The town tour took most of the morning, not because there was a whole lot to see, but because Maggie knew every shop owner and spoke to them all as if they were old friends who were catching up after years apart, though it had to have been more like days. Jesse shook dozens of hands and was given one too-tight hug by the woman who owned the bakery. That was his own fault, truthfully. He’d nearly moaned in ecstasy after trying one of her signature chocolate chunk cookies. He was careful to temper his compliments a bit with any other free samples he was offered.
The abundance of samples helped him dissuade her from a sit-down lunch at the taco stand. Instead, they picked up a small carton of blueberries from the grocer and shared them as they walked along the docks and toward the edge of town.
“So how long does it take to get to know everyone in town?” Jesse asked.
“I don’t know everyone,” Maggie said. She was walking along the edge of the piers, as if on a balance beam, and he marveled at the ease with which she did it. “But being a bartender at the only bar certainly helps.”
“Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” He popped the last blueberry into his mouth and deposited the container, basketball style, into the trash can that he spotted along their route.
“Nice shot!” She grinned at him.
He was finding it easier to smile the longer he was in her company. “So where to next? I think we’ve seen every square inch of this place.”
She hopped down from the thick wooden post she’d been perched atop. “The town’s only half of it. Follow me.”
So he did, along old railroad tracks and into the woods. The pine trees were so tall he could barely make out their tops, dark against the bright blue sky. The train tracks faded away and he was thankful for the workboots he’d bought, as the trail grew rocky and full of exposed roots. She was a few paces ahead of him, not hurrying but moving purposefully and silently through the trees. After a morning full of introductions, and the crowded bar the night before, the quiet was a welcome one. By the time she stopped, at what looked like a break in the trees, he was tired and sweating. He came to a stop next to her, panting, and dismayed to see that, aside from a slight sheen on her forehead, she seemed unaffected. “You make this trek often?” he asked.
“As often as I can,” she said. “Wouldn’t you?”
She was staring out ahead of them. He turned his attention in that direction and discovered they were standing at the edge of a clearing chock full of wild flowers. “Whoa…” he breathed. “Yeah, I guess I would.”
“Let’s take a breather,” she said, and jogged out into the middle of the field before flopping down on the ground. Her tattooed arm rose up above the flowers and tall grass, waving at him. “Come on, Josh!”
He was too winded to jog, but he ambled out to her spot only to find her beaming up at him behind her aviators. “Don’t you get, like, bugs all over you doing that?” he asked.
“Oh, you must be a city boy,” she laughed. She sat up and took hold of his arm, tugging him down next to her. “A couple bugs won’t hurt ya. Especially not with you all buttoned up like that.” She plucked at the cuffs of his shirt, which were indeed buttoned. “Aren’t you hot? Why don’t you roll these up?”
Instinctively, he pulled his arm from her grasp. “I, uh, I’d rather not.”
“Sorry,” she said quickly, folding her hands in her lap.
“S’ok,” he muttered. He drew his legs up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his knees.
They sat in silence for quite a while. As they sat, Jesse wrestled with himself. It was going to seem strange to wear long sleeves all summer, even if the weather was mild. And he was trying to blend in, not stick out. And Maggie seemed to like him already. She might be a good test. Depending on how she reacted, he’d be able to guess how others might. He glanced over at her. She was braiding blades of grass together absently. ‘Well, here goes nothin’.’ Silently, he began unbuttoning the plaid shirt.
“Hmm?” Maggie looked up. “What’re you–?”
“Hang on.” He shrugged the shirt off of his shoulders and shook one arm loose, then pulled the sleeve off the other, leaving him in only his white Hanes t-shirt, which was clingy with sweat. Carefully, he folded the long-sleeve shirt and set it in his lap, folding his hands atop it. He waited, feeling her eyes on him.
“You came up here to get clean?” she said at last.
“I am clean,” he answered, not looking at her. “Almost a year now. But I knew I couldn’t stay that way if I stayed where I was.”
Her hand was on his arm then, right over the scars of all his bad decisions, squeezing gently. “Sounds to me like you made a good call. But I can understand why you wouldn’t want to have to explain that to every new person.” She paused, and then added. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Thanks,” he said. “It feels good to tell somebody though. So, uh,” he turned a crooked smile towards her. “Thanks for asking, I guess.”
“That’s a weird thing to thank somebody for, but all right. You’re welcome for being nosy, I guess?”
She was smiling at him. She hadn’t backed away, or let judgment creep into her voice. She was just sitting there, the sun shining on her hair, smiling at him, and there were dimples in her cheeks as she smiled and he knew in that moment that he was a goner. Maybe it was a naïve reaction to the kindness she was showing, and maybe it was just a crush, but the same butterflies from earlier were going ballistic in his stomach and all he could do was smile back at her.
She reached up and ran a finger over his shoulder. “You look good in a white t-shirt.”
“Nah.” He shook his head. “But keep dragging me up this mountain and I will.”
She laughed. “Humble and cocky all in the same sentence.” She stood, stretching. “Now, as much as I could take a nap up here, I forgot sunscreen, and I gotta get these bad boys outta the sun.” She patted her arms.
“Oh, sure yeah.” He stood as well. “At least the hike back down will be easier.”
“That’s what you think.” She chuckled. “Your calf muscles might be crying in the morning, but a couple months of this and you’ll thank me!”
She was right about that. His legs were burning by the time they reached the edge of the woods at the base of the mountain. He was glad he’d kept the plaid shirt off. As they approached town again, he was able to slip it back on and hide the sweat stains that were forming on his t-shirt. “Thanks again,” he said, as they neared the main drag. “This was cool. Hanging out, I mean. Maybe we could do it again sometime?”
“How about we keep doing it right now?” she asked. She glanced at the time on her cell. “It’s only a little past two. We could have the foosball table all to ourselves at the bar. And I could use something cool to drink, how ‘bout you?”
“Y-yeah, great!” he said.
* * *
“Yoohoo, anybody home?” Maggie called as she pulled the heavy wooden door open.
“Yo!” Behind the bar, an tall, strapping Inuit man a few years her senior raised his dishrag in her direction. “Can’t stay away, huh, Mags?”
“You know it,” she said with a grin. She felt the weight of the door lessen and glanced back. Josh had one hand against it. He nodded for her to go ahead in. “Alan, this is Josh. Just came to town yesterday. I’ve been giving him the ten cent tour.”
As they approached the bar, Alan stuck out a hand. “You got swindled, my friend. Ain’t nothin’ in this town worth ten cents.”
Maggie pouted childishly, but her companion shook her coworker’s hand and said, without missing a beat, “Nothing but the tour guide, anyway. And she’s worth way more, so I got a bargain, I think.”
Alan laughed heartily. “Mags, you didn’t tell me your friend was such a charmer!”
She smirked. “Maybe because I didn’t want you setting your sights on him.”
Josh took a step back, mouth hanging open. Alan waved both hands in front of his chest. “Sorry, new guy, didn’t mean to blow your mind there. All in jest, I promise.”
“Uh…r-right, sorry,” Josh stammered. He looked to Maggie, eyes pleading.
She put a hand on his arm. “That’s alright. The tourists are always surprised to meet Alan.”
Alan shrugged. “I’m just breaking down stereotypes all over this joint. So what brings you in on your day off, hmm? Haven’t you got plenty of booze in your apartment?”
“I do,” she admitted. “But I don’t have foosball.”
“Touché. I’ll bring a couple of beers over then, shall I?”
“Please, thank you.” With that, she linked her arm around Josh’s and steered him off to the game room, which was separated from the main bar by a short hallway. “You ok?”
“J-just surprised, that’s all,” he said, and she could see his cheeks flush above his beard. “Hope that wasn’t, ya know, rude.”
“Nah,” she assured him, “He likes getting that reaction out of new people. Here we are.”
The game room wasn’t fancy, but was crammed with every form of entertainment Wyatt had been able to get his hands on. There were arcade boxes along one wall, dart boards along another, and in the center of the room both foosball and pool tables.
“Whoa…” Josh said for the second time that day, “Sweet set up.”
“I hardly ever get back here, but it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon,” she said.
He moved around the room, peering at the arcade games. “Hardly ever get back here?” he asked, pointing at the screen of Arkanoid, which was displaying the tops scores. The letters ‘MAG’ sat in the number one spot.
She flushed. “Ok, so maybe I come back here when things are slow,” she said. “And things are slow a lot. It’s a tiny town.”
“No need to explain yourself,” he said, and she could hear the teasing in his voice. “Just, if I were that much of a badass nerd, I’d own up to it.”
She didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted. “Well, if nerds can be badass, then I guess I fit that description.”
He smiled at her. She was happy to see it seemed to pain him less than yesterday. “So have you mastered all of these games, or what? Did you bring me back here to school me?”
She returned the smile. “You’ll just have to find out.”
They made their way around the room, playing each game that allowed for two players, pausing for beers as Alan brought them. She was pleasantly surprised to find that, while he talked a big game, he didn’t quite have the skills to back it up, but he was a good sport, and seem to enjoy being beat as much as he did winning. By the time six beer bottles sat on the bar shelf along the lone empty wall, they had run out of games. Maggie sat on the pool table and polished off her forth bottle. “Well, I’m beat, how about you?”
Josh leaned against the table next to her. “Yeah. And hungry too.”
“How ‘bout this?” she said, gesturing with the neck of her bottle. It had gotten to her, a little, she had to admit, but she wasn’t concerned. “Let’s order something to go, and take it upstairs to my place? We can end the tour there, and watch a movie or something.”
“R-really?” Josh was staring down his bottle, blushing again. “I mean that sounds nice an’ all, but we just met and uh–”
“Oh relax,” she teased, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “Did I say I wanted to have sex? No. I just wanna have dinner and a movie, and we don’t have an AMC in town.”
“Uh, oh, r-right, sorry, I didn’t mean to, uh, I mean - not that you’re not hot, but uh, I–”
She put a finger to his lips. “Shush now. Take it easy. Maybe no more of these tonight.” She shook the bottle. “Let’s just go order food, ok?”
He looked relieved. “Ok.”
* * *
The climb up the modified fire escape to her apartment was blessedly short, if not a bit treacherous, with both of them a little fuzzy-headed, but Jesse clung to the railing, and Maggie clung to him and the take-out bag and they managed. Once inside, she pulled two cherry sodas from her fridge and they spread out the food on her coffee table. Cheesesteaks and fries were just what he needed to sober up. She drew the curtains, to help it seem more like evening, then she perused her DVD collection and called out titles to him to ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.
“I need something dumb and fun,” she said, crouching in front of the bookshelf, “How about The Avengers?”
“Not the shitty remake of that British TV show, right?” he asked.
“No, the one with the Hulk.”
“Sold. Let’s do this.”
“Sweet!” She popped the disk in the player, switched off the lights and then settled down next to him on the couch.
They ate in silence and then, when there was no more food, sat in silence, apart from laughing at the appropriate places in the movie. Gradually, Jesse noticed Maggie inching closer to him on the couch. Then, as the characters on screen regrouped to collectively fight off their enemy, she reached out and took hold of his hand, interlocking her fingers with his. He felt his heart beat faster, but was relieved not to have a repeat of the morning’s humiliation. This was nice. There was no need to get overexcited or over-think it. One step at a time. That was the mantra, and he could apply it to all things, and especially this thing. It was only his second day; he was experiencing culture shock for sure. For the first time in years he was feeling safe, and that in itself was intoxicating. He couldn’t let himself get carried away. One day at a time. Keep breathing. Keep moving forward – but slowly, he amended. Slowly.
‘Still…’ He raised their joined hands and pressed his lips lightly against her fingers. There was nothing wrong with thanking her for her kindness. She’d never know what it meant to him. He couldn’t tell her, not with words. But maybe actions would get the message across.
He glanced at her, and she was smiling at him again. The light from an explosion on the tv screen lit up her face. “So, I was thinking I might kiss you. Just to see what it’s like. Would that be ok?”
He swallowed thickly. “Uh, ok.”
And just like that her lips were on his and his mind was racing. ‘Soft. Sweet. Cherry? The soda? And warm. Oh God, don’t stop.’ And just as quickly as it had happened it was over and she pulled away. She bit her bottom lip, grinning and…blushing? It was hard to tell in the dark. “I haven’t done that in ages. Sorry if it wasn’t great.”
He balked. “Are you kidding?” he breathed. “I’m the one who should be saying sorry. I didn’t even, I mean, maybe we could try again?”
She nodded, curls bobbing, and he cupped her face in both hands. He marveled at the softness of her skin before lowering his mouth on to hers. He fought the urge to use tongue. ‘Go slow, dammit!’ Instead he focused on breathing her in. She smelled like fresh mountain air. When he pulled back, she sounded as breathless as he felt.
“Well that was more like it,” she said, and draped herself against him, sighing.
“Yeah it was,” he agreed. He licked his lips, trying to savor the taste of her. Part of him wanted to ask if they could try a third time. The rest of him was petrified. What the hell was he doing, getting attached again so quickly? Hadn’t he sworn he’d live the life of a hermit once he got away, so no one would ever get hurt again because of him? But this town wasn’t going to let him do that, he could tell already. They were ready to welcome him in whether he was ready to be welcomed or not. But he was safe now, wasn’t he? Everyone who could or wanted to hurt him was dead, and the only person who even had a clue where he’d gone was living his own new life in hiding as well. All the bridges had been burned. The chains had been broken. The only one stopping him from trying to find happiness again…was himself. And that fight was going to be a tough one.
He wrapped one arm around her and let the movie finish. As it did, he rose from the couch. She slipped as he moved, and he realized she must have dozed off. “Leaving already?” she asked sleepily.
“I think I should.” He reached out and ran a hand over her curls. They felt like silk beneath his callouses. “Listen, this was, this was awesome. Could I, uh, see you again sometime?”
She leaned into his hand. “You can see me all the time. It’s a small town. But I know what you mean. And yes. I’d like to do this again too.”
“Cool. Ok. Yeah.” He fumbled backwards by the light of the tv towards the door. “I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later then.”
“Have a good night!” She waved.
“You too.” His hand found the doorknob and, grinning like an idiot, he exited the apartment. Instantly he was blinded by sunlight. With a grunt of annoyance, he slipped on his sunglasses. “Way to kill the mood, sun,” he muttered.
As he reached the bottom rung of the fire escape, he found Alan standing outside the bar’s back door. A full trash bag sat at his feet, but he was apparently using the errand as an excuse to take a smoke break. “Look at you, being all gentlemanly and not sleeping over,” he said with a smirk.
“Yeah, yeah. What’re you waiting for me?” Jesse asked. He still didn’t know what to make of the man.
“Nah, just good timing.” He stamped out the cigarette. “Maggie’s a grown-up; she can do what she wants. Doesn’t mean she’s not like a little sister to me. So I’m naturally a little curious about this newcomer she’s so clearly taken with.”
Jesse shifted uncomfortably in his spot. “Not much to tell, really. As far as she goes, look, I’ve only been here two days. She seems like a cool chick, and I just wanna get to know her better, that’s all.”
The Alaskan native smiled. “Honest. Works for me.” He picked up the trash bag and trotted down the steps to the dumpster.
His path now cleared, Jesse hurried down to the street. “So we’re, like, cool, man?”
Alan heaved the trash bag into the dumpster with a grunt of exertion that melted into a laugh. “Yeah. We’re cool.” He brushed his hands off on his jeans. “Go on, ‘man’, get outta here.”
“Right,” Jesse nodded sheepishly. “Night.”
With that, Jesse turned and made his way back to the hotel. As he climbed the stairs to his room, he idly wondered if, along with this wardrobe, he should change the way he spoke. He realized dully that he’d hardly sworn out loud since he’d gotten off the bus. That was a good start. The rest would surely follow. He crawled into bed satisfied with that conclusion, and drifted off quickly.