Light of Dusk Ch. 01byMused©
Thanks to Chargergirl for all her feedback and support.
This story features the main characters from my story "Light of Dawn." It is a sequel, but reading the previous story is not essential.
Fear, the emotion was unfamiliar. Jeff rarely experienced fear on the field. Even when hounded by three-hundred pound goliaths intent on tearing him apart, he never lost his cool. That's why he was so good.
With legs like wet noodles and a mouthful of bitter, salty saliva, Jeff slouched against the front door of his old home, a place he vowed never to return. His fingers were stiff and icy, despite the sticky weather. His left hand trembled as he clumsily reached for the doorbell. The doubts and fears he had concerning his return magnified as the chimes echoed within the familiar stucco walls. What am I doing here? More than a year had passed since home had been home. He had been gone an eternity, and now, without as much as a phone call, he expected to waltz back into their lives.
He hunted through the pockets of his cargo shorts for the invitation. Finding the manila card, his green eyes repeatedly traced the writing. The words embossed on the wedding invitation cruelly remained the same no matter how many times he read them. Dawn had moved on, started a real life, a life Jeff desperately wanted to be part of, even if that part was as nothing more than a brother.
He briefly relived their last conversation, before resting his forehead against the beige stucco wall. There was a time when his kid sister was more than a painful memory. There was a time when she was the sweetness in his life, the warmth, the light. A lock turned on the other side of the door.
A crease formed on Jeff's brow. The long absence had left him ill prepared for this moment. She would be angry with him. He wasn't part of her life anymore. How could he be stupid enough to think she'd be happy to see him? His lips pinched tightly as he once more considered bolting.
It was Vince Kramer who opened the door, his eyes growing wide at the sight of a son long absent. "Jeff?" Jeff's father hadn't aged a single day, if anything the fifty-two year old high school teacher looked younger and fitter. The gray had retreated from his sideburns and the sag had left his broad shoulders. At least someone had benefited from the long separation.
"I didn't think you would come." His father offered a hand. Jeff hesitated before shaking.
"I wouldn't miss my kid sister's wedding, not for anything." He worked free from his father's grasp. "Although, considering I've never really told anyone where I live, it was pretty amazing to receive an invitation." Jeff had severed all ties to his old home when he moved to Calgary. Many people were undoubtedly upset. What did he care? He never intended to return.
"You're not exactly living in anonymity up there, Mr. Football Star. I switched satellite companies four times until I found the channel that broadcasted the Canadian league."
"Which still doesn't explain---"
"I called the satellite company; they gave me the address for the network; the network gave me the address for the team; and the team gave me the address for my son."
"Positively diabolical," Jeff said, "but how did you con Dawn into the invite? I would figure to be the last person she'd want to see on her wedding day."
Vince sighed then grinned dumbly. What little warmth the reunion with his father had generated immediately fled Jeff's body. The invitation was his father's idea. She didn't even know. Dawn didn't want him. Any hopes that he and his sister could somehow share a normal relationship melted away. He wanted to leave more than ever, to spare himself the pain of seeing her again, seeing what he could never have.
"She's upstairs. You should surprise her."
Some surprise. After two years of exile, her creep of a big brother returns uninvited. Why doesn't he understand? Dawn got rid of me for a reason.
"The last year has been difficult for her. Since you left, she's not the same girl. She was depressed for the longest time." He caused her pain. Jeff felt a brief flash of pride. The pain surely paled to his own, but it felt good to know she had not endured the separation so easily. "She pretends that it doesn't bother her, but I'm her father and I know better."
Jeff pushed the pride aside. Feeling joy because of someone else's pain, that wasn't him anymore. That was who he used to be.
"I suspect being away has been difficult for you." Vince Kramer's eyes dipped to the floor. "Whatever tore the two of you apart doesn't change the fact that she's your sister." No, nothing will ever change that. "She still needs you. With everything that's happening in her life, she really could use her big brother."
Jeff wasn't sure if he remembered how to be a brother; it had been so long.
Against his better judgment, he climbed the staircase, pausing in front of his old bedroom. He flipped on the overhead light and peeked inside. His former sanctuary was an office now, a cold and sterile cube jammed with computers, frayed extension cords, and reams of printer paper.
Jeff moved across the hall to the threshold of his kid sister's bedroom. Here, at least, everything remained the same. A well-worn cream carpet blanketed the floor, while the walls reflected a familiar shade of apricot. The girlish movie posters were gone, replaced by impressionist art prints. Most of her doll collection had been stored away, but a few favorites remained, proudly displayed in a mirrored curio bolted to the wall. Even with the changes, the effect remained the same: still warm, still inviting, still Dawn.
She appeared as if by magic, materializing the way she did in his dreams. A cloud of steam followed her from the connected bathroom, evidence of a recent shower. Small, wet feet padded across the cream carpet. She paused in front of the vanity to tease her long red hair with the tips of her fingernails.
Jeff's attention bounced from his sister to the equally lovely twin reflected in the vanity mirror. She wore a snug pair of denim shorts and an ivory brassiere, an outfit that allowed Jeff to reacquaint himself with healthy amounts of her body.
The bra, designed more for support than titillation, had been constructed without so much as a drop of color or an inch of lace. The shorts, however, were quite titillating. Abysmally blue denim clung to the curves of her hips and backside, hugging her body with material snug enough to encroach between the crevice of her buttocks.
The dark shorts provided a startling contrast to her naked legs. Pink from the hot shower slowly receded under the gentle breeze of the air conditioning, revealing the fairness of her complexion. The skin stretched tight across her body, giving both flesh and bone the illusion of having been wrapped in wet paper. From the doorway, twelve feet away, Jeff could trace the spider-web patterns of shadowy veins beneath the surface of Dawn's delicate skin. Halfway up her back, the paleness faded; generous freckling painted her shoulders and arms with the illusion of an unnaturally orange tan.
She looked so fragile, like a porcelain figurine. Looks were deceiving, though. Dawn was strong, far stronger than he was, in spite of her delicateness.
The scent of sweet shampoo drifted to the doorway, tickling his nostrils with the essence of strawberries. She reached for a chunky plastic brush and began taming her long red hair. Dawn hummed a cheery tune. Her voice was melodious, hypnotic. She quieted as the jade of her eyes focused on a knot of red hair. Jeff willed the inappropriate tingle in his shorts away, realizing too late that the harp strings in her throat had seduced him all over again.
Consolidating his courage, Jeff knocked on the opened door. "Just a minute, Daddy." Dawn continued to hum as she threw a short silk robe over her shoulders. Her pleasant mood would be short-lived.
She turned and for the first time noticed Jeff. A familiar pair of dimples formed on her freckled cheeks. All too quickly, they disappeared. "You," she whispered.
"Me." His words were barely more than a whisper. The ghost had returned from the grave with expected results. She turned to the mirror with dizzying speed but couldn't escape the glare of his reflection. A few tears leaked through her tightly closed eyes. Dawn covered her lips to stifle a sob. The reaction removed any lingering hope that their reunion would be a happy one.
"Don't be upset, please." Breaking the silence was like breaking glass. Jeff hesitated at the threshold, debating whether to wrap his arms around her, or step back out of her life forever.
He was prepared to choose the latter when she called to him. "Jeff." An act as simple as the passing of his name through her lips reminded Jeff of a forgotten part of himself, a part that remembered how it felt to be hugged, kissed, and truly loved. He felt taller, stronger, so unlike the man who had endured the past year. "I've missed you." Her confession almost stopped his heart.
"Not as much as I've missed you." He was certain of that. She had found someone to fill the void in her heart. He had not.
Jeff stepped inside the bedroom, moving closer, his eyes drawn to the silver-framed picture on the vanity. A stubby, thick-necked man stared back, displaying lifeless gray eyes and a feeble curve of a smile. He almost snickered. This is the man who won Dawn?
She rested her fingers on the frame. "His name is Roger." She caressed the face in the photograph. Her smile and sigh dug at Jeff, as if to say, See, I can have a normal life.
Roger looked like a clown. Worse than a clown, he looked generic. With an assembly line haircut and an ugly pie face, he looked painfully ordinary. Generic, ordinary, and ugly, his sister deserved so much better. "You would like him," she said.
He wanted to laugh in her face. Like him? Jeff had never hated anyone more, not in his entire life. Instead of laughing, he pointed out the streaks of gray generously distributed through Mr. Generic's sideburns. "He looks old."
"Old! He's not old!" Her sweet voice, even when tinged with irritation, was music. Jeff smiled; the jab had coaxed Dawn out of her shell, if only to defend her new love.
"Alright, how not old is he?"
Dawn released her protective hold on the silver frame. "He's only thirty...five."
Thirty-five, that's practically middle-aged! What could a thirty-five year old man possibly see in a twenty-one year old girl? Jeff needed little imagination to decipher that riddle. He silently fumed. Dawn doesn't belong with some thirty-five-year-old dinosaur. She belongs with someone younger, ten years younger, at least.
He wanted to have a friendly conversation, not a debate, so he set his anger aside. "Is he a good man?"
"Roger is a doctor at County General. He does important---"
"That's not what I asked. Is he a good man? Does he make you feel safe? Does he remind you of how special you are? Does he cherish you?"
Dawn had trouble meeting Jeff's gaze. "Cherish me? I'm not some kind of precious gem."
"Oh yes you are." Jeff found the courage to touch her arm. Goosebumps raised on her freckled skin. Dawn forgot her grip on the silk robe; it slipped open, exposing her bra. Jeff released her arm, giving her the option of covering herself.
Ignoring the robe, she caught his retreating arm and sighed. "He makes me feel safe." She put pressure on his arm, leaning her weight against him. "He has a great sense of humor, and when he makes me laugh I almost forget..." She closed the robe and retied the sash. "There are so many things I want to forget."
After more than a year Jeff's feelings for Dawn burned bright as ever. "I can't forget," he admitted, "not you, not us." She backed away, her bare feet padding on the cream carpet. His fingers closed around her hand, stopping her retreat. For just a moment her fingers threaded through his and they held hands the way they used to.
"Jeff, stop." She wrestled her moist palm from his grip. "You can't change things." Dawn stepped back, separating them by the gulf of an arm's length, close yet far.
"Who said anything about changing, Sunshine." She smiled when he used her pet name. The dimples lit his heart for the briefest moment. "Maybe, I just want to wish my kid sister good luck. Maybe, I just want to say goodbye." Maybe.
"Do you have plans?" she asked. The question took Jeff by surprise. His back and neck stiffened. He stretched to make himself look as tall as he suddenly felt. "We're having the rehearsal banquet this evening." Her words shrunk him back to size. "If you want to be at the wedding tomorrow you should meet Roger and his family tonight."
Jeff grinned dumbly and promised he would attend. He did not, however, promise to be on his best behavior. He retreated from her room, letting his mind drift. Seeing Dawn had dredged up so many memories, some of them painful. How did it happen? When did I start feeling this way?
His troubles started the moment he allowed his sister to become something more than his sister, a moment easy to pinpoint. Jeff closed his eyes to remember, thinking back to the first time he truly saw her as a woman. In his mind, the lush greens of a June morning made way for the reds and browns of a parched August. Memories almost two years old seemed as fresh as yesterday, with Jeff a fifth-year senior at Choteau University and Dawn a timid freshman about to start her first day at the same college.
Does she ever think about how it all started, he wondered.
Dawn paused in front of the closet. She hadn't seen Jeff, hadn't talked to him. Those weren't the impressions of size fifteen shoes marking a path from the door to the vanity. How could they be? Her brother was half a continent away, deaf and dumb to everything but the goofy version of professional football played in Canada. He was completely unaware of her upcoming wedding.
Sweet spices tickled her nose, shattering any denial. The lingering odor of Jeff's cologne confirmed the familiar scent of a familiar man. Dawn rubbed her arm, tracing the goosebumps his mere touch had birthed. She dug an old t-shirt from the closet and slipped it on. The shirt was worn and faded, the victim of too many tumbles in the hot dryer, but it still fit.
Dawn took a quick glance in the mirror and frowned. Choteau U's logo was splashed across the front of the dingy white shirt. The logo unearthed a thousand memories, some good, and some very, very bad. A large portion of those memories centered around Jeff. He would like that. He likes it when things center around him. She smiled in spite of herself.
An electronic ring broke the silence. The cordless phone resting on the vanity lit up. Dawn read the caller ID, County General Hospital. She steadied her breath and pressed receive. Roger was always concise, just a "Hi" and a "How are you" and whatever quick question about the wedding he could cram between the morning's patients. Today he blurted an apology about the rehearsal banquet; an outbreak of the mumps would make him late. Before Dawn could assure him his work was more important, he was off the line. She sighed. The life of a doctor.
She placed the phone on the vanity beside Roger's silver framed photograph. As if for the first time, she noticed the crinkles on her fiancé's brow. There were gray hairs too, lurking amongst the dark brown sideburns. So he's no Jeff. In her lifetime, Dawn had come across very few Jeffs.
Roger was handsome in his own way. He was gentle and kind. The hospital paid him well, so he could afford to be generous. He spoils you, big deal. Grandpa spoiled you too. She was free to love Roger. They could touch hands in public. They could croon dopey love songs to one another at the karaoke bar. With Roger, Dawn didn't have to feel guilty; she sometimes did, but she didn't have to.
Dawn followed the trail of enormous shoeprints through the hallway. She tried to match the prints with her own bare feet, but thanks to his enormous stride, the size fifteen impressions were spaced impossibly far apart. The trail led to Jeff's bedroom. Jeff's old bedroom, Dawn reminded herself as she stepped inside. She almost expected to find the big iron bed beside the picture window, instead of the utilitarian office furniture recently installed by her father.
Jeff hunched over the computer desk, his legs awkwardly wedged beneath the sliding keyboard drawer. He squinted at the flat panel screen and pecked the keyboard with fingers as lanky as the rest of his body. He swiveled his neck and showed her a flawless smile. Dawn smiled back; at least she supposed she did. Sometimes her body had trouble with even the simplest functions when Jeff smiled. He turned back to the screen, accessing an e-mail website.
The taps of the mouse buttons were hard to distinguish from the tapping of her heart. She studied him, noticing how much his body had changed.
Dawn remembered late evenings spent in the bleachers of Jackson Field. Watching her brother's football practices had become an unlikely hobby. Back then, Jeff had seemed little more than an amalgamation of arms and legs; Ichabod Crane in football pads, she had always thought of him. His chest and arms had definition now, his shoulders too. As he shut down the computer and stretched, more muscles appeared beneath the ribbed material of his pewter gray t-shirt. Jeff was no Incredible Hulk (he was still far too thin for that), but the skinny boy she remembered was gone.
He wheeled the chair from the desk and swiveled to face her. "So when do I meet old man Roger?"
"Tonight, at the rehearsal banquet," she said before adding, almost as an afterthought, "and he's not that old." Poor old Roger, he actually looked forward to meeting his future brother-in-law. Dawn took a deep breath as she imagined her new love meeting her--meeting her brother. She knew Jeff, knew him better than anyone. Tonight would be a train wreck, and short of sending Jeff away, she could do nothing about it.
He must have sensed her confliction. "I can still leave if you would feel more comfortable."
Like he cares. He wants me to be uncomfortable. "No, Jeff, you're my brother. My brother should be here." Brother, brother, brother. She repeated the word, reinforcing the fact.
"You're right," he said. "I should be here." He untangled his long legs and rose from the desk chair. Somehow, Jeff seemed taller than he did a year before. She knew it was impossible; guys stopped growing in their twenties. Maybe, she reasoned, the new muscles made him seem larger, more imposing. Whatever it was, he towered over her as he had never towered before.
A sound like an old door with rusty hinges emanated deep within his gut. Hunger, she realized. "I'm starved. They only passed out peanuts on the flight. Did you eat lunch?" he asked.
"There's some pizza in the fridge from last night. Onion and... onion and wild mushroom." She and Roger had dined at the new gourmet pizzeria on Spruce Street the previous night. To tell the truth, the expensive and pretentious wood-roasted pizza wasn't very appetizing. She'd had better from the freezer, but Roger wasn't a frozen pizza kind of guy. For Dr. Walker it was gourmet all the way.
"We could go out, catch up like a couple of old friends...or siblings...or whatever." She forgot how cute Jeff could be when his confident veneer faded and he stuttered and rambled like a normal human being. "I'll pay and everything," he said. There was a glint of hope in his mossy eyes.
She squeezed a fistful of her damp, red hair. "I just stepped out of the shower." Garbed in the snug t-shirt and even snugger pair of denim shorts, she felt decidedly underdressed. Not that he looked overdressed. A ribbed tee and tobacco-brown cargo shorts could hardly be considered formal attire, but he was Jeff, and Jeff looked great in anything. Even the scuffed and faded hiking shoes looked rugged and sexy on his feet.