Edward didn’t usually mind his sister’s guests. They were welcomed distraction, when the autumn scared most of the families out of their summer homes and back into towns. With one exception – Sharon Gerrig. Or anyone from that family.
So when he caught her husky chatter from the living room, accompanied by his sister’s chuckling, he was resolute to toss that Gerring woman out before she could manage any requests involving his family’s fortune.
He landed stack of files on the kitchen counter with loud enough bang to halt the chatting in the livingroom and bellowed, running around the corner, pointing straight at the woman in dark green business suit.
“What are you doing here?”
“Nice to see you too, Edward,” she snapped, reminded him some good manners. “Came for tea, in matter of fact.”
Nonsense, he thought. He stopped right behind her seat and lowering himself to her level stated her the fact. “No, Saron, you here to beg for alms!”
She blinked, taken back by his sinister tone. Her eyebrows flew up for a second, but landed right back on the small root of her nose. “No, I’m not!” She whirled around, ready to take him up for his words. “Why do you…”
He didn’t let her finish. Her stalling with her response was enough for an answer. Pathetic little creature!
“Isn’t that what your family always does, hmh?” He straightened with a grunt and stuffed his fists in his pockets to fight over the urge to put hands on that woman. It was unacceptable to hit women, even if they… No, he stopped himself right there, he was just working himself up.
He went around the sofa and drilled his eyes in her face. “Your daddy borrowed money all the time.” He decided to try with the truth. “Just like you’re here now! He also came every now and then – back my loan for the house, support the fiasco this, support the fiasco that!” He paused, recalling what really would hit. “Or your intuitions!”
“The hell he did! I paid my own intuitions!”
“On loans, I’m sure!”
She looked away, past him, but not towards his sister. she responded to his taunting and he watched with amusement how her perfect business mask fell off and her posture changed. First her eyes flickered, then her breathing failed to support her bravura. She was forced to inhale hard, before her paled lips allowed her to grasp any words.
“So? I am paying it back right now, so what?”
“On loan!” he bowed closer again. He breathed in and picked up an odd disturbing scent. He straightened immediately, frowning.
Her shoulders slumped, but her dark grey eyes snapped back in his, narrowing warningly. “Nor I or anyone else in my family has asked money on my account from you or anyone else in your family!” she said, lips tight.
She left out the bitter truth they both knew that she might have not asked anyone. She might have flatly refused. It might not have stopped her dad doing it without her knowledge and using her as the excuse.
“I took it from bank like every other lowlife citizen!” Her demeanor lightened up, when she added she honestly came for cup of tea.
He didn’t believe her. There was always an agenda.
“None of your family ever comes here unless they are in need of money! You’re dad…”
“You already played the Daddy card on me!” she broke him off.
“Daddy card?” He felt his temples pulse. “Is that what it is? A game?”
“No! It’s not a game!”
“Edward! Guys!” Nicolette intervened, putting on her mother-like tone, but this was not the time to sedate quarreling children.
“Nicky, don’t get involved with this!” he warned. “Or do you need proof? I can give you dozen at least! Starting with last year and moving back!”
He observed his baby sister’s eyes slipping from his face to her friend’s and back. Eventually they stopped on hers and he could see the hesitation building up.
That lingering scent didn’t give him peace. He used the moment her eyes were locked on her best friend to observe her closely. She looked as one would expect – perfectly clean, hair raised and clopped, though slightly curled by the damp weather, pose fixed…
She was hiding something. She had never been fully free-acting in his presence, but this time he felt as if he was presented with a well-planned theatrical.
What was she hiding? Why was her jacket closed? The room was warm enough to wear summer clothes.
She dragged in a ragged breath as her hands started trembling when she realized she wasn’t getting support from her good friend. Her lips parted to apologize, but he had nothing of the sort.
“You came here to beg my darling sister to back up your loan, didn’t you?” He asked. “Admit it!”
“Yes!” she shouted, but corrected herself in a second. “Not money,” closing her eyes in hopeless try to avoid their eyes. “I came to ask her for place to stay for a while!” She shouted back and sighed. Her hands were shaking hard, causing the half empty cup to clatter between her fingers. The sound was disturbingly cold and she was forced to lower it to her lap in order not to break the fragile thing.
“I’m sorry,” her eyes flicked up to Nicky, whose torn expression was signaling him that his scoffing might have just caused them their friendship. She set the saucer back on the table next to matching teapot. The jacket sleeve moved back revealing edge of her cuff. It was stained soot black on the edge. Then it disappeared and she shoved to her feet.
He woke from his stand and reached after her, eyes still fixed on her wrist. “IF she could offer…” he tried to say, but she dodged his hand and next time he tried, she was already too far.
“I’m not like my father.” she shut over her shoulder. “I have not done anything for you to suggest otherwise!”
She span around and caught him off guard.
“I have done nothing for you to suggest otherwise!” she insisted, watching something behind him, like struggling to keep her self-control.
“I only have student loan on my back. So what? If I’d had your almighty father instead of mine, of course I would have him pay for my schooling! But, oh, wait! No! I have that lousy rat for a father! And now I have you! Taunting my every move as well! Because the fucker cheated on you!”
“Like father like daughter!” he tried to stared her down, but the moment had passed and she was already through the glass doors.
“Oh yes! Like you’re part of the family!” She snorted. “I didn’t cheat on you, never been in position to cheat on you! So you see – say what you may, you can’t really compare us! And look who’s talking! Like you yours is a super dad! I would hardly call his cheating marathon as…”
“That’s enough, Sharon!”
“Where are you going?” he tried to change the topic. Neither of their dads were example citizens.
“In this weather?” he asked, but she ignored him. He watched her pulling her calf-length boots on. Wait – with what?
And she was picking fights now? Since when? He glanced in the living room, where his sister was staring daggers in his back and groaned. The front door slam and Nicolette jumped up.
“Sit down,” he ordered her, “I’ll sort this out.”
He growled, grabbing the car keys from the hanger and switching his slippers for overshoes. He followed her out of the door and in the front yard.
“There is no bus after eight, remember?” he shouted to the figure heading towards the gate.
“I’m not taking the bus!”
She was aggravating, he decided, jogging after her. The whole family… he swore under his breath. It was gonna be a long ride. If he managed to get her in the car in the first place. Shouldn’t be a problem?
“Come on, you’re not thinking of walking ten miles!”
“Yes I am!” she replied with a hard laugh.
He slowed down to full stop. She usually didn’t react to his attacks, letting them slide. Now he felt like cornering an animal.
“Sharon, be reasonable.” He whispered, but realized she couldn’t possibly hear that and winched, forcing his feet to move.
“Where are you going?” he asked again, sick feeling crawling in his stomach. He knew she was stubborn, but he had never seen her act so spiteful.
“Home!” she repeated, but stopped abruptly and let out a long sigh.
“What’s gotten… into you?”
He got around in time to see the color slowly leaving her cheeks.
“Why is it so hard?” she asked him with sigh. Her shoulder slumped and her eyes derailed from his face after quick glance and added, staring at the trees in the distance. “I never imagined it to be so hard…”
“What is hard?” he asked, knowing she was talking about asking for the loan, but the way she acted? Cold breeze had disintegrated her smell and he frowned, when the composition of it confused him more than before.
“I better go.” She started walking again, missing his question. “I’ll get there soon.”
“Where? You parent’s place?” They lived only four miles across the alder forest. “Come on, I’m not gonna let you walk through forest by yourself!”
“To the city.”
“Are you mad? At such hour?” he watched her ignore his shouts. Judging by her weirdness, he thought better to accommodate her. “Ok, ok, come on, I’ll take you with the car…”
His eyes fell on the bonfire they had on the open field. Why did he suddenly think of camp fire?
His eyes widened. She smelled like she’d walked through smoke!
He walked behind her and watch with sickening feeling growing in him as her head began shaking as to tell somebody off while her voice was calm and serene like summer morning.
“Don’t bother, I’ll walk. I need to clear my head anyway.” She nodded like convincing herself. “Yes, I’ll walk and sort things out.”
“Sharon, I’ll take you home!” he offered again, catching up on her at the gate, while cracking down on the reasons why she smelled like camp fire. Her clothes told him she’d come there straight from work anyway – why would she make a fire? But then again, the black rand on her cuff and her closed jacket…
“I can’t go there.” She said so quietly he thought he hadn’t heard. “So, there’s nowhere for you to take me.” She shrugged and suddenly burst laughing. “Shelter!” She pointed up her finger and nodded. “Yeah, that would be a start.” She nodded, resolved, her both hands now taking stronger hold on her small purse.
“Why would you need to go to a shelter? What happened to your apartment?” The gravel under their feet crunched as she set back on the road. “Sharon! Will you stop? I’ll take you home later, but I can’t talk with you running away! Sharon?” he pried. “What happened?” He pulled her back around so they were facing each other again, determined to make her speak, why she really came.
The mask was back and her face was expressionless like in the living room. He felt his patience grow thin and prepared to end this charade for good, but pulled back on a last second. This was a play, he reminded himself, her way to control it.
“I’m sorry I came. Truly, had I known you object my visit that much, I would have gladly spared both of us this discomfort. Thank Nicky for me, will you? I really need to go home now.”
The practiced expression flew out of her before the meaning hit her and brought tears in her eyes and her exterior crumbled in front of his eyes. The smell flooded his senses and for a moment he thought he could taste the bitter undertone of charcoal.
He searched for her shoulder, tossing keys in his left hand, and pushed her gently backwards to the bench they had placed near the gate. She felt the damp wood and collapsed on it while he crouched in front of her.
He didn’t want to rush her. She’d rubbed away some of her make-up when she dried her tears and the dark circles surrounding her grey irises were now visible, only adding paleness to her face. He hated seeing her like that. It was clear something had happened, but her stubbornness was rivaling to his and he knew she would walk the entire road back to city with him accompanying her from the car without any trouble never accepting to sit in the car. He waited. Calmly, he said to himself, he needed to be patient. Their families might not be on good terms, but he liked her, despite ever admitting it to her. After she coached it out of him last Midsummer’s Eve, things had gone off between them. She couldn’t even look at him directly anymore. It poked his pride and not for better. There was no more Happyland, only brutal, hurtful rectitude. He hoped their openness to each other had survived this storm. He needed her to stay honest with him.
“What happened?” he asked, making sure his voice was assuring and warm, when she dared to look his way.
Her eyes flicked down on her black purse. “You’re right, I came to borrow money.”
His eye twitched, but he suppressed his urge to lash out another allegation before he knew more. He waited while she desperately tried to get her breathing back in rhythm. Even if she was here for money, he didn’t care anymore. She was clearly in trouble and upset enough that she’d had to come to begin with.
She swallowed hard and her eyes jumped back on him. “I’m sorry!” She kept repeating it, searching forgiveness, which he finally gave with gentle nod and assuring her it was ok, but the way her eyes blinked before travelling away, he doubted if she’d seen it. “I thought it would be better to ask Nicky. Someone who knows I’d pay back for sure. They wouldn’t give me loan from the bank and…” her words faded into whisper before she rapidly caught her breath.
Though her words reminded her father’s attempts, the pain she expressed in her face was nothing like her father’s. He had never heard anyone loaning her money. Not even a cent. To have her suddenly on his doorstep, asking for loan scared him. For all the years they’d been in contact, he remembered his father say how all Gerrig family were nothing but rats. Untrustworthy vermin. scraping To her worth, she had never acted up to those words and secretly he felt proud for her.
Whatever it was, he decided it could wait until morning. Good rest and then he’ll call her and sort this out. But if it was for her father, he swore he’d cut her out of his sister’s circle of friends! And his, he added while pushing himself up. But right now she needed sleep.
“Come on, I’ll take you home.”
“It’s gone.” She blurted in whisper, like embracing herself for the inevitable. “Henrietta burned our flat down.”
Kick in his stomach wouldn’t have caused such damage as her secret.
He fell back to crouch. His first thought was, he’d ask her to repeat what she just said, but realized he’d guessed it already. The signs were there. Still, hearing it voiced out made it hard to stomach at first.
“I’ve been going around all day trying to get any loan from the banks, but they all turned me down. Who would have thought with this sensible loaning attitude it’s nearly impossible? Some 18-year-old just determined that I’m not suitable for a loan, because I don’t have my documents anymore! Even when I told her I just lost it in fire and need the money for the new set of papers!”
She was shivering. The air had cooled, but it wouldn’t have made her shiver so hard. He reached for her hands, sensing how cold they were, but resisted he urge and recoiled, pushing himself up and turned away. He pulled his hands over his face and through his short hair.
“And Henrietta?” he asked drily. Was she even…
“Her parents came picked her up yesterday.”
He felt relief. At least she didn’t have to deal with that. He turned around. “They didn’t take you with them?”
“I had 24-hour shift,” she began slowly, “I got home this morning. She called me from safe 300 mile distance and cheerfully announced that she had a small accident. Just when I got out of the bus! I lost everything in that fire…” she mumbled.
He wrapped his hands over his chest and bellowed the first thing that came to his head. “She should pay for damages!”
“I haven’t got that far yet.” She said tiredly and blinked hard. “I need to get some sleep first. I called some friends, but they thought it odd that I would need a day or two and I couldn’t make myself tell them, why…”
“Why?” he crouched in front of her, repressing the need for tact with her. Her fingers curled away and hid under her elbows.
“Yes, I know now it was foolish of me.” She whispered, turning her eyes away.
“I have never been in situation, where I must ask somebody’s help, ok?” she looked straight at him. “Never!” her eyes bounced away. “I’m sorry I’m just ashamed to ask… Mom called me yesterday and said they were planning to get new windows and I planned to tell her what? That I needed just as much for the new apartment? That house really needs new windows…” she brushed her tears away. “And brother asked if I could borrow him some for new shoes. I said I can’t and asked instead if I could stay at his place for a while. I don’t remember, what he said, but…” She paused to take another deep breath, “and Caroline told me it would be better to make the girl’s night at my place without listening me at all…”
She looked up in the sky and to the first stars appearing in the sky and breathed in. “So I came here. But if you object the idea of me even visiting, then…” She looked at him staring at the flower next to them. “I’d really appreciate if you could take me to city. I should have some battery left on my phone,” she dug in her purse, “I’ll call to City Info, surely they have some shelter address where I could go to until I get this sorted out and…”
“I’m sorry?” It came out sharper than he expected. “I’m not taking you to city!”
“I-I can walk if it’s inconvenient. It ‘s just few miles…” she swallowed hard and jumped up, suddenly horrified and scared.
“You’re staying here.” He stood up.
“I won’t ask Nicolette, I promise, ‘cause, really, I don’t want her get in a row with you.”
“You honestly think I’m letting you go in some shelter after what you’ve just told me?”
He frowned hard. “This must be exhaustion talking! You can stay in the guest house until you have things sorted out.”
He shot her a warning look. “It’s not begging. Forgive me I even suggested it. I’m inviting you to stay just to make up for the insult.”
She didn’t follow him immediately and he stalled, waiting her to come in terms with the offer.
“Edward,” she started wearily, “If it will cause friction between you and Nickey, I don’t think it would be good idea!”
“I’m not even discussing that!” he played hurt, knowing full well Nicolette would give him headache should he return without her.
“Thank you.” She whispered, stirring up a smile in him and they walked back to the house in silence.