The moment I saw Austin Braucop, I knew I wanted to live.
Call it intuition or insight, but when those hands reached down and pulled me up from the jaws of death I was about to dive into, I knew that there was no way I could possibly want to die.
From his long-lashed blue eyes to his straight nose to his long, muscled body, I wanted to live. Nothing mattered any more, not Gabriel’s cold words about my weight, nor Chantelle’s cold words about my anorexia, not even my new-found obsession with death. It all just…disappeared.
Was this what it was like to be in love?
I didn’t think so. Had I not been in love with Gabriel Batoche? But that had been a different love, more of a hero-worship than anything else. I was just seeing that. And to think I had almost died for him! But was it not fitting that Austin be the one to save me?
Yes, I do think I am in love with him.
Omigosh, I’m in love with him!
But anyway, before I knew all this, I had bigger problems. Like the fact that I was hanging from a dog’s mouth over the Yukatuk canyon. I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t even move. All I could do was stare down, down, down, down. All I could see was darkness.
And then the teeth were replaced by hands under my armpits, pulling me upward, at the same time that something on the bottom of my night gown pulled downward. Toward the darkness. I peeked, to see what was wrong. There was a humungous branch pinned through my gown. I wondered where it had come from.
“My gown! It’s stuck on a branch. Here, I’ll kick it loose.” He shouted something back at me, but I didn’t catch it over the howl of the wind. I struck my heel into the semi-loose soil. A huge hunk of rock fell away, and the tree dangled from the hem of my gown. Pulling from above surrendered a little to the pulling from below. I thought then that I was going to fall. But then, with a painful rip, the branch and boulder fell.
We went flying. I landed on a hard, heavily muscled chest. It hurt. I guess I hurt him, too, because he pushed me off quickly. I rolled to a sitting position and faced him.
He had dark brown hair and blue eyes. His lashes were longer than any I had ever seen on a boy. His face was symmetrical and sun-browned. The muscles on his arms and shoulders stood out through his jacket in a mysterious, appealing way. A very nice body, in conclusion. But it made me wonder how I must have looked to him. I felt like blushing. How could I have thought a nightgown could have erased the damage and made me beautiful? My eyes pricked.
The man rose to his feet in one graceful motion. “What were you doing?” he shouted. I peeked up at him. His face was almost contorted. I looked down instead. And that is when I saw the gown.
Where the branch had pierced it there was nothing left but strips. All the silk lacing was gone. The entire thing was covered in dirt from the rock sheet. It looked awful. But what’s more, it meant that I looked awful, too. I was just the ugly girl that I was before, and probably always would be. The pricks in my eyes morphed themselves into tears.
I realized that Austin was still waiting for me to answer his question. But when I was just gathering my wits to try and answer, he said, “I’m taking you home. Where do you live?” I couldn’t meet his eye. Wordlessly, I pointed toward the woods. “Come on, then,” he said. I looked up, then. His hand was stretched out to me. The anger left his eyes, suddenly. It wasn’t until he knelt in front of me that I remembered I was still crying.
Could I not do anything right? What he must think of me. This bony, ugly, crazy girl who played on the cliffs and didn’t answer questions and cried for no reason. What a joke. I didn’t deserve to feel something as wonderful as love for him. I really didn’t.
But Austin didn’t look disgusted. He just looked…nice. Like he actually cared that I was crying. And he was so close, so suddenly. I wondered what it would feel like to touch his smooth golden skin. “Hey, come on,” he said. “You’re safe now.”
Safe. I do believe I was safe, with him, for the moment. I took his hand and let him pull me to my feet. His hand was warm and so, so gentle. Like he was afraid of breaking me. How sweet. But he let go too soon. I sighed quietly. We started walking.
The dog, Chaku, who had kept me from falling the first time, bounced beside us with his tail between his legs. It looked funny. I felt a wordless gratitude toward the dog, and the handsome stranger who was his owner. I wanted to ask him his name, where he lived, etc, but I didn’t. I didn’t know if he would appreciate the inquiry. I couldn’t even build up the courage to say thank you.
The dog whimpered. The man turned to him. He looked exasperated. “What is wrong with you?” he asked the dog. He just lay down and rolled over. Austin stared at him and then walked away. I had to hurry a bit to keep up with him.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked. He shrugged.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. The silence was just so…ominous!
“What’s your name?” I asked. He glanced at me fleetingly.
“Austin,” he said. “Austin Braucop.”
Nice name. “I am Peyton,” I told him.
He smiled at me, then. My heart flipped. “Peyton. It’s nice to meet you, Peyton.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Austin.”
Oh, the irony.
“Where do you live?” I asked, to keep the conversation flowing. I liked the sound of his voice, and anyway, why stop when you’re ahead?
To my dismay, a cloud passed over his face. “Nowhere,” he said. He didn’t look like he wanted to talk about it, whatever it was. I let it go.
“What’s his name?” I jerked a finger toward the dog, who had recovered from his episode.
Austin smiled affectionately. “Him? That’s Chaku.” He reached over and ruffled the dog’s ears. He panted up at him. So he’s a dog lover.
“Can I pet him?”
“Sure.” He stopped walking. I knelt in front of the dog and stroked his ears. He looked at me with liquid brown eyes.
“Thank you,” I whispered. Chaku touched my cheek with his nose.
Austin interrupts the moment. “Do you smell that?”
I looked at him. His back was to me, thumbs in the pockets of his jeans. “Smell what?”
“I think it’s…smoke.”
Alarmed, I stood up and sniffed the air. Sure enough, it was tinted with the smell of burning wood. Actually, it was more laden than tinted. I wondered how I had not noticed it before.
Chaku began to bark. Austin reached out and tugged on my elbow. “Come on,” he said. There was a hint of urgency in his tone. He set off, faster than before, and I had to run to keep up. I was about to tell him to please slow down when I saw the flames. It took me a minute to register it. At first all I could see was a big, dancing ball of fire in the distance, but there it was.
Right where my house should have been.
I stood there, shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I had to be seeing things. Except that I wasn’t. The evidence was as undeniable as the home it was engulfing. I started running. My heart was in my throat. Had they all gotten out? Could the fire still be stopped? Had someone called the fire department?
I ran on toward my house, screaming. Austin caught up to me with his long legs. He shouted something at me, but I didn’t hear. I just kept running.
I had to stop, eventually. The flames got too hot for me to come any closer. My lack of food and sleep caught up to me. I sank to the ground, sobbing. I couldn’t take my eyes off of my burning home, my home where my history began. The home I had been about to leave. Stupid, stupid girl.
Austin, the kind stranger who had stolen my heart, came over to me and picked me up off the ground. He propped me against his side and put his arm around me. Grateful, I leaned against him weakly, quietly relishing his solidity. Chaku was barking and howling. I was too tired to notice.
I could only hope that my family had gotten out alive. But my house. My room. My memories.