The Umbrella Hitch by AnonyMPC (Mg, lolita, voy, slow)

Chapter One:

Sometimes I wonder if it was Fate after all, because so many events seemed to conspire to put me at that place and at that time, and if even one of them was different on that afternoon, I probably wouldn't have crossed paths with her.

First, there was that I got off work an hour early. One of my co-workers needed to pay for some emergency dental surgery, and most of us were letting him pick up an hour here or there from our shifts. I certainly didn't mind going a little early, although the weather made it complicated. That was the second thing. The best forecasts said it wasn't supposed to rain until the evening. Yet, just after 1pm, it started to drizzle. Ten minutes later, it was going hard. I'm talking torrential downpour. And it all happened just a few minutes before I started on my long walk home from work.

I didn't have my own car. Sometimes I was able to use my mother's, but usually she needed it, and that day I was out of luck. And there are buses, but not in a convenient straight line between my work and home. In order to get from one place to the other, I would have to make several transfers, waiting at each, often in the very weather I'd be trying to avoid. On the whole it took twice as long as just walking, which itself takes about half an hour. It was a pain in the ass and I kept telling myself to quit and try and get a more convenient job, but I didn't want it to reflect badly on my cousin, who recommended me.

As much as I sometimes complained about it, I didn't normally mind the walk, except in bad weather, where I was usually faced with the choice of either taking the long bus ride, or calling a cab. And after working a minimum wage job for several hours, with a student debt I was trying to chip away at before next year's tuition got piled on top, not to mention trying to save up for my own place, it didn't feel right to waste two hours wages on cab fare, especially when I'd just sacrificed one.

I might have had to bite the bullet on that, but, luckily, I'd just bought a new umbrella the other day, and even though my weather app said the rain wouldn't start until the evening, I still had it stuffed in the school bag where I keep my work clothes. So, when I saw it starting to drizzle through the window, I was feeling smug about myself---and when it poured, I was in utter relief---that I wouldn't be too inconvenienced and absurdly pleased I'd get to try out my new umbrella. It was only a couple bucks and it had this weird gel-grip handle that I couldn't stop myself from squeezing, then watching it slowly reform back to its normal shape, whenever I saw it.

Holding the umbrella aloft for long periods, that handle was less comfortable than I imagined, but at least it fulfilled its primary purpose... it kept me dry as I trudged through the streets. With the umbrella in place, my major concerns were avoiding the huge puddles as I crossed the street and potentially getting splashed by cars driving through them.

I took a slight detour from my usual route to minimize the second problem, which had already gotten one leg of my pants wet, by choosing a street that wasn't as trafficked as my usual one. In this point in the day, it was downright quiet, and as far as I could tell, I seemed to be the only one walking along that particular road.

My earbuds were in and I had a particularly loud song playing, so although I was dimly aware of someone yelling out, "Hey, hey!" I didn't really pay attention up until my shirt was tugged at and I turned around in some surprise, half-expecting I was being mugged.

It turned out to be anything but. Standing before me was a young girl, probably not even a teenager, who came up to just past the height of my elbow, and was the epitome of the expression "98 pounds soaking wet." I'm not sure if that was her exact weight, but the "soaking wet" was no metaphor. Her dark hair was plastered against her head, and the white t-shirt stuck tight to her skin, except at the front where she'd rolled up the bottom to protect something. That was probably partly why she was bent over, too, not completely, but she looked almost like somebody in pain. With that look, and how her blue eyes were so wide and pleading my heart almost broke.

I pulled one earbud out so I could hear what she was saying. "Hey, guy. Can I walk with you?"

"What?" It was such an unfamiliar request I assumed I must have misheard.

"Can I walk with you? So I don't get wet?" She smirked and looked down at herself. "More wet, I mean."

It didn't seem like that would be possible. For her to be any more wet, it seemed, she'd have to be a sponge and leak when you squeezed her. Well, with one exception. Whatever she had in the wrapped up bottom of her shirt... it was probably wet too, by now, but possibly not completely soaked.

Chivalry, or at least common courtesy, kicked in. "Oh, yeah, sure."

She stepped under the umbrella and wiped back a lock of dripping hair with one hand. "Thanks. This rain really came out of nowhere, didn't it?"

"Yeah. How long were you out in it?"

"Not too long," she said. "When it started I got caught for a minute or two and I managed to get with somebody else, and she took me as far as the corner." She half-heartedly waved to the one I'd just passed. "But she had to turn, so I just waited under that door overhang thing for the first person going my way."

I smirked a bit. "Wait, so you're like, hitching?"

She seemed extraordinarily taken aback. "What?"

"You know, you're like an umbrella hitchhiker," I explained.

"Ohhhh," she said, and then she smiled back, a genuine smile. "Yeah, I guess. It just comes naturally, though." Her smile widened. "'Cause my last name's 'Hitch.'." That explained why she was surprised, she thought I was referring to her name.

"Well, then, how can I refuse, a hitch from a Hitch?" I continued the dumb joke. "Well, I can take you as far as Elm, Miss Hitch, but then you're on your own." It was the first thing I could think of other than suggesting the traditional hitchhiker payment. "Ass, Grass, or Cash," which didn't seem appropriate with a girl her age.

She gave me a "Heh," mostly out of courtesy I think, which was more than the joke deserved, and then told me, "My first name's Astrid."

"I like that name," I said automatically. It immediately made me think the girl in the How To Train Your Dragon movies, even though she didn't look much like this girl. She smiled at the compliment, so I continued. "I'm Karl. No school today?" I was officially off, save for one last exam at the end of the week, but the elementary and high schools ran for almost another month, unless things had changed dramatically in the last couple years without me noticing.

"It was a half-day," she explained. I wasn't sure whether to believe her, considering I hadn't seen any other kids wandering about, but it was raining and, to be frank, if she was playing hooky... it really wasn't my problem. I was just making conversation, and whether she had school seemed like an appropriate thing to ask, at least.

The same went for the next question, which occurred to me when I glanced down at her and noticed her hands, which were still cradled protectively around the bundled up bottom of her shirt, even though the rain was no longer on her. "Your phone's not waterproof, I'm guessing?"

"What? I don't have a phone. Unfortunately." Then she looked down and realized I was referring to what she was holding so tightly. "Oh, no, it's a book! I was coming home from the library when it started pouring."

She unrolled the cloth and revealed what she'd been protecting from the rain at the expense of anything else. The book was an old paperback copy of The Lord of The Flies.

"Oh, nice," I said, genuinely impressed, not at the book itself, but the mere fact that she was reading it.

Her head twitched for a moment, like she was surprised to be getting that kind of reaction, instead of disinterest or scorn. Maybe that's what made her ask, "You've read it?"

"In school, yeah." I was maybe fourteen or fifteen when it was assigned for English, at least to the best of my recollection. Even though I was just in college, already my high school years were becoming fuzzy. Astrid did not look fourteen, though. "How old are you?"

"Twelve," she said.

"Did your school assign that?"

"No, I just like reading. I read loads of stuff, for fun."

I looked down at her, smiling a warm, encouraging smile, and I said, "Well, consider me impressed." Which was probably the worst possible time to say that, because it was right while I was speaking the word that I noticed her nipples.

Chapter Two:

There's a reason Wet T-Shirt Contests use white shirts, and Astrid's flimsy white shirt was no exception to that rule. Soaked with rain, it had become nearly transparent, and plastered to her skin, it was easy to see everything underneath. When I'd first seen her, I'd noticed this in the back of my mind, but only as a fact that had no real importance, because, with the front stretched out ahead of her, the moist cloth wasn't lying directly against her skin except at her back and shoulders. With the book revealed, so was she... the fabric at the front fell against her chest, and was either already wet enough or it absorbed enough of the water on her skin that it, too, became almost invisible.

This skinny tween girl wore no bra, either... not that she really needed one. She wasn't completely flat chested, but she was close, with just small bumps that could be mistaken for a little extra baby fat left over after a growth spurt that rendered the rest of her body waif-like and just a little bit on her way to being awkward and gangly.

At a distance, you might not have noticed, might have mistaken it for just the color of her shirt itself. But up close as I was, you could definitely see, on the crest of those bumps, a slightly oval darker spot, nipples pressing against the transparent fabric.

I don't think it's fair to assume someone is a pedophile for staring, at first, and staring is what I did. I think guys are just wired to stare at breasts, even if it's inappropriate, even if they're small, even on a young girl. You can pull yourself away, and you should, but it takes a few seconds of conscious thought to realize that, and a surprise nipple can rid you of thought for more than a few seconds.

"What?" I said finally. She'd said something, but it was lost in the nipple-gazing.

If she noticed my attention, she gave me no sign. "I said it's really not that impressive."

I mentally rewound the conversation a few seconds. "Well, it is to me. I was a few years older than you when I read Lord of the Flies..."

She smiled, genuinely, with the bright eager eyes that young people often have. And before I finished my thought, my gaze, which were trending downward, went from her eyes, to her smile and finally back to that developing chest. Yes, there was still a nipple there. Two, in fact. The pause gave her the opportunity to interrupt me with a, "Oh yeah? You like?"

That snapped me back to attention, at least once I realized what she was talking about. "I did."

She looked at the book. "I do too, so far. It's pretty interesting how they're all starting to fall apart. Of course, it's all boys. I get the feeling that if there were a couple girls there things would be a lot different."

Probably, but I wasn't sure exactly where she was going with that. Girls weren't naturally more civilized, and they might even cause more tension for some of the older boys. So I went with a neutral "Maybe." Then I remembered, or thought I remembered, that for the first part of the book they were cooperating pretty well. "Didn't you just get that today? How far are you into it?"

"About a hundred pages," she said. "A little less than half. I'm probably going to finish this tonight. I should have gotten another one but then I would have had to return one too and all the other ones I have out I want to read again."

"Wow, I'm impressed again." What I was not impressed by was my tendency to keep looking back towards her visible nipples. It violated everything my mother tried to instill in my about respect for women as people and not treating them like sexual objects. I only prayed this girl didn't notice, and tried to focus on talking to her like a person. "And I'm glad to see someone meet who likes reading. It seems like less and less people read for fun nowadays." This cynical assessment was actually only a half-truth. More and more people seemed to be reading, really, but they were only reading a few books, the really popular ones, like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games series. And those were fine, but they were a limited menu. It was like calling yourself a movie buff because you enjoy summer blockbusters, or a restaurant critic because you occasionally complain about your order at McDonalds. Maybe technically it might be true that they're "people who read for fun" but... it seemed to me to be less about the reading and more about the enjoying something everyone was talking about. People who read a lot of different things, knowing that for most of them they might never meet another person who read it without being forced? Those people seemed to be rare, and to me, precious. Of course, maybe Astrid was one of those lowest-common-denominator readers, and this book was an anomaly, but I decided to err on the side of optimism.

"There are some avid readers in my class," she said. "But we don't get along."

"Really? I've always found I got along much better with people who read for fun." Also with girls who's nipples I could peek, I always got along great with them, at least as long as they didn't realize. I flashed back to a girl named Melanie who, when I was twelve, bent over a shared desk with a low-cut top during a group project. I had a crush on her the rest of the year. Now that I thought about it, her body was similar...

I realized what I was thinking about, and what I was automatically staring at because of it, and forced myself to look at her eyes. Luckily, this time, she was looking away, like she was looking over in the direction the other readers in her class lived and thinking dark thoughts. "Yeah, well... some are okay, but a few of them are, like, booktubers... they collect ARCs and make review videos and they make me feel bad about not having followers and reading things that aren't the newest thing. And with some of them, if you don't like a book they love, or you like a book they hate, or you ship the wrong couples, it's like, they, like, act like there's something wrong with you. And I pretty much do all of those things. So... they're kind of jerks, in my book."

I immediately liked her a little more. "Oh, well, if they're jerks," I said, as though that was reason enough. "You're too good to hang around with jerks anyway." Of course, remembering how things went at that age, it was probably just a temporary spats and they'd be BFFs in another few weeks. What if my words accidentally soured that process? I figured it was unlikely, but just in case, I added, "At least, while they're jerks. Sometimes, people are only temporarily jerks." I was talking too much, but that was good, because it kept me from thinking about, and looking at... no, there I went again, evaluating the sole contestant of this impromptu preteen wet t-shirt contest. "I feel like I'm saying the word 'jerks' a lot. It's started to lose all meaning. Jerk. Jerk. Jerk." Each repetition was said with a slightly different intonation.

I thought I was being stupid and awkward, but she laughed, which made me feel better, and I said, "I just need to get 'jerk' o.... out of my mind." Phew, that was close. I almost said 'jerk off.' She probably wouldn't know what it meant, at her age. Maybe she'd think it was a like a bug spray for jerks. Jerk-Off. I could then legitimately offer to spray her with jerk off. Oh, God, I thought suddenly, as a decidedly non-innocent vision of that passed through my head, this innocent child smiling as I coated her face with milky white... no, blasted all over her shirt so much that once it sank in, it made the fabrics see-thru enough to let me see her nipples... the same nipples that were right there below me. I began to get hard. What is wrong with me? I heard myself saying, in my head.

I still didn't think I was a pedophile... I guess I could understand how it happened, how if you were hard up enough, and I was, your brain might confuse a body part or situation as sexy because if they were older, it would be. And then, knowing you're doing something wrong, it only made it worse, as the mere fact that it was taboo seemed to make it even hotter. But even though I was thinking some abominable things, I reassured myself that I couldn't be a pedophile because I never searched out kids when I wanted to get off. This was just a freak impulse, like when walking over a bridge and part of you wants to jump off. And it would be equally stupid to give in to either impulse. But I was confident it would pass as soon as I was out of the situation.

I tried to force my gaze forward, remember the thread of the conversation. We were talking about boobs. No, books. With a k. At least that was comfortable territory for me, at least with a fellow reader. "When I was young I used to hide my reading, because there were jerks there, too... they were already calling me a geek, and I didn't want to, you know, live up to the stereotype. So I did all my reading at home."

"I do most of my reading at home, too," she said, her voice chirping up in excitement. "But that's mostly because it's too loud at school. And also we don't have... AIIIYE." That wasn't an acronym, it was a scream, generated as a minivan passed us and tore through a puddle, sending water flying in our direction. Because Astrid was on the side of me that was nearest to traffic, she got the brunt of it, although it mostly got her pastel blue pants and running shoes. It got some of my slacks too.

"You okay?" I asked. She'd tensed up and her mouth was half-open in a grimace like you sometimes get when water's really chilly, but as wet as she was a little more cold water shouldn't have made much of a difference.

Her face relaxed as she suddenly looked downward. "Yeah... it's just... my book." I followed her gaze, trying, and failing, to avoid looking at her still visible nipples on the way down.

"It doesn't look too bad," I said. And I wasn't just being polite, in the second or so she was aware she was about to get hit, she'd instinctively shielded the book... sure, it had gotten a little wet at the side, but I didn't think it would do any permanent damage. "Here, why don't you walk on the other side of me. That way if it happens again, my body will protect you."

"Thanks," she said. "But I'm already so wet." Hearing her say those words was not what I needed just then. "I can take a splashing, it just caught me by surprise." Yes, the responsible thing to do would be to warn a girl before you splash her with something.

"It's okay. Really. Protect the book." I stepped forward and let her circle around the back, all the while keeping the umbrella tilted so that it protected her more than me.

"Thank you," she said softly, and the big smile she gave me as she looked up at me, that made me feel warm and sunny inside, even though it was still a mess outside of the small circle protected by my umbrella.

I switched ear buds, then. I had taken the one out on the side she was on and let it dangle, but now that she switched sides, it only seemed right to put it back in and take the other one out. It might have been more polite to leave both out, but then it would have been a pain to retrieve when I needed it. The volume was low enough that it wasn't really interfering with my ability to hear anyway.

The movement, though, that got noticed. It was hard to subtly do with only one hand, the other holding the umbrella. "What are you listening to?"

"Uh, you know, music." It was mostly that I was just taken by surprise by the question, rather than deliberately trying to be a smart-ass. When I listen to music on ear-buds, it's always like it's happening in my own little world, and generally nobody cares, so somebody asking about it... well, it's just unexpected.

"Can I?" She pointed to the ear-bud I just removed. I did have a moment's hesitation, some tiny fear of my musical tastes being judged by a preteen, but pushed it aside and nodded. She grabbed it, then made sure her next step took her closer to me, leaning in.

Chapter Three:

Despite that everpresent fear of mockery that's followed me throughout my life, I'm not that ashamed of the fact that I listen to mostly varieties of pop, sometimes the edgier stuff, but mostly with female vocalists. I especially ones with a bit of an off-kilter look or sound, though I like plenty of mainstream ones too. Taylor Swift, Lorde, Bea Miller, Digital Daggers, a few really obscure indy artists are among those who populate my favorite playlists. My mom thinks it's great that she's taught me not to look down on female artists, to give them the respect they deserve but are often denied by a male-dominated industry (though she wishes I'd pirate music from the bigger names rather than support the RIAA and millionaires getting even richer). But for me, it's not about feminism or anything like that.... it's just... if I'm going to have someone in my ear singing about love or sex or pain, I'd rather it be a woman. And it's the kind of music I can easily lose myself in.

I mentally prepared myself with responses to anything negative Astrid might say about it, not so much to defend myself but to project the idea that I didn't care what anyone thought. It turned out that I didn't need to. "Sounds a little like that song from Portal, 'Still Alive,'" Astrid said about the song I had on.

She had a point. There was a slightly computerized quality to the voice that they had in common, like it came out of the uncanny valley... I hadn't noticed until she mentioned it, but it was part of the reason I liked it. There was something in the rhythm and music too that sounded like something out of a classic arcade game. "Yeah, I guess it does." I also really liked the song 'Still Alive,' but then, I enjoy gaming. Actually, my attitude with games was sort of like music... I usually gravitated towards female characters, and I'd never admit it, but it's mostly because, if I was going to be staring at a person's backside for hours at a time, it might as well look pretty, right? I've even got a separate play list with songs from video games (even ones without female vocalists), some in-game music and some that I just like because I heard them in a video game, like my set of old-timey music from Fallout. 'Still Alive' wasn't on any of my playlists, but that was more of an oversight than anything else. "I really should put that on my playlist too."

She nodded. "It's a fun song."

"So you play games?" I mentally berated myself for the stupid question. Most kids play games, right?

"Yeah. Mostly just single player games though, because my mom... I mean, we don't always have Internet access."

I nodded, thinking I understood. When I was young, cutting off the net was the usual go-to punishment for anything from too much talkback to not cleaning my room. Astrid seemed nice, but most kids got into at least a little bit of trouble.

She pointed to her ear. "So what's this song called?"

"'Plastic Stars.' By Freezepop."

She repeated it, and then her lips moved quickly and silently, as though she was doing it again and again until she was sure she remembered. I smiled to myself that I'd passed muster with the girl, and then the smile faded as I wondered if that really said good things about my taste. But, whatever, I like what I like, I got over being too worried about it years ago.

More concerning than sharing a 12-year-old's taste in music was my surprising new tendency to nipple-gaze at one, anyway. Which I'd just tried to do again, but at least now that she was leaned in closer to me it was harder to see anything without craning my neck. That, I managed to avoid. "So how far are we from your place?"

"Not too far," she said. "How about yours?"

"Still a little bit," I said, deciding to be just as vague as her. We walked a little further, mostly in silence, but the wind started to pick up, and she pressed up against me, just side to side, but I could feel her trembling. "You okay?" I tilted the umbrella toward the wind, and more carefully defending her than myself. The top of my head started to get wet.

"Yeah... it's just cold. Sorry."

"No, it's okay." It was an unseasonably cold wind, even though it was late spring... the normal temperature wasn't too bad, but when you added wind and rain, yeah, there were bursts of surprising chill that came and went. I was wearing a thin hoodie, though, so it wasn't so bad for me, and even below that, my shirt was more substantial than hers, which I hadn't forgotten was thin enough that her nipples showed through. The image of which I was now infesting my brain, even when I wasn't looking at it. Like a perfect little GIF looping in my mind, I could practically picture drops of water hitting the fabric, rendering it transparent, and then sliding off. I shook it off. "You could switch sides again," I suggested. "Then my body would block the wind... but you'd be at risk for puddles."

"No, it's okay," she said. "I'll stay on this side. Wind can't keep up forever, right?"

We kept moving, but the cold put a damper on the conversation. She seemed to edge closer and closer to me, close enough that she was rubbing her shoulder on my arm, and when a fresh burst of wind came in her direction, she turned into me. I imagined those erect, barely-clothed covered nipples pushing up against the arm I used to hold the umbrella, and even convinced myself that I felt them, although rationally I knew that I probably couldn't through the hoodie, and those parts of our bodies probably weren't even in contact.

It was only a momentary lapse, and after that I felt guilty for imagining it, especially when she was obviously uncomfortable from the cold. There wasn't anything I could really do about that, short of giving her my hoodie which, I considered, but it not only would look weird, but would also be tricky to pull off without getting both of us soaked. So instead, I thought the only thing I could do to help would be distracting her from the cold... and maybe it would distract me, too, from those unwelcome thoughts.

"So, Lord of the Flies," I said out of nowhere, to reintroduce the topic of conversation. We both still had one of the earbuds in, but it had moved onto a song that was mainstream enough that she recognized it without feeling the need to comment on it, so we needed something new to discuss. "Let's say you were stuck on an island with your classmates. How do you think it would go?"


"You know, just for fun. How do you think it would go?" It was something I always liked doing when I read, imagining the situation happening to me.

She frowned, sort of. It was more a wrinkling up of her mouth in thought that resembled a frown rather than a frown of sadness. "Well, I guess I would be Piggy."


"Yes, I would."

"No," I said, as we waited at a streetlight to cross. "Firstly, I'm not asking you who would be Piggy, who would be Ralph, who would be Jack..." Those were the only names I remembered, except there were also a set of twins who's names got mooshed together. "You haven't read the whole book so you don't know what happens to all of them anyway. It wouldn't be fair. I just want you to tell me what you think would happen with your class."

"Okay..." she said, drawing out the word as she thought.

"And secondly," I continued, "There's no way anyone would call you Piggy. Piggy was ugly and overweight and he wore glasses, and none of that applies to you."

She was quiet for a few more seconds and I looked down at her and she was looking up at me. "Thank you," she said finally. "But you're wrong."

"I know sometimes it's hard to see your own... beauty," I said. "But look, I've got no reason to lie... I've never met you before, I'm probably never going to see you again, so, trust me, there's not a thing wrong with you." I was lying. Not about her looks, I couldn't see anything that might be considered unattractive, especially around her nipple area. But I would have said the same thing even if she was ugly, or overweight, just because I'm not an asshole. And who wants a kid to feel bad about themselves?

"Thanks," she said again, "but I meant... I do wear glasses."

"Oh." I shrugged. "Well, two out of three aren't bad."

"I'm not as bad as Piggy, I can see okay without them. I need them for class, though, to read the board. And I could probably use them to start a fire. That's why I said I'd be like Piggy."

Oops. Okay, well, I didn't think it would hurt to give her a self-esteem boost even if she hadn't compared herself to Piggy for the negative attributes. "Okay, that's not a bad thing, then."

We moved through the intersection. "And also because... people kind of think I'm annoying. I'm always the one who has to ask people if I can join in."

"Hmph. Well, I don't see it. You seem pretty pleasant to me. It's probably the jerk factor at play." She smiled. "Okay, so you're on an island with a class full of jerks, and you're the only one who can start a fire. What else?"

"Well I probably wouldn't be the ONLY one who could start a fire," she said, but then continued thinking. "Well, I think at first most people would be doing stupid stuff like taking selfies or trying to call home, but there wouldn't be any service, right?"

"Right." At least, I didn't think so. GPS and things like that might work, but being in range of a tower seemed unlikely unless there was another, more civilized, island very close by.

"I think I'd try to stay close to Jimmy, since he was in scouts. But then Layla is dating him and she doesn't like me so I think she'd be threatened even though I don't like him like that. But maybe on an island he'd see how shallow and useless she is, I don't know."

"Uh-huh." I didn't really care, honestly, about the exact social dynamics of twelve-year-olds, but I didn't want her to know that. For me, the methods of survival was more interesting.

Luckily, that was her next topic. "Water would be most important, right? So, I don't know, maybe we could set up something to catch rain, if it rained while we searched the island. If we couldn't find it, we wouldn't last long." We took a few more steps while she thought. "I think we're better off than those kids since we've seen things like Survivor and how they build shelters and everything." I had my doubts about that being all that much of a help... it's one thing to see someone build a shelter on TV, another thing to do it yourself. But I didn't want to rain on her parade... she was wet enough today.

Instead, I went another way to keep her talking, keep her distracted from the cold, keep me distracted too. "Yeah, but everyone has to cooperate. Do you think that would happen?"

"No, probably not. I mean, we'd probably stick to the same cliques as we have now, mostly. Except all the popular people would be trying to get us to do the work for them. Then maybe they'd all run off and go hunting, even though fishing makes more sense." She smiled a little. "A few of them would probably eat some poison berries or something when they couldn't find any meat."

I smirked. "Wow, that got dark fast."

"It's a dark situation." But she said it with amusement in her voice, like she knew that I knew we were both not being serious.

We crossed another street, practically skipping at times, and jumping over a large puddle that had pooled at the other side, in a natural depression before the sidewalk began again. A few steps on the other side, I felt her pull very slightly against my arm. "Um..." she said.


"I guess this is where I get off."

Chapter Four:

With a resigned expression on her face, Astrid looked down the street, at a right angle from the way I would have been heading. "I'm going that way." I glanced up, to where the rain was still making a steady thrum against my umbrella. It was still pouring. "It's okay," she said. "I'll just wait under there." She was pointing at a corner convenience store, where she could either go inside, or she could wait under the awning to keep from getting wet. "Someone will be around eventually." We seemed to be the only pedestrians in view, and the way she was going seemed like a small closed-off network of residential streets... in short, a direction that didn't look like it would be walked by someone who didn't already live there, and, in the middle of a weekday, in the pouring rain, I didn't think the chances were great.

I didn't want to leave her there. The cool wind had another blast ready for us, and I could feel her tense up against it. And anyone else, well, they might stare at her underage nipples in an inappropriate way, like I had been avoiding. Mostly. Not to mention the worrying possibility that someone else might do something more than inappropriately stare. A dark van could pull up, offer her a ride. "No," I said, speaking almost before I settled on the decision.


"I'm not going to leave you. It can't be that much farther, right?"

She tilted her head up at me, like she thought I might be trying to trick her, "Really? You sure you don't mind?"

"Come on, we non-jerky readers have to stick together." She gave me that bright open smile again, so I added, "Besides, we were just getting to the most interesting part of your own story. People were starting to die!"

She giggled, and then, as we walked in a new direction, she continued on with the hypothetical situation, talking about how, aside from Jimmy, who was apparently a guy who was considered part of the popular crowd but was still pretty nice to everybody, she'd probably stay with a circle of people, a mix of boys and girls, who she said were smart and she believed they would stay near the beach and fish and Astrid would start fires with her glasses to cook the fish, while the other group tried to hunt in the woods.

"But, you know, a lot of people, even of my friends, probably wouldn't be able to get their stuff together for a long time," she said after a while, like it was just occurring to her and she might have to rethink what was going on. "Like, I'm pretty sure most of them would be lost without their parents or a teacher around."

"I'm sure everyone would miss their parents," I said. "Wouldn't you?"

"I guess," she said, but didn't sound too convinced. "But I'm..." she trailed off, like she wasn't sure how to describe the difference.

"You're a little more self-sufficient," I filled in for her.

"Yeah," she said. "I mean, I might miss my mom, but wouldn't let it stop me, not when there's stuff that needs to be done."

"So yeah, you'd definitely be the hero of the story."

She smiled again, but it was a little weak, like she didn't really believe she could be the hero of a story, and it was one of those moments where you can almost feel your heart going out to someone. "It's not like I'm the only one who'd do okay." She began listing off names, people she thought would adapt faster. Jimmy was on the list, and I wondered if she had a crush on him. I silently wished her luck... that he'd like her back and not be a total tool, like a lot of guys are at her age. Even I was, and my mom made a concerted effort to teach me how to respect women... something I was totally failing at every time I stared at this little girl's chest, a fact that was not lost on me.

Astrid continued on, thinking aloud about whether it would be better to try and build a raft or just wait and hope somebody shows up, and then suddenly stopped. "Oh, I like this song," she said. We were still sharing my ear-buds, and it was Lorde's song "Royals." I obviously liked it too, or it wouldn't have made it on my playlist, but I was starting to get a little tired of it. I might have taken it out of rotation the next time I updated it, if I thought about it at all, at least for my playlist of songs I listen to on the road. Lorde does have a strange quality that even some of her more up-tempo songs are easy for me to fall asleep listening to.

Astrid, I guess, hadn't gotten tired of it, for, unlike the other songs, she actually sang along once we hit the chorus, and even stopped us walking to do it, like she didn't know how to do both at the same time.

That aside, I don't think she'd be considered a great singer. I think the key or pitch was off (I never really understood the difference, but I knew something wasn't quite matching the song), but... despite that, I found I actually liked her voice. Maybe it was how she seemed to enjoy it... that alone made me smile, listening to her try, either not aware or not caring about any shortcomings. But then it was a rainy day and I was the only one close enough to listen, and I certainly wasn't going to criticize her. It was like she was giving me an unfiltered look through her soul to go along with the unintentional peek through her shirt, and I didn't want her to feel bad about either of them.

Only when she was done did she seem to look up at me and gave a nervous smile. "Sorry," she said.

"Nothing to apologize for."

We had a brief discussion about Lorde, the songs she did for the Hunger Games movies soundtrack, which we both agreed we didn't like as much as some of her other work. "Have you read those books though?" she asked.

"I have. They're pretty good. They're like an American Battle Royale."

"Yeah, I've heard about that one, but I haven't read it, yet. Do you really think Hunger Games is a ripoff?" she asked.

"No, they're completely different stories. I mean, it's not like that basic idea is staggeringly original, so I believe her when she says she never heard of Battle Royale when she started writing. And I like both." With Battle Royale, I liked the movie more than the book, it was much easier to keep everybody straight, but the movie probably wasn't age appropriate, so I didn't mention that.

"I might try it sometime, if the library can get it for me." I didn't answer right away, reflecting on whether the book was age-appropriate, but only for a moment. It always seemed to me that short of outright pornography, age-appropriateness doesn't really matter with books. Everything people usually complain about, sex and violence, they were just words, and limited by a person's own ability to imagine... when I was young I read horror books, and I never got nightmares or anything because I pictured the most violent scenes almost like cartoons. If they didn't know how sex worked, it was unlikely sex in a book was going to enlighten them much. And if something dealt with things that were too advanced for a kid, they probably wouldn't be traumatized, they'd just lose interest.

The big problem in recommending books to kids is less about whether there's something they can't handle reading about, and more about whether their parents freak out about it and give you hell for it. Since I didn't think I'd ever see Hitch again, much less meet her parents, I said, finally, "You should."

I was about to suggest another game, to get her to guess what she'd do in if she was put in the Hunger Games, but we stopped. Ever since I decided to walk her home, she'd been leading me in the right direction down various side streets, but it was done subtly, with just tiny tugs on the arm, and I'd gotten so used to it I wasn't really paying much attention. But we were on a small closed off lane, and there was a row of houses. "This is me," she said.

There was a moment of hesitation, and I thought maybe she was worried about me following her home, and I was about to suggest I turn around and she make a run for it so I wouldn't know exactly which house was hers, but instead, she said, "Come on," and pulled me towards a small single-story house, shielded by hedges. I guess the risk of getting her books wet, in the walk between the sidewalk and the door in the still-pouring rain, trumped any fear of me as a stranger.

Instead of going up to the front door, we walked to the side. I held the umbrella a little more loosely as the edge of the roof also provided a bit of a cover. "Anyway," I said. "It was nice meeting you."

"You can come in for a bit?" she offered... or maybe, in retrospect, it was more a plea than an offer, but at the time, interpreting it as a polite offer was the only thing that made sense.

"Nah, there's no need, I've got the umbrella, remember?"

She worked her hands into her soaked pocket and pulled out a single key, which she worked into the lock. "But you got wet too." Sure, parts of my clothes were wet when I angled the umbrella to cover her at my own expense, or when a bit or wind or a passing car got some on me, but it wasn't that bad. "You can come in and dry off."

"It's not necessary," I said, then pointed out, "Your parents probably wouldn't like you inviting a stranger inside anyway."

She rolled her eyes a little. "My mom's not going to be home until, like, six at least."

"That wasn't really my point..."

"But I owe you," she said. "You were so nice." She unlocked the door, and turned to face me, one hand holding her book, the other behind her back on the knob, gently pushing it open. But I was only peripherally aware of that. "Come in and I'll make you a cup of hot coffee."

If she hadn't turned back towards me, I would have refused. I might have liked a coffee, but that part of my brain that realizes something is a bad idea would have taken charge, I'd have said "No thank you," wished her a pleasant day, and went off back to my ordinary day, patting myself on the back for performing a good deed for a kid.

But she was facing me, and her shirt was still wet and clinging to her body, the slightly darker ovals of her nipples still visible. When she was at my side, I might have snuck glances, but I could put it out of my mind between them... her facing me directly, it was where I looked, automatically. And that "better judgment" part of my brain was overridden by another part that thought, "never sacrifice time that you might see a girl's nipples" a part which didn't admit that in words, but rather convinced me that there was nothing wrong with going in if I had innocent intentions.

And despite my pervy glances, I did, mostly. Sure, looking was pretty bad, and I felt incredible guilt and shame over it, but at the same time, I never even had the slightest inkling that I would touch her, or ask her to touch me. It didn't even cross my mind. A part of me did realize how easy it would be to get this young girl alone and do something, but it wasn't a desire as much as a worry, that she was unknowingly putting herself in danger, even if, with me, she might be perfectly safe. Maybe, I hoped, I could explain that to her. But that wasn't why I said, "Okay, coffee sounds good, actually." It came down to me wanting to see her wet t-shirted chest while the sight was available. I might never see it again. It was like a rare planetary alignment.

Chapter Five:

The genuine look of delight that animated Astrid's face made me feel good about my decision, and kept my eyes from lingering too long on the parts I shouldn't be looking at. And, once we were about to enter, she turned her back to me again, so it was easy to shove that out of my mind again and just be the friendly good Samaritan accepting an offer of coffee. I pulled my umbrella closed and followed behind her, out of the rain at last.

The door opened on a small landing, tiled floor, a rubber mat and coat hooks along the right wall, with an open door a few steps away, and to the left, a staircase that lead down to another door, which was closed and had a foreboding lock on it. "You don't have other people you invited for coffee locked down in the basement, do you?" I joked, peering down. The lights weren't on, so it looked spookier than it should have.

"Huh?" she turned back to me, then while I glanced back at the front of her shirt, she turned her head down the stairs. "Oh. No, the basement's not ours. The landlord split it. We get the upstairs, whoever else gets downstairs, and we share this entrance and the laundry room. But no one lives there now so we just leave this door open." She slipped her feet out of her shoes, took a step that squeaked out a wet sloshing noise on the tile. She frowned, lifted her leg, and began pulling the soaked sock off first one foot, than the other. She threw them carelessly down the stairs. "You can put your umbrella up there," she said, pointing to the hook. "Or anything else you want to take off." Her own eyes ran up and down my body, noting the side of my hoodie, my pants, which had visible dark spots where the water got me.

"No, I'm okay." I did hang up the umbrella, though, over the rubber mat so it could drip without much problem, and then looked down at my own feet to slip my shoes off, and in the process noticed her slightly glistening tiny feet, toes spreading out as though that would aid the natural evaporation. She didn't like the feeling of wearing soaked clothing... who did? I wondered if she would remove the shirt too... hoped, to be honest, but aside from another fresh glance at her chest, I made no sign of that... although I was starting to worry I was being too obvious, that she was on to me. I thought I saw her looking at me in a funny way, and immediately averted my eyes, focusing on finding a good place to leave my backpack. I chose the ground beside the mat our shoes were on.

"Come on," she said, and led me through her small, darkened house towards the kitchen. It was dark because none of the lights were on, of course, and with the heavy clouds outside, there wasn't a lot of natural light coming in either. As for small, well, it was like a large apartment. There was a small living area, centered around a TV, and an attached kitchen with a single small round table, then a short hallway that led to three rooms. If I had to guess, one was a bathroom, and the other two were bed rooms. There was a second entrance in the living room, out to the front of the house. Everything except the kitchen and the entry landings seemed to be carpeted, so I was sure Astrid's feet were dry by now.

Astrid put her book on a table by the couch, walked into the kitchen, hit the lights, which made the place seem a little less dead. The home was... to be generous, you could call it lived in. Other people might just call it a mess. There were clothes draped over the couch, and the sink was full of unwashed dishes, and more were on the table in front of the TV. It wasn't some horrible pigsty, there weren't bugs crawling on everything, and it didn't smell funky, it was just clearly not a house that was expecting visitors right then. But it was the middle of the week, and if my guess was correct, the house of a single mom, so I could understand it. Lord knows when I was her age my mom had trouble keeping the place clean on weekdays too, at least until she whipped me into shape.

The coffeemaker sat on the kitchen counter, just a simple home brew system, and Astrid worked it like she did it every day, changing the filter, tearing open the package, putting in the water, and within about thirty seconds, the pot was on and starting to brew. The pot, at least, was already clean, which said something about either how important coffee was in that family, or how rarely it was made. Considering her skills, I asked, "Drink a lot of coffee I guess?"

"Not really." She wrinkled her nose a bit, like the thought was unappealing. It was a cute expression, but then, it was a cute nose, too, small but with a slightly protuding round tip, which, where it met with the bridge of the nose, formed what seemed like an indentation perfect for resting glasses on without them slipping. "I mean, sometimes. But I make it for my mom in the morning."

"That's nice of you."

She shrugged, like it was no big deal, and then circled around, retrieved her book from the table and walked down the hall where the bedrooms would have to lay. "It'll just take a few minutes. Come on. I'll show you my books." While she moved to get the book I got to see her wet t-shirt from the front again, but at least I was certain she said books. With a k.

The doors in this hall were closed, but it was easy to tell which one was hers. Stickers spelling out her name ran in a diagonal line at about my chest height. There were also marks where other stickers once were, but apparently were scraped off. Rather than ask about them, I said, deadpan, "I wonder whose room's behind here?"

"Yeah, I wonder," she played along. "I mean, it's only got my name on it."

"You can't go by that. Maybe it's a wannabe. I mean, it is a pretty kickass name."

She made a face, an adorable pout, as she leaned back against the door. "I hate it, actually."

Weird. The last time I said that, she didn't have a problem with it. Did she trust me more now, or was she just fishing for another compliment. "Really? I really like it. It's distinctive."

"Yeah, well, you haven't had to go your whole life hearing stupid jokes like Ass-turd. There's not even a good way to shorten it."

Okay, that was genuine resentment. I gave it a moment's thought, and she was right. Either they call you Ass, or they call you Trid. Neither were particularly appealing. "Yeah, I guess. But those are idiots." Still, as was my way, I wanted to try to help. I could relate. I was deliberately named after the father of communism and least funny Marx brother and that hasn't exactly been easy either, and there was a time I tried unsuccessfully to get people to call me K. The only thing I could come up with to help Astrid was, "You could always go another way... the name Astrid comes from the word for star... maybe people could call you 'Star!'" I put an jazzy emphasis on the word.

It earned me a half smile. "Cute. But actually the name doesn't have anything to do with stars."

That surprised me. "Really?" It seemed to make sense... astrology, astronaut, asteroid, asterisks... all star-related. "You sure?" I immediately felt foolish as well as guilty for assuming I automatically knew better. "Sorry," I said before she could answer. Of course she would be. She probably googled it years ago. "So what does it mean?"

"'Divinely beautiful,'" she told me, but she wouldn't meet my eye. "I mean, it's just a name, I know it's not true." She uncrossed her arms and waved up and down her whole body as though her ugliness was obvious.

Unfortunately, her crossed arms had been hiding the nipples, and now that they weren't, her t-shirt was still wet enough for them to show through. I stared. A few seconds later I said, "You look fine." Fearing that I'd said the word too long and sounded lewd, I said, "I mean, you look great. I mean, there's nothing wrong with you." Fuck, now I was babbling. And still glancing down at her boobs.

Worse, this time I was sure she'd caught me, because she looked down at herself too, and I thought I heard a gulp of air, like a surprise at what was showing through the wet shirt. I looked back up to her face, and she was smiling, but it looked like a tight smile, the kind you wear when you're not sure what to say. And I could swear her face was turning softly red. And she wouldn't look me in the eye, instead her eyes seemed to be aiming towards the floor between us.

"I, uh... need to get out of these wet clothes," she said after a moment, turning back to the door, and letting me only see her back. "You wait out here, okay?"

"Of course," I said, again too quickly. "I'm not going to follow you in while you're changing..." I winced, feeling stupid for saying something like that after she must think I had been looking at her. She didn't seem to react though, merely calmly opened the door.

"Don't go anywhere," she said, which seemed odd. If I made her uncomfortable, then me leaving while she changed would be a good thing for both of us. Maybe, I hoped, she hadn't noticed me staring after all... she was only twelve. Maybe she just realized her shirt was transparent but didn't think I noticed.

Finally, the door closed, with her on the other side, and I started to regain my wits. It didn't really matter whether she caught me or not, or what she thought about it. I needed to get out of this situation as quickly and safely as possible. I wasn't going to do anything, but the risk was too high that I might give her the wrong idea and get in trouble.

Yet... if I just disappeared, when she specifically asked me not to, what message would that send? Maybe she'd decide I really was a perv who chickened out, and tell her Mom. Or maybe she'd just get hurt. And, there was one more thing pressing on my mind, and other parts of my anatomy.

I really, really had to take a piss.

Rainy days always seemed to do it for me. I mean, I might normally pee when I get home, but somehow, when it was a rainy day, or a particularly cold day, the feeling got more urgent more quickly. I called through the door, "Hey, uh, Astrid, do you mind if I use your bathroom?"

The door opened, and she peeked around it. I could tell her shirt was off, completely. But she was hiding her chest behind the door, and only her head and one shoulder was visible. "Go ahead. It's right down there." One bare arm snaked around the door and pointed to the closed door at the end of the hall.

Inside I could tell that it was clearly an almost stereotypical woman's bathroom, the sink and edge of the tub full of various feminine products that I didn't bother to inspect, and with fuzzy covers on the toilet seat. I lifted it and unzipped my pants, but didn't pee. It's not that I didn't have to, but I had an unwelcome erection... not enough that my foreskin was fully retracted, but enough to make things difficult. I probably could have forced a piss, but it might have sprayed in weird directions and that's not an impression I wanted to leave.

Besides, me and my penis, we needed to have a talk, first.

Chapter Six:

I didn't literally speak to my dick, but in some ways, standing there in Astrid's bathroom, it felt like I was having a conversation with this part of my body that went rogue and had led me astray. I wanted to say to it, "What the fuck are you doing, she's only twelve, she's just a kid!"

It might as well have said, "Hey, hot is hot. Hey, you know she's probably naked right this second?"

"Fuck off, this is not appropriate."

"I know, but isn't it awesome?!"

"Go down now."

"Did I hear go down? See, we're totally on the same wavelength here! While she's naked, let's get back in there and ask that adorable girl to go down on us."

"I'm not going to sexually assault a child!"

"I'm not saying we do that, but maybe she'll be into it!"

"She's too young to consent, anything we do is sexual assault! Besides, she wouldn't be into it! She's a sweet little girl!"

"I'm sure I'm great with kids. You have no faith in me. Let me in, and I'll be so nice that maybe she'll give me a sweet little kiss!"

I turned away from the toilet, where clearly nothing was happening, and instead turned on the sink, splashed some water on my face. "No, this is not the kind of guy we are. Get it together, or I'll cut you off."

"Fine, but you're making it up to me later, and I'm going to make sure you're picturing her."

Okay, obviously I'm wildly exaggerating, I'm not psychotic or anything, but it was a real struggle to go soft, not a problem I'd had since I was a horny adolescent, probably Astrid's own age. But eventually, with the help of the water on my face and a mental image of big burly men who would be making me pay in prison for acting inappropriately with a child, I took some deep breaths, and was able to pee.

I washed my hands, splashed a bit more water on my face, and left, no longer with a hard-on. At least next time I saw her, she'd be wearing something less eye-catching, and it would be easier to act normal.

Or, so I was hoping, anyway.

We opened the door to the hallway and emerged at the same time. Her changed outfit aside, she looked like practically a different girl, now. The wet cat look was gone, most especially around her hair. Although not completely dry, it seemed like she must have quickly rubbed her head with a towel... it was no longer slick against her head, and had a little bit of body, like she'd run a brush through it to tease, although that might have been its natural curls starting to re-emerge, or it simply frizzing out as it dried.

The other big change was that she was now wearing her glasses. They had black oval frames that to me seemed to comfortably straddle the line between nerd and hipster. They also seemed to make her look older... probably because her eyes didn't look as big and innocent, but there's also the fact that, glasses tend to subconsciously make you think the person wearing them is smarter which, on a kid, sometimes means older.

She was still clearly a kid, though, which is why her new outfit made me uneasy all over again. She wore a long, light purple t-shirt with what was I think once some kind of a stylized cat on it, but the print had faded so much that it was now almost a subliminal suggestion. And that's it, as far as I could tell, right then. It came down to her mid thigh, and I could see her legs beneath it were bare, which invited me to wonder about what she wore. It might have been shorter types of shorts (trunks would have peeked underneath), or underwear, or... she might really be wearing nothing but the t-shirt. It was a complete mystery.

My eyes wanted to solve that mystery. Where once they were drawn to the sight of nipples, now I knew they would keep drifting down to her legs, hoping that I'd get a flash of what the shirt covered. "So you want to see my room, now?"

"Um, well that's not really necessary..."

"Yeah, but I hardly have anyone over... I wanna show you my books." She disappeared into her room and I found myself following. Maybe she'd crawl on her bed to get something and I'd get a peek of shorts and my curiosity would be satisfied.

Her room wasn't what I expected a twelve-year-old girl's room to look like. There wasn't pink everywhere, or frilly pillowcases or a four-poster bed, or a big mirror. The walls were a sunny yellow, although towards, and on, the white ceiling somebody had painted dark blue or black stars, which seemed a little backwards to me. Her bedspread was a similar, though softer, shade of yellow as the walls, and the other predominant color was white. White carpeting, white shelves, and a white desk, although there were pieces here and there that were mismatched, varying shades of brown. The bed, which also had a light brown frame, was a simple twin bed, pushed up against one wall. One stuffed dragon seemed to be her only animal companion. She had no mirror, but a desk with a computer on it, one of those big tower PCs, probably several years old. There was also a TV, hanging on the wall facing the bed, and a few posters here and there, and one calendar which seemed to be themed around cute cats.

The room looked more or less clean, but cluttered. There were statues on the shelves, awards of varying types (apparently she was the school champion speller, but I couldn't tell what grade without getting close). She had a bookbag on one chair, and a bunch of notebooks and penholders that were scattered about many different shelves.

And, of course, there were books, but not as many as you might think. Only two rows of a shelving unit seemed dedicated to books, and there were a handful of others strewn about... practically any place you might possibly put a book, there was at least one or two. There were books on the nightstand, the dresser, next to and on top of her computer, the windowsil, and, of course, on their own shelves, although the many of the shelves weren't dedicated towards, but rather were full of a variety of odds and ends like the trophies, and merely had a book or two thrown there because it was extra space. "So have you read any of these?" she asked.

I started wandering about, looking over the selections, which at least kept my attention off Astrid's bare legs, while she went to her computer, and woke it out of sleep mode. I went to the shelves first. "Well, I read the Harry Potter series," I said, spotting it immediately.

She didn't sound too impressed. "Yeah, I liked them a lot when I was nine," she said. "My aunt bought the whole series for me."

"So, which House would you be?"

"I don't know," she said. "Why?"

"I don't know," I repeated. "It's like a personality test. I bet you're Ravenclaw."

"Nah, if anything, I'd probably be Hufflepuff. The lame ones."

"Hey, Hufflepuff are not lame. I'd probably be Hufflepuff." I was lying, really, I never felt strongly tied to any of them, although if I had to choose, Ravenclaw was probably mine. But I didn't want her to feel bad about herself.

She didn't seem to buy it. "You?"

"Well, I never really saw myself as Gryffindor material, and pretty much all the Slytherin we see are evil... Ravenclaw's kind of me too, but there's a lot to be said for Hufflepuff. They don't turn people away, and they don't turn their backs on them. Loyalty and inclusive, those are great traits, in my book."

Her head tilted, light in her eyes. "In your book?"

I smiled sheepishly. "No pun intended. So yeah, have some Hufflepuff pride." She turned in her chair, smiling, but I only looked at that for a second before my eyes dropped to her legs... she shirt was still hiding whatever, if anything, was underneath, but with an inviting dark shadow. I focused on the books. Hufflepuff wouldn't be having these sporadic inappropriate thoughts. I could benefit from being a little more like Hufflepuff.

I turned back to the bookshelf as music started playing. She must have started up a playlist right before she turned around. I listened just long enough to identify the song, but since I'd heard it so many times I soon completely forgot about it and continued looking through her personal library. At least until she spoke, while I was looking at a book called Cinder that had some kind of robot foot in high heels in it. "Do you like this song?" Astrid asked.

The song was "The Story of Us" by Taylor Swift. "Well, I like Taylor Swift," I admitted. "This song's a little on the sad side though." Which isn't to say that I didn't like it, sometimes I was really in the mood for downer songs.

"I guess. I like to think of it as hopeful, though. Like even if the odds are stacked against them, if they'd only just try, it might not have to be a tragedy, they might make it work. Get a happy ending."

"Yeah, maybe." It didn't seem like that would be happening, though, and wasn't it, like a lot of Swift songs, written about an ex? So, obviously no happy ending. "Are happy endings important?"

"Well, in love, yeah," she said, like it was obvious. "In books, it doesn't have to be."

I put the book back, and left the shelf behind, looking over the books that were strewn about. I thought I'd figured out her system. The ones on the shelf were the ones given as gifts, put in a place of honor but not necessarily read too often. The others must be what she was reading now, or the library books she hasn't yet returned.

What pleasantly surprised me, though, was the variety. The Lord of the Flies wasn't the only old book she had. Sure, there were modern popular classics like the Hunger Games and Divergent, a few lesser known ones I remembered liking like the Uglies series, and a bunch of other ones I'd never even heard of, but there were some plenty of older classics too. Narnia, and A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, Alice in Wonderland. Sure, they were mostly books targeted towards kids, but I was still impressed. "You've got some good choices here."

"Yeah?" She sounded excitedly pleased at the validation. "You know them?"

"Not all of them, no, but some of them. You've got some good taste, from what I can see." I moved to check out a slim book on the corner of her dresser. But my eye was soon drawn to the small hamper on the floor beside the dresser itself. It was nearly empty, but it contained the clothes she had changed out of. And, when you're changing and putting clothes in the hamper, what's the last thing you put in? For me it'd be socks, but she'd already removed those, and that left, on top, what would be my second-last thing... underwear.

To cover myself, I picked up the book, to pretend to look at it, but really I was staring down at her panties, slightly rumpled but looked so soft, white, girlish and tiny, but somehow alluring. The front was face up, the crotch piece, that recently was soaking wet and covering... no. Think like a Hufflepuff.

Chapter Seven:

I heard Astrid's voice from what seemed like far away. "You like that?"

I felt like I jumped, but it only my eyes, snapping away from her discarded underwear and back to the book in my hand, noticing for the first time the title. The Little Prince. I'd heard the title before, but didn't really know much about it. "I've never read it," I said, then looked in her direction, wondering. If the panties she wore are in here, could she be naked under that shirt? I kept my composure by focusing on the books, which at least distracted me. "It's supposed to be a classic, right?"

"Yeah. It's really good, actually. Sad, though."

"It's a pretty old book," I pointed out. "You seem to have a lot of older books."

"I like new stuff, I like old stuff. Age doesn't really matter," she said, oblivious to my scandalous interest, to the double-meaning those last four words made in my head, and the way that it caused my eyes to look back down in the hamper. "Sometimes I like the older ones, actually. They're more... real, sometimes. And yeah, sometimes they're harder, but... sometimes I like it hard, you know?"

God, it was like every other thing she said was the setup for a pedophilic "That's what she said" joke. "It's good to challenge yourself," I agreed. Right then I was challenging myself to find somewhere to look other than at this girl's panties or the legs that lead up to either a different pair of them, or a lewd absence of them altogether.

"Yeah. So, which'd be your favorite?"

"Excuse me?"

"Favorite book."

"Here? Or altogether?"

"Here. No, altogether. No... well, both."

"I can't really choose a favorite book." And many of my choices weren't really something I felt I could talk about with her. "Maybe Ender's Game."

"I saw the movie, it was okay. I was going to read it, but... the author's a bit of a tool, I heard."

I laughed. "Yeah, he is." She had looked anxious for a moment, but relaxed into a smile when I agreed with her, or at least didn't take offense. "But I read it before I knew that." Mom yelled at me for five minutes straight about how awful he was once when she caught me reading it, for the second time. Ever since then I kept an ebook copy. Not that I disagreed with her, just that there was a more important principle. "And just because someone's a tool doesn't mean they can't write a great book."

"I guess. So what's your favorite out of mine?"

"I don't know," I said, taking one last look around the room. "It's still hard to choose. Maybe Hunger Games... I know it's the most popular, but..." I shrugged. "I also really liked the Uglies books."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah... it's been a long time since I read them, though. I loaned my copies to someone, never got it back." At this point, I couldn't even remember who.

She made a face. "I hate when that happens."

"Nah, it's not so bad. I can always get them again, but... maybe someone else is reading them now, you know? Maybe they never would have bought it themselves, but they found it in somebody else's collection and tried it and really liked it. Probably not, but it makes me happy to imagine it."

She gave me a warm smile, and her eyes shined, and her legs parted, for a split second, as she moved to stand up, but my eyes were too late to take advantage of the opportunity. "I think your coffee's ready."

"Oh, right." I'd almost forgotten. But it was probably for the best, I could drink my coffee, say a polite goodbye, and get away from these insane temptations. She left the music on, loud, making the house feel far more alive, and as we left her room a part of me worried that somebody unexpected would appear from around a corner and get the wrong idea about this guy following a half-naked girl around. "So just you and your mom live here?"

"Yeah," she said. "We used to have a cat."

I was worried it might have been a sore spot, but I couldn't resist asking. "What happened?"

"Someone left a... window open," she said. She sounded matter-of-fact about it, but the pause made me wonder. "Haven't seen him since. I guess he found somewhere that fed him better."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay," she said. "It was a while ago. And I don't miss having to do the litter." She moved to the counter, then, on her tiptoes, reached up to one of the cupboards, where she pulled out a mug, one of those comedic ones that mark off the level of coffee in the cup with "Don't Even Talk", "Talk Slowly", and "You May Speak Now" instructions beside each of the lines. She put it on the counter, then retrieved the coffee pot and filled it up to between the first two lines, and passed it to me. "There's milk in the fridge, and sugar packets in that jar. She pointed, but I took it black anyway.

I thanked her, and she turned to the sink, fished out another mug, and started washing it. "I thought you said you didn't drink coffee."

"I said 'Sometimes' I do," she said, and did a little wiggle-dance in tune to the music. "You ever read Red Rising? It's pretty good too."

"No, but I've heard of it. I didn't see that one in your room, though?"

She finished washing her cup and poured some coffee in, then retrieved some milk and a lot of sugar. "I read it from the library. I want to try to get my own copy some time, and the sequels. You should read it." She took a big gulp of her coffee. Mine, without milk to cool it down, was still too hot to drink that fast, but I took a sip. "See, isn't that nice? Better being in here and warm than out there and wet." An stream of milky liquid trickled down her chin out of one lip.

"Yeah, I guess it is." But I'd have to go soon. I tried to say those words out loud, but somehow I couldn't find them.

"Thank you for walking me here," she said, reaching out to touch my arm. Her expression was full of such earnestness that it made me more warm inside than the coffee.

"It's nothing. I mean what kind of guy would I be if I left you there to get soaked?" A not-as-perverted one, apparently. Maybe perversion could, in certain circumstances, be a heroic trait.

"I already was soaked, kind of."

I shrugged an acknowledgement and took a sip of my coffee. My eyes wandered down to her shirt, as though expecting it might once again be transparent, but no, of course, it wasn't. "At least you're dry now, right?"

"Mmm," she said, having a thought through a mouthful of coffee, which she swallowed, then put her cup down and wiped her lips on the back of her hand. "That reminds me." She went back towards her room, and returned maybe ten seconds later, holding the hamper in front of her, with the wet clothes, panties on top. For a moment I thought she was going to confront me with them, say something about how I was enjoying looking at them, or even present them to me as a thank you, for my future masturbatory needs, but nothing like that, she walked right past me, toward the hallway we entered through, and I realized she was going down to the laundry room. When I didn't immediately follow, she stopped and called back, "You coming?"

"I didn't know you wanted me to," I said, but began to follow anyway.

"Well, it's not like it's private. Besides, we're having a nice conversation, right?"

I made my way down the stairs and around the corner into the small laundry room, where I was greeting to an unpleasantly pleasant surprise.

Astrid was bent over, head inside the open dryer, gathering up a batch of clothes that had already been there for who knows how long. But I wasn't looking at the clothes, I was looking at how, with her bent over like that, the long shirt had pulled up her legs and slid forward, exposing the mystery of what was underneath.

Chapter Eight:

I no longer had to wonder, and although my curiosity was satisfied, it didn't much help.

She was wearing panties. And while they weren't anything naturally provocative like a thong, that simple white fabric, with a blue trim, triggered another shameful erection all the same. Of course, part of this was because of how she wore it. The pair seemed just a little too small, like they were for a younger girl, and yet, stretched out... sort of like she'd grown out of them while wearing them. So they didn't cover as much as they should, and yet fit her somewhat loosely, so they could shift around to awkward positions. In fact, at this moment, on one side, the underwear exposed a fair proportion of one butt cheek, as well as, where they narrowed between her legs, a tantalizing glimpse of flesh that wasn't part of the thigh, but definitely part of the crotch, maybe even enough to be considered the outskirts of one lip.

And that ass looked surprisingly shapely, at least bent over in front of me, a cheerful bubble that seemed to jiggle just a bit with her movements. It may have been small, but when you're only looking at it, you lose the sense of scale... that's what I told myself, anyway, to excuse myself while I leered at a preteen ass. She spoke while she worked, seemingly unaware of my attention. "You know what you said about challenging yourself?" I didn't, not then, I didn't have a clue what she was talking about. "I just want you to know, I'm not just into kids stuff." Where was this going? "I like some adult books, too. I'm on the waiting list at the library for the first Game of Thrones book. I've never seen the series except for a few clips but I'd rather read the books anyway, you know?" I didn't, I was barely following what she was saying, the sight in front of me captured almost all of my attention.

I did manage to notice Astrid when she looked back at me, just before she pulled the remainder of the clothes, or at least all of them she could fit in her arms, out of the dryer. I noticed how she seemed to smile playfully, looking at me over her outthrust butt in a way that made me wonder if she knew I was staring, or even bent over like that intentionally so I would. She then straightened herself, allowing the shirt to fall back over her, and put the pile of clothes on the top of the dryer. It was hard to tell exactly what was in that pile, but looked mostly like colored pants and leggings. After dropping that load, she bent down again to gather those straggling things that slipped out of her grasp the first time, so I got to see her panty-covered butt bouncing a few more times, and again, I couldn't help but stare, at least for a few seconds before I finally got too embarrassed and decided I needed to get out of there. "You know, maybe I should just wait upstairs while you do this..."

"Don't be silly," she said, turning her head to look at me out of the corner of her eye, rather than head on, and I wondered if it was because of embarrassment. "This won't take long. Besides, I like the company." Now that the dryer was empty, she put her wet clothes inside, then, without closing the door, she turned to me, looking me up and down. There seemed to be a hint of nervousness in her voice as she asked, "You sure you don't want to put your clothes in?"

Was she asking me to get undressed? "I don't think that would be a good idea." Besides, the parts of me that did get wet, while not totally dry, fit more in the category of 'just a little damp.'

"Are you sure? I don't mind." She seemed to be speaking very quickly and her eyes looked my body over again. "I mean, it's not like you'd be naked or anything, it'd just be like, you know, taking your shirt off at the beach."

"Yeah, well, I don't even take my shirt off at the beach," I said with a nervous laugh in my voice.

She tilted her head like a confused puppy. "You don't? Why not?"

"I don't know," I said, not able to meet her gaze, although I did notice then that she'd taken her glasses off and put them on the lid of the washer. Maybe that was why it was hard to look at her, those big, innocent eyes were now naked, the glasses no longer making her look more mature, and, after what I'd just been staring at, I felt guilty.

"Do you, like, have scars or something?"

"No," I said, a little too fast. She waited patiently. I shrugged, figuring it couldn't really hurt by telling the truth, and said, "I don't know, I guess I'm just insecure about how I look. I get embarrassed. And I burn easily."

She once again gave me that appraising up and down look. "You look fine to me."

"Thanks, but..." I didn't know where I was going with that, and shrugged once more, and started again. "I still get uncomfortable with people looking at me. It's like... a part of me thinks I look okay, but there's a much louder part that points out any flaws." It wasn't rational, but it was true.

She was quiet for a moment, then her mouth opened slowly, worked a bit like she was trying out certain words before saying them, and finally said, "I didn't know guys got that too."

I gave her a weak reassuring smile, on more comfortable footing now. Even after making an embarrassing personal revelation, that was nothing compared to what I'd been perving on. And it was easy to convince myself I'd slipped into the "older friend teaching her important life lessons" role which was a position I wouldn't be ashamed of... at least assuming those life-lessons were rated PG and did not involve touching. "Believe me, plenty of guys are just as insecure about their looks as girls are. We're just socialized to hide it more."

"You're not hiding it with me," she pointed out.

My mom, who was the one who taught me at a young age that boys were socialized to hide our feelings more, always encouraged me to go the other way, be open about my feeling. It didn't entirely take... I've just always been a reserved, private person, but it helped, and was probably part of the reason I'd admitted that to Astrid. The other reason was Astrid herself. "Well, I guess you're easy to talk to." Which wasn't true, she was incredibly stressful to talk to, it felt like I was walking through a minefield, but at the same time... it was weirdly enjoyable, and it made me want to confess more to her.

"So..." she looked down at my chest again. "You could still take off your shirt. To dry it, I mean. It's just me. I won't make fun."

I shook my head. "No. It wouldn't be right."

She exhaled, and I thought that it could be a sigh, but it was hard to say for sure. "Fine."

Astrid turned back to her task and threw her wet clothes, now including the socks she'd thrown down the stairs earlier, in the dryer. It was a large, old model of dryer, and although she might not have had to, she stood on her tiptoes to more comfortably reach the controls on the top. "Not going to wash those first?" I asked.

"Nah, they're just wet, not really dirty." She pressed a button and the dryer started to thrum and shake, then grabbed her glasses and pushed past me. "Let's go back upstairs."

I started to follow, fully intending to stop at the landing, drain my coffee, and say that I needed to be going, but... she walked up the stairs first, which let me look up and see up that t-shirt, the very bottom of her ass and the underwear struggling to cover it all, and before I knew, I was in the kitchen. She put her glasses back on, found her cup of coffee, and turned back to me, sipping it. "So, let's say you were in the Hunger Games," she said. "How do you think you'd do?"

Turning my own conversational tricks against me. Clever girl. Still, I never could resist a good hypothetical. "Probably not well. Although, technically, I couldn't be chosen any more." I saw her confused look, and filled in the blank. "Too old. You're only eligible from twelve to eighteen."

"Oh," she said. "How old are you?"


She gave me a guilty smile, like she was both embarrassed and pleased at the same time. "I thought you were younger." I guess that was nice to hear. "So you're what, in college?"


"I'm not even in high school yet."

Once again, I wondered if she was evaluating me romantically. Was that said like a question, as if she was asking me if that wasn't okay? If so, I could have told her I was too old for her and stop it in advance, but if she wasn't, that would sound creepy. I couldn't tell, so instead I just said, "You'll get there."

She shrugged, returning to the topic. "Anyway, pretend you were selected anyway," she said. "Maybe it was a Quarter Quell or something like that. How do you think you'd do?"

I thought about it. "Not well. I don't really have any skills that would be good for fighting... and I don't think I'd want to, anyway. I guess I might be good at hiding, so I'd try to hide out, hope everyone else killed each other."

"They wouldn't let you," she pointed out. "They'd make something happen."

I nodded, took another sip of my coffee. "Well, I'd try anyway. And... I don't know. I'd rather die trying to escape than trying to kill somebody else."

"Show them you won't play by their stupid rules?"

"Something like that. Fight the power, as my Mom likes to say." Also cowardice, though, since I wouldn't be trying to escape to send a message, but just to stay alive. But I did have a braver side, and if I was going to be all noble... well, what I'd probably do is try to find somebody like Rue, innocent and not likely to survive, and do my best to keep her alive as long as I could, dying to save her if necessary. If I had to die, that's the way I'd want to do it. I had a brief image of Astrid and me in the games together, and me standing between her and some well-trained tribute with a knife, ready to do anything just hold him back long enough to give her time to run away. The thought made me absurdly warm inside for a fantasy that involved my immediate bloody death. But I couldn't say that. It would give her the wrong idea, whether that wrong idea was creepy or romantic, I didn't know, but it would be the wrong idea. "How about you?"

"Well, I COULD be chosen. If it were real, I mean. And I'm not really strong, or a good fighter. And I'd probably be younger than all of the other competitors. But I read, so... I have to rely on my wits. I think I'd lay traps."


"You know, like, I don't want to kill somebody, but, if somebody starts to follow me and along the way they trip and someone gets impaled on a sharp stick..." she shrugged innocently. "Not my fault, right?"

"I guess. It's a pretty good plan. I do think people would underestimate you." If she were setting traps, I sensed I must be pretty close to the impaling part right now.

"Why's that?"

"Well, you don't really LOOK like a diabolical mastermind. You just look... cute and innocent."

She looked away, and I thought I saw her blush. "I'd have to use that to my advantage too. Play innocent and helpless."

"So people try to take advantage of you." Was she doing that right now, I wondered?

She looked back at me and smiled, a smile of someone who had a deadly secret. "They can try." Then she winked, and the smile widened.

Maybe she was just playing around... but for all that, I worried she might be overconfident, and ignorant of real dangers. After all, she had invited me here, if I was another kind of person, a villain, I could have harmed her, grabbed her, pin her to a wall and do whatever I wanted to her, and she didn't seem the least bit concerned that that was a possibility. In a Hunger Games scenario, she might not just seem innocent and helpless, she might actually be so.

My mind skittered aside and I started thinking, not about Astrid herself, but about the prevalence of rape in the Hunger Games in a more abstract sense. I mean, you've got a bunch of adolescents sure they're going to die, some are girls... you'd think, occasionally, there'd be a rape. Maybe even regularly. We live in a rape culture today, and it's hard to imagine Panem would be any better. Of course it would never be shown in a YA book... even though they did hint at forced prostitution for some of the winners, a violent rape was another matter. Would the Capitol watch the rape of a little girl? I'd assume they would, considering they watch them murder each other. But then, it is different, more taboo. The same way that an author will depict murder, but not that. Or, for that matter, what if a girl Astrid's age and an older guy were from the same District, thrown together... what if they got consensually sexual? Logically speaking, it could happen... both knowing they were probably going to die, they might do things they otherwise wouldn't. But it wouldn't be in the book, and maybe the Capitol would also find that somehow more abhorrent than gladiatorial murder.

Shit. I realized how disturbing my train of thought was, and it convinced me I needed to get out of there all the more. Out of irrational fear that she might be able to guess what I was thinking, I continued the conversation while working on my exit strategy. "It might work on the sponsors, too, get them to give their special cream or whatever." Shit, that sounded way more dirty out loud than it did in my head. "I mean the stuff that magically heals wounds."

"Maybe. I doubt they care about innocent though, if they did they wouldn't be running it, right?"

Probably a fair point. "They care about a good show. Sometimes innocence gives a good show." Like the show she unwittingly gave me. Okay, time to enact that exit strategy. "Anyway, it's been lovely talking to you, and thank you for the coffee, but..."

She didn't let me finish. "Wait, there's still some left. You can have another cup."

"No thanks. One was good en..."

Again she interrupted me. "You don't have to drink coffee. I can make you something to eat, if you want."

"I'm not really hungry. And I really have to..."

"Oh, come on... stay and watch some TV. Our Netflix subscription is temporarily out, but we can watch local stuff. Or we can just listen to music and talk more about books."

"Astrid, I really..."

"Or we can play video games. Please? It's so rare that I have somebody to play with, and I really like you."

"It's not like I don't want to play with you..." Shit, another thing that sounded bad. "But I have to go."

"We can do anything you want to," she said, the pleading tone now sounding more than a little desperate. Or maybe it was the words, which hinted at things I could not possibly believe she intended. But which caused my eyes to drop down to her legs.

And then, like I was in a dream, I watched her, with arms crossed to the opposite side grab the lower edge of her t-shirt and pull upwards, rendering first her panties visible, the ones which somehow looked both too small and in danger of falling off, but then also continued upwards. Soon, the shirt was inside out, covering her head and upthrust arms, but exposing her chest to my hungry gaze. Yes, I had seen the nipples before, through a thin, wet t-shirt, but seeing them completely bare, along with the complete contours of her upper body, that made me gulp in awe. They were far pinker than I expected, but perfect, even if the boobs were tiny it still made my cock swell and I could feel the head squeeze past the foreskin and strain against my pants.

A second later, she had the shirt off her head, and took another one to readjust her glasses which had been knocked askew by the undressing. I had that much time to not look like I was perving on a naked little girl. I wasted that time with my mouth hung open, wide, not sure what to say.

"I saw you staring before," she said. "It's okay. If you want to look, I don't mind."

"Wh... wh..." my mouth made sounds, but it was hard to form full words. What the fuck do I do now, was in my head, although it wasn't what I was trying to say.

She smiled uncertainly, seeming to take a little pride in having that affect on an adult. And my penis made another swell, like it was trying to say, "Hell, man, if she acts like this with someone she just met, she's probably already been nailed a few times... how much more harm could you do?" I knew the thought wasn't right, or fair. My mind might agree with my mom on much of feminist theory, but my penis was distinctly less evolved, and sometimes it flooded my brain with its own kind of propaganda and took over.

Not completely, though. The sentence I had been struggling with managed to get out. "Wh... what are you doing?"

"I just want you to stay," she said. "I told you, we can do anything you want." The way she stressed "anything" wasn't innocent, particularly as she took a step closer to me, her hand starting to outstretch, as though to take my hand and more directly invite a touch.

Chapter Nine:

I backed up quickly, knowing that if I didn't, I'd do something I'd regret... enjoy, maybe, but regret. And regret lasts longer than enjoyment. "Puh... put your shirt back on, please." But it was on the floor, now, and she'd have to bend down to get it.

She didn't even try. "But you want me," she said, and then her eyes seemed to go to the bulge in the front of my pants... or maybe they just drooped uncertainly. "Don't you?"

How was I supposed to answer that? I didn't want to lie to a kid, but I didn't want the truth to be what it was. "It's not right." That seemed fair and neutral, at least.

"I won't tell." She looked from my crotch to my eyes, and back again.... and back, again, to the eyes. Her own hand drifted down to the waistband of her panties. There was a glint in her eyes, like she'd figured out that if she pulled them down, I wouldn't be able to resist, and I'd be hers. I wasn't sure she was wrong.

"No," I said firmly. "Don't." She froze, but the panties were already in the process of being pulled down, lower on one leg than the other, exposing some of the mound but not the pussy itself. I didn't notice any hair, though, in the second before I closed my eyes. "If you don't get dressed, I'm leaving right now." I don't know if it was a bluff or not.

Astrid must have believed it though, for I heard her say, "Okay," like a sad puppy, and I opened my eyes to see her turn away from me to bend down and get her shirt. And I couldn't look away again, but she put it on and turned back to me, now aware I was watching. "I'm sorry, I just thought... I guess I really am ugly, huh?"

"You're not ugly," I said automatically. ""It's just... I'm too old for you. You're smart enough to know that."

"You don't have to 'kidzone' me." Was that a term now? I'd never heard it before. "I'm very mature for my age. Everyone says so."

"I'm sure they do. But that age is... twelve."

"Age ain't nothing but a number," she said. That phrase I had heard before, but the ungrammatical expression sounded so weird coming from her, a girl who I knew was smart and who still looked like some preteen version of a sexy librarian. I could look now, because she wasn't looking at me. Her eyes were still averted, her face red. "We get along so well, and I thought..."

"We just met," I interrupted her.

"Exactly! We just met and already..." She shook her head, dismissing whatever thought was going to be completed. "And now you're going to go."

I felt like I had to say something to her, offer some kind of mature advice from an adult, even if most of the time I only felt like one technically. And if she wasn't even looking at me, that was going to be hard. Besides, I needed to stall, get my thoughts in order. So I said, "Come on, let's sit down." She did look then, like she was surprised that I didn't just make an excuse and walk out. I circled around to the front of the couch and sat. She followed slowly, mostly watching her own feet as she stepped, but she settled herself beside me.

We sat there in silence for what felt like forever, but must have only been a few seconds, and then I took her hand, the first time I consciously touched her. Sure, there may have been brushes together before that, but that's not the same thing as a deliberate touch. There were times, in the months following, where I woke from some dream convinced that, while she was naked, she stepped towards me and I put my hand out to stop her and made contact with her immature chest, or did even worse, and sometimes in those predawn hours I would be convinced that it actually happened for a long time before my full faculties returned and I remembered, no matter how much I might have stared inappropriately, when I reached out to touch her, it was only with my hand. Maybe it doesn't make up for the staring, and certainly not for how things turned out, but it was something, a moment of being noble.

In that moment, she seemed to suck in her breath a little at the contact, but I encircled her tiny hand with mine and held it gently until she looked at me. "Look, Astrid, I like you... I do. If I were your age, I'd jump at the chance to be with you..." Wow, that sounded bad, so I backtracked. "And I mean just be your boyfriend, even without sex. Or even just a friend. Because... well, I know it might not seem that way, but sex is... well, it's complicated. A lot of bad things can happen, to your body, your heart, your reputation... and even if you're lucky enough so far that they haven't happened to you yet..." I didn't want to slut shame her, but being promiscuous wasn't the most healthy thing at her age regardless of sex.

"I've never done it before," she said. "I mean, I know guys who wanted to, even older guys your age." She looked at me out of the corner of my eye, like she was hoping that would sway me.

I was too busy being surprised by the broader implication. Wait... she offered her virginity to me? We just met! "Then... why?"

She mumbled as she spoke. "I don't know... you just seemed like... like you were special."

Is it awful that made me feel on top of the world? I hardly ever felt particularly special to anyone, other than family, and they're biased. "I'm not, though. I'm just a guy who likes a lot of the same things you do. You're going to meet tons of those. And when you do, you're better off not... rushing into anything. People always say things like... trust your instincts. But your instincts can lie to you too. Some people get very good at fooling them, and it's easy to get hurt if you trust them too much."

"I don't believe you were fooling me..."

"I just mean you don't know. You can't know. I could easily have been some kind of monster. That's why stripping down in front of someone is a really, really bad idea."

"I only did it because you were going to go..."

"So?" I asked. "What's the big deal? Is there..." I paused, suddenly worried that there was something deep going on. "Is there some reason you don't want to be alone?"


"Like some kind of problem, or something."

She shook her head quickly. "No... it's just... I'm alone all the time." Her eyes snapped to mine. "Like, not ALL the time, but until my Mom gets off work, I have to stay here and there's never anyone to talk to, and I don't have a phone and right now we don't have Internet and...." Her voice filled with adolescent frustration as she finished, "I just get so bored."

"Bored," I repeated. Yeah, great, offer your virginity up to a stranger because you were bored. Again, I didn't want to slut shame, I know how the intersection of boredom, loneliness and arousal could feel... hell, when I was her age I probably would have done the same thing if an attractive woman was willing... but being a few years past that, it now just seemed crazy that it happened to someone else.

"Even with books, I just... I just wanted somebody to... I want my own adventure, you know?"

I knew that feeling as well, when you feel books are a poor substitute for something you're lacking. "You will... you'll have tons of them. There's no need to rush into..."

She must have sensed what I meant, because she interrupted me, "I wouldn't have gone all the way with just anybody," she insisted. "But I thought maybe you and I were like... meant to be. Like, we connected. I'm not, like, easy."

Seemed to me like the only thing not easy was turning her down. But I couldn't say that. And I felt much better about my decision, she seemed so much younger now, even a little lost. "Astrid... wanting sex doesn't make you easy, people want it for all sorts of reasons. Not the least because it feels good..." Why did I feel that was an important point to make? "But it doesn't mean those reasons are good reasons to jump into something you can't undo. These things... if they really were meant to happen, they'd happen. Like destiny," I said. "Things would keep pulling us together. If you offer... that because you think you're going to lose someone... well, you're probably going to lose them anyway, they'll just take whatever they can get from you first."

She looked up at me, eyes seeming to shine. "So why didn't you?"

"Like I said, I'm too old for you."

"But... you wanted to, I saw." And her eyes went down to my crotch, this time I was sure of it.

Christ. I guess my bulge was more obvious than I thought, and as my mind raced with the possibility that she was about to make another offer, I became half-terrified, half-aroused. I lifted one foot to the couch to try and disguise it, probably unsuccessfully, as I said, "That doesn't matter. That's... instinct, a reaction. And like I said... sometimes going with your instincts is a really, really, bad idea. I think you know why."

"Because it's illegal. But if you want to and I want to and I'm not going to tell..."

"Because it's illegal," I repeated firmly, cutting off her speech as it was growing excited again, before she could make an offer I wasn't sure I could refuse any longer, "but mostly because I think it would hurt you." She looked up at me, one eye more open than the other, like she didn't really believe that, so I quickly added. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life." When did I start quoting Casablanca? I'd never even seen the movie, just clips. If the movie had a line about how to gracefully turn down a preteen girl's sexual advances, it was sadly not quotable enough for me to have heard it. Nor was there anything for what came next, so I just had to wing it. "Someday you're going to find someone who's really special, and I hope it'll be a great moment that you'll remember forever. If I were to take advantage of you, take... that moment from you.... I'd just be proving I didn't care about you."

She pulled away from me, turned her back to me, and flumphed on the opposite armrest, sulking, at least it felt like she was. I stopped paying close attention once I realized that from that position I could still see her panties under her shirt. I'm disgusting. "But you don't, do you? I'm just some stupid, embarrassing little girl to you."

"You're a great girl. You're smart, you're fun." You've got a surprisingly attractive ass. "I wish I knew a girl like you when I was your age. But even smart people make mistakes, and I'm just trying to help."

"Yeah, well, I don't need your help."

I exhaled and nodded, more to myself than anything because she was still facing away. "Okay. Then I guess I'll go."

"Yeah, way to show you care," she snapped. "Leave me here all alone. Walk away."

"You know... in a book, sometimes the hero knows that if he stays, people he cares about are going to be hurt. And that'll be his fault. So he goes, even though that hurts too." I hardly felt like a hero now, but I wanted to put a positive spin on it for her. "Sometimes... sometimes walking away is the most caring thing you can do for someone."

She didn't say anything, and so I pulled myself into a stand and moved towards the door. "Wait," she said. I stopped, looked back at her. She was sitting up, had slid over to the side of the couch closest to me. "Can I have, like, your phone number or Skype or something? So maybe we could talk sometimes?"

I pictured her calling me every day, just to talk, and there was a part of me that really craved that... but then there I pictured her maybe sending racy pics to my phone, or offering herself again, and... well, part of me really craved that, too, but I feared that part of me. I also feared what might happen if her mother discovered her communicating with an adult guy, even if I was a perfect gentleman from here on out. Or hell, if my mother did, it would be just as bad. "I can't," I said, and her face instantly fell. "Not because I don't want to."

"Sure," she said flatly.

"No, really. I'm just afraid of what might happen." I wondered, frantically, whether it was inappropriate to admit to a little girl that you were afraid that if you kept in contact, she might be able to talk you into having sex with her. It seemed like it probably was. "Besides, it's too... easy." She looked confused for a second, and I continued, "Anyone can talk to anyone these days, without even trying. It takes away a little of the magic, don't you think? You run out of things to talk about pretty quickly. But you and I? We'll probably run into each other from time to time... I mean, we live in the same neighborhood." By a very generous interpretation of the word neighborhood. "And whenever we do, we'll always have new things to talk about. And if we don't see each other again... then I guess it wasn't meant to be."

"Leave it up to Fate, you mean?" she asked. "Like something in a story?"


She said nothing for a long moment, then turned away. "Whatever."

"Okay. Well, now I really have to go." I took a breath, like I was making some big momentous decision, but really I wasn't. The decision had already been made, and I knew it was the right one. So I just continued down the hall towards where I left my shoes and bag.

At the landing, I noticed it had stopped raining, and there was even a beam of sun peeking through. If I was religious, I might think the weather itself was rewarding my decision. After slipping my shoes on and slinging my bag over a shoulder, I opened the door.

"Hey," I heard, from right behind me. I hadn't even heard Astrid get up, but she'd followed me, and when I turned back, she held my umbrella, which I'd left hanging on a hook and had neglected to grab. "Don't forget this."

"Oh, right, thanks." I reached for it, and our fingers touched briefly as she passed it over, and I realized that the gel handle now had the impressions of her fingers in it.

"Thank you," she said, seemingly composed. "For walking me home at least."

"It was my pleasure." She looked down at her feet. "Bye. Take care of yourself, Astrid."

"Until we meet again."

I turned and walked away, looking back only once, but she'd closed the door. It wasn't raining, but I still held the umbrella, closed, in my hand, feeling the indentations Astrid had left behind and imagining it was somehow me holding her hand. But the depressions were fading, as I knew they must.

I hurried to the street, and then like a machine retraced the path back to a main road, so I could rejoin my life.

Until we meet again, she'd said, because we'd left it up to Fate. But I didn't expect to see her... it was a big city, and we weren't really in the same neighborhood by any reasonable standard. The odds were low, and knowing I could make them lower loosened a knot of tension in my chest.

It wasn't that I didn't want to see her again, I just didn't think it'd be good for either of us. So maybe I'd stack the deck against Fate a little bit. I could form strategies to avoid running into her... like, I could never walk down the street where I first met her. Maybe never walk at all, and simply commit to taking the bus from then on. Or maybe, I decided, I'd even quit that job and find another, elsewhere in the city, just to be safe... sure my cousin did stick her neck out for me, but I think these concerns trumped those.

I think it's absolutely fair to say I was planning never to see Astrid again.

But sometimes, even the best plans come apart when Fate sends an unexpected Hitch your way.

The End (for now)

Next: The Halloween Hitch

Fanart: zorakid has drawn some fanart of Karl and Astrid walking in the rain that you can see here.

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