He’d felt her there in her touch. He was there to support her, to let her know she was not alone. In one moment, she returned that to him. In one moment, out of no-where, her hand rested on his knee. And it felt right, and it felt even more right to touch that hand, to wrap his around hers. There was not a lot of time, but in those moments, he knew she believed him. He knew she heard him. He knew he had found her hand in the dark. He just needed to hang on until he could put her out of the darkness completely.
He’d reluctantly let go, but it had left him feeling slightly more grounded. He could tether his thoughts to the feeling of her hand. Joan had warned him to stay out of it, but she knew he would never stay out of anything Annie was involved in. He never had, and there would never be a time that he wouldn’t. He had told that to everyone: Eyal, Joan, Annie herself. I would never leave Annie behind.
He left the building in the evening, stopping at the small grocery store along the way. He waited for one of the employees to give him a hand with his grocery order, feeling that wave of difference between his world at work and his world outside of Langley. His world inside of Langley was of respect of his capabilities, his knowledge, and his work. Outside was a maze of indifference, prejudice, pity, and frustration. And it was the thing that was driving Annie now that had gotten him to this situation.
They’d been playing spy games. He’d felt like it had all been games until then. Games of chess where the pawns were bargained and the game played on. The drive to win kept him going when the cost was too heavy. It hadn’t been a game when his buddies had died one by one on the killing sands of Iraq. It hadn’t been a game when he was told by a nameless and faceless voice that he wouldn’t see anymore. But those things hadn’t stopped him from wanting to make the final check-mate. For everything. Check-mate for Helen. Twice. Check-mate for Tash. Check-mate for his army buddies. For all those wrongs to be right again.
When Annie went dark, it hit him, the whole seriousness of it all. It wasn’t chess on a board. It was the one person he needed, who was not there for him any more. And he was the person she needed. Him, the man no-one had thought had any worth seven years ago, the man they’d retired from active duty in all arenas. She’d always found him when she was lost, when he was lost.
So here he stood, holding the arm of a young clerk who was nervous and unsure, as if he were a murderer on a rampage or a tiger escaped from the zoo. This is where the games had brought him.
“Did you want the big box or the small one?” she asked him, standing in front of the cereal.
“How big—no, wait, just give me whatever one’s in your hand,” he snapped, tired of the time everything took in his life now. How much time had he lost just in not being able to see? He’d wasted far too much time.
“You said you need bread and milk?”
“Just get me beer,” Auggie said, feeling defeated.
“So you don’t want bread and milk then?”
Auggue rolled his eyes and almost pushed her forward, shaking his head in disbelief. He counted slowly to himself, knowing she was young, and an inexperienced guide. He let out the air he had been holding in his lungs, slowly.
“Yes. Milk. Bread. Beer. Whatever order that takes us.” He just wanted this to be simple, and it never was. How could the complicated things be simple when just buying bread was so difficult?
Somehow, he survived the barrage of questions about price and kind and various other issues Auggie had no pretense of caring about. The cashier made the checking out far more annoying than it needed to be, and he just wanted to get out of this place—
“Wow, that’s amazing! How do you know your money apart? I wouldn’t be able to do that. You do really well.”
And the woman behind him made noises in agreement. He was sure he gave her the look of exasperation, but he could never be sure any more if his facial expressions were as obvious to the world outside his head, having little knowledge of ninety-eight per cent of the reactions he received.
Well, except for Annie. He smiled as he sat in the back of the cab with his head back, and his eyes closed. He thought about how she’d verbally let him know she’d seen that look he gave her. Or she’d put her hand on his arm, his collar. Each touch conveyed something different. A playful bump lightened the mood. A pat on the arm told him she was leaving the room. It was as if she’d taken in the whole Sighted Guide handbook and added six new chapters herself.
But he couldn’t really see her emotions in her hand. It was her face that told all she felt, and it was plain to him that he’d never be able to really gage her if she kept that from him. She could look at him with all the unsaid things written all over her eyes. Anyone else could see it. McQuaid could see it. He had seen it, he’d said things to her, Auggie knew it. He also had a weird feeling that everything McQuaid said about Annie’s state of mind was true, and that he’d had her thinking about a lot of things. And Auggie really, really hoped one of those things was him, because he really didn’t have much left to go on anymore.
He paid the driver, who, unlike the cashier at the grocery store, just took his money without making a scene, and made his way to the steps of his building. He reached out, finding the door, and let himself into the building.
“Hello, Mr. Anderson,” a loud voice said just inside the door.
“Hello, Mrs. Connors. How was your grandson’s birthday party?” Auggie locked the door of his mailbox, putting his mail into his messenger back.
“It was fine, just fine. You are just simply amazing, I don’t know how you do it, going out there, working at some big fancy job. If I were you, I’d just be so sad and afraid, but you! You just keep going out and doing things with normal people.”
Auggie was done. He pushed past her, jostling her a bit, and maybe, just maybe, hitting her shoe a little hard with his cane.
“Sorry. Have a good day, Mrs. Connors.” With the grocery bag in one hand and his cane in the other, Auggie made a swift exit to his home, where everything was organised and made sense, even more so than Langley. He needed sense. He had been far too confused and pulled between too many directions lately. The only direction he knew was Annie. He would rob the sky for her.
She’d made herself a shell with no soul, but she had saved the seed of it deep down where it would be safe to grow sometime. The only way to coax it free was to get Annie out. She’d devoted too much, she had given too much. The game was over, it was hard-core life now. She’d given so much she’d ruined parts of herself, as he had. Her health was in peril. Her actions resulted in distinct danger. Her life outside Langley was far more important than the one inside. Just as she had told him she had wanted, but never realised. He needed to remind her of that now.
The sad part, the part that made Auggie feel angry with himself, was that he knew how she felt. He knew the drive to keep going, to feel that excitement, to bring the case in. He knew it, and she knew it, but she’d had the choice to keep quiet and keep going. He never had. And with this dark bit of sadness, he’d used Annie, in a way, to get back in the field on the occasions Joan had given him the go. He hadn’t gone alone. He hadn’t been sent as a lone operative. He had gone with Annie. His partner.
Milk in the fridge, left side. Beer, second shelf down. Bread in the breadbox. He smiled. Why does everything have to be compared to a breadbox? Cereal to the cupboard, against the wall. He turned around, following his hand around the island to the other side. He sat on the stool, taking out his phone and placing it in front of him on the counter top.
Auggie needed to know if he was himself ready to make choices. The other night, at the Campbell’s, holding baby Mac, all the other stuff seemed so far away. He’d remembered that he’d wanted that. He’d wanted to come home to a safe place with warm arms to hold him, and a small sweet-breathed bundle that saw the world with clear eyes and no bitterness or judgement. Holding the Campbell baby had torn part of his heart a little. She’d said they weren’t Joan and Arthur, they could have more. But Joan and Arthur were still together, they had that sweet little life to watch grow, they had love and trust. They had to, or they wouldn’t continue to try.
He could have that with Annie. He’d tried so hard to distract himself from the truth. But the games had to end, and life had to somehow begin.