Chapter 4 - Alex
I hadn’t seen him since our literal run-in at Wal Mart. Weeks of peace, and I’d finally started to level back out. It was as if fate knew.
“What the hell was that asshole doing at your house, Aly?” Parker asked, shoving the front door shut behind him and following me to the kitchen. So much for a peaceful morning jog to start the day out right.
I flipped the lights on in the kitchen and yanked the coffee pot from the percolator, filling it with water.
“It’s just a coincidence,” I said, pushing open the top of the coffee maker and pouring the water inside.
“Don’t lie to me,” Parker said simply, leaning a hip against the counter. “That creep is spying on you. We need to call the police.”
As it always did, a spark of unjustified, snapping resistance burned a hole in my resolve to stay aloof. “He’s not a creep,” I said, spooning ground coffee into the filter and shutting the lid, jamming the “brew” button with unnecessary force.
“Why are you defending him?” Parker demanded, pushing off the counter and stepping forward, backing me against the refrigerator.
That’s a good goddamned question, babe.
“I’m not defending him,” I said, guilt and annoyance warring for control of my actions. Parker wasn’t the bad guy, here, but it grated on me as much as ever to hear Nate’s reputation besmirched. Even if he deserved it. Even if his character was just as tattered and stained as people said it was. It was like an itch beneath my skin, or a phantom pain. There was no reason for it to bother me, but I couldn’t ignore it.
“So it’s normal behavior for a guy to be lurking outside your house before dawn?” Parker shook his head, scrubbing a hand through his unruly hair. “You’re not that stupid, Aly.”
“He wasn’t lurking outside the house,” I said firmly, pushing him away and crossing the kitchen, pulling open a cabinet and removing two mugs. “There’s a spot in the woods out back. It’s... nice. Tom and I used to go out there when we were kids, and... me and Nate went there sometimes too. It’s a good place to look at stars. He was just out there with his kid, that’s all. We caught him walking back to his car.”
Why did it feel so awful to tell the truth?
Parker stared at me, head cocked, brow furrowed, arms crossed over his chest.
“Must be a pretty special spot if he drove all the way over here to see it.”
“It’s not, really.” Lie. “It’s just has sentimental value for him, I guess.”
“Does it have sentimental value for you, too?”
“Not really.” Lie. “A little.”
“Why haven’t you shown it to me? You’ve shown me everything else in town.”
“I just don’t go out there much anymore.” Truth.
Because it hurts too much to see it. Because it kills me to be there without him. Because I left my heart there and I don’t want back. “Because there’s no reason to. It’s just a spot in the woods.”
Parker’s gaze softened and he stepped forward, linking his hands at the small of my back. “Will you take me there, today?” he asked quietly, lowering his face to press a gentle kiss to my lips.
“It’s just a stupid spot in the woods,” I argued, struggling against my own resistance. Taking Parker there would be a good thing. Maybe that was what I needed to purge Nate, once and all, from my existence. Maybe if I took Parker there and replaced Nate’s memory, I’d be able to burn those stupid letters and let it all go.
“Be that as it may,” Parker intoned, his voice set against a backdrop of gurgling coffee as the machine finished brewing. “It’s a stupid spot in the woods that used to mean something to the girl I love. I want to see it.”
What a beautiful sentiment. My knees should’ve gone wobbly. My heart should have ached. I should’ve melted in his arms.
“Okay,” I said stiffly, pulling myself from his embrace, reaching for the coffee pot and pouring myself a mug. “We’ll go when the sun comes up.”
* * *
We packed a breakfast picnic. Parker’s idea. We had a worn blanket, a thermos, and two tupperwares of eggs, bacon, and toast crammed into a backpack that Parker carried as I led the way through the woods.
The trail was overgrown, no longer wide enough for two. Long grass and low shrubs tickled my bare legs and I ducked under branches that reached across the trail. I tried, as I walked, to convince myself to stop being so stubbornly negative. This was a good thing. Parker was the sweetest guy a girl could ask for. He loved me. He was my future. What could be wrong about gifting him a piece of my past-- with turning the pain into something bright and hopeful?
I almost had myself convinced when we broke through the trees into the small clearing. My past stood before me in dappled morning light. I’d never seen it like this before. I’d only ever been here in the afternoon with Tom or the dead of night with Nate. It was beautiful in the morning. Soft yellow light played off the still leaves of the trees and glittered on the gently-burbling creek. A shaft of bright light was warming the boulder. A butterfly drifted languidly over the water and birds chirped cheerfully in the branches overhead.
“What’s the matter?” Parker asked, drawing even with me. “Why did you stop?”
“This is it,” I said, waving my hand at the scene before us, barely able to lift my arm for the weight that pressed me into the ground. This is wrong.
“Oh!” Parker exclaimed, an air of fabricated excitement bubbling forth as he hitched the backpack higher. “It’s gorgeous, sweetheart.”
I shrugged wordlessly and led the way across the stream. The water was higher than usual, and I barely made the leap. Parker came up a few inches short, sending up a splash of water and a muttered curse.
We didn’t talk while we ate our picnic. Poor Parker didn’t seem to know what to say, and I had no desire to speak. I was too mired in my inner struggle.
Just be happy. Be happy be happy be happy.
But this is wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.
Parker sat against the rock, still wearing his drenched shoes, his handsome features glowing in the morning sun. Every once in a while he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, clearly savoring the fresh air and the cheerful sounds of morning.
I wanted to smack him. This is not yours to enjoy.
I wanted to cry. I’d been homesick for the spot for six years. Now that I was back, I felt lonelier and farther from home than I had since I was twelve years old.
* * *
Weeks passed. Parker came and went, racking up miles from his frequent flights to visit. High summer turned to late summer. The fall semester started at my university, and my days were suddenly filled with needy undergrads as lesson plans took the place of research. I never went back to the spot. Parker never asked, and neither did Tom. I began, once again, to forget about Nate.
It started off as an ordinary Tuesday. I woke up, ran, showered, dressed, ate, kissed Daddy and Tom goodbye, and left the house ten minutes later than I would’ve liked. I parked in my designated spot, seven minutes’ walk from my office.
My morning consisted of classes. At 9 I sat in on the Physics I and at 10 I sat in on Intro to Cosmology, both of which were classes I TAd for. At 11 I trekked to the library to host a tutoring session for students who were struggling with the Physics I class. From 12 to 1, I ate my lunch and graded tests.
After lunch, I changed into outdoor clothes and drove out to the university’s observatory to install a new instrument on one of the telescopes. Storm clouds roiled overhead by the time I left just after 3, and I sent a text to the grad student I knew was planning to come out and observe that night.
Looks like you’re gonna have to find a new date tonight, I typed. The stars are gonna stand you up.
Just a squall, she texted back. It’ll clear up by sunset.
Rain began to fall as I drove home-- big fat droplets that splattered like bugs against my windshield. Two minutes later, the sky opened up and a torrent of water battered the windshield. I flipped my wipers to the highest setting and slowed down, struggling to see the yellow lines on the road in front of me. Lightning flashed intermittently, shining off the droplets on my side windows, and thunder followed at ominously shortening intervals.
I debated pulling over to the side of the road and waiting the storm out. I decided against it, but apparently the universe had other plans. Without warning, my car fell out of cruise control and began to slow. I pressed on the gas, but the engine revved uselessly. Alarmed, I guided it to the shoulder, put it in park, and turned the engine off. Taking a deep breath, I started it up again, shifted into drive, and pressed on the gas.
Nothing. The engine revved madly, and the car stood still.
Cursing, I pulled my cell phone out of my purse and flipped it open.
The university’s observatory was deliberately set apart from civilization. The narrow black ribbon of county route 5 stretched through miles of emptiness: vast fields of recently-harvested crops and, here and there, a copse of trees. I’d seen one other car on this road on my drive out, and zero on my drive back.
Cursing my bad luck, I popped the hood and stepped out of my car into the torrential downpour. I didn’t know much more about cars than how to change my wiper fluid, but I was smart. I had it in my head I could diagnose the problem on instinct and intellect alone.
I propped the hood up on its built-in rod and braced my hands on my hips, staring at the engine. Driving rain soaked my my clothes, plastering my thin polyester t-shirt to my skin and gluing loose strands of hair to my temples. Nothing in the engine was amiss to my untrained eye. Belts whirred along as-- to the best of my knowledge-- they always did. Nothing was smoking.
Movement caught my eye, and I looked up to see headlights approaching from the direction I’d come. Remembering stories of people killed by rubberneckers, I stepped away from my busted car and stood near the fenceline separating the roadway from the field beyond. Hopefully the driver would take pity on me and pull over.
To my relief, the car-- a red sedan that looked even more beat up than my old hunk-o-junk-- slowed as it passed, pulling onto the shoulder some fifty yards ahead. The door swung open and the driver stepped out into the rain.
The rain was coming down in sheets, so I couldn’t see his face, but I knew it was him the second he took his first step. I knew that gait anywhere. He had his head lowered against the rain, and I realized he probably didn’t know it was me. He’d just seen a car broken down and stopped to help. Would he have stopped if he knew who it was? Probably not. Would he leave when he realized it was me? My gut sank. Probably.
He finally raised his head when he was just ten feet from me, squinting against the rain that dripped continuously into his eyes. He froze, and so did I. Just like we had at the Walmart. Just like we had in my front yard. His eyes met mine and time stopped. The rain stopped. The world stopped.
A dark home, covered in dust, broken with disuse, but still... home.
This time it wasn’t human interference that broke the spell. It was a flash of lightning, followed almost immediately by a deafening crack of thunder. I flinched. Nate tilted his head back and closed his eyes, rain pelting his face.
“You should get back in the car until this passes,” he said, opening his eyes and glaring at me, as if the storm was my fault. Shaken, I nodded and hurried to the door, wrenching it open and dropping into the seat. I slammed the door shut, and a few seconds later the hood of my car lowered. Nate dropped it closed, pushed down once to make sure it was latched, and turned on his heel. I watched his figure walk back to the car ahead of me and waited for brake lights to signify his imminent departure.
Instead, for ten minutes I watched his tail lights, blurry and distorted through the rain-drenched windshield. When the worst of the thunder and lightning passed, I watched the door open again, and followed his progress as he pulled a bag out of his trunk and walked back to my car. I should’ve climbed out and met him, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. Drenched to the bone, I shivered in the front seat, watching as his silhouette grew larger and eventually loomed outside my window.
I swallowed hard as he rapped a knuckle against my window. Maybe it would be better just to tell him to leave and wait for another car.
He knocked again, and I sighed, pushing the door open and stepping outside. I hugged my arms around myself as the rain-- softer now-- trickled over my goose-pimpled skin. The Nate I knew would’ve said something sweet and wrapped his arms around me, sharing his body heat until my teeth stopped chattering. This one just gestured at the engine block of my car.
“Are you going to pop the hood for me?” he asked stonily, setting the bag on the ground.
“I’m a mechanic, Alexandra. Pop the hood. Unless you want to just keep staring at it until you annoy it into working.”
Technically, it was a joke. His tone wasn’t joking, though, and his eyes were cold and hard. His expression was blank. He was like a walking corpse-- no hint of playfulness or compassion or life. Suddenly I was afraid. What would a man with Nate’s temper and zero conscience do to me-- someone who had, by his measure, wronged him? What would he do with my disadvantage? With our isolation?
A flicker of something human glinted in his eyes, and he breathed out a shallow sigh. I stood frozen, watching through the rain as he bent and unzipped the bag, pulling out a battered tire iron. Before I could register the threat, he stood up straight and offered it to me.
“Take it,” he said stonily, wobbling it at me in the air between us. I unfolded my arms and took it hesitantly, my fingers closing around cold, textured metal. Nate circled around me and slipped into the driver’s seat of my car, reaching beneath the dash. Seconds later, I heard the hood pop.
He had the hood propped open and was studying the still-running engine when I finally found my tongue.
“There’s nothing wrong with my tires,” I said dumbly, looking down at the heavy metal tool in my trembling hand.
“I can see that,” Nate grumbled from beneath the hood.
“Why did you give me a tire iron if there’s nothing wrong with my tires?”
He didn’t even look at me. “So you can hit me when I try to rape you or beat you or whatever the fuck it is you think I’m planning,” he growled, yanking a dipstick out of the engine. He produced a rag from his back pocket and used it to clean the stick off, shoving it back in before pulling it out once more and studying the tip. “If you’re quick, you’ll be able to knock me out and make off with my car to get help.”
“Nate...” What was I supposed to say, though? He wasn’t wrong in guessing what was troubling me, nor was I wrong in being troubled by it. He was a murderer who had spent the last six years of his life in one of the shittiest prisons in the midwest. What reason did I have to believe that he had an ounce of good, or an ounce of restraint, left in him?
“What happened when you broke down?” he asked, interrupting my thoughts. “Any weird sounds?”
“It just stopped accelerating,” I said, crouching and tucking the tire iron back into the bag, zipping it closed. “It’s like it’s in neutral, or something. The engine just revs.”
Nate straightened and circled me, slipping back into the driver’s seat once more. He shifted into drive and I heard the engine rev as he pressed lightly on the gas. I watched as he sat back, tipping his head against the rest and closing his eyes for a moment, as if gathering energy or resolve. Then he leaned forward and the engine shuddered to rest.
“Was it acting up before today?” he asked, stepping out of the car and bracing a hand on the open door, my keys in his hand. The rain had all but stopped, and I could see a hint of blue sky on the horizon behind him.
“A bit,” I admitted. “It’s been skipping in and out of gear for a couple weeks. I had an appointment for it next week.”
Nate studied me with a blank look before stooping and picking up the bag at my feet. “Get your shit,” he said. “I’ll drive you back to town.”
Horror sliced through me. It was another hour back home. An hour alone with him?
“Can you just patch it up so I can limp it to the nearest garage?”
“Do you have a lift and a new transmission in your trunk?” Again, no hint of genuine amusement to accompany the joke. An hour.
“It’s fine,” I said quickly, backing away. “I’ll just wait for a tow truck.”
“Nobody uses this road, Alex,” Nate said, his tone as slow and uninvolved as if he was explaining simple addition to a struggling Kindergartener. “And there’s no phone signal for you to call a tow. I’m not real pleased about it either, but your only other option is to sit here and wait for someone else to drive by. That might not be until tomorrow.”
He was right, but still I hesitated. An hour. Alone. With him.
“You want the tire iron back?” he asked, hefting the bag.
“I’m not afraid of you,” I snapped, glaring at him. For a moment-- just a tiny fraction of a second-- the corner of his mouth ticked up in a smile. Then it dropped, and his face was stony indifference once more.
“Just get your shit,” he said, turning and walking away.
Reluctantly, I conceded to his unpleasant logic and ducked into my car, snatching my purse off the passenger seat. I locked the doors, shut the hood, and dragged my feet to my waiting ride.
Nate sat in the driver’s seat, one hand draped over the wheel and one on the gear shift, staring blankly ahead. A brightly-colored beach towel was folded on the passenger seat, and I remembered that I was drenched. He probably didn’t want me to get his seat wet.
Bending, I unfolded the towel and set about spreading it over the seat. I flinched when it was yanked out of my hands.
“It’s for you,” Nate growled, throwing the towel at me with a flick of his wrist. I caught it, holding it against my chest, confused. “You’re freezing,” he muttered, “and the heater doesn’t work in here.”
A rush of old warmth filled my chest, and I struggled to beat it back with cold logic. He cheated on you. He’s a murderer. He never loved you. Even if he did, he hates you now.
The towel smelled like detergent, and the terrycloth was soft and warm against my skin as I wrapped it around my shoulders and climbed into the car. I tried not to look at Nate as I pulled the door shut and buckled my seat belt. An hour.
For ten minutes of that hour, we said nothing. I stared fixedly out the passenger window. Nate focused with parallel determination at the road ahead. The air between us was thick with stifled discomfort. I think there’s no disquiet on earth quite like the warbling dissonance of severed bonds. There’s nothing quite so disconcerting as being trapped in a small space with someone you once loved who has since become a complete stranger.
Silence between us used to be a sweet thing. I remember long evenings where not a word was spoken as we stared up at the stars, content in the knowledge that the same dreams were playing out in our minds. I remember sitting in the cab of his truck, daydreaming while he drove, his presence neither an anchor nor a fetter to my thoughts. He was more like a port-- somewhere to drift back to and dock, sharing ideas or revelations before I wandered back out to sea.
Against my better judgment, I turned my attention to the interior of the car, studying Nate slyly from the corner of my eye. It gave me a perverse kind of satisfaction that he appeared to be as uncomfortable as me. His left hand was wrapped so tight around the steering wheel his knuckles were turning white. His jaw was clenched so hard I could see a muscle tick by his ear. His chest rose and fell with slow, controlled breaths-- like he had to concentrate to force himself to breathe the same air as me.
Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, Nate glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. I would’ve loved to look away, but every time our eyes met it was like my body shut down and all I could do was stare. Fortunately, he had to watch the road, so the rictus didn’t last too long.
“What shop is your appointment with?” he asked, as if he hadn’t just caught me staring at him. His grip tightened on the steering wheel, though, and his breath grew even slower and more deliberate.
“The one on fifth,” I said, trying to sound as disconnected as him.
“The one by the burger place?”
“They’ll cheat you. Especially for a transmission repair. Have the tow truck bring it to Red’s.”
“I’m supposed to believe you’ll give me fair treatment?”
“Believe what you want about me, Alex, but Red’s an honest business owner. You’ll get a better deal from him.”
“How much is it going to cost?”
“If we can find a way to repair it, which is doubtful, around 2 grand. If we have to replace it, you’re looking at somewhere north of 3. Maybe closer to 5, depending on the cost of parts.”
My stomach bottomed out. I couldn’t afford that. I might as well get a new car. I couldn’t afford that either, though. I had nothing in savings. Every penny of my meager salary went towards the household coffers or repaying Daddy’s medical bills and my student loans. I had nothing.
“That’s expensive,” I said weakly, chewing on my lip.
“Ask your dad to help you.”
“I’m helping him,” I said, angry at the assumption. “Not the other way around.”
“Have it towed to Red’s,” Nate said, his voice carefully even. “There’s nothing I can do about the cost of the parts, but if you bring it to Red’s I’ll do the repair myself after I clock out. It’ll take a few days longer, but it’ll save you about a grand of work hours.”
“What? No!” Did he really think I was going to accept a favor? After everything that had transpired between us? Did he think I was going to let myself be indebted to him? That I was going to let him help me, knowing how badly he’d hurt me? How badly I’d hurt him? It had to be some kind of trap.
“Your choice,” Nate said with a shrug. For the rest of the drive, we lingered together in the soupy tension of our mutual distrust and anger. By the time we reached my house, I had a pressure headache that threatened to pop my eyeballs, and I would be surprised if Nate’s hands hadn’t left embedded marks in the wheel and gearshift of his car.
“Thank you for stopping,” I said reluctantly as I climbed out. Pulling the towel from my shoulders, I folded it carefully and placed it on the dampened seat.
“Just tow the car to Red’s,” he said by way of answer and goodbye. The second I shut the door, he was gone.
Thirty minutes later, I sat on my living room couch in dry pajamas, my hair washed and pulled up in a messy bun. I talked the tow truck company through the location of my car.
“And where would you like us to take it, ma’am?” the operator asked brusquely.
I hesitated, pressing the heel of my hand against my forehead as I struggled against the decision I’d already made. You know what the worst part is? I didn’t even do it to save money. I did it because I wanted to see him again.
“Red’s Automotive,” I said through gritted teeth. “On the intersection of Walnut and Main.”