Nocte (Page 22)

Nocte (The Nocte Trilogy #1)(22)
Author: Courtney Cole

My stomach rumbles at the mere thought of drowning their legs in butter and putting them into my belly.

We float inland, and Finn steers the boat into the slip, while I stuff my hat into a bench and then transfer the crabs into a bucket.  Their legs make scratching sounds as they slide around against the plastic, and for just one brief moment, I allow myself to feel guilty because I’m going to drop them into boiling water later.

“What the hell?” Finn mutters, staring ahead of us, past the trail, past the treescape, and into the clearing behind the Carriage House.  I follow his gaze and almost audibly gasp when I see Dare.

He’s back from town now, and dressed in workout clothes, shorts and a cut off ratty t-shirt.  He’s repeatedly punching the side of the woodshed.

Over and over and over.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Like a machete or a thresher or a piston.  

Sweat drips down his face, and blood drops from his hand, as he pummels the wood, punching at it like a machine.

“What the hell,” I echo Finn’s sentiment, before I shove the crab bucket into his hands and take off up the trail to get to Dare.  Finn protests from behind me, but I don’t stop and I don’t slow down.

I skid to a stop next to Dare, pulling at his elbow. He smells like sweat, so I can’t imagine how long he’s been out here, hurting himself.

“Dare, stop,” I tell him.  “You’re bleeding.”

He shakes my hand off, not looking at me, and punches again.

Blood splatters the ground and onto my bare foot.

“Dare.”

Thud.

“Dare.”  My voice is stiffer now, like ice, and finally he stops, his arm dangling at his side.  He doesn’t look at me, but his breaths are coming in pants.  I wait, and eventually the pants slow down to shallow, even breaths.   

“What’s wrong?” I ask him. “Why are you…. what’s wrong?”

I wait.

He’s silent.  Finally, he rocks back on his heels, and sinks to the ground, to his knees.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he finally tells me, his voice like wood.

“Nothing?” I find that hard to believe.  “Then why are you breaking your hands?”

I kneel down in front of him, lifting his hands to examine them.  The knuckles are beyond scraped, beyond cut. They’re mashed.  A bloody pulp, actually.  “I think you might’ve actually broken them.”

He yanks them away.  “I didn’t.”

“Ok.”

I eye him warily.  If there’s one thing I’ve gotten good at, it’s sorting through crazy situations.  “Can I help you clean them up?”

I hold my breath until he climbs to his feet.

“I’ve got it.”  His voice is curt and dismissive, and he turns to walk away. What the hell?  Where is the guy who has been so engaging?  So charming?   He’s apparently been replaced by this cold stranger who has an affinity for hurting himself.

I grab his elbow.  Out of my periphery, I notice Finn standing in the distance, watching.  Waiting.

“It’s ok,” I call to my brother.  “You don’t have to wait.”

Finn shakes his head, but so do I. “Go on,” I call out.  “I’ll be up shortly.”

Reluctantly, he walks away with the crabs and Dare looks at me.

“You don’t need to stay.  I don’t need help.”

“Yes, you do,” I argue.  “You just don’t realize it.”

“And you do?”

“Yes.”

Dare stares down at me, his eyes chilly.  “No, you don’t.  Because as you so clearly pointed out, you don’t know me.  You can let go of my elbow now.”

My fingers slip away, confused by his iciness, by his words, but he still follows me into the Carriage House and into his little kitchen.

As we go, I can’t help but notice how neat he keeps the little home.  The bed is made, the counters are wiped off, there are no dirty clothes piled on the floor.  Impressive for a young single guy.

I turn the water on and let it run, waiting until it gets warm before I hold his hands beneath it. He sucks in his breath but doesn’t say anything.  I grab a clean dish-towel and wrap his hands in it, and he leans against the counter.  As he does, the shirt at his waistband lifts a bit, exposing a flat ribbon of his belly.

The skin looks soft as velvet, although the muscle looks hard as steel.  I itch to run my finger along it, to touch it and find out.

But of course, I don’t because it’s not exactly socially acceptable.

“Why are you upset?” I ask instead, as I open his freezer.  I pull out some ice, and dump it into two baggies, one for each hand.

Dare doesn’t open his eyes.

“I’m not.”

“You lie.”

It’s a statement, not a question.

He sighs.

“Maybe.”

I push him into a kitchen chair, and hold the ice onto his hands.

“Definitely.”

He opens his eyes finally. “Do you know what it’s like to not be able to change something?”

I ogle him.  Seriously?

“My brother is crazy and my mom died in a car crash,” I tell him.  “Of course I know what it’s like.”

He sighs and looks away like I’m trivial and just don’t understand.

“Your brother doesn’t seem crazy,” he answers. “I mean, from the way you’ve talked about him.”

“That’s true,” I answer carefully.  “But just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Dare looks at me, his eyes dark as night.  “True.”

He gets up and pulls his shirt off, wincing slightly as he moves his hands.  He tosses the blood-splattered tee in the sink, and I can hardly breathe on account of his abs. Rippled like a washboard, they hover in my face, and I want to trace those ripples with my fingers, to follow the thin, dark, ‘happy trail’ into the edge of his shorts to see where it leads.

But I know where it leads. 

And that bursts my cheeks into flame.

“How do you live here?” he asks quietly, and I lift my gaze to follow his.  He’s staring out the window now, at the black smoke that billows from the crematorium stacks.  I’m the one who almost cringes now, at the mere fact that he recognized the smoke for what it is.  Burning bodies.