The residental area was old, he assumed from the early 1900s. No two houses were alike, and all of them had vertical board siding in differing shades of pastel colours and earth tones. Driving slowly on the narrow gravel street he studied the gardens with laundry lines, garden swings, old, leaning sheds, greenhouses made from old paned windows, rows of berry bushes just coming to leaf and gnarly and twisted apple trees only a week or two away from opening their blossoms. Some homeowners had even kept the old outhouses standing in their unobtrusive corners. It was quaint. And infuriating. As if the people living here had no connection to actual brutal reality in their pretty little storybook village. Fuckers. Life wasn't a fairytale.
He was already grinding his teeth and he'd barely started his day. This was going great. All he had to do was to not show how much he hated people. Easy for Pod to say, harder for him to actually do.
Sandor blew out an angry breath and glanced at the hand held terminal. Right, the plant place. Figures. Among the usual miscellaneous stuff the Finnish Post home delivery took to people, this morning there had been eight large and heavy plastic bags with bare leafeless twigs jutting from them.
The house he wanted turned out to be a modest sized sea green two storey house with a large garden in front and vegetable patches and outbuildings up the gentle slope that ended in a natural forest cresting a small hill.
He maneuvered the box truck up the narrow driveway, took the hand held terminal and proceeded to unload.
“Hi,” a woman's voice called softly from behind him when he and the bags of bushes were riding down the lift gate at the back of the box truck. Her friendly smile faltered for a moment when he turned to look at her and she took in the mess of scarring only partially hidden by his cap.
“Morning,” he forced out. It didn't help to make his speech flow easier that the girl gawking at his ruined face was achingly beautiful. Bright, innocent eyes, clear, pale skin, two simple braids and bangs framing her face, no make-up.
He felt his own anger and couldn't curb it one bit. He was utterly crap at this. Customer fucking service. But at least he'd managed to force out a greeting. Not bad for a first day.
Besides, her smile was back. It was hesitant and unsure but a smile all the same.
“Where do you want them?” he asked gruffly, avoiding looking at her. She was too beautiful to even look at. As if his gaze would have been enough to somehow smear her with something rotten.
“Uhm... Just put them by the porch, please,” she said nervously. “I'll get them from there.” He took the first two bags and made for the porch.
Sandor could tell she was a chatter. But no one chatted with him. He wasn't the type. He'd do the job and that would have to suffice. Pod would be back soon enough. He was good with people. He would have made small talk, asked about her house, admired her garden, chatted her up while unloading and left her with a smile on her face and in possession of her new plants. After the Hound there would only be a slight shudder of relief that he was indeed gone. He'd seen it often enough. He hated to leave his desk for anyone but long time customers. They didn't stare ...anymore.
Well, tough shit. He'd just have to endure for the three weeks Pod was off gallavanting in the Seychelles or Antilles or where the fuck ever.
The girl hovered while he hauled over the next two bags of seedlings. He could feel her eyes studying him, as if the whole time she was about to ask something. It was a truly unnerving sensation. Good thing that his brusque manner made her shy - And rightly so! – a pretty little girl like that had no business lingering around bitter old dogs.
“Uhm, actually, would you mind terribly taking the rest of them to the garden shed over there?”
Mind? Terribly? He'd fucking asked her where she wanted them, hadn't he. He made a sort of a grunt as an assent and changed his direction with the last four bags.
“Thank you so much. They looked so very heavy. You saved me a lot of work,” she kept blabbering as he collected her signature on the hand held terminal.
There probably was something one was customarily supposed to say in a situation like this. Sandor only managed another one of his signature grunts before hurrying away from there.
The rest of the week went relatively ok. He tried to think of the job as a sort of battle. He made quick forays into enemy holdfasts and was in and out as quickly as possible. Until on friday morning, when he was already looking forward to the weekend, a familiar address popped up on his handheld terminal. Several times. He'd tried not to think about the little garden bird and her smile, but it hadn't quite worked. And this was definitely not going to help.
He was at her place well within the given time frame the girl had chosen for the delivery. She was there alright. Again in those feminine pastel green overalls with rose print. And that damned smile was there again. And this time it didn't falter. Not even once.
What was she? Blind?
He unloaded the rolls of green, scallop-edged wire fencing, stacks of green garden stakes, two 55 litre bags of seed starting mix and three of peat, a box of 8 wooden bird houses, several huge flowerpots large enough to house three grown cats, a large but light cardboard box of cell seed trays – whatever those were – and a heavy coil of garden hose.
“That all?” he asked the ever smiling Little Bird. He really needed to stop calling her that in his head.
“Yes, I think so,” she said with enthusiasm and smiled. “Thank you very much. I've been waiting for these.”
He felt weird that she was so happy receiveing the goods. It's not like they were gifts. She'd paid for them and their delivery and yet she thanked him so earnestly for bringing them. It was his job for chrissakes. Or Pod's job, actually. But be it as it may, she got her garden stuff. And he got another 20 minutes worth of those blue eyes he'd had quite enough trouble forgetting without this new deluge. Fucking hell.
He'd tried not to think about her during the week but it hadn't really worked. That smile was in his head. And that voice. And overalls or not she had a killer figure. Two weeks to go. And hopefully no more little birds.
“Fucking hell,” he muttered on wednesday afternoon turning onto the Little Bird's driveway the second time that week. Of course it would have been too much to have his wish granted. He only needed to look in the mirror to know how much luck favored his mangy ass. Nothing for it but to persevere. Again.
“Where's that from?” she asked and looked at the shipping documents he handed her. “Oh!” she cried with enthusiasm, “It's my chest of drawers!”
Bloody bird got so many deliveries she didn't even know what it was she was getting at any given day. “Where do you want it?” he asked gruffly. Yet why was he so pissed off by the Little Bird anyway? Maybe he should try to make some sort of effort to be even passingly polite. She was a customer after all. And in theory the Post had standards for this kind of thing – despite them next to never being observed unless actual complaints from customers started coming in.
“I know the shipping info of the store said they offer doorstep delivery only, but is there any chance you could help me bring it in the house? I was going to ask my brothers to help me carry it but they can only come by in the weekend and it looks like it's going to rain and the porch gets so humid every time it--
“Where do you want it?” Sandor meaningfully interrupted her quick-paced chatter.
Sandor grunted in the affirmative.
“Oh. Well,” she said, taking a moment to get over her surprise. “U-upstairs,” she stammered. “In my be-bedroom.”
Sandor could swear there was a faint blush going on close to her ears, but she quickly turned from him and – how else – started chattering about how pretty the chest of drawers was and how she'd spent weeks searching online for the right one and how happy she was that she was finally close to getting her home all set up.
“My parents bought this for me, I'm ashamed to say. It's my little hideaway,” she gestured at the house, and added as an explanation of sorts, “I want to pay them back, but I've yet to finish my studies.” The next words came out haltingly and unsure, like she was talking more to herself. “Don't know when I shall now, really. I just had to get out of--” After a small but visible shudder she shrugged off whatever it was and found her usual happy tone again. “And here I'm closer to my family than I was ...before.”
Why she was telling all this to a random delivery guy he couldn't understand. Yet, resigning himself to deal with her apparently inevitable chatter, Sandor sighed, flipped the huge, padded cardboard box on its shorter side, shimmied a hand truck under it and, pulling the top of the box towards himself, tilted the whole thing back. The little bird kept chattering beside the lift gate and kept it up all the way to the house and up the stairs to the glass veranda as Sandor pulled the loaded hand truck up a careful step at a time. By the time he was through the front door he knew half of the house's history and which pieces of furniture had actually come with the house and had been there – if not always – at least for decades.
He was getting more and more nervous. The Little Bird's nest was … a little bird's nest. It was quiet and quaint, cosy and peaceful, filled with old things that made it look as if time had stopped still inside the house somewhere around the 1950s. Houseplants, rag rugs, framed embroideries and paintings on the walls, a knitting basket, a rocking chair, warm beige wallpapers with tiny flower prints, even a doilie or two. A book and a teacup lay on a low table in front of a cozy sofa with throw pillows and a blanket. It was intimate, too intimate for him to be stomping through it with his huge safety-booted feet.
Upstairs in her bedroom the atmosphere felt closer still. He was starting to get truly anxious. He just wanted out of there and far away from the pretty Little Bird, who – true to form – was still chattering. “What a handy wheel-thingy. I never knew one could maneuver something like that up the stairs by oneself. I always thought it would take two people. And that must be so heavy! How can you even move it? I wonder if I could wheel my clematis pots to overwinter in the root cellar with one of those.”
“Where do you want it?” he rasped once again, and sounded strained and nervous even to his own ears.
“Right there by the window, please,” said the girl. Apparently still unaware of – or steadfastly ignoring – her effect on him. He was in her bedroom for fuck's sake. He now knew in what kind of a bed she slept in, how the roof slanted down to a corner where a tiny porcelain doe stood on the old chair that served as her bedside table, knew the colours on her handmade patchwork quilt, even knew the lace details and delicate floral print on the robe she'd folded on her pillow. She was going to be the death of him.
And to make matters worse he had a hunch that this was not going to be the last item he'd be delivering to her.
Sandor placed the box where she wanted it and made for a hasty retreat.
“Thank you ever so much. You've been such a huge help. So kind of you. Can I offer you something? Coffee? Juice? Water?”
“All part of the service,” he grated, tucking the folded up hand truck under his arm and making for the door with his head flooding with images of her asleep in her bed, of her snuggled up on the sofa with her blanket and a book, of her slowly taking off that lacy robe.
And no, it was not the last time her address popped up on his hand held terminal. He was heading her way again, and now her chatter and smiles had been whirling around in his head ever since he'd touched those cardboard boxes with air holes on them that held another batch of plants for the little bird's garden.
This time though, he found the Little Bird grunting and growling.
“What are you doing?” Sandor asked, surprising even himself. He pushed the pile of boxes towards her on the hand truck, reeling inwardly for starting a chat in the first place and secondly for he'd had to hastily swallow the Little Bird he almost added to the end of his question. Such a slip would have been bad.
The girl looked up at him from a hole two feet deep dug in the middle of a thicket just coming into leaf.
“These are lilacs,” she stated, clencing her jaw angrily. “You know the colour lilac?”
“Yeah,” he replied cautiously with a frown, taken aback by the venom in her voice.
“Well, these are the plants that gave the name for the colour. And you know what? These are all white. All. White. By god now that I finally got my own garden and lilacs in it I bloody well will have some actually lilac coloured lilacs!” Her voice started out carefully toneless but got angrier and shriller by the end of her speech.
So the Little Bird was digging a hole amidst the thicket of white lilacs to make room for lilac lilacs. Riiiight. And she looked close to tears. She was sweaty and dirty and down right a mess.
“So what's the problem?” he asked, still not getting it.
“These bloody stones are!” she cried out accusingly and banged her shovel against them with a loud clang.
Only now Sandor looked into the hole and saw two big boulders on the bottom of it.
“I've been digging and digging and digging, scraping and digging and scraping more and now that I finally have them uncovered the--” – her fists made a gesture like she wanted to tear somebody's head off – “bloody things are too big to lift out!”
At the end of her tirade her voice broke. She didn't weep but tears ran down her face just the same.
“God,” she breathed out forcefully. “This is ridiculous. Quite the job you have there. I'm sorry,” she said, briskly rubbing her face clean. Or, actually just spreading the sprinkles of dirt into lines of dirt.
Sandor grunted and let go of the hand cart. She was always beautiful, but when she was angry, she was stunning. Despite the teary outcome, he filed away her pinked cheeks and blazing eyes to wank at the memory later. He was a bastard, he knew that well enough, and moreover, she should have known better than to act too friendly with a dog like him.
He went back to the truck and returned to the girl with a digging bar. He used it as a lever to loosen the two stones that were both roughly the size of a microwave oven and hauled them out of the hole.
“How can you lift those things?” she gasped and fluttered to him, genuinely shocked, and something more that he couldn't quite place.
“It's a memory game. First you crook your fingers and then you straighten up.” If he was anyone else, that might have sounded like a joke. When he said it, it only sounded flat.
Staring at his orange and black safety jacket, she reached out as if in slow motion, put her hand on his forearm and felt her way up his arm to his shoulder blades. She was very tall for a girl, he realized, being able to reach his shoulders without difficulty. “How's your back? You aren't hurt?” she asked hoarsely, still staring at the fabric of his jacket as if talking to his arm.
“No, L--, girl. I aint hurt.” Damn that was close.
“Th-hank you,” she stuttered, suddenly realizing her hand was still on him and yanking it back with a blush.
His gaze was serious when he looked at her. “It wasn't about the stones, was it?”
“No,” she breathed out, and he could tell she still wasn't that far away from bursting into tears.
“You ok now?”
She looked at him with surprise, held his eyes for a moment and seemed to find some composure.
“Yes,” she replied, and reaching, more boldly than a mere moment before, to squeeze his forearm, added, “And thank you. Truly.”
Sandor looked at her hand on him. He felt her warmth through the thick material of his safety jacket. He wanted to say something. To do something. But he was what he was and merely made another grunt as a way of goodbye and left the girl with her lilacs.
After the stone thing there were three more deliveries to her. And that was exactly three too much.
He wasn't shy. Fucking hell, only green boys were shy. He was just ...being himself. He wasn't shy with the girl, he simply wasn't a chatter, just like he never had been. What was it that Pod always called him... Morose! That's it. He was not shy, he was simply being his morose self.
The thing was, the girl seemed to think he was shy – which he definitely was not. And what was worse she seemed to find this perceived shyness, for the lack of a better word, cute. The more he tried to keep himself to himself and bug off quick the more she smiled and tried to prod him to talk with her and kept being extra friendly and stuff and all in all made it difficult as fuck for him to avoid looking at her. Sandor was sure she was enjoying her little game at his expence, making him carry her new deliveries here and there in different areas of the large yard just to torment him a little longer. From time to time he thought he ought to teach her what dogs did to innocent little birds. She'd find it rather difficult to keep chattering with his cock plowing deep in her pretty mouth.
He didn't want to look at her; she was so fucking pretty he didn't want that image in his head – at least any more than it already was. And the sight of those teats of hers stretching the material of her little summer dresses was torture.
So when the three weeks were up, he was relieved as hell to finally have Pod back and be done with her. There was a tiny something at the pit of his stomach, but he didn't really want to know and pushed to ignore it. Besides, he had four offers from four different insurance agencies and he'd need to sort out whether the cheaper offers included all the same elements as the more expensive ones. And he kept getting calls about his company website that it was outdated and should be redesigned and he would have to find time to think about that too and make a decision one way or another. And he needed to compile last month's folder for his book keeper. And type the invoices. And one of the trucks was losing air pressure and he'd need to find out why. And the loader crane of another was seeping oil. And he needed to change new break cylinders into a third. And calculate for a possible new client how much it would cost to deliver all the materials, tools and machines for an oil spill response drill 300 kilometres down the coast. This was his life. And he'd stick to it.
And stick to it.
And definitely would concentrate on those insurance papers. Soon.
And start on those break cylinders.
Any time now.
Maybe in the afternoon.
At least he was staring at the papers. That had to count for something, right?
The office door opened and closed once again.
“There was a girl today, asking for you,” Pod called from behind his cubicle screens .
Pod rounded the screens with growing enthusiasm. “A girl. I swear it, she was expecting you, and she got disappointed when it was me and not you.”
“Fuck off,” Sandor grumbled.
“No, listen. I mean it. How many girls out there are missing your miserable mug? This girl – and by girl I mean a stunner – she wanted you.”
“The garden girl?”
“Yeah... The redhead.”
“Hm,” he grunted and turned back to his papers.
“That's it?” Pod cried out in near desperation.
“What do you want me to say?”
“How about taking her a little delivery?” he jiggled his eyebrows. “It just might be I forgot to give her one of her boxes. If so, it might be at the back of the truck.”
“Hey, come on, big guy. She had this pretty little flowery dress on and everything. Listen, I know the chick, been taking deliveries to her since she moved in that house in February. She's all alone in there. She's single. And ever since the spring thaw she's never out of her overalls while there's enough daylight to mess around in the garden. I bet your ass she had cooked or baked a pie or something and was about to ask you to stay for lunch. Don't let her down, man.”
“Remind me again why I don't fire you?” Sandor sighed with exaspiration.
“'Cause you don't want to get a call from Uncle Ilyn.”
“That creepy bastard,” Sandor muttered under his breath and rubbed his face with the heels of his hands.
Pod placed the keys to the box truck on his desk in front of him and lifted his eyebrows meaningfully.
“And we had a very nice honeymoon, thank you for asking,” he called from the door and left. Sandor looked at the clock. It was close to 6 pm.
He was at the Little Bird's little nest just after seven. It felt decidedly odd to park his van on her driveway and not have the pretext of the box truck and his work clothes as a shield to hide behind. He didn't even know what he was doing here – despite carrying the huge box containing god knows what, probably more plants again. Or flowerpots. Or one of them insect hotel things, she'd want one of those, he was sure. But those were small, right? He'd definitely started paying more attention to the garden store ads on his morning paper in the last weeks. A month ago he hadn't even heard of an insect hotel, let alone known what it was.
Besides, Pod didn't know the girl as well as he thought he did. Come to think of it, he'd last seen her in her overalls when she'd been wrestling with the stones. She'd worn dresses ever since. That's how much one could trust Pod's imagined insight. He'd strangle the kid next time he saw him.
Well, no use running now. He'd just give her the box and leave. He could tell her there'd been a fuck up.
He ringed the doorbell and soon enough the Little Bird appeared on the glass veranda. She smiled brightly and hurried to open the door for him. She wasn't wearing the yellow dress anymore. She was wearing a huge, oversized cardigan over pajamas. How can someone look so bloody sexy in a worn cardigan and a set of pajamas anyhow?
“I saw your car. I was worried at first but then I saw it was you,” she said and smiled. She lowered her gaze down to the box in his hands. “Wow. Is that for me? You didn't have to. You're not even working.”
That chatter again. But damn it he kind of liked it.
“I own the business. I'm always working.”
“You own the Post?” she laughed out loud.
“No,” he said, and was shocked to hear himself chuckle. Since when did he laugh? Or smile? “Just one of the companies that drive the posted stuff around. They outsource just about all the transports these days.”
“Oh. I see. Well, anyhow. This is way too kind. Thank you ...Sandor.”
Sandor looked at her lifting the one working eyebrow.
“I saw Pod earlier today. He told me your name.”
Bloody hell. God knows what else Pod had let out of that big mouth of his.
“Where do you want it?” he asked, slightly lifting the box in his arms.
“You can leave the box right there. But would it-- Would you-- Uhm.” She swallowed, closed her eyes for a minute and seemed to pull herself together a bit. “Would you like to come in and have some coffee?”
Sandor had known it was coming as soon as she'd started to babble. He couldn't understand it. Couldn't understand why the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen wanted to ask him in for coffee.
Besides, coffee at this hour would keep him up half the night, but maybe in the right company that wouldn't be such a drawback after all.
And so, in later years, the staple question 'Where do you want it?' got a whole new set of interesting meanings.