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mending a broken heart

Mending A Broken Heart

 

Andrew first spotted her in the beginning of September. Frustrated once again after a sleepless night followed by a full morning of not writing a word, he decided to take a walk on the beach. A rickety wooden fence, made of weather-washed gray planks, surrounded his yard. He was just about to open the beachside gate at the back corner, under the biggest tree on his lot, when movement caught his eye. He paused, looking over the chest-high fence.

She came from the north, from the direction of the only other cabin in the area. It belonged to old Gloria and had been empty so long Andrew almost forgot it was there. He felt possessive of the beach, this narrow strip between the land and the sea, this wind-blown sand stretch filled with pebbles and whatever drifted in with the tide. It was almost always windy, the currents made it treacherous to swim, and since there were more hospitable beaches nearby, it was usually his alone to roam.

His first reaction to seeing her was intense annoyance. He stayed in the tree's shadow and watched. It was a warm day, but she wore rugged jeans and a long-sleeved gray shirt. Her long, dark hair was tied in a ponytail, but a few strands had escaped, whipped by the wind. She had her arms crossed tightly over her chest, and she looked down in front of her as she slowly trudged across his field of vision, barefoot.

Andrew waited until she was a tiny figure in the distance, then ventured onto the beach. He eyed the line of her footprints. Most were already swallowed by the drifting sand, and the rising tide would erase the rest. Bristling with indignation, he stiffly turned to walk the other way.

His route took him by the other cabin. It looked as empty as ever, but there was a car in the yard. He walked by, glaring at the evidence of the intruder. A few hundred meters further the beach ended, and he climbed up the slope to the wind-swept forest to walk onwards along the shoreline. He came back along a path following the coastline further inland, hoping not to run into his new neighbor.

She didn't seem to have a steady schedule. Andrew saw glimpses of her on most days, either walking past his cabin or returning to hers. Even more often he saw her footprints, following an almost identical trail each day. It irked him to be reminded he wasn't alone in the world.

Andrew had withdrawn to this remote, windy beach a little over a year before, soon after his wife had lost her fight with cancer. The cabin technically belonged to him and his sister, but Emma lived overseas with her family, and was more than pleased Andrew wanted to live in it and maintain it. It had been their father's pet project, and they'd spent all their childhood holidays there. Emma wanted to keep it in the family, even when she didn't have many opportunities to visit herself.

Andrew had written three successful novels before Lina had first become sick. After that, their life had been a deepening spiral of treatments and rebounds, cancer beaten then recurring, sprouting anew like a weed no matter how dutifully it was ripped out. Round by round, Lina had weakened, her belief in survival deteriorating, until finally she was gone. It had been a losing battle, but knowing it hadn't made any difference; it wasn't possible not to fight.

For a while after Lina's diagnosis, Andrew had been able to write: articles, short stories for anthologies, even poems, although those he had never even considered publishing. As Lina got worse, so did his creativity, and he thought he'd buried it with her. After the funeral, he sold their home in the city, packed the barest essentials, and moved to the remote coastal village. He had brought a small box of memorabilia, but stuffed it at the back of a closet and tried to forget it was there.

He still could not write, but sat in front of his laptop every day. Sometimes he wondered why he kept torturing himself when it was clear he had become a literary castrate. Financially, his late parents had left him well off so he didn't need to write to sustain himself. He didn't have any other occupation, and no ambition for anything else, and out of sheer stubborn habit he sat down after breakfast and stared at the blank screen for a few hours. He did some fishing, a lot of reading, took walks along the beach, and that was about it. His life was a limbo of pain, dulled by time but always present.

On his next supply run to the village, he asked the shopkeeper, Martha, about the mystery woman. Martha was a good-natured woman and looked old even when Andrew was a child. To his eyes, she still looked almost exactly the same. She would have been an awful gossip, if she wasn't so nice. As it was, it didn't feel like gossiping, even when she knew everyone's business.

"Gloria's cabin?" she asked, while ringing in his purchases. "I heard it was rented. Didn't hear to whom."

"Oh?" said Andrew. He spread his canvas bag and started packing his groceries. "It's a woman, I've seen her on the beach a few times. I haven't seen anyone else. But she must come here for groceries."

"Haven't seen her," Martha said. She seemed displeased by the fact. "How's writing going?"

"Oh, splendidly, as always," Andrew said. This was a return to their usual small talk. "Want me to write you into the book as a cameo?"

Martha laughed and waved him away. Andrew suspected she knew he was lying, but she never challenged him, never asked when he was publishing his next book.

Outside, Andrew ran into Martha's husband, George. He was a scrawny and wrinkly man, wind-beaten like everything else on the coast. He helped maintain several cabins for those who didn't visit regularly and had kept up Andrew's and Emma's cabin for years.

"Fixed that roof, have you?" George asked. "You'd better, it's gonna be a snowy winter, mark my words."

"Snow?" Andrew asked, incredulous, while loading his bags into his car. "You're thinking about snow?"

That autumn had been unusually warm, and even in mid-September the sun was still shining warm. George smiled, cocked his hat and went inside.

George usually knew what he was talking about, and he knew Andrew's cabin. A few days later, Andrew took his advice and climbed up on the roof to check a few places near the chimney where George had said it needed patching. He didn't find them at first but, of course, the old geezer was right. He was an excellent caretaker.

Andrew straightened his back. He wasn't built for physical labor. He chopped his own firewood, but that was about the limit of his physical prowess. It was a warm day, sunny once again, and windy as always. He stretched and let his gaze sweep along the beach.

He spotted a pile of things on the beach. Someone's clothes, maybe? He scanned up and down the beach but saw nothing. He let his eyes search the waves. Surely it wasn't warm enough for swimming? Wind was strong that day and the waves hindered visibility. The beach had a strong current to the right side of it, drawing strongly towards the rocky cliffs a little further away. There was a hill at that end of the beach, with perpendicular fall down to the ragged boulders lining the shore. Current ran strong there, and if one washed up against the rocks, it wouldn't be easy to get out unharmed.

He thought he'd been mistaken. Maybe the pile was just something waves had washed up on the beach. It was far from the water, though. He also didn't think it had been there when he had gone for a walk earlier.

No, there was a head. Someone was floating in the water. He craned his neck. Why weren't they moving? Andrew stood up, holding onto the chimney. There was no doubt; it was a person in the water surrounded by the deep metallic blue of early autumn ocean, bobbing in and out of sight with the waves.

Just as he was about to climb down and run to the shore, the head shifted, the body turned, and started swimming to the shore. He watched the swimmer get close enough to wade instead of swim. Waves nearly washed over their head, white foam flying with the wind, but steadily the figure rose from the sea.

It was his mystery neighbor, and she was naked. She strode out of the water, her dark hair clinging to her shoulders and back. Andrew took in her slim figure and pale complexion and had a fleeting thought of how her nipples had to be puckered up with cold.

He suddenly realized he was standing on his roof, in plain sight from the shore, ogling his skinny-dipping neighbor. He fought a momentary panic and urge to sit, afraid the sudden movement would catch her attention. She could see him whether he was sitting or standing.

The woman walked up to her clothes. Gathering her hair in her hands, she wrung it dry with well established routine. She stood, looking at her clothes while tying her hair into a ponytail. She looked skinny. Her shape was womanly, but somehow she looked like she should be a bit plumper. It was difficult to define, and Andrew was so far away he couldn't pin down exactly why he thought that.

The woman gathered her clothes, her breasts hanging in a most enticing way when she bent over. She turned to walk towards her cabin, still naked. Andrew followed her with his eyes for as long as he could. When he sat to continue fixing the roof, it surprised him to realize he had developed an erection without noticing.

The next morning, after an usual sleepless night and too much coffee, he sat staring at his laptop again. He tapped the tabletop with his fingers, hummed tunelessly to himself, and let his eyes wander outside. He couldn't see the beach from his study, and for the first time, found it irked him. He wanted to see the beach.

He switched positions in his chair, annoyed with himself. He felt like a creep, drooling over his mystery neighbor.

The blank white face of the screen stared at him with its blinking black enemy upon it. He stretched his fingers. He tapped the floor with his foot. And then, to his amazement, he wrote:

"She emerged from the sea, naked, like a goddess born again."

Andrew stared at the words. It was a cliche and creepy in a way. It was also the first sentence he'd written since Lina's death. He breathed out, as slowly as he could manage, and let his fingers move on the keyboard. He worked almost unconsciously, afraid the stream of words would run dry at any disturbance. He didn't even consider the form, or any kind of direction, he just wrote. He kept writing for nearly two hours.

—#—#—#—#—#—

At the beginning of October, Andrew walked down to the beach for his usual walk. His beach was a stretch of pristine, undisturbed, wind-smoothed sand, a few reeds and pieces of driftwood along the slowly rising waterline. The only mark of human presence was his small fishing boat on its trailer. There was no sign of his neighbor.

Andrew ambled along the shore. Where the beach started its fast rise to the stony cliff, he stopped and looked back to see his footprints disturbing the peace of the otherwise untouched terrain. He had thought it would relieve him when she went away, but now that it happened he felt lonely. He wondered if she had left for good. He had planned to climb the hill that afternoon but instead, he walked back following his own traces, so he could walk past her cottage.

The cabin looked the same as before, but her car was gone. He didn't understand why he felt loss rippling inside him. It had appalled him that someone disturbed his solitude, and he didn't know when that had changed. But he had to admit that it had.

Her absence caused his writing to falter again. He had been writing every morning since his dam had burst, mostly nonsense, but producing text at least. Without her, his pauses became longer and his thoughts got interrupted easier than before.

A week later, she returned. Andrew was in his yard preparing it for winter, when he noticed her walking down the beach. His heart jumped, and he felt silly. They had never even introduced themselves. What reason was there to get so excited? And yet, as he watched her meander, pausing often to look out at the horizon, he felt his face contort into something resembling a smile.

—#—#—#—#—#—

In November the winds became stronger. Andrew followed the weather forecasts carefully and took care to keep his year clean of debris. A storm was gathering, and the forecast said it could cause considerable havoc. The trees on Andrew's lot were old and battered, and he had no way of knowing whether they would hold up. He had weathered storms in the cabin before, but it seemed this was going to be a big one.

From his upstairs bedroom he could see the beach. He opened a bottle of whiskey and settled in to watch. Wind howled under the roof, and the sky darkened with stormy clouds of dark violet, ashen gray, and inky black. He could see lightning flashing out over the ocean, still far away.

The beach and the ocean were a palette of dark colors, contrasted with the pale of the sand and white of the sea foam cresting the crashing waves. A flash of red caught his eye. He squinted to see better.

It was the neighbor. She wore red rubber boots with long shafts coming up almost to her knees. Her jacket was a long, black parka, far too big, coming down almost to the top of her boots. Her legs clad in tight black jeans seemed scrawny under the baggy coat, giving her the appearance of a child dressed in adult clothes. She stumbled along the shoreline, wrapping the coat around herself for protection from the wind, hood fastened tightly. The wind was so powerful she swayed when gusts hit her.

He watched her walk towards the cliff, and when she moved out of sight he hastened to search for a woolly sweater to put under his own long, weatherproof parka. The coast wasn't a place for umbrellas; it was a place for waterproof overclothes and wool under them. He dressed as quickly as he could and ran out to the yard. He didn't stop to think where this feeling of urgency came from, he just knew he needed to follow her.

The first raindrops tapped on his hood, playing an irregular, pattering soundtrack to his scrambling half-jog down the beach. He fastened his hood tight to keep out the wind. Rain was soon running down his face and he wished he had thought to wear a baseball cap: the visor would have helped keep the water out of his eyes.

When he reached the path that veered away from the beach and up to the cliff, he looked up to see the woman standing at the top, just as he had predicted she would be. She stood facing the ocean, the hem of her coat flapping around her skinny legs. She had her arms open to her sides, almost vertical, and it looked like her hands were squeezed into fists.

He slipped and clambered up the hill, the path already muddy in the rain. Rain and gusts of wind were intensifying and the flashes of lightning over the sea were approaching rapidly. The wind was so strong he had to tilt his head down. The wind carried no scent, not the sea-weedy green decaying scent of sea from warm summer days, nor the clean, salty smell of colder seasons' cool water masses.

He got to the top and stopped. She stood right on the edge, her back to him, and over the relentless wind he could hear her screaming. It was an animal sound, inarticulate feeling articulated, so eerie the hair at the back of his neck and on his arms stood up. Wind shifted and he couldn't hear her over the winds anymore, but could tell from her tense body she hadn't stopped screaming.

She looked small standing at the edge of the stony cliff, the mountains of billowing thunderclouds raising up to the skies in front of her. She was a darker figure against the ominous shades of the storm, then an almost negative-like silhouette when the flash of lightning blinded him momentarily. He thought it was dangerous to stand here, on top of the bare cliff, with the storm coming in. He was rooted in place, unable to move.

Wind was very strong now, and she was leaning into it with all her weight. Andrew tested it himself, and if he could have convinced himself to relax, he could have let himself be suspended totally by this force of nature. He couldn't bring himself to do it, and so he swayed in place, not brave enough to lean sufficiently that he wouldn't have to correct his posture every few seconds.

The woman was close to the edge, too close. She leaned into the wind so completely. If there would be the smallest calm, the smallest torrent swirling the wrong way, she would lose her balance and fall.

The storm was almost directly on top of them, rain coming so heavily it was difficult to see the woman, even when they were only about fifteen steps apart. The clouds were so thick it was dark like in the dead of the night. Andrew's jacket kept him dry, but the outer fabric was wet and heavy and cold water dripped from his nose and chin. He was squinting to keep wind and rain out.

He couldn't estimate how long they stood like that. Time seemed to stop. Storm raged around them, flashes of lightning hitting the sea in front of them, the blinding brightness alternating with the inky darkness. Then, suddenly as it had approached, the storm passed them, heading inland towards the village. Rain and wind continued, but there was the first feeling of release, the first whisper of calm in the middle of the furious gale.

Andrew stood, his gaze fixed upon the woman. She corrected her posture so gradually it was almost indiscernible, but his feeling of doom eased with it. Finally, she was standing firmly upright. He thought he should say something, that it was creepy to just loom behind her. He had built his life upon words, but at that moment couldn't find a single one to say.

She turned her back to the sea and looked at him. She didn't look surprised, though he was sure she didn't know he had been there. They looked at each other, their faces washed with the storm and strands of hair plastered to their foreheads. It was still so gloomy he couldn't see the color of her eyes, but they looked very large and dark. She didn't speak, she just walked past him and started down the hill. He followed, unnerved by the strangeness of the encounter, how she hadn't acknowledged him at all.

She trudged ahead, splashing straight through every puddle, and he followed in the same fashion. He remembered what she had looked like, on her way towards the cliff, how there had been some kind of ominous energy upon her. Whatever it had been, it had now left her, and she proceeded slowly and half-heartedly. Trailing a few steps behind her he followed her past his own cabin and all the way to hers.

When she turned inland towards her cabin, he watched until she disappeared. He stood for a moment, then shook himself free from the enchantment and walked home.

He couldn't sleep. That wasn't unusual, for him sleeping soundly was the exception and not the rule, but now his insomnia felt more acute. He kept remembering the events of the storm; what she looked like walking towards the hill, then coming back, and how she had stood leaning into the wind, screaming.

By morning it was still raining, although in a more mellow and almost foggy kind of way. Andrew put on his rain gear from the previous night and checked his property for storm damages. All of his trees were still standing, as was his fence, and the fallen branches hadn't hit anything. He piled them next to the woodshed, biding his time. When he judged it was late enough, he walked over to the woman's cabin.

She opened after the third knock, and once again they stood looking at each other. She was a little shorter than him, and now he could see her eyes were blue. Her hair was dark brown, but up close it had some red hue, giving it a warm shade. She was pale, with faint shadows under her eyes. He recognized that look: it was the same unhealthy complexion he got when he slept too little, ate nothing and drank too much coffee.

"Hi. I'm Andrew," he said then gestured towards his cabin. "Your neighbor. I thought I'd check to see you're alright. Quite a storm last night."

"Yes, it was," she said. Her voice was pleasant, low for a woman's. "Thanks for your concern."

She paused for a moment then continued, "My name is Tasha. Short for Natasha."

She paused again. He couldn't read her, didn't know what to make of her silence.

"Well, Tasha, short for Natasha," he said. "I take it you didn't have any storm damage? Have you checked your property?"

"I have. I didn't see any."

"Guess we got lucky out here with not many trees, huh? Well, I'll be going, then. Glad to see you're all right."

"You, too," she said. "It was nice of you to check."

Andrew turned and walked away. He couldn't hear the door close and didn't turn to look. He thought she might be still standing there, watching him go, and he could feel a blush rising to his neck, cheeks, all the way to his ears.

After that day, they nodded to each other if they saw each other on the beach. Sometimes they exchanged a few words, mostly about weather. Martha at the store revealed Natasha had visited a few times, but that she was no more talkative with her than she had been with Andrew. That was rare: Martha's easy friendliness usually defrosted even the coldest visitors.

—#—#—#—#—#—

Andrew pulled his small boat onto the trailer by the beach. It was nearly time to store it for the winter, and he had already towed it away from the water before the big storm hit. That day he felt like fishing, so he set it back to water. Why not? He had all the time in the world, and it was rare when he felt like doing much of anything.

He lifted the bucket with the fish on to the sand. It was lidded; it had to be or seagulls would claim his loot. They were already waiting, looking at him with their beady black eyes and screeching to each other.

He secured the boat, took the fishing rod and his lure box back to the shed, and came back out with the rickety table he used to clean the fish. He set it on its dedicated place, near the waterline to a plateau of firmer land, and went to get a vat for the fish and the old knife he used for cleaning them. It had a two-sided blade, smooth on the other side and wavy on the other. He dutifully kept it sharp at all times, as his father had taught him.

When he got to the table, Natasha stood nearby, watching with interest. He flashed her a small smile.

"The worst part of fishing," he said.

"Cleaning them?" she asked. "You don't like cleaning fish? Want me to do it?"

His eyebrows shot towards his hairline.

"Well, sure," he said.

His wife Lina had always hated everything to do with fishing. She felt sorry for them, if she was in the boat. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with their guts, or scales, or in fact anything until they were cooked and on her plate. And afterwards she would complain about the smell on his hands.

Andrew pushed Lina out of his thoughts and watched Tasha roll up the sleeves of her too-big parka coat. When she checked that her hair was secure, he had the first inkling this wasn't the first time she did this; she seemed to know she wouldn't want to touch her face once she started.

Natasha opened the bucket and took the first fish. With a swift movement, and no mercy, she whacked it dead against the edge of the table, and took a firm grip of its gills, belly up. She weighed the knife in her hand, looking at it appreciatively.

"It was my father's," he said, pointlessly.

She didn't answer. She poked the knife to the fish's asshole, and with a ripping sound cut its stomach open. Setting the blade down, she took a grip of intestines and yanked them out. He swallowed his warning not to puncture the gallbladder, because it looked like she knew what she was doing. She tossed the guts into the direction of waiting seagulls and they immediately descended on them with loud screeching. She turned the fish on its side, and with sure motions scraped the scales away from the skin.

He watched, mesmerized. Scales flew in the air, flickering in the gray winter light while wind made her hair swirl down her back. Her arms were skinny and pale, her fingers small and nimble, but she handled the fish and the knife with amazing ease and precision.

"What will you cook?" she asked.

"Um, what?" he said, mentally shaking himself out of his trance.

"What are you cooking?" she repeated. "Shall I leave them like this, or fillet them?"

"Oh," he said, feeling himself blush once again. "Like that, if you would. I'm smoking them. You want some?"

"No, it's okay," she said, setting the one she had finished aside and bending to grab another. "I'm not that into fish."

"But... but..." he stuttered, gesturing towards her, as she knocked out her second victim.

"I don't like fishing," she said. "And while I eat fish, it's not my favorite. I just like cleaning them."

She turned the fish on its back.

"Especially this," she said, glancing at him. "See? This... rrrrripping them open and then this... pulling their guts out. Ah, that's the best. The scales? Not so much."

She threw the second pile of intestines to the birds, and he watched in mute admiration as she rid the fish of its scales in a flurry of motion, then grabbed the third and final fish.

"Well," he said as she was rapidly preparing the last specimen. "I like the fishing, and the eating, but not the cleaning."

"Really?" she said, looking at him. A strand of hair had escaped from her ponytail, and she pushed it aside from her face with her forearm, careful not to touch her skin with her fishy hands. He almost expected her to make a joke of how they completed each other, but she didn't say anything more. When she finished the fish, she cleaned the blade with care then sheathed it, nodded to him and went to the waterline to crouch down and rinse her hands in the sea.

He poured the water out of the fish bucket, gathered his fish, and took them and the knife inside. When he returned to rinse the scales off the table, Natasha was gone.

—#—#—#—#—#—

George was still predicting heavy snowfall, and to placate him more than anything else, Andrew made sure his contract for maintenance services included plowing snow from the stretch of dirt road leading up to his cabin.

Andrew was still writing, his topic being mostly Natasha. He spent more and more time thinking about her, even when he wasn't writing. He was intrigued by her, awestruck by her show of casual, practical cruelty, how it contradicted her fragile appearance.

The weather was getting colder, and the sand on the beach got more solid and rigid. Some mornings, frost formed beautiful fractal patterns in the windows. Andrew rarely went out in the mornings, but he knew the small puddles were frozen. Some days they still were by the time he went for his walk, his breath coming out in white clouds.

—#—#—#—#—#—

Andrew did his Christmas grocery shopping almost a week before d-day. For him, Christmas was one of the more depressing times of the year. Lina had been a Christmas person through and through, insisting on following a wide range of traditions she and her family had accumulated over the years. The last Christmas, his first without her, had been hideous and he had no more glamorous expectations this time around. He stocked up on food that would keep, a few new books to read, and after some consideration, filled the liquor cabinet.

Snowfall started two days before Christmas Eve. At first it was pretty, almost cinematic, with only a few feather-light flakes dancing in the wind. Wisps of white gathered in the smallest dents in the sand and frosted the driftwood and the side of the boulders that weren't against the wind.

But the snow kept falling. The next morning a layer of snow coated the window ledges on the side of the cabin facing away from the sea. When Andrew made his way to the woodshed, it was up to his ankles. He spent the day stocking the cabin with firewood, chopping more, and making sure he had batteries for flashlight and radio. Bad weather often led to power outages, and his cabin wasn't at the top of the priority list for restoration.

By nightfall the snow was up to mid-calf. As he lay in his bed not sleeping, Andrew could see snowflakes swirling endlessly outside. He got up to find another pair of woolly socks and put more wood in the fireplace. Some time towards the morning, he slept.

When he awoke, it was still snowing, and after morning coffee he took some time to shovel a path to the woodshed. It was a futile effort—snow piled up as soon as he shoveled it aside, but he did it anyway.

In the afternoon, when he went out to shovel the path again, the sound of an engine drifted through the snow-filled air. He paused and stood straight to listen.

The noise got closer and shortly a tractor with a snow plow attached to the front emerged from the bend in the road. It cleared the road up to his lot, then stopped. George got out, smiling and rubbing his hands for warmth.

"Merry Christmas!" he said cheerfully. "I know plowing doesn't make much sense when it's still coming down, but I thought I'd make a round now so I wouldn't have to do it later. The kiddies will complain if I wait until tomorrow."

"Everyone's gathering at your place, then?" Andrew asked, smiling. George and Martha had four kids, and god knew how many grandkids.

"Sure are," George said. "You wanna come by? One more wouldn't make much difference."

"No. Thanks for asking. I'm all set. I'm writing, I've got it going well right now. But thanks for clearing the road. Who knows? I might get in the mood to stop by tomorrow."

They both knew he was lying about the writing and that he wouldn't stop by. George smiled that annoying parental smile he did. Like he was just about to say something smug that ended in 'son'.

"You were right about the snow," Andrew said, just to throw him off.

"Well, of course I was. And we're gonna get more."

"Have you lots of roads to clear?"

"Not that many. Most of the cabins are empty now, so I don't need to bother. Just yours and the one near the lake."

"Mine and Gloria's, right?"

"They never signed a contract for plowing snow," George said, a little stiffly. "I offered. And to deliver wood like I do for you, but they didn't want that either."

"Want to come inside for a cup of coffee? Or will your tractor freeze into the ground in the meanwhile?"

George laughed, and they went inside. Just when they sat at the table, pouring coffee, power went out. Andrew took out the candles and flashlights and put more wood in the fireplace.

George left soon after to finish preparations for his family's big day. Andrew sat in the gloom of the gray, wintery afternoon light watching snow swirling outside and thought about Natasha. He thought about snow piling up on the road to her cabin, on her roof, and around her cabin.

He didn't know how Gloria's cabin was heated, but he doubted it was built like his, essentially for summer use. His cabin had electric radiators, but in winter it relied heavily on burning wood in the fireplace. If Natasha's place was the same and she hadn't had firewood delivered, she might not have enough to get her through the sudden cold front. Andrew wondered if it was patronizing to think that way. What made him think she wouldn't have prepared for winter, just as he had?

He remembered how his visit had ended on the day after the storm—how he had walked back home, flustered and uncertain of himself after she'd been so curt and untalkative. She'd been polite on the surface, but she had a strong aura of not wanting to socialize. He respected that. After all, that was how he felt most of the time. But his unease grew with every passing hour and, ridiculous or not, he decided to check on her.

He rummaged in the shed for snowshoes. When he finally unearthed them under piles of other riff-raff gathered over the decades, he smiled. They were the old style that looked like tennis rackets, they had belonged to him and Emma when they were kids. He put his on, tucked the other pair under his arm, and started along the beach to the other cabin.

Walking through the snow was tedious, even with the snowshoes. Snow was still coming down heavy, but he knew the way, and visibility was good enough to see where the sea was to his right, and when it was time to turn left to her place. He swept snow from his shoulders and front as he stood waiting for her to answer his knock.

She opened the door hesitantly, clearly surprised when she saw him. Snow swirled past him so she gestured for him to come in.

"Hello," said Andrew. "And Merry Christmas. I thought I'd come check if you've got everything you need."

She stood looking at him, biting her lower lip.

"Thank you," she said. "That's... that's very considerate of you. Would you stay for a while? I was just making coffee."

"Well, okay," he said, surprised she didn't turn him away immediately. He shed his snowy clothes and followed her hesitantly.

Her cabin was smaller than his: only one storey. There was an open space with the small kitchen and living area, and a single door towards the back, probably to the bedroom. A few candles flickered on the table. It had the same casually lived-in feeling as his. It wasn't tidy. There was stuff around just where she had left it and just where she could reach to pick it up again. The place had the feel of someone living alone, not trying to make an impression. It was an extension of herself.

She took a kettle of water she'd been heating in the fireplace and poured it slowly into the coffee maker's filter. He removed a small pile of books from one of the chairs at the table and sat.

"Sorry, but I don't have milk or anything," she said.

"That's all right. I drink it black."

She sat down opposite him and handed him a cup. The coffee was strong and good, and they drank while sizing each other up.

"Did you say it was Christmas?" she asked.

"Yes, it's the twenty-fourth today. Christmas Eve."

"Uh huh. I must've lost track of time. Merry Christmas, then."

"Thank you. It isn't such a merry time for me, but that's what you're supposed to say, isn't it?"

"I guess it is."

He looked around the cabin, his eyes fixing on the meager pile of firewood beside the fireplace.

"So, are you stocked up to wait out this weather? George came by to plow my road today. He reckons the snow's gonna keep coming for a while still. And the power here usually stays out awhile once it goes."

"Yes, I guess," she said. "I hadn't realized it would be this way. But I suppose I'll live."

"You suppose you'll live?" he said, turning his eyes back to her. "Is that good enough?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "It is or it isn't," she said. "What do you think I should do? I suppose I'll just walk out of here if I run out of food or something. It's not that cold, I'd be able to get to the village. Especially if the road is clear from your place on."

"You probably could," he agreed. "But you're also welcome to stay with me, if you want to. I've got food. And plenty of firewood."

She looked at him, tilting her head a bit to the side. Biting her lip.

"Would you?" he upped his offer. "I would feel better if I knew you were alright."

"Would you?" she answered in kind. "Why?"

"Well, I might be old-fashioned, but I'd feel like I haven't filled my duties as a neighbor, or as a human being, if I was all warm and fed in my house and you were cold and hungry in yours. So would you? It'd be like a Christmas visit with relatives, or something. I promise I won't make a pass at you. My cabin is a little bigger, I've got a spare bedroom. I think it's even lockable."

She snorted, then sat quiet for a moment, considering. She had crossed her legs when sitting, and now she was bobbing the top one up and down, giving her thoughts a physical boost.

"Okay. You know what? I'll come," she said. "It's really nice of you to ask. I appreciate it."

He nodded, suddenly more relieved than he had thought he was even capable of being.

"All right then. You need to pack something?"

She got up, still sipping from her coffee mug, and started stuffing clothes and toiletries into a backpack. He sat, drinking his coffee and watching. She had a large, loose, gray jumper, and a pair of leggings. Despite the bulky top which sagged almost to her knees, she looked tiny. Her cheeks were hollow and the bones on her wrists stuck out uncomfortably. He estimated she had lost some more weight since the day he'd seen her swimming in the ocean. Maybe even since she'd cleaned his fish. He didn't remember her wrists being quite so narrow back then. He wouldn't have wanted to notice these things, but with Lina's illness he had gotten too accustomed to estimating body weights and appearances. Lina's treatments had made her nauseous, and it had become a constant struggle to maintain her body weight and with it, her vitality.

He showed her how to attach the snowshoes, and slowly they trudged back to his cabin. His trail from coming over had already vanished, and the world was a blank canvas of untouched, windswept snowbanks. The daylight was starting to wane when they finally made it. He showed her to her room and rekindled the fire. He fetched a few extra armfuls of firewood from the shed before starting to prepare their Christmas dinner.

It didn't turn out very Christmas-y, especially without the use of his electric stove, but it was edible. They ate in candlelight and listened to some Christmas carols on his small radio. It was a relief to have something to listen to, because they still didn't have much to talk about. He had been alone for so long he struggled to make small talk, and she didn't seem any more talkative.

They sat on the sofa in front of the fire, listening to Christmas shows on radio, and had a drink of whiskey. Around midnight, they said goodnight, and after making sure she had a sufficient pile of blankets in her room, he climbed upstairs to his bedroom.

Andrew couldn't sleep. He rolled around in his bed, thinking about Natasha, and feeling the unfamiliar vibe of having someone else in the house. He thought of his time in the cabin and realized he had never had anyone stay overnight before. He thought of the months Natasha had lived next door, and how little they had interacted in all that time. He had been so apprehensive at first, but she had turned out to be a more suitable neighbor than he had dared to hope. Even without her surprising love—and skill—for gutting fish.

Around three in the morning, tired of tossing and turning, he decided to check on the fire. He took a blanket and sat on a low stool right in front of the fireplace, adding wood when the previous logs were reduced to cinder, poking the fire to make clouds of sparks to fly flickering up the chimney. Mostly he just sat, perched on his stool, staring at the fire. It was mesmerizing and he was so tired he fell into a sort of trance.

He jerked out of it when a door opened and closed. Natasha padded to the kitchen, pausing when she spotted him, and then poured to get a glass of water. He didn't say anything. He thought she'd have a drink then go back to sleep. Instead she got a stool of her own and set it next to his, found a blanket and huddled to also look at the fire.

"Can't sleep?" she asked quietly.

"No, but that's not unusual," he said. "Did I wake you up?"

He knew he hadn't, but it seemed like a polite thing to say.

"No, I don't sleep much, either," she said.

They drooped, side by side. The fire crackled.

"You want to go first, or should I?" she asked.

"Hmh?"

"You want to tell me what you're doing, hiding here at the edge of the world all alone, or should I go first?"

"Well, I," he stammered. "I guess I can begin. I'm the host, after all."

He wondered where to start, and how much was too much to share.

"You have any more of that booze?" she asked. "I feel like I could use a drink."

"Sure thing," he said. He poured each of them a generous drink and took a gulp of his. The pleasant burn down his throat warmed him.

"My wife died," he said. "She had cancer. She was sick for years. She would get better, and then it always returned. She was... she started to give up. She let go of her dreams, one by one. It was like the world's slowest heartbreak. I did what I could, but I didn't... I couldn't... there was nothing."

Natasha made a small, understanding noise, but didn't comment.

"She was... her name was Lina. She loved Christmas, had all these quirky traditions she always..."

He trailed off, swallowing hard, then took a swig of his drink and sighed.

"Well. So she died almost two years ago, in the spring. And I just couldn't deal with it. I couldn't stay where everything reminded me of her, and what we had together. I sold all of it and came here. My grandpa built this cabin, and my dad loved this place, always tinkering around. And then I just stayed, because I've got nothing to go back to, anywhere. I'm a writer, but I haven't been able to write after Lina died. I'm just... I'm..."

"You're hiding, outside of life," Natasha suggested.

"Yes," he said, and poured himself more. "That's a fair assessment."

She waited, and when he didn't continue, Natasha emptied her glass and poured another. She straightened her scrawny legs and wiggled her toes in the too-big woolly socks she had borrowed for the night.

"Want to hear my story?" she asked. "I'm not sure if I can tell you. But I'm also not sure I'll be able to stop if I start talking."

"I think I do," he said. "Hurt for hurt, huh?"

"Just so," she said, sagging a bit. "I'm sorry about your wife. About Lina."

"Thank you."

Natasha looked down, blinking, then back up to the fire. She took a sip of whiskey, but her hand was shaking and she lowered the glass on the floor absentmindedly.

"I had..." she started, then stopped. "No. I was, no. Wait."

She sat thinking, biting her lip.

"I met Timmy when I was twenty-five," she said. "It was love at first sight. We got married three years later. His parents hated me. They were rich and thought he should've done better, should've chosen someone more sophisticated and ladylike, but he defended me. He always stood up for me. We had a boy, a year after the wedding. Mark, after my dad. And a year after that, a daughter. Stephanie, after his mum."

She pinched the bridge of her nose and her shoulders tensed. After a moment, she exhaled and continued.

"It was like a fairytale. We had this perfect house, and perfect family. But it was so much. I was busy all the time, and do you know how hard it is to have children so close apart? It was wonderful for a while. I was so happy. But it started getting to me, you know? I was working, something my in-laws always criticized. I really don't understand them. At first they hated me for supposedly being after his money, and then they hated me for making a living.

"But what was I saying? Yes, I was working, and we had au pair living with us, but she needed instructions for everything. There was always so much to do, too much, you understand? Timmy was working as hard as me, and sometimes it felt like we didn't see each other all week, and hardly even on weekends. And I was never, ever, EVER alone. The kids followed me even to the bathroom, they came to our bed at night and kicked so I couldn't sleep. They were in my face all the time when I was at home. And when I was at work, my bosses and my coworkers were in my face, and there was just too much of everything."

She drew her legs close to her body again and curled into a ball. She was being intense now, sounding desperate for him to understand.

He didn't understand, not really. His life had been full, but never like that; as a writer he'd always formed his own schedules, creativity wasn't governed by bosses and schedules. Lina's treatments had filled many of the days of his life, but it had been only her. He had the opportunity to focus wholly on supporting her. As hard as it was, he hadn't needed to divide his attention, or handle many commitments simultaneously.

Natasha continued. "Timmy's mum turned sixty and they had this massive party. They invited us, of course. They loved to show off their son and grandkids. Mark was four and Stephanie was three, and I just knew how horrible it would be in this pretentious cocktail party with them, listening to my in-laws jab at me whenever I was near enough to hear.

"So I refused to go. Timmy understood, though he still wanted to go. So he and the kids left. I was so relieved. I would have two days of my own time, even the au pair had time off. I could be just alone, in silence, with nobody there."

Her voice had gone lifeless, void of feeling. She still stared at the fire, and Andrew didn't dare move for fear of breaking the moment.

"It was a long drive," she said. "And always so difficult with the kids. They had their car seats on opposite ends in the back, but they'd still reach each other to fight. They would scream, and want snacks, and then push their juice cartons over and make a mess, and just whatever.

"The police officer said Timmy lost control of the vehicle, probably because he was reaching back to sort out the kids. There was oil on the road, leaked from some other car. Not much, but enough for him to start skidding. They hit a rock cutting at the side of the freeway. They all died instantly."

It was very quiet, only the fire crackled and hissed. Andrew leaned over to pour Natasha more whiskey. She didn't react.

"Then it was like it was for you," she said. "I couldn't stay. Timmy had a life insurance policy, so I wouldn't be at his parents' mercy with the kids if something happened to him. So I had money. I quit my job, sold the house with everything in it, and had my lawyer search for the most remote place he could find. This was what he found."

For the first time since she had started talking, Natasha looked at Andrew. Light from the fireplace flickered on her face. Her eyes were very large and dark in the dusk.

"I came here to die," she said. "My life ended in that moment on that stretch of oily road. I thought I'd die from the pain alone."

He nodded. He knew that feeling. Natasha turned her eyes back to the fire.

"Then, when I didn't, I started flirting with death. I thought I'd swim so far out I wouldn't have the strength to swim back. But I always got back to the shore. I thought I'd swim to the current and hit the rocks. But somehow I never quite did."

She took her glass again. Her hand was still shaking, though less now.

"So, that night in the storm..." he asked quietly.

"Yes," she said. "I was going to jump. I couldn't bring myself to drown, and I figured falling would be faster, would require less willpower. One step and it would be all over. I thought it was the weather for it."

"You were screaming. I've never heard a sound like that."

"I couldn't do it. I tried my hardest. I didn't want to live. Hell, I still don't want to live. But no matter how much I wanted to die, I couldn't make myself do it. I pushed myself until I broke, but I just couldn't."

"I was afraid for you. You were so close to the edge. If the wind had eased just the tiniest bit, you would've fallen."

"Yeah. I know. And it didn't. How fucked up is that? The tiniest moment, one gust just a little weaker than the next. The smallest break. Just like it was the smallest coincidence, the tiniest moment in time, that killed..."

She halted. Carefully, he reached over and touched her back. She didn't shake his hand off. He held his palm flat on her upper back for a moment before withdrawing it.

"So, what do you have left when you can't even kill yourself?" she asked bitterly. "What do you do? Where do you go?"

"You come here," he said. "To this beach at the end of the world and wait to wither away. Wait for the morning when you forget to wake up."

"Yes," she agreed. "That's what we're both doing, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said. "That's what we're both doing. You want another drink?"

She did, and he added a few logs to the fireplace. When he sat back down, Natasha pulled her stool closer to him and he wrapped his arm around her. She leaned on him lightly. Neither of them commented on it. She felt delicate—her shoulder blades sticking out like the cut-off wings of an angel.

They sat together in companionable silence and watched the fire. It was that certain point in the night when the entire world holds its breath waiting for the birth of a new day, and everything seems a little unreal. The whiskey made Andrew's limbs pleasantly heavy and he thought he might sleep after all.

Around five, Natasha said she would try to sleep again, since Santa Claus apparently wasn't coming. He bid her good night, stoked the fire once more and climbed up to his bedroom. Fire had warmed the cabin, especially the upstairs, but he made sure there were extra blankets nearby because he knew morning would be chilly.

He lay curled up under his blankets and thought about her story. He had guessed she had a story, and not a nice one. It was heartbreaking, and he could feel her self-accusations and guilt. He imagined himself in her position, but couldn't quite get over the bitterness brought on by the thought she at least had a family and children. He had spent years in and out of hospitals trying to cast groundless faith in his ever-frailer ghost of a wife, never even close to having children.

He tried to imagine what their kids would've looked like, how they would've been. He remembered imagining them with Lina, when they'd first fallen in love, when she had still been healthy and future had held promises of life instead of death. He felt the familiar squeeze of pain in his chest and tried to think of something else, anything.

He must've fallen asleep, because he woke to a muffled scream. He was wildly disoriented, not understanding what the noise was or where it was coming from, and he had fumbled to his feet and down the stairs before he was fully conscious.

Natasha was having a nightmare, thrashing around, half awake. He sat on the side of the bed and reached to touch her. She jerked and sat up abruptly.

"Hush," he said quietly. "Tasha, wake up. It's just a dream."

She was slow to get to her senses, still absolutely terrified. It was so dark he couldn't see her, and he kept his hands on her, kept talking to her, so she wouldn't spook.

"It was a dream, Tasha. You're alright. You're at my cabin, do you remember? Andrew's cabin? Your neighbor's? You're safe. Calm down."

She was shivering, and he stroked the side of her arm slowly. She resembled a scared animal, trembling in place, every muscle tensed to escape. Slowly he pulled her in for a hug. She was still shaking, and she gripped him so tightly it was difficult to believe she had such strength in her lithe body. He held her harder, trying to calm her. He kept talking to her, gentle nothings, and gradually she became still.

"Better?" he asked. "Want me to stay here with you? I think it will be morning soon."

"Would you?" she asked hoarsely.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "You'll be alright."

He settled down next to her, still holding her close. His heart swelled; he had been protective to begin with, but dealing with Lina had left him with an intense need to take care of other people. He hadn't quite faced it before, being on his own, but now it overwhelmed him and he tried to just calm down and channel it into being gentle and assuring.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked. "The dream, I mean?"

"I don't remember," she whispered. "But I don't... I haven't... I don't think I've dreamt at all since... you know."

"Oh," he said. He remembered the first few months after Lina's death. He had relied heavily on medication to sleep and it was all such a blur he had no idea how his dreams had been, or not been. "I might have some sleeping pills left. Want me to check?"

"No. Just don't go."

"I won't," he whispered. "Don't fear."

The bed in his spare bedroom wasn't wide, and they were very close. He could feel her slim body against his and his heart was singing with how she relaxed, knowing his comfort helped her. Gradually his emotions shifted as they lay there and he worried he would get aroused and freak her out. As soon as he thought it, he felt his penis stir. He twitched uncomfortably and cursed in his mind. It was just like him to ruin a good thing.

"What is it?" she asked, when he moved clumsily to find a position where he wouldn't be poking her with his growing erection.

"I'm just... I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I don't mean to. It's just been a long time."

"Oh?" she said, and he could hear her confusion. She turned over and as his stiff shaft pressed against her thigh she said, "Oh! I see."

"I'm sorry," he said again. "Look, maybe I should go."

"Please don't," she said. She pressed closer into his arms, and he sighed and pressed his cheek against the top of her head.

"So... exactly how long has it been?" she asked.

"Oh, um, gee," he said. "Well, a long fucking time, actually. Since Lina died. And before that, she was very sick for a very long time."

"So you haven't..."

Her hand moved from his back, slowly gliding towards his side, searching for the hem of his flannel pajama shirt. He held his breath when she found it, and her slim fingers touched his skin for the first time.

"I never cheated on her," he said. "Though she suggested it at one point. But how could I? How could I when she lay there dying? But I jerk off, of course. And even that... it's been a while. I haven't exactly been in the mood."

"So you don't really want me? You're not in the mood? It's just been so long?"

His breath hitched when he felt her lips graze the line of his chin. Her touch was light, and he felt his whole body develop goosebumps before she found her way to the corner of his mouth and kissed it softly.

"Tasha," he sighed. He didn't know what to say, what she wanted him to say. Yes, he wanted her, more by the second, but this wasn't right. He had invited her over, promising not to hit on her, and now here they were.

"And-drew," she said. "Do you want me to stop?"

Her lips skimmed his cheek, invoking more goosebumps, and he sighed when she found his earlobe, kissed it softly, then sucked it into her mouth. Her warm, wet suckling shot straight to his crotch, making his cock twitch and him moan.

"No," he whispered, and turned his head to receive her kiss.

Their lips touching was like an electric shock. It was very light, the smallest sweep of her lips against his, and they both paused, stunned. He wanted to say something, let her know he didn't want to hurt her, let her know she meant more to him than this, but she kissed him again and he forgot what he wanted to say.

Slowly and respectfully, they touched and undressed each other. Tasha was slim to the point of being bony, but she was warm, her skin soft and smooth. He let his hands trace the curve of her hip slowly. She opened her thighs for his hand, and when he found her slick heat he trembled with anticipation. It had been so long, since he'd last been here, in this hot, wet pressure, this scent, so different but somehow the same. He wanted to breathe it in, lose himself in her. He pushed his thigh between hers, opening her up. She lifted her hips to meet his hand.

She kissed him, her intensity growing with the same pace that he felt her pussy responding to him. She let out a low whimper as her hand searched for his hard, hot shaft. He twitched, every touch so intense now, her small hand so alien yet so welcome.

They fondled each other, silently measuring each other. Andrew moved on top of her, wanting to go down on her, but she wanted him inside her. They negotiated wordlessly, and when she didn't give in, he whispered, "Please."

She let out an impatient moan, but let him go. He kissed down her body, marvelling at how she tensed up under him, how different her shape was from his own. How soft her breasts were, how wonderful the small, tight nipples topping them. He kissed her stomach, so soft and tender, and he would've lingered there, wondering about the small, slick scars, but she pushed him down. He breathed in, deeply, and licked her open slowly, starting from near her perineum and wiggling his way upwards. She arched up and trembled.

Andrew loved eating pussy and had no idea if he would ever get to it with her again, so he held her hips and tried to slow her down. She didn't want to, she was moaning almost constantly, and her fingers tugged at his hair. He tasted her, opening her folds to explore, and she lifted her hips to meet his mouth. His heart jolted at the small sounds she made as he penetrated her with his tongue. With some regret, he stopped stalling and moved to her clitoris. He had a feel of her now and could tell she would come soon. That was its own reward, though, and so he circled her bud carefully with the tip of his tongue, then gently sucked it between his lips.

He wanted to feel her come, so he shifted his weight to get his other hand free. He kept suckling, flicking her with his tongue, and when he touched her opening, her whimpers pitched higher. He felt her tense, the pause before the explosion, the calm before the storm, and then she got there, wave after wave of orgasmic bliss washing over her, squeezing his finger, her entire body moving with it. He slowed, riding her waves then let go of her clit, kissing it softly goodbye. He kept his finger inside her for a moment longer, kissing up from her mons, and felt how her stomach rose and fell with her jerky breaths. He was so hard it hurt.

Tasha had come hard, and Lina had always needed a breather after an orgasm like that. But Tasha wasn't Lina. To Andrew's amazement, she forcefully pulled him up to her arms and tangled her legs with his. Her hand reached between them, demanding, aligning him to her wonderful heat.

He didn't question it. His urge took over, and he felt his whole body tense in concentration when he started gliding inside her. She clung to him with her arms and legs, tilting her hips up to meet him, her breath hot on his face. He breathed out and pressed into her unbelievable fiery cunt, deeper, deeper, as slowly as he could force himself to go. Aftershocks of her orgasm squeezed him. He let his weight on one elbow, wrapped his other arm around her pelvis, possessively, and pushed deep inside.

He rolled his hips against hers, pressing his temple against hers.

"You feel amazing," he whispered. "I'm not gonna last."

"Ah," she breathed and moved against him, with him, around him. "I don't need you to."

"Uh huh, honey," he said, in a desperate, breathless moan, when she squeezed him with her internal muscles. "Please. Have some mercy."

"Just let it go," she said, with some urgent passion he couldn't quite interpret. "Don't try."

He didn't really know what she was saying, he was beyond interpreting words. His hips started moving on their own. He wanted to stay deep, and so he pulled out slowly and rammed back in fast, then accelerated without any thought or meaning. He could feel the storm building inside him, his core tightening, his body tensing.

Tasha moved with him, her hands everywhere—on his back, his ass, his hair. He growled, a deep rumbling voice. She opened her legs wider to take him deeper and he gripped her hips, slamming her hard again and again. He was on the edge, building so fast he almost didn't recognize his orgasm before plummeting over. His grip of Tasha tightened, he sucked on the base of her neck, almost biting her, as his hips jerked against hers in insistent need, then he froze and released jet after jet inside her. His toes curled, he gasped for breath, and he felt the slick sweat between them.

Slowly he came down. He blinked slowly in the near dark, and nuzzled his head against the side of her neck, kissing the spot where he had almost bit her. She made a small, content noise, still clinging to him. He rolled off to her side then pulled her into his arms. They were silent, catching their breath, and soon he reached to pull the covers over them, wrapping them in the warm comfort of each other.

He felt better than he had in years; relaxed and fully satisfied. Her closeness washed his body with hormones he had almost forgotten, and with them, feelings he hadn't felt in a long time. He wanted to say something, but while he was choosing his words, he drifted off to sleep.

He woke up when she stirred. They still embraced, and when she pulled away he could feel their sweaty skin clinging. She detached herself carefully, but didn't get out of bed. He gazed at her, and she smiled seeing he was awake. It wasn't an entirely happy smile, but it was a smile, and seeing it he realized he'd never seen her smile before.

"Hey, you," he said quietly.

"Hey," she said.

The gray light of a mid-winter day seeped through the window. Judging from the brightness he guessed it wasn't snowing anymore. He stroked the side of her face gently, cupped her cheek.

"You all right?" he asked. "I promised you I wouldn't hit on you."

"Well, I'm not alright, like, ever. But I don't mind. Just that I can't be with you, you know."

"Mmh."

He kept his hand on her cheek. She was serious. They held eye contact for a while.

"I don't expect you to be with me," he said. "I don't have anything to give anyone, either. I know."

She nodded, apparently satisfied with his answer.

The room was chilly. Andrew didn't know how late it was, but he felt like he had slept longer and better than in a long time. There was no pressing need to get up, so he just pulled Natasha close and enjoyed their warm, safe nest. She didn't seem to be in a hurry either. Andrew felt her slim body against his. It was effortless to be with her, linger in the moment.

Natasha stayed with him for four days. They didn't talk much, but their shared silences were easy, and they slept together each night. They didn't make love again; it seemed they had gotten over the most pressing need in one go, but they drew comfort from the other. Andrew got familiar with her body, which side she liked to sleep on, how it felt to search for the best position together. He cooked for them, and she ate everything he put in front of her without complaints but without much interest either.

George came to plow Andrew's road again before New Year's, and Andrew convinced him to clear Natasha's as well. After that, Natasha went back to her cabin, though they still visited each other daily, often sleeping together in

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