“You’d be the North Star. I’d draw that on you. Because, that’s what you look at on the ocean. When you get lost. Helps you find your way home.”--Bullet to Linden
“Visited Little B. Saw Kallie’s moms.”
Holder grasps his coffee cup with both hands, forearms resting on his knees. He’s telling Linden what he did after she quit and left. The last time she quit and left before returning to Seattle five years later. Before returning to him. She nods and takes a sip of her own coffee. Quiet. Listening. Studying the face she hasn’t seen in so long as he gazes at the floor, out the window, at her.
“Said some fucked up shit to her when she came to see Kallie. You know, after. So I told her I was sorry.” He looks up, and she smiles softly. “She asked if I was still working with you.”
Linden shifts on the couch, springy and newer than the one in his old apartment. She sets her mug down. “When did you quit?”
Holder leans back and slouches, head dropping back. “Pretty much right after you did. My new sponsor helped hook me up with the NA gig.”
She smiles, wider this time. She can still feel the kiss they shared on her lips, warm and electric, as soon as he’d reached her when she drove up the second time that day. “That’s great, Holder.”
“Just couldn’t deal with all the bullshit anymore. Not with Kalia on the way.” He nods to himself, either remembering his resolution from then or reaffirming his decision.
Linden’s eyebrows raise as if to say she knows what he means more than anyone.
“Anyway, me and Caroline got hitched, then Kalia came, then we got unhitched, and here I am, doing like I do.” He opens his arms wide with a grin, gesturing to his place. There’s a box of toys in the corner of the living room, stray dolls and coloring books. A little pink sock wedged under the pillow at Linden’s side.
Smiling again--she can’t stop, thinks of all the times over the past couple years his face, his words, or actions, crossed her mind and made her smile to herself in her car--she pulls the sock out and rubs it between her fingers. It’s pilled but soft. “You’re doing as well as I hoped you would be,” she says, looking up into his pale brown eyes.
“Knew you’d be thinking of me, 1-900,” he smirks, and she laughs.
“Yeah, you know, whenever I couldn’t find a decent song on the radio and got bored driving through someplace flat and monotonous.”
“Oh snap, Linden. That’s cold.” He shakes his head, still grinning like a drunk wolf. “But see I know you don’t mean it like that. Cause the car is like our bar or meet cute or whatever.”
“That’s pretty pathetic. I don’t want to ask how many women you’ve met in cars,” she jabs wryly. She places the sock on the coffee table and draws her knees up on the couch, grazing his thigh. They’re bantering like they’ve always done, but it’s edged with something else now. Their words from earlier, the kiss.
“Hey now, didn’t I tell you this body’s a temple?” He runs his hands from shoulders to knees, not touching.
“Yeah. But I’ve seen what you eat.”
“Oh shit, that reminds me. I gotta go to the store and get stuff for cupcakes. Non-vegan, one hundred percent sugar and whatnot cupcakes. What the hell else is even in them?” Holder wonders aloud, mostly to himself.
She shrugs. “Get a box.”
He points at her. “I like the way you think, Linden. Nothing but the best for my little Padawan.”
“Yeah, you know, Star Wars. Damn, Linden.” He frowns in mock-disappointment.
“I know what it is,” she protests. “I have a son. So, what, you think you’re some Jedi Master?”
“I’m getting there. Just you wait. Always had a bit of the Yoda flavor, don’t you think?”
She chuckles and meets his eyes, fresh warmth rushing through her. “Maybe only in the grammar department.” He shakes his head again, and she gets up, casting about for her coat and scarf. He stands, face going cloudy.
“Where you going, Master Linden?”
“You’ve got things to do. I don’t want to get between a little girl and her cupcakes.” She smiles once more, though she’s not sure she ever stopped.
“Come with,” he offers. It feels more like a plea.
She pauses as she wraps her scarf around her neck. “You sure? I can always find a motel and--”
“You’re staying here,” he says, and he bends over her. That familiar thread of panic at “stay” winds briefly around her heart, but she’s already made her decision. When Holder kisses her, firm, scratchy with his scruff, it snaps.
As they drive through the city in Holder’s car, Linden looks out the window and lets the odd mix of familiarity and novelty settle inside her. She’s riding with Holder like she has hundreds of times before, but there’s no crime scene to investigate, no suspects or witnesses to catch or interview. No one’s missing, no one’s dead. Neither of them smokes. The pavement is dry: a rarity.
But they banter and tease, laugh and share comfortable silences. The sun’s gone down, and Linden watches people coming out on the streets, going somewhere after work or, like them, getting things done. Some places she recognizes, and if she doesn’t recognize individuals, she knows them by type. She can’t see pain or loneliness anywhere, and she closes her eyes like Holder wanted her to earlier.
She feels the car slow, and when she opens her eyes, she sees a tattoo parlor on the corner where they’re stopped at a light. The front’s all window with neon lights, one flickering and probably buzzing: “Wild-Eyed Tattoo” except the “w” is incomplete.
She wonders how many tattoos Holder has now (she spotted one for Kalia on his forearm) and if she should ask or wait until she can see for herself.
“How much does it hurt?” she asks suddenly, nodding at the shop. There’s a woman inside, supine, getting something on her hip.
“Depends where. It always hurts a little, but I’ve felt worse,” he answers, and she knows he has, thinks of him shaking, demanding to be let out of the car at a church five years ago. “But, you know, it should. You’re getting branded. It’s like a purification.”
She rolls her eyes and smiles. Always everything sacred and grand with him.
The light changes, and Holder unexpectedly turns right and parks just down the road from the tattoo parlor. Linden looks over at him out of the corner of her eye.
“You thinking of getting a tattoo, Linden?” His face is sly, eyes mischievous in the car and streetlights.
She huffs a laugh. “I don’t know.”
“Yeah you do. I get it, I get it, though. It’s something permanent.”
Her mouth twists sideways at the implication, but there’s no real judgment in his tone or face. “You can get them removed,” she corrects.
“Now that shit hurts, I hear.” He pauses, eyes flicking over her, curious. “What you want to get?”
Linden lets his presumption go this time and sighs. “What about the cupcakes?”
“I can do that tomorrow morning.”
She swallows and runs a hand over her ponytail. “You remember that time you, me, and Bullet were looking around for Kallie? You got out to talk to those skater punks. Bullet told me about her wrist, you know, ‘faith.’”
Holder nods, the loss still in his eyes the way she imagines he can see the twist of pain she feels when she thinks of all those girls. Of Skinner.
“She said she’d draw the North Star on me, the one that helps you find your way home.” She smiles, and she sees it mirrored on his face.
“You found your way,” he says, voice deep and clear. His smile is gone. He’s peering at her the way he did once he moved past the surprise of seeing her again.
“Yeah.” She sounds light and thin to herself. She looks into his eyes, constricted in the light from the street. “Thanks,” she says and waits for understanding to light his eyes instead. The moment she sees it, she’s opening the car door and heading for the tattoo parlor. She turns and grins an invitation, hands in pockets, elbows wide at her sides as if to ask, “Are you coming?”
And he does.
“Linden got iiiinked!” Holder celebrates in a high-pitched sing-song. She’s sitting on his couch again, bare foot propped on the coffee table. She lifts the tape and gauze on her right ankle to look at the art: a single, spiky star in black like a compass. Close to the ground, rooting her.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Holder chides and smacks her hand lightly. “Under wraps for 24 hours. No scratching.” He wags a finger at her, smile wide, enjoying his greater tattoo experience.
It hurt like hell, and now it itches like hell. She replaces the gauze and gives it a few pats like the tattoo artist instructed.
He hands her a glass of apple juice and settles down beside her. “All I got,” he apologizes.
“Thanks.” She takes a sip. Her suitcases sit near the breakfast bar that separates living room from kitchen. She doesn’t have much; the rest of her stuff sits in a storage locker back in Chicago. Linden has never been attached to material things.
Holder had insisted she stay, and she insisted only until the weekend when Kalia would come. You can’t just dump a new person into a kid’s life, though Holder tells her Kalia knows who she is. She’s the one who believed in him.
She closes her eyes and exhales slowly. “I’m getting pretty tired,” she says. She’d driven a fair amount that morning and afternoon to get here. She drove a lot of miles to get here. “So where should I--”
She hears a chuckle and feels him get up. She opens her eyes just as he takes her hand. “C’mon. Get up. I want to see something.”
She lets him pull her up, and he reaches behind her and tugs at the elastic holding her hair back. She beams, lips crooked, as her hair comes loose.
“I’ve always wanted to do that.” He returns her smile.
Her pulse pounds at her neck, her wrists, her ankles. “Are we entering a romance novel?” she jokes.
“An intergalactic romance, 1-900.”
There’s no time to react as he’s already leaning in, and she meets him halfway, straining up on her toes. He tangles his hand in her hair and holds her to him, mouth hot with an edge of barely restrained desperation.
She kisses him back, arms around him under the shoulders, and the only thing strange is that it doesn’t feel strange. They open their mouths to each other and lick and suck, and he breaks only to lead her to the bedroom. Everything’s dead serious now. They take off each other’s clothes, and before Linden can think to count his tattoos, to look for new ones, familiar ones, he’s got her on the bed, and his skin feels like it’s hers, everywhere they touch, outside and inside her, “Sarah” whispered in her ear, like home.
In the morning he brings her coffee and a donut, muttering something about the breakfast of champions and old habits. She brushes her teeth and takes a shower, and when she comes out of the bathroom, tattoo uncovered, Holder in the kitchen making the cupcakes, the whole place has gone sweet.