Something hard shoved Ainsleigh’s shoulder and she threw her arms up to shield her face, mind still foggy from sleep. Her heart thundered in her chest, fresh sweat coating her already slick skin. Her panicked breathing rattled in the darkness beneath the plush duvet. It was happening again. She was suffocating.
“I’m sorry!” She heard her own voice call out, heart clattering. She could breath.
Oh, she could breath.
She cringed, fingers gripping the bed sheets, bracing for the pain. But that wasn’t the voice she was used to hearing in the dark. Who was that? Where was she? Her mind raced, trying to piece together the last few hours.
“Ainsleigh, it’s me. Finch. You were tossing and turning. I was worried you’d pulled a stitch. Ainsleigh?”
Right. Finch. His cabin. It was all coming back to her now.
Slowly and carefully, she pulled down the cover and peered over to see the man who had saved her standing by her bedside. He had turned on the lamp beside her and his naked torso shone with a warm orange glow. He was in good shape, as Ainsleigh had expected. A healthy balance of flesh and hardened muscle. Hair lightly covered his chest and below his navel, disappearing beneath a pair of baggy, grey sweatpants.
He gestured to her side. “Can I check?”
It took her a moment to realise what he meant, and nodded. She shuffled up to rest her shoulders against the headboard, and flung back the duvet. Finch had given her another shirt to sleep in, and a pair of his boxer shorts. They both clung to her body and she pulled at the material self-consciously. She could feel her curls slick against her temples.
Finch carefully perched at the edge of his bed and waited for her to lift up her t-shirt. She frowned at the dark spotting of blood on her bandage. It had been fresh on before she had gotten into bed. With his deft fingers, Finch peeled the bandage away and assessed her wound. There was puss seeping between the stitches, but his face remained impassive.
“Just needs cleaning,” he explained, and crossed over to his credenza for his supplies. When he turned, Ainsleigh reflectively jerked upright at the sight of his exposed back. Almost the entirety of the skin of his back was warped and shining– a burn scar, and a rather serious one at that. It ran from just below his shoulder blades down to the hem of his sweatpants. His left shoulder blade was also injured – this wound seemingly fresher. He had a square bandage taped there, dotted with old blood.
She opened her mouth to ask what had happened but sank her teeth into her lower lip. That was private. If he wanted her to know, he would tell her. But when he turned back to face her, her expression must have given her away because he instantly tensed. She could see the realisation in his eyes. He had messed up. She wasn’t supposed to see that. The blankets he had wrapped himself in on the sofa were pooled on the floor. One had somehow made it halfway across the room, as if it had fallen from him on his rush to her bedside. And in his haste, he had forgotten to throw on his shirt.
“I woke you?” she asked, hoping the change in subject would relax him.
“You were squirming a lot. I thought you were in pain.”
When am I not? She pressed her knuckles hard against her sudden trembling lips.
The side of the mattress sank with his weight and she pulled herself further up into a sitting position. He had something in his hand, sterilising wipes and a shallow pot of something.
“Can you lift your shirt?”
She did as asked and he carefully padded her oozing wound with the wipes. It stung a little, but it was soothing to watch him at work. Her muscles relaxed under his touch, she hadn’t realised she had remained so tense after being woke.
When he applied the salve, she twitched at the icy feel. He peered up at her through his messy hair, a small smile on his lips.
“Sorry, should have warned you.” He applied enough to make her slide off the bed like an eel. “It’ll harden a little in a moment, but you best let it breathe for a bit.”
He put his stuff back in the credenza and picked up his fallen blanket. Draping it over her shoulders like a cape, he headed back to the sofa then paused, head turning to the side so his sharp profile glowed orange from the light of the lamp.
“Who did you think I was? When I woke you?” His gaze found hers and she sank deeper into the bed, fingers working into the folded down duvet. His brows furrowed at her lack of response. “Right, no questions. Goodnight.”
She watched him drop back onto the sofa before switching off the lamp and plunging the cabin into the soft greyness of the moon’s glow. The usual mind-splitting screeching attacked her and she squeezed her eyes shut, heart pounding so viciously she struggled for breath.
She’s not here. She’s not here. She’s gone. She’s gone now. Forever.
The next morning, Finch checked over her wound and was happy with the results of his special salve. He helped Ainsleigh to her feet and she was surprised by how mobile she was. She didn’t feel as stiff as she moved around, and she managed to change from her night clothes back into the cargo trousers and shirt from the day before with no supervision.
“Unless you want to keep wearing my underwear, you’re going to have to get some new clothes,” said Finch as he passed her a plate of scrambled eggs on toast. It was true, they were still basically strangers yet they were sharing outfits like a co-dependent couple. “We could go shopping, if you’d like?”
Ainsleigh smiled. “I’d like that very much.”
It appeared that her reluctance to go back home had become common knowledge. She hoped it meant that he would not bring it back up again.
After a quick clean in his bathroom, mainly just focusing on her armpits and using the water to arrange her curls, she was ready to set foot out of the cabin. She still didn’t necessarily feel clean but she didn’t feel able to shower successfully alone just quite yet. Finch was incredibly helpful, but that was something she very much didn’t want him to aid her with.
It was nice to be out of the cabin. Finch had a slightly beat up pick-up truck that could have gotten them to the High Street in no time but they both opted to take a leisurely stroll through the woods instead. Ainsleigh managed to keep up with Finch’s pace, but she was pretty sure he was purposely walking a little slowly for her benefit.
The fresh, crisp winter air kissed her face and blew her curls from her forehead. Finch was silent beside her, an ever calming presence. He always seemed lost in thought yet stubbornly anchored to reality at the same time. He had a story to tell, she could feel it stirring within him. The same way hers was brewing inside her, threatening to boil over.
It was still rather early, not yet midday, so the streets were pretty clear. Elderly couples wandered around freely, window shopping and stopping at a café for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Finch had picked up a little speed, seemingly having a clear destination. Ainsleigh rarely shopped on the High Street. The shops were far too fancy for her. But when she was a child, her father would take her to the toyshop on the corner for her birthday every year and treat her to something special. Every year. Well, every year up until her twelfth birthday. The year when everything changed.
She still had the doll she had chosen on that last good year waiting for her in her bed back home.
Ainsleigh hurried her steps to catch up to Finch and realised, with a tickle of laughter, that they must look like a couple as he pushed open the duck egg blue door of a small boutique and waved her inside.
The tinkling of the bell above the door brought the attention of the woman behind the counter right to them. She was middle-aged with light brown hair clipped loosely at the nape of her neck and huge glasses that magnified her eyes almost comically so. Her skin had that slightly tanned quality of someone who holidayed abroad a lot.
“Finch! Darling!” She beamed. “Brought me any more goodies? You’re almost sold out.”
“Not today, Trudy, but I’m working on a new collection.”
She bobbed her head in understanding and then suddenly seemed to notice Ainsleigh standing right beside him.
“I haven’t seen you before,” she said, not unwelcomingly.
“She’s a friend,” Finch answered for her. Ainsleigh bit back her burst of irritation at being spoken over, but was rather thankful he replied, because she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say. She suddenly felt even more out of place in this cosy, little shop. Looking around, she caught sight of a several rails of clothing behind shelves of various stoned and jewelled knickknacks.
Finch followed her across the white painted wooden floor, their footsteps clunking loudly in the silent shop.
“New collection?” she asked over her shoulder, keeping her voice as low as she could.
“Oh yes!” the owner – Trudy – appeared at the end of the rail of shirts Ainsleigh was searching through. “You’ve seen his stuff, yes?”
Ainsleigh pulled a face and looked to Finch for answers. He just shrugged sheepishly and grabbed a folded pair of jeans from a cubbyhole.
“Come see. Come see.” Trudy waved her across the shop and parked her in front of a glass cabinet. Inside there were four shelves. The bottom two were empty but the two at eye level showcased a handful of little wooden figurines. Little families of animals. Three elephants in various sizes clearly meant to all slot together like puzzle pieces. Three bears. Three rabbits. And then an array of little collections of furniture. Tiny tables and chairs and beds.
Ainsleigh thought back to the figure he had been calving the day before. Was that going to be part of another little wooden family?
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” said Trudy, her huge eyes shining as if it was the first time she’d seen them.
Ainsleigh was lost for words. She found Finch still pretending to look at clothes and couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across her face. Was he embarrassed?
There was a little note folded on one of the empty shelves.
More from Fleabag soon.
“Fleabag?” Ainsleigh asked.
Trudy gave Finch a pointed look and Ainsleigh heard his footsteps approaching.
“It’s the name I use,” he said, stopping beside her.
Ainsleigh furrowed her brows. “Why?”
“It’s like a secret identity,” Trudy swooned. “Very… mysterious.”
Finch’s ears burned red and Ainsleigh chewed her lip to contain her laughter.
“It’s what I was called when I was a kid. I lived just out of town, near the farms.” He rolled his eyes. “I was perfectly sanitary, but kids will be kids, I guess.” He sighed, slotting his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “It used to bug me, but I learned that if I owned it, took it for myself, it kinda took the power away from them.”
Trudy pressed her palm to her chest like it was the saddest story she had ever heard. Ainsleigh was sure she was debating whether to pretend to wipe away a tear. But she just shook her head, grabbed Finch’s elbow, and drifted back to the counter.
“Well, you have an admirer,” Ainsleigh murmured.
Finch’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Let’s just get you some clothes and get out of here.”
The two of them continued down the High Street, seemingly both in no rush to get back to the cabin.
“What?” said Finch, his voice gruff, like he had forgotten to smooth it out. A passing thought skimmed Ainsleigh’s cognition that perhaps that meant he was getting used to her company. He sent her a sideways glare. “You’re staring.”
She grinned at him, paper shopping bags swinging between them. Thankfully Ainsleigh had had her wallet in her pocket when she’d left to deal with her situation, so she didn’t find herself even more indebted to Finch. The clothes hadn’t been too expensive, and the ‘Friends and Family’ discount Trudy was quick to add for her dear, young Finch, didn’t hurt. “The more I find out about you…” She trailed off, squinting into the low sun. “I dunno, it’s nice.”
“If you start mooning over me like Trudy, I’m ditching you here.”
She bumped him in the shoulder. “I just mean, I’m glad it was you who found me in the woods. That could have gone… a lot differently.” Her stomach dropped at the thought. It was what she had expected. In all honesty, there had been a tightness in her gut since she had first met Finch. A little kernel of doubt. Of suspicion. Why was this man helping her? What did he want from her? She felt like she was constantly bracing, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But maybe, maybe, he was just a decent guy. Wouldn’t that be nice?
His face tightened a little, perhaps offended by her negative assumption. She ran her tongue over her teeth, debating whether to apologise.
“Yeah, well, it’s the least I could do.”
No, the least he could have done was leave her to possibly bleed out alone in the woods. She wasn’t his problem. He didn’t need to get wrapped up in her mess. He didn’t deserve to be lumbered with her. She could walk now. Yes, she was still a stiff. The stitches still pulled in a very disconcerting way when she didn’t measure her steps right. But she could manage on her own if she put her mind to it.
Maybe he should ditch her here. But the thought sent a fissure of panic through her bones.
“Let’s get a drink,” he said suddenly. Ainsleigh’s eyes brightened. “At a café,” he added pointedly.
Ainsleigh rolled her eyes good-naturedly but gave in. “Sounds good.”
And, to her surprise, it did.