First sensations in the foggy shroud leading to consciousness can sometimes be a shock, especially if the dream you're having is holding time still in a warm embrace. Or if that embrace happens to involve your best friend, a woman more than a decade your junior, who sometimes speaks a version of English that is completely alien to you, but who makes you want to be the best person possible. Or sometimes, the mornings upon waking would haunt you the rest of your day because of the mistakes your subconscious managed to correct which you had let fester in real life. Or the unintended consequences your subconscious reached to your horror in the dreaming.
But this morning was going to be different.
Slowly, Henry opened his eyes, and it took him a moment to realize he was no longer sleeping in a strange bed in an unfamiliar environment somewhere north of the Bay Area. He recognized his bedroom; even the scents were familiar. He rolled over and he picked up on something else. No, not some Thing, but some One very familiar.
The sweet but not overpowering scent of Eliza Dooley.
Her eyes were closed. Her breathing was regular. She was sleeping, next to him in his bed.
He stayed the additional momentary panic when memories quickly resurfaced. His childhood friend had died of cancer, and he had returned from San Francisco after attending her funeral. He'd been away for two weeks with little by way of updates for Eliza. Last night, he struggled off the plane in Burbank, crawled into a taxi, and he returned home to find Eliza asleep in his bed. She had clearly been worried about him, and she had waited for him until she fell asleep. When she awoke to find him home, she clung to him revealing how much she missed him.
He could admit to himself that had been a big surprise and one of the best things to happen to him in some time. It'd been a simple gesture: direct and effective, dramatic yet sweet. Just like Eliza.
He was close enough to see individual freckles on her cheeks, her nose, and the tiny wrinkles beneath her eyes. He had an overwhelming urge to lean down and kiss every single one of those freckles ...
He could stay and watch her breathe and watch her sleep. Admire her, yes. And okay, maybe a little creepy, too. But if he was never going to have another chance to lie next to a sleeping Eliza ever again, he was going to take the next few moments and burn this sight into memory.
Eventually, he became uncomfortable at this "silent stalking." He hadn't touched her at any point since becoming awake, but the sight of her filled him with a joy that someone about whom he cared was at home with him. What became evident over these last few hours was Eliza's presence had soothed the recent pain and loss of his friend.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, recentering and steeling himself. Slowly, he shuffled over to the side of the bed to avoid waking her. He propped his hands on the bed and began to rise.
A hand shot out from underneath and grabbed his wrist, stopping him in his tracks.
Startled, he looked down at her hand.
Her touch was insistent and affectionate; her hold gentle yet firm. Fingers squeezing slightly, her thumb caressing his skin. It had been a subconscious effort on her part, an automatic reaction to reach out to the person next to her in bed. Movement had alerted her to a presence, and she immediately remembered being in Henry's bed. That thought alone sent a warm vibe and made her want to bury deeper into the comforter: his comforter, his bed. She groaned as she slowly opened her eyes. Lying on her stomach with her head cradled between pillows, she gazed at him through the slits of her sleepy scratchy eyes, through the unruly forest of her red hair.
He ached at the sight, her pink-and-blue flannel pajamas peeking through from underneath the covers, even as he zoned in on her pale green eyes. With the day's first rays streaming in from the outside, the room bathed in warm intimacy, and this clear reality she was waking up in his bed was changing and rocking his world.
"Stay ..." Her voice was rough from a night's worth of sleep. Releasing his wrist, she turned to the opposite side of the bed, and retrieved her smartphone from the end table. "I'm not ready for you to be out of my sight. For the next hour, anyway ..."
"You aren't hungry? I could ..."
"Henry, please. Get back into bed with me."
He nodded, throwing her a wry grin. He knew when to quit when he was a little behind, and he was only happy to comply with her demand. He climbed wordlessly into the space next to her. Propping a couple of pillows by the headboard, he sat with legs stretched out, and he picked up the latest Patterson novel he'd gotten in San Francisco.
"You're all wrinkly ..."
"What?" He followed her gaze, looking down at his rumpled clothes. Exhaustion last night had led him directly to bed and sleep. He looked up at her and shrugged.
"You're kinda cute with this untidy rumpled look." Eliza moved into his space, the back of her head against his shoulder.
Henry read a number of pages over the next half-hour. Because her head was comfortably nestled against his right shoulder, he would lift the book above her head to maneuver his hand up and over to turn the page. Tired of the page-turning gymnastics, he set the novel down on the end table. He brought his arm around, encircling but not touching her. He watched and marveled at her social media updates. She realized he wasn't reading his novel any more and looked up to find him smiling at her.
"Don't stop on my account, Eliza. I want to watch you navigate those shark-infested waters."
"Are you sure? Won't you be totally bored?"
"No," he replied simply.
She shrugged when he didn't elaborate, and she returned to burning a hater. Even if she accepted the 'sacrifice' of including haters in her elevated follower counts, it didn't mean she had to put up with the bullshit. Occasionally, he asked her what that tweet meant, and why that Instagram picture was getting all the likes. She would look up at him, wondering about his sudden interest, until she realized he was asking because it was important to her.
"I like this," she blurted, returning to look at her smartphone. He could tell from her body language, the slight twitch in her shoulders that she wanted to look at him, but didn't dare. "It's better than sex ... almost ..."
"Yeah, almost ..."
"Sometimes, this kind of closeness can be very important, the little details of the everyday people share with each other."
A strange look came over her face, and she tried to recover. "Isn't this like lounging? See, we're lounging! N-B-D, am I right?"
He caught her troubled look. "Eliza, what's wrong?"
"I ... I've never had anything like this before ..." she replied in a small voice.
Henry was surprised. "Not even with Freddy?"
She adjusted her position to face him. "Are you sure you want to hear this?"
He wasn't sure, but he wanted to know. "Yes, I do."
"Liar," she replied gently, her soft gaze on his eyes.
"Look, I don't know exactly what's happening between us right now. But I think that what happens next, between the both of us, things are gonna change.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"What I mean is I don't wanna go back to what we were."
"Totes true. But back on point and I'm gonna ask again: are you sure you want to hear this?"
"No, I'm not sure. Yes, I want to hear it."
She nodded. "Freddy and I didn't really talk much, and when we weren't making out or ... you know ..."
"Yes, I get the picture ..."
"Okay, well ... we would both be on our phones, doing our own individual thing. Not once did we share what we were doing. So, even though I'm still mad deep in social media, I like it very much that you're interested ..."
"Interested might be an overstatement, Eliza."
She laughed. "I for sure know that's true! Still, adorbs and I like it when you ask."
"It's important to you."
"It is. For now."
"Oh? What do you think will happen if social media becomes less important to you?"
"I don't know. I'm sure I'll think of something. Or someone."
He blazed her with a full smile. "I'm sure that someone can wait. Until that day comes, of course."
She returned a toothsome smile. "Of course."
In an instant, Henry sided with bravery, the voices of skateboarders in his mind. "Truth told, I'm hoping that day comes soon, and that it'll be you and me."
What he would commit to memory was the beautiful face with which he had become very accustomed: head slightly dipped, wide-eyed, nostrils flaring, lips pursed.
Yup, there's a sight, he thought. Eliza in stunned silence.