Why was her house orange?
Vivien Rorie slowly got out of her car and stared around her in confusion. She looked at the number on the porch. It was her house.
When she’d left ten hours ago, the house had been the boring white it was when she bought it last year and the painters had arrived with the paint from the local home store. She was gone before they applied the first drop.
Now, she stood in her driveway in the little Eugene, Oregon neighborhood that was being refurbished one house at a time and blinked hard.
It was still orange.
One of the pleasant young men who’d arrived that morning came around the edge of the house with a ladder and a wave. Her face must have communicated clearly that something wasn’t right.
“Miss Rorie? Is something the matter?”
Swallowing hard, she whispered, “Why is the house orange?”
He carefully set down the ladder and put his hands on his hips. “I’m sorry. Did you ask why it was orange?” Somehow, she managed to nod. “Ma’am, this is the color reserved for you at the paint store.” The tension headache forming in her temples from the loud color solidified. “Miss Rorie, are you saying this is not the color you told them to mix for you?”
“God, orange? No, this is not the pretty, calming latte I picked. No. This is not a color I’d pick for an umbrella…much less my home.”
The young man closed his eyes and said, “Shit.” Fishing a battered cell phone from one of his pockets, he added, “Dad is going to skin me alive.”
Her anxiety began to climb and she cursed the stress disorder she’d brought out of a childhood she had barely survived. She tried to control her breathing, her heart rate, and her trembling. This wasn’t a situation that called for fight or flight but her mind often had a hard time telling the difference.
“Ma’am, are you alright?”
The grass was suddenly under her knees and she was gasping for breath. Distantly, she heard a truck in the street but she knew she was dangerously close to passing out. “Miss Rorie!” Hands were on her arm but she couldn’t get air enough to talk.
“Move, Thomas,” a very deep voice said beside her.
“Miss Rorie, you’re safe. It’s going to be fine. Focus on this paver. Focus hard on it, see how pretty the natural design of the stone is. That reminds me of a stream through the mountains not far from here. See this ridge? I have a camp site I visit every year that sits on a little ridge like that. I go in the fall when the weather is just right.”
The entire time he talked, he massaged her back between her shoulder blades. “That’s it, think about the atmosphere in a place like that. The cool water of the stream, the soft green of the grass, the way the birds sound. It’s so peaceful and there isn’t a thing to worry about. Just lots of greens and blues and clean air.”
The hard band that had wrapped around her diaphragm began to ease. Several minutes later, she sat back on her heels and rubbed her sternum.
“I…I’m sorry. I’m so embarrassed. It’s nothing I can’t fix. It’s nothing I can’t control. I’m sorry.”
A large presence moved beside her and suddenly Vivien was on her feet. Turning, she took in the stocky man beside her. He was barrel chested, wearing work coveralls, and had skin the color of coffee with a dash of cream. He was very thick all over with huge hands, a few inches taller than her but probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds. He had the kindest, gentlest dark brown eyes she’d ever seen and coarse close-cropped hair.
For his size, he wasn’t the least bit threatening and she took a deep breath.
“I’m Jed Andrews, Miss Rorie. I’m Thomas’s father and the owner of the company.”
She nodded and held out her hand. He took it carefully in his and she noticed how warm and calloused it was. “Better?”
His smile was bright white, without a trace of mockery, and she found herself saying quietly, “I’m alright. Orange isn’t so bad.”
Vivien felt foolish and self-conscious. Her red hair tended to frizz, she was covered head to toe in freckles, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t hide all the scars from the plate glass window her father had thrown her through when she was thirteen.
Jed gave her a bigger grin that showed off dimples in his cheeks. “Actually, ma’am, it’s pretty hideous. It doesn’t suit you a bit.” He tilted his head and added, “I came by around lunchtime and the boys had finished the first coat. I should have known it wasn’t right.”
“How would you know?”
“You have bird feeders and a little garden. All your little spaces are calm and filled with natural colors. This is not a calm color at all.”
“I should have picked up the paint.”
“Six five-gallon buckets?” There was a small shake of his head. “That wouldn’t have worked at all.” He gave her a quick glance and she knew he could tell she wasn’t physically strong. She could fight now but no matter how she tried, upper body strength had never happened. She was gangly and too thin all over.
Her father’s favorite nickname for her…“Matchstick”…flitted through her mind and made her blush brightly.
“You don’t need to worry though. We’ll do the primer-coat tomorrow; be back the day after to repaint. That sound alright?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Jed looked at Thomas and said quietly, “Leave the ladders and stuff stacked neatly in the back. You and Walter grab the primer from my van so you have it in the morning.”
Thomas gave a thumbs up and went back the way he’d come when she arrived, the ladder in his hands again. For a long moment, she stared at the grass between Jed’s feet. “How did you know? What was happening?”
“I was in the Army for twenty years. I’ve seen a lot of post-traumatic stress.”
“You’re welcome, Miss Rorie.”
“Vivien. My…my name is Vivien.”
“You’re welcome, Vivien.” The way her name sounded when he said it was almost magical. It rolled off his tongue smooth and easy, as if he’d used it a thousand times before. For the first time, she fully met his gaze. “You have incredibly pretty blue eyes, Vivien.”
It was strange to think she could have reached thirty years old and never had a man pay her such a compliment. It was something she’d never really thought about until it happened. She worked as the inventory manager for a large container company. Her work days were spent alone in her small office, calculating warehouse supply, scheduling staff, logging deliveries, and making orders.
She rarely talked to anyone. Men found her boring and women found her odd. She was both but she didn’t want to be.
“I appreciate that.” The blush was worse. She could feel it.
He looked at her and she wondered if he saw the unattractive, lonely, frightened person she was or if maybe he saw that she wanted to be interesting, she wished she was pretty, and there were so many things she needed to know, to experience, in her life before there came a day when she simply didn’t see the point anymore.
“Vivien, would you like to go for a cup of coffee? It’s going to take the guys another hour to finish up. There’s a little diner two blocks away. We could walk if you wanted.”
“I…I would like coffee.”
Ten minutes later they sat across from one another in a booth made for the big construction men that were most common here over the last few months. Her side had a broken spring and she sank even lower. She must have looked like a little girl compared to him. Hands clasped in her lap, the knuckles probably white, she gave the waitress her order.
As the woman walked away, Jed slid from his booth and gestured for her to stand. When she did, he gently nudged her into the booth and sat where she’d been sitting.
“Now I feel like we can see one another more evenly.”
This time, when she smiled it was with her entire face. “You’re very good at reading people, Jed.”
“I hope so, Vivien.” For almost an hour, he drew her out in conversation. Eventually, he told her they should eat since it was getting late. One hour turned into more than three. She couldn’t remember ever having a conversation with another human being in all her life for three hours.
What most surprised her is what she told him.
How her mother had died giving birth. That her father had despised her for surviving. The last attack that almost killed her and the many foster homes she’d lived in until she graduated high school. There was no other family, no friends. She hadn’t been to college but she took classes at the local vocational school. She’d been at her job for ten years and most people didn’t know her name. Some didn’t even know she worked there.
Jed listened and asked her questions to keep her talking.
“Why do you want to know about me?” She wasn’t trying to be coy – she didn’t understand why anyone would give up their evening to spend it with a stranger in such a way.
He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the table. “I want to know because you garden. I want to know because you have a dozen squirrel and bird feeders throughout your yard and there are two feral stray cats you feed on your back porch.” One large hand reached out and untwined hers, holding it gently.
“I want to know the woman who has death in her eyes but is fighting with everything she has to surround herself with life, with beauty, with positive things.”
She shook her head and he squeezed her hand. “A woman like you is worth knowing, Vivien. I want to take my time and get to know you.”
A million things went through her head. All the reasons she should tell him to run away from her, that she was too messed up, that he was wasting his time and wouldn’t end up liking her anyway.
Instead, she looked at his eyes and he stared at hers. They were steady and confident and kind and she wondered if maybe he could show her how to take the death out of hers.