Chapter 8 - Alex
I was sitting at the kitchen table with Gemma and Minnie. The tabletop was covered in fabric samples, catalogue cut outs, and pages upon pages of notes.
You hear about how complicated wedding planning is, but you always believe you’ll be the exception. On the rare occasion that I dreamt of a wedding, my imagination always came up with something simple. A short outdoor ceremony, attended by a modest gathering of family and friends. A potluck buffet-style dinner and an open bar.
The problem is, it takes two people to get married. I might’ve wanted quiet and cheap and simple, but Parker wanted the entire world to know that he was marrying me. It was sweet, really. He threw himself into the planning process with gusto, guiding every aspect of the occasion except the selection of my dress.
The samples and cutouts before us were what he’d sent Gemma, my maid of honor. A sample for us to narrow down.
It was giving me a fucking migraine.
“Just pick one, Aly!” Minnie sighed, crossing her arms on the tabletop and dropping her head into them. “Before my children have children.”
“I don’t care!” I exclaimed, staring at the two napkins Gemma was holding up. “They look the same to me!”
“Then pick one at random,” Gemma moaned.
“The one on the right,” I said, waving a hand at the slightly-whiter square of linen.
“Are you crazy?!” the two other women exclaimed in unison. “You want ivory linens with eggshell chair covers?”
“If it’s so awful why did you even give it to me as an option?” I exclaimed, shoving my chair back. “This is ridiculous. You guys just pick one. I don’t care.”
Neither of them argued, and I left them alone to commiserate over my poor taste and went to fetch a bottle of wine. Maybe a buzz would ease this agonizing process.
I heard the front door open just as I was digging the corkscrew out of the drawer. I glanced at my watch.
6:45 p.m. That was a late night for my father. Holidays were always bad, and I worried about the effects of the extra stress on his heart. The look on his face as he trudged into the kitchen did nothing to alleviate my worry.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as he settled onto a stool across the island.
He shook his head, draping his coat over the chair beside him and loosening his tie. “Long day,” he said, nodding his thanks as I filled a glass with water and set it in front of him.
“You want something to eat?”
“I’m fine.” He offered me a wan smile. “Where’s Tom?”
“Downstairs playing video games. Are you sure you don’t want food? I made lasagna.”
“I’m fine, sugar. I ate at the hospital.”
“Visiting a parishioner?” I asked warily. He’d developed a habit of attending doctor’s appointments without me, after the first few. I guess I asked too many questions and “bullied the poor doctors” and was thus more of a hindrance than a help. He always told me when the appointments were, though.
“Several,” he said, and I felt a brief flash of relief, followed shortly by pained sympathy. The holiday was no time for families to be stuck in the hospital. Not that any time was a good time.
“Rough day for the flock,” I observed.
“Rough day for the city,” he countered wearily. “You heard about the fire?”
No. No I had not.
“You know the old apartment building on the east side?”
“The one the city should’ve condemned three decades ago?” I drove by it once every few weeks on my way to the airport to pick up Parker.
My father nodded sadly, scrubbing a hand through his thinning hair. “It burned to the ground last night. I’m surprised you didn’t see it on the news. The building collapsed so they still don’t have an accurate body count. At least 13 were killed, though.”
“Oh, my god,” I breathed, pressing a hand to my chest. “That’s awful. Who... you had parishioners who lived there?”
To be honest, my concern was almost entirely selfish. My father cared for his flock like they were his own family. Deaths always hit him hard. Statistics have shown that people like chaplains and psychologists suffer high rates of depression and suicide because they shoulder so much emotional pain for others. My father was no exception and I worried that multiple deaths, in such horrific circumstances, would place critical stress on his heart.
“Three families,” he said mournfully. “A few of them got out relatively unscathed, but we lost two and three are in poor condition.” He sighed, scrubbing a hand over his forehead. When he looked back up, he had a pensive, worried expression on his face.
“You should know,” he said, taking my hand and squeezing it. “One of the people who passed... you remember Deborah Wainwright?”
Oh, my god.
The earth tilted beneath my feet, and for a second I couldn’t breathe.
“Yeah,” I heard myself say.
My father grimaced, squeezing my hand again before letting it go. When he spoke, he spoke slowly, carefully selecting his words as if he knew how perilously close I was to panicked screaming.
“She passed away in the fire,” he said. “They still haven’t found her body, but she was inside when the roof collapsed and, considering the conditions, they’re certain she couldn’t have survived.”
“She had a son,” I said, because I knew I was supposed to be concerned about the child. I wasn’t, though.
“He’s at St. Mary’s,” my father said, nodding. “He has some minor injuries, so they’re holding him for observation until tomorrow. His father is with him.”
Relief smacked me in the face like a two-by-four, and I busied my trembling hands by fetching myself a glass of water and taking a few shaky sips. My father studied his hands, clasping them together as if pondering a particularly troublesome problem.
“Sugar, I was wondering...” he trailed off before looking up and frowning at me. “Deborah Wainwright was a troubled young lady,” he said. “But she loved her son more than life itself. I know... I know it would break her heart to know that her child, on top of everything else he has been through, is homeless during the holiday season.”
He paused momentarily and studied the ceiling before leveling his gaze at me once more.
“As you know, we have opened our home to families in need in the past.” He said it like we ran some kind of shelter. Really, we just let folks stay in our guest room for a week or so while they found somewhere more permanent, often with the help of one of my father’s programs.
“Yeah, I know,” I said cautiously. “What’s the problem? You want Deb’s son to come stay here?”
“Well... not just the boy...”
“Nate,” I forced myself to say as if it didn’t matter, as I finally realized what my father was getting at. He was asking me permission. It almost hurt that he felt the need to do so. No matter how I felt about Nate, I wasn’t a monster. I wasn’t about to turn away a motherless child just because I had hurt feelings over a bad breakup six years in the past.
“Daddy, you know it’s okay with me,” I said sternly. “If they need a place to stay, they should stay here. Ask them.”
“Well that’s the thing,” he said, steepling his fingers and resting his chin on top of them. “I’m not the one who needs convincing.”
* * *
My boots, wet from the snow, squelched on the waxed laminate floor of the hospital hallway. The place was a maze, and I had no idea how I’d gotten from the lobby to the this floor. I’d just followed the signs the woman at the reception desk told me to. Hopefully getting out would be easier.
Finally, I found the right floor and asked the nurse at the desk for further directions.
“What’s the patient’s name?” she asked, sounding bored.
“Matthew,” I said, wracking my brain. Did he take Deb’s last name or Nate’s? Why didn’t I know that? Why would I know that? “Matthews Reynolds?”
“Is that a question or an answer?” the nurse asked, scowling at me.
“It’s an answer,” I said, trying to sound confident. “His name is Matthew Reynolds.”
The nurse pointed me towards room 315, with instructions to be quiet.
The door was open, to my consternation. Part of me was hoping I’d have to knock, and that Nate wouldn’t hear it and I’d have an excuse to turn tail and run. Instead, I hovered in the doorway, leaning forward just enough to peak inside.
There were two beds in the room, but all I could see of the far bed’s occupant was feet. The rest was hidden by a drawn, pale-blue curtain.
A little boy lay in the nearest bed, looking impossibly small. He didn’t even take up half the bed, and the sight of tubes and wires on his tiny body seemed obscene. He was sleeping, but I could see tear tracks on his face and he lay curled on his side in a fetal position, hands clasped together and tucked into his chest as if protecting his heart.
Slumped in a chair by the bed was a barely-recognizable shadow of a man who might’ve been Nate. He was watching the child in the bed with an almost desperate ferocity, and did little more than glance my way when I stepped inside the room. His eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, his hair somehow pointing every direction at once, and he was wearing soot-smudged jeans and a scrub top the hospital staff must have loaned him. Despite the change of clothes, the smell of smoke lingered beneath the harsh bite of antiseptic.
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that he might’ve been in the fire, himself. Once my father conveyed that he wasn’t hurt, I assumed that he’d missed it altogether. That clearly wasn’t the case.
“Hi,” I said, when he didn’t acknowledge my presence beyond a barely-perceptible tensing of his posture.
“What are you doing here, Al?” he asked without ceremony. I winced, both at his blunt words and at the raw edge of his voice. He sounded like he’d been gargling razor blades.
“I heard about what happened,” I said lamely, stepping closer. “I came to see if you’re okay.”
He tore his eyes away from his son and leveled his gaze at me, searching my face like he always used to. I tried to meet his scrutiny head on, but he saw the truth in spite of my efforts.
“You father sent you,” he said wearily. “You can relay the same message I already told him in person. I’m not interested in his charity.”
“It’s not for you,” I blurted. There was something about being around him. If we were apart, I could tell myself that years had passed, that he was a stranger, and that nothing remained between us.
When I was in his presence, though, it was like no time had passed at all. I felt myself ease into bafflingly comfortable familiarity. This man wasn’t a stranger. He was the other half of my soul and I knew how to tackle his stubborn streak as well as I knew the contours of my own face.
“Matt’s been through enough,” I said. “He deserves somewhere comfortable to stay while you find a new place. We have a full guest suite, so you can have privacy, but you’ll have my father available to help you get him through the first stages of his grief. You won’t have to worry about food, and there’s no limit on how long you can stay. Don’t waste money on a hotel or force him to sleep on someone’s couch just because you’re too stubborn to accept help.”
I thought he’d glare at me. Pissed off was the only real emotion I’d seen on his face since we first ran into each other back in the summer. I’d come to wonder if that was the only emotion he was capable of feeling, anymore.
He didn’t glare, though. He just stared at me, searching my face once more before turning his attention back to the hospital bed. The little boy mumbled something in his sleep, shifting restlessly, and Nate reached out and smoothed a hand over his hair, continuing the soothing motion until the boy subsided back into sleep.
It seemed awfully cruel to hate him right then. Yes, he lied to me. Yes, he cheated on me. But I didn’t have to trust him to have a little mercy on a man who’d just lost his every earthly possession, and the mother of his son, a woman he probably loved. It seemed indecent to harbor any contempt for a man sitting at his motherless child’s bedside.
I watched in silence as he slumped back into his chair and lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, eyes closed, clearly battling with himself.
“Just for a couple weeks,” I prodded, leaning my hip against the foot of the bed. “Regardless of what happened between us, Nate, Deb was part of my father’s church. He wants to help and you need whatever you can get right now. Do it for Matt, okay?”
His jaw clenched, and I watched a muscle tick in his jaw as he shook his head, slowly, still struggling.
“You’re really okay with it?” he asked finally, impaling me with his eyes, scrutinizing my reaction to the question, which he knew would be more honest than my words.
Rather than lie to him, I told him the full and honest truth. “What went down between us doesn’t matter right now,” I said evenly. “This is about your son. Not about us.”
Nate sucked in a shallow breath and scrubbed a hand through his disheveled hair before shaking his head with resignation and letting out a sigh. “Fine,” he said. Then, as if it cost him a great deal to utter the words, he looked me in the eye and said “thank you.”
Mission accomplished. Time to leave.
Why the hell, then, weren’t my feet moving?
“Have you eaten?” my mouth asked him without my go ahead. He stared at me blankly, perhaps as baffled by my words as I was. I almost took it back. Nevermind. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I opened my mouth to do so, but all that came out was, “are you hungry? Do you want me to bring you something from the cafeteria?”
Nate shook his head slowly. “No,” he grated out in that tortured, raspy voice. What question was he answering? Probably all of them.
“Okay,” I said awkwardly, staring down at my boots. “Do you have your car, here? Are you okay to drive yourself to our place when he’s discharged?”
He shook his head. “Parking lot’s blocked. We’ll take a cab.”
“I can write down our home phone and you can call when you’re ready to be picked up,” I offered.
“I know your number, Alex.”
“Right...” My eyes kept pulling toward the little boy huddled under the starched white sheets. He hurt to look at. For so long, I had resented him so much. I couldn’t hate a kid. I’d never blamed him. But I did resent him. He was a symbol for so much heartbreak. Looking at him, though, he didn’t seem capable of the destruction he’d wrought. Something in me just wanted to pick him up and hold him close and promise him everything was going to be okay.
“I’ll call tomorrow,” Nate said, tearing my attention from his charge, and I knew I was being dismissed.
I nodded and slipped back out into the hallway. My job was done, and I expected a wave of relief as I headed back down the hall, hopefully the same way I’d come.
With each step, I waited for the relief but all I got was a building sense of wrongness in the back of my brain. It was like that twinge of panic when you wonder if you left the stove on. Building and building over time as your mind constructs a compelling case in your disfavour until you’re certain. You definitely left the stove on.
I definitely shouldn’t be leaving.
Instead of heading back to the parking garage, I followed the color-coded signs to the cafeteria. It was nearly 8 pm, so they weren’t serving any real food. The counters were staffed by one bored-looking cashier and the only available vittles were drinks and snacks.
I made two coffees, dumping four creamers and three sugars in mine and leaving the second one black. I hoped he hadn’t changed his coffee preferences. Although he’d said he wasn’t hungry, I also grabbed a snack-pack of Oreos.
The cashier yawned as he rang me up, and I stuffed the cookies in my purse and carried my coffees back to the elevator, up to the third floor, and back to room 315.
Nate didn’t say anything when I walked back in his room with all the false confidence I could muster. He just followed me with tired, wary eyes as I set the coffees on his son’s bedside table and quietly pulled a second chair next to the bed. Dropping my purse on the floor, I retrieved the coffees, sat down, and held his out to him over the narrow void between us.
He took the coffee, but didn’t speak, and it was a good two minutes before he found his voice. Two minutes which I spent staring intently at the other patient’s TV, tuned to the news and set to mute. I could feel Nate’s eyes on me, but I pretended I couldn’t. My actions made no sense to me. I certainly wasn’t prepared to explain them to him.
“What are you--”
“What time will they discharge him tomorrow morning?” I cut him off before he could fully voice a question I couldn’t answer.
“Probably around 8 or 9.”
“Okay. I’ll just stay with you until then and we can drive home together in the morning. That way you don’t have to wait.”
“Alex, that’s not--”
“It’s no problem.”
“You can just--”
My guess is that it was exhaustion more than genuine acceptance that made him acquiesce. He just sighed and sank into silence. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him raise his coffee for a sip and felt a twinge of satisfaction.
The night dragged on. I finished my coffee. Nate finished his. I carried both empty cups out into the hallway and dropped them into a trash can. Matt had another nightmare, and woke up crying. Nate sat on the edge of the bed and pulled him carefully into his arms, rocking him gently and whispering in his ear.
I wanted to stay, offering what support I could with my presence, but in the end I just felt like an intruder. I slipped out silently, and when I returned twenty minutes later Matt was sleeping once more, and Nate was back in his chair, hunched over with his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands.
When I walked in, he jerked upright and sat back in the chair, plastering indifference back onto his face. It was a shitty mask, though, creased and cracked by lines of strain and fatigue.
Words would fail me, I knew. If I said anything, he’d find a way to rebuke my efforts at support. So instead, I sat in my own chair, leaned over, and pulled the small package of Oreos out of my purse. As quietly as possible, I opened the package and pulled out a cookie, splitting it in half. Trying not to falter beneath the weight of my actions, I tossed the just-cookie half in my mouth and offered the other half to Nate.
Anyone who saw the exchange would’ve thought we were both insane. Me, the intruder, offering half a cookie by way of condolences. Nate, the bereaved, staring at the stupid Oreo as if it was some long-dead childhood pet. His shuttered expression wavered between veiled hope that it might be real and stifled fear that it might bite him or evaporate into thin air if he reached for it. A casual observer would wonder with the hell was so significant about a damned cookie.
Bloodshot eyes shifted from my hand up to my face. His gaze met mine, and we arrived at an unspoken agreement to surrender to that strange sense of homecoming. Just for a moment. But that moment was laden with power. In that moment, we relived the perfect comfort of our past and imagined the lost glory of our future. For just that broken fragment of time, we were twelve again, finding in each other the lost pieces of ourselves.
It was all I could do not to submit to that pristine unity and throw myself across the space between us. I needed to discover if our bodies still fit together as perfectly as our souls.
There were just two problems:
One-- I was engaged to another man.
Two-- My brain knew better than to listen to my blind heart and my feckless body.
I warred with myself until the pressure became to great. Then I opened my mouth and shattered the leaden silence. Ruined the moment.
“Just take it,” I pleaded, my voice scarcely more than a whisper. “It’s just food.”
Whether he believed me or not, he took it, carefully avoiding the slightest contact as he plucked it from my fingers.
We didn’t speak again. We finished the pack of Oreos. I pulled my book from my purse and read. Nate sat vigil by his son’s bedside. Every quarter hour or so, his head would droop and then jerk upright. I’d watch out of the corner of my eye as he shook his head, sat up straighter in his chair, and began his inexorable surrender to gravity once more.
My own eyes grew gritty with exhaustion as the night wore on. Every time the words on the page blurred out of focus, I stood and walked a few laps up and down the hallway. I made two trips down to the cafeteria for more coffee, and by the time the nurses changed shift I was completely wired, my stomach was in knots, and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open.
I did, though. I kept myself wide awake all night, because it felt like the best thing to do. Falling asleep would be like walking out, and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him alone.
At seven, the morning nurse came through to check on Matt, traffic picked up, and I decided to excuse myself for a few hours.
“I’m just going to run home and freshen up,” I told Nate as he followed me out into the hallway. “I’ll be back by 8:30. Do you need me to bring anything?”
He started to shake his head before pausing and looking back toward the open door of the hospital room. I watched him bow his head and suck in a fortifying breath before looking at me, reluctance and apology scrawled in the lines on his face.
“Matt doesn’t have anything to wear,” he rasped. “Can you...” he grimaced, shaking his head. “If I give you his sizes... I’d pay you back, obviously. Can you--”
“No problem,” I said, pulling a crumpled receipt and a pen from my purse. “What size does he wear and what do you want me to get?”
He rattled Matt’s sizes, and a short list of essentials. I mentally added a few comfort items to the list. Then, awkward and unsure how to make my exit, I turned to leave.
“Alex...” Nate’s voice held me up and I turned back around.
For a few seconds we stood in silence. I watched his throat work as he mustered the courage to lower the callous veneer just enough to get the words out.
“Thanks for staying,” he said finally, his voice strained, as if the words fought him on their way out.
My heart lurched, and I forced a smile I didn’t feel. “No problem,” I shook my head and shrugged one shoulder. “We were friends first, right?”
Unlike mine, his close-lipped smile was genuine. It was also powerfully, gut-wrenchingly sad.
“Yeah,” he nodded. Then, so quietly I could barely make the words out--
“First and always.”