When all the windows on the rear of the building were busted out, I popped the back of the Jeep open. Levi went to fetch the cooler, placing it just beneath us so we could use it as a footrest as we sat on the tailgate and watched the sinking sun send the shadows of the evergreens stretching across the pavement like long, skeletal fingers reaching forward to tear down the dilapidated bowling alley.
I shuddered and looked away from them, toward the man beside me. He was staring off into the distance, his brows drawn down, creating a slight crease between them. Along his patrician forehead, sweat stood out in small, glittering droplets. He raised his hand and brushed them away reflexively.
“Why does it feel like it’s getting hotter?” he said, a hint of whining in his tone. He sounded like a little kid getting ready to throw a tantrum.
“Because it probably is,” I told him. “The highs here are usually around five or six, sometimes even seven at night.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, handing me his beer before leaping off the tailgate. “I’m not trying to be a dude-bro. I’m just dying right now.” He kicked off his shoes and socks and rolled his jeans from the cuff upward toward his knees until he looked like he was wearing the ugliest capris to ever be created.
“Levi, what are you…”
I was struck mute when, in one fluid movement, he straightened and reached both of his hands over his shoulders to tug his shirt up and off in the way that some people, the ones who don’t care how much it messes up their hair, tend to favor. He turned and tossed the shirt next to me, where he’d been sitting, and it was like he was moving in slow motion. Like I had all the time in the world to watch the V of his hip flexors contract, his abs bunch, his lats strain. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t even flexing, it was just the way a body with that much muscle definition moved.
God, he was beautiful. I kept somehow forgetting that, even in his company. His personality had a way of making me overlook his features, not in a bad way, just that I was more focused on his moods than his looks. And then, suddenly, like right now – wham! – it would hit me.
Feeling increasingly parched, I lifted one of the beers I held – I couldn’t even say whose it was; I was that distracted – and took a long pull from it, my gaze rising to take in the heavy swell of his upper chest and arms before landing on his shoulders. As impressive as the rest of his body was, it was the shoulders that sent my imagination running wild. They were just as chiseled as the rest of him: his traps standing out from his neck, his delts rounded and full. Where they met there was a visible indent, a space that I could easily imagine functioning as a perfect leg rest as those full lips kissed their way down my abdomen, toward –
“You doing okay, Ruby?” Levi asked.
It took a while for his question to sink in, and as it did, my gaze rose to linger on the sparkle of perspiration gathered at the hollow of his throat before tracing the muscles of his neck upward, toward that square jaw, over those full lips, before finally meeting his gaze.
“Yep. That’s the look,” he said with a heavy exhale. “Same as the one I saw outside the beauty parlor. A man could get used to being looked at that way.”
Right. I was staring. With open lust in my expression, most likely. And who could blame me?
It was only the two of us now, no old ladies looking out at us through a pane of glass, and so I felt no reason to mask how much I wanted him. “I have no witty retort,” I said. “I’m pretty sure something in my brain just short-circuited.”
He grinned wolfishly and closed the distance between us, leaning in to put his hands on either side of my hips. “In that case, let me help you.” His voice had gone low again, spoken just for me, much like the day before. My heart rate hitched in response. “You could have said, ‘Don’t let it go to your head, Levi. If it gets any bigger, your neck and shoulder muscles might not be able to hold it up.’”
My gaze dropped back to those shoulders. They looked more than strong enough to help hold his head and other things – my legs – up.
“I happen to like your utter lack of humility,” I said, meeting his gaze again.
“I like your straightforwardness,” he returned.
His shifted a fraction closer then, and his hair, which had been ruffled when he took his shirt off, fell forward to shade his eyes. I wanted to reach up and push it back. So I set one of the beers down and did just that. It was silky smooth beneath my fingers, and I twirled a lock of it between them a few times, savoring the sensation, before pulling away again. He captured my hand in a gentle grip and raised it back up, turning his face to kiss the inside of my wrist. Warmth blossomed from where we touched and spread through me like wildfire.
“Does my straightforwardness surprise you?” I asked.
It had other men that I’d been with, prompting lovely, subversively sexist lines like, “You’re not like the other women I’ve been with.” As if singling me out from the rest of my sex in such a way was supposed to be complimentary instead of misogynistic.
Levi shook his head, brushing stubble across my wrist. It sent an involuntary tickle up my arm, and I nearly wrenched it back on reflex alone. Only my desire to prolong the contact between us kept it where it was. “It’s just that it’s been my observation,” Levi spoke into my skin, punctuating every several word or so with kisses, “that a lifetime of being told to be ashamed of our bodies and our sexualities tends to leave marks on people. Marks that show up whenever we feel desire for one another. I’ve had several partners who struggled to accept not only their sexuality, but to open up about their desires and their needs without feeling negative emotions or experiencing negative thoughts. I’ve also had several who didn’t. I think surprise comes mostly from expectation. I’ve learned that having expectations of people is not always the healthiest thing. Sure, sometimes we think of them as positive, but other times, when we really look at those expectations, they can be rooted in problematic assumptions or beliefs.”
There was a beautiful man kissing my wrist. A beautiful man kissing my wrist in between spouting some very forward-thinking, intelligent, feminist, self-aware words. I stared at him, a little dumbfounded. In the past fifteen minutes he had gone from making me laugh so hard I nearly peed a little, to making my pulse thready with desire, and now, on top of those humor and lady boners, he was giving me a brain boner.
I was momentarily torn between jumping out of the Jeep and climbing him like a tree, and continuing the conversation. Sex I’d had. Conversation like this with a man I was interested in? Nope.
Conversation won out, and I pulled my hand free from his so I could turn my entire focus toward our words. “Right. But don’t you think that those expectations, even if problematic at times, are at least understandable when you consider how much societal pressure to be beautiful, sexual creatures women are subjected to from pretty much birth?” I said. “Not to mention the fact that so much of our worth is still tied to the myth of purity. If we’re virgins, we’re innocent, covetable. If we’re sexually active, we’re sluts, fair game for ridicule and abuse. With all that pressure to be sexy and also somehow not at all sexual, is it any wonder that we sometimes struggle to express ourselves?”
“Absolutely, but I’m not just talking about women and the pressures they face.”
“Right. I understand what you mean. That small, hard cage of masculinity we put boys into. You’re only aloud to be ragingly cis-het and exhibit nothing but traditional masculinity. You’re only ever allowed to be angry, or aggressive, or…” Belatedly it dawned on me that he may have just insinuated that he hadn’t only been with women. “Levi, are you bisexual?” I asked, then realized that it wasn’t any of my goddamn business and that question was probably rude as hell. “I’m sorry, ignore me.”
“No need to apologize. I’m not offended. And no, I’m not.” He paused to take a sip of beer. “I’m actually pansexual. Does that surprise you?” he said, grinning a little as he turned my words back around on me.
Was I surprised? I had to think about my answer for a minute. “No. Not really. I hadn’t really thought about your sexuality one way or another. You’re just the first pansexual person I’ve met, and so this is the first time I’m processing a conversation like this. Actually, I don’t know if you’re the first I’ve met. You’re simply the first to admit it out loud to me. Not that I make a point to question the sexuality of the people in my life. I mean, we all fall somewhere on the Kinsey Scale, right? Take me, for example. I’ve only ever been with men, but I think women are beautiful. Sometimes I want to kiss them. But just that. I have no physical desire to do anything more.” I realized that I was rambling then and cut that line of speech off. “Sorry, I hope I’m not being insulting in any way. I’ve just read a lot about sexuality and feminism and the social construct of gender and you’re literally the first person I’ve had any sort of conversation with that even touches on those subjects, so…” I shrugged, “word vomit.”
“Ruby,” he said, closing the distance between us to cup my cheeks. “I’m not offended. I was actually trying to drive the conversation this way. I try to be as open and upfront with people as possible, and I just figured since there, uh,” he grinned then, a goofy little half lift of his lips, “seems to be some promising chemistry between us, I should get it out in the open on the off chance that you were secretly harboring prejudices.”
“No prejudices that I’m aware of, besides those I hold against a lot of the people in this town. I like your straightforwardness too, by the way,” I said, staring up at him, an answering grin tugging at my mouth.
He looked like he might kiss me then. His expression had gone serious and contemplative, his gaze running over my features as if committing them to memory. A woman could get used to being looked at this way by a man like him. I was about to say just that when the sound of a semi rushing down the road on the other side of the building brought me back to myself. Perhaps here and now wasn’t the best time or place to initiate something. Especially if the chemistry between us delivered on its promise. Someone could pull in at any moment and literally catch us with our pants down.
Levi seemed to realize something similar, and the heat that had been gathering in his gaze dissipated as he dropped a quick kiss on my forehead. Then he pulled his hands away to scoop up one of the beers and drain it. I followed suite with the other.
“Last one,” I said, as he plucked our third round out from the ice. “I have to drive home, and the last thing I need is a buzz on top of my exhaustion.”
“What time did you get home last night?” he asked popping the caps before he handed one over to me.
“I don’t even know. Half the roads were flooded out, and then I ran into that flock of dead birds over on Hastings. Did you see that news story this morning?”
He nodded in response and took a seat beside me again.
“Between the drive home and the nightmares, I think I only got about three hours of sleep.”
Levi paused with his beer halfway to his lips. “A flock of dead birds would be enough to give anyone nightmares. There’s something inherently fucked up about a mass of animals that untethered from the ground being violently brought back to it.”
I lifted my leg to place my foot on the tailgate and prop my chin on my knee as I gazed at him. “You talk pretty.”
He snorted a laugh and then took a pull from his beer.
“My nightmares weren’t about them,” I said. “At least I don’t think they were, from what I can remember. And they started long before last night.”
“Huh,” he said, before taking another sip.
“The weird thing is that it seems like everyone I’ve talked to over the past few days has been having them, too.” I told him about Ben and Lucy, and Mark’s strange reaction when I had brought them up.
He took another sip of beer before answering. At this rate, he’d be done with it in less than two minutes. “That is weird,” he said, his tone flat.
“Right? I don’t know what’s come over people lately. Must be some sort of mass hysteria. You should have been in the restaurant last night. Literally everyone was in a bad mood. It’s amazing a fight didn’t break out.”
Levi said nothing in response. He just sat there, picking at the label of his beer as he nodded his head almost absentmindedly. A full minute passed like this.
“So, you just got really quiet,” I said, beginning to get a little uncomfortable with his silence.
He looked up at me, his expression unreadable. “Sorry, just thinking. I find the human mind incredible sometimes. Mob mentality, mass hysteria, contagious yawning. It’s fascinating how easily influenced our actions can be and how difficult a time scientists are having trying to pin down why some of us are more vulnerable than others. People tend to think it’s related to empathy, but the studies I’ve read don’t show that.”
“You make a habit to read medical journals?” I asked.
He shot me an exaggerated duh expression in response. “Doesn’t everyone?”
I grinned, happy to see some of his levity return. “Not me. I stick to fiction mostly. You know, books that explain away these otherwise inexplicable happenings by making up something about magic and mind reading.”
“What if it’s not so fictional?” Levi asked.
I looked at him in disbelief. “What?”
He put his hands up in a defensive gesture. “Look, I’m not saying I believe in magic. Just that magic, throughout history, has been the word that gets thrown around when we don’t fully understand something. Take female loggerhead turtles. How the hell are they able to traverse an entire ocean to arrive at the same few beaches and at nearly the same time as all the other female turtles of their species to lay their eggs? Eh? Explain that to me.”
“Er. Right. I can’t.”
He nodded emphatically. “Exactly. I’m just saying that there’s a lot about the human brain you still don’t know. How do some people instinctually recognize dangerous individuals without speaking or interacting with them? Are humans somehow emitting some sort of pheromone? Or is related to brain waves? And what happens if you can learn how to control these things? Like those Buddhist monks that can slow their heart rates until they’re almost comatose.”
I was quiet for a long time in response, turning away from Levi to stare into the woods as one of the points he made reverberated through my mind.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’ve never told anyone this story,” I said.
He shifted a little so that he was facing me, one knee tucked up on the tailgate, the foot of his other leg propped on the cooler. “I won’t push you to,” he said.
I believed him. It was part of why I decided to tell him. That, and his openness throughout this conversation. “So, my mother died two years ago in a car crash.”
“I’m so sorry, Ruby,” he said, his tone heavy with empathy.
“Thank you. She was a pretty superstitious woman. If something felt off to her, for any reason, rational or not, she would listen to her gut. When I was ten she briefly dated a pedophile.”
Levi swore beneath his breath.
“In her defense, she didn’t know what he was. No one knew until two years after he and Momma broke up, when he was arrested and charged with assaulting the child of his then girlfriend. And yet, there had been something about him that had repelled me. Some inexplicable thing that had made me retreat to my bedroom and lock the door behind me every time he came over. Momma had noticed, asked me why, and when I told her he gave me a bad feeling, she immediately ended things with him, no questions asked. Her belief in trusting our instincts might have saved me. And I…” I cut myself off then, hard, because I had been about to say something along the lines of how even after this, I had still bullied her to get into her car and drive when she didn’t want to. Now was not the time to drudge up all of that guilt. Instead, I moved on, making the point I had been working my way toward. “I’ve gone around and around in circles about this. Why had I known that something was wrong with him? Why hadn’t she? Were there subtle signs he had unwittingly directed at me but not my mother that my pre-teen brain somehow instinctually recognized as dangerous?”
“Was he emitting brain waves that you were somehow able to receive and interpret?” Levi put in.
I turned to frown at him then. “Is that even possible?”
He shrugged. “The science is unclear. But think about this, brain waves are nothing more than electromagnetic energy. Just like the waves that emit from radio towers. The difference is that their frequency, which is measured by how often they peak and trough in a second, is much lower, and so is their power. If the receivers in our cars can be tuned to pick up certain radio stations that those towers emit, why can’t we be likewise tuned to receive certain brainwaves?”
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Uh,” I said. “I think I need about a week to think through and process all of that.”
Levi leaned forward, waggling his brows at me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Trying to see if I can use brain waves to will you into kissing me,” he said, grinning mischievously.
It was exactly the kind of subject and mood change I needed after so much serious discussion, and, latching onto it, I took a swig of beer, swallowed, and set it down.
“Levi, all you had to do was ask,” I said, closing the distance between us.