Sam sees her in bed, her head turned away from the doorway, shadows from the trees outside lurking over the quilt that covered her body. He briefly glances over to see if she’s asleep, hoping to see the steady breathing he’s accustomed to when she’s lost in slumber. He wonders how long it took her to decide to get into bed, to succumb to the exhaustion brought on by another early morning.
He sees her clothes by the fire, neatly placed atop a luggage rack, evenly sprawled out for a quicker dry and makes a move to do the same. He’s quickly reminded how wet he is by the sheer damp cotton fabric he feels across his chest, his shirt firmly sticking in place.
He tosses the extra towels he received from the front desk, not exactly what he wanted but it would work regardless, the soft terry landing against the back of the chaise lounge and finds himself sitting firmly on the piece of furniture. He suddenly realizes how tired he is as well, taking his first opportunity to settle comfortably against the back of the lounge. He turns his head from side to side, swaying his legs in position and debates briefly if he could find enough comfort for one night on the lounge. The prospect of sleeping near Caitriona was making him anxious more and more as the time to do so drew near.
“You might as well stop dwelling on it,” he hears her voice in his head, chastising him for debating once again. “You’ll never be comfortable.”
He snorts in response, marveling at how well she knew him, and begins to takes off his shoes, piling away the mud and dirt he acquired on their run. He finds relief in the cold wooden floor as he plants one foot at a time and gradually makes a move to take off his shirt to find the warmth of the fire spread across his chest.
He regrets it just now, the idea of them sharing a room let alone a bed, and it makes him slightly embarrassed. It shouldn’t have but he couldn’t help himself. The setting is familiar enough, a room, and a bed with Caitriona. Yet, here in the dark, where secrets live and thrive, there’s an obvious reason why he feels the way he does.
He wanders near the fireplace, taking a swift glance at the clock on the mantle, noticing the amount of time left until day break. Five hours. He watches as the second hand ticks pass the number six, subconsciously willing it to move faster then finally turning around to see the small figure laying on the right side of the bed.
He quickly makes a decision to stay on top of the sheets, admitting his slightly damp shorts was a poor excuse but the idea of her skin near his leaves him both afraid and excited. He’s fooling no one but himself knowing what kind of electricity laid between them.
Caitriona shifts when he presses down against the mattress, his weight causing her to move slightly toward him. He listens for her breathing, trying hard to hear the soft escape of air from her mouth but there is none. He realizes then she’s not quite asleep.
What’s going through her mind?
Sam’s sure it mirrors his. He wonders if she’s thinking of it too-how unexpectedly intimate laying beside one another in the dark like this was, even if they had done it a hundred times more or less.
He’s reminded of moments as a teenager, sitting on playground benches with school crushes, fingers tapping away near one another, daring the braver one to make the first move. The younger Sam would have taken her hand already, fitting his own against her smaller one. He would have turned his body toward hers, perhaps already gathered her firmly against his chest. But this Sam wasn’t sure he was brave enough. A small sense of rejection and quiet doubts linger inside him.
He lays there in the dark, eyes roaming to and fro, across one end of the ceiling to another, waiting for time to quickly pass. He loses the battle he’s struggling with, and it surprises him when he turns his head to find her looking at him, his body wanting to mirror hers on the bed. When he smiles at her, she responds with one of her and lets out a long sigh, making the eerie quiet of the room more tolerable.
“It’s strange isn’t it?” she quietly asks. “To be here like this.”
He understands what she’s asking and slowly nods. “Strange with all the quiet you mean.”
The words don’t completely come out when another flash of light appears outside their window, a loud crash immediately following in succession. She jumps a bit, the unexpected noise catching her off guard. She laughs nervously then continues, “Yes, the quiet. Whenever we’re in bed together, there’s lights, cameras, people. Noise. This feels…different.”
“Not so much,” he whispers. “Some things are very much the same. To me at least.”
He lays in the dark with her by his side, contemplating of what he wants and if he should tell her.
He wants to tell her he needs no reminders; some things are very much the same with her, an unexplained familiarity, just like the first time they met. How comfortable he is with her, how much joy and happiness there is now with her in his life. To want to be with her always.
It takes him a while to decide, but when he does he finds himself on his side, face to face with the woman it took no time to fall in love with. His heart is in his throat when he finally notices how close she is, inches away, a small shy smile creeping over her face. Her hair is a mess, the curls still intact from this morning’s production, unruly strands of hair halfway covering one side of her face, the rest sprawled out over her pillow. For him, she is beautiful.
He cannot help notice the way her body is positioned, both knees bent, one on top of the other, her left arm under her face while the other arm lies dangerously close to him. He wants to reach out to her face, to slowly trace the lines of her jaw and cheeks, to brush his knuckles across her mouth, to feel the soft skin against his, and to watch her tilt her face toward the press of his hand. Instead he watches with the longing he’s accustomed to all these years, abiding his time with stolen kisses and touches, wondering if, at all, she ever wanted the same thing.
It surprises him when she makes a move to touch him, to touch his hand lying between them, a sign he subconsciously brought forth in hopes of a connection. He cannot help from squeezing her hand, a question of permission before interlacing his fingers with hers. He brings up their interlocked hands, an even distance between their faces and in that moment, time stands still. He can’t see her face just now but he notices the subtle change in her breathing and much like his own, it’s slower and deeper than before. He feels her pulse echoing against his, wrists bound, their beats dancing and finding the steady rhythm with one another.
He lies in the dark with her, questions in his mind swirling as quickly and loud as the wind outside.
“I want to,” she whispers, knowing its safe for secrets in a place where darkness swallows all fears and inhibitions, to allow them to say what they want without worry or regret. “I just don’t know how it–”
He exhales with a loud sigh and inches closer. He lowers their hands and allows for Sam to lean in closer to Caitriona. She nods her head, her face scratching the surface on the linen of their bed. He catches a glimpse of her eyes, mixed emotions brewing behind the dark blue. They must have mirrored her own because she pulls back slightly, fully aware of the danger that awaits them.
“I know,” he tells her, fully turning away, returning to his original position on his back, his eyes steadfast on the ceiling above.
He could feel her beside him then, affixed to her position, watching and deciding her next move. When she makes a move to pull away her hand, he holds on tighter and shakes his head ‘no’. He takes a risk just then, finding the courage to do what he wants to do for the first time and takes it for what its worth. He pulls on her hand cradling the way he always meant to do and places it where he needs her to be, above his chest near his heart and where the sound of its beating lulls them both asleep.
Two weeks later
She’s more nervous than she is excited.
She’s been trekking around town, making her way in and out of shops and finding ways to distract herself rather than worry. Caitriona aimlessly walks down aisle after aisle, picking up and setting down knick knacks, pretending to be interested, making conversations with store clerks but to their dismay, leaves without making any purchases. Her race is tomorrow, eighteen hours to be exact and she can’t wait to get started. She’s been antsy all week, trying her best to convince Sam to do a practice run, begged every day for the last three days but he’s refused.
“You need to save your energy,” he laughs when she entered his trailer a few days before, following him like a puppy trying to persuade him to do a run with her.
He’s told her numerous times already how prepared she is, a plan set up to run with her, side by side, to make sure she doesn’t over do it, to take her time and use it well.
“The only competition you have to worry about is the one you have with yourself,” he’s told her. “Forget everyone else around you.”
Her restlessness brings her to his neighborhood, familiar architecture of brick stoned buildings adorning wide cobblestone walkways, trees lining up enough to give pedestrians ample shade when it’s hot but enough to provide shelter during storms. She sees the bookstore he raves about, not particularly for the collection of literature but for the cafe nestled inside. For Sam, it’s their collection of sweets and cakes that make it inviting.
She’s tempted to give him a call, to invite him to share a cup or two but her phone is at home a few blocks away, unintentionally leaving it behind on top of her kitchen counter. She wrestles with the idea that maybe subconsciously she wanted to see him again, her excitement for tomorrow’s events were merely just an excuse. She hesitates momentarily, whether or not to make an impromptu visit but quickly decides when she sees a familiar neighbor exiting the building. He holds the door for her, aware of who she was, nods then briefly smiles as she makes her way up the stairs to Sam’s apartment.
She shuffles slightly, adjusting her hair in place-tucking the loose strands behind her ears, fiddling with the light sweater bunched on her hips before letting her fingers graze across the doorbell. She watches as her tips move across the small bright light and lets out a sigh before pressing hard against it. She hears the small echo of foot steps on the opposite side of the door and turns away in anticipation, wondering for the first time maybe she shouldn’t have. He could have been busy or wanted peace and quiet after a hectic schedule this week.
She suddenly panics and makes a move toward the stairwell when his door opens, Sam standing under the threshold, a look of surprise on his face. She stammers, hands gesturing from side to side, offering a story made of half truths. She stops when he smiles at her. She blushes suddenly and makes a move to greet him, her eyes looking downwards, remaining on her feet. He bites his lip, holding onto his door, his body half in, half out, undecided about what to do next.
It’s a familiar ritual between them. The initial part of their meeting is the same as their first one so many months ago, shy smiles, eyes unable to meet, a sudden flush rising up to their faces. She should be used to seeing his face, he being such a natural part of her life now that it surprises her every time she feels the way she does whenever they meet.
She hears her then, a small call for his name in the background, a woman entering the room, refreshed from a shower, her feet bare. She appears behind him, the familiarity with his apartment apparent as she walks surprised by an unexpected visitor. Caitriona stands transfixed for a moment, imagining the different scenarios she’s walked into, each thought causing a small ache in her stomach. His voice drowns with the white noise she hears, a loud thumping banging against the drums of her ears. She wants to move but finds herself stuck, the weight of her legs heavy and pressed against the spot before him.
When he turns to glance behind him, she panics and runs down the stairwell, the sound of her footsteps echoing off the walls, her hands pulling against the rails as she makes her way to the exit. She regains consciousness as she hit the bottom step and forces her way out the door, jerking it hard before hearing it slam shut behind her. She looks left and right before deciding which way she can hide, the scene before her turning into a blur, images moving fast in either direction.
She quickly decides to walk away from his building, quite aware he would come after her and he does. When she feels a tug on her arm, she’s afraid to look back, to see him standing there offering an explanation. She pulls her arm free and continues to make her way home but he doesn’t take no for an answer.
“No.” she tells him, dodging his stance by walking around him.
He quickly moves to grab her hand but she snatches it away, hurdling his hand back at him.
“What are you doing? Why are you upset?” he asks, finally catching up to her, matching stride for stride, walking backwards, causing people to adjust around them, trying his best to make eye contact.
The look on her face quickly stops him in his tracks, a familiar sign of her getting angry, her eyes turning dark with her lips pressed tightly, her nostrils flaring. He continues to watch her walk away before loudly asking another question without hesitation, “Are you upset about the woman in my apartment?”
She lies when she responds with a ‘No’, her voice catches at the back of her throat, the taste of bile trying to find its way up.
“Then what is it?,” he asks, his question forcing her to slow down.
She stops and finally sees him. His hair is messy, a little blonder than usual, small wisps of curls catching the wind in small spurts, the ends flying across his face. She has to mentally and physically stop herself from fixing him, a natural act on her part to sweep the bits away from his face. She realizes he is waiting and decides to answer truthfully, “I don’t know.“
She staggers from side to side, trying to find any reason to explain what she was doing, why she was behaving the way she was. She knows exactly why, but even then she can’t reach far enough in her to confess.
He looks at her speculatively and wonders for a moment, giving a chance for her to reason, an unexpected courage rearing inside him, "You said we couldn’t. That this couldn’t happen.”
Her face turns from confusion to anger, making a move to cross her arms across her chest, a final act of defiance, “So it’s my fault then? That I’m upset.”
“So you are upset…and that’s not what I meant.”
“Yes it is,” her voice louder than expected, a bit judgmental. She makes a move to continue again but briefly stops before returning, the lie slipping away from her tongue. “I don’t care who you’re sleeping with.”
“Caitriona,” her name barely comes out as a whisper while he struggles to keep his emotions at bay, biting on the inside of his cheek. He wants to reach out for her but he knows better. He needs to give her some space, a moment before he can touch her. He’s been in situations like this before, seen the same fire in her eyes when people cross boundaries.
“Don’t Caitriona me,” she tells him, using every opportunity to say each word out loud. With her chin lifting slightly higher than normal and her eyes cutting toward his direction, she mentions it again, “Just don’t.”
She finally steps back, taking another look before heading home and immediately regrets it. She sees it, the look in his eyes, the sun making them brighter, lighter, the haggard lines on his face more prominent. She feels her heart sinking, knowing that perhaps she’s being unreasonable, how she’s done with games at this age and so was he. He’s hurt just as much as she is.
What they have between them wasn’t a relationship built on crushes but of mutual respect and friendship, but most of all, love. She opens her mouth to apologize but spots it then, a blatant reminder of the woman in his apartment, the crushing moment she felt when she saw her behind him. He had forgotten to put on his shoes when she abruptly left, giving him no time to respond but to run after her. His long bare toes grabbing hold of the loose gravel underneath his feet, hardened by his attempts to slow her down, to talk to her before letting go.
She sees the woman as she sees him, completely taken aback and uninhibited. She sees her feet, bare soles against his hard wood floors, a sense of familiarity between the two. A familiarity so strong there was no mistaking there was a relationship of some kind, a relationship she realized she had wanted all along.
Caitriona sees the numbers flash on the board beside her as she crosses. She follows in steps behind other runners, spectators screaming out their congratulations in spurts. She continues to move because her mind has yet to tell her to stop, her legs heavy, her heart continuing to thump against her chest. She tries to catch her breath while making her way through the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She quickly hears her name, Maril’s deep voice easily carrying with the wind. She turns around and finds a small group of friends offering their heart felt congratulations but instantly recognizes one particular absence.
She doesn’t fault him for not showing up or at least she shouldn’t have. It would have been awkward, to say the least, to offer encouragement and run with her, unresolved feelings harboring between them. As stubborn as she was, she knew she would have ignored him, his advice as useful as she was now, exhausted and tired. But for a brief moment she tries her best not to look hurt, a sudden glance behind the group to see if, just maybe he was lurking or perhaps lagging a few steps in the opposite direction.
Maril catches her searching eyes and places her hand on Caitriona’s shoulder, letting their friends walk ahead.
“He’s not here,” Maril whispers, shaking her head in disappointment. “He never made it.”
Caitriona offers Maril a small smile, pretending she knew.
“He had pressing business to attend to.” she muttered under her breath, eyes darting from side to side, unable to look Maril in the eye. “He would have been here if he could.”
“I was just hoping…” Caitriona’s voice trails as he continues but quiets down, looking into the sun with her eyes closed.
Maril offers an arm around her waist, making their way through the crowd.
“I know,” Maril pulls on her. “We were all hoping too, in more ways than you’ll ever know.”