I hurt Claire’s feelings. I made her sad.
He couldn’t bear to let himself touch her. Couldn’t hold her. Couldn’t wipe away her tears. But he could do something to make her smile, to show that sorry wasn’t just a word.
Nix walked slowly over to the far side of the cabin. To the books she’d placed, just so on the floor. The ones she’d tried to line up and had settled for stacking.
It wasn’t much.
It wasn’t enough.
But he could do it for her.
Claire woke to the sound of quiet, muted cursing. Rolling over onto her side, she peeked out from under her blanket and saw Nix … speaking very vehemently to a piece of lumber. He had a knife in one hand and he was digging it into the wood, notching it, carving out a … what?
Claire had no idea what he was doing. As silently as she could, she propped herself up on one arm, to get a better view. This time, she saw more wood; he must have gotten it from the pile outside.
The pile under the porch, where she’d stashed his weapons two days earlier. Claire’s throat tightened. Her heart jumped into it.
I guess he found the weapons.
That explained where Nix had gotten the knife, but it didn’t explain what he was doing. He’d carved one end of the plank down to a cube shape, a thick tab that stuck out from the end of the board. A second, identical board sat to his left, and Nix turned his attention to a third, digging his knife in, carving a square-shaped hole.
Claire’s heartbeat slowed, and the rush of adrenaline she’d felt the moment she’d seen the knife in Nix’s hand began to fade. He wasn’t hunting anything. He wasn’t hurting anything. He was building … something. She wasn’t sure what.
Careful not to draw his attention to herself, she lay back down, resting her head on her arms. He’d be upset if he knew that he’d woken her up, and even though she had no idea what time it was—her days and nights were completely turned around—Claire got the distinct feeling that whatever he was doing, Nix had hoped to finish it before she woke up.
I’m not supposed to be watching him.
It seemed right that she was, though. Like turnaround was fair play, because he was always watching her. And in the little motions—the turn of a knife, the appraisal of the boards’ positions, the way he fit them together, sliding the tabs into the holes—Claire saw a beautiful, soothing rhythm. Like this was the closest Nix could come to dancing outside the fade.
Time passed. Nix kept working. Claire kept watching. And then he finished. He stepped back, and Claire saw a shelf. A very uneven, unsteady, three-board shelf that sat on the floor, its purpose unclear until Nix crouched back down next to it, and one by one, moved the books she’d stolen from the library into place.
He hadn’t slept all night, all day. Instead, he’d stayed up and with a hunting knife and rotting old wood, he’d built her a bookshelf.
As he put the last book in place with careful, tender hands, Claire sat up on her knees, the blanket balled in her fist.
He built me a bookshelf.
She forgot to breathe. So by the time he turned around, in addition to being frozen in place, she was a little bit dizzy.
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” he said, putting his hands into his pockets, averting his gaze.
Claire finally remembered how to inhale. “You built me a bookshelf,” she said, because those were the only words—the sum total of words that she had.
“You like books,” Nix said, still not looking directly at her. “They shouldn’t have to sit on the floor.”
“You built me a bookshelf.”
“It’s not a very good one.”
“But you built me a bookshelf—and what do you mean it’s not a very good one?” Claire felt rather like someone had insulted her firstborn child. “It’s perfect.”
It was crooked, and the wood was rough, and the books weren’t really much higher off the floor than they’d been before, and it was perfect.
“I didn’t mean to make you cry. At the library.” He brought his eyes back to meet hers, slowly, as if he was reserving the right at any point to jerk his gaze away.
“I love it.”
“The crying?” Nix asked, his brow wrinkling.
“No. The bookshelf.”
He knows I like books. He saw me try to stand them up. He wanted to make me happy. So he built me a bookshelf.
Now remembering to breathe wasn’t as much of a challenge as forcing her tightening chest to let her do so.
“Thank you, Nix. No one’s ever made me anything before.” She should have just stuck with you made me a bookshelf, because no other words really seemed to do it justice.
“You’re welcome. Claire.”
There was something in the way he spaced the words that told her he’d debated whether or not he should say her name.
Whether or not he deserved to say it.
Beautiful, broken boy. He built me a bookshelf. He can barely bring himself to say my name.
“You look tired,” she said. “You didn’t sleep at all.”
It wasn’t a question, and he shrugged in response.
“You need to sleep.” Claire couldn’t chase away his ghosts. She couldn’t change his past. She couldn’t do any of the things she’d hoped that, after a good night’s sleep, would magically just come. But she could take care of him.
Make him sleep.
Do a little something that counted big.
She slid over on the couch and gestured that he should join her. He took a step backward, and for the first time, she didn’t, even subconsciously, take it as an insult. Instead, she slipped off the couch, so that he could sit down without worrying about touching her.
“I slept. Your turn.”
After three seconds, or four, he acceded. Walked over to the couch. Sat down. “I don’t sleep,” he said, talking to himself as much as to her. “Not anymore.”
Claire wondered what—or who—he saw when he closed his eyes. “You don’t have to close your eyes. Just lie back.”
Nix did as he was told, and Claire, still feeling like there was a land mine in her stomach, like she might explode with bookshelf joy and awe at any moment, walked over to her present. Knelt down next to it. And picked a book up off the shelf. And then she sat down across the room from Nix, a mountain of space between them, and she read.
About the little prince and a rose with thorns and a wild fox that explained to the little prince what it meant to be tamed. She kept reading, the familiar words the closest thing she could manage to a lullaby.