Mouse had taken to dancing in her panties and socks. Her shoulder-length hair - fine, yet a nondescript, easily forgettable shade of brown - whipped around her head and got caught in her glasses. But she kept going, arms and legs flailing wildly yet not without a sense of design. It was as if she were moving to some bright vision of grace in her mind that her body couldn't keep up with.
Lamb was watching her from his studio window, drawn at first by the music, but then he found himself absorbed with her endearing clunkiness. She made him think how grace and perfection were cold, lifeless things. Perhaps even annoying. Beauty wasn't in the final grasp, but in the reaching out.
The girl obviously assumed she was alone as she danced awkwardly across the open, hardwood floor of the converted factory loft. There were wide banks of windows looking out on the river and cityscape along the eastern and northern walls. On the western side were rooms on two levels. Lamb's bedroom and studio were on the upper level, with Mouse's room and two other office-sized rooms on the lower.
The music was a frenetic carnival samba Lamb would never have imagined her knowing. But Mouse was a girl he knew around the edges at best, and that much he knew not so much from what she did or said but from what she didn't do or say. She spoke as if words cost money, and while she was living there as an employee of sorts - a university sophomore earning a room and a little cash in exchange for housework and whatever odd chores Lamb needed help with in his studio - she kept to the privacy of her room unless she was working.
The panties were plain, white cotton. They would have seemed shapeless and unflattering except for the way they rode the thumbnail crease between her ass cheeks. In her off-center imitation of a samba, her ass and thighs flexed with a soft muscularity that took Lamb by surprise. Everything normally concealed by her apparent predilection for dumpy clothes was in constant motion now.
Her pale, teacup breasts were neither large nor small as they quivered and bounced to her unrestrained awkwardness.
There was more of everything to her than she ever seemed to show the rest of the world. More shape and substance. More hunger to live. And despite the stunted clumsiness of her body, there was most surely a vision of living grace in her mind.
She moved as if she'd spent half her life in a wheelchair and learned whatever she knew of dancing from movies. Her body might as well have been a brand new acquisition.
As she turned to spin on the ball of one, sock-covered foot, she spotted Lamb at the window. Her arms moved instantly to cover her breasts while she lost her precarious balance and spilled sideways onto the floor.
She winced when her elbow hit the floor, her face going scarlet at the same time, and despite the pain in her arm she scrabbled quickly back to her feet. Grabbing the small remote control from the dining table, she silenced the music and ran toward her room.
Lamb turned back into his studio and sat down in front of the latest piece he'd been working on. The base consisted of an old tricycle he'd found in a dumpster a few blocks away. He'd removed the wheels and set the front fork down into the hollowed out shin of a prosthetic leg he'd found in another dumpster in another neighborhood. The rear wheels had been replaced with wooden shoe stretchers. He was still looking out for three of the same shoe, and whatever he might find to keep welding on pieces of found junk until it became some other version of what it already was.
It was shit, like everything else he'd made. And now he felt like an asshole for invading Mouse's privacy.
After a few minutes of hating himself as much as his work, he got up and went downstairs. He grabbed and icepack out of the freezer and crossed to the girl's bedroom door. He knocked, and then went in before she could answer.
She rolled to her side as he walked in, giving him her back and facing the wall. It was the first time he'd set foot in that room since she moved into it. There was a laptop on the small wooden table she used as a desk. Notebooks and stacks of textbooks and paperbacks were as much decoration as she had except for a dog-eared poster of Nighthawks taped to the wall.
Lamb thought he should get her a fresh print of the painting. Frame it. Make it a formal apology. He sat down on the edge of her bed, careful not to touch her. She was still only wearing her panties and socks, smelling faintly of girl-sweat and almonds.
"Could you go away, please?" Her voice was strained.
"I've got an icepack for your elbow."
"Okay, but show me your elbow first."
She lifted her arm and angled her elbow toward him.
"That's gonna bruise." It was already showing a dull blue patina across the skin.
She started crying. Lamb wanted to touch her, but he knew it would only make it worse.
"Please just go, please."
"Put the ice on it, okay?"
She curled into a fetal ball and he got up to go. "I'm sorry," he told her, taking a brief pause at the door before walking out.
He went upstairs to take a shower and stood under the water a long time. Thinking of her. Remembering the way she moved when she thought she was alone, wondering what the pastel coral of her nipples would taste like. What her breathing would sound like when he pulled each one into his mouth and sucked. How the curve of her ass would form to his calloused, sculptor's hands.
He replayed her dance in his mind and stroked his growing cock until he was steaming with hardness. He needed her to feel that scorching spine of flesh against her fine skin. The touch of her silent lips around his sap-oozing head would drive him into the stratosphere.
Then he saw her fall again and heard her pleading to leave her alone. All the feeling drained from his body. He let go of his cock and slowly went soft.
After his shower, he lay naked across the top of his bed and stared at the ceiling until he reached that level of consciousness where you didn't know whether you were asleep or awake.
He woke up an hour later, aware of having had a dream but unable to remember what it.
He got up and went back downstairs. Took a bag of shrimp out of the freezer and started cooking scampi. By the time he was finished, there were also sautéed asparagus and wine on the table. He set out a carton of orange juice, too, so there'd be a choice. Then he went to her door.
"Mouse, come out and have something to eat." There was a long stretch of silence. "Mouse?" Another stretch. "Mouse?"
Finally, her door opened and she walked past him toward the table without looking at him. She was wearing a T-shirt and leggings now. Bare feet.
It was much more typical she would cook, though she rarely sat down to eat with him. Tonight, he sat across from her at the small, enamel table. She spent some time playing with her food, then she finally forked some into her mouth. For a while, there was nothing but the sound of forks ticking against plates and the occasional sucking noise when that last strand of spaghetti didn't make it all the way.
"I'm sorry," Lamb finally broke through the silence about halfway through that first helping.
Mouse kept her eyes on her plate, endlessly swirling her fork in the same spool of noodles. Her body showed faint signs of vibrating, and Lamb was afraid she was about to get up and go back to her room. He reached across the table and took hold of her wrist.
"I'm sorry and not sorry," he went on. "You have no earthly idea how beautiful it was to see you in those moments. I know they were private, and I know you're pathologically shy. I get it. And I shouldn't have stood there watching, but it made me happy in a way I can't describe to you."
Everything went quiet over the next few moments. Even the forks went silent, and Mouse kept her face trained on her plate.
"At first I though I'd have to move," she said. "But I can't afford to. This arrangement is making everything work out. School and so forth. I don't know how else I'd manage everything. I just ... feel..."
"Maybe we could pretend the whole thing never happened and keep on going like before."
"Yeah. That'd be good."
She looked off to the side toward the bank of windows facing east. A full moon was rising behind a veil of fog - bold yet diffuse.
"I feel stupid," she added, as if she were talking to someone on the other side of the room. Her wrist pulled out from under his hand.
They spent more time eating without talking. Forks ticking and scraping again. Pursed lips sucking in strands of buttery pasta. Lamb wondered if she knew how the sound of her sucking spaghetti brought his eyes to the blushing heart of her mouth.
"I have to ask you something," he said. "And I want you to either answer honestly or not at all. Okay?"
She nodded. "Okay."
"How did you feel before you knew I was there? When you were just yourself."
She took a breath that made her body expand and deflate. Then she set her fork on the table and stood up. She told him she'd clean everything up later on.
As she turned to cross back to her room, Lamb tried to discern the sway of her ass cheeks under the blousy T-shirt hem. He thought back on the way those spheres had looked in her panties.
Then she disappeared into her room and shut the door.
Lamb spent some time cleaning the table and kitchen area. He threw out the leftovers and washed the dishes. It was the first time he'd done those kinds of chores for himself since Mouse had moved in. When he was finished, he went to stand at the eastern wall and looked out at the pieces of the city still visible through the mist.
He'd moved into the space a year and a half before Mouse came along, and in all that time he realized he'd never once turned up the music too loud and danced alone. He realized everyone else in his life was associated with his work somehow, and she was as close as he had to a friend, even though he was paying her to be there.
Lights flickered like dying embers behind the fog and Lamb imagined his own funeral. Who would show up to lend significance to his laying down among the maggots and worms? His agent, his lawyer and the gravedigger.
Here lies Freddie Lamb
He was an asshole
But at least he wasn't the worst
He went upstairs to his studio and stared at the raw piece of garbage he was still working on creating out of garbage. He'd go out in the morning to scavenge for more. Someone always ended up throwing away something he could use. However it turned out, the new piece would probably bring in enough to pay for a semester of Mouse's tuition.
Here lies Freddie Lamb
Up to his fucking neck in garbage
He left the studio and went to bed. But it was too early, and by midnight he was awake and pacing his room. The pacing only made his frustration worse. He finally went downstairs and knocked on Mouse's door. Just as he had earlier, he went in without waiting for an answer and sat down on the side of her bed.
She was on her side facing the wall, still wearing the T-shirt she'd had on at dinner, but she'd taken off the leggings and put on a pair of socks. Parts of her bare hip and ass were exposed, but she reached for the shirt hem and pulled it down without looking back.
"Can't sleep either, huh?"
"Tell me something about yourself."
"Just tell me anything. It doesn't have to be true. Just as long as it feels true."
"Mr. Lamb, you're making everything worse."
"How about I invent something for you? Something you can tell anyone who asks questions that are none of their business?"
"Like you are now?"
"Jesus Christ, Mr. Lamb."
"Let's say you're the daughter of abdicated royalty. Say ... a prince and princess from enemy kingdoms. Something like Paris and Helen. You grew up as a common girl, never knowing your parents lived in secret, hiding their identities for love, and you never knowing you were special by birth. You grew up earning your keep doing menial labor for people of false importance, and no one ever imagined you were, in fact, their superior."
"Stupid's my specialty."
"You're just saying that."
"Unfortunately I'm not."
"And I'm not the daughter of secret royalty."
Lamb sighed. "Doesn't matter. We're all just the product of a thousand tiny accidents, but everyone's a sucker for a good backstory."
"Whatever, Mr. Lamb. Can you go now, please?"
"Sure." Leaving was the last thing he wanted to do. He couldn't stand the idea of going back upstairs alone. His own company was a bleak proposition. "But could you please roll over and look at me first? There's something I want to tell you and it doesn't feel right talking to your back."
"I can hear just fine like this."
He had no clue as to what he was going to say. He was only stalling. But he reached for her shoulder and urged her to turn with his hand. She rolled without resisting, but wouldn't look at his face. It was the first time he'd seen her without glasses. Her eyes seemed larger and deeper without them, and he was ready to give just about anything to see them settle on his face.
"This is really uncomfortable."
"Sorry, Mouse. But I don't think I can pretend to forget about what happened today. I mean ... I don't want to."
"You enjoyed watching me make a fool of myself?"
He leaned closer to her face, deeper into the center of her field of vision. Her eyes couldn't avoid him now, but without her glasses he didn't know if he looked clear or fuzzy to her.
"Has anyone ever told you you're beautiful?"
She made a face. "My dad used to, but that doesn't count."
"A dad is supposed to say things like that. Even if he doesn't really mean it."
"He meant it. Trust me."
She made the face again. Like a cross between a pout and a sneer. "He was just trying to make me feel better. I used to get sick a lot when I was a kid. I was allergic to everything. Even people. Social anxiety and shit like that. They could've written a text book about me."
"Things like that don't whether you're beautiful or not. They don't change how your father saw you. Or anyone else, for that matter. People who aren't really looking. Like people who just read the signs and never see the road they're on."
"Nobody ever looked at me. I mean looked, ya know? And that's fine."
"Yes they have. You just didn't know. You were probably too busy working on being invisible. I looked. Hard. And I'm looking right now."
"We were going to pretend that never happened, right?"
"Yeah, well, I don't think that's really possible."
"Fuck." She said it softly and without any tone of emotional investment. "I'm gonna have to move."
"I wouldn't like that," he told her. "Not at all."
"But you saw me naked."
"Technically, no I didn't."
"Even you have to admit you'd feel differently about it if you hadn't been wearing panties."
"That would've been better, cuz then I'd have just had a heart attack on the spot."
Lamb stopped resisting the urge to touch her face. When he did, she didn't wince or stiffen, but a look of apprehension filled her eyes. "Why would that be so bad?"
She closed her eyes. "Not pretty."
"Jesus," he whispered. "Where did you ever get an idea like that?"
"I've heard things guys say."
"Jesus, Mouse." He took her face between both hands and leaned even closer. "Open your eyes."
She didn't, so he said it again, and then she did.
"I need to ask you something really personal, okay?"
"Fair enough." He spent a while studying her face. Everything about it seemed finer and more delicate up close. "Have you ever felt someone's mouth on your pussy? Especially someone who loves it. Has a deep-seated hunger for it."
She seemed almost horrified by the question, but after a while she shook her head.
"I didn't think so. Have you ever had a boyfriend?"
"Okay. Do you know why I hired you?"
"Mostly because you're prettier than any of the others who responded to my ad. I know that probably doesn't sound very good, but I can't help it and I'm not sorry. At the time, I didn't know you were. You do everything you can to hide yourself. There was just something ... something a woman has every once in a great while. And you felt like someone I'd like having around."
He leaned closer and touched her lips with his. It wasn't a kiss, just their mouths barely touching, as if the moment before the real kiss were being held in suspension. Her breath held a long moment, but then began washing over his mouth in warm, steady pulses.
"Mouse, Mouse, Mouse," he whispered. Then he pressed the kiss into her mouth. After a long moment she started to kiss him back. Her lips were clumsy but alive - just like she'd been dancing earlier.
Lamb's body pulsed with heat. The girl's lips were maddeningly soft, and his mind spun with the awareness of its rarity. Before long, he moved to kiss her throat, reaching below to touch her thigh. She whimpered when his hand settled onto her leg, and he wasn't sure whether she was getting aroused by his lips on her neck or if she were in a panic over his touching her at all.
He sat up and looked at her, keeping his hand on her leg.
"When I saw you today I felt envious," he said. "I don't know how to set myself free even when I'm alone. You ... you were perfect. It was like having someone teach you a lesson in how to be alive. And I was fucking dying to taste you. Just dying."
She was watching his face, listening with an expression of lackluster horror. He reached for her other thigh with his free hand and started to push the hem of her T-shirt upward. Her body shifted, allowing him to push it all the way up and finally pull it off. Then she lay back again, her eyes returning to his face. She was naked but for a pair of pale blue ankle socks.
Her pussy was shaved bare, forming a delectable pout at the apex of her primly closed thighs. Blood swarmed into the flesh of Lamb's cock.
"I'm going to push your thighs open now," he told her.
"Um. Okay. I think. But would you please turn the light off?"
The rise and fall of her soft breasts gave away the depth of her breathing.
"No. You can always just tell me to stop anytime, but if we're doing this, we're doing it in the light. No hiding."