Chapter 19 - Nate
“What the hell were you thinking?” Deb hissed as I leaned out the window to check for passing cars and pulled back onto the street. On the far side, Alex sat scrunched against the door, hugging her backpack to her middle and staring out the window.
“Leave it alone,” I snapped at Deb, probing at my lip with my tongue. I’d bit it when Isaac’s weight slammed me into the ground. That was my only injury aside from the requisite bloody knuckles. I don’t think I’d ever come away from a fight so profoundly unscathed.
“Fuck you,” Deb hissed. “You just put us all at risk. What do you think happens if you go to jail?”
“Shut the fuck up, Deb,” I growled, glancing over at Alex. She was still staring out the window, but I knew she was thinking about me. I could feel her scrutiny down to the marrow of my bones. I knew what she was thinking because it was exactly what I wanted her to think. She was asking herself who in the hell I was. If she even knew me. If I was too dangerous to be around. If I was some kind of monster who couldn’t control his anger.
All those years, I’d hid this part of myself from her because I’d known what would happen when she learned the truth. She’d be repulsed, she’d run, and I couldn’t bear to let that happen. Alex was an open door in a dark room, and if she left she’d pull that door shut behind her and I’d have nothing left but the darkness. I’d been a coward and an idiot, letting her light up my life and exposing her to darkness that had no business touching her.
That was why I’d let her see it. She had to leave. I didn’t deserve the light. People like me can’t just waltz into heaven. We have to do penance. Mine wasn’t even near to complete, but that didn’t stop me from pouncing at that open door and the light spilling through it. I’d stepped into heaven, and when the universe came to collect my entrance fee, it wasn’t me who paid it.
It was Deb.
On Friday night, I’d gone on a date I couldn’t afford with a girl I didn’t deserve, while Deb got high on pills. I ate more than my share of food while Deb’s boyfriend drank more than his share of booze. I’d laughed more than I thought possible while, somewhere across town, Deb’s boyfriend dumped her because he was too drunk to get it up and that was, somehow, her fault.
Then I’d driven out to the lake while Deb stumbled back to Tim and Marsha’s house.
I’d tasted heaven while she curled up on her bed and tried not to listen to the sound of Tim drunk-fucking his wife.
I’d listened to the sweet sound of Alex screaming my name while Deb screamed my name too-- screamed my name and hammered on the wall that joined our bedrooms, begging me for help while she clawed and bit and punched and made every futile effort to stop Tim from forcing himself on her.
Then, for hours, I’d slept like a baby, safe and content, while Tim finally got what he wanted. While he pulled himself out and stumbled off to bed. While Deb curled up on her bed and cried, unable to move, too scared and humiliated and shocked to pick up a phone and call for help.
I’d done that. My world was dark and hopeless and filled with innocent people, like Deb, who didn’t deserve to be there. Protecting them was my job-- my only hope at redemption-- and I had neglected my duty when they needed me most.
Alex thought I was cheating on her. I wasn’t. I would never sleep with Deb. I loved her, but she was a sister to me. A charge. Everything about her screamed “fuck me” to the world, but all I ever saw in her was a scared little girl who needed protection.
In a sense, though, that was worse. I’d die before cheating on Alex, but what happened to Deb made me realize that I had to choose: the kids or Alex. Redemption or happiness. I wanted Alex. I needed her like I needed air to breathe. But I couldn’t turn my back on the kids, and I couldn’t have both.
Alex deserved someone who was all there. Someone with whom a regular date was the rule, not the exception. Someone who didn’t keep half of himself locked away from her out of necessity. Somebody who, when all was said and done, could join her on the gold-paved roads of heaven instead of abandoning her to rot in hell.
So I let her see the real me-- violent and cruel and mean, and as I drove her home I felt a weary sense of satisfaction. Alex was too smart to stick with me after that display. She’d dump me. She’d get on with her life. She’d pull the door shut behind her and leave me where I fucking belonged.
It was exactly what I wanted. It was the right thing to do. Which is why it was so strange that, the closer we came to her house, the more agitated I became. It was like an off-key note, screaming in my ears, louder and louder, multiplying into a chorus of disharmony that had me wincing.
The sense of wrongness grew to nauseating levels when I pulled into Alex’s drive and shifted into park.
“Thank you for the ride,” Alex said woodenly, fumbling to push the door open and slipping out of the car. She was so composed, pushing the door shut instead of slamming it. Smiling weakly and waving goodbye before she turned and walk away.
Before I could stop myself, I was shoving my own door open and throwing myself out of the truck, jogging around the engine block and chasing her across the lawn. Disgusted at my own weakness, I grabbed her shoulder, stopping her progress.
“Alex, wait,” I gasped, breathing like I’d just run a race. It was like my mind’s resistance to my soul’s desperate striving for her had sucked the energy right out of my body. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
“What do you want, Nate?” Alex asked, her composure cracking slightly. Her face was stern, but her eyes were bleeding heartbreak that burned me like acid.
“Give me another chance,” I begged, trying to keep up with the words that spilled out of my mouth.
My convictions and self-damnation crumbled under the force of her pain. I had to explain. I respected Deb’s need for privacy, and my life was almost too humiliating to put to words, but Alex needed to know. If I was going to break her heart, I’d do it with the truth. I couldn’t send her out into the world alone without making sure she knew exactly how much I loved her. It wouldn’t be fair. And what if there was a chance she’d still want me? We’d find a way. I could pay off my debt without living in hell. If there was a way, Alex would help me find it.
“You’ve had two weeks’ worth of chances,” she said brokenly, pulling her arm out of my grip and taking a step back. I felt a desperate urge to drop to my knees and plead, but I just stood there, rooted to the ground. “I can’t do it anymore, Nate.”
“I know.” I shook my head. I knew I didn’t deserve a chance, but this was Alex. She’d always been better to me than I deserved. “I know I fucked up. I’ll tell you everything. I’ll explain it all. Just give me one more chance. Please, angel.”
I watched her resolve falter. Her lips trembled and tears rose in her eyes. She drew a shuddering breath and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Fine,” she said, her voice hard. It wasn’t hard like steel, though. It was hard like plaster, cracking and flaking away, unable to mask the pain that lay beneath it. “Explain.”
I almost did. Right there, standing in the lawn. But it wasn’t the time or place. We needed time, and privacy.
“Meet me at the spot tonight,” I said, the words rushed in response to the frustration that rose on her face. “I swear I’ll tell you everything. Everything. I just can’t do it here. We need time and we need to be alone. Please meet me at the spot.”
I saw the hesitation on her face. More importantly, I saw the fear. Now that she finally knew what I was, she was scared to be alone with me. That hit me like a one-two combo to the gut. My feet moved, carrying me backwards.
“I can come here if you’re more comfortable with that,” I said, struggling to talk around the pain in my chest. “After your dad and Tom turn in. That way if… if you feel uncomfortable there’s other people around.”
Alex steeled herself, raising her chin and clenching her jaw. So brave. So perfect. “I’ll meet you at the spot,” she said. “But this is it, Nate. If you don’t… I can’t keep doing this.”
“I know,” I said, nodding as I backed away. I had to escape before she changed her mind. “I’ll be there. Thank you, angel. I love you.”
She didn’t say it back, but I didn’t need to hear it. I heard it loud and clear when she agreed to meet me. Alex loved me, I loved her, and I had one more chance to prove it. I couldn’t squander it. If protecting the kids was my job, Alex was the home I came back to after doing it. If I didn’t have her, there was no point to redemption. Without her and the light she gave me, I wouldn’t be alone in the dark. I would become the dark.
* * *
Deb didn’t speak to me all evening. I think she knew what I was planning to do. When we got home, she marched off to the bedroom I shared with Ronny and threw herself down on the unclaimed third bed, turning her back to the room. The girls’ bedroom was just a formality by that point. Deb couldn’t bear to be in there, and Trish-- although ignorant of the cause-- fed on Deb’s anxiety and refused to spend time there as well.
So, every evening, the four of us would pack ourselves into that one little bedroom and distract ourselves from whatever was happening beyond the door. We played shitty board games and told stories and listened to music on Ronny’s thrift-store boombox. I’d bought it for him for Christmas the year before. In true Ronny fashion, he’d called it a piece of shit, bitched that it didn’t have a CD player, and then proceeded to treat the damn thing like a priceless ancient artifact. None of us were allowed to touch it, and he put more love and attention into cleaning and maintaining it than most people put into caring for their pets.
At around six, Trish and I tiptoed to the kitchen to make dinner while Deb and Ronny stayed behind. We’d long since figured out that less noise and presence meant less likelihood that Tim and Marsha would take notice of us.
Our “parents” were in the living room, yelling at some pre-recorded baseball game. I tried to make a game of avoiding their attention. When Trish dropped a butter knife on the ground, I hid my cringe and nudged her in the shoulder.
“That’s one point for me!” I whispered, pressing my finger to my lips. She giggled silently and nodded.
When I made a little too much noise pulling plates out of the cupboard, she grinned at me in triumph and held up one finger.
By the time we made it back to the bedroom with four hastily-prepared turkey-and-cheese sandwiches, Trish had three points and I was still at one.
“I win!” I sing-songed, tickling her until she laughed and shoved me away.
“It’s no fair!” she complained, sitting on the edge of my bed and taking a sloppy bite of her sandwich. “You’re bigger.”
“Yeah, that should make me louder, dummy,” I teased, sitting by Ronny and prodding his hip until he tossed his magazine aside and sat up, accepting the plate I handed him. “I think you’re just clumsy.”
Trish spat out her tongue at me, and I faked disgust at the lump of half-chewed sandwich in her mouth. Deb’s disgust was real enough.
“Shut your mouth while you’re chewing,” she scolded half-heartedly. Her shoulders were slumped and she stared with disinterest at the untouched sandwich on her plate. She wasn’t eating enough, rapidly shedding pounds she couldn’t afford to lose.
I’d always thought there must be some kind of limit for how much a person could worry. I imagined at some point you just ran out of brainpower and couldn’t fit any more items on the list of shit that stressed you out.
I was out of brainpower, though, and the list just kept growing. Tim’s predation. Alex’s heartbreak. Deb’s deterioration. Trish’s perilous innocence. Ronny’s distance. Money. Food. Assholes at school creeping on my girl. Said girl’s imminent departure for college. My looming exit from the foster care system. The question of how to look after the kids after I aged out and couldn’t live with them anymore. Deb’s refusal to go to a doctor after Tim raped her. My own culpability in the act….
Earlier that day, Mrs. Parker had pulled me aside after class and told me she was concerned. “You haven’t been turning in your homework,” she said, brow furrowed. “You’ve been doing so well, Nathan. You owe it to yourself to see this through.”
I wanted to scream at her-- to take her by the shoulders and shake her until the blinders she was wearing fell off and she realized my world and goals and priorities didn’t look the same as hers. Instead, I’d just nodded and made an empty promise to “try harder.”
It was Friday, so Tim and Marsha were up a little later than usual. At 8, we tucked Trish into my bed and switched to more subdued activities. Deb read a magazine. Ronny plugged headphones into his boombox and listened to music. I sat by the door and tried to concentrate on my book. I’d already finished Pride and Prejudice-- Alex’s ooey gooey love story selection for us to read together-- and had moved on to the Fellowship of the Ring. I usually wasn’t much for fantasy, but the last two weeks had necessitated an unprecedented degree of escape.
The book wasn’t bad. Given a choice, though, I’d prefer to escape to the spot than to Middle Earth.
By 9, Ronny was out cold. Deb gently pulled the headphones off his ears and shook a blanket out over him.
By 10, Deb had fallen into restless sleep, curled up on Paul’s old bed. She wrapped herself into a ball, twitching and mumbling at every yell and laugh that came from the living room. I switched off the lights and retrieved Ronny’s boombox from beneath his bed. I had my own stash of cassettes and found an old Beatles album, plugging that in and turning the volume down low. Background noise usually helped when one of the kids was having trouble sleeping.
I wouldn’t have had any trouble sleeping at all. With the lights off and the kids asleep, my eyelids grew so heavy I had to fight to keep them open. I sat with my back against the door and tried to read by the dim streetlights, but my eyes kept sliding out of focus and I was terrified that I’d drift off and wake up in the morning with no chance at redemption with Alex.
So I stood. I paced. I did push ups and crunches. I silently rehearsed my speech. I’d have to start at the beginning. If I’d learned anything from living half my life between the pages of a book, it was that context is important. I couldn’t just tell her. I had to show her.
It wasn’t until midnight that Tim and Marsha shifted to the bedroom. By the time I heard them moving I was suspended awkwardly between consuming anxiety that Alex wouldn’t wait long enough, and pressing exhaustion. My heart was pounding, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My brain was firing on every synapse, but my head felt stuffy and too heavy for my neck.
I did another set of pushups and then stood, leaning against the wall and trying to listen to the Beatles instead of Tim and Marsha going at it in the room down the hall. Outside, a car drove by and bright white headlights slid across the room, illuminating my brother and sisters. They all slept peacefully, and for a second I felt hopeful. I don’t know if it was the exhaustion making me stupid, or the knowledge that I was about to unload everything on Alex after over a decade of going it alone, but I felt good. I could do it. I could keep them safe and hang onto Alex. I could support myself when I left Tim and Marsha’s. I’d find a way for the kids to spend their time with me. I’d figure it out. With Alex by my side, I’d make it work.
I was so caught up in my delusional fantasy, I almost didn’t catch the sound of Tim rising from bed and stumbling down the hall. A year or so ago, that sound would have sent chills down my spine. That night, I just felt annoyed. About time, old man.
He was fumbling with the girls’ doorknob when I slipped out into the hall.
“Go to bed, Tim,” I said, leaning against the wall. We’d long since abandoned our back-and-forth. He knew exactly why I was confronting him. It was almost refreshing. Tim was the one person with whom my relationship consisted of no secrets. No false smiles. We hated each other, pure and simple.
“Fuck off,” Tim slurred, turning back to the door.
Sighing, I pushed myself off the wall and approached, shoving him back away from the door. “I said go back to bed,” I said. He shoved me back, hard, and I slammed against the wall behind me. My head rang, and the familiar, comfortable red haze dropped over my vision.
I punched him in the face, so hard he dropped back against the opposite wall, giving me room to circle around so I was no longer crowded. I had the empty hallway behind me-- room to maneuver.
He came back swinging, but I ducked beneath the blow and plowed a shoulder into his stomach, driving him back. He stumbled back until he hit his own bedroom door, at the end of the hallway.
That was my fatal mistake.
Pinning Tim against the door with my weight, I pounded my fists into his sides, grimacing in satisfaction at the sound of his grunts of pain. Then something happened. I think he finally got his arms up and brought an elbow down on the back of my neck. Whatever the cause, the world went unpleasantly colorful and my legs dropped out from beneath me. When I got my shit together, I found myself face down on ratty carpet with all of Tim’s weight bearing down on the knee he had pressed between my shoulder blades.
My right side was too close to the wall to get an arm up and my left arm was pinned beneath me. Tim had a hand on the back of my neck, pressing my face to the ground, hissing obscenities at me. If he was smarter, or had the gift of hindsight, he’d have knocked me out cold while he had me vulnerable. Instead, he just took the opportunity to wax poetic.
“You’re a useless little faggot,” he whispered venomously, pressing his weight into that knee until it was all I could do not to scream.
“Fuck you,” I gasped, struggling to get my left arm free.
“Maybe I will. Just like I fucked that slut you love so much. Teach you a little something about defying me.”
I didn’t even bother replying. With a gargantuan effort, I managed to leverage my body up just enough to free my left arm and swung it back blindly. My elbow met with the side of his thigh, just above the knee.
That little lump of muscle and nerves is more vulnerable than you realize if you’ve never been hit there. Tim didn’t exactly collapse in overwhelming pain, but he did cry out, and his weight shifted as he instinctually moved away from me. It wasn’t much-- just enough to get my arms beneath me and shove up, bucking him off.
Tim dropped back against the wall, struggling to keep his balance as I scrambled to my feet, clumsily batting away his punches. He was panting hard already, his booze-drenched muscles failing him. Just a minute more-- maybe less- and he’d be done.
I was too confident. Too oblivious to my surroundings. I drove Tim back, dealing three times as many punches as I took. I didn’t even hear the door open behind me, or Marsha approaching me from behind. All I knew was Tim, and the fact that I had him. He was stumbling backward, nose and lip bleeding, panting raggedly as he struggled to fend off my blows.
Then, in a flash, my skull was splitting open, spilling me off the surface of the earth. I felt my body hit the floor, and the awful weight of Tim, straddling me and pounding his meaty fists into my face. I heard Marsha’s voice.
“Get him, baby!” she screamed. I must have woken her up when I slammed Tim into her door. Back in the day she’d have stopped us fighting, but she knew that with my record it wouldn’t be Tim the authorities suspected. He’d be cited with self-defense and I’d be carted off to jail. She wanted this fight.
My arms didn’t want to respond as I fought to get them up in front of my face, fending off Tim’s blows. Holy shit. Is this how I die?
No way in hell. Alex was waiting for me. Gritting my teeth, I pulled my arms up, blocking my face while I screamed at my legs to come back to me as well. If I could buck him off I could get the upper hand. He was tiring. I could still win.
“Get off him!” someone screamed, and my blood froze. The voice wasn’t tinny or raspy from years of chain smoking. It was young. Crisp. Terrified.
Her round, innocent face appeared behind Tim’s shoulder, her skinny little arm wrapped around his neck. Her free hand was balled into a fist and she pounded it against his back with righteous fury.
Tim shrugged her off like she weighed nothing. With a growl, he tossed her against the wall and she slid to the ground, stunned.
It wasn’t just Trish that did me in. The sight of her sprawled against the wall was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The real weight, though, was in the years of suppressed hatred-- blows I pulled for the sake of the kids. It was in the fury over what he’d done to Deb. It was in the heartache over the thought of losing Alex. It was in the sheer exhaustion-- mental and physical and spiritual-- that had dogged my footsteps for as long as I could remember.
Ultimately, though, it was a choice to give in to the bloodlust. That red haze deepened and spread from my vision to my whole being, and I made no effort to stop it. I welcomed the transformation it brought. My blood was fire. My bones were steel. My muscles were the frothing waters of a crashing waterfall. I was power. Lethality. I was unstoppable vengeance.
With a roar that tore itself from my throat like a living thing, I rolled, throwing Tim off me against the wall opposite Trish. He slammed into the drywall, and I followed and pinned him to the ground, all trace of weakness gone as power surged in my veins. I wrapped my fingers around his throat, squeezing with intent to kill. I wanted to rip out his trachea and watch his blood stain the carpet.
Marsha was screaming, and I felt her approach and knew without looking that, whatever object she’d used to club me with earlier was clenched in her hands. Without releasing Tim, I reached out with my free hand and grabbed her ankle, yanking hard and bringing her to the ground. With one heave, I dragged her wasted form into reach and shifted my grip up to her neck.
“You’re next,” I snarled, and she whimpered as I released her neck and shoved her away. Never mind that it was an empty threat. Even in the rage, I couldn’t hit a woman. Not even her. She didn’t need to know that, though, and from the way she scrambled away I knew she believed me.
Tim was choking and gasping, his eyes bugging out of his head. His hands scrabbled feebly at my wrist before shooting up to my face. I smacked them away before he could dig his fingers into my eyes. When his hands kept coming back, I hauled back and slammed my fist into his face.
It felt good. Better than it ever had before. I felt the distant pain as the tiny bones in my hand jammed against each other and my knuckles met with the hard surface of his cheekbone. I felt the squish of skin and muscle giving out beneath the force of the blow. I felt blood, thick and warm, coating my skin. I hauled back and hit him again. His hands dropped away.
“You won’t touch them,” I heard myself scream, my voice raw. I let go of his throat so I could hit him with both hands. I needed to feel his skull cave. I needed his blood on my hands. I needed to know-- beyond the vaguest shadow of a doubt-- that he was gone. I couldn’t share the earth with him. I wouldn’t survive another day breathing his air.
“Stop!” someone was screaming, and there were hands on the back of my shirt, pulling. I barely felt them. My life began and ended with taking Tim’s. I hit him again and again and again, watching his head snap back and forth with the force of my blows. The air tasted like blood, and I pulled it deep into my lungs with each ragged breath, savoring the tang. I felt his presence leave the earth with each punch-- each drop of blood-- and I knew I had to keep going. I had to finish it or nobody would be safe.
The hands tugged harder. “Stop!” someone new screamed, and another set of hands latched onto my right arm. Reality shot through the fog. The newcomer was Trish. Her tiny, cold hands wrapped around my wrist, and I knew I couldn’t shake her loose without hurting her.
“You gotta stop, Nate,” Ronny said in my ear, his arm wrapping around me from behind, pulling back. Then Deb was there, her face filling my red-clouded frame of vision.
“Stop,” she pleaded, pushing me back, and I didn’t have a choice. They were all over me, sucking the fight out, their desperate fear like a bucket of water on the flames of my bloodlust.
I let Ronny pull and Deb push me away from Tim’s body, staggering to my feet. The kids let go and fell away from me, grouping together and staring at me as I stumbled back. When my back hit the wall my knees buckled and I slid down until my ass met the ground. Tim lay in the center of the hallway, arms and legs sprawled out to the sides. His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling, and his face was a puffy, ruined mask of blood. His chest was still.
My eyes burned, and my breath came out in gasping sobs. Hot tears burned their way down my face and I couldn’t find it in me to want them to stop. I’d just murdered a man. I should have been flowing over with fear, remorse, and disgust. All I felt, though, was relief. Like the clouds were finally parting. Like the noose around my neck was finally loosening.
Irony is a bitch, huh? I had just thrown myself bodily from the frying pan into the fire, and all I could do was weep with relief.
Deb broke away from the group and knelt by my side. I tipped my head back against the wall and blinked at the ceiling, waiting for her to slap me. Berate me. Cry. Something.
Instead, she just wrapped an arm around my neck and pressed her forehead to my temple in an awkward approximation of a hug. When she pulled back, her eyes met mine and I saw my relief reflected in her gaze. She tipped her chin up and nodded slightly, and I knew that for her there was another element to this-- revenge.
Then Trish was there, pushing past Deb and worming her way into my lap. “It’s okay,” she said, with all the weight and wisdom of a woman ten times her age. Her hands wrapped up in my shirt and she buried her face in my chest, but she didn’t cry. It was like some sort of twisted role-reversal. My kids-- my charges-- dry eyed and strong while I melted into the respite of Tim’s absence. “We’re okay.”
Ronny didn’t look at me, but he slid down the wall by my side, pulling his knees close to his chest. His jaw was locked tight and his eyes were wide, watching the hallway down which Marsha had disappeared. Ronny was a smart kid. He knew what was happening-- a silent changing of the guard. My watch was ending. His was just beginning.
Beyond the thin walls of the house, I heard sirens. Trish tucked herself tighter against me, Deb huddled on my right with her arm linked through my mine, and Ronny sat silent vigil on my left. Tim lay lifeless in the hall, blood soaking into the carpet. Marsha cried and screamed in the front lawn, railing at whatever poor 911 operator had the misfortune to answer her call. Just miles away-- miles that felt like lightyears-- Alex lay on the rock and stared up at the stars. Alone. Even though I wasn’t there, I could feel her giving up on me. I felt the last sliver of light disappearing as she walked away and pulled the door shut behind her.
I was eight when I took my first life, eighteen when I took my second, and felt no remorse on either occasion. I was drawn tight as a bowstring my whole life-- both a product and a perpetrator of a ruthless, barbaric brand of violence. Pain was my natural state. Blood was my medium for artistic expression. Cruelty was my native language.
I was a tough little shit, is what I’m saying.
The cops knew that. They knew who I was. I suppose that’s why they showed up guns drawn, faces red, eyes popping as they screamed at me to “get on the ground, asshole! Hands behind your head! Cross your feet at the ankles! Don’t fucking move!”
They probably didn’t expect to find me sitting against the wall, face buried in my knees, crying like a baby. I’d sent the kids back to Tim and Marsha’s room the second the sirens drew close and flashing lights bounced off the walls from the bedroom windows. They were safe, so I didn’t feel much compulsion to obey the cops’ orders. I just sat there and sobbed-- adrift in a sea of consuming relief and plunging darkness.
Alex was gone. Somewhere, worlds away, she was walking home with moonlight shining off her tear-streaked face. Walking away from me. Away from the pain I brought her. Away from the darkness I carried with me.
I should have been happy. She deserved a good life. A man who didn’t have blood on his hands. A life of certainty and light. My arrest was giving that to her, forcing her away when she might otherwise have kept coming back-- offering me chance after chance to set myself straight.
I’m a selfish fuck, though, and I wasn’t happy.
I just wanted her back.