“If it’s any consolation, he seems much happier with you than he ever was with Reid,” said Brittany.
“That’s an excellent consolation actually.” I smiled widely at her, forcing myself to appear cheery when it was all I could do to not punch the shit out of Reid’s face. He was standing too close to Ajax for my taste, looking up at him like a puppy dog that had been kicked to the curb. I would have been a little less insecure if he wasn’t so damn attractive. But what was I expecting anyway? Obviously Ajax went out with movie-star-looks-Reid. So I clenched my fists under the table and kept my mouth shut. I had to keep my cool and play my cards right.
I would have been successful in that if the fucker hadn’t gone and put his hand on my man. Touching was seriously out of the question. But that wasn’t even my biggest problem. There was a secret about his breakup that I had been keeping from him. And his ex was about to spill the beans. I could read lip movements and figure out what a person was saying. And Reid was not saying something I liked.
I marched up to them and demanded we go home, giving Reid the stink eye. I was glad when Ajax said that the boat on any explanations had sailed a long time ago. I have no clue how the situation reversed from there and completely crashed.
“I cheated on you,” said Reid.
That motherfucker. That stupid little motherfucker. He had to go and open his big mouth. Now Ajax looked liked someone had reached into his heart, pinched an artery really hard and then suddenly left him reeling. Because of him.
But Reid wasn’t done. Oh, no. “I made a huge mistake and I was so guilty that I couldn’t even face you. So I made a stupid excuse to break up. I mean, not dominant enough? Is that even a reason?” And now he was lying. But what he said did clear up a lot of things, like what happened after the first night Ajax and I spent together.
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“Oh now you don’t wanna not hurt him?” he said sarcastically.
“I don’t have to worry. You already did the job.” I smiled tightly and practically dragged Ajax out, after giving the son of a bitch a nice warning about exactly what mistakes he won’t be capable of making once I was done with him. Ajax didn’t have to listen to his shit or see his ugly face anymore.
He came out of shock once we reached the parking lot. His complete immobility suddenly transformed into agitated pacing. He ran his fingers through his hair, muttering incoherently under his breath. “How did you know about this? What is the actual story?” he asked me.
I sighed. “He slept with Hunter who told me everything. It happened because Hunter was always around, stalking Stuart, and Reid caught him in the act. One thing led to another, yadda yadda. And Reid was lying about that being the reason he broke up. I mean, sure, he was feeling guilty and shit but he had slept with Hunter many times while he was supposedly with you. Hunter refused to do that anymore unless he broke up with you. That’s why he ended things.”
He nodded. He looked more thoughtful and agitated than actually hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me before if you knew about it?”
“I didn’t want to hurt you. You couldn’t have changed what happened. What you don’t know can’t harm you, can it?”
He laughed without humor in a kind of a disbelieving manner. “I’m not hurt. I literally don’t care.”
“Ajax,” I said pointedly.
He stopped tapping his foot when I called him out on his jitters. “Okay, I’m pissed. Like, theoretically pissed. I dated the guy for a year, Emmett, and I could see him hurting me in a million different ways but cheating was never one of them. He’s got a stick up his ass about his reputation. He would never sully it because he was too horny.”
I went up to him and hesitantly put my arms around him, rubbing his back in comforting motions. “I’m sorry. I can go back and knock his teeth out for you.”
“You’re being surprisingly calm for a person who has been thrust into such an awkward situation. If I were you, I would’ve knocked his teeth out the moment I shook hands with him,” he said.
“Clearly I have lesser anger management issues than you do.”
“I have possessive issues,” he corrected me, setting his chin on my shoulder.
I pulled back slightly so I could look into his gorgeous eyes and determine exactly how much of a mess that son of a bitch made. “I don’t have an issue with that, Dreamy.”
“Good for me.” He finally smiled. “I guess you were right, huh? He really is a whore.”
“I usually like to say ‘I told you so’ but not this time.” I cupped his face in my hands gently and turned it up when he looked away. “I’m not good at the whole comforting thing. That’s your area of expertise. So tell me how to cheer you up and I’ll do it. Anything you want.”
From the glint in his eyes, I knew I was in trouble but I really wanted to cheer him up and make him forget about this whole deal. I didn’t care what it would take. “Anything. Just name it.”
“I want you to go home and sleep in a room. Not on the couch outside. In a room. Can you do that for me?” he asked carefully.
In a room. In the rooms. The closets full of skeletons that I didn’t have strength enough to bury yet. I needed to dig my holes deeper. Or fall into one of the graves before I could push them in. I never had the guts to enter those rooms with the ghosts of my dead family ready to haunt me the moment I opened the door.
“See, this is what I’m talking about. You shut yourself down if your toes even graze the deep waters. You need to open up the doors you’ve kept close for so long. I swear I’ll be there to tidy up the mess after you’re done. But let it out. Please. You’ll destroy yourself piece by piece if you don’t open up,” he said.
“And you’re positive this will cheer you up?” I asked.
“Yes.” He grinned for an enhanced effect to drive his point home.
I nodded. I knew I had to go there sometime. It was the right thing to do. Maybe a push was all I needed. So I agreed. I could do this for him.
But it was easier said than done. When I switched on the lights to my forlorn house, the crack in the door of Stuart’s room glared at me arrogantly, daring me to enter. And it was right. I was a coward. I willed my feet to move but they didn’t take a single step forward.
For a while, I entertained myself with the thought of lying to Ajax. I had the whole speech planned in my head. I would tell him that I did it, I slept in a room. I was perfectly normal. I wasn’t a fucking mess of a person who could break apart any second. I was okay. But if I was capable of lying to the man, we wouldn’t have gotten this far. He had a way of training his mesmerizing eyes on me and eliciting the truth.
When my eyes were leaking from staring at the slightly open door for too long and my limbs were so tired that I was about to fall any second, I forced my rusty muscles to take one step forward, two steps, three steps, until I reached the door and opened it.
The room was, for a lack of better terms, a mess. The sheets were rumpled up badly, an old blood stain pooled in the corner. A lamp was lying in one corner, remaining pieces of a broken flower vase scattered in another. The window was smashed in, a web of cracks on the little pieces of glass that stayed embedded in the window frame. Bits and pieces were lying all over the floor, caked with dried blood. There were tracks of blood that led from the edge of the bed to the door, right until the knob. I could imagine what must have gone down in my head. My hands clenched into fists at the image of my little brother or his sweet girlfriend getting assaulted by good for nothing goons.
Being there opened up a flood of emotions, memories and feelings. It was like a trapdoor had been opened and an army was running towards me, an army I couldn’t hope to escape. But by then, my legs had developed a mind of their own. They marched up to the bed, ignoring the sharp glass shards, and kneeled down. There was a box of letters under the bed, wedged in the same tiny space as always. I emptied the letters on the ground and started reading them one by one, catching up with lives that didn’t even exist anymore.
Mom is so much better. This will be the first thing I tell you when you come back home but I had to write it down now as well. She looks so happy...”
Guess what? I have a girlfriend. It’s that sweet librarian I told you about. I still can’t believe I managed to make the prettiest girl in the world fall in love with me...”
There’s not much to update you on. I’m studying diligently, the kids at the orphanage love me, even my boss adores me. But then he adores everything. There’s this...”
I wanted to tell you only happy things but I need to tell someone and writing this letter makes me feel like I’m talking to you. Mom keeps crying because she misses you so much. You need to come home soon and...”
It had been quite a long time since I’d last been home so the letters had piled up. Stuart was supposed to write every month so I would be all caught up with every detail, almost as if I never left. They used to be the highlight of my year and now I couldn’t think of anything that could pierce my heart with such cruel precision. I didn’t even notice that my hands were bleeding because of the broken glass until drops of blood settled into the thin pages, coloring them in red. Except that I really couldn’t get myself to care much.
My brother was dead. He would never hold a college degree in his hand. He would never become a professional psychologist and have his own practice. He would never marry that pretty librarian and have kids. He would never grow old.
My mother was dead. She would never get the big house she always wanted. She would never become the old, carefree version of herself when she wasn’t crippled by financial fear, the version that used to hum Neil Diamond songs while cooking. She would never get to know Ajax and all our crazy stories.
And that was just the beginning of it. Negative thoughts are like an over enthusiastic dog who likes to dig holes. Before you know it, you’re sixty feet under and there’s a pile of shit on your head. I kept going under, automatically blaming myself for every person I’d let down, every person who had died because of me, and there were too many. Maybe I was cursed or something.
I could see my comrades as if I was still in Afghanistan, in that retched cave where I had to shoot them in cold blood just to save my life. I could see the silent plea in their eyes, the desperate gleam begging me to formulate a plan which got them out alive. And then I pulled the trigger. Eight times.
The walls closed in around me, creating a pressure like a tangible force that was sucking the breath out of me. I choked out a strangled sob, curling myself up in a little ball like I could physically hold myself together if I held on tight enough. Soon, the tears became a heavy rainfall on a stormy night, the droplets hiding the windshield. I was swerving in so many different directions with no possible way to know what the right way was.
I was there in the same position for two days. I didn’t have enough energy or willpower to convince myself to get up for anything more than heeding nature’s call and emptying the liquor cabinet. My phone rang a couple of times but I didn’t pick up. The thought that someone might be worrying about me didn’t even enter my mind.
Sometime later- hours? days? months?- my doorbell rang and I let it keep ringing. A few minutes later, Ajax was standing in front of me. He didn’t say “Oh My God” or “What Have You Done” or “Are You Crazy”. His wary eyes studied the scene carefully, taking in the sabotaged room, the rancid stench, my tattered condition, the empty bottles of all kinds of alcohol everywhere that I’d managed to accumulate. He squatted down carefully beside me to avoid the glass, pushed my hair back and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Get up,” he said, clasping my hand but when I winced slightly, he immediately released it. Turning my hands over, he saw the dried blood cresting my whole palm, small cuts all over the surface that I hadn’t bothered to wash off. But he still didn’t berate me. He was used to freaks.
He calmly helped me up and I let him. I was embarrassed of my condition enough to be impassive. He made me sit down on the edge of the bathtub and cleaned my hands, first with water, then with an antiseptic solution.
“What are you doing here?” I managed to say. It had been so long since I made any sound other than weeping that my voice was all throaty and hoarse.
“It’s been a week since I saw you and you weren’t picking up your phone or replying to texts. I got worried,” he said.
After drying his hands, he came to sit beside me. With two fingers, he lifted my chin so I couldn’t hide my face. Leaning his forehead against mine, he said, “You’re running a fever, baby. Do you have any Tylenol at home?”
I shook my head.
“Advil or aspirin?” he asked.
I nodded. I let him put an arm around me and lead me outside to the living room. We sat down on the couch and he wrapped a comforter around my shoulders.
“Where is it?”
I vaguely pointed diagonally to the kitchen. It was somewhere in the cabinets but I didn’t remember where exactly. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have remembered my last name if he’d asked me.
“Okay. I’m going to need your blood sample to determine that you haven’t gotten any infections from the open wounds. Is that fine?”
I nodded again.
He pressed his lips together but again, didn’t say anything. As calm as ever, he searched the cabinets for the aspirin, made me swallow it and tucked me in to sleep, something I had been evading since days. Maybe it was my inebriated state, the pent up fatigue, the comforting way in which Ajax ran his fingers through my hair or a combination of all three, I eventually drifted off to sleep.
My dreams were as chaotic as my thoughts. I woke up screaming, terrified, flashes of bloodbath behind my eyelids. Warm arms encircled me, anchoring me to one place. Ajax’s soothing voice told me over and over again that I was okay. My breaths gradually calmed down, tears replacing the perplexed anguish which was now only...anguish. And yet, it was better than anything else I had been experiencing.
I reached for the glass of water but my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t have picked it up without spilling. Ajax did it for me but before he could bring the glass to my lips, I halted him with a hand gripping his wrist.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I squeezed my eyes shut. He had been taking care of me- from feeding me to putting me to bed, every single damn thing- since the day he had found me curled up at the foot of my dead brother’s bed. He didn’t mind that I hadn’t uttered a single word, that I had been a basic cry baby, that I was shuffling between robot mode and overly neurotic mode like I was playing table tennis with the two. Him helping me drink water was like my last piece of dignity going down the shredder.
He curled his fingers around the back of my neck and shifted closer, brushing his lips against my temple gently. “What’s wrong?” he repeated.
“This is humiliating, Ajax. I can’t even drink water on my own. I don’t want you to see me like this,” I whispered.
“Why the fuck is it humiliating? Are you trembling of your own free conscious will? Did you put a vacuum on your face and suck the smile out?” he demanded and I had a déjà vu moment, back to our first date. “A wise man once told me that you’re only weak if you let yourself be. And anyway, it doesn’t make you any less of a god in my eyes.”
That brought out the first hint of a tentative smile on my lips. “Don’t steal my words, Dreamy.”
“Oops,” he said playfully.
“Oh yeah?” I caught his lower lip between my teeth and nibbled on it, watching his blue-gray eyes smolder into a dark, dangerous gray like a cloudy sky right before it rains. His touch burnt through my skin, numbing the soul-crushing pain, if even momentarily.
“You know what you need?” he suddenly said. “Change of scenery. Let’s go somewhere.”
“I don’t feel like going anywhere,” I groaned, already able to anticipate where this conversation was heading. Why couldn’t he just shut up make out with me?
“Please? It will be fun. You’ve been holed up in here for way too long, especially now that your job’s over.” That was the training job he was talking about which terminated after two months, way before this confront-your-fears fiasco happened.
“I thought it would cheer you up,” I said sarcastically. Meanly. He flinched at my cold tone and after days of nonstop guilt about everything in life, there wasn’t enough left to feel bad about hurting him.
“Emmett,” he said softly to stop me from letting my anger get the best of me but it wasn’t in my control.
“You wanted me to face my ‘ghosts’, right? You’re the one who wanted to me go in the damned room and ‘just let it go’, isn’t it? You were scared that I’ll break. Well guess what, buddy, you got it!” I was shouting by the end. It was wrong. It was so wrong. I was shaking with the horror of what I’d done. He had been nothing less than a guardian angel and I had just screamed at him like 9/11 was his idea. I stormed out to the backyard before the tears came but no matter how much my vision blurred, Ajax’s half shocked and half hurt expression didn’t blur from my eyes.
I didn’t know what was worse; the fact that I had said all those mean things or the fact that he hadn’t said anything at all. He should have screamed back. He should have punched me, for god’s sake. He should have stormed out and slammed the door on my face before I did.
I wiped my cheeks and took a deep breath. My breaths were coming out in short, quick puffs, clouds of fog forming in front of my face like speech bubbles in a comic book. Night had fallen, an inky blanket over the sky with little stars sprinkled across it, dim ones that you could only see if you squinted hard enough. There’s something about darkness on the outside that ratifies the one inside you, like it’s legitimate to have so much despair stored inside you. The sky did it for hours every night. Why can’t you?
I couldn’t ever apologize to my family or comrades and make it okay. But I could try to make it better with the one person actually alive. I could explain to him that I was a dumbass and my tiny brain wasn’t capable of discerning between sorrow and rage and there was no one in the world I would rather ‘go somewhere’ with other than him and I was sorry.
But when I saw him, no words left my mouth, no matter how many times I opened it and huffed out air, hoping it would turn into coherent words until it reached him. He was still sitting at the same spot where I had left him, exactly in the same position; straddling the high stool, his hands clasped between his legs. He was examining the floor like dwarf aliens had landed on the marble, his eyes narrowed in casual concentration. And he looked so lonely. The kind of lonely everyone feels at some point in their life but I never thought would break my heart to see on him.
“Let’s go somewhere,” I whispered.
Maybe it was the pin-drop silence or maybe I had said it a lot louder than I thought I did, but he heard me, and instead of telling me he hated me like- I repeat myself to prove my point- like he should have, he smiled widely and held out his hand for me. “What lucky place do we designate our Somewhere?”
The lucky place was Brooklyn Bridge. It is a beautiful suspension bridge built in 1883 spanning the East river with the most spectacular view imaginable. Standing in the middle of the bridge, you can see the whole Manhattan skyline above, the horizon painted in fifteen shades of black and the river below in all its seductive glory. Even late at night, it was filled with tourists milling about, clicking pictures, pointing the various things they had seen and were going to see, putting love locks and throwing keys in the river.
We leaned on the railing quietly. We had hardly said anything since we’d left home except confirming directions. I had his arm trapped between a makeshift cage of my chest and both my hands. He was always so cold that I almost absentmindedly blew hot air on his knuckles to warm him up. “I’m sorry,” I said, my lips brushing over the back of his hand.
“You don’t have to apologize.”
I shook my head vehemently. “I do. I’m so sorry.”
He bumped his shoulder against mine. “You know, back home in Greece, we have a lake in the back garden. When I was little, my sister and I had this ritual. Whenever we had a really big fight that ended in an impasse, or something that had no solution but still made us upset, we would write it on a small stone and throw it at the bottom of the lake. It was our silly metaphor for burying the hatchet.”
I looked up at him but he was gazing at some far point in the distance. He flicked his eyes to me for a second before continuing. “We can take this little argument-” He mimed picking up a stone and scribbling on it, then arched his arm back and brought it forward speedily like he was throwing the stone. “-and let it sink.”
“It wasn’t argument. You never said anything. And it wasn’t little. I left you alone for hours.”
“You needed space and that’s okay.” He brought his other hand to my face, tracing his knuckles down my cheek until he reached my chin and lifted it up. “I’m always going to be waiting for you, Emmett. Just don’t forget the way back to me.”
“You were hurt,” I stated.
“I was. But I wasn’t pissed. There’s a difference.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you.”
I mimed writing on a stone and throwing it in the river just like he did. He was right once again. (I was losing count.) It felt better, like I had physically thrown the memory of that argument into the deepest ends of the water body, to be carried away with the currents, crashing against rocks and the river bed until it wore down to dust and dissolved.
He put his hand in pocket and took it out, now fisted. Turning my palm over, he pretended to place something invisible in it and closed my fingers around it. When I raised my eyebrows in incomprehension, he said, “Another stone.”
”For what?” I asked.
“I didn’t ask you to go in your brother’s room to induce a panic attack.” I started to say something but he shushed me. “I asked you to do that so you could recognize and accept the emotions and guilt you had buried deep inside of you and then let it go. Here’s your stone. Throw it away. I have as many stones as you want.”
I looked down at my closed fist. I could almost feel the imaginary stone in my hand, weighing me down. I thought about my mother; her bright eyes, her million-dollar grin, like she could light up New York if she stretched her lips wide enough, her over-motherly nature, the way she used to purse her lips when she was mad at us, the delicious pancakes that she made for us as an apology every time she thought she had screwed up. With my index finger, I wrote ‘Lavinia’ on the stone and threw it.
Immediately, there was another stone in my hand. And another. And another. One for each person who I had let down, each person I had wronged, each person who I could have saved only ‘if’. He kept giving me stones until I had run out of people to ask forgiveness from, until I was completely empty.
“Every time I came back home, the first night, Stuart and I wouldn’t talk. He would give me a box full of letters and I would spend the night reading and rereading all of them. Once, twice, thrice. As many times as it took to memorize them so thoroughly that I felt like I’d actually lived each and every memory with him,” I said.
I knew what I had to do, literally this time, instead of the hypothetical release of my pent up grief. I unclasped Stuart’s locket from my neck and took out the letter. Ajax placed his hand over mine, an unsaid question in his eyes. “Are you sure?” he asked.
I nodded with resolution. “People tie locks on this bridge and throw the key into the river to preserve their love eternally. Right?”
I tied the locket to the wires of the bridge, somewhere between rusted locks with initials carved into them, and tossed the last letter by Stuart into the river. The thin piece of paper floated in the wind, slowly drifting down until it landed on the water gracefully and drowned itself.
Once more, tears sprang forth from my eyes but this time I wasn’t crying because I couldn’t handle what I had lost. This time I was crying because I had finally acknowledged it, and maybe, just maybe, I would be able to forgive myself too.
Ajax put his arms around me, holding me so tightly, like he could physically glue me back together if he could hold on tight enough. And the thing is, I didn’t doubt that he could. Sometimes we had to break something down so we could build it back together.
I finally felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel, a tunnel I had long since given up on. But that night, when I went home, my cellphone had a text message from Jackson. I was being called back to complete the mission.