Chapter 9 - Nate
Matt had bumps and bruises, a minor concussion, and a scratchy throat from smoke inhalation. All told, he was okay. As much as it hurt to see him hurt, his physical injuries didn’t worry me at all. I’d dealt with far worse with far less by way of real medical support.
It was the emotional shit that scared me. He’d woken up in the ambulance, screaming for me. When I collapsed on my knees beside the stretcher and took his hand, he started screaming for his mother. I hesitated, half expecting some dormant paternal instinct to take over and guide my hand in explaining what had happened. When nothing came, I did the best I could and it wasn’t nearly fucking good enough.
“She’s gone, Matt,” I forced out, vocal chords protesting the words almost as much as my heart. “She didn’t make it out.”
He stared up at me, his face engulfed by a plastic oxygen mask, eyes widening with alarm that morphed slowly into confusion, then understanding, and then grief. Earth shattering grief. Grief and fear at the prospect of existing in a world devoid of the most important he’d ever known.
Since then, he hadn’t spoken a word. He cried and whimpered and screamed at me with his eyes, but he never spoke a word.
“It’s a normal reaction to trauma,” the doctor said dismissively, when I asked her about it. “Don’t push him. Just be supportive and let him get there on his own. We’ll refer you to a child psychologist when he’s discharged.
Unless the child psychologist was a live-in helper who would watch over my shoulder, hold my hand, stop me from fucking up, and talk me through every minor interaction with my son, that didn’t put my mind at ease. At all.
I wasn’t pleased about accepting Al’s charity and I was intensely distrustful of her father’s baffling friendliness. He’d come by Matt’s room earlier the day before. He shook my hand, told me how much he cared for Deb, and told me he was there to help. It made no fucking sense at all.
Unless he was just a genuinely okay dude who didn’t want poor Matt to be homeless. Which, for the record, he wouldn’t have been. We’d have slept on Red’s couch or I’d have found us a liveable, cheap hotel room. I wouldn’t have let my son go without. I just had no choice but to admit that, after Al gave it her blessing, the only reason I could have for turning down free, clean, supportive quarter was to protect my pride.
People who let their children suffer to protect their own pride deserve a special place in hell. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely going to hell. Just not to that particular corner of it. I turned him down, not because of my pride, but because I envisioned our arrival at his home and it wasn’t pretty. It was full of conflict and pain between Alex and I, and that was the last thing Matt needed. It would be better for him to sleep on a couch for a couple weeks that put up with that.
I should have had more faith in Alex. I realize that.
And if I’m being honest, which I do generally try to be, I have to admit that my bitterness and resentment were a shitty, eggshell veneer. In reality, I was folding in on myself with gratitude. Her father’s charity was a godsend-- pun unintended-- because I’d have a practiced, professional resource in helping Matt deal with his grief and trauma. The free roof over our heads would let me pay for Deb’s services without going completely broke. And Al...
I don’t have fancy words to adequately quantify, for you, the value of her presence that night in the hospital. Suffice it to say that no matter how much she pisses me off, Alex was, is, and always will be the stars for me. She’s a special kind of light that shines brighter in the darkest hours, and when she arrived at the hospital my world was about as dark as it has ever been.
I could bitch and moan and act aloof about it, but the truth is that I needed her there with an animal kind of desperation.
She returned to the hospital just as Matt’s doctor was arriving to go through the discharge process. At the doctor’s bidding, I slipped out into the hallway and met her there. Her hair was still damp, and pulled into a french braid, and she’d changed clothes. Her cheeks were pink from the chill winter air, and she had a plastic bag in her hand, which she handed to me.
“It’s not much,” she said. “I didn’t know what kind of stuff he likes and I didn’t wanna overload you with things he’ll never wear again.
“Thanks,” I said, peering into the bag. She’d brought packages of underwear and socks, a pair of sweatpants, a t-shirt, shoes, a hat, and a cheap fleece jacket. Fuck. I hadn’t even thought about outerwear. In fact, I hadn’t thought much at all about replacing everything we’d lost. I’d been so focused on Deb’s death and Matt’s grief, I’d forgotten to worry about rebuilding our lives.
I must’ve been staring down into the plastic bag a little too long because Al spoke, her voice nervous.
“Do you think they’ll fit?” she asked. “I went by the info you gave me, and everything looked about the right size. I’m sorry if they don’t--”
“No!” I cut her off, perhaps with too much vehemence because she startled, glancing up at me. As soon as she looked up I seized the opportunity and dove headfirst into the sweet, soothing comfort of her eyes. I couldn’t help myself. I needed her. She was water and I was fucking parched. “It’s fine.”
I think she must have seen how close I was to buckling, because she ducked her head, averting her gaze, and took a step back. Defeat and humiliation swept through me.
You’re a fucking idiot, I cursed my own weakness, frantically pulling myself together, reeling in that line of desperation I’d cast out when I met her eye. She’s engaged. This is charity. Stop deluding yourself.
“The clothes are perfect,” I said, catching her eye once more and letting her see that the need was gone. I’m fine. I’m sorry. It’s over. It was nothing. “Thanks for bringing them. The doc’s in with him now, so we should be ready to go in about thirty minutes. Do you want to wait in the cafeteria and we’ll meet you there?” Do you want to get away from me?
“Yeah,” she said, nodding so vehemently it hurt. “Yeah, I’ll meet you... I’ll meet you there. Do you want coffee?”
“I’m good, thanks.” Just you.
She scurried away, walking briskly as if she wanted to run, but couldn’t for fear of alerting her predator that she was aware of its presence.
The second she disappeared around the corner, the weight she’d lifted came back with a vengeance, settling so heavy on my shoulders I felt it physically. I turned, leaning back against the wall, letting my head drop back with a thump against the cool, textured wallpaper.
I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the echo of Deb’s screaming that pounded at my eardrums every time the world went still around me. What the fuck right did I have feeling sad about some long-dead relationship? At least I was fucking alive. I forced myself to put it in perspective. How could I possibly entertain my butthurt over Alex with Deb still screaming in my mind?
I should have kept her closer to me as we ran. I should’ve pushed her ahead, or kept her by my side. I should have thought of her when I heard the splintering wood above us. My only worries had been for Matt and my own sorry ass. I’d thrown the two of us forward, wrenching my shirt from her grasp. She must’ve fallen, abandoned by the one person she had left to count on, crushed beneath the weight of the debris.
I should have kept her by my side. I should have pulled her closer and protected both of them. I should have freed her and run out of there with both of them. Instead, I’d left her, screaming and in pain, to burn to death. Alone.
And she was so fucking scared of fire...
I didn’t realize my knees had unlocked until my ass hit the ground. I must’ve looked fucking pathetic, hunched on the floor outside Matt’s doorway. Nurses and orderlies walked by, but nobody bothered me. I guess grown men crumpling with grief is a pretty normal sight in a hospital. I wasn’t anything special, and that was good. That was normal. I’d never been anything worth noting, and the routine anonymity I found in that hospital corridor gave me a degree of strength.
It wasn’t much. Certainly not enough to cope with my complicity in Deb’s death, in Deb’s brokenness, in Matty’s loss, in Alex’s distrust... not enough, suffice it to say, to account and do penance for my fuck ups.
It was enough to pretend, though. To pull myself together and accept that, in failing Deb, I’d finally gone a step too far. There was no use in agonizing over my guilt, because my docket of sins was officially too long for penance to matter. There was no more point in wondering if I could find my way back out of the darkness. Even if Alex would have me, I sure as shit didn’t deserve to have her. All I could do was pretend for Matt’s sake and pour every ounce of effort left into carving out a place for him in the light.
In a sense, the hopelessness was sort of liberating. Feeling lighter, and pleasantly numb, I stood, hefting Alex’s overloaded bag, and stepped back into the hospital room.
Time to do my job.
* * *
Alex didn’t speak much when we met her in the cafeteria. She offered Matt a small, sweet smile but he hid his face in my shoulder. After that it was all business. She led the way to her car with monosyllabic directions. We drove to her house in tense, weighted silence. Fortunately, I no longer cared. There was nothing left in me with which to do so.
Her father was already home when we arrived. Where Alex was unnaturally chilly, he was confusingly, frustratingly warm. Matty’s reservation didn’t seem to phase him. I suppose he was probably accustomed to broken people.
“Come in, come in,” he said with a smile, ushering us inside. “Thank you so much for bringing them, sugar,” he said to Alex, kissing her cheek as she shut the door behind us. If he found it at all odd that Alex hadn’t returned until the wee hours of the morning, he didn’t say anything.
Something was up with the guy, and it made my hackles raise.
Alex acted more predictably. As soon as we’d been passed into her father’s hands, she made herself scarce.
I already knew my way around her house, but her father led Matt and I to the guest suite in the basement as if we were first-time visitors. Tom, who was sprawled on the couch in the “toy room,” playing video games, looked up when we descended the stairs.
I hadn’t seen Al’s brother since I was in high school. Alex must have have protected him from the truth of why I’d stopped coming around, because his face lit the fuck up when he saw me.
“Nate!” he exclaimed, pausing his game and jumping up from the couch. He took a few bounding steps toward me before noticing Matt. Then he slowed and stopped, a few feet away. “Nate!” he said again, but there was a hint of confusion tainting the excitement.
“Hey, big guy,” I greeted, waving awkwardly without letting go of my hold on Matt, who was latched on like a monkey, his arms locked around my neck.
“I haven’t seen you!” Tom said.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time,” I agreed. The years seemed to have treated him okay. There were a few wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that looked strange on his boyish face, but otherwise he was the same Tom.
“Six years!” Al’s father cut in, reaching out and resting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Nate and his son Matt are going to be staying with us for a while, Tom. You’re going to have to be quiet in the game room while they’re here, okay? Remember when the Pritchards stayed?”
I was worried that Tom would be put out by our intrusion, but he grinned enthusiastically, nodding. “Does Matt like cars?” he asked me. “I have a lot of cars we can play with.”
“He does,” I said, patting Matt’s back when I felt him tense. “But I don’t think he’s up for playing right now, okay?”
“Okay,” Tom said, nodding solemnly at a significant look from his father. I suppose broken people invaded his space often enough, he understood how to accommodate them.
“You and I need to play Mario Cart, though,” I said by way of consolation. “I’m a little rusty so you might actually be able to beat me.”
“I always beat you!” Tom exclaimed, good-natured agitation on his friendly face.
“Alright, son,” his father said, nudging him gently toward the stairs. “Let me get our guests settled. Maybe you could go upstairs and watch some TV in the living room so they can have some privacy?”
Tom nodded and bounded up the stairs, and I followed the preacher into the guest room.
It wasn’t much. Just a small, sparsely furnished bedroom with an attached bathroom. It was a little chillier than the rest of the house, and smelled a little musty like all basements do.
No room had ever looked so welcome.
“I’ll take you to the store to pick up some more clothes tomorrow,” Al’s father said, nodding at the plastic bag hooked over my arm. “But there’s toiletries in the bathroom you are welcome to use and you can launder what you do have tonight. Tom’s clothes will be a couple sizes too big but they should work for you just while you clean what you’re wearing.”
He showed me around the room, pointing out the towels, the laundry hamper, the extra blankets in a trunk by the bed, and the small stack of Tom’s clothes he’d brought down for me.
His friendliness grated on me. Not that I didn’t appreciated it. I just didn’t understand it. For all he knew I’d cheated on his daughter. Broken her heart. Murdered a man in cold blood. And now he was welcoming me and my son into his home? Was he crazy, stupid, or cruel? Was he going to wait until we got comfortable and then toss us out on our asses?
“Sir...” I trailed off, unsure how to broach the subject with Matt in earshot.
“Please,” he said, waving a hand. “Call me Ron.”
I stared at him. When I was dating Alex, he was sir. Or Mr. Winger. I didn’t even know the man had a first name.
“Son,” he said on a sigh, leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb and studying me with eyes that were so like Alex’s it almost hurt to look at him. “I know this is a little overwhelming for you.” His gaze flicked to Matt as if he, too, was unsure how to say what needed saying in the presence of an audience.
“I’m very grateful,” I said carefully. “I didn’t... I don’t have any reason to expect this kind of generosity.” Could you understate it a little more, asshole?
“I know,” Ron nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. “You can trust me, though, Nathan. I just want to help.”
But why? How? Why?! “Thank you, sir.”
“Ron,” he corrected with a small smile.
“Ron,” I amended, shifting Matt’s weight a little higher. “Thank you. I promise we’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible.”
“Don’t rush,” he said, flapping a hand. “You have a lot to be thinking about right now, Nathan. Keeping a roof over your son’s head should not be one of those things.”
For a second, I thought he was finally going to leave. Instead, he sighed and stood up straight, pushing the door closed, and my heart leapt into my throat. Was this when he ripped me apart for hurting Alex? Was this the other shoe? I took an involuntary step back, holding Matt closer like I could protect him, somehow, from the verbal onslaught.
“Deborah was a devoted member of my parish,” Ron said, catching my eye and holding it. “We talked often.”
“Okay,” I said warily, taking another step back until my calves hit the bed. Matt still clung to me, his face still buried in my shoulder. I’d have thought he’d fallen asleep if his arms weren’t locked so tight around my neck I was starting to lose circulation.
“You understand that, when talking to members of the clergy, a certain degree of confidentiality is assured?”
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t, really. I’d never bothered to talk to any man or woman of God. They were all liars as far as I could tell.
“Deborah took advantage of that confidentiality,” he said, his eyes flicking to the back of Matt’s head. “She talked to me a lot about her life. About her childhood. About things that happened to her...” he trailed off, meeting my eye with a look of significance.
Holy shit. How much does this asshole know? My heart began to flail in my chest and I grit my teeth and forced myself to breathe steady. Matt was clinging so tight he’d be able to tell I was upset, and it would freak him the fuck out.
Al’s father seemed to see my discomfort and hear my unspoken question. With a warm smile, he stepped forward, resting a hand on my shoulder. “I hated that you were with Aly,” he said good naturedly, “and I have never been so relieved as I was the day you left her life. But talking to Deborah made me realize I may have misjudged you. Nobody will ever be good enough for my daughter, but that doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a man. Do you understand?”
Not even a little bit.
His smile took on an amused cast, and the hand dropped off my shoulder.
“We’ll talk, later. Right now, you need some rest. I’ll leave you be. The laundry room is right on the other side of the wall. I’m going to take Tom with me and get some stuff done at work, but make yourself at home. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen, and let Aly know if there’s anything else you need.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled, but he was already walking away.
* * *
It took me ten minutes to pry Matt off of me and force him to submit to a shower. When I finally got him out of his clothes and under the spray, he stood there woodenly, staring with puffy, bloodshot eyes at the wall of the shower while I knelt outside the tub and tried to scrub the scent of smoke out of his hair. By the time we were done, I was soaked to the bone and the smell lingered in everything. Maybe it was just stuck in my nose.
Alex had given me a second bag as we got out of the car. In it were pyjamas, kids’ toothpaste and toothbrush, a stuffed bear, and a couple picture books. She’d blushed as she handed it to me and told me it was mostly stupid stuff, and she wouldn’t be hurt if we threw it away.
There’s this thing about gifts given in times of crisis, though. Even if they’re worthless, they kind of help. They mean that somebody gave enough of a shit to try.
I wrapped Matt in a towel and left him sitting, dull-eyed, on the edge of the bed while I pulled the tags off the pyjamas and dug out underwear and socks. He barely moved as I toweled his hair dry and worked him into the clothes. It scared the everloving shit out of me.
“Okay, buddy,” I said once we was dressed. “I gotta shower, now, okay?”
That got a reaction. His head jerked up and he shook it vehemently, fresh tears leaping into his sorrowful eyes.
“I stink, little man,” I cajoled, trying to make my voice light. “You gotta share this room with me for the next few days. You don’t wanna be with someone who smells like a butt, do you?”
He frowned, but the tears didn’t leave his eyes.
“C’mon, Matty.” I crouched down, placing my hands on the mattress to either side of him. “I’ll leave the door open and I’ll talk to you the whole time, okay? I’m not going anywhere, I promise. I just really really need to wash the stink off.”
His chest rose and fell rapidly as he struggled and then finally, thank God, nodded.
I would have liked to stand under the hot spray for years. I’d have liked to stay there until the water sloughed away every memory and sin that sat like tattoo ink beneath my skin.
Instead, I hastily scrubbed off the caked-on soot and sweat, talking to Matt about nothing the whole time through the open bathroom door. I took a grim satisfaction in the stabbing pain as water and soap hit the burns and open cuts that decorated my back and arms. Still, it wasn’t enough. No amount of pain would ever be enough.
Tom’s clothes were huge on me. Fortunately, the sweats had a drawstring. Cinching it tight, I gathered all the dirty clothes into a pile and carried it to the laundry room, Matt following on my heels like a duckling, clinging to my pant leg as I dumped our clothes in and started the washer.
I was so tired I couldn’t see straight, but Matt hadn’t eaten since the morning and it was well past noon. Hefting him into my arms, I climbed the stairs and stole quietly into the kitchen. Nobody was around. Alex must have squirreled herself off in her room to avoid me, and that was just as well.
I found the essentials and threw together a PB&J for Matt. Under my watchful, cajoling attention, he put away everything but the crust and half a glass of milk. I ate his crusts, finished his milk, washed the dishes, and we retreated back to the relative sanctuary of the basement.
Matt was exhausted, his puffy eyes drooping, his posture listless. I thought for sure he’d pass out the second I tucked him in. He curled up on his side, tucking his arms close to his chest as he watched me move around the room.
He always slept with a nightlight, so I turned on the bathroom light and left the door cracked before turning off the overhead. Then, at long, long last I slipped beneath the covers.
It was the first time I’d slept in a bed since the hotel when I first got released. It felt like absolute heaven, soft mattress below me, heavy blanket above. The dim light was dreary and soothing.
Matt and I both should have been out in seconds. Instead, I lay there, staring at the ceiling and my son curled up beside me, eyes glued to my face. Even without looking at him, I knew he was watching me. Waiting for me to disappear just like his mother had.
Minutes passed in silence. My mind was firing on all cylinders, but my body started to shut down. My eyelids were suddenly too heavy and my ears began to buzz with approaching sleep. I fought it hard, not wanting to leave Matt alone, but I couldn’t resist. Blessed silence reached up and wrapped tendrils of nothingness around me, pulling me down, down, down...
Then Matt began to cry. They were tired, stifled tears that shook his body and filled the room with the echoing report of sniffles and gasping inhales. I jerked awake and turned my head.
“Matt,” I sighed, reaching out and pulling him close. “C’mon buddy.”
Stirring words of comfort, I know. Father of the year, that’s me.
The kid didn’t seem to care much what I said, though. As soon as I pulled him close he tucked himself beneath my arm, buried his face in my shoulder, and sobbed. He sucked in air with hiccoughing gasps and expelled it in keening wails that my borrowed shirt did little to stifle.
“It’s okay,” I told him, over and over, even though it wasn’t. “I’m right here,” I assured him, even though it wasn’t me he wanted. “I’m not going anywhere,” I promised, even though I had no way of keeping it.
At long last, the sobs began to fade, but the silence they left behind made my skin crawl. So, because I didn’t know what the hell else to do, I talked.
“I know you miss your mama,” I said, brushing Matt’s feathery hair off his forehead and looking down at him in the darkness. He didn’t respond, of course, but he shifted slightly, tightening his grip on my shirt.
“You gotta talk to me, buddy,” I cajoled uselessly, tapping gently on his temple with my finger. “If you don’t I gotta guess what you’re thinking. What if I guess wrong?”
Matt didn’t give a shit if I guessed wrong, apparently. He just sucked in a shuddering breath and turned his face further into my shoulder.
“Plus if you don’t talk, I gotta do all the talking,” I said, feeling crazier and crazier as the silence went on. I was probably doing more harm than good. Every word that came out of my mouth felt like a mistake. Matt was so fragile. Trauma and loss had placed him on a blade’s edge and one wrong word could send him toppling, fucking him up in ways that would follow him well into his adulthood.
Parenthood is a fucking trip, lemme tell you.
“I know you miss your mom, buddy,” I said again, tucking my free hand behind my head and blinking at the speckled ceiling. “But she’s not... just because she’s gone doesn’t mean she’s not still watching over you.”
I know, I know. Gag me with a fucking spoon with that trite nonsense. Except, maybe, fuck you. Until you’ve explained a parents’ death to a five year old, you can fuck right off with your judgment. Sometimes tired aphorisms are overused for a reason.
It got Matty’s attention, too. He tensed and, taking that as a positive sign, I went on, cautiously picking each word, struggling to patch him up without ripping him to shreds. I was like Edward fucking Scissorhands trying to suture up a cut.
“Death is kind of a mystery,” I explained clumsily. “Nobody can really agree on what happens when you’re not alive anymore. You know what pretty much everyone agrees on, though?”
I waited until I felt him shake his head against me.
“They all agree that death isn’t where everything ends,” I said, bending the truth. Plenty of people thought of death as a complete cessation of existence, but I didn’t have time for those people right then. “Everyone agrees that there’s something that comes after. And that it’s close enough to us that people who die can still see us and hear us. We might not be able to see or hear them, always, but we can still talk to them and know that they’re listening.”
I felt movement and looked down to see Matt’s eyes, glistening up at me in the darkness. He was frowning, his eyebrows pulled together as he studied me.
“Do you wanna talk to your mama before you go to sleep, Matt?”
He started to nod, and I felt a surge of hope. Then he paused and shook his head, his lip quivering.
“That’s okay,” I said quickly, hoping to get ahead of another round of tears. “I know you don’t want to talk just yet, so how ’bout I’ll talk to her and you just give me a nudge if I say something stupid, okay?”
He nodded and settled back down against my side, resting his head on my shoulder.
“Right...” I trailed off, searching for the right words. “Hey, Deb.” A chill crawled up my spine as I realized the weight of what I was doing. Really, I had no interest in talking to Deb. I wasn’t ready to confront what I’d done to her. Maybe I never would be, and talking to her in the darkness made me realize that I foolishly, selfishly hoped she wasn’t listening.
Matt poked me in the ribs, and I realized I’d been staring wordlessly at the ceiling for too long.
“Sorry, buddy,” I said, tightening my arm around him. “As we were saying, hey Deb. Matty and I are about to go to bed, and we just wanted to say hi, and tell you that we miss you. We hope, uh... we hope that you’re okay and that you’re happy. Matty’s a little banged up from the fire, but he was really brave in the hospital. I think the needles scared me more than they scared him.”
A nudge in my side cut me off, and I glanced down to see Matt smiling weakly at me. “Okay, okay,” I acquiesced. “Matt was a little more scared of the needles, but he still let the doctors take care of him so I think he wins the bravery award.
“Anyway, we’re really tired so we need to get some sleep. We’ll talk to you again after we take a nap. You got anything you wanna add, buddy?” Matt shook his head, and I nodded to myself in the dark. “Okay, well we love you and we miss you. Goodnight, Deb.”
To my immense relief, Matt fell asleep shortly after I stopped talking. It wasn’t exactly peaceful sleep, but his breath evened out and the crease of pain and fear between his eyes eased away. After a few moments, despite my best efforts to stay awake, I followed him into unconsciousness.
And Deb followed me.