Chapter 11 - Nate
Matt was finally sleeping through the night. Kind of. Having a kid recovering from trauma is kind of like ferberizing a baby. Except instead of hungry, indignant squawling that wakes you up, it’s stifled screams. And instead forcing yourself to ignore it and let them cry, you have to rub their back and lie about the future and make up bullshit stories about heaven and motherly love.
Still, everything’s relative. I’d rather ferberize an infant than care for a motherless child but I still preferred Matt’s once-a-night nightmares to the hours of helpless crying we’d started with a week ago.
All totaled up, Matt was now spending a good 8-10 hours asleep every night. Which was helpful, because I needed every spare moment to figure out how the hell I was going to pull together the scraps of our life.
I needed to get out of Alex’s home. That was my first step. I needed to bury Deb. The services were complete, and Alex’s father had done that for free, but she wasn’t technically laid to rest. The recovery team had only just retrieved her body two days prior, so I had to pay for a casket and a plot in a cemetery because she’d requested a Christian burial. Since I was a single parent, I could no longer work nights. After Christmas, Matt would have to go back to school and I knew that would be an event. He hardly let me out of his sight long enough to use the bathroom.
Using a flashlight, I sat against the headboard and scratched out the current status of my to-dos in a cheap composition notebook. Putting pen to paper had always soothed my mind a little, but that night it wasn’t helping. What use would there be in calming myself down? What would I gain from that? I needed to be on edge. How the hell else would I get everything done?
My watch beeped, indicating the top of the hour and I glanced down.
Midnight. December 25th.
Merry fucking Christmas.
Matt slept on beside me, sprawled on his back, snoring softly. Alex, bless her confusing, overly-generous heart, had picked up a handful of Christmas gifts for Matt. She even promised to put them under the tree after I took him to bed so we could pretend Santa came.
I let my head drop back against the wall behind me and closed my burning eyes. Sleep and I have always had a borderline abusive relationship. It comes and goes as it pleases. When I want it, it eludes me. When I’d rather stay awake, it nags at me until I drop my guard and then pounces and drags me under. When it finally has me at its will it holds me fast and beats the everloving shit out of me until I claw my way loose.
That night, I dreamt of the stars. Lately, it had been fire. Fire and screams and the stench of burning flesh every goddamn night. Very original, I know. My subconscious can be a little on the nose. I’ve put in a few complaints with the department, but I haven’t seen many improvements so I don’t think my messages are making it through.
That night, though, it was stars. Just me, floating in the void, surrounded on all sides by vast distances and unattainable light. Light that shined just bright enough to reach across lightyears to tease me, but not quite bright enough to warm my skin. I reached out, trying to draw myself closer, and suddenly I was falling. My body tumbled in the vacuum, head over heels, until the stars were a blur and my head was sick and spinning.
When the spinning finally ceased, I was floating again, but this time the stars were gone. I was no longer in space. Then I was no longer floating. I was back in prison, sitting on a cot in a cell in solitary. Only that cell was far from solitary. Jam packed into every corner were angry faces from my past. My father, my mother, Tim, Ronny, Jakey, Will the CO, Dave the skinny, three-strikes drug possession kid, Jamel who held up a convenience store with a spray-painted water pistol...
More and more seemed to pop into existence, faster than I could account for them. People I’d hurt. People others had hurt when I let my guard down. Some screamed at me. Some cried. Some made anguished, choking sounds as blood ran from their mouths and their eyes bulged with shock and pain.
The cacophony rose until I was forced to press my hands over my ears to block it out, squeezing my eyes shut so I wouldn’t have to look at them. Cold fingers wrapped around my wrist and I knew without looking that it was Alex. Peeling my eyes open, I found her face looming in front of me. Her eyes were watery and red, and her lips trembled as she spoke the same four words, over and over. I let her drag my hands from my ears and her voice hit me in the stomach.
“... you lie? Why did you lie? Why did you lie? Why did you lie?”
“I had to,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry. I thought I had to. I love you.”
She frowned, and her right hand released my wrist and came up to rest against the side of my face.
“Why did you lie?” she asked again, peering down into my eyes. “Why did you lie?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but hands tugged on the back of my shirt. I craned around and saw Jake cowering on the bed behind me, his back to the cinderblock wall, hands tangled in my shirt.
“Daddy?” he asked, his voice hoarse from disuse. His eyes flicked from me to the scene behind me, wide and petrified.
“It’s okay,” I lied, trying to smile. “Just stay put, okay? Everything’s okay.”
He nodded, lips trembling, and I turned back around. Maybe Alex would help me get rid of the rest of them. She’d always had a way with people.
My eyes only settled on her for a fraction of a second before I realized what was coming. Her cheeks were bright red, her eyes flashing with hatred as she glared down at me. “Why did you lie?” she screamed, and before I could brace myself, she hauled back and hit me so hard the force spun me sideways. I didn’t feel the pain, of course, because it was a dream. The shock was real enough, though, as was the terror as I realized that she’d just loosed the hounds.
All those angry bodies broke loose from the floor and swarmed me. Hands clawed at my clothes, trying to drag me off the bed, and I twisted and threw myself towards Matt, trying to cover him and protect him from the deluge.
But Matt was gone.
Instead, I grabbed onto the crispy ooze of burnt skin, and flinched as screaming erupted in my ears. My sinuses filled with the smell of smoke and broiling flesh, and I reared back in disgust. The hands behind me continued to claw and pull, but Deb’s hands joined them, pulling me back toward where she lay sprawled on the thin mattress beneath me, her limbs broken and crooked.
I looked down at her face in horror. Her skin was bright red and blistered, her hair falling in clumps from a charred scalp. Vessels had burst in her eyes, bleeding red into the whites, and blood oozed from her nose.
“You left me!” she screamed hoarsely, her gnarled hands clawing at my face as she fought to pull me towards her. “You’re a liar and you left me to die!”
I couldn’t argue. Nor could I argue with the rabble of voices behind me. They spoke over each other, but I could still each it one as if they were taking turns. “You killed me!” “Where were you?” “Why weren’t you there?” “Fuck you!” “Why did you let them take me?” “Why didn’t you come back?” “You promised.”
The loudest one was the one that whispered, over and over, right behind me, accompanied by warm breath on the side of my face. “Why did you lie? Why did you lie? WHY DID YOU LIE!?”
I wrenched my arms loose from Deb’s grip, tore myself away from the rest of the hands, threw my body out of range of Alex’s voice...
... and landed hard on my back in bed. Cold sweat coated every inch of my skin, plastering my shirt to my chest and trickling in droplets down my neck and spine. My breath came in ragged gasps and I reached up with a shaking hand, shoving my fingers into my hair and trying to breathe deep and slow the rapid thrum of my heart.
Still panting, I turned my head and blinked at Matty. He was still snoring, but he’d curled up on his side, facing away from me. I turned my head the other direction and blinked at the glowing green numbers on the alarm clock.
Damn. Nearly five hours of sleep.
Fucking Christmas miracle.
* * *
I realize I’m beginning to sound a little bitter, and I’m aware that I had very little about which to be bitter. I was alive. My son was alive. I had a roof over my head, a good friend that I didn’t deserve in Alex, and at least a tinge of hope on the horizon.
With that flimsy positivity in mind, I rose from bed around seven, showered, dressed, and shook Matt awake. He came to groggily, blinking sluggishy up at me in the dim yellow light from the bathroom.
“Merry Christmas!” I whispered, grinning as his world-weary eyes widened in childish excitement. “Wanna go see what Santa brought you?”
He frowned and rubbed his eyes with his fists, sitting up and looking around. Seeing no brightly-wrapped gifts in the immediate vicinity, he turned his confused expression back to me.
“I don’t think Santa comes straight to your room, buddy,” I said, reaching out and tousling his hair. “We gotta go upstairs.”
Pushing the blankets off, he scrambled forward and threw himself into my arms. That was becoming a morning ritual for him, and I didn’t know quite how to feel about it. On the one hand, I don’t think I’ve ever in my life felt quite so unequivocally needed and it was nice to know somebody minded whether I was still there in the morning. But on the other hand, the way he squeezed his arms around my waist and buried his face in my chest, I got the feeling he was surprised to see me. Like he thought I’d disappear sometime in the night.
Should I indulge his clinginess or discourage it? Which would fuck him up less? Sometimes I feel like parenthood isn’t so much about chasing success as it is about minimizing your own destructive effects.
Carefully peeling my son off of me and setting him on the floor, I gave him a gentle shove toward the bathroom.
“Brush your teeth,” I said. “Then we’ll go see what Santa brought you.”
* * *
Ron and Tom were sitting at the kitchen when Matt and I emerged from the basement. Tom shot to his feet with a wide grin on his face, abandoning his cereal.
“Can we open presents now?” he asked his father excitedly.
Alex’s father craned around in his chair and offered my son and I a warm smile. “Merry Christmas!” he greeted, gesturing with his coffee cup toward the empty chairs to his left. “Why don’t you join us for breakfast while we wait for Alexandra.”
Tom’s face fell, and he slumped back into his chair. “We gotta wait for Aly?” he complained, picking up his spoon. “She sleeps so long!”
Ron rolled his eyes but answered his son warmly. “She’ll be up soon, son. I told her to set an alarm.”
I prepared Matt a bowl of cereal and poured myself a cup of coffee, and we took our seats at the table. Over the past week, to my extreme discomfort, I’d grown to kind of... like Alex’s father. Matt’s silence made me feel awkward and ungainly, but he didn’t even seem to notice. Nothing phased him, and it gave me a strange, inexplicable comfort to watch him interact with my fucked up kid without a trace of pity or discomfort. It almost made me feel like there was hope.
“Merry Christmas, Matthew!” he said brightly, taking a sip of his coffee. “I don’t know if you saw on your way in, but Santa visited last night and it looks like he brought some extra presents for you.”
Matt didn’t respond, but his eyes widened, and he looked in the direction of the living room.
“I guess you haven’t seen yet. You and Tom can go take a look once you’re done eating, but you can’t start opening them, yet, okay?”
My son nodded, and increased the pace at which he was shoveling corn flakes into his mouth. That was all the Christmas gift I needed-- to see a spark of normality. Just a hint of hope that maybe I hadn’t broken him beyond repair.
When Matt finished, he and Tom tromped off to the living room together, and Ron and I sat in comfortable silence, listening to wrapping paper crinkle and Tom narrate predictions as the boys sorted through the gifts. Two minutes later they reappeared. Matt stood by Tom’s side, clinging to his hand.
“We want to go downstairs and watch a movie until Aly gets up,” Tom pronounced, looking at his father. Matt’s eyes were on me. “Can we?”
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Ron said, before looking at me. “As long as it’s okay with Matt’s father.”
I nodded, narrowing my eyes at Matt, who was beginning to look a little nervous. “I’ll be right here if you need me, buddy. I promise. Go play with Tom.”
The creases in his brow remained, but the intensity of his frown diminished and he followed willingly as Tom led the way downstairs to the basement.
Why is it that silence is so desperate for words? Technically there’s nothing wrong with it, right? If you don’t have anything to say, just don’t speak. I didn’t like the silence between Al’s father and I, though. There was too much going on in my head, and I had a strange feeling that if I didn’t talk he’d be able to hear the echoes of my thoughts in the still air between us.
“I really can’t thank you enough for letting us stay here,” I said, taking a sip of coffee.
“You most certainly can, and I think you already have,” Ron shot back evenly. He stared down at his own coffee, rubbing his thumb over the top of the handle for a long, pensive moment. “How are you holding up, Nathan?” he asked, looking up at me with narrow, suspicious eyes. Like he could really could hear my thoughts.
“I’m fine,” I answered automatically, and felt a spark of pride at how true it sounded. “I think I found an apartment, so we should be out of your hair soon.”
“It’s no rush,” he said, absently waving a hand. “Matthew seems to be doing better.”
I shrugged, unable to muster up false confidence on that front. “He’s still not talking,” I pointed out, shaking my head.
“But he’s smiling, and engaging with the world around him. He’s letting you out of his sight, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time. Those are all good signs. You just need to be patient and let him find his voice in his own time. You’re doing everything right, Nathan. He’s lucky to have you.”
I didn’t quite have the energy for that particular conversation, so I nodded and forced a smile and changed the subject. “I saw on the forecast it’s supposed to snow today.”
Smooth, I know.
Ron frowned and tilted his head, and I’d seen enough shrinks to know he was trying to figure me out. Probably had it in his head he was going to draw on the healing powers of Christmas and perform some kind of miracle.
“Were you able to make arrangements for Deb’s burial?”
“Not yet,” I said, resisting the urge to press my fingers to the growing ache in my temples. Why couldn’t we just talk about the damned weather? “They won’t release her body until I identify it, and I can’t take Matt with me. If you would be willing, I might try to leave him tomorrow afternoon and run down there. It would only be half an hour, but if you don’t have time I can try to make other--”
“Nonsense,” Ron said, flapping a hand. “I’d be happy to watch him. Unless you’d prefer to leave him with Aly and I can accompany you?”
“Why?” It’s not like the county needed two signatures.
Ron furrowed his brow at me like I’d asked him why two plus two came out to four. “To support you,” he said. “You lost your sister, son. You shouldn’t be facing this on your own.”
He was just being kind, so the sudden rush of anger that hit my bloodstream at his words was completely uncalled for. I ground my teeth together and gripped my coffee cup, trying to siphon my frustration into the warm ceramic. I wanted to reach across the table, grab him by the shoulders, and scream into his face. I do not need your help. I do not deserve your help. Focus on what matters and help my son you fucking moron.
I was saved from forcing a polite response by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Of course ‘saved’ isn’t quite the right word. That’d be like saying I was saved from a wild boar by a raging grizzly bear, because it wasn’t just one set of footsteps. It was two.
Sleep-mussed and still in pyjamas, Alex rounded the corner rubbing sleep from her eyes. Following closely on her heels was a young man I would have recognized just fine, even without the giant letters scrawled across his sleep-wrinkled t-shirt.
Did this asshole shop exclusively at the university bookstore?
He didn’t seem surprised to see me. Alex must have warned him that I was living in her home. Not surprised didn’t necessarily mean happy, though. Our eyes met as he stepped into the room, and suddenly I felt like I was in a damned animal planet special about territorial gorillas.
The male sees the intruder and stands to his full height. His mate remains oblivious, high in the branches above, tending to her young. The intruder stills, but does not back away.
“Parker!” Ron stood, leaving his coffee on the table to cross the kitchen and engulf Al’s fiance in a black-slapping hug. “What are you doing here?”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Winger,” Harvard said, offering him a toothy grin as they pulled apart. “I decided to surprise Aly, and flew in late last night. I hope it’s not an intrusion. I didn’t know you already had guests.” His gaze flicked to me before swinging back to his future father-in-law. The young gorilla grunts and puffs out his chest, subtly indicating his displeasure.
“Of course not, of course not,” Al’s father said, gesturing toward the table. “You’re always welcome. Come, sit down while Aly gets your coffee.” Neither of them noticed Al’s bleary-eyed glare, or the way she rolled her eyes and fetched another cup down from the cabinet. Her ideas of her womanly duties were always a bit farther to the left than her father’s.
“I don’t imagine you two have met,” Ron said, looking between Parker and I. We played the game for the sake of civility, and I stood and offered my hand.
“Nate,” I said.
Harvard gripped my hand, squeezing unnecessarily hard. I tried not to roll my eyes. “Nice to meet you. I’m Parker, Aly’s fiance.” The silverback pounds his fists on his chest and roars.
“Nice to meet you, Parker.”
Pounding footsteps on the stairs distracted us all, and Tom dashed into the room, followed closely by Matt.
“Merry Christmas, Alex!” he cried, bypassing Parker and throwing his arms around his sister just as Matt found his way to my side and tugged on my shirt. I lifted him into my lap, but his eyes were fixed on Parker, wary and suspicious of the newcomer.
When Tom let go of Aly and turned to Parker, his expression sobered. “I didn’t know you were coming to Christmas,” he said, and if I didn’t know better I’d say there was a hint of disappointment in his tone. At least I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the asshole.
“Surprised to see me, buddy?” Parker asked, punching him lightly in the shoulder. “I decided I wanted to spend Christmas with my girl and her family.”
“Can we open presents now?” Tom asked his father, ignoring Parker’s greeting. Ron sighed, unable to hide the troubled disappointment on his face at his son’s rude behavior.
“Sure, son. Let’s go open presents.”
* * *
Santa was a more generous to Matt than I had intended. I had given Alex a pretty specific list. A few books, a new lego set, and a new backpack for school. My kid wasn’t going to go without gifts for Christmas, but I had no intention of blowing my savings on toys when I still hadn’t put a roof over his head.
Matt got his books, his lego set, and his backpack. Then the presents kept coming. One by one, Alex pulled them out from under the tree and passed them to Matt when his turn came around. I kept trying to meet her eye so I could silently ask her what the fuck was going on, but she wouldn’t look at me.
In addition to my gifts, Matt got a Goosebumps box set, a large box of assorted legos, a remote control car, a sled, new snowboots, and a fucking bicycle that Ron wheeled in with a flourish once the rest of the presents were gone.
Matt’s face lit up as he tore the paper off each new gift, and when the little blue bike appeared he ran his fingers over it with reverential awe. I should’ve been overjoyed to see my kid so happy. Instead I just felt nauseous.
I couldn’t fucking afford all of this.
I was so distracted I barely even noticed when Harvard presented Alex with his gift-- a sparkling, ostentatious diamond bracelet that she wouldn’t ever wear for fear of losing it. She thanked him, and he looped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the lips. I guess he was marking his territory, but he needn’t have bothered. I wasn’t much of a threat, cowering off in the jungle doing head math.
I could pay back the presents if I moved the money around a little bit. It probably wasn’t more than a few hundred dollars. I could take $50 out of the “bury Deb” fund by taking the Bible verse off her headstone. There was probably another $100 if I took some items off the furniture list for our new place. We could get a couple beanbag chairs instead of a couch. Matt would probably think that was cool. And I could crash on the floor for a couple months to save on the cost of a mattress. Hell, I could even save another $100 by holding out on outerwear. Matt had a good coat now, and I could make due with a sweatshirt. It’s not like I was going to be climbing the Alps.
Satisfied with my calculations and feeling slightly less panicky, I turned back to the room just in time to catch Parker’s eye.
“I’m going to go get more coffee,” he said, and I frowned when I realized he was talking to me. “You mind coming with me, Nate? I brought some scones from Boston and I need help carrying them.”
“I can help,” Alex offered, furrowing her brow, clearly as confused as me. Parker put a hand on her shoulder, aborting her attempt to stand up.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” he said. “I know you did all the work getting these presents wrapped. Sit still and take it easy.”
What the fuck was the dude up to? I glanced at Matt, but he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, studying the back of one of the new lego sets. He looked up as I pushed to my feet, but didn’t seem too concerned.
“Gonna run to the kitchen,” I told him, and he nodded and went back to his new treasure.
In the kitchen, Harvard set his empty coffee mug on the counter and pulled a tupperware out of the cabinet.
“Can you hand me a plate?” he asked, and I pulled one down and handed it to him, leaning a hip into the counter and watching him arrange the scones on the plate like they were 5 star cuisine at a french restaurant.
“Looks like you’ve got this covered,” I said, pushing off the counter.
Brushing his fingers off on his pants, Parker turned towards me and pulled something out of the pocket of his sweats. “I actually have something for you, but I didn’t want to do this in front of Aly.” My skin crawled as his fingers fiddled with the slip of paper in his hand. Small and rectangular. It looked an awful lot like...
“Aly explained why you’re living here,” he said, looking everywhere but my face. “I’m really sorry about what happened to you, and I wanted to help out. I’ve got a lot of money, so I figured... well, I hope this helps.”
He extended the check and took it, stifling the urge to snatch the damn thing out of his hand. I glanced at the number and held it back out.
“I can’t take this,” I said. “It’s a kind offer, but I don’t need it. I’ve got savings.”
“Not enough,” Parker said, gesturing at the check. ”That’s enough for a safety deposit and two month’s rent. It’s enough to furnish the new place and get all the utilities turned on. It’s even enough... it’s enough for a decent hotel for the rest of the month while you wait for a unit to open up so you can move.”
“It’s too much,” I repeated. “Thank you for offering, but I can’t take it.”
Parker reached out and took the check, folding it in half and holding it up between us, pinched between his pointer and middle finger.
“I don’t think I was clear,” he said, his voice lowering in volume and turning cold. Finally, he looked up and caught my eye. What I saw there wasn’t juvenile territorial wariness, and it sure as shit wasn’t compassion. It was intelligence. Cruel and calculating.
“I guess you weren’t,” I responded, breathing through my nose. Breathe in and think about calming things. The stars, working on cars, the sound of rain on the roof. Breath out and expel the violent fantasies of jamming this motherfucker’s face into the glass face of the microwave. Breath in, puppies and kittens and sunshine. Breath out, balling up his check and shoving it down his throat.
“I’m offering you five thousand dollars,” Parker said, and I guess the money at his back made him bigger because he seemed to be looking down his nose at me even though I was several inches taller. “You can take my generous offer, take your son, and go live comfortably, far away from the woman I love. Or you can refuse my money, abandon your son, and live comfortably in prison after I tell the cops you threatened me and attacked me because you were jealous of my relationship with your ex-girlfriend.”
I remember when I was little, my father always used to talk about what it meant to be a man. On a rare occasion, being a man meant cool stuff. A real man knows how to throw a baseball, he told me as he helped me tug the mitt onto my hand and lobbed the ball across the yard for me to catch. Most times, though, the lessons were a little tougher. Real men, he taught me, did badass things like punch women who mouthed off, drink vodka straight from the bottle, and take beatings from dealers and bookies who wanted their money.
My old man would’ve been disappointed in me, I think. A man would have told Parker to go fuck himself. A man would have refused to leave Al’s house and detailed all the things he planned to do to her once Harvard boy was out of the picture. A man would have bristled at the threat and offered to settle this conflict the old fashioned away.
I wasn’t much of a man. Never was. Not back when I was younger and certainly not that day.
That day I was just a father.
“Thank you,” I said through gritted teeth, reaching out and plucking the check from Parker’s hand, pretending I couldn’t see his self-satisfied smirk. “That’s a generous offer.”