Rest Easy *Valentine's Day Entry*

*I'm submitting the first part of a novel, as it is still underway, but almost complete! I began it in January and the majority of it was written after the opening of the competition, but I had to re-upload because of the original upload date*

*Based on Prompts #1 and #2*

In Arizona, two teenagers spend a summer attempting to decrypt the life of an elderly woman with dementia, who had gone missing over forty years ago and cannot recall to anyone where and how she lived. This ongoing mission keeps the teenagers occupied all summer, bringing them closer and helping them to avoid the rough times they have been going enduring in their lives, and the pasts they just want to forget. As the pair grow a bond, it eventually appears that the world around them wishes against it. The price of overcoming the obstacles that stand ahead of them is hefty, but only they can determine whether it is worth the risk.

For those on desktop - I've added thematic songs to some of the chapters :)

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13. CHAPTER ELEVEN | HER

 

 

The next day, there was a record heatwave in Arizona. It hadn’t been this scorching in years, and every single house had its windows and doors wide open, air conditioners on high, fans whirring relentlessly. Still, sweat stuck to everybody’s skin like rhinestones. Dudley sat on Naya’s living room floor wearing only shorts. His t-shirt was in a heap on the coffee table. Naya sat on the couch, braiding his hair into french plaits. He was never an apt hair stylist, and without any help, wouldn’t do much except tie it up or keep it down. His mother was the best french plaiter, and Vanessa was expert at braiding him pigtails on quiet nights in. Naya’s skills were unmatched  - she could do anything. She had showed Dudley through an archive of her previous hairstyles, ranging from sew-in weaves to box braids, faux locs and the likes. She’d decided to stop chemically straightening almost two years ago, letting her natural curls free. She missed playing hairdresser, so she offered him a fresh fix-up.

“I should be your stylist. Get you to wear better clothes, too.”

“By that, you mean dress like Ronald McDonald. Right?” Dudley responded.

“No, but just with a little more colour. You’re boring.”

“I’m not boring, I’m just low intensity.”

“No, but you’re not. You have something in you, you just have to let it out, you know? Express yourself.”

“Dress like a rainbow! Throw glitter in the air everywhere you go!”

“Boo, wet blanket.”

 

Dudley left Naya’s house shortly after the dinner last night. She texted him that she was sorry for her mini breakdown and that her parents were going to be out all day so he was free to hang out if he wished. He said she shouldn’t be sorry, we all feel like shit sometimes; if there’s any dinner leftovers I’m for sure coming around. So they spent the afternoon lounging in the heat and talking about everything and nothing, and as Naya ran her fingers meticulously through his hair, she spent time studying his shoulders, his temple, his back, slightly dewy with perspiration, though he didn’t at all smell bad. She realised how odd she’d sometimes feel with him sat between her legs, both sides of his naked torso touching her bare knees. She always braided people’s hair like this, but this felt different. There was an intimacy that she couldn’t quite place, and she wasn’t sure whether to savour it or run from it. She was suspended somewhere between comfort and well-cloaked butterflies in her stomach.

 

Evie and Jasmine waltzed into Naya’s house unannounced, just as she was finishing up Dudley’s hair. They both lived pretty close to her in the neighbourhood, and she was used to either one of them turning up without warning. Sometimes Amber would join, but they spent more time visiting her place, where Tori perpetually lived now that she was seeing Totem. It was funny how now another one of the Guys was falling into Girl territory, even if only inadvertently. It was clear that the volunteering partners’ time together was going to exist outside of the walls of Salvation Hill, as well as inside.

“Well, look who it is! Mother Teresa and Gandhi, in the same room!” Jasmine laughed before sucking on a raspberry-flavoured popsicle. Her lips were tinted pink, and her forehead was dotted with sweat beads.

“Cut the crap, Jas.” She stood up after Dudley did, unsticking her tank top from her skin.

“Your hair looks nice,” Jas stared at Dudley, sucking on the popsicle again without breaking eye contact. She was the queen of making situations awkward - she thrived off of it. The gossip girl of the crew, she always found a way to make anything and everything seem suggestive, just so she could have something to play off of. “Did Nai charge you for her services?”

“Thanks. And no, she didn’t. Just a friendly gesture.” He said, grabbing his t-shirt, bundling it between his palms. He then slung it over his shoulder and made his way past Evie and Jasmine, to the front door. “I’m gonna go. See you guys later.”

 

The second he was gone, the girls just looked at Naya. Jasmine started giggling, Evie just had her hands crossed. “That was something to witness.”

“Why are you guys like this? You make a huge deal out of everything.” Naya huffed. The heat had left her flustered, but she’d be lying if she thought that was the sole cause. Her already rose-tinted cheeks were getting redder.

“He looked pretty hot though, right?” Jas smirked, finishing off her frozen fruit snack. “Nice, lean body and all.”

“Dude, that’s Vanessa’s ex.” Evie responded in a hushed tone, like it was something taboo.

“Jesus. Just because you’re suddenly all buddy-buddy jazz pals with Ness doesn’t mean I can’t compliment her former romantic associates. Right, Naya?”

She shrugged in response, collapsing onto her couch. Suddenly, she wished to become invisible, or have the seat below her open up and suck her into a lightless void. She knew from Day One that she thought Dudley was beautiful, but had never been challenged by her own thoughts until now.

“Do you have a crush on him?” Jasmine asked. Naya said No, a little too quickly.  “Not even a little one?”

She sighed. Her whole body was frozen. She was a terrible liar. She’d never said it out loud, nor had she even said it in her head. Maybe she did have a crush on him, even if only a little one. That didn’t mean anything, though. It was nothing. “I just think he’s… cute. Ugh. You’re going to blow this out of proportion.”

Evie and Jasmine looked at each other, beaming. Evie laughed. “You do have a crush on him? We didn’t actually expect you to say yes. We were just foolin’ around, making this awkward. But… I mean… it’s out there, now.”

“You can’t tell him I said that. Don’t even mention it.”

“When did you realise you were head over heels?” Evie asked.

“It’s really not a big deal. I don’t have a crush on him, I just think he’s cute, which is a fairly objective, neutral comment. You said it so yourself, Jas!”

“Aww, she’s getting all embarrassed.”

“I’m not embarrassed. Y’all are bitches.”

“Don’t worry, Nai. We don’t tell him. But we have to tell Amber. Who’ll tell either Tori or Totem, who will in turn, probably tell Dudley. It’s a chain of events that’s out of our hands, we’re afraid.”

“Fuck you!” She threw a cushion at the pair as they both laughed. She hid her smile away, sitting with her head tucked between her legs like a ostrich in the sand, further magnifying her coyness. She didn’t have a crush on Dudley, of course not. She just thought he was cute, which was right. But somehow in that moment, it was just as wrong. Now he was going to find out, and she didn’t know how to feel about knowing his reaction. She was terrified, yet also intrigued.  But she was terrified way more than intrigued. And it was the jittery feeling in the base of her stomach that kept her awake later that night, then it was the lighting up of her phone at two in the morning with a text from Dudley, with three simple words:

 

Is it true?

 

 

“What did they tell you?” Naya said in his car the next morning, as they made their way to Salvation Hill. She hadn’t responded to the text, but instead her heart had summersaulted into chaotic oblivion, and she tried to pretend he had no clue, like the way things were before that moment. But she knew he knew, and she lay restless, all through the night.

“I went to Totem’s place, and Tori was there. Told me that Jasmine told her that you told Jasmine…” he paused, shaking his head at the ridiculousness of what he was saying. “That you like me.”

“They were overreacting. I just told them I think you’re cute. I’ve told you that before, anyway.”

“It’s different when you tell someone else.”

“Well, maybe it really isn’t.”

“So you don’t like me?”

“Of course I do.” She looked at him. He kept his eyes on the road as they left town. “I mean… I consider you my friend, at least.”

“At least.” He murmured. “And at most?”

“Damn. Why am I being interrogated? Leave me alone.”

Dudley chuckled at her minor indignant outburst. “I’m sorry. I just thought… if my friends were gonna tell me something like this then it must be true.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

“So you don’t have a crush on me? Just to make things crystal clear.”

“No I don’t! I’m running off no sleep. It’s too hot and my tired ass isn’t in the mood for this.”

“That means you were awake when I texted you last night. You  saw it. Just chose not to respond.”

“The world doesn’t revolve around you!”

“Oh, damn. What a bummer. On a scale of one to ten, how cute do you think I am?”

“You’re milking this for all it’s worth.”

“Seven? Nine?”

“Stop the car.”

“What?”

“Stop the car before I open the door and free-fall into the desert!” She yelled, causing him to pull over. His smile was instantly gone.

“Why did you want me to stop?”

“So I can walk the rest of the way.”

“You’re not serious.”

“You’re annoying me.” This was the first time Dudley had seen Naya so irked, in fact. He started to feel bad for teasing her. If the rumour was true, it was unfair to poke fun. She’d done nothing but be nice to him. The look in her eyes hit him like whiplash, the naked glare that she landed on him before jumping out of the pick-up, charging down the side of the desert road.

“Naya, wait. Wait, come back.” He soon hopped out too, running to catch up with her. He tried to grab her hand, lead her back to the car, but she hastily yanked her wrist free from his grip. It was all becoming a huge deal, and she hated it. He wrapped his arms around her waist, elevating her off the ground, trying to carry her back as she yelled and squirmed.

“Get off me, you asshole.”

“No. I’m not letting you walk. Get back in the car.”

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” She quit resisting, falling limp as she let her breathing catch up with her. She sat cross-legged on the ground. “Just pass me a bottle of water and I’ll be fine.”

Dudley crouched in front of her. “I’m sorry, Naya. I was just playing. Come on. We’re going to be late.”

“I do have a crush on you. I just realised when they asked.” She mumbled, bringing her knees together and wrapping her arms around them. “I can’t sit in the car with you anymore. It’s weird.”

For a moment, Dudley didn’t say anything. Then he stood up, grabbing Naya under her arms and lifting her, as she passively complied. He hoisted her over his right shoulder and turned back to the truck, and she hung, eyes closed, heart stammering, wishing she was dead.

“Lets go to the desert after Salvation Hill tonight.” He said once they were both seated. “We can talk about stuff. Maybe watch something.”

“Watch something… how?”

“I have some films saved on my laptop.”

Naya shrugged. “Whatever.”

He softly put his hand on her shoulder and looked at her warmly, before turning back to the road and continuing their journey to Salvation Hill.

 

 

Naya was surprised to find that Dudley was a fan of contemporary romance. In particular, the film Her. It was one of his favourites, still saved on his desktop from a year back. He couldn’t even remember how he stumbled upon it, but he loved the simplicity behind it all. He rewatched it a week after Vanessa broke up with him, resonating with the loneliness that the protagonist of the film had been feeling. The feeling of existing in a vast universe full of billions of people, but still feeling so within oneself, so alone, hit him like a tonne of bricks. He was a soft soul, and he hated to admit it. All he needed was love.

They were set on different tasks during their care home shift, so they never really had time to speak about anything on the job. They just reunited at the end and drove down to the desert, setting up a mini outdoor cinema in the back of his pick-up, eating popcorn and drinking sodas. Naya still felt extremely mortified with her admission. He didn’t say it back - he didn’t show any signs of reciprocation, which was fair. She couldn’t expect anything from him. She was just happy he was still willing to spend time with her outside of volunteering. They sat and watched the film in silence, as the sun set. But she was exhausted from lack of sleep, and Dudley watched as she slowly fell into a soft slumber. He didn’t want to disturb the tranquility, so he stayed stock still as she lay beside him, breathing faintly. Her eyelashes were like snow drops, and new freckles bloomed across her face from the summer sun. He resisted the sudden urge he had to stroke her hair, instead just propping himself up on the back window of the truck and watching the film alone.

“I might have a crush on you too. Maybe.” He whispered to himself as she slept.  “Maybe. Just, maybe.”

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