by Zahra Barnes
Finn looked at me expectantly.
“Uh, sure, I can come in for a second,” I finally said. His invitation caught me off guard. What was I going to do, shove the guy’s wallet in his face and flee?
“Here.” I held the wallet out.
He accepted it, taking care not to touch my fingers. Then he stepped aside so I could pass, wedging the door between his back and the wall. I slid past him in the narrow doorway, just barely avoiding brushing his body. The scent of old books and fresh wood greeted me, so full-bodied I could practically taste it. Puffs of dust swirled up through the air with each creaking step I took on the old floorboards. I started firing off sneezes that, in our tense silence and the surprisingly cavernous space, echoed like firecrackers.
“You OK?” He dusted his hands off on his jeans, then shoved them into his pockets. He clearly didn’t know how to deal with what I’d taken to mentally referring to as “our situation,” so he was picking his way through it like he would smashed glass.
“Fine,” I said as I wiped my watering eyes. I looked around the shop. It was the picture of disorganized chaos. The room Finn and I stood in seemed sectioned off into different areas devoted to various kinds of furniture. I turned around and almost bumped into a dresser loaded down with gnarled driftwood-esque bowls. “So, this is pretty different from the world of finance.”
“It is. I can show you around? Armin’s pretty strict, but he’s gone so it’s not a big deal.”
Despite the weirdness, my interest was piqued. I started wandering, winding my way through the wooden maze, much of it precarious, teetering on something propped up by something else, looking like a whisper would topple it all. The effect was staggering, like a treasure trove that would take years to sort through but would be worth it just for the gems you’d unearth.
The entire time, I was starkly aware of Finn trailing behind me at a respectful distance. He was quiet, which wasn’t odd for him, but it bothered me nonetheless. I didn’t want him to treat me, or our friendship, like one touch would shatter us. This was still Finn. I was still me.
I came to a staircase flanked by thin, reddish armoires that looked like they’d smell of cherries. “What’s down there?”
“That’s where we work. With our workspace downstairs, we can just haul stuff up when we’re done,” Finn said.
I started down the steps. Normally, I would have asked, but his reticence sparked something reckless inside me. Instead of bringing up the kiss, he was retreating into himself. Knowing Finn, I should have expected it, but it threw me off. Another guy might have broached the topic immediately, subtly steering me into feeling whatever was convenient for him. Finn, on the wildly opposite hand, was unreadable.
The final step I took into the basement was muffled, thanks to the sawdust under my feet. Stacks of wood rested on shelves which were bolted to the first wall you saw when you got into the space. I dodged a table piled with works in progress, then jumbles of machinery, finally making it over to the wood. I leaned in and inhaled. With my eyes closed, I could almost imagine that the city above our heads was melting away and we were in a forest somewhere, surrounded by tightly packed, towering trees.
I opened my eyes and turned to Finn. “Which one’s your favorite?” I asked, cocking my head toward the wood.
He paused before answering, his eyes raking through the options behind me before settling on my face.
“Walnut.” He walked over to the table and picked up a piece of wood a few feet long, then beckoned me over. “It’s strong as hell, but easy to work with once you get to know it. And always full of surprises. See?”
He held it up to the light. When I looked more closely, I saw that the rich brown was interspersed with swirls of lighter grain and golden dabs that almost looked painted on. “There’s a lot of unexpected beauty there,” he said.
Entranced, I ran a finger over the slab.
Finn’s warning came a second too late. I felt a jolt of pain and yanked my hand back like I’d been burned, then flipped it over to see the mother of all slivers embedded partially into the skin under my middle finger.
Finn grabbed my hand with one of his, transferring the block of wood to his other one. His muscles strained with the effort, and I saw a flash of black peek out from under the collar of his shirt. It disappeared when he shifted his weight to get a better look at my finger.
“That’s in there pretty good,” he said.
“It’s fine.” I pulled away, so strangely, intensely aware of his touch, his hand so hot on mine is almost burned. Using my other hand, I yanked most of the fragment out. A bead of blood pearled up, then slid down the side of my finger.
“Shit, Tessa. Let me get the first aid kit.”
He set the walnut down and headed to the far edge of the room, where he opened a cabinet and produced a kit that looked about as old as me. He walked over and led me into a chair, pulled up another one opposite me, then opened the kit.
“Well, your life is clearly on the up and up,” I said. Suddenly nervous for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, I prattled on about Bloom, the upcoming party, and how I was quickly falling in love with telling a story through flowers.
“You can use them to say absolutely anything in the right combinations. Of course, those definitions vary based on which guide you use, but it’s pretty special.”
Finn nodded, then smiled. I felt like I still had to talk. “So, what can you make at this point? I seem to remember requesting a throne.”
He shook his head and tore open a package of antiseptic wipes. This was vintage Finn. He’d made me tea for my hangovers years ago, shown up when my apartment was being broken into, and here he was tending to a splinter I’d stupidly inflicted upon myself. “No thrones yet, but I think my chairs are OK.” He gestured with his chin to where I was sitting, confusing me for a second until it clicked.
“You made this?! The thing I’m sitting in? This actual chair that someone can buy and put in their house?” He nodded, a slight flush rising to his cheeks. “The one you’re sitting in, too?” Again, he nodded.
The chairs was simple at first glance, but the details revealed themselves the longer you looked. The arms curved outward, adding a touch of comfort. So did the back. They were small touches, but they made the chair seem thought about. Cared for.
Finn dropped his eyes and took my hand in both of his, turning it up to the light to get a good look at my finger. I could feel the calluses starting to form in a few spots on his fingers and palms.
“This is going to sting a little,” he warned.
The man didn’t lie. He swabbed my finger with the wipe, and I sucked in a breath at the pain.
“Sorry. The hard part’s done. So, can I assume that the splinter’s on your middle finger to send me a message?” He was still looking at my hand, but I could tell he was being serious.
“Look, Tessa, I’m sorry. I really am. I know it wasn’t the right time for that. I don’t have a good excuse for myself.”
“I know. And I know you’re a good guy. I would just never want to be the Sophie in your relationship.”
Finn’s hands stopped moving and he screwed up his face while he processed what I said. “Sophie? The girl Grant cheated with? But how could you—Tessa, did you think I was still with Amy?”
A look of comprehension dawned over his face, mingling with relief. “Tessa, no, of course not. I wouldn’t do that to you or her. I ended it a few days before you and I, you know, kissed.”
“Well, that’s technically better,” I said. I left the rest of that thought, that it wasn’t actually better in any monumental way, unsaid. I could tell by his wounded expression that Finn understood me just fine.
“Our breakup was a long time coming, you know that.”
“So, what, you were trying to get over your breakup with Amy via a drunken kiss with me?”
“Are you serious?” Finn just looked at me, his jaw set in a way that tipped me off to his mounting frustration. “No, Tessa. That’s not it at all. I thought you knew me better than that.”
I knew this was the moment I would always look back on as the turning point. I could press the issue, ask Finn what he meant, get to the core of it, or I could ignore it all. The thing was, ignoring just wasn’t my style.
My voice trembled. “If that’s not it, then what? What is it?”
“It’s that I see you!” The words exploded from Finn’s mouth, my hand forgotten in our rush to get everything out into the open. “I see everything about you. I see how you tug on your hair when you’re nervous, like you are now.” I hadn’t even noticed. “I see how something in you, behind your eyes, lights up when you talk about Bloom. I see you killing it there in ways you can’t even imagine yet. I see the lengths you’ll go to for Marley, and for anyone else you love.” He took a deep breath, then the rest poured out. “And I see that between Jack and Grant, you’re scared. You think there’s something about you that makes people leave. But no, Tessa. It’s not you. They’re just blind.”
Something broke inside me, or maybe it burst. I flew forward out of my chair and kissed him, full to the brim with the rawness of the nerves he’d touched, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, he was right. Finn drew me into his lap, his strong, sure hands moving down my back, hips, the tops of my thighs. I pulled away, breathless, my hand on his chest, almost giddy with emotions that were ricocheting inside of me like I was a pinball machine. Again, I saw a black hint of something just under his collarbone. I tugged at his shirt and was shocked to see a tattoo. “Little Bear,” it read in elegant script. The Finn I thought I knew would never.
“Little Bear? What does that mean?”
He smoothed my hair back. “Remember those letters my mom left me?”
I nodded. How could I forget? Writing Finn letters when she knew she was dying of breast cancer was his mother’s beautiful, Nicholas Sparks-worthy gift.
“Right, well, she always called me Little Bear. She was Mama Bear. I guess it was our thing. For years I would pull those letters out when I needed her. Sometimes, especially early on, I missed her so much I thought I might die, too.” At a loss for what to do, I rubbed his shoulder. “The letters are getting pretty old, though,” he continued. “They’re falling apart. I took one to a tattoo artist, so I can carry a little bit of each letter around with me instead of damaging them more.”
I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat, completely overcome. “Wow. That’s…I mean, Finn. That’s beautiful.” I traced the tattoo, inked in what was now clearly Finn’s mom’s handwriting. Unable to help myself, I dotted it with kisses. I didn’t know what was happening, only that seeing Finn in a completely different situation made me feel like there was so much about him I didn’t know. But I wanted to.
“I don’t know how she felt about tattoos, but I think she’d have liked this one at least,” he said. “There was also something really interesting in those letters that I only discovered recently.”
“Mmm?” I was feeling a little dizzy. “What?”
“You sound a lot like my mom,” he said.
My eyes widened. And the prize for thing you least want to hear come from a guy’s mouth goes to…
“No,” he hurriedly added. “Not in a creepy way. But you know, when I was trying to decide whether to quit my job, I turned to her letters a lot. Like if I read them for the millionth time, they would say something different.” He shook his head and smiled ruefully. “But they didn’t. They always said the same thing, which was that no matter what, she’d be proud of me as long as I lived a meaningful life. To ‘screw the money and chase my happiness.’”
“In so many words, you mean.”
“Nah, she actually said that. Told you you sound alike.”
I laughed, then sobered and stared into his eyes. Funny, I’d always thought they were just brown. A nice brown, but brown nonetheless. Now, with a close-up view and a whole new side of him revealed, I saw them for what they were. A deep chocolate iris around the pupil, ringed with honey. Flecked with gold all throughout. They were breathtaking.
Finn grinned until his glasses pressed into his cheeks, leaving red indentations as proof that they’d been there, that I’d made him that happy. “The more I read those words and the more you said them to me, the more it clicked that she was right. You were right. And it made it hard not to feel things.”
I peeled his shirt off, resisting the urge to inhale it like the deranged woman I’d apparently become. Everything about this new, hidden Finn was intoxicating. He smelled of earth tinged with a bit of sweat. The veins on his arms, which were quickly growing accustomed to their new workload, stood out in stark relief. He pulled me to him, tracing those fingers up my back, their roughness flirting with the smoothness of my skin in a way that made me want to beg for more.
Suddenly, a clatter from upstairs.
“Finnegan!” A heavily accented voice was yelling bloody murder.
Finn started. “Shit. Armin’s back. I’m not supposed to have anyone down here.”
I jumped off his lap, alarmed and a little disoriented. “Are we going to get in trouble? What do I do?”
Finn grabbed his shirt and threw it on, realized it was inside out, and quickly fixed his mistake. “I’m going to go upstairs and distract him. When I say, uh, when I say ‘The teak’s arriving tomorrow,’ that’s your cue to slip out the front door, OK? He’s a little hard of hearing, but still, be as quiet as you can.”
“OK, got it.” I could get into a little seduction with a side of subterfuge.
Finn bolted upstairs and I waited, stock still, for our signal. After a few minutes, I heard the floorboards groan above my head.
“The teak’s arriving tomorrow, Armin! Yes, the teak is definitely arriving tomorrow.”
I crept up the staircase and wound my way through the piles of furniture, peeking around them before I went, Finn chatting loudly the whole time to disguise my footsteps.
I spilled out onto the sidewalk, all electric feelings and racing thoughts. I spun around to orient myself, then set off in the direction of the subway. I touched my lips, smiling with what I already knew was going to become a well-worn memory. All from a secret moment with Finn. Apparently, walnut wasn’t the only thing with some surprises.