My life was never the same after Sabine and her family moved in across the street. I was eight years old, but something deep inside said this girl was different than all of the others.
It was a Saturday in mid-December when I first saw her. I stood transfixed at my second-floor bedroom window as two adults and two young girls piled out of a station wagon wearing scarves, coats, and boots.
My mom chose that moment to walk up behind me. I glanced at our own wardrobe—T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops—and then back out the window. I asked her why our new neighbors were dressed so funny. She just smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and said they were from the Midwest.
I spent the rest of the day watching the adults unload a U-Haul truck. The two girls had been ushered inside, and I could see their heads bopping about between the two front windows on their second floor.
Tommy Neilson had lived in that bedroom directly across from mine for my whole life. We'd been best friends. I remembered every detail of his bedroom. Where his loft bed was that we had built a fort underneath. The gouges in the wall behind the door from when we'd gotten a little rough re-enacting Star Wars with scraps of wood from his father's workbench. The special hiding place in the window seat for the frogs we'd caught by the stream (his mom found that a little too late).
I was instantly angry that all of the trucks and action figures and sports paraphernalia would be replaced with Barbie dolls and princesses and everything pink. I didn't want girls to move in there. I wanted Tommy. Or in the least, I wanted another boy to play with.
Everyone else on our street was old. I had prayed for the past three months that I wouldn't be the only kid on the street. When they had placed the "Sold" sign out front two weeks ago, I had doubled my prayers. It wasn't what I had hoped for, but I guess two girls were better than another old couple.
I wasn't formally introduced to Sabine until a couple of weeks later. Arizona summers can be unbearably hot. I went to the local pool as much as I could, which was practically every day if the sun was out, just like most of the kids my age.
I remember standing on the end of the diving board when Sabine walked across the cement deck to a couple of empty chairs. Her mother and sister were with her. After they deposited their towels, her mother pointed directly at me and then waved.
I should have just ignored her. But my mother had taught me manners, so I waved back. And then Sabine turned my way. I was mid-bounce, and instead of making a graceful cannonball as I had planned, I tripped on my own two feet and tumbled the five feet down to the water into a painful belly flop.
I surfaced, choking and sputtering water, and found my friends were doubled-over with laughter. My eyes turned to Sabine. I guess I expected her to be like everyone else. When I saw that she wasn't laughing—that her eyes were wide as she pressed her hands to her red cheeks—I swallowed my embarrassment and smiled at her.
She smiled back, and I forgot all about the pain—from hitting the water and from my teasing friends.
I brushed my wet hair out of my face and marched myself over to her to say hello.
That summer, both my parents and I gained new friends. I still missed Tommy, but I wasn't complaining anymore that another boy hadn't moved in across the street.
When school started in the fall, Sabine was constantly bullied by the popular girls for being the new kid. I was with my friends one day in the schoolyard before the morning bell rang when we saw the girls block her from getting on the swing set. I didn't hear the whole conversation, but it was obvious the popular girls didn't think she would ever be a part of their circle of friends.
I walked right up, took Sabine's hand, and led her back to the guys without a word. I don't know what those girls thought about that, but she told me they never bothered her again. Needless to say, she didn't join their clique. She didn't have to. She joined mine.
That was twelve years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. The years in between are a bit of a blur. Nine months out of the year, we were in school. And in the summers, we hung out at the pool when the weather was nice. When it wasn't, we played board games or watched movies at each other's houses. We celebrated every birthday together, and our families even got together for the minor holidays.
We were best buds. The kind that helped each other with homework while watching sitcoms on TV. Or teamed up with you to dunk your friends at the pool. She was one of the guys.
Once we reached high school, we started dating amongst our classmates. It became a habit to call each other when we got home from a date to relay what happened, usually picking it apart and laughing until our parents told us to hang up and go to bed.
But everything changed seven hours ago. Our parents were on a weekend retreat together. Her sister Claire—who was two years older—was still away at the university. We were both twenty-one, on winter break from community college, and neither of us had dated anyone for several months.
The sky had been overcast all day. This morning, I had stared out my bedroom window as the four adults packed up my parents' SUV. Across the street, Sabine stood in her window, watching the same scene. When she waved at me, I couldn't get the feeling out of my head that there was something besides a storm building on the horizon.
After my parents left, I went through my routine of lifting weights and running on the treadmill while watching classic reruns of Law and Order on TV. I had just gotten out of the shower and was shoveling down a bowl of cereal when the phone rang.
"Are you decent?"
I snorted. "Am I ever?"
She laughed. "So you're naked?"
I glanced down at the towel wrapped around my waist and grinned. "Only half. Worked out. Just got done showering. "
There was silence on the other end.
"Sabine? You okay?"
"Uh, yeah. Fine." She cleared her throat. "Do you have any plans for today?"
"No, not really. You?"
"I was going to work in the art studio, but the weather is too crappy. Paint won't dry well."
I thought of the shed out behind her house. We had a matching one in our backyard. Only difference was, ours had a lawnmower, wheelbarrow, and gardening tools while hers had easels, brushes, and tubes of oil paint.
Sabine was a wonderful artist. Her work was mostly abstract designs, but she had started to paint some landscapes after having to do one for an art class project. I had one of her first pieces framed on my bedroom wall. It was a bunch of blue squares in one corner and a single, red triangle surrounded by brown circles in the opposite corner, all on a gray background. She had labeled it, "Protector." I didn't need to ask her what it represented.
"Zach, are you still there?"
"What? Huh? Oh, yeah. You're right, this isn't painting weather." I plopped down on the couch and propped me feet up on the coffee table. I frowned at the darkening clouds outside, feeling that tension in the air before the sky opened up. "This is movie-watching weather."
She laughed again. It was light, airy almost. Musical. I loved hearing that sound. I loved knowing she was happy. "That's why I ran to the video store."
Which is how I found myself throwing on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and running across the street half an hour later. I made it to her front stoop just as light rain started to fall. Thankfully, we didn't believe in knocking, so I hurried inside and shook out my wet hair.
"Good thing you took a shower." Sabine grinned at me from the kitchen where she was filling a bowl with popcorn.
"Yeah. But at least I'm not sweaty anymore." I swear she shivered when I said that. "So what did you rent?"
"I have a variety. They're by the TV. Go pick something out. You want a beer?"
"Is a blue bird blue?" I chuckled, shaking my head. We knew each other so well.
I picked a comedy, popped it into the DVD player, and then sprawled on the left side of the couch, remote control in hand.
"Beers and popcorn," Sabine said with a smile as she joined me, raising the hand holding both bottles by the neck, and then her other hand with the bowl. She looked different, but I couldn't tell what it was. Her hair, maybe?
"The perfect combination." I just grinned back her.
She stared at me, tilted her head and blinked, and then disappeared again. She returned shortly with napkins and plopped down on the other end of the couch without a word. One of my legs was stretched out behind her, my other leg bent and resting on the cushion between us. Her body was warm against my leg, and I sighed inwardly.
The previews started. I took a long sip from my bottle. It was cold and refreshing. Especially after my workout this morning. When she handed me the bowl, I took a handful of popcorn at the same time she did. I winked at her when our hands touched.
She froze, her green eyes bright, and then slowly took the bowl back. I raised an eyebrow, curious why she was acting strange, but she didn't say anything. Then we both settled back to watch the movie.
The thunder and lightning started about thirty minutes later. Pouring rain followed, and I snuggled deeper into the corner of the couch. I was comfortable, at ease. But my foot was falling asleep—warm, but tingly—behind Sabine's back. I wiggled it a little to wake it up, and Sabine squeaked.
"Sorry," I laughed.
She giggled. Although it seemed forced, as if she were nervous.
We were halfway through the movie when the power went out. For several long moments, we just sat there, staring at the blank TV. I could hear my even breathing, feel Sabine's against my leg. I finished my beer and set it aside. The sound of the bottle on the glass-topped end table seemed loud.
I cleared my throat. "So, now what?"
"Another beer?" Her voice was high-pitched. "They won't stay cold long without electricity."
"Sure. Wouldn't want them to get warm."
She lurched to her feet and disappeared towards the kitchen. I heard the rattle of bottles when she opened the fridge. The click and hiss when she popped the tops. The bang and her soft curse when she ran into something.
A moment later, Sabine returned with two new bottles and sat beside me again. While the interior of the house was dark, it was still light enough outside the picture window to see her silhouette. She pulled her knees up under her and curled into the corner of her end of the couch. Her bottle was raised halfway to her lips, and she seemed to be staring across the room. At what, I wasn't sure.
"Are you okay? I thought I heard—"
"Nope, just fine." She took a long swig and then sighed audibly. "Well, I guess watching a movie is out of the question. We could play a board game. There are candles in the kitchen. Flashlights, too. Or we could just talk."
I smiled and sipped at my own drink. "Talking is good."
And so for the next hour, we talked about everything and anything. Eventually she relaxed. She laughed. I laughed. It just felt good. Comfortable.
But I was getting hungry, and the power still wasn't on. I wondered how far the outage covered. Would any fast food restaurants be open? I really could go for a pizza. I heard Sabine say something about Christmas and turned my attention back to her.
"I'm sorry, I spaced out there for a moment." My stomach rumbled as if to prove why I was distracted. I laughed and reached out to grasp her hand.
She leaned her head back against the couch, her face turned toward me even though I couldn't fully see her expression. "It's nothing. Nevermind."
I squeezed her hand. "No, Sabine. What were you saying?"
"Christmas is next weekend. Are you going to see your grandparents again?"
"Probably, but Mom and Dad haven't said anything yet. You?"
"Claire should be home from college on Wednesday. We'll probably just stay here as usual." I heard the slosh of liquid as she tipped her bottle back to take a drink. "You know, I still haven't gotten used to not having snow on Christmas Eve."
"Hey, it's what you grew up with. It's got to be hard to up and move like that, especially at Christmas time." I set my bottle aside and moved across the couch to hug her sideways. "Don't feel bad about it. You should go back east sometime to visit your grandparents for Christmas and have your snow. I'd be happy to go with you. I've never seen the stuff."
"Really?" She smiled up at me.
I shrugged. "Sure. That's what best friends do."
She shrugged this time. "Yeah, I guess so."
I went to move my arm away, wondering if I had offended her in some way. But she shifted and leaned against me, resting her head against my shoulder. I let my hand dangle off her shoulder, my fingertips brushing the sleeve of her T-shirt.
She sipped from her bottle and then said, "So are you all done with your shopping?"
I nodded, and then remembered that she couldn't see me, lights or no lights. "Yep. Wrapped under the tree already, too."
"Lucky. I still have a few to get." She tilted her head back to look at me, and I could see her scrunch up her nose. "Do you have a hard time buying your parents a present?"
I laughed. "They said to always get them a gift card to their favorite restaurant. I wouldn't want to disappoint them. But I usually give that to my dad and then get my mom some of her favorite coffee."
She didn't comment. The sound of the pelting rain against the window and the occasional rumble of thunder and crack of lighting interrupted the silence. I actually kind of liked it. It was peaceful.
A moment later, Sabine's body moved under my arm. At first, I wasn't sure I had felt anything. But slowly, the movement increased, and I was definitely sure now.
"Sabine, are you crying?"
She nodded against my shoulder.
"Tell me why?"
She sniffed and rubbed the back of her hand at her eyes. "My boss usually gets each one of us a little gift for Christmas. It's never anything much, just a little trinket. But it's the thought that counts."
I lowered my hand to pat her back. She hiccupped, and I let my hand linger, smoothing light circles across the soft texture of her shirt. "That sounds very kind of her. But that doesn't explain why you're crying, sweetie."
"This year, she bought the department a Keurig coffee maker."
"Wow. That's a very nice gift."
She tilted her head up and stared at me. "I'm the only one who doesn't drink coffee."
It took a moment for that to sink in. "Oh!"
She burst into tears again. I wrapped both of my arms around her now and pulled her back against my chest so that my nose was buried in her hair. When I inhaled, I had to close my eyes. The lavender aroma filled my head, making me lightheaded for a moment. I snuggled deeper, my chest growing tight and warm. I'd never held her like this before. It was nice.
"I felt like Cousin Eddie in Christmas Vacation." She hiccupped again. When she continued telling me the story, she waved her free hand about in the air, as if that would get the words out faster. "You know, when Clark wants to fly everyone out to christen the new pool, and Eddie tells him he can't swim, and Clark says, 'I know Eddie,' because no one likes Cousin Eddie. "
I knew exactly what she was trying to say, but I couldn't speak due to the fear that the laughter building up inside would spill out.
Her hand was flying a mile a minute now. " 'I don't drink coffee, Mrs. Martin.' 'We know, Sabine.' It's all a big conspiracy."
I couldn't suppress it any longer. Women get so worked up over the littlest things. My chuckle started low and deep and just got louder. "You are NOT Cousin Eddie! I don't think she did it intentionally."
"Hey! You're supposed to be on my side!" She smacked my leg with her free hand and strained against me, trying to break loose of my embrace.
I remembered that day at the pool and sobered immediately, tightening my arms around her. I dipped my head so my mouth was by her ear, my nose brushing her jaw. "I am on your side. I know you feel hurt by your boss's ignorance. I'm sorry I laughed."
"Are you really?" She turned her head just enough so she could see me over her shoulder.
"I am." My voice felt tight, sounded rough. And in that moment, when I saw how her eyes were glossy from crying, saw the doubt deep within when lightning flashed behind me, I knew I was crossing the point of no return. Her despair was my undoing.
I released one hand and brought it up to hold her chin still. She inhaled sharply, her lips parting just the slightest bit, her body stiffening. Ever so gently, I leaned forward and pressed my lips to hers, swallowing her gasp of surprise. Her bottle fell to the carpet with a thud, but neither of us cared.
I had meant it to be a short kiss. But fate had other plans. As soon as our lips met—hers soft and warm, mine suddenly dry—she moaned and relaxed against me, tilting her head back. Her eyes closed, her mouth pliant against mine as I deepened the kiss.
My hand on her chin slid up her jaw, loving the way her smooth skin felt against the roughness of mine. My fingers buried in her soft tresses, clutching and releasing them over and over again. Her hair still laced between my fingers, I moved my hand to cradle the back of her head and turned her to face me.
She moaned, pulling me against her, and gravity took over. As she fell back against the couch, she pulled me down with her. We both grunted at the same time, and I adjusted my body, moving the bulk of my weight to my forearms resting on either side of her head.
She felt so damn good. She tasted like beer and popcorn and something else—peppermint, I deduced after a moment. I grinned against her lips, pulling back slightly. She had brushed her teeth before I came over. I had been right—she had done her hair, too. She had been hoping for this.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" She was panting. Her hands gripped my shoulders, struggling to pull me back to her.
"Because I'm finally seeing what was right in front of me all of these years."
She inhaled sharply again, and when she did, her chin tilted up.
I groaned and lowered my mouth to hers, moving gently against her lips despite the growing desire to kiss her senseless. My thumbs grazed back and forth over her temples. I had to close my own eyes this time, just relishing the feel of her.
It was my turn to gasp when she opened her mouth wider and flicked her tongue at my lips. And then I moaned, pressing my mouth harder against hers, my tongue sliding out to meet hers. I tilted her head so I could get a better angle, and she moaned in response.
We continued like this for a long time, our heavy breathing and intermingled moans drowning out the storm. At some point, her hands had moved up to bury in my hair, to guide my head how she wanted. Our tongues tangled and I had to check myself once again to keep a languid place. I did not want to scare her by going too fast.
I never wanted to stop kissing her. I chastised myself for not seeing the signs over the years. I wanted this woman, and she wanted me.
I groaned again when Sabine slowly pulled her knee up to frame my hip. Just that simple gesture of her leg rubbing against mine made me go hard. Not that I wasn't already on my way, but her receptive action finished it. I shifted to get more comfortable, and she whimpered when my erection pressed against her.
"We don't have to do that," I said softly, finally releasing her. I stared into her dark eyes, her cheek hot under my hand. I brushed my thumb over her swollen lips. I gasped when she licked at it.
"Zach, I have never wanted anything more in my life." Her voice was low, and damn sexy. As if to reassure me, she tilted her head up and took my thumb into her mouth, closing her lips around it and swirling her tongue round and round the opposable digit.