This is another exercise in character study; this time, I’m attempting to portray awkwardness and embarrassment, shyness and nerves. Please feel free to let me know how you like it, what works, what doesn’t, etc. Thanks for the read!
UPDATED: I’ve made some changes based on the feedback on 18 Dec 2009. I hope this is an improvement over the previous piece.
He scrutinized his image in the rearview mirror and turned his head from side to side. His hat spat his hair out in tufts, and stubble crept over his cheeks, chapped lips and jaw. He sighed. It would have to do.
The pickup’s door screamed when he opened it. The wind knifed through threadbare denim as he seated his tired hat lower and zipped his jacket. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, sniffed, and headed for the general store’s entrance.
The wooden building seemed as brittle as the winter. His heels thumped a hollow cadence as he went up the stairs and crossed the porch. The bell over the door jangled as he stepped into the warmth. The figure behind the counter fluttered his heart and made his knees quiver.
She turned and beamed. “Hi, Jake!”
He thought he’d faint for a moment, then recomposed himself. “Hey there, Ellie. How’re you?” The moment he said it he felt phony. A blush burned his cheeks.
“I’m good!” She moved to the end of the counter. “Not used to seeing you in so much. It’s nice.”
Another burn in his cheeks. “Oh, well … you know. I keep needin’ stuff, so … um ….”
He felt stupid. He never knew how to talk to her. He’d been watching her, pining for her, for more than a year. She always made him feel special, even when the store was crowded. He couldn’t figure out what to say, how to say it, and he felt like a schoolboy with his first crush. He hoped he didn’t resort to pulling her hair.
She giggled. “Yeah, I guess we all keep needing things.” She leaned over the counter on her elbows and he panicked. He thought he might see down the collar of the T-shirt she wore, but the neck stayed closed. He didn’t realize he’d looked away until he glanced at her again.
“So, I … I … was just out an’ around, an’ thought maybe I’d stop and pick up a few … things.” He cleared his throat and ripped the hat from his head. He’d forgotten his manners and gritted his teeth in self-loathing.
“Oh, well it’s always nice to see you. I guess you know where everything is.” She winked at him and started to turn away.
“Y-yeah, yeah, but … um ….”
She perked a brow and turned back. “Need some help?” She smiled again and he froze, a rabbit in a coyote’s gaze.
He dropped his eyes and his stomach fluttered. “I-I … I wanted to … I think I wanted to ask you … Ellie ….” He swallowed but the lump wedged in his throat.
She leaned on the counter, her face curious and open. “Yes?”
He squeezed his fists to marshal his courage before he remembered his hat in his hands. He relaxed and stared at the crumpled brim and tried to find words, testosterone, and his voice. He smoothed the softened felt.
“Jake? Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Oh, yeah! Yeah, I’m … I’m good! Really!” He spoke too loud and too quick and it sounded forced to him. He inwardly cursed his clumsiness and drew a long breath. “Ellie, look … I’m shitty – sorry, I mean I’m bad – bad at this. I know you got things to do and all, but I wanted to ask you somethin’ and I ….”
She tipped her head and offered a small grin. “It’s okay, go ahead. I’m listening.”
“But … I don’t want you thinkin’ I come in here today just for stuff … I ain’t … I mean, I’m dumb an’ all, but not so I can’t remember supplies more’n a day ahead, y’know?”
She smiled and nodded. “I know that.”
He stared at his shoes. “I sorta … sorta come in to talk to you today.”
“Oh?” She kept her voice even. He couldn’t think straight enough to figure out what that meant.
“So, I was thinkin’ … maybe, if you ain’t opposed ….” Again the lump choked him. He clenched his jaw and eyes shut, then popped them open before he looked her in the eye. “I wondered if you’d–”
The bell jangled and he jumped. His hands stung with adrenaline from the start and he bit his tongue. Bill Wahler and five or six ranchers from up Wildwood way tromped into the store, slapping their arms and rubbing their hands together.
“Woo! Cold out there!” Bill called, and tipped his hat back. “Hey, Jake! How you been, cowboy?” Wahler patted Jake on the back. “Ain’t see ya in a while.”
Jake forced a smile. “Hey Bill, good to see you, sir. Ray, Davey, how you boys doin’?”
The ranchers huddled around him while Bill stepped to the counter. He pulled off his hat and swept his silver hair back. “Miss Ellie, how’s the sweetest thing in the county this fine day?”
Jake heard her laughter tinkle as she spoke with the flirty old man. He chatted another ten minutes or so with the ranchers, walked silently out of the store, climbed into his truck, and made the long, cold ride home.
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