Chapter 13 - Nate
The hinges on Matt’s door creaked as I pushed it open and peered inside. Grey morning light made lines on his comforter, and I could see just well enough in the dark to tell that the lump beneath the covers hadn’t moved since my last attempt to wake him up.
“Matty,” I sighed, crossing the room and sitting on the edge of his bed. “C’mon, buddy, you gotta get up or we’ll be late.”
He was awake. That much I could tell from the way he curled into a petulant ball at the sound of my words, tugging the comforter up to his face.
“Don’t even think about it.” I pulled the blanket down, laughing at his squirm and groan of protest. “We gotta get you ready for school. If you don’t get up now, I won’t have time to take you and you’ll have to ride the bus.”
He sat up, rubbing his eyes with his fists. The hair on the left side of his head stood up on end, and his cheek was covered in pink lines from his pillow. He looked exhausted, and I hated that I had to wake him up. It seemed wrong to disturb such thorough sleep.
“Your clothes for the day are on the floor,” I told him, standing to leave. “You want one waffle or two?”
Instead of holding up two fingers on one hand, he held up one finger on each, holding them both in the air until I acknowledged him.
“Two. Got it.”
Deb had been dead for a month, and Matt still wasn’t talking. He’d had four appointments with the shrink Al’s dad helped me pick. The lady said he was doing well, but I wouldn’t feel better until he opened his damn mouth and spoke to me.
Aside from the not talking, my son and I had fallen back into a rhythm similar to the one we’d found prior to the fire. He’d been back in school for two weeks, and was no longer crying and clinging to me while I dropped him off. I was back at work and making money again. We had a new apartment with a working hot water heater, decent neighbors, and functional smoke alarms that I tested religiously every night after Matt went to bed.
Financially, things weren’t great but they also weren’t completely desperate. I’d tried like hell not to deposit Parker’s check, but I found, in the end, that I didn’t have a choice. My savings paid for a hotel until the end of December, the downpayment and security deposit on our new place, Deb’s funeral, and limited furniture for the apartment.
Unfortunately, that was where the honest money ran out. A week after leaving Al’s place, I found myself with a choice. Deposit the check or let my kid go hungry.
I only used $500 of the money Parker gave me. The rest was sitting in my savings account, untouched, and as soon as I had a cushion I planned to pay him back. I couldn’t imagine a greater humiliation than being indebted to that fucker.
Matt emerged from his room just as the toaster was ejecting his waffles. His jeans were unbottoned, his shirt was on backwards, and he wasn’t wearing his socks even though I’d very pointedly put them on top of the pile of clothes specifically so he wouldn’t neglect them.
“You’re a stubborn one, you know that?” I asked as I lifted him onto a stool by the small laminate island. “Arms up.” He obediently raised his arms above his head and I tugged his shirt off, flipped it around, and pulled it back on. “Where are your socks?”
“Maybe I should just let you go to school without them,” I said, filling the silence as I circled back around the counter, pulled his waffles out of the toaster, and dropped them on a plate. “Actually that would be a win for both of us, huh? After your feet freeze off you won’t have to wear socks at all and I won’t have to worry about telling you to.”
Matt giggled up at me as I set the plate in front of him, along with the bottle of off-brand syrup and a fork. A good parent probably would have sliced it up for him and drizzled an appropriate amount of liquid sugar over the plate. I just left him to his own devices.
“Milk or OJ?” I asked, pulling both cartons out of the refrigerator and holding them up in the air. Matt looked up, syrup bottle still upside down and oozing diabetes onto his plate, and pointed at the milk.
Once Matt was situated, I hurried to my bedroom, brushed my teeth, and ran wet hands through my hair in a pitiful attempt at grooming. Back in prison I’d been downright fastidious about my personal hygiene. Mostly because there was so little to care about in there, every little detail of my day was magnified in its importance. Things like brushing my teeth and shaving were monumental milestones in my day.
With a full-time job, a kid to raise, bills to pay, and a life to reassemble, messy hair didn’t seem particularly important.
While Matt was finishing his breakfast, I threw together two haphazard paper-bag lunches, poured my coffee into a thermos, and made sure all of Matt’s school shit had made it back into his backpack after we did his homework the night before. Once his plate was clear-- of everything except for the lake of wasted syrup in the middle-- I hustled him into the bathroom. He made faces at me while I cleaned sticky syrup off his face with a warm washcloth and made a failed attempt at taming his bedhead. His shirt was covered in syrup and I cursed my own short-sightedness and left him alone to brush his teeth while I fetched a new shirt.
We stepped out of the apartment five and half minutes late, but two minutes ahead of our average. I couldn’t help but feel a little pride as I dragged my son down the stairs and buckled him into the back of Deb’s old red sedan.
I was getting better. Still not good, but better.
I think for people who don’t have kids, getting to work is like suddenly increasing the volume of their day. They have their nice quiet morning, drinking coffee and reading the paper, followed by a relaxing drive, listening to their favorite music. Then, boom, they’re at work. Bosses yelling, coworkers arguing, copy machines whirring, all that… it’s like they’ve stepped into a storm.
For parents, at least in my experience, it’s kind of the opposite. For me, every morning was a chaos of mismatched clothes, nasty lunch assembly, and lost shoes. Then I arrived at work and everything ground to a rhythmic, shifting kind of halt. From 8 am to 4 pm I didn’t have to do anything but turn my brain off and sink into the noise of the shop and the comforting routine of my work.
Some days I didn’t want to leave. Then I’d think of Matt, sitting at the Boys’ & Girls’ Club, waiting for me to come get him, and the last hours couldn’t go fast enough.
That day, I got to work a bare five minutes early, clocked in, and grabbed the first job that came in: a 1992 Honda Civic with a bad alternator.
As soon as I finished I rushed on to the next job, before Red could snag me up to work the service desk. He’d been insisting, lately, that I spend at least an hour every day working the front. Apparently I needed to “learn how to play nice with people.” After the first day or so, I developed a theory that he was deliberately placing me in situations where I was guaranteed to blow a gasket and land myself back behind bars.
I was just gearing up to take my lunch break when Red’s voice echoed through the garage. “Reynolds!”
“You don’t have to yell,” I said, shoving myself out from beneath a jacked up Tahoe and glaring up at him. “I’m right here.”
“You’ve got a visitor,” he said, frowning down at me. I twisted around and used the side of the car to pull myself to my feet.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, my heart sinking into my stomach. Every time my phone rang, those days, my mind immediately leapt to the worst case scenario. “Is it about Matt?”
“No, no,” my boss said, waving a hand. “Just come talk to her, son.”
I yanked a rag out of my back pocket and set about scrubbing the worst of the grease from my hands as I followed Red through the swinging glass door. It was probably the customer from yesterday. I’d rotated her tires and she insisted we overcharged her, even after I showed her the printed quote we’d given her before she handed over her keys. She’d paid and left, with promises to return the next day with her husband.
Given that she was somewhere north of 70, I wasn’t too worried about what the old man would do to me. I didn’t particularly want to see that old woman again, though.
The second I entered the front office, I changed my mind.
I’ll take the angry old woman, please and thank you.
Alex stood on the far side of the desk. Considering how much I love her, I ought to say she looked beautiful, but she really really didn’t. She looked like she’d been crying for a week straight, her clothes were wrinkled and unkempt, and her eyes were soul-deep pools of anguish. She looked like shit.
“Are you okay?” My mouth ejected the words before my mind could tell it to stop. Instead of answering, or bolstering up her clearly-crumbling walls, Alex crumpled further into herself, her eyes growing shiny with tears, and shook her head in mute negation.
“Why don’t you two use my office,” Red offered cautiously, gesturing toward the door on the far right side of the lobby.
Before I could accept or decline, Alex was tucking her chin to her chest and walking toward the open office door. I glanced questioningly at Red, but he just shrugged. Floored by concern, I followed Al into his office and shut the door behind me.
“Al, what the hell? Is everything alright?”
Again, she didn’t answer. Just stared at me, her eyes shadowed and sunken. Red’s office was small-- just enough room for a broad desk, a desk chair, and a wall full of filing cabinets. I stood with my back flush against the door, and Al had her legs pressed to the edge of the desk. Even so, there were only a few feet between us. The air crackled with unspent energy.
“You’re freaking me out a little, Alex,” I said, stepping forward. “I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
She just shook her head and took a step forward, so that we stood nearly toe-to-toe. She hadn’t tolerated so much of my presence in so long, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. I froze, myself, knowing full well I should back away but unable to make my body do it.
Then she looked up, and our eyes met.
Every time before, it had been like some external force, grabbing both our heads and holding them in place. That day, it was all Alex. She wasn’t a prisoner to the rictus, she wielded it like a weapon. I stood, rooted to the spot, entirely unable and unwilling to escape. She took another step forward. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her right hand come up and felt it settle on my chest, right over my heart.
Her hand burned. It hurt. That brief, inconsequential contact was all I’d wanted and more than I’d hoped for for years. Every second her hand stayed there, my heart beat a little harder, sending new demands pulsing through my body. Simple, affectionate contact was no longer enough.
I wanted her in my arms.
I wanted to taste her.
I wanted to be inside her.
I tried to step away, but the door was behind me and there were filing cabinets to my left and right. I couldn’t get away without physically moving her, and I couldn’t… I just couldn’t move her.
“I should have listened,” Alex said, her eyes still locked on mine. Her voice was hoarse and tortured, scarcely more than a whisper. She shook her head, despairing eyes searching mine. “Why didn’t you tell me? You had no idea I didn’t destroy them. Why didn’t you just tell me?”
God. Fucking. Dammit.
Those stupid goddamned letters.
Self-condemnation gave me a degree of strength and I gently pried her hand away and pushed her back, easing out from my spot by the door and circling around Red’s desk. I needed something solid between us. All I wanted was to snatch her to me and never, ever let go. I needed something physical to stop me from following the impulse.
“You should’ve thrown them away,” I said, trying not to wince at the pain that washed over her face at my words.
“Why?” she pleaded, following me around the desk.
“Because I shouldn’t have fucking written them,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Why?” She sounded like a little kid, unknowingly delving too deep into simple questions. But why? But why? But why?
“Because I didn’t mean any of it.” Just go the fuck away before I do something stupid like kiss you.
“That’s not true.” She didn’t hesitate, not even for a second. There was no look of hurt, no confusion as she questioned my words. She just knew. Just like she seemed to know how to suck every once of fight from the marrow of my bones. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, stepping close once more and looping her arms around me in a strangling hug. “I should have listened,” she said into the fabric of my shirt.
My hands itched to return her embrace, but I balled them into fists and kept them at my sides. All this was was a moment of weakness. The last thing either of us needed was for me to take advantage of that vulnerability and pull her back in. At the end of the day, we were finished. She was engaged to another man, and I was well beyond any kind of redemption she had to offer.
So we stood, for several long minutes. I hovered there in the space behind Red’s desk, every muscle in my body tense in the effort to remain unresponsive. Alex, always my perfect polar opposite, seemed determined to weld herself to me. We were glued together from head to toe, every curve of her body melding perfectly with mine. Her hands dug into my back, each finger like a brand, burning through the thin cotton of my shirt. Every once in a while her arms would tighten as if she was about to let go, but every time she seemed to change her mind and just clung even harder.
Second by second, my resolve began to stutter and fade. For so many years I’d dreamed of having her in my arms again. There she was, and it took everything I had not to return her embrace, press my face to the clean softness of her hair, and sink back into the past.
Fortunately, Alex saved both of us. Just as I was on the brink of surrender, she pulled back. Not much. Her hips were still flush with mine, one arm still wrapped around my back, but she leaned away just far enough to look up and catch my eye.
Her gaze was bloodshot and tortured, tears hovering in the corners as she reached up and pressed one small hand against the side of my face. Electricity shot through me and I jolted back to the present.
“What…” I broke off, clearing my throat in a vain attempt to remove the lump that had formed there. “Why are you here?”
“To apologize,” she said, her fingers like a warm breeze as they trailed down the side of my face and came to rest on my shoulder. “To make things right.”
It took everything in me-- every morsel of strength and every ounce of love I had-- to step away from her touch and circle back around the desk. “You apologized,” I said, trying to make my voice sound cruel and hard as I pulled the office door open. “You can go now.”
I’d seen lingering shadows of my defiant, dirt-stained girl in the months since getting out of prison. Now, though, she was back full force. This was no glimpse or hint of fire. She burst into full flame, circled the desk, and pushed the door closed, glaring up at me as she placed herself between me and the exit.
“I came here to make things right,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you going to let me do that?”
I had three choices: physically move her, emotionally abuse her until she gave up, or try to reason with her. Option one would scare her, option two was never really an option, and option three probably wouldn’t work.
“You made things right,” I tried, lifting one shoulder and let it fall. “Apology accepted. Please get out of my way so I can go back to work.”
Instead, she pressed her shoulders harder against the door behind her and lifted her chin.
“Will you go to dinner with me tonight so we can talk?”
“I’ve got a kid, remember? Dinner out isn’t really an option, Alex.”
“Then I’ll come to you. What’s your address?”
“I don’t think your fiance would appreciate that very much.”
“I don’t have a fiance,” she said. “I broke it off with him.” Her words hit me like a blast of cool air on a hot day. My heart hammered with possibilities, but I swallowed them all down because Parker was never really the wedge between us.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said, shaking my head.
“It’s fine,” she flapped one hand and rolled her eyes. “I know what he said to you and I took care of it. He won’t come after you, I promise.”
“You still shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why?” She frowned up at me, more challenge than question.
Yeah. Why, asshole?
“Because he loves you.”
“And you don’t?”
I don’t know how long the silence lasted that time. She glared, I stared. I couldn’t lie, but I damn sure couldn’t tell her the truth and I didn’t dare ask her what I really wanted to know. Do you still love me?
“What do you think is going to happen, Al?” I asked her by way of answer. “You think we’re gonna pick up where you left off? I wrote those stupid things six years ago. Neither of us are the same person we were when we were together.”
“So let’s get to know each other,” she pleaded, dropping her hands to her sides and letting her shoulders rise and fall in a helpless shrug. “Let’s just… let’s catch up on all the shit we missed.”
I took a deep breath, gathering the courage to do what I had to do. When I spoke, the word sounded strangled and feeble, even to my own ears.
“Because we cant be friends, Alex!” I exclaimed.
“Because we’re bad for each other.”
“Because…” Because I love you. Because you’re way too fucking good for me. Because I don’t trust you not to walk away again. Because, because, because…
But I needn’t have agonized over how to answer, with the solution staring up at me through tear-glassy eyes. I’d grown more agitated with each question, my hands balling into fists as I towered over her. She still glared up at me with fierce defiance, but her body told the lie. She cowered against the door, trapped between the filing cabinets, an unwilling victim to my rage.
All at once, the frustration and the confusion bled out of me and I took a step back.
“That’s why,” I told her, waving a hand helplessly in her direction.
“What are you talking about?” She had the good grace to look confused.
“Look at yourself, Alex.” I couldn’t help a wry smile. She couldn’t see the disparity between her fierce expression and her cringing, animalistic fear. “You’re fucking terrified.”
“No I’m not!” She drew herself up to her full height and crossed her arms back over her chest. That’s a protective posture, though. If she took a psych class in college she’d have known that. With feet braced apart, shoulders back, and a lifted chin, it’s a power pose. Her shoulders were curled inward, though, her chin angled slightly toward her chest. Just feeding my point.
“Yes, you are, Alex,” I said, settling into the desk and gripping the edge with my hands to keep from reaching for her and soothing away the terror I’d instilled. I didn’t need to soothe her. I needed to drive her away. “And you should be.”
“That’s bullshit, Nate!” she said. “Why the hell would I be scared of you?”
“You read the letters,” I said by way of answer. “You know I didn’t cheat, and I’m glad you’ve got that straight, now. You didn’t deserve what you thought I did to you.”
But I cut her off, desperate to get the words out before I lost the courage. “I’m not a cheater, Al, but I am a killer. That’s all I am, and that’s all I’ll ever have to offer you. You’re scared of me because, deep down, you know what I am. You don’t want to be friends with a man you have to fear.”
In the time it took her to process my words, I’d pushed myself off the desk, moved her aside, and pulled the door open.
“Nate…” she said feebly, but I let the helpless defeat in her voice drive my retreat. I knew if I hesitated, if I looked back, if she so much as tried to chase me down, there was nothing more I could do to push her away. I was spent.
I ignored Red as I crossed the small lobby and pushed through the swinging glass door. The Tahoe was still waiting, and I sprawled out on the board and slid back beneath it, pouring every ounce of concentration into my work to distract from the screaming, tearing hope that Red’s voice would echo through the garage one more time, calling me back in. I closed my eyes and tried not to imagine Alex standing there with her shoulders back and her hands on her hips, tearing me a new one and demanding a chance to prove I was an idiot.
But the hours passed in silence. Red never called my name. As I drove home that evening, Matt’s silence seemed more oppressive than usual, but I couldn’t bring myself to fill it with inane chatter like I usually did. So we drove home in silence. I prepared dinner in silence. We ate in silence. I bullied him through a shower, brushed his teeth, and tucked him in with a minimum of instructions. At his request, I read a couple chapters, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do the voices and inflections that usually made him giggle.
“Alright, little man,” I said when he started to doze against my shoulder, “time to go to sleep.” I set the book aside, brushed a hand over his hair, and pulled the covers up to his neck as I stood to go. “Love you, buddy. Sleep tight.”
I was standing in the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other on the doorknob, when he spoke.
“Daddy?” His voice was raspy with disuse, barely more than a whisper, and for a second I thought I imagined it. I looked back and saw him frowning at me in the dim light.
Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. His shrink said not to make a big deal of it when he started talking again. “The most important thing through this process is to keep treating him like a normal kid,” she said. “If you overreact when he starts speaking, it might alarm him and drive him back into silence.”
Don’t overreact. Don’t overreact. Don’t overreact. The words were a mantra in my head as I slowly crossed the room and settled back down on the edge of his bed.
“What’s up, Matty?” I asked, trying to keep the terrified desperation from my voice.
He furrowed his brow, tucking the blankets closer to his chin as he peered up at me. For one petrified second, I thought maybe I had imagined it. Then he opened his mouth, took a shallow breath, and uttered three more hoarse, barely-audible words.
“Are you okay?”
I won’t lie, here, for the sake of my pride. I really wasn’t. I’d spent the entire afternoon and evening mired in hopeless, existential angst. For all the years of my imprisonment, and the months after, I’d always dreamt of that conversation with Alex. It was a faraway fantasy that I constructed and retooled as the years went on, watching it from every angle, imagining every possible path the conversation might take.
Nowhere, in any of those fantasies, had I tried so hard to drive her away. At no point in any of my delusional dreams did she let me walk away from her. I’d never imagined that the moment might come and pass, leaving me with a long stretch of loneliness between me and my grave.
So yeah, I was moping. Instead of being strong and faking a smile for my kid, I pouted and nursed my butthurt and sunk so deep into self pity even my five year old noticed.
It’s embarrassing, but I still wouldn’t go back and change it, because it finally brought Matt back to me. Still scarred, still a little broken, but my sweet, sensitive, annoyingly-precocious kid was back.
I may have lost Alex, but I was hardly alone in the world. I had something to drag me out of bed in the morning. I had one person left who still needed me and I wasn’t going to fail him the way I had everyone else.
“Yeah, kiddo, I’m fine,” I said, jostling his shoulder playfully with a hand. “Just a little tired.”