Sol’s eyes widened, not with fear or revulsion as I’d feared, but with wonder. He stepped closer and reached a hand toward my side.
Instinctively I took a step back, feeling protective of Valentina.
“I mean her no harm,” he said softly.
I didn’t know if he was referring to her or me.
“Allow,” Valentina commanded in a voice loud enough for Sol to hear too.
I knew she was moving because of the ticklish gliding sensation against my skin.
He glanced up at my face and saw my trepidation. He dropped his hand to his side and took a step back. “Maybe you should take a few deep breaths, you don’t look well.”
“You’re not afraid of her?” I asked.
He shook his head. “She’s beautiful.”
“She’s a tortoise,” I replied. Specifically, a living, breathing tattoo of a turtle, who usually resides over my heart but has been known to travel down to a leg when I need to run fast or to my wrist if say, I need to hit someone. Now she was showing off by sliding across my stomach.
“May I get a closer look?” Sol asked his gaze dropping down to drink her in.
“You’re not repulsed?”
“I’m in awe,” he murmured.
“Allow,” Valentina repeated.
Swallowing hard, trying not to puke, I inched toward the man in front of me. It had not gone well when I’d tried to introduce her to Orville.
Sol hesitated, his gaze ping-ponging from the moving tattoo to my face and back. “What are you afraid of?”
“She hid last time,” I admitted. “Went into her shell and refused to come out.”
“Tortoises are the great survivors,” Sol said, watching the tattoo. “They retreat to their fortress and wait out their enemies. She must be your persject.”
“Like your rabbit?” I asked. “But she’s never left my body.”
“Interesting. Your redia didn’t tell you about her?”
I shook my head. “She doesn’t want Conroy to know about her. That’s why I left him inside.”
I shrugged. “She’s adamant about it. One time I tried to ask Conroy about her and…and…”
Sol peered closely what. “And what?”
“I had a choking fit. Couldn’t speak.”
He rested a finger against her. It was a strange sensation, like a numbing agent had been applied to my skin. I could feel the pressure of his touch, but it felt cool and not quite real. He shifted slightly and rested his other hand on my hip.
I jumped slightly. That hand was warm and firm.
“Easy,” he murmured. “I’m not going to hurt you. Do you feel a temperature difference?”
I nodded, suddenly aware of how close our bodies were. His body heat threatened to incinerate me. My internal thermostat seemed to tick up, straining to match his fieriness. The sudden rush of warmth made me dizzy.
“Your…husband,” he said the second word with such distaste I was surprised he didn’t retch, “she hid from him?”
“Yes. He didn’t believe me that she moves, but you can see it, can’t you?”
“What does it mean?”
Sol stepped back, taking his fiery heat with him. Shivering, I dropped my shirt back into place, covering Valentina.
He studied my face for a long moment before asking, “What does it mean to you?”
I shrugged. “She trusts you.”
“And what about you, do you trust me?” There was an intensity behind his words that I didn’t understand.
“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.
“Why not?” There was no animosity in his tone, just curiosity.
I looked down at the ground gathering myself before I looked back at him. “I get the feeling you’re hiding something.”
“And what do you think that is?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” But since he wasn’t denying it, I had to figure I was right.
Grabbing my shoulder, practically singeing my skin through the fabric, he brought his face close to mine and stared into my eyes. “Is it a threat to you?”
“Maybe?” I guessed.
“Am I a danger to you?” His tone was tormented, his expression haunted.
Despite the heat of his touch, I was suddenly cold with a fear that stole my breath, dulling my thoughts.
“RV!” a distance voice yelled. “RV!”
It broke the spell binding us. Sol jumped back and spun away from me. I turned in the direction of the person trying to get my attention and stumbled around the end of the camper, still dizzy.
Tess was approaching, with Richie following a few steps behind. “Good news,” the older woman called. “The hospital is sending Karen home. Welmont is bringing her back here.”
“That’s great.” I managed a weak smile.
“Can Richie stay with you while Ernie and I go get their place ready for her return?” the campground owner asked.
Richie hurried toward me as Tess changed direction. I saw Ernie, wearing a beanie, pulled low on his forehead, waiting for her. He waved at me with his walking stick. I raised a hand in acknowledgment.
“Can we play hide-and-seek?” Richie requested.
“Not right now,” I told him, thinking it wasn’t a good idea if there were Cullers lurking nearby. “Do you want to watch TV?” I knew it was the easy way out of keeping him entertained, but it was effective.
“You bet!” He ran toward the door of the camper.
I slowly followed, surveying the surrounding area for blue shimmer. I still didn’t see any.
I heard Richie’s surprised, “Oh, hi Sol.”
“Hi kid,” the magician replied. “Have you seen RV?”
“She right behind me,” the kid told him.
I rounded the corner as he finished speaking. Sol met my gaze solemnly. “I think I left my hat inside.”
“My mom’s coming home,” Richie told him.
“That’s great, buddy.” He opened the door to the camper and Mildred came racing out.
“Where’s the squirrel? We need the squirrel,” she yowled angrily. “Everything will be ruined.”
Richie covered his ears. “Why is it making that noise?”
“I have no idea,” I told the kid.
“I’ll find him,” Sol promised. He held out his hand and Erich flew through the air, landing in his palm. He slapped the hat on his head and stalked off.
“How’d you do that?” Richie yelled after him.
“Magic!” Sol shouted back.
Richie turned his face toward me, and I braced myself for trying to explain how Sol had pulled off his trick.
“Do you think Mom is bringing pizza?” Richie asked eagerly.
“We’re supposed to have pizza for my birthday.”
“Oh, well I don’t think they sell pizzas at the hospital.”
His face fell.
His disappointment made me feel sorry for him. “When’s your birthday?”
“Tell you what,” I promised, “if your mom isn’t feeling up to it, I’ll make sure to get you pizza tomorrow.”
“Yay!” He jumped around doing a silly happy dance. When he was done, he asked, “When’s your birthday?”
“I don’t remember,” I answered honestly. I knew what the date on my driver’s license said, but I wasn’t sure I believed that. After all it was Orville who had brought it to me, and he’d lied about so many other things.
“Mom says that happens sometimes when you get old,” Richie said, giving my hand a few reassuring pats. “You forget things.”
I swallowed a chuckle wondering how old he imagined I was.
“You didn’t forget you said I can watch TV, did you?” Richie asked worriedly.
“I remember.” I waved for him to go inside the camper.
He quickly clambered in.
I gave Mildred a hard stare. Her back was to me and she was looking out in the opposite direction. “Are you coming or are you going to sit out here?”
“They’re coming,” she meowed softly.
I followed her line of sight and realized she was right.
A wall of blue shimmer was coming right toward us.