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Sand Castles

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Winter in Ohio is bad, but it’s got nothing on winter in Maine. It’s like the state takes the concept of winter happening anywhere else in the world as a personal challenge, one that must be risen to and overcome. The snow seems whiter, the wind seems to work harder to worm its way past door frames and windows, and the ice seems more like a reminder that once upon a time--not that long ago as places are concerned--glaciers ruled the world. Men were just monkeys then, huddling in caves and praying that someday, if they were very good, and very faithful, the summer would come back.

Looking out the window of her tiny rented room, Audrey Parker (if that’s even her name; one more thing not to be sure of) has no trouble at all understanding why men used to kill each other, blood on the snow, to remind the sun to rise.

What she has trouble understanding is how anyone ever got them to stop.

She should leave. Get the hell out of Haven before she gets sucked in any deeper; before the snow that won’t stop falling outside the window or inside her mind can smother absolutely everything, leaving no chances of escape. She’s going to get snowed in if she’s not careful, and out here, in the wilds of Maine (where the Wild Things are), that’s a clear and present danger.

Audrey Parker (who doesn’t have anything better to call herself; not yet, anyway) stands at the window, and watches the snow fall, and wishes she were anywhere but here.

*

“This is the worst job ever,” Duke announces, wiping his hands on his pants for the tenth time. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t touch the thing that used to be Eloise from the corner diner; he saw it, and that was enough to haunt his dreams for the rest of the winter at the absolute least. It feels like he has blood on his hands.

In a way, maybe he does. He sat there without objection while the woman who calls herself Audrey Parker put three bullets in the wendigo’s frozen heart (something his Audrey, the real Audrey, could never have done; the real Audrey understood that the people of Haven were still people, despite their Troubles). There’s probably a circle of Hell reserved for people who sit idly by while their neighbors are gunned down.

Eloise killed four people before Nathan realized what was going on--before he swallowed his pride enough to call the two people he least wanted to deal with, because they were also the two people most likely to survive what he was up against. Supposedly-Audrey Parker, with the chip on her shoulder and the big gun in her hand, and Duke Crocker, the unkillable boy.

“You know how you die,” Nathan had said, in that utterly reasonable “because I’m the cop, that’s why” voice, the one he’d had since they were both kids, and the Troubles of the future were a world and a half away. “As long as Eloise didn’t get a new tattoo after she ate her husband’s internal organs, you’ll be safe.”

Duke had been planning to refuse him for that alone when Nathan played the lowest card in his personal deck: “Audrey wouldn’t want people to die just because she needed some time to think about her options. She needs you.”

“I hate you,” Duke replied, and hung up the phone...but he’d gone to the station anyway, where Nathan was waiting with supposedly-Audrey, and a map of the woods outside of town. Six hours later, and all roads led to him feeling like his hands were soaked in phantom blood, and Eloise Harper’s body lying on the snow (and she’d been so cold when she died that it wasn’t melting, not a bit; she’d been dead less than ten minutes, and she couldn’t melt the snow).

Nathan looked at Duke disdainfully as he got back into the truck. “Nice job back there,” he said. “I really believed your screams of mortal terror.”

“I’m a method actor,” Duke replies, and rubs his hands against his pants one more time. “Is she safe to drive alone in this snow?”

There’s only one “she” he could mean. Nathan does him the courtesy of not pretending otherwise. “She says she is,” he says. “I’m taking her word for it. Unless you’d like to ride back with her? She’s tough. Violent. Probably bad for your health. Sounds like just your type to me.”

Laughter has always come naturally to Duke. That doesn’t stop it from being tinged with bitterness. “No matter what I do, I can’t earn an inch with you? No, she’s not my type. My type is a little less mercenary.”

“She’s FBI.”

“So was our Audrey.”

There it is: there’s the thing they’ve been so carefully not saying since the autumn tumbled into winter, and the snow came to swallow the world. There’s the thing they’ve been trying to pretend wasn’t there at all. “She’s not our Audrey,” says Nathan.

“Maybe she’s not your Audrey,” Duke says, mildly. “I’m not giving up on her yet.”

Laughter has never come naturally to Nathan, and so he doesn’t even try. He just looks at Duke levelly as he starts the engine, and says, “Why not? She gave up on us.”

*

The snow stopped falling sometime shortly after the sun went down, which was nowhere near long enough after the sun came up. The winter days are short here, in the wilds of Maine, and she’d feel better about being so cold if they didn’t also seem so damn familiar. She’s starting to hate this town, even as she’s starting to love it with every inch of her contested heart. Does she love it because it offered her a place she could belong? Or does she love it because Lucy loved it, and Lucy, in the end, will take her over? Does she--

The knock at her door snaps her out of her dangerous stillness. She’s suddenly aware of the absolute silence in her little rented sanctum. No music, no television, not even the steady ticking of a clock. She walks through that silence like a woman in a dream, moving to answer the door, praying that whatever she finds there will be something she can handle. Please don’t be Nathan, she says to herself. Please, please, please don’t be Nathan...

Duke smiles when the door swings open, holding up a ruby-colored glass bottle full of liquid in one hand, and a pair of wide-brimmed wine glasses in the other. “Mind if I come in?” he asks, and he doesn’t wait for her to answer, he just brushes past her, and he’s inside.

Just like this damn town, which came into her before she had the chance to tell it not to. “Duke,” Audrey says, surprise, mild irritation, and yes, relief, in her voice. “What are you doing here?”

“Putting down these glasses,” he says, and puts them atop the silent television. “Opening this bottle.” The cork comes loose with a practiced pop of one thumb; he clearly opened it earlier, and recapped it for the drive over from his restaurant. “Now I’m pouring port into glasses...”

“I meant in general. Not in specific, by-the-second form.”

“I’m handing you a glass of very good--very good, if I have to say so myself--port, in hopes that if I get you drunk enough, I might get to see you smile again before the spring thaw.” He holds a glass out to her. “Come on. Have a drink with me.”

Maybe it’s the smell of the port, half sweet, half sour, like an adult version of the candies she loved as a child. Maybe it’s the look on his face, the one that says he understands what she’s going through, even though she knows there’s no possible way he could. Whatever it is, something makes Audrey smile a little (and even that little smile hurts her cheeks, after so many days staring at the snow, waiting for the winter to become an oracle and tell her the future).

“All right,” she says. “Just one drink.”

“I would never press a lady,” he says, with the utmost solemnity. “But you know, it’s cold outside.”

Still smiling that small, painful smile, Audrey shuts the door, and shuts the winter out.

*

The first glass of port is sweet and lovely and exactly like drinking those little candies. The second glass is sweeter and sharper all at the same time; if regret had a taste, Audrey thinks, it would taste like port. She takes another mouthful. Exactly like port.

Duke is watching her when she lifts her head again. There’s that look on his face again, the one that says he understands. This time, it annoys the crap out of her. This time, she’s two glasses of port braver, and warmer, and less afraid of the winter. This time, she says something. “What is it, Duke?”

“It’s nothing.”

“You wouldn’t look at me that way if it were nothing.”

“It’s nothing,” he repeats, and tops off their glasses, and she lets him, because there’s nobody bleeding in the snow to make this winter end. “It’s just...I wish you’d come out of here, Audrey. We miss you.”

“How can you miss me? Audrey Parker’s still in town.” Her voice is more bitter than she expected it to be. She takes another gulp of port, like the sweetness can somehow cancel out what’s inside her.

“It’s not the name that matters. It’s the woman who wears it.” Duke puts down his glass, laughter gone, smile forgotten. He’s serious now, and something in his face cuts through the alcohol and the misery, forcing her to really see. “You think I care whether you’re Audrey, or Lucy, or somebody else altogether? We miss you. We need you.”

“How can you need me when I don’t even know who I am anymore?” She hesitates before giving voice to the fear that’s kept her at the window for days, trapped behind the frost like a butterfly pressed under glass. “What if I don’t even exist, and Lucy’s going to come back and wash me away like a sand castle?”

“Audrey...” Duke reaches out and catches her wrist, holding it lightly in the circle of his fingers. She pulls back a little, not enough to break free, but enough to slide her fingers into his. “I remember Lucy. Not much, but enough to know that she wasn’t cruel. She wasn’t a bad person. If you’re her sand castle, she built you to last, and she did it because she knew the tide wasn’t going to come back in. Maybe you used to be her. Stranger things have happened in Haven. But if you were, you’re not her anymore. You’re you.”

“But...”

“Even if you suddenly remembered everything that had ever happened to Lucy, you’d still be you. You’d still have all the pieces that make you Audrey.” He smiles a little, squeezing her fingers. “If you don’t want to be Audrey anymore, and you can’t be Lucy, that’s okay, too. We can make you someone else to be. How do you feel about Laurie?” He pronounces it loo-re, like the start of one name and the ending of another. “Or Auley. I went to school with an Auley.”

She laughs a little. She can’t help it. “Do you really think this is about a name?”

“I think you were fine until you called yourself Lucy, and another woman called herself Audrey.” He lets go of her hand, leaving the shadow of his warmth trapped in her skin. “This is Haven. This is your Haven. But you have to let us in if you want us to help. You can’t sit in the cold and wait to freeze.”

“I don’t to freeze,” says Audrey. She finishes her port in a long, burning gulp, pulling her glass back before he can fill it again. Then she stands, wobbling a little on her feet (but not enough to believe this is the alcohol speaking; not enough to lose herself) as she walks around the table to him.

Duke raises his eyebrows, watching her. “Is this the part where I get slapped?” he asks.

“Not quite,” she says, and leans down, and kisses him.

Duke’s lips are as warm as the Maine winter is cold, and taste like port, with the faintest, far-off trace of seawater. A man can’t live on a boat without getting the sea wound tight through every inch of him. He’s surprised enough to kiss her back at first, and it’s not until his hand starts to lift, almost of its own volition, to cup the curve of her hip, that he realizes what he’s doing. He pulls back quickly, desire and alarm warring in his eyes.

“I didn’t come here to get you drunk and take advantage of you,” he says. “I like a drink, and I like a good time, but that’s not the way I work.”

“Shut up, Duke,” says Audrey, and kisses him again. This time, she’s the one to pull away, and it’s her voice whispering in his ear, voice hot against his skin: “I was in the FBI, or maybe I just dreamt that I was, but either way, I can drink you under the table if I have to. I’m not the one being taken advantage of here.”

Neither is Duke, but he’s smart enough not to say that. He just kisses her again, and she tastes like port, and cherry chapstick, and tears, which are almost like seawater, but not really, not quite. Then her hands are in his, and she’s pulling him from the chair, and he lets her, he lets her lead him from the table to the bed (only three steps and they’re there, oh, the beauty of the rented room). He lets her throw him down, and then she comes to him, and the winter night is warm. The winter night is warmer than a thousand sweet Julys.

*

The first time isn’t making love. It isn’t even having sex. It’s fucking, pure and simple and raw and painful, two bodies seeking exorcism through the catechism of skin on skin, sweat and semen and screaming. Duke’s smart enough to use a condom--once was more than enough to learn that lesson well--and Audrey’s smart enough to shriek into the pillow, rather than bringing the manager running. When it’s done, both of them are bruised and aching, and neither can say that it was good, but it was the only thing that either of them needed.

The second time is having sex. It’s slow and sweet, an exploration of uncharted lands. Duke runs his hands over every inch of her, watching the way her pupils dilate and her nipples harden when he presses his fingers down just so. Audrey finds his scars, the ones that every fisherman has: hook catches on his fingers, line cuts on his legs and lower arms. She rakes her nails along them, calling sensation through skin that isn’t much for sensation anymore, and when he enters her again, she bites down on his shoulder, teeth leaving dents in his skin.

When it’s done, the bruises are still there, and the ache is twice as bad, and both of them know that they’ve started something.

Audrey sprawls sideways on the bed, her head resting on Duke’s chest. He admires the gracelessness of her pose, the fact that she’s made no efforts to cover herself. Here I am, she’s saying. Whoever I am, here I am; you asked for me, and you’ll have to live with having me. At the moment, there’s nothing he can dream of wanting more.

“Do you do this for all the girls?” she asks, eyes on the ceiling, fingers tangled in the hair of his chest.

“No,” says Duke, calmly. “Just the ones suffering from major identity issues. Oh, and they have to be cute. That’s sort of a prerequisite of mine.”

“Lucky me,” she says dryly, and she sounds so right, so much like herself, that Duke can’t keep from laughing out loud. Audrey joins in, slowly, with the wry laughter of someone who gets the joke, and knows the joke’s on them.

Sobering, Duke asks, “Do you want me to go?”

“No.” Audrey rolls onto her stomach, looking at him through the tangle of her hair, and he realizes two things, almost simultaneously. That he may not love this woman yet, but she’s the first woman he’s ever met that he thinks he might be able to fall in love with, the first one that he thinks he might want to fall in love with. And that he can’t feel the phantom blood on his hands anymore.

“That’s my Audrey,” he says, reaching out to move her hair aside. “Always helping.”

The look she gives him is puzzled, but not sorry. Whatever else she may do, she doesn’t regret it, not yet. Not ever, if he gets to have a say. “You’re not making sense.”

“I didn’t come here to make sense.”

“Didn’t come here to get me drunk, didn’t come here to molest me--what did you come for?”

“To convince you that the winter would end, if you gave it long enough. If you gave yourself the permission to thaw.”

“Permission given.” She leans up, most of her still draped across the bed, and kisses him. It’s an invitation, that kiss, and the beginning of a promise. “You know anything about making sand castles?”

“I used to be pretty good at it. I could probably be pretty good again, if someone gave me a reason to.”

Audrey, or Lucy, or whoever she is--whoever she’s going to be, when the snow falls, and Maine gives up the winter’s ghost--smiles.

“I think I can give you a reason,” she says.

*

The third time is making love. The snow falls outside, and the winter night is dark and cold as only Maine winters can be, and that doesn’t matter. In one small, rented room, it’s summer, forever summer, and there are sand castles to be made.