Sheltered

By: Charlotte Stein

Chapter One




She could see him over the fence with the Ryerson kid. He came fairly frequently, and always acted the same way. As if he hadn’t come to do anything at all, and after the Ryerson kid gave him some small square of something, and he’d handed over the money, he usually slid away into the shadows as though nothing had happened.

Sometimes she pretended nothing did. She hadn’t seen them. And then the second time, when she purposefully set out to watch—she hadn’t seen them then, either. If she hadn’t seen them, she didn’t have to think about drug deals or other things illegal, going on right here in this safe little island of suburbia.

She didn’t have to think about the punk, who didn’t come from anywhere around here and always looked very tall and mean-mouthed, in the shadows cast by the Ryersons’ porch light. Like a Gollum, she thought, or something else similarly nightmarish and exotic.

Even the word itself—punk—suggested all kinds of things she wasn’t familiar with. Like the music she wasn’t allowed to listen to and the places she wasn’t allowed to go and the people she wasn’t allowed to see. It reminded her of that boy back at St Mary’s, the one who’d cut his hair too short at the back and got himself expelled. The one who looked as though he’d dyed it.

The punk looked as though he dyed it. She could see how black it was, even from all the way over here, when she pressed against the fence with just her eyes peeking over the top. And he’d shaved it all a certain way too, so it looked short at the back but longer at the front, all kind of sticking forward like a rude raised finger.

At first she’d paid attention to the Ryerson kid, mostly, because the Ryerson kid was the one she knew and he was the one doing something wrong, really. The punk had probably gotten himself addicted to something terrible, like…brainathol, and even if he hadn’t the Ryerson kid was snotty and mean and everyone said he’d hurt Michaela Tonbeck on one of the dates they’d gone on.

But he never tried to hurt the punk. What sort of person would? The Ryerson kid was big, but the punk was bigger. In fact, he was bigger than any man she’d ever seen in real life—six foot four, she guessed, but it could feasibly be more. And he was always so silent too. The Ryerson kid jabbered on in his cocky, stupid way, but the punk never said anything.

He just took his drugs and then she’d hear the slow purr of a motorbike behind the houses somewhere, cycling up as it got farther away as though he knew the neighbors would ask questions if he was too loud.

He was smart, this punk. So smart that he pretended not to see her today, even though she knew he’d looked.

Of course she ducked down. Because she was not smart, apparently. It took her a good long moment to process the fact that ducking down would only make her look guilty. It would make it look as though she’d been watching him for nefarious purposes, to catch him in the act, maybe, then report him to the police.

And though there was something about him that seemed very far from violent—the centered stillness, the way he never spoke—it didn’t mean he couldn’t be. In fact, the quietness probably suggested something worse, about how violent he could be. He was likely one of those types, the ones who lunged suddenly, right when you least expected it. He was a coiled snake, ready to strike.

He was going to get her in the middle of the night.

Or maybe he was just going to get her right now.

“I know you’re there, little spy.”

He knocked against the wooden gate between them first, before speaking. As though he had to ask permission to interact with her, he had to be invited. It wasn’t comforting, however. His voice sounded like molten metal. As if he had something thick at the back of his throat and it was making him sound deeper and richer than he actually was.

It made her clasp her hands into fists.

“Mainly because I can see you,” he continued and she jerked a glance up. It was always possible he was lying. Maybe he couldn’t see her at all and he just wanted to scare her.

But no. When she tilted her head back there he was, clearing the gate by a good foot. He’d even laid a forearm across the wood, and from here she could make out a tattoo on the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. An actual tattoo, in such a tender place.

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