(Author's Note: This was a personal challenge from a friend on another website. We had been tossing 4 words at a time onto a forum. The next person to post had to use the four words in a sentence or brief scene, then post 4 words of their own. After nine posts, my friend wondered if anyone could write all 36 words in order into one coherent story. I accepted the challenge. The words were: river, rain, jump, fish, lilly, heat, harmonic, freak, dilapidate, enemy, suspicious, coffee, petals, flower, water, spaz, gum, dancing, lamp, spoken, cheese, mouse, squirt, code, Equestrian, cage, toothpick, chicken, Corvette, fan, decentralization, pebble, pier, goddess, thimble, climacteric.)
Cameron ducked into a doorway to escape the sudden rainstorm. He glared out from under his hood into the dreary day. It was pouring so hard that the gutters overflowed, creating tiny, instant rivers along the sidewalks and in the streets. The hood blocked his peripheral vision, allowing him to see nothing beyond the narrow swath of grey skies, grey streets, and grey rain. He was completely unaware of another presence in the doorway until he heard her voice.
"When it rains like this it makes me want to jump in the puddles like when I was a little girl." Her voice was soft and sweet, yet it startled Cameron.
He spun his head around to find the source of the voice, and his eyes fell upon the girl in the opposite corner. The charming tone didn't match the scraggly appearance of the young woman with whom he shared the meager shelter; his first thought was that she was a prostitute.
She wore a clear, plastic raincoat over a black fishnet top, red min skirt, and black, high-heeled boots. Her dark hair stuck to her face in wet strands, a stark contrast against her lily-white skin. Black eye makeup ran down her cheeks in rivulets, but whether from the rain or from tears, Cameron couldn't tell.
He realized he was staring and hadn't responded to her. "Hey, do what you gotta do," he said, turning back to look out into the street. The last thing he needed to deal with right now was a troubled, teenage prostitute crying in the storm.
"Don't have to be a dick about it," there was heat in her voice; he had irritated her with his brusque comment.
"Look, I'm sorry." Guilt ate at him; he hated that he was like that. Why couldn't he just be an uncaring jerk? Why couldn't he just dismiss her outright? Why did he always feel the need to get along with everyone, to smooth over difficulties and bite his own tongue in the interest of harmonic congruousness?
He looked back at the girl. She looked very young, and very unhappy, and she had been crying; there were red circles around her eyes. Their eyes met for the briefest second, and Cameron felt something pass between then before she looked away.
She looked back up at him, her gaze hopeful from beneath her brows. "Do you want some company?"
"No." He said it without thinking, and then added, "well..." He couldn't finish that sentence. Always say no to the prostitutes, it was one of the rules when you lived in this neighborhood. There were plenty of rules around here. Never stop to listen to the freaks, you don't want to be their friend. Stay away from the abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Above all, treat everyone as a potential enemy, everyone's motives are suspicious.
But there was something about her that was different. She was lonely, vulnerable. It was more like she needed the company than that she wanted to make money providing company to someone else. He ought to get out of this doorway and away from her, but he found himself talking to her against his better judgment.
"Do you?" He asked it without thinking.
"God, yes." She seemed relieved that he had asked, not at all like the hookers he'd dealt with before.
"You want to go grab a cup of coffee?" He was being nice to her, which was against the rules, but he couldn't help himself.
"Desperately," she smiled at him, and her face lit up like the petals of a flower opening in time lapse, something about her was more beautiful than he'd initially suspected.
Cameron pointed towards the corner, and the glow of lighting coming from within the diner there. "Make a run for it?"
"Might as well," She ran a finger through her hair, "I'm already soaked."
Cameron counted to three, and they darted out into the torrents of water and felt it soak them before they even made it halfway up the block. When they arrived at the door, they were both laughing, and Cameron realized they'd held hands all the way here. He paused, rain beating his scalp, then yanked the door open and held it for his mystery girl to enter before dashing inside after her and out of the monsoon.
He waited beside her, felt the warmth of her pressed against his arm as they squeezed together in the tiny waiting space. Was she closer to him than she needed to be? Why had she held his hand? What was happening here? Whoa, calm down, he told himself. She's a hooker, fer chrissakes. Don't be such as spaz.
The waitress seated them in a flurry of silverware, coffee cups and snapping gum. When she was gone Cameron found himself across from the beautiful waif he'd befriended, wondering where this day was taking him. He wanted to ask her about herself, learn who she was, what she wanted, what motivated and drove her through life. Something about her...
"I'm Desiree," she said, extending her hand across the table.
"Cameron," he shook her hand, felt her skin warm, soft, and damp. He rubbed her hand between both of his before he really thought about what he was doing.
"What do you do, Cameron?" her eyes twinkled, light dancing within them like the single flame leaping within an oil lamp.
"Nothing." He let go of her hand. "I'm sort of between jobs."
"What did you do?" Desiree seemed genuinely interested.
"I, uh," he paused, trying to word it properly; "I worked in retail."
"Sounds boring." She took a small sip from the coffee and then, when she realized it wasn't too hot, a larger swallow.
Cameron caught himself staring at her again, at the excessive amount of flesh he could see through her fishnet top, at the mop of hair hanging into her eyes, at her eyes, into her eyes... he caught himself lost in her gaze and looked quickly away, uncomfortable, wanting to push some distance between himself and what he saw there.
"So what do you do?" He regretted saying it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It had been an unspoken rule between them. As obvious as her occupation was from her style of dress, neither of them had come right out and mentioned it. Now it hung in the air between them like a piece of cheese in front of a rodent; if she answered, the whole game would change like the snap of the mousetrap.
"Honey, you know what I do." She gave him a sympathetic look, knowing he didn't want to be reminded any more than she did.
"Do you like it?"
Desiree laughed and nearly choked on her coffee. After a few deep breaths, she recovered and finally asked him, "Do I like it? Do you have any idea what it's like to do what I do?"
"I really don't," Cameron didn't want to offend.
"Obviously," she gulped down her coffee and held the cup out towards the waitress for a refill.
"Look, I'm sorry, I really am. I don't know why I asked. I mean, I knew. It just," Cameron searched for words, "came out."
"Forget about it." Desiree poked the tines of her fork through the top of a plastic creamer, then upended it and squirted cream out the four holes into the new cup of coffee. She dropped the plastic container on the table and slowly stirred her coffee.
"Okay, what I meant to ask was," he took a deep breath and then asked, "What did you want to be when you were a little girl?" He didn't know why he asked; he just wanted to change the subject.
Desiree looked at him with a strange smile on her face, amusement and surprise at his line of questioning written upon her features. "You're cute, you know that?" She sipped at her coffee.
"No, really," Cameron persisted, "I want to know."
She just smiled at him and said nothing.
"Fine, I'll tell you what I wanted to be." He was animated, alive, passionate, completely the opposite of the man who had ducked into a doorway to avoid the rain with her a few short minutes ago. "I wanted to be a Cryptologist; a code breaker. I wanted to work for the CIA or the FBI or someone and break all the bad guys' codes."
"But you ended up in retail," Desiree was grinning at him, "sounds like you really made your mark."
"Okay, fine. Make fun." Cameron tapped his spoon on his napkin. "I'm willing to bet you're a little bit off target from your childhood goals."
"I wanted to be an Equestrian Show Jumper." Her voice was quieter and she seemed far away when she said it, almost as if the mere mention of a childhood dream had taken her back to that time and place.
"Did you ride as a child?" Cameron was staring into her eyes again, though she was looking elsewhere. There was something about her, something he couldn't put his finger on.
"All the time, my mother..." she trailed off, then tried again, "my mother..." but she couldn't get it out. A single sob shook her body, and her eyes began to water.
"It's okay, you don't have to tell me." Cameron placed a hand upon hers, trying to be reassuring.
"It was a long time ago." She looked sideways out the window.
"I'm sorry." He frowned inwardly. Some bitter past had caged this poor young girl in a dead-end life, much like his own. He'd spent the better part of the past three years working a crappy job at the counter of the adult bookstore.
"Look, how old are you?" He had to ask, even though he wasn't sure how much it really mattered.
"Eighteen." She stared at him, as if daring him to argue with her.
He gave her a flat stare.
"Seventeen," she said at last, and looked down at the table.
"You're just a kid."
"I may be young," she leaned across the table conspiratorially, "but I can wax your toothpick better than anyone." She winked; it was the first real come-on he'd seen from her since they'd met.
"I'm not going to pay you for sex."
"So what, you're gonna go back home, choke your chicken thinking about it, then wish you'd paid me?" She seemed irritated, and glanced sideways out the window again.
Cameron glanced out the window as well and saw a black Corvette parked right outside. The windows were tinted dark enough that he couldn't see inside, but the engine was running, so someone was probably still sitting in there. He wondered why she was so focused on the car, then it came to him. Her pimp was probably in there, and if she was in here, she wasn't making him money.
"Is that guy out there waiting for you?" Cameron was pretty sure he knew what was happening. "One of your fans?"
"What guy?" She glanced sideways out the window again, but seemed to look right past the Corvette.
"My bad," Cameron wasn't really sure where they were going with this whole conversation. There was something oddly attractive about her, something he couldn't put his finger on. But she was also a prostitute, and he was not going to pay for sex.
"So tell me, Cameron," she said, turning her attention back to him, "what would make you ask a strange woman, whom you think is a prostitute, to coffee?"
"Nothing, you just..." Cameron didn't know why he had asked her. It was stupid, careless. He couldn't even finish his sentence.
"Just...?" Desiree was waiting.
"Did you know that decentralization is the reason the city is dying? All the people and jobs are moving out to the suburbs. There was an amazing special on it..."
"You are terrible at changing the subject," Desiree was laughing over her coffee. She took another look at Cameron, all serious on his side of the table. "Do I make you uncomfortable?"
"Like a pebble in my shoe." Cameron stared at her, his face unreadable, "I don't know what it is about you. Ever since I heard your voice, before I even saw your face. There's something familiar about you, like I should know you."
Desiree glanced at her reflection in the pier glass between the windows, saw both Cameron and herself replicated there. For a brief second, she saw something more, something beyond reality, a glimpse of some unidentified future.
Cameron was ready to call it a day. This whole conversation, this whole stop for coffee had been a mistake. He had seen something past the trashy clothing, beyond the caked on makeup, something shining within her like some ancient goddess trying to break free from a mortal prison, but he knew it was all some strange fantasy. There was nothing here, nothing but a hooker who wanted money.
He raised his glass of orange juice, cursing the thimble-sized portions they gave out at restaurants, and chugged down the end of it.
Small talk was over. He could pay the tab and leave her here, never to see her again, or he could continue spending time with her. If he stayed with her any longer, he knew it wouldn't end quickly. He could sense somehow that spending any more time with her would turn into a lot of time. There was something about her, something familiar. This was the climacteric point in their relationship. His decision now would determine if the future involved the two of them together in any capacity, or going their separate ways.