Chapter 3 - Nate
Deb’s next door neighbor never turned his TV off. I don’t know if he was always in front of it, or if he just left the damn thing on at high volume for shits and giggles. Either way, not a night went by that I didn’t spend listening to the muffled sounds of infomercials, straining through the drywall behind the couch where I slept.
Not that it really mattered. You could drop me onto a king-size memory foam mattress in a pitch dark room, cover me with 1000 threadcount sheets and a down comforter, hum me a goddamn lullaby, and I’d still lay there like an idiot, staring at the darkness, waiting...
Waiting for what?
Fuck if I know.
It was always something before-- a tangible threat. My shithead dad or some abusive foster parent. In prison, I laid awake waiting for untrustworthy cellmates and vengeful guards and the poor fuckers with night terrors who set to screaming in the darkest hours of the night like clockwork.
Now? Now I just waited for nothing, because waiting was the only thing my dumb ass knew how to do when the sun went down.
It was hot as hell in Deb’s apartment. She had a swamp cooler in the window in the kitchen, and two more in the bedrooms. The living room, where I slept, had no windows, and the air was stale and still, pulling sweat from my pores but refusing to claim it, leaving me perpetually sweaty.
The place still had a smell, too. I’d cleaned it top to bottom those first couple days, so it was livable, but no amount of bleach and scented candles could make it a nice apartment. The air leaking through the vents and beneath the front door still smelled faintly of piss and cigarette smoke, and there was no way to get the stench of neglect out of the ratty carpet.
I’d been back for two months, working at Red’s shop five days a week and tending bar five nights as well, but I still didn’t have enough money for a security deposit on a new place. Turns out kids are pretty expensive to keep alive. Once he got over his nerves and I learned his scruples, Matty gobbled up every morsel of food I purchased and he grew out of clothes faster than I could buy them.
Deb wasn’t much more than a deadweight, either. She’d kept herself and Matt alive for six years without help, but it was like my homecoming took the fight out of her. She stopped working and spent every penny I gave her on drugs. Eventually I gave up trying to convince her to get clean and settled for demanding that she keep them out the house.
“If my PO finds drugs in here, they’ll send me back,” I’d threatened two weeks ago as I flushed her latest score, trying like hell not to run my fist through the drywall above the towel rack. Deb was on her knees outside the bathroom, sobbing and cursing. The only good thing about the situation was that Matt was still at daycare.
“Fuck your PO,” she’d moaned, bending over and pressing her face to the ground. “You can’t steal my shit, Nate! I’ll tell your fucking PO you’re a fucking thief!” She slammed her fist repeatedly into the linoleum floor. It had to hurt, but she was too high to feel it.
I rolled my eyes, jamming the handle on the toilet and watching her stash swirl away. Fucking deja vu. How many times do we have to do this, Deb?
“You’re not gonna tell him shit, Deb,” I snapped, stepping past her and marching to her bedroom, where I proceeded to tear apart her space, pausing occasionally to shove her off me as she clawed and bit and tore at me, begging me to stop. “If they send me back, you’re on your own,” I said, pulling up her mattress. There was a syringe there, a spoon, a lighter, and three baggies of powdery white substance.
“God fucking dammit, Deb,” I growled, shaking my arm free and snatching up both drugs and paraphernalia. The drugs went down the toilet, and the needle, spoon, and lighter went in the trash. I needed to clean out the fridge anyway, so I piled empty bottles, packages, and expired food on top of the contraband and tied up the bag. Deb followed me all the way to the garbage chute at the end of the hall, smacking, clawing, and crying.
She smacked and clawed and cried, but she never screamed. She knew better. Screaming would draw attention, and attention threatened a visit from the cops. A visit from the cops meant a visit from my PO, and a negative visit from my PO would almost certainly precipitate my speedy return to prison.
Deb could hate me all she wanted, but she didn’t want me to go back.
She shut the door behind us and when I turned to talk to her, she hit me so hard it actually registered. Her fist caught me in the chin and I staggered back a step, not so much hurt as astonished that I’d grown complacent enough to get cold-cocked.
“Touch my drugs again, and I’ll fucking kill you,” she hissed, shaking out her hand. It’d be throbbing, later.
I didn’t even acknowledge the threat. I stepped forward, forcing her back against the door. “You’ve got a son,” I told her, hating how little I cared about anything but her son. Deb used to break my heart, but all I saw anymore when I looked at her was failure. Whose failure was a matter best left unaddressed. “He doesn’t deserve to cohabitate with a fucking druggie. You’ve got two options. Get clean, or keep that shit somewhere else. If I find a trace of it in my home, or in the car I drive, I’m taking Matty and I’m leaving.”
In case you’re wondering, threats and ultimatums are not effective means of helping a struggling drug addict. I knew that. I can’t claim ignorance. I just didn’t fucking care.
“You can’t take him!” she snarled, but tears made her wide eyes glassy, and alarm battered at the drugged up film covering her gaze. “I’m his mother. You can’t take him from me.”
“As far as anyone knows, I’m his father,” I said. “If you get me sent back to prison and keep going the way you have been, it’ll just be a matter of time before he ends up in some fucking foster home. Is that what you want?”
This time I saw the blow coming and ducked beneath it, stepping away. Deb’s clumsy punch carried her a few stumbling steps forward, and she caught herself against the wall. All trace of anger left her, and she crumbled to the floor, sobbing.
I didn’t even want to comfort her. What does that say about me? My heartstrings didn’t start twanging at the sight of her distress. I just stared at her, feeling as blank and gray as I ever did. There were only two creatures on earth that had the capacity to pull a genuine feeling from me, and neither of them were present.
“I’m sorry,” she wept, curling into a ball, wrapping her arms around her legs and burying her face in her knees. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“Just keep it out of the apartment,” I growled, snatching my keys off the hook by the door. “I’m gonna go pick Matt up.”
When I arrived home, Matty in tow, Deb was calm and collected, and had dinner on the stove. From that point on, she never did drugs in the house. That didn’t mean she was clean, though, and the nights Matt and I spent alone began to increase as Deb spent more time in environments more accepting of her habits.
Most nights, like tonight, Matt and I hung out at the park or the library until dinnertime. Then we’d come home and cook dinner and watch TV or read or play stupid little kid games that he made up. I’d get him ready for bed, tuck him in, and turn his light out. Then I’d sit on the couch and wait and doze until Deb got home.
My shifts at the bar went from 10 to 3, so Deb was always home by 9. Tonight had been no different. She stumbled home at 8:57, passing me without a word and locking herself in her bedroom. I went to work, poured drinks for sad alcoholics and loud, obnoxious kids, and then trudged home and stretched out on this ratty ass couch in this stale room, and thought about how tomorrow would be no different.
The sound of squeaking hinges jerked me out of a half doze, and I listened intently as Matty’s door swung open, and soft footsteps padded across the carpet. His shape materialized beside the couch, and small fingers prodded my shoulder.
“What’s up, bud?” I asked, reaching over and scooping him up, setting him on top of me. He folded his legs and sat back against my raised knees, rubbing his eyes.
“I can’t sleep,” he said quietly. “Mama was screaming while you were gone.”
“She was probably just having a bad dream, Matty,” I told him, ruffling his hair. He frowned in the darkness, shaking his head.
“She’s sad,” he said sorrowfully. “All the time. It’s sad here.”
“In the apartment?”
He nodded, slumping further against my legs and rubbing his eyes again, trying not to cry and beginning to fail. “I can’t sleep. I have bad dreams and when I wake up I can hear mama having bad dreams. It’s our house. We need a new house.”
I sighed. “It’s not the house, little man,” I told him, taking his shoulder in my hand and giving him a little shake. “I never have bad dreams, and I sleep here too.” A blatant lie on both fronts, but honesty didn’t seem like a great policy in moments like those. “You know what dreams are, right?”
Matty shook his head.
I tapped a finger against his temple. “Dreams are just your brain, trying to figure out how to deal with stuff you saw or thought about during the day. So if you’re having bad dreams, it’s because you went to sleep thinking about things that make you scared.”
Matt grimaced, leveling a suspicious look at me.
“It’s true,” I promised. “So how ’bout we go back to your room and I’ll read you a story, and you think about the story instead of scary things.”
“You read me a story before bed and it didn’t help,” Matt argued. The kid could give Jakey a run for his money in the inconveniently-adroit-logic department.
I don’t know where the idea came from. Probably the depths of my asshole subconscious, which had been prodding me with the temptation to see the spot again since... well, since the last time I’d been there.
“Well I guess you need a real life adventure to distract you, then,” I said.
I’m not sure if it’s considered good parenting to drag one’s kid out of the house at 4 a.m. and take him on a midnight excursion into the woods. Probably not. It was probably really stupid. Nonetheless, we went. Good sense and reservation have never made my list of virtues.
As quietly as possible, I got Matty dressed and threw on a t-shirt and boots. I grabbed some snacks from the closet and tossed those into the ratty old backpack I used to carry my lunch to work, and we stole out of the house under cover of darkness. Matty sat tall in his booster seat behind me, watching out the window as we drove. He was quiet, but in the pensive, simmering way of a child whose excitement is just seconds short of a rolling boil.
I parked down the street from Alex’s house. I hadn’t been there since I returned-- had actively avoided it, even when the most expedient route would have passed by it. The sight of it took my breath away, and I had to force my hand not to tighten painfully around Matty’s as we walked past the tree she’d fallen from, all those years ago. My traitorous eyes skipped up to her bedroom window, but the light was off and the curtains were drawn. I found that odd. Alex never drew the curtains. She hated to feel trapped inside.
When we got to the woodline, I put Matty on my shoulders and he whispered excited questions and exclamations into the darkness as I picked my way along the old route. It was overgrown, now. Only a small trail of beaten earth remained of our once well-worn path, and I figured it was more likely deer and other animals that had used it than Alex. Did that make me happy or sad? What hurt worse? Imagining her there alone, or imagining that she’d forgotten it as completely as she seemed to have forgotten me?
Of course, there was a third option: imagining her stretched out on the gravel, staring up at our stars while some other asshole lay beside her.
I tried not to feel anything as we stepped into the clearing and the setting for so many memories-- the backdrop for so many fantasies-- came into view.
It had changed. The foliage on the banks was different. The banks themselves had changed shape, altered by variations in the flow of the river. The island was smaller, and Matt let out a peal of startled laughter, hands gripping my hair for purchase, as I leapt over the water, landing with a slight splash in the rocky mud.
Memories pummeled me. When I looked at the empty cave I thought of the cooler and lawn chairs we’d stashed there, making that little spot in the woods more home than anywhere I’d ever lived. Had Alex come and cleared it out? Thrown away every trace of our life together? The water lapping at the edges of the island, burbling over rocks, reminded me of the night Alex gave me her virginity-- how she’d tackled me to the ground, and how I’d rolled us over and watched her hair catch and swirl in that current.
I plucked Matt off my shoulders and set him on the rock, sitting beside him and laying back. Stars were scattered across the sky, the night so dark you could see the band of the Milky Way slicing across it.
“You learn about the constellations in school, yet?” I asked, tugging on Matty’s arm. He lay back, tucking himself beside me with his head resting on my shoulder. He shook his head silently.
“Okay,” I said, pulling my free arm from behind my head and pointing up at the stars. “So a long time ago, some crusty old fart looked up at the sky and decided he could see pictures.”
Matty giggled, following my finger as I traced out the big dipper. “You see those four stars, they make sort of a box? And then the three look a little bit like a handle. It looks like a big spoon, almost?”
“So this old guy, way way long ago, he looked at that and you know what he saw?”
Matt laughed, and I was glad to have my feelings validated. I’d never understood how in the fuck that was supposed to be a bear.
“That’s what I said,” I agreed. “Luckily some other guy came along a few years later and decided to call it the “Big Dipper” instead, cuz it looks like a big spoon.
’It doesn’t look like a bear,” Matt said.
“If you think that one’s crazy, wait till you hear the next.”
And so we whiled away the last hours of darkness. He followed along attentively as I traced out the constellations, asking an endless slew of questions that Alex would have much better at answering. I’d gotten my hands on a couple beginner’s astronomy books and finally learned the constellations she’d spent so long trying to drill into me. That was the extent of my knowledge, though, and Matty was a smart kid so his questions quickly surpassed my ability to answer.
Fortunately, a night of shitty sleep and the otherworldly peace of the spot caught up to him pretty quickly. By the time the stars began to wink out and the sky turned gray with coming dawn, Matt was fast asleep, tucked up tight against my side.
I should’ve headed home, but I didn’t. I just lay there, breathing the fresh air and staring at a sky I’d sincerely thought I might never see again. That used to plague me, nearly as much as Alex. Thinking of her made my chest hurt-- made me want to curl up into a ball and die. Thinking of the sky, though? It made me want to bash myself against the cinderblock walls of my cell until either I broke through or killed myself. However it ended, I just wanted to see the fucking stars.
There they were, and with Matty asleep and no other audience in sight, I felt a trickle of long-suppressed emotion start burbling to the surface. The strange thing was, it wasn’t sadness or anger that hit me, but a warm, fluttering kind of happiness. I had Matt. I had the stars. I had a future, and I had my freedom.
What more could a man ask?
* * *
When early morning mists began to settle over the water, I picked up my slumbering son and headed back to the car. Matt was a deadweight, arms hanging limp by his sides, drool making a warm spot on my shirt where his face was pressed against my shoulder. I didn’t even worry about jostling him. Matt was one of those kids who could sleep through armageddon.
Fog swirled around my ankles as I broke loose from the trees and strode across the green expanse of the neighborhood’s joint backyard. Al’s house was quiet-- a detail I tried very hard not to notice, and failed as thoroughly as I did in my efforts not to look up at her bedroom window as we passed it.
Since when did Alex draw the blinds?
Surely she’d changed. I certainly had, and I had far less by way of worldly experience to inform growth and evolution than she had. She was a woman, now, and it wasn’t unreasonable that time and maturity had tempered that wild, reckless spirit with which I’d fallen so hopelessly, foolishly in love. Even so, I had no doubt that if we came together again, the root of what we had would remain unchanged. Hell, even if we never spoke again, that barb of painful bliss would forever remain lodged in my heart. The symptoms of its poison might change. The effects might diminish, but it would always be there.
I rounded the corner of Alex’s house, stepping across the dew-covered grass of her front yard, and at just that moment the front door creaked open.
I froze. Fight or flight abandoned me, and all that was left to my faculties was an unbreakable rictus. I stood absolutely still, knees locked, arms wrapped around my snoring burden, staring at Alex.
She stood at the edge of the porch, wide eyes locked on me, wearing brightly colored running clothes and headphones. Her lips were turned up, white teeth flashing, but it was as much a smile as a skipping record is a song. She had been smiling, but she was no longer. That expression was just a frozen echo of happiness as whatever nailed me to the earth suspended her in amber.
Maybe we’d have stayed there forever-- a fate I wouldn’t really have minded-- but a third party introduced itself to our company, breaking the spell.
Some fucking guy, wearing baggy shorts and a t-shirt with “HARVARD” printed across the chest, stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Hey, babe, do you have the key, or should we just leave it unlo--”
He broke off as he caught sight of me. His eyes widened and he took an involuntary step back, reaching behind him and grabbing hold of the doorknob. I must have looked like some kind of creep, standing in the shadows of her house. Where I was standing, just around the corner and half behind a row of bushes, there was no way I could have been coming from anywhere but the darkness of her side yard. The only mitigating factor was the child in my arms, but I suppose to an enterprising mind that may have made the image even creepier.
“Aly...” he said warningly. “Do you know him?”
Alex didn’t answer. She blinked at me and shook her head, not in negation but in troubled disbelief. I could see the cogs turning in her mind. What was I doing lurking around her house in the early morning? Her eyes went wild with distress, and I realized with a burning, aching jolt that she’d leapt, not-unreasonably, to the conclusion that I was some kind of obsessed pervert-- peeping on her under cover of darkness.
“I was just...” I trailed off, letting go of Matt with one hand to gesture vaguely toward the woodline behind her house. I couldn’t bring myself to say the truth. Mentioning the truth in front of some imposter felt like heresy. So, instead, I just gestured and fell silent.
Well said, asshole.
“Aly, let’s go inside,” the douchebag said, grabbing hold of her bicep and tugging her back toward the door, which he was shoving open behind him, eyes pinned to me.
“Chill the fuck out, asshole,” I snapped, suddenly angry. What kind of pervert lurker brings a child with him to the stake out? “What the hell do you think I’m gonna do to you with a kid in my arms?”
“Nate!” Alex snapped, her eyes flashing very briefly to familiar annoyance. For a second I thought she was going to start reaming me out, and it’s more than a little twisted how desperately I wanted that. I’d have given my left nut just to have her pissed at me again, and those mere moments in the sunlight of her annoyance started a dangerous thaw inside me.
“Aly, do you know this guy?” the asshole asked again, the door still open behind him. “What is he doing out here? It’s 5 a.m.”
“I know him,” Alex said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “We went to high school together.”
We went to high school together.
The object of my scorn, for all that he looked soft and weak-willed, clearly didn’t lack for intelligence. I watched the realization creep over his face. His expression changed from flighty anxiety to understanding and fear.
“Aly, is this... is that that guy you...” he lowered his voice to a frantic hiss, but I could still hear him plain as day in the quiet morning. “Is this the convict? You didn’t tell me he was out!”
“I didn’t think it was important,” Alex said weakly, and I could tell she was trying to pry her eyes from my face but couldn’t. I felt the same way.
“You didn’t think...” douchebag sputtered off in disbelief. “Honey, we need to get inside.” He raised his voice, looking at me. “And you need to get the hell out of here. I’m calling the cops.”
“No!” Alex and I exclaimed in unison. My grip tightened involuntarily on Matt, and Alex turned her back to me to address the guy directly. The thought of cops made my heart pound erratically, and all thoughts of lost love and bashing that guy’s head in fled in the face of fear. Fear of going back. Fear of leaving Matt with Deb. Fear of of another however-many-years locked in a cage with no sky and no fresh air and no human interaction that didn’t end in blood.
I wanted to run, but that wouldn’t help so I forced myself to breathe through the panic, trying to hear Alex’s entreaty through the roaring blood in my ears. I couldn’t make out the words, but I watched the asshole relax in slow increments, fear fading to wariness. Finally, he sighed and nodded, leaning against the doorjamb and crossing impatient arms over his chest.
Acting on this tacit gesture of permission, Alex slowly descended the steps of her porch and crossed the lawn, drawing to a halt a few feet from me. She’d stopped just close enough to talk quietly, but too far away to reach out and touch. Probably for the best.
“You need to leave, Nate,” she said solemnly, head tilted back, her powder blue eyes cutting into me. “I don’t know what the hell you were doing here, but--”
“I was at the spot,” I grated out, cutting her off. “Matt couldn’t sleep so I took him out there. It’s not a regular thing and it had nothing to do with you.” I spat the words out, filling them with all the venom that I’d rather have directed at Harvard guy, who was watching us intently as if there was a thing he could do if I took a turn for the violent.
“I never said it did,” Alex snapped back, but I could see the wavering hurt in her eyes. Good, I tried to tell myself. She fucking deserves it.
But she didn’t. Only one person deserved to suffer for my bullshit, and it sure as shit wasn’t her.
“I can’t promise I won’t come back,” I said. “That’s public land. It’s not your property.”
“I know it isn’t,” she replied sadly. “I just don’t want to...” she trailed off, her eyes dropping to the ground before lifting back to my face was iron resolve. “I’ll keep my visits to before midnight. You keep yours to after. That way--”
“I get it,” I snapped, shifting Matt higher in my arms. He was still snoring away, the drool spot spreading.
“Don’t take it the wrong way, Nate,” she said sadly.
I didn’t bother to ask her what would be the right way to take it. I just shifted Matt’s limp form higher on my shoulder, turned around, and left her standing under the shadow of her house and the watchful, suspicious eye of that fucking asshole in the Harvard t-shirt.