CHAPTER FIVE - UNPLANNED
Nate watched as Emrys' tail lights disappeared around a curve in the road. The silence that fell around him felt leaden. He wished he would hear the other man's voice again. Just saying Nate's name in that smooth, smoky way that caused a shiver to run up his spine. Hell, even asking him probing questions would be preferable than this heavy quiet. Nate felt alone. More alone than he'd ever felt. The sky opened up above him and seemed to mock his insignificance and swallow him whole. The shooting stars weren't as pleasant now. They reminded him that he wasn't with a special someone meandering through a strange land. When he'd said it to Emrys, it had felt possible. Now he just felt small and cold. He gathered Emrys' coat into his arms so that it wouldn't drag on the ground and headed towards the house. He'd give it to the other man tomorrow.
I'm really going to see him tomorrow. Nate found himself smiling at the thought even though his time with Emrys tonight hadn't been without discomfort. There had even been pain. But there was something compelling about the other man. He made Nate think. He made Nate feel things he didn't want to, but maybe he should have all the time. About his parents. About his life. About the things that didn't add up, but he'd ignored for years. And then he offered him truths that he had never considered. We're witches. We can use magic. He's going to teach me how.
Nate let out a laugh. His mood went up and down faster than a rollercoaster. But that described how his evening had gone: good and bad and sometimes both at once. He bit his lower lip as he approached the front door. There was a plant that was dying in the planter beside the front step. Perhaps he could will it to live. That seemed ridiculous even as an unspoken thought. But still. He looked around to see if anyone was watching him. Not a soul in sight. He extended one hand towards the plant and let it hover a few inches above the wilting top. The plant was mostly brown and withered. It should have had deep red blooms, but not even one single solitary bud had grown. Maybe not enough sunlight and water or maybe too much. Grandma Bess had been disappointed that it hadn't thrived.
Maybe there's a way for it to live up to her expectations yet.
Nate took in a deep breath and tried to connect to the flower like he had with the storm. He tried to phase out on purpose for once. He concentrated on the flower. He willed it to straighten, to reach towards the heavens and pour forth red blooms. But neither the flower nor his mind obeyed him. Instead of phasing out, his mind kept focusing on the crick in his neck or that he was breathing too heavy or the way his shirt stuck to his back or ... the list went on and on. The flower was barely in the top ten thoughts he had. He sighed and lowered his hand. The pathetic flower still was as brown and curled as it had been before. Nate tried to tell himself he didn't care. That it didn't mean anything and was a stupid idea in the first place. But he was disappointed. Had the ceasing of the storm just been a coincidence? Even if it had, he couldn't explain away what Emrys had done with the car. That was just unbelievable.
As the chill air began to gnaw at him, Nate reached for the door handle. Only the front door opened seemingly of its own accord. He took a surprised stutter-step backwards and his heart seized. A white head on a plump body emerged from the house.
"Grandma! Jesus, you scared me!" he shouted. His heartbeat thundered in his ears.
"Sorry, Nate. But I had to see what was keeping you. I saw a strange car bring you home then you never came inside," she said. Grandma Bess was a short, stout woman. Her hair was still luxuriant, that of a much younger woman, even though it had gone near snow white when she was only in her forties. Now at sixty-three, she was proud of how lush and thick it was even if it was bone white. He noticed that she was already dressed for bed in her nightgown, fuzzy bathrobe and slippers. He wasn't sure what time it was, but Grandma Bess was known to get into her pajamas as soon as she got home from work. He wished she could be in them all day if she wanted, but she still worked fulltime as a receptionist at a law firm.
In order to take care of me. Old guilt pricked at him. She worked hard because she had to raise him. Instead of taking it easy, she's working herself into the ground.
"I got soaked at the party and a guest took me home," Nate explained. He wasn't going to even touch on what had actually happened.
It was then that his grandmother really looked at him and saw the wet clothes and mussed hair. "You must be freezing, sweetheart! Come inside quick!" Grandma Bess exclaimed and ushered him inside.
"Thanks." Nate brushed past her and went into the narrow front hall.
The only light came from the open door to the study that was about twenty feet away. The front hall was covered in wood paneling that had darkened to a burnt umber. His grandmother's furniture was mostly antique but not through choice. Rather she kept and used things that had been in her family for generations, because there wasn't enough money to replace them and they were loved.
Even though it was summer, she had put in a fire in the study. He could almost feel its warmth from the front hall. The old floor boards creaked beneath his feet. They felt a springy and rotten underneath his dress shoes. They'd need to be replaced at some point. But as he thought that, he saw the patch job he had done on the newel post. Everything was old, used, worn and falling apart. Well-loved or not, the place needed some serious help.
But Emrys thinks I'm heir to a huge fortune and Grandma Bess is hiding that fact. Please! She's no fonder of poverty than I am.
It all sounded so ridiculous. The Whitneys had probably left their fortune to some charitable cause or another. They had disinherited his mother, because she married his father. Based on that, he couldn't imagine that they would somehow leave the money to him, the spawn of this unwelcome marriage, instead. It was preposterous. Yet he kept thinking of Emrys' confidence in what he said. The man didn't guess or if he did guess, he had good reasons to believe what he said. At least that's the impression that Nate had of him already.
Grandma Bess turned away from the door and faced him. "You said a guest drove you home? Why didn't Daniel or Angela take you home? Well, maybe not Angela as she's running things, but what about your best friend? Or are you fighting again?"
"Grandma, Daniel's cool. We're good," Nate tried to shut down the flow of talk about his best friend.
"Really?" Grandma Bess raised a white eyebrow at him. "It seems to me that the green-eyed monster has been appearing more often than the Daniel I used to know and he's sniping at you."
Nate frowned as he stepped past her. He only knew of a few times that Daniel had let his disappointment get the best of him. He hadn't realized that it had been apparent to his grandmother. "What do you mean?"
"You became a very handsome young man." Grandma Bess waved away his blushing. "I don't think you realize how good looking you truly are. Which is a good thing. Wouldn't want you to get a big head about it. But poor Daniel, he'll never be a looker not even through a glass darkly."
"Daniel's a great guy. He'll find a ton of girls to date in college. Winter Haven's too small for ... well, you know. People think of you how they knew you when you were ten," Nate said. His shoulders relaxed and the incipient shivering ceased.
"I just fear that Daniel will one day do something foolish and hurtful in his quest to be wanted and you'll pay for it." Grandma Bess tutted under breath.
"He wouldn't. I mean really, what could he do anyways? Not drive me to school or work?" Nate shook his head. His still damp hair rained droplets on the floor.
"What a mess, you are. You have to get warm otherwise you'll take a chill. A bath! That's what you need," Grandma Bess said, ignoring his question about Daniel.
"Yeah, sorta cold," Nate confessed though his thoughts were hung up on his grandmother's observations of his best friend. He sighed. He didn't want the attention that Daniel craved from other people. Except if it was from Emrys and he was pretty sure that Daniel had no interest in men.
I should just tell him that I'm not competition. No desire for girls. And honestly, before tonight, nothing really for anyone. Just Emrys ... Nate shook off the thoughts as his grandmother was speaking to him again and somehow thinking lustful thoughts with her there and talking was all sorts of wrong.
"I'll start the tub filling while you get out of those wet things. Then we'll have a bit of whiskey by the fire. Hard to believe its still summer. Fall's thick in the air." Grandma Bess hugged herself and rubbed her arms.
"Sounds good," Nate agreed. Taking baths had always seemed girly when he was younger. He had a small rickety bathroom with shower attached to his room. But the water was rarely warm and the strength of the spray was more like a trickle than a deluge. Yet he'd endured that to be manly. Then last year the shower head had just stopped working. He'd had to take a bath. He learned to love the big, claw-footed tub that he could practically swim in. So sometimes girly was all right.
Besides Emrys mentioned a bath. A hot bath and I thought of him giving me one. The image of Emrys with his shirtsleeves pushed up to his elbows, holding a soapy sponge had Nate turning the color of a tomato. I bet he had great forearms. Muscular and elegant.
But then he remembered the scars. They were slender ridges of whitened skin. He also thought of how Emrys had pulled down on his shirt's sleeves as if to make sure they were covering every inch of him. The turtleneck had been extended up so high that it brushed the bottom of his chin. He'd practically been covered from head to toe and Nate wondered why.
Maybe the scars are all over his body. But what would cause that? Was he in an accident or something?
Nate determined to look up everything he could find on Emrys Frost online as he walked upstairs a few steps behind his grandmother who soon outpaced him and disappeared. Every stair groaned as he put his weight on it. His room was on the second floor, facing the back yard and forested area beyond. He heard Grandma Bess humming to herself and then the gush of water into the tub as he walked past the open bathroom door towards his own room. He loved his room. It was small, but it had the best view of the forest. If he didn't look too far left or right, he could just see the woods and pretend that no one else was around. The first floor of the house jutted out beyond his room and right outside one of his windows was a section of room that he and Daniel would crawl out onto and look at stars. They'd talked about nothing mostly. Who Daniel had a thing for this week. Which teacher was trying to fail him. Or how his dad's car dealership would one day take off. Nate had tried to steer the conversation to bigger things, but words had failed him and Daniel would go off on another tangent.
If it were Emrys and me out on the roof talking, I bet we would discuss big things. Huge things. Life shattering things. Look at me. Thinking I want to talk about serious stuff, but when Emrys tried, I told practically him to shut up.
Nate sighed as he unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off. He tossed it into the dirty clothes pile. He didn't have the energy to stick it in the washer right now. He toed his shoes off. They were squishing still. He put them by the window so that they might dry out. There was a cool breeze coming through the half-open screen. He figured he'd leave it open. He liked having a cold room to sleep in even if right now goose bumps rose on his bare chest. He was in the midst of shucking off his pants when he heard something at the window. His head rose and he froze. Staring in at him from the top of the roof was the wolf. It put a paw on the screen as if to say: remove this and let me in.
"What are you doing -- how did you get up here?" Nate asked. He looked past the wolf and confirmed that the roof was over fifteen feet above the ground. How could a wolf get up there. But there it was. And it wanted to come in.
The wolf placed the other paw on the screen. It was going to break just by the wolf's weight alone.
But it's insane to let a wolf into my bedroom. I'm not going to do that. I'll urge him down and bring some food out in the yard.
But Nate found himself lifting the screen. The gray, furry body slipped past him into the room. Nate felt the brush of soft fur against his lower belly. All he had on were his damp boxer briefs and somehow that felt worse than being naked. He lowered the screen and turned to look at the wolf. It was prowling around his room, almost as if checking it out and not just scenting. It started at his old, battered desk where his laptop was. It was a refurbished one he'd scrimped and saved for, but it was his lifeline. The wolf stared at the black screen for a moment then went over to his bookshelf and actually seemed to pause and read the titles.
Wolves can't read. They can't ... Jesus Christ, I'm not sure if I'm dreaming this or what.
The wolf then headed over to his closet. Clothes spilled out onto the floor. Stinky sneakers and jeans that were about two sizes too small barely warranted a glance. Instead the wolf looked up at some of his nicer things and then back at him as if trying to picture Nate wearing them.
"Are you ... are you checking me out?" Nate started laughing before he could help himself. He clutched his belly and shook with it. He knew there was a touch of hysteria in it, but he couldn't help himself. He had just asked a wolf, one that he had let into his bedroom, half-seriously whether it was looking at him sexually. "I'm losing my mind. I really and truly am."
The wolf's yellow eyes glowed in what looked like amusement. Then it froze for a moment. Its ears pricked up and its head swiveled towards the closed door of his bedroom. Seconds later, Nate heard his grandmother's steps. She knocked on his door.
"Nate, I've got some towels. And I got your favorite sweatpants and hoodie from the dryer for you to put on after your bath," she said. "Can I come in?"
"Ah, no! Don't come in, Grandma! I'm -- uh, not dressed!" But even as Nate said this, his near nakedness wasn't his concern. The wolf was. "Get into the bathroom," he hissed at it and urged it towards the small, mildewy room, but the wolf merely stared at it with disdain. It wasn't going in there. "Oh, for the love of -- all right, you're picky? Bed. Get up there." Nate pointed to the mussed blankets and sheets. "If I cover you up, she might not notice you."
"Nate? Are you on the phone? Is that Angela?" His grandmother's voice was muffled through the wood door.
"Ah, no, I mean -- yeah, I'm on the phone, but its not Angela." Nate turned towards the wolf that was looking at him again with that amused cock of its head. "GET. IN. THE. BED."
"Nate?" His grandmother had heard him.
"Coming, Grandma!" he called with a touch of desperation in his voice. He added to the wolf, "Please, she'll have a heart attack if she sees you. As cute as you are, you're a wolf. And she really won't want you inside. But the bed is nice and soft and warm. It's good. Really."
The wolf shocking got up on the bed. It used its snout to dig under the blankets. Nate lifted them up higher so that there was a small cave beneath them. The wolf settled down on the bed in the blanket cave that Nate had created. He looked once more into those yellow eyes. Too human to be a true wolf. Had it been someone's pet? But it didn't seem like a pet. It seemed intelligent and used to humans though. He doubted he'd find any answers just staring at it. The wolf had no tags. Finally, the wolf laid its head on its paws and Nate slowly lowered the blankets down on it. Then he rushed to the door. He opened it and just showed his head to his grandmother.
"Hey! Sorry about that. Just couldn't get off the phone." Nate gave her a sheepish smile and his best puppy dog eyes that begged her not to ask him questions that he wouldn't be able to answer.
I wonder how loud her scream would be if I explained it wasn't a girl I was ordering into my bed, but a wolf?
She looked at him strangely for a moment, but whatever she was thinking she decided not to tell him. Instead, she handed him an armful of towels and clothing. The warmth of the dryer still clung to them. He pressed his cheek against them.
"Come down when you're done. I want to hear about the party. All those rich people and their foibles. At least, we'll have some laughs over them," she said and waddled away.
"Yeah, totally crazy." But the words felt stilted in his mouth. His grandmother's desire to know everything going on with the wealthy people of Winter Haven now seemed almost sinister. Was she asking for some other purpose? To check if I'm hearing anything about myself and the Whitney fortune? Nate clenched his jaw. That was ridiculous. He was seeing things that weren't there. Yet he was a witch. There was a wolf in his bedroom. He had controlled a storm tonight. All these things he would have thought impossible not that long ago yet they were true. So why couldn't his grandmother be asking for those reasons rather than the seemingly innocent gossiping ones?
He watched to make sure that she wouldn't return before he looked back to the bed. The blankets didn't move. Perhaps the wolf had fallen asleep. He knew he should stay with the wolf and not bathe, but his grandmother would find that stranger still. He guessed she would be listening for his footsteps down the hall to the bathroom.
A quick bath. In and out. I'll tell Grandma I'm not feeling well so I'll skip drinking with her in the study.
With that, Nate went out into the hall. He softly closed the door to his bedroom and pattered down the hallway to the bathroom. His grandmother had closed that door to keep the warmth inside. When he opened it, a wash of steam came out. He hurried inside, shutting it immediately behind him. The bathroom wasn't fancy. It was a large box that just fit the width of the tub, which was crammed against the far wall. There was a pedestal sink with cracked base, a small mirror and an ancient toilet. He set his clothes and towels on the top of the toilet's lid. The bath tub was filled up with water almost to the very top. He slid down his underwear and then stepped into the tub. He let out a contented sigh as hot water surrounded him. He sank down until his face was the only thing above the water.
The only sounds were the odd drip of water from the tap and the echoing sound of his own breathing. He relaxed more as the chill he hadn't been able to shake since the storm dissipated. His plan to get in and get out faded as he did. Sleep tugged at him. His eyes fluttered shut and he drifted. For one moment, he was in the clouds again only they were peaceful and calm. The wind was a gentle breeze and not the shredding gale it had been in the storm. He was warm and floating. But then a tendril of cold hit his nose and there was the clicking sound of the bathroom door shutting. He left the hazy dream of clouds and was back firmly in the bathroom. He opened his eyes just as a tongue dipped into the water beside his face. It was the wolf and it was drinking. And looking at his naked body beneath the water. Nate nearly levitated out of the tub. As it was, water sloshed over the sides of the tub as he jerked upright. The wolf quickly backed away to avoid getting soaked.
"What are you doing here? You were in my bed! Sleeping! How did you ... this is nuts. My door opens inwards. You couldn't have pushed it open. So what? Are you using doorknobs now? And how did you get up on the roof?" Nate stared at the animal. It couldn't be a normal wolf. There was no way. It was something else. But what?
The wolf had backed into the corner. The mist swirled around it and the wolf's form seemed to change. It rippled. Nate rose up from the tub, exposing himself to the wolf unconsciously. Almost as if in reaction, the wolf grew larger until it was no longer the size of a wolf. It was a man that was hunkered in the corner.
"EMRYS?" Nate nearly shrieked and plunked back down into the water.
The handsome man gave a lopsided smile. "Shapeshifting requires full concentration. And you ..." He gestured towards the tub with Nate's very naked body in it. "Well, you are amazingly distracting." He let out a self-conscious laugh as the boy continued to gape at him. "This really wasn't how I planned things to go between us. But I think I've told you that already."