Before the Fall

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Chapter 31

Present day, Atwood territory…

Gray listens to Slate’s story intently, trying to find the meaning and truth behind every word. He uses them so sparingly and so particularly that each one is meaningful. When he ends his tale, she feels bereft, like he’s left the story half finished. He looks the way Gray felt after telling her story. Like just the mere retelling was a whole body experience. Draining.

“What happened to the girls?” she can’t help but ask, though scared of the answer. “Did they end up okay?”

Slate crosses his legs at the ankles, breathing deeply. “Melissa and Monique, yes. They’re both alive and well. Monique wasn’t expected to survive at first, but she completely recovered, miraculously. Their family stayed for a month after the fact while she healed before moving south, to northern California. I hear from them often.”

Gray raises her eyebrows. “Really?”

Slate nods, and gets a faint smile on his face. “Really. We text. And email. They’re still close. Melissa is married, just had a baby not even a year ago. Monique is a paramedic now, loves it. They’re actually thinking of making their way back up here soon.”

Gray leans back and smiles back at him. It’s hard not to. “I’m glad.”

Slate looks at her curiously. “You are very empathetic,” he assesses.

He says it like a simple statement of fact, so Gray shrugs and says, “Maybe so.” Then he gives her a dry look. Let’s try that one again, his face says. So Gray laughs to herself and accepts it like the compliment she sees that it is now. She nods, the smile still tipping her lips up just slightly. “Thanks. I try to be.”

He returns her smile at half wattage, seeming to be still unsettled. Gray asks, “And what happened to Brandon?”

Slate sighs deeply at that. “He finished high school here and left for a college on the east coast. It wasn’t a coincidence.”

Gray pushes her lips to one side. Quietly, she guesses, “And you don’t hear from him much?”

Slate shakes his head. “We spoke once after that day. He and I used to study together--we were both homeschooled at the time--but he transferred to the public high school after about a week. I think he and Monique keep track of each other on social media.”

His face is calm and unconcerned, but there’s a sad glint in the eyes that look a hair more blue than green today. “Did you ever find out what those men were doing in the forest that night?”

Slate shakes his head. “I never looked.”

Gray just sits there and considers him for a moment. She marvels again at his lack of insecurity when she scans him up and down. He barely even blinks, just watches her right back, completely unconcerned. He’s secure now, with this, but in the beginning of the visit, it wasn’t so easy for him. There was hesitance, reluctance. He didn’t want to tell her his story, but why? There are endless reasons Gray could think up, but which ones made sense for him?

He must see the conflict in her eyes, because he nods and quirks an eyebrow at her. “Ask.”

Slightly embarrassed, Gray tries to ignore the flush she feels in her cheeks. “Earlier you were...you didn’t want to tell me your story. Why?”

Slate runs a hand down his face and huffs a dry laugh. “Do I need to answer that?”

Gray’s face heats even though she knows she asked a perfectly reasonable question. She rephrases. “There are a lot of reasons someone wouldn’t want to share a traumatic story, but why didn’t you want to tell yours?

Slate just looks at her for a while before finally admitting, “I didn’t want to talk at all.”

Gray frowns. “Why not?”

His jaw clenches and he sits up in his chair. He takes a deep breath and releases the tension in his body. It’s amazing how aware he is of everything he says and does. There’s rarely a movement made that doesn’t need to be made, rarely a word that is an inefficient communicator. Most people aren’t even aware when their muscles clench, especially in times of anxiety and stress. Gray only notices Slate so particularly because it reminds her of herself. Only, Gray is getting better. Slate is not.

Slate thinks deeply before answering. “I don’t talk very much in general,” he gives her a dry look, “I’m sure you’ve noticed. I speak frequently with my family because I enjoy it and they enjoy it. There are a few friends I speak to just for the pleasure of it--Melissa and Monique being two of them. Most everyone else I speak to in order to communicate or receive information.”

Gray frowns. That...is very sad. That has to be learned behavior; people aren’t just born predispositioned to silence unless necessity draws out conversation. She doesn’t doubt that he was always a taciturn kid, but surely not to this degree. There are so many parts of Slate to tease out, it’s hard to know where to start.

She tries to unravel one. “Alexander says people tend to open up to you. Why do you speak to them?”

Slate nods in concession. “I also enjoy…” he seems to have difficulty settling on an accurate description, “helping people. Most of the time, they just need someone to listen. If they need me to say something in return, I say what I think will be most helpful for the situation. To make them more comfortable.”

Gray mulls this over. “Okay, so...you don’t like to talk in general,” she thinks out loud. “But today was different. It’s not just that you didn’t find it necessary to talk to me, it’s that you actively did not want to. You only answered when I asked a question.”

Slate’s chest visibly expands and contracts in a big deep breath and his jaw works. Gray might...actually be reaching the limits of his patience. It’s terrifying and exciting in turns. Terrifying for obvious reasons, and exciting because it means she might get a glimpse of Slate unfiltered.

Slate meets her eyes determinedly and seems to have to work at getting his jaw to unclench. “I am...stressed,” he says carefully, like it pains him to admit. “There are a lot of things pulling at my attention and I need to be focused to do what I need to do. I can’t afford to be sparing energy on things that don’t require attention.”

Gray feels like she should be hurt at the implication that he considers her someone who “doesn’t require attention” from him, but this...this isn’t about her. “What do you do to burn the stress?”

Slate narrows his eyes, not sure where she’s going with this. “Besides solve the problem?” Gray can’t help but roll her eyes, but she still nods. Fortunately he receives it with good humor, offering a tired smirk that’s little more than a half effort. Simply, he says, “I run.”

Suddenly words from both Asher and Sara come to mind, and she doesn’t know how she’d missed it before. “You are in a unique position,” they’d both said. A unique position in Slate’s life, they’d meant. Another memory of Asher comes to mind. He’d said, “If you show up at his door, he won’t turn you away.” If Gray drops off the first half, it’s just, “He won’t turn you away.” Gray thinks if another person had shown up at Slate’s door today he’d have probably humored them and addressed whatever issue they presented politely on the front porch, but Gray can’t picture him inviting anyone in and entertaining them. Gray certainly can’t imagine him telling anyone his story, and especially not humoring the follow-up interview Gray has carried out.

Perhaps, Gray muses, she has forgotten the third factor of the threefold entanglement she has with the Atwoods and their pack. There’s the factors of Sara and Gray’s siblings obviously--but how could she forget her True Mate?

Again, her racing mind brings her back to that conversation with Asher. He told her Slate would carry the weight of the world for a stranger, that people often forgot about his human vulnerability and piled all their extra issues on him because they assumed he could take it. Gray reflects on the last two months she’d been here and realizes she has maybe...made a huge mistake. That she’d taken advantage of him like everyone else. She put the blame on him--she has thought more than once that she was the only one giving to her relationship with Slate, that he put forth so little effort to actually talk to her, to share anything--but she sees how incredibly unfair that is now. Slate obviously does not like to express himself verbally, it takes time for him to become comfortable giving voice to his thoughts purely for the pleasure of it, so how could she expect him to bend for her after only a few weeks?

More than that, he has communicated with Gray. He was the first one of the two of them to introduce himself outside Sara’s house when she first properly met him, and he was the only one to ask about her that whole day. He’d stood by her, touched his shoulder to hers and told her something very few people had expressed to her in her whole life: that she’s more than her healing. More than just how much she can do for others.

Then, he’d let her have time without complaint or offense when she asked to see his siblings and not him. He’d stopped by a few times the following weeks only when she was ready. He’d let her have all the control. He didn’t have to do that, he didn’t have to come around at all, if he didn’t want to.

And of course, there was the day they spent together picking apples. He’d come all the way out to her den, smiled and joked with her, put her at ease, and...and taken her somewhere that was endlessly special to him without making a scene out of it, knowing she wouldn’t know the importance of it until later, maybe ever. And no one has mentioned it to her since, even hinted at it, so she knows he kept it between the two of them. It means Sara didn’t push him to spend time with her, Asher didn’t convince him he needed to try with her, he did it one-hundred percent of his own volition.

And having this week of him avoiding her goes to show how easy it would be for him to forget her, leave her to her own devices when he obviously has so many other things to worry about.

There’s just something about him that makes everything easier--talking, joking, laughing, asking questions. Gray has never felt particularly subdued or suppressed by the other Atwoods or her siblings, but with him it’s like she can take deeper breaths than she ever has before. There’s room for her to be whoever she wants to be and however she wants to be it. It’s freeing. For her whole childhood, Gray followed someone else’s rules, pandered to someone else’s ego, skirted certain topics and emphasized others for someone else’s benefit. Not here.

Perhaps Gray’s “unique position” means a lot more than she thought it did. She vows to never again overlook him like so many have. She vows to listen when he tells her things the same way he listens to her and everyone else, verbally and nonverbally. She vows to learn to speak his language. She vows to start now.

She hopes the promise of “he won’t turn you away” can be extended into more than a one-time occurrence. She just hopes she hasn’t pushed him too far already.

Quietly, she asks, “Can I come with you?”

He doesn’t turn her away.

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