An hour or two later, maybe three, I was out of the chair.
Only Mary, Arancio and I were there.
Barney had taken his leave through the back entrance sometime earlier, with apologies. I saw him talking with Arancio. After all, he had to open sometime tomorrow.
Pretty much every inch of my skin stung, like I’d fallen face-first into a patch of short-thorned cactus. But I was walking all right, if carefully and a little off-balance.
Mary was tight beside me, gathered under my right arm. She felt good there, like it’s where she belonged.
I still couldn’t hear very well, but the roaring in my ears had abated considerably.
As I passed through the open left side of the double door, I noted the top hinge was loose. The door hung at a slight angle. Apparently the blast hit the edge hard enough to dislodge the screws about halfway.
Mary slipped loose momentarily and followed me through the narrow opening.
Arancio closed the door behind us as best he could. I heard the latch click.
Rain was falling, but it was very light, more of a mist. The majority of the storm must have been in the wind. Either that or it had blown around us. The air still smelled of electricity.
I looked down at her and tried a grin. “Well, we’re out. What now?”
She laughed and took my hand, but gently, as if touching me might break me. “We’ll go to my place if my car’s still out back.”
I read her lips and nodded. “Can we stop at my house first? I’ll need some clothes.”
“Or we can just stay there,” she said.
I thought of my three rooms. It was more of an efficiency apartment, though it was in a building by itself.
It had a small living room with a fold-out couch. Then there was a kitchenette, a very small bathroom and a small bedroom with a single bed shoved into one corner. I kept my clothes in the closet and the chest and slept on the bed. Occasionally I ate toast in the kitchenette, but otherwise I was seldom in the place.
It was more than I needed, but it wasn’t a place I would want to entertain a woman. Especially this woman. I tried to shrug. “Wherever you’re comfortable is fine. Then we can finish our talk if you want to.”
“Okay,” she said, “if we still need to.” She squeezed my hand lightly.
Then another thought struck me. “What time will Barney open tomorrow? Did he say?”
“I don’t think so.” She frowned. “Why?”
“I mean, won’t he want you here? I was wondering what time you have to be back.”
We were nearing the northwest corner of the building. She stopped and looked up at me. “I’m not coming back, Nick. Earlier, before I came to your table again, I quit.”
I frowned, certain I hadn’t heard her right. “You what?”
“I quit. I told them from now on, I’m with you.” She hesitated.
There was a powerful surge in my chest. It wasn’t pain. It was—well, a surge. I know of no other way to explain it. I’d felt it only one time before, on the night I’d first seen Mary.
But “What?” slipped through my lips too.
It was happiness. Pure joy.
But she heard only the heavy weight of it.
Her smile faded, then disappeared. She didn’t pout, but her face looked—resigned. As she looked away, she said, “Unless—” and something else. Then she remembered my hearing loss.
She looked up at me again. “Unless you don’t want me.” She hesitated. “I guess I did kind of spring things on you. Earlier, I mean. It’s just that we were so rushed for time. And then all of this other happened, so—”
She released my hand and took a half-step back. “There was no more time to explain, Nick. But I am your woman.” She took a breath and seemed to steel herself. “Even regardless of whether you are able to recipro—” She was starting to look away again.
She looked up again, her eyebrows arched. Tears welled in her eyes. “Yes?”
I bent down, wrapped my left arm around her shoulders and my right around her waist. I pulled her close and kissed her.
I’m thirty-two years old, and I have never given or received a kiss like that before.
Her lips seemed to know what mine were doing before they did it. Was there ever a more perfect kiss? A more perfect match?
After a long moment, we parted, all but breathless. I let my forehead rest lightly on hers. Quietly, I said, “Is that all right for the beginning of my reciprocation?”
She leaned back and beamed up at me. “Yes!” She laughed as she took my hands. “Nick, the first time I saw you, it was at a distance. You might not remember. But you came through the door, then stopped and looked around.”
I grinned and nodded. Trying not to yell past the roaring in my ears, I said, “I remember. You had just turned away from the bar with an order, right? I remember there were three plates and three drinks.”
She nodded and laughed again. “Yes! And I looked at you, and then you looked at me. And I almost dropped the tray.” She laughed again, the most beautiful, musical sound I’d ever heard. “At first I thought it was my heart. I thought my heart nearly leapt out of my chest.
“But I thought more about it. For days. Maybe weeks. And it deeper than that. It was my spirit maybe. It was as if my spirit recognized yours. It was as if we were reunited. As if I wondered where you’d been so long, why you were away. Why you were only now coming back to me.”
I laughed too and squeezed her hands. “That’s exactly how I felt. Exactly. Why do you think I’ve been coming here every night since that happened?”
She laughed as she turned and slipped her arm around my waist. “You mean it wasn’t for Barney’s food?”
She guided me around the northwest corner of the building, then along the west wall. Just past the southwest corner, an older model Jeep was waiting. She stopped and gestured toward it. “You like my car?”
I laughed. “Beats walking.”
I gave her directions and we swung by my place first.
Despite my misgivings, she insisted on coming in with me.
Inside, I gestured toward the couch. “Sit if you want. I’ll just grab a few things. It shouldn’t take more than a minute or two.”
She shook her head. “I’ll come with you. I can help. Do you have a bag? We’ll take at least a few changes of clothes. It will take you some time to heal.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. There’s plenty of room. If you stay with me, I won’t have to worry, and I won’t have to come back and forth. After you heal. Then we can get on with the rest of our lives.”
So we packed a duffel plus a hanging bag. Then we loaded them into the Jeep and she drove us to her house. It was nestled on a low hill on the outskirts of Agua Andulado. As we weaved our way up the access road, finally, the sun was dawning on a new day. It came up just as she turned into the short driveway.
The house was a small, neat cottage, a vibrant lime green in the early morning light. The living room was nice sized, with a full couch and a matching love seat. A small coffee table filled the L formed by those. There were also two small end tables, and on each was a matching brass lamp with a white shade.
The kitchen was huge in comparison with mine. The other necessary appliances were there as well, and off to one side a round oak table with only two chairs. It had belonged to her mother, she said, and was a gift.
“Where are the other chairs?”
“I asked her to keep them for me. Even two was one too many for me. Until tonight.” She smiled.
There was a full bath but with a shower built-in as well. And two bedrooms, one slightly larger than the other.
She gestured toward the smaller of the two. “You can put your bags on the bed in there for now. We can put things away later. Let’s get cleaned up first and I’ll tend to your wounds. After that I’ll make some breakfast. Okay? I’ll make enough for both of us. Even if you still aren’t hungry, you have to eat.”
The bedroom. The sleeping arrangements. It was no less than I expected. “Sure. Okay.”
* * *