The dark closed in around her as Chrissy stepped farther down the path. Why did I agree to this?
It sounded good at the time. After weeks of late-night telephone conversations, dozens of text messages and emails, she was finally going to see Phil face-to-face.
When she’d talked to her roommate, Maggie, about where she was going and what she was doing, she’d felt so certain. They’d debated about the pros and cons of meeting Phil.
Chrissy rationalized that she and Phil had been talking for weeks. She loved everything about him and couldn’t understand why he was so worried about his appearance.
This path didn’t seem quite as ominous in the evening when traipsing down to the fire pit with the whole young single adult group. Chrissy had carried marshmallows and hotdogs and poker sticks for cooking over the little bonfire they made. Dozens of times she’d walked down this very path, but never alone and never at midnight. I wish I had one of those poker sticks with me right now.
A twig snapped somewhere behind her, and she spun around, searching the dark. She expected to see Phil in the clearing ahead, not on the trail behind her. A dark figure loomed closer, and her heart raced.
“Phil?” Her voice cracked, and she wasn’t sure he would hear her anyway. The figure was closer now, and his dark hoodie was pulled over his head, concealing his identity.
“Chrissy? What are you doing out here alone?” Greg Martin stepped into full view. Greg was one of the guys from her congregation, a self-appointed neighborhood-watch guy. Nice enough, but overzealous.
“Greg, it’s just you.” Her shoulders relaxed. “You scared me.”
“It’s not safe to be out here alone,” Greg said. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m meeting someone…” Boy, that sounded lame and even more dangerous than walking in the woods alone.
“No, you’re not; you’re coming back to the safety of the living center.” Greg grabbed her wrist and began pulling her back the way they’d come.
“Wait, no!” Chrissy tried unsuccessfully to pull her wrist from his grip, but Greg held firm. “I’m meeting my friend, stop!”
Out of nowhere a voice boomed. “Christina is with me!”
Greg startled and let go of Chrissy’s wrist.
“Phil!” Chrissy raced over to Phil and wrapped her arms around his waist, tucking her face into the folds of his coat. He smelled better than anything she’d ever experienced. His cologne wrapped her in comfort. She felt warm and safe enveloped within his jacket.
“Whoa, dude, what’s wrong with your face?” Greg stumbled backward and tripped over a branch, nearly falling.
“Leave us alone.” Phil’s command was menacing. If she didn’t know what a gentle soul he was, she’d turn and run as Greg did. Phil’s voice was quieter when he relaxed into Chrissy’s arms and pulled her close. “Are you okay? You’re shaking.”
“He startled me, that’s all.” Chrissy snuggled closer and kept her face against his firm chest, sensing he wasn’t ready to show himself to her yet. “It was so dark, and he came up behind me. I thought he was going to drag me away from you.”
“I’m here now; you’re safe. He won’t harm you.”
Chrissy sighed and relaxed.
“I can’t believe I’m finally holding you in my arms.” Phil leaned over and kissed the top of Chrissy’s head.
Chrissy wished she could tilt her head back and let him kiss her lips, but she restrained herself. “You’re bigger than I envisioned you.”
“Bigger?” Phil chuckled.
“Well, you know, taller, and your chest is, uh… you must work out, like a lot.”
By that time Phil was laughing heartily. “I do work out a lot, you’re right. What else do you notice about me?”
“You smell good. Like, more than just cologne. It’s like you smell good.”
“You smell good too.” Phil’s voice was husky.
“What do you notice about me?” Chrissy asked.
“Your hair is longer than I realized,” he said. “And curlier.”
“It’s naturally curly. I have to really work at it to make it straight.”
“I like it curly.” Phil laced his fingers up underneath the curtain of hair at the nape of her neck. “Please don’t try to change your natural beauty.”
“You’re taller, which is good, since I’m quite tall, as you pointed out.”
“You fit… in my arms.”
“Can we just stay here?” Chrissy whispered. “In the dark? Holding each other?”
Phil’s hands pulled from within her hair and cradled her face, exploring. His thumbs brushed across her cheeks with a feather touch, then up her temples to her forehead and down over her closed eyelids, and finally hovered over her lips as if afraid to touch them. He played his fingers down her neck to her shoulders and down her arms to gently lift her hands in his.
With hesitation he lifted her hands, pulling them up across his chest and then to his neck.
Scars? His skin was bumpy and smooth and bumpy again, like scar tissue. She still hadn’t looked up, but she reached higher and caressed both cheeks. “Was your face burned?”
With her eyes closed, Chrissy leaned her head back as if to look at him, but she didn’t. At least not with her eyes. Her fingers explored. Most of Phil’s facial features seemed to be intact, although one ear was nearly destroyed. Even his lips were scarred. Her fingers lingered there a bit longer.
She lowered the hood of his sweatshirt over his shoulders and let her hands wander over his bald head or, more accurately described, scarred head. A soft moan escaped from somewhere inside Phil’s chest.
“You have no idea how good this feels,” he whispered. “No one, other than the doctors and nurses at the hospital, has touched me since I was burned.”
His breath was warm against her upturned face, and Chrissy felt his lips very close. She wondered what it would be like to lift up on her toes and touch her mouth to his, feeling the scars on his lips. But she didn’t. She focused on seeing him for the first time.
“Tell me… what happened?”
“I don’t even remember the explosion,” Phil whispered. “It happened so fast. I never saw it coming. I just remember waking up in the hospital days later in excruciating pain, bandages everywhere. We were just driving along on a routine patrol and intercepted a roadside bomb. And now I’m left with this… this face, this horror.”
“You’re beautiful,” Chrissy whispered.
“Look at me, Chrissy.” Phil’s voice pierced the darkness.
She blinked up at him and took a step back, gasping.
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