Strange Haven

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Close Up

Three days earlier …

He hunched against the tree’s bole, teeth chattering, listening to the baying to the north-west. The thin coverall wasn’t going to be enough, he thought, feeling the hard, stinging flakes coating his hair and peppering his face. The snow had started with sleet four hours ago, and he was already soaked, caught too many times between the fast-paced rain bands, then forced into a necessary immersion in the icy waters of a stream to cut his trail a mile from the prison. The second half-wade-half-swim across the river four miles after that had completed the job of removing every bit of body heat he’d had. He was moving steadily south and east, looking for the logging roads that might take him out of the area before dawn.

If he didn’t freeze to death first.

Two years. Eight months. Ten days. Five hours. He ducked his head, pushing his face into the half-frozen folds of his sleeves.

The brawl had been provoked and he’d been fighting against a man holding the broken bottom of a bottle. Self-defence was raised and ignored. His lawyer, a piece of shit lowlife provided by the system hadn’t even argued against the charge. Manslaughter. Aggravated. Nothing from the eight people who’d been there in the bar, who’d watched the three of them come at him. Nothing from the bitch he’d been with; paid off, he’d thought, to keep her mouth shut. The guy he’d hit had been someone’s son, liquored up and full of coke and convinced he was the man. He’d been wrong. And he’d ended up dead.

He’d figured he could do the time, keep his nose clean and get out on parole. But someone’d had enough clout to pull some strings and his parole hearing had been a sham, no one listening or looking at the records, no one interested in the truth. Denied.

Tarrant’s brother had stopped beside him on the way out, leering into his face, his breath thick with the sickly-sweet stink of bourbon. “See you rot in here,” he’d said. “You’ll die in here.”

It hadn’t been until the guy’d stepped back, and he’d looked around the room, that he’d realised everyone in that room had heard the threat. And not one face held surprise.

Back in the cell, he’d realised sooner or later, the threat would be made good. He couldn’t guard against every possibility.

Hearing a rise in the dogs’ voices, he forced himself to stand, jaw clenching tight against his teeth’s desire to maraca some more. South and east, a couple of days’ walk through the state forest and he’d be three counties over.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Now …

He hadn’t heard the dogs for a day and the forest stood, silent and dark, behind him. The snow that’d begun on the second night was still falling, covering everything in a thick mantle of frozen white. He’d tried to stay under the trees, too aware of how fucking obvious his tracks were in that clean sweep between them. Thirst wasn’t a problem, but hunger was now. And the cold. He couldn’t feel his hands or feet.

Across the gentle roll of cleared fields ahead, he could see a light and he stared at it, trying to weigh up the pros and cons of going there or staying here. He snorted at himself impatiently. Staying here meant dying, guaranteed. Checking out that light held a possibility of running into trouble, but most likely being able to find somewhere out of the wind, out of the snow and getting some much-needed sleep.

No contest.

He forced himself to straighten up, muscle aching. Forced himself to step out of the shelter of the trees and start across the field. In moments, the capricious bite of the wind dropped the temperature further and he started to run, a shambling, half-stumbling run, blindly across the smooth white ground, tripping and staggering over the hidden hollows and rocks, hoping he’d see anything bigger before he ran into it.

It wasn’t as far as it looked – or felt – and he slowed as the shape of the house and outbuildings became clearer through the flurries of snow, white on white, discernible only against the shelter belt of thick pines that were gradually blocking out more and more of the wind, the closer he got. In their shadow, the flakes fell straight down, thick and fluffy and sticking to his hair and lashes as he cautiously walked through the gate and stopped by a shapeless, featureless garden bed.

The house was small and a prefabricated double garage stood off to the right. Behind that, aided by the faint luminosity of the snow, he could just make out the shape of a couple of bigger buildings. He turned back to the house, moving around to the side, where a couple of rooms spilled their lights onto the snow.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Elbows deep in suds, Sara stared sightlessly at the black glass in front of her, her hands automatically sponging and scrubbing the dishes, lifting them out, dipping them in the rinsing sink and placing them on the drainer, her mind going over the chores for the next day, occasionally diverting onto the same, looping track of worries she couldn’t illegal bahis seem to let go.

They needed more firewood before the end of the week. That meant putting the chains on to get down to the back paddocks and tackle the fallen trees with the chainsaw. It wasn’t an impossible task, just an onerous one, needing a bit more strength than she had, a bit more reach, a bit more weight. She shook the thought off. There was no one else so she’d just have to figure it out.

It was Wednesday and it would be another two days before Dan got home. Not that things would change much with that, a slightly bitter voice muttered in the back of her mind. He spent time with the kids, she told herself. At least when he wasn’t glued to his laptop and chatting online. She understood his doubts, his self-consciousness about his size, but it never seemed to occur to him that they could give each other pleasure in other ways – or, she thought, perhaps he was just no longer interested.

Rinsing the last dish, she set it on the rack and squeezed out the sponge, moving around the kitchen to wipe down the counters and stove-top, before rinsing it out again and emptying the sinks.

She wasn’t making much of an effort to look enticing when he came home, she thought distractedly. There was too much to do. A quick shower in the evenings, washing her hair and letting it dry in its natural curls was about all she had the energy for by the time dinner was over and the table cleared away, the washing up done, the kids sent to bed. An hour of television and he would be asleep on the couch. And another night would be gone.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There were no curtains at the plain square window, giving him a view inside of what looked like a kitchen. A woman moved into his view, a light above the inside of the window showing her clearly. Despite the luminance shining from the window onto the snow below, she wouldn’t be able to see him, he thought, just her own reflection in the glass.

Dark brown, curly hair, showing a hint of red and cut to her jawline, framed a heart-shaped face. The few lines, on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes, didn’t detract from the smooth, pale olive complexion or sharpen the full-lipped, naturally rose-tinted mouth. The vapid prettiness of youth had gone; he could see that life had inflicted sorrow and pain, but those experiences left behind an austere beauty that wouldn’t fade with time. She was looking down and it took him a few minutes to work out what she was doing, standing there, the repetitive movement of her shoulders finally clueing him in.

The realisation came with a brief stab of memory. His mother had stood just like that, at the sink in front of the kitchen window, washing up, rinsing, setting the dishes on the drainer. He shook off the past with a faint huff of impatience, angling his head to catch a glimpse of the clock on the wall to the woman’s right. A few minutes before eleven, and he hoped she’d be heading off to bed soon. He turned away from the window and the lit room, skirting the edge of the square of yellow light on the snow and headed for the corner of the house.

He’d almost reached it when the light behind him abruptly went out, and he stepped into a hollow he hadn’t seen. The snow reached his knees, almost bringing him down. He swore softly under his breath, forcing wet, frozen limbs to move faster.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Getting out of the shower, Sara wiped the mirror clear of condensation and looked at herself critically. Past her fourth decade and with two children, one of whom had started high school that year, and she couldn’t say that life hadn’t left its marks. The farm work had kept her trim, exercising practically every damned muscle she had, one way or another. Digging, lifting, walking – or more often, running, after the neighbour’s break-and-enter specialist cows – carting water or hay or dirt, cutting, splitting, stacking … the physical activities were non-ending and only a short time ago, she’d enjoyed them. What seemed like a short time ago. When Dan had still been helping with some of them.

Her breasts were still full, not sagging, the small, dark rose nipples surrounded by large, dusky areola. More than one of her handfuls, she thought, cupping them in her palms and lifting them slightly. Round. The skin soft and a very pale cream. She could see the outline of her lower ribs, her stomach had a little curve, but not much and her hips swelled out, making her waist look smaller. Long thighs and calves, with very little padding, a somewhat dubious benefit of so many steep hills to climb and descend to check the stock and the fencing in the furthest fields. Every climb left her thighs and ass aching for a few hours afterwards.

She didn’t think she was unattractive. But he didn’t seem to want her. Didn’t seem to notice her, even when he got into their bed. His breathing would quieten then get louder again as he drifted off to sleep and within an illegal bahis siteleri hour, he’d be snoring like Jack Nicholson in that movie about the witches and she’d lie there, listening to it, wondering if he had the low libido he claimed, or if he’d found someone else down in the city, or if the weight he’d put on, that had added at least two hundred pounds to his big frame, had drowned whatever sexual inclinations he’d once had.

Twisting away from the mirror, Sara dried herself, hanging the towel on the rail and grabbing moisturiser from the cupboard. She tipped it generously into her palm and spread it over her skin – face and neck, hands and arms, shoulders and breasts and stomach and ass, down the length of her legs. It was the only thing she’d bought for herself in the last five years, her one luxury, and despite the fact it often seemed like a waste, she kept buying it and had kept applying it.

It might not have been anyone’s fault, she considered, watching the last drops disappear into her skin and straightening up. It might have been both of their faults. It didn’t change the fact that she needed more. Needed something more than battery-operated assistance and fantasies that seemed unattainable. She’d always loved sex, loved the pleasure and the intimacy, the smell and taste and feel of a man. And for the last few years – the last eight years, she corrected herself tersely – she’d been denied that intimacy and release by the person who was supposed to have been the one she’d forsaken all others for.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Walking more carefully toward the corner of the house, he stopped when he heard the deep panting ahead of him. He couldn’t see a damned thing but he could hear a crunch of weight on the powder snow, a piece of the night seeming to move to his left. Crouching a little, he scooped a handful of snow and worked it into a hard ball with hands that couldn’t feel anything and could hardly close. The panting sounded closer and it was reaction that launched the snowball into the darkness. He heard a splat and a surprised low groan, then the sound of something big moving off, the cloud cover above parting into streamers for a heart beat or two and letting moonlight flood down.

Jesus, he thought, staring at the bovine shape, black against the white drifts. Goddamned cow!

The rush of adrenalin was at least warming. The moonlight disappeared again as the clouds crowded together thickly, but he’d had a glimpse of the terrain and he walked around the house, slowing when he saw another light on at the back. For a moment, he wondered if he was pushing his luck, if he shouldn’t just check out the outbuildings and find someplace that would at least be out of the weather for the remainder of the night, move on before dawn. The series of shivers that shook through him vetoed that thought almost instantly. He could be a fucking popsicle come dawn if he didn’t find a way to get some heat back into his body. It was a risk, trying the house so soon after the lights had gone out, but one he was going to have to take.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Twisting restlessly in her bed, Sara squeezed her eyes shut and tried to force herself into sleep. The day’s physical workload had been hard enough, she thought. She should’ve been able to drop off without a problem.

Images formed, against her will. Sensations. Ghost touches and phantasms over her skin. All the things she’d been without for too many years now. She rolled over irritably. The weekend would come and once again her husband would be disinclined and it would go and she would spend another week alone and without the physical intimacy that seemed more and more important as time rolled on and it continued to fail to materialise. Eight years. It was almost impossible to think of anyone wanting to touch her now, after that length of time.

Forget it, she told herself, rolling back and dragging the covers into a tight bunch in one fist, held under her chin. Realistically, sex, or its lack, was the least of the things that weren’t happening on the place, and in the morning, she’d have to take the truck and chainsaw down to the valley and cut enough wood to last out the next week. She needed to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The back door, partly protected by a small overhang and half wall, was unlocked, the knob turning easily under his hand. He pushed it open slowly, feeling the warmth inside the house turn the ice crystals on his face to water. He wiped them off with an equally wet sleeve and closed the door behind him, closing his eyes and trying to force them to adjust to the near-total darkness faster. The light he’d seen outside was coming from a room on his right, to one side of a narrow hallway leading from the closed-in back porch. It shone under the door, a thin line of warm white. Further up the hallway, he could see more light, a gold-reddish colour, spilling from a narrow gap into another room.

Taking a deep breath, he crouched canlı bahis siteleri down and started to unlace his boots, fingers fumbling with the half-frozen, wet laces, stiff and aching from the cold. He pulled the boots off and carried them, easing open the first door.

A flexible lamp pointed its low-wattage bulb toward the far ceiling, and he saw the tousled head against the pillow beside it, the only part of the child visible under a mound of bed covers. Glancing around the room and taking in the posters of race cars and superheroes, a kite hanging on one wall and a baseball bat leaning up against a corner, he figured it was a boy. He pulled the door shut carefully and walked up the hall, his socks squelching into the carpet. The warm red glow of light came from a fireplace. Double glass-paned sliding doors were open a couple of feet, letting the heat flow out of the room. The slow combustion stove had been built into a dividing wall, glass doors on both sides and he pushed aside the longing, to huddle next to it until he’d thawed out completely, with impatience. Checking out who was in the house was a higher priority.

He walked toward the fire anyway, skirting the living room furniture and glancing at the incurious blinking stares of a number of cats. The other side of the fire glowed out over a dining table and chairs, a low wooden box under the raised combustion stove on that side. Putting his boots on top of it, he held his hands out to the heat seeping out, working his fingers and trying to feel something. A bowl of fruit on the dining table snagged his attention and he grabbed an apple, biting into it hungrily.

It could only have been a few minutes, standing there in the luxurious warmth of the fire, the growls of his stomach subsiding as the apple found its way to filling it, but it felt like hours. When the piece of fruit had been stripped down to the core, he felt his eyelids dropping. Three days walking, hiding, freezing his ass off was falling onto him like a fucking ton of bricks and he needed to secure someplace safe – safer – to sleep.

Pulling off his socks, he left them on the woodbox along with his boots and walked barefoot back through the living room. Two more doors were closed along its length. He moved closer to the front door and opened the first cautiously. It was dark, and he pushed the door a little wider, the faint light from the living room showing a bedroom, a double bed against the opposite wall, a desk beside it. Movie posters hung framed above the bedhead and between the room’s bookshelves. A school backpack and a pile of battered books on the floor suggested another child. He backed out and closed the door silently, turning down the hall to the last door.

That opened into a third bedroom. The queen size bed stood against the wall to his right, two wardrobes and a chest of drawers covering the remaining wall space. The nightstands to either side of the bed were wide, each holding a short bookshelf above them. The room was almost black, the bright red numerals of the digital clock on one nightstand barely shedding enough light to see the dark curls against the pillows.

He stepped into the room and closed the door, moving silently between chest of drawers and the side of the bed. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw the woman from the kitchen, sleeping alone.

Teeth gritted together to stop them from chattering, he stripped fast, and lifted the edge of the bed’s coverings gingerly. The warmth he could feel there was compelling and he slid under the covers, eyes closing involuntarily as the trapped heat surrounded him. He pushed his arm slowly under her pillow, curling it around her chest and he felt her jerk back against him.

“Don’t move. Not going to hurt you,” he said, his voice low and croaking a little. “Not gonna hurt anyone, okay? Just need to get some sleep.”

She hadn’t moved and he edged closer to her, tightening his grip as her body’s heat penetrated the cold of his skin, slowly chasing the chill from his limbs.

Lying there, feeling returning to his fingers and toes, his hair dampening the pillow and beads of moisture slipping from his rough beard onto her shoulder, he knew he couldn’t risk just falling asleep. She might have been a timid woman, but he had nothing to stop her from easing out when he was out except his own instinctive responses.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sara lay still, the weight of the man’s forearm across her neck, his body pressed against her back, legs drawn up to spoon with hers. She could smell the cold on him, and a fleeting image of the snow-covered fields filled her mind’s eye. His beard was brushing her shoulder and neck, the dampness of it chilling her more than his skin, which although cool, seemed to be rapidly warming.

He wasn’t sleeping, she thought, listening to the sound of his breathing in the silent room. As the warmth seeped through to him, from her body’s heat, and the cocoon of down-filled quilts surrounding them, she realised she could smell him, beyond the fresh scent of moisture. He smelled of the woods. Of conifer and pine and the needle-covered forest floor, more faintly of sweat, a musky odour that made her nipples harden abruptly, her eyes screw shut.

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