Building One was on fire.
Word spread through Lumen Cove as if it were a blaze itself. Residents began to pour out of their condos, alerted by a neighbor or having smelled smoke and stepped outside to see what the fuss was about. Reva Sarno and Kelsey Charming had slept through the best of it before their friends Logan Key and Elliot Braum had even thought to wake them, a fact that Reva was very crabby about.
“Look I’m sorry you weren’t the first thing on my mind when Mr. Goldhirsch told us Building One was on fire,” Logan exclaimed finally and gave a soft oomph as Kelsey’s shoulder bumped his chest when she broke out into a run.
“Kelsey!” Elliot hollered after her but made no effort to chase her, merely heaving a sigh and continuing to walk with Logan and Reva.
“What’s her hurry?” Logan asked and Reva watched her friend struggling to run on the sand, well ahead of them now. “We told her it was already out.”
“Who knows,” Reva said crossing her arms over her chest in an effort to warm herself in the January chill. “She’s been weird lately…”
When Kelsey cleared the corner of Building Two her breath was huffing out of her aching lungs in small clouds. She could see a group huddled together on the beach, most in sleepwear, women in curlers and men in robes. Her heart pounded in her chest as she saw the charred midsection of Building One. It looked as if it had simply melted down the center, a giant hole where a sliding glass door would be, wings of dark soot fanning either side. Charred remains of the upper floor condo jutted like broken teeth from the seemingly unscathed lower level. As she approached the crowd she heard whispers of “water damage got the rental” and “thank god for fire-stops,” but Kelsey didn’t care about the damage as her eyes searched for one face in the crowd.
Alex Danvers was standing away from the group, speaking with Sheriff Lockheed and what must have been the fire marshal. As if sensing someone’s eyes on him he looked up, meeting Kelsey’s gaze through the crowd and he paused in what he was saying, clenched his jaw and swallowed hard. It had been nearly a month now and seeing her unexpectedly was still like a punch in the gut. He could see the fear in her eyes even from twenty yards away and he gave the slightest nod of his head. I’m okay, his eyes told her and her expression relaxed slightly, her eyes flitting around as if trying to find another place to stare besides him.
Kelsey turned towards the ocean, closing her eyes and swallowing hard before letting out a slow breath, taking in the black ocean waves as they rolled to the shore. He was fine. Of course, he was fine. She shouldn’t even care if he was fine. He hurt you but you don’t want him dead, Kelsey, Jesus. She shook her head.
“I’d ask where the fire was but that seems pretty inappropriate right now,” Logan said as he ambled up to her and Elliot followed, his hand running up and down her arm.
“You okay?” he asked, pulling her against his side and that’s when she realized she was shaking. She turned to him, letting him wrap an arm around her and rested her forehead on his shoulder.
“Yeah, just…” she glanced over at Alex again who she could have sworn looked away as soon as her gaze fell on him. She shook her head, feeling stupid. Stop hoping, Kelsey. “The…uh… insurance… on the building…”
“The HOA has ruined you,” Reva said, curling her arms close to her chest and leaning into Logan, who opened the side of his jacket to wrap it and his arm around her.
Elliot nudged Kelsey to get the side of his jacket too but she stepped completely away, her eyes still riveted down the beach where Mr. Danvers was shaking hands with the Sheriff and the fire marshal. As they stepped away a throng of pajamaed bodies seemed to barrel towards the younger man, his surprise evident on his face.
“I better get over there,” Kelsey said as she moved away from the group, Elliot watching her with a pensive expression, pulling his jacket tighter around himself.
“…Always burning those candles.”
“Now, Sal, the fire marshal said it seemed to be electrical.”
“Oh, so it’s the building’s fault?”
“Alex isn’t saying that Sal. He’s merely pointing out that it wasn’t malicious,” Emmaline Papert said calmly and her husband snorted.
“Always telling her not to light those candles,” her husband muttered, pulling off his coke bottle glasses to wipe them on his pajama shirt.
Kelsey looked away, feeling embarrassed at seeing her physics teacher in his night clothes. Her eyes fell on Alex in his old gray t-shirt with the holes in the hem under a heavy black jacket and a pair of navy sweats. He never wore that shirt outside the house, the USMC crest had faded almost to obscurity over his heart but he still didn’t like to flaunt his service. His eyes met hers again and they both looked away, listening to the other HOA members bicker.
“Sal, her dog died in that fire and you want to walk over there and accuse her of arson?”
It was Helen Nennig, her fiery red hair wrapped so tight in pin curlers her natural gray was showing at the roots.
“Joyce you better get your roommate in line,” Sal said looking at the woman standing slightly behind Helen who had placed her hand on the redhead’s arm.
Kelsey bit her lip on her laugh and her gaze found Alex again, seeing his lips pursed in the way that she knew meant he was biting the inside of his cheeks. Helen and Joyce were far from being roommates. They both made snorting sounds as the sight of the other made it impossible to contain their laughter.
“Oh you two think it’s funny, do you?” Sal accused, stomping towards Alex and the people separating Kelsey from him melted away, only about five feet of sand and salt air between them. “It’s not going to be funny when our insurance policy is canceled!”
“Mr. Goldhirsch they won’t cancel our policy over an electrical malfunction,” Kelsey said patiently and Sal Goldhirsch squinted at her and cocked his right ear towards her. Kelsey sighed, taking a few steps closer and raising her voice as she repeated herself.
Sal snorted. “What do you know, Missy? Seventeen years old and speaking like she’s done this for years…”
“She’s eighteen,” Alex interjected quickly and Kelsey’s eyes crashed into his. If she hadn’t known Alex never blushed she might have mistaken the pinkness in his cheeks for embarrassment instead of wind burn. “It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to harass Caroline right now. Plus I’m pretty sure they gave her a sedative.”
“Wonderful,” Sal grumbled throwing his hands in the air and turning to look around at the small crowd of residents. “And where is your Homeowner’s Association President!” he hollered looking around and Alex and Kelsey both winced. Ezio Sarno stood at the edge of the crowd, waylaid by Mary Fick in his attempt to reach their group. Ezio glared.
“Sal’s never going to let that go,” Kelsey muttered more to herself but she heard Alex’s chuckle.
“I don’t think he’s been this disappointed since Dewey lost to Truman.”
Alex cut his eyes at her. “Nevermind.”
Kelsey looked at her feet and crossed her arms, muscles tightening against the cold and she longed to lean into Alex, feel his arms pull her against his chest and rub his hands up and down her back, creating heat from friction. She bit her lip thinking of other ways they’d created heat from friction…
“How are you?” he asked lowly and Kelsey looked up startled, the blueness of his eyes and the steadiness of his gaze pinning her.
“Uh. Fine,” she said, reaching to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear as she looked down the beach, finding her friends. Reva and Logan were in some heated conversation and Elliot was half paying attention to them while his eyes cut to her every once in awhile. She gave him a quick smile. Everything’s fine.
“I’ve seen you and Elliot out together a lot,” Alex ventured and Kelsey didn’t respond but he saw her jaw tighten. “That’s good, Kels. He’s good-”
“He’s the most low-maintenance of my friends,” Kelsey said flatly and when she turned her face to his again he sucked in his breath at the misery playing plainly across her features. “He doesn’t make me talk or constantly bug me about how I’m doing.” She looked down at her feet and kicked at the sand in a petulant gesture. “It’s like being alone, but not.”
Alex pressed his lips together, forcing down the desire to take her arms and turn her towards him. He fisted his hands in the pockets of his jacket, breathing through the longing until the ache in his chest went from roaring to a dull thud. He cleared his throat.
“It will get better,” he said his voice soft and even. He thought he saw Kelsey roll her eyes out of the corner of his own.
“No it won’t,” she muttered and Alex gritted his teeth.
“Don’t be stubborn,” he chided and she kicked at the sand again as if to spite him. He had to bite his lip on a smile. “Kelsey…”
“I better get back,” she muttered, stepping away from him. “See you in class, Mr. Danvers.”
Alex sighed, watching her trudge through the sand towards her friends, Elliot receiving her with an open arm, running his hand over her bicep quickly to give her warmth. She didn’t lean into him, seemed to tolerate his touch more than accept it but she smiled at him all the same. Alex looked away when Elliot leaned to kiss her, squinting out at the ocean.
It will get better, he told himself silently as he let out a slow breath, the dull ache settling into its familiar place in his chest. It has to.