Something sounded wrong in Auggie's sleep. The sound, or lack of sound, or something about the way the air was moving, or not moving, was enough to pull him out of his slumber. He automatically opened his eyes and turned his head a little, listening. His fingers crept over the crisp starched sheet that never felt like home. The room was closed in. A hotel. He groaned and rolled over, feeling the muscles in his back protest against any movement. He also felt a warm ache in his knee from yesterday, and he reached up and felt the butterfly closure over his eyebrow, still bruised and no doubt a sweet touch. He let his hand drop back to the sheet and closed his eyes for a few more minutes.
A warm hand slid over his back, just lightly rubbing his skin, but it felt nice. He embraced the moment and after a bit she traced her hand along his neck and over his jaw and cheekbone. Her fingers stopped near the cut and she lightly caressed his temple.
"Not even our first day in," Auggie said.
"I'm sorry I missed it," Annie replied.
Auggie scowled and turned toward her, ready to say something about something, but Annie kissed him, and took him by surprise.
"This is going to happen. I hope you don't take headers off the tables anymore, but I'm prepared to mop you up until you get this down. Don't worry about it."
"If you saw Decker-"
"Hun, you didn't see Decker. You may just be imagining this reaction you think he had."
"No, I can hear it."
"Auggie," Annie said. Her voice was soft and strong. "Why are you letting a five-minute moment give you perspective on the whole day? On the whole experience? If I tell you I fell on top of Danielle in the upstairs bathroom yesterday when we were trying to get the shower curtain up, would you feel any better? I mean, we're moving house, Auggie, people are bound to get hurt." This last part was spoken with a hint of a smile in her voice, and then she cheekily added, "If I hadda taken a bet, though, Auggie, I hate to tell you..."
He gave her a sardonic half-smile, rolling his eyes, and pulling her in his arms.
"I'll use the cane," he said.
"You'll get it. It's a mess, Auggie. We'll get it."
"Will it scar?"
Annie peered at Auggie's forehead, then she smiled at him. "I don't think so," She said. "Give Barber my regards on that sweet bit of First Aid. That guy keeps surprising me."
"Me, too," Auggie said, softly. He wasn't sure if he wanted Annie to ask him to explain. He was relieved when she didn't. She just pressed her hand on his wrist and then the bed shifted as she slid across her side to put her feet on the floor. She yawned and shuffled across the floor to the bathroom and Auggie listened to her as he mentally organised his thoughts for the day. He would make it through this ordeal with Annie at his side. Like he always had, they just worked together so well, no matter what it was they were doing.
And, thought Auggie, this time, there weren't any assets to chase, any motorcycles to outrun, or any gunfire to avoid. This was just a move. Everyone did it, every day. It was an exciting and wonderful and normal thing to happen. As Auggie thought about the trees in their lot and the wood stove for cold days, he could hear Annie singing some post-Grunge tune he vaguely could pick out as she showered, preparing for another day to make their home together a reality. She was all-in. He smiled, standing up, deciding that it was probably a better idea if he joined her in the shower to save some time, or something like that.
They all converged one more time at Auggie's loft apartment at nine. Annie and Danielle set to a sweep of every possible forgotten corner, and then they took Red and Volter in Annie's car to go over to Annie's apartment to have everything ready for Eric to pick up when they had finished at the loft.
Eric and James set to work on removing Auggie's safe from the wall. Auggie listened as Barber worked, careful not to cause undue damage to the wall. Auggie remembered the sound of Calder Michaels hacking into the wood with an ax to discover Auggie's secret locked inside. That was where the whole plan they'd constructed had gone sideways, and it was also what led Auggie to trust Michaels in the end. With Annie's life.
Calder had stayed off Auggie's case since they'd come back from Tokyo. He'd gone from being suspicious of and impressed by Auggie, to angry and retaliating toward him, to begrudging conspirator with him, and now, to just giving him his need-to-know, and letting Auggie do the successful work he'd always done. They acknowledged each other, they accepted that opinions were had, and they shook hands.
Auggie heard the sound of the heavy safe moving away from it's bracing. He stepped in and grabbed a hold of the front and the three men carefully set it down on the wheeled dolly.
"Good job," Auggie said. "How's the wall?"
"Not bad," Barber said, proudly. "It'll look virtually untouched. Maybe you had an electric problem in there years ago, and someone did some work," he said, the story already forming.
Auggie nodded at his friend, a smile on his lips.
The work was finished, the apartment empty. Eric and James cleaned up any mess they'd made in the last bits of work, and then Eric put his hand on Auggie's shoulder.
"We'll take this last stuff down, Auggie. Come down when you're ready."
Auggie nodded, not turning toward him. "Thanks, man," he said, and listened to them wheel the dolly and take the last armload out the door.
He turned his head, listening to the apartment as it lay dormant around him. The soul that had been in this place was waiting, waiting at his new home, waiting here for new tenants. He ran his hand along the countertop of the island. So much. So many feelings. He'd found this place only a few months of moving to DC. It had been newly renovated from a toy factory warehouse to loft apartments and Auggie had had to get Joan's cover letter to even get his name in the door. It had been perfect, secluded, quiet, and the perfect bachelor pad. And by that, it was not too much upkeep, since he was rarely home and even then, spent much of his time working on computers. It was masculine. It was spacious. It had been perfect.
It had been less than ideal in a few ways when he had come back here after living at his parents' home upon returning from Iraq. Though he knew what his apartment looked like, he had no idea how it felt. The stairs had given him trouble, he had not felt sure about them and that hadn't helped him overcome them. He'd had a mobility instructor come around to show him what to do to make it better. She'd called it Life Skills. He thought the name was too much for him. He thought of it instead as upping his covert skills, how to move safely in darkness. He grew confident again in his apartment. It was safe. He knew where those stairs were, how many there were, how they felt as he reached the top and the bottom. He'd found Kenny then, and with his mobility instructor, they worked out some of the details on making the apartment suitable for him again. He'd found art to fill the silence of the walls: sculpture, music, and textures.
And now, it was empty. Auggie walked its perimeter, running his hand along the walls. Just like always, life moved onward, and Auggie adapted. People adapted. He would do it again, with the new house—the new home. He'd be able to run up and down the steps and make his way easily from the kitchen to the living room and out to the verandah, where Annie would be waiting, ready to tell him how her sky looked. He moved slowly to the door and put his fingers on it. He took a deep breath, and stepped out into the silent hallway, and then he turned and pulled the loft door shut, one last time. Annie and Danielle would be over in the week to give the place a good scrub-down, but Auggie had no reason to come back. His life had moved beyond this place, and as he walked back down the hallway to the stairs at the end, he felt a bubble of anticipation sitting under his ribs, and he smiled.
They returned to the house and things got busy again. Eric kept the safe under wraps, and he and Decker would return once more to Annie's apartment and the storage unit to take her own safe quietly out of its hiding place. They would have to install them somewhere in the house, but Barber and Decker would take care that the other two men didn't see them and question their existence.
Auggie felt the wooden case shelving that had been pulled along the wall in the corner of the living room. Annie had placed his hand there, and told him it was the perfect place for his vinyl. It was wider than most bookcases, and Auggie's turntable would fit perfectly on top with space to spare. She pushed two boxes against his foot and set him to do whatever he needed to do to start getting this place set to rights.
"Isn't this kinda small in the scheme of things?"
"Small to whom? Music is nothing small, is it? We'll need music to make everything else go along. I don't know how you want it set up. It all counts, Auggie. You think I feel I'm making a huge step in our comfort by putting away spoons?"
Auggie sighed. She had a point. It was all important in the makeup of this house. The records were his, and she wanted him to arrange them in their house. Let Eric and Decker shift the awkward pieces. Let Red and Volter drop the heavy things on their toes. In the end, all that mattered was that they would all go home and what he had here was all his and Annie's, and they would take care of all the finer details themselves.
Running his fingers along the edges of the records, he took care and time, enjoying placing his music in its new place. As the smaller boxes were emptied, there was room to arrange the larger pieces. Auggie took part with Annie and James, rearranging the living room until it felt right. Auggie counted the steps from the wall. It wasn't quite right yet. Annie agreed, and they moved the pieces a little more.
Eric took his friends home. Auggie reached into his wallet, counting the money in his fingers, but Barber pushed his hand away.
"I got this one, Buddy," he said.
"It's my housewarming gift. I'm your Best Man, remember?"
Auggie dropped his hand, and his face lowered, a humble smile evident to Eric. He nodded, taking a breath, letting it out. "Thank you, Eric." He had learned sometimes that to accept help was to accept friendship.
"Don't worry. I'll make it up in steaks later on. Barbeques, you know?"
Auggie laughed, patting Barber's arm as he walked the taller man to the van. He thanked them all again and then waved as they headed out the driveway. He turned. It had been three steps from the stairs. Three steps back, his cane touched the stair, and his hand found the railing. He smiled, climbing the steps, his mind already easily replaying the beginnings of a map.
"Annie?" he called out.
"Here, Auggie," she called, approaching down the hall, and soon her arms were around his waist as they walked back toward the kitchen. He had learned his lesson, he kept his cane in front of him. Annie placed his hand on the curve of the countertop and leaned beside him against the island.
"How's it looking?" he asked.
"I have hope," Annie said cheerily.
"I have cookies," Danielle announced.
"I'll take either," Auggie sighed, realising they were all hungry. "We don't, per chance, have food and cold things and something to eat in this kitchen of ours?"
"We have cookies," Danielle repeated, sounding a little peeved.
"Why don't we just go get some sandwiches or something at the little market back at the corner? We could walk," Annie suggested. "It's not that far."
"Hello! Cookies!" Danielle interjected.
"Danielle has cookies," Auggie said, not turning.
"Yes, I heard," Annie replied.
Auggie shook his head, pursing his lips. "We could probably eat some of them," he suggested.
Annie grinned at him, and then at her sister, then she reached out and put her hand on Auggie's arm.
"First, sandwiches. Then cookies. Come on, Danielle, let's go. I want to take a stroll. You guys want to come, or wait here?"
Auggie stretched his neck muscles. A walk would be perfect to stretch the tight muscles. "No, let's go, that sounds great."
So, locking the door, the foursome took to the street. It was a beautiful May day, and Auggie could feel the sun's strength. He listened to Danielle and Annie describing the neighbourhood as he quietly did his own subliminal note-taking. Annie knew what he was doing, and she gave him info at specific moments and didn't ask him questions or distract him too much. Instead, she asked Decker about the possibility of coaching kids at soccer here in DC, and Danielle was interested to hear, as her own daughter Chloe was involved on a soccer team in California.
When James talked about the kids, his whole being seemed to light from the inside out. Auggie, while concentrating on mapping this new route, could hear the joy in Decker's voice. He wished he could have seen James coaching those kids. Or heard it. He wasn't picky. He just knew that his friend had things that would balance him out, and he hoped James would want that balance here. Sometimes it's easier to keep thinking one does not want anything good to balance out the bad, but Auggie knew that was a cop-out. It wasn't betraying their friends to laugh and to enjoy things. It wasn't betraying the war-zone you fought for, nor the people lost on the way. Having good moments didn't diminish the bad ones, it made them hurt less. It made the reasons for the good moments even more valuable. And that made the bad moments worth sticking through. Decker needed to come out the other side, and Auggie was sure that he had done this already, just coaching soccer. The whole Belenko thing, the whole Auggie thing, had set him back a long leap.
"Corner," Annie said. "Here's the crosswalk button on the pole." She placed Auggie's hand on the box and then he took assessment of where it was placed in the sidewalk, through using his cane. He nodded to her. "Got it?" she asked. He nodded again, and they set off once more.
"Are you really gonna be able to walk here on your own?" Decker asked.
"Sure thing. It's just going to take me a few trips with someone until I get my landmarks straight," he replied.
"That's really great, Auggie," Decker said.
"Yup," Auggie said. He didn't know how it was great, except that he never would be as dependant as some people he'd met in rehab, and he guessed that was probably as great as that would get. Other than that, it was just living. But he knew better than to round on Decker about any of it. It wasn't what he could tell James Decker, it was only what he could show James Decker. Patience was a virtue. Fortunately, that was something Auggie had learned in full since being blind, and he had it to spare for his friend who needed it.
After another block, they found what Annie had seen earlier: a little sandwich shop that catered to the early and late lunch crowds. Annie notified Auggie to the step and the little group entered the bright café with the tall windows and looked around.
"Ahhh, this is nice," Annie said, and they stepped toward the glass cases filled with freshly made sandwiches. "It's like a little bistro, Auggie. You can have soup and a sandwich or... excuse me?" Annie turned to the woman at the counter. "Do you have menus or is it all listed there?"
The woman turned, "The daily specials are here, on this board, and the regular items are listed here on this."
Auggie sighed. This was not going to help him when he came in by himself. He'd have to memorise their regular items and then ask for the daily specials. No big deal, just more work, as usual. Annie read the whole list to him, and then gave him the specials while Danielle and James ordered theirs to go.
When they all had their orders, they thanked their servers and jingled back out the door. Annie had both their lunches, and Auggie took her elbow again as they mapped the way back home.
It surprised him every time it dawned on him that this was now. It was his new normal. And this time he loved it.
James stayed well into the evening. They ordered Chinese food and he had gone to pick it up while they cleared the table and actually set places. They had two table chairs and the two bar stools, so the sisters sat at the table and Auggie and Decker sat at the island. It made Auggie feel very happy to hear Decker relaxed, laughing, being teased by Danielle and Annie. Friends and family at their house, and he and Annie were the hosts of this new phenomenon. For a fleeting moment, he imagined what his parents would say to this so-called-normal activity. For a moment, he'd thought about feeling like an adult. He wasn't playing house, which he had been with Helen, nor was he trying to cover up that he wasn't playing house, like with Parker. This was the real deal. And there were even homemade cookies made by the soon-to-be-sister-in-law for them to eat out on the verandah while they continued to enjoy each others' company. They could offer a beer to their guests. It was quite an achievement, thought Auggie.
James left around eight. Danielle stayed until about ten, and then took a cab back to her hotel. Annie and Auggie had offered their unmade spare bed, but she declined with a laughing sneer.
"Your first night in your new home together? Yeah, I'm not stupid enough to want to intrude on that," she joked. "Maybe by the end of the week, once I help you made this place actually look like a home instead of a summer camp. And you need ice cream, by the way. There's no excuse, that's a beautiful refrigerator you have over there, plenty of room." She smiled and gave her sister a huge hug. "Okay, please, please, please call me if you get called in, but otherwise, I'll be here around nine?"
Annie nodded. "Yup, that's good. And I'm not going near the place until I have some semblance of organisation around here."
"Auggie," Danielle said, stepping toward him, and he put his arms out and kissed her on the cheek. She gave him a warm hug, too.
"Thank you, Danielle," he said. He hoped she could see on his face how much her coming to help them meant to him, not just for himself, but that she had come for Annie. He was grateful that the bond they had between them had not broken, and that time had heeled the rift that had formed.
Annie walked Danielle to the front steps as the cab arrived and Auggie listened as Annie closed the door behind her, walking toward him. He smiled at her, putting his hands around her waist, then letting one trail up her side to her neck and her cheek.
"Welcome home," he said, softly.
"I was just going to say the same thing," she said back.
Neither one of them could contain the smiles that broke out on their faces. Auggie could feel Annie's smile under his hand. She leaned to the side, and he wasn't sure what she was reaching for, but then she put his hand on her elbow, and moved along the hall, switching the lights out as she went. He knew she carried his cane in her other hand, he'd heard it hit the wall as she turned off the lights. He slid his hand down her arm until they held hands as they climbed the stairs together wordlessly.
Stepping across the threshold of their bedroom, they each felt the moment together. Annie squeezed Auggie's hand and led him to the bed that she and Danielle had made up. The room was still in disarray, things resting against the walls, but Annie had made sure it was clear on the floor and that it had some kind of feeling of home. The furniture and the clothes hung in the closets took away some of the echo that she knew Auggie found disconcerting, and he appreciated it more than she knew, just as he appreciated that she pulled his T-shirt up over his head, as he raised his arms.
"Just a sec," he said, walking across to the room to the closet, his hands out, carefully making his way to a box he'd set on the shelf over the clothes rod. He found it easily, and slid it down, turned, and retraced his steps back to the bed where Annie waited.
"What's this?" she asked as he put the box in her hand.
"I found it when I was cleaning stuff out. I don't really have any need for these now, but... open it."
She opened the box and put the lid beside her on the bed. He heard her laugh a little and then she looked at him. "Your Braille flash cards?"
"You said you wanted to learn. We kind of got away from it."
"I do," she said, and she looked back in the box. There was a large stack of the cards inside, and Auggie knew them all by heart. The majuscule and the minuscule alphabet, key words, names of countries, punctuation, mathematical equations, all made to the touch. He knew there was no print on them, instead, the letter was printed like a typed letter only with raised bumps. Below that, the corresponding Braille symbol helped transcribe one idea to the next. Below that, a row of bumps in a line on the bottom, so the learner could tell which direction the card went.
Under the cards were Auggie's beginner Braille slate and stylus. The slate was slightly larger than the size of a postcard. He kept a full size slate for writing his own Braille, but he mostly typed everything up and then printed it at work on the Braille printer Langley had provided him when he needed a hard copy. Still, it might be nice to practice with Annie, to keep his Braille-punching skills up-to-date, and to make sure he still was a fast at mentally reversing the symbols as he punched them into the paper.
"Maybe we'll have a speed contest one day this summer," he said, wanting her reaction.
She took his face between her hands and kissed him, long and hard, and then gently pulled his face down to rest his forehead against hers. "I'm... I'm so touched, Auggie. I will learn this for us. I'm glad you kept these." He heard emotion in her voice, and he nodded, letting her feel as well as see his encouragement. "I... it kind of brings me closer to how it was for you back then. That this was new, and that you... you accomplished it and don't need them any more. I'm a lucky woman, having you by my side. I never have to worry about failing, or falling under the waves, because you're stronger than I am. You will always get me through everything, because that's how you do it."
He smiled at her, stroking her hair. She moved her hand down to his shoulder and kept it on there while she slid over to put the box on the nightstand case at the top of the bed. Then she slid back down and he felt her reach to him again, and in return, he did what needed to be done: he pulled off her T-Shirt.