Shelter Ch. 05-06byrandom_librarian©
Even though Aunt Ginger had promised to still be awake, at 11:25, Samantha still tried to come through the door quietly. She found Ginger, sitting in a recliner, flipping channels. "Should nave known you'd be up to pester me with questions about tonight."
"Well of course I'd be awake, dear. I just set up two of my closest friends on a blind date they didn't even know about. Who wouldn't be eager to get the scoop? So... spill it!"
"Okay, Aunt Ginger. What the hell was that all about?"
"Archie's something, isn't he? Shoot, if I was even 10 years younger, girl... I wouldn't let you anywhere near him. He'd be my little secret! So... tell me all about it."
"Okay, so... We didn't really talk much on the way to the restaurant. Really, just things like 'Turn left here.' And I'm thinking, 'What did you get me into?' So awkward. Started looking like it was going to be really long night. And I think he picked up on that, because he started... well, he started saying some really funny things about you." Ginger looked puzzled, but Samantha quickly went on. "Oh, nothing remotely polite! Just giving voice to his -- and my -- worries. Wondering how you could do something like that to us. And he asked if I wanted to call the whole thing off, but..."
"Yeah? Obviously, you didn't call it off. Why not? You finally realizing what a genius I am?"
Samantha snorted appropriately. "No, it was one word he said -- 'us.' I was sitting there, stewing about how you could do this to me, and he's thinking about us, rather than just himself. It struck me. Not a lot of guys are like that. I must have smiled or something, but I heard myself say, 'I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.' When what I was really starting to think was that I couldn't, in that instant, think of anyone I'd rather be with."
"Which means that your Auntie Ginger was ...?"
"Fine, you want to hear me say it? You were right."
"Very big of you to acknowledge the obvious, dear." Ginger cackled. "Go on."
"So, dinner was great, but you knew it would be. And conversation never really flagged. I mean, there were a couple of times where we both got quiet, but even those were sweet moments, like we both realized there was a possibility here, and neither of us wanted to screw it up by saying or doing the wrong thing."
Ginger looked a little sideways. "You got the vibe that he saw a potential there too?"
"Yeah, I did. And why shouldn't he? I'm a catch! Or so my nosy aunt keeps telling me..." They shared a laugh. "Seriously, does that surprise you?"
"No, dear. Of course not." The distant look in Ginger's eyes told another story. Samantha paused to consider how to ask the question scampering through her mind, the same thought that echoed in Ginger's eyes.
"One thing I don't get about him is why he's single. I mean, he's thoughtful, charming as all hell. He has this way of making you feel like... like I've never felt before. I wish I knew how to explain it. But when I asked him what dating life in Golden was like, he..."
"Let me guess. He got really quiet."
"Yeah! What's up with that? All he'd say was that he'd seen someone a while back, but there'd been an accident, and then he changed the subject. I know there's more there, but..."
"Is that what he told you? That there was an accident, and left it at that? I guess it's still pretty much a living memory for him, so maybe it's too painful for him to talk about. Sammi, sit down. You need to know what really happened, and if Archie can't tell you, I can."
Samantha thought that she had seen it all with Ginger. Ginger had tended to her when her parents had passed away, and she'd tried to repay the kindness when Ginger lost her Tommy But even with those tragedies of life, she'd never seen this emotion play across Ginger's face: sorrow.
"Valerie Williams. She taught US history at some college in Wisconsin. She and Archie met online, in one of those ... whaddya call 'em ... blog sites. Someone at her school retired to Arizona, and left Valerie two dogs to look after, so she went on the computer to learn how to take care of them. Archie answered a couple of her questions, and they hit it off. Next thing you know, they're talking on the phone a couple times a week, then every night. Soon enough, he flew out to meet her, and he came back looking like he was three feet taller. Then she flew here to spend time with him; you've never seen people smile that big. He was... happy. When he gave her the ring and she said 'yes', it was like he'd found a home.
"They tried to move her out here, but she couldn't find a teaching job at any of the schools nearby, and he couldn't get into the vet school there."
Samantha interrupted, "Archie wanted to be a vet? He didn't tell me that."
"Yeah, he had been trying to get into vet schools for a few years; that's why he came to work for me. Said it was real world experience. Pssh. I think he just came in to look at my boobs." Their laughter broke the tension, but too soon, Ginger got very serious again.
"Didn't last, though. These long-distance relationships... I don't know. I mean, they're great as far as they go, but there's just something about being able to come home after a frustrating day, cuddle up next to the person you love beyond words, and let him kiss and tickle and caress you and then pound into you until you both just explode into orgasmic oblivion. I remember this one time when Tommy had had just an awful day, so I met him at the door wearing nothing but a ribbon tied into a bow around my neck ..." Samantha smled, seeing Ginger lost in the reverie of the memory.
"Anyway, Valerie drifted away from him, and he got more and more mopey about it, which didn't help either.
"One day, 6, maybe 7 years ago, Archie told me that she was coming into town for the weekend to try to work things out, and that he wouldn't be around for a few days. I couldn't have been happier for him; he seemed like his old self again. Nervous, sure, but ... for the first time in a long time, he looked like he truly believed that he deserved to be happy.
"She pulled in on Friday afternoon. And nobody saw either of them for the whole weekend. Randy at the police station said that the neighbors called three times that night, worried about the screaming and moaning from his house." Samantha raised an eyebrow, which Ginger caught. "Honey, I have it on good authority that that boy is amazing in the sack."
"Come Sunday morning, she left. Tore out of here like a bat out of hell. Randy pulled her over for speeding, said she must have been going 95. He let her off, because he saw how upset she was, told her to slow down and be on her way. But he told me she wasn't wearing her ring anymore.
"For three days, no one in town saw hide nor hair of Archie. Far as I can tell, he didn't leave his couch except to go to the bathroom. I'm not even sure he ate. I went over to his place to try to talk to him, but all he'd say is 'She's gone.'
"Wednesday night, he calls me and says that he has to go to Omaha. Omaha? What the hell are you doing driving to Omaha? He didn't say, just said he had to go, and he'd be back when he could.
"Tommy's sister Kathryn had been a reporter for the Omaha newspaper, and she still lives there. So I called her to see if she could figure out what was going on, and yeah, there'd been an accident. But ...
"Valerie had a flat tire just this side of town. She pulled off to the side of the road, and this nice young fellow pulled over to help her fix it. Only ... See, Valerie was a pretty girl. Wasn't a patch on you, Sammi, but she turned her share of heads. And I guess she turned this helpful guy's head something fierce. Kathryn said that when the police found Valerie's body, it was a terrible sight..." Ginger paused for a moment, and Samantha realized that she'd been holding her breath for about a minute and a half.
"Valerie's clothes had been torn off. She'd been ... the word Kathryn used was 'violated' ... repeatedly, brutally, and then left for dead. Honest to God, Sammi... I've never told this story before because I don't like the picture it brings to mind. I guess it's a mercy that she passed away later that night, and I sure hope God did a good job patching her up."
For a moment, silence enveloped the room.
"Sorry, honey. Just thinking about that girl's ordeal gets to me. It got to Archie, too. He drove out there to grieve with Valerie's parents. Then he sold his car, took a bus back home, and ... tell me something. When you went to dinner, you drove, didn't you?" Samantha nodded. "I figured. He hasn't driven a car since. Every time he tries to, he gets jittery, like somehow he sees her off the side of the road.
"He quit trying to get into vet school then too. Hell, he just about quit everything. The only thing he didn't quit was working with me. I think working with the animals here, helping them get back to healthy and finding them a good home ... I think it makes him feel like he can be of some use to someone. Gives him a sense of peace."
"Why hasn't he moved on? I mean, that's a tragic story, but it wasn't like he did anything wrong, and that was a long time ago."
"Honey, that's something you'll have to ask him. But ... tread lightly, okay? You can imagine what a sore spot this is in his life. It's a great sign that he even told you there was an accident. Maybe he's finally coming to terms with it, because he never talks about it.
"I'll tell you this, though: he's one of the best people I've ever known. Very few people deserve to be happy as much as Archie does. He's been beating himself up over this for a long time, to the point where he thinks he's damaged goods, something that no one would ever care for. If you can puncture through that, you'll find a man who can be everything you've ever dreamed of. He could very well be your Prince Charming. But Sammi, you'll have to save him first."
When Ginger got into work Monday morning, Archie was there, working, quiet. He barely acknowledged her presence, polite but short. She let him stew in his work for the morning, but by quarter til noon, she couldn't let him sulk any longer. "Archie, could I speak to you for a minute?" Hunched over, Archie shuffled into her office, looking like the dictionary definition of "sullen".
"Okay. What's going on? Why are you walking under that cloud?"
"Ginger ..." He paused, trying to arrange the thoughts in his mind into a coherent sequence of words. "Why did you do that?"
"Because you're the best, Sammi's the best, and the best deserve the best. Simple. Archie, I've known Sammi literally all her life. I'm the one who taught her mother how to change a diaper. So this wasn't something I set up on the spur of the moment, okay? She's been single forever, and I haven't ever tried to fix her up with anyone. And I haven't fixed you up with anyone either, because I didn't think you were ready. The difference now is that I've decided you need to be ready, because otherwise you're going to let some very wonderful moments slip past you like a warm breeze on a November night."
"What if I told you that I'm just not interested in her?"
"You'd be lying. Like hell, you're not interested. I saw the way you looked at her. She's gorgeous, and you know it. She's brilliant, charming, funny. And when you let yourself forget to be so damn uptight and closed-off, she was really into you." Archie looked up at that comment. "No, I will not tell you what she said, and no, I will not pass her a note in study hall. So what are you waiting for?"
Getting up from her chair, Ginger moved around the desk to Archie, then perched on the corner and looked into his eyes. "I know, Archie, I do. I know that she isn't Valerie. But I also know that Valerie wouldn't have wanted you to beat yourself up forever. In my heart, I believe she's watching you from up there. And she wants you to be happy."
Archie recoiled like he'd been slapped. "How can you possibly know that she would want me to be happy? She left me, remember?"
Reaching out and taking his hands tenderly, she looked down at him until his eyes met hers. "Archie, I do know it, deep down. And I think I can convince you of it. Did anyone ever tell you where Valerie's accident was?" Archie tried to look away to hide the tears, but she wouldn't have it. "Do you know?"
"Ginger, please don't do this. Please don't make me remember."
"Honey, you've done nothing but remember for years. Where was the accident?"
He huffed and turned away. "I-80, where I-680 meets it."
"Archie. Look at me. Her parents decided that you were too far gone into your grief to be able to process this, but ... it's time. You need to know. She was on I-80 ... but she was heading west."
Sniffling back tears, Archie took a minute to think about that. "What does that mean?"
"It means she was coming back to you. It means she'd come to the obvious-to-everyone-else epiphany that she was making a mistake by giving up. It means she'd finally realized what an incredible man she had in you, and that she was willing to figure out a way to make it work... And it means that, if she believed ... like I believe ... that Sammi could make you happy, then she would want you to go after her."
She let that thought linger in the air for a moment. "Whatever it was that you think you did to her to chase her away, Valerie turned around. And that means that she forgave you. So please, for your happiness, for Sammi, please find a way to forgive yourself."
No, that wasn't the word for Samantha, Archie thought. What comes after beautiful? Stunning? Ravishing? Really beautiful? Devastatingly beautiful? They needed to come up with a new word to describe her.
It was her eyes. Oh sure, Archie's eyes drifted lower a few times during the evening. He saw the curves in all the right places. He loved the view as she walked away to the ladies room, and he really loved the smile she gave him when she turned her head and caught him looking. She glowed in the low lighting that the restaurant kept. She seemed so vibrant, so ... alive. He chastised himself for the ungentlemanliness of it all, but how could he not notice her delectable body? He was only human, and every other man in the room noticed her the instant she walked in.
But those other men didn't get the full benefit of those eyes. It seemed like they changed color with her moods; they flashed when she was animated, smoldered when she was introspective. He wanted to see that flash again. Often.
The amazing part was that she had no idea how beautiful she really was or the effect she had on him. He could see the nervousness in her body language, the way she looked at him, the way she played with her hair when they talked. He loved that she actually ate dinner, rather than picking at it. She wasn't trying to impress him. And that really impressed him.
The even more amazing part was that she re-introduced Archie to an emotion he hadn't allowed himself to feel in a very, very long time: hope. Someone once said that hope was that thing with feathers, and it had felt, to Archie, like it had used those feathers to fly away from him. But now? Now maybe hope was nesting in his tree again.
Laying down on his couch, Archie stared at the ceiling and wondered: And what did that mean? His first reaction was the same reaction he had almost every other day of his life: guilt tinged with doubt. This couldn't be him, his life. He didn't have the right to expect anyone as captivating (yes, that's the word!) and sparkling as Samantha to be interested in him. And yet, she was. Clearly. Interested. In him. Now what???
Archie reached down to scratch Gabe behind the ears, and got a happily wagging tail for his troubles. "Buddy, what should I do about this?" Gabe's answer ("Call her, dumbass. You did get her number, right? Sheesh... humans.") came out sounding rather like "woof woof pant woof". "That's not helping, boy," but Gabe got his tummy rubbed anyway.
"Wow, is he ever," Samantha thought as she ate lunch in her office on Monday. Broad, strong shoulders, goofy smile, eyes that sparkled when he laughed. Imperfect, sure, but it was like all the little imperfections worked together to build a fantastic complete man. But it was clear he saw only the imperfections in himself, and had no idea how perfectly all the pieces fit together. She knew the feeling.
Even so, it wasn't his eyes or his smile or any other definable trait. It was the way he made her feel. She'd heard about people having a presence, but she'd never experienced it.
For someone who regularly brought sick animals back to health, who delivered newborn puppies, kittens, and even the occasional foal under sometimes difficult circumstances, she'd become a little cynical in her personal life. Optimism was something she compartmentalized, left behind when she left the clinic for the night. Too many boys, then too many men, had looked past her, searching for some pop-culture-inspired Barbie doll. The great qualities she knew she had -- society didn't value those. The dates she'd dealt with only seemed to care about cup sizes and hair length, not actually talking or thinking.
And then... Archie. This was, somehow, different. And she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was she was feeling. Optimism? Hope? The resolution of all her fruitless searches, like in that Peter Gabriel song?
Unbidden, a different snippet of music ran through her head: "Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world." That was it; when Archie was with her, everything and everyone else receded, into nothing more than background noise, wallpaper. The entirety of his attention was on her, as if she was ... or maybe, someday, could be ... his whole world. It was dizzying, intoxicating. Yeah, she could really get used to the idea of those eyes, that soul focused on her every morning for the rest of her days.
"'The rest of my days?' What the hell? When did I start to think like that? I sound like I'm in one of those sappy Harlequin roma... Oh. Oh shit."
And slowly, ever so slowly, realization dawned over Dr. Samantha O'Donnell: for the first time, she now knew what it must feel like to fall in love.
She shook her head violently to brush away the cobwebs, and thoughts poured into her head. "No. That's silly. You don't fall in love with someone after one date. Especially not after one blind date. Doesn't happen. Not like that. Yeah, he's good looking, and smart, and charming. And it's totally worth following up on the possibility that there could be something there. But I am not falling for a guy I've known for 2 days."
"Still," she said aloud to no one in particular, "there's just something about him." She then let her mind drift, wondering why everyone in the hospital this morning was so cheery, completely unaware of the broad grin she'd been wearing all day.