15

“DID YOU KNOW she was deaf?”

“Not at first, but then it got obvious.”

“Well, apparently she just moved in yesterday. Her kids were looking for a cheap alternative to house her and eventually put her in that godforsaken place…”

About the old woman, Ed had stopped by the residential office for Allison, requesting information before they got back on the road. Half way through reporting his findings, he noticed her sitting zoned out in the backseat.

“Still doing okay back there?”

“Oh… yes. I don’t think I’ve said, but thanks for coming with me.”

“My pleasure.”

Though he might not show it, he was beyond glad to be of his angel’s service. To him, every occasion they met was rare, and every moment they spent together felt special. Despite her taciturn mood, he tried to amuse her with a bit of humor hoping to raise her spirits. It worked ever so well, bringing a smile back on her face.

In time, they got off the highway onto the road towards the dry cleaning shop. Dreading the upcoming departure, just then at a traffic light he took a long, stealthy look at her through the rearview mirror. One other sly peek and then another, his mind calculated. As the light changed to green, he took a bold turn into a nearby park.

He pulled up at a well-hidden spot away from the general parking lot and turned off the ignition.

“Why are we stopping?” she asked him, but he did not respond because truly, he hardly knew where he was going with this. Next, he got out, switched off his walkie-talkie, and came to climb into the backseat alongside her.

The atmosphere went acutely uncomfortable within the tight space, fast.

“I’m sorry that your friend played a prank on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, whoever asked you to go to the apartment and never showed.”

“Oh that... To be honest, everything still feels surreal.”

“I bet. So, who is this friend? Do I know her? Or him?”

“It’s a childhood friend of mine… Anyway, that’s not important now.”

“Right. But whoever it was, I need to thank her.”

“Why?”

“Because, I wouldn’t have been able to spend time with you otherwise.”

“That’s not true. We spend time together.”

“When?”

“In Vegas.”

“That was months ago, and it wouldn’t have happened if Sara hadn’t insisted that I came along.”

“We met last week at Moonshine.”

“Yeah, but Sara was there, again.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I’m not saying something’s wrong, it’s just, I’m talking about this… just us.”

“I see…” She broke away from his gaze. “Anyway, thank you again for coming with me today.”

“Anytime. Anything for you.”

“I mean it. I wouldn’t know what to do had that man continued to come after me.”

“I meant what I said too.”

She looked right at him and smiled. “I know you are good to me, Ed, and I’m very thankful for that.”

“Now you officially thanked me one too many times.”

Her smile stretched further, but every bit of her remained wary. “So — should we get back on the road?”

“Not so fast.” He gulped, suddenly serious. “You know, this might sound a bit out of the blue but… I’ve missed you. I’ve thought of you a lot this past week.”

“Well… here I am!” she cheered, coupling with a few nervous titters intending to loosen up this so very strained situation in which she was stuck. It did not work.

“I know… I know… What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Did you think of me by any chance?”

Right then, she looked mildly annoyed. “Don’t do this, Ed. We’ve gone through this before.”

“I’m not understanding you.”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Turning a deaf ear to her forewarning, he reached out to brush away the wisp of hair coming untucked from behind her ear, and used the opportunity to graze the side of her face. In turn, she drew back. “This. I mean exactly this. I just want to be friends.”

Really.”

“Yes!”

“Ha. Friends. I’ve always admired how you can say that to me so lightly…”

“Can we not turn this into an argument?”

“Then tell me, how can I be just a friend when I know there’s something more between us? Am I supposed to keep lying to myself?”

“It’s just an illusion —”

I know it’s not! I still think of that night when you called, and we chatted till the sun came up —”

“I needed a friend four months ago. You were there for me, and you’ve been there for me since, which I’m forever grateful. But that was it, nothing more to it.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“But I do. Please. Don’t make this difficult —”

I’m making this difficult?!”

“Why are you doing this?”

God! You can be so blind sometimes! Whenever I’m with you… just hearing your voice I… I can’t help but… but fall for you over again. I just… I just can’t help myself…” All the while talking, he leant in towards her, his hand cupped over hers that was resting on the seat and caressed it.

Withdrawing her hand, she said to him coldly, “This is why I avoid you. If we don’t see each other, maybe we can remain friends.”

“Again, ‘friends.’”

“Yes! We’ve talked this over countless times, and we both agreed —”

“Agreed to be friends?”

“YES!”

“I never agreed to be your friend, you make me your friend.”

“So?”

“So?!”

“What’s the difference? I don’t know what else you expect us to be but —”

“GOD DAMNIT!” he snapped in roaring frustration, pounding his fist against the partition. His face red and eyes looked as though they were about to spill tears. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“I guess I really don’t.”

“Whether I see you or not, you… you are constantly in the back of my head. There’ve been nights that I dreamt of us still going out, making out in the backseat of my old pickup like we used to or making love… but as soon as I wake up and realize what we’ve come to, I… I just feel like ripping my heart out and feeding it to the dogs!”

His candid assertion, however odd, moved her. Unable to fire back, she replied a quiet “sorry” instead.

“Don’t. You being sorry doesn’t change anything,” he told her in a brittle voice. “Do you really want me to quit? Because if you do, tell me right here right now. Tell me to quit chasing this… this hopeless dream, can you? Tell me to go away forever like you did years ago, can you?”

I can, Allison thought to herself, but even seeing his face crooked in obvious pain, a part of her still did not want to end this, this toxic chase that begot his mental torment. At least not right now, not yet. Alternatively, she saw to comfort him in a way much unexpected.

“Oh, Ed,” she started, stroking his face. “The thing is, I can’t make that decision for you. Our relationship is complicated as it is. I’m only asking you to not make this hard for the both of us…”

As if bewitched, he just listened, rubbing his cheek against her soft palm, smelling it as he went. His eyes kept closed to concentrate on its warmth and that inexplicable excitement as it touched his skin. When he reopened them, one lecherous gaze at her, his mind became corrupted. He forwent his good judgments, made a clutch at her wrist to pull her close while his other hand wrapped around her back, and thrust her body towards his own.

Completely caught off guard by his recklessness, the next thing she felt was his tongue inside her mouth. Fiercely, she fought to try to break free from him, but ultimately — like a herculean task — it was no use. He even managed to lower her onto the bench during the struggle, holding her down by the wrists and kissing her all over.

STOP!!! Stop before you regret it completely!!!” she yelled at him, which did bring about a brief hesitation, but it was quickly overturned by his deeply ingrained, half-baked self-justification. “Why should I regret? I’d never regret loving you the way I’ve always known how…”

Just before he could lay his lips back on her, in the nick of time, she shot him an ultimatum: “I guarantee you won’t be able to see me ever again if you choose to continue!”

Doubting his action, Ed stopped midway. He watched a drop of his sweat on her chin roll down her neck and come between her collarbones. Noticing her bouncing chest from breathing heavy, he looked up worriedly at her.

“I mean what I said… Do you really… really want to put our friendship in peril for this?”

His hands were unwilling, but that remaining bit of his rationality finally convinced them to let go.

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