I was off from the diner the next day. When I woke up and looked at the clock, it was eight seventeen. I startled slightly. I hadn't slept that late in months and months, but I supposed it was to be expected being that I'd hardly slept the night before. I sat up slowly, the room coming into focus. I felt heavy and groggy as I swung my legs over the side of the bed. My sleep-filled head had barely started to clear when a sound came from outside, just a branch dropping, or a boat engine backfiring in the distance, but my brain grabbed it and catapulted me straight into my waking nightmare–I froze, terror seizing up my muscles, my brain screaming. I watched through the small window in the door separating me and my dad. He saw me in his peripheral vision, and started signing Hide, over and over, as the man screamed at him to put his hands down. My dad couldn't hear him, and his hands continued to move only for me. My body jolted as the gun exploded. I cried out and my hand flew up to my mouth to stifle the sound as I stumbled backwards, instantly filled with shock and horror. I tripped on the edge of a box and fell down backwards, drawing my legs up under me, trying to make myself as small as possible. I didn't have a phone back here. My eyes flew around the room looking for something I could hide behind, somewhere I could crawl. And that's when the doors swung open…
Reality rushed back in as the world around me cleared and I felt the bedspread gripped in my fists. I let out a gasping breath and stood shakily, rushing to the toilet just in time. God, I couldn't do this forever. This had to stop. Do not cry, do not cry. Phoebe sat on the floor at my feet, moaning softly.
After several minutes, I got a hold of myself. "It's okay, girl," I said, petting Phoebe's head reassuringly, for her, but also for me.
I stumbled to the shower and twenty minutes later as I pulled on my swimsuit, shorts and a blue tank, I felt a little better. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and grounded myself. I was okay.
After finishing a quick breakfast, I pulled on my sandals, grabbed my book and my towel, called to Phoebe, and stepped outside into the warm, slightly muggy air, the mosquitos already buzzing around me, and a frog croaking somewhere close by.
I took a deep inhale of the fresh air, the smell of pine and fresh lake water filling my lungs. As I climbed on my bike, Phoebe in the basket in front, I was able to exhale.
I rode down to Briar Road again and sat on the small beach area I had sat on a couple days before. I immersed myself in my novel and before I knew it, I was finished and two hours had flown by. I stood up and stretched, looking out at the still lake, squinting to see the other side where boats and jet skis moved through the water.
As I folded up my towel, I thought that it was a stroke of luck that I had ended up on this side of the lake. The peace and quiet was just what I needed.
I put Phoebe back in the basket and I pushed my bike back up the slight incline to the road, and pedaled slowly back toward Archer Hale's fence.
I pulled to the side as a mail truck drove past me, the driver waving. The tires kicked up dust so that I coughed, waving the gritty air in front of me aside as I pulled back onto the road.
I rode another hundred feet and then pulled over and stood looking at the fence again. Today, because of the way the sun slanted in the sky, I could see several rectangles on the wood that were just a little bit lighter, as if signs had hung there once, but had been removed.
Just as I began to start moving again, I noticed that the gate was very slightly ajar. I stopped and stared at it for a few seconds. The mailman must have been delivering something here and left it open.
I pulled my bike forward and leaned it against the fence as I pulled the gate open a bit further and peeked my head inside.
I sucked in a breath as I took in the beautiful stone driveway leading to the small, white house about one hundred feet from where I was now standing. I didn't know what I had been expecting exactly, but this wasn't it. Everything was neat and tidy and well cared for, a very small span of emerald green, recently mowed grass between some trees, to one side of the driveway, and a small garden in wood pallets directly to the left.
I leaned back out, starting to close the gate when Phoebe jumped out of the bike's basket and squeezed herself through the narrow opening.
"Shit!" I sputtered. "Phoebe!"
I pulled the gate back open just a bit and peered inside again. Phoebe was standing just down the driveway, looking back at me, panting.
"Bad dog!" I whispered. "Get back here!"
Phoebe looked at me, turned tail and trotted further away. I groaned. Well, shit! I walked through the gate, leaving it open slightly behind me, and continued to call to Phoebe who apparently thought I could kiss her little doggie ass as much as she was listening to me.
As I moved closer, I could see a large stone patio and walkway in front of the house, built up on either side, and adorned with large planters full of greenery.
As my eyes moved around the yard, it suddenly registered that there was a loud, banging noise ringing out every few seconds. Was someone cutting wood? Is that what that sound was?
Phoebe trotted around the house and out of sight.
I tilted my head, listening and adjusting my weight between one foot and then the other. What should I do? I couldn't leave Phoebe here. I couldn't go back to the gate and yell loudly for Archer to answer–he couldn't hear.
I had to go in after her. Archer was in there. I was not a girl who was willing to put herself in dangerous situations. Not that I had before–and yet, danger had found me anyway. But, still. Walking into unknown territory wasn't something I was thrilled to be doing. Damn little, misbehaving dog. But as I stood there considering, working up my nerve to go in after Phoebe, I thought about Archer. My instincts told me he was safe. That had to count for something. Was I going to let that evil man make me doubt my own instincts for the rest of my life?
I thought about how my hair had stood up on my arms the minute I heard the bell ring on our front door that night. Something inside me had known, and standing here now, something inside me felt like I wasn't in danger. My feet moved forward.
I walked down the driveway slowly, inhaling the pungent smell of sap and freshly mowed grass, continuing to call softly to Phoebe.
I took the stone path around the house, trailing my hands along the painted wood. I peeked around the back of the house and there he was, his bare back to me as he raised an axe over his head, his back muscles flexing as he swung downward, cracking an upright log straight down the middle so that three pieces all fell outward and landed on the dirt.
He bent down and picked them up and placed them in a stack of neatly piled pieces sitting under a tree, a large tarp off to one side.
As he turned back around to the stump where he was chopping the smaller pieces, he caught sight of me and startled and then froze. We both stood there staring at one another, my mouth slightly open and his eyes wide. A bird trilled somewhere nearby and an answering call echoed through the trees.
I closed my mouth and smiled, but Archer remained staring for several beats before his eyes did one quick sweep of me and returned to my face, narrowing now.
My eyes moved over him as well, his well-defined naked chest, all smooth-skinned muscles and rippling abs. I had never actually seen an eight-pack, but there it was, right in front of me. I guessed that even slightly strange, silent hermits weren't exempt from exceptional physiques. Good for him.
He was wearing what looked like a pair of khakis, cut off at the knees and tied at his waist with a… was that a rope? Interesting. My eyes moved downwards to the work boots on his feet and back up to his face. He had tilted his head to one side as we studied each other, but his expression remained the same–wary.
His beard was just as scraggly as the first time I had seen him. Apparently, his knack for lawn trimming didn't extend to his own facial hair. That could use some major edging. As long as it was, he must have been growing it for some time now–years probably.
I cleared my throat. "Hi." I smiled, moving closer so that he could clearly read my lips. "Sorry, to uh, bother you. My dog ran in here. I called her, but she didn't listen." I looked around, no Phoebe in sight.
Archer brushed his overly long hair out of his eyes and his brows furrowed at my words. He turned his body and lifted the axe and buried it in the tree stump and then turned back around to me. I swallowed heavily.
Suddenly, a little white fur ball shot out of the woods and trotted toward Archer, sitting down at his feet and panting.
Archer looked down at her and then bent and petted her head. Phoebe licked his hand exuberantly, whining for more when he withdrew and stood up. Little traitor.
"That's her," I said, stating the obvious. He continued to stare.
"Uh, so, your place," I went on, waving my hand around, indicating his property, "is really nice." He continued to stare at me. Finally, I tilted my head. "Do you remember me? From town? The candy bars?" I smiled.
He continued to stare.
God, I needed to leave. This was awkward. I cleared my throat. "Phoebe," I called. "Come here, girl." Phoebe stared at me, still sitting at Archer's feet.
I moved my eyes between Archer and Phoebe. They were both completely still, two pairs of eyes trained on me.
My eyes settled on Archer. "Do you understand me? What I'm saying?" I asked.
My words seemed to get his attention just a little. He stared at me for a beat and then his lips pursed and he let out a breath, seeming to make a decision. He walked around me and toward his house, Phoebe following close behind. I turned to watch him, confused, when he turned, looked at me and signaled me with his hand to follow him.
I assumed he was walking me back to the gate. I hurried behind him, speed-walking to keep up with his long strides, the little traitor known as Phoebe staying with Archer the whole time, but turning to watch me follow, yapping excitedly.
When I made it up to where he was standing waiting for me, I said, "You're not, like, an axe murderer or something, are you?" I was joking, but it did occur to me again that if I screamed, there wasn't anyone who would hear me. Trust your instincts, Bree, I reminded myself.
Archer Hale raised his eyebrows and pointed down the slight incline to where he had left his axe, stuck in the stump. I looked down at it and back at him.
"Right," I whispered. "The whole axe-murderer thing doesn't really work if you don't have your axe."
That same miniscule lip quirk that I had seen in the parking lot of the drug store made the decision for me. I followed him the last of the way to the front of his house.
He opened his front door and I gasped when I looked inside and saw a big, brick fireplace flanked by two floor to ceiling bookcases full of hardbacks and paperbacks. I started moving toward them like a mind-numb, book-loving robot, but I felt Archer's hand on my arm and halted. He held up his finger to indicate he'd just be a minute and walked inside. When he came back out a couple seconds later, he had a pad in his hands and he was writing something on it. I waited, and when he turned it to me, in very neat, all upper case letters, it said:
YES, I UNDERSTAND YOU.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU NEED?
My eyes darted up to his and my mouth opened slightly to respond, but I snapped it shut before answering his question. Kind of rude question, by the way. But really, did I want anything else? I chewed on my lip for a minute, switching my weight between legs again as he watched me, waiting for my answer. The look on his face was wary and watchful, as if he had no idea if I was going to answer him or bite him, and he was prepared for either.
"Uh, I just, I felt badly for the other day. I didn't know you didn't… speak, and I just wanted to let you know that it wasn't intentional, what I said… I just… I'm new in town and…" Well, this was going really well. Jesus. "Do you want to get a pizza or something?" I blurted out, my eyes widening. I hadn't exactly decided to go there, I just had. I looked at him hopefully.
He stared back like I was an advanced math problem he couldn't interpret.
He frowned at me and then brought his pen to the pad, never breaking eye contact. Finally, he looked down as he wrote and then raised the pad to me:
I couldn't help the laugh that erupted. He didn't smile, just kept looking at me warily. My laughter died. I whispered, "No?"
A brief look of confusion passed over his face as he watched me and he picked up his pad and wrote something else. When he held it up, he had added a word under his first one. It now said:
I let my breath out, feeling my cheeks heat. "Okay. I understand. Well, again, sorry for the misunderstanding in the parking lot. And… sorry for barging in on you today… that my dog…" I scooped Phoebe up in my arms. "Well, it was nice to meet you. Oh! By the way, I didn't really meet you. I know your name, but I'm Bree. Bree Prescott. And I'll just let myself out." I hitched my thumb over my shoulder and walked backwards and then turned hurriedly and walked briskly back up the driveway toward the gate. I heard his footsteps behind me, walking in the opposite direction, back to his woodpile, I assumed.
I let myself out the gate, but didn't close it all the way. Instead, I stood on the other side, with my hand still on the warm wood. Well, that was weird. And embarrassing. What had I been thinking asking him to have pizza with me? I looked up at the sky, putting my hand to my forehead and grimacing.
As I stood there thinking about it, something occurred to me. I had meant to ask Archer if he knew sign, but in my awkwardness, I had forgotten. And then he brought out that stupid pad of paper. But it was now that I realized, Archer Hale had never once watched my lips as I talked. He had watched my eyes.
I turned around and walked back through his gate, marching back down to the woodpile behind his house, Phoebe still in my arms.
He was standing there, holding the axe in his hands, a piece of wood standing upright on the stump, but he wasn't swinging. He was just staring at it, a small frown on his face, looking deep in thought. And when he spotted me, a look of surprise flashed over his face before his eyes settled into that same narrow wariness.
When Phoebe saw him, she started yapping and panting again.
"You're not deaf," I said. "You can hear just fine."
He remained still for a minute, but then he stuck his axe in the stump, walked past me and looked back in the same way he had done the first time, gesturing to me to follow him. I did.
He walked through the door of his house and again emerged with the same pad and pen in his hands.
After a minute, he held the pad up:
I DIDN'T TELL YOU I WAS DEAF.
I paused. "No, you didn't," I said softly. "But you can't speak?"
He looked at me and then brought the pad up and wrote for half a minute and then turned it toward me:
I CAN SPEAK. I JUST LIKE TO SHOW OFF MY NICE PENMANSHIP.
I stared at the words, digesting them, furrowing my brow and then looked up at his face. "Is that you being funny?" I asked, still frowning.
He raised his brows.
"Right," I said, tilting my head. "Well, you might want to work on that."
We stood there staring at each other for a few seconds, when he sighed heavily, brought the pad of paper up again and wrote:
IS THERE SOMETHING ELSE YOU WANT?
I looked up at him. "I know sign language," I said. "I could teach you. I mean, you wouldn't get to show off your penmanship, haha, but it's a quicker way to communicate." I smiled, hopeful, trying to make him smile too. Did he smile? Was he even capable?
He stared at me for several beats before he placed the pad and pen down gently on the ground next to him, straightened up, brought his hands up and signed, I already know sign language.
I startled slightly, and a lump came to my throat. No one had signed to me for over six months and it brought my dad, the feel of my dad's presence, front and center.
"Oh," I breathed out, using my voice because Phoebe was in my arms. "Right. You must have talked to your uncle that way."
He frowned, probably wondering how I knew about his uncle at all, but he didn't ask. Finally, he signed, No.
I blinked at him, and after a minute cleared my throat. "No?" I asked.
No, he repeated.
I exhaled. "Well, I know it sounds kind of stupid, but I thought maybe we could be… friends." I shrugged, letting out an uncomfortable laugh.
Archer narrowed his eyes again but just looked at me, not even writing anything down.
I looked between him and the pad, but when it became clear that he wasn't going to "say" anything, I whispered, "Everyone needs friends." Everyone needs friends? Really, Bree? Good grief, you sound pathetic.
He kept looking at me.
I sighed, feeling embarrassed again, but also disappointed. "Okay, well suit yourself, I guess. I'll just go now." Truly, why was I disappointed? Travis had been right–this guy just didn’t respond to niceties.
He stared at me unmoving, his deep, whiskey-colored eyes flaring as I began to back away. I wanted to move all that shaggy hair out of his face and get rid of the facial hair so I could really see what he looked like. He really did seem to have a nice face under all the shaggy scruff.
I sighed heavily. "Okay. Well, then, I guess I'll be on my way…" Just shut up already, Bree and GO. Clearly this person wants nothing to do with you.
I felt his eyes following me as I turned and walked up the driveway and out his gate, this time shutting it firmly behind me. I leaned against it for a minute, scratching absently under Phoebe's chin, wondering what was wrong with me. What had been the point of all that? Why hadn't I just gotten my damn dog and left?
"Damn dog," I said to Phoebe, scratching her more. She licked at my face, ruffing lightly. I laughed and kissed her back.
As I got on my bike and started riding away, I heard the chopping begin again.