I feel his eyes momentarily look in my direction, but I don’t move to meet them. “Why didn’t you go?”
“That’s not a fact I’m ready to share today,” I say, almost mocking him. The corners of his mouth turn up, and I can’t help but let mine do the same. I may have met my match with this one.
He asks me if I’ve been to the zoo and I haven’t. I’ve lived one hour away from one of the top zoos in the country for fourteen years, and I haven’t gone there once. He says he’s never been either so that’s where our adventure begins. I’m relaxed as we walk from exhibit to exhibit. No one knows who I am here, which to me is the best part.
Every once in a while, Asher places his hand on the small of my back or touches my shoulder to get my attention. At first, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but the more he does it, the more I begin to relax.
I make a big mistake when I agree to go with him to the reptile gardens. I should have known he was up to something.
“Have you ever held a snake before?” he asks, lifting an eyebrow.
“No, and I never want to,” I reply, crinkling my nose up.
“You’re going to today,” he says, grabbing my hand.
“There’s no way you’re going to get my finger anywhere close to the skin of a snake, let alone hold it.”
He stops, turning to face me. “What are you so afraid of?”
“No one said anything about being afraid,” I counter, taking a small step back.
“That’s what I thought,” he smiles, moving us forward again. My hand is sweating in his when he stops in front of the zookeeper who’s handling a snake to entertain a few kids that have gathered around him.
Asher steps up to the man and says something that I can’t quite make out over the screams of the children. The zookeeper looks over Asher’s shoulder and smiles at me before motioning me over to him. I swear to god I’m going to kill Asher with my bare hands after we leave here.
At first I don’t move, but everyone is staring at me, so I feel like I don’t have much choice. My stomach turns as I step forward. I glance over my shoulder as I walk past Asher and he winks at me. I roll my eyes and take in the legless reptile that is wrapped around the zookeeper’s neck.
“Hi, my name is Mike. That young man over there said you wanted to hold a snake, and this here is a good one to start with.” I’m frozen in place; I can’t believe I’m actually going to go through with this.
“Now, if you hold out your hands, I’m going to place him in them to start out with. I’ll be right here if you need anything.” My fear is shooting bullets through my body.
“Hey, if you really don’t want to do this, you don’t have to,” Asher says quietly from behind me.
I look at the kids’ excited faces and shake my head. “No, I’m going to do this.”
I hold my hands out and wait for Mike to place the snake in my arms. My heart beats rapidly as I try to control my body so that I don’t scare the snake. I swallow hard when I feel the scaly skin in my palms.
“Now, let me know when you get used to him, and then I’m going to try something else,” Mike says, staring at me intently.
Asher soothingly rubs my upper arm when I start to shake. After I calm down, Mike takes the snake and carefully wraps it around my shoulders. “Hold on to either side of him. He won’t hurt you.”
I inhale and exhale through my nose, trying to calm my nerves. “You’re doing awesome,” Asher whispers. I watch the snake slither in my hands and after a couple minutes of calm, I begin to relax. I haven’t pushed myself to do anything like this in some time, but it feels good to conquer a fear.
Mike then carefully grabs the snake from around my neck and shakes my hand. “You did great. Don’t forget to wash your hands,” he grins.
“Thank you,” I reply, taking one last look at my new reptile friend.
Asher places his hand on the small of my back and guides me through the crowd. As soon as we’re outside again, I wrap my arms around his neck. “Thank you.”
“For what?” he asks, wrapping his arms around my lower back.
“For helping me face my fears.” I pull back, staring into his bright, smiling eyes.
“That was the goal, but something tells me we still have a few more fears to work through.”
“It’s going to take more than a snake to work through those,” I say, glancing away.
“I know, but I’m going to try.” He entwines my fingers with his and leads the way to the next animal exhibit. Sometimes I think he knows exactly what I’m holding inside, but I know paranoia has a grip on me. Even though he scares me, he awakens something within me.
After the zoo, he drives us downtown for dinner at a little pizza place. It’s been so long since I’ve had anything besides the diner, sandwiches or my mom’s rare cooking. Right now, anything different would be a treat.
We order a four-cheese pizza and two sodas before heading to a small booth by the window. Besides my daily glimpses of his life, I still know very little about Asher.
“Do you have any siblings?” I ask.
“I have a half-sister. She lives with my mom and step-dad in Chicago,” he says, rolling a napkin between his fingers.
“You miss her?”
His eyes shoot up to mine. “Every day.”
“I don’t have any siblings, so I have no idea what that feels like. Most of my old friends couldn’t stand their brothers and sisters, so I was kind of glad I didn’t have them.”
“My sister is ten years younger, so we don’t have much to fight about.”
“True. Will you get to see her again soon?” Chicago isn’t that far away.
“Look, can we talk about something else for a while?” he asks, sounding slightly irritated. I nod, but I wish he would stop tiptoeing around his past with me, but that would also mean I would have to stop tiptoeing around mine and I’m not ready to start doing that.
The waitress ends the awkwardness, placing our pizza on the table. We eat our first slices in silence, occasionally making eye contact. I usually like the peace, but with Asher I need more. It’s like the more I talk to him, the better I feel inside. How has this guy learned so much about me already? I thought I was as translucent as metal, but he sees right through me.
“Have you ever been fishing?” he asks, cutting the silence.
“My grandpa used to take me. I haven’t done it since he passed away, though. I think I was ten the last time,” I say, pulling some of the cheese back from the second slice of my pizza.
“My dad has a dock out by the lake. Come out there with me tomorrow,” he pleads, looking into my green eyes with his blue-grey ones.
The lake is pretty secluded this time of year, but I hesitate. “I don’t know.”
“Do you work tomorrow?” he asks, leaning his right arm over the back of the booth. I get a better glimpse of his tattoo as his sleeve moves up his arm, revealing a date ending in 2011, two years ago. He notices the path of my eyes and moves his arm down to his side. That must be another thing he’s not ready to talk about.
“Yeah, I work until two again,” I reply.
“I’ll pick you up at 2:30 then,” he says, standing up and reaching for my hand. “Come on, let’s get you home.” I don’t argue with him. I think if I can handle a trip out of town, I can probably handle a couple hours of fishing.
The ride back to Carrington is quiet, and it doesn’t take long before I drift to sleep with my head resting against my window. When Asher wakes me up shaking my knee, we’re already in my driveway, and I can see the light of the living room shining through the curtain. Mom must be home early tonight.
I rub my eyes and reach for the handle, but Asher wraps his hand around my forearm, stopping me. “Wait, Kate. I just wanted to tell you that I had a really good time today. I know I’m not the easiest guy to get to know, but I like hanging out with you.”
I turn toward him and watch his gaze float to my lips then back to my eyes. I’ve seen that look before, and it scares the hell out of me. “I need to go,” I say, turning to open the door.
When I make it halfway to the front steps, I turn and see him outside of his car with his forearm resting on the top of the vehicle. Even with only the light from the street lamp, I can see his eyebrows pulled together. It’s the same concerned look I saw that first day in the diner.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I reassure him as I start to walk back toward the house again. As soon as I’m inside, I lean against the door and close my eyes.
“Where have you been, Kate? I’ve been worried sick. Your car was still here, and you don’t usually go out at night,” my mom says, her voice a mixture of anger and concern. I’m not in the mood to argue with her.
“I was out with a new friend.”
“Is it that boy from the diner? You heard what Diana said,” she says, putting her hands on her hips.
“We’re just friends,” I reply as I start walking toward my room. She doesn’t spend much time being motherly, but when she does she usually picks the wrong battles. I cried my eyes out for days after I got home from Drew’s house that night, but she didn’t question my “sickness” even once. I took a shower five or six times that weekend, and she thought I was just doing it to reduce the fever I didn’t have. I’ve been a fraction of my old self for almost two years, but she barely notices. Either she didn’t know me too well before, or she doesn’t spend enough time with me now.
Or maybe I just haven’t changed as much as I thought.
“What do you know about him?” she asks, following close behind me.
“He’s really nice and he’s fun. Plus, I’m pretty sure that I’m old enough to choose my own friends!” I toss back, opening my door and closing it behind me.
She pounds on the door a couple times, but I don’t move to open it. She knows better than to come in here when I have the door closed. It’s my space, the only place to reveal my emotions without anyone seeing them.