?”
“Peach. Margaret’s favorite. She likely won’t eat anything else.” He shrugs a silent What can you do?, then switches the stove off, grabs the rattling pot by stretching a towel over the tilted lid and strains it in the sink. A practiced but alarmingly precarious-looking move.
There are reasons I don’t like to cook. Hot steam definitely being one of them. But watching Jack in the kitchen is fascinating. The rolling pin comes down on the dough, smoothing the blob into a nearly perfect circle, without sticking. Jack’s foot taps time with the music on the radio while his hands flip the circle of dough onto the pie, smoothing here, cutting there. All of it fluid, without hesitation, as if he doesn’t have to think about any of it. He opens the oven door, pulls a roast out, changes the temperature and shoves the pie in. “There. That’ll do just fine.”
He turns toward the door, toward me, and I know I should make room, but I can’t move away from the man any more than a moth could fly away from the light.
Jack tilts his head in an unspoken question, but says, “I’ll go get cleaned up while the meat settles, and then we can eat. Why don’t you take a seat already, and I’ll be in directly.”
That tilted head with the lopsided grin revealing slightly crooked teeth . . . All of that is irresistible to a man with a well-planned and absolutely ordered life. I want to—
Seat. Right. With an effort, I tear my gaze away from the way Jack moves and make my way back to the dining room. The sun has shifted by now and the prisms in the next room are mercifully dim.
Then Jack comes in, clean and shirted, and suspenders back in place. He’s carrying a large tray, the weight of which makes the tendons in his forearms stand out. He smiles, and I’m immediately stuck again.
Dinner passes like that. I need to shake out of it, but I can’t. All the tricks I’ve acquired over the years, that let me make eye contact with people and still be able to hear what they say, have evaporated. I’m breaking all the rules of polite conversation, can’t focus. This is not who I am anymore. I’m in control.
I know I’m staring at him and can’t stop. When he asks something, I know I should answer, but don’t get the question. Cutlery scrapes across china. I finally manage to wrench my focus away from him and to my food.
“. . . or some more water?”
Shit. Is he asking me what I want to drink? “Water’s good.” My voice certainly sounds like I need it.
By the way it smelled earlier, by the practiced way Jack cooked, I can tell I’m eating a fantastic dinner, and yet, I’m gaping at my plate, have no idea what I’m eating, can’t taste whether it’s good or bad.
When Jack smiles, however, I can describe in minute detail the way the corners of his eyes crinkle. And just like that I’m lost again in a familiar muted void, where sound is a distant hum, and I don’t know what he’s talking about. And it’s only getting worse as the pressure and anxiety thicken into a dense fog.
I know I’m doing this to myself, panicking over what he will see. It’s completely out of proportion to the bits of attraction and emotions I feel for a guy I’ve met exactly three times. It’s a fucking feedback loop. I know the signs, the mind-ache, even though nothing like this has happened since I was maybe twelve. It was such a relief to grow out of it, leave it behind. And now it’s back. I know that soon all I’ll hear is the rushing of my own blood.
Why is it back now? When I’m trying to show my best side, so this man will want me to come back? I really don’t need to be the weird guy tonight. I need to get out of here. Go home and regroup while I’m still able to find my way through the streets without stumbling into traffic.
Margaret finishes her pie, and Jack stands and asks something. About coffee maybe? I can’t be sure. I’m done. I have nothing left. I mumble what I hope will be accepted as an apology and flee. I can never show my face here again.