Chapter 9 - Nate
Alex’s mom killed herself on Tuesday.
On Tuesday night, I sat with her until dawn pinked the horizon. She cried at first, but she wasn’t hysterical. I think she was too tired for that. She just clung to me, trembling, while silent tears dampened my shirt. At around 3 a.m. she finally dozed off, but it was a tense, fretful sleep. She mumbled and cried out and jerked awake periodically, despite my efforts to comfort her. It broke me to leave her in the morning, but I didn’t have a choice. She said she understood, and lay on her side, watching through puffy eyes while I climbed gracelessly out the window. She looked so alone that I almost stayed-- work and siblings and her reputation be damned.
On Wednesday night, I returned and found her in the same spot I left her. She hadn’t even changed clothes. I don’t know what worried me more-- the fact that she didn’t even twitch as I climbed into her room or the fact that she’d stopped crying.
“Hey, Alex,” I said. She was facing away from me and didn’t roll over or sit up as I stretched out on the bed beside her without invitation.
“Hi,” she said, her voice a strange, gritty monotone.
“How are you feeling?” I know it was a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to ask.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
So we lay in silence for the rest of the night. I was beyond tired and she must have been too, but neither of us slept. Her lights were still on, so I stared at the ceiling, listening to her breathe in a tense, staccato rhythm. At dawn, I left with a promise to come back. She didn’t respond.
On Thursday night, Tim and Marsha got drunk. They started the day early and Tim was in a rage by the time the sun went down. Paul managed to spill a glass of milk on the counter at exactly the moment Tim was walking into the kitchen to retrieve another beer from the case in the fridge.
I was in my bedroom and heard the commotion, but by the time I made it to the kitchen Paul was crumpled on the floor and Tim was towering over him, screaming obscenities.
Paul was hunched over on the floor, covering his head with his hands, and he peeked through his arms at me as I entered. A trickle of blood oozed from the corner of his mouth and that spot of red created a haze in my vision.
“Go to bed, Paul,” I growled, stalking forward as Tim turned to me, fists clenched at his sides, face purple with rage.
The kid couldn’t obey fast enough, scrambling past me to our bedroom, where I hoped Ronny would take care of him.
Tim and I fought for what felt like hours. I was getting stronger, and I think Tim knew it. He didn’t just flail about with his fists, anymore, because he knew I could outmaneuver him. Those days, he’d taken to grappling, using his bodyweight to pin me to the ground. He’d also taken to face shots, since I was practically an adult and so prone to fighting. He knew every teacher, counselor, and peace officer who saw me with a busted lip would sigh in exasperation and ask what I’d gotten myself into. Nobody would ask about home.
We traded punches, bouncing around the kitchen, crashing into furniture and driving each other into counters. Then he took me to the floor and I couldn’t even breathe, let alone buck him off. When I got my breath back he’d already landed a few good blows and I could barely see for the stars in my eyes, my ears full of staticky ringing.
I managed to elbow him in the face and he sprawled sideways, clutching his bleeding nose. I scrambled to get on top of him, but at that moment Marsha entered the room, staggering drunkenly to her husband, who went limp when his wife appeared, playing the victim.
“How dare you!” she screamed at me. Her backhanded slap didn’t hurt that bad. Unlike her husband, Marsha didn’t gain freak strength when she drank. She just got clumsy. Even so, her stupid wedding ring caught me on the cheek and I felt blood drip down the side of my face.
“He hit Paul,” I said as I backed away, although I knew it was pointless.
“You’re a liar!” Tim roared, letting his wife help him to his feet.
“Ungrateful little monster,” Marsha hissed, slinging Tim’s arm over her shoulder. “Don’t think I won’t be calling your case manager.”
“You let her do that and I’ll tell her everything!” I yelled at Tim’s retreating back, and was satisfied by the way his shoulders stiffened. Nobody would be calling my case manager. Our tense, miserable equilibrium would survive another day.
I found Paul on Ronny’s bed, holding a hand to his mouth and crying silently. Ronny sprawled beside him, reading a car magazine I’d brought home from the shop.
“Ron, what the hell?” I ground out, plucking Paul off his bed and carrying him to mine. I sat on the edge and placed the kid on my knee.
“He’s gotta grow up,” Ronny said flippantly, without looking away from the magazine. “We’re not gonna be around to coddle him forever.”
I ignored him, too drained to argue or scold. “Let me see it, buddy,” I said to Paul, and he cautiously lowered his hand, still crying.
“It hurts,” he moaned.
“I know, kid, I’m sorry. I’m just gonna take a look, okay?” He nodded, his breath hitching as I inspected the injury. It wasn’t that bad. Just a little slice on the inside of his lower lip. You wouldn’t even know it was there from looking at him, and by tomorrow he’d forget it was there.
“Tell you what,” I said, using the collar of his shirt to wipe the trickle of watery blood from his chin. “I’m gonna go get some ice for you, okay? That’ll make it feel better.”
“A bandaid, too?” Paul asked, probing at the corner of his mouth with a finger.
“You want a bandaid inside your mouth?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at him. He giggled and shook his head.
“Okay, just ice then. Wait here.”
The rest of the night was an agony of waiting. Paul didn’t stop crying until the sandwich bag of ice was a leaking sack of water. Tim and Marsha didn’t go to bed until after midnight. The house didn’t go completely silent until after one in the morning. After that, I waited another thirty minutes just to be safe. Then I crawled out of bed and reached underneath to pull on my shoes.
Alex didn’t get up to let me in when I tapped on her window, but her light was still on. I wrestled the window open myself and poked my head inside.
The figure beneath her covers shifted and she rolled over and blinked at me. She still hadn’t moved. Still hadn’t changed. Hell, had she even eaten?
I practically fell over the windowsill in my haste to get to her. My beautiful, vibrant girl looked halfway dead. Her face was pale and puffy around the eyes. Her hair was a matted mess. She’d been wearing the same clothes for three days. Her bloodshot eyes were sunken into her face and surrounded by dark shadows.
“Sorry I’m late,” I breathed, crouching beside her and covering her hand with mine.
“It’s fine,” she mumbled. “You don’t have to come over every night.” Then her eyes focused on my face and her brow furrowed in a weary semblance of concern. “What happened?”
One of Tim’s blows had caught me in the eye and, although I didn’t think it was going to swell shut I could feel the bruise rising. Plus, the slice Marsha’s ring had left on the side of my face probably would have warranted stitches. I’d scrubbed it out and stopped the bleeding but it was still nasty-looking.
“Just a fight,” I said with a shrug, and a shadow of my Alex sighed and shook her head against the pillow, her disappointment gouging at my heart.
“You need to stop,” she said.
No shit, sweetheart. “You need to shower,” I returned, effectively changing the subject.
That earned me a glare, and I had to fight not to smile at the familiar sight of her annoyance. Sad as it is to say, that glare was a glimmer of hope that Alex was still there somewhere, buried beneath the shock and the grief.
“I’m serious,” I goaded. “You don’t smell good. Why don’t you run and clean up and grab some food on your way back. I’m starving.” Even if she wouldn’t take care of herself, I knew she’d be hard-pressed to resist the urge to feed me. Alex is a giver.
“I don’t want to,” she said, shaking her head and rolling over so her back was facing me. “You can leave if I’m grossing you out.”
“You’re not grossing me out,” I said, sitting on the bed and pulling at her shoulder until she reluctantly flopped onto her back. “And I’m not leaving. But you do need to take a shower. Nothing is gonna fix things, but you’ll feel a little better once you’re clean and have some food in you.”
Alex didn’t answer. She just stared at the ceiling as tears welled in her eyes and trickled over her temples. I reached out and caught one with the back of my finger.
“I don’t want to take a shower,” she said firmly, still staring at the ceiling. “She…” she trailed off, shaking her head minutely, and more tears broke loose. She drew a deep, shuddering breath and let it out, finally looking me in the eye. “She was in the tub when I found her,” she said, her voice back to stony and monotone, and I felt my heart drop into my stomach.
Alex was the one who found her? Fuck. No wonder…
“Okay,” I said, trying not to let my own shock filter into my voice. “Okay, I hear you. But you can’t go the whole rest of your life without using the shower, right? Would it make you feel better if I came with you?”
She frowned at me like I was crazy, and I realized she probably thought I was just trying to see her naked again. That assumption took another chunk out of my heart, but now wasn’t the time to agonize over how to convince her I wasn’t some sexual deviant with a rage problem. Tonight was about Alex. Just Alex.
“I won’t look,” I promised. “I’ll just sit on the counter with my eyes closed and be there in case you need me, okay?”
She hesitated, searching my gaze like she always did for some sign of dishonesty. Finally, she sighed.
The fifteen-second walk to the bathroom and back were some of the tensest seconds of my life. The house was pitch black, and I hung onto Alex’s shoulder, trusting her to guide me through the unfamiliar hallway and praying her father wouldn’t choose that moment to rise for a nightcap. Surely he wasn’t sleeping well, either?
We made it to the bathroom without incident, and I did just what I said. I sat on the bathroom counter with my eyes closed, listening to the splatter of water on the floor of the tub. I don’t know if I actually did any good. I’ve always been better at the physical. I’d rather have stood between Alex and a gang of Tim clones a thousand times before doing something like this. How could I guard her against her own memories?
After she showered and dressed, Alex led the way back to her room, left me there sitting on her bed, and returned five minutes later with clean sheets bundled under her arm and a plastic grocery bag full of snacks.
“You said you were hungry,” she said emptily, tossing the bag at me.
My stomach groaned hungrily, but I set the bag aside and helped her strip the bed and put the new sheets on. I tried not to look at her because in spite of everything she was still too beautiful to comprehend. She wore short running shorts that left her long legs bare and a white t-shirt with no bra. Her wet hair was piled in a messy bun on top of her head, and loose tendrils clung to her neck. She took my breath away, but it felt wrong to be affected by her. Her mom was three days dead, Alex was the one to find her, and all my stupid dick could think about was how to get her out of those shorts.
Maybe she was right not to trust me. Maybe I was some kind of pervert.
With the bed made, Alex slipped beneath the covers, but sat against the headboard instead of curling up on her side like she had every other night. “Are you going to eat or not?” she asked, gesturing at the discarded grocery bag I’d dropped on her desk.
“Sure,” I said, retrieving the bag and sitting down on top of the covers beside her. The bag contained a bottle of water, a fork, a box of crackers, and a tupperware containing some kind of casserole.
“You know that cliche about people bringing casseroles to the grieving?” Alex said wryly as I pulled the casserole out of the bag. “I guess that’s true. There’s at least ten in our refrigerator. The stupid church is really coming through.”
There wasn’t an ounce of gratitude in her voice. Nor should there be. I knew how Alex felt about her father’s job. His parish was his real family, and she, Tom, and her mother had always been made to feel like an unwanted side job.
I pulled the lid off the casserole and used the fork to shovel up a small bite. It wasn’t bad. Even cold.
“This is actually pretty good,” I said, handing her the fork. “Want some?”
Alex took the fork and delivered the tiniest portion to her mouth before handing it back to me.
“It’s okay,” she mumbled.
We sat in silence for a while, trading the fork back and working our way through the casserole. My silence was uneasy. I worried any minute she might realize that I had tricked her into eating. Her silence was thoughtful. Her eyes were far away and I could sense that she was trying to find words. Alex always got a specific kind of tense when she was struggling to piece a thought together into a coherent statement or question. Her right foot always wiggled a little and she twisted a lock of hair around her finger.
Half the casserole was gone when she finally spoke again.
“I’m angry,” she said, looking over at me as she passed the fork back. “That’s wrong, right? I should be sad. I was sad, at first. Now I’m just angry.” She took the fork back when I offered it and took another bite of casserole, chewing thoughtfully.
“Why?” I asked, because I’m not a damn grief counselor and it was the best I could do to keep her talking.
“I’m angry at her for cheating,” Alex said, staring at the prongs of the fork. “That’s what she did. Life got hard and instead of getting help she just cheated. She dumped everything on the rest of us and took the easy way out and you shouldn’t get to do that if people love you.” Her voice broke, but she shook her head and rubbed the tears out of her eyes.
“I’m angry at my dad, too,” she went on, handing me the fork back. I took it but didn’t take another bite. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel very hungry. “He knew something was wrong. We all knew something was wrong. He just didn’t care enough to look after her. He’ll bend over backwards for anyone in the church. He’s a saint. He just can’t seem to understand that we didn’t sign up to be saints with him, you know? Momma didn’t want to be a martyr for his cause. She wanted to be his wife.”
“It’s okay to be mad,” I offered feebly.
“Is it, though?” Alex asked. “She’s dead, Nate. Is it really okay to hate her so much when she can’t even defend herself? And Daddy’s sad too. He may have been a bad husband but he’s not a bad man. He doesn’t deserve for me to hate him right now.”
“Well, what’s gonna make you feel better?”
That sounds like a smart question, doesn’t it? Sounds like wise words from a kid trying to coax someone he loves into taking care of herself and thinking about her situation holistically. That’s not what it was, though. It was just me, panicking, begging her to tell me how to fix things for her.
“I don’t know,” she said.
After we finished the casserole in silence, Alex let me turn down the lights. I set my watch alarm just in case and kicked off my shoes before climbing beneath the covers with her. Aside from the occasional, accidental nap out at the spot, we’d never slept together. I read once that’s supposed to mean something-- sharing a bed with someone and just sleeping. It’s a kind of intimacy that goes beyond the physical.
We slept together for the first time that night. I don’t know if it was sheer exhaustion, the shower, the food, or the makeshift confessional that finally put her at ease, but Alex was asleep in minutes. She curled up on her side and when I lay behind her she shifted so that her back was against my chest and her perfect ass was torturing me to a slow death.
“Sorry,” I mumbled into her hair, because there was no way she couldn’t feel my wildly inappropriate physical reaction to her innocent request for comfort.
In lieu of response, she just wiggled closer, reaching behind her and pulling my arm around her waist. Sending up a prayer of gratitude for my incredible good fortune, I pulled her tight against me, measuring my breath against hers as our shared body heat created a cocoon of warm comfort beneath the covers.
“She left me here alone,” Alex said sleepily, her voice thick with exhaustion-muddled emotion. “How could she do that, Nate?”
“I dunno,” I said honestly. “But you’re not alone. I swear I’ll never leave you.”
It was a silly, childish thing to say, made all the worse by the fact that immaturity has never been one of my vices. Naive promises and foolish optimism were beaten out of me before I was old enough to know what they were. I’m smarter than that, not to mention stingier with promises. I don’t swear lightly, because when you’re born into a life like mine all you’ve got to stand on is your reputation and your honor. I never go back on my word.
I shouldn’t have made her that promise.