Folie À Deux
Since the charges were amended to include three counts of rape, Nick had become a hermit. After spending the first few nights in their son’s house, Nick’s parents had graciously conceded to move to a hotel upon his behest. The minute they were gone, he had bolted his doors and pulled all the curtains over his windows and hid from the world outside, including and especially his friends. All of them had tried to call. Greg and Catherine had each come to visit him. Catherine had been the first. She knocked once and called his name, sounding almost heartbroken that he wouldn’t answer. She had left fairly soon, but only after slipping a note under the door.
We miss you. We worry. At least let us know you’re alive.
Though he didn’t feel like talking to them, he could understand their concerns. They’d already lost him twice. And after all he’d been through, they were probably just making sure he wasn’t hanging from his ceiling fan. So he had written, beneath her scrawl.
I’m alive, and I’m OK. I just need my space.
He had slipped it back under the door. He wasn’t sure if she was waiting for it or not. But the next morning, he opened his door as much as the chain on it would allow and noted that it was gone. For a few days, he was left alone. And then, Greg came by.
He had knocked, though not insistently. He had even done it in that obnoxiously cliché pattern, rapping five times in rhythm and waiting for two knocks in response. When Nick didn’t provide that response, it sounded as if Greg lightly tapped his own head to the door, probably in frustration. Nick listened silently as he heard something slide against the door and plop on the floor. Nick imagined Greg, his back leaning against the door, his head tilted up and his feet sprawled out in front of him.
“You want to be alone,” he heard Greg say. “I get that. I tried to give you that. I’d hoped you’d had enough time, but I guess not. Your mandated leave is almost up, now. Just a few more days, and if you want to, Grissom says you can come back to work. He wants you to talk to a shrink first, though. Standard fare. You probably remember, from last year.” He was quiet a minute. “I wanted you to know that I know I’m self-centered. And I know that I will probably never understand what you see in that… woman…” It sounded as if it took great effort for him to use that nonjudgmental word, but it had come out sounding biased anyway. Greg seemed to notice it. “Sorry. About… well, being me. Nick, I just want to do right by you, that’s all. And I don’t have to fix you, or save you… from anything. I just want you to be OK. And I don’t mean physically OK, or ‘I’m not suicidal, but I’m OK,’ I mean really OK. I mean healing. And I don’t have to be the one that makes you OK, but I want you to find someone or something that can help you out with that. Warrick, maybe, is probably better qualified than me. It’s always been you and Warrick anyway…”
Nick waited. He heard movement. Greg’s voice changed. It was muffled, somehow, as if his lips were right against the door. “When you’re ready to rejoin the world of the living… We’re here for you, man.”
Nick listened to his footsteps as he walked away off of the porch.
It was Friday, and Nick’s last day of official administrative leave. It was just a day after Greg had come by, so when there was another knock at his door, he assumed it was his friend again, checking in. Nick hesitated, before deciding to give Greg a break. He realized that this was hard on all of them, and maybe Greg deserved a little reassurance. Even if Greg could never really understand what Nick had gone through, it didn’t mean he couldn’t help at all. His last words had been a little harsh, and Nick felt he should apologize. He didn’t want to, but he knew that he should. He hated feeling so disconnected from Greg. He hated feeling isolated from his own life.
He walked to the door and opened it, but it wasn’t Greg on his doorstep. He stopped, not sure what to do or say as he stared at the woman before him. He knew exactly who she was, but not why she was there.
Joanna King stood, her thin blonde hair framing her worn, bony features. She had Alexa’s eyes. When Nick didn’t speak, she asked, “May I come in?”
He blinked, then nodded, uprooting his feet as he stepped backwards and held the door open for her. She moved past him, and Nick felt the rush of air and a hint of perfume. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, watching her march further down his hall before turning around to face him.
“I’m probably the last person you want to talk to,” she said.
With a pang of guilt, Nick thought of Greg. “Not the last person…”
Joanna nodded, quietly. “Alexa wants you to know… that she’s sorry. She was worried that you wouldn’t get the message, which she gave to your detective friends. They scoffed at her… as if an apology meant nothing. To them, it probably did. But she needed you to hear it, as much for her sake as for yours. And… and I needed you to hear it, too. I can’t imagine how you must view my daughter, and I want you to be able to move on from what she’s done to you. But I wanted you to know that she wouldn’t be the monster she’s become if I hadn’t stood there and let it happen.”
Nick pursed his lips and folded his arms, looking down at the floor, then up again. Joanna waited for him to speak, but he had nothing to say. She raked a hand through her hair.
“I also know that I shouldn’t make excuses for her behavior. She committed a crime, and now she must deal with those consequences. But she was also the victim of something heinous and by allowing it to have happened, I am just as culpable. And yet, I’m not in chains. I haven’t been read my rights. I haven’t even been shunned or spat on by society, like my daughter has. Why is it, Mr. Stokes, that some criminals die in chains and others die in nursing homes?”
Again, Nick found himself unable to look directly at her. He rocked back on heels, his eyes darting anywhere but her make-up-caked face. Finally, he shook his head, wondering if she actually wanted an answer. “I ask myself that same question.” It was the truth. It had been one he’d struggled with his whole career. And not only when he had watched men whom he had known to be guilty walk on a technicality. But also when he had learned of the horrible things a victim had done to provoke his killer. Or the way he would see a witness speak to their child. Or even the way a widow would nonchalantly insult her husband and ask when the reading of the will would be.
Joanna smiled. “I was beginning to think you’d lost your voice.”
Nick returned the sentiment, somewhat awkwardly. And then, he remembered his manners. “Can I get you a drink, or… something…?”
Her eyes doubled in size and she shook her head. “Oh, no… no, I don’t want to bother you any more than I already have. I’ve said my piece. I just… needed you to understand, that Alexa wasn’t always this way.”
“I know,” Nick said, honestly.
Joanna adjusted her grip on her purse and took a step forward, towards the door Nick stood before. She stopped when Nick continued.
“I’ve seen it in her. This… lost woman, who was torn apart and scattered about, trying to pick up all her pieces again. But she knows she’ll never find them all. She’ll never be whole. And that fact… haunts her.”
Joanna stared at him with an unreadable expression. Nick felt a tinge of red creep into his cheeks. He was surprised at his own impromptu metaphor, but he had been thinking about Alexa, and why she’d done the things she’d done, for days now. In a very real way, she haunted him. Nearly every waking moment, he found himself torn between nauseating revulsion and the deepest of empathies. His ambivalence only made moving on more difficult. It would be easier if he could just forgive her, or at the very least, hate her. Even a little.
Joanna moved towards him and put her hand on his upper arm. “I’m glad,” she began quietly, “that someone sees what I see in her.”
And for the first time, Nick realized that she was right. No one he knew understood his strange, conflicting emotions towards Alexa, could ever understand, and yet Joanna was looking at him with a deep respect and relief in her forest green eyes, as if somehow grateful she had found someone in this vast universe who could see the same mirage, share the same delusion.
He wanted to connect with her, but he didn’t know how. It seemed awkward to embrace her, and yet Nick still felt the urge. He wanted to wrap his arms tightly around her, breathe in her hair, the floury scent of foundation and the flowery aroma of perfume. He wanted to close his eyes and let her comfort him, like he had allowed his own mother to do on his first night back.
But the moment passed, and out of social custom, Nick restrained himself. Joanna pulled her hand away and moved past Nick to the door, which she opened, allowing a sliver of amber afternoon light to spill into the musty sienna hallway. She paused in between indoor and out and cast Nick one last, enigmatic look with those leafy green eyes before making her final exit and closing the door behind her.
Nick felt Joanna’s absence like a feverish chill. He wrapped his arms around himself and swallowed, his looming house instantly feeling far too big for just one person. He was suddenly marveling at the fact that he had somehow managed to turn into a hermit for a week. He realized with a heavy brick in his stomach that he hated being alone. He stepped forward and put his hand on the door, as if trying to draw warmth from it.
Before he knew it, he was in his car, driving down a road. Life outside of his house felt so surreal, he almost wondered if he was dreaming. The orange sun was meandering slowly towards the horizon and the sky was beginning to bleed blue and violet. Nick tried to focus on his driving, but he felt as if his head was filled with cotton, and somehow disconnected from the rest of his body. The world was not as it should be.
Inevitably, he arrived at his destination and banged loudly on the door with the side of his fist three times. The door opened swiftly, and Greg stood there in a faded blue t-shirt and gray sweatpants holding a crisp twenty dollar bill. He froze when he saw Nick.
“Oh,” he said, and nothing else. He folded the money and put it in the pocket of his sweats, all the while watching Nick with wide, uncertain eyes.
Nick slowly shook his head. “I’m not OK…” he confessed, and he could feel his voice crumble and hitch in his throat like a moth-eaten sweater snagged on a nail.
Greg just nodded. He made an awkward move forward, raising his arm up to reach out, but stopped, as if unsure where to go from there. Whatever idea he’d had concerning physical comfort, he abandoned it in preference of stepping backwards and opening the door to let Nick come inside. At first, Nick wasn’t sure if he really wanted to, but he did. He stood in the middle of Greg’s apartment and looked around. It was much smaller than his house, with fewer rooms for ghosts to haunt. He could smell the bitter aroma of coffee that filtered in from the kitchen, and something distinctively Greg hung in the air as well, like dead leaves and rain.
“Do you… want a beer?”
Nick turned to look at a timid Greg, his head cocked forward, his body tense as if ready to run at the slightest sign of trouble. He reminded Nick of a rabbit, trying to get something from a fox.
“Sure,” Nick said, but what he really meant was, I wish you wouldn’t act so terrified of me.
Greg nodded and walked past Nick, disappearing into the kitchen. Nick wasn’t sure if he was expected to follow, or wait in the living room for him. He wavered there a moment, but Greg soon returned with two uncapped bottles and handed one to Nick.
“Thanks…” He took a sip.
“You just looked like you needed one,” Greg said with a shrug before taking a sip of his own. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “You… wanna talk about it?”
Nick’s stomach clenched and he made a face before taking another sip of his beer and saying, “Not really.”
“OK…” Greg said, shifting awkwardly. He waited a minute, before asking, “Um, then, why did you come here?”
Nick wasn’t entirely sure what he had expected out of his spontaneous decision to come see Greg. “I just… didn’t want to be alone anymore.”
Greg seemed to relax and an old, familiar smile claimed his features. “Nick…” He held his breath, as if ready to say something else, but decided better of it. He closed his mouth, and his eyes and shook his head. He shrugged and offered his hands palm up to Nick, as if he had nothing to give him. “So, what do you want to do?”
Nick wanted to tell him that just being in Greg’s presence helped Nick feel less isolated. He wanted to tell Greg that he wasn’t a child that needed to be treated delicately. He wanted to tell Greg everything, but nothing seemed appropriate anymore. Everything was different.
He closed his eyes and held his breath. “I want to hate her. I see the way you look at her, listen to how you talk about her, and I wish I could feel that way about her, like you do. But I can’t. I just… can’t, and so I try not to hate her and… I can’t forgive her, either, Greg. Everything she’s done, all the lives she’s ruined… How can I forgive that? And yet, I feel like I know her, what she’s been through… so how can I condemn it?”
Greg nodded, slowly. “I wanted to tell you that you were right. When you said that you couldn’t explain it to me… at least not in a way I could ever understand. Like that, what you just said there, just makes my head hurt to think about it. You don’t have to try and make me understand, Nick, but if you want to just talk at me, I’m OK with that. I’ll listen, and nod, and… provide words of wisdom where appropriate, but… I can’t say I’ll understand.”
And then, Nick laughed, relief swelling through him. “Actually… that helps a lot.”
Greg smiled. “Good. That’s what I’m here for.”
Nick raked a hand through his hair and sat on the arm of the couch. “I’m guessing you’re up to speed with the charges against her.”
Greg nodded. “Yeah.”
Nick’s eyes glazed over. He blinked, then refocused his attention on Greg. “You haven’t said anything about it.”
Greg clicked his tongue and shoved his hands in his pockets, his shoulders coming up to his ears. He knew exactly what Nick was talking about. “I didn’t think it was something you’d want me to bring up. And also, I haven’t seen you in a week.”
Nick managed a weak smile. “Thanks.”
“So… you wouldn’t let the DA add a fourth count,” Greg noted.
Nick nodded, staring at Greg’s knees. “What good would it have done? She’s already got a life sentence.”
“OK.” But he articulated it in a way that said he didn’t want to accept that explanation, but he would.
Nick sighed. “And… I’d rather not be that guy. I don’t want to make any landmark cases that law students reference about female rapists.”
Greg flinched when he said the word. He paused, then said, “Wendy says you claim that it wasn’t… rape…”
Nick nodded. “I’m not stupid, Greg. I was just… scared.”
“Well…” Greg began slowly. “I was… worried, honestly, when she said that.”
“Because of your attitude,” Greg explained. “Because of how thoroughly she brainwashed you. When Wendy told me that you’d said that, I thought… maybe it really wasn’t. And if that was true, then… then I didn’t think I’d know who you were anymore.”
Nick closed his eyes. “So you’re saying that it would have been worse if it wasn’t rape.”
Greg was immediately on the defensive. “No, no, it’s not like I thought rape was better, it’s just—Nick, nothing about this is any good at all. There is no ‘better,’ only a whole mess of ‘worse.’”
Nick felt the lump rise into his throat. His gaze lowered from Greg’s knees to his bare feet. “It was… humiliating. On so many levels I can’t even go into now. And in that moment, while it was happening, and I could feel myself…” A look of disgust contorted his features. “Responding to her? I have never hated anybody more in my life, but it wasn’t her that I was hating…”
The bitter, frustrated tears began to sting his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was cry in front of Greg. Why did I even come here? Furious, he sniffed and swiped a hand at his eyes. He couldn’t look up, and Greg’s feet were planted on the floor.
“I could feel… a part of me… detach from myself. Dissociate. You know? So that a part of me could just leave myself behind to die, and the rest of me could escape. And then, all I kept thinking, was of this girl, split down the seams, and I knew, I knew, that what was happening to me had happened to her so many times, it had cracked her in two. I just… I don’t want to turn into her…” He let out a low sigh. He still couldn’t look up at Greg, terrified of the expression he might see on his face. And Greg didn’t say or do anything to interrupt Nick’s monologue. He just stood there.
“I thank God that you don’t know what that’s like…” And I had let it happen again. “And you think, you know, she’s this tiny little thing. Half my size, but she ties a mean knot in a rope, I don’t know, maybe she was a girl scout or something. And I tried—so hard—just to get her off of me… But she didn’t know. Or, she didn’t understand, not consciously anyway, that she was hurting me. And the more I struggled, the more she genuinely believed we were… real. Jesus…” He cupped his hands over his nose and mouth. “And I know it’s stupid, and maybe macho or sexist or whatever, but seriously, I mean seriously, I’m the guy in this situation, and it just seemed so… impossible.” He snorted, for a moment forgetting where he was. “At least last time, I was just a kid.”
Silence settled over them like a muffling blanket. Nick could hear the blood rushing in his ears, and he remembered where he was, and what he had just said. He looked up, half panicked, to see Greg’s expression crunched together as he tried to decipher Nick’s words. And then, he came to analyzing the words Nick had least wanted him to hear.
“Last time?” They weren’t shocked, or disgusted, or overly pitying, just quiet and slightly puzzled. Greg wasn’t jumping to conclusions, he was trying to make sense of what Nick was telling him, trying to understand despite his earlier confession that he never really would.
Nick’s mouth hung partially open. “Honestly, I didn’t mean to say that last part out loud.”
And then came the concern. It crept over Greg’s face like nightfall and he stepped forward, trying to hold Nick’s gaze as he bowed his head slightly. “You were…? Before?”
Nick sighed. He didn’t need to discuss this. It was a part of his life that was very much over, and he didn’t want to do this now. “I was nine. It’s… the past. Part of who I am, I guess.”
Anger flared briefly across Greg’s face like a shooting star, and then his jaw was set, and the rage was gone. He turned his head a moment and chewed on his lip before bowing and slowly shaking it. And then, Greg did something unexpected. He snorted, almost scoffed. It was Nick’s turn to look puzzled. Greg smiled when he saw it.
“It’s just… damn, you must be the butt of some big karmic joke, huh?”
Nick had never really thought about it. And then, a smile slowly claimed his lips and he nodded at Greg. “It’s just been a bad year.”
Greg’s smile grew sad, the worry lines still etched in his brow. Nick rarely saw those lines exposed so boldly as they were now, but there they were. Greg stepped forward and squeezed Nick’s shoulder. “Earlier…” he began. “When you said you didn’t want to be alone anymore. You may not feel it, or see it… but you’re never alone, Nick, not really. There are so many people that went through hell and high water for you, and they’re not just gonna give up on you now.”
Nick threw awkwardness and respect for personal space out the window. He stood up and pulled Greg into a tight embrace, smacking him hard on the back and closing his eyes as his friend returned it. He didn’t realize exactly how much he had needed this contact with another human being, and he kept holding on, probably longer than was appropriate, but if Greg minded, he didn’t say anything. Nick was brought back to reality with a knock at the door.
Awareness of personal space flooded back to him and he broke away from Greg, slightly self-conscious. Greg chuckled as he looked at his friend.
“Hang on,” he said, the laughter evident in his voice as he went to answer the door. Nick wondered who might be visiting Greg at this hour, and he really hoped it wasn’t someone he knew. But all worries evaporated when Greg opened the door to a freckled teenager in a blue baseball cap.
“One Carnivore Carnival for Greg Sanders?”
“You said 19.99 on the phone.”
“Delivery charge, bro.”
Nick heard Greg almost growl. “Don’t expect a tip,” he muttered, handing the kid some cash and closing the door. He turned around, now holding what appeared to be an extra-large pizza. “That reminds me,” he called over to Nick. “You owe me twenty bucks.”
Nick gaped at him. “I do not.”
“Do so,” Greg replied, walking over to the dining table and setting the pizza down. “I gave you twenty dollars for my pizza and you never got to the shop.”
“I was kinda distracted,” Nick reminded him.
Greg cracked open the box and savored the scent of the pizza. “No excuse. You can pay me later. I understand you have other things going on.”
“OK, I do not owe you twenty dollars,” Nick said, striding purposefully over to the table. “You gave me ten, Brass chipped in five, and I gave five, so if I owed you anything, it would be ten dollars. But since you already owed me twenty dollars in the first place, balancing it all out, you still owe me ten dollars.”
Greg waved this logic away. “Bah, forget about it. Keep the twenty. I’m a nice guy.”
“You still owe me ten!” Nick cried, incredulously.
Greg took a bite of the pizza and raised his eyebrows twice before closing his eyes. “Mm… Love DelFino’s.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “At least you haven’t lost your appetite.”
Greg held up a finger, finished chewing, then swallowed. He put the slice of pizza down. “OK, so, I recently went to a nutritionist, she says I am in awesome shape, and to keep doing what I am doing, which is eat pizza. So your fat jokes? Not gonna bother me anymore.” He picked up his pizza and looked at it, thoughtfully. And then, the tone shifted. “I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy DelFino’s ever again.” He looked up at Nick. “I’m… sorry I made you go get my pizza.”
Nick shook his head. “By that time, Alexa already had me targeted. I would have had to leave the lab sometime, and she would have found me.”
Greg nodded. “Yeah, but I learned my lesson.” He gestured at the door. “D’you see how I got them to deliver this time? Even paid the extra charges and everything.”
Nick laughed, and it felt good. “Yeah. I noticed.”