Fifteen: I'm Taking Your Advice And I'm Lookin' On The Bright Side
It was hotter than the hinges of hell down South. Cameron always assumed people were exaggerating when they spoke of the oppressive heat, wet and heavy on the shoulders and back, hunching one over with its weight, but it wasn't until he felt it for himself that he realized how true it all was.
Even more surprising, though, was the beauty of Louisiana. The color green was abundant, and there was no shortage of lush trees or bushes to go around. There was an overpowering sense of leisurely slowness here, quite different from the hustle and bustle of the big city Cameron was so used to. For him, it was a badly needed time-out.
Tinges of sadness permeated the relative easy feeling here. Cameron could see how affected the city still was. Houses half-stood on their original foundations, their shutters falling off, the ceilings caved in. The houses drooped down to the ground like wilted flowers, ready to crash down any second.
Away from the disaster, it was easy for Cameron not to be touched by it. Until he'd seen it for himself, the way the water left destruction and death in its wake, the ruins still standing as ghostly reminders, like the ashes of Pompeii still frozen in time, he could never really sympathize. Seeing these houses, houses which must have teemed with life at one point, decrepit and rotting away under the shade of the willow trees which seemed even themselves to weep, put it all in a new perspective: there was a big world out there. It was larger and more grand than he could have ever imagined, and Cameron felt a sharp twinge of shame, fleeting though it was, that it took him 26 long years to see it.
It was so much more magnificent than he was.
Eventually he was able to locate Imogen's whereabouts. It happened most accidentally; while he and Alex recharged their batteries with a cup of hot coffee late that morning, he'd overheard two men discussing the rest of their day's work: helping to fix up a house two blocks away with Habitat for Humanity. Cameron stopped when he heard the name of the organization, his cup resting between his lips, hot steam gathering on the space between his mouth and nose.
Imogen had talked to him about Habitat for Humanity more than once before. He recalled with perfectly clarity now the way she told him that before she made the move up to Illinois she'd started helping the charity and made a few friends in the process, whom she was sad to leave behind.
Cameron figured that any stab in the dark was as good as the next, much better than sitting back and doing nothing. He didn't have a clue as to why Imogen had made her way back down here, but it was plausible that she was spending some of her time helping out with the organization she once told him she loved.
"Excuse me," Cameron said, turning in his seat to face the two strangers. They stopped their conversation, turning to him with expectant looks on their faces. Alex chewed quietly on his croissant. "You said you were working for Habitat for Humanity?"
One of the men, the older of the two, nodded his head. "Yeah. What can I do for you? Know of someone who needs a house?"
"No, but…" Cameron licked his lips. "You wouldn't happen to know a girl by the name of Imogen Campbell, would you?"
The older man furrowed his brows and pursed his lips.
The second, the youngest, did the same. Suddenly, he started to nod. "Yeah, the name sounds familiar, actually. I think I know who you're talking about. She's a skinny thing. Yay high?" He lifted his arm to the middle of his neck. "Long hair?"
Cameron nodded eagerly. "Yes. A freckle next to her top lip?" He placed a finger against the right corner of his own mouth, exactly where the freckle rested on Imogen's face. He'd remember that small detail forever; after all, he kissed that small beauty mark that night.
"Well, I can't be sure about the freckle."
The older man chimed in once more. "Why don't the two of you follow us on over to the site. You can have a look around. If you want, you can even pick up a hammer or two."
Cameron turned back to Alex and raised his eyebrows to ask the unspoken question: "You up for it?"
Alex's eyes lit up and he shoved the rest of his croissant in his mouth.
"What are you doing, storing for winter?" Cameron laughed at the way Alex's cheeks puffed out, full of food, as if he were a chipmunk.
Alex reached across the table and punched Cameron's arm, swallowing the food.
"Ow! I should punch you back for that." But he couldn't punch a kid just out of the hospital, he thought to himself, his eyes settling on a pair of light purple bruises still patched onto Alex's skin.
"Let's go, Cam." Alex was out of his seat already, waiting on Cameron to finish nursing his arm. This was the first semi-exciting thing to happen to them during the entire trip so far. He'd come down here with his brother for an adventure, and by God, it was about time the adventure started.
When Alex and Cameron were safely in their rental car, following the two men back to the jobsite, Alex turned to his brother. Moments passed in silence, until Cameron became unnerved.
"Why are you staring at me?" he asked, looking out the driver's side window as if eliminating Alex from his own sight would make him invisible.
Alex smiled and shrugged. "You do realize you're doing something romantic, right?"
Cameron grimaced. "This is not romantic. At all. I don't do romantic."
Alex raised an eyebrow and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Don't deny it. For the love of God, you flew all the way to Louisiana to look for this girl with no warning, no planning ahead whatsoever. You don't even know where she is. Do you even know what you're going to say to her when you do find her?"
Cameron couldn't help but smile at the confidence his brother had in him. He'd asked him what he would do when he found Imogen, when really Cameron didn't even know if he'd be able to find her. Still, Cameron didn't have an answer to the question. He had absolutely no idea what he would do, or what he would say, should the two of them come face to face.
He shrugged, making a right turn onto a side street, as his tour guides did. He parked the car and turned off the ignition, waiting for his next queue. Suddenly Cameron realized his stomach felt lightweight and sick at the same time. Swallowing to wet his dry throat, Cameron recognized the feeling.
He was nervous.
The younger man got out of the car in front of them first. As he closed the door, the older man pointed toward the house, where a team of four people were helping to lift up a slab of wood which would later become part of an outer wall of the house.
"Mike," the older man said. "She's right there. Go ask him if that's his girl."
Cameron, hearing this, followed the man's finger with his eyes. All he could see was the back of a head, but his pulse jumped to life when he saw the lines of the woman's back and her long legs in a pair of light washed jeans.
Mike tapped on Cameron's window with the knuckle of his middle finger, and Cameron rolled it down.
"You can get out and have a look, if you'd like. The girl's that-a-way."
Cameron didn't need to follow Mike's arm, now outstretched toward her. He already knew. He didn't have to see her face to know. Every cell in him was sure. It was Imogen.
He swallowed again and told Alex to stay in the car.
"Screw you. I didn't travel all this way with you just to stay in the god damned car." Alex pulled on the door handle and had the door halfway open before Cameron leaned over his lap and slammed it shut again.
"You're staying here. If it's her, I want a few moments of privacy. You'll know when the right time is, but it's not now."
Something in Cameron's dark gaze told Alex not to push it. He rolled his eyes and leaned back in his seat. "Whatever, dude."
Cameron ran his tongue along the sharp edges of his top teeth and licked his dry, cracked lips. God, why was his heart pumping so fast?
"Thanks," he breathed to Alex as he slammed the door.
"I'll walk with you, if you'd like," Mike said.
Cameron gave it a split second's thought. At first he was going to say no but then he decided it might be better to have someone with him for a few moments before. Just in case he fell down dead for being the bigger person first.
He nodded in agreement and Mike's hand was heavy on his shoulder.
"It's no big deal, bro," Mike said in an easy, conversational tone, using his free hand to gesture in the air as they walked. "Just go right on up to her and say the first thing you can think of."
Cameron scrunched his face. "What happens if the first thing I can think of is criminally stupid?"
Mike nodded, considering Cameron's question. "Think of something else, I guess."
"You sure your day job isn't as an inspirational speaker? I feel leagues more prepared for this."
Mike laughed. It was a booming laugh, loud and full. "I can tell you're great with the ladies."
"Is that sarcasm I detect in your voice?"
By now they were near the lady in question, her back still turned to them. She was squatting down, hammering a nail into a large piece of wood. Cameron felt a lump in his throat and tried to swallow it down, but it persisted.
Mike's eyes twinkled with genuine kindness as he looked Cameron straight in the eye. "Not at all," he answered, smiling. Then, turning from him, Mike addressed the girl. "Yo, Im. You got a friend here to see you."
"What?" she asked, keeping her eyes on the block of wood still at her feet. She rose, wiping the back of her forearm across her forehead, ridding it of the sweat beads there against her hairline.
There was no longer any doubt about her identity. Something in Cameron's body reacted to the sound of her voice, sonorous and musical even when she wasn't trying. His mind went blank. The babble was gone. All was calm.
Imogen turned fully to look at Mike, but her attention was arrested when she saw something from the corner of her eye: curly brown hair. It was a ridiculous sort of curl, wild and out of control, and she would know it anywhere. Without having to see the rest of him, Imogen knew whose it was. Her eyes met with Cameron's, and she looked at him hesitantly, not able to discern whether or not he came to her angry, serene, or with a plan for vengeance which could only end in her death. She couldn't quite make out the look on his face; it was placid and smooth but something of Cameron's usual brooding was evident in his eyes. His mouth was in a hard, straight line, and his body was straight and rigid, his hands shoved into his back pockets. Mike, with his large arm around the length of Cameron's shoulders, looked almost hilariously out of place standing next to Cameron, looming over him by at least three inches and wearing a smile so bright that not even a thousand watt light bulb could contend with it.
"Cameron." She breathed his name.
He didn't say anything in return, only gave her a half-hearted smile which made her heart sink. She didn't have a good feeling about this. She wanted to ask him a hundred questions all at once, but couldn't find it in herself to speak all of them with Mike standing there like some sort of chaperone.
"How did you find me?" Imogen asked after a moment or two of silence, pulling the head scarf from her head, her long hair falling over her shoulders now that it was unrestrained. "I didn't really tell anyone where I was going."
Cameron furrowed his brows and scratched the back of his head. Imogen could see a sliver of skin on his smooth belly as the hem of his shirt raised with his arm. He sucked in the air between his teeth. "Alex sorta let the beans spill."
"Oh," Imogen nodded. Yes, she had told Alex. "Yeah. I'm not staying here. I mean, I only came here for a little while. I didn't expect him to tell you."
"Would you rather he didn't?"
Cameron's gaze was piercing. He was searching Imogen's face for something, but she couldn't be sure what. She cleared her throat and clapped her hands together, smiling up at Mike.
"If you don't mind," she said, "I'm going to steal him away from you. Private time and all."
Mike shrugged nonchalantly. "Don't be too long, we need you." He sauntered off as Imogen took Cameron by the elbow and led him to a more secluded spot, where they could talk with relative privacy.
Before she could open her mouth, Cameron was speaking. Her surprise wouldn't have allowed her to speak for a moment, even if she wanted to.
"Look, I'm sorry if you came here to get away from me, but I have something to say, too. Ask me why I'm here and I can't really give you a straight answer because frankly," he shrugged his shoulders, "I don't even really know that. I do know that I feel like shit about how things panned out between us. It's just that…"
He paused, not sure if he should say what it was that he really wanted to say. If he said it, she might laugh in his face. But he had to try, didn't he? He couldn't have made his way all the way down here not to be honest with her. The point of this was to clear the air between them, and for that to happen, she needed to know what he really thought.
"What happened between you and I at my parent's house, look, I wasn't expecting that to happen, either, but it did. We have to face the consequences of that. I know I haven't been Johnny Sunshine in the time you've known me but for some God-forsaken reason that night was significant for me in some ways."
Imogen wasn't sure what emotion was raging through her veins but she did know that it was overwhelming. She was elated, elated to know that however bad she messed up, Cameron was still there. He was standing in front of her, right now, only inches away from her, telling her words she never thought she even wanted to hear. Only after they were out in the open did she realize that all along she'd been so blind. She was amazed at how she'd missed it, when all the time, it was staring her back in the face.
She opened her mouth to speak but Cameron stopped her, holding a hand up so that he could finish.
"I'm letting you know right here and now, though," Cameron said, "I haven't made a complete 180. I'm not even promising a 180 in the future, but I am here to ask you if maybe you can settle for a 90. Because I'm trying, Imogen. Believe it or not, and trust me, it sounds crazy to me, too, but I kind of, sort of want to be your friend. Maybe one day in the future, when we both get our heads on straight," he qualified, "we might decide we want to be more than friends. I don't know, it doesn't really matter right now. This is not some romantic, overzealous declaration of my love, Imogen. This is me, letting you know, right now, right here, the way I'm feeling. I like you. I know that's shocking coming from me, but it's true. You know how hard I've tried not to. So I was thinking," he said, stepping forward and taking both of her hands in his own, "you might like me, too, just enough to put the past in the past. We don't have to start over, but I'm proposing that we wipe the marks off our slate. Neither of us have exactly been upstanding to each other all the time, but I'm willing if you are."
Neither of them missed the way they both seemed to fit perfectly together, like human versions of corresponding puzzle pieces. Imogen squeezed Cameron's hands in her own.
"I was an idiot for leaving. I was an idiot about everything." Her voice soft and she dropped her chin, looking at her toes. She tried to be brave and look him in the eye but she couldn't. Imogen was shaking her head, thick strands of hair caressing the curves of her cheeks with the movement. "I was only trying to save what little we had while I could. I know, it was already too late, because I just screwed it up even more." She took her bottom lip between her teeth and chewed, pondering what she would say next. Imogen breathed deeply through her nostrils and looked up at Cameron. "The brutal truth is, I like you, too" she shrugged. "A lot. I'm more than willing to work on this if you are, Cameron."
Those were not the words Cameron expected to hear.
He smiled the rare bright smile he used only for special occasions. It was the smile Imogen loved, the smile she prided herself on being able to illicit twice now, and this time she provoked it without his having had any alcohol whatsoever beforehand.
Taking his hands from her, he said, "I have something for you, too." One of them disappeared behind his back and he slid from the waistband of his jeans her journal, with its faded, brown leather edges and its string ties. Imogen had to hold back tears as he handed it to her and she took it from him, holding it to her chest as if it were a fragile newborn child.
"That's yours and it belongs with you. It doesn't feel right, holed up in my little apartment."
Imogen smiled and finished the sentence. "Stuck between a book of German philosophy and Stephen King's It." She giggled and Cameron chuckled in response.
"Thank you," she said, her eyes big and round. "I couldn't have asked for anything better. Or a better…" She hesitated with the next word, not quite sure what boundaries had just been set between the two of them. She figured it was better to be safe than sorry, and used the word which she figured would get her in the least amount of trouble. "…friend to share this with."
One of Cameron's brows raised and he took her hand in his again. "Yeah, a friend."
His stare was nearly overpowering, managing to be unusually friendly and seductive at the same time. Imogen hoped she wasn't blushing and tried to gather her thoughts in an orderly fashion.
"Okay, this is disgusting."
Cameron and Imogen both looked in the direction of Alex's voice. He was standing a few feet away, his weight supported by a shovel, where one foot stood perched on the right edge of the spade and his hands, one folded over the other, rested on the top of the handle.
"Alex!" Imogen breathed. "What are you doing here?" She moved to give him a hug but Cameron held her fast.
"I thought I told you to stay in the car," Cameron said.
"You also said I'd know when the moment was right." Alex retorted with smug assurance, turning to Imogen and giving her a wink before asking Cameron, "Are you going to leave us all hanging here, or are you going to kiss her? 'Cause frankly, none of us have all day."
If Cameron was used to blushing, he would have known what the heat that suddenly rose in his cheeks was. Imogen looked up at him, tentatively, with a sly smile on her pink lips.
He blinked at least three times before one side of his mouth pulled up in a quick smirk of his own, his eyes settling on a soft spot of pillowy flesh on Imogen's cheek. He moved toward her, excruciatingly slowly, until at last Imogen could feel his lips on her face. She closed her eyes and tried to suspend herself in the moment, feeling his hand in her hand, his face against her own, his hair grazing lightly over her forehead.
As he pulled away, she placed a palm against his cheek and pulled his face toward hers, giving him a full, proper kiss on the lips. Instinctively, their eyes closed at the same time, and they breathed each other in. The kiss was soft and tender, and there was no need for anymore words. All was forgiven.
Alex made the appropriate gagging noises, rolling his eyes and telling them to cut it out already.
Imogen smiled and licked her lips, tasting Cameron one more time before she looked up at him and spoke.
"We need a few more helpers today if you're interested."
"Oh?" He cleared his throat and blinked, trying to get his sight back to normal. For a second there it was blurred.
"Only if you want to, though."
Cameron shook his head in mock disbelief. "Imogen, where the hell else am I supposed to go right now?"
Imogen smiled, ducking her head in slight embarrassment. "Well then, I guess that means I'm putting you to work." Her gaze went to Alex. "Both of you."
"Hey, I'm all set," Alex said, waving them off and making his way back toward the building site with his shovel. Imogen and Cameron followed, and Imogen handed Cameron the hammer she'd been using previously.
Then, they began to build. Together.
A/N: Happy endings. Gag, I know. I really hope it's not too sappy. Cameron just doesn't do sappy, but, believe it or not, he has the capacity to be happy here and there. I apologize profusely for the long wait. I've put the link to the soundtrack for this story up on my profile if you're interested in giving it a listen. One of the songs ("Flagpole Sitta" by Harvey Danger) is the story of Cameron's life set to music, it's amazing. Once again, I want to thank all of you who have been reading, reviewing, subscribing, etc. You guys really mean a lot to me! Hope you enjoyed this last chapter.
*Chapter Title from Jason Mraz's "You and I."