“Wanna talk about it?”
Derek placed a glass of orange juice in front of a teary-eyed Cindy. He was going to offer tea or coffee, but he couldn’t bear leaving her alone in that state enough to put together such thing.
Cindy sniffed and forced a sad smile.
“Kinda,” she admitted. “But I don’t really know how.”
Derek didn’t know how to answer to that. He didn’t know how to do the empathy thing. He wanted so badly, but he sucked so much at it. He’d never felt the need to. He didn’t even know how to pat people on the shoulder and mutter a ‘there, there’ under his breath. But this was Cindy and she was slowly breaking under his eyes and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to put his arms around her and sooth her and run his hands through her hair while she cried herself to sleep on his chest. Yeah, he was in some deep shit. Such a time Ray had chosen to leave him alone. With Cindy on his mind. In such. Deep. Shit.
“I mean, I want to,” Cindy continued, her voice breaking. “But I’ve never talked about it. I don’t know how to say it out loud.”
Derek reached and took her hand, surprising both of them. But he didn’t waste time thinking about it. He was having trouble focusing on anything else than finding ways to make her feel better.
“It’s okay,” he said, and hoped he was doing things right. For her sake. “If you wanna get it out, I’m here to listen. If you wanna stay here until it goes away or gets better, I’m also here to hide you from whatever it is you’re running from.”
Cindy simply stared at him, unable to wrap her head around what had just come out of his mouth.
That makes two of us, girl, Derek thought, but made sure his face was still composed and serious and sympathetic. She’d said she hadn’t known where else to go. She’d chosen to come to him. And he needed to live up to her expectations. And it was an odd feeling. He’d always hated women’s expectations of him. He’d always found them suffocating, like shackles keeping you in place, wherever they wanted you to be. But he’d mostly made up those expectations. Cindy might have not wanted anything from him, but he was ready to offer. That’s how badly he wanted to make things right between the two of them.
A tear rolled off Cindy’s cheek, but she didn’t bother with it, her eyes still locked with Derek’s. So he reached and brushed his thumb across her cheek gently as a whisper, wiping away that small teardrop, and she shot him the faintest of smiles.
“My dad just died,” she blurted out, and Derek’s eyebrows shot up.
“What?” he shrieked lightly, and Cindy buried her face in her palms.
“This morning,” she said after a long pause in which Derek let her pull herself together. “And I’m somewhere halfway between, ‘I should be sorry, but I’m not’, and ‘I shouldn’t be sorry, but I am’. Does this even make any sense?”
She groaned, and Derek awkwardly scratched the back of his neck.
“In a way, I guess,” he replied. “I do get what you’re trying to say. I don’t understand why, though.”
She sniffed and took a deep breath, trying to put an end to all that crying. Cindy hated feeling so weak. Her father had been the reason why she’d promised herself she’d toughen up and never shed a tear again. And of course, he’d been the one to also make her break that vow so many years later.
So she started telling Derek the story that she had never said out loud. And she was saying it out loud for Derek McCarter. She’d come to Derek McCarter. But that was something she’d deal with some other day.
“My father wasn’t exactly a role model,” she began sheepishly. “Neither him, nor my mom. I’ve been beaten up, cursed at, woken up in emergency rooms and blamed for whatever new way they’d hurt me. ‘How many times I’ve told you to get out of my way when you’re home, Cindy’? And ‘You’re the clumsy one for getting in front of my bottle, Cindy’. Stuff like that.”
She shrugged, trying to dismiss it as no big deal, but Derek felt his blood boil.
“Oh, God,” he gulped, clenching his jaw and his fists so hard his muscles hurt.
“It didn’t matter,” Cindy flashed him a broken smile. “I didn’t know any better. I though that’s how most families were. How family is supposed to be.”
“That’s so messed up,” Derek hissed under his breath and stood up, feeling the need to pace back and forth. If the guy had still been alive, he was sure he’d have gone and shaken Cindy’s dad pretty well.
“It really was,” Cindy chuckled humorlessly. “And I only realized that when I was 16 and he… crossed some lines.”
“Jesus Christ,” Derek rubbed his face, his heart thumping loudly in rage. He couldn’t picture how it must’ve been for Cindy. A total nightmare. A cruel and unfair one.
“He tried to cross some lines,” Cindy corrected herself, the ghost of a smug smile bringing some color in her pale cheeks. “He never got to. It was like my eyes popped open out of a sudden and I saw how sick the whole situation was. So I did the only reasonable thing I could think of.”
She paused for effect.
“I beat the crap out of him with one of his golf sticks.”
Derek stopped pacing and looked at her impressed. Really impressed.
“Huh,” he exclaimed, shooting her a proud smile, and she even chuckled a little.
“Yeah. He never laid another hand on me ever again. And that’s the day I stopped talking to my parents at all. For two more years, until I went to college, we were just strangers living under the same roof.”
“What about your mom, though?” Derek questioned. “Any mother in her right mind would’ve taken her kid and fled after that.”
Cindy huffed. “I couldn’t agree more. But I never said my mom was in her right mind. It was your typical domestic violence situation. I was bullied and no one cared. But I made sure it never happened again. I made sure to grow up strong and independent and never have anyone make me cry again.”
She took a deep breath, clearly fighting back a few more tears, and Derek let her have her moment.
“Until now,” her voice broke, and a few rebel tears did escape down her cheeks, and she broke out into a cascade of sobs in no time.
Derek crossed the room in two steps and sat next to her on the couch, not wasting a breath before pulling her to his chest and letting him cry into his T-shirt while he ran his hands through her crimson curls. Just as he’d anticipated. This, he was good at. He could do this much for her.
“How?” he asked after a few minutes, when she had already calmed down.
She knew exactly what he meant and pulled back, wiping away a few of her tears.
“Cirrhosis,” she whispered. “Alcohol destroyed his liver. How unpredictable, right?”
“And your mom?”
“She killed herself,” she stated simply, but Derek saw behind the meaning of her words. It wasn’t hard too, really; even a thick head like himself could understand what she implied. A life like that can get the best out of anyone, and from her story, Derek could tell her mom hadn’t been that strong of a spirit.
Cindy sighed and Derek removed a few strands from her tear-soaked face. The gesture took both of them aback, but for the time being, they figured it was wise to ignore it.
“I know he was a bastard,” Cindy hissed through her teeth, pursing her lips in anger. “Dammit, I know that. It’s the most decent thing I can call him, trust me. He was less than a human being and I hate myself for feeling this way, but I can’t help but think I’m alone now. There’s no one left to care about me and I am completely, utterly, painfully alone.”
She tried to hold it in, but the tears broke through, and she closed her eyes this time, letting them flow like a soothing river, letting herself flooded by the feeling, embracing it with arms wide open, because it was all she had left at the moment. She flinched a little when she felt Derek’s hands on her cheeks and she opened her eyes.
“Listen to me, Cindy,” he spoke fiercely, his brown eyes keeping her locked in a one-way highway they’d started driving on at full speed. “Remember what it took you to build that strong independent self you take such pride in? Hold on to that. You can’t break now. Think of it as waking from a nightmare. It was bad and it left you scared and vulnerable. But it’s over. You’re still here and you’re everything but lonely.”
She stared at him wide-eyed for a few seconds, before dropping her gaze and smiling sheepishly.
“That was a nice speech and I gotta thank you for it,” she said. “And you’re right. I need to hold on to what I’ve built. But Derek, that doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t any people who truly care for me.”
He dropped his hands from her face to her wrists, knowing that the words he was about to say, however random and insignificant they might have seemed to her, were a game changer for him, because he knew exactly what roots that tree had grown from.
“Then go make some.”
It was 5 am. Ray hadn’t been able to get a single minute of sleep all night. He’d tossed and turned in his bed, feeling all too aware of the empty side of it. He’d stared at the ceiling for hours before deciding he couldn’t wait anymore, couldn’t sit here doing nothing.
So he got up from his bed and got dressed, walked out the door holding his every hope stuffed in his pocket.
So here he was, at 5 am, in the cold air of a March morning. It was early spring, holding the promise of fresh starts, of awoken senses, of lost minds and losing counts of sunrises and sunsets and skies painted in red. He didn’t need skies painted in red, though. He just needed two blue skies. Two blue skies he kept waiting for to show up.
Ray was pacing back and forth, cold and anxious and hopeful and hopeless.
It was 7 o’clock. Technically, this was when the real waiting started. Even his fried up brain knew she couldn’t have come at 5 in the morning. But still he waited. He took shelter on that empty bench, painting it with a map of every made up scenario he could come up with for the moment when he’d see Sky slowly come in his sight. Maybe they’d kiss. Maybe she’d stop right in front of him and they’d smile and they’d know they would make it through. Maybe he’d extend his hand and ask her to dance once more, like that first time. They played in a loop for hours.
It was past 9.
No sign of Sky.
Just clouds and the threat of a storm, and if the storm was so close, then where was she? Was she willing to shatter his hopes via messengers?
By 10 o’clock, it started raining, and Ray never appreciated these little ironies less.
He was supposed to be at the train station a little before 12, and he hadn’t packed a thing, but maybe if he could just wait for a few minutes longer. Just a few more minutes. He’d read enough books and seen enough movies to know the greatest things happen just seconds before you’re ready to give up. They always show up to turn you around just as you’re about to leave.
So Ray kept his eyes glued to the horizon.
She had to come.
She couldn’t just let go.
No goodbyes. No last kiss. No empty promises and no last brush of fingers. If this were a book or a movie, then he must’ve gotten the wrong script, ’cause it wasn’t going well.
The girl of his dreams was supposed to show up and throw herself helplessly in his arms, vowing to follow him to whatever end, or he’d vow to never leave her side regardless of whatever he was offered. There’d be more dreams to pursue. There was only one Sky.
But instead of these things, Ray just sat on his bench, pulling at his hair because he couldn’t remember their last kiss. But unless accounted for, you never remember or cherish these things. Because you always believe you’ll get more of them. So you never stop to capture that moment in time for the long run. And now, the taste of her chapstick on his lips was fading, as was her smell, as was the touch of her velvet skin.
It was 10:30. He couldn’t wait anymore.
Ray sat up from the bench and started walking backwards, his eyes still glued to the horizon.
A few more steps.
Please, show up.
And then a few more.
Please, turn me around.
Three heartbeats and a broken horizon. A skyless, empty horizon.
She spent the whole night wondering. Pacing. Wondering some more.
The decision was made and she was standing by it. She would not get in the way of Ray’s dreams. She couldn’t ask him to give everything up for her when she couldn’t offer him anything at all. Not when she didn’t even have herself to offer.
She put him out of her mind and tried to ignore the clock on her night stand staring right back at her, through her, within her. She wouldn’t go. She couldn’t do that to him.
But after hours of pacing back and forth, of reading, cooking, watching movies, cleaning up, anything to take him from her mind, she dared to take a look at the clock.
He must’ve been long gone from the docks. She pictured him standing there, his eyes traveling the distance, watching for her silhouette. One who didn’t show up. She pictured his face as he walked away with his heart heavy, the corners of his eyes turned slightly downwards, lips pursed tight and jaw clenched, breathing evenly in and out through his nose as disappointment settled in and curled up his insides. She knew exactly, cause she felt the exact same way.
At 11:28, she caved.
She gave in to the impulse and knew she couldn’t lose him. She was selfish, but she had been playing Russian roulette her whole life. For these past few months, she’d learned that the bullet was Ray Cartwright. And this was the last shot. She couldn’t call the shots right now.
She flew down the stairs, and down the streets, and to the cab, and urged the taxi driver to drive faster, then she flew down the streets again, and up the stairs, and to Ray’s door.
Her knees hadn’t shaken so badly her whole life. She didn’t dare look at the clock. She knew Ray had to catch his train at 12, but she needed to believe she’d made it. She had to have made it.
She touched the doorknob reluctantly and pressed slightly. The door didn’t move.
Okay. There was no need to panic. Ray did keep his door locked sometimes. She searched her pockets for the spare key he’d given her and with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking, she tried the keyhole. It took her a few tries, but she managed to unlock the door.
She took a deep breath and put on the brightest smile she had, thinking about how Ray’s face would light up at her sight. Thinking about the way his arms would tighten around her, of how he’d bury his nose in her hair, breathing her in, and how he’d kiss all the way from her temples to her lips.
Her heart shuddered in anticipation.
She opened the door and walked inside.
Her gaze fell first on the clock in Ray’s kitchen.
Her brain stopped working for a minute and the bright smile would not wash off her face. Her brain knew she was too late, but her heart was having a hard time acknowledging that.
And then she took a few steps around the empty apartment. No picture frames, no Ray’s old worn jacket, no random books resting on the couch and on the coffee table and in basically every corner of this apartment. No more of her clothes lying around.
No more anything.
The apartment was literally empty, a few rays of sunshine sneaking in through the window to remind her of the one ray of sunshine she’d lost.
She burst into a hysterical round of giggles and put her hands on her hips, looking around. Then she went into Ray’s bedroom –ex bedroom— and threw herself on his bed –old bed— and let go. She started crying like never before, for the one thing she’d ever wanted and let go of.
She was too late.
She had been playing Russian roulette her whole life. The gun was just never loaded.