- Project: Inbetween
- Chapter: Eleven
- Word count: 4,430
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I love this chapter. That means I struggle to write it and enjoyed every minute of it. I hope the end result is enjoyable for you to read.
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Willow knew her luck could not get any worse. Her desire to find a way for Yuri to go home again pushed her to search further and harder than she would have otherwise. He had been here for the better part of a month now. She could feel his homesickness even as he tried to hide it and the close quarters of her small apartment were not meant to house two people for so long.
Her desire to make things right led through some bad luck to them being on a dark country road in the damp chill of a late November evening. Willow’s car stalled and refused to restart. She knew there was gas left in the tank so the problem had to be under the hood.
She sighed and rested her head on the steering wheel. She could change a flat tire, but anything more mechanical than that was beyond her realm of knowledge. She sat there in complete silence trying to come to terms with the fact that she would need to call for a tow.
To his credit, Yuri remained quiet while she endured this emotional turmoil. Whether he did this out of respect and understanding or he just lacked a witty way to tease her right now, she did not care to guess, but she appreciated it anyway.
When she gathered willpower she sat up and fished her phone out of the center console. First, she noticed her battery was at 57%. She hoped it would last since she could not charge it in a dead car. Then she noticed she had no cell signal.
She groaned. This sort of bad luck would be comical if it happened to anyone else. Someday she might even laugh about it herself, but living in the moment just filled her with dread.
As a product of the digital age, she had to rack her brain to figure out a way to handle this situation without her cell phone. None of the options that came to mind sounded convenient to her and some of them seemed downright dangerous.
“Well,” she said before sighing heavily.
Yuri immediately came to attention. Even with the dim moonlight as their only source of light, she could see him watching her carefully. She knew he would defer to her in this situation. That made her want to get it right even more. Knowing there was a chance he would eventually give in to the temptation to tease her for her misfortune made her dread making the wrong decision.
She collected her thoughts and quickly decided on a course of action. “We need a phone to call for a tow. We either need to find a cell signal somewhere along this road or a house that will let us use their phone. Either way, we need to walk.”
He nodded, remaining unnervingly mute.
Willow turned and grabbed a flashlight off her back seat. She brought it as a spare just in case they had a lead and stayed out after dark. Now she was glad she did because she was not at all sure that the one she kept in her trunk had live batteries. She hated the idea of going back out into the cold so soon. They just got back in the car after almost an hour scouring a secluded hamlet where Willow had personally performed exorcisms in every house and barn. She had hoped that such a hotbed for supernatural activity might yield results, but they had no luck in their search this afternoon.
The brief time in the car since they decided to head back home had hardly been enough to fully fight off the chill that had set in while they were out walking around. She knew she would feel cold again just that much faster this time.
She wanted to cry out of frustration but she held back the tears, knowing they would only make the situation worse. It was bad enough always being on the go and trying to make things right for Yuri again. Now her car had broken down and she could feel the rest of her life starting to fall down around her as well. Even though she knew she needed to work on solving the problem at hand, she found herself considering all the ways her life was now infinitely more complicated now that her car was not running.
She was expected to work the morning shift tomorrow. Even if they managed to get home at a reasonable time tonight, there was a real possibility that she would not be able to find a ride before she needed to be at work. This was all supposing they would not be stranded out here half the night.
Then her mind jumped to the cost of repairing a broken down car. She had insurance, of course, but she was hardly an expert on all of the aspects of her policy. Right now she could not remember if they would cover her car getting towed after a breakdown or not. Either way, she would need to find the money somehow to get her car running again. With all of her extra expenses lately that seemed utterly impossible. Giving up hope, abandoning her car, her apartment and her job was starting to seem more and more like an appealing, viable option.
There was still Yuri to consider in all of this. She was out here to help him, and he was still lost and far away from home. If she failed to help him and keep him out of trouble, he was quite likely to get himself killed, if not out of sheer incompetence, then due to some radical anti-magical element she knew existed out there in this world. She knew enough to judge him as an individual and realize he was just an ordinary guy who was not from this world, but she had no doubts that numerous others would not give him the same chance.
The more she thought about this, the more depressed she felt. She knew she could not sit around and sulk. Crying was even more out of the question. If she did not do something, nothing would get done. Yuri was lost without her. It was a bit like caring for a small child in that sense. He could not be left to fend for himself.
She blinked back her tears and took a deep breath. With a flashlight in one hand and her phone in the other, she got out of the car. Yuri quickly jumped into action and got out of the car as well. He was still not adjusted to the cold temperatures of the late fall in this part of the world. Willow felt a twinge of guilt for having him out here in the cold twice in less than an hour. She almost told him to get back in the car and wait there for her to come back, but she thought better of it.
He might be cold out here, but she would feel a lot safer if she was not out wandering around in the dark alone. In fact, she knew they were safer if they stuck together and Willow really did not like the idea of walking alone along the side of a dark country road. She would attract less trouble if she had an escort.
She started talking mostly to keep herself from getting upset again. “We need to walk to find a phone signal or a house where we can ask to use their phone.”
“Who are you going to call?” Yuri asked.
She almost laughed because it seemed like a dumb question, but she realized it was asked in earnest. Then she realized she had not actually thought that far ahead, herself. She knew she needed to make a call, but she did not know who she should call once she had the ability. A tow truck seemed like a logical option, but she did not know the number of any towing company. She also did not think to bring along any of her insurance information and she doubted she had their number stored on her phone. The more time she spent contemplating this, the more apparent it became that she only had one real option in terms of who she should call.
“I guess I’ll call my dad,” she decided finally. Once she made that decision she felt a bit of relief and came to regret the missed opportunity to make a rather old pop culture reference. The fact that she was even able to think of a joke, even if it was too late, probably indicated that she was starting to feel a bit less desperate.
Now that the sun had set, the temperature was dropping even faster. She thought that they had been cold during the afternoon, but this was so much worse. She had just started to warm up while they were driving home and now that warmth was sapping out of her at an alarming rate. Every breath felt as though it sapped more warmth from her.
She did not know how far they would have to walk before her phone regained a signal. She was afraid to check too often because she barely had more than half a charge left and she still needed to make the call before it died on her.
She fought the urge to check for as long as possible, but the temptation became almost physically painful as she resisted it. She gave in much sooner than she would have liked, but she just wanted to see that she had a phone signal so she could make the call and go back to the car.
She knew even before she looked that she was out of luck. They were still in a valley. The signal from the cell tower was not reaching down here. They would need to start traveling back up to a higher elevation before she had a hope of finding a signal again.
She sighed and put her phone back in her jacket pocket to reduce the temptation to obsessively check it and run down the battery. The road was deserted and lined by trees and brambly undergrowth on both sides. In the dark, it looked downright eerie even to someone who lived in an area filled with roads just like this her whole life. In the hushed silence and the dark, she found it hard not to think that this was a perfect set up for a horror movie. She see-sawed between wishing a car would drive down the road and rescue them and desperately hoping they would remain alone just in case the help they found had other ideas.
The creepy horror movie feelings were winning the battle within her mind when Yuri put his arm around her. She nearly jumped out of her skin before her mind caught up with her nerves and told her she was not being grabbed by some monster or murderous hillbilly.
“You’re shaking,” Yuri whispered.
Willow wondered if the eerie surroundings were getting to him as well and that was the reason for his whispering. She would not fault him for that. She was supposed to be the sensible one who was familiar with the area and even her imagination was running away with itself.
“It’s cold,” she replied. She was only slightly surprised to realize that her own speaking volume matched his.
He kept his arm around her shoulders, holding her close to him. It made things as least marginally more tolerable, but she was not in a state of mind where marginally tolerable conditions could improve her mood.
“I think we’ll be warmer if we keep moving.”
She nodded. “Yeah. It’ll be worse if we stop.”
“Do you think it’ll be much further until your phone works?”
For half a second she was caught off guard by hearing him speak with such knowledge of modern technology. Then she remembered that she had been grumbling to herself about it well within earshot of him. Whether he understood the terminology or not was a matter for another time, but he definitely knew what they were doing out here.
“I have a feeling we’re going to at least have to make it out of this valley before it will work.”
“Well, that’s not too much further.”
“It’s far enough considering how cold and dark it is.”
“We’ll be back in the car before you know it,” he assured her.
She did not have the heart to argue with him about this any further. She knew every second they were away from the car was letting the inside of the car get colder and colder. The car would not start so any hope of running the heat was out the window. They would be slightly sheltered by the car, but they would still be cold when they got back.
With Yuri’s arm functioning as a constant reminder that she was not alone, Willow managed to shake off the worst of her paranoid thought and fears. She managed to resist the temptation to check her phone again until they reached the top of the hill.
Up here the trees were still just as thick as down in the valley. The sky was only fully visible from the gap in the tree cover near the center of the road. Willow had some doubts about whether her phone would be able to pick up a signal even from here because of the dense tree cover, but she was not inclined to continue walking any further than she needed to.
She knew she was still cold, but at this point, her shaking had subsided and she was mostly just feeling a numb sort of cold all through her body. She pulled out her phone and fumbled with it for a moment as her cold fingers were not quite up to the task of dealing with a touch screen. She could not restrain the smile that sprung to her lips when she spotted the lovely little bars indicating she had enough of a signal to make a phone call.
She spent her entire adult life avoiding making phone calls whenever possible in favor of text messages, but this could not be risked with a text message. She needed to reach her dad and the only way to reach him for sure was to call.
Calling her dad made her shake all over again. She knew this time it was not the cold. She could feel panic and shame building up to a boiling point inside of her. She fought so hard to be independent and prove to her parents that her moving out on her own had not been a mistake. Every time she needed to ask for help she could hear contrary little voices in her head mocking her, telling her that she had failed. Every mistake, every misstep might be the one to finally cost Willow her independence.
Whether Yuri understood the reason for her renewed shaking or assumed it was from the cold she did not know. He did put some effort into warming her up and comforting her. She was not sure if she actually welcomed the idea of being pulled even closer against him, but with everything else going through her mind at the moment she did not have a lot of energy left to do more than acknowledge that he was in fact there.
Making the call turned out to be akin to ripping off a band-aid. She did it quickly and made it as brief as possible and the painful part was over before she knew it. It made her wonder why she had been so upset in the first place, even though she knew there was a good reason and she would soon have to endure her father cursing under the hood of her car while he tried to figure out the reason it did not start. If he could fix it she would be lectured for not knowing more about car repair. If he could not fix it she would have to listen to him wanting to know why she did not do more to maintain her car. She could hear it already, but she tried to push it back down from the surface and focus on the present and the real issues at hand.
Aside from having to trek back down the hill and wondering whether or not the flashlight’s battery would hold up until her father arrived she also realized that she needed to address the way Yuri was increasingly encroaching on her personal bubble.
“Yuri, a little breathing room, please,” she managed to blurt out as her brain fumbled over all the possible ways she could address the issue at hand.
“Oh, sorry,” he said and immediately dropped his arm from around her shoulders.
She thought that was the end of the matter for a second until Yuri grabbed her hand and held it in his own. She looked over at him and thought she saw a bit of a sheepish expression on his face, but in the darkness, it was hard to tell.
“You’re not afraid, are you?”
“No,” he answered a bit too hastily to make his statement believable. After a few more steps he added. “I just like holding your hand.”
She almost rolled her eyes, but her curiosity ended up winning out and she found herself wanting to know more about him rather than just be equal parts confused and annoyed by his sporadic attempts at flirting with her.
“You know, I can’t tell if you’re really good at the flirting thing or incredibly bad at it and I’m just charmed by your clumsy attempts.”
“I’ll leave that a mystery and just consider it a success since I am charming you.”
She sighed. “You’re infuriating.”
“But you like it.”
“You haven’t dated a lot of girls, have you?” She asked while mentally preparing to dress him down about the cruelty of constantly teasing and irritating a person.
That was not what she expected to hear. Her previous train of thought derailed. “Wait. What?”
“I have been interested in girls in the past, but none of them brought anything to the table that I didn’t already have. They ended up being nothing more than passing fancies.”
She tripped over a rock, stumbled and only kept her balance by Yuri’s steadying hold on her arm. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Maybe,” he replied coyly. He waited for a beat but mercifully did not force her to drag more information out of him. He cleared his throat as though he was about to make an incredibly important announcement. “Back home I have a boyfriend. We’ve been together for years.”
Willow jerked her hand out of his. “You tell me that now? Why have you been flirting with me so much?”
She started walking faster and then started jogging. She had the flashlight and at this point, she did not care if she was leaving Yuri in the dark with no way to see where he was going. She just could not believe he would do such a thing. She felt dirty. She felt offended on the behalf of Yuri’s boyfriend who was probably worried sick about him and hoping he would come home while he was in this world flirting with her as every turn.
She kept up the jogging pace, leaving Yuri well behind her until she reached the car. She quickly unlocked the door and got inside. She did her best to hold herself together but could feel a confusing jumble of emotions swirling around in her brain. She could not settle on one emotion long enough to properly process it. She sat and stewed, knowing that she would have to deal with this sooner rather than later as Yuri could not be that far behind her.
He reached the passenger side door and hesitated as though he was not sure whether or not he should enter the car before finally taking his seat. Willow made a point of remaining faced forward the entire time he debated this. She did not want to even acknowledge his presence. She could feel the emotions within her trying to battle for dominance and she suspected anger would end up winning if she looked at him right now.
She expected him to start apologizing right away. As seconds ticked by in silence her curiosity got the better of her and she permitted herself a sidelong glance at him.
Finally, he said, “You’re upset.”
“Yeah. I am.”
“What do you mean why? You’ve been flirting with me all this time and you never bothered to mention your boyfriend. Do you think it doesn’t count as cheating just because he’s in another world?”
The silence that followed was almost deafening. Willow thought she could nearly hear Yuri’s mind working over what he would say next. Admittedly, she could not imagine what he could say that would make this situation better. She knew she was already prepared to continue being angry at him. He betrayed her by not being honest and he was betraying his boyfriend by flirting with her. She might not have much of a leg to stand on when it came to being outraged for herself, but she felt completely justified in being upset on behalf of the boyfriend who could not possibly know what was going on here. She waited for him to speak. He would try to explain and she would have the chance to tell him just how wrong he was. It would make him feel awful, but it would be cathartic for her.
Finally, Yuri spoke. He said each word carefully, as though he had put a lot of thought into each one and wanted to make sure he expressed himself properly and fully. Willow did her best to listen to him without interrupting. “You’re right. I should have told you sooner. I waited because I wasn’t sure you were really interested and what I have with Asa is personal. Really personal and I don’t like dragging him into things unless I think it might work out.”
Willow took a moment to unpack everything he said. In the mean time, she caught Yuri giving her shy, sidelong glances. She had no problem admitting to herself that she much preferred his teasing attitude to this cowed, apologetic demeanor. She understood why he might think she was not really interested. She had not been sure herself and now she was even less sure than before.
“How can it be too personal to share that sort of information with someone you might be interested in?”
He shifted in his seat as though this conversation was making him uncomfortable. Although Willow was not particularly thrilled with the current subject of discussion herself, she did not share his level of discomfort. The longer he postponed further explanation the less sympathy she felt for him and the more impatient she became.
“If I thought you were interested, then I would have told you about Asa and hoped that you were still interested. Asa is too important to me. I wouldn’t bring someone into my life unless they would accept him too.”
She shook her head. This still did not add up for her. “Accept him too? What do you mean by that?”
Yuri let out a short, nervous laugh. “Don’t people here ever love more than one person at the same time?”
“Well, yeah, but most people don’t like it when their partner starts seeing someone else. I was taught to be loyal to the person I’m with and if that person doesn’t make me happy anymore to end it before I get involved with someone else.”
The nervousness that permeated the air around Yuri started to dissipate. He turned in his seat to more fully face Willow. “Don’t you think it is possible to be loyal to more than one person at once? I’m not cheating or having a string of affairs on the side. Where I come from we just accept that it is sometimes possible to love more than one person at a time. I would never, ever bring up this discussion with anyone that I thought would hurt my relationship with Asa.”
“So is Asa allowed to bring other people into the relationship as well?”
“He could, but he’s never seemed interested in looking.”
“Aren’t you afraid that you’ll hurt him by loving someone else too? Is that why you were interested in me? Because you could keep our paths from crossing? Or are you only interested because you need someone and think you can’t get home?”
“No! I was hoping if you accepted me and him — us — you’d come back home with me.”
“Oh,” she said before falling silent. She did not know what else to say. Going back with him seemed impossible, and she was not sure why she was even thinking about it. He had not asked her. She had not shown enough interest. A lump formed in her throat as her disappointment grew. She did not understand why she reacted this way. It felt as though she had failed a very important test.
Without her questions driving him on, Yuri fell silent. Willow knew she had a lot of information to process. Her confusion only proved that she still needed to digest his words.
She was not sure how long they sat without speaking. She suspected that she dozed off for at least a few moments as sleep seemed to be her body’s natural response to both darkness and stress. She had both in spades right now so it seemed like a miracle that she remained conscious at all.
She was fairly certain she was awake when she heard a knock on the window of her door. She was staring in Yuri’s general direction. As far as she could tell he had been asleep — he seemed too still and peaceful to be awake. He jumped at the sound of the knock and Willow could have sworn she spotted the flash of something metallic in his hand reflecting in the light of the flashlight outside of the car. It was there one second and gone the next so she decided to file it away as just one more odd thing about Yuri and instead focus on helping her dad figure out her car problems so they could get home sometime tonight.