“Nice one,” I said as Levi’s rock smashed through the small, rectangular window we’d been trying to hit for the past five minutes. Shards of glass sparkled like diamonds in the late afternoon sun as they fell past the crumbling brick façade and then burst into a thousand tiny slivers on the rocks beneath.
“Thanks,” he said.
We had parked out behind the building, so that our cars wouldn’t be visible from the road, and stood now in a narrow strip of shadow thrown by the tall, emaciated looking evergreens that crowded the edge of the parking lot. Around us, heat waves rose from the pavement. The air was filled with the smell of melting blacktop and baking pine needles.
“What’d this place used to be?” Levi asked, bending at the waist to select his next rock.
“Bowling alley,” I told him, lobbing the one I already held at the window farthest to my right. It bounced off the bricks half a foot away.
“Ooh, almost,” Levi said as he straightened. He took aim and looked just about ready to throw, when suddenly he grimaced. “I thought it was supposed to be cooler after a thunderstorm passed,” he said, lifting the edge of his shirt to wipe away a rivulet of sweat that was making its way down his forehead.
I took a long, lingering look at his exposed abs before answering, an image of tracing their outlines with my tongue overlaying the sight. “This is cooler,” I said. “At least to those of us not wearing dark colors and jeans.”
He dropped his shirt and sniffed in a dainty sort of way, his full lips turning down a little as if in displeasure. “I don’t like to wear shorts.”
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?” I asked, picking up another rock. It was warm in my palm, having been heated through by the sun most of the day.
He was quiet for so long that I didn’t think he was going to answer me. “I’ve been told,” he finally said, winding up like a pitcher on a mound before letting his rock fly. It missed one of the few remaining panes of glass by less than an inch. “That I have chicken legs.”
I glanced down. Even with pants on it was clear that his thighs had a decent amount of muscle to them, enough at least to match his upper body. My gaze rose back to his face. He looked like he was trying way too hard to remain stoic.
“What’s the real reason?” I pressed.
He sighed, defeated. “I can’t find the box I packed my shorts in.”
I grinned, shaking my head. Then I turned, and, without really aiming, threw my rock. It shattered the pane of glass I’d tried to hit before. I felt a little thrill of triumph. It always worked like this for me. The harder I aimed, the worse I missed. But if I tossed, kicked, or flung something without trying, I hit the mark almost every time.
“Good one,” Levi said.
I bent over to look for another rock. “Thanks. And hey, shouldn’t you at least be used to the heat? I thought you said you grew up south of here.”
“I moved here from the coast of Florida, near Jacksonville. It’s not anything like this. There’s almost always an ocean breeze. And our thunderstorms have the decency to actually cool it down by about ten degrees when they roll through.”
I straightened to see him staring at me like I was somehow personally responsible for the fact that Georgia thunderstorms didn’t. “How civil of them,” I said, returning his stare with a blank one of my own. “We just drink beer to cool down.”
Allegedly he had brought some, and I could really go for one right now. A trickle of sweat had just slid between my breasts, and I could feel still more beginning to bead up on my forehead.
Levi’s expression went from stern to elated in the blink of an eye. “Oh, right! The beer!”
He popped open the trunk of his car to reveal a large cooler nestled inside it. I was about to offer to help haul it out, but the words died on my tongue at the sight of his biceps bulging and his forearms cording as he grabbed the handles and pulled it free.
He set it down near where we’d been throwing rocks, and then lifted the lid to reveal a wide array of choices. There was everything from lawnmower beer that was basically glorified tap water, to dark and stormy stouts with eclectic names and funky looking labels.
“Wow,” I said, squatting down and dipping my hands into the ice so I could sort through the entire selection.
Levi dropped down beside me and shrugged. “I didn’t know what you like, so…”
“So you bought the whole place. Good thinking,” I said, my tone teasing.
“A good boy scout is always prepared. And I figured anything we didn’t drink could go toward making my fridge look less empty.”
“You were in the boy scouts?”
“Nope. Just like the saying.”
The man was incorrigible.
Seeing my exasperated expression, he flashed me a brilliant smile, plucked out an amber lager, twisted the top off, and stood.
I took my time looking through the rest. Whenever I bought beer, it was always whatever was cheapest. I’d never even seen some of these. I finally decided on a blonde ale from what the label said was a small brewery in Massachusetts. It was delicious, and thanks to the ice it had been buried beneath, incredibly refreshing.
Levi was back to throwing rocks. I moved from beside the cooler to a few feet away from him, where I could watch his profile, thinking about all the beer he had bought, the new car, the expensive cologne, the nice clothes, and the beachside upbringing.
“You never said what you do.”
He threw a rock, breaking another window. His expression shuttered as he watched the glass fall inward. “I work for my father,” he said. He did not sound pleased about it.
Levi’s response was terse. “Whatever he needs me to. Bookkeeping, recruiting, managerial paperwork.”
“What’s your father do?”
He leaned down and picked up another rock, throwing it with more force than I had seen him exhibit so far. It shattered the brick it hit, and I tracked the flecks as they flew outward and upward, thinking the building should really have warning signs on it if it was this decrepit.
“He’s in the import, export business,” Levi said.
He had almost completely shut down now. All the light that had first attracted me to him was gone from his face. What remained behind was the man I had glimpsed in the café. The one with a two foot radius of empty space around him. I was beginning to understand that now. Where most of the time his personality was damn near magnetic, right now I felt almost a physical push repelling me away from him. His full lips, normally tilted up at the edges as if he was forever on the verge of smiling, had straightened into a hard, flat line. With his jaw clenched like this, his cheekbones stood out even more, and his chin looked strong enough to break your fist on. Those beautiful eyes were shaded by his brow, which was drawn down by some unreadable emotion, and because of this they had darkened from a merry cerulean to an unwelcoming, frigid arctic blue.
Even his posture had changed. I had somehow forgotten how much larger he was than me. How much muscle clung to his tall frame. With his back ramrod straight, his shoulders held rigid, and his arms straining as his fingers curled into fists, he looked like a man I would cross the street to avoid at night.
Something shifted in the corner of my eye, and I turned my head slightly to my right to see…nothing. Well, what must have been nothing. Because that subtle movement I’d seen couldn’t really have been the shadows deepening.
I turned back to Levi, unnerved. “What made you want to move here?” I asked, hoping to shift the subject back into safer territory, desperate to bring back the light hearted version of himself.
“It was cheap. And far away from him,” he said, picking up another rock and tossing it almost in the same motion. This time he missed the building entirely.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to. I hadn’t dated anyone for long enough to be good at the difficult conversations. When things got complicated, either I bailed, or the guy did.
Levi was quiet for a long moment, his chest expanding and contracting as he took deep breaths. Calming breaths, I thought. It made me wonder what kind of man his father was to have such an effect on a person like Levi.
Eventually, he turned his head to glance at me, some light returning to his face. His lips curled ever so slightly up at the corners. “Hey, if he wasn’t such an asshole, I never would have moved here, right? Which means I never would have got to listen to you shrieking like a half-drowned banshee in the rain yesterday.” He grinned then, and it was like the sun had come out from behind a cloud.
“Yeah…well.” I was supposed to say something flirtatious and slightly insulting in response, I knew I was, but all I could think of was how the air had actually felt cooler when he’d been frowning, how those shadows had…
Levi leaned forward, brows raised, waiting for my witty retort.
I had nothing, still struggling to catch up with his shift in mood and how it made me feel.
He shook his head, chuckling. “Damn, Ruby, you are so bad at this. Things you could have said in response,” he said, tucking his beer between his elbow and ribs so he could count off fingers. “Yeah…well, you laugh like a constipated howler monkey. Or, yeah…well, you run like Phoebe from Friends. Or, yeah…well, you’re not nearly as handsome as you think you are.” He winked at me then. “The last one would have been an obvious lie, but at least you would have gotten points for trying.”
I cast around for something, anything to say in response. “Yeah…well, you look like a corporate accountant when you frown.”
“See?” he said, stepping closer so he could elbow me in the arm. “That was almost funny.”
I rolled my eyes at him.
He flashed me a wide smile before his expression sobered some. “I don’t like to talk about my father,” he said, reaching forward with his free hand to smooth a piece of stray hair behind my ear. I relaxed immediately, my troubles from a moment ago entirely forgotten, something about such a gentle touch after he had been so obviously upset reassuring me that none of it had been directed my way. That he wasn’t one of those men who would take his anger out on whoever was around him when it struck. “I’m sort of avoiding my entire family right now,” he continued. “And I may have neglected to tell them where I was moving to.”
“I won’t bring it up again,” I said, turning my cheek into his palm. If he wanted to talk about it more, I would leave it up to him. I didn’t like it when Amy pestered me like she had earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to make anyone feel the way she sometimes made me.
He stroked my cheekbone with his thumb, just once, before pulling his hand away. “Any subjects you want me to avoid?” he asked, still uncharacteristically serious.
I blew out a breath, able to think a little clearer now that he was no longer touching me. “My entire childhood?”
I shot him a look. “I grew up dirt poor with a white mother and a father of unknown origins in a town that still thinks the south may one day rise again. Whose inhabitants think that Mexican immigrants are somehow able to steal all their jobs, while simultaneously not working and mooching off the same system that they are. They have a call line to report in radical Islamic terrorists, because a mosque was just built half an hour north of here and that means Sharia law has now come to Georgia.”
“Well, shit,” he said before taking a long sip of beer. “Is us hanging out going to turn into an issue?”
I shook my head. “We have the internet now, and cable TV. The younger generations are slightly more accepting because of it. The older people are beginning to watch what they say. Anything they do, I can handle. It won’t be anything I haven’t heard before.”
“I’m sorry, Ruby,” he said. “And here I am whining about my daddy issues.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. You shouldn’t feel like you don’t have a right to be angry about something just because someone has it worse than you do. The fact that you recognize it is more than I can say for most people.”
We fell back into easier conversation then, tossing rocks until my throwing arm started to protest, Levi asking me questions about the diner and the town, and me asking Levi questions about his new place.
The remaining panes of glass were now located on the highest windows, and it took us a while to hit them. Levi knocked out the first, throwing his arms in the air in celebration afterward and then taking a victory lap around me, humming Eye of the Tiger beneath his breath. I hit the next one, and when I hesitated to do a celebratory jig of my own, he set his beer down, ran over to me, slipped his hands into mine, tugged my arms up over my head and danced me around like some sort of human marionette until we were both laughing so hard we were breathless.
For the second time in just a few short days I was blissfully happy, free, the horrible shift from the night before forgotten, my strange dreams forgotten, all the dead animals forgotten, completely unaware that in less than two weeks time I would look back at this afternoon and re-examine every single moment of it. Every word Levi said. All the subtle signs that I had ignored.
When Momma was still alive, I used to read aloud to her sometimes. Not whole books or even whole paragraphs, but just a line here or there. The ones that struck me as important. From those lines, Momma chose just a few. Memorized them. Worked them into conversations sometimes to make herself sound more learned than she was. Or spouted them when she was lecturing me. One of her favorites had been from Maya Angelou. “The first time someone shows you who they are, Ruby, believe them,” she used to say.
If only I had listened to her.