Sofia wriggled her backside deeper into a stack of broken bales in the loft, the sweet grass smell of freshly cut hay caressing her sinuses, the heat emanating from the curing bales insulating her makeshift nest. The barn was crammed rafter to rafter, the fields shorn.
The new guy still kicking around.
Yeah, there was that twin edged blade to dally with. And she ran like a kid with scissors. Against her better judgment, she’d been watching him work, throwing bales of hay onto the trailer: stacking, stacking, stacking. Every bit hard, manual labor—his straining muscles a feast for her eyes. With no side of talking. They never got the chance. Charlie sitting his wiry ass astride the tractor meant balls to the wall time, even if you weren’t packing any.
During meals, it was the same. Shovel food into your face then hit the fields and barns. There was just too much to do before the weather stopped cooperating. How nice was that?
Now with the fields put to bed, she let that contented feeling wrap itself around her as she snuggled deeper into her grass bed. Sol-Dog lay curled along half of her body length, and heaved a growling sigh of utter content the tighter her wriggling made them.
Niiiice. Droopy lidded herself, Sofia rested her gaze upon the wide, aging boards of the barn’s ceiling a few feet above her face. Even in the dark, she could make out the patterns left by wood-chewing insects from years gone by, follow the whorls of knots in the planks’ grains. Her eyesight had always been good. Exceptional, actually. Another one of her odd traits she kept to herself, because her life had been bad enough, what with her knack for seeing through a person’s lies because of their body language.
That little twist of sunshine in her character had earned her no friends. Not a one. Hell, not even the nerds or other freaks in the various schools she’d attended let her join their ostracized cliques. She fit in no where.
Which made it hard for Child Welfare to place her in a home. She never lasted once the family realized what she was like. Sure, on paper she was the classic charity case. Parents unknown, abandoned on the sweeping granite steps of a church, to be discovered by the cleaning lady early one Sunday morning before services.
She was plucked right out of a Charles Dickens tale. So the foster families thought when they reviewed her record. In person, she turned out to be whole other ball of wax, and they always returned her to the care of the State. With profuse apologies, of course. It was nothing she did, they’d say. She’s just, and they’d clear their throats, adjust their collars, shrug their shoulders in bewilderment, lean forward to whisper, she’s different.
Yeah. That about summed it up.
Except she wasn’t as different as they were if they’d really tried to get to know her. She’d wanted to be adored just like any kid, wanted to be included as a cherished member of a family.
Hell, she’d pined for it.
Until she’d gotten old enough to realize her wishes were fantasies. She was nobody’s beloved child, never would be. A single tear plopped out of Sofia’s upturned eyes, slipping a skinny course into the hollow of her ear. She slapped at it with the arm she’d draped over her dog.
Give it up, idiot.
Right. Words to live by, those. Her life was her own now, she was the one responsible for her happiness. And so far, she hadn’t been doing half bad considering.
Considering that her life hadn’t changed all that much. People still stiffened around her, literally sidling away if they got too close. As a preemptive strike, the adolescent Sofia had learned to repel anyone who got near her, thereby nixing any chance of having to endure the pang of constant rejection. It was a skill she used to this day.
So, was she about to add her ability to see in the dark to her list of charming qualities? Nope. She’d keep that gift to herself, not let others ruin it by their jokes and criticisms.
Because she loved how she could make her way around in the dead of night without bumping into anything. Plus, her night vision had gotten better lately, allowing her to view the beauty of a silvery landscape draped with shadows. It was like the earth was always aglow with the luminescence of a full moon, and sometimes she’d just sit in the shadows where no one could see her and watch the world around her.
The sliding of the heavy wooden door across its track locked her breath in her throat, and yanked her thoughts into the here and now. The groan hadn’t lasted long, which meant whoever opened the door had slid it open just enough.
Just enough to squeeze through.
Sofia pulled herself out of her nest, but kept a hand on the warm slab of Sol’s side as she crouched. The big dog lifted his head, pulled his ears back and jutted his muzzle into the darkness. Then thumped his whip of a tail against their bed of hay.
There was only one person Sol liked, aside from herself. Sofia’s stomach clamped.
The new guy.
What the hell was he doing coming out to the barn in the dead of night when he had a perfectly comfortable bed assigned to him in the farmhouse?
Never mind she wasn’t taking advantage of the same comforts. That wasn’t the point. She didn’t stay in the farmhouse because it meant sharing a room with someone else, which she might have been able to deal with if Charlie and Rosie had let Sol sleep with her.
But they hadn’t. No dogs allowed in the farmhouse. No exceptions. Sofia hadn’t bothered to explain to them she couldn’t sleep with another person around without the dog. She was too aware, too alert. Which were skills in her experience. Because when she slept, people took advantage of her, as if her being unaware rendered her harmless. Which it did, of course.
So, she’d opted to sleep in the hay loft with her dog. Not only because she didn’t feel safe without him, but she didn’t like leaving him alone. Hell, the beast hadn’t spent one night alone. Ever. Always she’d been with him. It had been her promise to the pup: to take care of him like she’d never been taken care of herself. Unlike the people who’d taken her in, she’d stuck to her promise.
And right then, she meant to keep up her part of their pact. If the dog didn’t sense danger where the new guy was concerned, then she’d be the one to protect them from him. Sol may not understand the duplicity of man, but she did. Only too well.
Sofia tiptoed along the outer rim of the bales, but gave up playing commando when she realized she’d have to navigate the creaky stairs leading up to the loft. With a giant mutt on her heels. No hope of sneaking with Babar as her partner. It would be the direct route, and her pulse fluttered when her heart rate kicked it up a notch.
Once on the main floor, Sofia cocked her head to listen down the long galley. Nothing but the random stomps of hooves on the wooden floor. Two of the horses were in their stalls, and she listened to the deep grinding of a grazer munching hay.
But where was the intruder?
She padded across the aisle, toward the milking station where the cows were stanchioned twice a day while they got milked. This late, the place was empty, the cows not coming down from pasture until dawn.
Making like a cop, she stepped into the doorway, ready for the full frontal attack, minus the .38.
“What the hell?” Stiffening, she backpedaled one step before stopping herself. Because the guy was standing in the middle of the narrow passage. Just standing there, like he’d been waiting. Sofia knew she hadn’t been as quiet as she’d wanted to be, but how the eff did he know she was coming in this direction?
Sol trundled over in his loose muscled way and shoved his head into the man’s hand.
“Great. You’re standing in the dark like a creep and my dog says hi.”
Except it wasn’t creepy the way the guy was standing. Uh-uh. His waiting for her…warmed her skin. Which was all wrong. She was assessing him like he was some kind of objet d’art, an ice cream cone, an autumn elm. In other words, she was appreciating him, and therefore not kicking his ass.
Then it occurred to her that, yes indeed, they were facing off in the corridor, which was dark as a damned pocket and she shouldn’t have been seeing him. Sofia retreated a few steps and placed her hand on the light switch, flicking it on so she wouldn’t give away the fact she could see in the dark.
Never mind they had looked each other straight in the eye.
She dropped that line of thinking to scrunch her eyeballs shut, blocking out the glare of the overhead light until her pupils constricted enough so she wouldn’t get blinded. Cautiously, she lifted her lids to resume her verbal assault.
Good plan, that.
Christ, he was cute. Even if he wasn’t moving a single muscle. He was still just standing there, staring at her with what? Fear? Longing?
That was a load of crap if she ever thought it. Nobody longed for her. Ever.
“Beat it, buddy, before I kick your ass.”
So he did. He turned tail. Right back out the way he’d come in.
“Well, that was easy,” she admitted to Sol, who turned to look at her when she spoke. He’d still been watching the man’s retreat like he was witnessing the flight of a giant, pink rabbit: un-freaking-believable.
Installment #8 coming Saturday, December 7, 2013.