Author's note & disclaimer: It belongs to me unless you recognise it. If I've done anything stupid or just plain wrong, please point it out. The story has been roughly edited once by me but not beta-read by anyone else. Constructive criticism is fine but no flames please.
Free Love: Chapter One
Luke shows up at my door late one night in the middle of a thunderstorm. My first thought on hearing that he'd run out on my sister certainly wasn't that it meant he was coming to find me, but somehow I was expecting him anyway. So when I open the door of my apartment to find him standing there, shivering and dripping wet, it's not really a surprise.
"Hi," he says, shaking his blond head and scattering little droplets of water everywhere. Then he notices the way my face is scrunched in concern and stops me before I've even had a chance to speak. "I don't want to talk about it."
I consider that for a moment and then nod silently. I can wait. Not very long, but I can at least let him inside and allow him to warm up before I tear him into tiny pieces for sending me out of my mind with worry for, oh, the millionth time this year. I invite him in and manage to hold my tongue for the length of time it takes him to shrug off his jacket. He takes a quick look around the shabby two-bedroom apartment I share with four other people before turning back to me.
"It's nice," he comments, obviously ignoring the fact that there's a week's worth of garbage scattered around and the blankets one of my roommates slept in last night are lying in a crumpled heap at his feet. "How's college life?"
"Where have you been?" I ignore his question in favour of one of my own. My ability to wait for an answer has always been very poor, but I'm furious with him so it's only to be expected. Everyone's been worried sick since he did his disappearing act three days ago, and now he walks in as if nothing's happened and starts complimenting the décor like he actually gives a damn.
He gives me a dark look and repeats himself. "I don't want to talk about it."
I fold my arms across my chest and glare at him. Luke's ability to charm me past the point of anger has always unnerved me slightly, so I know if I'm going to get an answer I need to stay mad. "That's too bad, because we're going to. Where were you for the last couple of days?"
He sighs and starts to head for the door, but I swiftly slide across to block his exit. His exasperation with me is clear, but now I have the advantage because I've always been able to overlook his irritation with me, and now's certainly no exception.
"Amy," he says warningly. "I'm not getting into this now."
He closes his eyes and brings his hands up to his face to rub at them, and I suddenly realise how exhausted he is. It's terrible of me not to have noticed before, and it's even worse that the reason I didn't detect it is because I've grown used to seeing the dark under-eye circles standing out in his otherwise pale face. I wonder if he's had a proper night's sleep since he came back from Vietnam, and despite the very real strength of my anger I feel a pang of sympathy for him. I decide to relent a little.
"All right. But if not now, then when?" I ask.
I make a concerted effort to sound like I'm not backing down, but it makes no difference. By now, he's sensed the change in my mood – and the shift in my demeanour was so small it would have been imperceptible to anyone who didn't know me as well as he does - and has cleared himself a spot on the overstuffed couch in the middle of the room. He slumps down and runs a hand through his tangled mop of hair.
"I don't know," he answers softly, and I can tell from the way he looks at me that it's an honest reply. His eyes are bloodshot as hell and must surely be sore, but he meets my gaze without faltering; he's telling the truth. To reward him, I grab a relatively clean towel from the bag of laundry I was just about to take to the laundrette down the street and throw it at his head. It's a gesture that is more affectionate than it sounds, trust me.
As he vigorously rubs away at his hair, removing the worst of the water, I search the apartment for something he can wear while his clothes are drying. It's more difficult than I thought it would be; although he's the same height as my roommate Paul, Luke's put on some muscle during his time in the Army. It's only subtly changed his appearance because he's always been athletic, and most people won't have noticed any difference, but I know him as well as he knows me and spotted the difference as soon as he walked through the door.
Eventually I return to his side, holding a pair of sweat pants and a plain white t-shirt I think might do. He accepts them gratefully and after I've directed him to our relatively tidy bathroom to change, I flop down onto the sofa and think about how long we've been friends.
* * * * *
I first met Luke Anderson when I was seven years old and he was nine. New to the neighbourhood, I was hiding in the leafy branches of the tree at the bottom of our yard after refusing to accompany my older sister Sally to the playground. A born extrovert, she was always popular and made friends easily, while I tended to struggle to overcome my natural shyness. Not that I minded too much; even at seven years old, I could appreciate my own company.
The greeting that drifted up to reach my ears surprised me so much I almost fell from my perch; only by grabbing hold of the tree trunk did I save myself from a nasty bump.
"Watch it!" I exclaimed crossly, peering down at the boy standing below. Some of the branches of the tree hung over the fence into what was obviously his back yard, and he was attempting to throw a rope over one of the lowest.
He smiled up at me, clearly unperturbed by my tone. "What are you doing up there?"
I didn't really want to reply or lose the thread of the daydreams which occupied my mind, but I found myself answering him anyway. "Thinking."
"Oh." There was a pause for a moment and then, "What are you thinking about?"
Even as he spoke, the boy continued to try to throw the rope over the branch. He missed every time but it didn't seem to put him off; he just tried again. Despite my best efforts my curiosity was peaked, and I found myself sliding down the trunk towards the branch he was aiming for.
"Nothing. Everything." If that didn't make any sense to him, he didn't show it. Instead he nodded as if he understood exactly what I'd meant. "What are you doing?" I asked at last.
"I'm going to make a swing," he replied solemnly. He gestured to a threadbare tyre lying at his feet. "I'm going to tie that to the bottom and then sit on it." He glanced up at me again, and this time I was close enough to see the earnest look in his blue eyes. "Do you want to help?"
I swiftly dropped the last two feet from the tree, landing out of his sight on the other side of the fence. After hesitating for a few more seconds, I climbed over the fence to stand beside him.
"Okay," I replied unnecessarily. He handed me the rope and I aimed it carefully at the branch. As I let go I knew it was a good throw, and that was confirmed to us both when the end of the rope soared over the knotted wood just as it was supposed to and dropped right back down in the perfect position for me to catch it, which I did. The boy looked at me admiringly as I handed it back to him, flushed with triumph.
"I'm Luke," my new friend said.
"I'm Amy," I replied.
And that was that.
* * * * *
"What are you thinking about?" Luke asks me now as he emerges from the bathroom and catches me staring into space.
"Nothing," I said quickly, and then pause. "Everything."
He smiles, which gives me a jolt. I don't think I've seen him smile since he got back to the U.S.A. more than six months ago.
"You seem to do that a lot," he comments as he sits down beside me again. "You've certainly done it before."
"Well, I have a lot to think about. How are those clothes for you?" I ask.
He shifts his position slightly, trying to make himself more comfortable. "They're a little snug, but they'll do." He watches me silently for a moment. "Thanks, Amy," he says. "I knew I could count on you." He touches my cheek gently and then closes his eyes. Within minutes, he's fast asleep.
After watching him silently for a while, I find myself marvelling at how the lines I saw earlier in his troubled expression have magically disappeared with sleep. The frown lines in his forehead have smoothed out and his mouth has relaxed into a small smile. The peaceful look suits him much more than the worried one does, I decide. I grab one of my roommate Sarah's blankets from the floor and cover him up so that he won't get cold in our unheated apartment, before retreating to the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee and ponder his words.
* * * * *
At some point between the age of nine and nineteen, Luke stopped being my friend and became Sally's. I suppose it was inevitable really; not only were they were the same age, but with her blonde hair and blue eyes she was the prettiest girl in their grade and he was the most attractive guy. It was really a given that they would hook up at some point, and by their senior year of high school they were dating steadily.
Once Sally discovered that, by some fluke, I'd managed to befriend the boy all her friends had crushes on, she was much nicer to me than she'd ever been before. She started coming with us when we went to the diner for ice-cream sundaes and although I never said anything to her about it, I fumed over it silently when I was alone. I knew from past experience that eventually her presence would lose me my most precious friendship, and I was right. All too soon it felt like it was me tagging along with Luke and Sally, rather than her forcing her presence on us.
Not that Luke behaved any differently towards me; on the contrary he treated me just as he always had. I was like a little sister to him, I guess, and he protected me when I needed protection, cheered me up when I was down, and generally made it clear that he still considered me his friend. It was just unfortunate that friendship was no longer enough for me.
My crush on him seemed to develop overnight. One moment I was happily getting covered in grease as I helped him work on the engine of his brother's car, the next I was putting on too much lipstick and padding out my training bra in an effort to get him to notice me. Not that I ever thought that he would. Even as a fourteen year old I was nothing if not realistic and I knew that compared with Sally's good looks, my long brown hair and boyish figure just wouldn't cut it. But it still hurt to see him with my sister, and to realise that he would never look at me with anything more than brotherly love in his eyes.
Even when it started to cause me pain I couldn't bring myself give up his friendship. I was willing to make do with that, although it wasn't all that I wanted. He would always be able to count on me and I made sure he knew it. I guess that's why he's here now.
* * * * *
When he hasn't woken up after an hour I decide to leave him there and go to bed myself. His presence won't bother any of my roommates, none of whom have come home yet. We're all used to coming home and finding a relative, friend or casual acquaintance of someone else installed on the couch, and pride ourselves on our hospitality.
I undress quickly and rush across the cold floor to the bathroom to wash my face and clean my teeth, using the very last of the lukewarm water in the pipes in the process. Then I get into bed and lie there, staring at the ceiling and thinking about nothing in particular while sleep refuses to come and claim me.
I moved into this apartment at the start of my junior year at college with my friend Stella, and because we were the first two in we managed to snag the bedrooms for ourselves. Over the year three of our other friends moved in, or rather we offered them a place to stay for a little while and they haven't quite managed to leave yet. We're all in our senior year now; I'm due to graduate with an English degree come the summer but I'm going to stick around to go to journalism school, even though that means spending another year in this cramped hellhole with very little cash to spare. Basically I've decided that the only way to change the way things are is to publicise everything that's wrong with the status quo, and I figure that becoming a journalist will allow me to do that.
My mother says I'm a romantic idealist who'll most likely never accomplish anything, but I prefer to think that I'm someone who'll fight for what she believes in, even if it's the death of her in the end. Needless to say, she doesn't approve of me getting involved in the politics of the War, despite the fact her son-in-law was in the thick of the fighting before he got injured. She thinks my conduct is 'unbecoming of a young lady'. I can't imagine what she'd think if she knew that thanks to my extra-curricular activities, I'd been arrested more than once in the last year.
There is a knock on the bedroom door, and someone sticks her head into my room.
"Hey there, who's the sexy boy on the couch?" Stella asks as I sit up. She's been out making signs for people to carry at the next protest and even in the darkness I can see the smears of paint on her hands. She also has a black smudge on her forehead where she's reached up to push her hair out of her face. It kind of suits her.
"Luke," I answer her question after a moment's hesitation, "my brother-in-law."
She nods. "I thought that's who it would be. Have you told Sally her husband's turned up yet?"
"Not yet. I thought he needed some sleep before I let her yell at him."
"Sure you did." I can tell from the tone of her voice that she's looking at me sceptically, and I can't really blame her for that. Stella is the only one who knows about Luke and our history and my crush and she's guessing that my motives for not telling Sally that he's here might not be exactly pure. But is it so wrong to want him just for myself for a while, to want to have things like they used to be?
In an effort to both avoid her scrutiny and give myself something to do instead of thinking about the answer to that question, I pull my blankets over my head and use my knees to make a small tent on the mattress.
"It's complicated," I mumble from my hidey-hole as I hear her turn to leave. I start to grope about for my pillow.
"I bet it is," she says knowingly. "Especially when your brother-in-law is as cute as he is." As she closes the door, my pillow hits it with a soft thump. "And you missed!"
I listen to her laughter fade away as she walks down the hall to her own room, and then I settle down for the first proper night's sleep I've had since Mom told me Luke was missing, a smile on my face.