The Artist's Wolf Ch. 07bybrightlyiburn©
Chapter Seven: A Light in the Darkness
Snow crunched noisily under Gabriel’s boots as he made his way up the stairs into the school building. Can’t they shovel these things? he thought, stomping the snow off his boots. Someone is going to slip and hurt themselves. And if it’s me, I’m going to hurt someone else! He was in a bad mood, and had been for days. The problem of Aislinn was constantly on his mind; even more so because she hadn’t been in school for a week. He hoped she’d be here today. If not, Gabriel was going to have to go to her house, which meant talking to her parents. He didn’t like that at all.
I thought she would call or visit by now, he thought, rubbing his temples. At least for the sake of her art project…she usually takes that so seriously. He stopped at his locker long enough to retrieve some books, then headed down to the art room. If she was in school today, that was where she would be. Gabriel stopped outside the art room door and peered inside, quickly scanning the room. Aislinn’s seat was empty, as it had been every other day this week.
Snarling, he stomped back to his locker, shoved his books back inside, and raced out into the hazy, cold winter day once more. Gabriel grabbed his helmet, pulling it on quickly, and hopped onto his motorcycle. He didn’t care if he got in trouble; he was an adult, he could always call himself out sick if he had to. He had to remember to be careful on the slippery roads as he raced towards Aislinn’s home.
Her car was in the driveway, but her parents’ car was not. Good, maybe I won’t have to deal with them, Gabriel thought as he walked up to the door. He knocked, but got no response. Frowning, he tried the doorbell this time, and finally heard an indistinguishable shout from inside. A moment later the door opened. Aislinn was in flannel pajama bottoms and an oversized night shirt, and she was carrying a box of tissues beneath her arm.
“Gabriel!” Aislinn exclaimed, surprised. “Why aren’t you in school?”
“I was going to ask you that,” Gabriel told her. “But seeing you, I think I can guess.”
Aislinn smiled wanly and sniffled. “Stubborn cold. Come inside, it’s freezing out there.”
He was relieved to see that she was okay, but something had him unsettled. Gabriel hung his coat up on the rack beside the door, then followed Aislinn into the living room. The carpet was amazingly plush, a soft sand color, the couches were all elegant white leather, the coffee table looked like expensive mahogany; so many things that were far too expensive for him to touch. Aislinn settled on the couch, amid a bunch of blankets, then patted the spot next to her.
“It’s okay,” She said. “You can sit. Why are you here?”
“You haven’t been in school all week,” Gabriel pointed out as he sat gingerly on the couch next to her. “I was wondering where you were.”
Aislinn blinked. “It‘s not that big a deal. I‘ll go back when I‘m better.”
Gabriel stared at her. She’s not going to ask why I didn’t check up on her sooner? he wondered. Why is she acting like this? Because now he could see what was wrong; the usual warmth in her pale blue eyes was missing. It was not the first time he’d seen that mistrustful look before, in the eyes of someone he had cared very much about. It brought all the painful memories. Without thinking, Gabriel grabbed Aislinn, dragging her close. He closed his arms around her and held her tight.
“Don’t, Aislinn, please!” He begged. “Don’t turn away from me, too.”
Gabriel was relieved when he felt her arms around him. Her hold was light and tentative, though. After a moment Aislinn pulled away and stared at him curiously. I owe her an explanation, he thought, staring down at her bemused blue eyes. I didn’t want to ever dredge up these memories again, but I owe her.
“I have to tell you something,” Gabriel said. “You aren’t going to like it…but I owe it to you to explain.”
Aislinn shook her head. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”
Smiling wanly, he took her hand in his, and pulled her with him as he stretched out on the couch. Gabriel wrapped an arm around her waist, supporting her against his side, and entwined his fingers tightly in hers.
“Stay like this, okay?” He said softly. “Until I finish speaking…just, please, don’t let go…”
Aislinn nodded. “I won’t. I promise.”
He felt like a child again, lost in the horrors of what had happened. Aislinn’s warm presence at his side made the memories a little easier to bear as they came rushing back to him. Her small hand holding his tight helped to ease the fear that made his heart pound wildly.
“When I was thirteen, something very bad happened,” Gabriel began. “I had a sister…she was my only real family. We lived together in a foster home. It wasn’t so bad; the people were pretty nice. But she was scared so often, so I promised I would protect her.” He took a deep breath, then forged ahead. “When she was twelve, she started getting into boys. Older boys. Fifteen, sixteen…I tried not to let it concern me. As far as maturity levels go, a twelve year old girl and a fifteen year old boy pretty much even out.”
Aislinn snickered, and Gabriel paused, peering down into her eyes. At least she can appreciate my sense of humor, he thought, gently brushing a strand of hair from her cheek.
“Mary, that was her name, our real parents were very religious,” Gabriel continued. “She was so quiet. She started going out with this guy…he claimed he was from a high school in the next county, said he was sixteen. Maybe I should have been suspicious but…he really didn’t look older than sixteen. I dunno, I was thirteen, I wasn’t the best judge, and I guess I didn’t pay very good attention…”
“How old was he, really?” Aislinn asked quietly. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew where this story was going.
“Twenty two,” Gabriel replied. “The sick bastard. I…I came home one day, to find out she was in the hospital. He…that monster, he…”
He choked on the words, unable to continue. Aislinn squeezed his hand gently, bringing it up to press her mouth lightly to his knuckles. Gabriel relaxed, but he still could not force himself to speak that memory aloud. The gentle, concerned expression in Aislinn’s eyes told him that he didn’t have to; she understood.
“I was so angry, I couldn’t think straight,” Gabriel said. “My foster father, he…he kept a gun in the top drawer of his dresser. I…when I came home from the hospital, I went and got the gun…”
He felt Aislinn stiffen, but she didn’t pull away from him. Her eyes were wide with fear and worry, but he wasn’t certain that it was fear of him. Don’t hate me, Gabriel thought. Please, please, don’t hate me. I couldn’t stand it. The thought of seeing contempt in those soft blue eyes was too painful to bear.
“I tracked him down,” Gabriel continued quietly. “And I shot him. I wanted him to pay for what he put her through. Oh, god, but it was such a mess. I…I couldn’t even move after…there was all this blood…and the cops came and…”
“It’s okay,” Aislinn murmured when he stumbled over his words. “It’s okay.”
Gabriel swallowed hard, then continued. “The whole thing with the court…everything…I was in juvenille hall for awhile, but in the end they decided…I was only enough to understand what I did. I was in such a bad state of mind. I didn’t care, though. While I was locked away, they told me that my sister…she killed herself.”
It was as if someone had opened the floodgates. Gabriel could not remember the last time he’d cried. Now the tears began to slowly track down his cheeks, as he remembered that day. He closed his eyes, trying to stop the tears, but they leaked out from beneath his eyelashes. Small, gentle fingers touched his cheek, wiping the tears away. Gabriel opened his eyes to see Aislinn gazing up at him, her eyes wide and full of concern.
“You still blame yourself,” Aislinn stated. “More for what happened to your sister than for shooting that guy.”
Gabriel nodded. “Pretty much. For a long time I hated myself for it…but when I look back at it now…sure, you’re always told that killing is wrong…and you think you know…but I didn’t understand. I wanted him to pay for what he did to her but I didn’t realize…I didn’t realize what that meant.”
“You can be told over and over again that a bee sting hurts,” Aislinn said quietly. “But you can’t honestly know until you experience it for yourself. It’s not the same thing, really, but the idea is the same. Just because you’re told that it’s wrong to kill, doesn’t mean it’s something that’s easy for you to understand.”
She’s still holding my hand, Gabriel thought, watching her face as she spoke. Oh, thank god, she hasn’t let go of my hand. He’d told so few people that story; most people turned away from him when he did tell them. Aislinn’s tender concern was so different from the reactions he was used to. He couldn’t keep anything from those warm, caring eyes. Gabriel realized that he didn’t want to; he wanted someone to know, someone to care.
“My life went downhill from there,” Gabriel told her. “Drinking, drugs, always on the wrong side of the law…and women. I’m not proud of it…I think the only thing I was ever proud of back then was that I had enough sense left to be careful who I slept with. Though I’m not sure it was really sense. For a long time I slept with older women…five years older, sometimes ten…”
Aislinn frowned. “You couldn’t touch someone younger than you, because of what happened to your sister.”
“Right,” Gabriel nodded. “Callie is even older than me, by four years. I don’t have any excuses. It was just easy to fall into that kind of lifestyle. I didn’t even try to fight it.”
Aislinn was silent. Her brows were furrowed in deep thought, but he could read nothing else from her expression. Say something, Gabriel thought desperately, watching her still face. Say something, say anything! She did speak, eventually, but it was not at all what he expect her to say.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Aislinn said. “For any of it. And especially not for your sister. You loved her very much, I know. But people make their choices. No matter how much you care, no matter how much you feel you know what’s right for them, they are going to make their own choices. She chose to start dating guys at twelve. She chose to trust someone she hardly knew. She chose to end her life. It was not your fault.”
He’d heard it so many times. From countless psychologists, from the few people who cared enough to not hate him, from all the people who had tried to set his life straight. It was so hard to believe, but it felt a little different, coming from her. Aislinn wasn’t a psychologist, or a probation officer, or an aunt or uncle who had to care. Gabriel relaxed a bit. I’m not sure I believe it yet, he thought, but it feels good to hear it from someone else.
“So, what do you want for Christmas?” Aislinn asked suddenly.
Gabriel blinked at the abrupt change of subject. “What?”
“I said, what do you want for Christmas?” Aislinn repeated. “It’s getting close, you know.”
“You don’t have to get me anything,” Gabriel told her. “And to be honest, there really isn’t anything I want.”
“Think of something,” Aislinn said firmly. “Even if I have to get it for you after Christmas.”
Gabriel stared at her for long moments, then shook his head, chuckling. Little stubborn brat, he thought, smiling down at her. He shifted a bit and reached into his pocket, finding his key ring. Gabriel wiggled a key loose, and pressed it into Aislinn’s free hand.
“Here,” Gabriel said. “My spare. If you ever need me for anything, don’t hesitate to come over.”
“What if you need me?” Aislinn asked, closing her fingers tightly around the key. “You can come here anytime you need to. I’ll be here if you need me.”
“I need you now,” Gabriel said softly.
She nodded, her eyes full of understanding, and settled down beside him. Gabriel wasn’t certain what would grow between them, but it didn’t matter, so long as she was always his friend.
“Mistletoe, Ais. You gotta kiss me.”
Aislinn glared at Eddie. I will not have him ruining my Christmas, she thought, jerking away from his hold. Besides, I’d rather kiss a slug. She’d been paying closer attention to Eddie’s behavior lately. Although he went around saying that he was her boyfriend, he was always with different girls. And since she’d started spending time with Gabriel, Eddie’s presence felt slimy. Aislinn yanked her jacket on, pull on her hat, scarf, and mittens, and grabbed the bag on the counter.
“I’m not going to kiss you,” She said sharply. “I have somewhere to be.”
“Going to see that trash?” Eddie sneered, keeping his voice low enough for only her to hear.
“No, Eddie,” Aislinn replied. “I’m leaving the trash behind.”
With that she walked out of the house, trying not to slam the door behind herself. Refusing to let Eddie get to her, she turned her car radio to a station playing Christmas songs and sang along the whole way to Gabriel’s apartment. Aislinn had asked her parents for a silver chain for Christmas, and now they key had given her hung on the chain around her neck. It was a more precious gift than any sort of jewelry could possibly be.
Knowing it was unlikely that he would be awake, she unlocked the door and crept quietly inside. Aislinn removed a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies from the bag and set it on the counter, along with a carton of eggnog. She stripped out of coat, scarf, hat, and mittens, and retrieved her Santa had from the bag. Aislinn stopped for a minute to give herself a last smoothing over; she was wearing a pair of jeans and a clingy, off the shoulder, long sleeved red shirt with fluffy white trim at the bottom to match her Santa had. I hope he thinks I look good, she thought, anxiously pushing her hair away from her face.
Gabriel was fast asleep, strewn on his side, one arm dangling off the side of the bed. His blanket was low on his hips, and she got the feeling he wasn’t wearing much, if anything, beneath. He looks so cute, she thought, stifling a giggle. Aislinn approached the side of the bed quietly, then sat down, instantly startling him awake. Before Gabriel could do much more than sit up, Aislinn threw her arms around him in a tight hug.
“Merry Christmas!” She cheered.
“Ugh,” Gabriel groaned. “It’s too early to be merry.”
“It’s ten o’clock, you lump,” Aislinn retorted. “Get up. I’ll make you breakfast. And I brought cookies. And a Christmas present.”
Gabriel’s eyes wandered over her. A crooked, sexy grin slowly spread on his face. He leaned back on the bed, forcing her to straddle his hips so she wouldn’t fall. Gabriel rested his hands on her hips, and slowly drew them up her sides, dragging the soft material of her shirt along her skin. Aislinn felt her cheeks go bright red.
“You shouldn’t make presents so easy to unwrap,” Gabriel murmured huskily, pulling her shirt up just a little.
“Gabriel!” Aislinn squeaked, her cheeks burning. “What makes you think I’m your present?”
“You asked me what I wanted for Christmas,” Gabriel reminded her.
He slid out from underneath her and Aislinn tumbled to the bed with a shriek of surprise. Gabriel pressed against her, slowly pushing her shirt up over her breasts. His hand was warm, a little rough from working, but the touch on her skin made her shiver in guilty pleasure. She felt as though her flush was creeping all over her body; the tightness of her nipples was quite apparent beneath the soft cotton of her bra. Gabriel trailed a finger up between her breasts, and she knew he could feel her tremble.
“You’re not ready,” Gabriel murmured softly. Aislinn opened her mouth to protest, but he quickly placed a finger against her lips, silencing
her. “No, sweetheart. You aren’t ready yet for the things I can give you. But I hope you will be soon, because I’ve made up my mind. I know what I want.”
He leaned down and kissed her then. It was a soft, tender kiss; she couldn’t imagine anything sweeter. It’s not just a kiss, Aislinn realized, as she felt Gabriel’s fingers wrap around hers. It’s a promise. She tilted her head up, coiling her free arm around his neck to return the promise. Gabriel’s tongue teased lightly along her lower lip for a short, heady moment, then he pulled back.
“So, you said something about breakfast?” Gabriel asked, raising an eyebrow. “And cookies?”
Aislinn laughed. “Yes, you pig. I brought food. Let me up and I’ll make you some.”
Gabriel tugged her shirt back into place, then slid out of bed. He didn’t seem to care that he was naked, but she felt herself blushing. Aislinn waited until he was dressed, then followed him out into the kitchen. He’s right, she thought, studying him as he probed the fridge for something to drink. I’m not ready, not yet. But I will be soon. Very soon.