Recluse

byTeurastaja©

It was a hot Tuesday in June. I was at work, manning one of the two registers in the small grocery store I was working at for the summer. I sighed and pulled my long blond hair into a high bun, trying to catch a breeze on the back of my neck, though the air outside the open door seemed to be even hotter than the air inside. I leaned against the counter and watched my co-worker, Jackie, snapping her gum and reading a magazine. There wasn't a single customer in the store; I was beginning to wonder if this was worth 10 dollars an hour.

The shift manager, John, came out of the office and handed me a grocery list with an address scribbled on top. "You have a car, right, Jen?" I nodded. "We've got a delivery. Bag the stuff on this list and deliver it. He always pays cash." John waddled back into the office and I grabbed a bag and started collecting the groceries. It seemed like a normal mix of things for a single person, a lot like what I might buy for myself. But why couldn't a single person come do their own shopping?

When I got in my car I thought I was going to die from the heat. I rolled all the windows down (my AC is busted) and cranked the music up. On the way there I tried to think of reasons for someone to get their groceries delivered. I only came up with DUI and crippling agoraphobia before I got there. I grabbed the bag and bounded up the steps of a modest little white house with an overgrown lawn.

I gave a sharp rap on the door and waited. There was a glass panel in the door but it was very dark inside and I could only see a vague man-shape moving down the hallway to the door. "Who is it," a deep voice growled from within.

I was sure he could see me on the sunny porch, even though I couldn't see him inside, but I answered anyway. "I'm from Gillert's? I have your groceries." I said, hefting the bag up for him to see.

There was a pause and then "Just a minute," the man grunted, and retreated back down the hallway. I put the heavy bag down on the mat and stretched my arms above my head, happy to be out of the store for a little while. When I heard the chain rattle on the door I bent to pick the bag up and take it inside. "Leave it on the mat." The deep voice barked. I straightened up and took a step back.

"It's, uh, $18.50," I said, holding up the receipt. The door opened a crack and a large hand emerged, holding $25.

"Keep the change," he rasped.

I took the bills and put the receipt in his palm. "Thank you!" I said brightly. The door snapped shut. I hesitated a moment and then hopped back down the stairs to my car. I took my time putting on my seatbelt and adjusting the radio. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious customer but the door didn't open again.

The next Tuesday morning I was at the register again, trying not to die of boredom when the phone rang. I let it ring three times, assuming John would pick it up in the office. He must have been grooming his mustache or something, though, so I picked up. "Gillert's this is Jen. Can I help you?" I pulled a pen out of the bun in my hair, ready to take down a message.

"Yeah, I need some groceries delivered," a familiar deep voice rumbled down the line.

"Hey, I know you," I exclaimed brightly. "101 Maple Ave. right?"

There was a pause. "Yes."

I waited a moment for him to say more. "So what can I get you today?" He listed a few items, mostly the same as what he got last week. "Ok," I said when he had finished. "I'll collect these and see you in a bit!"

"Alright," he replied.

When I got to the little white house I set the grocery bag down on the mat and gave the door a smart rap with my knuckles. I bounced on the balls of my feet, waiting for the mystery man to answer the door. When I saw his shape approaching down the hall I waved at the dark glass.

"It's $20.19 today," I called through the door, reading off the receipt. There was a pause and he unlocked the chain, reaching just a hand through to give me the money. I took the bills but instead of giving him the receipt right away I grasped his hand in my own. There was a moment when I thought he was going to pull his hand back but he stopped. "My name's Jen," I said, giving his hand a firm businesslike shake. His palm was warm and dry, his nails well groomed.

There was a long pause but he didn't let go of my hand. "I'm Gabriel," he said, finally, softly.

I couldn't help but grin; I wanted to jump up and down. "It's so nice to meet you Gabriel! Will I see you next week?"

Gabriel withdrew his hand and chuckled darkly. "No, but I'll probably order groceries."

I laughed out loud; I hadn't realized how I'd worded my question. "Ok then. Bye Gabriel!" I jumped down the steps to my car again.

I spent the week wondering about the mysterious Gabriel. Why wouldn't he come out of the house? What was it like in there? Even if he didn't want to come out for some reason why wouldn't he even let me see him? Could he be hideous? He didn't sound hideous, if that makes any sense. I actually thought his voice was kind of sexy. It was deep but he didn't sound old; maybe 30 if I had to guess. I decided he could probably use a friend.

Next Tuesday I was excited and waiting for Gabriel's call. He greeted me by name and I almost started jumping around with excitement. The radio antenna on my car had recently snapped off in a freak me-driving-too-close-to-a-tree accident so I was listening to my iPod. I know you're not supposed to drive with headphones on but I can't stand to drive without music.

I knocked on the door and did an air-drum solo while I waited for Gabriel. I was startled to hear HIM knock on the door. I'd gotten really into the air drumming and closed my eyes, not noticing his shape darkening the doorway. "Oh!" I exclaimed, pulling the ear-buds out. "Hi Gabriel. It's $19.04 this week."

"What are you listening to?" Gabriel asked, handing the money out around the door.

"Teurastaja," I said. "By Turmion Katilot. They're from Finland."

A pause. "Could I listen?" Gabriel rumbled. I restarted the song and handed the iPod around the door to him. I sat down onto the doormat next to the grocery bag while he listened. After a few minutes Gabriel's hand appeared again, giving my iPod back. "Not what I was expecting," he said; it sounded like he was sitting down on the floor too. "You look more like a One Direction girl, Justin Bieber, something like that."

I laughed. "I guess you're right. Don't judge a book by its cover and all that." I stretched my legs out, touched my toes. "What about you? What kind of music do you like?"

He was quiet for a while. "I like oldies, I guess. Like from the forties and fifties."

"Cool," I said. "But you're not like...sorry this is totally rude. How old are you?" I hoped I wasn't about to scare him away.

Gabriel chuckled. "I'm 32. How old are you?"

I grinned. "Guess! Nobody ever gets it right."

"Hmm," Gabriel mused, mock deliberating. "Stand up?" I stood. "And turn around?" I put my arms out to the sides and spun slowly. My hair was loose, falling in long waves down my back. I was acutely aware of just how awesome these shorts made my ass look. "21."Gabriel said.

My mouth popped open, everyone assumes I'm older. "Well done!" I exclaimed. "That's it exactly!" I plopped down next to the door again.

"Do I get a prize?" Gabriel asked teasingly.

"I don't know," I mused, smirking. "What did you have in mind?" Were we flirting? How bizarre.

"Never mind," Gabriel said, suddenly gruff again. "You should go." And with that the door snapped shut.

"Bye?" I said. But I think he was already gone.

I wasn't sure what to expect the next week. Gabriel called like usual. John the shift manager picked up but Gabriel asked to speak to me especially. I took down his grocery list, all the usual items. "Hey Gabriel?" I said, before he could hang up. "Do you like strawberries? We just got a delivery of these totally kick-ass local strawberries."

"I do, actually." He sounded surprised. "I'll take some of those, too."

"Okey Dokey. I'll see you in a minute." I said, adding strawberries to the list. "Or...not. Y'know." He was chuckling when we hung up.

We exchanged the money around the doorway as usual. I didn't want to leave just yet but I wasn't sure if Gabriel wanted to talk. "Jen?" he rumbled, just as I was about to leave. I turned back around. "Do you like strawberries?"

I grinned. "I love them."

"Do you want to, um. Do you want to share them? With me?" he sounded almost nervous. I was starting to picture him in my head as, like, a bear; gruff and dangerous but also cute. I sat down cross-legged on the door mat and fished the pint of strawberries out of the bag, setting them down right in the open space of the door. I popped one in my mouth, biting off the green top and tossing it off the porch into the long grass. Gabriel's hand appeared, selected a strawberry and retreated. "Mmm. These are good," he rumbled. "Thank you, for telling me."

"No problem," I smiled, eating another strawberry. "Gabriel?"

"Yeah?" he sounded guarded.

I'd been about to ask him the big burning question but I chickened out at the last moment. "Tell me about yourself?"

He seemed to relax. "Only if you return the favor."

I nodded, remembered he couldn't see me. "Ok."

"Ok. Well, my dad was from New York, my mom was Romanian, they moved here and had me. No siblings. I grew up in this town. Went, to high-school, joined the army. My parents both died young. I was deployed oversees and when I came back I moved in here." I waited. "And that's it."

"Hmm, the abridged version," I said, nibbling another strawberry.

"Your turn," Gabriel said, choosing another berry with long brown fingers.

"Um, well I was born in California. I grew up there and my family moved here when I was 12. I probably went to the same high-school you did! Now I'm in college, one more year! I'm studying physical education."

"Like to be a gym teacher?" Gabriel asked, laughter at the edge of his voice.

"Yup." I answered. I was used to getting that reaction.

"Wow, no, that's really cool. It's just that all the lady gym teachers I've met were not like you." He was really laughing now.

"Don't laugh!" I chided, laughing. If he were really here I would have swatted him. I checked my phone. "Shoot, I'd better go. They'll miss me." I got up and dusted myself off.

"I'll miss you." He said, very quietly.

It made my heart wrench. I couldn't stand the thought of him all alone in there all day. "Gabriel," I said, kneeling down right by the door. I reached my hand inside, trying to find him. He caught my hand and held it in his own strong grip. "You know I don't just have to come on Tuesdays..." I felt awkward, like I was setting up a play-date.

"Come back tomorrow?"

"Ok. I'll come by after work. Thanks for the strawberries." I felt something on the back of my hand before he let it go, something brief and warm. A kiss.

The next day I took special care getting ready. After work I changed in the store bathroom from my usual shorts and a t-shirt into a sundress, it was certainly hot enough for it. As I brushed out my hair and applied a little mascara my thoughts turned towards Gabriel for the millionth time. Learning that he had been soldier was interesting to me. My first assumption was PTSD but he didn't really seem to have any problems except that he wouldn't leave the house. I couldn't help wondering what had happened to him.

When I got to the little white house there was a dining room chair in the porch next to the door.

I knocked and waited for Gabriel to come, I hadn't actually told him what time I finished work; I hoped he hadn't been waiting. I knocked again and finally I saw his silhouette moving down the hallway. Late in the afternoon like this the light was behind the house and I could see him a bit better than I could before. I still couldn't see his face but I could make out his shape. He was tall and broad shouldered. I could see the muscles of his arm flex as he reached up to brush a hand over his head.

"Hey Jen," he said, sounding a little out of breath. "I was working out, I didn't hear you. I wasn't sure when you were coming." His voice seemed even sexier to me now that I had some idea of what he looked like.

"No problem. Thanks for the chair!" I said, smoothing out my dress and taking a seat.

I heard wood creak as he sat down, too. "You look beautiful today." He growled, a little nervously.

"Thanks," I smiled.

I watched the sun set and he watched the wall of the hallway (presumably) and we chatted about a million things. Movies, food, our childhoods and things we remembered about the town and school. He got us a couple of beers and we clinked bottles around the door, giggling. Finally I realized that the sun had set and I was exhausted and needed to get to bed before I fell asleep in my chair.

"I'm gonna head home, Gabriel. This was fun." I didn't get up yet, though.

"I enjoyed this," he replied warmly. "Come back any time. Really."

"K." I hesitated, then went for it. "Gabriel?" I said, before I had time to lose my nerve "Why won't you let me see you?" I held my breath waiting.

He was silent for a long time. "You don't want to see me, Jen. You don't want to know." He sounded so sad. All I wanted to do was take him in my arms and prove him wrong.

I opened my mouth to protest and changed my mind. "Ok but I'm not giving up. I'll be back."

"I'm counting on it," he was smiling. I got up to go. "Wait. Give me your hand." I placed my slim hand into his broad one and he drew it around the door. I felt his lips again on my fingers this time, gently kissing each one. I leaned against the doorframe, breathing shallowly. He released me. "Goodnight Jen."

"Goodnight Gabriel," I whispered.

When I made my Tuesday grocery run there was a little purple and white flower waiting for me on the mat. I picked it up with a smile "Pretty. What is it?"

"An orchid," Gabriel said as he handed me the grocery money. "I grow them."

"Inside," I clarified.

"Yes. Of course inside." He said a little tensely.

"Gabriel?" I tried again. "Will you just tell me? I won't freak out, I promise."

There was a charged silence. "I thought you were going to let it go."

"I'm just curious. And I like you. I want to see your face."

"You don't want to see my face," Gabriel said sharply. "I think you should go." He closed the door and left the hallway. I was frustrated and a little angry. Why didn't he believe me? I couldn't imagine it being bad enough for me to care. And how did he think our friendship was going to progress? We couldn't keep having conversations around a door forever. I left in a huff and didn't return all week; if he wanted to contact me he knew where I worked.

On Tuesday it rained. I waited for Gabriel's call. I'd cooled down by now and I was ready to make friends again. The day dragged by and it got to the end of my shift but no phone call. I even asked John if he'd taken any messages but no cigar. I told myself that Gabriel was probably just still mad at me, or he didn't need groceries. But a nagging part of my brain worried that something had happened to him.

I'd planned on just going home after work but my car seemed to drive to Gabriel's house all by itself. I sat in my car by the curb for a long time, watching the rain pour down the windshield in sheets. Finally I pulled my hood up and ran for the porch. The worn wooden steps were slippery from the rain and as I ran, my foot slipped out from under me. I went down hard, hitting my forehead on the corner of the chair that was still sitting next to the door.

I must have blacked out for a moment because the next thing I realized I was being picked up and carried down a dark hallway. My head was resting against Gabriel's muscular shoulder. "I'm bleeding on your t-shirt," I mumbled. I heard his familiar chuckle above me. Gabriel sat me down on a toilet seat.

"Close your eyes, Jen. I have to clean out this cut." I closed my eyes obediently. I felt a little dizzy and there was a pain above my right eye. I suppressed the urge to touch it. I heard Gabriel fumbling around and felt a sharp sting as he dabbed at my cut. "Sorry," he mumbled. He placed a Band-Aid carefully on my forehead and I slowly opened my eyes.

Gabriel was crouched on the floor in front of me, looking into my eyes nervously, waiting for me to run. The right half of Gabriel's face was a mangled mess of scar tissue. Most of his cheek and one ear were missing. It looked like skin had been grafted and sewn on, pulling the right side of his mouth up in a sneer. The dark hair on the left side of his head had been shaved to match the mottled pink burn scars on the right.

While the right half of his head would be considered monstrous, the rest of him was handsome. Whatever had ravaged his face had spared a classical aquiline nose. His lips were full and sensuous and he regarded me with large dark eyes. He was a big man, with broad shoulders and a wide chest. I could see the prominent muscles of his chest and arms stretching the soft fabric of his shirt.

"Hey you," I said, smiling at him for the first time. "Thanks for rescuing me." He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to get scared. I reached out and touched his forearm delicately with my fingertips. He looked at my hand, then back to my face. I grinned wider. It was so nice to finally see him.

He smiled back, tentatively at first. It transformed his face completely and already I couldn't think of him as anything but handsome. "You're such an asshole," I whispered, teasingly. "Did you think I'd be afraid of you?"

"Or disgusted," he murmured. "After a few too many bad experiences I decided it was easier to just hide."

"What happened?" I whispered, reaching up to gently brush my fingertips over his burned skin.

He sighed and closed his eyes, relaxing under my touch. "It was a bomb," he said, as if for the thousandth time. "Booby-trapped door. I opened it first, got a face-full of shrapnel. This is eight surgeries later," he gestured derisively at his ruined face. "Good as it's gonna get."

I tilted my head to the side, studying him. "I think you can pull it off," I said matter of factly. "It's all about the attitude anyway, right?" I grinned at him. "So what do you want to do tonight?"

He looked up at me doubtfully. "Are you sure you're ok? You hit your head pretty hard."

I waved my hand dismissively. "This in nothin'. I feel better already. Give me a tour?" He gave a tentative nod and helped me to my feet. "Wow, you're tall." I slapped a hand over my mouth; sometimes I wish I didn't have to speak every thought out loud.

Gabriel grinned at me and patted the top of my head. "Six foot six." He took my hand gently in his own. "Well this is the bathroom," he said, gesturing around. He led me down the hallway to point out the living room and the kitchen. The house was very tidy and organized. Still towing me by the hand Gabriel led me up the narrow staircase. "And this is my bedroom," he said, finally. The only room upstairs, his bedroom was the largest room in the house. Like everything else it was neat and modern, dominated by a king sized bed in the center, covered in a grey blanket.

"Nice," I said. "Ooh, I got blood on you." I indicated the dark spots on the shoulder of his t-shirt.

"Hmm!" he said, looking down at his shirt in surprise. He pulled it over his head in one fluid motion and I bit my lip, trying not to check him out too obviously. He was muscled like a boxer, heavy and thick. I couldn't help recalling my first imagination of him as a bear. Gabriel strode across the room to toss his shirt into the laundry basket and got a clean one out of his dresser.

"Oh please don't!" I blurted out, as he started to pull the shirt on. Gabriel raised an eyebrow at me. My heart was pounding. I took a step towards him and then another. Not meeting his eyes I placed my hands gently on his chest, feeling the soft dark hairs there with my fingertips. Gabriel gently encircled me with his huge arms. When I did look up at him his gaze was tender and questioning.

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