Chapter 10 - Alex
According to physics (as it stands today), there are four fundamental forces--
Electromagnetic force, which describes the interaction between electrically charged particles.
Gravitational force, which refers to the force exerted by objects with mass or energy.
Weak nuclear force is an iffy, amorphous thing that is hard to describe to the non-physicist. To put it very simply, weak nuclear force causes nuclear decay.
Strong nuclear force holds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom. It’s 10^38 (that’s 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) times as strong as gravity. The only reason we’re not all one single ball of thing, held together by strong nuclear force, is that it doesn’t act over great distances.
It’s a common colloquialism to describe someone’s presence as having great gravity. Charismatic personalities attract followers and the more malicious among them consume human lives like a black hole gobbling up galaxies.
You see it on a smaller scale, too. I’ve read stories of star-crossed lovers whose attraction is like gravity, pulling them into orbit around each other.
Nate and I don’t act on each other with gravitational force. We’re protons and neutrons, sucked together and smushed into coexistence by strong nuclear force. We don’t orbit around each other, we become each other. We don’t feel each other from great distances, we’re simply never apart. Even when he was behind bars and I was at college, a part of him was always with me, twined around my heart like kudzu.
It was dangerous.
The day he arrived at my house, I hid in my room. It was cowardly, I know. He probably needed a friend, but after that moment in the hospital I realized I couldn’t be his friend. I wasn’t strong enough. I saw him reach for me while we stood in the hallway. It wasn’t a physical movement so much as a breakdown in his gaze, and it scared the shit out of me because I wanted to reach back. We were too close, and the strong force was acting. If I let it take over, I’d forget the past, the pain, and Parker’s name. I’d be Nate’s, and I couldn’t let that happen.
So I hid. Sitting on my bed, I tried to read but all I could concentrate on was the pull of the box of letters beneath my bed and the even stronger pull of the man in the basement. I’m fully aware of the hypocrisy and the irony of my feelings. I hated Nate for cheating on me, and here I was, drowning in temptation to cuckold my fiance just to be with him.
My phone chimed, and I dug it out from under my pillow, flipping it open.
Speak of the devil.
Parker: Haven’t heard from you all day! How’s my affianced?
I frowned at the message, chewing on my lip. The smart thing would be to tell him about Nate’s presence in my home. Keeping it a secret would just lend it weight when he eventually found out. Plus, if I told him he’d probably hop on a plane and come fly out to run interference. He could be the weak force, encouraging the decay of that nuclear bond.
Me: Work’s been a nightmare, but I’m good. Got some wedding decisions to send you.
My impromptu all-nighter, and the struggle not to run downstairs, throw my arms around Nate, and tell him I still loved him were taking their toll. My phone chimed again three minutes later, signalling Parker’s response. I barely heard it, and before I could muster the will to reach for it, I was asleep.
* * *
I woke up sometime after midnight and couldn’t go back to sleep. I couldn’t remember what I’d dreamt-- just that it left me feeling agitated and claustrophobic. Climbing out of bed, I padded across my room and cracked the blinds on my window.
It was snowing outside. The kind of fluttering, drifting flurry where the flakes seem to suspend themselves in the air and silence prevails. It’s a physical manifestation of the term “serenity.”
Something caught my eye, and I raised the blinds to get a better look out the window. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw the footprints in the snow below my window. Just one set, curving around the corner from the front yard, cutting a straight line toward the back.
I wanted to go. That strong force made itself known, and I longed to run downstairs and sprint headlong through the snow. I should have done it. I wish I had.
Instead, I crawled back beneath the covers and stared at the ceiling until I heard the door open and shut, and the distant sound of floorboards creaking. Only then did I fall back to sleep.
* * *
I awoke later that morning to gray light streaming through my open window. Turning my head, I glanced at my alarm clock.
I’d skipped dinner the night before, and my stomach raged at me. The kitchen should be safe, so early. Nate likely wouldn’t be up for hours.
As quietly as possible, I crept down the stairs and tiptoed to the kitchen. If I was fast, I could eat, dodge upstairs, shower, and be gone before he made an appearance.
Tommy was sitting at the island, munching on a bowl of cereal when I came down.
“Morning, bro!” I greeted him as I entered, pulling open the fridge. When Tom didn’t respond, I shut the door, milk in hand, and saw him glaring at me, one finger pressed to his lips.
When I caught his eye and opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, he shook his head dramatically and pointed at the living room.
Confused, I left the milk on the counter and tiptoed across the hall to the living room.
The TV was on, tuned to cartoons and turned down so low the sound was just a murmur. Sprawled on the couch, sound asleep and fully clothed except for his shoes, was Nate. His son was tucked between him and the back of the couch, his upper body draped over Nate’s chest. One strong arm was wrapped around the boy’s shoulders, and the other hung off the edge of the couch, fingers dangling toward the ground.
Neither of them stirred as I approached. The little boy was snoring lightly, and my heart broke when I saw his puffy face. Clearly, he’d spent the night crying and it was little consolation to see that he was finally sleeping peacefully. Common sense said it wouldn’t last, and I knew the waking up would be painful. I’d gone through that with my own mother. On the rare night when I was lucky enough to sleep soundly, I’d wake up to a pervasive, settling doom as reality kicked back on.
As if he sensed my presence, Nate coughed lightly and turned his face toward the back of the couch, his arm tightening fractionally around his son before he sank back into sleep. Clearly, they both needed the rest and I was just turning to leave when something grabbed hold of me and pulled me back.
At first glance, both of our guests were sleeping peacefully. What drew my attention was the slightest movement as Nate’s free hand curled into a fist and relaxed. Then curled again and relaxed. Looking closer at his face, I saw that his brow was furrowed, jaw clenched. His breath, otherwise slow and even, occasionally escaped his lungs in a harsh exhale, accompanied by a slight shake of his head.
He was dreaming. Ugly dreams, if I had to guess.
Torn between letting him rest and rescuing him from his own mind, I circled the couch on silent feet and crouched beside it.
“Nate,” I whispered, reaching out and gently shaking his shoulder. “Wake up.”
His eyes jerked open and he half-rose off the couch with a startled gasp before remembering that he was a pillow and lowering himself slowly back down.
“Sorry,” I frowned. “Are you okay?”
He scrubbed his free hand briskly across his eyes, and when his hand fell away his face was blank. Like he’d just buffed out every sign of weakness.
“Yeah,” he answered in a hoarse whisper, pushing himself upright and carefully shifting his son, holding the boy against his chest as he stood. “He woke up and wanted to be closer to the door. Sorry we took over your living room.”
“It’s no biggy,” I said, rising from my crouch. I was feeling stronger after a night’s sleep. Perhaps strong enough to be a friend without getting sucked back into the nucleus of our love. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
He had the gall to look confused as he readjusted Matt’s weight and reached up with one hand to finger-comb his tousled hair. I wanted to reach up and do that for him. I wanted to follow him back down to his room in the basement. I wanted to drag him into the shower to wash the last of that smoky residue off of him. I wanted to curl up beside him between the sheets, tuck myself close, and ward off whatever had him so allergic to sleep.
Shut up shut up shut UP, my reasonable inner voice chided. And damn the irony of the fact that the voice sounded exactly like the object of my insanity.
“I’m good, Al,” he said, his mouth straining into a smile. “Is your dad gonna be around this afternoon? Once this one wakes up I’ve got some errands I need to run.”
“He’s busy all day,” I blurted, even though my father would probably drop anything to tend to the needs of his newest project. “But I’m not doing anything. I can drive you guys around. I’ve got some things I gotta do, anyway.”
You’re a fucking idiot, Al, Nate’s voice berated me.
“Are you sure?” He looked dubious. Just about as dubious as the voice in my head that sounded so much like him. “I can call a cab.”
“No, it’s no trouble. I wanna help,” I said, and hastily exited his presence before reason could prevail.
* * *
Rubble from the collapsed building blocked the entrance to the parking lot. I idled the car across the street, shamelessly watching Nate as he stared past me at the cleanup effort, eyes narrow, jaw locked. He was pissed.
“It’s no big deal,” I offered. “I don’t have anything to do, it’s really no trouble driving you around for a couple days. I promise.”
Nate’s gaze flicked to me, and his lips parted slightly. Then his eyes shifted to Matt, perched on a booster seat behind me, and he breathed out a sigh.
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning back to the front with a shake of his head as I shifted into drive and checked for oncoming cars. “I thought they’d have it cleared.”
“Like I said, it’s no problem. Next stop, Target.”
We spent the afternoon making a barely-discernible dent in the process of putting Nate and Matt’s life back together.
There’s a tendency in our society to disparage material possessions. Family and love are what’s important, we say. Not things.
That’s kind of bullshit, though. Things are important.
Things like atm cards so we can pay for food. Clothes so we don’t succumb to the elements. Hygiene items so we can exist in polite society. Medicine in case we get sick. Books and toys to keep us sane. Electronics to communicate.
By the end of the day, we scraped together the absolute bare essentials. Nate had a burner phone, and a new ATM card en route to my home address, since his was no longer serviceable. Matt had a warm winter jacket, a couple books, and an off brand lego set. Both he and his father had enough clothes to get them through at least a few days, so they wouldn’t have to do laundry every night.
Even the bare essentials were expensive, though. I paid for everything with my card since Nate didn’t have his own, but he collected the receipts and promised every time I ran the card that he would pay me back. Even so, I saw his face pale as each new number popped up on the screen and I could see the questions and calculations rolling through his mind.
What about a new apartment?
What about Deb’s services?
What about the car?
What about hospital bills?
His name escaped my mouth before I could stop it. We were both standing outside my car in the parking lot of the Sprint store. Nate was by the back driver door, having just buckled Matt into the back. I was standing beside him, clinging to the open front door.
“What’s up?” he asked, carefully closing the back door before turning to me. I pushed my own door gently closed, lowering my voice so it wouldn’t penetrate the glass.
“It’s gonna be okay,” I offered feebly. I don’t know why I felt so compelled to say it. The second the words left my mouth I felt stupid. Nate just stared, one hand on the roof of the car as he studied me.
“I know,” he said, smiling weakly and nodding. “Everything’s fine, Alex.”
“No it’s not,” I argued, forcing myself to meeting his eye and searching desperately for a hint of vulnerability. I don’t know why. What was my plan? Use his shitty circumstances to lure him in again just to panic and kick him back when he got too close? Or worse. Was I going to welcome him back into my life with open arms and watch him incinerate all the good I’d constructed for myself in his absence?
“It’s fine, Al.” He smiled again. Tight and polite. Then he brushed past me to circle around and get in the passenger seat. My hand shot out on its own, grabbing his forearm, holding him up.
He froze. Just stopped, mid-step, like I’d hit the pause button on time. Then, slowly, he pulled his arm from my grasp.
“What’s going on?” he asked, looking down at me with a tinge of concern. Like I was the one whose entire life had burned to the ground, or something. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just... A lot is happening and I want you to know... I want you to know that I’m here for you and everything’s gonna be okay.”
He smiled at that. Still not a real, full smile. It still didn’t reach his eyes, but it wasn’t forced. Some part of it was genuine, however shadowed it might be by weariness.
“I know, Alex,” he assured me. “You’ve been driving me around all day, remember? It’d be hard to forget that you’re here. And I’m fine, I promise.”
“Are you sure?” Of course I didn’t believe him. Not because there was any outward indication that he was overwhelmed. I just knew. The sun goes down at night, but I’ve always known it was still there, waiting for the earth to circle back around because that’s the only thing that makes sense. Likewise, Nate wasn’t openly losing his shit, but I knew he must be on the verge, because how could he not be? Hell, I was just an apathetic third party, and I was starting to freak out.
Apathetic. Sure, Nate’s wry voice mocked in my head. You’re about as apathetic about me as I am about you.
“I’m sure.” He offered one last tight smile before circling the engine block and climbing into the passenger seat, leaving me alone in the cold.
* * *
Deb’s funeral was a week after her death. It felt a little too soon. All funerals feel a little too soon. I think back in ye olde times it made sense. You wanna get that rotting meat in the ground before it starts to spread disease. Now, though? In modern times it just feels rushed and unnecessary. Nobody’s quite ready to say goodbye to their loved ones only a week after they pass. That doesn’t make sense.
I wasn’t ready when we buried Momma, and Nate and Matt certainly didn’t seem ready to bury Deb.
I think, perhaps, I shouldn’t have attended the service. I never went to my father’s church for other-than-practical reasons. For all that I’d effectively forgiven him for my mother’s death, I still carried a lingering resentment for his “other” family. His big, chosen flock of needy admirers still activated a spark of jealousy and annoyance that I figured it was best to avoid.
I went to Deb’s service, though. My father scheduled it for Christmas Eve morning. I was worried nobody else would show up, and I didn’t want poor Matt to look back on his mother’s funeral and remember a scene of echoing, hollow emptiness. Maybe part of me was also itching to be there for Nate.
I needn’t have worried, about either of them. When Matt remembered his mother’s farewell, he would remember a chamber full of chosen family, singing hymns to the rafters like there really was someone up there listening. And Nate? He didn’t seem to need me. He didn’t seem to need anyone.
He didn’t cry. He didn’t waver. He sat in the front pew with Matt in his lap, dry-eyed and stone-faced, without once bowing his head to gather himself. When it came time for the eulogy, he stood at the lectern with his son hitched up on a hip and delivered a ten minute speech from memory. By the time he got to the close, sniffles and stifles sobs echoed in the vaulted ceilings but his voice never cracked.
“Deb’s life wasn’t without its challenges,” he said to the room as he wrapped up the eulogy, his eyes flicking over the audience, seeming to settle briefly on everyone except for me. “And I don’t think anyone escapes life without making a few mistakes. But in every way that mattered she was a good person. My first memory of her is a scared little girl who set aside her fear to stand by me against things no child should have to face. My last memory of her is a scared young woman who set aside her fear for the sake of her son.
“Life changes all of us. Some of us for the better. Some of us for the worse. Either way, the core of who we are remains the same. It’s unshakeable. Deb, at her core, was good. She loved fiercely, she lived fully, she fought bravely, and she never stopped hoping that something bright was around the corner. In Matt she found that something bright, and because of that I doubt right now she’s anywhere but in this room with us, smiling and watching and ready to keep him safe in death just as she did in life.”
At his final words, Matt buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing noisily, hands clenching the fabric of Nate’s cheap dress shirt. The audience shifted restlessly as Nate strode down the steps of the altar and retook his seat. Women sniffed into wadded kleenex. Men surreptitiously wiped away tears before they could fall. Matt continued to cry. Even my father faltered a little as he regained the podium and began reading out a verse. Nobody expected such eloquence from the angry-looking man with the infamous criminal record.
The only person in the room who seemed unphased by Nate’s words was the speaker himself. He sat through the rest of the service with an expression of cold indifference. Afterwards, I watched from a corner as he accepted handshakes and condolences with a fake smile, still holding Matt, his shoulders squared like he was waiting for someone to throw a punch.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say his words were all a lie and he didn’t give two shits about Deb’s death beyond the material loss that accompanied it.
I did know better, though. Every night for the past week I’d laid in bed and fought the urge to storm back into his life and demand he let me help him. The letters beneath my bed screamed at me. His eyes, not quite empty enough to hide the bone-deep weariness behind them, pulled at me from across the room.
My feet moved without my go-ahead, carrying me over stained cement, weaving around clumps of my father’s followers until I stood by his side. I didn’t dare touch him. I didn’t say anything. I just trailed him as the reception dragged on and the careful rigidity of his posture gave way to loose-limbed exhaustion.
Although he still hadn’t spoken, Matt had begun to warm up to me over the week, and when I held out my arms Nate passed him to me without argument. The little boy hugged his arms around my neck and I rubbed my cheek against the softness of his hair, wondering how I ever could have resented something so pure.
Later that evening, freshly showered and alone in my bedroom, I pulled the box from under my bed and removed the letters, holding them in one hand and fanning through them with the other like a flipbook. I think I knew, then, that I was going to read them. For so long I’d fought it, insisting to myself that I was just delaying their inevitable destruction.
That night I finally admitted the truth. I was going to read them. I needed to know what they said. I still doubted that anything Nate had to say would make me trust him again. I still feared the inevitable slide back into the blind devotion of our past relationship. Really, only one thing changed: my memory.
I didn’t forget the past. I just remembered more of it. I finally remembered back past the years of silence and the harsh agony of the heartbreak. I even remembered beyond the besotted teenage love and the giddy childhood friendship.
That night, I remembered the first time we met. I remembered a skinny little boy, crying silently in the woods behind my house and how suddenly the tears dried when I made myself known. I remembered the guarded iciness in his gaze and the way it melted into friendly warmth as the conversation turned to my lonely anxiety over the pending first day of school. For the first time in over twelve years I remembered what I hadn’t ever bothered to ask-- what he was doing there in the first place, and why he was crying. For the first time in six years I remembered what I’d always wondered-- what kept him from the spot on those nights he didn’t show up.
Maybe, I decided as I slipped a thumb beneath the flap of the first envelope, it was past time I listened. Not because the letters would fix everything in themselves, but because they might give me at least a clue to the mysteries I really needed to solve. Like what external circumstances had turned the sweet girl Nate talked about into the harsh, mean drug-abuser I remembered Deb to be. And whether those same circumstances were what drove the boy I loved-- who talked me through every crisis and walked me through every step of my sexual awakening with near-saintly patience-- to snap and beat a man’s brains out with his bare fists.
Maybe they’d even give me a clue as to what emotions, or lack thereof, were lurking beneath the icy exterior of the granite-faced man living in my basement.
My heart fluttered in my chest as the paper of the envelope tore. The strong force was living up to its name, and I felt a warm buzz in my chest as the answers finally drew close and the present finally reached back to meet with the conflicted past.
I was so immersed in the moment that the quiet ringing of my cell phone nearly sent me into cardiac arrest. Startled back into reality, I yelped and tossed the letter on the bed like it was a venomous snake.
“Fuck,” I hissed, pressing my right hand to my hammering heart and reaching for the phone with my left. I flipped it open and Parker’s pixelated face grinned up at me.
“Fuck,” I groaned, bowing over the phone and pinching the bridge of my nose between my fingers as guilt overwhelmed me.
What was I doing? Hell, why even ask? I knew exactly what I was doing. I was letting Nate back in, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be able to kick him back out again. Reading a letter might not technically be cheating, but it may as well be considering how I felt. I knew what I saw in the future when I heard that envelope begin to tear, and it certainly wasn’t Parker’s aging face in a rocking chair by my side.
With trembling hands, I pressed the green phone button and lifted the phone to my ear.
“Hey, baby,” I said, fighting to keep my voice steady and cheerful. “What’s up?”
“Hey!” Parker’s chipper voice came back at me through the speaker. “I’ve got a surprise!”
“Oh yeah?” I tipped my head, pinching the phone between my head and shoulder as I hastily gathered the envelopes into a pile and tossed them back in the box, guilt like a lead weight in my stomach.
“Yeah! Are you sober right now?”
“Uh, yeah?” Switching the phone to my left ear, I clambered off my bed and dropped the box on the ground, giving it a kick to send it back into the dark recesses of the space beneath the boxspring.
“Good!” Parker sounded breathless and excited. That seemed to be his permanent state. Just drunk on life. I could hear the blinding smile on his face as he practically yelled into the phone. “Since you’re sober, how ’bout you climb in that broke-down POS you drive and come pick me up from the airport?”