He's got over a thousand dollars in the bank now, under his legal name. He's got a casually generous roommate, who always orders too much food and beer. He's got at least a dozen phone numbers on scraps of paper in his desk next to stacks of notecards and a ball made of rubber bands.
He looks up from the course catalogue on his lap to see Zach pointing at him. "First real bash of the year, and you and I are putting in an appearance," Zach says. He opens his mouth to protest, then realizes there's no reason to stay in his dorm room on a Thursday night. He gets off his bed and Zach high-fives him. "Wingman!" he crows.
The music is loud, the bass thumping, and the beer is ice-cold. He settles back against the wall, taking long pulls at his beer and watching Zach make his move on a girl whose chest size and hair color are equally unbelievable. The minute the girl puts her hand on his arm, Zach looks over with a grin, and Sam raises his Bud in a toast to his prowess.
He heads to the back of the frathouse, where he joins the crowd judging a wet t-shirt contest. The girls are tan and unabashed, and the guys shout their approval.
"Seriously, man, how many times a day does this show come on?" he asks, as the Law & Order theme music starts up again.
"Shut up, I don't think I've seen this one," Zach says, sounding exhausted, the sheets still tangled around him. "Wait, what are you eating?"
"Your sister dropped by this morning," he explains, licking the frosting off his fingers. "She made me a cake. Angel food, since I'm so sweet."
"You ate the whole thing? Bastard," Zach grumbles. "I like Bec's angel food cake too."
"She said you can have yours when we go to her place for dinner," he grins. "I'm going to the library. Meet you back here at six." He tosses the tupperware over to Zach. "I saved you a piece, man; what kind of roommate do you think I am?"
Becky has his chin in a vise grip. "Don't move," she orders, blowing on his cheek. "It's perfect. Look."
She spins him to face the mirror, and he angles his face to see the "SU" she's painted on his cheek in red and white. "Stop admiring yourself, Narcissus," she scolds, drawing hastily on her own face. "And Zach, get off my bed; if you get any paint on my bedspread, I'll kill you."
Sam is squeezed in between Zach and Jerry in the stands, and he can feel the roar of the crowd inside him; he goes along with the urge to yell and whoop and holler. He's jumping up and down and hugging everyone in reach when they win on a beautiful extra-point kick. He grins wide and bright when Becky turns her camera his way.
"You are the king, man," Zach says when Sam slides a new box of condoms under his bed, tossing the empty one in the trash.
He snorts and snags a Red Bull from the mini-fridge and tries to concentrate on his linguistics assignment. But it's hot and sticky and he could not care less about glottal stops. "Fuck it, man, I'm gonna go for a swim," he says.
He dives in and the water closes around him, comfortingly cool and heavy. He floats on his back, staring up at the bright overhead lights until he can only see black, and he keeps his eyes tightly closed as he begins his laps.
He burns, peels, and emerges tan from a week in the sun at Jerry's beach house. Jerry grills burgers while Sam builds a bonfire and the girls dance and clap when Zach and Ryan get back from another beer run. The firelight is soft and he sinks into the sand, happy and full. He feels like a different person in this new skin.
"It's not a birthday party, Sam!" Becky sounds exasperated. "It's an end-of-the-year party that happens to be the day before your birthday."
There's a flaw in her logic somewhere. "Why are you having it that day instead of the weekend after?"
"Because you'll be packing to move into the summer dorm and Zach and I'll be back in St. Louis, idiot." She turns back to her take-home final.
He looks down at his notes on Savonarola, pen hovering over the half-finished outline. He doesn't want to think about the way the campus will clear out for the summer, the uncomfortable quiet that will settle heavily over everything as he types numbers into a spreadsheet in the SFS office. He wraps his arm around her instead and says, "Thank you," waiting until she looks up at him before adding, "little Becky."
He wakes with a rope around his neck. His eyes pop open, slitting against the sunlight pouring in through the windows. This is not his dorm room. He sits up a bit and the pressure around his throat goes away; he looks down and sees that it's hair, not rope, and the long locks are slipping down his chest.
All that he can see of the girl in the bed is bright hair and a round, tan ass. He shifts again, hoping to jostle her awake. She doesn't stir, and he thinks maybe his best bet is getting out of here, away from that pretty ass and long blonde hair. That is, if he really wants to leave; he's already changed his mind ten times about that since he woke up.
He gets out of the bed, rubbing at his eyes. He finds his underwear immediately and slips it back on. He stumbles over his flip-flops. With one last glance at the girl's back, he heads down the stairs. His shirt is hanging off the back of a chair. He doesn't see his jeans anywhere; they've got his keys and wallet in them, so he's stuck.
He goes back to the bedroom and crouches down in front of the girl. Her face is hidden by her arm, and he coaxes the arm away with soft little touches. She's got plump pink lips and a mole between her thin eyebrows. She's wearing a short white nightgown, twisted underneath her belly.
"Hey," he says softly, feeling like a prize idiot. He wishes he could remember her name; he wishes even more that he could remember last night, since she's got a smile on her face. "Hey," he says again, shaking her shoulder tentatively.
Her eyes crack open. "Hey yourself," she says, drawing the covers up and turning to lie on her back.
Her eyes close again and he lunges forward. "No, no, wait!" he says, bracing himself on his hands, framing her hips. "Where are my jeans?"
"How the hell should I know, Sam?" she mumbles. He feels like a complete shit now. She peers at him and sighs, finally sitting up. "Sam," she says, snapping her fingers in front of his face to get his attention. She gets out of bed, and he rises with her. She's tall and fit, completely beautiful with her tumbled hair and pink skin; the smell of vanilla drifts up from her body. "Hand me my panties, would you?" she asks, pointing to a scrap of lace on the floor. She shimmies them on, her bare legs flashing, then ducks down. "Aha!" she cries, clutching his jeans in a fist. She stands back up and he's startled again by her height, the length of her scented limbs. "Not so fast," she says, holding the jeans behind her as he reaches for them. "What do I get in return?"
This is a game he's never played; the mornings after have always been waking up in his own bed to silence and sometimes a phone number printed carefully inside a heart, never this flesh-and-blood reality. "What do you want?" he asks warily.
"Hmmm." A little wrinkle forms above her nose when she purses her lips. "Breakfast," she says, so offhandedly that he knows that's just the beginning of a long list.
"Great!" he says, before she can get any further. "Breakfast. I can do that." He holds his hand out for the jeans, and she looks at him assessingly before handing them over.
"Thanks. I didn't want to give your housemates a free show." He pulls them on but doesn't bother with the fastenings; he stops in the bathroom to pee and gargle some Scope, then heads downstairs to the kitchen.
Her fridge holds cases of beer and soda, a few bottles of wine, a carton of skim milk, a pitcher of water, and an egg. He's pretty sure not even Wolfgang Puck could whip something up out of Diet Coke and egg yolk.
The cabinets are mostly empty. In one, high above the sink, he finds a box of Froot Loops and a few bowls and plates and mugs. He pours the cereal into a bowl and then the milk, remembering only afterwards to sniff it. It smells okay, so if he can just take the bowl up to her bedroom, he can go.
Of course she chooses to come down the stairs at that exact moment, her face lighting up when she sees the box of cereal on the counter. "Toucan Sam!" she says, digging in a drawer and fishing out two spoons. She drops one in the bowl and begins to eat with the other. "C'mon, Sam, don't you want any?" she asks with her mouth full as she winds her long hair into a messy knot high on her head. "You could at least have breakfast with me."
She drops into a chair at the kitchen table and looks up at him. Her eyelashes are brown, still spiky from being pressed into her pillow; her eyes are blue like the tiles at the bottom of the pool. He looks at her just as they flash with mischief; he glares and she grins, caught. "Yeah, I'm fucking with you," she admits, "but that doesn't change the fact that you don't remember my name."
He hangs his head and she laughs. "Come on, Sam. What's the last thing you remember, Sam?" She pushes a chair toward him, her leg stretching long and lean, and he wants to take a bite out of it.
He sits and grabs his spoon. Froot Loops are delicious, even if they're staining the milk all sorts of weird colors. She fills the bowl back up, waiting for his answer. "I remember the party," he says hesitantly. "And I remember doing body shots off some girl." He looks through his bangs at her. "That wasn't you, was it?" She just shakes her head, looking amused. "That's really it."
"So you don't remember Rebecca introducing us at your birthday party last night? Or saying that I smelled good enough to eat?"
"You still do," he says, and she blushes, and victory is his.
Somewhere between the kitchen and the front door she pushes him up against the wall and hikes his shirt up. The Sharpie she pulled from a kitchen drawer is in her hand and she makes her mark on him.
The chlorine in the pool makes the edges bleed a little, turn from blue to green, but even after he scrubs at his chest with soap, the four soft curves remain printed above his heart: j-e-s-s.
He knocks at her door, hair still wet from the gym shower, and she yells, "It's open!" in a way that makes him wonder if she ever locks her doors. She's got paint all over her hands and arms. Her smile is neither quick nor slow; it's just there before he can catch hold of it. It doesn't seem to shift any of the planes of her round face, doesn't change a thing.
"Hey," she says, bright and unsurprised, turning the easel around to face the wall. "Let me just," she holds up her hands, "clean up a little."
He wants to show her the marks on his chest, say something about how they match, but she runs up the stairs on her long legs before he can open his mouth. He hears water running upstairs, and the radio over it. She's singing along, loud and off-key, and he tunes her out as best he can.
It's her scent that he notices first, vanilla sweetness over skin. He closes his eyes for a moment to breathe her in and then he hears her coming down the stairs. She sounds like money; he opens his eyes at the faint tinkle of her jewelry. A heavy locket rests on her chest, above her blue tank top, and a slim sinuous thread of gold circles her wrist.
She looks like she sounds, like something he could never afford, and he wonders all of a sudden what he's doing here, in his frayed shorts, his too-long hair dripping water on her hardwood floor.
She takes him to a restaurant a few blocks from her apartment, nods casually at the bartender, and walks confidently to a booth halfway down the row on the left. The light above the table is bright, and her face shines. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, partially covering the swell of her left breast. He opens his menu to keep from staring at her, scanning the list of burgers that start at ten dollars.
She douses her fries with mayonnaise, catches his disbelieving eye, and shrugs, "Holland. Spent a summer there."
He looks down at his half-eaten burger, the fries that have gone soft and cold from pickle juice. When he looks back up at her she's watching him.
"What?" he asks. She just shakes her head and keeps looking.
Flashes of memory flicker in his brain when he's finally back in her bed, snippets of the first time they did this, and it's throwing his rhythm off. He keeps smoothing her down, running one hand over the flat of her belly and her hip, like he's rubbing a rabbit's foot for luck.
She makes a sound, halfway between a sigh and a gurgle, and twists them around, straddling him. Her breasts are heavy in his hands and her hair tickles his stomach; he wonders who got to be on top last time.
Then she's leaning down, resting her forearms along his sides, forcing the angle of penetration into something sharp and nearly unbearable, so that they're panting into each other's necks, hot and pained breath the only sound over the rustling of the pale blue sheets.
He lets her limbs lie over his, nearly as long, but rounder, softer, and waits for her to sink right into him. He closes his arms around her.
"I'm sure you'll be very happy here," the real estate agent says, standing a little too close to Jess, who smiles and leans into Sam like she's snuggled into him every day of her life and not just for the last four months.
"I just want to look at the bathroom one more time," she says. "I can't remember the color of the tile."
The agent's cell phone rings and as he checks the screen and connects the call, Jess grabs Sam's hand and drags him off to the bathroom, closing the door with a click. "Could that guy be any creepier?" she hisses, rubbing her hand up and down her bare arm. She leans back against the door and looks up at him. "So what do you think of the place?"
He takes in how perfectly the pink door frames her golden head, how her smile has slipped into something more private. But she's waiting, one eyebrow cocked in a show of interrogation, and it's a pleasure to submit, as always.
"It's a nice place, but they're asking for a lot of money. How many people are you planning on cramming in here?"
"Just us," she says, reaching out to play with the hem of his shirt.
He stares, waiting for her to crack a smile, but she looks up at him with limpid eyes and he has to work hard to keep the frustration out of his voice. He wants what she's offering so badly but he knows it's impossible. "Jess. I can't. I can't afford it."
Her frown smoothes out. "I know that, Sam. I can."
It shakes him a little to hear that she's aware of the difference between them; he's been keeping up with her all summer with his savings, rationing each new paycheck. "No," he says firmly.
"Sam," she says, and he braces himself for some impassioned plea. But she just repeats her earlier question. "Do you like the apartment?" He nods reluctantly. "Well, I do too. Living here would make me happy. Living with you would make me happy. Do you see how simple this is? Just move in with me."
He still wants to protest but the agent knocks loudly on the door. "Miss Moore?"
Jess opens the door and looks over her shoulder at Sam. "I'll take it," she says.
The space overwhelms him. He's accustomed to living in a single room, four thick, dingy walls around him. Now he's got a whole warren of rooms, big, bright, and airy, with Jess as constant company. He has no idea how they're going to fill it all up. Even after all the furniture they pick out from an artsy secondhand store is delivered and they've set aside the small room with the skylight to be Jess's studio, he thinks he can hear an echo when he calls for her.
She sets him to work, painting each room in a different color; he can't see how this is going to work, but he trusts her eye. They sleep with every window wide open to dispel the paint fumes, but they're still a little high for days.
Her studio is the first room he finishes and she disappears in there, radio blasting, while he moves to the bedroom. His arms and back are a little sore and his brain is on autopilot; the shadowy green she picked for this room is almost hypnotic. It takes him a few moments to be aware of her standing in the doorway, photographing him.
"What are you doing?" he asks, setting the roller down. He plucks at the bandanna she tied on him to keep his hair out of his face. Her fingers smooth it back down, then trail down the side of his face. She runs the flat of her nails along his cheek, opening her mouth before his even lands on it. His hands can almost span her waist, and his fingers dimple her soft back. She groans and steps back before he can push her against an unpainted wall.
She hefts the camera in her hand again, pointing it at him. She cocks her head. "You know, you're the first person I've met who doesn't duck away from a camera in their face."
He shrugs. It's not like he's all that familiar with cameras; Dad never had one, and all of his class pictures had gone unclaimed. "Let me see?" he asks, holding out his hand.
She places it in his palm, watching his fingers fold around the bulky zoom lens. He picks it up and aims it at her. Her smile gets shaky for a moment before she tosses her hair back to look confidently at him.
He snaps a picture, saying, "You don't run either." She smiles her real smile then, white teeth gleaming, and he clicks again.
She laughs at him, tells him he's wasting film and that the photography students who develop the rolls of film she drops off think she's a complete narcissist. But the camera is his now; he likes the weight of it in his hand, and the only thing he wants framed in its sights is her. She doesn't lock herself away; her thoughts and feelings are right there on the surface, offered up freely. He takes pictures of her painting, cleaning, on the phone, blow-drying her hair, sleeping. There are pictures of her naked, her tall frame bursting past the edges of the print. There are close-ups of her face, her eyes glittering above her round cheek, her plump lips out of focus. He keeps them all in a box under their bed.
His gusty sigh nearly blows out the flame of the fat, cherry-scented candle in the middle of the table. She looks up, still forking Thai take-out onto plates. "Something wrong?" she asks, licking her fingers.
"Sam." She slides his plate in front of him, and he sweeps his papers away and closes her laptop.
"Just. I didn't realize how much of this French history class was going to be in French. And I can't seem to find translations of a lot of this stuff."
She gets a gleam in her eyes, sitting across from him, picking up vegetables with her chopsticks. "If I translate your stuff . . ." she says, then pauses to chew, "will you wear whatever I give you to Cindy's Halloween party?"
He tenses. It's not a big deal to her, and he can't make her understand without saying too much. She comes around the table to sit in his lap. "Baby," she says, then whispers, soft and breathy in his ear, "après moi, le déluge." He nods and she kisses him.
"Oh my God!" Jess pouts when she walks in, holding several shopping bags. "I thought it was hard finding costumes for a girl my height. It is almost impossible to find something that'll fit you."
She drops the bags and sits on the futon, eyeing him critically. "You must have been a nightmare when you had your growth spurt."
"That's what Dean always said," he says, his mind still on Cicero.
She goes still, half-predator, half-prey, like she can't help herself from pushing. "Dean?" Her voice is studiedly casual. "You call your dad by his first name?"
He looks up and she looks away, at the bags, reaching in and refolding the clothes inside. This is the first, last, and only time he's going to say this.
"Dean's my older brother. I don't call my dad anything. My mother is dead."
He moves his books off his lap and goes to the kitchen. He opens the fridge and looks over at her. Golden hair is spilling down her back. She's sitting on the edge of the futon, her knees together and her toes pointed inward. She's still keeping her curious eyes off him, so he relents.
He pulls out a beer and cracks it open. "There's not a lot to say. My dad's a drunk, can't hold down a job for more than a few months. Ex-Marine."
She's waiting for the rest and he braces himself. With his absence, Dean took on mythical proportions in his mind. But now he's grown up, made his mistakes, and knows he doesn't need Dean the way he always thought he did, the way Dean always thought he did. Dean's no longer his oxygen. He steps back from the fridge, takes a long sour swallow, and considers Dean with a clear mind. "My brother's right there with him. Following in his footsteps. A drifter."
She's snuck up on him, and she wraps her arms around him and kisses his ear. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she says, and she rocks him in her arms on a cloud of vanilla.
"Mmm," Jess says. "A little lower." He kneads his fingers into her back, easing the muscles beneath her soft pink skin. "Painting a fresco is worse than an hour of pilates," she laughs, moving her hair out of the way. "You'll have to come see it when we're done."
She wiggles when his fingers start to tickle rather than soothe, and he kisses the top of her spine. She settles back against his chest and reaches for the remote, clicking the TV on. "Oh, I used to have such a crush on him!" she says, and he looks up at the screen.
"The guy with the cane?" he asks incredulously. The guy's old and seems to be playing a complete dick.
"No, the other one. He hasn't aged a bit. Wow." She looks awfully impressed by this guy, who's got pale skin, brown hair, and brown eyes. Totally ordinary. And short.
"You know, I used to want to be a doctor," she says, and he tries to picture her swathed in a white lab coat instead of covered in paint. "Then my sister was born and she was sick all the time and I realized I hate hospitals." She laughs. "Wonder how different my life would have been."
"My roommate freshman year was pre-med," he tells her. "You would have hated it."
"Probably," she says, and snuggles back against him.
"I think we should host Thanksgiving," she says at the next commercial break, twisting around to look at him. "We've got the space. It'll be fun. We can invite all our friends."
It's best to know all the details up front. "What would I have to do?" he asks warily and she grins.
"Just sit there and look pretty. Also, help me clean the place, be ready to go out for ice and beer at any time, help me clean up after. And carve the turkey."
"I don't know how to carve a turkey," he protests, even though it doesn't sound too bad. He thinks about mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and stuffing and apple pie with vanilla ice cream, all the things sitcom characters sit down to in November.
"I'll show you how to hold a knife, Sam," she says, rolling her eyes, "and you can Google turkey-carving if you want diagrams."
"Wait, are you cooking?" He's never seen her cook, and he remembers hauling only one small box of pots and pans up three flights of stairs.
"Oh, ye of little faith. I'll be baking. I'll leave the cooking up to Julia's."
"Let me get this straight," he says, and she frowns, unable to read his tone. He doesn't quite know if he's angry or charmed, and he supposes that's making her job more difficult. He looks at the stuff spread out across the bed. "You threw out all my underwear."
"Don't say it like that, Sam!" she huffs. "I bought you some new clothes. You needed them and between your classes and the SFS office you don't have time to go shopping."
"And . . . along the way I got rid of your ratty old underwear and bought you beautiful silk boxers," she says, looking pleased.
"What makes you think I want to wear red underwear?"
"Wouldn't you, if I asked you to?" She laughs. "We won't go right to the red. We'll start off slow, with the blue, and work our way up."
He looks at her, smooth and bright and so goddamn beautiful, and it turns out he's charmed after all by the way she looks after him. "Thank you, Jess."
"I love you, Sam," she says, her voice a medley of pretty chimes, and her eyes glow when he pins her down against the heaps of silk, murmuring it back all along the length of her neck.
"You've never been on a plane before?" she asks, more kind than curious. He shakes his head and the cabdriver looks inquisitively at him in the rearview mirror. "Piece of cake," she says.
"Yeah." He's not nervous about the flight; it's the thought of meeting her family that's got his stomach in knots.
She holds his hand while they wait to check in, leaning into him and making him feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. He has a bad moment when he shows his phony driver's license after they ask for government-issued identification, but it passes muster; he forgot that his student ID wouldn't be much use in the real world.
She's nuzzling against him when they're jostled, knocking them into the girl in front of them in the security line. She turns, and it's Irene, her hair long and brown. "Sam!" she exclaims. Her gaze follows his arm to where it's curled around Jess's waist.
"Irene," he says, keeping his tone cool and light.
She just looks at him for a moment, her eyes big and her mouth twisted down at the corners, before she turns back around, her shoulders stiff and tense. He shakes his head when Jess looks at him questioningly, whispering, "Later" into her hair.
They get through security, the buckle of his new belt setting off the machines, and wait at the gate. "That was my ex," he says before Jess has to ask.
"Ahhh," says Jess, resting her head on his shoulder. "She clearly wasn't good enough for you."
"Jess!" he hears just as a smallish lump runs full-tilt into her and Jess staggers backwards, laughing. Once the lump stops moving at top speed and turns her face up to greet him, Sam can see that she is a pretty little girl, petite and flaxen-haired, delicate in a way Jess is too robustly healthy to be. She's small for twelve; if he had to guess, he'd have estimated ten.
"I'm Celia, Jessica's sister," she says, holding her hand out formally. He shakes her hand. She's got the same pretty dimples around her elbows as Jess.
He turns to discover that Jess got her smile from her mother and her height from her dad. They're both hugging her and he can hear "chérie" in a light, accented voice and "pumpkin" in a lower one.
Celia's edged back around to stand behind her dad, and Sam's left looking at the four of them, happy and whole, and tries to push back the sick spines of envy as they knife their way through him.
There's snow on the ground, but the driveway has been neatly shoveled. The house is large, dove-grey with black shutters; there's a Christmas tree in the living room and candles waiting to be lit in each of the windows.
The guest room has two twin beds, and for a moment he's reminded of the cheap motel rooms he and Dad and Dean used to share, only two beds necessary because one of them always had to keep watch. But the carpet is creamy, the walls blue as lapis lazuli.
He drops his duffel between the beds, then kicks it under the one near the door. He runs his damp palms over his chinos, standing in front of the mirror to straighten the collar of his green shirt.
He sits at the kitchen table while Jess and her mom and Celia all bustle around getting dinner ready. It's making him uncomfortable, but he's not sure enough of himself to offer to help out; that seems like a greater intimacy.
"Sam," Mr. Moore calls out from the living room, "can I have a word with you, son?"
Jess shoots him a reassuring look as he gets up. He goes into the living room and sits gingerly on the edge of the couch, waiting with his guts tied up in knots.
Mr. Moore is sitting in a brown leather chair, his back straight but not stiff. "Jessie tells me you're a scholarship student."
"Yes, sir," he says.
"That takes a lot of smarts, a lot of hard work. You keeping up?"
"Oh, yes sir. I'm majoring in history."
"Bright young man like you must have a plan for the future." Mr. Moore smiles, looking friendlier by the second. "What's it going to be, Sam?"
He sinks back a little further into the plush comfort of the couch, looks at the leather-bound books in neat lines on the bookshelves. He thinks about having a job where she'll look proudly at him across the kitchen table every morning. "I've been thinking about law school, sir."
"A practical-minded man." Mr. Moore nods approvingly. "That's a good degree to have in your pocket."
He stands and shakes Sam's hand like a benediction, and Sam can't quite believe that he's passed the first round with nothing more than words he's made up on the spot. "We better get to the kitchen and make ourselves useful," Mr. Moore says, clapping him on the shoulder.
It's driving him crazy, not being able to touch Jess in the ways he's used to, not being able to wrap himself around her at night. Her parents are permissive, but there are limits, and he's still working on winning over Celia, who pops up at the most unexpected moments.
He knocks on the door of their bedroom one morning, looking for advice on which shirt she'd bought to go with his new brown pants, and sees Celia lying on her stomach on her bed, talking to Jess, who's seated in front of the mirror holding a hairbrush. He catches her reflection's eye and she hands the brush over without a word.
The lights framing the mirror are pink, and her face is rosier than ever as he slides the brush over her long curls tentatively. He makes his next pass a little harder, remembering the way she'd tug a brush through her hair with enough force to tip her head back. Her neck elongates as he drags the brush down, catching small knots; she looks at him as he puts down the brush to untangle them with patient fingers. Her hair is still a little damp underneath, lying heavy in his hands, and he wishes he could crush her to him and make her eyes drift closed in pleasure.
He's very good at charming adults; his teachers have always taken a shine to him, rewarded his intelligence and perseverance with A's. But now, when it's so much more important than any report card, he can't seem to catch any of the lines the Moores are tossing him. They're opening up the vault of family history, bilingual inside jokes and baby pictures, and he's standing there, dumb and gangly, unsure of how to respond to her father's hearty humor or her mother's terms of endearment.
He's evidently got their approval, but somehow that's not enough, or maybe it's too much; he wants to pull Jess away and run, back to their home, back to safe ground.
The apartment feels empty without Jess, even with the smell of the cookies she baked for Becky's Desperate Housewives viewing party lingering in the air. A second batch is in the oven, and the buzzer sounds just as he's getting hungry. He pulls the baking sheet out and remembers he has to let them cool for at least ten minutes before scarfing them down.
The flowers and fruit she was sketching occupy most of the kitchen table, so he eats standing at the counter, clutching a cold green glass of milk. He sorts through their mail, tossing the junk and the flyers in the recycling bin near the door. There's a birthday card from her grandmother, and he realizes he's got less than a week left before January 24th.
He goes to the closet and pulls out the barracks bag, upending it impatiently, searching for the envelope of money. He'd forgotten how much was in there; it's enough to take her out to the best place in town and buy a jacket, tie, and shoes to get in the door.
He calls Daviot for a reservation, haphazardly stuffing the contents back in the bag while he's on hold. He flops onto the bed, his belly full, sighing contentedly.
She looks more beautiful than he's ever seen her, in her thin high heels and a frilled pink dress that makes her look like Venus rising from the foam. Her hair is pinned up with the mother-of-pearl clips Celia sent, the pink rose he bought her drooping under its own weight near her temple. It falls and burns in the flame of the candle stuck in her cream cake just as the violinist finishes playing "Happy Birthday."
She picks the petals out of her cake with careful fingers and smiles at him, her eyes dancing in the flickering light. "Love you, Sam," she mouths, then blows the candle out.
"This was the best birthday ever," she murmurs against his neck as they let the taxis drive by and walk home. Her thin wool coat is leaving cream-colored clumps of fuzz all over his black blazer and she bends her head to pick at them. He squeezes his arm around her and kisses the top of her head, reveling in her perfumed warmth.
She gasps and wobbles on her heels, and he looks up to see a man in the shadows in front of them. He's holding a knife with a wickedly serrated blade, and it gleams with deadly promise. "Your purse and your wallet," he says, cool and unruffled.
Jess is shaking, enough so that she jostles Sam's arm as he reaches for his empty wallet. He tosses it on the ground. "Your purse, baby," the man repeats, stepping closer to catch the strap and pull it away. His fingers reach back up to brush Jess's neck.
The hand holding the knife relaxes ever so slightly, and Sam pounces. "Jess, run!" he roars, grappling with the man, gripping his greasy blond hair to pound his skull into the pavement. The man swipes at him with the knife, and the blade sinks into his abdomen.
He can hear Jess screaming as he looks down at the knife sticking out of his gut, shifting to press a knee into each of the man's wrists, resting his weight on the man's torso. "I am going to kill you," he promises thickly, remaining unmoved as the man thrashes beneath him. He gets a good grip on the man's jaw and holds his head still, then leans down to hiss in his ear. "You think you're my first kill? Not by a long shot."
Jess's screams have given way to torrential tears, and he looks back up to see one cop leading her away, another approaching him carefully. He rises unsteadily, swaying on his feet.
"No hospitals," he says, and the bigger cop pauses in cuffing the man to laugh disbelievingly.
He's had bruises before, in more places than he can rightly remember. He's sprained each wrist twice and his left knee once. His right ankle broke when he was fifteen, his right arm when he was eleven, and three of his toes when he was ten. He can feel the twists, the wrongness in those bones when he runs his hands over them in the shower.
The raised, irregular line the mugger's knife marked underneath his bottom left rib is the first permanent scar his body bears that's visible to others' eyes.
She's had one song on repeat most of the morning, and he finishes the logic games section in his free practice booklet as the chorus rings out again.
"I think this is our song," she says when he appears in the doorway with a cup of coffee. She takes a long sip, then hands the mug back. "How are you doing on the LSAT?"
"Fine," he shrugs, feeling the new scar stretch painfully.
"Sam?" she asks softly, her hand hovering above the wound. "Please -"
"Don't worry about it. I'm fine."
She frowns, eyeing him doubtfully. He looks back at her with a level gaze. He doesn't want to talk about that night ever again. The memory of her shaking like a leaf, screaming herself hoarse, still haunts him like the grip of her fingers around his as they sat in the ER, soaked in blood. He doesn't know if he'll ever get over seeing her brightness tarnished in that way.
Something clicks behind her eyes and she steals the mug back. "I've got a great idea for Valentine's Day," she says, bubbly again and he sighs in relief.
"No cards, no presents, no dinner reservations," she elaborates over pancakes, slapping the Sunday comics out of his hands.
"Sounds good to me," he grins. "What's the catch?"
"No, think about it. People do all that stuff to find what we've already got."
His heart catches at the earnest look on her face. She goes from demure to vixen in the blink of an eye. "So my plan is to spend the whole day in bed with you. Does that plan meet with your approval?"
"I might need you to elaborate on it a little," he says, pushing his chair back away from the kitchen table and pulling her onto his lap. "Would any other furniture be involved?"
He's ready for her when she gets out of the shower, grabbing her and pulling her down. He never remembers how heavy she is until she's on top of him, and then his muscle memory recalls how pleasingly she uses her weight.
Her hot blue eyes have gone fuzzy at the edges, and he wants to roar with triumph that he can do that to her. Her breath comes fast against his cheek.
Her eyelids are already drooping in invitation, and he lifts his knees, tilting her forward into his kiss. His hand snakes up the back of her shirt, tenting the tight material, and he curls it around her ribcage and finds her nipple with his thumb. She's squirming against him like she wants to burrow into his chest, her hands cupping his head with a fearsome grip, and her tongue is fast and sloppy against his.
She breaks free and mutters, "God, Sam," as she sits back a little, hurried hands opening his jeans and tugging at his boxers. "Now," she says, shifting her hips and knees just enough to peel her boy-cut panties off, settling back over him with her toes tangled in the waistband of his jeans.
"Yes," she hisses as she sinks down onto his dick in one endless moment, the crown of her head pushed tight against his shoulder, her hands gripping the cool metal frame of the futon.
Her hair tangles between their mouths when she rocks back and finds his lips again. She shakes it back and grabs his shirt in her fists.
"Love you," he swears when she slams down onto him again. "God, love you."
His fingers dig into the soft flesh padding her hips, his thumbs catching the hem of her shirt. Her hand slips into his hair and tugs, and she digs her teeth into his neck, sharp little bites that syncopate with the slaps of her ass against his thighs.
She throws her head back as she screams and goes suddenly limp, loose hands dragging down his arms as he pushes up forcefully two, three, four times and comes, sinking back into the futon mattress and pulling her forward. She lies on his chest and they breathe in time with each other.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Jess," he says.
"Sorry, I didn't quite catch that," she lies, panting and grinning at him, squealing when he flips them and looms over her.
"Do we have company?" he asks when he gets back late from the library. One of these days he's going to get a microfilm machine that works on the first try.
She shakes her head with an odd smile. "Whose is that, then?" The bag on top of the kitchen table is soft brown leather, expensive-looking.
"Take a look," she says, and he frowns and steps forward. The tag dangling from one of the handles has his name on it. There's an envelope peeking out of the front pouch. He opens it to find two plane tickets.
She's watching his disbelieving eyes. "That's probably my parents calling about spring break," she says when the phone rings.
He thinks he protests, but they say don't be silly and our pleasure, chéri and you saved Jessie's life, we can never repay you. He finally hangs up, remembering only then to ask, "Where are we going?"
Paris in the springtime is a cliché for a reason. The air is sweet with the perfume of flowers; the sunlight seems warmer, richer somehow. It follows Jess like a spotlight, dancing across her hands as she tears a croissant in half, as she raises her café au lait to her lips.
They stand in front of the Mona Lisa, jostled by countless other tourists with cameras. They pay the fee to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower and look down at the vast swathes of land laid out before them. They wander among the statuary at the Rodin Museum, kissing in front of the Gates of Hell, and he thinks she might be rewriting his destiny.
Jess speaks French in bed every night that week, teaching him all over again with gentle kisses and greedy touches. Her mouth dips onto his skin as his fingers curl around her.
"Finally remembered my existence as soon as your girlfriend left town, huh, you fucker?" Zach says when Sam shows up on his doorstep with a six-pack. He grins. "At least you buy the good stuff. Come on in."
They savor the good beer over a huge dinner, then get trashed on the shitty Miller Lite that Zach has in the fridge. They play video games until dawn, when Zach finally crashes.
Sam throws his controller down and half-heartedly tries to clear away the clutter he's responsible for. He gives up after a few minutes and walks to the old gym.
He dives in, the water shockingly cold and thick against his skin, and he does laps until he's sore.
He buys every book of LSAT practice tests he can find and goes steadily through them, one section each day. He has no problem finishing in the allotted time, but he can't concentrate on the reading comprehension passages, five hundred-word excerpts from the most boring texts imaginable.
He finds vanilla candles at the arts and crafts store where Jess buys her sketchbooks. He finds it easier to focus on his work when the place smells like her.
She calls every night from Madison. "I miss you," he says instead of hello, and she just says his name, whispering because Celia's asleep in the bed next to hers. He likes it best when she doesn't even talk, and he can hear her quiet breaths.
He takes the June LSAT, just to see how he'll do. He's always been good at standardized tests, and anyway one day is much like the next without Jess around.
His results come three weeks later, far earlier than he expected, and he sits on the futon, puts his feet on the coffee table, and rips open the envelope. 174 is the number printed next to his name. He can't quite wrap his mind around it.
When it sinks in a few days later, he starts researching law schools and loans. He talks to a career counselor who looks over his transcript and his LSAT score and says something about the possibility of another full ride.
Jess can hear something different in his voice that night, but when she asks, all he says is that this is the longest summer of his life. "Oh, puppy," she says, and he laughs.
He starts to call her during the day too, and she talks to him while she's braiding Celia's hair or stretching canvases or driving to a coffee shop to meet her high school girlfriends for a quick bite. She offers up long discourses on the spectrum of reds used by Rubens, the lameness of bouquets of roses, the drawbacks of Wisconsin weather. He hears her say she loves him.
"Good luck, baby," she says, kissing him long and hard before handing him a new box of #2 pencils and a plastic Toucan Sam figurine. "I know the LSAT will bow down before you." He grins and walks downtown instead of across campus. He's only got a few hours to work with.
He's buzzed into the shop and has to turn his backpack over to the security guard behind the main desk. He browses the display cases, looking at each ring carefully. He's done his research - color, cut, clarity, carats - but he doesn't have a picture of what he wants in his head.
All he's sure of is that she'll light up when he offers her the ring, that it'll be all she wears when she comes to bed that night. Her flesh will warm the metal, and it will be smooth against his back when she holds him close, loving him.
She's bragging to her parents about the interview, and he slips his arms around her waist. "He's got a shot at a full ride to law school too." He kisses the side of her neck. "The interview's in a few weeks." He traces her ear with his tongue. "I'll call you when we find out and we'll celebrate," she says, smiling up at him.
"Did you just jinx me?" he teases after she hangs up.
"Not possible," she says. "I've got a good feeling about this. It'll all work out, Sam; you'll see."
She's never been wrong before, and he lets himself believe in the future he can see so clearly. He nips again at her neck. He'll go back to the shop after the interview, and he'll come home to her, pull out the ring, and kneel. She'll laugh and cry and hold out a trembling hand; he'll take her to their bed and lay her down.
He licks at her while he works her with his fingers, dimly hearing her strangled screams as she quivers beneath him. "Sam, Sam," she says, gasping, running her fingers over her breasts. She comes apart so beautifully, a whirlwind of pink and gold.
Her lips are swollen but she runs them over his skin insistently, her hands locked in his. She sits up and sinks down on him, and her eyes are the brightest things he's ever seen. He bucks up without warning, spilling her across his chest, and he holds her tightly to him.
She's flat on her back, a wide crimson sash across her waist, her hair spread out around her head like a sunburst. Her forehead wrinkles, the way it does when she's concentrating, but she doesn't relax into a smile when she sees him. Her eyes are burning when they lock onto his.
He realizes suddenly that he's looking up at her, that she's not in their bed but above it. Flames roll out of her belly before he can scream.
He cringes violently, waking himself up with the motion. He hasn't dreamt of fire in years, but his body remembers the drill, and he reaches out for Dean, lying in the bed next to his.
[illustrations by vengefuldemon69]
Author's notes, an outtake, and the start of something new!